About the book
The White Line of Night is set in a nameless country where the censorship of published texts is carried out by force of parliament. The censoring body checks all books before they are allowed to be published, and bans those deemed offensive.
One day, the protagonist, a dilemma-stricken censor, is captivated by a book penned by an author known only as Knight Writer, and becomes increasingly disturbed and pained at having to ban books that he loves.
Protests against censorship begin when a female author, known as The Adventurer, is awarded an international prize for a title that’s banned in her own country. The censor, who also owns a publishing house that he inherited from his father, faces the difficult decision of whether to pursue his passion and defend his deep-seated belief that good books should be available for all, or to stick to the rules.
In this political dystopia novel, the authorities are in conflict with the people. The hero plays an important role in dramatic events which build up to a climactic, shocking finale.
What our readers say
Ibrahim Fawzy’s translation of The White Line of Night has moments of striking beauty scattered throughout, bringing focus and clarity to character of the Censor, whose agonising dichotomous struggles shape the narrative. Fawzy has shown a capacity for truly capturing the essence of the story and successfully relaying its tone and pace in a characteristic manner, creating a tincture of the dystopian Arabic original for English-speaking audiences to sample and enjoy.
– Deema Al-Mohammad
Awards and press
Shortlisted for 2022 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF)
“The topic of this novel is well-crafted because it’s purely based on creative imagination.” – Abbas Beydoun, Lebanese poet
“A solid narrative structure, and a surprising finale.” – Morsel Al Agamy, Kuwaiti critic
“Like Robert Frost, Nasrallah took the road less travelled by, and that has made all the difference . . . Nasrallah has his own voice, and distinctive tone.” – Tasneem Al Habeeb, Kuwaiti writer
“This novel opens the gateway to a holocaust of books in a dystopian atmosphere.” – Ibrahim Farghali, Egyptian writer
Other languages sold: Russian.
The White Line of Night by Khalid Al-Nasrallah
Translation Sample by Ibrahim Fawzy
At the path ahead, he looked to his right and left. Then he turned onto a narrow alleyway snaking behind the houses. He tuned in to pick up any unfamiliar nearby movement. He watched his footsteps, to avoid stepping on branches or dried grass. His senses were extremely sharpened, but the gales were muscular. They shook the trees by their roots. The whistling of the wind got suddenly sharper towards the end of the alleyway. And every time it beat his body, he remembered similar trips from his youth, heading to the little library at the edge of the neighbourhood. How had things turned into ruin?
I constructed towering piles of comics by my bed and stashed the really good ones in drawers. I was afraid for them because of my father. He had nothing but contempt for comics. He thought they were a sign of some tragic crisis that would only get worse as I got older and their number grew. ‘They don’t suit you anymore,’ he would say, and then add, firmly, ‘Don’t get any more.’ Sometimes he would just gesture with his palm and a sweep of his arm, pursing his lips and shaking his head. I understood what he meant but ignored it. Still, I was scared that one day he would take the comics and burn them. Sometimes I listened in when he related his concern to my mother: ‘It’s a real problem. You have to persuade him to join a sports club, a religious group, anything.’ The conversation would usually end with him blaming her.
When I was a kid, my mother would take me to the offices of a paper that published a comic as a supplement. Whenever I remembered that office – its clean beige carpets, and the pictures of characters in white frames on its walls – I felt a surge of warmth. A few times, I won one of the competitions they ran. I’d get special issues – old ones, sometimes, or new ones ahead of realise. I’d picture the mailbox on the wall outside our house, concealing copies. That is, until my father found an excuse to remove it.
Outside the house, nobody knew about my passion, not even Aliwi. He’d noticed that I was the only one interested in reading the stories from the Fasa’il series that they handed out at library sessions. But he had no idea that they were my great love.
