A short story by adel bishtawi
A shadowy veil descended slowly over the last warm rays of the sun as it dipped behind the trees to the south west. They sat on the cold marble stairs of the new college building, watching silently the irreversible conclusion of another day.
The traffic had thinned to a fine trickle following rush hour, and the owner of the newspaper stall was hurriedly loading his goods in brown cardboard boxes, preparing for his departure until the beginning of the next academic year.
They saw him doing the same thing before but there was a special significance this time. It was their last year at university.
Hisham gazed unswervingly across the road and thought of another twilight. In a few minutes the bell would ring twice, they’d walk lazily the few dozen steps to the lecture-hall, and sit quietly for 45 minutes listening to the seconded American professor from California analysing one of Keats’ poems. Later he would wish them the best of luck in their exams, tell them how much he enjoyed teaching at Damascus University, and bid them a final farewell.
Soon afterwards, the students would congregate in the hallways, and talk about the usual absorbing absurdities for a while before they begin their last journey home for that year. The aged handyman would use this last opportunity as best as he could to collect from the smokers the largest number of cigarettes possible, and gaze down the empty corridors in silence before turning off the lights and closing the gates. Sighing deeply for the loss of the students’ company and cigarettes, he would begin to prepare himself for opening his laden heart to yet another lot of students in three months time.
Hisham also felt the painful pangs of a great imminent loss. He took out another cigarette and gripped it firmly as if it were a lifejacket in a storm. He traced the lights of a passing car until it vanished in the darkness that suddenly blanketed his world.
It was then that he felt like a scream.
Hisham always does what he feels like doing, and this outburst was long, shrill, and deafening.
Nizar turned round slowly, looked at him evenly for a while, and resumed his previous count of the lights being switched on in the small apartments of the buildings opposite.
“Did you say anything?” Hisham asked suddenly, unable to keep his private fears to himself.
“No.” said Nizar gravely.
“I could have sworn I heard you say something.”
“Well, I didn’t.”
“You know this will be our last lecture?”
“And you don’t feel like screaming or talking?”
“You screamed loudly enough for both of us. Aside from that I feel like getting drunk. A few double vodkas are the best remedy for the thousand and one different complexes that seem to have been built into us.”
“You want to forget already?” Hisham said, somewhat apprehensively.
“No, I want to remember. You know that drinking makes me remember. It isn’t that there’s much to remember, but the little we have in our minds is all we’ve got, and to forget it I need to remember it first, understand?”
“I understand nothing,” Hisham said wearily. “The whole thing is absurd. Four years of waiting, fretting, trying, and hoping have yielded nothing but bitterness and agony. There’s nothing really to understand,” Hisham said, more to convince himself than to convince his friend. “If we were in an American university,” he added, “we could have taken them with us and spent the night somewhere exotically private to celebrate the last of college days and nobody would complain or raise a finger in protest. But look at us! We are supposed to be educated and mature but we never managed an innocent kiss let alone anything more serious.”
“You are lucky to be thinking of kisses,” Nizar said. “I didn’t manage to exchange a full comprehensive sentence. Her overprotective chaperones wouldn’t allow us a minute of privacy. Why do these veiled girls hate young men so much?.”
“Because nobody looks at them,” Hisham said. “They tell us with their veils not to look at them, so we don’t, and they hate us for that, but it could be our fault as well,” he added hastily. “In a man’s world, women have learned to be cautious. Our fathers and forefathers before them built their sense of superiority on manipulating women’s enforced insecurity. In a society where good conduct is essential for mere survival, women can’t afford to make mistakes. There’s nothing a woman can do without attracting attention for one reason or another, and over the years they became conditioned to feeling the piercing eyes of people watching every movement they make even if there was nobody around.”
“Bunkum and camel drop,” said Nizar. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. To start with, men are in no way superior to women. In the past children used to be named after their mothers. I definitely can’t say my father is superior. My mother dictates everything at home, and God help him if he even decides to think differently. If you tell me things are different at your home you will be lying again and I hate you when you do that. If you are not aware of this you are not aware of anything. My God!” Nizar continued, slapping his forehead lightly, “the other day, in my very presence waiting for you to get ready, she screamed at him so much he almost lost his ability to speak for a couple of days. But let’s not go too far. If you really thought you were superior wouldn’t you march straight up to her in front of everybody and tell her you love her?”
“One day, maybe I will.”
