Translated by MICHELLE HARTMAN
New York, Spring 2000
When I first got together with Hilda, I used to enjoy contemplating her reflection in the mirror for hours. I would intentionally take her to cafés and other places filled with mirrors. I’d look at her features in the mirror more than I’d gaze at her directly, as if purposely creating a distance between the physical being that was ostensibly her and her reflection, because a person’s mirror image reveals more of who they really are; it reveals, in fact, the inner self, and to look upon that, as gratifying as it is, requires extraordinary courage.
Most of the time I would first steal a glance at her honey-colored eyes, and then move down to her delicate nose and full lips, and then finally settle on that little space between the two. Something between a woman’s nose and upper lip always used to seduce me—perhaps it’s the suppleness there. So did the length of the fingers and the size of the palm, as if a woman’s hand could reveal what the rest of her body conceals.
I used to meditate on Hilda’s face until she’d look at me, and I’d turn my gaze away from her, directing it once again at the mirror. When I retreated into myself I used to always compare the Hilda I could touch and her reflection—until I went mad and was having sex with her in front of the mirror, asking her to observe herself and really watch the movement of her body. I found her turning to look shyly at her bum and all the way to the bottom of her knees, and she would smile and bury her head in the nearest part of my body. In those moments her long, soft, brown hair would spread over her shoulders and my arms. She looked like a refugee who had turned her back on life and was sheltering in me.
For some reason I still can’t figure out, when Hilda started getting off on the mirror game, I started hating it. I wished I’d never taught it to her. In the beginning it was as if she’d discovered my secret or had stolen my concept about people’s truths and their reflections. I used to fear that she would be able to reach far beyond her naked self and realize her full potential, all of those things that most people remain ignorant of their entire lives.
Another thing changed when Hilda started looking in the mirror. I started being impotent. I couldn’t enjoy the mirror reflection game and I burned with anger whenever she lifted her head to look at herself when we were having sex. I would wait for the minutes to pass, for her to feel shy and bury her head in my body as she always used to do. Those minutes grew longer time after time. Hilda no longer sheltered in my body after looking at us while we were making love. Instead, she started shooting me sharp looks and pulling me toward her. I would enter her violently until she would surrender and fade away in my arms.
My little girl started to run away from me after I had taught her to pursue herself. I had disclosed my secret to her without meaning to, like a fool or an idiot. The more I stared in mirrors, the more I gazed at her and focused on her, the more, in fact, I confronted myself. Now she’d open her eyes, which she used to keep closed when I was kissing her, and I no longer felt satisfied except when she’d surrender to darkness—as if an indication of her total immersion in lovemaking and being completely cut off from the outside world.
A long time had passed since I’d looked at my own face. For a short time, I’d almost forgotten the scar that reached from my eye to the bottom of my left cheek. The truth is that I don’t try to ignore this permanent defect in my physical condition. But I really did forget it was there sometimes, totally, just as we overlook many things in life. We don’t call them back to memory except by chance or if time requires us to do so.
I forgot many things with Hilda, as if one day they just weren’t there: the markets of Sabra and Shatila, the stench of sweat of the people walking by. The crowded houses, which looked like cardboard boxes all stuck together; and the random rooms the people of the camp added on to them later, when the land became too cramped and constricted. “Cramped, constricted land”— that’s how my cousin Muhammad, who lived “over there,” described it. Angry land, which seemed like it was preparing to swallow us up, disgruntled with us, not because we were occupying it but because both we and it shared our misery equally and we both hoped to escape. They threw us on that land and we threw ourselves on it. We and the cement were both detained within a few kilometers that could never embrace our past and our memories but that by default did become our present without being our future. This is what a refugee camp is—not a house or a home, but an overcrowded place, nothing more.
I forgot the scar on my face, my disabled leg, and the pain the doctor warned me I might not be able to bear. I forgot the weight of my body, daily concerns, and exhaustion. Did I forget, or was I pretending to forget? Forgetfulness is but a temporary disabling of pain; wheels will only turn again to reach the next station.
Between the two stops, the train was approaching its destination. My girlfriend and I were holding each other’s hands, as if certain that our hearts had left each other’s. We tried to capture each other’s hearts in our hands, or use them to hold onto the sparks of the early days of love so they wouldn’t disappear, and suddenly they took to flame and, then, burned out.
Time passed quickly when I was waiting to see her again. I smiled to myself and invented conversations of a sort we rarely had.
Even waiting for Hilda was not a burden, but a space occupied by the pleasure of imagining her: What clothes would she have on: one of her flowing skirts or her favorite purple sweater? What perfume? Would she interrogate me to see if I knew its scent and be enraged if I didn’t? How would she move her mouth while eating? How many times would she laugh? What would she tell me about her friends? What would she complain about? Would she show me some innovative new dance move, and would she sit me on the sofa so I could enjoy watching her swaying body?
