The Devil’s Waiting List—a story by Ahmed Salah Al-Mahdi

15 July, 2022,

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She­fa Salem, “Noth­ing But a Mem­o­ry,” 120x80cm, acrylic on can­vas, 2019 (cour­tesy She­fa Salem).

 

Ahmed Salah Al-Mahdi

Trans­lat­ed from the Ara­bic by Rana Asfour

 

Man­si was ner­vous. He shift­ed in his seat oppo­site a desk behind which sat an attrac­tive woman. Her eye­glass­es, he not­ed, seemed only to add to her allure. The unre­mark­able, even dilap­i­dat­ed desk, appeared as if strain­ing to hold its form, ready to col­lapse at any moment under the weight of the piles of paper spread across almost every inch of its sur­face. In fact, now that he took a moment to sur­vey his sur­round­ings, he noticed that the entire office seemed rather shab­by and unkempt. It felt suffocating.

Man­si reached up and slight­ly loos­ened his tie.

It was a sti­fling August day and the heat had fol­lowed him into the room along with a swarm of flies that flit­ted about hap­haz­ard­ly from one sur­face to anoth­er. Man­si was annoyed and tired from con­stant­ly hav­ing to swat away at the bloat­ed ones that were keen­ly intent on glu­ing them­selves to the sticky sweat run­ning down his face.

The con­cer­to of buzzing flies mixed in with the screech­ing hum of the whirling, ancient, and use­less ceil­ing fan, suc­ceed­ed in fur­ther rat­tling his nerves.

As he sat there, he won­dered at the rea­sons that had pos­sessed him to seek this place out, the impe­tus that had start­ed this whole endeav­or. He was an obscure, aver­age writer, who’d man­aged to pub­lish a few sto­ries and poems, albeit in pub­li­ca­tions that hard­ly any­one seemed to read or care about. He longed to bask in the ​​fame and glo­ry that oth­er writ­ers, cer­tain­ly with less tal­ent than him, enjoyed. He want­ed acclaim, recog­ni­tion and for all to sing the prais­es of his work. It pained him that no one seemed inter­est­ed in what he had to say. Despite that, he always got a kick out of see­ing his work print­ed along­side a pho­to of him­self dressed up in his suit, the only one he owned.

Wait­ing for the woman to look up from her papers, his thoughts drift­ed back to the day he’d met with his friend at a cof­fee house in one of Cairo’s old­est and over-crowd­ed quar­ters. He’d been observ­ing the steam ris­ing from the cof­fee placed on the dirty table in front of him as his lips puck­ered around the plas­tic nib of a hookah’s pipe, draw­ing in a lung­ful of air so that the coal burned, and the water at the base of the con­trap­tion gur­gled, after which he’d exhaled a sat­is­fy­ing breath of smoke out of his nose and mouth that rose into the sky in what seemed like inter­lac­ing circles.

“They say,” he told his friend who was sip­ping qui­et­ly at his tea, “that all these famous writ­ers and artists actu­al­ly sold their souls to the dev­il for their fame and glo­ry. I despair at the length of my failed state. If it’s true, I’m will­ing to sell my soul in order to succeed.”

His friend had laughed then. “Books have cor­rupt­ed your mind,” he said. “No one can sell his soul to the devil.”

Back at home, the notion had kept play­ing round in Mansi’s mind like a hal­lu­ci­na­tion. Even as he’d sat at his com­put­er, and typed in how to sell your soul to the dev­il in Google’s search engine, he acknowl­edged the fool­ish­ness of his actions. Man­si trawled through web­sites on con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries, celebri­ty accounts, and all man­ner of weight­less triv­ia, but seri­ous­ly doubt­ed he would ever find a con­crete answer to his question.

After what seemed like half the night, there it was, a site that despite its need for an updat­ed design was in all oth­er respects the answer to what he was look­ing for. Spare with infor­ma­tion, it nonethe­less dis­played a num­ber for inquiries and an address. Was this some kind of joke? he’d thought to himself.

