Elias Farkouh
Elias Farkouh
An excerpt from the novel Drowned in Mirrors


Haifa, Star of the East, and Amman

Translated by Jonathan Wright

It wasn’t until three o’clock in the afternoon that Shakib Effendi learned from Radio Amman what was really behind the events of that morning. He was looking out of the window at the roofs of the tall houses when the booming voice declared: “Weep for the martyr, Karak; weep for the martyr, Hebron; weep for the martyr, Salt; weep for the martyr, Nablus; weep for the martyr, Irbid; weep for the martyr, Galilee!”

“They’ve blown up the Prime Minister*. They’ve assassinated him. That’s a bad omen.”

He went back to wondering sceptically whether the fates left stubborn marks on people’s minds.

Was the fact that on that day he, Shakib Effendi, had changed his usual itinerary a sign, and had he missed its meaning?

* * *

Not for any known reason. Even he didn’t know why he might have done that – taken a different direction on his morning walk. Ever since retiring from the Ministry of Public Works he had been meticulous about taking a route that was the opposite of the one he had established by virtue of his job. Now it went from his house in al-Malfouf, down the steps that would take him to King Talal Street, past the small open space where there was the entrance to the cinema and the ticket office, and then there were the remaining thirty steps that his shiny dark brown shoes with their pointed toes and their sturdy English-style laces needed to take along the dusty pavement. He then faced, on the pavement opposite, the shops in the building owned by his friend George – single-storeyed, with corrugated metal shutters that were now raised. At that moment he could imagine the sound of them. His damned memory did so automatically, without him needing to hear them. The sound came from the rust that had accumulated in the roller axles because they were seldom oiled. His body shuddered involuntarily and he knitted his reddened, wrinkled brow. He would advise George to give his tenants a warning or else the mechanism was liable to break down. He would remember that when he visited George in the afternoon. For the moment the flood of pedestrians and vehicles had not yet started in either direction. The August sun, blazing afresh, was still bearable. The morning was serene, like every morning, and his spirit took comfort in the docility and meekness of life. There was nothing to detract from his love for life today. At the first corner of the Husseini mosque there was cold fresh water that he could scoop out of the earthernware jar covered in damp sacking, using the aluminium mug held by a cord tied to its handle. Then he had to climb up to the coffee shop opposite.

“If life was a little girl,” he thought, “I would give her a piece of candy and kiss her cheek.” One idea led to another. “And I’d call her Haifa!”

He often had visions of an imaginary girl he thought of as his daughter – the outcome of the wild oats he had wasted in the frivolity and aimlessness of his youth. Then in his mid-thirties he had obstinately adopted the maxim that “Women put a piece of sugar on everything they say to men” – a proverb he was used to reading in newspapers and magazines that happened to fall into his hands. His conviction that his bachelorhood was the right choice was corroborated when he chanced to read a sentence that became a guiding principle in his life and appeased the doubts that remained after he passed the threshold of middle age. He found it on the back of a page on one of those wall calendars: “Marriage in the East is a deal that can be struck only with the consent of fathers.”

A deal! He would never make that deal. And so among his acquaintences he came to be known as “the eternal bachelor”.
Now he was living the first elation of the morning, and an old song buried deep inside him had free rein to rise up and cheer his soul. He sang the words to himself: I would give my life for him, whether he remembers our love or lets it go. The song was not only engraved deep in his memory; it had also spent long evenings with him when he was alone and found it hard to sleep, as on the previous night. Then he would pour a glass from the bottle of Zahle arak that one of the drivers on the Amman-Damascus-Beirut route had recommended to him. He diluted it with a little water and dropped in three lumps of the ice that he got from the waiter at the coffee shop in exchange for five piastres. He savoured each sip. He would chop a slice of cucumber and play the ancient record of the song, which was kept carefully inside its sleeve on top of the expensive gramopohone turntable he had bought from Butaji’s shop in Haifa. It was a His Master’s Voice, with the picture of the dog seated next to the trumpet speaker. And Butaji himself was now in Amman.

