I love Mahmoud Shukair’s short stories. They are full of sharp humor and criticism of the Israeli occupation and its implications on the daily lives of the Palestinians. However, they present just as much criticism of Palestinian society, the incompetence, the apathy, the sexism and the delusions in which they live. “Ronaldo’s Seat” is an amusing example of Shukair’s writing, which has been translated into many languages. It takes place in a village in the West Bank and reveals the absurdity of the human condition in a state of oppression and misery.
Kadhim Ali paid no attention to the difficulties he was exposed to on account of his enthusiasm for the Brazilian football player Ronaldo. Kadhim Ali loved football but the people of his neighbourhood did not; they did not even have any interest in it. They said: “We have many concerns and have no time to waste on football.” His boundless enthusiasm led Kadhim Ali to announce that he was in email contact with Ronaldo. This exchange of emails had resulted in a firm promise from Ronaldo, as Kadhim Ali told the people of his neighbourhood, that the football player and his wife and child would come to visit him and spend a month or two as his guests. Kadhim Ali assured everyone that Ronaldo was indeed coming, no question about that.
So far, there was no problem arising from all this, the people of the neighbourhood were used to hearing strange stories related by Kadhim Ali from time to time, most of which focused on football. After listening to Kadhim Ali, one of them would say to another: “Turn a deaf ear to this story and don’t believe what this Chatterbox of a driver says.” Such words were not said to Kadhim Ali himself directly, but they reached him in one form or another. He was annoyed but continued to give his assurances that Ronaldo was coming.
One morning, one person after another from the neighbourhood tried to sit in the front seat of Kadhim Ali’s taxi, but he would not allow anyone to sit in it repeating one sentence for everyone to hear: “This seat is reserved for Ronaldo”. The taxi went on its way around the city but Ronaldo was never seen sitting in it, and no one thought of entering into a futile discussion with Kadhim Ali. It was not difficult to pose several quick questions to him: “Kadhim Ali, where’s your Brazilian friend?” “Where are his wife and child?” ”Where’s the guy called Fonaldo?” (Kadhim Ali laughed as he tried in vain to correct the pronunciation of the name.) He did not answer their questions clearly, and this increased the confusion and the eccentricity of the whole situation. He continued to behave oddly and repeat the same words morning and evening – “This seat is reserved for Ronaldo”. No one said anything and no one objected, but they did not ask him any more questions.
However, a rumour that no one could have conceived of rose like a storm in the neighbourhood: Kadhim Ali was reserving the front seat of his taxi to make a shameless play for women! One of those living in the neighbourhood had seen him after sunset, the rumour went, leaning towards a young woman who was sitting beside him in the front seat – and there was no one else in the taxi. So Kadhim Ali was a foxy young man, an impudent person using his taxi to serve his frivolous whims! He should be taught a lesson in morality!
The rumour reached Kadhim Ali but he laughed it off and said it was the work of someone crazy. The whole neighbourhood knew Kadhim Ali loved his wife, whom he married two months after Ronaldo married the young woman of his dreams. Immediately after his marriage, Kadhim Ali stopped flirting with girls, contrary to some other taxi driver friends of his who, though married, did not give up secret relationships with beautiful young women. Kadhim Ali held a firm opinion regarding marriage – “Don’t marry the young woman you take a first shine to”, although he had been ready to marry his wife according to this idea. One morning a young woman had got into his taxi when nobody else was in it but its driver Kadhim Ali. He had been thunderstruck by her beauty – and he contemplated her cheeks, her neck, her fingers. Without any introduction, he said to her: “I seek to tie the knot with you.” The young woman straight away took off one of her shoes and brandished it in his face. Had Kadhim Ali not immediately apologised she would have hit him with it.
For three days running, Kadhim Ali went on a search for the young woman’s house. When he found it, he sent his mother, his aunt and his sister to make the acquaintance of the young woman’s family as a prelude to asking for her hand. After several routine procedures the engagement was effected and then marriage followed. Kadhim All continued to be madly attracted to his wife’s beauty and he never thought of looking at any other young woman, not even just looking. Now, who was this crazy guy who created a stupid rumour like that? Let this cursed person go to hell!
