In Other Words | Two O’Clock on a Tuesday Afternoon by Muhammad El-Hajj
 
 
Courtesy: Salma AlGamal
 

Her mother’s old saying swung in her head like a pendulum: “Life is an unfortunate mess.” 

She settled back into the backseat of the rundown black and white taxi, the only one that would take her to Haram on that spring morning. Sometimes, when she listened to her comments about life, she felt that her mother harbored a strange kind of faith within her. A faith entirely founded on the belief that life was a perfectly-sealed cage; a trap, and the only way to pull through was to reconcile oneself to its cruelties. 

Her mother never had much love for her father, but she didn’t remember her ever fighting with him or feeling angry for herself. When he died she dressed in black for forty days and not a day less, then she quietly took it off and moved on with her life. A simple routine of domestic chores and visits with neighbors and Turkish soap operas and reading the Quran. They lived alone in the house now — her sister having moved to Dubai with her husband — like two lonely dogs in a shelter for strays.

It was hot and it seemed to her like the taxi hadn’t moved for ages. Who were all those people filling the streets on a Tuesday morning? Why wouldn’t employees just go to their offices and students to their schools and housewives to… well, to their houses, and just clear the streets for her? What was she even doing in that old, oil-smelling taxi on a Tuesday morning? It occurred to Sanaa that perhaps all those cars crowding the streets were occupied with recent divorcées, like her, on their way to pick up their belongings from abandoned apartments that weren’t theirs anymore. The thought amused her: Egypt, a nation of 90 million divorcées. She smiled bitterly as she watched a twenty-something woman in a cheap Korean car from the window, her eyes covered with large black sunglasses, which she guessed she had on to hide her own tears.

They were approaching the university, and the road was blocked. The driver turned the volume up on the radio, which was broadcasting news of the president’s visit to campus. Couldn’t the president find a better day to visit the university? Now she was stuck, it appeared, with no way out. What way out could there possibly be in Cairo, anyway? Millions upon millions struggling for space, desperate for some kind of divine intervention to save them from an inevitable fate, with no chance for salvation. Her eyes wandered to the clock on the university tower; it was eleven. She asked the driver to turn back and take Murad Street. It had been three months since the divorce and ever since then she had steered clear of that part of the city. Wounds that hadn’t healed, deep canyons forever dug in her memory. 

Murad Street was packed, the Haram Tunnel was packed, and it seemed that she and the driver would be spending the next hour together. A sudden panic gripped her, for a second she considered opening the door and running in the opposite direction. But where would she go? Everywhere was overflowing with people. She wanted to close her eyes and open them to find herself gazing at the horizon from the peak of Mount Sinai. She closed them anyway. Why not? Surely there were stranger things in the world than a woman disappearing from the backseat of a taxi in the heart of Cairo only to reappear on top of a mountain. The frantic car horns faded out. She opened her eyes. Nothing. She was still in the tunnel.  

Her chest tightened. Amal had said she was willing to accompany her to the apartment to help her gather what she’d left there, because she’d grown sick of her incessant complaints that her mother wouldn’t go instead of her. She’d called Amal in the morning but she hadn’t picked up. She could have put off the whole thing for another day, but she told herself that perhaps she could do it with no major damages. What was she afraid of, anyway? The memories? Would the memories be more painful than the reality of her present? Her mother, her stagnant life, the loneliness. She tossed and turned between hope and desperation countless times each day, even sleep brought no respite. 

It was eleven-thirty now. She would need two hours to pack her things, maybe three. It didn’t matter how long it would take as long as she left before Saif returned from work at six. Then she would go home, and she would sleep. Or maybe she would leave her room for a change and exchange some silence with her mother in front of her Turkish show. She didn’t really have any plans for the night; no plans for the weekend, no plans for the rest of her life. 

