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The vet gave a smile so meek and mild it was scary. “I’ve given the dog a sedative,” he said to Mrs Nahal. “He’ll calm down in ten minutes at most.”

“Good job,” she replied. “The dog is the last thing I have left in this hateful world.” The vet gave her a startled look, and she added, “Apart from my dear husband of course.” After those despairing words, she resumed her sobbing.

Five minutes later, the dog was dead. Mrs Nahal said nothing of any account, but gave an extended scream, which the vet found quite unjustified.

After a further five minutes, Mrs Nahal was dead. She keeled over on the floor, but we should not suspect the motives of the floor. It was her heart, which, once it had taken its decision, would not have given even a bullet the chance to relish its defeat in the battle to end her miserable life. Besides, the five minutes the idiotic woman wasted lamenting over her dog were not a fair and just reflection of the loyalty that the memory of the poor dog deserved. More important still, both she and the dog had left the surgery of the optimistic vet with hearts that called out for mercy, or, if you want an accurate picture, her fat husband was raining insults down on the dog, wishing that God would resurrect him in the next life as a rat. That was Mrs Nahal’s spoilt dog’s greatest fear, something that her husband considered crazy and against the natural order. For it had so happened that on the very day that Mrs Nahal bought the dog from a pet shot in the city centre, she left him in the garden to enjoy the sunshine while she went back inside to make herself a coffee. A few moments later, she heard a fearful howl coming from the dog. In a panic, she rushed to open the door. The dog had seen a rat in the garden, gone crazy, and instantly run away howling in irrational terror. No sooner had the woman opened the door than the dog leapt inside. She fell over and broke her leg. The rat died of overexcitement.

***

“Bad luck has killed this miserable woman,” thought the hateful husband. Many of those who knew Mrs Nahal well did not consider that blasphemy at all.

Nahal was born to rich and highly regarded parents. For half her life, however, she was not their daughter. Not because she decided to abandon them, but simply because she did not have the opportunity.

Her father did something stupid: he consented to a trip to the countryside with her mother when she was nine-months pregnant. Coming back from the trip on a steep and windy road, she started to feel labour pains. He headed quickly to a modest hospital in a crowded working-class neighbourhood. There really wasn’t any other option, and she gave birth there. Nobody realised, however, that the baby they took home was the daughter of another woman who had given birth at the same time. That woman only had her elderly mother with her for company and the two expectant mothers were brought together by the shared pain of contractions. Before leaving the hospital the stranger gave Nahal’s mother a photograph of herself as a souvenir and wrote down her home telephone number for her. They remained friends for not very long afterwards. They chatted on the phone, warmly to begin with, gradually cooling over time, until it went cold and they were no longer in touch.

The baby spent a long time in a big hospital. At the time, it did not appear she had much chance of survival as she had been born extremely underweight. In time, however, her health improved and she turned out to have blond hair. Now that was a major disaster that nobody had foreseen.

Blond hair did not run in either side of her family. The only explanation, therefore, was that the mother had importuned the baby from another little beggar, one who had exploited the loneliness of her manless bed and dug his filthy claws into her soft flesh before moving on to knock on other doors. Her husband was consumed with doubts and his life turned into an unendurable torment. He cast aspersions whenever the opportunity arose. He also wanted to learn the truth. For reasons to do with an old passion, he did not, for example, want his wife to confess her infidelity. Such a simple solution would not satisfy him. Nor would hearing it from the man who had made her pregnant bring him any joy. The pleasure would be in finding out for himself, a project he embarked on as soon as he discovered the matter.

Her parents had not slept together for a long period before the birth of their child. Her husband did not like marital congress in the first place. Less than a fortnight after getting married, he could no longer countenance the thought of her even sharing his bed.

Coincidentally, he had bought a studio from a penniless artist, intending to turn it into something useful in future. When he went to complete the sale, he found the artist at work on a painting of two lovers, perhaps husband and wife, lying on a large bed. “Good Lord! Technically, you’ve done an excellent painting, but the subject is odious!”

The artist ashed his cigarette into his cup of coffee and made to speak, but Mr Hanafi went on,  “I don’t mean to offend, Mr Painter. This painting is well executed, but its subject is still ridiculous, trivial. People need bread, not an image of bread.”

The artist took two longs drags of his cigarette in quick succession, threw it on the floor with a theatrical gesture, then stamped it out with his heel as if crushing a cockroach. “Likewise, I don’t mean to offend, Mr Breadmaker, but I feel pity for people who talk about subjects they don’t understand. Have you come to complete the sale or to make me rue the life I’ve wasted by not working as a breadmaker?”

“I have actually come to pay for your painting shop,” he said, then winked as he rubbed his bag.

“Painting shop?” rebuffed the artist. “I considered it a gallery. But of course, if only I had a little good taste,” he added sarcastically.

“I have another deal for you. Don’t get so angry. I swear it would be no better if I called it the stock exchange of painting. If only its income paid the bills!”

The painter’s patience was at an end, but the sight of the bag bulging with cash made him stifle himself. “You mentioned another deal.”

“You’re catching on. I’ll buy this painting off you provided you make a few changes.”

“Over my dead body!”

“I’ll pay double the price, but you have to paint yellow tape around this ridiculous bed.”

“Yellow tape? But why?”

“The kind that investigators put around the scene of the crime.”

“For twice the price I’ll add a corpse that looks like you. I’ll remove my signature that’s all.”

“Who wants your ludicrous signature. Write my name instead of your own if you want. Now, my friend, lets finish the deal. Come and sign. All the paperwork is ready.”

“Okay. To hell with art!”

He took the painting with him and went home. He put it in the bedroom in place of another picture. He contemplated it with considerable pride; he had had a stroke of genius, something that failed artist would never have. Now he no longer needed to say much to set out his stall with that woman. When his wife saw it, she understood. She no longer went into the bedroom. She was pregnant again and, in theory, did not need him beside her for the sake of relations, as she saw it.

In his room, he sat thinking about how to discover the truth. He could hire a private detective and spare himself the effort, but he was nostalgic about his youth and his first job. Those days still had good memories for him. They had set him up financially and he had become one of the city’s wealthy. No, he had yet to forget his no-good past. A few days later, God lent a hand when he made his wife miscarry in the bathroom, and she lost her second child without him needing to spend a penny on the abortion he kept asking her to have.

The workers started moving the useless stuff that the artist had left behind. Piles of junk: scraps of coloured paper, wood for picture frames, mouldings of different sizes, easels, canvas, acrylic paints, pieces of white material and others spattered with colour, paint brushes, dyes, piles of newspapers and magazines, invitations and publicity for art exhibitions, unfinished paintings, and several different-size boxes. The artist, it seemed, was going to give up painting altogether, or he wanted to dispose of all the evidence that reminded him of his indigent days. The only people who went into the gallery were some bone-idle friends of his, who came to gossip and smoke hashish. Highly secure, it was an ideal location.

“Throw all these things away!” shouted the new owner in an effort to get the workers to hurry up. “Come on, lazy. You don’t deserve the money I pay you.”

The only thing on his mind was how to divorce his wife without losing money. The final alimony settlement would be painful if he was forced to divorce her. A better idea was for that blasted woman to die, leaving him to bring up the little girl on his own. He was determined to change her name; it would be absurd for her to keep that ridiculous name her whole life long. Ideas flew around his head as he wracked his mind for a suitable stratagem. One that would let him learn the truth and free him from his domestic calamity in one fell swoop. Years before, he had always boasted of his mental prowess: “This bald head is not to be taken lightly, it contains a supercomputer.”

He always averred that his intelligence was the source of his wealth, since it was not until his final days working in the Secret Police that he came to own money. He quit the job voluntarily and left his small town never to return. In the city he had built himself up by his own efforts, and everyone knew him as rich and arrogant.

The blond little girl turned ten years old. She was pleasant and burned with intelligence, but her father forbade her to uncover her hair. He never wanted to see her blond hair; he loathed it. He never told her the truth. All Nahal knew was that her father was a religious man, who did not want his little girl to go to Hell.

“But my mother does not wear a headscarf. Why do I have to?” she would ask.

“But your mother does not come from a good background. Her family are renowned for their moral turpitude!”

