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from the May 2005 issue

“God, It’s as Though You’re Sewing a Dress For a Flea”

I gather up my courage and decide to throw a "reception day" in the tradition of most wealthy, middle-class women who are proud of their lineage and upbringing, or, who are, like me, enamored with singing and with going to the movies. These women choose a weekday at the end of each month for such a day, and their friends show up dressed to the Nines, and sit around chatting, drinking coffee, and eating candied almonds and chocolate. My husband, however, did not like visits; he saw them as a waste of time and breath. I sent him off and instructed him to bring me at least one kind each of chocolate and white, sugar-coated almonds, even though I personally prefer the (more expensive) pink and blue ones. I'd taken to buying them in secret, as I had taken to buying coffee beans and flowers from a street vendor, also in secret. I would buy white lilies, stock, and dragonsnaps, and put them in a couple of brass vases. At the end of the reception, I would give the flowers to my guests so that my husband wouldn't see them when he returned, for if he saw them, he would interrogate me: "Where did you get these? If you bought them, how did you pay for them? And how am I supposed to spend money on flowers that will wither and die?"

My husband procrastinates on Tuesday, the day of the reception, and doesn't leave for work when he's supposed to. I hear his footsteps approaching the kitchen, which is across from the living room, so I hurriedly slam the door in the street florist's face. When my husband reaches the kitchen, I rush to the window and yell for the florist to come back up. The moment he does, my husband emerges from the kitchen and I have to slam the door in the florist's face again. My husband goes to the bedroom, so I run to another room's window and yell for the florist, but he shakes his head and continues along his way. I know that afterward he'll stop by the shop next door and shake his head at the boys as he informs them that I've lost my mind.

On reception day, I meet F, a daughter of a Southern family whose members are well-known businessmen and religious figures. She is short like me, and she, too, loves to sing and watch movies. She whispers in my ear that she wants to be a singer in Nadia El-Arees's famous salon, and makes me promise to keep this desire of hers a secret. She takes me by the hand to her relative's kitchen-it is her relative's reception day-and starts to sing, mimicking a pop star: "A liar, a liar, they say I'm a liar, No, No, I'm no liar." I stifle my giggles as she leans, jumps, and waves her hands and arms from side to side, like an ape who's just had sour lemonade that itches his teeth and makes him scream and shake. I promise her I'll go to Nadia El-Arees's salon with her, then rush off and imitate her in front of my niece, eliciting my sister-in-law's, and everyone else's, laughter in the house.

The nightclubs and cabarets on Burj Square weren't the only ones that offered an outlet for singing and performing and dancing. The streets and alleys have it too, and you see a horse-carriage circling, a man at its side, shouting, "To play and sway . . . Wafeeqa and her sister will be dancing and singing the night away, on the hill for the occasion of Eid." I try to advise my friend F to find a place to sing other than Nadia El-Arees's salon, especially when I see her. She carries a small pouch filled with a dress, a small mirror, and tweezers, and says she prefers art over her family, who will surely disown her when they discover that she's become a singer.

We look for Nadia's salon, and when we see a man with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, a ring on each of his fingers, and so much brilliantine in his hair it seems to be stuck to his scalp, we know we've arrived. We enter the salon, whose name is forever on the lips of anyone who's ever claimed to love singing and performing. Its name is always especially on my brother's lips, for he is a lute-lover who used to save his pennies until he had enough to come here and sing in the style of Fouad Zaydan. I feel suddenly jealous of my friend F who's about to become a singer. I start to worry, as we quicken our pace, that my brother Grim, the train-driver, will glimpse us from his train. When we enter, it feels like we've accomplished the impossible, for even when a man enters this salon, he risks his reputation, and people will criticize him, yelling, "That bastard, he runs from one cabaret to the next." I begin imagining drunken men waving their beer bottles in our faces and forcing them down our throats. Then I imagine Nadia El-Arees hurrying toward me and taking my hand, happy to have discovered me, the same way Ahmad Shawqy, the poetry prince, discovered the great singer Muhammad Abdel Wahab,

We stand among the wooden tables, stare at the tiles, which resemble my house's etched tiles, and wait for Nadia El-Arees for over half an hour. We see the famous swing hanging from the ceiling on which Nadia El-Arees sits, as she swings and sings and holds onto the swing's rope, which is decorated with flowers. Nadia El-Arees, the famous singer, peeks her head out as though she were just an ordinary woman, and I notice that she is not wearing a long, floor-sweeping dress as I would have imagined. We'd begged the cleaning lady to let us come in and speak with Nadia about an urgent matter, and now, Nadia asks us what we want.

