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The Death of a Respectable Professor from the Old City of Jerusalem

From Brick 104

No, this wasn’t a frown. It wasn’t even an expression. This was simply the usual position of Umm Kevork’s eyebrows, agreeing with everything she might say. The same was true of her head, nose, and upper lip; each rose up to indicate her perpetual feeling of disgust. After she’d knocked on my door for the first time, my neighbour Ohan from across the alleyway ran over to ask me: “What did that bitch want from you?”

The second time Umm Kevork did so, she was walking past my house and a drop of rain fell on her head, so she came over to warn me that my laundry hanging on the line might get wet.

On the third occasion, the weather was splendid. I was sitting outside, staring at the iron bars of the gate, when I heard footsteps in the courtyard. I knew it had to be Umm Kevork. And since we didn’t usually talk, I shut my eyes to spare us both the irritation of having to exchange greetings. The sound of her footsteps in the alleyway that cut across the courtyard travelled from my right ear to my left, moving farther away. I opened my eyes after the third footstep, then by the fourth I could hear her moving back toward me. “Hello,” Umm Kevork called out. She came nearer. I got confused. She asked me if I knew. I said I didn’t.

“The professor died,” she said. I remained still in my position, examining her face, measuring the distance between her eyes and her eyebrows.

After some silence, she added: “And that one who is there at mine, what do you think? He’ll die too.”

She meant her husband. Her eyes filled with tears, trembling with sadness for a few moments. I mumbled, as I was overtaken by a strange feeling, that I would send flowers. There was no point sending flowers, she commented, as they would dry. The best thing would be to donate the cost of the flowers to the Armenian Club that was paying for the burial, since the professor had no relatives. Whoever wanted to express their condolences could go to the club, where they’d serve coffee and cookies in honour of the deceased. Salpi had made the cookies. She is known in the courtyard for being an excellent cake maker. Umm Kevork told me she was surprised that I didn’t notice when they brought the coffin this morning. He had died the day before. Then she turned and walked away, leaving me on my own in the courtyard, as the weather was turning hot.

Umm Kevork lives to my left, while across from me lives Ohan. There’s a courtyard that separates us, with an alleyway that leads to Salpi’s and Keran’s houses at the other end, squashing the professor’s house between them. In front of these three houses, there is another alleyway, no wider than a metre and a half across. It was once a courtyard too, before Salpi decided to add another room onto her house and eat up a few metres of that courtyard. And Keran could not take it. She was no longer able to do so. First of all, she was asthmatic and the dust that was thrown up by all the construction was really killing her. That was in addition to the fact that the path to her house would be much narrower, and cramped. But Salpi, who was pregnant—true, it wasn’t planned, yet she wasn’t going to abort it—needed an extra room, even a small one, for her third child-to-be. And a huge fight broke out between the two neighbours, during which Salpi’s husband lost his temper and punched Keran’s brother.

That was the end. Things had gone far beyond limits.

A year and a half had passed without the two neighbours speaking to each other. When one opened her front door, the other closed hers discreetly. Then one afternoon Ohan suggested to Keran that he could reconcile them, but she started crying and the topic was never discussed since. However, once the professor’s funeral was over, Ohan came by to inform me that the two neighbours had made up following this occasion, despite it being an unhappy one. Then he told me how he had gone to the newspaper’s offices at eleven on the night of the professor’s death to report his passing, so that everyone would know. At that time of night, the club was closed, and no one had yet asked them to make arrangements for the funeral.

“What? You went to the newspaper at that time of the night?”

“Neighbourly duty. I was in my pyjamas when I heard the news so I quickly changed and went out, but I stayed in my slippers.”

So there’s an announcement of the professor’s death in the newspaper; how cool!

“How did you find out? Who told you?” Ohan asked.

“Umm Kevork.” His lips twitched nervously. Slowly, the movement of his mouth turned more and more into a wave. He then pushed his two hands into his pockets, where they also started to move in the form of waves. Suddenly and deftly, he pulled a pink tissue out of one of his pockets and brought it to his mouth and spat in it before he quickly folded it up and returned it to his right pocket.

“Are the two of you still not talking to each other?”

He replied: “What do I have to talk to her about? We said hello at the funeral.”

“That’s good.”

He said nothing.

“She’s nice to me,” I said.

“Believe me, that woman is vile. She’s a bitch. I have totally lost respect for her.”

“What happened between you two? If I’m allowed to ask.”

Ohan shook his head despondently, as if even recalling those events in the past was a strain, and he said in a voice still tinged with a memory of old hurt: “Whenever she’d see me sweeping the alleyway, she’d get her carpets and start shaking them out. She didn’t give a damn about my cleaning or getting the alleyway dusty again. She never once let me enjoy seeing it clean until the end of the day! She, the bitch, has Warda to clean for her, and I, who do I have?”

True, Ohan was on his own. One could see that through his front door when it opened. Plastic bags stuffed with toys and dolls had been piled up on top of the wardrobe after his wife fled abroad, taking their only daughter with her, as Keran had whispered to me one morning.

Then Ohan added: “She should get lost.”

I lowered my eyes toward the ground and put a faint smile on my face. That was the only sensible response I’d been able to come up with since moving here, in order to announce that I would not take sides.

The professor and I were the only ones among all the neighbours who insisted on not interfering in those fights. He was. I still am. In bed. As time passes. Silently. Even Warda’s commotion in Umm Kevork’s kitchen can’t be heard today.

