How to Swim the Backstroke with a Shilka Missile

This story — shortlisted for the 2018 ArabLit Story Prize — appeared in the inaugural ArabLit Quarterly in the fall of 2018:

By Rasha Abbas

Translated by Fatima El-Kalay

Author Rasha Abbas

They say this city was once beautiful. I don’t actually know, for I have lived here all this time with jaded vision. By the time I realized the importance of having my eyes checked, it was too late in the day. I’d thought the world was what it was, until the doctor placed glass lenses over my eyes so I could see the numbers on the screen.  When I stepped outside the clinic I grasped how enormous my problem was.  The street seemed to be a stage of dancing jumbled lights, and I wondered if all this time I had been nothing but a blind Jungian cat that couldn’t be taught anything.  As I made my way home, I began to distinguish more reasons to suggest that things were not as they should be.  The rain that now wet the alley was the same rain that wet it a year ago. It was an effort trying to push life back into my limbs, while all things around me spoke of death.   No, it wouldn’t do for the same rain to fall twice in the same alley. That would mean we hadn’t moved an inch for at least a year.

Before I reached the house I spotted my younger brother in the neighbourhood, smoking, leaning against a car. His appearance increased my concerns, for I could surrender to the idea of being suspended in one alley until the end of time, gradually rusting under the same rain, but that shouldn’t happen to him. He noticed me and approached, asking why I was so irritable.  I had no time to explain everything. I just told him briefly and in haste that I’d seen a doctor and that I was a blind cat. Then I told him I wanted him to leave this place.  He took my hand and helped me cross the road, said my mood would improve when I got my new glasses. He put me in the elevator and returned to the neighbourhood to meet up with his friends. From the glass pane, as the elevator rose, I watched him shrink and recede.

A few days later I received my new glasses.  Things were undoubtedly better, but it was too late to see the city. Instead, all I got to see were very lucid scenes of red missiles, flaring in the night, heading to some unknown place, fired from the bottom of the mountain that overlooked our elevated window. Or the sight of military helicopters slowly hovering in the early morning, on their way to other neighbourhoods.

Why lie? These targeted neighbourhoods were never once part of my life. I always moved within a limited area in the heart of the city:  school, then university, late night hang outs, and coffee shops. The faraway districts did not spark my interest until after the war; my lack of connection to them was not because of my poor vision, but because I was always detached.

What a stupid city, bequeathing herself only to tourists. They came in awe of her colourful rugs and local shops in the old quarters, impressed by how warm the people were, unaware that they were actually swearing at them playfully in Arabic. My perfectly crafted glasses helped me see more clearly what had become of her. And now I felt ashamed for having recoiled before. It seemed she had matured, her soul hacked down by calamity, and yet no one could protect her. What was the point of it all?

#

The phone rang, an invitation to go somewhere, people relaxing in a coffee shop after the protests. A friend passed by our table and invited us to a recreational summer pool, owned by his family in the countryside.

A few days later I packed my things and went. On the way, there was a police officer joking with a local child. He pointed his rifle at him and asked him which football team he supported. The boy exposed his belly in defiance before the rifle, proud of his preferred team, even though it apparently didn’t go down well with the policeman.  The boy seemed familiar. I tried hard to recall whose son he was. Then I realised the error—there was no way I could distinguish him because I could not see clearly before.  And whatever his appearance, he was new to my eyes now. I approached them and took the boy’s hand, moving ahead briskly. We had to reach the pool as quickly as possible. The countryside was a place of conflict, of course. But that’s the best way to get even—to go for a dip in the same waters that lay beneath a canopy of endless bombs.

We passed all the checkpoints that cut through the city’s heart.   The soldiers waved us across without concern, like any mother and son. The boy didn’t seem interested in asking questions. I held his hand firmly, and hurried my steps to the water. No one had arrived there yet, but it was easy jumping over the metal barrier.  Once we were at the pool, I asked him which neighbour’s son he was.  He said he didn’t live in the neighbourhood, that he was just the butcher’s son.  I remembered the butcher who had a shop in our neighbourhood when I was a child, but I could not imagine that he would have a small boy this age. I only remembered that his son was a youth who talked to himself constantly. No one knew his name, and the neighbours just called him “the butcher’s son”. He loved wild birds, and would catch them and place them in cages, and forcefully give them as gifts to the local children.

I once received such a gift: a cage with a brown bird. My mother seemed worried by this initiative, assuming that my acceptance of gifts from the butcher’s son would remove formalities between us. But in any case the bird died a few days later.

There was a well-known story related to the butcher’s son. One winter morning, as I was getting on the school bus from the stop across from the bakery, the butcher’s son came walking towards us. He was babbling furiously to himself, and in his hand were some papers. I was embarrassed that he might greet me in front of the other pupils on the bus,  while acting so insane, but in fact he did something more terrifying. He stood in front of the bakery, took a lighter from his pocket, and set fire to the papers, screaming incessantly. Horror filled the eyes of the driver, the pupils, the bus attendant and the baker himself. The papers were none other than pictures of the president. The butcher’s son disappeared after that, and his father’s shop was closed for a number of days. Then the butcher took the risk and returned to work, his eyes constantly watching the road. Then his son reappeared in the neighbourhood as if nothing had happened, practising his usual hobbies of talking to himself and giving children caged birds. After that he and his father disappeared altogether, and the shop was closed down. It was replaced by a pharmacy with a far less thrilling owner, a man whose one characteristic was to snoop on neighbours,   bombarding customers with questions, relishing the news of divorce, infidelity and rebellious girls.

#

At the pool, I asked the boy for his father’s name, wondering if he was the brother of the butcher’s son.  But the name stirred nothing in my memory.  No wonder;  I probably hadn’t ever read the butcher’s name clearly on the sign outside his shop.

I told the boy to feel safe, for no one would point a rifle at him after today. He shrugged indifferently, and said all he cared about was heading back before the football match began.

Seconds later all was better, for when we were under water, me and the boy, everything was cast above us in the open— sins, my dull life story, and my new clear perception of a military helicopter.

The boy was safe.

Here, no one can reach you, except perhaps a stray Shilka missile that will scatter the water around you.  But that’s okay. No one swims with their glasses on anyway, and I won’t be able to tell exactly what is happening to us when it does.

How miserable it must be for those swimmers with sharp vision; they have seen clearly everything that has happened to the city through the ages.

#

Rasha Abbas is a Syrian journalist and writer of short stories who is currently based in Germany. In 2008, she published her first collection, Adam Hates the Television, and was awarded a prize for young writers during the Damascus Capital of Arab Culture festival. In 2013 she co-wrote the script for a short film, Happiness and Bliss, produced by Bedayat, and in 2014 she contributed, both as a writer and as a translator, to Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, published by Saqi Books. A translation of her acclaimed The Gist of It is forthcoming in English.

Fatima El-Kalayis a short fiction and poetry writer who was born in Birmingham, UK, to Egyptian parents, but grew up north of the border in idyllic Scotland. She has a Master’s degree in creative writing, and has had short fiction published in Passionfruit (US) and Rowayat (Egypt), andas part of the Egyptian Portfolio, recently published by Anomalous Press (US). Her flash piece “Snakepit” was longlisted in early 2018 for the London Independent Story Prize (LISP).  The story collection, The Stains on Her Lips (working title), is her collaborative work with two other Egyptian authors, Mariam Shouman, and the late Aida Nasr, and is due for publication in 2019.

#

Also read: Abbas’s “The Gist of It,” tr. Alice Guthrie

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