Saleem Albeik | from:Arabic

Scenario (A Chapter from a Novel)

Translated by : Raphael Cohen

Introduction by Mohammed al-Habasha

This is a short chapter from a long novel by the Syrian-Palestinian writer Saleem al-Beik. In it, we are confronted by a cunning text. The hero can be anyone whom we might meet at the bar by accident, and he tells us a story with great pride about his sexual relationships and his womanising. We trust him at first, perhaps out of courtesy and respect, but he soon blurs our expectations. In this context, Saleem al-Beik  writes a scenario that takes place in the world of night, one which every reader might experience. He adopts a simple sarcastic style, a smooth language inspired by expressions adopted from the street, whether in vernacular Palestinian dialect or other languages.

On the narrative level, we are witnessing a theater-like style – al-Beik is portrayed as a playwright who relies on scenes to push his story forward. The reader is exposed to careful details, objects, and descriptions--just as if we were watching a play on stage. We can see the bar, the street, the library, and Charlotte's shoes. From the first sentence, the reader experiences the urge to move away from the "closed" public space and enter into the direct experience of the young Don Juan who accompanies a beautiful girl to her apartment and waits to have sex with her. Thanks to the great talent of the writer, the reader finds himself inside a conversation between the two characters on cinema. This conversation ends with an intentional deviation made by the narrator so as not to stray away from his original goal. And then the writer brings us back to the closed space; but this time it's more intimate--Charlotte's apartment, where the narrator and the reader together feel that he is approaching his target and we find ourselves in a suspenseful narrative arc, a trap created by the writer with careful subtlety.

In Scenario, there are essential and eternal questions about love, daily life, desire, and the passions of the soul as it tries to find its place in the world.

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We didn’t stay long at the bar. After we got Melanie’s text, I had the feeling that each of us wanted the other to finish their drink so we could take off for one of our houses. I could tell from the way we skipped from one topic of conversation to another, cutting them short and getting them over with in turn, so that having exhausted them all, we could then get up and go.

Less than half an hour later, we were outside in front of the entrance to the bar. Charlotte suggested we avoid going by the bar where she thought Melanie and Reema were. We walked for a while, went into the Métro, and headed for her house. It was as if we had agreed on it ahead of time; neither of us asked where we were going. We both knew we were going to her place. Perhaps that was what subconsciously made me talk about the poster I had seen through her apartment window the first time I took her home – or when I followed her there.

 

— Is the poster of The Double Life of Veronique still there?

— How do you know about that?… Ahh, from when you followed me.

— But you didn’t say the film’s name. You just said it was a film you liked.

— Could be. I don’t remember.

— You did. I like the film too, even though it may not be one of my top ten or twenty.

— Really? So what’s your favourite?

 

I didn’t want the conversation to turn from us to films I liked. Now wasn’t the right time for that. I’d started our conversation with a nod to the poster. Perhaps what made me ask about it was the knowledge that I would be in her house in a few minutes’ time. The intent of the question wasn’t to talk about film, but about her apartment, about her, about the place where we were heading to spend the night together alone – or so I hoped and expected.

 

— My favourite film doesn’t matter now. Let’s talk about you.

— Yes, it does. Who do you like?

— Mmm. Ingmar Bergman comes to mind. I just saw Persona.

— I’m not a big fan of it.

— Why not? Whatever, let’s talk about something else. Something you like.

 

I wanted us to change the subject, which was more suited to mid-afternoon at a café than shortly before midnight in an almost empty train as we headed to her house for me to fuck her, at last. I couldn’t come up with anything to ask her, so we were silent for a while until she said we were getting out at the next stop and would then walk a little. She said the stop was Père Lachaise, and I replied that I knew it well. We fell silent again. The train stopped and off we got.

I remembered the way perfectly, as if I had followed her two days, not two weeks, earlier. Now I was walking next to her, not tailing her like a detective in some noir film. Walking along, I knew she would offer me another drink as the overture to a long night. I also knew that her friend, who had been in the apartment that evening, was now in a bar with another friend, and that she knew that Charlotte and I would go back to their apartment together. She would arrange to spend the night elsewhere, at Reema’s perhaps.

We went into the building. I followed her up the dark, narrow staircase. Charlotte apologized that the bulb had blown and not been changed. She opened the door to her apartment and turned the living room light on. I followed her inside, and my glance immediately fell on the poster by the window. I remarked that there was something familiar about the house. She giggled ­– the giggle of a happy woman getting ready for a fuck. She laughed while picking things up off the floor. Skilfully using her ankles, she slipped off her shoes and left them where they fell in the middle of the living room.

By this time, any remark would have made her laugh. She was relaxed and feeling good – m-zah-zah-ah, as we say in Palestine. Charlotte was in high spirits right then for reasons other than the alcohol. I asked her why she picked things up off the floor but left her shoes. She turned back and picked them up as if they had been there when we walked in, laughing as she did so. I sat down on a chair opposite the bookcase and started checking out the contents. Charlotte came back into the living room with two glasses and a corkscrew. She came over, took a bottle of wine off one of the lower shelves, and asked me to open it.

