In the latest translated tale from Palestine’s first lady of short stories, the newest technology exacts a toll on people ahead of their time.
Translated from the Arabic by Ranya Abdelrahman
It was just a story in the paper. Stuck in a corner of the local news column. Held in place by stiff letters, arranged a certain way to form one story, then scattered and combined again into another. The same letters. A single person’s hand setting the type. The story languished in the spot the typesetter had chosen for it. It couldn’t protest and prove it was more tragic than the fake dollars story or the announcement of so-and-so’s bankruptcy. As my eyes skimmed over the story, I carried on chewing. In one hand I held the newspaper, and in the other, the sandwich I eat at the office at noon. I munch on it while I read my newspaper, and I never know if my food plays second fiddle to my reading, or my reading to my food. I understood easily enough that someone had died, but this didn’t really affect my mood. My jaws were still working, the sounds of taxis in the street still assaulted my ears, and ads for the national lottery — blaring from atop decorated cars that oozed with the promise of riches — continued to tear apart everything that was peaceful and contented in this world.
It’s true, a man had died. And it was clear he’d died differently from the way people usually do. But his unusual death had earned him a story in the newspaper instead of a small announcement in the obituaries, paid for per centimeter of print. He’d fallen off a four-story building while installing an antenna for a new television set. Yes, we have televisions now and — like everything new — they’ve created new reasons for things to happen. For instance, people who fall off roofs, as far as I know, are almost always taking their own lives, and they, of course, have chosen to die. But this young man didn’t seem to have died by choice. He had a name, obviously, but his name hadn’t stood out alongside the circumstances of his death any more than it had in life. In fact, aside from the news of his death, only one detail had been confirmed: that the incident had been an accident. It was as if the world, which hadn’t cared about how he’d lived, was solely interested in knowing how he’d died.
That evening, I looked at my brother’s face as he sat across from me, his features set, his fingers tapping against the armrest in a nervous beat that was perhaps not entirely unconscious. It was his usual way of hinting that something was troubling him, and we never let him stew for long before asking what was wrong. In response, he’d reposition his crossed legs — slowly placing left over right, or vice versa — before beginning to tell us some story. But that night I noticed he was so distressed he’d forgotten to put on his trademark theatrics as he said, “Dunia —”
“Is everything OK?”
“Here.” He held out a newspaper he’d taken from his pocket. It was the same one I’d flipped through at the office, folded to show half the local news column. “Can you imagine a more horrible way to die?”
My eyes wandered over the lines again: “— while the man, identified as Ahmed Marzouk, was —” Not seeing a connection between my brother and Ahmed Marzouk’s death, I looked up with a questioning expression.
“Haven’t you figured out who Ahmed is yet?”
“Ahmed?” I said, alarmed. “You mean Ahmed —?”
I read the story again then shut my eyes against the gruesomeness of the image that flashed in my mind when I realized who Ahmed was. “How could I not have known? I’d almost forgotten him,” I murmured. “But this man seems to be a television technician, and the other was a just a store boy.”
My brother cut in. “A gap of seven years stands between that store boy and the skilled technician he became. Time enough to make him a different person from the one you used to know.”
Through the denseness of time, the childish, brown face came back to me. I remembered the day my brother first sent him to our house. “Find him a pair of shoes,” he’d said. “I’m hiring him to work at the store.”
I gave Ahmed an ancient pair of shoes that used to belong to my younger brother. “Shall I leave them at the store at night?” he asked me, “Or can I take them home with me?”
For a long time after that, we’d jokingly inquire where the shoes had spent the night: at Ahmed’s house, or at the store? With a laugh that lit up his brown face, he’d grab the basket in which he’d brought our house supplies and rush to his waiting bicycle. He flew from house to house on that bike, and it toiled away with him for three years until he quit the store.
“I forgot why he left you,” I said, still trying to recall Ahmed in all his dimensions.
My brother flicked his lighter. “Someone like Ahmed would never be satisfied with being a store boy forever,” he said. “Did you know he had an amazing knack for adding numbers in his head — faster than I could ever do with a pen and paper? And that he never once made a mistake with a client’s accounts? But when he picked up a newspaper, I felt he was decoding the words by sheer force of will — he’d spent no more than two years, or maybe three, at school. And the day he left me — yes, I still remember it well — he’d just finished sweeping the store before locking up. He wiped the dust off the windows, checked the fridge and put in more bottles of Coca-Cola. When he was done, he came over to me, and asked a question in that way of his, a smile always beating the words to his lips.
“‘Can I ask you something?’” Ahmed said.
“I told him to ask away.”
“He rubbed the bridge of his nose. ‘What kind of future do you think I’ll have here, boss?’”
“To be honest, the question took me by surprise. What a strange word for him to use, I thought. What could his future be, other than for me to raise his weekly salary by a lira or two? I used to feed him too, as you know. ‘What do you mean?’ I asked, not sure what he wanted.”