And so, this morn­ing, he’d decid­ed to check the authen­tic­i­ty of the address for him­self. Joke or not, he rea­soned, he couldn’t allow the slimmest pos­si­bil­i­ty of becom­ing a renowned writer slip away, even if the path he sought was based on a crazy, feck­less idea that most like­ly would, in fact, turn out to be a full blown hoax that he’d naive­ly fall­en for.

The address had brought him to a nar­row alley lined with old, semi-dilap­i­dat­ed build­ings. The street was filthy and rank with foul-smelling water. He could hear the sounds of peo­ple quar­rel­ing behind doors, chil­dren play­ing in the dis­tance, hurl­ing abu­sive lan­guage that burned at his ears. Dressed in his suit, his pres­ence marked a stark con­trast with his surroundings.

He’d final­ly found the office on the ground floor of a worn-out apart­ment build­ing. Only a few sto­ries high, the inter­nal lay­out remind­ed him of the offices in gov­ern­ment estab­lish­ments. No soon­er had he knocked on the door, than a female voice had asked him to enter and sit down, before she’d gone back to her pile of papers.

And, here he was, he not­ed, still await­ing his turn, his frus­tra­tion and annoy­ance gath­er­ing momentum.

“… Your name?”

He flinched at the high-pitched voice that had pulled him out of his sim­mer­ing stupor.

“Man­si,” he replied. “My name is Mansi.”

She jot­ted that down on a paper in front of her.

“How can I help you, Mr. Man­si?” she asked.

For a brief moment, he was reluc­tant to men­tion the adver­tise­ment that had brought him to her, wor­ry­ing that she’d make fun of him, or worse, doubt his san­i­ty. He thought of leav­ing, but some­thing inside him was will­ing him to go through with what he had come to do, if only to bring a def­i­nite end to this insane sit­u­a­tion he found him­self in.

Final­ly, mus­ter­ing up the courage, he said, “I’m here to sell my soul to the devil.”

He wait­ed for her to laugh at his words, to mock him, to chase him out of the place.

“Did you bring the required doc­u­ments?” she said instead.

He looked at her, aston­ished beyond words. “What doc­u­ments?” he final­ly man­aged to say.

She raised her eye­brows in irri­ta­tion, as she scru­ti­nized him from above her eyeglasses.

“A per­son­al pho­to, a copy of your gov­ern­ment ID card, and a writ­ten and signed affi­davit that you con­sent to giv­ing up your soul to the dev­il once your request has been fulfilled.”

He couldn’t tell at this point if he was con­fused, or dis­ap­point­ed, at the banal pro­ceed­ings. But again, what had he been expect­ing? For the dev­il him­self to be wait­ing in greet­ing? He hand­ed her his ID and a per­son­al pho­to he kept in his wal­let for emergencies.

“I didn’t know any­thing about a state­ment. Can I write that now?”

The woman reached her hand towards one of the desk draw­ers and retrieved a plain piece of paper and a pen, which she extend­ed towards him.

He looked down at the white sheet and drew a blank. His mind felt porous, rid­dled with tiny holes, like a sieve through which his words leaked through until his mind was left emp­ty. A slate clear and clean.

“What do I write?” he asked, his con­fu­sion palpable.

She sighed impatiently.

 “Write what every­one usu­al­ly does. I, so and so, pledge to give up my soul to Satan for such and such, and give my full con­sent to the trans­ac­tion. Sign it at the bot­tom and that’s that.”

“But I’m not clear­ly sure I know what I want,” he said.

“You want what all men want,” she replied, sound­ing bored now. “Fame, for­tune, clout. The phras­ing of the request may vary but in the end you all desire the same thing. Just write down the real rea­son that pushed you to drag your own two feet into our office today.”

“Hon­est­ly, I came here think­ing this would turn out to be a joke. It seems I was mis­tak­en. So be it, let me think.”

He scratched his head with the tip of the pen.

“I want to be a best-sell­ing author and for my books to fly off the shelf faster than hot cakes,” he told her.

“See, it’s exact­ly as I pre­dict­ed. Nobody wants to sell their soul in exchange for world peace, or to bring an end to famines, or to find a cure for can­cer. Every­one is here for pure­ly self­ish and per­son­al ambition.”

