Behind High Curtains

by Faiza Sultan

Translator’s Note:

I am currently working on my MA in Translation Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Naturally, there are quite a few translation assignments as part of the program. The student cadre is multilingual so the department’s instructors ask us to find our own works to translate rather than attempting to find short stories, poems, or excerpts from longer works in six or more languages per class.  This posed a bit of difficulty for me because I have had very little exposure to Arabic literature. Fortunately I have friends and colleagues. I wrote to Faiza Sultan, who I know from the American Translators Association, and who manages her own small press, to ask for short stories I might be able to use for my class. She was kind enough to offer one of her own, the translation of which follows:

She emerged from the dense fog enveloping the skyscrapers and found herself surrounded by enormous trees. An eager bird flitted down and started pecking at her head, now an enormous bald egg, or some kind of white ball that had suddenly sprouted from her shoulders. As though it was trying to get at something inside, the bird pecked furiously. Every time it’s beak came down, the girl cried out in pain and tried in vain to knock the bird off. Every time she cried out small creatures would fall, rattling and tumbling over one another down the sides of her face. The bird gave a final, mighty blow and with the girl’s accompanying cry, a flock of tiny birds streaked out and disappeared into the fog. Jumping at her own cry; she reached up to feel her head and found it was still right where it ought to be. She heaved a deep sigh of relief. Had she just dozed off for a minute, sitting beneath her small tree like she did every day? The little tree seemed to open its branches to her like a loving mother or a dear friend, or perhaps it was just another lonely, confused creature. Resting her head on the young tree’s trunk, she sat, closing her eyes, and melted into the tree. They merged in a way that felt like a lover’s embrace. She could see restless birds perching nearby and on her arms, spread out on the gravelly ground. The grass softly tickled her toes, moved by the passing breath of a light zephyr. Butterflies lit on her gown, bringing with them a glorious spring breeze that gently kissed her face as she sat in quiet contemplation and silent unity with the power of nature. An ant came, leaving a few granules of sugar on her fingers, as though it were trying to construct a white citadel for its queen, or for her. The tree stood over her body, worn frail and thin from loneliness and the burden of dark hours spent waiting. This waiting kept the sun from her soul, which spread like the skies over the city, full of hope that expanded as the sun climbed, then waned as it set, only to evaporate with the clouds at the end of each day.

Long months had passed since his visit, and she waited weeks for each of his letters to come, minutely penned in a clear hand, each letter formed with extreme care as though he were engraving gifts directly from his very soul for her. She had given many days over to the visits of birds that lit around her head and feet, dreaming of the day he would come. The words he used took wing and flitted around her head like butterflies dancing in and out of her vision, visiting her like clouds speeding by, only to fall, calm and orderly, on her enamored mind like drops of rain the color of ink or, sometimes, the color of love, and often the color of waiting. Nature herself would embrace her and try to relieve the harshness of the space between the two, between days, and between their names.

That afternoon, the sun stung her skin as she strode, her longing making each exhale feel like a bit of life was escaping her weakened breast and fleeing to the isolated and walled-up city where it vanished, alone among the high, unfamiliar walls. The air of that city, its trees, its people, even the calls of the birds and cries of the merchants wandering its streets; all were strangers to her.

She climbed the stairs up to the fourth floor of the girls’ dorms like one of her female ancestors would have ascended a craggy mountain peak in the open country in the old days, before her people moved to the city. The women of her line had magic, and the unclouded vision nature provided, and they were as strong as those mountains. They were fit and full of timeless love stories. She opened the door to her gloomy room, overflowing with long days drowning in paradoxes and contradictions, the hours eating away at its repulsive walls. Her friends were all stretched out on their beds for a short nap, as usual. She didn’t want to bother them by asking for something to eat other than the depression that was her constant diet even as it consumed her. She covered her thin body with her rose-colored blanket. Maybe she would see him in a dream or re-read the letter he had sent a few weeks ago or hum their favorite song to herself. She knew she wouldn’t be with him anytime soon. She still had many long days of waiting ahead. Unending days until he could visit her, if he could come at all this time.

Her big eyes held only desire: for the next meeting, for a smile, for a shadow to walk beside hers on the path paved with colored stones. Her eyelids slid closed. She felt for a moment like time had stopped along with the beating of her heart.  She could hear a strange bird call from the balcony, outside, behind the fringed curtain. By opening her eyes, she unlocked the gate to her heart and the bird’s song grew; it seemed to come impossibly close. It warbled and trilled, then called out:

“It’s him. He’s here.”

Wahbia started awake when she screamed, jumping from lying down to standing on her bed, panting. On the bed like that, she seemed normal height. Wahbia was one of her best friends, even though they disagreed about everything. They were complete opposites: Wahbia scoffed at love stories and thought that living in one was a sort of insanity.

“Go back to sleep, you lunatic! There’s no one here.” Wahbia told her, “Let’s get some sleep. I have an important exam tomorrow.”

