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For the seventh time, my cousin went to line up in the queue at the office door of the Israeli Ministry of Interior in order to renew the document without which he would be unable to travel abroad from the airport. He usually went at six in the morning but was faced with a long queue of people, some of whom had gone there a little after midnight. So he finally resorted to an Israeli non-governmental organisation, whose director took care of the matter once and for all. He was able to make an appointment for my cousin to enter the building, at whose door the people of Jerusalem had been suffering for many years.
This time my cousin arrived at the office of the Ministry of Interior with greater confidence in himself. To tell the truth, he almost lost faith in everything whenever he found himself in a crowd of people impolitely shoving one another. He almost came to blows with two young men who pushed their way ahead of all the other people, including himself. But he decided to avoid trouble and let the two young men do what they wanted. He told no one but me about his suffering because he wanted the people of the neighbourhood to carry on believing he was a man of importance and that no door would be shut in his face.
The guard behind the iron bars of the window shouted: “Talha Shakirat!”
My cousin immediately answered: “Yes, yes! I’m Talha Shakirat.”
The guard opened the door to my cousin, who then entered with self-confidence, envied by the crowd that had been waiting for hours. The guard looked at my cousin for a moment, then said: “Shakirat! Do you know Shakira?”
My cousin answered without a moment’s hesitation: “Of course. She’s one of the girls in our family.”
The guard appeared impressed and said: “I’m a fan of hers and I like her songs, do you know that?”
“How would I know that?” my cousin answered: “But I’ll give you some of her songs as a present. She sent them to me a few weeks ago.” My cousin put out his hand to shake the guard’s hand and the guard stretched out his, saying: “I’m Rony.”
“And I’m Talha Shakirat,” my cousin said. Then he went back down the stairs of the building, feeling happy about this relationship that Shakira’s name had facilitated. He was grateful to his grandfather Shakirat, who by coincidence carried this very name, for otherwise Shakira would have been too distant to affect my cousin’s destiny and he would then not have had the opportunity of establishing a relationship with one of the Ministry of Interior guards with an unexpected ease he could never have dreamt of. My cousin set his hopes on this relationship for he was in need of the services of the Ministry of Interior’s office, and so too were other members of the family. Now my cousin had an aboveboard relationship with a guard (yes, aboveboard – this is a matter my cousin insists on because he does not like anyone saying he has a relationship with the occupation authorities that is suspect); it opened for him the opportunity of exercising his desire to appear as the person able to help relatives and friends who complain about the ill-treatment they are continually subjected to as they wait outside the Ministry of Interior.
My cousin did not waste a minute. As soon as he left the building, he went to the nearest shop selling records and tapes and asked for the latest songs of Shakira. The shop owner sold him several records and my cousin carried them home with extreme care. He listened to them for hours on end, and then he told his father about the fact that one of the girls in the family was a singer. My uncle immediately expressed displeasure at this information because he could not bear that anyone should say anything untoward about the family’s reputation. However, my cousin tried to mitigate the effect of this surprise on his father and told him about the guard, Rony, who was a fan of Shakira (my uncle had been in vain trying for months to enter the Ministry of Interior); my cousin also told him about Shakira’s success in the world of singing and how the Shakirat family could draw great benefit from such a relationship. When my uncle realized there might be benefits from what he had heard, he perked up and began asking his son for further information about Shakira in order to compare it with his own information about the family tree that he knew by heart.
After some quick examination, my uncle confirmed to the people of the neighbourhood who were sitting in his guest room that Shakira’s grandfather was indeed a member of the Shakirat family and that, may God bless his soul, he had differed with his brothers over the division of the inheritance their father had left them. He had chosen to emigrate to Lebanon where he had changed his religion after falling madly in love with a beautiful Lebanese woman who was a Christian and followed the religion of our Lord Jesus, peace be on him; then he married her and had many children, including Shakira’s father. If it were not for Shakira’s surprising fame in the world of singing, this branch of the Shakirat family would have remained unknown, and no one in our neighbourhood would have had any knowledge of it.
When the whole neighbourhood began exchanging the minutest details about Shakira, my uncle started feeling embarrassed. The girl was portrayed as a loose woman, perhaps because she lived in the western hemisphere of the globe (“In a country called Colombia, my dear sir!” is what my uncle used to say, grumbling somewhat). If the accursed girl had lived here, in this neighbourhood (in our neighbourhood), my uncle would not have permitted her to dance and sing almost naked. My uncle did not believe that Shakira appeared on television almost naked. He did not watch television, but many people told him that they had seen Shakira on the small screen with a bare stomach and with legs shining like diamonds. My uncle listened to their words and did not dare disbelieve them, but changed the subject one way or another and tried to divert their thoughts from dancing and singing to the beautiful past. He spoke of the courage of Shakira’s grandfather, how one evening he had come face to face with a hyena in the wilderness but was not afraid of it and was not hypnotised by it. Rather, he fought the hyena until he had killed it, then he skinned it and sold it at the lowest price.