“Bunkum and camel drop,” Nizar said again, “you sweat rivers down the crack of your fat bottom when she is 30 feet away.”
“Look who’s talking about sweating,” Hisham said. “Well, only last week–“
“I know, I know,” Nizar interrupted. “I never said I was better. I was just making a point about who’s really superior, and you know something? I wish I was superior. I wish I could act like my father or grandfather. Things would be so easy. All I’d have to do is find out where she lives and send my mother to ask for her hand in marriage. But no! I can’t be like my father or grandfather. That era is gone forever. Like all young people in my age I have to prove I can do things and act for myself without their help. I have to prove that I am capable of following my own judgement without the elders’ intervention or mediation. If I’d done this in the second or third year I might have had children by now, and who knows? I might have regretted marrying her. She looks angelic sitting at her desk but she could be a terrible lover- foul breath, bad body odour, etc. Imagine that?” He said vindictively, “a terrible body odour and no dexterity whatsoever in the kitchen or in bed!”
Hisham thought for a while, then pouted his lips. “It’s your frustration that speaks, not your love. We’ll have all the time in the world to wallow in our frustration later, but we have to make plans now. There isn’t time. Think of something positive we could do,” urged Hisham.
“There isn’t enough time; there isn’t a chance- there never was any. The last lecture will start and finish and we will fail to do anything. Neither you nor I have the necessary courage. Let’s be honest with ourselves for once and admit that we have failed miserably.”
“I’ll admit nothing, and I’m going to speak to her no matter what other people may say or do,” Hisham said resolutely.
Nizar raised two fingers in front of his face, then moved them upwards before curving and pointing them at himself. “There’s nothing that can be done. Too many eyes whose collective stares would scare the sh*t out of anybody. Even if you manage to mutter your few illegible words she won’t listen to you; she won’t even look at you. She’d be too embarrassed and frightened to be even seen near you. There will simply be too many people watching, can’t you understand that?”
“My God, man! Do you know the number of nights I’ve spent over the past four years holding her photograph and gazing at every feature of her beautiful face? Have you any idea of the suffering, waiting, hoping and dreaming that has occupied most of my thoughts since my eyes first fell on her?”
“It all sounds very familiar,” Nizar said with a snappy shrug.
“Then why don’t you agree that it’s time to do something?”
“Are you asking that question to convince me or convince yourself?”
“What does it matter? We must try,” Hisham insisted.
“There isn’t any time. And don’t tell me we’ll still have a chance during the examinations- there won’t be.”
Like a bright star that was suddenly concealed by dense clouds, Nizar fell silent. He crossed the palms of his hands on the back of his neck and gazed up at the dark night sky. The sparkle in his eyes twinkled for a brief moment and began to dim gradually as his hopes melted like grains of salt in a rushing stream of despondency.
Hisham recognised the familiar symptoms of melancholia on his friend’s face. He was already mourning his love, and there was nothing he could do to make him feel better. He had decided the last lecture was going to be the last scene of the fourth and final act, and he had concluded there wouldn’t be an epilogue. Just like the sunset, he felt his failure was also irreversible.
The loud ring of the bell broke the prevailing stillness of that early part of the night, and for the first time in four years they didn’t respond immediately. Nizar would have preferred to stay sitting on the cold marble stairs of the college building forever, but he wasn’t going to miss the last lecture because he would be missing his last chance to obtain his love.
Hisham thought of his friends’ words and wondered what was it that changed his mind in less than two hours. At one point he even felt envious of Nizar’s inexplicable hopefulness. The possibilities of success at the eleventh hour suddenly looked promising, and Nizar even talked of the future. Hope, like despair, is highly contagious, and for a change Hisham also felt hopeful and eager to try.
But that feeling seemed centuries-old now. Nizar had taken one examining glance at his girl as she marched up the stairs to the lecture hall and realised just how nervous he was. Eyes, numerous and glaring, were in every corner counting everybody’s moves, and there’s nothing lovers fear more than watchful and calculating eyes. Nizar was standing almost right in her way, but she couldn’t look at him in the eye. She didn’t dare, but she also didn’t want to avoid him completely. She simply took half a step sideways, looked at him from the corner of her eyes and continued onward.
When she disappeared into the shadows of the building, Nizar felt depressed. A deep feeling of the usual frustration followed, and he finally gave up his attempt. His heart was at a standstill, and so was his will to act.
