P O RTA L 9
F I C T I O N : C O N T E M P O R A RY A R A B I C A N D RU S S I A N P U R S U I T S ISSUE #3, AUTUMN 2013
STORIES AND CRITICAL WRITING ABOUT THE CITY
With this, our third issue, Portal 9 begins to experiment with form. Whereas the first two issues,“The Imagined” and “The Square,” revolved around a broad theme, “Fiction” prompts a nuanced engagement with a literary and artistic genre that enriches the journal’s exploration of culture and urbanism. Portal 9, which is published twice yearly, will henceforth dedicate the spring issue to a theme and the autumn issue to a genre, its own shape and structure uniquely adapted to the form at hand. By focusing on fiction – prose, visual, or otherwise – we threw the doors wide open for experimentation with the written word and sheer imagination as we sought to do with “The Imagined,” the inaugural issue, which featured the perspectives of researchers, academics, and writers on the city. The process has been a remarkable and gratifying adventure. We commissioned novelist Hassan Daoud to author a novella in Arabic from start to finish, oversaw the translation by Lina Mounzer of the work in tandem with its composition, and are now pleased to share with readers both the Arabic and English editions of Naqqil Fouadaka (As She Once Was) in this issue. All this in a matter of six record-breaking months! Collaborating with Daoud as he was structuring and writing the novella, following his progress step-by-step, truly enriched the experience. His renowned novel, Binayet Mathilde (House of Mathilde), inaugurated the wave of novels about place in modern Lebanese literature in the eighties. The novel foregrounded the soundscape and heartbeat of place – people, buildings, creatures – just as it pushed to the background the clamor of civil war headlines, which at the time seemed to consume Beirut entirely. Daoud continued his investigation of the city with such novels as Nouzhat Al Malak (Angel Picnic) and Ghina Al Batreeq (The Penguin’s Song). For this issue, the novelist presents a text whose setting and events are heavily inspired by the postwar Beirut city center, a place whose newness remains largely untreated by the literary imagination. In As She Once Was, the novelist grapples with age and place, with the pursuit of an impossible, lost love, and with ever-multiplying beginnings, opportunities to start anew arising time and again. We chose texts by writers from divergent literary and artistic generations, all of whom are sensitive to the latent heartbeat of the city. We favored writers who are attuned to nuance, writers not content to limit their attention to exteriors but who dig and excavate, starting with
P O R TA L 9 : S T O R I E S A N D C R I T I C A L W R I T I N G A B O U T T H E C I T Y
the Self and the Other and then exploring the environment that surrounds them. The texts plunge into the minutia of physicality; they probe the nebulous city enveloped in secrets. A gentle touch, a glance, a breath, a tingle – these stories reveal the fragility of the human experience, of our innocence, our vulnerability. We live in a historical moment in which roaring, bombastic, and shallow slogans are fading and the individual has become reduced to the Self, lacking any trace of depth. “The old slogans about the dignity of all labor no longer cut any ice,” states the narrator Artur of Arslan Khasavov’s story, “Steven Seagal’s Personal Assistant.” Artur, a twenty-something Dagestani Russian Muslim whose father is the target of a manhunt, is job-hunting in Moscow, inching ever so slightly toward the dreams he holds for himself as a talented writer. “Let the free be free,” writes Irina Bogatyreva, and she repeats this sentence as a refrain in her short story. In “Exit,” a staid tour guide tries to perform his job, without any personal or emotional investment in the tourist groups he shuttles between Russia and Scandinavia. The freedom to do as we please, as Bogatyreva’s story reveals, might sometimes include voluntary, eternal disappearance, even suicide. The effort exerted by Portal 9 to draw in writers beyond the confines of the Arab cultural sphere was also an adventure from which we learned a great deal. Despite the fact that such a mission doubles the workload (for instance, translating from Russian to English and then to Arabic), we sought at the very least to knock on a door often neglected not only by those who read and write in Arabic but also by many American and European publishers, among others. A kind of historical amnesia has perpetuated the hegemony of international Russian classics by the likes of Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, and Tolstoy, and this is at the expense of the new, post-Soviet Russia. From our vantage point, at the very least for those of us in the Arab world, we have become more insistent on reading and learning about contemporary Russia, particularly in light of the convergence of our sociopolitical circumstances. On the one hand, we have experienced in the past months the extent of influence of this “new Russia” on regional geopolitics, though in contrast to American and European cultural forces, it remains obscure in the broader public sphere. On the other hand, the crises within Russia itself seem to correspond to the crises in our region, both characterized by oil and gas oligarchies, police states,
assassination of journalists, abduction of protesters, and criminalization of homosexuality. The North Caucasus continues to be a volatile area that has thrown into relief questions of nationhood, ethnicity, and religion, namely Islam. The past two decades have also witnessed the emergence of trends and cultural currents in Russia, not limited to the metropoles like Moscow and Saint Petersburg but also encompassing cities like Kazan, Tatarstan, where Irina Bogatyreva was born, and Sochi on the coast of the Black Sea. Indeed, the two Russian writers featured in this issue are precisely from this new generation. Arslan Khasavov is quite similar to his tragic hero Artur, ostensibly a Muslim of Kumuk origins, and his and Bogatyreva’s growing body of work reflects an emphasis on research, mobility, and movement, all resulting from the collapse of the Iron Curtain at the dawn of the 1990s. In “Fiction,” we place the experiences of these new Russian writers alongside those from various Arab generations, all focused on breaking through the absurdity of ossified givens and, in the case of Yazan Khalili, mocking these stiff realities, or maneuvering between strata of society and place to probe “infinitesimal details,” as the urban planner states in Mansoura Ez-Eldin’s “Tayf Al Siqilli” (“Al Siqilli Dream”): “Fatimid Cairo remained a lifelong obsession of mine,” he admits. Not only do we present a novella and a collection of stories, but this experience has occasioned the authorship of a second novel in addition to As She Once Was. Egyptian writer Ez-Eldin is expanding the story she wrote for Portal 9 into a book whose hero is the aforementioned Cairene urban planner: Adam Khalifa appears in the dreams of the narrator, looking out from the window of his hotel room in the Ramses Hilton. He throws burning papers that “lit up like shooting stars before extinguishing as they hit the ground.”