When my uncle was all by himself he tended to believe what the people of the neighbourhood had been saying. If they had not seen her dance almost naked, they would not have said that. He used to talk with his son about his misgivings and sometimes cursed Shakira, using harsh words. My cousin did not dare tell his father that Shakira was having a love affair with the son of the Argentinian president. If my uncle knew that perhaps he would have removed Shakira’s picture that hung on a wall in his house. The picture had been brought home by my cousin, of course. He found it published in one of the newspapers and had taken it to a photographer and asked him to print an enlargement. The photographer enlarged it and my cousin brought the print home and suggested his father hang it on the wall of the guest room. My uncle thought that was too much and said: “Since when, Talha, have we accepted putting pictures of our women in the guest room, which is frequented by people from all over?”
My cousin cut short the discussion on the matter and hung the picture in one of the rooms of the women of the house. My uncle was obliged to give in to his son. (He was obliged to do that in the hope of help in obtaining a new identity card permitting him to travel across the bridge [to Jordan], since he had lost the old one that he got from the Israelis when they had first occupied Jerusalem.) But he placed a shawl over the picture to hide Shakira’s hair and bare shoulders. My uncle did this in order to preserve the good reputation of Shakira and the family from the gossip of the women who came to the house from time to time to visit, and afterwards start rumours.
This was not the only picture of Shakira, as my cousin’s office was full of pictures of the young singer. I had observed this whenever I visited him, now and then. I would stretch out my hand to greet him while staring at him with a look that accused him of being a dog; and he would stretch out his hand to greet me while staring at me with a look that accused me of being a jackass. He would say: “You’re so old-fashioned. Why don’t you move with the times just a little? Things have changed; we now live in the age of the internet and smart bombs!” I would sit in his office that was full of things suggesting modernity. I would follow his continual telephone conversations and try to understand what was happening on the monitor of his computer that sat on his desk. But I learnt nothing, and from time to time he laughed in a loathsome manner, then looked at the monitor. He would make a point of doing that that whenever he wanted a rest from talking to me or in order to avoid a question he did not want to answer.
My cousin had many relationships of this kind and was convinced that they would, one day, be of great benefit. For example, when the news spread that Shakira was having a love affair with the son of the Argentinian president, it did not occupy my mind for more than a moment. As for my cousin, he immediately fed it into his web of information for future possible use. “Starting with this bit of news,” he said to me, “I’ll strengthen my relationship with Argentina. I’ll make every effort to become an agent here for some Argentinian companies and one day I may become an honorary consul of Argentina for the whole the Arab East!” When I smiled derisively, he laughed and mocked me: “You’re a simpleton!” (meaning a jackass, of course.)
My cousin has strange ideas. He once challenged me, saying: “I can invite ten men and ten women to my home for lunch. I’ll serve them food from empty pots and place it on empty plates for them. They’ll eat until they’re satisfied and they’ll go back to their homes, suffering from indigestion because they’ve over-eaten!” Bragging of his intellectual powers and assured of his sharp attention to the rhythms of the modern age, and its logic, he would say: “You can create whatever facts you need and at the same time you can persuade a growing number of people of these facts, facts which cannot be touched or whose existence cannot be proved by material evidence! The important thing is that you should have some measure of worldliness, skill and cleverness.” For some reason, I used to avoid entering into any such wager with my cousin.
However, my uncle did enter into the wager and he was certain that Rony, the guard, would receive him warmly. My uncle would then tell him about Shakira’s grandfather and that, for a long time, this branch of the family was known for loving music and being inclined to singing; and that was why the family was not surprised by Shakira’s outstanding talent in dancing and singing. He would relate to him, if his time (that is, Rony’s time) permitted, many anecdotes about Shakira’s grandfather. My uncle entered into the wager and was certain that he would obtain a new identity card, that he would go to Amman to obtain a [Jordanian] laissez-passer, and that he would then travel to Spain and spend several weeks there. My uncle got used to bragging and saying to others in a manner that aroused their curiosity: “I’m going to go to Spain to visit our daughter!” The people of the neighbourhood knew that all my uncle’s daughters lived here, in the neighbourhood, so they immediately asked him: “Who is this daughter of yours?” “Shakira!” he would answer proudly, “She has a magnificent home in Spain where she lives for several months every year.”
My uncle would not be content with visiting Shakira (“the wanton woman who has danced to every possible tune!” as he used to say to a chosen few family members), for he decided to go to Hijaz to perform the duty of the Haj, having waited a long time to do that. My uncle never faulted on any prescribed religious duty and prayed the five daily prayers on time every day. However, he felt remorse because in his youth he had committed a few sins. At one time, my uncle had turned his hand to commerce. During the olive oil making season, he used to go to a certain village and buy fifty cans of olive oil; he would take them into a special storeroom he had for this purpose, then bring them out to sell them, their number having become one hundred (he had clever ways of cheating). He used to rub his neck secretly with olive oil, expecting people to ask him to swear that the oil he was selling them was pure oil; so he would pretend to swear, saying: “By my neck, it is pure olive oil!” And they believed him.
