A black patch was visible in the distance. He was crossing the Qasr al-Nil Bridge, heading towards the Corniche. As he got closer, he saw her sitting on a stone bench. She was wearing her wrap around her body and over her head. From the circle of black, a small face peeped out, round as a piastre.
The young man slowed down, expecting to attract her attention. He would stare into her eyes, and would then be able to gauge how ready she was. But she continued to stare into the river, not paying him any attention. He hesitated for a little, then sat down beside her. She threw him a brief side glance, then went back to looking at the river.
The young man thought that it was quite clear, it was for her to take the next step. But he soon became convinced that this was quite out of the question, and he couldn’t wait long in this heat.
“It’s cold,” he said.
She turned towards him, startled and astonished. Her eyes were extraordinarily wide and black. The coloured part of her eyes was large and beautiful, their blackness mingled with the glow of honey. There were small drops of sweat on her brow. He tried to say something, but the serious, fearfully wondering eyes killed any sense of fun. With a sudden movement she half turned her back on him, sighing.
On the other side, the palm trees were surrounded by a silvery glare in the blazing afternoon heat. The shimmering light nestled in the gaps between the fronds, with a strength that made it seem as if the light was gripping the palm branches and stopping them from shaking.
He lit a cigarette and began to smoke. He decided that when he had finished smoking the cigarette, he would leave.
They were silent for a long time.
She turned towards him and asked:
“What’s the time?”
He laughed and looked at his watch.
“Why?” he asked.
Her face turned red, almost crimson. “Just so as to know the time,” she said, flustered.
“And after you find out what time it is?”
She became even more flustered. “Let’s just know the time,” she said.
“It’s six o’clock.”
He said nothing and began to look at the other bank. He said to himself that he would light another cigarette in a bit and that when it was finished he would leave the place.
He thought she had beautiful eyes, but he wanted to leave quickly, he really did. She turned towards him after a little, just with her face, and said that she was suffocating in the heat, the house was hot and stuffy, outside the heat was worse but here there was sometimes a breeze, and anyway she didn’t like to go back home too early. She sighed, wiping her face with her hands.
When she was silent, you could see how beautiful her mouth was, with its pinched lips. A mouth for kissing. They continued to talk. Where did she live? “In Ghawriyya”, she said. He said that he was a university student. “May the Prophet keep you, my brother,” she said, affectionately.
She asked him if he lived with his family, and he told her that he lived in a flat on his own. He smiled, looking into her eyes with a brazen, knowing look. Her cheeks quivered several times and the blood rushed to her face.
And she? What did she do? She said that her husband had died, that she had a boy and a girl, and that she worked in a factory making nylon bags.
He thought that women didn’t vary their lies.
He didn’t like to listen to prostitutes’ lies. He felt that they were mocking him and insulting his intelligence. But he was pleased when he found her. When he saw her sitting on the Asyuti sofa, trying – unsuccessfully – to tuck her feet underneath it, still in her wrap, he said to himself: “She’s trying to play the part of the innocent young girl too hard!” He begged her to relax. She lowered her eyelids and said that she was relaxed. He reckoned that the last act of this farce, which had been repeated innumerable times, would be for her to make a show of wanting to leave (“My husband’s very difficult'), then he would insist that she stayed, she would insist and he would insist . . . But he wouldn’t allow her to play this game. If she said that she had to leave, he would go over to the door and open it, and say to her: “Goodbye.”
She didn’t say that she had to leave, but went on looking around her with astonished eyes:
“Won’t you take off your wrap?” he said.
He said it like an order, expressing his impatience. She undid her wrap and let it fall from her head. Her hair was a chestnut colour, long and shiny. The sort of hair that a man likes to put his fingers into and slide them all the way through. Under the wrap, the collar of her dress could be seen. It was dark red, with black circles dotted on it. He immediately noticed the match the red colour made with the red of her cheeks.
He came towards her, overcome by a slight giddiness that made him incapable of taking complete control of his movements. She turned towards him, raising her face, her black eyes tinged with a grey colour that looked like a light mist quivering over her eyes. He moved towards her with a determined look, his eyes bright with a feverish sparkle. He stopped when he saw the blood rush from her face, her eyes riveted on him, flashing again and again – the face of a child overcome with terror.
He knew that something incomprehensible was happening, something that stopped his advance and made him afraid. But he was too lazy to change his understanding of what was happening.
When she had gone away he sat down alone. He thought about her grey, misty gaze fastened on his face, and that obscure cry that was more like a cry for help. He felt that he had somehow been deceived, and that he hadn’t been brave enough. In the cafe he couldn’t tell anyone what had happened. It seemed to him like a disgrace that he had to hide.
Next day they met on the stone bench. She didn’t look at him and she didn't seem to be aware of his existence. “Who could she be, anyway?” he said to himself. I’ve humiliated myself often enough.” But he couldn’t summon up enough determination to leave. She was silent, saying nothing.
