• Translated by Anthony Calderbank
When I opened the door of my room the plucked notes of the simsimiya and the tones of Muhammad Abdu's voice grew louder, I could almost see him in his white ghutra, standing in front of the musicians on our black and white TV set. What was Muhammad Abdu doing here in Norwich on a cold bright morning like this? It occurred to me that Muhammad the Emirati student might have put on an old cassette but then I remembered he'd gone home more than a month ago. I went down the stairs, which seemed more like the steps leading to a hermit's cell. I had learned to go up and down them like they did, sideways rather than forwards so that I wouldn't fall headfirst and tumble to the bottom. I would be kept awake at night by the thought of having to go down stairs in the middle of the night to the only bathroom in the house and the terrible creaking the wooden stairs would make, like the weeping of trees being felled. It had happened on several occasions: if I forgot to clean my teeth for example. I'd gently switch on the landing light and tread as lightly as possible so as not to make any noise thinking that it would cause great embarrassment to Mrs. Catherine, and Mr. Jonathan, as they sighed and heaved in the adjacent bedroom. If the door was ajar I'd catch sight of them out of the corner of my eye as I passed, like two bears hugging, not paying the slightest bit of attention to my presence.
I regained consciousness to find myself, lying on crisp white sheets, a patient in Norwich General Hospital after they'd transferred me from the Bupa hospital on the outskirts of the city in a semi coma. I tried to remember who I was, who had brought me here, where my family and my mother were, whether I was on earth or in heaven, but I couldn't. I saw the drip feeding into my arm; it seemed miles away as if it were high up in the sky, like a celestial body or a distant planet. I began to sift through my most recent memories, and some of the very distant ones, and I saw my life hurtle past me like the Norwich to London express.
Yesterday morning, in Mrs. Catherine's house, where I was lodging, the Muhamad Abdu song, Morning breeze, say hi to his radiant cheek, came floating up the wooden stairs. Not only could I hear it but I could smell it too, the smell of my mother's morning coffee. I rubbed my eyes and as I sat up the legs of the bed creaked. I walked over towards the tall window and pulled back the curtain a little. I could see the street, civil servants, workers and school children; the English invading the pavements, with umbrellas protecting their hairdos from the drizzle. The woman across the road emerged from her house and said goodbye to her little white dog, his tail wagging like a pendulum, before he shot back inside the house.
The afternoon the taxi stopped in the street outside number 146 and I got out, I was surprised to see Mrs. Catherine open the door and welcome me, with her husband, or so I thought at the time, Mr. Jonathan. He was huge. He picked up my suitcases with ease and charged with them up the narrow wooden staircase in the middle of the house. I thought he made an exemplary husband, until my Emirati colleague Muhammad informed me, with a jibe at my naiveté, that he was her boyfriend and that he came to stay at the weekends. Sometimes she would leave with him and spend the night at his house after finishing her shift at the hospital. Mr. Jonathan had an extremely loud laugh and when he found something amusing I would feel all the wood in the house rock with consternation. Perhaps the ugliest of his laughs was the one that cracked a couple of my ribs when I came home one afternoon. I was walking towards the kitchen when I saw him pressing his huge body against Mrs. Catherine, his mouth glued to hers in a long kiss. I had no choice but to retreat, hoping that neither of them had noticed me, and make a dash for the stairs, but he saw me at the last minute and roared with bellowing, sarcastic laughter. It was like a bullet aim straight between my skinny shoulders.
Wherever I went in the little house the song Morning Breeze floated round my ears like a desert butterfly. Mrs. Catherine always put two kinds of cereal out for me even though I didn't like them, and so I would end up taking a piece of toast and spreading some butter on it. I'd gone several days thinking it was cream cheese until I read the word butter in English on the top of the plastic tub. Then I stopped using it. Even after I went out with my bag over my shoulder, shut the front door behind me and set off down the street, I couldn't get the Muhammad Abdu song out of my head. The shy drops of rain against my forehead wouldn't help me to forget it, not the wet streets, the women and children with blond hair, the old folk walking their dogs, the huge green trees that swayed in the wind like genies praying to the gods, not even the cloudy overcast sky. Nothing at all could oust the sick and oppressive longing that had taken control of my head.
I walked down the streets that my Emirati friend Muhammad had led me along the first day. We had headed towards Durham Road, the main road in the city, where we waited for the blue bus that took us past the school.
"This is the most important road in Norwich," he said. "It takes you all the way into the city centre. Then he added: "So you don't forget the name, think of our currency in the Emirates: dirham."
Suddenly I remembered all my days, as they crawled like sharp needles over my body that was laid out on the white bed. "Why am I here?" I asked myself. Four doctors and nurses surrounded my bed. They had monkey's faces and white coats, but I was unable to scream in panic, for the drugs had made my tongue and jaw too heavy.
