From A Distance, He Approaches

By KHALID AL-NASRALLAH
Translated from the Arabic by NASHWA NASRELDIN

Barefoot. I don’t know how we did it.

Around noon on those April days, my father would do his best to stop me from going out. After lunch, he’d stomp around the house locking all the doors: the kitchen, the front door, the back door, the main living room. Sometimes he’d even try to drag me to his bedroom and force me to take a nap.

“I have homework.”

(An excuse. An escape.)

On the second floor, the window in the maid’s room had bars—like all the windows—to stop anyone from sneaking into or out of the house. One of the bars could be shifted slightly to one side, leaving enough space for my head to pass through. On the other side was a decorative railing that stretched one and a half feet in length.

My mission was to shuffle along sideways, my back flat against the wall, never looking down. I’d hold my breath until I reached the end of the railing. Then I’d be close to the roof of our garage. I would jump onto it and then into our garden.

Leaving the house this way had to be done without shoes.

(My shoes were held hostage in my father’s bedroom, until sunset.)

Barefoot.

It was fine. My friends and I usually played soccer in the parking lot of the nearby school. Our exposed feet were used to controlling the ball. We placed some shoes down as goalposts. The ground was hard and sweltering, strewn with sharp pebbles that stabbed our feet and shards of a broken Pepsi bottle. We tried as best we could to avoid stepping on such hazards… as best we could.

To the right of the parking lot—our football pitch—was a mosque.

Once we’d finished playing, it would be our place of rest. We drank water and washed our feet under the taps used for ablution. We were filled with fervor once again, this time as we discussed the highlights of the game.

Inspecting the soles of any of our feet, you would likely find them coarse, cracked, and black. They were foul—ulcerated, partly deformed, partly swollen, and engorged with blood. As for our toenails: some were yellow, others black and sharp, some were visibly chipped. If you pressed down on a part of the nail, it would peel cleanly off the toe.

I’d reach home at sunset, when the maid would be popping out to switch on the outdoor lights. She would be surprised to see me, and my index finger would quickly pull itself up to my lips.

“Don’t tell my dad.”

Barefoot. I don’t know how we did it.

 

King Fahd Bin Abdulaziz Road—Kuwait—toward the chalets. The memories are coming back to me thick and fast as I drive, escaping to tranquillity. Freedom is my companion as I toss my worries behind me.

Depression. A state that develops from a young age. The result of chaos, it reveals itself in maturity.

Repression, imprisonment, the locking of doors, the loss of trust—all represent a form of punishment that I suffered through no fault of my own. Rebellion against him resulted in a different form of punishment each time: beating, cursing, spitting, yelling.

My father… he could never treat me with tenderness. Even when he seemed to, it would inevitably turn out to be a ploy intended to stop me from doing something. All of this, perhaps, I can move past.

(To “move past” would require avoiding my father.)

As for my infernal anxiety—the memories of my parents’ endless arguments, the yelling that never stopped. The walls cracked, and even the plumbing gurgled with panic. The triggers were always trivial. I was left to simply watch the massacre. Where would fate take us?

Sometimes the fighting would continue till dawn. Once, I was at a loss. I ran away from home—through that same window, since the maid was preoccupied with my parents’ arguing. Shuffling sideways against the railing, then jumping onto the garage, then into the garden. I ran toward the mosque—the first place that came to my mind—and hid in a corner until the dawn call to prayer, when I slunk in and squatted behind one of the columns. I was overcome there by sleep. Only when the noon prayer call sounded did I wake up. Panicked, I realized the time and sprinted home. I decided to go in through the back door. The maid met me. She gasped, then pulled me by the arm to the kitchen, cupped my face in her hands, and stroked my chest.

“Where have you been?!”

I was still in shock.

“In the mosque.”

Grabbing my arm, she snuck me behind her as we crept through the house. We stopped at the door to the living room—where my father was sitting.

“He’s back. He was frightened and went to the mosque.”

My father stood up and took a few steps toward her.

“Where is he?”

His tone was that of a match being struck.

