Only the Shadow Remains

01 October, 2013

ABOUT THE STORY Although fiction is a very worldly form, it is probably more sympathetic than the world is to idealists. In this story by the Kuwaiti writer Laila al-Uthman, the child protagonist’s deformity—everyone calls him “One-eye”—seems to result in a corresponding single-mindedness of vision, untouched by doubt or irony.

Our instinctive response when we see a character in fiction as earnest, indeed gullible, as Muhaysin, is to pity him, as we pity  the inflexiblity of Don Quixote, Coriolanus, or Eklavya. But such characters also make us feel slightly embarrassed because they are willing to give up so much for the sake of their ideals or their duties, and yet their reward for being better people than us seems to be to live in a more dangerous world. Their vulnerability results from the fact that it is we, not they, who are two-faced. “I can see. That’s what matters,” Muhaysin keeps insisting when people call him “One-eye”. But he seems to see a different reality from those around him, and there appears to be not room enough in the world for both these visions of life to co-exist. The more powerful force wins, and, in al-Uthman’s trenchant phrase, only the shadow of the other remains.

Only The Shadow Remains

Translated by Thomas Aplin

MUHAYSIN HAD TWO EYES, although ever since the accident the children of his remote neighbourhood had known him as “One-eye”.

When he was little, he liked to weave between the men who would congregate at the door of his home. They would sit together, sharing their news and venting their grievances. Often, to lighten the mood, someone would crack a joke or mention something funny that had happened earlier that day, and their laughter would ring out loudly.

Muhaysin was a bright and pleasant child. As soon as he heard the voice of his mother calling him from behind the door, he would eagerly take the smouldering coals from her and pass them to his father, who in turn would distribute them between the men’s hookah pipes.

They say that one day Muhaysin was fiddling with a hookah pipe when he dislodged a burning coal. It fell onto his forehead and slid down his face, burning his eyelid. They carried him to Abu Fadil, who prepared an odd smelling salve. He applied the salve to Muhaysin’s eye and bandaged it, instructing them not to remove the bandage and to come back after one week.

At the appointed time, Abu Fadil removed the bandage: Muhaysin could barely open his eye. It looked deformed.

When his mother saw him, she screamed: “My God, the boy’s one-eyed!” In the meantime a group of children had gathered outside Abu Fadil’s door...

The words struck his eyes and became lodged deep inside his heart.

When he moved to this neighbourhood he thought the children would not catch on to his “one-eyedness,” but soon enough they began to call him “one-eye.” It hurt and embarrassed him but he never dreamt of blaming his mother, who had not really meant what she said. Although, on one particularly bad day, he ran home to her, tears streaming down his cheeks: “I’m not going out again after today.”

“Why, Muhaysin?” she said clasping her hands to her breasts.

“The kids are calling me ‘one-eye’. It hurts.”

She flew into a rage, and without thinking said: “Sons of dogs. Listen, if one of them says that to you again, get a stone and take his eye out with it.”

His father heard her and yelled: “You’re teaching the boy to hate. Suppose he did do that and blinded one of them. Then what would happen?”

She waved her hand dismissively: “By the devil, let them be blinded. Or do you want them to make the boy miserable?”

Ignoring her, he turned to his son and said: “Listen, Muhaysin. Pay no attention to your mother. You’re not one-eyed and even if you were, there’s no sin in having a disability. The important thing is to make people forget your disability, to be a good person. Brave. Then they’ll love and respect you. And they won’t call you one-eye.”

Muhaysin looked into the distance. His gaze travelled past the walls of the house and a smile formed on his lips: he had learned his first lesson.

When Jassum saw the locust at the bottom of the pit, he shouted: “Hey! It’s a locust. I’m going to catch it.”

The other children tried to stop him: “Don’t do it Jassum. The pit’s wet. It rained a lot yesterday.”

But scornfully he said, “I’m going in, you cowards.”

He slipped down into the pit and immediately sank up to his waist in mud and screamed. The children laughed at him. But when he began to cry they ran to call for help, their voices carrying ahead of them:

“Where’s Muhaysin? He’ll save Jassum.”