The girl did not wait long to tell her mother, who fell into a black depression. She did not leave her room again until she was carried out dead. The curtain then dropped on that unfortunate chapter in her father’s life. He seemed much more relaxed and decided never to think the old secret again; it was buried for good with his wife. He gathered up all her things and the workers came and dumped them in the storeroom.

Mr Hanafi had always been a miser. He deprived his daughter of everything he could so easily have provided, even if he had been a struggling employee. On this account, he refused to buy her an office after she graduated from university. “There’s no need for extravagance. I’ll give you the key to the old storeroom. It’s perfect for the job.”

“But, Dad, I’ve chosen a better spot for it.”

“I’m not discussing it anymore.”

He broke her heart and she slept in floods of tears. In the morning she headed for the old storeroom in the company of one of the workers, who would help her clean it out. The cleaning over, she decided to get rid of the heavy boxes, that had turned almost colourless because of the sheer quantity of accumulated dust.

“Come on, open these boxes so we can see what’s inside.”

“Probably old and worthless stuff. I suggest we bin them straightaway.”

“Don’t argue with me! I don’t want to cause a problem with my father.”

The worker’s intuition was actually correct and he gave her disgruntled looks as he threw away books, notebooks, and other useless things. The dust worked its way into his lungs and he coughed sporadically. He must have cursed her a fair few times too. She went over to the pile of junk and put it back in the boxes. She gave a shout as she dusted off a photograph in a filthy gilt frame. She scrutinized it for a while. “My God! What’s a photo of my friend Miriam’s mother doing in this old box?”

The sense of surprise did not leave her; she waited until the worker had finished getting rid of all the rubbish, went back to the house and made a telephone call. “Hello, Layla. Guess what I found.”

Layla did not return the greeting, but asked directly, “What did you find, dear friend? A new boy to marry?”

“A photo of your Mum.”

“Really? Where did you find it? But you’ve never visited our house. How do you know it’s my Mum?”

“Have you forgotten? A woman was with you when we went on the graduation trip! If you don’t mind, I could come round today. I’m excited to see you too.”

Nahal jotted down the address of her friend, who had recently moved to the city. She set off half an hour before the seven o’clock meeting. Miriam was so eager to see her, she dispensed with all formalities and gasped in amazement, “My God! I’ve never seen this photo before.”

Mariam shouted for her father, who came from his room in annoyance and, without looking at Nahal, asked, “What’s wrong with you? Why are you shouting like that?” He stared at the photograph for a long while. His eyes glistened with tears and he mumbled, “God have mercy on you, Umm Layla! Where did you find it?”

She pointed to her friend, and he looked her over for a few moments and then said, “Excuse me, Miss, do I know you?”

“We’ve not met before.”

“Your face seems familiar.”

Nahal told him her story. He was stunned by the photograph, and some misgivings and suspicions played on his mind. There was an old wound eating away at his heart that he had never mentioned to anyone, but deep down, he resolved to find out how the photo had come into her possession. Nahal felt very sorry about the sadness lodged in his heart. He looked nothing like the man in the picture on the wall, proud with his ribbons and swagger. The faded calendar hanging next to it showed August 1995.

“What do you think about me asking my father about this photograph? Please let me show it to him.”

“I don’t mind at all. But why don’t you both come round and we can all know the story?”

It was a good idea, and Nahal agreed at once. The next evening, at precisely seven o’clock, Layla opened the door. She hugged her friend and welcomed her father very warmly. Her father, the colonel, was in his room and he came out, preceded by his broad smile, to welcome them. He stopped in his tracks, his face a mix of every emotion. He looked at the person sitting on the sofa but said nothing. Mr Hanafi got such a shock, his heart stopped for good.

For months after Mr Hanafi’s death, Nahal really suffered. She was unable to get over the shock, and it was hard for her to accept her new situation. Perhaps Layla had it worse; all we can say is that both young women were miserable. One discovered that she had lived her whole life with the wrong family, and that her supposed father had committed a grave breach of trust. The other girl only saw her real father for a few minutes before his tragic death, and she then went to live in a home she had no connection with.

For years and years she remembered her father’s last words. He spoke with difficulty since that tragic day. She sat in front of him, splayed out in his wheelchair, and he told her the story for the hundredth time: “After we raided the drug dealer’s house and arrested him, that wretched detective Hanafi vanished off the face of the earth. He took a suitcase full of money with him. I never worked in the Secret Police again afterwards.”

Her father fell silent after wheezing out his words, then with the same frustration added, “I was certain he was still alive, even though he left not a trace.”

She did not forget his words, even when she was going to the vet’s to have her dog treated. She had headed out a while before with the dog, but it was a journey she would never come back from. Her husband was completely convinced that bad luck killed her.

When everything in the house is upside down and all mixed up, it means only one thing: we’ve got company. It doesn’t matter how many guests there are — one or thirty-one — before their arrival, the home and hearth are squeaky clean, like the squeaky clean of a plate of leftover fried chicken legs after a dog has licked it — not a speck or a drop left behind. Grandma Rosa runs around with a dust broom, Mama with a mop. Grandpa Yankel scrubs the toilet bowls until they are blindingly white and polishes the taps until they gleam. Meanwhile, Great-Grandma Genya chases after everyone with extra brooms, mops and polishing cloths while giving each cleaner invaluable helpful hints. This running around with brooms goes on for several days until one fine morning the long-awaited guests burst into the house and, like the years of the Tatar-Mongol Yoke, his Highness Mayhem takes the throne.

In the end, tablecloths got mixed up with curtains, the aquarium fish went into the three-liter pickle jar and the pickles went into the aquarium; a crooked pile of dirty dishes rose towards the clouds like the Tower of Pisa, and bits of food were on the plates, on the tablecloth, under the table, on the rug, under the rug and on the ceiling. This was our house after the warm greetings, embraces, questions-interrogations-answers, the endless “We haven’t raised our glasses to…” and “Why haven’t you tried my… it took me hours to make…” and all the rest. Let’s be honest here: our house in the morning was like a train station, or to be more exact — the cafeteria in a train station.

Something’s really bothering me, but Mama tells me in no uncertain terms, “Don’t you dare ask!”

The thing is, these relatives say they’re coming for two days, but judging by the number of suitcases they brought, it looks like they’re moving in with us. How can I not ask?

Pickles, tomatoes and homemade sour cabbage have gotten all mixed up together in a deep salad bowl and released their juices, which are now plopping from the table edge like drops off the roof of a house. I already know that Uncle Yosya will wake up soon and demolish the contents — which he calls “what the Lord created on the eighth day.” “Frosya, you think tzimmes is a mixed fruit stew? This is real tzimmes! When you grow up, you’ll understand!”

Uncle Yosya always says that. He’s Grandma Rosa’s cousin. As he gargles with a magical potion, he unconsciously scratches his left butt cheek and then goes back to the television, where Dnestr — his favorite Odessan football team — is losing again, while he, despite everything, remains their fan, going on 35 years now. He was never as faithful to any of his previous five wives as he is to that team.

Being at home is good, but being at home is best when no one else is there. This happens rarely — it almost never happens — but there is a way around it: wake up when everyone else is still sleeping. I always get up earlier than everyone else. I wander through the halls, through the rooms, through Grandma’s closet, Grandpa’s study, and Papa’s atelier. I stick my nose in the corners, in the closets, in forbidden books. I channel surf with the remote. I try on Mama’s beads, Papa’s boots, and Grandma’s knickers.

I love to do that — try things on. One time, just once — and then return them to their lawful owner. I love new movies, new books, new people, new things, new tastes, sounds, smells — anything that will make me say: “What was that? Can I try it again? Give me one more piece, play another note, read it again…”

It’s like getting your ears boxed, or your face slapped; like a bucket of cold water, but not really painful.

“Let me touch it again, let me take another peek, let’s get to know one another, all right?”

Routine is good. Routine is the triad of whales that hold up the earth, it’s the skeleton, you see? The foundation is there, and that’s wonderful, so now think about what to put on it, what to build. Routine combined with something new — for me, that’s good reason to be happy with life, and if on top of it all you wake up before everyone else, and you greet the new day with a sense of your solitude but the knowledge that there, behind the wall, and here, behind the door, and up there on the second floor are sleeping people — annoying people who constantly ask questions, endlessly drone on, tell me what to do and won’t let me take a breath on my own — but also the people I love and feel closest to — then life seems even better.