Hisham tried to accept a similar conclusion but couldn’t. “I can’t let go, Nizar-” he said wearily, “not now. For the past four years I have had nothing on my mind but that girl. I never missed a lecture, but it wasn’t for my love of this damn place, but because I wanted to see her. All men begin their love affairs as hunters and end up being hunted, and I’m not different. Like you, I thought of it as a challenge at first only to discover it had slowly and surely turned into a trap. I’m addicted to that girl, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I dreaded this day as long as I can remember, but you can’t stop time. I wish I could, but I can’t. I know my chances are slim, but as long as there is the slightest glimpse of hope I must try. Not for her or for me but for both of us. She wants me to act for both of us. I must be able to convince myself that I’ve tried everything. Failure is the greater possibility, but unless I do everything in my power to make it work I’ll never forgive myself.”
“Go ahead and try, my friend. I wish you the best of luck, and who knows? Your success may encourage me to try, yet again.” Nizar said with a soft smile.
“You must come with me,” Hisham insisted.
Nizar shook his head. “No. I’ve had enough for now.”
“But don’t you want to see her?”
“Damn you, then. I’m not going in alone,” Hisham said resolutely, as he lit another cigarette. But then the unexpected happened. They heard the window behind them slide open suddenly, and they turned round and saw one of Sana’s friends.
“Boys!” she cried. “The professor will be arriving shortly. Come in quickly. This is his last lecture and it wouldn’t be seemly if he saw two of his students loitering outside the hall.”
A minute later they were seated by the window overlooking the road.
Sana was sitting in the front row as usual. Nizar didn’t attempt to look in her direction but the moment they sat down she turned round and gave him the faintest smile human lips could possibly form. It was totally unnoticeable to all others, but he was waiting for a signal, and he saw her and smiled faintly and as discreetly as possible.
“Look at her,” Nizar whispered to Hisham. “What happened to her courage? When she was eight years old she used to lead demonstrations in support of Palestine, now that she is 21 she wouldn’t even whisper a slogan in a public protest. Years of persecution have made cowards of us all. We fear prisons and endless nights of detention in God-forsaken prisons that are scattered all over the city, and we fear prying eyes and gossip, but most of all we fear ourselves. But it’s not her fault. She was brought up like this. From the moment she became aware of the existence of a world around her, she was told to cover up her legs and sit properly and avoid speaking to strangers because she’s a girl. I’m fighting for her, but she must also fight for me. If I can’t lead, she must. I want to save myself the agony of a lost love, but I also want to save her the agony of marrying someone she’ll never love.”
He looked through the window at the darkness and glanced at her again, faintly, unnoticeably, and regretfully. “She’s so pretty,” he murmured more to himself than to Hisham. “So pretty, and so helpless. “I’ll never look at another girl again. No one will be as pretty or innocent or victimised as she is.”
“Could you stop lamenting your miserable luck and give her the broadest smile you can muster?” Hisham hissed loudly and angrily. “She needs encouragement. Look at her! That girl loves you as much as you love her and maybe more. You can’t expect her to throw herself into your arms in front of everybody! God knows she would like that very much, but she can’t do it. Overcoming the deep-rooted shyness and fear in her, and all of us, isn’t easy. It takes great courage and patience. If you don’t want to do it for her you should do it for me. Rana will be coming in any moment, and you know how much her state of mind is affected by that of Sana. Smile, you bastard! smile!”
Hisham scanned the night outside the window. A moment later the students who had been in the corridor rushed into the hall and took the empty seats. Rana was one of the last students to appear through the back door. For a few seconds she looked lost while pretending to search for an empty seat, but suddenly she overcame her hesitation. Taking great care to appear casual and avoid attracting everybody’s attention, she walked with determined strides towards the window and slid into Hisham’s row, sitting down beside him.
Her movement was so elegant, but the timing was perfect too. In the confusion that preceded the arrival of the professor, the students didn’t have the chance to notice anything, and before they had become aware of the unusual move made by one of the front row girls, the professor had arrived and the noise was subsiding. Before it was completely quiet, Nizar had darted past the edge of the row quietly and slid into the one behind.
And the last lecture began.
The professor had seen two or three girls talking to the Dean of the faculty near the end of the corridor and he decided to wait a minute or two before he began. He looked casually at the class until he saw Hisham and Rana sitting next to each other. Raising his clasped hands to his mouth, he smiled faintly. Feeling somehow cheerful, he decided to wait a bit more.
