In which an Arab translator and writer reflects on her work experiences at home and abroad, and on the meaning of everything in a time when much confusion reigns.
Part One: Walls
A steady rain is pouring on the roof of my car. The rapping corrals my focus as sheets of rainwater slide down my windscreen. I am reminded that fate is inescapable and not always kind. A sense of relief washes over me. I am warm in this cocoon. I turn the key in the ignition and hear the engine come alive.
Here I am, my new mind clipping into gear. My car, like a steed, knows how I steer and guides itself into motion. And I, in turn, know when to lift and lean, padding back onto the saddle when we hit the long stretch of motorway.
Who am I and where do I come from? Questions like these pester me every day. But today, I know I am a woman in a vehicle, driving along the highway towards my next destination.
Many years ago, I was a young woman in her first proper job. I was a Londoner. That first winter, I would arrive at work in the dark and leave for home in the dark. Whenever I moved, my office chair would mow down the rough grain of the carpet. In the open-plan office, Dido hummed in the background from the radio, which was set to BBC Radio 1:
My tea’s gone cold I’m wondering why I
got out of bed at all
the morning rain clouds up my window
and I can’t see at all
It was on one of those nondescript days that I received a text message from a friend: A plane crashed into the Twin Towers. We watched bodies falling from windows on the large projection screen in Conference Room A. Life suddenly became charged in a way I had never known — every comment, any eye contact, the shove of the shoulder by a passer-by on Shaftesbury Avenue. I remembered that I was an immigrant. I was “an Arab” in London. From then on, I was on constant alert. I changed careers and became a journalist.
Nearly twenty years later and I am walking down a London street once again: The Wall, it’s called. The London Wall. So many streets in this country are named after the boundaries a city once had, but not the invisible walls.
London Wall, now that’s a name that signals grandeur, all those tall letters, just like the buildings around here. Passing under the arches of one side street, I peek down the labyrinth of lanes. There is no horizon here, but an array of glass-panelled buildings, each standing at odd angles to one another so it seems that, whichever way you turn, you might accidentally smack into glass. It’s as if this is what people around here do for a living: walk to and fro. They practice it so seriously, solemnly, silently.
Soon I reach the building that houses what I have grown to call “my office,” even though I have no real connection to it. Warmth exudes from its basement windows. I often see “my colleagues” huddled in the far-left corner on colorful, trendy sofas, in what I imagine is their morning team meeting. One woman sits on the floor with her elbow resting on a raised knee. But I cannot pause for long. I am headed to a different workplace, where I freelance. I get paid by the day and I can’t afford to be delayed.
Part Two: “My Office”
One day, I missed their morning meeting because I was running late. But this meant I could pay special attention to the furnishings in “my office.” They had two grey sofas in the corner, perfect for slouching. A few cushions.
I spotted a sign that read, “#slay,” but I couldn’t understand it. Was it the company name? An acronym? A secret code? And why the hashtag? I studied the features of “my colleagues” sitting at the row of desks facing the window where I had slowed down. I willed someone to look up and notice me as I sauntered by, but no one did.
I found myself thinking about you, “my office,” as I shuffled through a tedious shift. How were you doing right now, I wondered?
I closed my eyes and I was there, slouching past your desks, passing my fingers over the glossy MDT surfaces, thinking about making a “nice cup of tea” and maybe sinking into one of those sofas for a break.
One day, three of the women working in you were simultaneously snacking but at separate desks. They would have had no idea of the coincidence, since they were all separated into cubicles. But I could see all three of them from my vantage point, fingers feeding lips as each woman gazed at her computer screen.
M.O., may I call you M.O. now? “My Office” just seems so formal. I really needed you earlier. It was so busy today that I didn’t have time to rest my eyes. It wasn’t the worst of days, but it was borderline. An I-could-so-easily-lose-it-but-it’s-not-the-time-because-it-would-cause-a-scene kind of day. Everyone was a bit agitated and on edge. But, you know, it’s over now, and I’m on the train home.
I remember how happy I was when I first discovered that I could walk to my workplace from the train station rather than taking the underground, which always leaves me feeling grimy. And, of course, it meant that I found you.
When I walked past you this morning, though, I felt sad. For some reason, I couldn’t see through your window as clearly as usual. I must have been slouching because the frosted pane of glass that runs across your window’s midriff like a belt seemed lower than I remembered it, although it couldn’t possibly shift by itself. I felt shut out. By the end of the day, my perspective was back to normal and I could see into you again. I spotted one woman inside in a short tweed jacket, and I glanced at her for a moment, wondering if I had seen her before. What if she ended up sitting next to me on the train!
Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to walk through your doors. I have never even seen your entrance. I would be disappointed if it was even a tiny bit chilly inside. I need it to be tropical in there… is it?
There’s another place that reminds me of you, M.O., or at least of how you make me feel. A place I return to regularly too, in my sleep. At the top of a winding staircase, enclosed in glass; a library spread over two floors, books stacked floor to ceiling.
There is no obvious trigger for the dreams in which I end up there, but when I wake up, I feel distinctly calmer.
