Mona is a genre-spanning attorney who writes credit agreements by day and fiction by night. She may or may not have written a novel in chart form. Egyptian-Canadian and a series of things besides, she loves literary tricksters and zombie apocalypses equally. She and her partner are working on their first novel.
2nd place - 2013 Raymond Carver Contest
I am letting you listen to Ahmed’s thoughts. It’s important that you know this, because he only speaks Arabic, he only thinks in Arabic, and that’s not a language you understand.
This is important. Really, he doesn’t think like you. I could throw in some atmospheric words—think habibi and shukran; gamil, kifeyah, kalas—words you might even recognize from movies or could extract the meaning from by context, and unless you’re a native Arabic speaker, you still wouldn’t understand. What I think you do understand is this: Ahmed isn’t from where you’re from. He doesn’t have any special interest in talking to you. I’m the one who thinks you should know.
The tower of Babel shattered a million years ago, but we translators are nothing if not failed architects. We remain interested in meaning, its fragments and its fossils.
So: I am going to lead you through this as efficiently as I can. Try and think of me as the black marks on the page that’ll short cut you into Ahmed’s head. And it’s troubled in there. What in English you would call depressed, maybe. Not very depressed. Just a little. The small depressed that follows too many days of doing the same thing again, again, again.
Please bear in mind that Ahmed definitely isn’t angry. He doesn’t want to be thought of as another “angry Arab”—if he thinks about you at all, you the foreigner, you the person with the gineh in your pocket, that’s his only concern. He hates being perceived by you as someone who’s got no interior life except rage.
Don’t worry. He’s not going to blow himself up, or set himself on fire. Ahmed doesn’t go in for that kind of thing. It’s you who’s carting around all those implications: colonialism or colonial rage. Terrorism or its profits. Or you might be kind of Coetzee about it, with the melancholy and the loneliness; the thin, arterial alleys, haunted by stray dogs and the pale haze of despair that settles in prose like dust on ancient skin. I promise you, none of this has any bearing on what’s in Ahmed’s heart or mind. It won’t help with the translation.
I’m sorry. This is antagonistic. But I need to correct the usual errors of sentiment before we start. Otherwise you won’t understand.
At its best, translation is ninety percent failure. Without context, it’s pure sabotage.
Anyway. Enough with the chattering. On to Ahmed. He’s sitting at his fruit stand, and he’s looking at his fruit. He’s not in Queens or Dearborn or Chicago, or any of those other places in Amriika you might find your common, domestic Arab. He’s in Egypt—the guts of Cairo to be exact, dirty as shit, where the air stains your lungs and you cough black when you leave—and he’s got hot fava beans in his stomach, and bread. His belly rolls out over his thighs. He feels it move, a pregnancy of old fat, when he breathes. There’s a cigarette between his teeth. His nails are stained: yellow in the places they’re not stained brown.
He keeps on looking at the pomegranate. The big one that he’s shoved on top of the lemons, away from the other pomegranates. I like to avoid transliteration where I can, but he’s thinking the Arabic word for it a lot, so here it is: rummân. This is it in cursive (read right to left): رمان. The trilateral root is r-m-n.
There’s nothing romantic about the pomegranate. It doesn’t taste the way it sounds or anything like that. And today’s pomegranates in today’s fruit stall, where Ahmed’s still smoking his cigarette, are dirty. No sinful jewel-red here. Just the grit of exhaust that’s on them like the grit of exhaust that’s on everything in Cairo, and there are flies because there are always flies. The particular pomegranate he’s looking at features a particular fly that rubs its compound eyes with its legs like a housecat preening.
Ahmed doesn’t really have any real reason to be staring at the pomegranate. He just is. Nobody’s buying fruit today, and because this isn’t Khan-el-Khalili and there are very few of you foreigners around, he’s not trying to change that. The people will buy the fruit if they want the fruit. He’s not going to force it. He’s tired. He doesn’t want to anymore.
So there’s the fruit, and the fly. He watches the fly as it stops petting itself and starts doing what it is flies do on fruit that’s been handled too many times by the hands of sweaty men, which is to stick out then pull back that sponge-mouth over and over and over again. Walk a bit. Repeat. Greedy, quick and agitated, it sucks on the round, dirty fruit. Baby at a tit. Old man at a tit. Eat until full. Swallow until dry.
Ahmed keeps smoking his cigarette. He hasn’t blinked in a while. The smoke starts him tearing up, and he coughs the way he’s coughed for ten years. His wife doesn’t care, although she did her duty and told him he should stop smoking. He snorts up the tar-flavored snot. He hacks it out. It lands on the ground with a wet squelsh. All this he does without moving his eyes.
