Translated by ROBIN MOGER
Once I’d been stripped and forced to stand naked before the gaze of the military medical examination board, for the purposes of identifying any defects that might prevent me receiving the honor of being conscripted, the examiner seated on the right-hand end of the bench rose, approached me, and circled me three times, inspecting every inch of the body before him, then turned back to his fellow board members and, stroking my ear with a disconcerting delicacy, said, “Sound. Big ears.”
Then he ordered me to dress and quit the room on the double, so that I was outside before I could slip my right boot back on, and as I departed with the boot in my hand, half-barefoot, half-shod, the only thought in my head was of my ears.
What did he mean? Why, of all my limbs and features, had he chosen my ears with which to humiliate me? Did he mean to imply that I was a donkey, perhaps? Yes, perhaps that was it. I mean, I knew from those who’d faced the board before me that some examiners deliberately set out to embarrass the examinee, to humiliate him by pointing out these flaws, or lavishing them with sly praise, as though to say, for instance, fatty, stud, rat—whatever it might be, laying down a scar that would stay with them for life.
“Good sirs! I am a poet. I swear to you. I am a poet and a cultured man, and I have written dozens of poems which I intend to turn into a collection just as soon as I receive my exemption from service…”
Things I should have said.
Back outside, I took a seat beside the candidate who was waiting to be summoned in my place. He chuckled. Peered at my ears. “Really, your ears are amazing. But you’re no donkey; you’re a lucky man.” And before I could show my surprise at these words, he went on, “You’ll be assigned to one of the security agencies. Warmth in winter, shade in summer. You might have the honor of working for the boss himself, or for his wife and her maid.”
Then he rose quickly to his feet. Just before he stepped into the examination room, he turned and said, with malicious glee, “You should thank your mother for those ears.”
And not two months later, my fellow candidate’s prophecy came true, and I found myself posted to the surveillance department of a major security agency. It was there, on the seventh day of my service as a conscript, that the boss summoned me to his office for the first time. And having inspected my ears to his satisfaction, he said, twitching his nose alarmingly, as though there was a foul smell in the room, “Not bad. They understand our requirements perfectly.”
That “not bad,” I was later given to understand, was a sign that I was highly favored.
During the first few months of my service, I made up my mind that, before anything else, I would set aside my sensitivity and put my poetic sensibilities on hold, leaving them until I had first finished my service and then published my collection. I further resolved that I would make every effort to get along with my colleagues, some of whose ears were not dissimilar to mine. With some, it wasn’t their ears; it was their noses. Each nose—dear God!—the size of a melon. I’d never seen the like. Their job was Security Sniffing—Nasal Intelligence, they called it. As for the ones with the vast eyeballs, the lolling tongues—well, what they did was clear enough; no explanation necessary. Then there were the operatives with the hands. Like tennis racquets, I was told. Their work was done down in the basement, and the truth is I only ever heard about them. Never ran into one, not even by chance.
And between that filthy diplomat, whose stomach-turning phone calls I listened in on, parceling out his government’s funds to all and sundry, though his government was broke and always at the IMF, cap-in-hand; and the calls of that high-society grande dame, with her terrifying web of contacts with which she could cut the condemned man down from his noose (before he was hanged, of course); and the poor, disgraced journalist, accused of working with more than thirty blacklisted media outlets; and any number of businessmen, and parliamentarians, and famous politicians, not to mention those political refugees who, so it seemed, had become a burden on the government…
Between all these calls, then, and others besides, I stayed bent to my task, dedicated, disgusted, cursing with every passing hour, a thousand thousand times over, the most distant ancestors of my mother and father, from one of whom I must, without doubt, have inherited those two damned ears of mine, those ears which had led me here to hear what I had no desire to hear, and offered up a silent prayer that genetic science would one day succeed in ridding the world forever of such grotesqueries—the likes of me.
One night, wholly absorbed in a phone call from Dr. Abou Kibda—Dr. Liver—a prominent figure in the meat trade who was suspected of being behind the recent disappearance of the city’s cat and donkey population, I received an urgent communication from the boss, ordering me to drop what I was doing and turn to an emergency phone number registered to a certain woman, a woman known by a letter: Mrs. و.