“Please, Sir. Don’t hurt him. I’ll take him to my room.”

He shoved her aside, bringing part of me into view. Gripping the maid’s thawb, I tried desperately to stay hidden behind her. My mother appeared, coming down the stairs. I felt my father’s hand grip my arm. Then he yanked me toward him as his other hand came down on random parts of my body—once it was my head, another time my back. He looked like he was going to try to slap me, but I shielded my face with my other arm.

The maid tried to stop him but couldn’t. As for my mother… I didn’t know where she was.

(The maid… more compassionate.)

What I heard: “We’ve been looking for you this whole time, you little cretin.”

His voice was charged.

“We had to bother our neighbors, and the police station. You’ve brought shame on our family.”

My disturbing anxiety, which frequently plagues me when I’m asleep: the punishments I received for trying to escape the pain, pain in all its forms, our home as a center of torture. What if I had told the police about him?

These problems keep happening, despite the beard and moustaches that have since sprouted, and the fact that I go to university now. And they’ll never end.

Ten more minutes until I reach the chalet.

 

Even though our feet sometimes bled if we happened to tread on the broken glass or a particularly sharp stone, the pain never surpassed the joy of playing.

The times changed, the football pitch changed, the rules of the game changed.

The dusty yard on the edges of our neighborhood became our new pitch. Two real goalposts now, with two columns and a top beam. The lines of the pitch were marked with diesel oil, and our feet were no longer racing around naked; we had begun to show off our brand-new sneakers.

Our feet softened and looked much healthier—no more rough, coarse skin that intermittently bled, and our toenails were no longer a frightening sight.

While we were playing, one of our friends motioned to the rest of us: “Hey! It’s Lucky.”

No one knew where he’d come from, but he was like a permanent fixture in the area. To this day, we don’t know who gave him that English name—Lucky. All we knew was that this dog was everyone’s friend. And even though he didn’t belong to any of us, we didn’t consider him a stray, since we were used to seeing him around and because he seemed so strong and tenacious; he felt like a general protector of our neighborhood.

(Was Lucky a male or female dog?)

Usually, he sat near the local grocery store. Relaxing, eyes half shut, one front leg crossed over the other, and his jaw resting on top. If it was mild, his tail would wag as though keeping the beat of a song only he could hear. On hotter days, his limbs would surrender to the heat, relinquishing all his strength, unable to even swat a fly buzzing around his head.

That’s if he’d had his fill of food. But if he was hungry…

Then you’d find him perching outside every house that had left its door open, staring out with his black eyes and his thick, dirty brown fur. Sitting tall, he stuck his tongue out, dripping with saliva, stiff as a soldier’s salute. He wouldn’t move an inch unless he was given something. The families around there were never stingy with him.

Lucky was approaching from a distance, sticking his tongue out, sniffing at the stones, searching for something…

“What brought him here?” someone asked.

He kept moving toward us, crossing the borders of the pitch. Someone passed the ball toward him and he stopped to watch it. As I trotted over to him, he headed the ball and it spun toward me…

And we all laughed…

 

Tomorrow’s a day off. Thursday. At the chalet.

It’s only eight o’clock on Wednesday night, a miserable start to the weekend.

But maybe I’ll be able to wipe out the depressing thoughts. Remnants of the arguments and the problems at home that are tossed into my wastebasket.

But there’s no more room in the wastebasket; it’s already full of the trash my father created in my childhood. I now spew my worries into the sea, my secret sanctuary. No one knows that I have my own copy of the key to the chalet. In the past, the mosque was my refuge when I was afraid. Resorting to it was a crime, returning from it a punishment.

Now… starting my car is enough to isolate me from the murky world. Arriving at the chalet is a definitive form of therapy, to rehabilitate a cripple who has recovered from his paralysis.

Leaning back on the sand at the beach, facing the sea, is the first thing I think of doing. Lying down, my fate fixed within the shadow of loneliness. Thoughts. The sound of the waves. The darkness. My head rests on my hands, my elbows planted in the sand.

This sand can stay forever young, evolving depending on our interactions with it; I wish I were sand.

