Prose: Abdennabi Benchehda
The Daughter of Dr. Putrus
Past the expressway skirting the neighborhood, Sundus’s house. Everybody in the neighborhood knew bint doctor Putrus. People tended to swoon when she walked by them. The boys and I spent hours talking about the roundness of her buttocks and the fullness of her breasts, the lusciousness of her lips and the curliness of her long hair. Her beauty provided fodder for our fantasies. Those who tried to talk to her were met with a cold shoulder. She always kept to herself, but she was not aloof. The neighborhood kids crowded around her and she always had sweets for them. I saw her often bantering with her girlfriends. I saw her almost everyday of the week at the university where she was studying English or on the bus we both took to get home, but fearing that she might reject me, I never dared approach her.
One afternoon, as I was sitting on the top deck of the bus taking me away from the university, I noticed her straining to climb the stairs of the vehicle. Her heavy school bag, laden with books, weighed on her right shoulder. Her left arm balancing more books while the bus jerked as it left the stop, an opaque black smoke trailing behind it like a cape. On the seat next to me, I had put my two notebooks. I did not remove them for her to sit next to me. The bus was empty. She sat across from me and sighed as she dropped her bag on the seat to her right and the books on the seat to her left. She adjusted her brown leather jacket and flipped her hair from in front of her sweaty face and fanned her hand in front of her nose. Her hair was tied in a ponytail and strings of it cascaded along her cheeks like vibrant curling tendrils. I looked over Al Jumhuriya newspaper I was reading to see her almond eyes looking at me and her angelic face beaming with a disarming smile. I smiled back and resumed my reading matter-of-factly trying to mask my excitement and puzzlement that Sundus, the girl the neighborhood boys secretly coveted was sitting so close to me I could touch her if I extended my hand.
“What’s all this black smoke?” I heard her asking no one in particular. Her voice was warm and radiant.
“It’s from the exhaust pipe of the bus,” I explained pointing a disengaged finger towards the back of the bus.
She seemed more relaxed now.
“I know! Why so much? It’s not healthy,” she said looking around. Two girls sat at the front chatting energetically.
“This bus runs on charcoal,” I said. “The embargo is straining our country’s oil resources and there is no fuel left. From now on, all public transportation will run on charcoal.”
She looked at me dismissively.
‘What are you reading?” she asked in a saccharine tone.
“Al Jumhuriya,” I answered.
“I can see that. What are you reading about?”
“It says here there is no sugar in the markets.”
“Oh! Why? Is it because of the embargo too?” she asked her brows accented in dismay.
I leaned forward as if to tell her of a secret and she leaned closer bringing her head next to mine. She smelled of heaven.
“Because it’s sitting right here in front of me,” I responded smiling charmingly.
She laughed out loud her cheeks blushing and her eyes twinkling as she sat straight. The two girls sitting upfront turned around to look and then turned back to their hushed gossip.
“Thank you,” she simply said looking away.
“No need for thanks. It’s really not a compliment. I’m just stating a fact.”
She smiled again. We sat there for a while in silence her legs crossed and mine too. I folded my paper and put it on my lap. We both swayed with the motion of the bus as it drove on Abu Nawas past Al-Mua’alak Bridge.
“Where are you going?” she asked next.
“Why?” I asked surprised. “You are carrying enough books to fill the National Library.”
She laughed at that. She had beautiful pearly teeth.
“These are my last year’s course books. I am going to sell them because I don’t need them any more. And you?”
“I’m running an errand for my mother. She wants me to pick up phyllo pastry sheets from a bakery close to Al-Mutanabi.”
The bus stopped at Al Rashid place and we both stood up. She struggled again with her heavy bag. I offered to help her carry the books and she accepted. We turned into Al Mutanabi and started walking toward the Tigris River. The street and its cafés and stores were bustling with life. The sidewalks were carpeted with dust covered books and magazines. Up and down the street, people walked, some carrying a book or two, some squatting by the books reading the titles, and others flipping the pages of the outdated magazines. Some of the booksellers animatedly engaged in conversations with their clients about the availability of this book and, in hushed tones, about the scarceness of banned ones. Sundus walked to the first bookseller we came across, a balding man with bushy eyebrows and small darting eyes. He was sitting at the door of his store pursing his lips while the voice of Oum Kelthoum singing Al-Hawa Sultan serenaded from an old gramophone inside the store. He seemed unconcerned about the people milling about and entranced by the enchanting voice of the cantatrice. A glass of tea comfortably sat between his fingers.
“Uncle,” she called making him jump and almost drop his glass of tea. “Assalamu Alaikum!”
“Wa Alaikum Assalam!” he answered through tight lips, his voice barely audible.
“I brought the books I talked to you about yesterday.”
She emptied her bag, discharging all the books at his feet and took the ones I was carrying and stacked them in front of him. He put his tea glass underneath his chair and donned a steel framed pair of glasses, then he reached out for the closest book to him. He held the book as if it were a precious crystal glass he was afraid to tarnish or worse, break. He read the title out loud – Moll Flanders – and attentively inspected the covers and then moistening the tip of his right index finger, flipped the pages.