His emo­tions and facial expres­sions alter­nat­ed between shame and anger at the woman’s words. He want­ed to explain to her that only des­per­ate peo­ple, like him, sold out by every­one, aban­doned, and left to wal­low in mis­ery and despair, would con­sid­er some­thing as mad as sell­ing their souls to the dev­il. Nobody was deserv­ing of his sac­ri­fice, for where were they when he had need­ed them most? Before he could for­mu­late any of these thoughts into words, the woman was back to talk­ing again.

“It’s none of my con­cern what you write real­ly, as long as you make sure to sign your name at the end of it.”

Once he’d writ­ten and signed the affi­davit and hand­ed it back to the woman, she scanned his ID card, attached his pho­to to his state­ment, and tossed the appli­ca­tion on top of the pile of papers scat­tered around her desk.

“Right. All that’s left for you to do is to go home and wait your turn.”

“Turn?” he repeat­ed, incred­u­lous. “My turn?” he repeated.

“Yes, Mr. Man­si, your turn,” she repeat­ed, slow­er, as if he were an imbe­cile. “You’re not the only one who wants to sell his soul. These papers are all requests from cus­tomers. We run quite a com­pli­cat­ed oper­a­tion and it will take time.”

The feel­ing returned to Man­si that he might yet be the vic­tim of a ridicu­lous prank. After all, the whole sit­u­a­tion hadn’t lost any of its absurdity.

“I did­n’t know there’d be such a long wait­ing list,” he said to the woman, his tone drip­ping with sarcasm.

“Did you real­ly think you were the only one to come up with this inge­nious solu­tion to your trou­bles?” said the woman, match­ing his sar­casm with her own. “Do you not see all these papers? They’re all appli­ca­tions sub­mit­ted by writ­ers like you, as well as actors, singers, foot­ballers, and so many lot­tery hope­fuls. As I said, the process is intri­cate, and requires your patience. We can’t have every­one win­ning the jack­pot at the same time now, can we? Do you under­stand what I’m saying?”

“Yes,” he answered begrudg­ing­ly. “But…” he trailed, his bewil­der­ment and dis­tress get­ting the bet­ter of him. His tongue felt heavy all of a sud­den, and the swel­ter­ing heat had inten­si­fied so that he felt like he was suf­fo­cat­ing. He reached up and loos­ened his tie for the sec­ond time that day. And the flies, which seemed to have wok­en up from slum­ber, had returned with a fren­zy that was dri­ving him batty.

“So, I don’t get to meet with the dev­il? I cer­tain­ly did­n’t expect my busi­ness to be con­clud­ed with his assistant.”

“No one can see the dev­il,” she said, rais­ing one eye­brow high, and pin­ning him with a pierc­ing stare. “I thought you knew that, Mr. Mansi.”

For an instant, he held her gaze before he bowed his head towards her in acquiescence.

Man­si stood up and head­ed toward the exit, leav­ing behind him the susurrant screech of the fan, the tor­ment­ing fren­zy of the flies, and a paper bear­ing his sig­na­ture in which, in his own hand­writ­ing, he had pledged his soul to the devil.

 


 

Man­si nev­er told any­one about that day.

He lived his days in the hope that his turn would come soon and that his wish, as promised, would be ful­filled. And so, he waited.

Days, then months, passed and he went back to ques­tion­ing whether his meet­ing with the woman had been noth­ing more than a prank he’d stu­pid­ly gone along with, one set up by evil, sick-mind­ed indi­vid­u­als who got a kick out of prey­ing on the des­per­a­tion and des­o­la­tion of the ill of mind and spir­it. Soon the years began to go by, too, and he doubt­ed whether the entire inci­dent had hap­pened at all. With each pass­ing day he was more and more con­vinced that what he’d real­ly expe­ri­enced was noth­ing more than a fan­tas­ti­cal night­mare. A hallucination.

In the mean­time, Man­si worked on a new nov­el. Once it was pub­lished, he resigned him­self that this one, just like all the oth­er ones that had pre­ced­ed it, would end up as fod­der for the ware­house moths. How­ev­er, this time was dif­fer­ent. Crit­ics hailed his nov­el, news­pa­pers wrote about him, and read­ers rushed out to buy his book. Overnight, Man­si had become the toast of the town and the name on everyone’s lips.

