Ghalia Kabbani
Ghalia Kabbani
A Cup of Tea with Mrs Robinson

I had the scenario all drawn up in my mind, and was going over it several times: How you’d open the door, and I’d just fling myself in your arms, sobbing, too agitated to control my nervousness. Then I’d tell you about the incident. But first, I have to stay calm and collected so that I can recount every step of it, then I’ll give full rein to the tears I have been holding back for more than an hour.
But I should have been imagining the details of our forthcoming meeting, because it was those details that had stopped me from collapsing in the street. And I held back my tears so as not to arouse people’s pity or draw the attention of the bus passengers after the shock I had sustained.
I imagined how I’d walk into the room after ringing the bell. “I won’t use the key,” I said to myself, “and I won’t ring the bell for too long so as not to scare you. When you open the door, you’ll notice that I’m covering my right cheek with my hand, and I’ll begin to tell the story that injured my pride today. After I calm down, I’ll tell you I just could not leave my bruised face exposed, like naked genitalia. True, I was a victim of violence; but, you know me very well, and you also know how much I hate adopting the behaviour and mindset of the victim. You remember when we came to this country, running away from two repressions: the terrorism of the state and the terrorism of the fundamentalists. You also remember the day we applied for political asylum here. That day I spoke harshly to the British Immigration Officer, saying to him, “My husband, my daughter and I won’t stay here once the dangers that threaten our lives have been removed. We do not dream of your country as an alternative paradise; for us, it is just a refuge that gives us temporary security.”
 You didn’t feel too comfortable with my reaction, and you criticized me when we left the office. I spoke to the British Immigration Officer as if our presence in his country were a favour, not a request for safety.
“You shouldn’t have spoken to him in that tone,” you said, without looking at me, as we walked towards the train station from the Home Office in Croydon.
The biting wind made me feel uneasy, as did your unfairness towards me. Then in a tone that you did not quite appreciate, I said: “But the Immigration Officer interrogated us as if we were criminals trying to sneak over across the borders of his country.”
You kept quiet, as you always do when you don’t like what I say. You just let me talk and work myself up while you relapse into silence, full of pride. Your silence angers me at a time when what I really need is to talk to someone, which in your eyes turns me into a talkative woman.
Anyway, today’s scenario, with all its numerous probabilities, was a total failure. When I rang the doorbell, my heart was pounding, fearful of the next moment that would shock you and make you relive with me what had happened. . How come the unexpected had happened:  the very thing we had been running away from in a country that in recent years had been too hard with us? This incident would make us reconsider the idea of exile and safety, should we go through the same experience again. But when you appeared at the door, both your hands were full – one holding a glass of wine and the other a cigarette, which was why you could not do anything else with them, such as hug me or stroke my hair. It wasn’t you who opened the door for me, it was me who burst in because you did not hear the bell; you and your friends were too busy discussing national issues on the balcony overlooking that beautiful hillside in Hampstead. You must have seen me leaving the room in a hurry, it was presumably why you followed me. You did not bother to ask “What’s the matter?” about my right cheek, which I was hiding with my hand. Instead you said: “I couldn’t pick up our daughter; I was busy with the guests. Can you collect her?”
In this way, you rubbed salt in the wound to make it hurt more. At that moment, I was sitting silently on the edge of the bed, recovering from the blows of the many chilly questions that now dealt me slaps  on both cheeks this time.  
“Is it your tooth?” you wondered.
“No, I was attacked in the street!”
Your hands still held the glass of wine and the cigarette, whose ash was getting longer. Then you walked towards the window to flick the ash outside as if you did not quite understand what was going on; or maybe you understood it, and you, the philosophy professor, were analyzing it with logic, allowing your mind to drift a little.
You asked me to describe the woman who assaulted me and whether I knew her. You turned into an investigating officer at a time when what I really needed was tender loving care. Your frowning face and your hair, which is prematurely assailed with grey, turned you into a towering statue and made me look small sitting on the edge of the bed – a dwarf awaiting a kind gesture. You looked down on me from above and from a distance you examined the bruises on my cheek, which I had got from being banged into the wall. Had it not been for the fact that I shielded my face with my hand, the injury would have been worse.
The story had lost its fire, and the scenario which was supposed to be a relief from the shock and humiliation had been lost. An hour ago, as I was walking in a crowded street, a large woman approached me. A few metres before she got to where I was, I noticed that she was coming very fast towards me. It did not occur to me that she could have malicious intentions – my intelligence failed me as the woman rammed me deliberately with her fat shoulder, throwing my frail body off balance. “Go to hell!” she screamed. If I had not protected my face with my hand, my head would have sustained very severe injuries.
I did not tell you the story as I would have liked it to be told. You turned the details of it into simple answers to questions such as ‘how’, ‘when’, ‘what for’, and ‘what makes you think it was racist? You were not involved in an intellectual debate, Mr Political Refugee; you were in the bedroom with your wife who had not yet recovered from the shock.
If the assailant did not mean to do what she did, she would have stopped after she heard my moans of pain and after passers-by had gathered around me. Instead she walked on in a triumphant way. “Why me?” Isn’t that what you wanted to say? Very well! Her aggression may have been a spontaneous reaction to the acts of violence that had taken place in Manchester a few weeks before between Asians and the English. It may be that the woman did not like my dark complexion; you know that here they classify people on the basis of the colour of their skin: White European; White Non-European – specify; White from other ethnic origins – specify; African Black; Caribbean Black – specify; Black from other ethnic origins – specify. The administration forms mention all skin colours. Which skin category do I belong to in the street? To the dark skin colour of North Africa? To the skin colour of the Arabs? Or should I be more specific? Was it gratuitous violence, the kind that takes place every day: an old man attacked by  teenagers in his own home; an old woman robbed of her pension money (which she had just collected from the post office) and thrown to the ground? It may be that the woman who assaulted me was paranoid and I was just one of her victims. Perhaps there are other motives. But the moment did not lend itself to that many possibilities.
What was needed afterwards was love and affection. Anger froze inside me but it did not subside. Your hands were still holding the glass of wine and the cigarette, and your two friends were waiting for you on the balcony on a beautiful summer night the kind of which is seldom seen in London. Is it my mistake it was the wrong time to be assaulted?  Would you have been more caring if you had been alone in the house or if the weather had not been so good?