One morning, on my way to the station, I stop to fill up my car with petrol. As I monitor the screen with its twisting reel, supporting the nozzle with one hand, a spot of heat burrows into the side of my neck. I am roused to the glare of a clear sky that soaks the entire forecourt. The musky humidity and the cooling breeze carry me back to Cyprus, where I worked for a year, and its all-encompassing heat. That rapid onset of warmth, the quick adjustment of body and mind to a new climate, a new experience of being. Meeting my first colleague out by the street that first evening, she in a short skirt and a vest, both of us in sandaled feet. Sweat gleaming off her clavicles.
That evening, our footsteps clapped against the cobbled streets of the old town. Large bowls of salad were served as we leaned back on our wooden chairs and raised our faces in the muggy air. So much to take in all at once — a new country, new climate, new work politics.
How everything slows down, thought, ambition, desire, and takes a deep breath and exhales. The way everything can be suddenly up for review.
Part Three: The Beginning of the End
It is 27 degrees on a pseudo summer’s afternoon on this “hottest April day in 70 years.” Londoners float out of office blocks and converge on patches of grass, spilling over benches. Talk of the weather is mandatory this week, which has seen soaring temperatures that the country rarely reaches in the summer months, let alone during a spring that has been playing hide and seek.
I look up and find a man flat out on his back just inches away from my feet. His arms are folded limply over his chest. His brown leather loafers twitch sporadically. Although he is lying in shade, his face is fully engaged, giving a superb impression of someone sunbathing.
Ten minutes later, I look up and he has disappeared. Settling into his spot is a young woman, who proceeds to remove the packaging of her take-away lunch and then cracks open a pair of chopsticks. She licks her teeth as she digs in, scrolling through her smart phone all the while. Women who have arranged themselves in a circle have been sitting behind me this whole time. I tune in to their conversation momentarily and realize they are discussing shoes. High-heeled, glittery ones.
Commuters rush around gripping transparent plastic cups, instead of the usual coffee ones. The cups are pierced with straws and seem to be filled with a colorful “crush” of some sort. Un-stockinged legs flit around the city under crumpled dresses and last season’s outfits. Outdoor dining areas, already heaving with customers perching on steps and milling around the edges, are hastily arranged and extended. Musicians are tuning their instruments on a pop-up stage for a city that has come to life as though answering a pager. Thursday is the new Friday and three in the afternoon is the new six p.m. as suited employees drink like there’s no going back to work this glorious afternoon. People smile, chat, and add their voices to the clamor of the band’s rehearsal. Drivers wave pedestrians across the road, but at the lights traffic growls so menacingly that I find myself distrusting the green light illuminating a striding stick-man figure. I know I’ve got to get away, that my train will be stifling and that I should board it early to guarantee a seat. But the music is starting up and the cellist is wearing a cowboy hat.
Last night I dreamt I was sailing, even though I don’t know how to, and have never felt the desire to learn. But there I was at the helm of an old wooden dhow, setting off from the corniche in Doha, where I once lived and worked. The city is the setting of my recurring dream, but never in my sleep have I found myself in its sea.
I feel a yearning to plunge into the inky ocean. Its surface is so still and fragile that it scrapes my skin as I slide through. Beneath the surface, the dense water grips hard at my submerged torso and limbs. I lean my head back and close my eyes to the starless sky. The moon is fullest in the middle of its cycle.
Oh, M.O. I’ve cheated on you. Right now on the train as we crossed the bridge, we passed a tall building with offices on multiple floors, and rows and rows of desks, so perfectly and beautifully aligned. We slid past slowly enough for me to see some of the faces already peering into screens, even though it’s not yet 8:00 a.m.
I know that next time, I will look out again.
I stare out of the window. The evening mist hangs low like a sack. A man walks along the edge of a large field as my train passes. He holds his hand up high, waving it uncompromisingly. When I reach the station, I climb into my car and begin to drive. Suddenly, a downpour drenches my windscreen. It ceases so quickly that it seems as though the water never touched the ground.
“My office” is gone, boxed up overnight, with half the desks removed.
For a few weeks, all I could see were loose cables and telephone sets, and some scribbles on a white board. Then a pool table appeared in the center of the room, where the breakout area used to be. Around it everything I had known had vanished.
From time to time, I would see a few people prodding the felted surface, bruising it all over with the tips of their shiny cues.
To say that I miss it would be inaccurate. A part of me had been torn away and I simply felt empty. Sometimes, walking past the unfamiliar space makes me want to scream. Other times, I feel the anger rising through my fists.
With time, I have come to cope with the loss.
Like today…the sun is already out by the time I reach Liverpool street station. We are edging away from winter. The walk is pleasant, the bodies of commuters turning outwards, weather upping its degrees as a friendly sun radiates. I look out at the traffic restrained by red lights and cross gingerly, peeking out from behind lorries for unsuspecting motorbikes. I step under scaffolding and swivel around pedestrians navigating the four directions the junction forces us into.
I start down the long London Wall walkway, spotting the Pizza Express sign on the bridge, when my eyes are drawn upwards by the skyscrapers huddled around it, all pointing towards the center of a pale blue sky.