An extract from Zolghadr’s third novel, an ongoing work-in-progress.
The garden has palm trees, pines, fig trees, orange trees, but also lemon, lime, plum, loquat, mulberries black and white. Flat floral rashes of yellow, and tall stalks of hot pink. Along with turtles, tree houses, a sandbox, and neighbors’ cats. It is neither prim nor excessive, neither spectacular nor clever. The house is heavyset stone, two floors. Built in the 1930s, it is no longer traditional architecture, nor does it betray clear traces of modernism just yet. The floor tiles do look and smell unmistakably modern however. Geometric patterning of khaki and ochre, beige and brown. Always cool to the touch. Reeking of childhood memories, even, strangely, if you never had floors of the kind. A very long pathway leads you straight from the street to the house. Hedgerows on both sides. “Versailles!” many visitors invariably exclaim. The hedgerows lead you to what was once the entrance. The steps are still there, one two three four. But instead of leading to a small patio, and then on to the main door, as they used to do, they now lead to newly built walls and large glass windows. From this patio, you used to walk through a heavy iron door straight into the living room. Hello. Oh, it’s you. Well, now that you’re here. Today, the patio has been converted into an extra room, sitting discreetly alongside the house. And I use this architectural afterthought as my office. It is where I am typing these lines.
When I look up from my laptop, enthroned in my own private gazebo, I see all the way down the Versailles hedgerows to the entrance. I observe everyone coming in and out. Their movements increasingly self-conscious over the thirty seconds it takes to walk up the garden path, noticing my glare over the rim of my computer. Once you reach the obsolete steps, leading up to me, still glaring, you can take a left, to what is now the entrance, or a right, to reach the neighbors upstairs. However, as I recently realized, the panopticon works to my disadvantage. I am no armed recruit, perched on a watchtower. I am the freak in a goggle box. Routinely distracted by neighbors or guests lumbering right up to my office perch, smiling as they knock on the windowpane to have a quick chat. A cheerful nature, someone once said, is an utterly ruthless thing. And nothing fills me with more outrage than the flow of writing disrupted by some happy soul. I am the type who can only write in the mornings, after a minimum of seven hours of sleep precisely. These seven will allow for four hours of writing grand maximum. I am a perfect slave to this neurobiological bureaucracy. No other type of timekeeping will work. Unfortunately, it is rare that my sleep is not interrupted by mosquitoes, gas, nightmares, back pain, my wife Nissa, or our toddler son Lee. So a moment of writing is a precious thing. And every interruption a walking scourge. Which is why I have hung curtains across the windows. An unintended, comical result of which is that visitors feel all the more observed. They can still make out my contours, sometimes even a hand or elbow sticking out along the curtain’s edge. And elbows do glare. Who knew.
After two novels, a subjective history of the United States, a very large handful of essays on contemporary art, and an award-winning Middle Eastern cookbook, I am trying something, shall we say, diaristic. Using this house on Teezee Street as a point of departure, a conversation piece, a metonym. Its history, context, architecture, and inhabitants, past and present, will tell the story of the place. With my own perspective enmeshed therein. So on the one hand the book will include conversations—with the gardener, the cleaning lady, the plumber, the landlord, and so on—and on the other, it will feature everyday life as a dad, husband, teacher, writer, and so on.
Then again, if I were a writer-writer, I would visit Palestine wearing loose linen shirts, and read my manuscript to you, very slowly and quietly. The other day, we had Michael Ondaatje, reading to us in the splendid courtyard of the Sakakini Foundation. “It was a night of dust,” said Ondaatje. He looked very concerned.
