TRANSLATED BY GHENWA HAYEK
I lean back on the chair, placing my head on the edge of the seat and my legs on the back of the chair that looks like a couch… A cold blast of air comes from behind the glass screen that separates me from the departure area . . . I adjust the collar of my jacket around my neck; in this autumn weather, keeping warm is impossible . . . I glance at Aziz, wrapped up in himself, and stare at his glasses with their thick lenses, one arm of which snapped off two weeks ago.
A third day has gone by, and we’re stuck in Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. The flight we missed three days ago leaves again tomorrow morning. After our passports had been stamped for departure, we couldn’t return to the city; as soon as the border officer saw our green passports, he waved his hands, muttering: “Non . . . non.”
So we found ourselves living in the airport waiting room, whiling away the time in talk and more talk, and watching the travellers who would sit for a few minutes, then jump up and board their departing flights, while we counted minute after boring minute. Nothing remained of the five hundred francs that had survived our spending spree in Paris except for a few francs that weren’t even enough for breakfast at the airport café.
We had eaten the last remaining can of tuna for our dinner. It was midnight, and there was no one in the airport lounge save a few security guards who had got used to our entrapment in this place. The last flight from Spain had released its passengers into the autumnal Parisian night . . .
I found him lying on the bed, and he didn’t show any signs of the rest that he had stayed at home for, despite the fact that we had accomplished what we’d come to do, and were preparing to return. He didn’t feel like going out that night, so I decided to go by myself and meet up with Majed in Saint Germain.
I tried to come back early, and I found him in the dark staring at the television fixed to the wall, holding the remote control, zapping from one channel to the other. He seemed to have given up trying to hold his broken glasses to his face and had just thrown them to one side, although I know that he can’t see well without them. On the small table were breadcrumbs, and a can of tuna was in the rubbish bin.
The narrow room in that two-star hotel looked like a prison cell, and it appeared that those demons from the distant past had returned to haunt him that evening. The moon poured its light in through the curtain covering the small window nearby. He looked at me, trying to make out my features – maybe he thought that I was one of those ancient demons.
I turned the light on, and he shut his eyes against the glare. I threw my bag to one side, and waited for his eyes to reopen. I waited for him to begin talking. He smiled mysteriously and said: “You weren’t late, did you have a good time?” I replied: “I tried. I had to meet up with Majed so that I could help him move his bag from the hotel where they’d asked him to leave, and help him to find a new place to stay . . . ” I paused for a moment, and looked at the TV, showing a football game, and I continued carefully: “And you . . . it looks like you had a fun time!” I knew that I was approaching a minefield, but I was trying to emerge from it with minimal damage . . . He stretched out in the bed, reached for his glasses and put them on. “I don’t know . . . was it fun? Was it even time? And did I even spend it at all? The noise fills the room, despite its smallness.” I answered: “You should have come out with us . . . ” And as he placed his head on the pillow and wrapped the blankets around his body, he muttered: “Maybe tomorrow, maybe tomorrow.” I asked him: “Are you going to sleep?” He nodded his head affirmatively. “So, shall I turn the TV off?” He indicated that he didn’t care, so I left it on and went to change.
I asked him before I went to sleep: “By the way, did you confirm our return flight to Tripoli for the day after tomorrow?” He answered sleepily: “Yes, I did. The plane leaves at 7.30 am, and we’ll have to leave the hotel early so that we’ll make it on time.” The moonlight flooded into the room through the window. “I hope we’ll make it,” I said, as I tried to find the mattress in the dark.
I heard his snoring get louder; he always beat me to sleep, so I concluded that his demons were taking the night off, waiting for dawn. As for me, well, I had a rendez-vous with my own demons that night.
The raindrops had cleaned the street we were on, the chestnut trees were trying vainly to hold on to the last bits of green at the start of autumn, and we went out early to enjoy the last day of our trip.
Saint Michel was not crowded. The narrow cobble-stoned streets brought us closer to the old heart of Tripoli. On the sides of the alleyways were shops that sold roasted meat, kebabs, kafta, and shawarma from Turkey, Greece, Cyprus and Lebanon. At the end of the street, we decided to sit in one of the cafés, and ordered a cup of cappuccino, a cup of hot chocolate, and a few pastries.
Majed took out his elegant box of Davidoff cigarettes, placed a cigarette between his lips and lit it. I commented: “Have you really decided to take up smoking?” And he answered as he blew out his first puff: “I don’t smoke . . . This is just for fun.” I answered, smiling slyly: “Yes, fun with a deadly odour . . . ” He smiled at my joke, and said: “You know me, I like being unusual.”