Fadi Tofeili Translated from the Arabic by Eyad Houssami
FICTION: CONTEMPORARY ARABIC AND RUSSIAN PURSUITS
Translated from the Russian by John Freedman
P O RTA L 9 STORIES AND CRITICAL WRITING ABOUT THE CITY ISSUE #3, AUTUMN 2013
As they set out, these were the thoughts running through his head: the usual excursion, three countries, three nights, twenty people, no kids (he checked the list). “No kids,” he thought again. You couldn’t have kids in this weather: it was early March; there would be rain in Copenhagen and snow still on the ground in Helsinki. The wind would blow the whole way, and the sky would be overcast. But they knew nothing about that. “Twenty people, and I’m in my fifteenth year of doing this.” That’s what he was thinking as the bus glided out of illuminated Saint Petersburg into the pitch black of the road to Vyborg. The inside of the bus behind him was still teeming with people as it settled into its small, cramped, temporary domesticity. He checked his papers, picked up the microphone, and described the trip they were about to make, the border, and customs. He didn’t listen to himself – just took note that the microphone was working and that his voice was confident, loud, and calm, just as it should be. “All’s fine. Just as it should be.” That’s what he thought as they set out. Now he didn’t know what to think. When Alla Demidovna (the boisterous old lady in seat B4) asked if he ever got into trouble for forgetting and leaving someone behind, he naturally laughed.
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“You can’t imagine how many I’ve left behind in my fifteen years!” Now he recalled and thought: Yes, but had he actually gone and forgotten someone? He noticed those girls immediately. Eighteen to twenty. One plump, the other not. One sassy, the other not. One knew English better, the other worse. That’s how he sometimes distinguished among his tourists. He rarely remembered names. For him, they were all an assortment of attributes and the seat they occupied. The letter designated the row lengthwise (counting back from the driver). The number designated the crosswise row (counting from the window). He had a passenger list. Checking it, he perused each individual the way one peruses a murky bottle to figure out how the wine will taste. A1 was a mother: not young, not old, not thin, not fat. Not stupid. Would buy clothes for her husband and teenage son, but at one point would purchase a knickknack that she’d show everyone for a while. But wouldn’t pull it out right away when she got home because she was ashamed of it. With her was her family: A2, her lanky, hunched-over son; and A3, her husband, much older than she, smoothly bald, which made his head too big and seem as if it were screwed onto his body. B4 was a sassy old broad resembling a rotten peach with a wrinkled little face and rosy rouge on her cheeks.