My friend F opens her mouth and tells Nadia El-Arees that she wants to be a singer, so Nadia El-Arees kicks us out without even hearing F sing, and without as much as a single glance in my direction: "Go on, Go home, I don't want any problems, or stories, Come on, go home before your tribes from the South come up and close my salon." Apparently, she'd noticed my friend F's Southern accent. My friend F forgets her sadness quickly, because every time we repeat Nadia El-Arees's phrase "your tribes from the South" we laugh, especially since we are in Burj Square, surrounded by men from the South, with their big pants and baskets on their backs; surrounded by carriers, shoe shines, and the waiters from Qazzaz Café, Abu-Afeef's Restaurant, and Haj Hussein's Café. We laugh as we recall how F had tried to convince Nadia El-Arees by saying: "I swear, no one will know that I sing here. My family never goes to nightclubs or cabarets, they don't even go to the movies." And despite the way Nadia El-Arees treated us, I am daydreaming about going to the cabaret again, scheming a way to do so. And I find one: its success would skyrocket me to heaven, and its failure, spell my very destruction.

When my husband's religious female relatives come to visit from the South, I convince them that we are invited to a woman's house whose name rings like gold because of her family's fame and religious virtue. When we enter the salon I notice that they aren't taking off their black, see-through veils, and realize that they had no idea what I meant by "Nadia El-Aree's Salon," even though I'd secretly told them I was going to show them some miracles and wonders. But they are naïve and sheltered, they don't even know what a stand-up comedian is. We sit around and the music begins, and one of them lifts her veil from her face, the one who'd once advised me, "Take care of the bread, my dear, take care of yourself." Everyone follows suit, as they laugh and giggle, and point at the clown on stage, saying, "God, how cute." It has never occurred to them that singing and dancing and music could lift the heart, and unburden it, and that time passed quickly in surroundings such as these. We watch the bellydancer dance, and Nadia El-Arees descend, throwing flowers, as she sits on the swing, whose ropes are decorated with flowers. The singer Fouad Zaydan, my lute-lover brother's friend, comes out wearing a gorgeous brown and white checkered suit, and shiny brilliantined hair, and sings, "The ship's gone from the shore, the ship's gone to the lovers . . . to the lovers, the lovers."

This was during World War II, and Burj Square was under curfew and lights-out. Because of curfew, you had to carry a card issued from the cabaret saying you'd been at a nightclub or cabaret. I distributed the cards among the women, and they clutched at them with shaking hands, afraid they were going to be arrested and thrown in jail. But not a single police officer crossed our path, and the train hadn't arrived yet, even though it was almost eleven o'clock at night. I took the women home on the tram, and they were still under the music's spell, swimming in a world they were previously unaware of, and I was happy, because my brother Grim only works on the train during the day. When we got home, they asked for food-but how was I going to feed them if we were supposed to have filled our bellies at the place we'd supposedly been invited?

I couldn't find an excuse, so I snuck into the kitchen in the dark, stole them some food, wrapped it up in a loaf of bread, and gave it to them, like the bird in the fairytale, and I warned them not to chew in their usually loud manner. They followed my orders and chewed silently like sophisticated movie stars, and one of them said, "God, that bread was yummier than barbequed lamb." Another replied, her eyes closed in spite of her hunger, "now I know why people who fall in love never eat, and become skinny as sewing needles. Tonight, I am in love, but I don't know with whom. I fell in love tonight, God forgive me." The night passed smoothly, even though my heart thumped anxiously when I heard the one who'd fallen in love shout in her sleep, "Bring your fire, boy," and make hookah-gurgling sounds.

Ever since I first visited Nadia El-Arees's salon, I've been obsessed with singers and musicians and actors and comedians. And I took advantage of the playing and swaying that was happening in Beirut to keep my brother Grim off my case. When the airplanes hung over Beirut, everyone rushed up to the roof to watch them drop the leaflets, announcing Syria and Lebanon's independence. As soon as the music rose, the allies' troops rushed Burj Square on motorcycles, and I found myself going quickly to the square, in hopes of catching a glimpse of the singers and songstresses, actors and actresses, hanging over balconies and bars and cafés.

This beautiful world, this world of flowers, chocolates, receptions, and dresses, high heels, eyeliner, and lipstick, made me yearn for compliments, not just from women, but from men as well; especially from the young neighbor who saw me for the first time when I was running away from my white wedding dress, and who made it a habit to keep an eye on me ever since. He seemingly never got bored of it, and would wave me over to meet him, but I was satisfied with just exchanging glances.

I turn around and sing: I pretend to be the actress Ragaa Abdu; I pretend I'm wearing a beautiful dress, as though I were the screen and he were the viewer. I wink, furrow my brow, and clutch at my heart exactly as she does: at the end of each verse. I smile at my neighbor and wave good-bye, then open the door to my bedroom and return to the house and my life. That's if Grim doesn't burst in and say, "Why do you shut the door?" and if my husband doesn't come in and turn off the radio, shouting, "Goddamn the devil!"