When she turned to him he noticed with surprised that her face had changed in a strange way. Her cheeks were more prominent, and there were dark patches under her eyes. Her lips were dry. He asked her what was the matter.
She sighed deeply, pulling her wrap tightly around her body: “You know, she said.
He said to himself that it must be the time of the month, but inside himself he knew that he was deceiving himself.
There was a period of silence, as he tried to read the truth on her face. “Know what?,” he said, after a little.
She turned her face away without replying. She bent her head and began to stare intently at the river. “Mad girl, what’s the matter with her?” he said to himself.
He felt his heartbeats echoing around his head.
For a short time he kept his eyes on a girl who was trying to row a small boat, but the oars would not obey her. There was a young man sitting opposite her giving her instructions. At the front of the boat there was a green paper flag, beside which had been drawn a red eye with extremely long eyelashes, under which had been written: “Zuba” in shiny black letters.
The woman turned towards him to face him. She was angry or sad – he couldn't tell which. “You don’t know? You mean you don’t know?” she said heatedly, looking directly into his eyes.
He had to stop himself laughing. A sensible man wouldn’t laugh in such circumstances. It wasn’t mockery inside him, but a strange, delicate happiness. He wished he could touch her.
When they stood in the hall he pulled her towards him and kissed her lips. She was shaking. She put her head on his shoulder and submitted. Her body was throbbing beside his. He began to stroke her shoulders tenderly as if he were trying to calm a child who had been crying for a long time. Then desire came again. As his embrace become fiercer – more than an embrace, in fact – she slipped away from him, out of breath. Her face was threatening to burst into tears.
As this sort of situation should only happen with a woman of some position – a student, an employee, or a respectable married woman – he was angry, and felt insulted. At the end of the day, she was nothing more than a servant. He sat down some way away from her and, without looking at her, asked her to sit down as well. He lit a cigarette and bent his head, thinking: “I’ve humiliated myself”.
She sat down, breathing quickly, and began to wrap her wrap tightly around her body and head. She avoided looking at him. He was becoming more and more angry. It wasn’t right that he should be defeated in front of her, and if he enjoyed a victory over her, his victory would be of no importance. But the challenge had taken root within himself, and in spite of all the theories he had to win.
He smiled at her and said:
“Perhaps you could make me some tea, if it’s not too much trouble.”
He pointed to the kitchen.
She went out quickly. He thought that he would take the first step with her, and let commonsense go to hell. Meanwhile, the throbbing of her body went right through him.
She came back in, carrying the tray with a single glass of tea on it. He asked her why she hadn’t made a second cup of tea. She looked at him in confusion and said nothing. He realised that he would have had to ask her to.
“OK, sit down, and drink from the glass with me.”
“What an idea!” she said.
She went back to the kitchen to make a second
glass of tea.
Before going out, she bent down over him and kissed his brow. It was like kissing a child. Then she said, “Take care!” and shut the door behind her.
He woke up after lunch and headed for the Nile Corniche. He had convinced himself that the whole thing was a joke. From the start of the Qasr al-Nil bridge his eyes were searching her out. A feeling of disappointment come over him. “She must be there,” he said to himself. But his eye could not pick out the black patch.
The sight of the empty stone bench was strange and impossible. It was a mistake that had to be corrected. The stone bench had been etched on his imagination with her sitting in her wrap at the southern end of it, sunk in contemplation of the river. He could no longer imagine her in any other way. Her absence seemed impossible – as impossible as going back home and finding that the building had disappeared, as if it had never existed.
“She’ll come.” He was certain that she would come, she had to come. The fear inside him had crept into every corner of his body like ice settling in his bones. The sun’s rays reflected off the water dazzled his eyes, penetrating inside them even when they were closed. That merely added to the succession of humiliations that he was suffering. He decided to wait another quarter of an hour, then, if she didn’t come, he would go away – he ought to go away now, for in any event she didn’t deserve him to bother himself about her.
A feeling of abandonment strangled him – a child cast out, deserted by the world. But he resisted it.
The quarter of an hour passed. He stood up.
Where should he go? He seemed to have no place in this world. He took a few steps, then sat down on an adjacent bench. He convinced himself that now he wasn’t waiting for her, he was just sitting on the Corniche. His flat was warm, the air was stagnant, and here at least there was a breeze that blew from time to time. He remembered with annoyance that these could almost have been her words when he met her for the first time on the adjacent bench.
The Corniche began to fill up with people taking
a stroll. His eyes picked out black patches in all
directions. Every time he saw the colour, his heart
missed a beat.
He had the idea that she might come, catch a glimpse of the stone bench from a distance, see it empty and go back where she had come from. He thought of going back to the first bench, but his self-respect wouldn’t let him. That would be an unbearable torture, for she still might come.
