Many years ago on a day like today, a hard-faced young man sits reading the newspaper in a café in some small alley. He opens the page and a small headline catches his eye: Campaign to Round Up 15,000 Strays in Capital.
The young man smiles and reads on: As part of a plan to improve the quality of life for residents of the capital city, and to bolster Tunis’ image as a premiere tourist destination, the City Council has embarked on a campaign to catch fifteen thousand stray dogs. Headed by the Mayor, the council seeks to rid the city of approximately seven-hundred thousand dogs annually so as to ensure the safety and well-being of pedestrians throughout the municipality. To that end, it is encouraging citizens to help out in their capture.
As he throws the paper down, he asks himself, How many dogs are there in Tunis? Then he picks it up again and reads the very last line: Sources also confirm that the City Council has dedicated special funds to be disbursed as a reward for every dog captured and delivered alive to the Public Health Office.
That night, he wrapped up his arms with thick old rags and went out pushing a wheelbarrow filled with a few sacks and an old sheet. He tucked himself into a corner of the alley and waited.
The first dog came strutting along, unhurried and confident. It stopped and began to paw at the garbage strewn around the dumpster. Just then, the young man leapt out and threw a sheet over the animal. He wrapped the dog’s head well so that it could not bite, and then stuffed it in a burlap sack. For a while, the beast made strangled barking noises, but then the sounds died down.
When the second dog came along, it was moving fast. At first, the young man thought he did not have a chance of nabbing it, but then, by a strange stroke of fate, the dog suddenly halted in its tracks. It lifted its back leg just where the young man was standing. A pissing dog is a slow and vulnerable dog—the kind of opportunity that might not come more than once. He threw the sheet over the dog, grabbed its head, wrapped it in a small bag, and then threw it into the sack with the other one.
When he walked out of the house that first night, he never dreamed that he would come back with seven stray dogs. He cleared out one of the bedrooms in his house and stuck the dogs in there.
The next morning he filled the wheelbarrow with sacks and wrapped his arms in old socks and rags and went back out to hunt. Within a week, he had seventy, barking, howling dogs in his house. The din made it impossible for anyone in the neighborhood to sleep.
At some point, the young man forgot about the bounty on the dog’s heads. He had become addicted to the pleasure of seizing each dog and twisting its muzzle away from him as he stuffed it into the sack. With each new dog he caught, his dog-catching skills grew and multiplied—and it was not often that a dog would escape from his traps. When that happened, he would hammer his fist against the wall and shout, “You really think you can get away from me, dog? Sooner or later, you’re mine!”
By then, everyone in the neighborhood had heard of him. They wisely chose to keep their mouths shut, for fear that this horrible man might turn his attention on them too. Hadn’t he already struck terror in the hearts of people in Kabbaria and Jebal Ahmar before he decided to settle down here? To this day, no one in the neighborhood of Ariana has ever forgotten him. Ali—“Dogs Ali.”
When Ali finally went down to city hall demanding a meeting, the doorman made fun of him, “Really?! So you would like a private meeting with the Mayor?!”
Ali stood his ground, shouting over and over, “Yes, I want to speak with him in person. He owes me. I’m the guy who caught seventy dogs.”
The Mayor arrived just as the guards were dragging Ali out of the building. When he asked them what was going on, they told him, “This guy’s been demanding to see you. He says it’s about the dogs.”
The Mayor told the guards to let him go, and then invited Ali into his office. When Ali told the Mayor about all the dogs he had caught, the man exclaimed, “I commend you for your efforts—I wish every citizen were like you. I can give you ten dinars for each dog you have caught. That’s seven hundred dinars, not bad for an unemployed man. You are unemployed, aren’t you? A working man wouldn’t have the time to catch all those dogs. You could open up a shop with that kind of money.”
“How much tax will I have to pay on the reward money?”
The mayor laughed, “No, don’t worry. You won’t be taxed on it. Now, tell me, what was your name?”
“Ali. Ali El-Deeb.”
“Ali, the Wolf?! Dogs Ali, more like it!” The man laughed. “You can go collect your reward. Thanks very much, see you later.”
But instead of going, Ali El-Deeb took one step forward. “Sir, I was sort of hoping that one day I might join the police department, Sir. I swear, I’d rather get a job serving on the police force than take the reward money, Sir.”
A week later, wearing a police uniform with special protective arm-pads, Ali El-Deeb was working with attack dogs. He jumped and lunged at the trained dogs, trying to get them to riled up, trying to get them to snap at him. Those animals would eventually teach Ali a powerful lesson: dogs bite only when they really want to.
[This piece is excerpted from the novel, al-Ghurila (Dar al-Saqi, 2011). Translated from the Arabic by Elliott Colla.]
Elliott Colla is Chair of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. He is author of Conflicted Antiquities: Egyptology, Egyptomania, Egyptian Modernity (Duke University Press, 2007) and many articles on Arabic literature, film and colonial culture.
He is a translator of works of contemporary Arabic literature, including Ibrahim Aslan’s novel The Heron, Idris Ali’s Poor, and Ibrahim al-Koni’s Gold Dust, which was a runner-up for the 2009 prize, as well as works by Yahya Taher Abdullah, Ghada Abdel Meniem and others. He is currently translating The Animists, al-Koni’s epic of the Sahara.