“You scribbled and highlighted all over these pages,” he commented somewhat irritated.
“Those are my notes … so that I don’t forget the meanings of certain words and concepts.”
He cast a quizzical look at both of us as if asking “Don’t you have notebooks?”
“You filled the margins of these pages with garbage and left no room for anyone else to scribble on them. Why is it that you, young people, treat books with such cruelty, such disdain?”
He tossed the book to the side like a Frisbee and took another one that he subjected to the same deliberate scrutiny. Oum Kelthoum’s voice filled the silence Sundus and I stood in.
“How much are you asking for these … books?” he finally asked.
“How much will you pay for them?”
“You won’t find anybody to give you more than five thousand for these,” he said with a shrug.
He took a wad of banknotes from his pocket and pulled five bills that he handed to her. She hesitated and then took the money.
“Come on!” she said to me as she started walking off down the street toward the river. It was only then that I realized I had forgotten my notebooks and newspaper in the bus. I cursed myself.
“Don’t worry!” she said. “The price I got for the books was decent.”
“I forgot my notebooks and newspaper in the bus.”
She looked at me not knowing whether she should sympathize with or laugh at me. We both laughed.
“Let’s have some coffee,” she offered.
We entered a small café, squeezed past two tables where old men sat playing backgammon, and settled for a secluded table in the back, next to a window overlooking the street. The waiter took our order. Al-Mutanabi vibrated with a jocular and unsparing atmosphere as more people, their eyes darting from one book to another, their feet shuffling from one seller to another, seeped into it. Sundus put her empty bag on a chair, and fixed her hair with quick, but gracious gestures. Except for a thin gold bracelet on her right wrist, and a gold cross hanging from a small gold chain around her neck, she was not wearing any jewelry. Her smiling eyes were full of wonder and bespoke an inner peace that put her at odds with our frenzied surroundings. The waiter came with the Turkish coffees, put them on the table and left. With a superbly indifferent confidence, she pulled a pack of Royal Menthol cigarettes, pulled one out, and lit it shamelessly. Then she put the pack and the lighter on the table, in front of her. She blew the smoke out with dignity, her head cocked back, her elbow on the table while the cigarette was slowly being consumed between her thin white fingers. She looked at me through the curtain of smoke, her luscious lips parting for a ready smile. I hang at those lips. I drowned in those brown eyes through which the Tigris flowed and whose lids looked like rose petals opening up in reverence for the sun. I didn’t think anybody in the neighborhood knew Sundus smoked. I felt I was ushered into the inner sanctum of a world that in the past I have only imagined.
“Are you shocked that I smoke?” she asked as she took a sip of her medium sweet coffee.
“No! You can do whatever you want to,” I said faking nonchalance.
“Do you smoke?”
“No! And certainly not menthols,” I retorted a bit annoyed. “But you know smoking can kill you,” I added
“This embargo is stifling me and you and everyone you see around here. So smoking is a way for me to know that I am still breathing. If it doesn’t kill me first, the Americans with their embargo will, or maybe Saddam,” she said in a tone shrouded in resignation.
“Hush, Sundus!” I pleaded. “Someone might hear you.”
“I never told you my name.”
“We live in the same neighborhood. You think I wouldn’t know your name?”
“I thought you never cared. You never talked to me or even looked at me. I saw you sometimes with the guys at the university and in the neighborhood. I know your sister Iman”
“There just was never an opportunity to do so. I didn’t want to talk to you in front of everybody so as not to embarrass you, but I always wanted to talk to you.”
“Now there is nobody. So you can talk to me all you want,” she said boldly undismayed.
I pulled my pack of cigarettes and reached across the table and grabbed her lighter. I lit one up and looked up to find her gleaming eyes following my every movement while silently laughing.
“So, you’re still breathing too!”
Quickly time went by. Words flowed from us in a gush like cattle being freed from an enclosure into the open pasture. Her voice was harmonious and soothing. Her speech was poetic to my ears. The stories we told each other, over three more cups of coffee and many more cigarettes, brought gales of laughter from both of us. It was close to dusk when we took the bus back to Al Amel. As the bus entered our neighborhood, she stood up.
“Get off at the next stop!” she said
“When will I see you again?”
“Tomorrow! Take the 5 pm bus for Al Ahrar Bridge.”
She shook my hand. Hers was moist and I held it a bit longer. She squeezed mine and smiled. The bus stopped and she left. I got off at the next stop. The streetlights were on and the streets were serene as I walked with a lighter gait towards my home where my mother is waiting for the phyllo pastry sheets. I kept thoughts of Sundus loitering in my mind like I would keep chocolate slowly melting in my mouth. I could not explain how I’ve lived so long without talking to her, nor could I imagine how I could survive tomorrow without being with her.