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Photo by Randa Shaath
He was woken up by the nine o’clock light, which began the day, harsh and disturbing on the upper floors of the buildings after streaming through the windows with their flimsy paper shutters.
Nine o’clock on a Thursday morning. It was Thursday and it would be Friday tomorrow. It was a sudden razor-sharp summer light that touched the edges of the sparse furniture and filled the void of the empty room where Abdel Khaliq al-Messiri lived, on the roof of an old house in tranquil Suez.
The ordeal of getting out of bed was now a routine, with familiar rituals and rhythms, an ebb and a flow. There was the desire to get up and the fear of getting up; the fear of lying in bed and the desire to lie in bed. Every day new details were added, depending on the night before and the day to come. Loneliness was now a fully woven cocoon, the shell of an old tortoise. The head of the tortoise came out, saw the light and heard the sounds, touched things and people, and then the soft white neck pulled back into the old tortoise shell. Loneliness: Abdel Khaliq al-Messiri’s special loneliness. The loneliness of exile and imprisonment. Loneliness in the face of a mysterious present and an old distant world that once had been.
Today was Thursday and tomorrow was Friday. Today he would travel to Cairo. A monthly habit as irregular as the periods of a woman approaching menopause. When they asked him in Cairo why he was late in visiting, he would say: “My monthly periods have almost stopped,” and they would chuckle. He prevailed against the ordeal of the day by laughing to himself and shaking the bedsheet with an enthusiasm that was less than half-hearted.
I’m not raking up the past. It’s the past that rakes itself up. It’s the only thing that lives with me here. It’s the only thing that comes with me under the tortoise’s shell without seeking my consent. Under the skin and into the veins. No one has yet invented a way to escape the past. It’s always there, in your face and at the tips of your fingers. It’s the one that rakes itself up and imposes its company on you without asking permission.
He was going to get out of bed with his right foot. When he did that the day would have a flavour, a flavour of busyness at least. His left foot, however, would cast a pall on the day. He smiled and adjusted his old pyjama bottoms.
He made a pot of tea and washed his face thoroughly in the thin trickle of water barely dribbling out of the tap.
He went back to wondering: which window should I open? The big one to the west that looks out over the roof, or the little high one to the east that looks out on the Gulf of Suez and Mount Ataqa? He could see that view only when he climbed up on a chair to open the window. He saw it for a few short moments, then stepped down from the chair and couldn’t see anything. He could still see the view, but only in his imagination. All he could see of it was the light reflected off the dark mountain.
He opened the two windows together. Although he’d often seen the view, the solidity and immutability of the mountain took him by surprise. Timeless, dark and gloomy, it still held traces of the night. It would take sharp eyes to see through it and make out the folds of rock and time in this mountain.
The larger window overlooked a poor and desolate expanse of roof that smelled of heat and dust. On the edges stood tin drums and earthenware pots in which the plants had died, the stems dried out. The door to Umm Yusra’s room, his neighbour, was closed. It had a large horseshoe on it and drawings in coloured chalk. Beyond the roof, as far as the eye could see, the city lurked quietly. Dirty roofs and closed windows that were deaf to the world.
He looked back into the room and said: “I’ll let today pass. I’ll glide along it as many days have glided along me.” He could taste cheap soap in his mouth, and the taste was accentuated when he couldn’t see clearly, when he looked in his head for an improbable concept or when he set his mind’s eye to work in search of an old scene that he didn’t want to see again.
He opened the door as well. He opened everything there was to open and sat on the small table in the middle of the room with his wet towel around his neck, running his fingers along the lines of print in the newspaper open on the table. “I thought a silent body was a sign of health,” he said to himself. “Now I have no diseases, no bitterness, no urge to rebel or protest. My head isn’t heavy and my guts aren’t constipated. Might it be that this silence of the body is a sign of death?”
He rushed to the little mirror to comb his hair and check that his own face was definitely there. He had a close look, because the mirror was covered in black patches that didn’t come off. His hair was soft and thin now and didn’t need combing. Whose was this immobile face? This beautiful ugly face. Where had the feelings and thoughts gone? Shouldn’t every face have an expression? What lay behind the pupils of those kindly amber eyes? They were the only things that moved. They examined the reflection of the sparse furniture in the mirror. Then they stared into the void and the silence. They didn’t see the face of the man whose eyes they were. Those eyes are mine and my full name is Abdel Khaliq Hosni al-Messiri. He moved his face and withdrew from in front of the mirror, resuming that strange, determined smile.
Mona had said to him one morning: “Open your honey-coloured eyes. Let them take in people and things.” And then she covered his eyes in kisses.
With the sharp taste of the hot tea that he made so well, the strange taste in his mouth disappeared and his arms and legs awoke. He heard Umm Yusra’s footsteps coming up the stairs, so he covered his bare chest with a clean white shirt. He still loved the smell of clean clothes, while the smell of sweat offended him. Before Umm Yusra appeared, he could smell the fresh bread she brought every day from the edges of the market. She knocked on the door with the palm of her hand and her pleasant voice rang out, piecing together the fragments of the morning.
