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The sun’s rays were shining with sharp obliqueness through the east window. He was lying on the sofa in the room, feeling the sun falling on his closed eyelids. He was half asleep but the memory of something joyous that had happened to him the day before aroused exhilaration in him. He knew if he remembered that thing, it would no longer be exhilarating but he could not prevent his torpid mind from occupying itself with it. Was it the money he had received? He listened to his inner reaction: The inevitable fate of the money would make it incapable of exciting any happiness in him. He decided not to think of anything.
She said: “We got married because of love, of course.”
I did not know she was his wife.
He opened his eyes, expecting the sunlight would dazzle him. But the rectangle of sunshine from the window had passed him and was cast on the floor near the sofa.
He heard the key turn in his apartment door and, for a moment, he hoped something would happen, something unexpected. But that hope faded quickly when the maid entered.
She asked: “Are you awake?”
He said: “No.”
The maid always pretended she did not understand that joke.
She asserted: “Oh yes, you are.”
“Are you sure?” he asked.
Only at this point did the maid pretend that she understood the joke, and she laughed.
She said: “You’re awake, really.”
As she did every day, she headed for the calendar hanging on the wall and tore off it the date page of the previous day and held it out saying, “Read me the fortune”. “Read me my fortune”.
He asked her: “Did Brecht come by to see me yesterday?”
She looked at him, perplexed, and the paper fell from her hand. She picked it up and said: “There was someone looking like a Yemeni who passed by.”
“And what do Yemenis look like?”
“I mean, his speech . . .”
“You mean, his speech,” he said. “Did Churchill pass by?”
“No. No one asked about you but this Yemeni. Read me my fortune.”
“No one else passed by . . . Read me my fortune.”
He read: “After night comes dawn.”
She pleaded: “Read correctly. . .”
“After night comes dawn. That’s what’s written.”
The date on the calendar hanging on the wall reminded him of something close, as if he were remembering the facial features of someone whose identity he had forgotten. Then he remembered last night’s party, the coterie of friends that did not change, the usual self-pity, the decisions taken earlier dozens of times, the planning of a programme of writing and publishing, then the mockery that justified every weakness and made everything look equal and, at the end of the night, mocking mockery and the bitter feeling that the night had been wasted . . .
They first met at the Excelsior and discovered that that place was intolerable. They moved to the Americaine but agreed after a short while that the chairs there were uncomfortable and that the noise made conversation impossible. And so, they continued to move from one cafÈ to another and their limited money continued to be depleted . . . Then they admitted that the cafÈs were not the reason, it was that they could no longer bear one another or endure their own lies. The tragic thing was that they had to meet every night.
He looked at the calendar, and the oppressive feeling that the date on it was related to something he had forgotten returned to him.
The maid went out to buy some sugar and he remained alone. The voices coming from the other apartments reached him clearly and he could distinguish the people speaking as if he were seeing them. He remembered that when he was writing, he liked to listen to the voices coming from the apartments and he listened intently to the snippets of dialogue reaching him. But scandals were what attracted his attention now.
The jalousie of the bedroom was the complementary part of his morning pleasure. He had re-ceived some advice on the principles of observation from behind the jalousie: he had to turn off the light so that his shadow would not appear on it, and he had to abstain from smoking because smoke would otherwise flow off out of the interstices and disclose his position.
He began watching his neighbour as she was hanging out the washing. Her face was solemn as she pinned the clothes-pegs. When she bent forward, her blouse uncovered the upper part of her bosom. She bent again and again to pick up the wet clothes from a basin on the balcony floor, and she shook them nervously before hanging them on the clothes-line. Locks of her hair fell on her forehead and she shook them back in place with a movement of her head. He liked that movement as well as the long, dexterous fingers hanging the clothes on the line and nimbly fixing them with clothes-pegs. Suddenly, the woman stood upright, covered her chest with her palms, and looked at him directly. Her eyes were black, frightened. He felt dizzy and a cold sweat covered his body.
He returned to the room and lay on the sofa. The rectangle of the sun’s rays had disappeared and, in one corner near the ceiling, there was a consummate cobweb. With his eyes, he searched for the spider but did not find it. He then remembered that he had also searched for it in the morning of the previous day and had not found it. Then he thought of the woman hanging out the washing. He said to himself: “It is certain she did not see me. She only had that feeling which comes over people when they are alone and sense they are being watched.”
The maid returned with a lot of noise and news.
“The people on the seventh floor, the burly fat man, married to the white lady, returned from work unexpectedly and he’s asking about her.”
“The lady with the blond hair?”
