We finally reached the building. It was about twelve o’clock at night. Two or three boys were washing the entrance hall with soap and water. The air was cold. Simone had wrapped herself in a posh black coat with a fur collar that seemed completely at odds with her dishevelled appearance and with her trousers that were wet at the bottoms and dirty in several places. We started to climb the stairs to the tenth floor as there was no electricity and the lift was out of action. By the time we arrived, we were panting heavily. Simone stopped in the middle of the long corridor as if uncertain where the flat was, but she quickly made purposefully for one of the doors and began to knock on it nervously, calling “Rayyis, Ray-yis” in an intimate voice that radiated an obscure affection. She had more than once told me that it wasn’t at all a beautiful cat. It looked dirty. Someone had deliberately clipped its whiskers and its coat was dirty and full of fleas. She had then corrected herself, though, in her broken English, saying that this went back to the time when it had been a stray on the streets, and that it had now gradually begun to get clean again.
The door was opened by someone carrying a candle – a plumpish young man wearing a dishdasha.
I thought he was probably a Saudi or Kuwaiti. “Could we still be having some tourists in spite of the war?” I wondered to myself. Simone for her part had darted off like an arrow into one of the rooms, still calling “Rayyis, Ray-yis”. I explained to the startled, frightened man in the dishdash that she was looking for a kitten. The young man made no comment but seemed considerably concerned to explain to me who he was and why he was in the flat, depite knowing full well that I had not asked him a thing. He told me that he was Rida’s brother and added that I must know him. As the young man was afraid, I decided to own up to knowing Rida and pretended to be trying to recall him. “Rida who?” I asked.
“Rida al-Rawwas,” he replied.
“Oh, Rida, of course I know him, what’s he up to these days?”
The young man’s features relaxed. He seemed more relaxed that I knew his brother, I felt. As we walked towards the room where Simone was searching, he continued:
“Rida owns this flat, as you know, but because of the war and the shelling . . .” He said a few other things – general stuff about the family’s losses that I don’t recall exactly. Then I asked Simone if she had found the cat. She shook her head anxiously and said: “It’s impossible! It was here this morning.”
I looked dubiously at the young man, who seemed confused. I had the odd notion that he might have eaten the cat. He seemed to be aware of our vague suspicions and began to defend himself, saying that he had never seen a cat in this flat and that he had not been out since midday. At this point he turned around, suggesting that we should look in some other rooms, and I noticed the number 7 under his almost see-through dishdash, written in English on what was presumably his undervest. I felt sorry for the young man and decided not to embarrass him with more questions about the cat, despite the fact that I was one hundred percent convinced that he had simply opened the door and turned the cat out when he returned to inspect his brother’s flat.
I had seen her in one of the offices for the revolution and, having nothing else to do, had thought of starting a relationship with her. I turned to a friend of mine who was talking to her and asked about her. He immediately demonstrated his sporting spirit and asked her loudly in French: “Don’t you know ***?”
She turned to look at me and gave me a friendly enough look without giving anything away. I nodded my head gently, smiling. It was clear, however, that she was not anxious to get to know me better.
I noticed that our friend, for some reason that I still cannot fathom, was almost pushing us towards each other. He suggested that the conversation should be in English (which I speak well), even though neither of them spoke more than a smattering. She seemed prepared to co-operate and began to speak in English, searching for her words, for there was something preoccupying her. She wanted to go back to Geneva and was wondering whether it was possible to go back via Beirut.
“Of course you can,” I said. “Why shouldn’t you? Is there some reason why not?”
“Of course,” she replied. “That isn’t the problem. The problem is that when I came from Geneva, I came via Damascus, because Beirut airport was shut at the time. I am trying to find an airline that will agree to take me from here.”
I scratched my head, as did my friend, in the face of this dilemma. I suggested to her that she tried MEA but she replied despairingly: “Goodness, I did that before anything else but they simply said ‘impossible!’ ”
“In that case, why don’t you get in touch with Swissair, and perhaps . . .”