“Good morning, Abdel Khaliq, sir,” she said.
He murmured many responses, as if speaking from somewhere distant. He could no longer break away from his private moments quickly, so at first the words came out as rhythmic sounds that vaguely conveyed his emotions. People were used to him doing this, and they understood what he meant to say. Umm Yusra went on to comment on the heat and the humidity, the damned staircase, the crowds, and the lack of fish and vegetables, while he drank his tea and repeated: “Please come in, come in, sit down.” She put her plastic bag down on the floor and took out two white loaves, as she usually brought him when she went to market.
“That’s very kind of you,” he said, “but I’m off to Cairo today.”
She put the bread back in her bag, and looked at him and the room with love and affection.
“Have a good trip. Don’t forget to turn the water off,” she said with a sigh as she turned to go. He suddenly regretted what he had said. Why hadn’t he taken the bread? Why hadn’t he held her back for a longer conversation? Why was he going to Cairo anyway?
The room had started to fill with tiresome morning flies, so he stood up to close the windows and finish off getting dressed. With the room dark now that the windows were closed, he set about rearranging the few books scattered around – collections of old Arabic poetry, translated novels and books he had been given by visitors and some old friends. He stopped at the caricature of him that an old colleague had drawn, holding a wooden sword and with a coloured cloth bag on his shoulder. Then he read for the thousandth time the words written by a friend who got drunk at his place one night long ago. With a piece of charcoal he had written next to the window: People are lines that are written, but written in water.
Abdel Khaliq al-Messiri assured himself he was going to Cairo for fun, not because he’d been summoned for questioning, and that he wouldn’t be taken off to be imprisoned or detained. But an unpleasant feeling lingered, a strange mixture of fear and dejection, and it was no longer any use trying to laugh it off and joke about it.
When he had come to Suez four years earlier to work in the cultural centre, he had had a vague dream that he would find himself in this isolation and that he would sort out the chaos into which his life had descended. He hadn’t dreamed of any major change or great deeds, but he had said that cutting off his ties to Cairo would help him see things differently and that he would at least be able to adapt to the new reality and, most importantly, he would be able to put in order his relationship with the past.
The four years had passed like fragments of time, broken up and scattered. There wasn’t any work worth mentioning to do in the cultural centre, and if there was, it was nominal, seasonal and trivial. He was usually excluded from meetings and other events because his communist past pursued him, or at least so he imagined, and he wanted it that way. The silly and noisy parties had nothing to do with his dream of working with people or for them. That hellish assumption that pursued him in reality and in his dreams. His bosses and his colleagues at work changed, while he settled in the library, without colleagues, with few books and with few people coming to read. It was a large room at the end of a long corridor, with open windows, and there he had tea three times a day, read all three newspapers, revised three notebooks and arranged three books. Those who wanted to read came, then left because they had changed their minds or because they couldn’t find anything to read. Detectives came, then left because they found he had nothing to tell them. People seeking friendship and conversation came, but they found that his spirit had withered. They found him as mired in boredom as his bookshelves, and his old papers were covered in dust. He’d thought of writing his name on a wooden pyramid, as other civil servants did, and putting it on his desk. On the other side he would write: “Neglected talent and wasted time.” He flipped the wooden pyramid in his mind’s eye, first with the name facing him and then with the mantra for this stage in his life. He stood up to look out on the graveyard full of rubbish next to the cultural centre. Throughout the four years the presence of Cairo in his life had not diminished. It was a ghoul that consumed the days, not out of a craving for them, nor out of love for the city’s days and nights and those who lived there. It was more like an incomplete sentence with some of the words missing. It wasn’t in good order and it didn’t convey any sense. A monster that blocked one’s throat.
He could have liked Suez, but only if they kept him away from the main square, the provincial headquarters and the cultural centre, and if they kept away from him the new boutiques, the loudspeakers and the housing complexes that become dilapidated before anyone even lived in them.
He would have liked Suez if the big veranda overlooking the Gulf of Suez was still there, with the poet Amal Dunqul reciting his poetry in the darkness of the veranda, his face like Mount Ataqa and his frame like ships’ ropes. If they brought people back as they had been, without coloured shirts, rolled-up sleeves, slicked-back hair, tight trousers and a gangly gait.
He liked the mackerel, the shellfish, the sweet tahina, the sesame bars, the men and the sea, before it was polluted by displacement, lies and thwarted hopes.
He liked all the streets before the filthy rats and the new thieves had gnawed at them.
He loved the ebb and flow of the tide by moonlight under Mount Ataqa on nights that were gone and would never return.
He loved the Arbaeen district, the fish market, the mosque of Sidi el-Gharib and the coffee shop chairs painted green.
