Image © Ryan Van Winkle 2016
|by Zubaida Jamal||February 3, 2016|
Every time a resident of the Jamal Building goes up the elevator, the electricity in the whole building chokes for exactly ten seconds. It could be fixed, but it would need an electrician, two thousand dollars and someone to care. If the electricity goes off at night, you can tell who’s out and who just came home from the sounds of their shoes going up the stairs.
If the person lives below you, the manner in which they close their door is a clear indicator of who it is. Men usually close their doors in a more aggressive way, but if it is a man coming home late, they close their door like a woman. In the morning and during the time the government cuts the electricity, from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. when people are getting ready to go to their jobs or school, the residents sitting at home only recognize the sound of high heels. It’s useful gossip.
The Jamal Building was built in the 1960s; it was the first building in Lebbos Street. It was built by a man who wanted to live there with his four sons and their future wives. Hajji Kassem Jamal was a rich man but never showed it. He loved to eat, and only after he died did people know he had been helping the poor when the town started begging again. Sadly, the Lebanese civil war ruined Hajji Kassem’s plans, and all but one of his sons had sold their apartments.
He colored the building green, not only because it was his wife’s favorite color but also because he thought it would look like one of those European Buildings he’d seen on television.
Imam Abdul Rahman Jamal, the only son of Hajji Kassem Jamal who hasn’t sold his apartment, schedules most of his appointments after the Maghrib prayer. He runs his chubby thumb along the praying beads waiting to pray the Maghrib prayer and then leaves to seal a marriage contract.
He makes sure not to take two beads instead of one.
After the Azan is over, and his prayers are done, he gets into his white Volvo. Imam Abdul Rahman trips on his dishdasha almost every time. He refuses to shorten it. He dislikes Molokhia, and secretly he has an inventory in his head of all the different bohemian vases he’s gotten from sealing marriage ceremonies. He even jokes with himself that he can sell them and buy a new phone.
He dozes lightly and mistakes the brake pedal for the accelerator.
Imam Abdul Rahman has his own strategy: instead of wishing ill to people he just asks God to fix whatever bothers him in that person. Now he is desperately asking God to make the person in the fourth floor above him not have such heavy footsteps.
“On the soul of your son I buried, please stop walking so late at night,” he says in his head.
He is growing old, he reminds himself. He isn’t getting as much sleep as he needs.
Leena Dabbous is the youngest of three children. She lives on the fourth floor and although she has to climb the most stairs in the building when the electricity is out she still never manages to get in shape.
Leena has a secret boyfriend named Mohammed that she usually talks to at two in the morning in the guest bathroom, which is set away from all the other rooms.
Leena, and girls her age with American passports, are advised to do one thing: never tell a man everything about you. In Leena’s case especially so because she is also rich. She never told Mohammed how much her father’s company makes in a month. She also never told him her father bought her her own house when she was just fifteen. But he figured out she was rich from the overly priced Beats headphones she was wearing.
“You have Beats, so you must be rich!”
“I got them from Switzerland, they’re cheaper there.”
She sets her alarm clock for exactly 1:50 a.m., then sneaks to the far end of the 350 meter squared apartment to the farthest room, the bathroom next to the kitchen above Imam Abdul Rahman’s room.
“Is your father a mafia leader?” Leena’s boyfriend asks her.
“You know I’m not surprised at your question; I’m more surprised that you’re still with me if you think he is.”
“Well is he?”
“How is he so rich?”
She knows Mohammed isn’t just after her for her money, but she’s tired of his questions.
“Yeah, but to what extent?”
“Haven’t they taught you in high school? Obesity is a best seller. Or did they not teach poor public school children that, you know since you don’t have enough money to buy food?”
“I buy you food,” he says.
“God bless foreign governments and their monthly salaries to college students.”
“Just shut up and marry me.”
“Do you think we’ll get married?” she asks.
“Well, don’t pray with your hands down in front of my parents.”
“They’ll watch me pray?”
“They’ll know eventually.”
After the call, pacing in the bathroom, and watching herself talk in the bathroom mirror, Leena heads to the kitchen. She grabs a Galaxy chocolate bar and sits at the kitchen table staring with disdain at the reflection of her hands on the fridge door. At that moment she decides that when she gets married the symbol of her love and never-ending loyalty will not be a ring but a necklace.
She goes back to her room, passes her brothers room which is always neatly cleaned, always lit. She sees nothing but the faint traces of a human body wrinkled in his bed sheets.
