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"Eight O'Clock" by Zakaria Tamer

[Cover of Zakaria Tamer's al-Husrum. Image from books4arab.com] [Cover of Zakaria Tamer's al-Husrum. Image from books4arab.com]

At twelve in the afternoon, Hanan Al-Mulqi was dancing through the streets. Unconcerned with the dazed men gazing at her beauty, she grumbled disdainfully as some hounded her with expressions of love and flattery, describing her as a foal in need of taming. Arriving at the public park, she hurried to its entrance, sat down on a bench, and let out a sigh of relief.

All of a sudden, man in his mid-twenties sat down beside her, saying hello and that he had circled the park more than ten times looking for her. They chatted about the intense heat, TV shows, the flowers in the park, and the duck swimming in the park’s big blue reservoir. Without warning, he told her he loved her and that he had loved her since the first time he saw her. She fell silent. Staring at the ground, her face turned red, and then yellow, and her hands trembled. If she would agree, he wished to marry her.

He demanded she break the silence and say something—anything at all. She told him in a fuddle that she couldn’t get married because she had dedicated her life to taking care of her sick parents who don’t have anyone else in the world to take care of them besides her. In a panic, she looked at her watch and stood up quickly, saying she had to be at home in a few minutes to give her mother her medication.

Leaving the park together, Hanan hailed a taxi and the man urged her to set aside a time to meet again. She stopped in confusion and hesitance, but agreed to meet him again in five days. She got in the car, told the driver the address, and looked at her watch worriedly. When the taxi stopped to drop her off, she paid the driver her fare, got out of the car, entered one of the buildings, and took the stairs to the second floor.

At 1:10, she pressed her finger to the doorbell of one of the apartments and the door opened immediately as if whoever opened it was watching from behind. A man in his thirties appeared and said she was late and that he thought she would never come. She didn’t respond and entered the house, taking her clothes off before he had even finished closing the door.

When the clock turned 1:50, she put her clothes back on in a hurry and said to the man that she had to be at home at 2 o’clock before her jealous husband returns from work. So, she left quickly.

At 2:07, Hanan entered a cafe that both men and women frequent and met a young man older than her by only a few years. He shook her hand and gazed at her passionately. For a half hour he went on about what he wanted to do after graduating from college while she listened with interest and amazement, then telling him she must leave for a doctor’s appointment. He asked her what was wrong and she said the doctors’ first diagnosis indicated she was stricken by cancer and she may or may not survive.

At 3:00, Hanan went to a movie theater and met a man in his fifties. They entered the theater together and the lights turned off as the movie started playing. The man tried to hold her hand, but she got upset and left the theater angrily. The man caught up with her and tried to apologize, so she said to him: “how dare you hold my hand, who do you think I am!” The man said he was very sorry, but she didn’t accept his apology. He told her he hadn’t gotten married yet because he hadn’t met a girl before as moral as she, and she said she was late for work at the hospital where she’s a nurse. So she left, quivering out of rage.

At 5:00, Hanan entered a small shop that sells women’s clothing, picked out a yellow dress, and tried it on in front of the mirror in a space concealed from the public eye. She called out to the shop owner asking him to help her, but his help didn’t stop there, making them sweat profusely. She left the store without buying the dress, which didn’t please her anyway.

At 6:00, Hanan went to a restaurant where a man in his 60s was waiting for her. The two of them ate silently until the aged man suddenly said to her, gazing at her lips: “You’re always beautiful but today you’re even more beautiful. If I had a million dollars, I would spend it on a single brotherly kiss from you.”

So Hanan said: “A kiss is always free because I consider it merely publicity and a type of charity and almsgiving. For anything beyond a kiss, not even the wealthiest of men can pay that price.”

The aged man responded: “I’m poor and have nothing, so I’m content with whatever’s free.”

Hanan said: “I feel sorry for you. Folks like you should be given everything for free.”

And the old man said: “When and where?”

“Here and now, the sooner the better”

“And the people”?

“Then on the stairs of one of the buildings nearby”

“And what would we say if we got arrested?”

“I’ll lie and say you’re my father”

At 7:00 at night, Hanan rushed into the dentist’s office and asked the secretary for an emergency appointment because her toothache had become unbearable and insufferable. The secretary looked worriedly at the other people waiting for their appointments. She asked her in a low voice to wait a few minutes and then showed her to the dentist’s room. Hanan sat in the patient’s chair and as the doctor was about to examine her, she shut her eyes and kept her mouth closed. Leaving the room blushing, she paid the secretary the fee and thanked her for helping her relieve her unbearable and insufferable toothache.

At 7:30, Hanan went to a girlfriend’s house and told her about how bored she was with nothing to do in life, and her friend railed angrily against succumbing to boredom and talked extensively about its disadvantages.

At 8:00 in the evening, Hanan returned home, where her father welcomed her with a stern look and asked her: “Where were you? And why are you thirty minutes late?” Her mother hurried in and said to the father in a scolding voice: “Oh! Don’t you see the girl is about to fall over because of the amount of studying she does all day at the university?”

Clearly fatigued, Hanan headed to her room as her father said to her mother: “Thank God for blessing us with a hard working daughter who loves to study.” The mother backed the father and praised God in a humble voice.

[From al-Husrum (Sour Grapes) Beirut: Riad el-Rayyes, 2000, pp. 107-111. Translated from the Arabic by Annie Weaver]

 

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