Whenever I thought about Hilda, I felt as though what remained of those cells of my skin that had sloughed off my face, leaving the scar, had given birth to fresh, new cells. I felt my skin emanating from beneath my flesh, my regenerated blood blooming all white and red so I became suddenly beautiful.
However, since my little girl decided to distance herself from me a bit, after repeatedly complaining about my continual absences she started looking for ways to fill her time. I started suffocating every time I hugged her, pulled her toward me, held her tightly; it felt as if something, an airless space, kept our bodies from fusing together. She would tense her belly backward, refusing to join together with me. I started feeling that even in the moments when we were closest and most intimate, that space, that gap between us wasn’t just keeping us apart but was also pushing her away, far from me.
I used to wake up in the middle of the night and sit on the edge of my bed contemplating her, half of her body wrapped up and the other half exposed, wanting to wake her up and talk to her for a long time. I knew I could easily just make noise and she would sense my insomnia and ask me if everything was ok. This happened dozens of times. All I had to do was feign a cough or pretend that I was getting up to pour myself a glass of water, and she would open her eyes and reach out to me to check on me and see if I was there. I would ask her any silly question to start a conversation, a conversation that would sometimes last until dawn.
After Hilda listened to my chatting, I would always be able to once again surrender to a deep sleep—eyes closed, anxiety-free, immersed in incomparable comfort. I didn’t really notice that, after those late night talks, my love was unable to go back to sleep. When she was lying next to me, it never occurred to me to think about what she was dreaming or even to ask myself if I had stolen her sleep, cut off the dreams she’d been sailing in. I simply used to just feel satiated—that I had unloaded a huge burden and could once again go forward.
No longer did I dare to violate her sleep. My hands would automatically start to tremble if I so much as tried to touch her hair or stroke it gently. She would fall asleep here, in my bed, one inch from my arm, which seemed so far away. As if I wouldn’t ever reach her again, as if an entire era would pass by, my lips begging her for a kiss or a word to calm me down. Even if she kept calling me “habibi” until the end of time, I would never feel as I did before. Her being here, acting like this, was a punishment that I wasn’t sure I deserved.
I got out of bed and went to the door, which I’d leaned my crutch against, but I didn’t pick it up. I left it there and started moving around the house on my weak leg, deliberately walking faster and planting my feet on the ground, as if I hoped that the lower part of my body, specifically the left side, would stumble on the marble to relieve itself of its heavy load.
For a moment, certain that what I was doing wouldn’t lead to the desired result, I thought that perhaps I was trying to prove to myself again that I am that man of steel whom nothing can stop from walking, carrying on, moving forward. I was now challenging my body, as I was apt to do sometimes—fighting with it, cursing it, getting angry at it. And yet at other times I was kind to it, embracing it.
Afterward, I got tired and hurt my leg until it became so numb that I lost all feeling in it. I stretched out on the big red sofa that Hilda had chosen for the sitting room, along with honey-colored chairs and a wood table in the middle. Actually, Hilda had chosen all the furniture for the house when she moved in with me. Crystal vases, silver bowls and plates, cherry-and-mulberry-scented candles for the décor, and new, colorful curtains, as well as orange and white ceramics for the washroom. She turned everything upside down.
Even though I had become relatively well off after suffering years of deprivation, I’d never enjoyed sophisticated taste: it’s something comfortable people are born with and poor people can’t ever acquire. Most of the time I bought regular white sheets and inappropriate furniture. I never realized how dull the house’s ambiance was until she changed it. Gloomy olive green and dark brown wood, which overshadowed most parts of the house, were like an extension of my old house—as if I had transported the camp here without meaning to.
I smiled when I looked at the place, and the pain in my foot subsided. It was a victor’s smile. I started to hum an Andalusian tune to keep my loneliness company and relieve some of the weight of my memories.
Singing is also resistance. Don’t people in prisons and jails do it instead of complaining? For them, it can be an occasional sliver of light, a way to trick their bodies into producing sound, reminding them that their voices are still there… As I kept humming I thought about all the detainees denied their freedom. Sleep finally took hold, and with it came a dream, a dream that my singing was directed at them, joined up with theirs. Our voices rose up, in unison, to break down their cell doors.
Jana Fawaz Elhassan is an award-winning novelist and short story writer from Lebanon. The Ninety-Ninth Floor is her third novel and the first to be translated into English.
Michelle Hartman is an academic and translator. She obtained a BA from Columbia College in 1993 and a DPhil from Oxford University in 1998.
To purchase the book, visit Interlink Books.
Photo courtesy of Interlink Books.