Today was Monday, August 29, 1960, or 6 Rabie al-Awwal ,1380, in the Hijra calendar. That was what it said on the Istiqlal calendar. He pulled off yesterday’s day, looked at the back of the new piece of paper and read: “Happiness in life is a phantasm that is sought, but if it becomes a reality, people soon tire of it.” He nodded in agreement and looked at his precious watch, a Jovial with a strap that had faded to yellow: it was ten past seven.

There was no one like Shakib Effendi in the neighbourhood for making an early start, except for Khalil, the widower who owned the coffee stand. The one-room shops on either side of the steps were usually locked up and there was mop water, cloudy with soapy suds, spilling out from under the wooden doors – doors painted green and starting to flake, rather like the door of his house. Whenever he closed his own door, to go out or when coming home, even if he did it with great care, he found it swaying and making a groan that suggested it was coming off the hinges, and his old heart would sink. He promised himself every time that he would fix the hinges on Friday but, as they say, there’s a Friday in every week.

On one occasion – he forgot when it was, since his memory had started letting him down – he had wondered why people insisted on this green colour. Maybe he was the only one who broke this convention and stubbornly insisted on painting his own door navy blue. Yes, specifically “navy” blue, and he used the English term to describe it, but in a Cockney accent, having picked up some of the Cockney words used by the soldiers in the British army. He had learnt such words in his years working in Palestine and mixing with the soldiers, and he was proud that his complexion, particularly his face with its aquiline nose, was just as red as those of the Englishmen. Perhaps he had acquired his obstinacy and persistence from the English engineers and assistant technicians, from the time in his early youth when he worked in the workshops of the project to expand and develop Haifa port. It was there that Shakib Effendi learned the art of doing things properly, and how to tackle and overcome any difficulties or complications that arose.

“It’s a new day,” he told himself, repeating the refrain as if it were an incantation he must not forget. “It may be a blessed day, by the glory of our Prophet Muhammad,” he added, though that did not imply there was any deep religious faith in his heart. Unlike Hajj Kheireddine al-Warraq al-Bukhari, who read books, thought about them and traded in them near the church, and spoke about things he sometimes did not understand and that did not necessarily concern him, Shakib Effendi saw religion as only a sound moral tradition to civilise people and straighten out the kinks in their moral character. He knew he had not chosen his religion over others as an act of free will. It was a tradition with which he was content without deep introspection, exactly like the ruddy complexion he had inherited unwittingly from ancient forefathers living in the villages of Jabal al-Arab, the area around al-Suweida in Syria. In Amman people with this skin colour were known as “gingey” – a pinkish skin, mostly white with freckles, and reddish hair and eyebrows with that fiery hue produced by some varieties of henna.

“And what took you from Jabal al-Arab to Palestine, Shakib Effendi?” asked George, wearing his usual fez that was always firmly upright on his head. That was on the day when they were preparing the foundations for his building, digging them deep because the ground was liable to flash floods in winter. Shakib Effendi advised him to be generous with the quantities of cement. He even supervised the operation himself and worked hard on the project. Above and below the frame of bent steel bars he laid sacks of pure cement next to each other, just as they were, layer upon layer. Shakib Effendi said he had learnt this technique from the English engineers when he was working with them on building breakwaters as part of the project to expand Haifa port and extend the shore towards the sea. It meant George had to borrow more money from the Ottoman Bank and the debt weighed on him for years. This was after World War Two and the price of imported cement was sky-high, but it had proved its worth since the building was still standing. Their friendship and mutual affection was underpinned by the eternal bachelor’s visits to George’s family home in the back section of the building. The house had an extended balcony with a view over the gully, which was tranquil in summer but sometimes full of torrential floodwater in winter. You could look out over a group of sheds where potters sold their wares and that looked as if they had appeared overnight but planned to stay forever, and over Abu Mazhar the Circassian’s stable, which had piles of straw around it, along with his cows and his two horses and the pungent smell of dung that brought swarms of blue flies in summer. The Italian hospital was also visible, on the hill opposite with its red tile roof. The Muhajireen bridge was to the right with its police station, where the police chief was so strict, and the Hammam bridge was to the left with its public baths and the shops that sold leftovers from slaughtered animals. You could also see the corner where Hajj Bukhari set up his mobile bookshop on the pavement, at the wall of the lower entrance to the church.