When he went into the Ministry of Culture building with his friend Ahmed Saleh to meet Dr Mahmoud Fahmi, he was fighting off a sense of nausea that Ahmed had failed to dispel with the black humour that he aimed at everything around him. Ahmed Saleh was an old comrade and now he owned a jewellery workshop in the Azhar district. He had survived many conflicts and had moved on to new territory. The only thing that tied him to the past was lengthy and repetitive night-time conversations about politics and how people changed. He knew everyone – the dissemblers and the traitors, those who denied, those who clung to delusions and those who went astray. Ahmed was tolerant, capable and strangely serene.
Because Dr Mahmoud Fahmi had a particular liking for silver and because his relationship with Ahmed was very friendly, Ahmed brought him new pieces of silver, found rare old pieces for him, re-silvered old pieces for his wife and repaired ones that were broken. He saw him at home and in his workshop, and they were always on the phone with each other. “So, Abdel Khaliq,” said Ahmed, “he won’t turn down a request from me. In fact he really wants to help, and so, my friend, don’t be difficult please. Besides, who knows if he might be moved from this job tomorrow . . . what matters is that he meets you.”
Because Ahmed Saleh was smart and had an easygoing and reassuring presence, the meeting was easier than he had imagined. Ahmed kept himself busy drinking his coffee and then examining the pieces of silver – the bowls and medallions that filled the large office. Dr Fahmi stood up, put his hand on Abdel Khaliq’s shoulder, pulled him aside to the large window and said: “Now, about the security and Interior Ministry procedures, I’ll see they’re completed with the minister directly. Such things have to come from the top so the junior people don’t complicate them. So, sir, it’s up to you to choose. Alexandria’s crowded and Upper Egypt’s a long way off. What do you say to Suez?”
The doctor had raised his voice in the last part of the conversation, and so Ahmed joined in. “That’s very reasonable, thank you very much. And Abdel Khaliq has always loved Suez.”
“Very well then. You’ll get the job in a week.”
Everything changed suddenly and simply. Ahmed picked up some silver medallions and cups that the ministry had won to re-silver them in the workshop.
Outside, he punched Abdel Khaliq in the chest and said: “Just so you know, my name is Ahmed Saleh the miracle-worker.”
Abdel Khaliq smiled in gratitude and surprise.
You, my love, are the centre of the universe. With you everything is happy and pleasurable, even watching the workmen pave the road.
I want to live with you in a simple fishing boat with crudely made oars. We would park under bridges and go into small villages at night.
I want to wash your clothes. You don’t know how good I am at washing. And are you good at fishing and rowing?
It was close to ten o’clock. He had to leave Suez before noon to reach Cairo by the afternoon and find them all gathered in the bar. Before that he had to find a good cheap piece of hashish as a present from Suez that they could enjoy.
He avoided the main streets so that he wouldn’t meet any nosy civil servants. They might ask him questions that he would have to answer politely, which annoyed them, and annoyed him even more so.
He didn’t want to know where the director of the cultural centre had been the day before, or what he had done. He didn’t want to know who had arrived in the province from Cairo the day before, or what they had been asking.
He wanted to avoid the streets with pavement kerbs painted alternately black and white. He wanted to avoid the slogans written on the empty rubbish bins, and the traffic lights that no one obeyed.
He took a back way that circled the old city and brought him out on a dusty street flanked by a hill planted with a patch of ancient prickly pear plants, covered in cobwebs and dust. The street ran on until it left the town, and beyond it lay fields, their margins scorched by the dust of the highway and the exhaust of trucks.
He hurried along the dirt path, his feet kicking up dust behind him. The growing heat of the sun and the ghosts of passers-by created around him a time and place suspended in the particles of dust, skewered by a doltish forenoon sun.
“I’m Captain Fathi Farag, and I’m going to sear your skin. And then I’m going to give you new skin in exchange. You, you son of a whore, take all your clothes off, all of them.”
The officer was short and fat. The brass on his uniform glittered in the sun and his eyes were black holes that glowed.
Abdel Khaliq repelled the memory of his years in detention by repeating an old song that a friend of his used to repeat. The tune had lost its savour and the memory had grown more brutal and more vivid.
Get away from me, you ghosts, you years of waste. Rise up and settle there, among the fields of prickly pear. Mix the blood of the old communist with the coverings of cobweb, or push the red flower of the prickly pear down my throat, or the thorny fruit itself. Only don’t leave me captive, tearing myself to pieces by digging up and raking over the past.
The dust from the road gradually settled, and the dusty road handed him over to the asphalt. He went into the cool of the coffee shop, which was covered by a grapevine trellis. He asked for the hashish dealer and they told him he hadn’t come yet, so he sat down to drink a bad cup of tea and wait impatiently.
Translated by Jonathan Wright
Zahr el-Laymoon (Lemon Blossom) by Alaa al-Deeb was first published in Cairo, 1987
This translation is from the edition published by Dar el-Shorouk, Cairo, 2008
More chapters can be read in the magazine
Published in Banipal 60 – Alaa al-Deeb: A writer apart (Autumn/Winter 2017)
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