“That’s the question,” she replied. “Is the airline working or not? I couldn’t get an answer to this question, even though I’ve been asking for three days.”
“Now’s the time,” I said to myself. I got up from my chair and suggested we try airport information. They would be certain to know. I started to make towards another room in the office that had a telephone and she got up, her hopes revived. At this point, my friend also got up and said goodbye, he had to go. As he left, he gave me an encouraging smile.
With her sitting in front of me, smoking heavily, I began trying to get an answer. After several attempts, an employee in the information office told me politely that the Swissair office hadn’t opened yet because some shells had fallen on it, but that they were repairing it now and getting it ready for operations shortly. He suggested I try another number that he gave me to take down. Perhaps they would know something about the subject.
I told her this as she handed me a cigarette. I tried to get through and the phone rang, but there was no reply. I looked at my watch and told her that there was no one in the office – perhaps you should try after noon, I said. I began to look at her quite calmly. We smoked a couple of cigarettes from her packet. I noticed that she had picked up what she thought of as one of our national habits, giving other people cigarettes free, but she had picked it up in a crude way that invited a smile. I think we have become a little wary about giving cigarettes to others. She, though, in this slightly ridiculous way was, I think, wanting to show that she belonged to us. “Have you eaten?” I asked her out of the blue, looking at my watch.
She shook her head, so I suggested that we go to eat, adding: “What would you say to a trip to Rawsha?”
She suggested we went to the business quarter to take some photos of the damage. “Let’s leave the damage for now,” I said. “I’d like to see the sea. It’s a long time since last I saw it.”
She agreed, picked up her bag and camera, and we left the office.
When we reached the street, I suggested we take a private taxi, but she protested and suggested that we take a “service” one instead. It seemed a good idea to me. I was struck by her feeling of material solidarity with a combatant who presumably did not have much money, so I agreed. I told her, though, that we would have to walk for at least ten minutes before we reached the nearest service taxi stand. I added that I was happy to walk and presumed that she could also walk as she was from Switzerland, where people’s main hobbies were skiing and walking. She smiled wearily and asked me not to treat her like that – she preferred to belong to the “whole of humanity”! Quietly, she added, as if talking to herself: “I don’t think I like my country. Nothing ever happens there!”
We were walking under a warm, winter sun. We were walking slowly, but still panting. I was trying to preserve a tone of voice that would not betray my emotion but she was more spontaneous, talking while at the same time panting audibly. I lost my sense of direction as she told me about the Jewish family who used to be their neighbours when she was a child, and about the humanitarian instincts of the Jewish lady who had told her that she was thinking above all of the Jewish and Palestinian children, and how the adults ought to do something for their sake. I kept silent, having decided not to enquire into these thorny issues which frankly made me sick. I almost told her to stop talking like that, but instead I started staring at the sky and said something about the sea. She didn’t hear what I was saying about the weather or the sea, but, reverting to her previous topic, said: “I believe that my own family may be Jewish. My family name is a Jewish name, but I don’t know much about it. My parents are Christians.”
“It’s all the same to me if it’s Jewish, or Skanaji, or . . .” I replied.
“Skanaji?” she asked, curiously.
“It may be a corruption of the word ‘Ashkenazi’,” I said. “It may be the name of an old Oriental Jewish sect.”
“Are they the ones that let their hair grow in locks?” she asked excitedly.
“Exactly right, and rub their locks with grease as well,” I replied.
She became even more excited and said: “I saw them once when I was in Israel.”
The word stung my ear. With a deliberate gesture, I stopped walking and said to her slowly – feeling that I was assuming the role of a professional security man: “Did you say that you were in Israel?”
Quite spontaneously, without noticing the security man’s tone in me, she replied: “Yes, in 1974, after the war; I went as a journalist to see what had happened to them there.”
“And how did you find them?” I asked.
“They were nice to me,” she replied. “But the prices were incredible. I find it difficult to believe that they can live with these extraordinary prices.”