“My father took me, George. He took me as a child of eleven or twelve down from Jabal al-Arab to the Houran. We travelled on the Hejaz railway from Deraa station to Haifa. We rode on a goods wagon for free, and if you want to know the truth, we did in fact hide in the wagon. We had hardly any money. We went through Samakh, Beisan and Afula before we arrived.”

“In Haifa?”

“Yes, at Haifa station. It was the first time I’d seen the sea. The train station is by the sea.”

“And then?”

“He had me working with him in everything, laying concrete, as a porter in the docks, filling bags and loading them at the cement factory, as a navvy in the grain silos, as a seasonal worker in the olive and grape presses, assistant night watchman at the refinery for the Kirkuk oil pipeline. Then he abandoned me and died.”

“And then?”

With the indifference of someone who does not want to remember, Shakib Effendi continued: “Kind people buried him in the city cemetery. At the time I was seventeen years old, I think. I packed up his clothes in a bundle, adding the two gold sovereigns that were our savings from a year’s labour, and sent them to my mother with someone I trusted. I told him to tell her I’d be away a long time. I wanted never to go back. I’d fallen in love with the place.”

“And the English?”

“I worked with them to learn a trade that would be useful. Construction, George. Proper construction. I started like my father, laying concrete, and a day wouldn’t go by without me getting a splinter of wood in my arm or a steel nail stuck in the bottom of my shoe and then in the sole of my foot, or a rusty piece of baling wire sticking out and scratching my face. I became a master builder, and if you like you can say that the English made me into an assistant engineer.”

He let out a brief laugh but the tone of his voice suggested great pride and confidence.

George changed the subject and offered his guest a bowl filled to the rim with barbara, a hot dish made of spiced wheat, raisins and nuts. “And how did you come to be called effendi? Did you have a government job there?”

Shakib played him along: “Not at all. You can consider it an afterthought. Maybe it was a matter of wearing clean clothes and looking smart, the way I liked in the gentlemen I met.”

Shakib Effendi started picking up the raisins and blanched almonds with a spoon, then with trembling fingers coarsened by working with cement and with soil. His ring finger was adorned with a golden ring crowned by a red stone. He dived spoon-deep into the richness of the wheat and between one mouthful and another, each well-chewed by his strong set of teeth, he spat out fragments of his aphorisms and precepts.

“Everything, George, has a price we have to pay for it. I haven’t accumulated wealth. All my life. It’s not important. I’ve lived all over the place. All the treasures of Qaroun are lies. Ours and not ours. I don’t belong to anyone. She disappears like a whore. Just as she appears, and God’s the one who’s running this world. Isn’t He its creator? I’ll tell you something that life has taught me, something you should teach your son so that he doesn’t go astray: with every piastre I earned and that went into my pocket, I was losing a piece of my freedom, so I would hurry up and spend it.”

When he had finished off the bowl of wheat, he licked his lips and drank from the cup of water. The sound of church bells announcing a funeral turned his thoughts to death and money.

“Did you see the funeral procession for Hamdi Manko?” he asked, referring to the biggest merchant in Amman.

“I heard about it like everyone else. Many people took part and the streets were packed. Did you see it? Tell me.”

“I saw it and, as you may have heard, the final truth stuck its head out of the coffin when they carried it on their shoulders.”

“The final truth?”

“He said in his will that they had to leave his hand hanging out of the coffin at the funeral.”

“That’s really strange, Shakib Effendi.”

