The Bright Tattered Layers of Yore

October 13th, 2009

The following is chapter 14 of the book Chicago, by Alaa Al Aswany. The setting is the University of Illinois in Chicago and the characters are Egyptian immigrants. Vividly, what is revealed here are the irrational and even ill emotions, actions, and reasoning that arise when one is stuck between “proper” and true love, affection, or desire. Furthermore, it is heartbreaking to see how love’s challenges induce self-aggrandizement while blaming and hating the other! Which reminds me of what my Arabic instructor said to me once, “Don’t fall in love in the Middle East. It only leads to pain.”

This chapter reveals the internal conflict of an Egyptian man, Tariq, whose self-worth is rooted in his family name, his prestigious university, and his chauvinism. It makes him crazy that the object of his affection, Shaymaa, became upset with him because he ignored her indirect though obvious plea for a promise of love and marriage. Shaymaa’s self-worth is rooted in her propriety, “sit bayt” skills (woman of the house), and her reputation and dignity as a decent, clean woman. Though she is sharp with Tariq, she plays the conservative coquette like an actress on a stage.

They both come from conservative religious families and their spending so much time together torments Shaymaa: it may be interpreted by him as “proof that she was loose.” And so, her attempts of knocking out an “I love you” from him and reminding him, “Islam encourages love so long as it doesn’t lead to sin” only produces a sigh and change of subject – an unwillingness to communicate. So she grabs her things and leaves. And this is where this chapter picks up.

The issues here are representative of the layers of extremely traditional crapola that lie tattered and worn betwixt our newfangled modern threads — all across the Middle East. Tariq and Shaymaa are two extremely orthodox people who are navigating their way in very fresh freedom. Though some of us are Tariq and Shaymaa, some of us are way past Tariq and Shaymaa, while some of us are in the hardest place — somewhere in the middle. No matter, Tariq and Shaymaa haunt us all.

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Chicago: Chapter 14

“I am not so stupid as to fall for this trap. That’s all I need, ending up marrying Shaymaa. I’d be like someone fasting all day, forgoing all kinds of delicacies, and then breaking his fast eating an onion! True, she is an instructor at the College of Medicine, but she is still a peasant. I am the son of General Abd al Qadir Haseeb, assistant director of Cairo Security; I grew up in Roxy and went to the Heliopolis Club and turned down daughters of notables. Do you expect me to end up marrying a peasant? Let her get as mad as she wants to be! To hell with her!”

That was what Tariq told himself. True, she was quite pleasant and her company delightful. True, she looked after him and cooked for him the dishes he liked. But that did not mean that he should marry her. She had to choose: either their friendship goes on as it was, or she disappears. He would give her some time to come back to her senses. He wouldn’t talk to her. Why should he talk to her? It was she who did him wrong. She got angry for no reason and talked to him improperly in a public place. She had to apologize.

He sat down to study, concentrating his thoughts away from her. As usual, before he slept, he watched a wrestling match and enjoyed a pornographic movie (actually he forced himself to have that pleasure, to prove that he had not been affected by Shaymaa). In the morning he went to school and spent the day between lecture hall and lab. He tried strenuously to banish her picture from his mind. At about three o’clock he was walking back to the dorm when he suddenly stopped and dialed her number on his cell phone. He was calling her, not to reconcile with her but to rebuke her. He would explain to her how wrong she had been. He would tell her clearly and decisively that if she wanted to go on like that, then he didn’t need her. She could go wherever she wanted. He glued his ear to the cell phone, preparing the harsh words that he would unleash on her. But the ringing went on. She didn’t pick up. Maybe she was having her nap as usual. When she woke up she would find his number and call him. Tariq ate lunch (prepared by Shaymaa), had his siesta and as soon as he awoke he reached for the cell phone and checked the screen: she had not called. He rang her number again, and she didn’t answer. When he tried one more time, she hung up. So, it was obvious. She was playing the role of the angry paramour. She wanted him to come running after her, humiliating himself. “Impossible!” he muttered, the angle of his mouth forming a vexed smile, and he began to stare at nothing in exasperation. So long as she hung up on him, she has chosen the end. He wouldn’t say good-bye but to hell with her. Who did she think she was? H said to himself: “This peasant girl wants to humiliate me? What a farce. So, she doesn’t know who Tariq Hasseb is. My dignity is more important than my life. From now I am going to delete her from m life as if she has never existed. Before I met her what did I lack? I was working, eating, sleeping, enjoying life and living like a king. On the contrary, ever since I met her I’ve been anxious and tense.