As Warda would wash dishes, she would repeat lines of poetry the professor recited, and I would wash my dishes, while the dark glass of Umm Kevork’s windows veiled them from me, so I could only hear their voices. They would both laugh because Warda never knew the answer to the question “Who was that by?” while he, the professor, knew.

He, the respectable former Arabic professor who’d been retired for decades, and she, an illiterate girl in her prime, would sit together in Umm Kevork’s kitchen every day, reciting loudly: Alif, alif, bāʾ, bāʾ, alif-bāʾ, alif-bāʾ, ab; bāʾ, bāʾ, alif, alif, bāʾ, bāʾ, bāʾ, alif-bāʾ, bāb.

One letter after the other. Every day around noon, after Warda finished her work shift, the letters of the alphabet would echo around the alleyway. This only ended when finally a sound would come from Umm Kevork’s living room through her kitchen out the window into the courtyard and then through my own kitchen window, reaching my ears in the living room; the sound of the door they’d just closed behind them. Warda’s steps would be heard as she left the neighbourhood, while the professor would head back toward his house, with his steps creeping over the rectangular paving stones as though they were sanding them down.

I don’t know how much time had passed when Keran knocked on my door, but I pretended to be asleep. Still she kept calling my name insistently, and after some time I had to answer. She came in and sat down, looking exhausted. I got back into bed. I told her I couldn’t believe that the professor had died. She nodded. I asked her if she wanted a coffee.

She answered enthusiastically: “No. No, please. I’ve been drinking coffee since the morning in his memory.”

“Were there a lot of people at the funeral?”

“About three hundred. The whole neighbourhood came.”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t come, but you know . . . I was afraid.”

She couldn’t stop herself from grinning, perhaps even sarcastically, but she said she understood, of course.

“I heard Salpi said hello to you at the funeral.”

“She did, bless her heart.” She then sighed, discarding the remaining air of her mean grin, and continued: “For heaven’s sake, what can I say? I’ve always led a respectable life. I’ve never raised my voice to anybody, and nobody’s ever raised their voice to me before.”

“We all know it was her fault and she herself admits it, but sometimes we have to forgive. What happened has happened.”

“You know, in the morning when they brought the coffin to take away the professor, it took them more than an hour to get it in the house. What do you think; the alleyway became very narrow, and cramped!”

Then she added: “Was it God who dictated that they should struggle to get a coffin into a deceased’s house? And who does Salpi think she is? And why? Because she’s got flowing long hair?”

She hated Salpi. And the sound of her front door slamming, without giving a shit about the neighbours, was influencing her mood badly. It deeply depressed her.

I looked down, whispering without smiling, “Yes, it’s unfortunate.”

Finally, Keran stood up to leave. I walked her to the door, where we stood for a short while. I was bouncing in my place for no reason and she was playing with the gate handle until she said, “Goodbye.”

I stood at the gate, watching her disappear into the shaded alleyway. Then I locked the door and returned to bed. Her receding light footsteps suddenly provoked a fear inside me. Would the professor never walk down this alleyway again?

Each of his footsteps was distinct, slow, and separate from the other, as if both of his feet walked totally on their own. They were. They were soothing. Or they caused one a nervous breakdown. They used to drive Keran insane. She felt like he was crawling inside her head. At the same time, she didn’t want him to walk like this for his own sake. There was a rectangular paving stone that was a little higher than the rest and he would often trip on it and fall as he walked back and forth between the houses, while we crouched behind our closed doors, hiding from him.

How often I noticed that Ohan, he of the “neighbourly duty,” would close his front door quietly as soon as he heard the professor’s footsteps. He wouldn’t shut it all the way though, so as not to draw the attention of the professor, who might realize that someone was at home. Then one time, the professor knocked at Ohan’s door, but he wouldn’t answer.

And the professor kept knocking harder and harder until Ohan finally came to the door.

The professor then said: “I’ve been knocking on your door for an hour, why didn’t you open?”

Ohan started to swear that he hadn’t heard him knocking, but the professor interrupted him with a sharp voice I never thought he was capable of, saying: “I’m the deaf one, not you, Ohan.”

No, no, one couldn’t really say that we were racing to see him and chat with him, since that was a frustrating experience. He would ask you something, and when you replied, his small blue eyes would beg you to repeat your answer more loudly. And more loudly, until you’d find yourself in a narrow alleyway in the middle of the Armenian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem in Palestine in West Asia shouting.

Anyway, with time he came to be understanding of our desire not to speak to him, so he started to leave us to our lives. He simply stopped even looking up from the ground, so that someone sitting two metres from him wouldn’t have to run away any longer. I didn’t have to run away. And I wouldn’t need to do that anymore after today.

Warda was the only person who never ran away from him, or who never wasted the chance to speak to him. For certain he loved her; Warda. As soon as her sharp adolescent voice would rise from Umm Kevork’s house, his footsteps would start echoing, more lively than usual, through the alleyway. Shortly thereafter, the sound of laughter and joy would fill the neighbourhood.

Now that the professor is gone, there is mainly silence.

ADAM TALIB is an award-winning translator of contemporary Arabic fiction, including works by Raja Alem and Khairy Shalaby. He is the author of How Do You Say Epigram in Arabic? and an associate editor of the Journal of Arabic Literature.

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