Dominique Eddé

Illustration by Hong-An Tran

'What is a novel?' Mali asked her students.

It was October 1968, shortly after she and Farid had broken up for the first time. She was teaching French that year at a government school in Beirut. She had been given a class of sixteen-year-olds, about sixty boys, most of whom were behind in their studies and had only a smattering of French since they were sitting their baccalaureate in Arabic. Their replies, hesitant at first, came thick and fast. Mali jotted them down. Running on from each other, they read as follows: the novel's a story that's long and wide; it's life but in a book; it's like my uncle who married my aunt without asking for permission; if you observe life carefully, the novel is all around us; it's a story that has a beginning and no end; it's an Arabian Nights; it's when love is a river that meets a dam; I've got a novel, Miss, it begins with some Russians; the novel is full of things that happen at the same time and we don't know why; a novel is so sad it makes you laugh; well, my father says that our defence minister is a novel all by himself; if a novel begins, there's no more rest, that's it; what happened between Abdo and Mohammed the day before yesterday's a novel; the novel's for the French, we Arabs have poetry; Miss, is my sister's death a novel? everyone has novels, there's no need to die; only Allah writes novels; I want to write a novel about Palestine, so that it stays somewhere.

One boy sitting at the back of the class had said nothing. Gazing out of the window, his arms folded, he looked not so much absent as irritated. Yet he was the only one who spoke French. Mali addressed him. 'Ali, I haven't heard anything from you. What is a novel?' He resisted. She insisted. 'It's a story someone tells,' he replied eventually, 'that's all.' 'Give us an example,' she answered, expecting him to give a book title and the name of an author, but that was not how he understood the question. This is what he replied:

It was a winter's day. The sun came and went. The clouds grew bigger. The whole sky was like a stormy sea. Abu Sami pushed his orange cart shouting,'Ten piastres a kilo!' The street was empty, no one could hear him but he paid no attention. He shouted, 'Ten piastres a kilo!' and dreamt of a woman he loved. The hands on the clock were turning, daylight was fading and the clouds were growing darker and darker still. The rain began to fall, the dust turned to mud and Abu Sami's dream came and went, like the sun, its light vanished, he could hardly see the face of the lady he loved. Abu Sami no longer had the strength to shout,'Ten piastres a kilo!' He trundled behind his orange cart in silence. Several oranges rolled off but he didn't pick them up. Just then, an American car pulled up beside him and a lady sitting in the back wound down her window to buy five kilos of oranges. He put the fifty piastres in his pocket and went home with his oranges. A neighbour was waiting for him on his doorstep. He said, 'I have bad news for you, Abu Sami, the dancer is dead.' The dancer was the woman who had been going round and round in his head while he walked. Her name was Camelia. He'd seen her once at Ain el Mraisseh in a cabaret called Chéri. Only once but he loved her.

'There, that's a novel,' grunted Sami, shrugging his shoulders. And as Mali, smiling, wrote down the closing sentences in a notebook, he added in a more conscious, even solemn, tone, 'Once is enough to kindle a dream and a cloud is enough to snuff it out but, for the person telling the story, the dream and the cloud can last a thousand years. The novel doesn't move like an ordinary watch, its hands can stop for an hour on a minute and for a second on twenty years. It's a machine that can gobble a life in two pages.'

translated from the French by Ros Schwartz

Used by permission of Seagull Books. Kite will be out in stores in Sep 2012.

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