By now we had reached a roadblock. Although these roadblocks were only for stopping vehicles, the soldier on guard duty looked at us and gestured with his machine gun for us to come over. He demanded my ID. I produced my driving licence which he stared at for a long time, looking at me and at Simone, who had herself begun looking for her own papers. The soldier stared at the ID again at length and held it close to my nose, asking: “What’s this word?” “It’s my name,” I replied. “No, the word opposite ‘profession’.” “Combatant,” I replied (the word had faded with the passage of time).
He lowered the ID and his revolver at the same time and shook his head profoundly as a sarcastic smile spread around his mouth. “Ha, you’re all combatants,” he commented, as he gave me back the ID.
He looked from me to Simone. I didn’t say a word in reply. I took her hand and we walked off without looking behind us.
I don’t know how things would have turned out between us if Jean-Pierre Philippou hadn’t been there. He appeared the very moment we sat down in that restaurant overlooking the sea. It was almost as if Jean-Pierre had been destined to make us a threesome for the whole of that period. He left exactly when Simone left, but on a another plane for Paris.
From the very first moment I felt that I would never like this man. There are some people that you can’t like no matter how hard they try, and Jean-Pierre was certainly one of them as far as I was concerned. But – and this is the painful paradox – Monsieur Jean was one of the dearest people to Simone’s heart. In fact, he was one of that select band of people who could make Simone laugh that sarcastic, wicked laugh of hers which often embarrassed me as we were walking along the street.
This affection was certainly not because he was the only foreign journalist in Beirut at the time. There were dozens of foreign journalists, spies and the like.
I confess that these comments and jokes were clever. I found them clever even when translated into broken English. He was a nice person and everything, but there was something that put me off him. Rivalry for Simone had nothing to do with it, for I knew that this was somehow settled in my favour. Simone, though, liked him a lot and often asked about him. In fact, three days after she had started to stay with me, she asked me straight out whether he could stay with us in my flat, because his money had run out and he didn’t know where to sleep. I enquired how someone could be a journalist and yet have his money run out.
“He works for the leftist press in France,” she replied, “so he has a pretty meagre income.” She began talking about him in a tone more like that of a tender loving mother than that of a friend, or even a work colleague. I felt quite emotional listening to this young woman, still only twenty-two years old, talking in this tender, affectionate tone about an athletic man of at least thirty-five. This made me reverse my real emotions, give an exaggerated welcome for him, and instantly propose to her that we should get moving at once, to seek him out. However, she didn’t seem enthusiastic about the idea. She waved her hand aside and said: “Not so fast, we’ll see him tomorrow.”
She sat on my knee, drowning me with passionate kisses.
I said I hadn’t liked him when I saw him for the first time – when we’d chosen the outside table at the restaurant. He’d greeted her from a distance, having wrapped himself up in a kaffiyyeh that covered his head and ears, then sat at a table a few metres away and started eating, then lifted his head, moved the kaffiyyeh sideways a little and asked her a question in French. She replied and he went back to his food, then raised his head again and asked her a second question, to which she replied. Things went on like that for a bit. At this point, I felt that he had an invisible pair of long scissors with which he could cut the thread of our conversation at any moment. At the last question he addressed to her while still chewing, I noticed that he was wearing small, round glasses and that he was a little bald. I hated his glasses, and the fact that he’d gone bald early, just as I hated the kaffiyeh that he’d wrapped around himself. I almost screamed: “To hell with you and your kaffiyeh and your round glasses!” I said nothing, though, but took an enormous gulp of wine, sensing that my stomach had started to become bloated. I looked at Simone, expecting her to perhaps be a bit embarrassed – I’m not sure. She carried on looking, quite normally, first at him, then at myself, turning her head vigorously from time to time, at least a full circle! Finally, the moment came when things became ludicrous, when dear Jean-Pierre took it upon himself to put an end to it all, not by directing his attention to his plate, but by coming over to our table carrying his plate and glass. At this point I realised that what I’d imagined to be a moral right to her in fact existed only in my imagination. I began to prepare myself to accept Jean-Pierre as a material fact that it was impossible to escape from. For the first few days she seemed distracted, unable to concentrate on anything. She seemed to be searching for something she would never find. I thought that she must be some sort of gipsy woman, or simply a street cat. I spoke to her frankly about all this. I told her that I found her dangerous. She asked why, obviously worried. I told her I thought she was the sort of woman who would suddenly let a man fall down on hard ground. She denied it vigorously, expressed surprise that I could think in this way and asked insistently why I should believe that? I told her that there weren’t any obvious reasons, it was just a feeling (I had reasons but I didn’t dare enumerate them), but because I believed that they sprung from my perception of rights that I had not yet established a right to allude to. She lit a new cigarette, shook her head sadly, and said that I was completely wrong. She added that she hated to talk about what might be called the past, but she simply had to tell me her experience with the Iranian guy she’d lived with for at least a year. She tried to remember his name, cracked her fingers several times, laughed and said: “Just imagine, I’ve forgotten his name.”