They were drawing nearer to the house. She asked the driver to take a U-turn, he did with a frustrated sigh. She asked him to turn right, he glared at her in the rearview mirror. She knew he was thinking that he wouldn’t have driven her had she been more accurate about her destination; she only said she was going to Haram and he had probably assumed that meant the main street, not Khatim al-Morsaleen, where they were clearly headed now. For a moment she thought he was going to ask her to get off on the corner and continue on foot, but it seemed he decided to spare them both the argument. 

Another villa demolished to make space for yet another towering building. Adjacent piles of red brick and sand and bags of cement. Destruction, construction. Strange, she could hardly recognize the neighborhood although she left it not that long ago. She watched the grocery stores and the kiosks and the familiar faces go by in silence. She had lived there once, but it seemed like another life.  

They stopped in front of the building. She handed the driver 40 pounds. He turned around and shot her a menacing look. She gave him another ten and stepped out of the taxi. So much for her plan to ask him to stick around and pick her up at one. She glanced up at the balcony, wondering if anything had changed. Everything was the same, though. The balcony didn’t seem to miss her, her absence seemed to affect nothing at all. She entered the building, feeling heavier with each step. The elevator wouldn’t accept her key; it seemed the lock had been changed. She sighed and started up the stairs. 

She grew tired by the fifth floor. She stopped to catch her breath, cursing the stubborn streak that made her return to this place when she knew better. Were some pots and pans and a few books and a wedding dress really worth the hassle? And in this weather! She had wanted to send Saif a message, that she was ready to go on with her life. He must be laughing. What life? They both knew the truth. Soon she would be turning thirty-five; the world was no longer her oyster. The thought filled her with resentment. She was just about to continue on her way up when the door next to her opened: “Sanaa!”

It was Olfat, their sweet, newlywed neighbor who’d moved into the building a year ago with her husband. Former neighbor. Sanaa’s mind raced — she had specifically decided to come on a Tuesday morning to make sure only the older housewives would be there, she didn’t know most of them anyway. Now suddenly she had to deal with Olfat’s friendliness and make sure none of her sorrow showed on her face. 

“Olfat, how are you?” Sanaa said through clenched teeth. But Olfat didn’t seem to notice her uneasiness, as though Sanaa’s greeting alone was enough to lift the awkwardness of the situation. She leaned in and hugged Sanaa, who in turn prayed that the other woman wouldn’t notice her trembling. 

“I ordered some groceries and I was expecting the delivery guy to get the wrong apartment as usual, so when I heard footsteps I thought it must be him,” Olfat said. “How come you didn’t stop by for a chat? I really miss you.”

Olfat talked and talked but Sanaa wasn’t listening, she was racking her brain for a way to end the conversation without seeming rude. But it was exhausting; she was too rankled to care what Olfat thought of her right now. She would leave and explain later.

“I miss you too, Olfat. Listen, I would love to stay and chat but I have to run upstairs to get my things before Saif comes home — you know what divorce is like,” she said with a forced smile. Then she almost bit her tongue. “You know what divorce is like”? What kind of a dumb sentence was that? Why would someone in their early twenties who’d barely been married a year know anything about divorce? 

Well, at least she succeeded in getting Olfat to stop talking. The younger woman’s face fell, and she took a step backward to her threshold. “Of course, I’m sorry for keeping you,” she said. “I’m free today, let me know if you need any help.” 

Sanaa smiled and nodded, then resumed her trek to the eighth floor. The door lock met her with some resistance at first, but soon gave in to her expert touch. She knew she had to slightly pull first, then nudge it open. She froze for a moment, then practically pushed herself in and closed the door. As she had expected, the apartment was drowning in dust and chaos. A cockroach scuttled nearby, she ignored it and headed straight towards the bedroom.

Even though she could guess from the state of the apartment that no woman had set foot in it for a while, probably since she left it, the first thing she checked was the dustbin next to his bed. A quick look was enough to assure her there were no used condoms in there. She ran her palm against the sheets; no female hairs. She heaved a sigh of relief. She wasn’t ready for this kind of information. She threw herself facedown on the bed and lay still for a few minutes.

