The revived game
I was playing [my] first chess game against the computer and was feeling that it was slowing down each time a piece was lost, it was slowing down till it made me feel bored. I had previously played dozens who are slow in the game, but I had the right to prompt them to hurry up or to call the spectators as witnesses so that they could spur them on or prompt them to play or even to mock them. On each occasion I used to come out of the predicament by virtue of that common language exchanged among spectators, players, those yet to play and [all] humans. However, in the case of chess, there was no language, nor thoughts, nor embarrassment nor feelings. I used to continue playing with him whilst plucking up the courage and saying to myself at the same time that it is just [one] game from amongst hundreds of games that can be played on the computer itself: car and motor bike racing in perilous paths and mountains and in forests; freestyle wrestling contests, ball sports, crossing forests in which there are ferocious beasts and snakes; climbing mountains or plunging into oceans; going into mazes and crossing impossible barriers. Tens and hundreds of games with which my family were occupied in the same manner as those with which their friends and neighbours were occupied as though they are real sporting contests or human adventures or real competitions whereas I used to see them as mere games to while away time and I was not enthusiastic to learn their rules like they were perhaps because, by my reckoning, they did not require intelligence to the [same] extent that they require memory to remember the specific code in each game and nimble and agile fingers on the keys that I do not have. [My] family must have paid me a compliment by adding the chess game, of which they heard much talk from me before, which confirm my passion for the game and skill in moving the pieces so that the opponents’ king is surrounded or [so that] my king is well-defended. They used to look attentively at me and exchange looks as though I were a creature from another planet wasting his precious time, according to what they used to say in one single game, whereas there are hundreds of games available in the world on the computer that they owned. After much insistence that I purchase it for them and them stressing that it is a modern medium that must enter every home to store information and save written documents in addition to its unlimited abilities with regard to communications and sharing information with all people in [all] corners of the globe, I did not used to object to anything they would say as I had already read about computers and heard from friends who entered it into their homes many stories that confirm its importance in the globalisation era. The globe has, according to what they used to stress, turned into a small village by virtue of it. But they used to add that it requires some caution of its harms and dangers as long as it is not used with heedfulness. I used to go along with them and used to intend to buy the computer as soon as I had the money. It so happened that I obtained a premium that I had not been expecting so I said to myself: It is the provision of [my] family that God has sent from an unexpected source. So, boy, buy the computer.
I used to see them taking turns sitting in front of the computer. They had attended frequent courses whose costs I paid without any hesitation as per their wishes. Perhaps I wouldn’t have got myself busy with it at first, but they urged me to watch them attentively whilst they shared experiences and had minor arguments. When they added my favourite game to their computer they demanded that I play against it: hopefully I will win and prove to myself and to them that I had not forgotten my previous experiences. I decided to undertake the venture. However, I noticed that whenever the computer lost a piece the game slowed down and there was no option other than to be patient, brace myself and continue playing. Every time when I was about to win against the computer, to prove to my family and to myself that I still am a chess player as I was [before] who knows the rules of the game and is able to win, the computer would scheme against me for certain since, by my reckoning, whenever I was about to beat it or [whenever] there were just two moves remaining for my win the screen would all of a sudden freeze completely and my pieces would be unresponsive and refuse to move. My family were trying to move the picture with all their experience with the computer but it was remaining still. Then a box would appear above the chess piece inside of which was written a tender message of apology because the game had experienced a sudden inactivity and that it is possible to start a new round. I told myself that I would console [myself] for being deprived of a sure victory after a long break from the game. Perhaps it is an unplanned coincidence. I left the computer for my family apologising for the long time that it forced me to waste for them and for myself without a certain result.