She goes in her room, clears the call logs from her phone and puts the phone under her pillow.
The end of the day guilt of lying to her parents keeps her awake. She remembers that she is a good person that helps people and God takes that into consideration.
“The barefooted lady walks,” Loay begins reading his mother‘s favorite poem, “I met her and I wish I never did.”
Loay can see the wrinkles in his mother’s forehead begin to form a smile as he looks up from the dusty book.
He continues, “She walks and all the pain is in her walk. She walks into the unknown.”
His mother’s blue fish eyes become even more transparent.
“Her clothes are torn, and her legs are bare. The tears fall onto her cheeks.”
Similarly, Loay’s mother’s tears fall and live on the wrinkles in her cheeks.
“She cries from poverty and her neediness after she had lived a happy life. Died. Who cared for her? Who fed her and made her happy?”
“Allah yerhamak Abū Ahmad, you made me live like a queen,” the mother says.
She always mourns his father’s death when he reads her this poem. She waits for Loay to come every month and read it for her. She could never recognize the letters herself.
“Do you know why I love this poem?” his mother asks.
Of course he does, she te him the reason every time.
She tells him again anyways that Maarouf Al Rasfi knew how hard it is to be a widow.
Loay kisses his mother’s hands and places it on his forehead asking her to bless him. “Heaven is under your feet mama, ask Allah to bless me.”
“I hope Allah blesses you my son and I will live to see you be the handsomest groom ever.”
Alhamdulillah, though they never lived like rich people, but at least they own their house. So even if they only eat olives and bread for lunch they have no landlord coming to them every month for rent.
Umm Ahmad is seventy-seven-years-old and has been a widow for the last thirty years. Her arms are the silence of her bracelets, and when the Syrian lady, Najah, comes and cleans her house, Umm Ahmad hides her jewellery from her, but never lets her hold anything heavy in the house since she’s pregnant.
“Allah Yaawmek bel Salmeh,” she says to Najah.
She misses the days when Abū Ahmad was alive and they were both young. She never regretted being a runaway bride. He was worth switching her religion for and leaving her family. Although she still wears a golden cross on her neck.
Imam Abdul Rahman gets closer to the house of the groom. He practices the groom’s family name several times, so he won’t get it wrong. “Alcharchafchi. Char… Chaf…Chi.” He keeps practicing until he gets it right.
He parks in the groom’s parking space, and is met by the groom’s brother.
“As-salamu alaykum,” says the groom’s brother.
“Wa-Alaikum-Salaam,” replies the imam.
They go up in the tight elevator and the groom’s brother mumbles several words, but the imam is busy with mentally spelling the groom’s family name. They finally reach the floor, and the imam is either kissed twice on the cheek, or thrice by the people waiting for him at the door. One of the cousins of the groom even reaches down to kiss his hand. Imam Abdul Rahman quickly pulls it away. He has a quick reaction in such instances.
He smiles at the groom’s cousin, and is escorted to the living room. The couch in which he is sitting on was painted golden wood. The guests are either sitting on the red couches or the plastic chairs scattered across the large living room. The women are sitting right next to him near the veranda. He looks at the groom’s mother and see’s her crying, but it doesn’t look like the happy crying he usually sees. He overhears her telling the groom’s sister, that after she taught her son the Arabic alphabet she made sure he learned the English one and that was also the case with the numbers. After all she did for him he marries this ugly woman after she told him not to.
The imam asks God to give Alcharcafchi’s mother a better mouth.
Shame on people who believe in God and then disappoint him, thinks Imam Abdul Rahman to himself. So what if she’s ugly, if she follows the words of God and is a good girl why not? Then as if the groom’s sister read the imam’s mind, she tells her mother to thank God she’s not like the girls of these days. A man has never touched her and the girl was never in a relationship with another man besides her brother.
The bride enters and the grooms mother‘s face gets even madder. The imam has a hard time reciting the usual sermons. He wants to listen to what the bride’s mother is saying to the groom’s mother. He pauses in between his sentences to hear the groom’s mother.
“Somaya is sweeter to my heart than honey,” she says bitterly.
He takes a quick glimpse of the groom and the imam suddenly thinks about when he was younger. He remembers his brothers and how they used to swim with their father at 4 a.m. on cold February mornings. He wishes he were young again.
He seals the marriage and is given his 256th bohemian vase. Then he heads back home.
Leena’s sister Summer wakes Leena up at 6 a.m. sharp. She forces Leena to take early classes so she can go with her on her way to work. She would never let her take a bus or a taxi alone.
