A Short Excerpt from Al-Qundus (The Beaver)
Translated by the BCLT Arabic Literary Translation Workshop, led by Paul Starkey.
The very first time I saw the beaver, I felt a connection. He must have felt the same way too, or he wouldn’t have climbed up the rocky bank and started messing around with my basket and blanket. I looked at his two front teeth, which were tinged a pale orange colour from gnawing too much oak and willow bark. They reminded me of my sister Noura’s teeth before she’d embarked on the braces and bridges operation that made her mouth look like a busy construction site in the few months leading up to her wedding. His fat buttocks reminded me of my sister Badriyya’s. The last time I visited her before I came to Portland, I’d kept on at her about how annoying it was to see her dragging them behind her like two women, every time she turned around carrying a tray of tea and cheap nuts. The beaver looked up at me with a weary expression, trying to read my mind. He had the same look as my mother did whenever I told her I was about to go abroad, and she would shake her head in disbelief, muttering helplessly over and over “God forbid!”.
I greeted him with a glistening date which I’d picked out for him from the plastic container I always took with me to the river. His hard claws touching my fingers gave me the feeling that beneath them lurked a history of worry and equivocation. He snatched the date from my hand the way my father grabbed greedily at the fruits of life, forgetting that they grew again every year. He put it in his mouth but spat it out immediately, letting it drop to the ground. He picked it up again and this time kept it in his paw. He seemed not to like the sweet taste or stickiness but he still didn’t want to let go of it. He clutched it with a tight fist, conjuring up the image of my brother Salman, grabbing money like an old man who had lived through drought and poverty, rather than a spoilt child born with the latest video game in his hands.
He walked on three legs, clutching the date to his chest to keep it away from the dirt. Burdened by the uneven weight, his claws got snared in the weave of the blanket. This startled him for a moment. His dented body shuddered, giving him the appearance of a misshapen basketball. He tugged his paw free of the blanket, leaving a slight trace of mud and a pulled thread. He stood up on his hind legs and threw a quick glance in my direction to see if his actions had annoyed me. He then went back to crawling on three legs, having satisfied himself that I’d noted his ability to stand on two legs like us – though of course he did have some help from his broad, flat tail. The tail really intrigued me: was it a bone beneath the skin or some kind of hard flipper?
He did a half circle around me, then finally turned away to head back down to the river, leaving behind a torn blanket and a stranger. His oval body covered in damp, brown fur disappeared as he calmly and gracefully swam away. As the light of my memory dimmed, the faces of my family drifted off into the void. I felt that I must have somehow fallen short in my hospitality, prompting his departure, or else that he had fallen short in his gratitude and had left shame-faced. I threw a stone at him but it missed. I turned to inspect the tear in my blanket, trying not to think how rude he’d been to leave without saying goodbye, even after we’d shared these dates together and a few precious moments of this fine Oregon spring.
When I looked back at him, he’d already covered a good distance across the river, quite unlike his slow progress on dry land. From afar, he looked like a piece of tanned leather bobbing on the surface and sinking again. Suddenly he turned over and started swimming on his back like a tourist floating idly against a beautiful horizon, before he disappeared altogether from my sight. What on earth could this thing be? My first thought was that it must be one of those animals with water in its name, like a water rat or a water vole, although with such unique features, it deserved a distinctive name of its own. Could it be that I’d never seen such a creature before? I must have missed that episode of Mustafa Mahmoud’s show in my youth. Otherwise, I would not have been sitting there on the bank of the Willamette, unable to identify this creature that had taken my date then disappeared. There was no one around within earshot to ask, and judging by their faces, the people fishing didn’t want to talk. I decided to contain my curiosity until I got back to my flat in the evening and could look it up on the internet or else ask Conrado, my fat Filipino neighbour, who knew a lot about animals. Hadn’t he said he’d been a hunter until he was shot in the leg? And that he’d then been a plumber, until a massive guy caught him making love to his wife in her bathroom that he was supposed to be fixing? And that he’d then been a taxi driver, until he got in the way of the head of the Filipino Alliance Party’s convoy and had his taxi trashed? So he’d then become an electrician, and had been one ever since.