“She dyes it . . .”
This meant that a quarrel or a scandal was about to explode very soon.
She added: “The porter wants all servants to use the servants’ staircase. He says it’s an order from the landlord. The lady above wants me to do her washing. I said to her: I’m busy.”
“Busy? What are you busy with?”
Then she went to the kitchen.
The song “You are my life” could be heard from a tape-recorder on one of the upper floors. The radio was broadcasting a comedy and a woman was calling out the porter’s name. Then there was the noise of people coming down the stairs, making him continuously feel that some visitor was about to ring the doorbell.
He was standing behind the jalousie when the maid said, “Tea.”
The joy of the bright sun, the blinding white sky, the hundreds of people walking closely and with familiarity, the children dispersed in the green parks in their colourful clothes as though they were a rainbow, the dark roaring water of the river: all these filled him with exhilaration. And until his feet got tired so that he would carry them instead of them carrying him, and until the dark worries and fears of the coming days would nestle in his heart, and until he would be besieged by boredom, happiness would continue to grow in his heart and contain all that scene.
For one fleeting moment, he imagined he remembered that thing. But it slipped his mind again.
At the book kiosk on Sulaiman Pasha Square, Ahmad showed him some books and promised to sell them to him at a special discount. He held out a book to him saying: “Have you seen Sartre’s new book, sir?”
He examined the book, looked at the price on the back cover, and said: “It’s very expensive, Ahmad.”
“Don’t worry about the price, sir. You may pay me at the end of the month. Have you seen the poetry collection of Salah [‘Abd al-Sabur]?”
“Do you think I’m a millionaire, Ahmad?”
Ahmad said: “Aren’t you going to publish a collection of short stories, sir?”
“God forgive you, Ahmad. You’re pulling my leg, aren’t you?”
Ahmad guffawed and said: “I know the market, sir. The fact is, collections of short stories don’t sell. Novels and books of literary criticism are what sells well. As for collections, the fact is . . .”
He interrupted him: “How old are you, Ahmad?”
“Under thirty. Do I look older? By God, I’m under thirty, sir.”
He had thought Ahmad was much more than thirty years old. A little door opened, from which sorrows flowed into him and spread out like a drop of ink in a glass of water. Suddenly, he was overcome by exhaustion, and the calendar hanging on the wall rose before his eyes then disappeared.
On Sulaiman Pasha Street and Qasr al-Nil Street, the traffic lights changed to green. He crossed the street quickly in front of the waiting revving cars. At the top of Qasr al-Nil Street, he met a girl wearing the clothes of a student. She had a sharp nose and a small stern face. He smiled to her but she did not respond. However, she winked and stopped at the shop window of Sidnawi [Department Store]. She looked at him sideways as she contemplated the window displays. He stood beside her and looked at a mannequin wearing a black evening gown and showing an indecent leg.
He said as though speaking to himself, “A beautiful gown . . .”
She gave him a frank, direct look with no fear or embarrassment. She said in a confident, defying voice: “Where are you going?”
He did not answer. They walked together away from the Square. His head teemed with many expressions that could dispel that embarrassing silence. How do you do? What’s your name? What school do you go to? And others. But he thought they were all no good for beginning a conversation.
She turned to him, saying: “You’re not from Egypt . . .”
He felt angry. They always repeated that to him, as though it was written on his face. He knew that if he asked her how she knew he was not from Egypt, she would say, “It shows in your speech”, even though he had said no more than a couple of words.
“No,” he said. “I’m not from Egypt but I’ve been living here for a long time.”
“You’re from Kuwait?”
When he did not answer, she hesitated a little then added: “Lebanon?”
“Do you work here?”
Should he tell her about the reason he came to this country? That had remained his preferred topic for a long time: how he was imprisoned, how he escaped, how the bullets whizzed at him from every direction, how he burst into a home where a half-naked wo-man with wet hair screamed and a man stood aghast; he was certain they would catch him but he did get away from them; he stole away from the country across the mountains and the desert. But he realised that after having told that story so many times, no one was interested. Even to him, the topic began to appear unreal.
He said: “I live here.”
He was surprised to see she considered this to be a sufficient answer.
The casino on the river. The Nile with its muddy, roaring, black water. The eyes of the people there besieged both of them on all sides, lazy eyes slowly running down your body as if they were touching it, examining it with aggressive impudence, voracious eyes scorning all your movements. And the waiter’s collusive, bored smile and his suspicious, disconcerting politeness.
He said to himself, “What are these men saying to the ladies? You are beautiful, your gown is wonderful? Or are they telling them about the film in which two lovers get married or die?”