At the beginning of our third year at high school, Aliwi and I started meeting up at a food store halfway between our homes. Whoever got there first would wait for the other, and then we’d go to the bus station that split the neighbourhood in two. The start of the school year was always an unpleasant time. And so we decided to treat every day as if it were the weekend. I shared many interests with Aliwi, despite the differences in our opinions and beliefs. We’d usually buy a pack of cigarettes, chewing gum, a bottle of water or an occasional fizzy drink, before going to catch the bus that took us south towards a commercial district near the sea. Drivers didn’t stop for kids our age, expecting we would cause trouble. So we’d persuade someone at the bus stop to help us flag them down, and we’d stand to one side before jumping on as soon as the door of the bus opened.
Conversation wasn’t Aliwi’s strong point. He would always start or end what he was saying with an expletive. He didn’t take much care of his clothes, which were full of cigarette burns. He found it hard to manage his money and his time, too. But he was good at jokes, and could be good company. Back then, we were mad about snooker. Billiard halls had spread like the plague, trying to replicate the vibe of shady bars. They met the needs of people like us, who needed to escape, kill time. We would play for an hour, or for as long as we could afford. Our skills improved. We could get out of snookers, hitting the bottom of the white and jumping it over the balls in the way of our target. There were other pots that required a more delicate touch. Afterwards, we would normally go to a fast-food place nearby, and then end up sitting outside a coffee shop, watching the films and football matches on their big-screen TVs.
On one occasion, in the quiet that came once we’d run out of stories and jokes and disputes, relaxing in our seats with an endless chain of cigarettes lit and stubbed out to kill the last hour of the day, Aliwi suddenly stood up to greet someone. That wasn’t like him. I lethargically shifted in my seat and stood up to shake hands. From his appearance the guy looked as though he came from a rich family and was well educated. The light from the overhead bulbs revealed a hint of blond in his hair, which was parted to the right with a distinct wave. Tall and thin, he was dressed like Tintin. The tone of his voice was firm and steady, and he used words that weren’t familiar to me. It seemed impossible that he could be a friend of Aliwi’s, who had just invited him to sit down. The man tried to say no, explaining that he was due to meet someone, and started looking around in search of his companion. He asked if there was another café nearby, and I said that there wasn’t. He looked anxiously at his watch, and said, ‘I guess he might come now.’
Aliwi insisted he sit down until the other guy arrived. He was trapped. Aliwi put out his cigarette, smiled politely, and said: ‘I know you don’t like smoke.’
‘I hate it. If I wasn’t meeting someone, I wouldn’t have come here.’ He grasped his shirt. ‘The smell clings. I don’t know how I’m going to explain it to my father when–’ He cut himself short, bringing his shirt up to his nose. I hadn’t put my cigarette out, and didn’t intend to.
‘Any old lie will do,’ Aliwi said, trying to lighten things. The two did seem to know each other well.
Aliwi usually spoke slowly. He stretched out his words, using convoluted expressions to convey simple ideas. With this friend, he was digressing and asking question after question, mentioning people I didn’t know. He paused to tell me that his friend had a private collection of old animated films, and a museum’s worth of related memorabilia. The man gave a shy smile, and said it was an exaggeration to call it a museum. He seemed wary.
I was watching the film playing on the café’s TV – about a young guy obsessed with relationships with women. I had settled into my chair again, ignoring the conversation taking place next to me, until Aliwi’s friend responded in something he had said in a way that seemed exasperated but polite at the same time. ‘You’re like King Zincar,’ he said, and then he gave a shy smile. I started looking at them again. I wondered if the expression was in vogue. I understood that what he meant: you’re poking your nose into other people’s business. I felt an intense sense of distaste.
‘Haven’t you stopped using those weird names yet?’ Aliwi said.
Something pushed me to join their conversation. ‘King Zincar and Dhaw al-Nahar?’ Aliwi’s laughter resounded. He could overdo his reactions at times, but he’d definitely taken what I’d said as a joke. His friend seemed like a little boy unaware of the possible consequences of his actions, and there was an amazement in his eyes when I said the full name of the story. I swallowed my tongue, so as not to spill what I knew about children’s stories.
‘I apologise’, Aliwi said, maybe sensing that he’d offended his friend. ‘It won’t happen again, I promise.’
‘My father has been mad about books since he was a kid. He’s still,’ I said. ‘Loads of kids’ comics.’ Our friend’s eyes widened again. ‘He could join your museum of memorabilia,’ I added.