“Last summer, I toured Europe by bus. Sixteen days, eight countries. It was fabulous! What did you say your name was?” She was talking to her neighbor. “Raya. You sat by the window. Aren’t you afraid of the draft?” Did I grab a scarf? Yes. I only hope she doesn’t forget to look in on Lyusya. What if she does? There’s chicken in the fridge and no candy. I told her, “No candy.” What if she forgets? She promised she’d walk her in the evening. What about morning? Can she hold out all day long? She’s getting old … “If there’s a draft, I’ll move. Don’t worry. There are lots of empty seats, not many people I’ll tell you. You know, when I went to Prague …” So strange. We could have gone any time earlier. Why now and not earlier? Why specifically now? What do you think, Savva? That’s C1, a woman with big eyes. Over thirty, getting plump although she still hasn’t lost the fine, youthful features of her melancholy face. No smile. Looks at her husband, C2. He’s husky, fair-haired, and severe. The guide would remember his Old Testament name forever. C2: … The guide was surprised. He looked into the murky glass again, saw nothing, shrugged his shoulders, and continued toward the back the bus. “What are you doing? Can’t you put that up top?” Jesus, why did I come with her? It’s going to be like this the whole way! That was D4, a grown daughter, tall and fat, with a
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strong voice and tough hands. D3, her mother, was getting on in years. They looked just like each other. “It’s not bothering anybody. Let it be!” He looked at C2 again. All was quiet there. And then there were those girls. E4: I’ll write Mom later, like two weeks after. There won’t be anything she can do about it then. It’s easy, as long as Sveta doesn’t chicken out at the last minute. She tossed a quick glance at her friend … Maybe I shouldn’t have agreed. She said, “No problem, nobody’s going to …” Nobody? What if he already knows? Look at him looking: what’s he looking at? He could send us back at the border. He could. But we haven’t done anything yet! Jesus, they’ll stamp something in our passports, and we’ll never be able to travel again. It’s awful! He made note of them. Simply made note, differentiating them from the rest. He saw right through them and was pleased with himself. He wouldn’t do anything, though. Let the free be free. He just liked knowing in advance what to expect of whom. C2 again. Emptiness. The glass wasn’t just murky, it was impenetrably dense. A light disturbance quivered in the bottom of his belly. But let the free be free. He counted them all. Nineteen. Who else? There. Over by the far window lay a skinny, shabby man. His hat was under his head, and he hugged an empty bag. Usually, no one sat in those seats, which is why he called
them “Z,” because it was as though they came last. Z was Mr. Kornev. He’d remember that name too. It would become an entertainment of sorts, observing how he lugged around that ragged bag, on the bottom of which (as he now knew) jostled an old Soviet electric razor and a packet with a toothbrush and toothpaste. He would always be the last one on the bus, would forget all the place names and have to ask again, and would get lost in every hotel (even though he would go out every night for evening walks). He would lose the key to his stateroom on the ferry (finding it later in his bag), and in Elsinore he would walk so far down the beach that someone would have to go after him to bring him back. Tourists are just like sheep. Even if the boldest among them strikes out on his own, he’ll still keep glancing back at the others. They have discretion about them. Not this man, though. Every time he got on the bus, he would take a different seat – many were free – so no one letter ever became associated with him. He was just Kornev. Initials: V. A. 2
A ferry is an enormous structure. You can appreciate its size only from the shore. But it’s still bigger than it seems – part of it is under water. It’s an iceberg-like building. Caught up in the crush of tourists, they mounted the
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opulent main deck by way of tight gangways. They were greeted by red carpets, a sparkling registration desk, a glassdoored restaurant, and a fountain. They all came together there, the Russian-speaking island, and the guide handed out key cards before they descended to their assigned deck. Their wheeled baggage clattered behind them on the narrow metal stair as they went further and further down. “Is this it? No? Further?” “Mom, look. We’re going to be below the engine!” “Why do you say that?” “Because here’s the auto storage!” The guide peered down the stairwell and listened as if it were a well. They already know, he thought – must be their second time. He wouldn’t need to explain anything – not how to insert the key or where to go for dinner. Today I rest. All’s ending well. That’s what he thought before going to his own berth. Their deck consisted of a confusing system of corridors so narrow you couldn’t walk them hand in hand. With their identical berth doors, they all looked the same. The Russians quickly scattered to their own berths and lost contact with one another. Savva opened the berth door, and the couple found themselves inside a white cubicle with metallic, painted walls. Immediately by the door was a cramped cubbyhole – that was
Irina Bogatyreva was born in Kazan in Tatarstan, Russia, and she is the award-winning author of the novels, Off the Beaten Tracks and Comrade Anna, and a Debut Prize finalist.
FICTION: CONTEMPORARY ARABIC AND RUSSIAN PURSUITS
AL SIQILLI DREAM Mansoura Ez-Eldin
Translated from the Arabic by Meris Lutz
P O RTA L 9 STORIES AND CRITICAL WRITING ABOUT THE CITY ISSUE #3, AUTUMN 2013
AL SIQILLI DREAM
As I left the Wehbeh building, I found myself on a dark street that bore no resemblance to Qasr Al Nil, which I knew by heart. It was winding rather than straight as I knew it to be. I walked, and as I did, I saw the street was blocked at its far end; but when I reached what I thought was a wall, I was surprised to find an opening luring me onward. The light was dim on the other side; the buildings had transformed into fortresses that hugged the curves of the road as if they had shape-shifted to fit their surroundings. A dark veil enveloped everything, and I felt I was looking at a film negative. I continued walking as if in a dream or some filtered reality. The world around me had become a quivering mirage bathed in silence. My very thoughts seemed to turn to smoke, and I was no more than the shadow of a lost being. I felt like I had stumbled upon a hidden, mythical corner of this city. Just when I started to feel I belonged here, I was reminded of my estrangement. I felt not fear but merely desire to understand, accompanied by a feeling of unease. I was certain this was not a dream. My anxiety strengthened this conviction. Cairo was whispering in my ear, taunting me that I would never know it, that I would live within as a transient, an eternal drunk who never sobers. People had disappeared from the street as if a storm had blown them away. As if they never were. â€œIn the beginning, there were stones, and they will
remain when all else has ended. The stones alone are the city’s past and its future!” I almost said this aloud, but I didn’t. In that moment, there was neither sound nor echo, only silence. For a second, I thought even I didn’t exist, that I was merely an idea that had occurred to the road about a woman walking down it as if in a dream. But just then a question popped into my head, and I was solid and real once more: where am I, and how can I find my way back? I quickened my pace, looking straight ahead until I got to Mostafa Kamel Square, and the city returned to normal, with its nocturnal crowds and noise and all the contradictory feelings it evokes in me. I embraced its image as a tipsy city happy to drink itself to the dregs, indifferent to the transients that tread its streets, their lives fleeting moments in a history that spans thousands of years, lording over every ancient stone and even the dust that gathers on the aging buildings and the exhaust fumes that poison the air. I dared not look back until I reached the Abdel Moneim Riad station. There, I sat on the dirty pavement, protected by the din of commuters running to catch the microbuses, which filled with passengers as soon as they pulled in. I distracted myself by staring at the Ramses Hilton and counting the number of lit rooms. An agitated guest was throwing burning papers from the window of his room and watching them go out as they fell.