But he said nothing.
She said: “You smoke a lot.”
“No, not very much.”
His hand holding the cigarette was trembling a little.
He added: “Fifty . . . sixty . . .”
“Wow! That is very much. You should stop. Smoking is bad for one’s health. Many people have stopped.”
He was on the verge of exploding but he controlled himself.
She added: “My dad used to smoke more than you and he stopped. You should stop . . .”
She was taken over by a fit of enthusiasm, and she attempted to snatch the cigarette from his hand. But he moved it away from her hand and said: “Fine, I’ll stop.”
She fell silent and began looking at the river.
“Do you like rowing?”
Despite his irritation at her questions, she continued her interrogation undeterred by anything.
He answered in the negative.
She affirmed he was right to take his time. It was difficult for a person here, she said, to find a suitable young woman he could trust and be comfortable with. Of course, she belonged here in this country, and knew that fact very well. As for him, a stranger, he could be easily deceived.
He thought she did not have any sense of humour at all. Intending to indicate how strange it was that such wisdom was emanating from a child of her age and in that particular situation, he asked: “How old are you?”
“Seventeen going on sixteen.”
Then she laughed and said she had a friend named Su’ad who, whenever asked about her age, answered “seventeen going on sixteen”.
He laughed complacently.
Ending her laughter, she suddenly asked: “And you?”
“What about me?”
“How old are you?”
“Quite old,” he replied. “Doesn’t that show on me?”
“Absolutely not,” she answered. “On the contrary, you look young. I mean, because of a few white hairs on your head . . . Well, my dad’s hair was white when he was twenty years old.”
He discovered that her words were creating satisfaction in him.
He said, laughing: “No . . . I’m really old.”
“What do you mean old? You know, my dad married my mum when she was fifteen years old and he was over thirty. Now when people see us, my mum and me, they think we’re sisters, not a mother and her daughter.”
She laughed, with her mouth only, and her eyes remained serious and stern. She then added, still laughing: “A friend of dad’s once asked him, ‘Your daughters, are they not married yet?’. He meant mum and me.”
He laughed with reserve and began to look around.
She continued talking about the idea of marriage, that it was the destiny of everyone, that the woman was a complement to the man, that marriage was of course a matter of preordained fate and luck. There was this friend of hers, married to a Syrian, and she was very happy with him.
He felt he was sinking into a pit he could not get out of. He felt that this child could pull him by his hand and get married to him without his being able to wiggle out or prevent her. The image of the young mother, the old father, and the gossip that would inevitably flare up about this family rose before his eyes. An irrational desire to escape and save his skin came over him.
He looked at his watch and frowned, saying: “I must leave now. The fact is . . .”
She interrupted with the tone of someone confident of being obeyed: “Sit down a little longer . . . We’ve hardly spent a quarter of an hour together.”
He contemplated her face. She was beautiful. He thought that if she took good care of herself she would be stunning. He felt she was so close to him, so possible. It was sufficient for him to touch her cheek with his fingers and run them down to her chin. The touch of her skin was within the reach of his hand. And suddenly something happened: She and the casino and the people and the river appeared to him as part of a film he was watching. What he was seeing took its existence as a realisation of former formulations. He himself became part of the scene and was outside it at the same time. Wishful desire and actual reality began to alternate in surprising sequence as if he were an onlooker in absolute sympathy with the film’s hero. Little by little, the situation lost its reality to become an experience without past and without future.
The image of the young mother, of the daughter who picked up husbands in the street, and of the old father . . . returned to him, embodying a daydream he had stored up since adolescence, a dream of sexual bliss and broken taboo. This was followed by an old, deep-rooted terror in reaction to breaking the sanctity of forbidden things, and rising in him as a moralising conscience.
He justified that to himself, saying he was searching for experiences for his writing.
She said: “What are you thinking of?”
“Nothing, absolutely nothing.”
He asked himself, “What do they usually do in such a situation? What should the next step be?”
He held her hand and squeezed it in his. She was taken aback and withdrew her hand nervously.
She said in a low, charged voice: “What the heck is this? Do you want to cause a scandal?”
Her eyes were like two pieces of shining porcelain, the iris in the middle of each being hard and motionless like an artificial eye. He wondered how she could see with such eyes.
He frowned and turned to look at the river. One of the leaning branches touched the water and was soiled by its black mud.
She said, as only her lips were smiling: “You men are all like that.”
Then she added with a laugh that pulled at the sides of her nose: “Are you angry or what?”
He said: “Absolutely not . . .” And he stopped.
