I Have the Right to Be a Stranger

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Cobblestones glittering under a street lamp
photo: arcaion/pixabay

After work, my friend and I go to the Café de Prague in the heart of the Hamra district. As we sit at a table by the large window, looking out on the lighted street, I think about the people living in the buildings across the street from us. We should go somewhere else occasionally—she says to me—we need a little variety. I eat a large salad, and we split a veggie pizza. I’d like to go to Ravenna again, I tell her. Why Ravenna, of all places? To sing in that church, to sing onstage surrounded by candles. But you’ve done that, you’ve been there before and sang. And the audience are all foreigners and strange, Italians, what’s fun about singing in front of foreigners, in a foreign country? I know that it’s Italian and strange—I say—I have the right to be a stranger, be a part of the strangeness of what’s happening in this world of strange things. You getting philosophical now? True—I tell her—I’m getting philosophical.

After dinner, we knock back the glasses of green peppermint, followed by coffee. Except for the waiter asking us if dinner was to our liking, nothing interesting happens. Nothing happening in the street catches my eye.

When my friend notices that I’ve been quiet too long, she asks if I’m still in love. I ask her what about you. She doesn’t answer—I say that I’m . . . yes, I am. It’s not the violent, passionate love that you see in Arab movies and TV dramas. I’ve never even met him, if you can imagine that, but we write each other from time to time, and we understand each other deeply.

Some people don’t even try to be free. If they were to truly become free, they would end up in a real dilemma—I think. But then I don’t entirely know the definition of freedom.

Her wooden sandals scrape against the paving stones of the sidewalk, making me sad. I follow where she’s pointing, resigning myself to her lead, motherly and determined to protect me from getting hit by some speeding car.

I go along as if sleepwalking, peering out at the evening from under heavy eyelids. I follow where she leads me, and it really does look like the same street. No matter what I try to add to it from my imagination, I don’t feel like it looks like any other street, for example. I tell her this, and she doesn’t respond. We walk together, each of us returning to our own home. Goodnight, goodnight, the same sentence in Arabic and French, the same exchange every night, just about. The only difference being that I cry while riding the elevator up to my apartment, and she . . . I don’t know if she does. I don’t think so.

I bury my face in my hands and cry silently. The sliver of time between the first floor and the seventh stays with me intensely. It stays for a long, very long time, remaining with me even in sleep. Some people don’t even try to be free. If they were to truly become free, they would end up in a real dilemma—I think. But then I don’t entirely know the definition of freedom. The hardwood floors squeak beneath my feet.

In the morning I go out into the rush of people in the street. All of them headed somewhere. I join the herd and begin as usual categorizing the people that I follow. This man’s dangerous. This woman is happy. That man is miserly and cunning. That woman is an idiot. In terms of principle, one has to be strong to live here. Especially in my situation. Even so, my strength is overly excessive; there must be some limit to my exhausting lifestyle.

I don’t talk about losing and winning. I talk about some change, some weakness, things other than injustice, bad luck, a strange sadness.

Something’s got to change. The air pressure, for example, the resonance of sound, the reflection of light and faces and the fast passage of time. My heart is so weak that I feel my breath on my cheek. This suits me sometimes and my cheeks get a nice blush, but my heart really is weak.

It’s hard to get a sense of true feelings over email. But I can summarize it like this: if he puts a lot of ellipses and question marks and exclamation marks and repeats the same sentence more than once, then he is harboring sincere feelings.

It doesn’t matter if the letter is long or short. What’s important are periods, commas, etc. Just now: he writes just one sentence, then his fingers skate to the next line and he signs off with his first initial. With that, it’s a weighty letter. None of you know anything about him. I know him.

 

Translation from the Arabic
By Karen McNeil

Reviewed by Miled Faiza

 

Inaya Jaber is a Lebanese writer and journalist. She has published six books of poetry. Her 2017 collection of short stories, La ahada yudhi’u fi beirut (Nobody gets lost in Beirut), is her first book of prose. In addition to working as a journalist for over twenty years for As-Safir and Al-Quds Al-Arabi, she is a singer and graduate of the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory of Music. She lives in Beirut.

Karen McNeil’s literary translations have appeared in Banipal, World Literature Today, and al-Jadid. She was revising editor of the Oxford Arabic Dictionary (2014) and has a master’s degree in Arabic literature and linguistics from Georgetown University. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

Miled Faiza is a Tunisian American poet and translator. He is the author of Remains of a House We Once Entered (2004) and translator of the Booker Prize–shortlisted novel Autumn, by Ali Smith (al-Kharif, 2017). He teaches Arabic at Brown University.

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