She could smell him in the linen folds. Sweat, tobacco, fast food. She missed him badly. The last few months had been rough, between attempts to adapt to his absence and illusions that he would be back. And in between she would remember and forget then remember again. Her friends were angry at him, and each time they’d badmouth him she’d get up and leave, until at some point she decided she could no longer handle the bitterness, and she stopped seeing them altogether. Was it really the bitterness, though? 

At one of their weekly gatherings, two other divorcées — acquaintances of hers, she wouldn’t call them friends — were present. Amid the smoke that rose from their shishas in the lavish café by the Nile where they usually met, they started talking about love and disappointment. Each of them told a story about their divorce: another woman; constant battles for control with the mother-in-law. Then one of them asked Sanaa about her story, and she recounted it. But she spoke about their love, about their stormy marriage, about the sun that would rise after hours of vigorous lovemaking. She told them everything she remembered, until she realized she had no story about the breakup itself. No story. What was she to say? The revolution was defeated? They would laugh, of course they would laugh. There are many things to be said about revolutions, but do they end marriages? They’d suffered no great losses — they were both alive, their loved ones were alright, and neither of them had gone to prison — but they could never break free. She had tried and tried to reclaim the life they’d had before, but it was gone, irrevocably. Her old friends wouldn’t bring it back, nor would a thousand outings by the Nile. She no longer joined them after that night, spending most of her days at home, next to her mother, in front of the TV.  

She rose from the bed and headed towards the window in an attempt to quiet the flow of her thoughts, but there was no escape there. God, how she hated Cairo. Red brick and rancid water ran through the city’s veins like a disease. She glanced at her watch. Almost an hour had passed since she’d been there and she hadn’t even started what she’d come for. She went into the kitchen and took out some cardboard boxes she’d stored in the cabinet under the sink. She had kept them there in case they needed them at any point; she hadn’t imagined she’d be using them to carry all traces of her out of their home. Where should she begin? The books? The clothes? The utensils? She hadn’t left behind much clothing, only her wedding dress and a few nightgowns. She decided she would start with the books, there were many of them. 

The bookcase was just as she’d left it, old and staggering beneath the weight. They had bought it from a ramshackle Downtown store selling used furniture, and the salesman had moved it and done the assembling himself. It wasn’t until later that they realized why he was eager to be rid of it; one of the shelves collapsed, and a crack ran across one of its sides. Sanaa had wanted to return it and give the guy a piece of her mind, while Saif insisted on proving himself as a man by fixing it. He failed, of course, but some mysterious arrangement kept it standing. And now, as Sanaa stood before it, her life seemed to her so much like this old and tired bookcase, kept intact by some mysterious arrangement she couldn’t fathom. 

Le Petit Prince, hers. She’d bought the copy from one of the booksellers on the sidewalk outside the university, hoping she’d be able to read it in its original language someday. The margins were filled with notes scribbled by a French literature student; names of Oum Kolthoum songs, naive attempts at poetry. She knew she would never read the book when she found herself going back to it every now and then only to reread the girl’s musings, never the text itself. 

A Tale of Two Cities, that one was hers, too. That opening line. She couldn’t  remember how many times she’d recited it to herself over the past few years: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” She’d find herself thinking of Dickens’ words as she walked through the streets of Cairo, thinking why the revolution had to wreck poor Sydney Carton’s life; why the revolution had to trample upon their bodies; upon her marriage — so fragile, so powerless. 

Telling his books from hers was easy. Most of the history books were his, except for one on the history of sex, and most of the fiction was hers, except for Naguib Mahfouz’s works. The books piled up in her box: Marquez, Allende, Pushkin, Dickens, Chekhov, In Search of Lost Time — she’d be taking it to its third home now without ever having read it. As she removed the seven volumes from the shelf she noticed a slim booklet in the back. She reached for it, her hand trembling slightly. She flipped through the pages, sat down on the floor next to the bookcase, and read. 

 

“All the poems I wrote for you

I was in my room 

And you were in your bed, in your far-off home

Now what will it look like

The poem I write 

Standing before you?”