Hisham became restless. If he had noticed the professor’s smile as he looked at him, others must have too, and they would be turning around to see what’s going on. If the prevailing silence continued any longer, all those present in the hall would hear the loud irregular beats of his heart and would notice to their horror that the two young lovers had tricked everybody in a moment of confusion and finally sat next to each other. Rana had similar thoughts and she too felt suddenly restless.
Like two birds on a window pane they lowered their wings, preparing to fly away each to his and her usual seating place the moment the window was opened, but for now they waited. There was no awkward stirring, nor the exchange of a smile or a look, but they were seated next to each other, and Hisham felt immensely thankful to her for that. It took four years, but it was an achievement; a great unprecedented success Hisham was determined to cultivate further.
A dozen different emotions rushed suddenly into his mind and he didn’t know which to address first. There was a huge surge of restrained happiness but there was also a sense of anxiety and tormenting anticipation. And there was still the familiar fear. Fear of being discovered, and fear of all those inquisitive and envious eyes around them.
Hisham was motionless, breathless, waiting, watching, expecting, hoping and knowing that the first few minutes were the most crucial. An awkward advance could send her running to the front row where Sana and most of the girls sat. A wrong move could attract the attention of a hundred eyes and Rana would have to find another seat away from him, not just for that lecture, but maybe forever. It was an extremely delicate and sensitive battle, and one that he was determined to win.
If he could sneak a quick look at her face he might be able to ascertain her feelings, but the moment she sat down she opened her book and stared blankly at one of the pages, unable to raise her head lest her eyes meet anybody else’s.
Speak, damn you! Hisham ordered the professor in his mind, speak!
The professor surveyed the waiting faces in front of him and uttered his first words.
Hisham was suddenly relieved. From now on all the other students would have to follow the professor diligently, and nobody would have the time or spare attention to focus on them. He had 45 minutes. It was an emotional make or break, and he wanted to succeed. But first a prayer was in order.
It was short, but sufficient.
The professor asked the students to open their books on page 209 and began read, slowly and passionately, the first stanza of ‘Ode To A Nightingale’.
Nizar suddenly snatched Hisham’s book and placed it in front of him. “I must have it,” he whispered audibly enough for Rana to hear. “I’ve forgotten to bring mine.”
Hisham was annoyed. Nizar had the book in his bag, so he couldn’t understand his strange behaviour at such a crucial moment. For a second or two it seemed to him that Nizar was trying to wreck his chance. However Rana knew the reason, and without saying a word she pushed her book towards him and pointed out where the professor had reached.
Suddenly he was closer to her than anytime in the past four years. He could feel her warmth build up gradually and radiate gently on his face. She wasn’t wearing perfume, but there was this scent about her- feminine to the extreme and mysteriously intoxicating.
The professor went on and on, and Hisham was hearing but not listening. He didn’t even try. There wasn’t time to pay any attention to the professor. He felt the need to contain his joy and plan his next move. It was great that she was sitting next to him sharing the same book, the same warmth, and the same fervour of the hormones that were boiling within each of them, but all the time he was conscious of the ticking away of an internal and menacing clock. He would have liked to wish time to come to a standstill but what was the point? To begin with, time would not stop for him or anybody else but even if it did that wouldn’t help him. He needed to take action and for that to happen, time must pass.
“He must have been thinking of a girl like you when he composed this poem,” Hisham whispered to Rana as she stared vaguely at the professor. “I’ll rename it Ode To ‘Rana’,” he added, crossed out the original title, and began to write the new one when he suddenly stopped. “Better still,” he whispered, “I will write you a better one.”
It took her some time before she worked out exactly what he meant and why. She looked at the new title but she didn’t know what to say.
“You don’t think I can write you a better poem?”
She turned her head towards him very slightly and whispered. “Of course you can”, and staring at the page in front of her she added faintly, “I know you can; I know you will…one day.”
She didn’t look at him again but he felt her tremble slightly, faintly, and secretively. He couldn’t see her face but he knew she was blushing, for what, he didn’t know but he knew perfectly well that other students could easily be deeply in love with each other for four years without being able to exchange one word. He had passed that stage successfully, but it wasn’t enough. She must have understood his message, as she took a great risk in taking the first move by sitting beside him, and he knew she was expecting him to take the next step and all those thereafter.