I smiled sagely, as if to say to her: “You see! This is exactly what I mean. You live with a man, then you forget his name!”
“Hamid, oh, Hamid” (she couldn’t pronounce the ‘h’ properly), “that was his name.”
She smiled tenderly as if she had just conjured him up complete in her imagination.
“Hamid stayed for a whole year, repeating every day that I meant nothing to his life and that he was therefore going to put an end to our relationship. Do you hear me? He used to say this while he was sleeping with me three times a day. One day he left on holiday after saying his final farewells – as he called them – and I felt that I wanted to cry. However, I pulled myself together, as I never cry (she cried two days later), gripped his hand tightly and kissed his beautiful black eyes. When he left me the first thing I did was to jump on the first man I met.
“Isn’t that natural?” she asked me.
I replied that it was quite natural in this case, but I added that the story didn’t mean a thing.
“Wait,” she said. “That’s not the end of the story.” She lit another cigarette. “After Hamid came back from his holiday, the first thing he did was to come to my room, without even telephoning first. I told him I had another man. ‘Leave him,’ he said. ‘I love you.’ He crawled on his knees and clasped his hands together, imploring me like in the old films.”
She looked to see what effect her story was having on me, and murmured: “Don’t you see? I’m not the sort of woman who leaves a man like that.” And she made a gesture with her hand.
“Rayyis” too seemed lost and lacking in self-confidence. He was still walking about with that frightened, tottering walk that suggested he was expecting to be hit at any moment. It was because he had strayed, until Simone found him again the morning after the evening with the man in the dishdash. Gradually, however, her affection and constant love restored his self-confidence. She had the patience to kiss him and cuddle him at any time, even during one of our private moments. She would kiss him on his dirty mouth and on the coat that had become famous for harbouring mites. For the first couple of days, he liked to do his business in one of the corners of our room. She would get up from the warm, wipe away the mess with soap and water, then put two drops of paraffin down as I had advised her. However, she had no hesitation in punishing him firmly on these occasions, shouting at him angrily so that he took notice of her and raced off to the kitchen. When she saw him running away her anger evaporated all at once and she would say: “Look at him, how nice he is when he’s running away!”
She would call him again tenderly, the wretched animal would come back and she would embrace him with the same maternal love and affection. When she did that, he would feel the warmth, curl himself up and – now, as well as before – begin noisily sucking one of his teats (male cats have teats as well, not just females). When I observed this for the first time I felt revolted, especially when I saw a red swelling on his stomach, believing that it was some new kind of disease. But Simone explained to me that this was just one of his teats, that this action was just an act of psychological compensation, that for some reason or other “Rayyis”, when he was very young, had not sucked his mother’s teats for long enough and that he was therefore now indulging in this act of compensation, exactly like a child that sucks its thumb after being weaned.
