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32 by Sahar Mandour

[Sahar Mandour. Image from As-Safir ] [Sahar Mandour. Image from As-Safir ]

[Sahar Mandour was born in Beirut in 1977 to an Egyptian father and a Lebanese mother. She is a novelist and journalist. She has been working for As-Safir newspaper since 1998, and is currently on a fellowship at Oxford University, where she was selected for the Said-Asfari Fellowship at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Mandour's work largely deals with the intricacies of daily life in Lebanese society, charting the navigation of social codes and their impact on work, love, families and friendship. She has published four novels. 32 (Beirut: Dar al-Adab, 2010), her third novel, follows the life of a young woman in her thirties, her four female friends, and a Sri Lankan domestic worker. The book sheds light on life in Lebanon from the perspective of women.]


Excerpt from 32

by Sahar Mandour


“On my way home, I saw her.

Should I tell her story?

I’m going to tell her story.

A lady in her seventies who carries a metal bucket and wears a headscarf. She styles her hair in the summer, and gathers it under a cute colorful wool hat in winter.

She’s the lady who speaks slowly and faintly. The years of her age have bent her back. She sells roses to buy food to take back to her Cuban husband whose illness has confined him to his bed.

His illness is clear in his eyes.

Her name is Nadia. And beautiful flowers are called “Nadiy.”

Every time I see her from a distance, I run to her to buy roses with whatever money I have.

I feel guilt towards her.

And I feel helplessness.

I’m much better off than she is, and I’m much younger. Everything is working for me, and against her.

She spent a big chunk of her life with him in Cuba. His illness forced her to come back here, but no help or treatment was available in her country either, because he’s Cuban.

A Lebanese woman can’t give her nationality to her husband. A Lebanese woman can’t give her nationality to her children.

This Lebanese woman, Nadia, loves her husband. And there’s a unfathomable look in her eyes, as if the act of looking came from a place deep within the soul, one that rarely emerges from the body, so as to not run into something fearful. She worries that a restaurant owner, a security guard, or a waiter might ask her to leave this or that place, or that one, claiming that selling roses bothers their clients.

I’m a client, and I ache every time I see her. I get ashamed of the plates I own and their price, the glasses and their price, my laugh and how care-free it is, my straight back compared to hers, my expensive outfit compared to her clothes that lost their beauty the day she bought them long ago.

I'm ashamed of all of life’s privileges of which she is more worthy than me. She, who is old; I, who can still work.

And I feel guilty because I know that, if I had to choose, I wouldn’t trade places with her.

I hate myself each time I see her or feel sympathy and love toward her, because I smell the scent of my escape in the roses I buy. I escape the torture of my conscience with money. She asks for it and I give it to her. As if I’m buying her silence, or buying my peace of mind. Except that my mind is never at peace, but always stuck in a cycle of pain. I’m a client who is in pain every time she sees the fragile lady with red, white, and yellow roses.

There is a lot of exhaustion in the streets of my city. Numerous pictures of many heroes hang in the streets of my city. The poor live on the streets, glued to the asphalt, where some of them announce their many disabilities so those more fortunate would give them money. The more fortunate ones are divided into categories: Those who do little, those who do a lot, those who do nothing and own a lot, and those who choose insult and think it clever to shower ignorant beggars on the street with insults. That last category drives me crazy.

A car looks like it jumped straight out of the latest issue of a fashion magazine, high above the ground, with a driver overlooking life from the tip of his nose. He shuts his car window if a beggar clings to it. He shoves an elderly man if he asks him for what is rightfully his, and is disgusted by the exhaustion of people, so he refuses to interact with it.

I used to be one of those who gave money but refused to interact, before my friend, Shwikar, talked to me about my refusal. At times, I fell back on imagination to avoid the pain lurking in every corner that housed a wronged person. When seeing an old man with his hand out, I used to tell myself that he abused his wife when he was younger, or that that old woman mistreated those weaker than her, maybe. I tried to strip the innocence from those with their hands out.

