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from the December 2006 issue

from The Assembly of Secrets

This is how the story began.

On that day, which was the sixth of January, 1976, Madame Sarah Nassar died, aged eighty-odd years. The death was expected. The only one to be taken by surprise was Ibrahim Nassar. Fifty-four years old, he stood like an imbecile before his paternal aunt's body and rocked with tears. He walked behind the bier tottering and almost falling over. He tied the white cloth around his head and walked behind his aunt's body, his red face at the point of bursting, the tears never stopping.

Ibrahim was his aunt's heir through his father Yacoub, who had lived with his sister and his only son following the death of his wife from cancer. Yacoub Nassar owned a small vegetable shop in Beirut and lived alone, away from everyone, in an old house filled with cobwebs that were scattered around the edges of the high ceilings. This house was the house of Ibrahim Nassar the grandfather, who had built it in 1889 on an isolated hill overlooking the Beirut River. At the time, people said that Ibrahim Nassar was a madman because he'd chosen to live among the jackals, which the area was then full of.

The story went on for three days.

On the third day, Ibrahim Nassar died, and, after three more days, his body was discovered, when Norma Abdel Messih came to the house and knocked on the ancient door for a long time and then, when nobody opened it, pushed on it and it opened and the smell of death came out. She went into the bedroom with its ancient bed of walnut wood and found him stretched out on it. He was naked and lying on his right side, his face a puffy blue blotch. She moved back, stood in front of the wide wooden clothes closet, and started to wail. Then she opened the closet-to hide inside, and not, as Hanna Salman el-Maleh later claimed, to steal things. Hanna came, along with a bunch of men from the neighborhood, and they told her to shut up. They brought a doctor, who examined the body, and it was buried quickly in the family plot.

The next day, Norma stood in the middle of the empty street. She was tearing her hair out in front of the few curious passersby who watched her for a short while before shrugging their shoulders and continuing on their way home, carrying a little bread, some canned goods, wilted vegetables. Norma was screaming that she was destroyed, because the man had deflowered her and died without carrying out his promise to marry her.

On the tenth day, all news of Norma ceased.

The last person to see her was Hanna Salman. Salman, who was in his fifties, went up to her to make sure it was really her. Norma had greatly changed. She was fifty-five, of medium height, dark complexioned, and her breasts were large and drooping. Her hair was black and long, her eyes small, and her hands full of veins.

Hanna had told her, the first time he had sex with her thirty years before, that he didn't love her. On that occasion, she got out of the bed, on whose white sheet she had left a spot of blood, looked at the man with fearful eyes, and the sweat started pouring off her naked body as though she'd just come from a bath. She got dressed quickly and left. Three days later, he went looking for her so that he could have sex with her again. He waited for her in front of the Sisters' school. He saw her and she smiled and kept going and didn't turn around to look at him. He walked beside her mumbling words of apology and love and pleading. He turned off into the muddy lane that led to his house, and she made the same turn behind him and went in. From then on, a special relationship developed between Norma Abdel Messih and Hanna Salman. Her relationship with Ibrahim Nassar was not, however, interrupted. The two stories are long. In the Farnineh quarter, rumors abounded that Hanna Salman had murdered Ibrahim Nassar to avenge Norma's squandered honor. Other rumors had it that the real stake wasn't her squandered honor but the gold hidden in the room, and that Hanna had wanted to get his hands on it, using Norma.

On that day-which is to say the eighth day-, Hanna invited her to his shop and repeated to her all those old words that he used to tell her before having sex with her, and she didn't care. She saw pity in his eyes, not desire. She looked at him distractedly and went on her way to who knows where.

Now that, with the death of its protagonists, the tale has ended, people deserve to know the secret. Norma's secret, which went with her wherever it was she went, is rising to the surface today, reshaping, as it were, the image of the woman and what happened to her with the two men. She used to weep with Ibrahim in bed, and she used to weep in bed with Hanna. Ibrahim was kind and sad when he slept with her, and Hanna was brutal and hard and obscene. All the same, she used to weep with both of them and dream of marriage to one of them. Once she called Hanna Ibrahim by mistake, and the encounter turned into a feast of savagery that the girl would never forget. She said Ibrahim when she meant Hanna and Hanna jumped up and started beating her. He butted her on the head, took off his leather belt, and hit her till all that was left of her was a heap of moaning and fear. Then he had sex with her with a greediness she had never before experienced. He'd enter her and curse her, his eyes almost jumping out of his face, and Norma submitted in silence, biting her lower lip to stop the moan of pleasure from escaping.

Norma revealed her secret to no one.

She hinted to Hanna that he had deflowered her, and she hinted to Ibrahim that he was the one who'd done it, and a relationship developed between the two men that was a mixture of enmity and complicity. Norma wasn't either's secret; she was her own secret. A secret, as the Arabs used to say, is "one of those things that is concealed" and "which is hidden," and "to 'secrete' a thing means 'to conceal it and to reveal it,' the word having thus two opposite meanings." Likewise, according to Abu Haytham, "the word 'secret' refers to fornication and copulation, and the 'secret woman' is 'the concubine who is taken for possession and coition.'" One also says "so and so is 'within the secret of his people,'" meaning that he is in the best possible place among them. And there is another word from the same root that signifies "the lines that are upon the brow."

The secret is the thing and its opposite, the concealed and the revealed, for it cannot be concealed from some unless it be revealed to others, and it can only be turned into a story when both of those disappear, in which case the secret is no longer a secret but has become a riddle, and riddles are there to be solved.

We find ourselves before a riddle that has no solution.

After he died, no one asked about Ibrahim Nassar or his pitiful mistress. And Hanna Salman returned to his shop where he mended shoes. Holding the little nails in his mouth, he entered the torpor of silence.

The secret of Ibrahim Nassar was that he inherited his strange life and lived it.

He was strange in everything. He lived alone with his aunt, whom he only came to know as an old woman moaning from the pains in her joints and her fear of death. From the beginning, Ibrahim Nassar inherited death and the vegetable shop, and he had no desires. Even sex he performed like a duty. Whenever Norma asked him to marry her, he would look at her with empty eyes, as though he were seeing her for the first time. He would ask her to lower her voice so that Sarah, his aunt, who stayed awake in the other room by the light of an oil lamp and spent the night walking and scuffing her slippers on the tiles and sighing incomprehensible words, would not hear her. Ibrahim would ask Norma to be silent and promised to marry her, but he didn't marry her. He knew about her relationship with Hanna Salman, and Ibrahim was the only person who grieved when Hanna, instead of being hung, was proven innocent. On that day in 1948, he promised Norma he would marry her. He told her that in the morning they would go and watch the hanging of Hanna Salman, and then they would get married. But instead of Hanna two men, the real criminal and the prison criminal, were hung. Hanna, on the other hand, was welcomed back to the quarter as a hero. True, he emerged from prison shattered and broken, and disappeared to work, as he claimed, as a trader, but he became the victim-cobbler whom everyone respected, praising God for his having been proven innocent of the frightful accusation that had attached itself to him.

Read more from the December 2006 issue
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