The idea of meeting my neighbor began nagging at me only when I went to the roof, which had recently become a sort of salon. We sit, the soft breeze brushing at us, and the family leaving us alone, without orders or fear or chores. My brother, the lute-lover, strums his oud, and my brother Kaamel sings, as the houses around us prepare for evening. My newborn sits in my arms, and I use her as an excuse since she won't relax or burp unless I walk around with her, and won't sleep unless she hears the pigeons' cooing above. But as soon as the roof begins getting crowded and I get an opportunity to get my mind off my neighbor, and cease yearning to meet him, I see the singer Nagah El-Salaam, who once sang: "Hurry, hurry over in you car, so I can sit next to you and sing." Nagah was friends with the judge's daughter, and his family was the only one that lived on this roof. Nagah would come over from her house, from one garden to another, and then leave on a ladder her friend would prop up for her. Even that singer, whose voice spreads proudly from a microphone, was afraid of her family. She was allowed to go out only if accompanied by her brother or her mother.

We gather around her now, and my brother, the lute-lover, goes away and comes back with the singer Fouad Zaydan, and the two singers sit together singing this note and that, singing together: "Talk to me me, my bird, I see you leaning, hiding from me, folding your wing over your scar, and singing loudly at the house of love." They repeat their verses, and I join them, and the singer Fouad Zaydan softens when he hears my voice. I am gripped with happiness, and I tell myself I have to be a singer, even if in secret, and decide to open the subject with the singer once he stops singing. I forget all about my newborn, who is asleep in my arms, and I forget my brother Grim, and my pious husband, and my weepy mother, and my sister-in-law, who's busy with her children and her house work, and I daydream about changing my name, and going with Fouad Zaydan to the radio, wearing a pretty dress and standing behind a microphone. I think of the young man Muhammad listening to me, imagine my neighbor regretting how he couldn't have a rendezvous with me now that I'm a famous singer. But my brother's voice suddenly threatens us: "You sons of bitches, this isn't a cabaret!"

I grab onto my daughter, while the singer Fouad Zaydan runs away, holding onto his oud, and disappears from our lives forever.

Ever since I saw those magical hose on a woman's legs on reception day, I've been asking my husband for a pair. They were made of something intensely soft, softer than silk or georgette; something similar to soft cream and bubble soap; something called nylon.

I describe them to my husband, and he doesn't understand what they are until I borrow a pair and bring it to him. "The devil," he says, "it's shameful for you to want to show your flesh. Shame on you, you already have Fardakos cotton, it's the best cotton." I cry and I wail, and my mother says, "Goddamn you and that naloon, I bet that even a snail leaves behind a line thicker than this naloon."

I put my foot in them as gently as I can, as though I were holding an egg, strap elastics around them, and walk around in them. I decide to buy a pair no matter the price, even though I've just spent my allowance on the third reception day, and on Nadia El-Arees's salon, and have to resort, as usual, to tricks and wiles. I ask my neighbor, whose lineage goes back to the prophet, for a fake loan as my husband goes down the stairs to work. She tries to refuse, but my tears force her to agree, and she says, "My god, you're going to send me to hell, I spit on whoever married you off when you were still a kid." She fasts for a week and prays extra prostrations to absolve herself of her lie. I hurry off to the market and buy the magical hose, which are labeled "Hole-Proof," and I put them on and dance around in them, while singing a Amr El-Zani tune: "Everything is transparent and the boys are hole-proof." Now, I want to buy everything I see in the movies: the shoes and the dresses, the brilliantine to make my hair beautiful, hairclips and perfumed soap rather than the ugly red soap that smells like medicine.

I want a handbag, and embroidered undergarments, instead of the thick cotton ones that reach down to my knees. I want silk slips and nightgowns, not the undershirts that stretch down to my hips. But my husband doesn't like velvet or embroidery. He even buys me white shoes, and dyes them black or brown for the winter months, so that when it rains the black dye runs off my feet. That's why I begin cutting the shoes up with a razor to convince him to buy me a new pair. I beg him to give me money, but to no avail; he won't give me a single penny, and keeps repeating that he buys me all my necessities, as well as household supplies. Every time I need something, he reminds me of my late sister, saying that she never knew the feel of a coin in her hand (this despite the fact that she used to sew his merchandise for him). He compares me to my sister-in-law, Grim's wife, who saves all her money for her children. I become filled with desperation, and stop mentioning even the cost of the receptions, and I decide to go behind his back and steal money from him when he leaves the room, or when he performs his ablutions, or when he goes to sleep.

