MENDING ZEBRA CROSSING – A SHORT STORY BY HELMI BEN MERIEM
“Allah Akbar. Allah Akbar. . . Praying is more rewarding than sleeping.” On these words I wake up every morning.
I put on my pyjamas and went to the bathroom. With my ablution done, I headed to the nearby mosque for the Morning Prayer.
Before the Revolution of the 17th December 2010, I never prayed in the mosque, not even the Friday Grand Prayer. I was detained thrice by the police for no apparent reason. When they decided to let me out, the chief of police said to me: “If we catch you praying one more time, you shall never see the sun.” What he said reminded me of AlKaradib, the prison where Saudi political activists are imprisoned.
Now, three months after the escape of Ben Ali, I go and pray as I like. Freedom. The only thing we got from the revolution. No one-hundred-milim loaf of bread. Yes, politicians have always made many promises. Lies told and retold in every country during election time. Why should we be the exception?
After the Morning Prayer ended, I went back home, made myself a cup of coffee and some scrambled eggs with left-over mashed potatoes. American breakfast. I studied in the USA for one year during the writing of my PhD. I love the combination of black, white, and yellow. A rainbow on a plate.
After relieving myself and taking a shower, I left the small flat I call home, and went to my work. I own a stationery-cum-book store. My parents did not approve of my decision not to teach like my other classmates. “Why waste your life selling pens and pencils? And who is going to buy books in this forsaken country? People do not even read the very Book they swear by!” My father always says. My mother says: “Marriage. Wife. Kids. House. How will you be able to afford all of that? Tell me!”
A wife and kids — mind you it is not one kid — are not my cup of tea. Women do not interest me sexually. Men do interest me sexually. But not the men I see in this country. I do not want animalistic sexual intercourse. I want minds entangled together exchanging intellectual fluids. Now, neither women nor men interest me. Books do. I sniff books. I like old editions of books filled with the scent of browning papers. Erection of the mind I call it.
My stationery-book-store is located in front of the famous and infamous Salafist mosque in the city of N. As I sit in my book store, for books are what I mainly interested in, I see men in their Afghani outfits reminding everyone that this is the new Kandahar. Stalls selling everything deemed Halal by Salafists. Black burqas for women. Long jelbabs for men. Quran: one book but far too many copies.
My book store is five minutes from the faculty of arts in the city. Students come asking me to print courses and books. I refuse to do so. I tell them: “This is not a printing shop. This is a stationery-cum-book store. Mainly a book store.” They hate me when I say that. I make little money. My father owns the garage, where I decided to open my own Shakespeare and Co, my own Barnes and Noble. My father does not take rent from me. Or else I would have gone bankrupt a long time ago.
I stay in the store till seven p.m. During my day, I go to the prayers at the Salafist mosque — three times to be exact. I do not talk to anyone in the mosque. They hate me and I hate them. They abhor me for not having a beard. I abhor them for having one. Different perspectives, that is all. As soon as the prayer ends, I leave the mosque. One time, one of the men in the mosque stopped me at the entrance to the praying hall and said: “Why do you leave immediately? Patience, fellow brother. Patience.” What was I supposed to say to him? “We are not brothers. We will never be brothers, you and I. Understood?” I told him that and left for my sanctuary – my book store. As I was crossing the street, I stopped in the middle of the zebra crossing and looked back at the mosque; there were four heavily bearded men staring at me. Angry looks that could melt ice. Yes, they could even melt all of Greenland’s ice.
I opened the store again and sat on the chair by the door. I could see from here everything happening in the street, mainly any suspicious movements of Salafists towards my Shakespeare and Co. As I was roaming the book store with my eyes, a bluish-covered book caught my attention. It was Robert Frost’s collected poems. I leafed through it till I got to my favorite Frost poem, “Mending Wall”. I was introduced to Frost in my second year at university. “Mending Wall” was the one that I most admired. Mending walls that are mending the people mending them. Good fences do not make good neighbors; fences are meant for enemies not neighbors.
As I was closing the store to go to the Sunset Prayer, I was startled by the sudden appearance of my father. He never came here.
“Hello, father. What are you doing here? Going to the prayer?” I asked him.
“Prayer! Did I ever pray in this mosque, son? Did I? I am here to talk to you about something urgent.”
“What is it? Did something happen to mother?”
“No, nothing of that sort. Patience. Let us get a cup of tea at the coffee shop at the end of the street.”
“Or get a cup of tea made by Lala Mounira and drink it on the rooftop. Sitting on traditional carpets with our backs to the wall and our faces to the sky dotted with stars. What do you say?”