 

She placed the book next to her and surrendered to the tears that fell down her face. Had she fallen in love with him because he chose those particular verses to tell her about his feelings? 

Contrary to his name, he was shy. They had met in a committee meeting, back when the revolution was still at its peak. They were young and reveling in their victory, certain that the best was yet to come. He loved her in silence for a full year, until one night he sent her those verses. She decided then that she wouldn’t let him off the hook, she would make him say it. “I don’t get it,” she texted him back, playing dumb. He was sheepish but equally angry: “What do you mean you don’t get it?” He was ripe for the taking. 

The next day he passed by her workplace during lunch. She asked him to accompany her to a friend’s place nearby — she, her friend, was out of town and had asked her to feed her cat. He went with her, and as soon as they entered the apartment he grabbed her wrist, pulled her towards him and kissed her. He bit her lower lip, she moaned, he backed away and apologized and told her she was his first. He blushed when she said she didn’t believe him. He was five years younger than she was, and in his flustered vulnerability he seemed to her almost like a child. An overwhelming tenderness consumed her. She pressed herself against him and kissed him, and he kissed her, and they made love — on the cold tiles of that small apartment in Garden City, they made love for the first time. Up until that moment she had envisioned her life a certain way, after it she abandoned all of her old plans. As she lay on the floor, watching him get dressed, she thought to herself, “This is unlike anything I’ve ever known before.” She wondered now if it was the poem. But no, probably not.

Her phone rang, startling her. It was her mother. The sound was penetrating her entire body. She swiftly reached out to silence it, and wiped her tears as though afraid that her mother would see her. She took a deep breath and answered in a steady voice. Her mother didn’t want anything in particular, she was probably feeling guilty that she wasn’t with her and she just wanted to make sure everything was okay. There was nothing okay about anything, actually, particularly about how she was right now. Who would be okay when it feels as though a balcony complete with all its plants and flowers has just fallen down on their head? Sanaa reassured her mother with a few brief words, told her she’ll be leaving in fifteen minutes or so, then hung up and switched off her phone so it wouldn’t startle her again. 

She threw the poetry book on top of the pile in the cardboard box and got up off the floor. She glimpsed her face in the glass of the parlor window; her eyeliner had leaked down her face with the tears. It was alright, it was going to be alright. There’s no meaning to life without pain. Or perhaps there’s no meaning to life at all, she thought to herself and smiled. She headed to the bathroom and took another look at her face in the mirror above the sink. Her eyes were tired, her lips dry. She couldn’t find soap so she opened the cabinet to see if there was a bar inside. It was empty but for one box of medicine. Cipralex. Good. Perhaps their marriage would have lasted another year if he’d taken her advice to see a therapist. Two years, perhaps; or a lifetime filled with Cipralex tablets. 

She washed her face and left the bathroom, glancing at her watch. Another hour had gone by. Fuck! That damn apartment had a strange way of making time dissipate into nothing. How many years had she spent with him? It didn’t matter, she had to leave. There wasn’t much left to pack anyway, just the utensils; a few decorative items in the parlor and the bedroom; and her wedding dress. She walked back to the bookcase, lifted the box of books and placed it next to the front door then took an empty one and entered the bedroom. 

The ceramic lamp was hers. The red matryoshka dolls as well. The leather plant pots. The bronze figure of Ganesha, the bedsheets with the multi-colored triangles, the small kilim from Siwa. The room started to look different as she gathered her things from its corners. It brought her a measure of comfort. He was going to miss them, at least. Oh, how she missed him. 

In the parlor, she continued to strip the walls and the small scattered tables of more pieces she’d lovingly gathered through the years, carefully placing them in the box. It was quarter past one now. She wished she could go back to the bedroom and fall asleep on their bed — for five minutes, for an hour, for an eternity and a day — but she knew she shouldn’t. No use looking for rest in a bed that had abandoned her long before she abandoned it. She sighed, reached out for two more boxes, and headed to the kitchen. 