He laughed, but it was fake, forced. The story he had referred to wasn’t particularly special or old or well-known, and I thought I was the only person that still remembered it. Stories from twenty years back were long and full of details. They took days to read. Today’s material was the opposite: few words, few pages, lots of illustrations. The classics were memorable. And I realised this guy shared my passion.
We always took a taxi home. As we were leaving the café, Aliwi told me that his friend had never stopped being a child. He said he only talked about cartoon films, and his collection of tapes and pictures and comics. That he was always on the lookout for more, and would go away on trips to search for such things. He was a weirdo; he’d travel ten hours to attend a conference or exhibition about old animations or their writers. He believed they were true, real, and he thought he might one day run into a cartoon character, and they would share memories of glories past. Aliwi’s laughter punctuated every other word. The whole journey, I was thinking about the possibility of speaking openly about what I loved and kept hidden. I had been looking for a way to broach the subject for a while. Perhaps if I told him that I was mad about drawing when I was little, that tried to capture any situation or event on paper, that I drew my room, an advertising poster, a plate of food, or the dining table with my father at the head and my mother next to him – maybe he would be understanding. I’d say that it came naturally and happily, that I’d take illustrated stories and copy their pictures in my notebook – things like King Zincar’s horse who got lost with him in the forest when he went out hunting, or the boat of the riverman whom Dhaw al-Nahar called upon to help him reach the princess of the mountains, or the giant frog that sealed up the well of the village that was the Spring of Life, or the enormous serpent that ate the roots of the Tree of Eternity. Image after image.
I didn’t think that Aliwi’s friend felt entirely comfortable when he revealed his emotions. But I wasn’t like that quiet guy. I was always pretending to be something other than what was inside me, hiding it all. A few minutes before the taxi reached the spot where one of us would get out and walk home, to save having to pay the driver more, I thought about reminding Aliwi of my first love, the stories in the Fasa’il series. It could be the entry to my full confession, and would mean I could ask him for help if I ever needed it. But I didn’t. Aliwi went home before I found an excuse – or the courage – to broach the subject.
That night, I thought a lot about the guy I’d met. He’d provided a perfect opportunity to rid myself of the shame from my father’s looks, of reading children’s stories, comics and cartoons, of the mockery that might accompany me for the rest of my life, the impression of me in people’s minds wouldn’t disappear even when I did. A sleepless night, then. A mixture of determination, regret, hope. A rush of feelings, compounded by an idea that had been bouncing around since childhood: ‘They are deeper and vaster than they think.’ Two days later, an unknown number called. It was Aliwi’s friend. It seemed like a sign that heaven was on my side.
At times, phrases and paragraphs would become muddled. The censor would read a sentence and claim he had read it elsewhere. No matter the context, you find him insisting an idea is from another book, insisting that he could name the source that inspired it. Then there were times when he would read a few pages and predict what would happen next and get it right. It was quite ridiculous. So much so that he would sometimes laugh himself silly and wonder how this was happening. ‘I’ve seen this before,’ he found himself saying, time after time. It would happen again weeks later, but he could never be absolutely sure, because he was simultaneously convinced that he hadn’t read this book and didn’t know the author. And when he’d retire to bed, the scenes from the book would suddenly appear to him, just as he’d imagined them. He would speak to the characters. And then, sometimes, his dreams would enact exactly what would happen in the following pages, before he’d read.
This all might be considered normal if one reflected on what was known about the censor: that he read at least 200 pages a day (and that, if responsibilities, exceptions, and emergencies compelled him to read less, he’d feel disappointed and guilty, forcing him to make up the reading he’d missed the following day), and that he always had to finish a book he started, no matter the consequences, no matter how boring it was. It was only when he read that final letter of the final word that he felt a sense of accomplishment and completion.