Their cries reached Muhaysin’s ears, who happened to be with his father in the mosque.

“The rascals. Even in prayer I can’t get any peace. Now what’s happened?” Muhaysin muttered to himself.

He ran, the flimsy material of his ghutra streaming out behind him. He arrived at the scene and was met by the children’s imploring eyes. Confused, he stood behind them, until he looked inside the pit and knew the situation would require all his courage.

He shouted to Jassum, who was crying: “How did you get down there?” He looked at the children accusingly.

“We told him not to,” said one of them quickly.

“We didn’t push him in.”

“He wanted to catch the locust.”

“He thought he was Muhaysin the Brave.”

Muhaysin silenced them: “Shut up, all of you.”

He removed his ghutra and lowered it down to Jassum:

“Hold on tight, I’ll pull you out. Come on,” he said to him.

He asked the children to help, but not one of them stepped forward. They said: “We’re afraid he’ll pull us in. He’s half buried and the mud’s slippery.”

Muhaysin spat: “God curse you, you cowards.” Then he spoke to Jassum: “I’ll pull you out by myself. Be brave.”

The muscles in his strong arms drew taut and his breathing grew heavy. After he had pulled Jassum free of the mud, he said to him: “Now, lift one of your feet and push it against the side of the pit, putting all your weight on it. Push again and try to climb.”

Jassum summoned all his courage and emerged from the hole. His clothes, hands and feet were all covered in mud. Still trying to catch his breath, he went over to Muhaysin to embrace him in gratitude but the other pushed him away: “Don’t ever go chasing after trifles again. Are you mad?”

“I won’t. And I’ll never forget what you’ve just done for me.”

The boys ran, their cheers ringing out in a boisterous chorus: “Long live one-eyed Muhaysin. Long live Muhaysin the Brave. “

Muhaysin rubbed his deformed eye and breathed a happy sigh of relief, while the same question continued to plague him: I wonder if Amuna will ever hear about this?

The day Saleha the madwoman’s house caught fire, no one was in the street except Muhaysin, whose mother had sent him out on an errand. He saw Saleha, her red tongue dangling out, having leapt terrified into the street. Her feet were bare and her dress was torn.

“Fire… Someone help me! Fire… My cow’s under the palm-leaf shelter! She’ll be burned alive!” she cried.

Muhaysin forgot what his mother had told him. He picked up a stone and began to bang it against the doors of the neighbouring houses. The women inside flew into a flurry of activity and the children were given their orders:

“Hurry! Tell the men.”

Muhaysin did not wait. He entered the house. He moved quickly as he made for the shelter. The cow was mooing frantically and the fire had already consumed some of the straw and a stack of wooden planks in the corner. Thick black smoke rose towards the sky.

Muhaysin wrapped his ghutra around his head, covering his entire face except for his good eye. He dived for the cow’s tether and quickly unfastened it. Then he led the cow out into the street. Saleha took the cow from him. Her terror had turned to joy. She grabbed hold of Muhaysin and tried to kiss him on the cheek, but he slipped free of her grasp and ran to the pool of water in the courtyard and began to douse the fire with it.

But the ravenous fire had already spread to the roof of the arish. Its red tongues hissed as the water proved ineffectual. Suddenly he heard a fire-engine siren. He abandoned the bucket and went out to rest, and watched as Saleha joyfully hugged her only cow. Again, the same question persisted:

I wonder if Amuna will ever hear about this?

Muhaysin became renowned for his bravery in the neighbourhood and beyond. Many people relied on him for work they were too lazy to do themselves, but he never complained. In fact, their confidence in him made him happy and gave him a sense of pride, although he never expected thanks from anyone.

The only thing that mattered to him was that Amuna might hear of his brave deeds. Whenever he entertained these hopes he would forget his deformed eye and look out into the distant horizon as though rays of hope shone for him alone.

One afternoon, the boys were out playing together. They laughed and talked, racing each other on one leg and playing teela. Muhaysin excelled at the game and every time he reminded them: “One-eye has beaten you.”