Ini­tial­ly, he felt a joy like none he had ever expe­ri­enced. He rel­ished every moment, bask­ing in the warmth of the fame and glo­ry he’d spent years wait­ing and hop­ing for.

It wasn’t long, though, before fear crept up on him, set­ting up res­i­dence in his heart. As he rec­ol­lect­ed the details of the pact he’d made in the pres­ence of that woman in that sti­fling office, the weight of what he had done began to gnaw on his con­science. Over the years he’d man­aged to con­vince him­self that his sojourn into that alley had nev­er real­ly hap­pened, the whole inci­dent a mere fig­ment of a trou­bled imag­i­na­tion. Every day he’d ques­tion him­self whether any­thing was ever worth sell­ing one’s soul to the dev­il for.

As Mansi’s fame and for­tune increased, so did his depres­sion deep­en, and insom­nia set in. Every­one won­dered at the rea­sons behind his hag­gard and drawn appear­ance, the dark cir­cles under his eyes, the mis­ery that over­whelmed him. It ate at him that he couldn’t tell any­one the truth, not even the psy­chi­a­trist he could now afford. Bit by bit, it dawned on Man­si that it wasn’t fame, for­tune, or glo­ry that he need­ed most, but the soul he’d thought­less­ly giv­en away on that day, which he now want­ed back.

It had been years since he’d made his way to that alley, to that apart­ment build­ing and to that office. It seemed as if time had unrav­elled back on itself to that same August day, with its sti­fling heat and suf­fo­cat­ing warmth. The lane itself hadn’t changed, its inhab­i­tants regard­ing him with sus­pi­cion as he walked through. He stood out like a sore thumb in his lux­u­ri­ous new suit, one of sev­er­al that he now owned.

He barged through the door with­out knock­ing and found the woman sit­ting at her desk, absorbed, just as she had been the first time he’d been there, with what­ev­er it was she was always writ­ing on those papers. His rude intru­sion had unruf­fled her, for he noticed her eye­ing him with a look of disapproval.

“Per­haps you don’t remem­ber me,” he rushed to say before she could open her mouth. “I was here a few years ago.”

She fur­rowed her brows in concentration.

“Yes, I remem­ber you. You’re that writer. Mr. Man­si if I recall cor­rect­ly? What can I do for you today?” she said.

“I’m dis­traught and only you can help me,” he said.

“Rest assured,” she answered, “we can cer­tain­ly ease any bur­den. How­ev­er, you’re still on the wait­ing list, and your turn hasn’t come yet. You’ve wait­ed this long, sure­ly you can go a while longer.”

Man­si was stunned. His legs felt wob­bly and the room began to spin around him. His thoughts were jum­bled as they raced through his mind. What was she talk­ing about? He couldn’t pos­si­bly be on the wait­ing list, he told him­self, not after all the good for­tune he’d enjoyed since his last vis­it to this place. The woman had to be mis­tak­en. But what if she wasn’t? he asked him­self. Did he dare believe that his fame and for­tune had had noth­ing to do with his pact with the dev­il? That it had been a suc­cess long over­due, one borne out of hard work and per­sis­tence? Is that what all this meant?

“I’m here to with­draw my appli­ca­tion,” Man­si announced.

“Have you lost your mind?” asked the woman, incensed.

“That may be so,” he said. “Although I’ve nev­er felt more ratio­nal in my entire life.”

“This is most unusu­al. I don’t think we’ve had any­one dare to renege before. I’ll have to con­sult the agency’s guide­book on this one. Give me a moment, please.”

His heart sank. What if the man­u­al stat­ed that he couldn’t have his appli­ca­tion back, or that a deal with the dev­il could nev­er be rescind­ed? What was he to do then?

The sus­pense of the wait com­bined with the room’s sti­fling heat was get­ting to him. Nau­seous and dizzy, he sat down in the same chair he’d occu­pied that very first time he’d been to the office all those years ago. As the min­utes crept by, it seemed to Man­si like he’d been wait­ing for an eter­ni­ty. He shift­ed uncom­fort­ably in his seat, silent­ly will­ing the woman to put an end to his mis­ery. The soon­er he could put all this non­sense behind him, the better.