“‘What will I be, say, if I spend ten years working for you?’”
“‘Anything but a partner,’ I replied, slightly irked.”
“‘I know,’ he said.”
“‘Is this some kind of attempt at bargaining? I gave you a raise two months ago,’ I said.”
“‘When was I ever interested in bargaining?’ he said. ‘No, that’s not what I’m aiming for, boss. I want to learn something useful. You wouldn’t be happy if I spent my whole life delivering groceries.’”
“‘What do you want to be, then? A pasha?’ I asked, trying to clamp down my anger.”
“‘No!’ he said, laughing. ‘That’s too grand for me, boss. But I can learn to be an electrician at my cousin’s shop. And you want what’s best for me, don’t you?’”
“He left, untempted by the raise I offered, but he never stopped visiting me. Every time he came, he acted just like he did when he used to work at the store, polishing the glass windows and arranging the merchandise the way he liked it. Afterwards, he’d take a bottle of Coke from the fridge, saying, ‘This is my fee.’ He took his time drinking it, asking about our family and offering me a cigarette from his pack.”
“I asked him a question once — it was not free from sarcasm. ‘Tell me, Ahmed, are you a partner at your cousin’s shop now?’”
“‘I left him.’ And before I could ask why, he beat me to it with a question of his own. ‘Have you bought a television set?’”
“I said, ‘Why do you ask? No, I haven’t.’”
“‘But you will,’ he said. ‘Everyone will. Did you know I left my cousin’s shop to join an agency that specializes in television sets? I’m training at their workshop, learning —’”
“‘About television engineering,’ I teased, interrupting him.”
“‘Do we have to say engineering?’ he said, ignoring my attempt at humor. ‘They call it maintenance at the workshop.’ He went quiet for a bit, then continued. ‘It seems they like my work because the manager called me in and told me I was one of two employees the agency was sending to Germany. The company wants us there; they’ll train us to install and maintain antennas. If everything goes to plan, I’ll travel in three months’ time.’”
“I looked at him: he grew taller in my eyes in that moment, so much so that I didn’t give him the keys to close up the store like I usually did, but he came and took them from me anyway. After he’d dragged the metal door shut and made sure it was locked, he said, ‘I’m learning a bit of German now, at night school.’”
“For the first time in my life, I reached out to shake his hand. That was exactly two years ago. From that time on, Ahmed stopped coming to see me, so I knew he’d gone abroad. I heard nothing of him until a week ago, when he paid me a visit.”
“After he came back?” I asked my brother.
“Yes,” he replied. “I wish you could’ve seen how that barefoot boy with the frizzy hair had transformed into a well-kempt young man, a pleasure for the eye to see.”
“He came up to me and said, ‘What do you think of me now, boss?’”
“‘Don’t call me that,’ I said. ‘I feel like I should be saying it to you…’”
“He laughed — laughed for a long time — and said, ‘Don’t embarrass me: the eye doesn’t rise above the eyebrow. Have you bought a television yet?’”
“I told him I had.”
“‘Well don’t forget to call me if anything goes wrong with it,’ he said.”
“‘Are you an engineer now?’ I asked jokingly.”
“‘Not exactly,’ he said. ‘But my wife says I am.’”
“‘So you’re married?’ I said.”
“And he said, ‘Yes. She’s German, boss, but she likes men with dark skin!’”
Nothing is truly meaningful unless you feel some sort of connection to it. So it was only through my brother’s emotions that Ahmed’s death came to mean more to me than a story in the newspaper. One that my eyes had glided over as I bit into my sandwich, uninterested in spending even a minute wondering who this Ahmed Marzouk might be, who’d fallen off a four-story building while installing an antenna. But now, the image of the boy, with his brown face and his ever-present laugh, had ripped apart everything that had accumulated over the years, proving, with ease, that his life had been as real as his death was, and that the former refused to simply fade into the folds of the latter, more-cruel reality. It was as if his knocks at our door, back when he used to deliver our groceries, were now knocking insistently at my soul, invoking a sadness that hadn’t stirred in me when I casually read the paper that afternoon to skim the world’s news.
Despondence held us in its grip all evening. We couldn’t shake it off even when my brother got up to watch the news on the television set across the room. As the footage appeared, we stared at it, unable to take in the details: Ahmed’s spirit was being channeled, through the power of our thoughts, into the small screen, and it was as if his was the only image that found itself fit to say anything meaningful. I didn’t notice how the news bulletin started, or how it ended, or how the screen was taken over by a local affairs program, captured by the production company’s lenses. But I suddenly found myself confronted with an unfamiliar image of Ahmed when the presenter began to repeat what was said in the paper while a shot showed a slumped-over corpse in front of a building. And then the camera, still curious and hungry for more thrills, focused its lens on the murderous antenna as it proudly swayed on the roof, allowing a certain television set in the building to receive Ahmed’s image at the very same moment as we did: a crumpled heap of humanity embodying a tale of ambition in its final chapter.