Yet Kadhim Ali paid the price of the rumour. Three masked men intercepted him and gave him a sound going over. Despite that, he did not stop reserving the front seat of his taxi for Ronaldo. Furthermore, he put up several pictures of his favourite football star on the windows of his taxi. A short time later, another rumour circulated around the neighbourhood: Kadhim Ali was concealing information about someone who had suspicious relations with the Israeli occupation authorities. This rumour spread widely and many believed it, especially after those authorities blew up three new houses in the neighbourhood on the pretext of having been built without a permit from the appropriate government agency. The matter was clear and it did not need much intelligence to understand that the people of the neighbourhood stood in solidarity with one another; not one of them could possibly inform against his neighbour or relative. How could the occupying authorities have known about those three houses? The matter was as clear as sunshine. Suspicions about Kadhim Ali became firmly founded when occupation soldiers made a surprise raid on the neighbourhood one night and arrested fourteen people.
“Actions, Not Words”, the movement that had been established a few months earlier and whose members had not exceeded twenty-seven until then, immediately took the initiative. Its leader called the people of the neighbourhood to a meeting, but no more than eight men came to the public square, of whom at least half were members of the movement – and the others were too. The leader of the movement said in a threatening tone: “Let the man called Bonaldo know that we will not condone the deeds of any turncoat bastard, nor will we allow any wanton transgressor to sow the seeds of discord and destruction among us.” (The latter threat was addressed, by insinuation, to Kadhim Ali.)
Kadhim Ali paid the price. Seven masked men, unrelated to the earlier three, waylaid him and gave him a sound beating. Despite all this, he continued to reserve the front seat for Ronaldo. Many other rumours circulated because of that, and the future of the neighbourhood became wide open to endless threatening catastrophes. One evening, a man shouted out in the square: “People! Don’t we suffer enough from catastrophes at the hands of the occupation authorities without allowing this Kadhim Ali to call down more on us?” A crowd gathered around him and, after some loud arguments, a decision was taken: “We will send a delegation to the family of Kadhim Ali, and his family will have to deal with their recalcitrant son.”
Thirteen men, all members of the family, went to the house of Kadhim Ali, led by their elder, the butcher. It was a small house at the edge of the neighbourhood, but it was full of love. Nawal had just finished putting her baby to sleep in his crib and kissed his cheek, saying: “By God, he’s the spitting image of Ronaldo’s son.” Kadhim Ali was happy to hear her remark, which he was hearing for the twentieth time. He went to her, embraced her lovingly, swept her up in his arms, and was lowering her to the ground when he heard violent knocks on the door. His cousin, the butcher, seized him by his slender arm, pressed against his neck the knife he usually cut the meat with and used to attack his enemies with in the frequent family quarrels, and screamed in his face: “Who is this Konaldo, boy? Talk, say: Who is this Konaldo?” Nawal tried to intervene to protect her husband from the members of his family but she could not. Three of them grabbed her and dragged her to the kitchen, clamping her mouth shut with their rough hands.
His cousin, the butcher, continued to ask in a disapproving tone: “Who is this Konaldo? Tell me. Explain to me.” Kadhim Ali kept silent and did not utter a word. He bore the reprimands of his family members, the blows that fell on his face and the sharp edge of the knife that was about to cut his throat. His cousin, the butcher, said: “Listen, boy! I don’t want to hear you speak again about this despicable Konaldo, or mention him at all. Do you hear me? As of tomorrow, this Konaldo must leave the neighbourhood, do you understand?” Kadhim Ali did not utter a word but continued to hold in his anger to the end, until the members of his family had left. They gave the people of the neighbourhood a solemn promise that their relative Kadhim Ali would, from then on, cause no problem and that the suspect Konaldo would finally leave the neighbourhood at sunrise the following day.
Kadhim Ali felt humiliated. He cried into his wife’s bosom. He wept on her tender bosom. She wiped his salty tears with her lips and spent all night dispelling his worries until his pain subsided and he regained his composure.
In the morning, Kadhim Ali sat behind the driving wheel of his taxi. One of the people of his neighbourhood approached him and was about to get in and sit in the front seat of the taxi. Kadhim Ali stopped him with the decisive words: “This seat is reserved for Ronaldo!”
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*Featured image: BASSAM21312 via Deviantart