He has not fed on his wife in the way this fly feeds on this pomegranate in years. He can’t remember when he had the urge. Only Cairo sits in his lap now, and she is heavy, and she has rancid armpits. She cries his name in car horns, and she’s always screaming like she’s giving birth feet first.
I should interrupt here to tell you that this is a bit of a clever turn of phrase in Ahmed’s mind. It’s not melodramatic, like it sounds in English. He thinks it’s funny because Cairo—as you may know—is referred to by Egyptians as Umm al-Dunya, or the “Mother of the World.” Certain cynical Lebanese at the American University in Beirut used to play with the phrase, call it the “Toilet of the Middle East,” but that’s neither here nor there. Try and say it. The “u” of the “Umm” is long and low in the throat. Round your lips, push a little harder than in English. Does saying it help with the joke?
Back to Ahmed, who’s smiling at his own quip. This is not a day where the kids are in Tahrir. He suspects time will beat them, not politics, and he says this at the café, when he drinks his tea, to his friends that will listen. Time beats everyone, and still there are the same men on the television that were there years ago, trying to get their power. He doesn’t watch them anymore because the excitement has worn off. His son has brought them a new satellite dish, so he prefers the soaps.
There is one on right now about a Sultan in old Constantinople. The actors are Turkish but the dub is pretty good. A few episodes ago, the man, the Sultan, was in a coma for months and he just woke up, like that! So many hundreds of years ago, and he just woke up, with no drugs, no water, no nurses. His lips weren’t even chapped. Ahmed’s other son, the second youngest one, who is a doctor, laughed. Said it wasn’t possible.
—No way, he didn’t even eat, Baba. Just no way. He’d be so dead. This is a fact.
Everyone in Egypt is a doctor. Ahmed’s young son has three medical degrees and no job and he takes the fruit stand on days when Ahmed can’t. It’s sad. The boy tried so hard, and nothing. There are no jobs in Cairo and he can’t even move to Saudi. There are too many Egyptians, they say, already in Saudi. Can’t take any more damn Egyptian doctors.
Note: given the stress I’ve just put on the adjective, I should say that I’ve left something out. Egyptians do not call Egypt, “Egypt.” The name of the country is “Misr.” You should pronounce it “Masr” as Egyptians do. Once, it was called “Kemet,” which is a name that is older than God. Ahmed doesn’t actually know this name, but he feels ownership of its endless oldness, the prosperity that once blossomed between the legs of the Nile. There is pride there, for an ancient nation that no longer exists. He uses it to replace the pride he does not feel in the today, right-now nation that also does not exist.
Okay, so there’s Ahmed and he’s staring at the pomegranate, and he’s thinking these thoughts (though he’s no longer smoking his cigarette because it’s done), and what happens is that it takes him a while to notice the guy. The one across the street. He’s dressed like a policeman, this guy, but that’s no reason to believe he is.
What’s important about this guy is that he’s staring in that smile-less way that everyone who’s got authority they’re about to misuse stares. He starts walking over, and Ahmed sighs. He drums his yellow-stained fingers on his drum-shaped stomach and he waits. He licks his lips to try and save some of the taste of the tobacco, but he just gets soot, and the garlic from his fava beans.
Foul, we call the beans, so you know. Foul moudammas. And there are lots of jokes about this food, and Ahmed would tell them because he likes jokes, but there’s no time right now, because wait—
—Where is your permit?
These were the words Ahmed knew this guy was going to say, and they get said, on time. He smiles and there’s still no smile in return. His eyes flick to the officer’s gun on his shoulder. This is going to be a bad day, he thinks.
—I said, where is your permit?
The truth is Ahmed doesn’t have a permit. He has never had a permit because when he applied for the permit ten years ago he did not ever get the permit and he did have a wife that he had to feed on and feed, so he just started selling the fruit. But he lies because that’s what’s done.
He makes a show of fumbling. His fingers are greasy, so the grease gets on his clothes. But his clothes were already dirty from before, so it doesn’t make any difference.
—I don’t have it, the permit, now. It’s at home. I thought I carried it with me this morning, but no, it’s not here.
Ahmed tries the smile again. No luck. The policeman is young. Is he a part of the New Egypt? The smile was fake before but when Ahmed thinks of New Egypt, he wants to laugh.
—I don’t believe you have a permit.