Then his heart began beating hard and painfully, even before he had seen the woman with her black wrap. She was coming towards him. From the first glance he was certain that it wasn’t her, but his impatience increased as she approached. For a second he thought that it was her. He imagined that if he could exert enough energy, if he could do what he had to do –without knowing what it was he had to do – the woman approaching would be, would become, Sa’diyya. Meanwhile, he was trying to change or adjust the lines of a large body here, or a pinched face there, so that it would change and become Sa’diyya. The opportunity was slipping away from him,
the woman had gone past him, he was overcome by confusion and a sense of being split apart. He had to say something, to stop her from walking on, to explain to her . . . she walked past him and he fell
into a deep gloom.
His body was dripping with sweat. When he could feel his body again, he got up and sat on the first bench, knowing that he was no longer the sensible one, that he was humiliating himself, but that no longer meant anything to him. It occurred to him that she might have come and gone away again. How could he escape from this torment?
Next day, he felt that he was moving like an automaton, with no desire for anything. He was
overwhelmed and angry. Lunch, then a siesta, heavy and tense. Waking up, feeling pain in his throat from
too much smoking.
He was tense and overwhelmed at the same time.
He made for the Corniche feeling that he had to do something he had not done before. “Have I left the water boiling on the stove without turning it off? Where is the key? Here it is.” She wasn’t there. As if that was to be expected. He was overcome by an irrational anger that carried him away – “I’ll wait for her and take my revenge. I’ll teach her a lesson that she’ll never forget . . .” Maybe she’s got a lover, a mechanic or a servant in some house or other, and she’s telling him about the effendi she played games with, given him nothing, and despite that, here he is, in the heat of noon, waiting for her to come, with no luck.
Perhaps at this very moment the pair of them were watching him from somewhere or other, laughing.
He saw himself through their eyes: the twisted neck turning to watch the passers by, switching from one bench to another, the clean ironed shirt, the polished shoes . . . he began to feel a loathing of his body.
At night, before sleeping, it crossed his mind that she might be ill. That made him sad, as he conjured up the image of her worn out face with the dark patches under her eyes. He felt he had to apologise (“I’ve hurt you”), and as he slipped into sleep, his hand was touching her shoulder gently as he said sorry.
He saw her in a dream. In the first part of the dream she wasn’t there, but she had a powerful, insistent presence. A great number of people were waiting for her to appear. The place resembled a large garden, or a patch of empty ground. He tried to check his watch, but it wasn’t on his wrist. He was certain that she was late for her appointment with these people.
The place was lit with bright lanterns rather than electricity. A continuous noise was coming from the lanterns. At that moment he thought of a phrase that said that Lenin always came at exactly the right time, unlike those important people who believed that they were proving their importance when they were late for their appointments. He didn’t know where he had read this or who had said it. But it was certainly true.
Then he saw her pointing her finger at him.
She was extremely angry, but her eyes were beautiful and sparkling.
“You must appreciate fine distinctions. I am late because I was tied up with some extremely important business,” she said, angrily.
She began to talk affectionately with the others, without losing her seriousness. The topic of
conversation was the overwhelming importance of filling one’s free time in a profitable way. He heard one of them say that it was he who had to appreciate the fine distinctions.
The next day he decided to change his routine. Lunch at four instead of two, sleep at five, then wake up at eight. That way he would pass the painful part of the day in sleep. What happened was that at
four he felt nauseous and wanted to vomit at the mere smell of food. He tried to sleep, and couldn’t.
Before the appointed time he was sitting on the stone bench even more overwhelmed, and even more determined to wait.
In his trouser pocket he was carrying a sharp
Seven days went by, after which Ismail’s agitation began to decrease, and Sa’diyya became – quite quickly – just a pleasant and amusing memory.
One day he might see her, and this time he
wouldn’t be weak.
Ismail recovered the commonsense that he thought he had lost. He would say to himself: “This madness that came over me.” He thought it might happen in the summer vacation, and he would worry a little.
He would imagine a sympathetic listener to whom he would tell what had happened, with a few adjustments in the story, in which he would appear more steadfast and intelligent, but amusing with it.
That was of no importance, so long as it was he who was laughing at himself.
There was enough time to persuade him to believe the story in its new form, but . . .
He was taking his afternoon nap. At the first knock on the door, shattering the night of his sleep like
a fiery arrow, he knew that it was her. He rushed out, eyes closed, drenched in sweat, the buttons of his pyjama jacket undone. He opened the door, and
without bothering to check the identity of the person who had knocked, embraced her. “What have you been doing? Where have you been?” he implored her, giving vent to his yearning. “You’re wicked, my beloved, you’re wicked . . .”
He kissed the wrap that covered her head and her hair (why just her wrap and hair, when she had yielded totally to him?). “The door,” she said, pointing to the open door.
