A Man I Don’t Know

By ELIAS FARKOUH

Translated by MAIA TABET

 

As soon as he elbowed me in the ribs, whipping my averted face toward the pitch-black corner, I thought I heard him saying, “Frightened, eh?” 

Truly, I was frightened. 

I realized it as soon as they let go of me and took a few steps back. My knees buckled suddenly, and a glacial feeling swept through my groin. My legs gave way in spite of me, and I hit the ground. My head lay at their shoes, and although I couldn’t raise it, I felt no pain. The glacial sensation submerged me. I remember feeling it immediately, and I followed it as it spread uncontrollably through the rest of my body. It struck me that death always came cold.

That is when I felt frightened. 

Although this may have been the way things happened at some point, recollecting the exact order in which things take place isn’t easy. Memory blanks are inevitable, and it’s not possible to reconstruct details in their precise sequence. Which is why I took the blow.  

“That’ll help you remember,” I heard one of them say afterward.

My memory remained dulled, however.

“It’ll come back to you,” said another voice. 

I hung my head in defeat and, using my sleeve, wiped away the liquid dribbling from my mouth. It was the fourth time, maybe the fifth, that my memory had failed. Fear obscured everything that had happened to me earlier. Or did it? Maybe it was something else… but whatever it was, I had no desire to figure it out. 

How had it all started? What day had it been? Where in time was I?

It had been pretty late, well after the six o’clock news. Opening my eyes, I could see that everything in the place looked extinguished, as though snuffed out. While the volume of objects was apparent, they seemed to have no substance. Just contours and contents without detail. As if the pitch darkness had robbed them of their mass and, from the core of its shadowy power, transformed them into hollow matter bound by enlarged frames. 

I closed my eyes and allowed my senses to peruse the room and apprehend its contents. On the wall above, a photo of Mother in the first thawb she had sewn for herself after my birth. When she told me about the delivery, she’d bemoaned the infertility that ensued, adding, “It’s as if you’d come out and forever closed the door behind you.” In the photograph, her eyes look straight at the photographer, as people did at the time, and her hair is coiled into intricate round braids like those of black women. She wasn’t beautiful, but an ineffable bounty of tenderness exuded from her, right up until the end. It must have been that reserve that women keep in anticipation of having more than a single son. 

The window was shut, and the air felt close because of the stale, moldy smell in the room. Although I had grown accustomed to it, in that moment it was as though I’d just woken from sleep and it hit me: it was pungent and oppressive, like the smell of… 

Just as I made to get up and open the window—and I do remember that clearly—there was a knock at the door. The neighborhood mukhtar and two guys I didn’t know stared me in the face. 

“You know him?” one of the two strangers asked. 

He nodded and, as was proper, stepped into the room first.

Then, another blank—where there’s nothing at all—and the question being repeated.

“Do you know him?” the duo’s boss asked. 

I shook my head.

“Remember now…”

I tried, to no avail. I wasn’t familiar with the dead. Other than Mother, I hadn’t known any dead people. Not even my father: he’d left before I had awakened to the world or knew what it meant to have a father. So why had they come here with this person wrapped in a shroud and laid out on the table?

“Your name?” asked the one who recorded everything. 

I told him and was surprised by the fact that the name sounded strange to me. As if this habitually familiar thing had suddenly become an interloper. We went back more than forty years, but it felt as if we were complete strangers and had nothing to do with each other. At odds for no good reason… just because… it’s the way we are, that’s all. I had no desire to understand anything beyond the visible and observable. I’m not strong enough to always be asking the questions. And I’m not prone to conjecture: my mother taught me that questions only lead to trouble. Their questions were different, however. They kept leading to more questions.

“Age?” the recorder said. I told him. 

“Profession?” he added. I told him that as well. 

“Marital status?” 

I didn’t understand what he meant, and had to ask him to say it again. 

“Single or married?” he barked. 

This outburst had the boss guy patting his down-turned palm through the air three times. I understood his gesture to be urging calmness. I sensed he empathized and thanked him silently. The recorder snorted and glared at me. 

“Single,” I responded.

I noticed him stalling as he recorded my words. 

“Why?” asked the boss-man, his disembodied voice reaching me from the faraway darkness. 

The question caught me off guard. I hesitated, and as the silence grew uncomfortable, I became even more nervous. I was trying to think of a reason to give them, but it dawned on me that I couldn’t, because I’d never really thought about it before. Unable to come up with an answer, I said nothing. My attention must have wandered, and before I knew it I was hurled to the ground by a kick. The chair fell over me, landing on my knee with all its weight, and my forehead smashed against the tile floor. Mother’s face appeared before me then, but instead of wiping away the blood with toiling fingers, she was reminding me of her unfulfilled yearning, and that I had been responsible for her final sorrow.

I heard one of them screaming at me as I lay on the ground.

“The boss is waiting for the answer.”