“Not at all. So that people could see that his hand was empty and not holding anything.” Without thinking that what he said might be contrary to polite conversation and the etiquette of social gatherings, Shakib Effendi continued: “I spit on wealth, George. I piss on it. That’s what the bastard deserves.”

And then, as if remembering something, he finished up by laying out his argument: “Wasn’t your Jesus Christ the innocent handed over to the Jews in exchange for thirty lousy pieces of silver? He, the salt of the earth and of mankind, in exchange for base metal covered with the dirt from people’s hands.”

* * *

“Good morning, Shakib Effendi.”

Shakib turned to Khalil, who was busy sorting out the tools of his trade. He kept to himself his sympathy for Khalil on his loss of his wife and threw him a question: “You were a stonemason and your father before you, before you started this tea and coffee work of course. Do you know what the best kind of Palestinian stone is?”

“Of course, Qabatiya stone, Shakib Effendi.”

“Incorrect. Atlit stone is better. Did you know they brought the stone for the seawall in Haifa port from Atlit?

“What I know from my father is that Atlit’s a long way from Haifa, so how can that be?”

At that point, Shakib Effendi tapped Khalil on the shoulder as if admonishing him. “True,” he said, “but they carried the stone to the port on wagons on the railway tracks. The English are devils.”

While Khalil stopped to imagine what the route might have been, Shakib Effendi continued: “Is Akram still with his grandparents in Anata?”

Khalil sighed: “Still there,” he said. “Until the good Lord steps in and provides him with a good woman to marry.”

Shakib tried to console him. “Don’t worry, my friend, it’s not so serious. I’m sure it won’t take long and you’ll just have to wait. Well, I’ll be off if you don’t mind.”

The widowed coffee man said goodbye: “Off you go then and God be with you.” He added a prayer to the Lord.

Shakib walked off at a leisurely but sprightly pace. The pavement was dappled in soft sunshine as he made his way to his morning objective. On his right he left the end of George’s building, where Shourbaji’s laundry lay like a deep cave between the street above it and the street that went to the shops in the building below, then the entrance to the vegetable market that overlooked the flood drainage channel, and the fish shops and grocery shops on the other side of the street. He turned when he heard the clattering of one of the metal shuttters there. He saw a tall thin man rubbing his hands together and then slipping into the darkness of the Najma grocery shop, at the corner of the next building.

The sun came out, with such beautiful light, the sun of suns...

He accompanied Fairouz’s voice in a whisper: Come on let’s go fetch water and milk the water-buffalo, in time with the song that came from the coffee shop radio. He didn’t have a nice voice. He knew that, but it didn’t stop him giving free rein to his high spirits. He planted his copy of al-Jihad newspaper on the surface of the marble table, close to the pane of the large window that looked out on the mosque square. He gazed around at the space. Little puddles of mopping water still stood here and there, and he could see tiles coated in sawdust. Then he buried his eyes in the lines of the newspaper, and there was that distinctive smell as well – the coffee shop smell that the big ceiling fan spread around, heavy with a mixture of compacted Ajami tobacco, cigarettes, a trace of that putrid smell found in hidden corners, the aroma of brewed tea and the steam blowing out of the kettle in the distance.

It was now twenty minutes to eight according to the clock hanging on the wall behind the owner’s desk alongside a picture of the king, still young and in his twenties, in air force uniform, with his recently grown moustache and a mole clearly visible on his left cheek.