Should she take the blender? It was a gift from her mother, but she knew he liked to use it to make smoothies sometimes. For a minute she considered taking it just to spite him, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. She would decide later. The stainless steel pots she took without hesitation, he could replace those easily. The dining set she’d agonized over choosing, she took that as well. The pyrex dishes, the grater, the Moroccan tajine. The kettle, the clay pot. She filled both boxes to the brim and she wasn’t done yet. She looked around at the near-empty kitchen and she felt dizzy. She hadn’t eaten since the day before. Oh well, why not? She’ll have a sandwich then pack up the rest of her things and go. She opened the fridge, there was nothing inside but a small pack of cheese. She hadn’t expected much more anyway. She took out a bag of bread from the freezer then opened a cupboard in search of a clean plate. But everything was in the sink; it was overflowing with dirty dishes. She picked up a plate and washed it. 

She was about to head to the microwave to heat the bread, but something stopped her. Her eyes moved back to the sink and the dishes that filled it, as though she’d been exposed to a strange, beautiful weakness. In their final months Saif had used silence as a shield, against everything. She’d remember how he was when they first met; vulnerable and impulsive and disarmingly gentle, and she’d wonder what on earth had happened to them. And now she stood in front of that tower of dirty dishes and wondered the same thing. What kind of life was that he lived without her? How could he leave their love behind? Perhaps they had to break up to realize the value of what they had? Perhaps this was only an exercise after which they’d finally go back to the way things were? 

The night before they decided to end it, they were coming back home from a party at a friend’s place. In the taxi, she reached out for his hand, but he pulled away without looking at her, then silently gestured towards the driver, as though pointing out his presence to her. He had never cared about such things before, but in those final months he started becoming a lot more vigilant when they were on the street. Perhaps if they’d been born in another city their love would have survived; perhaps if they’d been born in another city they would have never met. A twenty-five-year-old librarian from Shubra and a thirty-year-old lawyer from Maadi. He often asked her whether she thought they would have met had the revolution never happened. She believed that they would, she’d tell him with a false certainty. But the truth was it would’ve been impossible for their worlds to intersect otherwise. She knew it and he knew it. They needed a revolution to come together, and without its triumph their love, too, stood no chance at victory. She was filled with an overwhelming pity — for them, for the heaviness they shared through no fault of their own, simply because the world wasn’t fair. She turned on the faucet, picked up a sponge and started scrubbing. 

As was her habit, she started with the toughest ones. Layers of grit in the frying pan, rotting remains in a neglected pot on the counter. Several failed attempts at cooking, it seemed, which culminated in the discarded packages of fast food she found in his room. He was still a child. They fell in love and he instantly asked her to marry him. He’d always dealt with the world with an open heart, and she followed suit — back then she genuinely thought they were invincible. But Cairo beat them; it pulled them apart the same way the onslaught of tear gas would scatter a protest. 

Between the public disappointment and the sadness they lived in private, there was no point going on. They tried to ignore it all until one of his friends disappeared and another left the country, then the silence began to reign. The euphoria of the first two years died down and the years of blood rolled in. Their day-to-day became a constant game of dodging the reality that they were alive and free when their friends were either in prison or in exile or in their graves. At one point she told him she was considering asking to be moved to her firm’s office in Dubai, in an attempt to build a new life for themselves, but he wouldn’t have any of it. “Am I going to be a librarian there?” She sighed in desperation, and then she fell silent too. She wished now that she’d dragged him on the plane, but a nightmare she had where she saw them standing on top of a tall glass tower had scared her. At least he wouldn’t kill himself if he were living in the same city as his parents, she’d told herself then. She fought back the urge to cry again. No amount of tears would do.

She was so immersed in washing the dishes that she didn’t hear the key click in the lock of the apartment door. She only heard the door close and a loud cough from the parlor. “Fuck!” She muttered under her breath, a sudden weakness in her knees. She hadn’t told him she was coming today, but he knew from Amal that she would be picking her things up at some point during the week. She heard him cough again; it seemed from the sound of it that he had a cold — perhaps that was why he was home early? She checked her watch; it was ten to two. Had she been lingering because she was hoping to see him? She didn’t know, but there he was anyway. She could feel him following in her tracks through the apartment: he stopped by the bookcase, then headed towards the bathroom, then he walked out and into the bedroom. She didn’t turn around. She struggled to keep her breathing steady and continued to wash the dishes, until she heard him walk into the kitchen. 