Their faces reddened with embarrassment, and smiling they said: “Muhaysin, we didn’t mean to call you one-eye.”

He smiled back and said: “I’m not angry. I can see. That’s what matters.”

They fell silent and watched as his eye wandered. They looked at his face, at his deformed eye that drank in the house of Amuna at the end of the street and for a few moments left him to his dream. Then they gave each other a knowing look and one of them punched him on the arm:

“Do you love her, Muhaysin?”

He lowered his gaze.

Another said: “She’s not so pretty.” At which Muhaysin jutted out his chin.

“She’s got a big nose.”

“God made her. Have you got a problem with God?”

“Muhaysin, they say she still wets the bed.”

Fiercely, he defended her: “Liars. Who told you that?”

“Everyone knows. They go inside her house and see her mattress left out to dry in the sun. And it always smells of damp.”

“That doesn’t mean she wets the bed. Humidity makes everything rot. Even your mouths.”

“We don’t know why you love her, Muhaysin. She’s full of herself.”

“I love her because she’s a good person. We used to hear about her when we lived in our old neighbourhood. They say the day of her birth was a miraculous day. They say the skies opened up with rain and the earth turned green. The crops and the animals flourished, and people were revived after years of drought and hardship. How could I not love her?”

“Many love her, Muhaysin. She doesn’t notice you, and if she did she might not even like you.”

He gave a wan smile: “It doesn’t matter, boys. It only matters that I love her, that I never forget she’s the source of the prosperity that came to your neighbourhood and others. Believe me, if Amuna asked for my life, I’d die for her.”

The boys laughed mockingly: “You love her that much. You’re mad.”

He jumped to his feet:  “Say what you like, Amuna deserves to be loved.”

He walked away, looking back at Amuna’s house. He wished with all his heart that she would always be there, even if she were oblivious to his existence.

The boys watched him in silence until his silhouette disappeared. Then they began to talk: “Could he really love her that much?”

“He says he’s willing to die for her.”


Another leaped to his defence: “No. Muhaysin means what he says. He’s brave.”

“In that case, we’ll put his bravery to the test.”

On another night when they were together again, they said to him:

“Muhaysin, after you left Amuna came out. We told her that you love her and that you’re willing to die for her and…”

His heart skipped a beat and his face lit up: “Yes, by God, I’m ready.”

“But she didn’t believe us, Muhaysin. She said that many say such things but they don’t act on them.”

He shrugged his shoulders: “She’s free to say what she wants.”

“But we didn’t let her doubt you, Muhaysin. We told her you really meant it.”

He sighed: “Thank God. She believed you then?”

“No, Muhaysin. She said she’d only believe you on one condition.”

He leapt onto his feet: “What is it? What’s the condition?”

“She said that if he loves me, truly loves me, then let him eat glass.”

Muhaysin’s body went limp. He felt as though he had been stabbed with a sharp knife. Could, Amuna, so good, so kind, really set such a cruel condition?

The question left his mouth and his deformed eye welled up: “Me… eat glass?”

The boys sensed his fear and discomfort:

“Naturally, you’re not going to accept. Are you?”

He saw a look of gloating and provocation in their eyes that almost slapped him down in defeat. But in a rush of bravado he resolved not to give in: “Actually, I accept her condition.”

The boys gasped.

“Do you really mean what you’re saying?”

“Absolutely,” he answered confidently.

“When will you do it?”

“Whenever you like. On the condition you tell Amuna.”

And the boys promised him they would…

Muhaysin entered the house frowning and sat in a corner, where he rubbed at some mud that had stuck to his toes. Thoughts and questions played on his mind, and a deep sadness burned in his heart, its outward traces visible on his face. His mother noticed he was not his usual happy self and sat down gently beside him.

“What’s wrong, Muhaysin?”


“Has someone teased you about your eye again?”

“No one does that anymore. They call me ‘The Brave.’”

“Then what’s making you so sad?”

He looked at her loving face. He wanted to throw himself into her arms, tell her that there was someone else he loved other than her and that he was in torment; that a price for love had been demanded of him and that he was going to pay it.