I cut a piece of leather that's meant for repairing shoes-the kind my brother Grim uses to fix his children's and wife's shoes-and sell it. I steal a pair of shoes which belonged to a house guest who'd stayed with us for a week, and try to sell it to my friends. But these little thefts don't hold me over; the beautiful things keep calling me, and a devilishly good idea comes over me one day when I see my husband opening the black provisions box and taking supplies out of it. I steal the key from his pocket as soon as he falls asleep, and take it to a shop far away from our neighborhood to get it duplicated. I come back home and return the key to the wrong pocket. My husband looks for the key in his pants, and when he can't find them, he puts his head in his hands because it aches; he hates to lose anything. He takes off his pants and shakes them out, but it's no use. I stifle my giggles and pretend to look for the key in his other pants, and shout, "Is this it?" He takes it from my hand, thanks god, and curses the devil. I begin waiting for my sister-in-law to leave the kitchen so I can open the black box and scoop out some provisions, put them in bags and boxes, and take them to my friends' houses to sell at half the store price. Sometimes, I send my niece, Grim's daughter, to sell them for me. That's how I am found out, when my husband comes home from work early and sees my niece trying to avoid him. She runs away while hiding a paper bag behind her back. He catches up with her and grabs the bag from her grasp, and when he sees the lard, bends down to sniff it, it assures him that she is hiding the lard that belongs to us.

My husband complains about my thefts to my brother Grim, and to our neighbor, the judge, so I go over to the judge myself and try to absolve myself of my actions. I explain to him why I was forced to sell my provisions; I explain to him how much I love reception day, and how my husband won't give me money to buy coffee beans because he makes his coffee is pure luxury. I explain to him that my husband knows nothing about me except that I'm lazy, and how he lifts the sheets off the bed to see if my feet are clean. I add that I'm still young, not an old person like him. I catch myself before I repeat something a neighbor had once said, "my husband's got some life in his ass yet," and then I ask the honorable judge, "Just look at me: how many arm-lengths of fabric do you think I need to make a dress?" By this, I mean that I am quite short in stature, and that just two yards, or arm-lengths, of expensive fabric are needed to make me a dress: therefore, it shouldn't be said that my husband is generous, or that he buys me fabric. The judge says, "Oh, dear God," after he completely despairs of being able to advise me.

But my brother Grim never stops shouting at me: "Have you not a single drop of shame? God, it's as though you're sewing a dress for a flea. Everyone's gossiping about how big a thief you are." I try to defend my thefts, mostly to avoid the disgust that is seeping out of everything, including his nostril hairs, but he raises his arm and hits me, so I run and he runs after me. I rush over to the gas can, thinking of avenging my self and redeeming my pride. I pour it over me and grab a box of matches, but my brother Grim is faster, and he snatches the can and the box of matches. Moments pass, and I begin to go mad when I realize that I almost just set myself on fire. Why on earth did I think of doing that, when I find even the pain from my molars unbearable?

I begin to cry; I can't stop crying. I get up and make sure I'm not on fire, because my whole body feels like it's burning. In the morning, I find small red spots all over my body, and I remember that I didn't bathe after I doused myself with the gas.

I don't stop begging and stealing, because the beautiful things keep multiplying before me, and the movies on Bridge Square keep coming. I sell my wrist-watch after tearing it off its leather strap, and I trick everyone into thinking that I dropped it at the doorstep, in a deep, rain-filled hole. My husband leans over the hole for hours with a sieve in his hand, trying to find the watch.

Refusing to give in to despair, I start eyeing my husband's pants, and waiting for the right moment to empty them, but it's no use; he begins taking them into the bathroom with him. I smile suddenly at an idea I have, and my smile soon turns to a laugh. I knock on the bathroom door, and ask him if he wants me to scrub his back with a loofah, the way normal wives do for their husbands. My husband's happiness is indescribable, because I never let him touch me, or come anywhere near me. I scrub his back, add soap to his hair, and go back to scrubbing his back, then add even more soap to his hair, and I add some water, so that the soap bubbles and falls over his forehead, then into his eyes. He moans and says, "You've burned my eyes," and I act surprised and fill the bucket with water. But I don't empty it on his head yet, I reach over to his pants and steal cash from the pockets, put it in my chest, then I empty the bucket of water over his head and relieve his eyes from their burning sensation. It appears that the soap was way too much, because he begins to curse me and call me a bitch. Everyone in the household laughs at me when I reveal myself, the very next night: I've spent the cash, and the neighbors laugh, and their tongues wag and repeat the news of my thefts. But everyone connives with me because I am young, despite their respect for my husband's piousness and his stature, and I repeat, laughing, "Look at me, peel your eyes, and take a good look: I'm married to a rich man, but I never see any money."

Eventually, the whole neighborhood comes to know about my almsgiving and my pity on the homeless and the beggars, to whom I give food and undergarments, so much so that my husband writes a note and hangs it on the door: "No soliciting in this house!"

But beggars don't know how to read or write, so the note stays up for a day or two until my brother Grim rips it off the door and throws it on the ground.

By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright © 2005 by Randa Jarrar. All rights reserved.

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