AL SIQILLI DREAM
The tumult reassured me as reality regained solidity and cohesion. I left my spot on the curb and stopped the first cab to cross my path. Throughout the ride, I kept staring at the streets out the window to confirm they were as they appeared, all the while replaying in my head the last thing Adam Khalifa had said to me: “This is not a city, but a patient suffering from vertigo!” Of all the neighborhoods in Cairo, he chose Faisal, where I lived for five years, as an example of the chaos and discord of the city’s architecture. I was supposed to interview him for one hour, but the meeting – which started at seven o’clock at night – went on for three, during which time Adam Khalifa did not stop speaking even for a second. I would ask him a question, but the words that rolled nonstop from his tongue had nothing to do with what I had asked. I would try to reformulate the question, and he would tell a story whose significance I could not divine although I was overcome by his proficiency, stemming from his absolute faith in his own words. After a couple of hours, he was more at ease and began speaking of “his own private Cairo,” as he put it. This was closer to what I wanted: the magazine was publishing a series of interviews under a section titled “Their City.” In each issue, a public figure would share his or her vision of Cairo and draw their own map as they had lived it since childhood. I did not put much effort into these interviews. It was just question and answer,
according to my editor’s wishes. After publication, I would rewrite each one, again and again, as stories, and store them away in a secret drawer, overflowing with papers that at once resembled and contradicted the city. As I made my way to Adam Khalifa’s office in the Wehbeh building where I was to interview him, I found myself hoping for an extraordinary journalistic encounter with an architect who had contributed to the planning of several cities. I expected him to present a different vision of Cairo, but he surprised me with a city of hallucinations and doubts. He went on at length about Cairo’s fragile relationship with reality and its solid grounding in superstition. He spoke of what he termed “Holy Muqqatam,” the wisdom of Jawhar Al Siqilli compared to the folly of Khedive Ismail, and the need to restore the city to its original design if we are to correct the mistakes of the North African astrologers who oversaw its construction. He told me Cairo was an enchanted city, that almost no one knew of its focal points or the hidden stashes of magical amulets buried at different sites. As he went on, I realized he was only speaking about the city built by Jawhar Al Siqilli, commander of the armies of Moaz Deenallah the Fatimid, and later expanded by Emir Bader Al Jamali. He strictly avoided mention of anything built after the fall of the Fatimids by the Ayyubids, Mamluks, or Ottomans, or the Cairo of Khedive Ismail and the neighborhoods of Masr Al Gadida or
AL SIQILLI DREAM
Maadi. He insisted that everything built after the Fatimids was a cancerous growth and everything before the Islamic conquest just “castles made of sand.” He said this last part in English, turning away from me. Sitting behind his desk, he mixed vodka with orange juice and then emptied the glass in one swig, only to fill it again. When he remembered I was still there, he would turn to me and speak, his voice gravelly, as if he hadn’t spoken in years, of the city of secrets and hypocrisy, of the Khalifa’s palace which, from outside the walled city, resembles a mountain for the cluster of tall buildings and from inside is all but hidden by the high ramparts. Practically no one from Cairo had ever seen all twelve of the buildings that make up the palace compound, the ten doors above ground or the ones below, one of which opens into a passage through a crypt with a reinforced ceiling and intricately carved stone walls leading to another palace some distance away.* He said that when it was first built, Cairo was less of a capital than it was a fortress from which the ruling class put down revolts by the local Egyptians and tried to stop them from reverting to their own religion. When I announced my intention to leave, he handed me a handwritten booklet. He explained that it was a compilation of popular sayings his late brother had collected and * The description of the Khalifa’s palace is based on the historian Al Farisi Nasser Khosrow’s account in the eleventh century travelogue Safarnameh.
asked me to help him, seeing as I was a journalist, to publish them in a book in commemoration of his brother. I didn’t open the book until the next day. The proverbs had been arranged according to subject, and of those I read I did not see anything that might tempt a publisher – they were all fairly well known. On the last two pages, I found three passages written in a more elegant script, in what I guessed to be the hand of Adam Khalifa himself. I read it, all the while thinking of what I had experienced after I left his office: 1
The city is a message in a bottle thrown into the sea of time. The city is a record carved in stone to be plumbed for secrets by future generations. Here stands Jawhar Al Siqilli, gazing into his own past at the boy he once was, tracing his own footsteps from one country to the next. He turns his back to the Muqqatam as if leaning on it, drawing strength from it as he gazes toward a horizon stained with sunset hues. He smiles ambiguously and cleaves the air with his hand in an imaginary line parallel to his chest. In that distant moment, Al Maaz Street, or Qasbat Al Qahira, emerged in Al Siqilli’s imagination. The rest of the plan, including the two palaces, large and small, the military inspection square, and the wall with its famous gates, was merely details.
