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The Other Cave

by Zakaria Tamer, translated from the arabic by Marilyn Hacker

My father, my mother, and my brother wasted the whole evening talking about what profession would be best for my brother.
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Papa admired lawyers and their ability to transform innocence into guilt, and guilt to innocence. Mama sang the praises of doctors and how quickly they earned vast sums of money. My brother wanted only to become an engineer. As for me, I’d like him to be a boxer, and hit the strongest men and knock them down and make them cry. But no one paid any attention to my opinion. Finally, they all agreed that an engineer’s profession was not bad, because the era of tents was long gone, the number of people growing, and they always needed even more new houses. Then I nudged my father hard with my elbow. He looked at me with a puzzled air, and I asked him, “But what about me?”
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He didn’t understand what I meant, so I added, “No one asked me what I want to do for a living when I grow up!”
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My father grabbed my head in his hands and shook it, then he said to me, “Before we ask you a question like that, you must be sure what there is inside this head!”
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I said, “How can I know what’s in there?”
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Then my mother said, “Go on then, tell us! What work would you like to do when you grow up?”
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And I answered her right away, “I’ll work as a thief!”
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My mother’s mouth fell open, and she stared at me, while my brother fell down on his back, kicking his legs in the air, laughing till he cried.
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As for my father, he wrinkled his brow, then asked me in a serious voice, “And who will you rob? And why will you steal?”
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I said, “I’ll steal from the poor, and I’ll give what I steal to the rich, until everyone is rich and there are no more poor people!”
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My brother laughed even harder, and my mother asked me, “And where did you get this brilliant idea?”
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I said, “Didn’t Papa say to you yesterday, annoyed, that there were a lot of poor people and very few rich ones?”
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My father laughed, and then he said to me, “You’ll have to choose another trade, because the poor are already robbed of everything they own, and the rich take possession of it without a qualm, as the sea takes water from a river.”
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My mother said to my father, “Don’t forget to tell your genius of a son that we are poor too.”
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My father laughed again, and said, “What’s the hurry?”
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I went to bed that night sad and ashamed for no reason. In my sleep, it seemed to me that I was walking along a trail on a high mountain, and there I entered a cave full of gold. The guardian of the gold, whose voice I heard without seeing him, said to me that the gold was meant for me, and that he would not give it to anyone else. I woke from my sleep feeling joyful, but I never saw that cave again.
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A few weeks later, I saw another, different cave, when I went with my father and three of his friends on a hunting trip. They had been told that a hyena hidden in the depths of the cave had devoured men, women, and children. They made a huge fire at the opening of the cave, so that the hyena would be forced to come out. It howled and tried to flee, and they all shot at it with their hunting rifles. But the animal that they killed was no fierce hyena; it was a skinny dog like all the other stray dogs.

Contributor
Marilyn Hacker

Marilyn Hacker is known for formal poems that mix high culture and colloquial speech. She is the author of thirteen books of poems, most recently A Stranger’s Mirror (Norton, 2015), an essay collection; Unauthorized Voices ( Michigan, 2010); DiaspoRenga, written collaboratively with Deema Shehabi (Holland Park Press, 2014); and sixteen translations of French and Francophone poets including books by Vénus Khoury-Ghata, Habib Tengour, and Rachida Madani. Her translations from Arabic include work by Zakaria Tamer, Golan Haji, Fadwa Suleiman, and Yasser Khanjer. Her awards include the National Book Award, the 2009 American PEN Award for poetry in translation, and the international Argana Prize for Poetry from the Beit as-Sh’ir in Morocco in 2011. She lives in Paris.

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