Samiha Khreis
The Poppy

Chapter 1

Learning poems by heart, that twin brother of childhood!
I lost this skill after poets lost the ability to navigate the seas of poetic metres, resorting instead to prose poetry, playing with ideas and building worlds out of sand. Memory retains a few lines. This morning I remembered fondly what the poetess Nujum al-Ghanim once said: “My hair is turning white with the piling on of years, but my memories echo with the vigour of youth.”
Isn’t this wonderful?
I liked her prose poetry, although the famous poet al-Mutanabbi stood guarding the gates of my literary sensibility. Strange ideas attack me. Are they genuine ideas? Or are they merely questions and riddles to occupy myself with? What have I got to do with poetry or prose? All I have is this road that stretches in front of me. Who can claim that this well-constructed road lined with short, fruit-laden palm trees is a
straight road?
This is what it seems like. But the truth may be different. What appears as normal and routinely familiar may in fact be a dangerous matter for which we are totally unprepared.
Again, where do these ideas that swirl hazily in my head
come from? What is so important about what is happening now?
What’s new?
Thousands of women will stop impulsively at this very hour, and on such an afternoon, in long and indistinct streets. They will pick up bargains from shops whose gaudy windows attract those who are looking for something, anything.
Thousands of them, at the same time and in different places may do this. In fact this happens all the time. It is in fact so mundane there are no ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’ about it. This is exactly what happens on a scorching Gulf afternoon in this endless and well-maintained street, a street planned by an engineer and built by hundreds of skilled labourers. This is a mundane matter in a new city in which everything glitters. It is definitely mundane on this straight road.
For a moment this interval seems like a crossroads or a sharp curve. The car I am driving has no idea what is going on inside me. Why do I have this strange taste in the middle of my throat? A sharp bitter taste! The car is driving smoothly. I don’t know what is going on in this world! My soul is gliding as usual on this boring path along a straight, well-constructed and endless road.
There is a curve which no one sees or understands. It is not for us to judge or understand curves. We are not responsible for road engineering in this universe. We drive and go round curves; that’s all. Curves are curves.They are usually found in straight roads, their natural homes. They wouldn’t be curves if they weren’t. We shouldn’t be able to see curves before we approach them. They should surprise us. How would a pedestrian believe that the earth is round if his feet and eyes didn’t assert this, especially when he walks in a straight lines and doesn’t tumble like a ball? Is the earth flat or oval, going round and round endlessly, cheating us into believing that it moves in a straight line?
The earth is flat. This is how we perceive it. Our senses tell us this. It is flat in spite of what the geographers and astronomers say and think. No one gives a toss about what they say.
A host of trivial ideas toss and turn in my head; ideas that take hold of me when I have nothing to do and from which I escape only because of the dangers of driving. I become alert and concentrate on the road with all my senses.
The road ahead of me is flat. Nothing is there except the flimsy shadows of palm trees. The sun is in the middle of the sky, veering westwards a little as if preparing gingerly for sunset.
The scorching mid-day sun! In this hell one yearns for some greenery. There is greenery around me. The trees are green, but I don’t feel that. They look like a huge and frozen painting. I need to see fresh and tender green colours. Trees with fresh smells and rustling leaves! Green colours the sun doesn’t impose on me by force!
The car shook violently before it came to a complete halt. I pressed hard on the brakes, really hard. The tyres screeched and I could smell burning rubber. This must be from the brakes. Why did I stop so dangerously? This is so unusual. I didn’t look in the mirror to judge the situation properly. Divine Providence was on my side. The road was empty.
Did the green colours distract me, catching me like a prey? Did they beckon to me? A pale green colour passed in front of me. I saw it from the windscreen before I could see the clear blue skies and the deceptive remains of a desert that was once here.
I thought that my flat in the middle of the tall, concrete building had no oxygen. I have no time to look after any plants, but one houseplant is bearable. It may add a touch of beauty to the lounge especially if I place it between the two chairs in that cold corner.
I got out of the car. My eyes were fixed on a shop window which caught my attention, attracting me to it in a stupid way. The road was empty, so I didn’t park the car properly. I parked it on the pavement, thinking I wouldn’t be long. The engine was running and the air-conditioning was on, keeping the car cool against the heat and the humidity that always rushed in when I opened the door.
Tens of flowerpots! With a smile on her face, a smart woman came up and asked if she could help me. I looked around nonchalantly, completely bored. I muttered something.
“Anything, anything that does not require constant attention.”
She smiled for no reason. This is perhaps what shop assistants are like! She led me to the middle of the shop. With little enthusiasm, I said: “This one! This one is fine!”
She ran her fingers over the leaves and exchanged a few pleasant words with me for no reason whatsoever. ‘You have good taste,” she said. “This plant does not need direct light. It just needs watering once a week.” I picked up the plant with its wide leaves. This green thing will fill the space between the two chairs. There was a household palm tree-like plant, a short and neat one. I pointed to it as though I was interested. The shop assistant nodded. I was embarrassed because I was buying a plant whose name I didn’t know. But not every one knows the names of all the plants. Perhaps in the past our mothers had done. Now these plants are no more than green leaves for decoration; plants without names.
I opened the car. I put the first plant on the front seat. Then I opened the back door to let the smiling lady put the other plant on the rear seat. I went back with her to the shop. I paid for the two plants with a huge grin on my face. These pleasantries lighten the atmosphere. I went back to the car with the same big grin on my face. I felt as though I was in a park, and that I now own some greenery.
The pale green colour was filling the air around me again. I didn’t look at the light before entering the shop. The flickering light worried me. It may be that the intense heat causes the light to flicker. The light was dimmed when the man appeared. I saw him leaving the plant shop. He was walking fast as if he feared not to catch up with me. He stood near the windscreen and later moved to the front offside window. He knocked gently. He came closer. He smiled. In the other hand he carried a plant with wide, sword-like leaves and a big lilac flower. I shook my head signalling gratitude and objection. He knocked on the window again and came close, almost touching me. I switched the electric windows on. The window rolled all the way down. He stepped back. I could see his face, slim and pale with piercing eyes, slim lips and a few hairs here and there. His fair, almost fair skin … Gently struggling against a strange fear that filled my heart for a few moments, I said:
“No! I don’t need any more plants.”
He laughed like a shy child. My fear disappeared. He shook his head and said: “Please, this plant is for you as a present from the shop.”
I didn’t want to take it. But I felt besieged by his big eyes, so I took it. “Thank you! Please put it in the back.”
He opened the back door, and put the plant next to the one on the rear seat. His head was close to the floor when his voice reverberated. He said: “Put in direct sunlight! It likes the sun!’
He pulled his body out and shut the door. I left with three plants, imagining the joy they will spread throughout my colourless lounge. I felt very relaxed. I turned the radio on. I could hear Fairuz’s voice coming at me like a spear recoiling from the past. I cut across the road. No one laughed.
I put the three plants near the entrance of my flat. I forgot them as I turned to my kitchen duties. I could hear the children play; but no one paid attention to the new verdant-green plants. I remembered them for a minute or two before I slumped in my bed.
I removed the first plant and put it between the two seats. The second I left near the entrance. I was not happy with the third plant which the man had forced on me. I couldn’t find a place for it in my small flat. It may be the prettiest with its lilac flower, but a strange feeling led me to take it out of my flat. Didn’t he say it liked direct sunlight? I opened the window and stuck it in a gap in the outside steal frame. I shook the dust off my hands, closed the window, switched the lounge and bedroom lights off, got into my bed and dozed off. I imagined that fresh air was filling the bedroom. And I went into a deep sleep.