Ahmed starts getting blustery. We Arabs get blustery when you catch us in a lie. We try and force the lie back with anger, but we are mostly angry because you were impudent enough not to believe us. How dare you not believe us?
This is not something that needs a lot of translation.
Ahmed goes on. He moves his hands down so his fingers find the crease of his pocket. Already he’s looking for the gineh. Perhaps you will think this is a bribe, or perhaps you are worldly and know this is the price for doing business in these small brown colonized countries. Ahmed just thinks he wants this man to go away. He is slightly bored.
—I do. I do have one, I just don’t have it now. Not right now. Later.
The man’s face is even more youthful than his body. He can’t be older than the absolute youngest son of Ahmed. Not the doctor but the one after, the one with the skinny fingers and the eyes like a girl’s eyes. This man’s eyes are not like a girl’s. They are the black of flint or cinders or tires.
This is the statement that Ahmed has been waiting for. The cue for the gineh. He pulls it out of his pocket, the bills a little wet from the sweat of his sweaty hand, the sweat the fly ate. He holds it out without a word, and because the paper is wet, it droops.
Feeling oddly bawdy, Ahmed thinks it looks a little like an erection that has lost some steam. He smiles bigger. Unintentionally.
The way the man reacts is new to Ahmed. It’s not the reaction of all the other men faced with some cash in a city where there is never enough cash for anyone. He steps forward. He grabs the bottom part of the part of the fruit cart that the fruit rests on. The flat part. Ahmed does not know the word “leverage” in either Masry (that’s Egyptian) or English, but he understands that that is the part a policeman would grab if he wanted to turn the fruit cart upside down. If he wanted to take Ahmed’s not very good fruit and make it worse, make it unsellable, make it unsafe to eat.
Ahmed tries to get up from his chair but the old fat stops him. Still sitting on his lap, Cairo makes him too heavy to move.
There’s a lot of noise as everything just falls. The fruit go one way. The cart goes the other. A lot of clatter. Really, a lot of clatter and the sounds that hard fruit make when they hit something harder. It’s a big mess. Bananas are all over the place.
The man’s eyes are just too angry now. His lips are wet and they look red. His nostrils flare.
The other time Arabs get blustery is when they think you are insulting them. This is especially true for young men, for whom honor—not heavy, overblown, don’t-look-at-my-wife/sister/daughter honor, but the other kind, the kind about something that is distantly “right” and not “wrong”—is much more important than you think. Anyway:
—Are you trying to mock me? Why? What do you think, you think I don’t do my job for twenty gineh? You think I’m like them? Keep the gineh. Keep it and bring the permit. Or don’t come back. I want. To see. The permit.
I am, by the way, very sorry about all the italics, but it’s the only way I can describe to you the spirit of what the policeman is saying. He’s very angry. Beneath his uniform, his chest heaves like the breast of an animal. He does not look so young anymore. Rage turns all of us into parents.
The particular pomegranate Ahmed was staring at rolls across the street. He watches it go. It lands in the raised part of the road, where the street meets the sidewalk. Nobody is looking. Nobody ever does. They still don’t want the fruit.
With all his strength, Ahmed creaks out of his chair. After a second, he says all the words he can.
—I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I—I get the permit, okay. Okay?
Ahmed doesn’t say habibi. I suspect this is a word you might know. Movies use it too much. Not everybody is habibi. It’s habebty, by the way, for a girl.
Air goes out of the policeman the way it goes out of a very small child trying to blow up a very big balloon. He gets smaller, de-ages again. And Ahmed watches his throat at the Adam’s apple to see if he will speak again, but he doesn’t. He makes one of those gestures that you will know if you have spent any time anywhere in the Middle East, Israel included.
It is not a gesture of defeat, exactly. It is also not one of exasperation. If I had to place it anywhere, I would place it in the grey place where the flick of a wrist is an action that means something like throwing away. He is discarding Ahmed, the policeman. He’s done.
Alone, Ahmed looks at his fruit cart, still bleeding fruit. But as I said, there are now no more words in Ahmed’s head, no thoughts I can share with you, translated or not.
I’ll still try. Perhaps “shit” comes closest, but it’s sadder than “shit.” Here’s where you should be sad.
Ahmed puts his eyes back on the pomegranate. He keeps them there. Unconsciously, he waits for the fly to return, but it does not, and the pomegranate is lonely.
Eventually, he sits back down. He lights another cigarette but does not smoke it. He takes his thumb and the first two fingers of his right hand—the fingers that hold the cigarette—and he cradles his brow, not thinking.
It’s the not thinking that’s the important part.
Do you understand?