Later, I started imagining that they were accustomed to their situation, one that I dreaded myself because I had never experienced it. If I were in their shoes, I would have gotten used to a life of sleeping on the sidewalk, maybe. The guilt cycle came back to trap me: I searched inside myself for reasons to justify their injustice, and I found comfort in them. I didn’t say a word to them, nor did I listen to them tell their stories. I didn’t give them that right.

Shwikar asked me: Why do you give the beggar what he asks for, but never stop to talk to him?

Because I don’t want to listen to what iss not in my power to change. Shwikar told me that people aren’t just stories told to hurt me. That people crave communication and acknowledgment. A look or a smile, a word or a question, a greeting or a prayer, anything that would tell the beggar that I see him, as a person, not as an extended hand.

That was the day I first saw Nadia. Nadia’s career is that of the poor. Nadia sells roses. I ran to her. I asked her for roses, and resisted my itch to get away, to prevent communication. I stood still, so she raised her eyes at me. I smiled at her, and she smiled at me and thanked me in a French that alternated with Arabic on her lips. I asked her name, then asked how she was doing. She told me what I then told everyone. I told them that I knew her.

Before our meeting ended, I told her about myself. How could I not tell her about myself after she had told me about herself? Am I a judge who listens but doesn’t share? I had to tell her. So I told her my name, and what I did for a living. I told her that I was 32, and she said: “May you live longer” in a voice that  told me that I still had a long way to go in life, after I had thought that I had already walked a long way on that road. I laughed at my young age and at my obsession with it. She told me that when she was my age, she was the queen of the world. She said that life is not just money, it’s the joy of living, and the ability to recognize that joy.

I smiled at her unrealistic but nice philosophy, and she smiled in turn at her unrealistic but comforting philosophy. An unspoken agreement between us stated that an emotional bond connected us both, and that her past is better than her present, and that my future is still ahead of me.

I felt like a child, said goodbye, and each of us went her way. Pain choked my heart then too. It choked it harder that time, but I knew why. Nadia had a story, and I knew it, and I’m going to tell it.

She loves him. She adores her husband. She wants him to be comfortable and never blames him for anything. She blames the government and bad luck and the world and exhaustion, and bar owners at times and restaurant staffs other times, and she blames the Cuban blockade, and releases Lebanon from its responsibilities. She blames the situation, the past, the present, the future, and war. She always finds someone or something to blame but him. And he, he loves to be kept out of blame. For he’s her Cuban husband with whom she spent years of happiness in Havana.

Komodo had mentioned, as we talked about her brother, that her husband in Sri Lanka didn’t live near her mother. She had married her current husband Prasanna, a month ago. Before him, she had been married to Mohammed, a Sri Lankan Muslim living in Lebanon. She herself is a Buddhist. She hadn’t told Prasanna that she had been Mohammed’s wife here. She told me that women who marry in Lebanon gain a “no-good reputation.” It also didn’t help that she had married a Muslim. She told Prasanna that she had lost her virginity in a fling. I asked her: so a fling is more socially acceptable in Sri Lanka than getting married in Lebanon? “Of course,” she answered me, “It’s like nature itself gave that union its legitimacy.”

She had her first date with Prasanna over the phone. They had one long talk and fell in love, especially after they exchanged pictures. She went to Sri Lanka and they got married. Then She left him there and came back to continue working here as a house cleaner. She still sends him new pictures every now and then. The first batch she sent was of their marriage day and of the day before, which she developed in Lebanon. I saw those pictures. In them, Koko was wearing magical dresses. Saris, colors, tight cloth wrapped around her belly, a stern look that rarely relaxed into a smile, and an expressive pose. One picture remained fixed in my mind: Koko with her girlfriends the day before her wedding. She was sitting slightly higher than the rest of them, her legs rigidly fixed on the ground, and her friends were sitting on the floor around her, all looking at the camera, including her, with her arms draped around them as though she were their mother or guardian. She was looking defiantly at the camera, like a protective Goddess. She doesn’t smile in photographs. Photographs are formal.