Mansoura Ez-Eldin was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2010 for her second novel, Beyond Paradise, and her third novel, Emerald Mountain, will be published by Dar Al Tanweer Lil Nashr (Egypt).
S T E V E N S E A G A Lâ€™ S P E R S O N A L A S S I S T A N T
My circumstances were straitened. I found that even the modest family budget left in the wake of my fatherâ€™s hurried departure, after charges were brought against him, was firmly out of reach in my motherâ€™s safe. The only notes she saw fit to pass my way were bills, which relentlessly proliferated on my bedside table. The invoices for electricity, the telephone, and a space, rashly bought in an underground parking garage just before things went wrong, could wait. Our rent arrears, however, were clearly signaling the imminence of legal proceedings. With great regularity, envelopes began arriving through the post with black-and-white images from the speed cameras that keep watch over the highways of Moscow. With total disregard for my present circumstances, they registered infringements of the speed limit and issued seemingly minor fines that, however, soon mounted up. My modest motor was my sole luxury, my only major possession, and despite the anguish of having to keep filling it up with exorbitantly priced petrol, I was in no hurry to part with it. At that time cheap alcohol and expensive petrol were the fluid mainstays of my precarious world. The income I was receiving from a retail outlet, opened a few years previously in the Caucasus, also ceased abruptly. People with our surname found themselves banned forthwith from carrying on any business in the region. Actually, I am lying. I never had outlets selling anything
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and, despite my unquestionably adult status, was living off my parents more expansively with each passing year. I had suddenly only my literary and quasi-literary earnings to live on although the mere mention of earnings from such sources invariably provokes a laugh from people in the know, or at best a knowing smile. Be that as it may, in earlier years more conducive to my creative talent, I had managed to build a certain reputation. That brought in enough to keep body and soul together, if no more. My expansiveness, which had regularly taken me to the best cafĂŠs and restaurants in Moscow, contracted sharply, and my big heart, which had extended unstinting hospitality to all at my table and to drinking companions, became the shriveled organ of a miser. I was surprised that those I had regaled in the past now seemed in no hurry to return the favor, until it dawned on me that these boys and girls had all along been used to living hand to mouth, a fate that only now had overtaken me. I gradually began accepting any work that came my way: night shifts clerking at the local supermarket, a few daredevil forays sticking other peopleâ€™s ads on lampposts, cameramanâ€™s assistant, film extra, pet-store security man. For a time, I even played the superficially romantic role of unlicensed Moscow taxi driver. Not a bad selection of occupations for the scion of a rather distinguished family, you may agree.
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In every instance, I came rapidly to the realization that I was squandering too much of my precious time working for the benefit of would-be fat cat entrepreneurs and not even being decently recompensed in the process. “Oh, would that I had found the strength all this time to be an author, never tearing myself away from my writing desk! I would surely be a millionaire by now,” I reflected wistfully and, to rescue myself from the jarring bombast of that initial formulation, downsized my aspiration from millionaire to a man at least able to stand on his own two feet. Even in my writing, a realm I had mastered exclusively by following my natural inclinations, I was losing ground, unable to finish a long pre-announced next novel; on the hard drive of my computer, the drafts of novellas and stories multiplied, and I felt no urge to develop them. Evidence was accumulating inexorably that I was failing the test of the second book. Despite all the problems of this aspect of my life, I did not neglect the role I had to play in society. My words I chose carefully; in my judgments I was outspoken. Hiding my callused workman’s hands beneath the table in expensive restaurants, I tried to put right the seemingly irreparable damage suffered by my father. When applying for jobs, I observed the proprieties. On application forms, I entered “secondary” in the box for “Education,” modestly passing in silence over my degree
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from one of the most prestigious faculties of Moscow University. I put a dash in the box for “Experience.” One time, in a moment of great nonchalance, I put an X in place of a signature. I was prepared to take on any work and, to the undisguised delight of employers, always asked not to have the job officially registered. It was not only that I could not be bothered with the paperwork but also that I did not want my family name coming in an insalubrious context to the attention of enemies. The old slogans about the dignity of all labor no longer cut any ice, and I was aware that my political opponents (because I had those too, and they made themselves heard, as I did myself, from time to time on the broadcast media) would find a use for the information, if not directly then in off-the-record gossip. “Can you credit what he’s doing now!” they would say, followed by an outburst of cackling from that gaggle of the unkempt. I was in no hurry to deal them a trump card even as paltry as that. Of course, my educational level and erudition were hardly compatible with the days of manual labor that left my back aching and my muscles in a state of cramp, but even here I discerned the melancholy smile of destiny propelling me in directions that, of my own volition, I would hardly have had the courage to explore. I remember in the days of my self-satisfied (if delusory)