OK – but Jean-Pierre, who was listening, found something exaggerated and vulgar about all this. He stressed to us that there were millions of children in need of more affection than this cat and went on, despite Simone’s protests, to launch a ferocious attack on what he called the “abject fondness for domestic pets”, saying firmly, with the bridge of his nose quivering, that this was just “bourgeois hypocrisy and fornication!”.
At this point Simone lost her cool and began speaking French, forgetting to apologise to me as she usually did when she wanted to express herself precisely in front of Jean-Pierre. Jean had also lost his temper, while I continued to watch the violent slanging match quite calmly without understanding anything except for the words Tel Za’tar which had begun to be repeated at an average of at least once every ten seconds. Jean-Pierre’s face turned even redder than it normally was, and Simone confirmed that she could be quite vicious in defending her views as well as in defending “Rayyis” and me (because I loved him a lot). I sensed that I had no place in this domestic row and headed for the kitchen where I opened a tin of sardines, one half of which I gave to “Rayyis” and the other half I ate myself.
Her eyes were blue in the morning, green at noon and olive in the evening. She had the longest black lashes I had ever seen I my life. I believed they were false and told her so. To confirm that they weren’t, she began to pull them so hard that I was afraid she would do herself an injury. I grabbed her hand, saying: “OK, I’m wrong.”
Her pale face was full of freckles. I had got used to them and had started to find them attractive. She was a wild flower, with luscious, inviting lips, and I saw in her – especially when she winked with her left eye – the magic of the first female cell to know how to be a woman. The way she walked was funny. Her thin legs moved in an unco-ordinated way – so much so that I believed she might have suffered from polio when she was a child. But when I asked her, it became clear that that was just how she walked. I would often stare intently into her face, and she would ask me what I was thinking about. I would tell her that she reminded me of someone I knew. “Who?” she would ask. “A man,” I said. Finally, after several days, the thought flashed through my brain that she had the features of my friend Samih al-Qudsi. I told her so and she exclaimed in horror: “And who might this Samih al-Kudsi be, in the devil’s name?”
I told her the story of this friend I had known in Amman at least twenty years ago and who had travelled to Turkey after his secondary school examinations to study. Instead, though, he forgot why he had gone and began chasing Turkish women, sending a letter to his father at the end of every year to say that his studies were going fine. He stayed like this for five years, with his father believing that he would graduate in a year at most. So as to protect himself and keep the real truth from his father, Samih used a cunning tactic. He would give a job to everyone visiting Turkey from Amman for one reason or another, welcome and entertain them in every conceivable way until the time came for the visitor to return when Samih would clasp his hand hard and say to him: “Do not reveal what God has concealed.”
Once I observed that she had an almost greasy smile like the smile of Husayn Fahmi, the famous Egyptian actor. I told her so. She flew into a rage and turned her back, saying in a childish tone: “You only compare me with men!”
I explained to her that I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. All it was was that her smile actually did resemble Husayn Fahmi’s. I suggested that we went to the Strand Cinema in Hamra Street to check that I wasn’t joking (a film of his was showing, luckily), and she agreed. We went into the entrance to the cinema where we saw five pictures in which the Egyptian actor could be seen with that greasy smile that appears in all his pictures. When she had looked at the photos carefully she let out that naughty laugh of hers. Not satisfied with that, she kicked me, then clung to me whispering “mon amour” and tried to kiss me. I stopped her, looking around me, saying “not here”.
We passed peacefully from loneliness to intimacy to union and gradually became unable to sleep unless she slept naked between my arms until morning.
She would whisper to me “Bonjour” morning and evening. And at night her eyes would sparkle with light and honey.
May God bless that young woman.
She has travelled and left me her cat. We must sort things out together this long winter.
Beirut, Winter 1977Translated by Paul Starkey
Translated from the author’s first collection of short stories, Qit Maqsous al-Sharibayn Ismahu Rayyis [Cat with Clipped Whiskers called Rayyis], Beirut 1980