He would have blurted all this out had he not remembered how deeply she loved him; that if she found out, she would be enraged and go out into the street the next day and beat the boys. Or… he didn’t know, she might even go to Amuna’s house, tell her parents and scandalise them, causing a storm to rip through the neighbourhood that only blood would quell. He reassured his mother and went to bed. A bitter ache etched deep lines in his face while numerous images flashed before his mind’s eye.

The glass that he must eat to prove his love glinted before him. He was scared. He saw the boys’ faces questioning his nerve. Was he going to let them get the better of him? There was Amuna’s tanned face radiating an aura of goodness. Would he really do it? He could die!

No. He wouldn’t do it. Let the boys go to hell.  But a wicked spirit pricked his pride and Amuna’s face appeared like the life-giving sun.

I have to do it. If my courage fails me once then I’ll lose the confidence of the other boys for good. Amuna will lose faith in me, like she has with all those who speak but don’t act.

The boys gathered at sunset. As soon as they saw Muhaysin coming they jumped up in disbelief. He approached them with a swagger and a smile on his face: “Right, shall we begin?”

The boys looked at each other in amazement and their eyes focused on the bundle Muhaysin was holding.

They sat down.

Muhaysin sat in the middle of them and untied the bundle.

“What’s that?” they asked him in one voice.

He pointed at some objects: “As you can see: dates, a piece of glass, and a pestle and mortar.”

Before they could ask any more questions, he took a piece of glass and dropped it in the little mortar and began to pound it to a powder. He took a pinch of the powder between his fingertips and showed it to them: “What do you reckon? Is this enough?”

They sat in stupefied silence and waited to see what he would do. He shot them a provocative look and began to remove the stones from the dates. He kneaded the dates and glass together and made seven little balls, which he held up to the boys: “Are you happy that the glass is inside the dates?”

They nodded their heads. One of the younger boys said: “Are you really going to eat them?”

He replied with his usual dauntlessness:  “Of course.”

The others shouted:  “No, Muhaysin, don’t hurt yourself!”

“The glass is soft. It won’t harm me,” he said dismissively.

Another protested: “But it’s glass. It’ll tear your insides and…”

Muhaysin cut him off: “Whatever. As long as Amuna has set this condition then I’ll do it.”

When the boys realised he would really hurt himself, they became terrified and their hearts trembled. They had only wanted to have a little joke but he had believed them. He was going to throw his life away. Now they were afraid for him. The boy whose acts of courage were numerous might really die.

The boys stepped back from Muhaysin and conferred amongst themselves. Then they dashed forward and formed a protective ring around him:  “Muhaysin, don’t do it!”

They held onto him from all sides and tried to take away the date balls packed with death. But he was strong and managed to break loose. Their voices rose:  “Muhaysin, we were teasing you. Amuna didn’t say anything. We made it up to test your love for her.”

He didn’t believe them: “You’re lying. Amuna set the condition, but now you’re scared.”

“Muhaysin don’t sacrifice yourself. We want you to be with us. It was you who taught us not to chase after trivial things.”

A glint flashed in his eye:  “But love isn’t a trivial thing. Especially the love of the virtuous Amuna.”

They tried to convince him: “She doesn’t know you love her!”

He raised his head and opened his deformed eye. Confidently he said:  “But I do love her. That’s all that matters. So count from one to seven for me.”

They refused and fell silent. Nothing stirred the silence except the sound of the death knell between his teeth. “One-eye” died.

The boys’ faces were pale and clouded over as they gathered round him and took a final look.

They noticed that his deformed eye was almost open and from it they glimpsed the shadow of a smile, which would haunt them whenever they passed Amuna’s house. After that day, not one of them dared declare his love for her.

Laila Al-Uthman has published 14 short story collections and nine novels. Her work has been translated into French, Spanish, Yugoslavian, Polish, Russian, German and Albanian. The Arab Writers Union named her second novel, Wasmiyya Comes out of the Sea (1988), among the best 100 Arabic novels of all time. In 2004, Al-Othman established the Laila Al-Othman Award for Young Creative Talent in Fiction, which seeks to encourage young Kuwaiti writers.