And he was grateful to her, and grateful to the other students who didn’t turn around to stare at them, and grateful to the professor who saw him without a book and didn’t stop to ask why he didn’t bring his along. He must have thought that Keats himself wouldn’t have mind seeing a budding love beginning to bloom, and if Keats wouldn’t, why should he? Love will always be the greatest poem of mankind, and any love poem, no matter how great it is, is a mere pulse going through lovers’ burning veins.
“Can we meet outside?” he asked, pushing his chin towards the window. “Just for five minutes.”
Rana’s head shook convulsively and she couldn’t talk, but Hisham was expecting an answer. “How can I?” She said. “If my dad or my brother saw me I’d never be allowed out of the house again.”
“Give me your telephone number, then.”
Rana shook her head two or three times. “I can’t. What would you tell my mum and dad? I want to speak to your daughter? What would they say, or do, to me!?”
Time was running out quickly and a sense of urgency was forcing Hisham to abandon his patience. “Either we are in this together or not,” he said with slight impatience. You must help me.”
“I sat next to you,” she whispered. “What more can I do?”
“You can give me your telephone number, or the telephone number of a friend.”
In a slow movement born out of an undefined feeling very close to despair, she shook her head, paused for a moment and whispered: “Give me your number.”
Hisham shoved his hand into right trouser pocket but it was empty. The left pocket was empty too. He never kept pens in his shirt pocket but he tried that too. He looked at Rana expectantly and somewhat desperately. She pushed her pen over the desk towards him but there was no paper. He looked at her book but she slid it away from him and covered it with her arm.
As he turned to Nizar to ask for a piece of paper, the voice of the professor stopped suddenly and the attention of the students was drawn to each other. Hisham’s heart sank. He knew he could explain his way out of the minor misdemeanor, but deep inside he knew that in the process, his only chance in four years may have been lost.
The professor closed his book, held it in his right hand and glanced at the whole class in one wide sweep. “Any questions?” he enquired.
The students looked at each other, searching for volunteers, but there weren’t any.
“No questions at all?” the professor repeated.
Again they looked at each other almost reluctantly and stared blankly at their teacher.
Hisham felt betrayed, angry and helpless. He could wish for something different to happen next but he knew there would be nothing. Most probably, he said to himself mentally, the professor would wish everybody the best of luck in their final examinations, tell them how much he enjoyed being in Syria and how glad he was to have taught such a fine group of young people before dismissing the class.
The professor inspected the faces before him like a chess player inspecting his pawns and smiled. Sure enough, he wished them the best of luck in the final examinations, told them how much he enjoyed being in the country and how happy he felt to have been a friend and teacher to so many good students, but he didn’t dismiss the class straight away. He eyes stopped at certain faces, ignored others, then looked at the section where Hisham, Rana and Nizar were sitting and bit his lower lip hard before he freed it with a loud sucking sound and spoke again before the sound had totally dissipated. “I have a few words to say before I leave you but if anyone wants to leave now he or she can do so.”
The students realised he wouldn’t be talking about classes and exams and were intrigued, and he was grateful to all for them for staying on regardless of their reasons.
“Before I accepted this assignment,” he said, “I was apprehensive. I have watched news coverage of the Middle East and most of the time I didn’t like what I saw. The violence, the bitterness and what we call back home “terrorism” were the recurrent aspects of a conflict that I could neither comprehend nor accept. I expected the worst but I wanted to come to see for myself, and I am glad to say that a lot of things I and millions like me accepted as facts are not so, not after I came to know you and all those in the other classes I taught. The barriers that stood between you and I have all but disappeared and in their place understanding and goodwill grew deeper and stronger as time went by. I came here a foreigner, an alien but you made me feel as if I was among friends and for that I am grateful.”
The professor looked at his watch and again at the faces closest to him and continued at a quicker pace: “The other thought I wanted to share with you may be construed by some as an intrusion, and I will say it not as your professor but as your friend. Those of you who thought I was teaching poetry and literature so you may pass your exams did not understand fully the purpose of my lectures. Everything useful must have a practical purpose to it and that applies to all the humanities including poetry. What is the purpose of poetry if it fails to awaken dormant hearts and slumbering emotions? I consider poetry the spark that sets light to the deep emotions we have in our hearts and I have seen here, in this class, as in others many sparks but I have not seen any fires as yet.”