Chapter 2

I forgot about it. Someone like me has every right to forget. There are lots of things for me to remember. My mind turns into a miniscule jotter when I write down the things which my body must strain itself to do everyday.
The morning milk! The few crumbs left behind! Switching off the bathroom electric ventilator! Preparing the rice and beans dish! My son will complain, but I will not pay any attention to him. He must learn to eat anything, even if he doesn’t like it! Bringing in yesterday’s washing from the washing line outside, after being exposed to the wind and the sun! Ironing school clothes and my husband’s shirts! Phoning our neighbour to inquire after her mother! She did the same when my mother was poorly! Two letters: one to my sister and the other to a friend who has remembered me. I must write them; not that this an onerous task … I must remember to go the chemist to buy vitamin C tablets. I must arrange to visit some friends, and to apologise to others. I must scrub the kitchen floor. I must wash my hair before the little blighters return with their father.
The midday chores! The siesta! The boring TV programmes which I never get bored of describing as boring but watch all the same! A chat with my husband to discuss our finances! We must hang together! I withdraw! He is the family’s banker and God’s shadow on earth. I can of course put some make-up on, wear sheer tights and go out to get even more bored. Those damn tights, I scratch for two days after I wear them. In the middle of these chores, I tend to my thundering soul. I calm it down to ease it into sleep, to ease myself into sleep.
I need a secretary, a maid or a step-wife! I need a few women to help me do what I do! I do everything! So why can’t I forget to water the new plants.
A few days passed before I opened the window. The sky looked bluish green. It may be that the thick and humid air has taken the lustre out of the blue skies. I can’t look into the intense heat for a long time. The flower looks a trifle lifeless. Has it been exposed to intense direct sunlight? Didn’t the shop assistant say that the plant liked direct sunlight?
I looked at the plant again. It isn’t all that beautiful. Perhaps I neglected it a little because it was imposed on me. But it has been close to the window for a while and is part of the house now. I like it somehow. There are a few spots in the middle of the flower. They look like a few spots of dust that got stuck there. I tried to remove them with my fingers, but I realised that they were part of the flower. I watered the plant. I closed the window. I remembered this plant only when I saw the other two inside. I must confess that I remember the outside plant only when I accidentally bang against the two plants inside or spot changes in their colours. This is what made me open the window after a week.
The direct sunlight annoys me. I water the outside plant lightly. The plant looks bigger and healthier, but the spots have grown as if they were a piece of meat that was accidentally dropped there. I tried to touch the growth, and I felt disgusted. There is something nauseating about it. It felt like more like a little mouse that has been just born than an ordinary plant.
“A careless movement of the hand and the plant would tumble down, the pot would shatter when it hit the road, and I won’t have to water it again.” What a stupid idea! There is no need for this. It’s irresponsible and out of character. What would happen if the pot hit a passer-by on the head? This would be a crime punishable under the law. There’s no doubt about that.
I dismissed the idea. I looked and I could see tens of cars parked neatly outside under the punishing heat of the sun. I was about to close the window when the figure of a man walked slowly past the Indian restaurant at the entrance of the apartment block opposite. He resembled someone I knew. He stopped and looked up. Is he watching me? This bothered me, although I was watching him too. I could recognize his striped shirt, but nothing else. Why would this man in particular happen to pass at the very moment I was thinking of getting rid of the plant? What a strange coincidence? I am not going to linger over this. I was bothered by a sarcastic look on his pale face, although I am not really sure about this. We are thirteen floors away from each other. The bluish green air may be playing havoc with my senses.
I breathe heavily as I remember the look on his face. Was he smiling? Did he look up towards me? Is he the man I think he is? Or is he just someone who happened to be passing by accident?
I close the window.

Translated by Yasir Suleiman

From the novel Khashkhash, al-Muassasah al-Arabiyyah al-Dirassat wal-Nashr, Amman, 2000