I am standing in my bare feet — which grown-ups don’t allow — on the white tile floor in the bathroom. In front of me next to the sink are a row of little soldiers on parade: three beveled glasses, a cup, and one deep soup bowl. In each of these are dentures. A lot of dentures in the bathroom of our house in Pushcha-Voditsa means only one thing: our relatives have come to visit. I wouldn’t be me if I walked by this still life. Why should teeth be white anyway? We have to fix that. It’s good that I have watercolors – red, blue, yellow, and lots of green. And who said you’re supposed to have thirty-two teeth? Twenty sounds like plenty to me. I’ve got big plans. I brought in my paints and got a hammer… I put all the dentures in a hat. I close my eyes and pull one out. I hold it in my hands and am just about ready to make the unsuspecting owner of these dentures very happy… no, no… no need to thank me. And then, as usual, at the most interesting moment… I hear footsteps. Footsteps mean that the grown-ups have woken up and I’m not the head of the household anymore. I look in the hat where the dentures are all mixed up, like cabbage with cucumbers and tomatoes — remember Uncle Yosya’s favorite dish? And so, like a shot I shove the dentures every which way in the glasses and then run out into the garden.

In a few minutes I hear a shout from the bathroom, then a second, and then a third.

“Frosya! Frosya! What have you done now?! Where is that little shit?” Uncle Yosya and Aunt Eva shout in unison, and then Grandma Rosa, Grandpa Yankel and Great-Grandma Genya join in.

Trying on each other’s teeth brought them closer together. Just that once, just one time. Now give the dentures back to their real owners! You don’t have to thank me. There isn’t a single word of gratitude in all your shouting. But if you calm down, when you breathe evenly and go deep down — that is, when you don’t do what you usually do, which is stay on the surface, your eyes on the top layer, without breaking the eggshell and getting down to the yolk, to the very heart of things — if you stop doing that, well then, we might have something to talk about.

My big plans to refurbish the dentures have not been cancelled, just postponed. Don’t worry about me — I’m up in a tree. They can’t get me up here. A dust brush sailed by a few times, and then a broom almost hit me. A polishing cloth missed me and ended up on the top branches like the star on a New Year’s tree. The shouting, moral education, and things thrown at me would have continued for a long time if Aunt Eva hadn’t arrived. She is the sixth wife of Uncle Yosya, and a real beauty. They came together from Odessa, but she spent the first night with a friend she hadn’t seen in a long time. A girlfriend. If you believe Aunt Eva.

“Hello, my dearies! Say hello! Here I am! I made it! I found you… I didn’t get lost. I brought what I promised. I bought what you asked for! Pour me a glass! Fill up my plate! Make yourselves comfortable and give me some love. I’ve missed you!”

Her words — the familiar, standard words she always says and that I love to hear — they saved me.

Aunt Eva came to take a refresher course, and Uncle Yosya came to keep an eye on her. She is a long-legged blonde with big eyes and a pretty chest. Oh, I mean the other way around – pretty eyes and a big chest. She is 20 years younger than her husband. Uncle Yosya is short, with bandy legs, a little bit bald and a great bit overweight. “How can she sleep with him?” All the grown-ups ask that question. But always in a whisper, for some reason. If breakfast is a big bowl of homemade farmer’s cheese with sour cream and jam made of sea-buckthorn berries — that means Aunt Eva has come to stay. That’s what she does — she makes a big bowl of farmer’s cheese for everyone and then dashes off to her courses. Uncle Yosya gets very worried.

“The day will come when I wake up, and instead of Eva there will be a note on the pillow: ‘Forgive me, farewell, do not weep for me.’”

Early in the morning I’m woken up by the sound of howling. Uncle Yosya is sitting on the veranda, his shirt open, crying and drinking at the same time. “His favorite football team lost again,” I thought, and fell back asleep.

When I woke up an hour later, Aunt Eva was sitting on the veranda, smoking and crying at the same time.

“My dear, he’s not worth it!” Mama hugged Aunt Eva, and my aunt cried even harder. “One leaves, another arrives. You’re so pretty!” Mama went on.

Aunt Riva is bewildered. “Can you believe it?! If it were the other way around, it would make sense. It would be logical. But Yosya… Where is he going to go on those short little legs of his? He’s short of breath, he’s got an infected appendix, and he spouts a load of nonsense every time he opens his mouth!”

Aunt Riva is Great-Grandma Genya’s cousin. She always arrives without warning and want us to be happy to see her.

“So, you are happy to see me, eh?”

“Happy. Very happy.”

“So where is this happiness on your face? You want I should leave?” And then, without waiting for a reply, “Genya, do you hear them? They are not happy to see me.”

Aunt Riva is not an easy person. Once my parents and I stayed with her in Moscow. Every morning and every evening she counted all the spoons, forks, carafes and money. Until she retired, Aunt Riva was a math teacher. I think that’s where her habit came from.

“Frosya, you get TWO cheese pancakes (stress on “two”). Pyotr, you get THREE. Bella, you get TWO AND A HALF. Pyotr, how many spoons of tsuker?

“Aunt Riva, thanks, but I’ll help myself to sugar.”

“No, Pyotr. Let me! So how many? Bella, how many for you?”

“Aunt Riva, I drink tea without sugar.”

“Excellent!” Riva replied in a tone close to adoration.

“Aunt Riva, could you pass me the box of sugar cubes? I like to suck on them,” I say.

Thanks to me, that evening Aunt Riva had valerian drops instead of cheese pancakes. Forty drops. Exactly forty. Don’t doubt it. Aunt Riva counted out the drops herself.

A week has passed since Uncle Yosya disappeared to run after “who-do-you-think-his-next-one-is.” I wake up to voices in the yard. I look out the window. Under the tree where I usually hide from grown-ups were Yosya and Eva.

“Eva, sweetheart, I love only you!”

“Why did you go to that other woman?”

“I needed a raise.”

“In what – your qualifications?”

“In my sense of self, Eva dear, my sense of self.”

Yosya begins to cry again, laying his bald head on Eva’s large breasts while his short little legs flutter above the ground and his fat little hands wrap tightly around Aunt Eva’s tiny waist. With one hand the beautiful blonde pets her husband’s bald spot, with the other she makes him farmer’s cheese for breakfast. Being alone is hard, not being not alone is hard, too… When can a person be happy?

Eva and Yosya left for Odessa together.

In my notebook I drew their portrait: Uncle Yosya’s little legs are all tangled up with Aunt Eva’s long legs. Eva wants to run away. She struggles, but she can’t. So they stand there in place. Together.


 

*“Being Frosya Shneerson” is a stand-alone chapter from “An Ocean in a Three-Liter Jar” by Tasha Karlyuka. The book has recently released at Gorodets Publishing House, Moscow.
 
 

Ever since I was a child, I dreamt of learning to play the guitar. With time, this passion turned into a weevil, a gluttonous one that nested in my brain, grew up as I grew and shared my life.

My guitar weevil turned into a series of misfortune: whenever I saved enough for the guitar something would happen, and the money would go up in flames. For starters, when I was in school I saved my money for a whole year. During the summer vacation I broke the piggy bank; the amount was decent enough to buy a good guitar. But I went to play with the neighborhood kids, we played street football and instead of hitting the goal I hit the glass façade of the neighbor’s balcony. It rained down glass and insults. Our ball was stabbed. At night the neighbor came to our house and said that I broke his mother’s vase, and so the guitar turned into a vase.

When I was appointed as a traffic policeman I said I would buy a guitar with my first salary, but when I got home, my mom said that the water boiler in bathroom had exploded and ruined the ceramics. The guitar turned into ceramic tiles with musical notes.

Then I got married, and with my meager salary and the obscene price tag, the guitar turned into bread, yoghurt, eggs, treatment bills, diapers, milk boxes and small gifts for my wife.

Now, the children have grown up, most of them are married, and I am nearing retirement. The weevil is now dancing in my head. I will buy a guitar and a Mexican hat and play music for the rest of my life.