During the period of resumption I regained my former experiences in beating friends and acquaintances or those requesting to play with me without [us] previously knowing each other. During those days chess was my only hobby. Just as I used to climb every morning the stairs of the first five storeys of the building complex situated in Tahrir Square to sign the attendance sheet without waiting for the lift, I used to go down the very same stairs hurrying freely without waiting for the lift and walk slowly until I reached the El Horreya Café. I used to frequently hear formulaic expressions welcoming my arrival or threatening me with defeat or returning the challenge or even openly giving up before playing [against] me. I used to feel elated and be filled with confidence of my ability to win against them, in the end, in the most courteous way. It’s true that things were getting difficult in the first game and I would lose it or lose two consecutive games and thereby taste the bitterness of defeat and I would feel some disheartenment and would be comforted because I hadn’t defended well the pieces that I lost and so was defeated. However, my stubbornness was making me pig-headed and utterly urged me to continue playing even if the person playing with me made all kinds of excuses or even if a colleague or friend volunteered to play with me. [Instead] I used to refuse and continue to be pig-headed and would insist on forcing him to come back to play a new round if I had lost one round, or two rounds if I had lost two.
The matter would always start with the courteous request that he would make to continue playing or [begin with] the stirring up of interest as he [predicts] he will win against me once again, or twice accordingly, thereby obtaining the title of king of chess in the El Horreya Café. At times the matter would reach to [the point of] quarrelling with raised voices and disputes about my right to make up for after losing [the game] or the right of the other [person] to be contented and to depart to their business according to their circumstances. Sensible elders among the old patrons of the cafe would mediate of which there were those who had won the title of king of chess of the El Horreya Café in the bygone time and [who] knew the details of the game; they would empathise with the loser’s agony of defeat and wanted me to make up for my loss as though they were making up for their old losses for the title by standing in my line and supporting me . One of them volunteered to arrange the pieces on the board whilst another excelled at seating the one who wished to leave, utterly robbing me of his win and wishing to flee by my reckoning as well as theirs. He would submit out of embarrassment, or pity, or wishing to be free from the situation, or to show the generous sporting spirit. I was feeling elated and took the matter firmly [in hand], being resolved to get my revenge.
We would begin the new round and the number of spectators had risen. As a result, I would feel that I became responsible in front of them and that I must win. I would gather my faculties and the occasions of my past wins and would intend to beat him in an abrupt way that startles him and invites him to request me to play a new round with him wrongly thinking that he will settle the matter to his advantage. However, on most cases he would lose and I would regain self confidence after it had shuddered somewhat. It was certain to everyone that I was able to get revenge and win at the end and that I play chess with a fighter’s spirit who has a revenge that they must not neglect no matter what the difficulties are. At that time I would feel a real hunger despite the spirit’s satiated with victory in the end. In the midst of the acclaim from those who were spectating I would withdraw from the place and head to the restaurant next door to eat lunch: a dish of [Egyptian] fava beans, or lentils, or perhaps [croquette] balls (falafel) . Sometimes I would cross the field and enter the spacious restaurant specialising in serving meals [consisting] of brain and fried liver. They were still hot and there were salads and pickles alongside it that open up an unrestricted appetite. I felt full and walked slowly until I reached my home situated at Khayrat Street close to the Sayyida Zeinab shrine. It appears that the city was in those days a more vast plain [land] despite its definite expanses in all directions and whatever districts were annexed to it in which many people live. I used to enjoy travelling in security and would contemplate: the buildings, the people and the signs of shops and firms all of which were radiating with a human fragrance and uncompensated love. During those errands I used to imagine the movement of people on the land as if they were pawns or soldiers, bishops, knights, rooks or queens and kings. My much interest in, and playing of, chess must have dominated my imagination and made me think in such an ambiguous way. The matter would sometimes appear to me as though it were the initial stages of madness, the madness of dividing the movements of humans in the manner that happens on the chess board. However, the matter had in some way called for reflection since a brave soldier dies in war under deception or unable to defend himself but he advances courageously and wins and perhaps gets promoted if the official trains him, armours him and makes him understand well that he is defending a homeland. The queen that moves on a chessboard with absolute freedom for any distance and in all directions despite it being a toy figure that resembles in an arbitrary way some queens throughout the world. Their biographies are written negatively or positively in accordance to what they offer to their peoples and their kings. The kings in chess on the other hand are distinguished with dignity in their steps and mainly rule and don’t control as it ought to be. Just as some people leapfrog over [their] opponents so [too] do bolting horses that kick with their hooves everything that is in their way. I also used to see some senior people excelling at treading, trampling and mincing boorishly above bodies as though they were the elephants of the king of Abyssinia heading to demolish the Kaaba in ancient times and then were stopped by flocks of birds, pelting them with stones of baked clay. But today’s elephants escape and tread on, destroy and leave behind them ruin and dismembered bodies without anyone reckoning or stopping them. As for castles and fortresses they are either stick-like and easy to destroy for their chief sentry, or lofty and defying legions of enemies. They block it and send cavalries in the gorges of the bastions that will teach them a final lesson so that they will desist from holding a siege again.
