ISSUE #3 FICTION: CONTEMPORARY ARABIC AND RUSSIAN PURSUITS, AUTUMN 2013
CREATIVE WRITING
As She Once Was
For years, I did this every day, alone, by myself, without Jaber, who never stopped berating me. That was my daily path. It used to tire me out, or to be more precise, it tired my feet while I remained relaxed above them, always expecting something to come of that small hope. She would surely come, that day, she would come, for wasn’t her house the one over there, to my right as I continued on my way down?

Excerpt from the novella:

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 ninety-eight 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 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 walking among the few passersby, sharing this space that snakes between the buildings.?I don’t think I am noticed, or perhaps those who see me don’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 they’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.”

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 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.”

***

Translated from the Arabic by Lina Mounzer

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ABOUT AUTHOR
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.
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