Originally published in Arabic in the short story collection, “A Barely Visible Suitcase,” (Haqiba bil kad tura) by Chaza Charafeddine, Saqi Books, Beirut, 2015. This translation was published in Rusted Radishes Journal – Beirut Literary And Art Journal, issue 4 on November 27, 2015.
“Diagnosis: a depressive psychological structure with hysterical tendencies,” said Anna Lindau during our last session.
That day, I’d brought with me the book she’d lent me weeks before, as well as a pistachio-colored shawl I’d bought as a gift for her from my silent Slovakian neighbor, who spent her evenings weaving shawls and socks with small, complicated stitches.
I’d planned to return the book and give her the shawl as a gift. They were both in the bag next to me. Instead, I apologized and told her I’d forgotten to bring the book, not mentioning the shawl altogether.
Most of the time, Anna Lindau wore a light-colored shawl on her left shoulder. Her clothes, however, were often brown or gray or black.
Following my second visit, she told me that she took my sadness seriously. She said it after I’d described her profession as laughable. I told her I called her “the wailing wall,” that I didn’t understand how she could take people’s sorrows seriously. “You sit on that chair every day and listen to people you have absolutely nothing in common with as they cry bitterly and you console them,” I told her.
Ms. Lindau didn’t comment but smiled and said, “Go on with what you were telling me earlier.” While I stare off, lost in thought, or burst into laughter at myself, Ms. Lindau remains the same, as if she were nothing but a listening ear and not a whole person made of flesh and bone and other things. She listens and makes no remark until I start “destroying,” as my friend Claudette calls it.
She listens with a care whose provenance is unknown to me, every so often writing something down in a black notebook. She says she takes me seriously, so I say that my former boss and my Slovakian neighbor and the mailman and my friends do, too. But the white bear continues to devour its paw as it bleeds.
Her eyes are small, a gray-blue that makes you feel like shame is nothing to be embarrassed about. Sometimes I find myself lying to her, just to test her, telling her that I feel shame over things people aren’t usually ashamed of, like killing someone for example. How shameful that would be! Yes, certainly, I add. Then I tell her how I felt ashamed when the doctor told me that my ovaries had stopped producing eggs, that I’d never be able to have children. I wasn’t sad because I’d never be anyone’s mother, but because I’d never be anyone’s grandmother. Imagine a woman who isn’t necessarily barren, but who, despite that, remains childless. How selfish. Then I go on about my ovaries while she listens with utmost concern, surely thinking that I’m suffering because I’ll never have children. Affecting bitterness, I say that I once had hundreds of thousands of eggs, and now they are all finished. I had never let anyone fertilize them. I would never be anyone’s grandmother.
Frankly, I’ve never envied anyone the role of motherhood. But not to be a grandparent is a shameful thing. Could I understand why it was so shameful? Ms. Lindau couldn’t give me an answer. Then I started making up stories about my grandmother, who was mourned by everyone on the day she died, except me. I was sixteen, and at the time I thought that grandmothers didn’t die, rather that they were a part of life itself, like places in which people lived, transportation, and food. These are things without end; they change but never disappear, seeing as how they’re constant, vital human needs. I told her how my grandmother used to take my two older sisters and me to Sayyidah Zaynab’s shrine every year, and every time she’d make us step over a white sheep gushing blood and, she’d say, “This is for your redemption.” And when I’d ask her what she meant, she’d answer, “We gift it to the poor to protect you from anything bad happening to you.”