Leena gets up from her pink bed and puts the pillows she has kicked out of her bed while sleeping back to their original place. She goes to the bathroom and curses the hairdresser for letting her buy the overpriced shampoo. Her hair is still damaged; short and nothing like the lady on the cover.
She straightens her hair, dresses and waits for her sister to finish doing her morning make-up rituals. Leena catches a glimpse of her mother wearing her headscarf and reading the Quran as she sits on the side of her bed. Her father is watching television and drinking his coffee. Leena goes and sits in the living room and observes the room filled with pictures of her brother. She wonders where they will put the pictures of her when she gone.
Summer always tells people she‘s from Ras Beirut, while Leena tells people she‘s from Tariq El Jdide since their parents are originally from there. Summer keeps reminding Leena that she was born in Beirut, while Leena was born in Baghdad after her parents couldn’t afford the American University Hospital in Beirut like they did with Leena.
Summer graduated two years ago and refuses to work for anyone but her father. Most importantly Summer is always honest to her parents. She told Leena that if she ever thought of getting a boyfriend in college she would know and she wouldn’t allow it.
Umm Ahmad spends most of her days alone. Her only companion is that girl Leena from the fourth floor. Whenever she knows Dabbous’s daughter is coming she makes her the date cake she likes so much. They sip on tea and the girl tells her about some psychologist named Freud and explains to her the dreams she’s been having.
Umm Ahmad wishes she had a daughter She would at least care for her more than her sons.
Loay kisses his mothers hands and tells her he met a friend while fishing in Ain El Mraiseh, and so he has invited him over to have delicious fish cooked from her hands.
After twenty minutes pass the bell rings. Umm Ahmad looks at the person through the peephole. She yells and calls her son, “Loay that’s my brother, he’s coming to kill me, he knows I’m here.”
Loay looks at the peephole and sees a bald head. It’s Elias, the friend he invited. “Mama, go into the kitchen, he won’t kill you I promise.”
“How do you know he’s not going to kill me? I’m sure he will. You don’t know him!”
Loay holds his mothers hands and takes her to the kitchen. He then opens the door and greets Elias.
Halfway through the meal, and while Umm Ahmad is still in the kitchen slapping her cheek for her luck, Loay confronts his uncle, “Elias do you have a sister?”
“Yes I did, but she ran away a long time ago with a man. We searched for her, but we never found her.”
“If I find her for you, will you kill her?” Loay asks.
“No. Ya zalame, that’s been years ago.”
Loay calls his mother, “Janet, come see your brother.”
Umm Ahmad goes out of the kitchen and for the first time in fifty years she sees her brother.
Hajji – A name given to a man who goes to a pilgrimage or if he’s old.
Maghrib prayer – a prayer you pray when the sun sets. It’s the fourth prayer of the day.
Molokhia – A famous dish that is well known in most Arab and North African countries. It’s basically cooked jute leaves with rice and chicken. Different countries have different ways of cooking it.
“Well, don’t pray with your hands down in front of my parents” – Sunni Muslims pray with their hands on their belly. Shiite Muslims pray with their hands down.
Allah yerhamak – Allah have mercy on your soul
Abū – Father of
Umm – Mother of
Alhamdulillah – Thank God
Allah Yaawmek bel Salmeh – God make your delivery safe.
Ras Beirut – Upper-middle class part of Beirut.
Tariq El Jdide – Middle-lower class part of Beirut.
Ain El Mraiseh – A Street in Beirut on the sea where people fish.
Well, my name is Zubaida Jamal. My name means a small piece of butter. I’m half Lebanese, half Iraqi, nineteen and a junior journalism student at the Lebanese American University. I’m really lazy as a person. I wrote The Green Building in Lebbos Street for a fiction writing class and our homework was to get published and published I got.
Ryan Van Winkle is a poet, live artist, podcaster and critic living in Edinburgh. His poems have appeared in New Writing Scotland, The Prairie Schooner and The American Poetry Review. His debut collection was published by Salt in 2010. His second collection, The Good Dark, was published in May 2015 by Penned in the Margins. As a member of Highlight Arts he has organized festivals and translation workshops in Syria, Pakistan and Iraq. He was awarded a Robert Louis Stevenson fellowship in 2012 and a residency at The Studios of Key West in 2015. Find his website at www.ryanvanwinkle.com
He was also our November 2015 Guest Writer. Read his poem I Look Up Again here.