My wife said that she also has an old weevil in her head that nags her and wants to travel to Beirut.

We travelled to Beirut and on our first day I bought a guitar and I hugged it all the way from the store to the hotel.

I must have looked like an idiot but I was afraid that the guitar would jump out of my lap or would turn into something else, something that was not very interesting.

When I arrived at the hotel I did not wait to go up to my room. I sat on the big sofa in the reception, asked for a bottle of water, took a deep breath, and started playing my first melody on my guitar.

My fingers moved on the strings. A single move then everything exploded; the whole front glass of the hotel, vases and chandeliers- all of it exploded because of this unfortunate guitar!

In the hospital, when they heard my story they laughed and told me I was scammed: the guitar was made out of weevil-rotted wood.

In front of me, I put a ream of white paper, a copper inkwell and a feather I snatched from my neighbour’s duck. I lit a candle and stuck it in the middle of the table. I rested my chin on my fingertips, planted my elbows on the edge of the table and leaned on them. I was completely naked. Droplets of sweat ran from the base of my neck down to my buttocks where I’d stop feeling them, others resuming the same journey from the neck down. I held my breath and waited for the Revelation.

Ten minutes, half an hour, an hour, nothing happened. A stinky smell rose from my body, my ass grew tired of my sweat and my weight. I blew out the candle in despair, turned on the fan and threw myself on the bed, exhausted.

I woke up in distress with a heavy head and stiff limbs. I glanced at my papers hoping they had been filled. But of course they hadn’t – the time for miracles has passed. I staggered to the bathroom and peed standing up, watching with a meaningless attention the yellowish stream of urine. I got under the shower, eyes closed and listened to the water as it splashed and fought my dirty body. Archimedes too was naked when touched by the Revelation, but alas I didn’t have the luxury of a bathtub. 

It was almost 10:00pm when I phoned my widowed neighbour, a hand on my flaccid penis. She answered in a whisper, she was sorry, she had guests. I cursed her with the crudest words. She hung up on me. I needed to let off steam; some idea might jump to mind. I walked around the house and finished my dinner, forcing myself to swallow it while imagining my hungry blood cells rushing from every part of my body to pile up in my stomach, only to find a cold piece of cheese and dry bread. I choked with laughter. 

The next afternoon, I sat in my favourite corner of the coffee shop, right at the back, where I could watch the world go by for hours; the people, the waiter’s movements, how he handled customers’ orders; the ringing of the brass bracelets on his wrist, the clank of his many rings hitting the table as he put down plates. Despite his thick beard, and without tangible evidence, I suspected he was gay.  I gulped a glass of water down my empty stomach, then cracked my back sensing the pain in its lower part. The night before had been stressful, I hadn’t slept at all and I had worked all night in vain. I had lots of unused cans of paints, so I piled them up against a wall and using an old brush, started painting randomly. The mixed strands of colours clashed on the wall and the place filled with the intoxicating smell of paint. Then I stood still in front of the mural, holding a paper and a pen. I let my eyes wander over the colours, hoping that an idea might pop out of my head. As if I, who had painted this, was part of a surrealist artwork that could be praised by critics and sold for a high price at auction in Europe.

I felt that thoughts eluded me, distracted by the overlapping colours, so I decided to paint the wall a single shade. White, red and blue jostle in front of me. I chose a dark green, hoping that all the African jungles would appear before me, with monkeys’ wrangles, reckless gazelles, lazy lions and dancing tribes. But the green only revealed an unfortunate mosquito stuck on the viscous paint, so I stayed there watching it die.  

In the coffee shop the number of clients increased, elderly people who had missed the train of creativity, creative young men whose writings could not find a way to the mind of critics replete with classics. Others who put the word penis between each word, those in search of a haven or a public, bohemians with a nasty smell that filled the nose, and indeed me, the novelist whose three novels had no more effect than a stone thrown in a river. My back pain increased. I cursed Dan Brown for his stupid advice. The day before – as recommended in an article I’d read – I did a headstand against the door. My ears deafened and my face filled with blood. The stupid guy alleged that such a position brought on ideas, but it only made me dizzy. I fell flat on my back, humiliated like no man in his forties should be.

 

I avoided looking at Abderraouf my colleague, but full of his usual nosiness, he came and stuck himself to my table. We hugged each other with false enthusiasm and started chatting. As an intellectual, when talking to your counterpart, you must puff up your chest, stare faraway at nothing, keep silent for a moment like a wise Chinese man and then use a few collocations such as assimilation, identification, Africanism and Anglo-Saxonism.

Like someone who just happens to see a funny thing on Facebook, I asked him, as I stuffed my cell phone into my pocket: Have you ever run out of inspiration?

He took a long look at me and replied: Of course not! As you know, inspiration never dries out, and I publish two books a year. Are you suffering from writer’s block?

I leaned back on the bench as if avoiding a stray arrow: No… never! But a young man has asked me for a cure for this disease.

He clasped his hands and said: Hemingway and Roth both said that the only way to get rid of writer’s block is to keep on writing.

True, I answered, silencing my anger at him and at that Hemingway.

We continued talking until Abderraouf saw a young poetess entering the coffee shop. He immediately interrupted our conversation, grabbed my soft drink and rushed toward her.

I ordered a drink from the many rings waiter, drew my pen and began fighting the white paper while sipping coffee. The waiter would bring another cup as soon as mine was empty. Once I read that “le grand écrivain Voltaire” drank forty cups of coffee while writing. Today I would smash this record and end my writer’s block. At cup ten, the waiter said to me with a sceptical look: Sir, are you sure you’d like another one? 

At cup fifteen, I felt numbness in my limbs that quickly spread to my entire body. The wretched table started to spin before me, my stomach contracted and I lost control of my throat, spilling out my stomach content, a yellow bile stained with black coffee, all over the table and my shirt. Each bout of vomiting was followed by an embarrassing gas explosion. It was as if my soul was hovering on the ceiling, watching the tragedy of my body. People rallied around me to help; I saw a young drunk man pull out his phone to tweet the incident, or record it as an idea for a short story focused on my abysmal state. Eventually, I caught my breath, my heart went back to beat regularly. They suggested that I went to hospital or home, but I chose to stay where I was to pick myself up. Little by little, people’s gazes shifted away from me and I was left alone at my table with an empty mind and white paper. 

Then things took a dangerous turn when a giant entered the coffee shop, barely passing through the door, his head a few inches to the ceiling, accompanied by an old woman with a loud voice and a husky manly laugh. They ignored every one’s gazes, only to stop at my table. The woman sat the giant man on two seats that could barely carry his weight, pulled herself a chair facing me, ran her left hand up and down her man’s thigh and with the right one, lit a cigarette.  

I cleared my throat: Who are you? I said.

I am Bint Majzoub and this is Esteban. She said in a ringing voice.

I stared at them stupidly. Bint Majzoub was a woman of medium height with a dark skin like black velvet, who although close to seventy, still retained traces of beauty. Whereas  Esteban was the tallest man one could meet, with a strong built and a kind childish face. He wore sailcloth baggy pants and a fine linen shirt. His hands were large, soft and pink, and his features Latin-American, as was his name Esteban.

Bint Majzoub called the waiter in a flirting voice, ordered milk for the giant man and tea for her. She winked at him as she indecently smacked his ass, a blow he received with an unmanly joy.

Esteban gulped his cup in one shot, while Bint Majzoub sipped her tea with a loud noise.

Who are you? What do you want?

Aren’t you a writer? Don’t you know us? I’m Bint Majzoub from the novel “Season of Migration to the North” by Tayeb Salih. And this is Esteban from “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” by Gabriel García Márquez.

I gaped, dumfounded, and pinched my thigh under the table to make sure I was not dreaming. 

Hey man, don’t look so stupidly surprised. I swear on my marriage that what I say is true. Like you, I was jailed between two book covers, but with a trick I broke free from the claws of ink and paper. I travelled the world and knew many men until I met my sweetheart Esteban. He made me forget my eight husbands and my reckless adventures. He’s got something in him stronger than a stake and more powerful than… etc.