When I grew older, I’d go there myself sometimes, placing a black veil over my head and sitting in the shrine, which was rife with the smell of women’s feet as they prayed and cried out supplications for Sayyidah Zeinab to relieve their worries. I’d look at the gold-plated cage, where each of the women would throw something: a piece of fabric from an ill person’s clothing or a handicapped child’s toy or a lock of barren woman’s hair or coins. I’d watch them as if I were in a dream; as if we were all in a dream. I tell Ms. Lindau about Sayyidah Zeinab, and tell her that I don’t envy anyone motherhood, but I would have liked to be a grandmother. I had to explain to her, of course, who Sayyidah Zeinab was. She liked the story, and listened with astonished eyes (how Germans love drama!) until she understood the reason for the slaughtered sheep, saying it was an “archetypal” image for the idea of obedience to the one God, mentioning the story of Isaac who was almost slaughtered by his father as a sign of the latter’s faith in God and submission to His will. Sometimes, Ms. Lindau really had no idea what to say. She had no idea that in the country I come from, fathers still do to their sons what Abraham had done to his son Isaac – or, as we told it, to Ishmael – in obedience to their God. Suddenly, I felt nauseous.
She was a strange woman: a psychotherapist who spoke to me about archetypal images under the assumption that I’d be amenable to the idea just because there seemed to be a general consensus on it. She was able to deal with it on that basis, but for me that image evoked other feelings, such as those I’d felt on the day I almost killed Reiner.
You live in a prison that is your childhood self. The child is still in the cage. You grew up, your body grew and your concerns with it, but that child within you is still in a cage. In your ribcage and in your throat.
“The white bear continues to devour its paw.” Ms. Lindau says this to try and soothe me.
“Fine,” I say, “let’s leave this subject now. Why do you keep coming back to it? I don’t want to speak about the past, so why do you insist on taking me back there? It’s not the past that interests me, but the present; it’s much more important than knowing the influence that my upbringing might have had on my personality, or the influence of my relationship with Reiner, who used to mop the floor with my hair. I need to find a job with which to earn a living.”
I tell Ms. Lindau that it is in this context that I became accustomed to lying when someone asked me what I did. I’d say I was a teacher and another time a waitress and another time the person who checks your tickets at the museum. And sometimes, when I didn’t feel like talking, I’d say I did nothing at all. Once, I said I was the maid, but that was over the phone. That was the day the girl had called to ask for my husband. I’d already suspected he was having an affair with someone, and I assumed the caller was that someone, so I told her I was the maid. The girl grew flustered and had no idea what to say when I asked for her name and number so “the mister” could call her back when he got home. She said she’d just call back later. I think she suspected I wasn’t who I’d said I was. It didn’t matter – I suspected myself too.
I tell Anna Lindau I’d like to be like everyone else: to have a defined job, even if that was working at a bank. That way, I’d at least be able to tell whoever asked about my occupation that I worked at a bank, and that would be that. People would ask me what university I’d studied in or in which bank I worked; then they’d ask me about my exact job title, and if my work pleased me, and they’d ask about the exchange rate and about my forecast on the country’s financial situation after the Christian Democratic Party elections, and things of that sort. Then the words would flow, they’d come in sequence, they’d be definite, restricted to a single topic; that is, the bank and whatever was related to it. To have a single thing around which conversation revolved would be reassuring to me, focusing my thoughts and concentrating my efforts in one specific direction: the world of banks, money, accounts, the stock exchange, currencies, and nothing else.
In the room where we meet there is a waft of soft perfume, like a mix of burnt sugar and Old Spice. Ms. Lindau’s hair is blonde-gray and of medium length. She wears pink lip-gloss and a little powder on her cheeks. She looks feminine, despite the fact that she almost only ever wears pants and shirts and short jackets. Her shoes are always clean, with medium-high heels.
One hot summer day, she wore a dress whose light fabric was patterned with large red roses. She looked fresh. I told her so. It was the first time I’d ever given an opinion about something related to her. It was our second to last session.
That day we talked about children, and I asked her if she had a daughter or a son. Her eyes flashed for a moment, but she quickly extinguished the spark to avoid mixing our “objective” relationship with something more personal, answering that she had a twenty-two-year old daughter living in London. I envied her – not Ms. Lindau, but her daughter. Surely they were able to speak about what bothered one in the other without resorting to evasive language and weaseling away from emotion. Who ever said that blood ties were enough to love or be loved?