I stood up to see the surface of the river more clearly. There were several groups of ducks swimming in circles. I tried to ignore these irritating birds, which always make me think about Ghada. She’d been so in love with this kind of rustic scene. She was always dragging me along to places where I could see nothing myself but the same tourist traps you find in ageing European cities. When I told her that scenes like this were artificial, just set up for the postcards, she replied that at least they looked better than those aggressive monkeys in Suda. I didn’t like her joke but then I remembered that she was a woman from the sea and I was a man from the mountains, and there was a vast distance between us.
In the middle of the river I spotted a rocky outcrop surrounded by grass that looked like a likely habitat for his species. I stood on tiptoe, hoping to see him hovering around it. Perhaps it was his little house, where he had pictures of his kids and family hanging on the wall and where he hid his stash of stolen dates. Perhaps he lived in the forest near the river and came here to beg from the rich people fishing. Or perhaps he had escaped from a cage in the Cirque du Soleil, which had set up camp on the other bank of the river ready for the summer vacation.
Pushing these three possibilities to the back of my untidy mind, I crouched on the ground like a weary siwak vendor. I stretched out my left leg to relieve a sudden cramp that had sent a twinge of pain through my thigh. I bent and stretched my leg several times until the unruly muscle settled down, then left it outstretched. Looking at my smug big toe, crowned with pink from my slightly overzealous nail trimming, I felt a renewed sense of pride at owning such a fine foot with such well proportioned toes. It was perhaps because of this feeling that I sometimes paid more attention to my feet than to my face, which was full of scars with stories I could no longer recall.
There was a mirror in my flat, so small that I sometimes had to wave to it to capture its attention. I’d chosen one this size, just big enough for a quick shave, and hung it low down, so my face wouldn’t catch me by surprise. When I looked at it, it would reflect one side of my jaw and I would shave it. Then I would turn round, so that the other side came into view, and I’d shave that, then lift my head so that my upper lip and part of my nose appeared, and I’d shave there too. Then I’d wash my face and flee the bathroom like a prisoner fleeing a silent interrogation cell.
With a woman in my flat, the mirror would have been bigger. Mirrors for me posed awkward and persistent questions, like coming face to face with an old rival you haven’t seen for years. That was why I had picked a small and insignificant mirror, so that it wouldn’t besiege me with questions bigger than myself that I couldn’t answer. As I carried it out of the IKEA store, full of young couples trying to set up cheap love-nests, I thought to myself that it would do for a quick glance before going out, for people who deserved to see a better face than mine. It was never going to play any larger role in my life, anyway.
My face was really a distorted map – a piece of parchment on which a crazed ruler had drawn the lands he had conquered and the history he had made, only to be smudged in the rain. The scars that the boys of the al-Murabba’ neighbourhood had inflicted on my left eyebrow were mixed up with those that my father had scattered at random on my temples, forehead and chin. The grass that grew there when my bedroom window looked East over a deserted palace courtyard in al-Nasiriyya mingled with the climbing plants that shielded my eyes from the midday heat of al-Fakhiriyya, when the sun would break into every Riyadh house, hitting the residents in the face. The site of the first kiss Ghada had planted on my cheek had disappeared and turned into a place like Atlantis, which some people think doesn’t even exist. More recently, my cheeks and neck had grown flabby, like a lump of dough that had been left to rise for too long. And then the car accident had brought together all those scattered features and deliberately scattered them all over again. My face became a place of chaos, a site of desperate struggles, in the midst of which my nose squatted like the chair of a judge who had quit the scene centuries ago.
The last time I saw my entire face was two months ago, when I was studying the details of my American visa in Riyadh. After that, I’d only occasionally seen it in hotel rooms, airport lounges and car windows. It’s perhaps for this reason that I looked at the rest of my body rather than my face, so as not to forget who I was. I spent several minutes contemplating my hands and feet, my stomach and my genitals. I looked in detail at how they interrelated, and thought how they deserved to be planted under a handsome face so that no one would notice any incongruity, rather than living in the long shadow of such ugliness. They were helpful organs, which worked faithfully and silently, while my face was gossipy, angry, and constantly reproachful. It was enough that I couldn’t see it without a mirror, which meant that nature must be advising against seeing it. It was for this reason also that I clipped my toenails more often than I shaved my chin, and moistened the back of my hands with expensive creams that my cheeks could not dream of. When a strange woman asked why my sunglasses were the last thing I took off when undressing, I didn’t reply.