She sat on the chair, the wrap still on her head, though she had loosened it to reveal her body from her bosom to her feet. He sat at her feet and kissed her knee, which was covered by her dress. He pulled
his head to her breast and she put her arms around it, leaning her cheek on his hair.
He sunk himself in that soft darkness, numbed by her fragrance – ancient perfumes laden with the memories of incense in the al-Hussain quarter.
He conjured up the pitch black darkness that surrounded him when he entered the mosque of al-Qalawun. Sound and light were cut off, and his eyes were unable to get used to the darkness. Suddenly,
at the top of the dome, in the eastern corner, there was a window, its glass made up of the colours red, green, yellow and blue – pure colours through which the morning sun percolated – and at that moment the Sufi vision was revealed to him: a world of darkness, illuminated from above by rays from Paradise. He felt the rhythm of her breasts on the sides of his head and on his face, their pressure increasing and diminishing with her breathing. He drank in the fragrance and perfumes of her body, lost in that soft touch, feeling her choking him, intoxicating him, a warm wave flowing over his breast, spreading through his bowels to his loins. An uncontrollable desire to hurt and consume exploded inside him.
He pulled himself off, saying in a harsh tone that was foreign to him:
“I’ll take a shower . . . make some tea!”
He stood under the shower panting, as the tension flowed from him. Only then did he feel the limits of his body, that it was an entity separate from the things surrounding him. He walked straight towards the bedroom, the water dripping from his body.
When she left, the flat seemed enormous.
She said that she had had a dream while sleeping. Then she had decided to leave him. But her heart would not obey her. She was silent. Her gaze was staring absentmindedly, unseeing. She sighed and began to smooth her dress.
“God help us,” she said.
He said to her – loving that naivety, wanting to extend it – that everyone had dreams but that didn’t stop them meeting each other.
He took her hand and pulled it slowly. She said, no, as far as she was concerned it was completely different, for she dreamed dreams that could be realised. She was well known for that.
She put her hand on the top of her head and began to press it. She was saying that the hair on my head stands up when I remember that dream. She was silent. She had made that her habit, so that she wouldn’t talk except when she wanted to.
Her eyes expanded and the black patches in
them became wider. Her lips began to form the words that she had made up her mind to speak, just as children’s lips do.
In this room (she stops – her eyes are scrutinising the room), no . . . more spacious than . . . a lot more spacious . . . and completely different. Its ceiling must have been of glass, because there was sun, and pots of plants and flowers . . . and when she leaned out of the window she could see the three pyramids of Giza, blue like smoke . . . this was it, but . . . I=ll tell you, it was another room, then it became this room, and we – you and I – were sitting talking, and you loved me a lot and were saying sweet things, and I was happy and carefree, happy and I wanted to cry. Then . . . I waited a bit . . . then we were in this room . . . the Asyuti sofa in the hall was here too, and you were still looking into my eyes and saying sweet things to me. Then a strong breeze got up, a cool breeze with rain, the sky turned dark, the whole world turned dark. You got up and shut the shutters and windows.
You didn’t find it easy to do that because the wind was blowing the windows as you struggled with them, then you closed them and the room turned dark, black as night, so that we could hardly see each other. I mean, I could see you, but not clearly.
Then you walked over to the light switch, and before turning the light on in the room, you stuck your head out of the door to the hall and said in a loud, fearful voice: “Good heavens, what’s this?”
I heard soft laughter outside. I tried to speak, to say something, but my voice wouldn't come out. I said to myself: “It’s them, it’s them.”
“Who are they?” he said to her.
She replied at once: “It’s them.”
That was quite obvious. “Who? Who are they?”
he asked, insistently.
Her eyes wandered, as her mouth searched for the words. She turned to him and said that that was in the dream. She fell silent as she struggled, then said that she did not know who they were, who they might be . . .
Her body trembled, she buried her head in his breast and began to shake. Her breath on his chest stirred pungent waves of tenderness. If he did not get a grip on them, they would turn into headstrong desire. He began to pat her hair with his hand and say that it was just a dream, we all dream, and some of our dreams come true, and some of them are just dreams. Then her body began to quiver with
suppressed tears . . . And he thought that crying would calm her.
She left him and returned after a little from the bathroom, having washed her face. She sat on the edge of the bed quietly, her eyes cast down.
Crying had given her face a softness and tenderness. A short while passed during which she said nothing. Then her body straightened, and she sighed deeply. It was like coming back from somewhere.
“God make it turn out well,” she said.
“Yes, well,” he said.
. . . and continued in Banipal 13 . . . .Translated by Paul Starkey
Selected from the author’s collection of short stories Zunuj wa Bado wa Fellahoun,
Dar Azminah, 3rd edn, Amman, 2002
See Banipal 6, Autumn 1999, for an article on Ghalib Halasa and more translations of his works