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prime, toying with the idea of one day shedding my expensive finery and, taking an ascetic, half-empty bag with a change of underwear, heading straight out into the depths of life to join the common people. I had little idea of how to merge with “the people,” those ordinary souls already so dear to my mind, and supposed they could only be reached by traveling out in the upper bunk of a second-class railway carriage to find them shuffling about in cheap slippers in tumbledown houses on the outskirts of failing villages. This had its moments of comedy. I could turn up for my shift as night watchman and casually throw on the table a newspaper with an article discussing the state of international politics of which I was the author or be unloading grimy beer crates from a grimy van when I heard my voice on the radio in the repeat of an interview I had given earlier in the day. Of course, I did not make a big thing about this, did not beat my breast and demand special treatment, which would only have alienated my companions in misfortune, but mentally I exulted. At last, I could feel the pulse of life, and it was beating in and around me. I drew comfort from the fact that I could think of none of the greats who had not drunk from this chalice of privation and suffering. What had made them truly great was their unrelenting determination to fulfill their higher destiny, to
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achieve the goal for which they were born. I continued to believe unwaveringly in my own mission, even if with every passing year it grew more nebulous. If, after having provided the denizens of the pet shop with the requisite ration of drinking water, I was reclining on the battered sofa in the back room and recalled that the English translation of my debut novel had for several months now been on the shelves of all the major libraries and bookstores of the United States and the United Kingdom, I was blown away. Colorful lights exploded before my eyes and danced against a background of sudden darkness. I bent double, no, treble, with laughter, like an overacting thespian in a bad tragicomedy. Finally, the labor market picked up, and a few companies responded to my CV, which had been going nowhere on the Internet for the best part of six months. I attended interviews and looked in horror at the offices of major publications as I took their unoriginal tests. Vast rooms were crammed with minimalist furniture with built-in computer units, before which, packed together in unimaginable proximity, reporters, editors, proofreaders, programmers, designers, and God knows who else were pounding away at their keyboards. I had a vision of all these creative individuals being replaced, sooner rather than later, by no less creative machines, and these would no less successfully generate content to fill digital portals. Human beings with beating hearts were clearly
S T E V E N S E A G A Lâ€™ S P E R S O N A L A S S I S T A N T
obsolescent components of these high-tech environments. I fled in horror, recognizing myself as a person with hopelessly outmoded work habits. Without my personal space, how could I concentrate? The potential employers only added to my misgivings. I could tell they had already mentally allocated their cozy job to one of their own. It was a win-win situation: they promised to think about it, and I escaped into the fresh air, shedding invisible chains that had all but fettered me. Obliged to unpick my life a thousand times, tightening my belt even more, I phoned back the would-be employers, willing myself to undertake anything if only they would save me from this intolerable penury. There was, however, no forgiveness for my earlier disdain. I was coldly informed that the vacancy was now filled although they would keep me on file and, should anything come up, immediately let me know. Of course they would. To supplement my casual income, I started selling off possessions accumulated during the fat years. Nothing was exempt: second-hand clothes, unused electronic gadgetry, and rare books soon went under the Internet hammer. The deals proceeded smoothly: I surrendered an item linking me to my past, collected the proceeds, and could eat passably for the next couple of days, before everything kicked off again. Things could take a droll turn. Potential purchasers who checked out my profile from the e-mail address I used
Arslan Khasavov is a journalist and writer, born in Aghgabat, Turkmenistan, and his critically acclaimed novel, Sense, was published in Russia and the United States.
AS SHE ONCE WAS
If I am ever to do this, I need to do it now. If I postpone any longer, what I’ve been promising myself year after year will never happen. I don’t have any more time or breadth of life left. I’ve reached the last station, the one with no more stops beyond. Maybe I’m already too late and should have begun my search for her ten or, better yet, fifteen years ago. Had I done so then, there would have been less of a chance of shock at seeing one another again – had we been closer to the state in which we were made, as we are now unmade as we approach sixty. I am now fifty-eight, and she perhaps one year younger. It all should have begun when she first stopped for me, right at the mouth of the narrow alleyway that turns to her house. “Go … she stopped for you … she stopped to talk to you … go and speak to her,” urged Jaber while I stood rooted to the spot. But she, in any case, didn’t stop for more than a few seconds before turning the corner, and I certainly have no idea what happened after that. No idea if she remembers stopping to wait for me to make a move on that summer’s day in 1965 as clearly as I do. Or if it has faded entirely from her memory, left preserved only in mine. I remember I didn’t turn to see her turn down the narrow street. Just as I didn’t turn to look back as we, Jaber and I, clambered up the ninety-eight steps that led to the upper road. I felt hopeless and depressed on that pavement there, looking down at the bottom, where her house was.