My uncle divulged this secret to me to mitigate his feeling of guilt, and told me: “I’ll go and perform the duty of pilgrimage so that God may forgive me this sin.”
My uncle had committed other sins. One morning when the milk woman came to the house he opened the door to her. He liked her tall, elegant body and, without so much as asking, he stretched out his hand to touch her bosom, and started fondling her breast with his fingers. The milk woman pulled back from him, saying, “What a shameless and despicable man you are!” My uncle was embarrassed, and wondered how he would face his Lord in the afterlife and how his condition would be when the two angels, who would uncover his sins as soon as he was buried in the tomb, asked him: “Tell us, why did the milk woman describe you as a despicable man?” My uncle did not tell me of this sin; I heard about it from one of the men of his generation. He insisted he had not committed any other sin, but there are rumours of others.
My uncle entered into the wager despite his great caution. More than once I have heard him express wonder at his son’s strong desire to achieve quick fame and wealth. He used to advise him saying, “My son, rega rega!1 Haste is inspired by the Devil.” But this time, my uncle threw caution to the wind and entered into the wager. One morning, he went in the company of his son to the Ministry of Interior to get his identity card. I went with them, impelled by curiosity. We went late in the morning because my cousin was confident that Rony, the guard, would jump to receive us as soon as he saw us and that he would immediately open the main iron door for us. We reached the building and were shocked to see the crowd of people there standing in the heat of the sun. My cousin looked towards the iron grill of the window and proudly said, pointing to a person with long blond hair: “That is Rony.” My uncle raised his hand in a gesture of greeting but no one responded. “He’s busy. He’s always busy with this or that problem,” my cousin explained, then added: “We’ll wait a little until he becomes aware of us.” My uncle asked: “When was the last time you met him?” “Two weeks ago,” my cousin replied, “when I brought him a collection of Shakira’s songs.” My uncle relaxed a little, but a few moments later he seemed to be anxious.
My cousin tried to distinguish himself a little from the people crowding round to the iron grill of the window and at the door of the building. He stood on tiptoe, raised his hand high above his head, and waved to Rony in the hope that he would see him. Rony was busy chiding the people who kept asking him to let them enter the building. My cousin preferred to wait a while before gesturing again to Rony, and was annoyed when he heard my uncle clear his throat to express irritation at the delay. My cousin was obliged to say something so called out: “Rony!” At first he called in a low voice but did not attract Rony’s attention. He repeated the call more persistently and with some confidence: “Rony!” Then my cousin called him again, now in a tone mixed with embarrassment: “Mr Rony!” My cousin tried to call upon his own sense of the rhythm and logic of the age, and called out: “Adon Rony! Adon Rony!”2 Rony looked quickly towards my cousin then for some reason looked away. My cousin repeated his attempt in several languages: “Ma shlomkha3, Adon Rony? How are you, Mr Rony? Kif halak, ya Sayyid Rony?”4 It seemed to be clear that Rony heard him but did not pay him any attention.My uncle could not tolerate the act of ignoring us that Rony, the guard, had put on. He shouted out sharply: “Ya khawaja5, Rony. Respond to us, Mister!” Rony heard the sharp shout of my uncle and turned to him angrily, demanding: “What do you want? Tell me.”
My uncle said in a tone full of affection and hope: “My son, Talha, is calling you.” “What does your son want? Tell me,” Rony said. My cousin smiled in order to ease the tense situation but my uncle had to shoot his last arrow in the hope of refreshing Rony’s memory and awakening it from its accursed slumber, so he said: “We are the relatives of Shakira. Eh! Have you forgotten us, my friend?” My cousin seized the opportunity of the silence that ensued and implored: “Permit us to enter, Adon Rony.”
Rony answered haughtily: “You have to wait! I’m busy! I can’t deal with you now!” Indifferent, he turned away. I stared at my cousin: “Dog!” My cousin stared at me: “Jackass!” And we exchanged no further words.
My cousin cut himself off from people for three days, during which he removed Shakira’s picture from the wall and threw it violently on the floor. The glass broke into splinters that flew in all directions. My uncle did not travel to Spain, nor did he go to Hijaz to perform the duty of the Haj.
As for my cousin, he told me he would go to Rony, the guard, one more time and take with him a collection of the songs of the daughter of the family, the beloved Shakira – may God keep her!
Translated by Issa J Boullata for Banipal from the author’s latest collection
Surat Shakira [Shakira’s Picture], Al-Muassassa al-Arabiyah, Beirut, 2003
1 Hebrew for ‘Slow down!
2 Hebrew for ‘Mr’.
3 Hebrew for ‘How are you?’
4 Arabic for ‘How are you, Mr Rony?’
5 Arabic for ‘Mr’, mostly used for non-Moslems.