Naturally, the censor, like any other reader, had a unique critical vision; he could sort through storylines and deconstruct them and form his own personal opinions. He had his favourite writers, too, but because of his bad luck he was hardly ever assigned a book by an author he admired. Each week, he’d hope he’d be given one of them, before his hopes were then usually dashed. On the rare occasion it did happen, his week would be filled with joy. He never banned any of them. It would be the case with the novel he was currently reading, two chapters in. It was by the author writing as Knight Writer and it opened with two characters lost in a desert for an unspecified period, discussing philosophical questions and what was happening and what had led them there. The author made a point of distinguishing between the sections that reflected reality and those which were based on dreams, so as not to confuse the reader. Before they could find a solution to their dilemma, one of the characters fainted from the blazing heat. The other, bewildered, searched for a way to save his friend. The text required that both characters existed, and if one of them died then the other would surely follow. His only resort was to urinate, fully dressed, and squeeze his dripping pants into his friend’s mouth.
But the author didn’t write this in the way described here. He used an offensive word that jarred with the censor, and made him feel a sense of responsibility towards a task that he was destined to fulfil. Before making his decision, he left and took the book home with him. This wouldn’t infringe on the rules. In fact, the head of the department urged his employees to take their texts home and read them at night during peak times.
When he was alone with the novel, he meticulously wrote down every potential obstacle in issuing its release order. He finished reading the book, and found himself admiring the idea, the plot, details, characters – everything. It set his senses free, giving him an overwhelming urge to reflect. He wrote down some of his issues, all of which could be overlooked except for one: the way in which the novelist, with diligent detail, described a woman’s body. The protagonist would praise the woman, flirt with her, imagine her form. Then, in another chapter, the novelist went even further.
The censor identified four scenes about this woman for which he couldn’t assume responsibility. His only choice was to delay his report until he would find a way to have these scenes edited and the book resubmitted. The most pressing question remained: how? It lurked in his mind as he went to bed. There were various channels for arranging a meeting with the author, but there were barriers at the end of each. It occurred to him to request the book’s application form, submitted to the Publications Censorship Department, which would include the applicant’s contact details. But he feared his colleague might ask why he was requesting the form, and probably inform the head about the matter, who would then summon the censor for investigation. So the censor devised a plan, safe and seamless, that would preserve the trust of his colleagues and their confidence in his integrity. The only way was to contact the publisher; nothing was easier than obtaining publishers’ phone numbers.
The censor sat at his desk, looking out the window, holding a book he hadn’t yet read a single paragraph of. He watched a cat in the distance, leaping and scratching at something he couldn’t see. The cat paused to scrutinise the situation, and then resumed its search for some elusive beetle, maybe, in the crevice in which it must be hiding.
He decided he had no alternative but to claim that the Publications Censorship Department required the author’s phone number. He had never abused his position for personal gain before. But he was engaged in a noble endeavour, and would only attain what he desired if he could ease his tension and free himself from this cloud of anxiety. Government authorities didn’t work in the evening, and so he had to make the call immediately. Delaying it would be unwise.
He had been contemplating a secure location where he could talk without being overheard. Slowly, silently, as if he was heading to the bathroom, he stood up and left the building, turning in the opposite direction to the desert. He went unnoticed, except by the cat, which had settled near the wall to rest after its own futile endeavour. The censor was quite effectively concealed here. He glanced at his mobile phone, anticipating the conversation, rehearsing what he would say. He dialled the number, focusing his attention and senses. He spoke to the employee in the formal tone he had practiced, introducing himself as an employee of the Publications Department, hiding his affiliation with the Censorship Department. The employee transferred the call to the publishing director, who handled it cautiously; such a call was unfamiliar and unexpected. ‘We are having difficulty contacting the Knight Writer,’ he said. ‘It seems that someone wrote his phone number incorrectly.’ His voice was flat and emotionless; he sounded like a newsreader, his words careful, his phrasing concise. The publishing director had no choice but to comply with the request. He didn’t want to prolong the conversation by asking too many questions, and he didn’t want a clash with governmental authorities under any circumstances. After ending the call, the censor paused for a little while to think. He didn’t ring the Knight Writer immediately, intending to calibrate his plan so that he could meet his favourite author privately and save the novel from being banned. It made no real difference whether he called the author in the morning or evening.