Another violent cough. She was aching to turn around, to look at him. Was his light beard still there, or had he shaved it? And his hair? Had he lost weight on this sad diet of burnt food and greasy sandwiches? Which shirt was he wearing — was it the blue shirt she’d bought him from Dubai on a visit to her sister? Were his glasses smudged, waiting for her to gently remove them off his nose and wipe them on her blouse? He pulled out a chair and sat down, coughing again. Why wasn’t he talking? Why wouldn’t she turn around? She heard the chair screech against the floor once more as he stood up. She closed her eyes. She could feel him coming closer. Her entire body felt feverish, longing for his hands. Somewhere in her head Ella Fitzgerald was singing “The Nearness of You.” She’d seen that dream before. She left her body, and from a distance she looked at them standing there in that tiny kitchen. He held her from behind and kissed her neck, she tilted her head to give his lips better access. She turned around. She yearned for him as he yearned for her. “Come,” he whispered.

Ella stopped singing. She snapped out of her daydream to the sound of the bedroom door slamming shut. She turned around. Saif wasn’t there. She bit down on her lip. She felt pathetic. The water was still pouring down from the faucet on her hands and half the dishes remained in the sink, still dirty. She was about to continue washing them, but then she threw the sponge in the sink and tapped the faucet shut. How stupid was she? She looked around the kitchen, her things scattered on every surface, waiting to be tucked into her boxes. She started packing the utensils, one by one, and the futility of it all hit her like a wave. She didn’t need the stainless steel pots, nor did she need the dining set. She knew she would never reread all those books, nor would she ever find the time or the energy to read In Search of Lost Time. Her father had given her the matryoshka dolls as a gift when she was a little girl and the truth was they’d always scared her. And she loathed the apartment, and the neighborhood, and the whole goddamn country. Saif left her, and he wasn’t coming back. He left her with the casualness of someone who took off a sock, smelled it, then threw it on a pile of laundry. He left her not because the revolution was defeated, nor because Cairo was an abominable city — he left her because he had never loved her enough, because he wasn’t yet done with his twenties and she was in her mid-thirties, because he wanted to shed the layers that weighed him down and walk lighter through life. 

She would allow herself to fall. She knew she would eventually manage to get up, but there was no need to rush it. Life would go on, despite everything. She was going to meet another man, who she was going to love and who was going to love her as well as she and Saif had loved each other. 

She checked her watch. It was two now. She reached into her pocket and took out her keychain. She removed the key to the apartment from the ring and placed it quietly on the wobbly table next to the bookcase. She left her boxes behind and she walked out. 

In Other Words is a new series of translated excerpts from contemporary Arabic literary works, by emerging or established authors, published in English for the first time. For a long time, the process of selecting works written in Arabic for translation, which gives them the opportunity to reach a wider audience and to potentially join the ever-expanding canon of “world literature” (as problematic as that term is), has been largely confined to a designated community of “gatekeepers” — mostly made up of Western publishers and translators — who decide which narratives they deem most “representative” of the region and are therefore worthy of traversing cultural borders and crossing over to other parts of the world.

By offering translated glimpses of works that we believe are significant — in their language, format, or thematic resonance — we are attempting, at least in part, to perhaps effect that selection process by bringing more attention to stories that we think deserve to travel far and wide. We hope to create more space for diverse voices from the region to be heard elsewhere, not for what they “represent,” but for the unique, singular vision each of them provides. 

*For full disclosure, the author, Muhammad El-Hajj, is married to Mada Masr’s culture editor and is an occasional contributor to the site.
AD
 
 
Muhammad El-Hajj 
 
 

You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism
survives.