تسعة عشر. Girlfriends and Sisters

Armen Haroun was of a naturally nervous disposition. Self-conscious and clumsy, this made him appear stupid in other people’s eyes which then exaggerated his already scattered behaviour.

His younger sister, who had turned teenager only the year before, continually preyed on his nerves with childish pranks that would often lead to his locking himself in his room without a word.

One episode that involved her opening the bathroom door while he stood naked in the shower had startled him so much that he had not reappeared from his room for dinner or for the following morning’s Fajr. early morning prayers.

Furthermore, all subsequent visits to the bathroom involved the process of securely locking the door, and drawing the bolt to counter a repeat performance.

Not that he was necessarily paranoid, but as a tender seventeen-year-old reconciling the art forms of puberty, picking spots and approaching girls, a young and infantile sister was not the desired thing to have around.

As it was, he’d only recently managed to ask out the girl at the other end of the classroom by virtue of a misdirected note to a friend. After the class he’d been forced to talk to Khadijah and, nervous as usual, had even arranged a date with her, of which the scheduling, surprisingly, had gone quite smoothly.

Successive rendezvous of hushed silence over sugary tea at Le Grand Café Fattoosh on the outskirts of town had now become quite the norm. Fattoosh, in Zagora, was long established as a place for the tourists to admire the view, situated as it was, high up on stilts overlooking the western edge of the Sahara; and as a place for Touareg guides to offer overnight desert tours.

But mostly they sat at Fatoosh because, apart from Abdeslam the camel driver, nobody knew them, and neither their friends nor their parents circulated with tourists or their guides and consequently would not would be there; plus Abdeslam was usually found smoking kif so he was too out of it to notice the couple.

The trouble began when Haroun’s mother suspected the appearance of a lady friend in her young son’s life. It came as quite a shock to him that his mother should want to meet her. The very idea that Khadijah would come round to his house and meet his family and especially his sister, quite appalled him, but there was nothing he could do.

In order to prepare Khadijah for the occasion he gave her as much forewarning as to how gruesome an ordeal it would be. Unfortunately, she thought it was a fantastic idea, and to his great concern, Khadijah ignored all his advice. It was all he could do to postpone the meeting by a week.

When the fateful day arrived, 42 degrees in the shade, he handed a list of instructions to his sister detailing how to behave. Then he bribed her with money for Tofita at the candy shop so that she wouldn’t be around at the appointed hour.

Naturally, his sister made the journey to the candy shop and back in double time; and as the hours evaporated Haroun grew more and more nervous, pacing the house, up and down, and acting in a manner that his mother had never quite seen before. With only minutes remaining and still no sign of the young man’s lady friend, the butterflies in his stomach were so bad that he felt the need to go to the bathroom.

Following his usual procedure, he shut the door firmly, locking it with two twists of the key and drawing the bolt solidly across so that it would require mammoth strength from anyone who dared to intrude. In the enclosed space he began to sweat. He dropped his trousers to his ankles, crouched down over the hole, then with one huge sigh of relief he expelled all those butterflies at once!

Imagine then, his worst fears enacted as, in the process, he heard the familiar ring of the doorbell. Listening hard, he caught the leaden footsteps of his sister, running straight past the bathroom for the door, his mother calling his name, and then his girlfriend’s voice, meek, mild but distinctly discernible above the commotion.

What a tragedy that he had chosen the downstairs bathroom, situated as it was, right by the front door. Outside, he could hear the confused mutterings of his mother who had not guessed where her unfortunate son was, and then the outburst of his sister who exclaimed “He’s in the toilet!” in that irritatingly high-pitched squeal of hers.

To alleviate the crisis, he shouted back, so that they could all hear, “Just coming!”

His words could not have been more ill-chosen, for as soon as he said them, up came the faint odour of the fat nuclear warhead bowel movement that he had only just cleanly dropped; and far from dissipating into the sterile close air of the bathroom, it seemed to billow out from between his legs and magnify into the most rotten stench he had ever smelled.

The horror of it soon dawned on him. Khadijah was lurking at the door and inside he imagined the odour pointing its putrid evil fingers up and through the keyhole into the corridor!

In a panic, he reached over to the cupboard below the sink and scrambled amongst brillo pads, bath cleansers, matches, razor blades, shaving foam and other useless household articles.

The first thing he came across was a set of six Passover tea candles which he lit one by one, placing them in a neat row on the lip of the shower area. With a bit of luck, they would be able to burn out the smell.

Rummaging still further (Khadijah was knocking on the door by now) he found an air freshener which, he read, promoted a pine tree fragrance, for use in kitchens, living rooms and bathrooms for that clean outdoor freshness of the Norwegian hinterland. Pointing it out in front of him, he pressed the nozzle and projected a clean perfect cone of Scandinavian pine forest around the room. Two more squirts and the alcohol content of the aerosol made deadly contact with the six candles and shot a clear blue jet flame like a blow torch onto the shower curtain.

Haroun stood up with his trousers still limp around his ankles and heard the voice of his girlfriend. “What’s going on in there?”

Haroun watched as the flames provocatively licked the base of the curtain.

“Nothing,” he replied.

The flames turned into a huge fireball that lashed fiery tongues at the ceiling tiles, melting them into blackened charcoal slabs that peeled away and dropped like burnt crackers to the floor.

Thin sheets of curling smoke slid out into the corridor from under the door. It was more than Haroun could handle.

Outside, repeated attempts to knock down the imposing door from his concerned family proved futile. Inside, Haroun‘s attempt to find the door through the thick smoke proved aggravated by his panicked disorientation. It was fortunate then that Haroun was able to feel his way to the lock and the secured bolt before further asphyxiation.

Locks unlocked and bolt clunked open, he emerged from the bathroom, each trouser leg pulled up halfway, and covered from top to bottom in black soot; so that only the lids of his eyes blinked white in the clean light of the corridor.

His mother and his girlfriend gazed back in astonishment at the awkward figure that stood limp and unprotected in the doorway.

Merde Marhba!” exclaimed Haroun, as he tripped forward. To which his mother implored: “Bismillah! Preserve me from the young ones of today!”

Then Haroun fell headlong, and face down, into the gully that opened up before him.


Marhba (مرحبا) is ‘Welcome’ in Arabic.
Story courtesy of Adam Gersick Abdel G (Essaouira) with a nod to Mohamed Choukri’s autobiography For Bread Alone as translated by Paul Bowles.
Photos are from Marrakesh, Casablanca, Fez and the Sahara.

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