The voice emanating from him was that of a child about to cry.
She said: “Okay . . . It’s my fault, sorry . . . Don’t be angry.”
She held his hand between hers and started caressing it. Her hands were dry, elegant. She said as though stating a lovable truth: “Your hands are sweaty.”
She began to reason with him in her confident, little voice, trying to please him with smiles: “The fact is that people are looking. I mean, when they see us doing something improper, there will be a scandal. Do you want to make us a laughing stock, degraded in the public eye? Or, perhaps there is someone who knows you or me out there . . . Am I saying anything wrong?”
He did not respond.
“Okay . . . It’s my fault. I’m sorry.”
Suddenly, his own image as the young woman saw it dawned on him: A man with broad shoulders, a big head, grey hair, coarse features, with wrinkles beginning to invade his face, his hand trembling with the cigarette it held, a cigarette lit since the moment they met. He imagined how she felt, what she thought of this hairy, ugly, big hand covered with sweat as it contained her dry, little hand. He said to himself: “I should have realised that.”
He was exhausted and felt wholly disgusted with his body and ashamed of it. He remembered the little boy climbing the green mountains, with his eyes miserably looking for the summit. When he looked at his hands, he felt alienated from them.
He said to himself: “I’m in need of a bath.”
He stood up nervously and paid the bill. The surrendering surprise in her eyes was his only victory.
They walked away together, he trying not to brush against her.
He leaned his elbows on the bridge wall and stared at the river underneath. The sight of the water rushing noisily between the bridge’s abutments made for a comforting feeling. He felt the tension flowing out of him, leaving tranquillity and an obscure yearning behind. Then he noticed the looks of the passers-by on the bridge. He said to himself” “They think I intend to commit suicide.” The idea frightened him and made him cross the bridge hurriedly.
He noticed that the women walking by had lost their incitement as far as he was concerned.
When he climbed up the stairs in the building where he lived, he thought: “I’m completely defeated.” He felt he was at the climax of a dramatic situation. He said to himself: “This resembles the conclusion of films with a sad ending. Feet climbing and going farther and farther from the focus of vision: the head disappears first, then the back, and the feet continue to climb with slow steps.” He felt proud of this formulation and he thought: “This appears to be easy when put into words. Is this why words were invented?” He thought he was trying to escape from facing the situation squarely.
On entering his apartment, the first thing his glance fell on was the calendar hanging on the wall. The date was 3 January, written in cursive Arabic calligraphy. He suddenly remembered. He flung himself on the sofa, overtaken by a dumb terror. All his force flowed out of him. He remained still, his eyes transfixed by that terror, and he was incapable of moving them away. He was not thinking of anything, but he was unable to move. He discovered that a disfigured copy of La Gioconda was hanging on the wall, above the table. Then he saw the cobweb, searched for the spider, and remembered that he had done that twice in vain.
He said in an audible voice, “That’s incredible!” Now, at this moment, he was entering his fortieth year – and that made no sense to him. He felt he was born only yesterday.
He tried to cling to a flimsy hope . . . that he was from a family of long-living persons and that forty years constituted only the first third of his life.
Suddenly, he got up and rushed out, closing the door behind him with a loud bang: “I must do something now, I must do everything . . .” And he realised with acute, painful awareness that it was impossible for him now to postpone anything: he had to decide about his political stance, about marriage, about the novels he had resolved to write but which he was content with general outlines for. He had to put an end to all that now, at this very moment.
Descending the stairs, he suspected he was sick. He listened to his body to feel the beginning of a fever or colic. But he dismissed that feeling nervously, as if he were removing some physical, material thing obstructing his way.
Outdoors, the sun had set but its light was still filling the Square. Darkness had not yet fallen, but the day was gone. Darkness sprang from the ground, from the entrances of buildings and narrow lanes. The people in the Square were silent, moving carefully, their eyes lost, suspended on something distant. The peddlers were immersed in a ritual of silence. The female beggar whose voice had been ringing out in all corners of the Square as she chanted verses of the Qur’an in slow cadence was now leaning her back on the wall and was quiet.
The sky had no definite colour, being slightly red with touches of violet mixed with the smoke of the city. Everything was holding its breath, everything was hushed up.
His eyes turned in the direction of the setting sun as he hurried in the midst of the death that was touching everything.
The street lights came on, all at once. And it was night.
Translated by Issa J. Boullata
from Ghalib Halasa’s collection of short stories, “Wadi’ wa-l-Qiddisa Milada wa Akharun”, [“Wadi’, St Milada, and Others”], Cairo, 1969