She was, as I had read about her and as I imagined her, a licentious loquacious bothersome woman. While Esteban kept gazing placidly at his hands.

I interrupted her. What do you want from me?

While wandering, I passed you by and pitied you, my dear. You are locked into the weak story of an obscure writer. You’re a character like us, a brainchild of a writer. Unfortunately, your writer is a fameless young man and no one will read your story. Get out of this prison. Outside, the world is vast; you’ll find what will make you happy, just like I found my sweetheart.

She dragged away her silent man to whom Márquez had not given a tongue and off they went, leaving me in a complete mess.

I staggered toward the mirror and saw a bald head with an angry face looking at me with dull eyes, big ugly eyes. I had never liked my face. And who said that I liked wearing that multicoloured shirt, like a tourist on the Pacific coast? I brazenly grabbed the pen that was stuck in my collar and threw it far away, swore at the man who had created me, a failure who had thought no better than to give me a Hitler moustache.  That dog who made me fuck the widow’s flabby repulsive body so many times. He made me with no family and of course with no kids, alone with my writer’s block, circling around myself in a miserable closed world, between my house and the cultural coffee shop. And then came Abderraouf to snatch my soft drink and rush away, hoping to catch that girl. I smashed the mirror with my fist; not a drop of blood was spilled. I left the coffee shop like a hurricane, pinning everyone to their chairs, these idiots who didn’t know that they were all secondary characters in a bad story. No shackles after this; I’ll leave these pages searching for other worlds. I might become a Pharaoh King or a Tibetan monk or even a French teenager, I’ll satisfy all my whims and scoop up all the joys of life, and when I’m sick of it, I’ll fly over the clouds and I’ll save an unlucky soul suffering from writer’s block,  igniting in his brain an idea that would save him from madness and the shame of a headstand.

 __________________________________

Brocas Area:  is a region in the frontal lobe of the dominant hemisphere, usually the left, of the brain with functions linked to speech production. (Source: Wikipedia)

 

I opened my eyes to the world in a city with a lifeless childhood. I opened my eyes in the battlefield. Nobody told me who the soldiers were, or what occupation is.

I grew up having the idea of abnormality as what is normal, and that those persons who inflict fear whenever and wherever they go are not of our own.

When I opened my eyes to the world, I thought that young men and teenagers running away from the soldiers were playing hide and seek or practicing their hobby of playing catch.

 I was wrong.

With the passing of days, weeks, months and possibly years, I began to understand that those men with weapons are the enemy, the occupation, and the ones who only seek to kill.

The first time I was very close to them was when I was with my mother walking down the main street on the way to the market. I was three years old.

The vehicles came from far away and the people started to run.

My mother suddenly pulled me closer to her, carried me and held me close while looking at the three military jeeps as they were passing.

I felt her heartbeats while she was hugging me. As she released me, I felt a wash of loose-limbed relief followed by a flush of confusion.

That moment, I knew that something was wrong. She never took me to the market again with her.

The first game I played with my peers in the neighbourhood was called “Jews and Arabs”.  The first few times, I did not reject the idea of being the Jew, which here means the army, “Al Jaish”.

One day, we gathered in the neighbourhood to play the same game when I was four, and as the youngest in the group, they decided I will be the “Jaish”

– “No. I want to be Arab”, I said.

– “No, we are Arabs, you are a Jew, you’re with them” one of the older children pointed out to the group.

I was not happy with that and I said

– “I do not want to be bad guy. I will not be a soldier”.

 

I felt angered and stormed away, then sat on one of the cement blocks near the wall of our neighbours watching them play. The Arabs were throwing stones and insulting the “Jews”, while the boys role-playing the soldiers were imitating shooting at them, making sounds with their lips.  After we finished playing, we used to set a checkpoint from rocks and tree branches, forcing vehicles to slow down, while holding our wooden sticks, simulating guns. 

 

Drivers would treat us differently. Some of them would praise us saying “Heroes” adding a bit of joy by showing his ID to us. Sometimes, we end up with hard-headed ones who would start insulting us, from far away, hence announcing the end of the game.

 

 

A day my eyes caught a newspaper someone threw in the street. I have always had a passion to look at the pictures in the newspapers. I slowly moved towards it with my bare feet covered with dust from running and walking in the street, picked them up and took them to the side of the street, sitting on the entrance of our home. I started to flip the pages of the newspaper, one after one, imitating my father when he reads the newspaper, but I was only looking at the pictures. Suddenly, my eyes locked at a page full of pictures. They were coloured images. The pictures had crying women, bodies, blood, children dead and soldiers with guns.

 I found myself kneeling, getting closer to the newspaper, squinting my eyes, trying to examine the bodies of the children.

 “Why didn’t they shout”, that voice ringed in my ears. Later, after many years, I learned that the voice of children cannot be heard in big massacres, only the sound of bullets and guns.

I spent more than half an hour examining the pictures. One by One. I was seized with rage, suddenly, carried the newspaper and went to my older sister.

-“Throw that garbage out”, my mother shouted from far away, referring to the newspaper.

-“Your dad will get you new ones tomorrow”, she said

I did not listen to her, opened the page where the pictures were, and asked my older sister:

-“Who killed them?”

She looked at me, and then looked at the newspaper and read a bit, then told me “the Army”, Al Jaish.

-“Why?” I asked

She paused a little, and then said, “Because they are like us, Palestinians”.

-“Will they kill us too?” I asked,

-“No, this is in Lebanon, Sabra and Shatila, it happened a long time ago” raising her hand to her face level and making movements to the back, saying, “Zamaaaaan, Zamaaan”, meaning it was a long time ago, in a way to calm me down and diffuse my fears.

Perhaps she saw that my words were showing deep fear.  

Since that moment, Sabra and Shatila never left my mind and I never forgot the massacre. As any child would never forget the first time they hop on the ship, I have never forgotten the first time I picked up a newspaper and was welcomed with such a brutal beginning.

Since that day, I became very attached to newspapers. One day, my father found me collecting newspapers in the street trying to look at the pictures.

– “Throw it away. It is dirty”, he shouted.

– “I want to see the pictures”, I replied.

-He said to me, “Okay. I will bring you new ones, tomorrow”, ordering me to go inside.

Later that week, I found a treasure. It was in my brother’s room, under the mattress of one of the king-sized beds at home.

There were around ten coloured magazines. The name of the magazine was “Abir” and it was a nationalist magazine and had a lot of coloured pictures of “Fidayeen” and “Moutaradeen”, i.e. Resistance fighters and wanted fighters. I spent many days, waking up, picking up one magazine and constantly looking at the pictures without being able to read one line.

That week, my father started to bring me Al-Quds Newspaper every day, after his work. He bought it daily until he retired. I used to wait for him every day when he comes back from work. Once he makes an appearance in the street, I run towards him barefoot, taking whatever, he was carrying, fruits or vegetables, and the newspaper.

One of my older sisters, who used to read the newspapers, used to take it from me, giving me the cultural and sports annexes until she finishes reading the newspaper. They had more photos, and I was satisfied.  When the Palestinian Liberation Organization returned to Palestine, two more newspapers were added to Al-Quds, “al-Hayah”, and “al-Ayyam”. My three older sisters and I used to compete who will read them first.

 

When I became older, I tried to imagine my childhood without the newspapers, without the magazines, without the pictures, without the words and the smell of the papers. Without them, the world would have collapsed. It would have been more chaotic. For me, newspapers, and pictures were the world that takes me from playing “Jews and Arabs”. They were my daily struggle to renew my world and ask delayed questions that I have been answering until now after more than thirty years.

 

Sometimes strangers come visit, friends of yours, parents themselves. I don’t have any problem with that, let them come, you have every right to invite them. But as long as they do, why do they have to visit me? What do I have to do with it? They come in, hello-hello, hugs and kisses, kisses and hugs, and straight away start in with me. The lady bends down, shoves her painted face up to mine, grins like a clown with a huge mouth, strokes my cheek, exclaims: “How big you’ve gotten!”

Big? How do you mean, ‘Big’? That’s just the way I am. That’s my size. Besides, how am I supposed to respond to that? By remarking on how old she’s gotten?

And then she says, “I can remember you when you were this small.” while miming something tablet-sized with her hands.

