Translated from Arabic by Ghazal Alharbi.
When they put him in the cell, they told him that he was a special prisoner. He did not argue with them. He accepted his fate completely. He was moving in a very narrow dark place. He strained and strained until he felt his eyes were popping out. He imagined himself without eyes and, at this bitterest moment of his life, he laughed. He peered intently into darkness. Nothing was there except the darkness and himself. He tried to recognize objects around him by touching them. In this way he was able to find the faucet and the drinking cup next to it. He also located the toilet and the bed. However, he could not figure out any sense of direction.
He continued arguing with himself about this miserable situation until he got bored. Then, he dwelt in the womb of darkness. After a few days, he began to adapt to the absence of light. Three times a day, a simple bowl of cold food was slid under his door. The food had no smell. After a while, the daily arrival of the food became a tedious repetitive action. There was nothing new from the outside world. His days became completely monotonous.
One day, a new idea came to him. He thought of measuring the dimensions of the cell. He began by using his feet, then hand, and then fingers.
After he utilized every conceivable way of measurement he could come up with, he still did not feel that he fully knew the size of the cell.
He lost track of time. After thinking about it, he finally invented a way to solve this problem. He decided to keep one piece of bread from the third meal which was served daily to him. In this way, he thought he would count time. Because of the absence of daylight in the cell, he could only know time by his three meals. Thus, he decided that he should consider one of these meals to be the third one. So he began to establish a sense of time based on this assumption. This new plan kept him mentally busy. It also let him anticipate a future. “The third meal may only become his future,” he thought.
For the first time, he decided to eavesdrop on his guards. He moved near the door. He heard a shuffle of slow feet which suggested that the owner of the feet was fat. When he listened another time, however, he heard lighter and more agile footsteps. This kind of discovery strengthened his passion of knowing about the outside world. He began to analyze any change of footsteps when the meals were served. Soon he was able to recognize that the shuffle of slow feet guarded him between the first and the third meal, while the light and agile feet guarded him between the third meal and the first meal.
As the days passed, he collected many pieces of the crusty bread from his daily third meal. When the bread covered the entire floor of the cell and came up to the edge of his bed, he wondered how he could take them away from his narrow cell. There was only one available way: To ask his guard to open the door. He decided to call the guard:
-“Guard! Guard! I am your imprisoned friend. Have you forgotten about me?!”
He stopped and waited for a reply. Nothing came back except the shuffle of the fat man’s feet. He waited until the footsteps changed, then he called out in a hopeful voice:
-“Guard! Guard! I have been your friend in here for an unknown length of time. Open the door please. I need something from you!”
No one answered him. He felt hopeless and wondered what he should do. After a long time thinking about his problem, he decided to build a wall paralleling one of the walls of the cell. In that way, he could keep track of time without living in a pile of dry bread. He started the work immediately. He began by establishing a wide base of dry bread. Then a wide wall of bread was established. When the construction rose until it reached almost to the middle of the cell wall, he climbed over it. He suddenly felt very afraid. He hesitated, then he reached up and his hand felt a square cavity. He was astonished and cried out:
“My God, a small window!”
He wondered if he could open the window. He worried about unknown consequences of this action. Then he realized that he would lose nothing more than what he had already lost. So he opened the window. Intense bright daylight shone in his eyes. He immediately closed his eyes. He couldn’t open them again at first. He suffered a lot, then he finally succeeded in seeing the light by opening his eyes gradually. Then he set his gaze eagerly on the vibrant outside world. He was captivated by how different it was from his imprisoned life.
He saw a wide street crowded with people. The street was lined with shops on the opposite side from his cell. He saw a crowded café in the middle. The sight of the customers attracted him. There was vibrant world. He loved this new breath of life. He was rarely away from the window. Every day, he continued to monitor the passersby. He saw a man fighting with a woman, then they stopped fighting and each one left. He saw a piper swaying with a simple song reflecting his social class. He saw a group of people watching T.V, and suddenly shouting with one voice: “Goal!”
He saw a man who stopped his car in front of a clothing shop and sounded the horn. Then an angry woman coming out from the shop and getting into the car. He noticed that the woman was shouting at the driver and waving her hands. He also saw another woman who was getting out of a taxi, and he noticed her anger with her fast aggressive movements. He continued gazing at the woman as she scolded the driver and shouted to another man who was following her while she walked away.
While he was monitoring the outside world, he saw two cars have an accident, and consequently people and police began to gather, and the noisiness increased. When he saw the police, he hid behind the window, and peeped out.
Hassan Alnemi was born in 1959 in Saudi Arabia. Currently, he is a professor at the College of Literature at King Abdelaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. His expertise lies in Arabic modern literature, the theory of literature, and Saudi literature. Besides being a literary critic, he is a talented storyteller. Prof. Alnemi has published three storybooks along with several research papers and books in the field of Arabic Literature. Furthermore, he has participated in literature conferences and a board member of Jeddah’s Literature Club.
“The Third Meal” is one of several short stories in his book published in 1999. It reflects upon the universal questions of life and death. Also, it illustrates conflict between the inner and outer of one’s self.
The story is translated by Ghazal Alharbi. Ghazal is a Ph.D. student at Indiana University studying Arabic literature and literary translation. She is focusing on translating literature from Arabic into English.
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