* * *

It began to drizzle, casting reflections on the bus windows. The bright scenes inside and outside the bus interweaved with scenes from my own life: love, marriage, political activity for both of us, the following of political activists, the decision to leave the country after receiving death threats, our arrival in here, my pursuing of my studies in electrical engineering, my daughter Nadiya, whom I leave with a baby-sitter when her father is not in the house, my working in cafÈs in my spare time distributing colourful leaflets for pizza restaurants and supermarkets for a very meagre income that meets only some of our needs. Nadiya was just four years old when she began to walk with me in the streets, racing me to people’s letter boxes to deliver the leaflets. The two of us turned exhaustion into play and laughter, and that relieved the feeling of guilt which had taken hold of me for making my daughter work so that we could eat.
Scenes flowed fast as I looked to my right through the window that was now misty from the rainy weather that had put an end to the beautiful London summer day; or was the veil across my eye the result of a tear I had tried hard to hold back? I don’t want to be pitied by people around me or by those who feel exhausted after a long day’s work or on whom the stressful details of their lives have taken a heavy toll.
But why don’t I remember the happy moments: my success at the British university, which earned me two job offers with excellent packages? Why weren’t you happy, like I was, when I read you the letter I received from the telephone company: they were interested in my MA thesis on Communications Technology and offered me a job with a hard-to-resist package ?
“Congratulations!” you said unenthusiastically, as though you did not believe I could make it in a foreign country, as if you were angry at your “comrade in arms” who was not much of a comfort to you in your loneliness, and who did not abandon herself wholly to exile. Was this the reason why you were so quiet just now? You felt good to see that  slap; it restored equilibrium in your mind to my image – the wife of an exiled politician, a stranger in a foreign land, a woman who shouldn’t be viewed as a refugee and who deserves praise and acknowledgement for the success she has been able to achieve alone, a comrade whose success in her studies should not necessarily earn her an A-Plus. And why shouldn’t the progress she’s made be a MINUS so that her personality reflects the reality of her existence in the land of exile?
When I opened the door and went down the stairs, you followed me, shouting from the top of the staircase: “Where are you going?  You said you would collect our daughter.”
I did not answer. I left the house thinking about Mrs Robinson the English woman who baby-sits our little one, Nadiya, when both of us are out of the house. A few hours later, you joined your friends, ignoring the fact that Mrs Robinson is very punctual and that she does not like it when children stay with her until after six – a typical English woman who is very fussy about time! I will now face her scolding as she opens the door to me, pursing her thin lips, and revealing the lines round them.  
When she saw me, Mrs Robinson screamed out: “Oh, my God! Who did that to you?” I burst into tears. The child was  asleep inside and she forgot to scold me. Mrs Robinson held my hand between hers for a long time, stroking it lovingly, having made me sit on a sofa that was once comfortable but whose colour had faded with time. She was consoling me while I was examining her face trying to explore it anew: is she the woman we used to liken to Mrs Thatcher because of her hairdo and her determination?
She brought a compress soaked in cold water and placed it on my swollen cheek, saying: “We should report this to the police tomorrow. We just cannot let that wicked woman get away with it. But now, just relax, dear, while I make you a nice cup of tea. Tea will warm up your cold hands.”

                                   London, 2002
Translated by Ali Azeriah
From the title story in author’s collection [Finjan Shy ma’a Mrs Robinson], Dar Merit, Cairo, 2004