I took the corkscrew and the bottle over to the table. She came over and set down the two glasses, then went back to the bookshelves. I poured us each a glass of wine, moved back to the bookcase, and stood behind the blonde woman. Stretching out my hand to offer her a glass of wine, I took a short sniff of her hair, then inhaled deeply after burying my nose in the golden curls. I asked her to tell me about her library, about the books and films she liked on the shelves before us. I didn’t want to seem like the kind of guy who, as soon as he gets into a woman’s house, grabs hold of his penis and drags her off to the bedroom.

I noticed she had taken off her coat, her heavy sweater, and the thick scarf in which her face had been hidden. She was standing next to me. The top buttons of her thin blouse were undone and the edge of her bra was visible. I could see she had small breasts, wide apart and firm on her chest. With her elbow resting on her hand, she held her glass close to her mouth as if she were sniffing the wine. She took a sip.

 

— This is a complete set of Tarkovsky’s films. Do you know him?

— Sure. I really like him.

— Those are novels by Kafka, poems by Brecht … and by Darwish. I’m telling you the things I like. Those are on my shelves. Those shelves are Melanie’s. You’ll find books about film, copies of Les Cahiers du Cinéma, and films as well. She’s got more than me naturally.

— But the Kafka novels are yours?

— Yes. One’s missing: The Trial. I’ve forgotten whom I lent it to. I still haven’t read it. I’ll have to buy a copy.

— I saw you once in the café taking your laptop out of a cloth bag with a picture of Kafka on it.

— No. My bag’s the one hanging on the door. Here. It shows the name of the bookshop where I bought it ­– Le Comptoir de Mao in the neighbouring quarter.

— But I saw Kafka.

— Perhaps you’re confusing me with another woman.

— There isn’t another woman at the café I’d confuse you with. But I’m sure about the picture of Kafka. I saw it on the bag.

— It wasn’t me. Anyway, you didn’t tell me what you were doing in the café, tapping away the whole time at your laptop. We haven’t talked about that. Not yet.

— I write.

— You write? What?

— I don’t know. I started a diary. I started writing it a while ago, after I finished a script that I couldn’t find anyone to produce.

— Mmm, a script? When will you tell me the story?

— Tell you the story! In a while.

— No, not in a while.

— Tell me, Charlotte, you definitely don’t have a bag with Kafka’s picture on it?

— No, definitely. Unless you know a different Charlotte. The diary you’re writing at the café, am I in it? Always on your own, sitting opposite me and writing your diary. You steal glances at me. You ask me my name. That’s all there is to it?

— I don’t know, but… yeah, there you were in front of me. I’m writing and there’s a beautiful woman sitting opposite. What do you expect me to write about, if not her? Abu Ammar?

— Who’s he?

— Yasser Arafat (I said it again the French way), president…

— I know who he is, or his kufiyah anyhow. So that’s why you were sneaking looks at me. What have you written? I want to read it.

— It’s written in Arabic, but I can translate some for you. Later.

— The Charlotte in the text might have a bag with Kafka on it.

— Sorry? Oh yes, maybe. But why him? Actually, I didn’t make much of a distinction between the two of you. I didn’t pay it much attention.

— She’s me then?

— She’s not you. Besides, her name might not even be Charlotte.

— Why don’t you come to the café anymore? You stopped after the first time we talked, when you brought me back here.

— Not at all. I went every day after our chat. It was you who didn’t go. I didn’t know you were in the south with your friend. I thought you didn’t want to see me after I’d followed you and our talk.

— But I was only gone for a few days. Then I was there every day as usual, working on my laptop.

— I didn’t know. Never mind.

— I want you to tell me what you wrote about me.

— Not about you!

— It doesn’t matter.

— Okay. I’ll give you a taste.

— No, don’t do it from memory. Read it as it’s written.

 

I didn’t really want to read what I’d written about her to her face. It was good that she didn’t insist or drag the subject out. It came to an end with her last sentence. Then she made for the bottle of wine on the low table to pour herself another glass and ask me whether I’d like one too. She brought the bottle over and poured me one. The bottle had to be empty before we climbed into her bed.

We cut short our conversation. It seemed detached in time and space from our situation and from what we’d come to do. It had been a necessary introduction to what was coming so that our intentions wouldn’t be too obvious to each other although, if they had been, that would have simplified matters.

The three of us – she, I, and the half-empty bottle – went back to the table and chairs. We sat opposite each other, looking into each other’s eyes. Her eyes were teary, drowsy, tremulous, affected by more than the wine and sangria. I looked at them, at her nervous lips and her pristine neck, whose pure whiteness extended to the expanse of her chest. We looked, chatted, and drank.

In front of me, Charlotte was ripe and ready for us to fuck, ready for the moment that had been the first thing we’d thought of when we read Melanie’s text together at the bar. We’d smiled at each other then, in the knowledge that in an hour or two we’d be here, like this, our eyes dripping with desire.

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