[Anyway,] enough about the semi-widespread rules of the game which I used to be well versed in during the bygone time in my specific way. Disheartenment followed by revival and win, all those who coexist with me in the same cafe in that distant time know that it is rare that I win in the first round despite my observed skill. Perhaps I was internally a person that does not incline towards besieging others or being hostile to them initially. Some of them used to say in my presence or in my absence—despite my skill which was evident to them in my moving of the pieces and despite that I beat them all—that they used to realise and openly declare that if I entered any official competition I would definitely be eliminated from the early rounds. I, for my part, would not be concerned. I would wish that to be a player with endurance; they would realise that I am peaceable but without capitulation. I repel enmity and defeat those who come in the way of my path. However, computer chess bewildered me with regard to its condition as well as mine. It would, in all the rounds that I had lost, be eager to record its win. For my part I would endeavour to regain my former skill after the first or second defeat. I would take it by surprise with unexpected moves and surround it such that it would not have an escape after one or two moves. At that time it would slow down to the point of annoyance. Then the computer’s movement would completely stop. It would not be responsive to me nor to my family [lest] it thereby give me the chance to beat it. The same box would appear above the chess board inside of which was written a tender apology for a sudden inactivity and it would request me to begin a new round. I would at first comply with it saying to myself that it is a strange and dodgy computer and I must resist playing against it. I suppose that it is programmed not to recognise any defeat in my favourite game specifically despite it being a game in the end. Day after day it would provoke me and make me reject my old explanation that it is just unplanned coincidences. I would ask myself how could this be the only game that aims to make someone with previous experience like me lose all confidence in his abilities in the presence of his wife and family? Was I an opponent who had to be thwarted in his ambition with grief over his old consciousness after repeated defeats without a hope to a single victory? I would wander with my imagination and say it is a strange and programmed computer that observes opponents and threatens them with the frustration of their dreams despite it being a machine in the end. I would wonder whether it was an innocent game in the end that could co-operate with a peaceable citizen in their capacity as an enemy or opponent that has to be eliminated? Did a professional player whom I defeated and forgot write a false report about my activity in the past or about my participation in the momentous riot events against the unification of the world at certain past dates despite my presence, and in a definite way [at that], at my same workplace at the al-Tahrir building complex [where] I still am? If this very computer is what my family resort to to get to know what goes on in all parts of the world during the very moments and with every accuracy then how can it be a liar when it is the one that transmits to us images of tanks that minces bodies in inhabited and vacant streets in which children conceal their breath in fear and the division of the globe into absolute strong and absolute weak becomes confirmed despite it being a small village in which customs, languages and beliefs differ from the outset?
All these thoughts used to entice me subsequently to every round I played and in which I was about to win then the screen would become frozen and the same apologetic box would subdue me with a great deal of courtesy for the sudden inactivity above the chessboard. It would invite me to a new start and so I would. I would say to myself that I have become a lawful prey for him that deserves eternal defeat and disheartenment. However, internally I used to be confident that it will be defeated soon and that I for certain will crack the game’s code in the time to come or my family will.