I carefully poured myself another cup of Arab coffee, which I’d made that morning without any cloves so as to get used to its natural taste, without my father intervening. Every time I took a sip of coffee and was stung by the pungent taste, I felt my father creeping into my blood like some obstinate inherited disease whose symptoms I was finally beginning to feel. My father sometimes emerged from the coffee cups like a sprite from the beans, catching me unawares by night or day. Some days previously, I had seen him in a dream, gazing at a long line of men advancing towards my bed, singing loudly. Their drumbeats and noisy voices passed right through the bed, which was already full of bad dreams. Hoping they would fall off the edge, I repeatedly turned over, but they seized on my slumber like dwarves encircling a giant. I sleepwalked my way towards the bathroom, rubbing my brow hard to rid myself of their monotonous song. I crushed one of them under my foot, but they carried on dancing in my secluded room on the second floor of the building that had served as the State Veterans’ Bureau before the owner had decided to turn it into four residential flats. I had rented the last vacant flat, only to find Conrado in the flat opposite, with his broken electrical apparatus occupying half of the small courtyard that we shared.
I knew that I’d drunk as much coffee as I could take before my hand began to tremble like an old radar needle. The taste of it had at first filled my mouth with a sweet nostalgia, opening within me memories of a security long past. But disaster struck when it began to deposit inside me large quantities of anxiety and tension, stoking the fires of loathing and insomnia. I didn’t need more of that. Anxiety had pulsed in my veins like a fevered racing car since my birth, and it did not need any extra push from a gulp of coffee too many. In spite of that, I’d drunk more than two cups as I watched the placid surface of the river that had swallowed up the beaver, leaving not a trace of him. I opened two separate pages in my mind for cool thinking. The first concerned the bottom of the river, and how the water had apparently dried up completely; the second was how the coffee tasted without cloves. As I had lost the power of concentration, I found nothing to stop me from dividing my attention between two ideas, languidly chewing them over in my mind one after the other.
I was surprised to see him crawling over the river bank once again, for there had been no circles of water to warn me of his approach. He appeared from a small thicket beside me and started looking at me curiously, as if he had lost his memory. His eyes were fixed on my face, and his nose started to turn left and right like a pendulum, as he tried to take in the scene in the shortest possible time. I held out another date, and he retreated cautiously, his nose still twitching apprehensively. I threw it close to him, and he touched it without concentrating, then ignored it completely. He started to retreat, looking at me fearfully, as if I was threatening him with a sword, and he was on the verge of falling off a cliff behind him, like in the films. I stayed completely calm, making not the slightest movement that might make him more nervous or confused. He started to turn around, sniffing a crooked line on the ground, until one of his rear legs reached the water, then slowly immersed himself and moved away, like someone leaving an empty theatre.
My mood changed as he left me so rudely for the second time. I tried to entice him back again, but he didn’t respond. Some dates sank in the water, while others lay caked in dust on the bank. I was annoyed. The wretched creature had ignored my dates and gone off. One kilo of these fine quality dates was worth more than his flesh. I decided that, if he appeared again, I would kick him in full view of the sightseers and fishermen, making it look like an accident. I lay in wait for him, changing my sitting position to make such a sly kick possible, and for some minutes squatted at an angle on the bank. In this way, I’d be able to kick him in a way that would look as if I’d been about to stand up, and he’d taken fright and rolled towards the river like a bloated ball of fat.
The beaver never appeared again. His large, trembling nose must have smelled my anger. The coffee had done its worst on my nerves and stomach, and I started drawing imaginary lines on the ground with my fingers. Why should he behave like this? I wished he could have treated me as a stranger new to a place where he has no friends. Not with the over-familiarity of the novice air hostess who felt my shoulders in the plane so that I would forgive her her little slips – but nor would he have ignored me completely, as many people had done since I’d arrived in Portland. But now it seemed that he’d gone to one of the two extremes, like everyone else, and there was nothing to mark him out any more.