“Look, look, she’s standing at the window … standing and waiting for you.” But I couldn’t tell, looking at all the windows scattered over the walls of the surrounding buildings, which window was hers. That image, her standing there at the bottom of the stairs, waiting for me, wearing what looked like a Scottish kilt, smiling, is the last I have of her in my memory. And it seems I should have begun then, at that moment. Or when Jaber thrust with his finger, again and again, as he pointed, “There, there, at the window. Can’t you see? What are you, blind?” I should have maybe somehow strained my eyes harder. Or I should have maybe gone back down the ninetyeight stairs as soon as my panting had subsided from the climb, then turned, and taken the same turn she took to her house, the house I could never tell apart from the others on that little street. And she would have maybe run to the other side to watch me walking toward her. Maybe. Maybe … I must have said something while I stood next to Jaber, embarrassed at my failure and urging him on, away from there: “Let’s go, Jaber. Let’s get out of here, and we can come back some other time.” In any case, that’s what I continued to say to myself over the long years in which I kept postponing my return. I said it even on those rare occasions when I took some steps in my search for her. In 1973, on a trip to Jordan, I told two friends as we rode in the car, the yellow Mini Minor that belonged to one of them, “Let’s just go back to
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Beirut; we’re not going to find her here.” In the three days we spent there, I did nothing more than flip through the phone directory looking for her last name, for her father’s name, which I wasn’t even sure of. But we had a lot of fun in Jordan. And we laughed; we laughed so much, even as we spoke to the soldiers, bayonets sticking out of the tops of their rifles, sharp like arrowheads. We laughed inside even as we put on serious faces in front of the middle-aged owner of the local restaurant so that we could then later laugh at every single word he said. And when we went to swim in the Dead Sea, Wael made us laugh with his attempts at drowning as the dense water held him floating at the top. “Unbelievable,” he said, while gesturing at his body, most of it visible above the water. I told Nabih, standing next to me on the sandy shore, “Let’s go help him drown. Let’s go now; let’s sit on top of him. Let’s pull him to the bottom with our hands, and he’ll definitely drown.”
*** They’ve refurbished everything here. Except for the metal gate, which I have to pull open with my hands. If they rigged it to open automatically, its weight and heft would probably make a terrible electric noise. In any case, it doesn’t hurt that the gate remains undone so long as, after renewing everything, they continue to celebrate some part of the old incarnation
of the city. Outside, the minute I set foot on the pavement, I noticed a fragrance that followed me all the way to the wide street filled with cars. In the first days of my working here, I was surprised at how the smell was so pungent, wafting clear in a street open not only on both sides but onto the sky as well. A new fragrance. Redolent and strong. Drifting upward from shops selling outrageously expensive clothing. The shops that place only one item in the window as if they require no more than one client a day. And not once, in those first months of work, did I ever come across this one client, either inside or outside the shop. Everything is new here. Even the old iron gate there, even the black cobblestones with which they paved the street, in an effort to remind us that the streets were paved with black cobblestones like this a hundred years ago. Even The Red Palm that used to be one of the famous antique stores, which closed about forty years ago, seems new again, indifferent to the memory of its grandeur and the weight of its old name. Everything is new here. And it reminds you of its newness every day; its newness is a consistent effort, for the employees never stop wiping dust and polishing glass and oiling the metal of the escalators and hoisting up large billboards displaying provocative women dressed in lingerie or skintight pants. Everything is new here. I often ask, looking out from the top of the escalator, how I must appear to those who watch me as I arrive at the bottom of the stairs and begin
AS SHE ONCE WAS
walking among the few passersby, sharing this space that snakes between the buildings. I donâ€™t think I am noticed, or perhaps those who see me donâ€™t see anything in me that compels them to turn my way. Not as I do when I see the three brown-skinned girls, their backs hunched as they lean forward together in a huddle, talking slowly. So a month and a half passed without their even noticing my passage. And I can imagine them remaining that way for a year or two on their bench like that, without looking my way even once. Without ever having one of their eyes glance at me, even by mistake. This is because they control everything that concerns them. They control with their eyes where their glances might fall; they even control their laxity, the way they free their feet from their slippers, swinging them from their toes, at once both shod and barefoot. Their unchanging position, seated there next to each other on the bench day after day, leads me to guess that they wait for the store in which they work to open. For the owner to arrive and make a beeline for its locked door. They will get up from their seats, waiting for the door to open so that they may enter, but only after theyâ€™re sure that the owner has taken a moment to cast her eye about inside and make sure that everything inside is still in place. This is how a month and a half passed as I came every day while they remained seated, remained waiting. I thought of changing the time of my arrival. To delay for an hour, or
to leave the office that I work in, each day, with half-hour intervals between each time, in order to witness the time when they rise, ready to enter that shop together, or maybe even to part and scatter to the different shops where each of them work.
*** “Come, come with me. That man over there might be able to help you,” said Souad, pulling me forward. He stood in a circle of four or five people, holding his wine glass and listening attentively to the man speaking before him. Still holding on to my hand, Souad whispered something into his ear from behind. He then turned to us. “Hello, Souad,” he said, looking at us over his glasses. “I’d like to introduce you to a friend from Lebanon.” He raised his eyebrows once again and shifted his wine glass to the other hand so he could shake mine. “Mr. Aziz Abbashi from Jenin. Originally from Jenin,” clarified Souad as she gestured toward him with her arm. It was my turn to introduce myself and to tell my story as fast as possible and using as few words as possible: “I used to be a schoolmate of Dalal Abbashi. We were friends until she left Beirut in 1965, and I haven’t heard anything from her since.”