Now it was, of course, not permitted to ask questions about why any given name was being placed under surveillance, but through listening to all the conversations, I had come to know all my targets in intimate detail and the reasons that their phones were being tapped. Mrs. و was no different. Eavesdropping on calls to and from her phone, I had learnt the names of her neighbors, her shoe size, the make of the broken washing machine for which she trying to source spare parts and of the perfume she used, whose scent, drifting from the earpiece of my phone, spread first through our department, then from there to every corner of the neighborhood, and then abroad, over our borders, to the countries that lay beyond.
In amongst the dull, daily calls she put through to her grocer, her tailor, her hairdresser, the man who sold her shrimp, Mrs. و’s phone was receiving calls, suspicious calls, every second night, at a quarter past ten, to be precise. Calls which ran as follows: Ring-ring… ring-ring… She would pick up, then say, in a tone that held a sort of sadness (or at least that’s how it seemed to me), “Hello? Hello?”
No answer. She would end the call. Her phone would be called repeatedly thereafter, but she never answered.
I won’t lie: I was intrigued by these calls. Severely provoked, in fact. I decided I’d make it my mission to trace the caller. But given their short duration, which made it impossible to get a lock on their source, my efforts were doomed to failure. I had said as much in my daily reports to the boss, at which he became most irate, addressing me very sharply and instructing me to try harder, to focus.
Without delay, I set after Mrs. و and, after some five hundred or so calls, found that I was not just in love with my task—I was in love with her, waiting with bated breath for the red light to blink on the tracer, signaling that she was on the line. And there was another red light, albeit a little larger, which glowed inside me, putting all my systems of sense and immunity on alert, my ears growing keener whenever brushed and seared by her breath.
And when I’d find a moment to get up and splash my face with cold water, I would rush over and, in my private journal, jot down the astonishing linguistic formulae of my feelings, my revelations in that moment, their sudden manifestation inside my soul.
Let me present to you some of what I wrote about that woman. Though it’s not yet ready for publication. I have to polish it first, find a place for it in my forthcoming collection, the one I mentioned to you before.
A woman happens to you once in a lifetime,
Slips into you like a music’s shadow,
Slips into you, slips the soul into your dumb body,
Then rules over you with warmth, for life.
Her eyes have the scent of chestnuts on a winter’s night
And her full body, full of love,
The most beautiful skin your imagination has heard of.
And when you brush the circling ocean of her neck, poor wretch, you’ll find
You’re drowning, no escape.
Her voice leads you to a sweet garden, unfenced.
I think perhaps it is
One of heaven’s bright gardens
Whose wide lawns you cross, whose billows you cut through
Heedless of the numbness taking you,
Of the fate to which you head.
To her. All your poems belong to her,
The letters shelter between her fingers.
A woman possessed by life.
At her lips the moon kneels down
And the sun rises once again
From her west.
It took place one night. I was exhausted, swamped, unable to bear yet another call in her voice.
Without knowing quite how it happened, I found myself, as dawn broke, knocking at her door. I offered her my heart, my poems, the little apartment I was to inherit from my parents, and a silver ring engraved with the single letter that was her name: و. As I’d walked to her house, I had dreamed: a vision of her right ring finger slipping into the ring and imprisoning my soul forever.
And yet, now, after the five hundred slaps I have received from my colleagues down in the basement, colleagues whose acquaintance I have only now made, I realize what a fool I’ve been. What a donkey. I realize that those quarter-past-ten calls, so suspicious, were coming from the private line in the boss’s office.
Five hundred slaps. Five hundred gobbets of phlegm, and kicks, and punches, imprinted on my face before even my first collection could be printed. And beside me here, in the basement, a colleague of mine, a long-tongue, trying to ease my suffering with a gentle smile.
I haven’t asked him what he’s accused of, what he’s done, and he hasn’t tried to tell me. Hasn’t tried, because he cannot speak. One of the letters, it seems, has lost him his tongue.
Colette Bahna is a short story writer, dramatist, journalist, and producer. Her first short story collection, The First Confession, was published in 1995, followed by و/Waw and Bitter Almonds. و/Waw won Syria’s Mazraa Short Story Prize, and four of the stories from The First Confession were turned into a play for the Syrian national theater, A Little Time(1998). Her fiction has been variously translated into Spanish, German, Russian, and English. She was one of the original writers for the critically acclaimed Syrian drama series A Patch of Light, and she has written more than fifty scripts for television with an emphasis on socially conscious, satirical themes. She wrote the script for the film Avant Garde. Banha has been a journalist since 1990 and has worked as a producer for several Syrian television channels, as well as MBC, LBC, and others.
Robin Moger is a translator of Arabic prose and poetry based in Cape Town, South Africa.