Blesok no. 50, September-October, 2006
The House of the Palms
– excerpt from the novel –
The next day I went to the khalwa again. After the classes, Sheik El-Faki ordered us to drink water from the bucket, the holy water to cleanse from God’s suras. I was the only one who refused to do so. He hit me on the head and body with his stick again. He seemed to be afraid that my refusal could cause a rebellion with the other children. They stood motionless for several moments, and then they started to drink, while he hit me as hard as he could. Nevertheless, I did not drink of the holy water.
So Sheik El-Faki again informed my father of this during his evening round of the village, when he took care that the fathers punish their children before they went to sleep. My father sprang on his feet and in his very own theatric way started to scold me: “You scum, you stupid boy! You haven’t drunk from the holy water? Oh, God, he’s the son of the Devil!”
Then my mother’s voice came from the kitchen: “God’s words are not in the bucket, Sheik El-Faki. God’s words are in the books and in the heads. They should remain in the head rather than in the stomach.” My father responded quietly agreeing with the Sheik: “Women’s nonsense. They miss reason and region.”
I was happy with my mother’s support. Since then, he ordered other children to drink after he would give me some task and send me somewhere or when he would turn his back to me. Only Ilyaas Wadd Farah quickly told our “master” that Hamza had not drunk from the holy water. Sheik El-Fakis would curse me: “May God punish Hamza and his devil, may God punish this stupid left-handed person who will enter Hell straight!”
Then he hit Ilyaas with his stick. The poor guy never betrayed me since. Still, I protected Ilyaas from the punching of my best friend Uthmaan Darab Sidru who waited for him in the evening to revenge for me, and because Ilyaas was always on our “master’s” side and spied on us although he was not good in memorizing and writing.
Uthmaan Darab Sidru was also named because of his courage. His mother told that he would punch his chest like a gorilla when he would get angry. When he grew up he did the same thing when he wanted to fight somebody. We were all afraid of him, but he became my friend. I often watched his father beating him fiercely, as if he was his enemy. This man and his poor wife who was the biggest and strongest woman in the village when she was young had a child every year. While she was completely exhausted with much childbirth, he always showed, proud like a peacock, his eight children. He always walked the streets dressed in impeccably clean clothes, with a carefully wrapped turban and nobody would ever think that he lived in such a poor house. For a long time I grieved because Uthmaan no longer came to the khalwa and didn’t play with us. He lost a lot of weight and something was wrong with his kidneys and his bladder. He had pains when he urinated, and there was blood in his urine. The poor guy had to endure various treatments without defending, with nettle, holy oil massages or endless prayers. There was no doctor.
Uthmaan died when he was eight or nine, after he had drunk a dozen of buckets of holy water. He was a handsome boy, in his face he looked like his father, in his body like his mother. His father often hit him for no reason and spoiled his beauty. In time, Uthmaan’s face lost its glow and only the wounds, the traces of the blows and his scars remained.
I remember all of this while I see Hakiema using her left paw to grab the piece of bread and play with it.
These events spin in my head one after another, horrible stories and inherited traditions that are imprinted like stains, turned my left-handedness into a sickness and my left hand into a Devil’s one.
When I came to the fifth floor, to the last steps of the spinning narrow stairs, the heavy paper bag broke. Afraid that it could happen, I had already held it with my both hands. All the time while I was walking, it drizzled and I didn’t want to open my umbrella. Besides, it was more practical to carry the heavy bag first in one hand, and then in the other. I was already wet, and the filled bag was softer and softer, so I continued to carry it with my both hands.
And now the bottom broke! A brief bang! Followed by rolling, the bread rolls down the stairs, eggs fall on the sugar and tea. The plastic yoghurt pot burst and its contents poured over the vegetables and fruit. The oil bottle almost broke. I managed to reach it with my left foot. It fell on it with its full weight. It hurts, but at least it is whole. But the vinegar bottle broke into smithereens and the sour smell is everywhere.
I look ridiculous, I stand here and I still hold the bag, light as a feather now, with my both hands. I hug softened paper pieces! While I stare in the groceries that are everywhere, I angrily curse the rain, the spinning stairs and the grocery bag. I start collecting them, one by one, and I carry them to the upper stair rest. With a light step, taking two steps at a time, she approached me with a smile. She holds a tin that must have rolled down in her hand. It contains cat food. She rushes to help me collect the remains. When I touch her warm hand by mistake, the silver bracelets on her writs clink. Quite suddenly, I am taken by a feeling of closeness. The clinking of the bracelets brings in a dim memory of a place. “Thank you, thank you very much.” I say.
“You’re welcome. You have a cat?”
“What’s her name?”
“Hakiema. Sounds lovely, but what does that mean?”
“It means ‘wise one’.”
“Is she white?”
“No, she’d not white, she’s wise.”
“How old is she?”
“Around five years, I think.”
“Is she from the animal shelter?”
“After a short indecisiveness, I say: “It’s a long story.”
I take in my hands as much as I can carry and I approach my apartment door. The woman follows me carrying some of my staff. She is probably curious because of the cat. When I open the door, Hakiema meets me with the usual, long mewing, which I always interpret as a greeting, and the others consider it a complaint. She – I still don’t know her name – kneels and pats Hakiema on her back, and she immediately starts to purr. The view is wonderful, I wish I were a sculptor or a painter to be able to preserve this moment forever. Although her hair is carefully combed, it easily drops around her beautiful face.