AS SHE ONCE WAS
He smiled, then asked jokingly: “What year are we now?” Yet he seemed to really want an answer to that question. “1992,” answered Souad. “That means …” He trailed off as if counting all the years that had passed since 1965. “Twenty-seven years,” I said. “Twenty-seven years have passed.” “A long time,” he said, repositioning that grin on his face that would surely have distorted his features permanently if it were to get any wider. “Qassem wants to know if you’re related to one another, if you know of any woman in your family named Dalal.” The word “woman” surprised me. It compelled me, if I couldn’t stop it, to see Dalal as a woman of, say, forty. Instead, I looked at Souad, wondering how she could usher Dalal right into womanhood and how she could perform such a feat so quickly, with a simple act of calculation. “Do you know her?” asked the man called Aziz. Souad answered only with a shake of her head. No, she didn’t know her, and it seemed she would have said more, had the man not turned to ask me how old she would be now. It was now up to me to bring her up to the age of forty, or one year older even. “What about her father’s name? Do you know her father’s name?”
“Salah? Maybe Salah. I don’t know.” “You should know.” I understood. He meant that anyone who asked about a girl or woman he once knew twenty-seven years ago should at least have memorized her father’s name. “I was so young then. We were young, and we didn’t pay the right attention to such things.” He seemed only to want a diversion, to leave the company he’d been standing with. Souad realized this, but instead of coming up with a solution to save us both, she took her leave and went toward a couple with no one to talk to. I thought he, too, was made awkward by Souad just leaving us like that, alone, without even any of the commiseration that could have been established between us by my strange question about an old school friend I had known as a boy. He needed nothing more than to indicate, with a questioning look drawn with the help of his eyebrows, that he didn’t know, didn’t know her, then turn back, and take his place among those who were still standing in their circle. Instead: “But it doesn’t look like you’re the same age.” “Me and who? You mean her? Dalal? Dalal Abbashi?” He continued to stare at me, thinking. I said,“Do you think I seem younger or older than her?” “Older than her.” “A lot older?” Silence. He only shook his head from left to right as if
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he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, answer. Maybe he didn’t want to say that life had changed her; that she, like many women, had been worn out by having and raising children and had become like any one of them. “But maybe you’re thinking of someone else? Maybe another woman named Dalal Abbashi? Maybe there’s more than one person with that name?” “I know. We have several people in the family named Aziz.” “Maybe it’s the same with Dalal?” “It could be possible. I don’t know all of them, in any case.”
*** That man Aziz had only been messing around. He didn’t say a word that indicated he’d known Dalal or a single thing about her. Regardless, I always remembered, in the years after, how he stood before me and Souad, and remembered his gaze, bisected by glasses, and my uncertainty about everything he’d said. I could have behaved with the same nonchalance with which I told Souad when she, still standing between the couple, turned her hand inquiringly to ask: “What? Anything?” I replied, also with a gesture, my hand shooing something away, that no: I’d learned nothing.
But the man, despite all this, had managed to push aside the Dalal Abbashi I’d known and place another Dalal Abbashi beside her: a woman in her forties. A woman who would grow even older than her forties, year after year. Yet I could keep them separate: the Dalal I knew, at the age I knew her, and that woman whom my imagination couldn’t quite piece together into a whole.
*** Sometimes, I think it’s a mistake for a man to take on a new job just a few steps away from the age of sixty. If the new position is not quite set and the supervisors assigned to him are still in the process of putting together the office itself, it’s even more embarrassing. In such a case, the others, his colleagues, are all youths at the early stages of their careers. There will be those who have jumped a few rungs on the corporate ladder as though they were in their thirties, even late thirties, but this won’t lessen the knowledge of his own age especially that they, from day one, will establish workplace connections, links, and bonds of fellowship, while their relationship with him will never transcend the distance of a first encounter. His attempts to befriend them will come to nothing. Those morning kisses on Tala’s cheek, who works in the same room, will make them no closer. Just as Tala won’t allow me
Hassan Daoud is a Lebanese novelist and the author of three volumes of short stories and many novels, the first of which, Binayat Mathilde (The House of Mathilde), was published in 1983.
E X C L U S I V E T O P O R TA L 9 J O U R N A L . O R G
Critical Writing: Todd Reisz, editor of the Urbanography section in Portal 9, reviews the recent issue of Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, guest-edited by Nelida Fuccaro, a scholar of urbanization in the Gulf. Ahead of the imminent opening of the fifth Marrakech Biennale, structured around the theme â€œWhere Are We Now?â€? Omar Kholeif looks back on the fourth biennale to analyze how it has previously considered, or failed to account for, its own geographic context. Stories: Contemplating the rhythms and geometry of Connaught Place, journalist Wissam Saade parses the amalgam of British imperial and Roman revival architecture in New Delhi today.
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