Hafeedh hadn’t come yet. It wasn’t yet time. It was still early and, except for the two waiters moving around and three other customers, the coffee shop was deserted. Two of the customers were sitting opposite each other in a far corner, conversing inaudibly. The third, in white Arab dress under a brown cloak and with a white keffiyeh over his head, had his back to the left wall and his eyes on the entrance. He looked as if he was expecting someone to come, or was resting from travel until it was time for an appointment. Shakib had a chance to browse through the newspaper. He didn’t have to call the waiter because the waiter would know his order: a cup of tea with milk to clear his throat of the strong Rothmans smoke, a large cup, and about half an hour later a cup of Turkish coffee with very little sugar. Then it would be close to nine o’clock and Hafeedh would turn up.
Hafeedh was Hafeedh Eissa al-Akkawi, the man who had turned Shakib Effendi into a man who read the daily papers. He had encouraged him to learn how to read at the time when he worked in Haifa port. He first met him on a Saturday evening, when Shakib was sitting alone at a table in the Shatt al-Sayqali coffee shop overlooking the sea. He pulled up the chair opposite and sat down without asking permission. He said he felt bored and that, like him, he was sitting alone and that he wanted to talk. This Hafeedh was strange. He was the same age as Shakib, in his early twenties or a little less. His immediate family was in Acre and he was living in Allenby Street with his married sister and working at the magazine al-Zohour. Shakib had never heard of it or, more precisely, would not have taken any interest in it or in any other magazines or newspapers. Shakib at that time could hardly tell one letter from another. They got along well and they chatted. They shared a bottle of Guinness, which was usually expensive but the coffee shop owner bought it from soldiers who smuggled it out of the camps, along with other goods available in their canteens. They smoked four local cigarettes produced by Karaman Dick & Salti – excellent Turkish tobacco before Virginia tobacco invaded the world. Hafeedh took the cigarettes out of a square box. It was a Saturday, and Saturday was his weekly day off, when he left the breakwater project behind him and, exhausted, walked out through the gate where the salty seawater had rusted the signboard of the English company contracted to carry out the project, the one hanging at the top of the high fence. He forgot, or pretended to forget, his labours at the port. He went back to the room he rented in Wadi Salib, Haifa. He washed, he changed out of his work clothes and headed for a cinema. The Ein Dour, or the Carmel, the Cinema Jaffa or the Cinema Armon. He would chose the cinema according to the film that was showing. It would usually be foreign, in black and white of course. Sometimes they would show an Egyptian film. He sauntered into the cinema, enjoying its cleanliness and the comfortable seats. He came out of the cinema into the street and its soft lighting to buy a cone of roasted peanuts from the cart parked at the cinema wall opposite the telephone kiosk. He would wander around aimlessly, enjoying the night air that was heavy with the smell of the sea and with the mixture of humans coming out of the auditorium, and the chatter that gave their origins away: middle-class Palestinians, Arabs from Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, Ashkenazi Jews from Europe in short trousers and shirts with the sleeves rolled up, civilian and military English people, Germans coming in from their own suburb on the sea. He visited the Germans once on a job there and saw with his own eyes the Nazi flag with the swastika flying high and in the corner of the flag the word Palästina. On another flag he saw the German eagle and the same swastika across the bird’s breast, with the same word Palästina above the eagle’s head on a curly scroll.

Because Shakib was still in his early youth and a simple labourer absorbed in life as it was, he gave little thought to the unusual political situation. He lived his life day by day, earning money and working till he was exhausted. He was happy-go-lucky and it never occurred to him that disaster might strike Haifa in the near future. Maybe not that near because his memories went back to the year 1928 and that wonderful night in the middle of October when Hafeedh invited him to an Umm Kulthum concert.

“Where did you get the ticket?”

“Never you worry. Jamil Hanna, the owner of the magazine, gave them out to us. He’s the founder of the Rabita literary club.” He took a printed piece of paper out of his shirt pocket and unfolded it. It was a picture of Umm Kulthum, the diva of the masses. He gave it to Shakib, saying, “Keep it as a souvenir.”

As he pressed it into his trouser pocket, Shakib asked what the club had to do with Umm Kulthum. “I heard that she sang in the Aden theatre in Jerusalem a few days ago,” he added.

“It’s the club that’s organising it and sending out invitations. Do you like Umm Kulthum’s singing?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t been following her.”

“Come along and you won’t regret it. We sea people know how to enjoy ourselves.”

