[Extract] Beirut39: New Writing From the Arab World

Small talk in shades of white

Extract from ‘Two Stories’ by Yassin Adnan as it appears in Making the World Legible


Look I’m getting annoyed now. If you carry on like this, I’m off. You want to know what you’ve done wrong? Why am I not surprised? For one thing, the way you’re sitting and staring at me is winding me up. You’re playing at being quiet and considerate, hoping that I take you for a civilised, intelligent man. Well, we’re not in a mosque now. We’re in a bar. And you’re really getting on my nerves. Even that smile plastered across your lips so you come across all smart and reasonable. I find it really offensive. Do you really think you’re that clever? And the other people here are shallow types who can only make small talk? No, darling, you’re wrong. Shall I tell you what’s going on in your head? You’re playing at being clever, but you’re not thinking clever. You’ve told yourself: ‘This is just another slut. She looks drunk – brilliant. I’ll only have to buy two beers and then I can invite her back to my place. She’ll probably be tired and badly in need of sleep. Just sleep. When we get home, I won’t ask her if she’s had dinner. I’ll take her straight to the bedroom. We’ll turn off the light, and we’ll sleep. Once I’ve had had my way with her, I’ll turn my back. And then, as usual, I’ll snore all the way to the morning.’ Open your eyes, my friend. Seems like you’ve fallen asleep right here in the bar. Do you really think you’ve got it all worked out? God help you. Has it occurred to you, even as a minor possibility, that the woman sat next to you is not a slut? And that she’s only drinking like this because of the pain she feels, and that she badly needs a man of substance, who can have a deep conversation and listen, really listen to her. Maybe that’s why she started talking to you. But even if I was out on the pull, what’s stopping me from thinking like you? You’re just a filthy drunk. I can down a few glasses at your expense and then give you the slip. And let’s suppose I did go back to your place with you. Who’s to say that I won’t be the one to turn my back on you after sex? Why can’t I be the one to get what I want and then slam the door behind me in the morning as I head out to get some more somewhere else, while you’re the one who stays behind to make the bed, wash the sheets, and rub off the gunk that stuck on to you while you lay back and closed your eyes in the hope of bringing back some of the heat from the night’s passion? Now who’s the slut, you or me? Oh my God, are you still smiling at me like I’m telling a joke? You really are unbearable. Do you know what annoys me about men? It’s that lack of sensitivity which gives them a superhuman ability to look at peace with themselves. You could sit there like you’re not bothered, even if your insides were on fire. Take you, for example. You look around you in the bar like it’s a strange and foreign land. The whores, the drunks, the shouting, the arguments – a madhouse. But you forget that you’re here, slap bang in the middle of the madhouse. You’ve forgotten, haven’t you? You think you’re some kind of king and these others are a troupe of actors performing in your honour. If you’re rubbing shoulders with them, it’s only because you’ve come down off your throne and stepped on to the stage. No, darling. You’ve got it wrong. The basic difference between you and me is that I actually consider myself part of this race of lowlifes. I know that I am in a stinking bar. And when I leave at the end of the night, I’m going to have to watch my step, because the likes of you feel no shame in throwing up everywhere, hurling the beer that was festering in their guts out on to the counter or in the entrance, without anyone blinking an eye. Sometimes they throw up into the laps of their lady companions, forgetting that just a few moments ago they were respectable gentlemen. I’m not claiming to be respectable. I’m just a slut. But of course you’re no better than me. You’re as loose as I am. You walked into this dump to fill up on cheap beer and take a random woman home to your bed. Can you see how we’re both the same when it comes to being worthless scum?
