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Before he washed his face (a unvarying custom of his, despite his being a confirmed bachelor accountable to no-one) or before he got up to prepare his first cup of coffee (which should be with no sugar in order to create the required shock of waking him up) or before his fingers searched for a radio station to furnish the quiet place with pleasant music (he was eager to use this term ‘pleasant’ because it was a reminder of forgotten readings) — before doing all this, he had to listen for the expected sound, the familiar roar.
When he was sure that what he was hearing was indeed the daily roar, he opened his eyes and shouted:
“I am really alive.”
Although no-one else lived in the place, it was necessary for him to utter his shout, quoted, with some alteration, from the Greek poet Cavafy in order to expel the laziness of sleep.
After that, and after his body was fully upright, he walked with bare feet towards the wide window. The incoming light had become warm and he could feel it and the roar had become raucous. Then, as though he wanted to surprise the world, he suddenly opened the net-like curtain all at once.
It was broad daylight.
He smiled. Then he resumed his frown, for his eyes could not bear the dazzling brightness.
The roar did not stop. It continued to come from the street, from a spot beside the lamp post.
There. There they were. He was confident, although his eyes were not fully open yet. There were two men returning the large, metal garbage-container from the street to its place. A third man was carefully helping them. Two cats, one black and the other wheat-coloured, were deeply engaged in rummaging, with extreme daring, through the edibles they had smuggled out of the black plastic bags. Perhaps it was a golden rule sanctified by custom, an agreement accepted by the two parties without language: no one interfered with the affairs of the other.
The garbage truck, with its mechanical grinder, was leaving when he opened his eyes to see.
He saw the orange backs of the three men as they hung on the jaws of the grinder that had closed over the garbage of the area’s homes, and they were going farther and farther away, and finally disappeared. He then felt reassured that life’s things and its constancy had returned to their usual stability. He moved to wash his face, repeating his favourite quote from the Russian Yasinin:
I was not a mean man, I did not rob people in the forests,
I did not shoot anyone with bullets in the dark prisons.
I am but a reckless street boy
Always smiling in the faces of passers-by . . .
But the mirror over the wash-basin shocked him.
There were three cracks in it. Two cracks were vertical and a third began in the lower left corner, then meandered jaggedly like a sharp blade across the two vertical cracks and stopped at the round copper clip in the middle. They did not impair the balance of the chain that held the mirror, and so it remained hanging and did not fall.
He contemplated it without touching it. He feared it would otherwise lose its balance and fall in fragments on the bathroom floor. He came closer to it and stared, hoping to find the cause of the cracks. At that point, he saw his face had been splintered into five pieces: five faces in the mirror, no longer one.
He put off any thinking about what was in front of him, and he bent down to cup some water in his hands, having turned on the faucet. But the violent snort of air emitted startled him for a moment – it was followed by a dry silence.
He felt tense and dazed. He raised his head. He saw that there was something viscous oozing from the thick cracks of the mirror. At first, he saw it about to slide out of the oblique one but something shiny and sharp obstructed it. He observed it for less than a minute, and soon the oozing coagulated into the shape and size of a red tear drop. It then slid smoothly. He could not believe what he was seeing. He looked with greater attention, and he was stunned to see the oozing beginning to divide and flow along the cracks in all directions.
He took a step back, more perplexed than confused. He looked around as though seeking the help of someone to solve the puzzle of what was happening in his mirror. He wished that Saba were with him at that moment. She would know how to make fun of his hallucination. “This is delirium,” she would say. “It is rather real, and in the mirror,” he would say with certainty, his mirror being in front of him, coloured red mixed with human pus.
“It is not blood,” he shouted, afraid of the idea suggested by the scene.
He turned around and went out of the bathroom, intending to go downstairs to bring Saba from her apartment on the lower floor.
“She will be the one to unveil the secret and stop this nightmare bearing down on me,” he said to himself. Then an idea occurred to him, “This is merely wet rust . . .” Anxiously he returned to the bathroom to confirm this possibility, and stepped forward closer to the mirror.