“Only a minute longer, and we’ll have this solved one way or the oth­er,” the woman said, as if read­ing his mind.

Man­si des­per­ate­ly wished he could gauge from the tone of her voice which way his day was head­ed. By then, he knew he was clutch­ing at straws but des­per­ate times require des­per­ate mea­sures, he thought. Just as he was about to ask her anoth­er ques­tion, the woman cleared her throat.

“Well, it’s as I thought,” she said. “It seems that once an appli­ca­tion has been received by the dev­il, back­ing out of the deal is no longer an option. In fact, doing so incurs rather unfor­tu­nate, by which I mean painful, con­se­quences to the appli­cant. You must under­stand that we con­duct a seri­ous oper­a­tion here. A pact with the dev­il is no triv­ial mat­ter. There­fore, I’m sure you’ll under­stand that the pun­ish­ment should be deserv­ing of the grav­i­ty of the deal at stake. This is the Dev­il, Satan, the Shay­tan him­self, and he does not appre­ci­ate any dis­re­spect or waste of his pre­cious time.”

Man­si blanched. It was all over. The game was up. All he could think of was how a moment’s insane lapse of judg­ment, fueled by a rabid desire for fame and glo­ry, had reduced him to this infer­nal wretched state of affairs. He had no one to blame but himself.

“I’m ask­ing you one more time, Mr. Man­si, are you sure you want to pro­ceed with your request?”

Lat­er, if any­one ever asked him why he had gone ahead with what he had done, his hon­est reply would be that he didn’t know what had pos­sessed him. All he’d been think­ing of was a com­pelling need to set things right in the only way he knew how, even if it meant risk­ing every­thing, includ­ing his life.

“Yes,” he replied. He repeat­ed his answer a sec­ond time, his tone more force­ful and confident.

And just like that, for the first time that day, the woman smiled.

“It seems this is your lucky day, Mr. Man­si. It appears, as per the guide­book, that as your request is still pend­ing on our wait­ing list, it hasn’t been seen by the dev­il yet, which means you are free to with­draw your appli­ca­tion with no strings attached.”

With that, the woman moved a pile of yel­lowed papers behind which some old files appeared to be arranged in alpha­bet­i­cal order. She searched for Mansi’s name, found his appli­ca­tion, and placed it on the desk in front of him.

Man­si could hard­ly believe this incred­i­ble turn of events. But — just as he was about to reach for­ward to grab the paper — the woman raised her index fin­ger in warning.

“Think care­ful­ly. If you go through with this, you’ll lose your place in line. Should you decide to sub­mit a new appli­ca­tion, you’ll be rel­e­gat­ed to the bot­tom of the list again.”

Deliri­ous with relief and hap­pi­ness, he snatched the paper off the desk, and held it in both hands.

“May your wait­ing list go to hell,” he said, a man­ic laugh already bub­bling its way out of his part­ed lips as he reg­is­tered the absur­di­ty of what he’d just said. By this point, Man­si was beyond car­ing. He’d got what he’d come for, and all he desired now was to put as much dis­tance between him­self and this place as he pos­si­bly could.

With his sworn state­ment in hand, Man­si stepped out­side into the alley. He tore the damned thing into tiny lit­tle pieces that scat­tered every­where, in a sud­den gust of hot wind. For the last time, he turned on his heels and head­ed home, his hys­ter­i­cal guf­faws bounc­ing off the walls of the alley’s bat­tered buildings.

 

Egyptian writernovelssoulsuccessthe devil

Ahmed Salah Al-Mahdi is an Egyptian author, translator and literary critic in Cairo who specializes in fantasy, science fiction and children’s literature. He has five novels published in Arabic so far. Two of them — Reem: Into the Unknown and Malaz: City of Resurrection — have been translated into English. He has published many short stories, poems, and articles published in various languages.

Rana Asfour is a freelance writer, book critic and translator. Her work has appeared in such publications as Madame Magazine, The Guardian UK and The National/UAE. She blogs at BookFabulous.com and is TMR's Book Editor, culling and assigning new titles for review. Rana also chairs the TMR English-language BookGroup, which meets online the last Sunday of every month. She tweets @bookfabulous.