Set in post-revolution Tunisia, this excerpt from Azza Filali’s novel follows an anxious man to a dermatologist’s office.
It must have been 5 p.m. when Jaafar walked into the dermatologist’s office.
“The doctor won’t be long. Have a seat.”
A head shot up from behind the desk, a fair-haired young man with freckled cheeks. “I’m his secretary,” he added. Newspapers lay scattered on a table; Jaafar picked one up and settled in a chair . . . Yet another new rag!
“I wouldn’t bother, it’s the same as all the others.”
The boy contemplated him from behind the desk: “The cover story’s about those journalists that were attacked by a bunch of Koran-thumpers and that kid who was hacked to death. You must have heard.” He swallowed: “His poor mother lost her mind. She wore the hijab, but the shock was so great, she tore it off! They say she was naked underneath!” Jaafar stared at the newspaper, and the boy gave a polite cough: “Page two’s heavy going! I’d ignore it if I were you: another diatribe on the dividing line between politics and religion . . . Because of the dividing line, they’ve split the page in two.” Jaafar glared at him.
“Sorry, I’ve read them all,” the secretary mumbled. “There aren’t any patients these days, you’re the first today.” He vanished behind the desk; only a tuft of frizzy hair was still visible. “People don’t have time to look after their skin any more! With prices skyrocketing, the roads blocked, and all the fanatics praying in the streets . . . If you want my opinion,” he ventured, “fifty dinars is too much to pay for pimples! No one ever died from an outbreak of acne!”
Jaafar started pulling on his fingers one by one. The boy was a real motormouth and the waiting room was abnormally empty . . . there was a lingering odor of air freshener, with a top note of lily-of-the-valley. Jaafar took out a handkerchief and held it to his nostrils.
Behind him, the boy was prattling on: “The doctor’s great, but he ought to have dropped his prices! This revolution has damaged the medical profession; all the doctors in the building are complaining.” His tone turned authoritative: “As you can imagine, it’s mainly women who come to see him, but with more and more covering themselves from head to foot, dermatology’s no longer a cash cow!” Jaafar grabbed his coat; blondie went on, all worked up now: “Do you know, I conducted my own little survey! One day, when I was here on my own, I called up every patient I know well, and out of twenty-five, I counted sixteen new hijabs! I didn’t tell the doctor, I don’t like to be the bearer of bad news.” Jaafar rose abruptly and headed for the door.
“Where are you going? The doctor will be here any minute now!”
Jaafar pulled a face that he hoped resembled embarrassment: “An urgent meeting I’d completely forgotten!”
The young man insisted: “To think he’s coming all the way from la Soukra, just for you! I’m the one who’ll get the blame, as usual.” Amid the freckles, his distraught eyes implored Jaafar, whose finger was on the elevator button. Behind him, the secretary gasped, pressing his hands together: “Won’t you wait a little? The doctor will be here any second; someone’s just called the elevator, it’s bound to be him . . . Please, monsieur!” Jaafar hurtled down the stairs like a madman. In the lobby, a man in studiedly casual dress came up: “I am Doctor Abdennadher. Are you by any chance the man who was waiting for me?” Defeated, Jaafar nodded.
The two men entered the elevator. Seeing Jaafar return, the young blond secretary smiled blissfully, as if beholding the Messiah. The doctor opened his office door and ushered in his patient.
“How can I help?” he asked, putting on his white coat.
“I have a mark here, in the middle of my forehead, which is getting bigger and bigger. Just where my head touches the ground when I pray.”
“Let me take a look at you.”
He showed him to a chair beneath a lamp that he directed onto Jaafar’s forehead, then he pulled on a pair of gloves and explored the grayish patch with his fingertips, prodding the crevice where the skin had become scaly. He removed a few flakes with tweezers and placed them in a small bowl.
“Could you have banged your forehead?”
“No, unless I’ve forgotten.” Jaafar fidgeted in the chair: “My wife’s convinced it’s because of the prayer mat, the one I brought back from Mecca . . . it’s pure polyester. I replaced it with a wool mat, but the mark’s still spreading.” He was silent for a moment. “Why did you ask me if I’d banged my forehead?”
“Because skin has a memory, it stores life’s knocks in its folds, then brings them out again little by little,” said the practitioner calmly. “In the meantime, I’m prescribing two lotions, one to stop the itching, and the other to protect you from the sun. Apply them regularly and come back to see me in one month.” He held out his hand to Jaafar: “Lamjed, my secretary, will take your payment.”
In the waiting room, a patient sat snoozing. The aforementioned Lamjed stood up from his desk and came to speak to Jaafar: “It’s good you came back, the doctor would have been so disappointed to miss you. That’ll be fifty dinars.” Seeing Jaafar’s surly expression, he lowered his voice: “I did warn you, the boss had to raise his prices . . . to keep up with the cost of living.” The boy’s tone became haughty: “It’s not his fault. Blame the crazy folk who are happy to spend fifty dinars on their skin! To think that yesterday on the television they showed people without running water, who have never seen a tap in their lives . . .” Jaafar pulled out his wallet. The young man stashed the money behind the counter: “Shall I book you another appointment?”
“I’ll phone,” said Jaafar.
Outside, the afternoon was drawing to a close . . . too late to go back to the office; Jaafar slowly walked back to his car. As he started up the engine, he frowned: fifty dinars, goddamit, that secretary was right, and that doctor boring him witless with all his nonsense about skin memory; furious, he slammed his foot down on the gas.
From Les Intranquilles. © Azza Filali. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Ros Schwartz. All rights reserved.