On the surface of the mirror, his five faces were doused and stained by the oozing blood or flowing rust coming from the wall behind. The snorts of air continued to interrupt the silence, their pulsing regularity seeming drier than before.
* * *
Had he not looked the way he did when she saw him close by in his car, she would not have waved for him to pick her up. And had the distance not been far and had the ground not raised clouds of fine dust, she would have walked to the beginning of the paved road.
She was sure he was a foreigner: his complexion, his grey eyes. He opened the right window by pressing a button and leant his whole body forward as the wheels screeched, causing dust to rise. She raised her handbag to protect her eyes and heard him say hello [in Arabic], while the motor was roaring:
“Marhaba.” [His pronunciation of the Arabic guttural ‘h’ was soft.]
She composed her first English sentence and uttered its words clearly and confidently:
“Please. Up to the beginning of the paved road over there.”
He laughed, showing a set of strong, white teeth. He opened the door and she got in and sat next to him in the green Mercedes.
“Thank you,” she said in English.
“Ahlan wa sahlan,” he said in Arabic [“Welcome”], stressing the ‘h’ and ‘s’ in his foreign accent.
He was clean-shaven and his face was large.
His eyes were small and shining, and his looks sharp. Before resuming driving, he pressed a red button near the gear stick and the side window rose and closed.
“My name is Gerhard,” he laughed for no reason. He scratched the area above his top lip. “I am German. From Frankfurt. My friends call me Pierre.”
“Thanks, Mr Ger . . .”
He interrupted, “No, Pierre!” He smiled, looking at her as though apologizing for his interruption, which sounded rather crude.
“Well then, Pierre.” She affected a short laugh: “But we’re not friends.”
He thrust his hand in her direction to shake hers.
“From now on.”
Her right eyebrow arched spontaneously. But despite her brief embarrassment, she gave him her hand.
He did not answer. He drove on until he reached the edge of the main road. He waited until a truck carrying phosphates passed, then he drove his car onto the paved road in the direction of Schneller.
“Isn’t this your direction?”
She nodded without looking at him. More than a minute of silence passed. He turned to her:
“You didn’t tell me your name.”
She wondered whether one’s name really told anything about oneself.
“Saba! Saba!” he repeated without velarizing the ‘s’ of her Arabic name. “It has a beautiful sound. Short. What does it mean?”
She turned her hands in her lap, moving her fingers as though she was counting.
“I know that every name has a meaning in Arabic. Isn’t that so?”
“Has your name a meaning?”
Through the window, she looked at the descending rocky slope. Its limestone colour appeared like spots on the face of its brown gradient.
“Oh! Tell me.”
She said it like one getting rid of a heavy burden.
“Yearning? A poetic name. Any other meaning?”
After thinking for a brief moment, she said: “This is sufficient.” To herself she thought: “The multiple meanings choke me. My name chokes me.”
They were coming close to the area overlooking Northern Marka. The western horizon was overcast. He turned off and curved round to the bridge-like road going down toward the circular intersection. Some fine drops of rain began to fall on the windscreen. A bitter smile floated over her mouth.
This happened some years ago — “Before Christ,” as Nasri was accustomed to call what had taken place.
“Nasri! What a wonderful name!” she thought, as she saw him in her imagination. “Not all names fit the people so named.”
* * *
When he returned, five years later, she took him to Amman and to herself.
She introduced him to a world he had long left, and she did not realize that she was only introducing him to what he had been looking for while he was far away.
She was Saba, his cousin and next-door neighbour, a woman thoroughly confusing and embarrassing.
* * *
The daily meetings of the group at “The Shahrazad” made it a familiar and dependable place for them. They were then greatly infatuated with ideals. Each of them took a personally chosen role and wove relations with the others through it, perhaps without being fully aware of the fact. It was a difficult period, during which what was forbidden formed the course of their lives. But because of this, it was a period which tempted them to exaggerate the hidden impulse within, that eager but uncanny inner awakening. You could see it in the protruding veins of their necks when enthusiasm got the better of them. Into air clouded with cigarette smoke, they emptied words that sounded like suppressed explosions, words that broke up into mere sounds whose identities were unveiled to the humming roar of the coffee-grinding machine.