My legs extend and my trousers ride up, revealing part of my leg. I glimpse a hint of a mark that time has not erased. Where did this mark come from? And can anything be erased from memory if time has forced it to remain? Maybe the reason I don’t remember the original cause of the pain is because there are so many marks left on my body.

A broken chair leg. A cane. A harsh weapon that was responsible for painting a world of bruises, my body its testing board. I uncover other parts of my body as my memory recalls the incidents that spawned each mark. My bathroom door faced a large window and was usually left ajar. Sometimes, as I walked out of the bathroom, a strong wind would blow through the window and slam the door shut. As soon as this happened, I would anticipate the aftermath.

My father hated loud sounds.

“How many times have I told you to close the door quietly?”

Excuses made no difference. Was he afraid that the door would break, or was it the loud bang that he hated?

My body braced itself for the pain and the maid braced herself to defend. All the signs pointed to a new punishment being handed down: the change in his features, his merciless tone, his glaring eyes, the way he was approaching me. The maid was on full alert because of the cane in his grip.

“But you’re an idiot. You don’t learn anything by being told. This will teach you.”

The cane reared up… and so did the pain.

(The fury at the damage to a door, whereas my bones…)

My mother arrived too late.

The sea breeze, the substance of my psychological and physical cure. The hours pass discreetly—the relativity of time. I go into the chalet to take a nap, so I can feel safe—a long-lost need.

 

I wake up. The sun hasn’t risen yet. I turn the light on. The clock confirms: four o’clock in the morning.

But it is approaching five.

My eyes. They can’t comprehend the sudden onslaught of light. I look at the positioning of my feet; I spot that mark once again at the bottom of my leg. Oh, yeah… where did that come from?

I go and rummage around the fridge. Two red apples that had been tossed in there carelessly, a bottle of water three-quarters full. I grab an apple, unconcerned by its use-by date.

I wash my face multiple times…

I pick up the bottle and gulp down mouthfuls of water. More than I need.

I sit on the sofa and look out of the window that faces the sea. The view is soothing. A minute feels like an hour in this place.

Should I go back now?

I’ve had my fill of the quiet.

Yes… I should go back now.

I sit behind the wheel, turn the engine on, press my foot down on the gas pedal.

The foot of the same leg with the mark.

On the way back. Tranquillity. My mind is in tune with the road as I drive. Tranquillity.

Clarity… the feeling of renewal.

My watch: seven-thirty.

The beginning of August, the sun is impatient these days. It sends its burning rays early.

I pass several military vehicles along the way—very unusual. There’s no special occasion today, I don’t think…. An emergency of some kind? Still more tanks, even as I get closer to Kuwait City.

Something’s going on.

How can I find out?

I turn on the radio, search through the airwaves a little. Hang on a minute…

Are these Kuwaiti military vehicles?

 

When the dog headed the ball toward me, we laughed.

He barked once, then followed it with another two barks. Then he bounded toward me.

I thought he wanted to play with me, until he approached.

Before I realized, or could react, he pounced on my leg… and clamped down with his teeth.

My shoe protected my foot, but my leg…

The mark remains.

 

Khalid Al-Nasrallah is a Kuwaiti writer and novelist, born in 1987. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education and works as a teacher at the Ministry of Education. He has had three novels and one collection of short stories published. His novel, The Highest Depth, was longlisted for the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, and his novel, The White Line of Night, was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF). One of his short stories won first place in the Short Stories on the Air competition organized by Al-Arabi magazine and BBC Arabic. He has worked as a newspaper editor, and his writing frequently appears in Al-Qabas newspaper and other publications. He is the CEO and founder of Nova House Plus Publishing and Distribution, as well as Dar Al-Khan publishing house, which specializes in translated books.

Nashwa Nasreldin is a writer, an editor, and a translator of Arabic literature. Her translations include the collaborative novel Shatila Stories and a co-translation of Samar Yazbek’s memoir, The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria. She is the managing editor of ArabLit.org, a website showcasing Arabic literary translation.

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From A Distance, He Approaches

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