Operating Manual

By Fairooz Tamimi

Translated by Thoraya El-Rayyes

 

How to make a cup of hot chocolate

Stand in front of the window of your kitchen refuge and prepare the following ingredients:

  1. A welcoming, empty green glass.
  2. A bottle of cold, fresh milk.
  3. An orange and brown tin of Cadbury’s Cocoa.
  4. The two large tablespoons locked in an embrace in the drawer (possibly because of your awful dishwashing skills), which have triggered your loneliness. Use them as they are; do not expend any emotion separating them.

Preparation:

1. Pour the white milk into the green glass. Savor these obscure colors that belong only in the kitchens of lonely women on desolate weekend mornings. White and green.

2. Take the stuck-together spoons and open the orange and brown tin. It is easy to open, even though it is not American. Some brown dust will fly into your face. Don’t worry about it.

3. Fill the two stuck-together spoons with the brown powder, and remember the Hatem comics you read through so often as a child that the pages wrinkled. Remember the drawings of black hands harvesting the pods, extracting the wet beans, setting them out on brightly colored sheets to dry in the sun, turning them over dutifully, toasting them and drying them again—drying off the blood that spilled on these admirably colored beans during wars with admirable goals. Don’t worry—the drawings cannot break through the magazine pages to let long, thin, African fingers pierce your hymen. Now you know, of course, that your fears were exaggerated, steeped in hype, all those years you spent under the criminally hot sun, among the aromas of handcrafted spices. But here you are—you made it out. You left with your hymen intact; you offered the necessary prayers of thanks and gratefulness, prayers you still offer every day as the driver takes you along that long, long, long, empty road, your twisted mind concocting horrific, delicious scenarios. The main thing is: Your hymen is intact, thank God; no long fingers were able to reach through the pages to deflower you.

4. I digress easily—remind me not to go off on a tangent.

5. Now, pour a spoonful—the two spoons carry the load of only one (because love lowers efficiency)—of the cocoa powder into the childish liquid and watch: it does not get wet. The crushed cocoa is not weighed down by its encounter with the liquid; it does not sink to the bottom as you would expect from that which has been crushed. Take your time being astounded by this.

6. Repeat the above step. Fill your two spoons with the brown powder, and pour it on top of the rest in the green glass. Notice again, with increasing existential agony, how the powder bobs on the surface. You push it down with the two spoons, but stubbornly it floats. You push it down—and it floats.

7. You check the tin to look for the distinctive British label on the African powder. Yes, it is the magnificent Cadbury, that crown constructed from the bones, thin as their reed flutes, of the savage, cannibalistic Africans. Bones pliant enough to be bent and tied together, bones deficient in the calcium promised by the label, by the empire on which the sun never sets.

8. Now it is time to go back to reality. Pour the startled white liquid and the rebellious brown powder into the yellow brass pot, put it on the stove, and wait for as long as you can. Stand in front of the flames and set your guttermouth free. Curse the oh-so-civilized men, the arrogant lovers, the tough women, the lethargic cities. Even the rain has let you down. Do not look at what is happening to your powder. It’s no fun to watch a revolution get snuffed out.

9. After cursing, pour the hot liquid (well blended but for a few granules) through a small stainless-steel sieve into an indifferent dark-colored mug with a thick handle and edges.

10. The thermometer in your boiling-hot car stuck its tongue out at you yesterday: fifty degrees centigrade! The intense heat did not make you dissolve or blend you into this spectacular shitshow any better. The giant sieve filters, supposed to purify and cohere, did not bring you closer to the comrades.

11. You are always ground down and floating away, prone to being submerged so that you might blend in. You do not blend in.

12. With your right thumb, press down on the granules stuck to the sieve. Lift the sieve carefully and lick your thumb; do not wince from the taste of blood in your mouth. It is only cocoa. Pure British Cadbury’s Cocoa.

 

How to breastfeed a baby

As a woman in this joyous Arab nation, breastfeeding your child is a unique experience. This is because you do not have the freedom that women have in less developed societies, where it is natural to take a breast out in public and give it to a child. Nor do you have the freedom of women in more developed societies, where an MP taking her breast out in parliament and giving it to her child is considered very moderne, an act of audacity par excellence.

Because we are the women who have fallen in the crack between two societies, we look at the act of breastfeeding with intense embarrassment and, to this day, are unable to enjoy this experience. It is therefore very necessary to read this text. It takes the working mother as an exemplar, but you may adapt it to suit your circumstances:

1. Allow the milk to gently collect in your breasts for two hours. The breast will fill up little by little in your monotonous workplace, and after two hours it will begin to harden, turning to stone. The nipple will lose its roundness, stretched taut like a woman so heavily pregnant that she can hardly breathe. At this point, go to the restrooms. The smell of warm milk will spring forth from your chest, traveling up to your nose. You will smell the scent with dread, fearful that this sweet smell will be polluted by that of the rancid milk, or what is left of it around the nipple, in the bra that gets soaked every now and then. This becomes something of an obsession, this fear that the smell of rancid milk will waft from you.

2. Lift your blouse up, without shame, in front of the other women in the office. Take advantage of the thick skin that married woman have naturally grown by repeatedly revealing their naked bodies to the unloving eyes of a husband. Hold the hardened breast; sense the forceful fullness that blocks blood and nerves and stops you from thinking.

