After he had ended the telephone call with his wife, he went into the hotel foyer. Annoyed, he thrust into his pocket the crumpled piece of paper he was pressing between his fingers. He tried to look calm as he passed a row of neatly arranged tables in the foyer and decided not to let the tension created by the telephone call affect him during the time he was to spend in the hotel away from his home town.
He started examining his surroundings. Near the entrance was a well-lit area, in the middle of which was a large refrigerator and behind its glass door he saw, glistening in the light, various kind of fruits and vegetables, such as bananas and carrots, placed on plates turned towards the customers. He also saw cone-shaped clear glasses filled with very red jelly that looked as if it was made of cherries. From every side mirrors, stainless steel platters and lamps were shining; the to-ing and fro-ing of the hotel residents, too, as well as customers, never stopped. A waiter rushed towards him and with skilful, professional movements prepared a table for him near the restaurant bar, the shelves of which were lined with bottles of whisky, cognac and wine.
Across two nearby tables he saw her, in her black evening dress, which was shining the colour of silver from a crystal chandelier that shed its cold light on a triangle of flesh on her naked back. She called the waiter and her voice was sweet as a child’s. When she raised her head and their eyes met by chance, she busied herself quickly with the zip of her small black handbag that was decorated with shining silvery pieces of metal – as if she was looking for something she suddenly missed. After a while, the waiter was there beside her carrying an elegant tray, bowing politely, and with a few deft movements setting on her table a small plate, then a bigger one in the middle, and then a small yellow tray, a glass, a spoon and a fork and some paper napkins.
Then he withdrew, avoiding as he did so blocking the way of a man and a woman heading towards a table in the corner.
He watched the movements of her hand as she removed, with fingers as delicate as fine porcelain, the red band from the cube of butter in order to open the silvery wrapper and drop the butter on the crystal plate in front of her, and then touch with the blade of an ivory-handled knife the surface of a small slice of bread and spread it with a light coating of butter and place it in her mouth. She continued eating her food, daintily and silently, like a small bird.
Everything around him was delightful, the movements, sounds and lights like the deck of a ship full of happy passengers. She pushed back her chair and rose, leaving her place smoothly as if an expert goldsmith was trying with too much care to pick out the image of a slender princess from a valuable icon with his tiny tweezers.
She walked between the tables with quiet and deliberate steps. When she was behind the glass screen about to leave the hotel, she turned back towards the foyer and looked from behind the glass, her hair flowing in the breeze of the air conditioner. She looked like a smiling beauty from an airline poster, with light white clouds that looked like fog floating behind her young body. After she left, the glass screen went back to being as it was in the hallway, where a number of customers, as well as waiters carrying their trays, were bustling about.
He moved his chair and took from his pocket the crumpled piece of paper, read it again and felt as if he was falling into an abyss.
Translated by Mahdi Issa Al-Saqr
MAHDI ISSA AL-SAQR WRITES:
IN 1954 a young writer from Basra city, south Iraq, published a short story called “The Train Heading up to Baghdad” in the Lebanese magazine Al-Adab. This story, which was received with great interest by readers and commended by critics, established Mahmood Abdel Wahab as a writer of deep insight into the motives behind human daily behaviour who had an elegant and concise style for his normally brief stories.
Over the years he published a number of short stories in literary magazines inside and outside Iraq. But as he was too cautious to publish works below the standard he set for himself, his books were not many compared with his contemporaries. However, they are impressive and not lightly forgotten.
Mahmood Abdel Wahab was born in Baghdad in 1929. While still at secondary school he wrote a play “The Miserable” and his first short story, “A small Golden Ring”, was published in a local newspaper in 1951. He has a degree in Arabic Language from Baghdad University.
The first book that appeared bearing his name – in 1995 – was not a collection of short stories but a study he called The Chandelier of Texts which examined how the titles chosen by writers were related to the themes of their works and how they shed illuminating light on the texts and enhanced their meanings.
In 1997 he published (with the Establishment of Cultural Affairs in Baghdad) his first collection of stories The Aroma of Winter which was followed by his novel The Foam of Cloud with the same publisher. He has a novella A Biography the Size of a one’s Palm expected out shortly. The two short stories above are taken from the collection The Aroma of Winter.
Abdel Wahab also writes essays of literary criticism on short stories and novels of Iraqi and non-Iraqi writers for local and regional newspapers and magazines, and occasionally lectures to meetings organised by the Basra Union of Writers, and to students of Basra University.