I looked up to where the voice was coming from, and saw him sitting with his fly open against the edge of the table where the shrouded man was laid out. Before I was even aware of it, I heard myself grumbling weakly, “It’s a personal matter.”

It was as if I had rubbed Aladdin’s lamp. Suddenly, this giant was towering over me from the height of the ceiling, and before I knew it my head was being shoved into the wall. Even though the wall was hard as a rock, I found out that my noggin was resilient and it didn’t bleed much. Shocked and dizzy, I crouched down, fighting back the tears that lacerated my throat despite my forty-plus years. I tried pushing myself up with my elbow, but the grip on my behind was like a vice, and it felt as though I was about to be hurled into the air.

At what point did the guy sitting on the edge of the table begin to laugh? 

I heard him from where I lay on the cold tile floor, and then there was this frightening silence, which was broken by a seemingly casual question. Like a blow to the gut, it left me shaking all over. 

“So, you’re a faggot, aren’t you?”

When I tried to speak, all that came out was a jumble of syllables. Unconnected sentence fragments that my sobbing breaths made nonsense of. 

Then, somehow—or maybe it was before this point, I can’t remember—the question: “Why are you over forty and unmarried?”

I said that I didn’t know, and that perhaps I had not felt the need for a woman. At which point, he followed up with an even stranger question. 

“Who are your favorite actors? Tewfiq al-Daqn or Mahmoud el-Meligui?” And the recorder added, “Farid el-Atrash or Abdel Halim Hafez?” 

Then the boss guy again: “Ismail Yassin or Shukoko?”

Now the other man struck me from behind, spewing a vulgar profanity as he hit my neck.

“Come on, you clown!” he went on, punching me in the belly. “Which is it? Nadia Lutfi or Suad Hosni? Really! At your age?!!!”

That is when the ceiling fell and the earth heaved. 

… Afterward, when they forced me to look at him, I could see that his extremities were bare (I remember them dragging me to the table where they had laid him out). His underwear was filthy and bloodied, especially around the chest, the lower belly, and between the neck and the left shoulder. When I wiped away the water they had thrown at me, it dripped from my hair down the bridge of my nose, cascading down to the bloodied white cotton and amplifying the stains. The underwear wasn’t white but closer to a deep yellow. From sweat and dust. I took my time and scrutinized his face, as they demanded.

“And now do you know who it is?”

I was almost certain that I didn’t know him. I wasn’t acquainted with any dead people, as far as I knew. Except for my mother, of course. It was the first time I was seeing this dead man. 

I shook my head again. 

“Look carefully,” the boss man said from between clenched teeth. “Shall I bring you a mirror?” he yelled in my face. 

I leapt up suddenly, waving my arms, as though fighting off something that was about to assault me. But he got even closer. I stepped back. And then one of them shoved me from behind toward the laid-out body. My belly hit the edge of the table and I doubled over, crying out in pain and feeling around my blood-spattered face. Now insanity set in. In the grip of hysteria, I let out a terrorized cry that split my lungs and set my chest on fire. I summoned up the strength of what I figured to be approaching death, and spun around in an attempt to propel myself away from the dead body. 

But they had me cornered. 

Their faces getting closer. Me stepping back. Their faces closer. Me trying to get away and bumping into the arm of one of them. Him tapping my back with his fist and then hitting me. Me swaying, and turning to block him. Him not budging, his eyes set with implacable determination. 

As soon as he elbowed me in the ribs, whipping my averted face toward the pitch-black corner, I thought I heard him saying, “Frightened, eh?” 

Truly, I was frightened. 

There, in the pitch-black corner, I saw a man falling who resembled the one laid out dead. He felt no pain. When he landed, he hit the ground soundlessly, like in those chimerical visions where you can see but not touch. His head motionless, he was enveloped in the glacial feeling that submerged his body. He followed its course as it spread uncontrollably.

I watched him until no part of him moved anymore.

And there was nothing more for the recorder to add.

 

[Purchase Issue 15 here.]

[Read more Arabic fiction in Issue 11: Tajdeed.]

Born in Amman in 1948, Elias Farkouh is a novelist and short-story writer. He has published eight short story collections and four novels, one of which, The Land of Purgatory, was nominated for the first Arabic Booker prize (the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, IPAF). He is also a translator from English into Arabic of a number of Western works, and has won several prizes for his literary output. 

Maia Tabet is an Arabic-English literary translator whose work has appeared in journals, literary reviews, and other specialized publications, including The CommonWords Without Borders, and Banipal. She is the translator of four novels: White Masks and Little Mountain, by the renowned Lebanese writer Elias Khoury; Throwing Sparks, by Saudi author Abdo Khal; and Sinan Antoon’s Baghdad Eucharist. Her translation of Hisham Bustani’s short story collection The Monotonous Chaos of Existence is forthcoming.

DoostiA Man I Don’t Know

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