3. Allow the congested milk to spill out of your breasts. You will not even have to squeeze. It will spill into the sink. Do not be a drama queen, and do not cry. It is just a practical matter you must take care of, since you have emerged from the cocoon of maids and husbands footing the bill. Or maybe you can cry a little, because you can see your child’s hungry face in the restroom mirror, the child who is now waking up in the arms of a migrant Asian worker giving him a bottle of your pumped cold milk. She will give it to him without heating it up, even though you have warned her a thousand times to do so, and even tried to appeal to her emotions toward her own faraway children, in a vile move you can’t justify except by saying that your maternal instinct has defeated your ethics. The kind of justification all people use when they behave contemptibly.

You do not want to think about this exhausting process of pumping. You do it to prove that you can be the perfect mother. If only you could be sure whom you are fighting against. If only you could be certain that you really are not this robotlike, that you are not a bull who can be provoked by any waving rag.

250 milliliters, over and over, between 10 p.m. and 6a.m. 250 agonizing milliliters that interrupt your already disturbed sleep. 250 painful milliliters crammed during your day, while you are an ant working endlessly. 250 milliliters while you are a cat protecting her kittens. 250 milliliters while you are a geisha girl, expected to entertain and listen sympathetically to his travails, all luxuries unaffordable to you.

4. To pull yourself out of your threadbare emotional state: stand perfectly straight, pointing your engorged breasts forward instead of down, and allow the milk to splash out of your gushing breasts onto the bathroom mirror. Let out an evil laugh at the mirror you have surprised. Laugh at the drops of milk that try—in vain—to stick to the smooth mirror: slipping, slipping, slipping. Laugh quietly, even if only through the side of your mouth, if only so you can get back to the practical-you, the essential-you who will finish the eight exhausting hours, “the you” who does not feel the bitterness of a hungry baby, “the you” who doesn’t cry over spilt milk.

5. As an employee suddenly scared of what might happen if someone saw this mess, wash the mirror immediately. This is just your ridiculous attempt to break the tightness in your chest.

6. After serving your daily sentence, leave the office and go home. Take off your blouse as soon as you get in the door. Open the front clasp of your postmodern bra, an “imported” bra which costs enough to feed a child for an entire month. You never before thought capitalism and your bra were connected. Now you demand the industry to evolve. “A man’s world,” you mutter angrily. Shut up and pay, that is what you did and need to continue doing. Wish loudly for a third-world industrial revolution.

7. Walk up to the domesticated sink in your bathroom and remove the rancid, soaked cotton bra pad. Imagine a discussion in the parliament about subsidizing the cotton pads you place inside your bra. It is a necessity to keep the private sector functioning. The private sector is sensitive to milk patches on women’s shirts. You miss the public sector. You miss the compassionate colleagues when a hardened breast leaks. As soon as you remove your cotton pads, your milk will shoot out of your breast as if it is a water fountain. Wash your breasts quickly while pressing down on your nipples with your fingers to stop the waste. At home, you cannot accept that some of the milk will go down the sink.

8. Press down on the nipples with two new, dry cotton pads and go to your baby, who is crying hungrily. Carry him, bring him close, and take off one of the pads while pressing down on your breast with the bottom of your arm so that your baby’s face is not hit by a stream. This still makes you laugh, but you worry it might be an insult to your child.

9. Press down on the other nipple to stop it from leaking until its turn comes. Your baby will smell out the ready nipple and suckle his soft head to your breast.

10. You will hear the hiss of a soft movement. You will feel a persistent movement mixed with dull pain as the milk is pushed out. You can almost see the veins thrust and tighten, leaving faint traces of surprise on your face. A muscle in your back contracts, and you let out that sound which is neither a sigh nor a groan.

11. As you are sitting there, be calm. Forget your argument with your boss about motherhood and key performance indicators. Imagine a sticky note that says “World’s Best Feminist” sticking to her forehead, and remember that this baby gives you a chance to stop running around. A compulsory pause for a whole twenty minutes, evenly divided between two breasts. Contemplate the physical fact of your baby. Do not let office and bedroom squabbles cloud the small face looking at you with two content eyes. You will not be able to store this look unless your heart memorizes it well.

12. When your baby is full and your breasts have returned to your body, tame and loving, carry your baby over your shoulder and take advantage of the imbecilic Western theories about the benefits of physical contact with your baby. You say they are imbecilic theories, but you feel better when you put his small chest against yours, let his quick heartbeat slow your pounding one and flood you with peace.

13. Wait for the burp, the belch whose weird coarseness you find disturbing coming from a such gentle creature. You do not care for Western theories on the psychological benefits of weeding—even though you have enjoyed plucking things from their roots: a blackhead from clear skin, a thick black hair from a cheek—but you feel this kind of satisfaction when you hear your baby belch. You feel like it is you who has belched, even though the sweet smell of his burp is so unlike the rancid smell living inside you.

 

[Purchase Issue 15 here.]

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

Fairooz Tamimi is a Jordanian novelist who lives in Sweden. Her work includes the novels Thirty (1999, winner of the Sharjah Prize for Arab Creativity) and Like a Joke (2012), as well as the prose collection Operating Manual (2014). She has written for various Jordanian newspapers, and currently writes for the Swedish newspaper Sydsvenskan. Tamimi established and ran the project Speak to Me, an audiobook of dramatized contemporary Swedish literature translated into Arabic, aimed at blind teenagers from the Arab region.

Thoraya El-Rayyes is a Palestinian-Canadian literary translator and political sociologist living in London, England. Her translations of contemporary Arabic literature have received awards from the Modern Languages Association and the King Fahd Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Arkansas. Her work has appeared in publications including World Literature Today, the Kenyon Review and Words Without Borders.

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