I’m glad you remember because I sure can’t. Can’t remember myself when I was “this small” and can’t remember you either. Never saw you before until just now. Did you come to visit my parents? Go visit them, what do you want with me? I’m a busy boy. I’m playing with my backhoe and you’re in the way.

When she’s had enough, she gets up and goes back to my parents, but then her husband comes over and I have to deal with him too. Fortunately, the husband is easier, it’s a creature with only one function. He comes close and barks, “Hey, my man! Give me five, my man!”

So I give him five, hard, already well aware that he’ll then grab his hand like it really hurts. They not so sophisticated, the husbands, you can get rid of them with one high five. Throw them a bone and never see them again.

Only after they leave me alone and go sit down with my parents for some coffee and politics can I go back to peacefully playing with the backhoe’s bucket, trying to balance a red Lego piece on it.

But it isn’t always that easy, sometimes you get the difficult cases; like when they bring their kid along.

Of course they dump him in my lap. Why do they dump him in my lap? Because we enjoy playing together? No. They dump him in my lap so that I babysit him. I couldn’t care less about their kid. He’s usually smaller than I am, gazing at me with that snot face of his, and right then and there I can see there’s going to be trouble, because I’m not going to be putting up with him for too long.

“Play together.” Mom tries to get me excited.

“Look, he has a backhoe!” the kid’s dad says.

They don’t care if we want to play together or not. For the grownups, if we’re about the same age that makes us friends by default.

Man, I’d really like to get back at them for this; to dump someone in their lap, someone their own age, someone they don’t even know, like the janitor at our kindergarten. I’d bring him home and say: “I’d like to introduce you to the janitor. You’re friends now. Look, he has a key ring with lots of keys! Play together!”

But that’s not how the world works, in this world it’s the adults that drive kids crazy, not the other way around.

When they realize it’s not going to be so easy, mom steps up her efforts: “That’s not very nice!” she scolds me, “you should share, play with the backhoe together.”

She doesn’t understand that the backhoe can’t be shared. It doesn’t work like that. It’s like if I told them to share something with the janitor, like this portfolio thing they keep talking about. I have a feeling they won’t go for that either.

When that doesn’t pan out they ignore us and hope everything will work itself out alright, sit down on their high chairs by the high table, drinking coffee.

Their kid looks at me. I give him the “It was nice not to meet you” face, turn away and add another green Lego piece to the backhoe bucket. That’s when snot-boy starts crying. He starts crying and his parents are very disappointed. Why are they disappointed? Because their kid is crying? Not at all! They’re disappointed that they must get up and deal with him because I won’t do it for them.

They come over and try to soothe him. I try to focus on the backhoe but the bucket drops and the two Lego pieces fall to the floor. Now I start to scream angrily. The kid hears and screams even louder. Mom comes over, hugs me, but I won’t be appeased, let her know these aren’t just any old tears, that they ruined my entire afternoon with their friends and snot-boy.

And then they come up with the ultimate solution: Television. When parents just can’t be bothered they switch on the TV. Mom lifts me up and sets me down on the sofa. Dad presses the remote button. My tears dry up instantly. I have no problem sharing TV with snot-boy. We sit side by side, gazing at some cartoon, doesn’t matter which, we’re not picky. TV is better than a backhoe, TV is domestic bliss.

But soon enough all that goodness comes to an end, they get up and come over, in the mood to pester us.

“What’s this? You watch too much TV, one hour is quite enough!”

Like it was our idea in the first place.

And then dad switches off the TV, and we protest, although we’re a little fed up with it ourselves. The grownups make going-away noises. And then again, hugs and kisses, kisses and hugs, goodbyes and see yous, and we’ll talk, and we’ll chat, and we’ll set a time, and we’ll get together again, and come and visit us, and you come and visit us, and we’ll go for a walk over the weekend, and we’ll go somewhere for the holidays. Then I can seize the opportunity and ask for some chocolate. And mom gives me some, she always does when there’s company over. She gives some to snot-boy too. I don’t mind, as long as I have some. I wolf down the chocolate, get my sugar rush on, and that makes the whole visit worthwhile. Now I’m happy.


Thanks to Daniel Levanto

This city — this city is so fucking expensive that I can’t bear it. And it’s so fabulous that sometimes I can’t bear it. Expensive and horrible — that would be better. To enjoy it, you need money; to have money, you need to work a lot; but when you work a lot, you don’t have the energy or time or desire to enjoy it.

The endless list of unpaid bills was like a noose around my neck. Debts to my friends and acquaintances. About ten thousand.

All of this — the debts, the fears, the fatigue — all of it has been building up for the last six months, and finally I began to think about getting free of it all — about suicide. The contemplation stage changed to the planning stage.

In the past I was always stopped by three things: my own cowardice, hope that things would get better, and my mother. But now I’m at the point where I’m alone with a storm cloud of shit hanging over me. I know that if I stay here, all that shit will rain down on me and I’ll never dig my way out. Why wait? Better to get free. The only thing left was to decide how to do it.

I read up on it. Drowning, hanging, shooting — too painful. I’m in enough pain as is it, and I don’t want to end it the same way. All that’s left are pills. Take enough, fall asleep and don’t wake up.

If you’re alive, at least once you’ve thought about having the power to end it. Don’t tell me you haven’t. I won’t believe you.

But I didn’t have the money to buy the pills, so I went to my best friend. I already owed him 6,750 shekels.

“I hate to ask, but I really need it. I promise it’s the last time.” I wasn’t lying. This really would be the last time.

“How much?”

“Two hundred.”

He made me a meal of rice and salad with tahina, put me in a cab, paid the driver, and sent me off.

It turned out awkward — this was the last time I’d see my best friend and I didn’t even really hug him. My taxi was holding up traffic, the cars were honking like crazy, so in the rush I didn’t even have time to say anything of substance to him.

One box of pills wasn’t enough to kill me — they must be popular with suicides so that’s why there weren’t many of them. In one box, I mean. That’s what I figured. To kill myself, I’d need four boxes. I decided it wouldn’t be right to buy all four of them in one Super-Pharm — I was afraid I’d get suspicious looks — so I decided to go to four different drug stores and buy a box in each one.

I bent down to tie my shoelaces — that happens to me a lot, my shoe laces coming untied — and when I stood up and reached for the little pouch bag that held my cigarettes, lighter, lip gloss and 200 shekels, I realized that it was gone. I spun around like a Hanukkah dreidel and saw an Eritrean boy, about 13 years old, running away with my bag. I ran after him. He saw me and took off like a panther. Today was not my lucky day.

I wasn’t going to catch him, and I wasn’t going to die.

The screech of brakes — still playing in my head on a loop. A crowd of onlookers, the driver in a panic, the boy screaming, and next to him — my bag, and in it my liberation, while I stood rooted to the spot.

Then: ambulance, stretcher, doctors… They drove off, and I remembered that the 200 shekels my friend gave me weren’t in my bag but in my pants pocket. I raised my arm and a cab appeared instantly.

“After that ambulance!”

They took the boy to Ichilov Hospital. Like a scared rat hiding behind the column of people, I followed them — the doctors, the stretcher and the boy.

He was playing with his phone when I went into the ward and sat on the chair next to his bed. He was already feeling better. The nurse told me he’d dislocated his arm. The boy looked up. We locked eyes and he cringed. I held out some chips, an apple and a Kinder chocolate.

“I didn’t know which you’d like.”

“I like chips,” he said, and took the packet.

We didn’t speak as he munched. His mother, a thin black woman, flew into the ward, hugged him and then something caught her eye and she shouted, “You’re doing it again!” She grabbed my bag, which had been lying on the bedside table. “You’re stealing again! I told you that I’d manage. I’ll save your sister! You hear me? She’ll live!”

And then she finally saw me and stopped talking.

I walked out of the ward without saying a word. I’d forgotten what it was like, what it was like when you wanted to live. I called my mother, told her that I loved her, and then I called my best friend and asked him out for a beer. I didn’t tell anyone about it. I was ashamed, you know?

But all that disappeared really fast. Only a few days went by before that storm cloud of shit was hanging over my head again. Only this time it was even worse.