The two of them were left alone. Their friend Sultan left, having emptied his cup of white coffee to the dregs during the time spent with them.
The cups of “The Shahrazad” were large and were made of heavy china, and the coffee there was always fresh.
He said, “He will return. One hour of sauntering will be enough to make him tired.”
She asked, “Why has he left, then?”
“To leave us alone together,” he answered.
She laughed without any attempt to lower the sound. She was accustomed to the fact that conversations in that place were heard only at close range, by those speaking and those meant to hear. Perhaps the small size of the cavernous place had created its own rules for those sitting there surrounded by walls painted with a dull oil-coloured paint, rules that changed over time and with custom to become like laws. There were instructions on the walls by every table occupied by two persons, or three with difficulty, or four with real difficulty. But they were instructions that one breathed along with the air that one could see through, with the smoke hanging like a floating second ceiling, a ceiling quite visible but not touched by fingers or by a small defeated fist, a ceiling that drifted apart as sweat oozed from the necks of friends or others.
The smoke now formed a ceiling above the two heads bent over the Formica-covered table top that was all shades of green.
The fan on the first ceiling moved round slowly. The smoke of the second ceiling moved slowly too. With considered celebration, she slowly lit his cigarette. He noticed that and was sure of the thing in her hand as she slowly extending it towards his face.
He said, responding to the movement exactly as she intended: “A new lighter? But it is . . .”
She nodded, then turned it around in her fingers, smothering a smile that began first in her eyes. The yellow, metallic body of the lighter shone. From its size and smooth line beside her rosy fingernails, he could tell it was a man’s lighter; but he refrained from showing that he was upset or shocked.
His voice was unintentionally rude. He liked that for he considered it a matter of pride and a genuine reaction.
She immediately felt he was upset, so she tapped the back of his hand with her pack of Marlborough cigarettes.
“Congratulations!” she sniffed, “Why do you say it in such a dry tone like a beggar’s loaf of stale bread.”
He affected a laugh that was meaningless. Then he withdrew in order to manoeuvre as he realized the stupidity of his behaviour.
He said affectedly: “The place here does not allow me to kiss you now. Just accept it dry as it is.”
“Just like that!” she answered after looking at him intently for a few moments. Then she fell silent. He blamed himself for this tension, he had created it. He tried to diffuse it. The humming sound of the coffee-grinding machine had stopped. The bracelets of the woman behind him jingled as the discussion with her friend was warming up.
“It’s made of gold,” he said, to pave the way for an explanation. “It must have cost you a lot.”
He remembers that, in those moments, he was startled by the apparent jealousy that had taken hold of his soul. He was surprised at himself. He did not believe he could be so weak as to make such a gesture that might indicate something like that. Yes, it might indicate, but not assure or confirm – or make him certain of anything.
But was that not jealousy?
Had he reached the boundaries of suspicion?
In the few minutes following, he felt the sky was as far away as ever, that his need for some fresh air — free from burning cigarettes, the smell of ground coffee and the panting of the infuriated people behind him — would never be fulfilled, and that she would never break her silence, a silence sewn with needles of tormenting doubt, that thorny silence which she spread out over him and held there.
He did not say anything more about the gold lighter, but he spoke, inspired by its yellowy sheen. He addressed her with words that slipped from him involuntarily. He was as sharp as a suicidal blade, as bitter as a whip in a sadist’s hand:
“What do you see in me? I mean, do I deserve this?”
Her eyes shone, but a small red spot gathered in the corner of each. “You’re talking nonsense. Shut up.”
“I’m serious,” he persisted. “Tell me. What do you think I am worth to you?”
“I told you to shut up,” she said in a shaky voice.
He did not comply. He desperately unsheathed the blade, goaded by an inner force, and said: “What joins you to me, huh? Do you know?”