The professor knew he was talking about a complex issue in a traditional Middle Eastern society and felt he should perhaps restrain himself a little, but it was the last lecture for him and he wasn’t going to restrain himself in the final few words he was going to say. Love, you see, is like life and it has to be experienced fully to be enjoyed. The emotions expressed by the poets we studied are not mere study cases, but things to be appreciated and reflected in our relations with other people. Romantic poems are not meant to be memorised, analysed, and forgotten but to be recited-“, then he held his breath and moved his eyes across the the hall very slowly and added: “By lovers, lovers of your age.”
He stopped for a while and surveyed the faces before him once more. “I know I’m talking about something very private,” he continued after a moment’s hesitation. “You could ask me to stop but I beg you to listen. It’s painful for me to see so many fine boys and girls and not one love story. I know very little about your culture, but I’m willing to learn if somebody cares to teach me. The little I know, however, gives me the impression that your nation places love very highly. Your literature is full of lovers’ exploits and suffering, but I can’t see it around, and that makes me very sad.”
He wasn’t inclined to go yet and he didn’t intend to, but he found that his eyes were suddenly welling up. “If any of you would like to comment on what I have just said, please do, otherwise I have kept you long enough and I wish you all the very best.”
Nobody stirred, so he collected his papers, stacked them on top of his book and took one step down the stairs.
“Sir!” Nizar said loudly, “Sir! I would like to say something before you leave.”
The professor began to turn around to go behind the podium again but he suddenly stopped and stood on the second step.
“Sir,” Nizar began, “I would like to begin by saying I’m in no way speaking on behalf of my colleagues. They have capable minds and they can express themselves even better than me but I simply think it’s unfair of us all not to attempt to answer some of the valid points you made in recognition for the knowledge you generously gave us. And I will be frank, and say what I want to say not because my words are unique but because none of my colleagues will speak out, and I believe these things must be said.”
“And sir,” he continued with confidence as if he were alone with the professor, “you spoke correctly about the sparks that fail to produce fires but let me tell you that they will never produce fires because they are too weakened by fear. Yes, fear. Am I talking about love? Yes, I am. We fear love. We talk about, sing about it, and write volumes about it, but we fear it. Why? Because love in our society is a challenge unless it’s approved and controlled, and societies with ancient cultures are ruthless against those who dare to defy them. No matter how a love story begins it must end predictably and formally by the man proposing not to the girl but her mother, father, brother and even uncle or to all of them together, but not to the girl herself. She will say yes only when they say yes but not before. Those who violate this rule are branded as immoral and promiscuous. There’s really no alternative. Unless I follow my father’s footsteps and those of his father before him, I’ll find myself fighting a lost battle. It’s not because the elders are always watching what the younger generation is up to. They simply can’t do it. They don’t have the sharp eyes or the time to keep a continuous watch. But somehow, the younger generation is keeping watch over themselves on behalf of the elders- subconsciously, jealously, and even masochistically. Consequently, a method of secret communication had to be invented. It’s an old one practiced by all human beings, but none is more experienced in employing it than the people you are watching now. We love silently and secretly and we think nobody else knows or sees. But, in a complex society like ours, the eyes learn how to say everything in one quick glance. And sir, if you happened to look closely, you’d have discovered that half the students in this hall love the other half; deeply and desperately and maybe hopelessly, but tonight they will leave as total strangers and most may never see each other again.”
The veiled girls in the first three rows turned to each other in disbelief and disdain, and burst out in a chorus of condemnation and denial, with half complaining to the professor and the other half to Nizar who stopped for a moment, viewed them passively and stared at Sana long enough to let the whole class know at last how much he loved her. He then took a deep breath. “And sir,” he continued, “We’re grown up and educated but we are exercising none of our rights simply because we are taught by the system to pay all our dues and seek none of our rights. We are supposed to lead society towards change, but society must watch out for we are actually the largest obstacle to change. We may consider ourselves the promoters of a vital link between the past and the future, but we are really not different from our fathers and mothers, and we’ll end up the same. Meanwhile, we’ll suffer secretly and silently. We’ll let our chances slip away and feel guilty for it the rest of our lives. Look around you and you’ll find normal, healthy people loving and suffering in silence because they have put the needs of repressive societies before their basic needs. And why? Because behind our modern appearance, we are still bedouins deep inside. We need a revolution to ‘unbedouinise’ us, but a revolution needs revolutionaries who want to take us to the future and not back to the dark dungeons of the past.”