“If that is what you want, then OK.”
Eventually we sat on the rooftop and the discussion turned out to be about the incident with the Salafists in the mosque. To cut a long story short, my father wanted me to be more cautious with the Salafists and not to incite them. No provocation. But it was they who had provoked me. The tea, delicious as it was, as usual, with the mint leaves freshly picked and the slice of lemon, did not help me deal with my father’s instructions.
I arrived at my flat — my one-room flat — where the limits between the bed, sofa, and bookcases were blurry; a friend once sat on the bed and said: “What a soft sofa you have!” I did not tell him he was mistaken. It is easy to mistake something for something else these days. It was a hot summer night so I took the mattress and put it midway between the balcony and the room. I put the bedside lamp on the ground. By nine, I was on the mattress, bare-chested, and in my boxer shorts. I opened the novel I started reading four days ago, entitled Like People in History. Writing the story of the unwritten. Voicing the silenced. As I was devouring the novel, I started to hear some voices coming from the apartment in front me. I put the book down. I looked outside. It was a man and a woman having sex. Ugly nude bodies. The man pushed the woman onto the bed. She was lying on her stomach now. The man, who appeared to have a thick beard, jumped on her. Moans of pleasure from him. Moans of suffering from her. I could hear her saying: “Please, you are a man of Allah. This is not Halal. Please, mercy!” I tried to mute the sounds and get back to Picano’s novel. But to no avail. Suddenly, I heard some cursing outside; I looked out, and to my surprise it was the man from the opposite flat. He was trying to light a cigarette. Celebratory fume. Despicable man.
For the next few weeks, the Salafists kept provoking me; I turned my ‘derrière dead’ as we say in Tunisia, ignoring their comments. But one Tuesday came the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“Brother Yusuf. Salamo alaykom,” a man said.
“Wa alaykom as salam.”
“You seem to be an observing Muslim. Coming to the prayers on time. But we, the mosque goers, have been wondering about the absence of the Holy Quran in your store. The book of Allah should be the first book to be displayed in any place. And people would buy the Quran from your store. You would be earning more dinars. Do you understand me, Brother?”
“Hmmmmm… To be honest with you. We have enough copies of the Quran in this country. And you people sell even more copies in front of the mosque. I will not sell it in my book store. My book store is for literature and philosophy only.”
“Brother Yusuf. . .”
“Do not call me brother! It sickens me to think of myself as your brother. I said my word. If you will excuse me now, I have to go and read one of Hirsi’s books. Books. Many, not one. Plural not singular. Many views, not one.”
“Infidel. . . Infidel. . .”
“Oh, you know the title of one of her books. Educated bigot. Now I can say I have seen it all.”
“Infidel. Traitor. Defector from Islam.” Now there were three men shouting behind me.
I left the mosque. The zebra crossing linked two different worlds. On one side, one Book worshipped. Facts taught and received fervently. On the other side, many books, none worshipped, all read with suspicion. No facts. Mere speculations. No Truth. There is no Truth in my book store. There are only assumptions about paths that may lead one to a fragmented grasping of a fragmented truth.
From that Tuesday, I was banned from entering the mosque. How could they ban me? Who gave them the right to do so? Friday Prayer was the next day. I would try again to enter the mosque.
Friday morning. At the book store awaiting the Friday Prayer. “Allah Akbar. . .” That was my cue to head to the mosque.
“You are not welcome in the house of Allah, you filthy infidel. Stay out of our mosque, dirty pig. . .”
“This is not your mosque. It is the mosque of all worshippers. I am a worshipper.”
I was pushed to the floor by a bearded man. As I was trying to stand up, I was pushed down again by the same man; I looked up and I saw the face of the derrière-lover-cigarette-curser man from the flat opposite mine.
“How dare you touch me? How dare you?” I shouted at him.
“Leave this place immediately. You have no place here.”
They all went inside the mosque and closed the main gate behind them. The revolution made people think they can do anything. Freedom. That is all Tunisians think of now. Forcing the veil and niqab on women, the beard on men, prayer on all. A perverted definition of freedom.
I walked the border, crossing the zebra lines separating the Book from bookS. I went inside the book store, took a blanket and made it into an improvised prayer mat. I took it and put it outside the store. Sitting there. Hearing the prayer through the loudspeakers. Praying in the street with those who refused to pray with me.
I walked the zebra crossing to the mosque and its people. They never walked and will never walk the five-meter crossing. They see things as being either black or white. I see things as a mixture of black and white: lightening the black, darkening the white, and graying everything.
Image: Ozzy Delaney