Hakiema knows to meet visitors. She rubs around our visitor’s feet and mews loudly while our visitor falls into a trance. I leave her playing with the cat and I take an empty plastic bag to collect the other staff from the stairs. Then I go out to the hall once again with a broom and a scoop and I collect the glass pieces of the broken vinegar bottle. She still kneels here, one step to the open apartment door. Now she sits on the floor, then she is up on her feet again, she kneels, bends, raises again, spins on one foot, and then on both of them. She moves graciously, like a ballet dancer. Hakiema goes around her, once from the left and once from the right.
I invite the young woman to enter, and she accepts shyly. Her eyes are wide open, like a surprised child’s. She glances at the room. I ask her politely using the form I’ve learnt in this country. “Do you live here?”
“No. My brother and his wife live here. I come to take care of their baby.”
“I think I see you here for the first time.”
“I’ve been coming here for two years each Friday. Have you lived here for a long time?”
“Yes, four years, two months and five days already.”
“Since you know so precisely, you must be unhappy here?”
“No, I can’t say that. I’m just afraid of time.”
“Afraid of time?”
“Yes. Afraid of false time. I’ve lived through many times; each of them lasted for several months. And after each phase my life completely changed, without any warnings.”
“I don’t understand.”
“In this town, I have gradually become like the people here. But I can’t trust time and I am always taken by the thought that my position will change in a moment to something unknown to me. Now I live according to the time of the people in this town, and it’s a dangerous time. You know, I come from a place where one makes time go in front of him, like goats. ‘Stop!’ you’ll say, and it will stop, ‘Go on!’ and it will go on. There, people make time go in front of them and they lie to rest under the first tree, without a clock and without measuring the time. When they wake up, they again make time go in front of them until they reach their houses so that they can sleep there again. Here it’s the opposite. The time is behind the people, like a predator, it follows everybody, tears the slow ones apart, eats the weak ones, circles around the people like a hawk. Here one must run and run in front of the time, until he drops. I used to live according to the time of the people there, now I live according to the time of the people here, without having a choice, without knowing what is better. And I am tired with both.”
“This sounds interesting.”
“I’m only joking. These are just fantasies.”
Her voice is as magical as her steps, light and clear, with a nice sound. My curiosity grows. I end the subject, otherwise she might think I’m crazy.
“Would you like some tea?”
“Thank you, I have to go now.”
“I have a very good beverage from Sudan, karkadé. It will surely do you good.”
“I don’t want to be any trouble.”
I like her answer. It seems that her curiosity is not smaller than mine.
“It won’t last long.”
“OK, I’ll gladly taste it.”
I quickly prepare a cup of karkadé for her. After the first sip her facial expression slightly changes. In the mirror opposite her I can see her surprise as she checks the cup in detail. I’ always fast when I offer the food and drink that I like and I imagine that other people should have the same taste as mine! Then I say, one should offer something, it is still a kind welcome. It seems that she likes the tea more and more with each sip, but I’m not sure. The clinking of her bracelets awakens childish joy in me, and I can not explain where it comes from. Now Hakiema quietly lies in her lap and it seems that she wants to keep our guest. The young woman interrupts the short silence: “My name is Sandra. What’s your name?”
“Hamza, Ha-, Ha-, Hamza.”
She laughs and tried to pronounce my name correctly. She looks nice when she smiles. I can see her regular, shining white teeth above her pink lips. She has a complexion color like wheat in late summer. I cannot define her eye color. The smile on her lips reminds me of the smile of the old Egyptian representations of queen Hachepsut. She also has some of that forgotten magic in her eyes. Silently and agreeing with me, Hakiema supports me in my wish for her to stay. Smiling, Sandra looks at the walls.
“Why are you smiling?”
“I see pictures of palms on all wall paper, even on the ceiling. You have forgotten the floor only.”
She smiles attractively and she immediately apologizes for the joke. I like her remark and I join her laughter.
“Do you like palms so much?”
“When I moved in here, the apartment was empty, the mortar fell from the walls, there was a wall paper that irritated me. Only one look and I already had a cold and sneezed: it was mountains covered with snow. Even the sky above them was almost white. I had a feeling that the temperature in the apartment was like a fridge. I couldn’t stand the cold. Walking around the flee market, I found this wall paper. It was cheap and I bought all of it. I covered the cold that was stuck here for years with them. Since then, I have felt a bit warmer. It makes me feel that I’m closer to the sun. I’m probably imagining, but in time I might believe in it.”
As I pat Hakiema’s back, and she has put her head peacefully on her wrist, she asks me: “Have you ever been in the house of palms?”
“No. Where is it? Is it a museum?”
“The House of Palms is a park in Schürnburn. It’s a glass house for tropical plants that can not stand cold and ice. You might like it there.”
“Is it something recent?’
“No, the House of Palms was made in 1880 upon the order of Emperor Frantz Joseph. It has three pavilions and each of them has a different temperature. One of them had Mediterranean plants, another one tropics, and the third one subtropical.”
“How could I not know about that place? If nothing else, I could at least visit my relatives there.”
From the Macedonian translation of Slobodanka Popovska, translated by Elizabeta Bakovska
1. Khalwa (Arabic) – a separate room, barrack, tent. In Sudan, it is a school where the Koran is taught; it is attended by children who have turned three. Most often it is a simple cottage or it is in the open, under a porch._____________________________________
2. Karkadé – tea made of mallow leaves, favorite beverage in Sudan and Egypt.