Once I noticed that the leather on her heel was scratched. It was a small scratch, barely visible, but it sidetracked my concentration to the point of anxiety. I didn’t want her to know the reason for my lack of focus, so I decided to leave before the session was scheduled to end.
From my first session with Ms. Lindau, I began having terrifying dreams. It was after our second session that the white bear appeared to me. He was in a forest surrounded by lots of people. He stood in front of a tree while they all watched him. Some of them sang, some of them danced, some played around him with a ball, but they were all looking at him while they did what they did. After a little while, the bear puts his paw in his mouth, crams his whole arm in there and begins to eat it. The blood pours out and stains his white fur, but he keeps on gnawing his hand while his body appears affixed to the ground. He ogles the others as if to try and understand from them the reason for his inability to move.
I remember a sentence I once read in a novel: “Only idiots tell others their dreams.”
Today, I told her that I saw Angela Merkel in my dream. She was knitting in front of a bathroom door where a soldier bathed. He wasn’t wearing a military uniform;, he was fully naked,; still, I knew he was a soldier. He stared at me with eyes that seemed to be made of glass. I stood in a corner of the kitchen where Angela Merkel sat with the knitting needles in her hands. I clung to a piece of fabric, pulling it to my chest, staring at both of them while Merkel went on knitting, totally oblivious to the danger that cold soldier posed to me. This was in July 2006. I tell Anna Lindau that I want to go back to my country because Angela Merkel favors that soldier over me. Lindau laughs and says that my dreams are like the stories by the Brothers Grimm.
“Why don’t you write stories?” she asks. “You want a defined job? That’s a good one. Write some stories!”
“It’s an idea,” I say.
But writing isn’t a defined job, and in any case, you can’t earn a living from it. Taking up a job that won’t earn you a living is meaningless. And if I wrote, I’d be amusing myself and it would be a waste of time that ought to be spent looking for a job with which I could earn a living.
Lindau didn’t understand my budding desire to become like her, a psychotherapist. Not out of any love for helping people, but a love for eavesdropping on their lives. I’ve always been like this, inclined toward useless things. There are many things I’m drawn to, but they're all of no use to anyone, while worthwhile things bore me quickly. “Why am I like that?” I ask her.
She looks at me with her evil eyes, smiles and answers, “I don’t know. Why don’t you tell me why you’re only drawn to useless things?”
But had I come to her to offer up my opinion or to hear hers? In any case, of what use would her opinion be if she voiced it? Nothing. It wouldn’t change a thing in my life. Her diagnosis – “a depressive psychological structure with hysterical tendencies” – was useless to me, except that I had been, at least psychologically, placed in a clear category, which gave me some comfort. For, although I’m still unable to define my goals or my identity, at the very least I can define my “psychological structure.”
A first step toward the self, I tell myself, though I know that this sentence has no meaning; now I must ready myself to go on defining “who I am,” except this time without Ms. Lindau. “Futile,” someone might say. But is there anything that isn’t futile about the whole process of procreation, of people giving birth to more people? How disgusting. One person giving birth to another, then another to another, and each with their own specific “psychological structure” in which they’ll be imprisoned for the rest of their lives, until the end. And if you’re unlucky, your end will come at the hands of someone close to you, as almost happened to poor Reiner.
But let us leave Reiner for now. I’ve decided to return to the country from which I come, not out of any love for it, but out of a habit of making the wrong decisions.
When I say goodbye to her, she hugs me, her body almost glued to mine, warm and pliable: I hadn’t imagined it so. In fact, I hadn’t imagined it existing at all.
Before leaving Berlin, I sent her the book and shawl by mail, with a card thanking her for her care, despite being aware of the fact that that care was no more than the way she earned her living. So what, I tell myself. You ought always to thank those who endure listening to you, regardless.
Translated from the Arabic by Lina Mounzer
©Chaza Charafeddine & Lina Mounzer