I sipped at my hot chocolate . . . I felt the warmth embrace me, and fiddled with the matchbox. “You don’t need to tell me that.” At that moment, he pointed towards the other side of the street, where a pretty Parisian woman was crossing towards us. He knows that I don’t really care for such things, but I shared his enjoyment of the view . . . After she had passed, he said: “Don’t tell me you didn’t like her . . . ” I said: “She’s nice, but I’m not in the mood to enjoy looking at things I can’t touch.” He answered: “Do you know what Aziz calls our miserable situation?” So I said: “What? I hope it’s not one of your new theories!” He said: “No . . . no, he calls our situation social castration.” I yelled incredulously: “What?” And he went on: “Yes, society has castrated us, so now we’re quasi-men . . . ” I imagined myself castrated, without testicles, and winced in pain at the thought.
I beat the idea out of my mind, and said: “Enough of your foolishness. Now tell me, when’s your flight?” He drew the last drag from his cigarette and put it out in the ashtray: “Two days after yours . . . I’ll spend them idling on the banks of the Seine.”
I gulped down the last of my drink and got up to leave. “Let’s go. I don’t want to be out late tonight, Aziz and I have an early flight tomorrow.” We left the café, and walked towards the other side of the river, towards Notre Dame cathedral, whose square was filled with tourists, perhaps trying to encounter the hunchback who’d killed himself on its steps.
The smell of the rain that had fallen a few hours back had started to lift. “Did I tell you about my new theory?” he offered. I shook my head, either in nonchalance, or wanting to say no . . . I took a deep breath, and said: “No, you haven’t.” He said: “All right . . . so, here goes . . . the rose colour theory. Imagine with me that you wake up one day, and instead of seeing things and the world around you in their true colours, you see them in a rosy colour – the world has become rosy and people have become rosy, and they have taken on the softness and gentleness of that beautiful colour, and all our relationships have become rosy . . . ” The sound of a police siren as a car rushed past us paralysed my remaining senses.
The sea was calm that morning . . . The ship approached the harbour and the high towers appeared on the horizon, near the Bab al-Bahr (Seagate) Hotel. Tripoli looked fresh and radiant on that clear autumn morning. Young men went about retrieving the items they had brought with them . . . Our arrival in Malta yesterday was smooth, despite the painstaking search that we had endured before going aboard the ship that was going to take us to Tripoli. After a calm night, and a good sleep on a real bed, following the three nights spent on plastic chairs not designed for human comfort at Charles de Gaulle airport, it was as though we’d never left Tripoli at all. The ship began to manoeuvre into port.
I lifted my suitcase, and Aziz followed me until we both reached the ship’s main gate. Many young men were preparing to exit, carrying their large suitcases filled with goods bought in Malta, Turkey, Thailand and even China. You could hear them massing behind the ship’s door: a large number of them had already unwrapped the imported cigarettes, sweets and clothes, and rearranged them in their bags in a manner that would ease the search of the goods, and so as to distribute a few gifts to their acquaintances in the port and emerge with minimal collateral damage, ensuring they would make a small profit in the market.
As soon as the door opened, dozens of passengers rushed out to the customs booth to try and beat the crowd. We stood in line, waiting our turn to pass the customs officers. Not long after, our turn came. A young man who didn’t look more than seventeen was ahead of me, picking up the scattered contents of his suitcase: shirts and other clothes of different shapes and colours.
Near the officer was a stack of newspapers and magazines that had been confiscated. I knew that would happen, so I had got rid of all the Arabic and English newspapers that had accompanied me during my temporary stay at the Paris airport.
My turn came, and I tried to be smiling and affable . . . But there was no indication that this would work, and he opened my bag and inverted its contents right then and there. When he didn’t find anything valuable enough, he ordered me to open my shoulder bag, which held my study books. He asked me to take them out so he could look through them. I smiled, and said: “They’re course books . . . reading, sir.” He threw them aside, and replied curtly: “All right . . . all right . . . you can go now.” I collected my books and picked up my bags, then went over to the Port Authority window to get an entry stamp. But I had only taken a few steps when I heard a loud voice calling out to me.
“Hey . . . Hey, you there . . . Where are you off to? Stop!” Since no one had called my name, and I wasn’t the only person in the chaotic hall, I kept going . . . Then I felt a hand on my shoulder an turned my head. He said: “What . . . Did you not hear me calling you?” I replied: “What do you mean?” And he answered, as he stretched his hand towards me: “Give me that thing in your pocket . . . ” I put my bags down on the floor, and took out an English novel, answering incredulously: “Yeah, this is just a book . . . it’s a novel.” He snapped: “Let me see . . . ” He held the book upside down, and flipped through its pages nonchalantly, then handed it back to me: “All right, all right, you can go now.”
At that very moment, the ship’s horn blew and paralysed all my remaining, stunted senses . . . I went out on the street near the port’s parking lot, looking at the sky, the sea, the road, people’s faces – a pale rosy colour: the sea smells rosy, and the sun radiates its rosy warmth, even the face of my brother, who came down to meet me, is rosy.
I smiled at him, and said: “Have you heard the latest joke?” But I didn’t get the chance to tell it, before everyone began collapsing in stitches around me . . . I took a deep breath, feeling a rosy bitterness in my throat, but I laughed along with everyone else.
* Published in Banipal magazine issue (40, Libyan Fiction).
** To read the original Arabic text click here.