The veiled girls took Nizar’s last remark as a personal insult to tradition and stood up all at once. “Come!” Screamed Lutfiah to Sana, “We are not staying with this apostate a minute longer, and you,” she shouted at Rana, “you come with us too.”
Most of the veiled girls had left the hall by the time Sana finished collecting her books and papers. She smiled faintly at the professor and left. Rana closed her book slowly, turned round to Nizar, gave him a most helpless look, and followed Sana to the privacy of the women’s bathrooms.
“By the shore of the Gulf I stood,
Ah Gulf: provider of pearls, oysters and death,
As if sobbing, the echo slowly said,
Ah Gulf, provider of oysters and death.”
Hisham stuffed his palms beneath his thighs to shield them from the coldness of the marble stairs outside the college and asked: “Who said that?”
“As-Sayyab,” Nizar said despondently.
Hisham smiled to himself. “I should’ve guessed, nobody expresses pain deeper than Iraqis or Palestinians.”
“Syrians too,” Nizar said with a light chuckle, “from now on.”
“You intend to become a poet like as-Sayyab?”
“Why not,” Nizar said with a shrug, “If you can be a bedouin Keats, I can be an Iraqi as-Sayyab.”
“How do you know that?”
“What does it matter?” Nizar said, “I overheard the details of your attempt to lure Rana into your arms by a Keatsian poem, but tell me: would you really write her a poem…if you could?”
Hisham thought for a moment and nodded. “Yes, I would.”
“But what would you say in it? You haven’t even held her hand yet.”
Hisham pouted his lip and shrugged his shoulders. “It doesn’t matter. I love her, you know that.”
“So what? All our masturbating friends in the class love either Rana or Sana, but the question is whether she loves you.”
Hisham wanted to agree but hesitated. “In her own way I believe she does,” he said after a moment’s hesitation. People may laugh at me but she did sit next to me and she asked for my phone number, but your bloody speech ruined everything.”
“She could have waited a minute until you managed to give her your number, couldn’t she?”
Hisham had thought of this before and concluded earlier on that Rana didn’t really make a real effort to establish a life-line for their budding love, but he felt he should give her the benefit of the doubt. “Had she tarried a while longer those veiled crows would have dragged her out of the hall by her hair.”
“Maybe,” said Nizar, “but she didn’t exactly object to being ordered out.”
Hisham thought momentarily of contradicting him but he couldn’t. “No, you’re right, she didn’t.”
“It’s over, then.”
“Why is it over?” said Hisham, “There is a chance we might meet them during the exams.”
Nizar tilted his head backwards. “If you couldn’t do it in four years you won’t be able to do it in two weeks. I can’t see a camel without my glasses but I can see the future, and it’s empty.”
Hope suppressed by fear and anger was quickly replaced with sarcasm. He took Nizar’s glasses off and asked what else he could see in the future.
Nizar laughed and his words trailed his laughter. “In a short while,” he said, “both Rana and Sana will be finishing their third cigarette in the ladies’ bathrooms. They’ll come out surrounded by all their chaperones, stop at the entrance just behind us, and glance at us repeatedly and slyly. Then, they’ll walk to the bus stop and disappear and that’ll be it.”
A couple of minutes later they heard the footsteps of the last batch of girls coming down the stairs and re-grouping on the first landing. Rana and Sana glanced at the two young men, talked some more to each other, and walked slowly over to the bus stop on the other side of the road. A few minutes later, an old yellow bus stopped for them and then continued its race with the night.
Hisham bit one fingernail after another, took a deep breath, and turned to Nizar again. “What now?”
“I could read you a long poem about misery and lost love. I know a good one by Keats.”
“Fuck Keats”, Hisham said.
“Fuck him and fuck you too,” said Hisham. “Think of something nice we could do tonight.”
Hisham smiled, then he cut his smile short, changed his mind and laughed. “In less than half an hour I can see us at the best table Abu Salim can give us, loaded with Araq and hot, steaming hazel nuts.”
“Now you’re talking. And after that?”
“Lots of cups and saucers will be smashed to bits tonight, textbooks burnt, and music records bearing the name of Beethoven reduced to smithereens.”
“At Abu Salim’s?” asked Hisham. “But he hates Beethoven.”
“In your room, stupid, once Abu Salim throws us out of his bar, where else?”
“Let’s do it,” Hisham said as he stood, and they both raced to the bus stop.
Translated by Mohammed Khaled
Image credit: leila-farah.com