   That’s not to say that everyone here is a good-for-nothing. In this bar, I’ve met some real men. And they know what it means to be a man. Like that old fellow there – do you see him? – in the light brown overcoat, sitting by himself at the far end of the counter. No, that one there, behind Fateeha, the blonde. Ah, so you’re not a real boozer – who here doesn’t know him? His name is Saif Al-Mansouri, and he’s worked since forever at the National Cooperative Bank. He’s from Marrakesh, like you. He came to this city in the seventies and settled here for good. He’s here every day, bless him. I’ve known him for years, and he’s really sweet to me. Looks like he hasn’t seen me. Mister Saif… Mister Saif… He didn’t hear me. He once said to me that he prefers the noises of the bar to small talk. He can’t stand talk, whether it’s on the TV, from his wife or his kids. At least here he can lose himself in the noise and no one bothers him. Poor thing. If you knew how much he suffers. When he caught tuberculosis, everyone started avoiding him. He once said to me that even his wife kept her distance from him when they were in bed. Some of the really mean regulars gave him a nickname – Unsafe Al-Cansouri. The man’s sick and the scumbags make fun of him. It’s not the illness that he resents, it’s people. Last Saturday, he told me that he had come to an understanding with the bugs that had built a home in his lungs, and then he said: ‘But those turds would rather carry on talking about me behind my back. If I’ve got TB, it’s my chest that’s infected, it’s me that’s got to breathe with these lungs, not them, or their mothers. What can I do to look after my body at this age? I’m sixty-nine years old. I’m just dragging myself along, and I’m dragging all my years behind me as I splutter like an old train. I can tell you this, my love, there’s nothing I’ll regret more than dying while there’s still one part of my body that’s healthy. I’d rather break down gradually than burn out all of a sudden like a TV that’s had a power surge.’
   I can tell you, he really is a different sort of person. This one time, six years ago, he came out drinking with us at the Seven Dunes pub. He’d drunk a little too much, and I didn’t want to leave him in the bar like that so I took him home with me. In those days, I used to live with Samia from Rabat – do you know her? – and this other girl who emigrated to Italy and got married there. The disease hadn’t hit him yet. I won’t lie to you, we used to find him very attractive then. Once inside, I took him to my room. I pushed him gently on to the bed and lay down next to him.
   Seriously, I never feel quite myself except when I take my clothes off. I didn’t hold back. I just had my underwear on. I embraced him tightly against my chest. Did I really want him that night? I don’t know. But I
hugged him close and rained kisses on his face. When I began to unbutton his shirt, he whispered into my ears in a tired voice: ‘No Hajeeba. You are like a daughter to me… ‘ My body started shaking and I burst into tears. He had never cheated on his wife. That’s what he told me afterwards. And there was me, a slut. I was just a slut. Crying was not going to help me at that moment. I got out of bed and I began to get dressed, but he opened his eyes, and looked at me:
   ‘Stay as you are, Hajeeba,’ he said to me, ‘and come sleep next to me. I will hold you like a father; put your head on my chest and sleep. I love your white underwear. White is a noble colour, my pet. So come and sleep in my arms, safe and sound.’
   Since that night, I have always worn white underwear. White really is a noble colour. Look at the people on religious holidays, what are they wearing? White clothes. At the Friday prayer, worshippers wear white robes.
The dead are wrapped in white shrouds. At weddings, they wear white. In mourning, it’s white. As for you… Are you still smiling?! What’s that now you cheeky sod? You want to check the colour of my bra for yourself?
Then cough up the price of beer, you cheapskate. Don’t worry about dinner. I’ll treat you to a light meal at the Travellers’ Diner. Tonight, I’ll make you regret smiling like that. I’ll light a fire inside your body and I’ll make every part of it scream. Get up then. Oh, Mister Saif! Mister Saif… Enjoying your drink… ? How are things… ? No… Sorry, dear… I have a friend for tonight. I’m going now. Bye bye… Yes, tomorrow, of course… Of course… Of course…


Ouarzazate, April 1998


From Beirut39: New Writing From the Arab World

Edited by Samuel Shimon (Bloomsbury 2010)

Yassin Adnan is a Moroccan writer who has published three books of poetry and two collections of short stories, Man yusaddiq al-rasa’il? and Tuffah al-zill. He is the recipient of the Moufdi Zakaria Prize (Algeria, 1991), the Union of Writers in Morocco Poetry Prize (1998) and the Buland al-Haydari Prize for Young Poets (Asilah, 2003).

Haroon Shirwani is Head of Arabic at Eton College. He studied Arabic, French and History at Oxford and London universities. Each year he produces A Taste of Texts – a selection from Arabic literature with his
translations – for use by students and teachers.

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