She took his hand between her damp palms and shook him, while whispering with hope: “What’s the matter with you? Are you crazy?”
“Do you know? What joins you to me . . .”
Letting his hand drop onto the Formica table-top, she interrupted: “I’ll tell you. But let me ask you first whether you counted how many things separate me from you or separate you from me.”
He interrupted her in turn: “There is a difference. You should define things.”
“Well,” she sighed deeply. “That’s fine. Let’s take the lighter, for example.”
She shocked him. He could not fill the yawning silence she had left empty for him. So she looked him straight in the eye, daring and defiant, and he could escape only by looking upwards. The smoke ceiling had begun to break up. The fan with its five arms slowly turning had begun to reveal part of the first ceiling. He discovered then that it was a low ceiling, in fact, low and solid with visible and unconnected cracks; but it was not oozing any sweat from the dancers, galvanised by the enthusiasm of the hour. He was lost in the smoke and he soared. His eyes hurt him and he rubbed them.
He heard her say, as she was about to move her chair back: “Let’s go. I’m about to choke.”
He got up, picked up his pack of cigarettes and his matchbox, to accompany her. But she had gone ahead of him and was outside. Meanwhile, behind him he could hear the conversation of the woman with the gold bracelets. She was saying to her friend in a decisive, emphatic tone:
“. . . Even if the flesh of both of us were minced together, it would not mix. It is no use. Divorce is the only solution.”
He hurried to catch up with her at the cashier’s, but she was not there. He asked the good man how much he had to pay, but he just smiled from behind the counter as he dealt with another customer. He stood in front arching his back and listening, separated from the other customer by his newspaper. He stood there, tense, and looked back towards the smoky interior. He saw the face of the woman with the bracelets moving nervously near her friend’s shoulder. (He remembers he saw two green bottles of Amstel beer on their table next to the wall.) A moment later, the cashier turned to him.
“Yes, Abu-d-Deeb. How much do I owe you?”
“The lady paid,” responded his shy voice.
He went out to the street. She was not there. He turned right and left to look for her. A taxi stopped by in front of him, and a policeman got out. He lingered to arrange his shirt inside his wide belt. Then he saw her there, a few metres away, having crossed the road with a wave of other people; she was walking past the shop-window of Jabri’s.
He wanted to weep but his temperament was still rock solid.
The city was streets and people.
And he . . .
My mother used to say that I was a good-hearted human being. I used to nod approvingly in order not to let her go on talking at length.
I knew the rest of the record: “As you know, people are of many kinds. Your problem is that you think they’re all like you.”
“I’m not better than they are,” I answered.
“They’re all fine and dandy, but why don’t we content ourselves with our own selves, and take care.”
I was angry at the spirit of individualism, which I rejected.
“I’m not the only one. The problem is more than a personal one.”
I saw her inability to understand the situation and I therefore held in check my attempt to relate my own problem to the general situation.
“They will not let me work. Mother, have you not yet understood this? They said so to me in no uncertain terms.”
She came close to me and stroked my hair. She still thought I was her little boy. “Don’t be afraid. They’ll discover that they are wrong.”
I returned to my anger. I stood up to avoid a conflict with her. I walked between my father’s photograph hanging on the wall and the wide, curtained window. “When? After it’s too late? . . .”
Now her voice rose: “Stop. Don’t go on. This isn’t our kind of upbringing.”
I shut up at the determination in her tone. I wondered about the usefulness of this upbringing of ours, when we were a family of fewer members than the fingers of one hand.
“Do you see the result of your association with Saba? She has a dirty tongue and bad manners.”
I opened the curtain with the violence of my anger. “Your niece.”
“What would you expect of a girl who was not brought up by a man?!”
The sun entered and filled half of the room. I cursed and wondered how long we would continue to torment each other. I felt as though I had been dragged into their trap, for here I was, exploding in my mother’s face, and here was my mother blaming Saba for my angry words and collapsing under her new burden; my mother, alone, facing a world she did not understand, alone without family, and not knowing how to deal with a son who had earned a diploma, yet — despite growing a moustache — had spent most of the little money that had been left to him by the father hanging on the wall he was leaning against.