Some of the censor’s colleagues had noticed his odd behaviour that day. One, who was sitting nearby, noticed that he hadn’t turned the page of his book since the morning, while another across from him had seen his gaze fixed out the window. When he returned to his desk, the censor maintained this state, despite having only accomplished half of his task. It prompted a colleague to inquire about his demeanour. If anything was going on. The censor evaded the question with a direct response and a forced smile. ‘Nothing, nothing’ he repeated. ‘Just a family issue,’ he added.
He planned out the call he would make with the Knight Writer, who had been told about the call from the Publications Department. The censor couldn’t immediately think of a new story to convince the Knight Writer to meet him up, so he decided to reveal his intentions little by little. As the sun went down, he made up his mind to call the Knight Writer. He locked the door of his room and pressed the dial button. A few seconds later, a hesitant voice answered the call. The censor felt an embarrassment rise in him.
‘Is this the Knight Writer?’ he asked.
‘Yes, who’s talking?’
The censor said, ‘Yes,’ paused for a few seconds, and then continued, ‘I’m an employee at the Publications Department.’
The Knight Writer repeated the censor’s last two words, ‘Publications Department!’
‘Yes!’ he replied, and then added, ‘We have discovered some issues in your latest novel, and we wanted to warn you.’
‘Would you like me to come to the department?’ The Knight Writer didn’t ask why he was being called by a government authority at such an hour, either ignoring the strangeness altogether or assuming that new procedures had been introduced.
The censor said that he shouldn’t do that, no. And a silence prevailed for a few moments, a sense of confusion on both sides of the line. The censor lowered his voice and said, ‘Master, I’m speaking to you personally.’
‘I admire all of your works. I have read them all without exception, including your critical articles in the monthly magazine. And the recent biography about you, too. I have obtained a copy of your new title, and have tried to assist you as much as possible. But there are certain passages – I believe you understand the situation – that I cannot overlook. And these issues are not solely based on my own viewpoint.’
‘You’re a censor, aren’t you?’
He felt a sense of exposure and vulnerability. It caught him off guard. Hesitantly, he said, ‘Yes. I hope to keep it a secret.’ He wanted to clarify that revealing this would be detrimental to him, but he refrained from doing so.
‘When and where would you like to meet up?’ The Knight Writer must have found the situation amusing.
‘Today, if you prefer. It’s better to act quickly. I am required to submit the report on your book by early next week. Time is running out, you see.’
The Knight Writer took a moment before saying, ‘Let’s meet tomorrow, 7pm, in Burj al-Nasiyah coffee shop.’
The next morning, the censor felt calmer. He resumed reading the assigned books and remained composed in front of his colleagues, revealing none of the excitement that was consuming him. Today seemed like a typical day. He delayed leaving the office, making up for his tardiness in completing the week’s books. And this deviation from his routine led him to witness, for the first time, the ritual of burning the banned books. Unknown to him, this ritual took place on the same day every week in the patch of desert opposite the building. Many employees who had served for a decade or more had never witnessed this tradition, carried out after official working hours. Even the censor, engrossed in his reading, wouldn’t have noticed if not for the sharp smell of burning paper that sped in through the window near his desk.
The books were collected in a cone-shaped metal basin mounted on a wheeled cart, with a long arm attached to its lower part. The arm could be pulled to release the ashes once the fire had been extinguished. After the process was finished, the basin must then be hidden somewhere, he thought, because its appearance would ruin the facade of the building. Once a book’s banning resolution was adopted, its mere existence became a crime. Possessing or circulating it was considered a felony. The Censorship Department had to dispose of it completely; it had to vanish.
As the fire raged, the censor glanced at his watch. He had stayed twenty minutes past his departure time. The head seemed to be overseeing the process, methodically throwing the books into the basin, one after another, in a way that seemed both artistic and scientific. It wouldn’t be suitable to throw them all in at once. And then, once the responsible party had finished the massacre of this week’s books, they left. The censor stayed at his desk, considering the fate of the Knight Writer’s book, pitching the novel perishing in that ungodly basin.