The house is in downtown Ramallah. A slightly older part of town. Nearby landmarks are three in number, two of which are a little gloomy. There are actually four, come to think of it, but the fourth would take too long to describe. The one landmark is Yaffa Road, once a café-lined boulevard leading you straight to the Mediterranean, now a deafening thruway leading you straight to the industrial zone. The other is Sahel, a restaurant with the best reputation in town. The entrance is often a tangle of SUVs and Mercedes limos. Flanked by drivers and bodyguards, waiting for nomenclature foreign or local, to finish their stuffed vine leaves and baked chicken. The suits and the cars are all glossy, glossy black. The fact that Sahel is a nouveau-folkloric place with overpriced, bland food allows for a soothing sense of poetic justice. The less gloomy of said landmarks is the Muntaza, the city playground. A quiet, circular park with a splendid neo-geo fountain at its center. During the warmer half of the year, tables line the fountain and coffee, tea, cold drinks, and French fries are served. During the colder half, Jubran walks the premises. A heavyset, lumbering man maybe twenty years of age, Jubran has a thick lisp and a roughshod voice. It is puzzling that a cash-strapped municipality would hire someone to guard an empty playground six months out of the year, and, indeed, maybe it does no such thing. For whatever purpose, Jubran walks purposefully along the rose beds, day in, day out, pulling up his jeans and waving as you pass. Jubran’s most striking feature is his lips. They are enormous. But exquisite. Though absurdly oversized, they are perfectly shaped. Together with the raucous voice, they form a hypnotic combination. My Arabic is disgraceful to begin with, so understanding Jubran is a challenge. I took Lee to the swings only yesterday, and he would not stop asking WHO do you love more mama or BABA? Mama or BABA? Lee’s panicked attempts to appease, by emphatically professing his love for the one parent, then the other, then both, did nothing to stop the gentleman reiterating his question at full volume, until we finally left. An interview with Jubran may well be worth the time.
I learn from Facebook that two members of the national soccer team have been shot in the legs and ankles. By and by, international coverage ensues. The transparency of the gesture becomes too much even for FIFA, which briefly considers suspending Israel’s membership. Briefly, very briefly. Back in the 1970s, you had the poets, sniped in the forehead. If the Sahel ever finds a decent chef, he should watch his palate. Crème brûlée.
Most of the books on sale are in Arabic. (Bummer dude.) This means it is a challenge to find paperback novels, which remain inexplicably important to me. At first, I tried to find virtue in necessity, and take solace in the notion that we should all be reading less, not more. After all, if more books were read, less would be written. But then I discovered the sheer exhilaration of the random find. Reading whatever comes along. At the flea market, supermarket, or the father-in-law’s collection. Largely classics. Ionesco, Rhinocéros, Lessing, The Grass Is Singing. Or Gogol, Dead Souls, and Daniel Defoe’s very helpful A Journal of the Plague Year. Even something as tritely cool as Douglas Coupland becomes part of a larger, gripping pursuit. You begin to find design within the accidental, patterns within happenstance. An involuntary self-portrait emerges, and your flattering, vague sense of polyglot cosmopolitanism becomes a rock-hard meta-narrative, that of a standard child of the mainstream middle class. The ensemble of paperbacks telling a story just as loudly as the prose within every one of them.
Older novels are superior in the particular sense that modern-day paperbacks tend to look like Christmas cards or tampon ads. You either have the boy child in a desert landscape of hyper-saturated contrasts. Or you have the warm, encouraging, washed-out palm leaves and pale pink blossoms, adorned with a mysterious, swirly streak of scarlet and beige, and a font that may as well spell out Playtex Gentle Glide. It is in the Middle East, it seems, that covers have become particularly gruesome. How to buy and read these books without shame? Ahdaf Soueif, oh my dear God in heaven. Even Elias Khoury. Not to mention Orhan Pamuk’s sepia tugboats and turquoise tiles. If you go for kindles, well, good for you kiddo. If you do not, then you cannot ignore that a book is an object in its own right. Entitled to a craftsmanship of its own. It is not just the cover. It is the paper, the binding, the font, the very spatial point at which a given passage appears on a page. It is naïve to assume that meaning remains unchanged when the sentence is crowning the top of the sheet, lingering at the bottom, or rammed in the middle.