“I swear to God,” she answered, “he’s here. He came. He’s calling for me. Can’t you hear him?”

Wahbia ran her fingers through her hair as she hopped down from the bed.

“The only thing I heard was you screaming. He’s in another city. He was at school today. How could he come to visit you, when he was here a few weeks ago? You don’t seem to know him very well. Have you forgotten everything you know about him?”

“I know,” she answered, rushing to the balcony, “he says it all the time, too. I’m crazy. Completely bonkers.”

When she got there, she pulled opened the heavy steel doors, wrought like the doors of a prison cell. There was a bird perched there, looking back at her with piercing eyes that flashed with a hint of magic as it continued to chirrup to her. When she lifted her gaze to the street opposite the girls’ dormitory, she could see the silhouette of a man standing on the opposite sidewalk, holding a small suitcase and waving to her with his right hand. She couldn’t make out his features, but she was sure the man on the sidewalk was him, looking at her and waving, having appeared out of nowhere.

She hurried back into the room, grabbed Wahbia’s hand and dragged her to the balcony saying, “Look down there!”

“Where?”

“There,” she said, “There he is, standing way over there on the sidewalk and waving. He has a suitcase in his hand.”

“Listen, you lunatic. Who says it’s him? All I see is a silhouette. I can’t make out any features.”

“But the bird! The bird told me—” she started.

“Totally crazy.” Wahbia said.

She ran inside, leaving her friend shaking her head. In her hurry, she quickly pulled on her dress, leaving her hair loose and dancing around her shoulders, as though every single curl wanted to see him; each lock racing to be the first one to drop off, to be cherished in the black leather wallet he carried in his jacket pocket near the warmth of his heart, a keepsake he took from each visit.

The building’s door slammed shut behind her, and her rapid footsteps slapped at the ground. It seemed so far away. Have I actually lost my mind? She thought as she approached the university gates. She felt the guards’ eyes following her with unusual curiosity. Slowing slightly, she walked past them, but her distress was clear. Her legs got tangled up in the long skirt of her dress, deep blue with white spots, and she fell, the strength fleeing from her. She got even more flustered when a young man suddenly appeared, offering his hand to help her up.

“Give me your hand,” he said.

“No,” she answered, “I can get up. Thanks.”

“Alright. Watch out, though, the ground isn’t very even. It could swallow you up in a second. Don’t be in such a hurry that you end up missing out on your life.” He said, and kept admonishing her in the same vein. It was like her mother had sent this person. Her mother had always been after her for rushing everywhere, even when she was rushing to help her mother.

Her strength flooded back and she stood, blood rushing to her cheeks, making them redder than ever. Then her longing for her young man mixed on with mortification, completing the circuit, pressing the blood back down, making her face look like it did now—as white as one of the spots on her long dress, which seemed now to have grown a set of wings bent on getting her here even faster. The only thing on her mind now was to get to him.

Her heart raced as she approached the meeting place. The distance between them collapsed and the entire world seemed to constrict and shrink. The sky contracted down to a circle, and all she could see was that one spot on the sidewalk where he waited for her. A strange feeling rushed over her, an odd sensation that she could not identify. Rushing ahead, the noise from the cars got louder and mixed with the cries of vendors and people singing as she started across the broad street. She was only a few steps from him now, and he was calling out to her, shouting bizarrely. The bird appeared again out of nowhere. It landed on her shoulder and started chirping. In the middle of the freshly-paved road, she came to a halt and turned towards the bird. The engine of an oncoming car roared; the scent of hot metal and oil enveloped her when it failed to stop, mixing with the smell of the asphalt. The bird flitted away from her shoulder at the moment of impact as though it had failed in its duty. The nose of the car crashed into her, and she flew up, away from the asphalt, falling back down to the street like a feather shed by a bird as it escapes its cage.

The street swelled, the heavens opened, and something shifted as she seemed to pass into another world. Massive white curtains dropped from the sky around her, blocking her view, causing her to freeze for a moment, as she tried to pull herself together, like one would after a long and especially difficult journey. She hid, trembling, behind one of the curtains, alone, scared, uncertain of where she was or how this other world had swallowed her up. She didn’t know what to do. When she looked down at her feet, instead of the road’s hot asphalt she saw a surface that was transparent and gleaming, like a layer of glass in the sky, supporting her high above the distant road. Then she saw him on the ground below, curled up on the surface of the street, holding her bloody head. An angelic calm descended on her as she stood above him. The white circles slid from her dress and flew up to where she was. She called out to him; he did not answer. Even when she shouted at the top of her lungs, he did not respond. Picking up the white circles, she tried to throw them at him, but he was too fixated on trying to wake her from her sudden nap in the middle of the road. A crowd crushed in, forming a big black circle that slowly constricted and expanded around her body. The bird landed near where she stood and started pecking at the white dots. Birds of many colors emerged from them. They flew up to land on her head, then carried her by her tresses into the unknown heavens.

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