“Taboos in Arabic” excerpt from novel-in-progress

I am back at my writing desk, as finally the characters of “Taboos in Arabic” know how they want to progress with the narratives of their stories. I am sharing with you here a fragment of Bisan’s beginnings in Haifa.

Autumn 2013 – Bisan

Bisan stands in front of the large shop and glares with envy at the latest models of Canon and Nikon in the display window. She glances at her mobile. Five minutes to eleven. It’s good to be a few minutes early, she thinks to herself, it gives an impression that I’m serious and committed. She checks her reflection in the window, runs her fingers through her wild curls in a failed attempt to tame them, smoothes out her shirt, adjusts her camera strap across her shoulder, and pushes through the glass door. As the door swings open, she notices the smaller print on the wanted ad plastered on the glass, saying “after military service.” She takes a deep breath and lets the door close behind her.

The space she walks into looks as if from some futuristic movie; gleaming marble surfaces, designed in cold tones of gray, giving a sense of sharp edges, gloom and detachment all combined together into something depressing. Bisan approaches the young man sitting behind the high counter, playing on his iPhone, oblivious to her. “Hi, I’m here for a job interview?” It takes the young man some moments to tear his eyes away from his iPhone. “Sorry, huh?”

“Job interview?” Bisan looks around but there’s no sign of anybody else. “With Dan.”

“Oh… he should be here any moment now. You can wait over there for him.” He motions with his hand to a small area with three chairs around a low, dark grey coffee table with glossy photography magazines. Bisan sits down and takes a magazine. She flips through the pages absentmindedly. She looks around her and begins to doubt that she would last even a day working here. But she needs the money. A few minutes later, a tall, skinny, balding man in his mid-forties walks in. He approaches the young man and exchanges some words with him. “She’s waiting over there,” the young man motions with his head towards Bisan.

“Hi, I’m Dan. I don’t really have much time, so let’s try to make it quick, yeah?” He sits opposite Bisan. “But first, I want to know if you’re specifically looking to work in a camera shop, or just any kind of shop?”

“I study photography. I’m a photographer. It’s my passion.” Bisan looks at her hands, and Dan only now lowers his eyes and notices her camera.

“Good answer. See, I don’t want just anybody working here. I want somebody with… like what you said – passion. Good. What was it your name again?”

“Bisan.”

“Bisan. That’s an odd name. Never heard it before. What does it mean?”

“It’s the Arabic for Beit She’an.” Dan’s face freezes. Silence.

“My family’s originally from there.” Bisan’s voice is so small she can barely hear it herself.

Dan, as if suddenly remembering something, quickly stands up, “Listen, kid. I don’t… we don’t… I mean… did you see that we’re looking for someone after military service?”

Bisan gets up and stands in front of him. It takes her all the strength to compose herself and not to let on the humiliation. “Yes, I did,” her voice comes even but strong. “But if you think about it seriously, why would someone selling cameras need military experience?”

Dan stares at her, not able to come up with any answer that wouldn’t sound racist or illegal. “Anyway, Dan,” she picks up her backpack from the floor, “I wouldn’t want to work in such a sterile place. So thank you and have a good day.” She doesn’t look back as she walks towards the door, making sure her head is held up and her walk upbeat.

Outside the shop, Bisan slumps on a nearby bench. How could she be so stupid? So arrogant? Now what? She takes out a bar of chocolate from her backpack, unwraps it and takes a bite. She looks around. She’s on Halutz Street in Hadar, a neighbourhood which has known better days, but Bisan doesn’t know this, as everything in Haifa is new to her. The Hadar had been a thriving shopping and business neighbourhood of mostly small, privately-owned businesses, but that was before the big monsters of malls, each on a different border of Haifa, swallowed them up. Bisan’s eyes scan the clothing stores along the street, kiosks, and a bakery. She sits there contemplating. Some minutes later, with new determination, she gets up, flicks the chocolate wrapper into the waste-basket, and heads down the street in search of another camera shop.

The shop is so discreet that she almost passes by it without noticing it. She stands at the display window, squinting through the glass, smeared with fingerprints. Several older models of Nikon, a couple of Canon, and one ancient looking camera. A thin layer of dust covers the shelves. Her eyes travel towards the interior of the shop, which is dimly lit. A figure is sitting behind the counter, shoulders hunched over something black. Bisan feels as if she has suddenly been transported fifty years back in time.

Bisan pushes the door in, which creaks in protest. The shop – if it can be called that – smells musty. She takes in the shelves with their layer of dust. “Shalom,” the man looks up, his brow creases. “Can I help you with anything?” His voice is ragged. His eyes, small brown buttons, squint at her in irritation. His heavily accented Hebrew, combined with his dark looks, betray his roots. Bisan’s face opens up into a smile at this, and she responds in Arabic: “Salam. Yes, I’m looking for work, ammi.” The man looks at her in disdain, “You don’t see a wanted ad outside my shop, do you?” He goes back to the dissected black box in front of him; Bisan now sees it’s a Minolta X-700. “You can fix that?” She needs to hang onto something, anything, to stretch the time somehow. The man flicks her a nasty sideways look. “It’s a camera shop, isn’t it?” He grumbles. “I can see that,” Bisan straightens her back, “it’s just these days many shops don’t deal with manual cameras anymore.” She gets no response. The man is a fortress. “I’m Bisan,” she tries a different tactic, “you know, like Bisan – the village? My family’s from there originally.” The man fidgets with the small light above the camera, adjusting it, “And that should interest me because…?”

“Just trying to introduce myself. Since I might be working here, you know. I thought it would be good to know where I come from.” The man raises his eyebrows at Bisan and mutters something unintelligible. Bisan fixes him with her nicest smile. “Actually I’m studying photography, and I’m a really, really fast learner. And this place would use some dusting, ammi. Not to mention some style. I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name?” The man looks up at the ceiling as if salvation was hanging just there to save him from this chatty arrogant girl. “Abu Maysara… but that doesn’t mean…”

“Ahleen, Abu Maysara,” Bisan cuts him off. “Thank you so much. I’ll start tomorrow morning. I’ll be here around ten. I’ll bring some cleaning materials with me for this dust.” As she turns to leave, she hears Abu Maysara swear under his breath, and then, as she is closing the door, shouting after her “Hey, girl! I didn’t… I can’t… oh for Allah’s sake! The kids of this generation!” She can barely contain a giggle as she steps out into the street. But as she walks towards the bus station, she can’t help thinking of this man’s eyes. Behind his grouchiness and irritation, there was an echo of sadness, like a lost memory his eyes are trying to remember.

(c) khulud khamis | 2016

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