It was her second concert in Haifa and she had come by train. She had given the first concert in Mulouk Street and now his friend Hafeedh al-Akkawi was taking him to hear her sing in the Pleasure Park Theatre.

It was a real evening of pleasure with a novel flavour that Shakib would long treasure. He wouldn’t forget the Haifa woman who stepped out of the crowd and went up to where Umm Kulthum was standing and said, “You’re not the Singer of the East; you’re the Star of the East.” Whenever he felt elated, for whatever reason, as on this morning in Amman, the words of her song welled up from somewhere deep inside him, in the voice of Umm Kulthum:

I would give my life for him, whether he remembers our love or lets it go,
he has possessed my heart and there’s nothing I can do about it.
If anyone has tasted torment by their beloved as I have done, and does not find it sweet,
then they know nothing of love and are only pretending.

* * *

Did Shakib Effendi, now a perpetual bachelor, ever fall in love at the time? Did he ever burn with the fires of passion?

No one can know for certain and no one ever heard him speak openly about this aspect of his life. Just as nothing presaged what would happen on that day – Monday, August 29, 1960.

Hafeedh didn’t come to the coffee shop and Shakib Effendi didn’t leave his seat. He continued to scan the lines of the newspaper in search of an adage other than the one he had read on the back of the calendar page at home. With his Parker pen in his hand, peering through his thick glasses, the hunter of words skimmed through the text to find an aphorism that might explain to him the meaning of what he was going to hear, now that the small hand of his Jovial watch was on ten and the big hand on six.
A massive explosion shook the whole city. An explosion nearby. The coffee shop windows shook and the customers raised their heads to look each other in the eye. Shakib Effendi looked around: there were the same faces as there had been when he lost himself in his newspaper, except that the man in the white Arab dress was no longer there. Maybe the time for his appointment had come and he had gone off. Outside, when he stood surveying what was happening, he saw people rushing around and shopkeepers coming out of their shops into the street. At a distance equal to the width of the road opposite, scattered groups had congregated in the open mosque square. He looked back inside and saw the coffee shop owner turning the dial on the radio is search of a response. No one was getting any response so far. The newspaper was open and on top of the paper his favourite Parker pen was rolling around. Many of the customers had left, driven by curiosity or by fear of what might yet come, but he still didn’t know what to do. Then, as if he were slightly dizzy, he collapsed on his chair and put his head between his rough hands. He didn’t know how much time passed but from where he was he heard a convoy of vehicles and a big commotion coming from the direction of the Raghdan bridge. It wasn’t a long time but when he raised his head his blurry eyes fell upon a Japanese saying where the tip of his heavy pen lay on the newspaper, but the letters were indistinct and he couldn’t make out the words.

At that point, at ten past eleven, a second explosion took place.

Everyone were stunned, and a panic spread through the city.

A secret evil was flying through the air and people hold their breath.

In order to reach home, Shakib Effendi had to inch his way down King Talal Street, where everyone was suddenly rushing in all directions. Some of the shops had closed their doors. One thing he remembered was the pieces of paper kicked up by people’s feet in the Petra Cinema side street, to the left of the roadway. The old Haifa explosions, a few months before he left the city, came back to him, and the bodies thrown outside the Jaffa Cinema.

There was a curfew until eight in the evening and he couldn’t visit George as he had arranged. All he could do was whisper to himself: “They’ve ruined my day, those people who are obsessed with politics! Never mind.”

He turned around. He switched the radio off. He took the old record out of its sleeve, placed it on the turntable of the gramophone, and turned it on. He walked towards the window to look out at what he could see of a city sinking into a night that trembled. The voice of the “Star of the East” swept away his melancholy and soared, albeit accompanied by a familiar scratching that was now an inseparable part of her song.

Selected and translated from the novel Ghareeq al-Maraya
(Drowned in Mirrors), published by Dar Azminah, Amman, 2012

Translated by Jonathan Wright for Banipal 58 – Arab Literary Awards (Spring 2017), pages 54-66