In one of the non-formal photographs that Koko had taken of her in a photography studio in Lebanon, she was wearing green contact lenses. Her eyes pierced through the photo, alien-like. I laugh every time I see it, and she laughs at my laugh and asks me what I think of her sex appeal, and I say: a queen! Then we laugh together.

When I asked her how far her husband lived from her family in Sri Lanka, she told me very far, which I found to be strange. I asked her: “Aren’t you worried he might cheat on you?” She waved her hands around anxiously, and her vocals peeked as if jumping for freedom, then she threw words around until she finally put a useful sentence together: “Listen to me, a man will step out on his woman if she is there, and he will step out on her if she’s no. He wants to step out? Let him do it! Am I right?”

A result of economic independence, I suppose.

Her ability to provide and put a roof over the heads of the men and women in her family, young and old, made her independent. “If he wants to come live with me here, he’s welcome. If not, then I’m going to live my life.” I was a little hurt to find out that in Sri Lanka her first husband took a second wife, a Muslim, to please his family, without telling her. She divorced him. She lived with him in the same house after the divorce for about a year, because the occupants of the building where he worked as a janitor were fond of her and refused to keep him if he was single. They wanted a family to guard their building. So she stayed with him platonically. She kept her divorce a secret until he brought his wife to Lebanon. And during that year, Koko didn’t fall for any of his attempts to wheedle her back. Nothing could change her mind, even though she loved him and knew he loved her. She made up her mind and stuck to it. “Enough.”

This independence, I think, is what drives the women of my generation away from marriage.

Add to that the many divorces we keep hearing about, and the “I’m satisfied with what I’ve got” types of marriages that are followed by constant nagging.

He smokes cigars, Dalal’s husband. Dalal told him over and over that she could not stand the smell of cigars. At first, in the first flush of their relationship, he used to put out his cigar whenever she got bothered by it, and assured her that he would never hesitate to please her even if it meant his having to fly to the moon for her. Yup yup yup. A parade for putting out a cigar. Then the days passed, and they turned, and the wedding ended, and they were no longer stars to their families and friends. Their glow faded, and they became just another normal couple… naturally. And that’s when he stopped putting out his cigar for her. That’s the main reason she’s so annoyed by him. He fills the air around her with cigar smoke early in the morning. She gets suffocated by the smell. And then the concept of the whole thing suffocates her even more. And her life becomes a cycle, circular like the body of a cigar. The cigar became the purpose for Saeed’s (her husband’s name is Saeed) existence. His life is meaningless without the thing he cherishes most: his cigar.

Then he would go on about the thighs of the Cuban women who rolled his cigar especially for him. The Cuban women whose beauty Lebanese women only dream of. Oh my, those Cubans.

Dalal would start making fun of him: “Beautiful, yeah, but they rolled that cigar for you? Just for you? Some Cuban girl rolled that cigar especially for you? Believe me, one look at you and she’d quit her job. God, if she met you, she’d set herself on fire.”

Dalal defends her feminism in the face of Saeed’s attacks. She is repulsed when he struts around the house like a peacock. But, where would he strut if not in his own house?

Their shared life became a living hell.

I am certain that the cigar is not the main reason for their marital troubles, even though I myself go crazy every time I get stuck in a bar or café with someone smoking a cigar. I do not understand this invasion of personal space! It’s the same with the sound of smacking gum. How can people invade other people’s personal space like that? Unhesitantly, carelessly, unaware that they are committing assault.

Nevertheless, I am sure that the problem between Dalal and Saeed is not the cigar. The problem is their coexistence. Such a life is no longer comfortable or possible, and the thought of marriage is no longer seductive. They both began to hate each other, and their lives turned into constant daily revenge upon one another. As if, now that she was his, he no longer needed to be mindful of her. And she felt as if she had lost her connection to her true self, and she could no longer tolerate his getting in the way.

[Translated from the Arabic by Nicole Fares]   

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