For the First Time
Translated by Khaled al-Masri

For a thousand and one mornings she has inhaled the fragrance of the jasmine coming from his apartment and the smell of his coffee and cigarettes, catching glimpses, through her balcony’s iron railing, of his slippers, his toes, and the hem of his pyjama pants as he sits on a chair on the ground floor. She is only able to do this when he crosses his legs. She imagines his lips round the rim of the cup and drawing together, his tongue savouring the bitter taste of what must be strong coffee, judging from its smell.
The coffee ritual lasts for half an hour, ending always with five sips – no more, no less. He hastily places his cup beside the coffee pot as he is about to stand up, and she leans her head further out to get a glimpse of his carob-coloured hair. He disappears inside for half an hour – enough time, in her mind, for him to shave and put on his outdoor clothes.

He locks his apartment door, which has an opaque glass window, and then the girl moves from the balcony, where she watches the neighbour, to the window that is fitted with iron bars dividing it into small squares. Through it she watches the outside world and can see only the man’s back as he takes his usual path, which he has taken for a thousand and one days.

To this day, she has not seen his face. It has never happened that a car honked and made him look back.

For a thousand and one afternoons, he has returned home at 2:30 pm from the other side of the street, so she has never seen his face. When she hears his door slam she is certain of his return, and glues her cheek to the front door, plugging her ears against her mother’s calls to help prepare lunch. She heads for the skylight so that she can identify the man’s lunch from the smell coming from his kitchen:

His food must be ready. He has toasted the bread, put a glass of water next to the salt, dragged his chair to the kitchen table, which is no doubt small.

She sinks into his image while he eats a piece of okra with a spoon, following it with a mouthful of rice.

At night, she listens to the cats shrieking with pleasure. Then her heart drops until she thinks it will crash through her floor – her neighbour’s ceiling – but her father’s voice comes back to her reciting “molten iron shall be poured down his ear and he shall stand in his lot at the end of the days”. And she remembers how her mother used to say as she brusquely wrapped the rough bath towel around her small body: “You shall be hanged by your hair if a man hears your voice.”

Then she mops the bathroom floor and wipes away the trail of footprints, repeating: “I seek refuge in God from Satan.”

The girl has battled Satan for all her twenty years. She feels embarrassed when she sees a kiss on television or when she catches a glimpse of her mother flirting with her father through the crack of their open bedroom door, or when her aunt compliments her on the colour of her eyes, which are the colour of the moss on the riverbank.

Yet idle time and desire have their grip … dreams grew into stories, which blend with the girl’s blood.

She dreamt that she put on her white silk shirt, draped her blue shawl over her shoulders and chest and went down to him. She knocked on the glass of the door with her delicate fingertips. Then she rushed inside.

When he woke, the neighbour found the shadow of a dove fluttering on the ceiling. As for the girl, she saw Satan chasing her, carrying his shroud on his back. In the morning, as usual, she stood pinned to her place on the balcony.

He tightened the two ends of his tie, fixing its knot squarely against his throat.

One could detect hoarseness in his voice from light coughing. He always coughed once before going to sleep.

He put his right arm, then his left, into the sleeves of his jacket. He adjusted it on his body with a slight shrug of his shoulders. He picked up the bag that was waiting for him by the door.

The girl reached her front door, her steps synchronised with his. He opened his door, closed it, and climbed a few steps with two light jumps.

She can hear his last deep sigh as he leaves the building. He struggles for breath because of his smoking. She talks to herself, smiling. Perhaps she will help him quit some day.

In his absence, she splits her time between the balcony, watching his pot of jasmine and his tiled patio, and the front door, watching his doorstep.

She urges her mother to finish the housework so she can devote herself to daydreaming when he sets foot again on the doorstep. The clock approaches 2:30 pm. As usual, she says to herself: Today, I will open the door and see his face.

She thinks about this as she hushes her heart, which is screaming violently. However, as she has also done for a thousand days, she passes the time listening for his approaching steps, wavering between whether to open the door or not. This does not prevent her, though, from intending to open the door the following day, because she is determined to be braver in the future.

During the midday siesta she rested on her bed. Was it an illusion or was he really taking a shower? It was very hot.

He drank iced yogurt, put on a light pair of shorts and lay down on his bed, perhaps with a naked chest …

The girl has never seen a man’s chest in her life except for her father’s. She was choking with desire. His chest would be broad. I could nuzzle my face between his shoulders.

She took a cold shower, wet her black hair, put on the pink bathrobe, and stomped her feet on her bathroom floor – his bathroom ceiling. She went down and down the stairs …

The neighbour woke to find the sun departing from his western window; and he was surprised to find a comb on the small windowsill of his bathroom, whereas she found herself stretched out on the butcher’s table screaming: I want to …

She always crouches behind the iron railing of her balcony, in the corner that gives her the best view …

He is carrying a plate of fruit: peaches, plums and grapes. He disappears inside for a few minutes and then returns. She thinks: He’s not combed his hair yet; but there’s no harm in that – it is siesta time after all.

Fairuz’s voice rises, singing: “O handsome! How afraid I am to lose you!” The girl on the balcony is happy and continues watching, as is her habit.

She put on her mother’s revealing lemon-yellow chemise. She looks into the mirror, feeling pleased, and then, frightened, swallows her saliva.

The man breathed in a strange smell, which filled this tranquil summer night, and perhaps heard a hoarse sigh. As for the girl, she placed Satan between the jaws of a pincer and began crushing him.

One day, the man put on thick work gloves and bent down to turn the soil, while she stood as usual in her corner waiting for him to move:

Maybe he will raise his head and she will catch a glimpse of his face. Maybe clouds will fill the sky and he will look up at them. Or maybe there will be a solar eclipse, or a plane will break the sound barrier, and he will be forced to investigate the matter, turning his face upwards and seeing her, the one who always sits behind the iron railing without a whisper or a whiff of her frenzied-with-love breaths. Maybe an earthquake will make the building shake so she can take refuge in his home, leaving her family to endure the tremor.

She wishes that the man, preoccupied with his work, would follow that brown pigeon with his eyes, and raise his face up to see her.

Her mother calls her: Quick! Take the laundry and hang it on the clothes line.

She lifts the basket and hangs the clothes on the lines, white with white, blue with blue, yellow with yellow, and red with …

She was distracted for a moment, and a gust of wind billowed through the laundry on the line before she had a chance to fasten it with clothes pegs. The wind took nothing from the line except her underwear … blowing it up and away to land in her neighbour’s yard.

The man jumped up and walked carefully towards the silk underwear, cast alone on the ground. He picked it up and held it in both hands, and for the first in a thousand and one times, looked up and saw his neighbour’s balcony flying.


This story is translated from its publication in Akhbar al-Adab, Cairo, Summer 2007