|Article title:||The revived game
|Author :||Ahmad al-Shaykh (أحمد الشيخ)|
|Published by:||Al-Arabi Magazine (مجلة العربي), May 2004|
|Link to the Arabic article:||http://www.3rbi.info/Article.asp?ID=11601|
|English translation last revised on May 2020|
 I have translated the Arabic word ‘al-ṣaḥw’ as ‘revived’ in the title. ‘Al-ṣaḥw’ in this context literally means ‘awakening’. In this short story it seems that the author is rekindling his passion, or talent, for chess which had lain dormant. [Translator]
 I have used the word ‘computer’ throughout the English translation although the Arabic original uses the more general word ‘jihaz’ throughout which means: machine, appliance, gadget, device, mobile phone, handset etc. [Translator]
 Literally: ‘slowing down after losing any piece’ [Translator]
 Literally: ’ tens’ [Translator]
 Literally: ‘operated’ [Translator
 Literally: ‘ball events’ [Translator]
 Literally: ‘require a memory that memorises…’ [Translator]
 Literally: ‘so that I surround the opponents’ king or [so that] I defend my king well.’ [Translator]
 Literally: ‘a being’ [Translator]
 Literally: ‘on the first opportunity in which I own its price.’ [Translator]
 Literally: ‘to my soul.’ [Translator]
 Here the Arabic original uses two names of God mentioned in the Qur’an: al-Razzāq (The Provider) and al-‘Alīm (The All Knowing). [Translator]
 Reference to Qur’an 65:3. A more literal translation of the phrase ‘from an unexpected source’ is ‘from where you do not expect.’ [Translator]
 Literally: ‘the picture’. [Translator]
 More literally: ‘and the pieces that are peculiar to me’. [Translator]
 Literally: ‘my soul’. [Translator]
 I have translated the Arabic word ‘al-ṣaḥw’ as ‘resumption’ here. See my comment in footnote 1 above. [Translator]
 A public town square in Cairo, Egypt. ‘Tahrir’ means ‘liberation’. [Translator]
 Literally: ‘so that I sign the attendance column’. [Translator]
 A café in Cairo. [Translator]
 Literally: ‘expressions of tahlīl welcoming my arrival’. Tahlīl means saying ‘Lā ilāha illā’llāh’ (There is no deity except God). [Translator]
 Literally: ‘chew’. [Translator]
 Literally: ‘my stubbornness was riding my head’. [Translator]
 Literally: ‘call for’. [Translator]
 I felt it necessary to add the word ‘predicts’ here in the translation as this is implied in the Arabic. [Translator]
 I have used the singular word ‘agony’ although the Arabic original uses the plural word “‘mawāji’”. [Translator]
 Literally: ‘supporting my situation (or position)’. [Translator]
 The word that I have translated as ‘reckoning’ is in the plural in the Arabic. [Translator]
 Literally: ‘my matter’. [Translator]
 Literally: ‘the tahlīl of acclaim’. See footnote 21 above for the meaning of ‘tahlīl’. [Translator]
 Falafel: a Middle Eastern dish of spiced mashed chickpeas or other pulses formed into balls or fritters and deep-fried, usually eaten with or in pitta bread. (Oxford online dictionary) [Translator]
 Literally: ‘that open up an open appetite’. [Translator]
 A shrine and mosque in Cairo, Egypt, named after Sayyida Zeinab, the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. Note that ‘Sayyida’ is an honorific title. [Translator]
 Literally: ‘chess piece’. I think this is a typographical error in the Arabic original. [Translator]
 The Arabic word for ‘queen’ in chess is ‘al-wazīr’. This word is also used to mean a ‘minister’. [Translator]
 Literally: ‘over the shoulders of [their] opponents’. [Translator]
 The Arabic word used here for horses is ‘al-khayl’. The knight piece in chess is called ‘al-ḥiṣān’ in Arabic. ‘Al-ḥiṣān’ also means a horse. [Translator]
 The Arabic word for the bishop chess piece is ‘al-fīl’ which also means an elephant. [Translator]
 There is an allusion here to chapter 105 of the Qur’an. [Translator]
 The Arabic word ‘al-ṭawābī’, which I have translated as ‘fortresses’, also means ‘rooks’ (rook: chess piece). [Translator]
 Literally: ‘skinny’. [Translator]
 More literally: ‘Let’s leave from the semi-widespread rules…’ [Translator]
 Some grammarians term this lām ‘lām aḷ-ʿāqibah’ (among other names) which means ‘the lām of consequence’. I have translated this lām as ‘[lest]… thereby’. [Translator]
 Literally: ‘…his wife and his family’. [Translator]
 Literally: ‘the picture’. [Translator]