“I hate to ask, but I really need it. I promise it’s the last time.
“How much?”

“Two hundred.”

This time I hugged him and told he was the best.

My friend suddenly said, “Tonight there’s going to be a great concert at Kuli Alma. Nina Simone’s songs. We ought to go.”

I almost burst into tears, so I quickly jumped on my bike and rode off. When I chained my bike by the Super-Pharm on Allenby Street, I saw that my shoe laces were untied — you know how that happens with me, my shoe laces come untied — and when I stood up and reached for the bag that had my cigarettes, lighter, lip gloss and 200 shekels, I saw that it was gone. He took off like a panther.

Shit.

But it’s always noisy on Allenby and the kid probably didn’t hear me. Just in case I checked my pockets. There was only my phone, which rang.

“You won’t forget? Tonight. Kuli Alma. Nina Simone. At ten.”

Looks like I won’t die today either.

The day I moved from the city to the country my dog returned his spirit to the God who gave it. I do not know whether it was the shock of the move or just a coincidence. Nevertheless, at one-thirty in the morning, after a death rattle that appeared suddenly and lasted a few hours, he lay his head in my lap, shivered one last time and went limp, while defecating on our new wooden flooring. Throughout that evening I could hear the jackals howling from the dry riverbed nearby. I don’t think there was any special reason, certainly nothing symbolic. The jackals were being jackals, and their howls were just howls. Yet back then their sound was still foreign to me and struck me as ominous. Moreover, at the very same moment the dog endured his final spasm, I heard a loud, guttural howl that was altogether different from those that had preceded it. I’m a rational person, but I must admit – it sent a shiver down my spine, and for a moment I was almost convinced it was the dog’s soul, parting from this world in fury and disappointment. Still, I ultimately dismissed it as just another of the jackals’ howls. For who can comprehend all their words and cries? And besides, whatever its source, the howl too ceased definitively after a few moments. Just like the dog.  

I buried him in the riverbed the following morning. It seemed more respectful than taking him to the vet, where they would have undoubtedly sent him off in a black trash bag to a crematorium for biological waste. There was also the issue of transportation: conveying a dead body, albeit canine, in one’s trunk is a rather messy affair for the average law-abiding citizen. A burial felt more dignified. For dust you are, and to dust you shall return. Since you’ve already made it to the valley where we hoped you would roam, at least your bones will be laid to rest honorably in its soil. I do not wish to exhaust the reader with the fine details of the burial. In a nutshell, the dog was somewhat overweight, and the dry rocky ground of early summer refused to accede to my shovel’s pleas. Eventually, I buried my beloved dog in a hole not as deep as I would have wished for him, and tried to compensate for it by mounding a large pile of stones I had collected from nearby.                     

In the days that followed, I refrained from going anywhere near the grave.  Maybe I was just being sentimental, or perhaps it was the strange odor that had come to envelop the yard, suggesting that the grave had not been properly sealed. All the same, after observing the traditional shiva week of mourning, I was overcome by an urge to check what had become of him, especially as the odor had begun knocking gently on the windows of the house during the nights. My heart told me that the scene I would encounter would not be a pretty one, but I was motivated by a sense of responsibility: what if a child walks by and comes across the grave, which I now began to suspect was open? Again, I will not tire the reader with graphic details. Suffice it to say that a half-eaten leg was protruding from the ground, like a strange summer bloom. The foot was completely intact, including the fur in its original honey hue: a true collectors’ item. Below, however, there was only gnawed red flesh with pieces of brown bone poking out. I fled home, praying the jackals would finish their sloppy work as quickly as possible.           

A few weeks later, on a mid-summer Saturday morning, I was out having a light breakfast in the garden when I suddenly heard another strange cry coming from the valley. This time, I was not under any kind of hurry, and could consider the sound more intently. It was a throaty, agonized cry, like the one a moose or a giant rooster might produce, though neither have ever lived in the southern Judean foothills. My next speculation was that a dog or a jackal had gotten caught in a leg trap, the kind that locks onto the bone and bores a serrated hole into it. I once heard that there were partridge hunters in the area, so it was possible one of them might have set up a trap and mistakenly caught an animal with which he could do nothing except toss it away on the roadside. I waited another minute to see whether the sounds would subside, and when they did not, I set out running through the back gate to see if I could help. As I ran downhill, a potbellied man of about fifty appeared before me, wearing a woolen sweater and hat, despite the hot weather.

“Did you hear the hyena down there?” he asked.  

I held my tongue. For a moment I was filled with a strange fear that he was an inspector who suspected I had buried the dog against the regulations.

“I saw it there, on the path.” He turned and pointed. “You’d be better off not going down there.”

“Is it dangerous?”          

“Only if you’re a carcass,” he laughed. “No. It’ll just run off the moment it realizes you’re after it. They’re smart animals, those hyenas. Smarter than dogs.”     

I got the hint, so I thanked him and walked back home. I waited quietly behind the orange tree in my yard until I saw him come up the path, pass the garden, and continue on to the street.

Every day since, with complete disregard for his instructions, I walk across the valley to look for the hyena. It doesn’t require a whole lot of effort. I fill a thermos with coffee, find a good vantage point, and wait. Mongooses pass me by in wonder; partridges march their chicks across; and one time I even inadvertently frightened a gazelle. But no hyena. Not once. Apparently, the scent of my yearning fills the valley.

And yesterday, on top of everything else, my house was broken into. I guess I forgot to lock the door when I went out for my daily walk. Upon my return I found it hanging from its upper hinge. I went through the rooms to check what had been taken. I do not possess many valuables. Still, there is my laptop, phone, car keys, wallet. All were left at home, and all remained untouched. I could not be certain that all the cash in the wallet was in place, but the credit cards were,  along with a few bills. I figured no thief would take only some of the money. On one of the walls, in the corner, just above the floor, I found a small drawing of a dog, sketched in black chalk. “This is not a pipe,” was written beneath it.              

I set out to look for a hyena in the valley near my home. Of course, I set out to look for a hyena. A genuine hyena, flesh, and blood. What else could I possibly be looking for there?


 

*The story has won the first place at “My one-hundred meters” competition, that took place during the Coronavirus lockdown.    

About one o’clock in the afternoon. The wind is busy rolling along some beer-can that has been drained of its contents in the deserted street. A massive silence links the arch of the Sea Gate with the enormous clocktower 1 The clocktower in November 7 Square is a symbol of the coup mounted by General Zine al-Abidine ben Ali against President Habib Bourguiba on November 7, 1987. The clocktower stands where a statue of Bourguiba stood before. 2 where Mohamed V Street crosses Avenue Habib Bourguiba. The tranquillity of the deserted capital city is disturbed by its well-known nutter: a paranoiac who circles the tower for the last time then starts pushing people away, warning them of the poisonous hands of the clock high above. He then starts to throw stones, pieces of iron, houses, trees, crows and goats at imaginary enemies; things that are invisible to anyone else. He imagines that he is picking them up from the marble base of the wrought-iron clocktower that flaunts itself like a whore in the last years of the struggle. People have forgotten the days of forced disappearances and fear. Not a single person has disappeared for a year or more. People are enjoying the sacred siesta of August. The temperature is over fifty degrees, and the devil of midday picks the crab lice caught in transient lust from its crotch.

Ambulance and police sirens suddenly massacre the slumbering siesta, and everyone rushes, with the traces of drowsiness and dried semen stains still on them, to the street of streets. Something is happening at the lofty clocktower. Cordons of police officers surround the place. Rapid intervention forces hide behind cold helmets, and press back with batons the onlookers at whom car horns honk from every direction. Human beings without number look up to the top of the stern clock. A small remote figure, apparently no bigger than a finger is climbing the clock-tower with the speed of a cockroach. Everybody is amazed. He is about to announce the end of the world.