He sat at his desk as usual, took out his books and notes, and began to study. He wrote down the main points of the lesson and exerted a great effort to stay focused. Half an hour later, however, he suddenly go up and left his apartment. He crossed the corridor quickly, as if someone were chasing him or as if her were afraid to change his mind. He took the elevator to the seventh floor. He looked in the mirror: he was wearing his blue training suit and his face looked tired and in need of a shave. He reached her door and rang the bell several times. Some time passed before she opened the door. She was wearing a house gown. He said with a smile, “Peace upon you.”

“Peace upon you, Dr. Tariq.”

Her formal tone jarred in his ears. He fixed her with a strong, pensive glance butshe ignored it and said, “May it be for the good, God willing.”

“Are you still mad at me?” he said in a soft voice.

“Who said that?”

“You left me yesterday and didn’t ask about me today, as you usually do.”
She looked at him in silence as if saying, You know why.

“Shaymaa, may I come in, please?”

She felt awkward for a moment. She never expected him to ask to come in. Previously, he had never been beyond the threshold of the apartment door. She backed away a few steps and mae way for him. He went in quickly, as if he were afraid she would change her mind. He sat on a seat in the living room. She realized for the first time that she was still in her house gown so she took her leave, went inside, and stayed there for what seemed to him like a long time. Then she came back with a cup of tea, having put on an elegant green dress. She sat in the seat far away from him. He started sipping his tea and said, “So, what made you angry?”

“Do you really care to find out?” she said coquettishly, putting out a very tender feminine air.

His heart skipped a beat and he said in a passionate voice, “I missed you very much.”

“Me too, but I am not comfortable with our friendship.”

“Why?”

“Every day I get more attached to you, but we’ve never talked about the future.” She was surprised by how forward she was being. Was this the shy Shaymaa, now receiving a man in her home and talking to him like that?

“The future is in God’s hands,” he said in a soft voice in a final attempt to avoid the subject.

“Please appreciate my position. You are a man and you won’t be faulted no matter what you do. I am a girl and my family has strict conventions. Everything we do here in America will reach people in Egypt, thanks to the offices of good people who, as you know, are quite numerous. I don’t want to bring shame on my family.”

“We are not doing anything wrong.”

“Yes we are. Our relationship flies in the face of tradition, in the face of the principles I was raised on. My father, God have mercy on his soul, was an enlightened man who supported women’s education and right to work. But that does not mean I should be lax and compromise my reputation.”

“Your reputation is beyond reproach, Shaymaa.”

She went on as if she hadn’t heard him, “Why are we going out together? Why are you here now? Don’t tell me it’s collegiality because collegiality has its bounds. We have to use our heads and not be driven by emotions. Listen, Tariq, I am going to ask you a questions, and I hope you’ll answer it frankly.”

“Go ahead.”

“What am I to you?”

“A friend.”

“Just a friend?” she whispered in a soft voice.

His heart shook and he said in a quavering voice, “You are a very dear person to me.”

“Only that?”

“I love you,” he said quickly, as if it had got away from him, as if he had been resisting for some time then suddenly collapsed. The atmosphere changed in an instant. It was as if he had uttered a magical word that opened all kinds of doors. She smiled and looked at him with the utmost tenderness and whispered, “Say it again.”

“I love you.”

They kept looking at each other in disbelief, as if they were clinging to that unique moment, knowing it wouldn’t last, and not certain what to do once it had passed.She got up, carried the tray and empty cups, and then asked him in a voice that was the sweetest he had heard since he met her, “I’ve made a dish of Umm Ali, would you like some?”

She didn’t wait for his answer but headed for the kitchen, and then came back carrying the plate. She was moving confidently and coquettishly as if, just now, she was feeling at the peak of her femininity. Tariq stood up tot take the plate from her, but suddenly he extended his hand and held her wrist. He pulled her toward him and got so close to her that his hot, panting breath chafed her face. She pushed him away with all her strength and shouted in a choking voice, “Tariq! Are you crazy?”

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