I looked at the sun, blindly.
I felt the pain of my fingernails digging into my palm, my fist still gripping the fabric of the curtain.
My mother was still standing in the same place.
“Don’t forget that she’s married.”
I raised my face, angry at everything.
“Saba is under the protection of another man,” she added as though to draw my attention to the forbidden, to what was contrary to the family’s ethics.
I knew my mother’s nature and the boundaries she set for things. In her eyes lay her fear of what the absence of Saba’s husband would bring about. “Nothing has protected her from herself,” she said one day, and that was in the presence of her sister, who was aghast at what she heard. When my aunt left and went to her apartment below us on the first floor, my mother said to me: “Nothing protects you from her.”
I knew how innocent a son remained in his mother’s eyes. And I said to myself: “Nothing protects her from me.”
He ran to the bathroom, away from his mother’s face. Fire had broken out in his head and his blood was boiling and congested. He turned the faucet full on. He leaned his body and his head forward, and let the cold water spill over his hair. Some splashes ran under his shirt collar and dripped down his spine. He remained in that position, hearing nothing but the splash of water on his head and on the edges of the basin. He did not care that the floor tiles were becoming wet. A deep quietude came over him and he surrendered to it as it spread through his body; he closed his eyes.
He saw her.
That was several days ago, after he was introduced by her to Sultan, the dark young Bedouin with charcoal-black long hair that flowed down over his shoulders. He saw him affecting to play with his words, but there was a suspicious, inquiring look in his lively eyes. When he asked where he was from, Sultan replied, pointing backwards: “From the oases of dust!” He had not asked for more explanation, but the Bedouin added by himself, suddenly abandoning his apparent jokiness: “I have come to see what your city can offer me.”
Nasri thought of explaining to him what the city would reveal to him – the stranger’s illusion about it, its allure, and its mocking mirage – but he refrained.
“Here you are, in the city, and you’ll see.”
Sultan nodded, suggesting that he understood, and asked: “And you?”
“I am from here. One of the sons of the flood!”
Nasri’s answer seemed to be lacking, for the Bedouin raised his head and looked him straight in the face, as though examining his features. He cleared his throat, wanting to say something else, but a slight hesitation restrained him. The other understood the situation and, on a whim known only to himself, left Sultan to wallow in his own perplexity. Some moments passed before Sultan laughed with visible tension and touched Nasri on the shoulder, as he joked: “You’re not from there. Huh?”
Nasri continued, teasing: “There? Where?”
“You know.” Then Sultan decided to be explicit: “From the West Bank, isn’t that so?”
“I told you, I’m from here.”
Sultan held his ground, as though going along with him: “From where else?”
Nasri responded in all seriousness: “From Beirut.”
Immediately Sultan’s eyes flashed. Instantly the expression on his face changed to show his extraordinary interest: “The forest of guns!”
The way he moved betrayed a sudden vitality: “Come on, tell me. Say!”
Nasri smiled, but did not comment. What drew his attention was the Bedouin’s description of places: the oases of dust, the forest of guns. He wondered what the Bedouin’s discovery of Amman would lead him to, what description he would give it, what curse he would perhaps pour on the stones of this city that was foreign to him. It was the city of Nasri and his ilk, who were devoid of any known attribute other than belonging to it. Would this city give the Bedouin a new identity by which he would know himself, or would he remain the son of the dust and its oases?
At this point, an idea occurred to him and he imagined that the dust was capable of granting a feeling of belonging to those living within it, but stones built up as a living city could not do that and so were unable to do anything but project doubt and confusion on the people of the city.
He was not happy with the irony.
The city is people.
From Chapter 1 of Elias Farkouh's novel A‘midat al-Ghubar (Columns of Dust), published Amman, 1996
Translated by Issa J. Boullata for Banipal 13 (Spring 2002, pages 68-72), whose main focus was the Literature of Jordan.