Necks strain to look at the bold climber who has reached the top of the clock and is holding on to one of its hands. He takes a water-bottle out of his back pocket, has a drink and then empties what is left over his head. He removes his leather belt and secures himself with it to some iron rings, and turns to the crowds that have gathered below like ants. Nervous policemen surround the crowds and run in all directions talking into their radio sets. Gesturing nervously they ask the man up there to come down: up there is out of bounds. Meanwhile he mutters something, the content of which is lost in the air. Only fragments of what he says fall like droppings from a ram. There is a movement of his left hand and he waves right and left, indicating his refusal to come down. The police carry on pushing back the people who are circling the tower like dung beetles. They try to ban any photography, to silence voices and to prevent mobile phone cameras being focussed on the hands of the clock. Traffic comes to a standstill and the car engines throb like the veins of a hundred metre sprinter on the starting line.

Something serious is going on. No one has been bold enough to get near the clock for the two years since a soccer fan fell off it in a delirium of happiness after his team won the President of the Republic Cup. On that day, the water bubbling up from the fancy fountain beneath the clock turned into a pool of red. From that evening the clock was subject to strict surveillance: it occupied a strategic site in the heart of the capital, regardless of what the nutter sometimes said about it.

The crowds grow and the front rows are reinvigorated by tourists who pour in from the beaches and from hotels nearby. The policemen’s batons are a little muted, but the men grow more agitated. They run about everywhere, barricading the pavements and extending the restricted area. Meanwhile the man clings to the end of the hand at the top of the clock like a gecko.

For years on the site of this clock stood a verdigrised statue of Bourguiba on a horse, with one of its forelegs raised to the faces of those who looked up. It was said that it raised its hoof in the face of Ibn Khaldun, whose statue had been planted like a bad dream opposite Bourguiba – and at his request. After he was swept away by order of the present rider, the statue was removed and there sprouted in its place a giant clock-tower with a cold cement pedestal. It was not long before it gave seed to smaller versions that were planted in each town and village, while statues of the Leader were banished from every part of the land.

The clock was changed for another that came from Switzerland or England or America – there were conflicting reports about the nationality of the new clock – and a bronze plinth was decorated in arabesque style. Groundless talk without proof about the clock of unknown origin was installed in the heart of the city that was heedless of its sons. No trace was left of the Leader whose statue was moved to La Goulette to gaze at the bitter sea.

Spiderman remains above the restricted zone, supporting himself with the leather belt from which he hangs as he swings about, like a professional mountaineer. Below, the world, bewildered. The crowds grow after workers leave their offices. One whole hour passes by and the police are chewing their sticks, unable to persuade the man of the hour to come down. Among the crowd strange things are going on. Thieves and pickpockets are busy stealing mobile phones and necklaces from the women onlookers; hands grope startled breasts or oblivious bums.

Climbing to the top of the clock is a serious crime, an unpardonable sin.  What is happening today undermines security. The police are facing a dilemma: how can they get on top of the situation when the scandal is unfolding in front of everybody – citizens and foreigners, and the whole country at the height of the tourist season too?

An officer almost bites the head off one helpless policeman, asking him for the thousandth time, “How did that dirty son a of a bitch get up there? Where were you, stupid idiots? How did you let him get near the clock and let him climb up as well?”

Elsewhere a policeman pounces on a tourist and snatches the camera that he was pointing at the clock. The policeman rips out the battery and nervously hands back the camera, cautioning him against using it again. The barricaded area is a restricted security zone.

The crowds start to mutter about the behaviour of the police as they clear a large space between the people and the location of the incident. Their grievance becomes louder when they see the man on the clock waving his hand and addressing the chief of the rapid intervention forces. As he is waving the empty water-bottle about, they understand he is asking for water. Another bottle is brought. A policeman scales the clocktower’s inner stairway. He throws the man the end of the rope tied round the bottle. The man grabs it and, after the policeman tries to open negotiations, orders him to go back down.

Nothing of his conversation with the policeman is heard. People are busy listening to the ravings of one young man who is shouting, “They’re showing what’s happening on television and you can hear what the guy is saying. Look, I’ve had a text message giving the news and the frequency of the channel.”

People take out their phones. The message reached everybody at the same time. The policemen get more het up and frenziedly start to look for something or other. Another group of policemen come and busy themselves searching buildings all around for the source of transmission and for the camera that is filming the incident.

Some people rush home but crowds remain and others arrive until the pavements and streets are packed to overflowing.


The translation appeared in “Emerging Arab Voices: Nadwa I”, Edited by Peter Clark, Dar al-Saqi in collaboration with IPAF, 2010.

You wanted me a slave bought and sold

You wanted me in despair joyless. 1

 

***

 

The distance between one floor and another was months and years. Sometimes the lift was crowded. Sometimes it was empty. Another lift might pass with people going down, but everyone was trying to go up, or convince themselves that they really had ascended. I would have fits of laughter when from my place on high I saw the fraudulent indulgences in the hands of the obsessed down below. It was tragic that they did not perceive the existence of the lift in the first place. So many faces, all looking only for what pleased them. Things and people always change, but the indulgences remain the same. I watched each fight the others to make them pleased with what was pleasing him! Everybody seemed content with their own chance delusion, and fought for it. How could such people have invented Him and striven for Him? I cracked up with laughter when I noticed disciples of the bearers of fraudulent indulgences. They imagined that through their intercession they would ascend. Absurd! Utter madness!

 

“Part of you is still there,” said my companion who had just appeared as he pointed down below. It appeared I had crossed the forbidden zone.

“Perhaps it is you who is not here.”

He leaned against the metal wall behind him. A gaze as deep as the years was etched in his eyes.

“I have been here since before time and space.”

“They created Him and He was created, my friend. What’s with the black?”

As if only then noticing that he was dressed in black, he looked at me, his eyes thinking. He did not answer, but his eyes, to say that is hubris, malevolence.

“Didn’t I say created? It was a joke.”

The lift picked up speed. In fact, it vanished when it exceeded the speed of light. My cells were obliterated. Madness and nothingness encompassed me. Everything was calm. There was no quality of silence to silence that I might describe it.

The number 6 lit up before me. I contemplated it for a moment and burst out laughing. He was almost marked with anger, and I deliberately laughed more. “One more left.”

He came slowly towards me, fixing the essence of his being in a stare: “That will not come to pass if I am with you.”

Casual and sarcastic, I asked, “Perhaps if you kept going, you would get through?”

“How did it escape Him to leave you and those like you?”

“Many things have escaped him, my friend. Now get out of my senses.” And he went.

The lift did not move, but the number 7 suddenly appeared and the door opened. I stepped forward.

I had reached my furthest point in Heaven.

 

***

In nowhere the expanse stretches to the non-horizon. All is white, no end to the white marble and pillars, although they support nothing. White here is a process: He is so it became to be. It bears me to what I am certain is the encounter with Him.

An oval office of mythic proportions. A gigantic desk as expansive as what is behind it, vast in size and appearance, but only four books on top of it! I saw the one seated behind the desk, ensconced on His throne, and He was smiling.

Everything about Him was white too. His countenance created emotions made tangible. His actions gave rise to the attributes, but no attribute surrounded him. I drew closer, a stone’s throw or less.

“So, here at last.”

“As if you didn’t know!” I said.

“My knowledge of an action does not predetermine anyone to do it.”

I wasn’t listening, but resumed contemplating the place. I couldn’t avert my gaze from Him. Meekly, I took in his countenance. I composed myself and said, “Are those the only books here? Do you have a book about Lincoln?”

Anger marked His countenance. I continued defiantly, “He did something that You have not done. He ended human slavery.”

“Don’t test My wrath.”

“Of course,” I said sarcastically, “I’ll ask no questions so as to do no wrong.” I looked at the hands of my watch. It was working fine and I pretended to be busy with it. “This watch has been working perfectly for ten years. A skilled watchmaker made it, but he’s no longer concerned about how it runs. It just works by itself. I thought it wouldn’t work here. But in fact, time passes unconcerned.”

“You come as a supplicant. Ask and I will answer.”

“In the past you did… many things. What I want is a tiny proportion of what has been achieved. It will not change whether I ask you or not. Incredibly, the result would be the same if I entreated my pillow. I have discovered that I must act, not ask.”

His countenance froze into a look of terrifying anger and He was fixed motionless before me.

A glass barrier seemed to enwrap the place. The clouds and the vast expanse were visible behind it. People floating and joyously becoming one with the clouds appeared behind it. I stared into His eyes. Inside I longed that He would know my wish to float away from Him with the others floating outside.