Anyone who spills milk on the earth or the carpet, Allah will punish him, and turn him into a monkey or a goat. My mother was full of old wives tales and she filled our childhood with such warnings and admonitions. We used to think that Saad, the famous monkey in Riyadh zoo, was our grandfather who had committed a huge sin by taking a swim in a bath of milk. His own grandparents had suffered terribly in the Year of Hunger but he had been lucky and life had given him all he could wish for. Then he sinned so Allah punished him by turning him into a monkey munching bananas whose job it was to entertain people. The women standing in front of his cage would laugh at him and when he waved his member in their faces they'd screech bawdily and nod suggestively at the men standing next to them.
I came to Norwich with my mother's mentality, her dreams, her faith, and her traditions. I always turned shoes the right way up. If I saw a shoe the wrong way up, its sole facing towards the sky, it would disturb me enormously and I'd turn it over immediately so that the dirt and residue from the street would face the earth, the earth in whose belly Satan dwells. When Mrs. Catherine had seen me on more than one occasion turning an upside down shoe the right way up, she asked me a question I didn't understand. She wrote it down on a piece of paper, and I translated it with the electronic dictionary. I denied that I was mentally ill, and I tried to explain to her in my broken language that such things were forbidden in our religion, as my mother had instructed me as a child. I didn't know the word reprehensible so I used the word forbidden. I'd learned it from a religious Muslim colleague in our class. He used to walk around after the Japanese girls who were studying English with us and advise them to cover up their bodies. They filed a harassment claim against him to the director of the school.
Coming home from school one afternoon I didn't get off the bus at my usual stop on Durham Road. I stayed on with some students who were going to the last stop in the town centre. I wanted to buy a shirt and a woolen overcoat for the winter that had suddenly come upon us. I was walking past C&A down into the centre of the market towards Marks & Spencer. I had been warned against buying from them by my religious friend who said that the owner was Jewish and supported the oppression of the Palestinian intifada in Jerusalem. I went in the store, chose a striped shirt and put it in my shopping basket. Then I picked out a heavy gray woolen overcoat and went and paid for them. I left the shop and walked to Pizza Hut on the corner. On the way I saw a young couple eating a meat sandwich. The boy threw the last bit of the sandwich in a rubbish bin that was hanging from a lamppost. I stopped, put my hand in the rubbish bin and pulled out the piece of food. I kissed it and then placed it on the corner of a step of a nearby shop. As I walked away I heard the shopkeeper yelling insults at me most of which I couldn't understand, and then saw him pick up the morsel and throw it back in the rubbish bin.
Mrs. Catherine was unable to confirm her conclusion that I was mentally ill, because of this incident in the town centre, because she never knew anything about it, but she was left in no doubt when the parcel from my mother came. It contained a box of dates and a red prayer mat. Mrs. Catherine was amazed by its design and the silky softness of its texture and I remembered the advice of one of my relatives before I left home, that I should be generous to the English so that I would learn their language from them. So, in order to ingratiate myself with her, I offered her the rug as a gift. She refused at first, and she tried to pay me for it, but my rustic insistence won her over in the end. I had imagined she'd hang it on the wall like a painting, especially since she had hung lots of patterned plates on the walls. But I was stunned to find her the next day sitting on the sofa in the living room with her feet planted firmly on the mat, right on top of the picture of the two holy sanctuaries. I attacked in a frenzy, pulling the mat from underneath her, and cursing her in Arabic. She didn't understand a word of course, even though she was terrified and shrunk back as she stared at my raging features before I stormed up stairs cursing everything.
From that point Mrs. Catherine was convinced I was mentally ill, and that she should exert great caution in dealing with me, even though I tried to explain to her that she had put her feet on something sacred to me. She didn't understand and she argued with me at great length suggesting that I suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder and that I needed treatment.
"You'll pray on the rug, won't you?" she said
"Yes," I said.
"And don't you put your feet on the rug when you're stood praying?" she asked.
"Yes," I said.
"So what are you so angry with me for then?" she said victoriously.
I explained to her that I put my feet at the end of the mat, while the picture of the holy sanctuary was where I placed my head when I prostrated. "What's the difference between your head and your feet?" she retorted. "Aren't they all parts of your body?" That's where our discussion ended until my last day in her house.
A nurse with a monkey's head approached me. She spread her lips in a smile. Her mouth was very big, as a monkey's mouth should be. I could not speak. My eyes were drowsy, and the objects in front of me were misty and blurred. Her mouth was very far away, like a crescent moon high up in the sky. Perhaps she was checking my pulse at the time. I wanted to stretch out my hand and pluck the crescent from her face, but I was unable to move my hand, never mind lift it up. How hard it is to see things in front of you and not be able to interact with them in speech or words, to object or refuse.
What was it that had turned the people in front of me into monkeys? I was desperate for a mirror so I could see whether my own face was human or ape with features from a distant desert. My memory returned to the very recent past, and how I had screamed when I came home from school and entered Mrs. Catherine's house, how I had assaulted her in a fit of madness. She had put the plug in the hand basin and was pouring milk over her hands, face, neck and vast bosom. Then she scooped up the milk that had gathered in the sink and washed her face, after coating it with a mixture of egg yoke and cucumber. I could hear my mother's voice from across the sea saying, anyone who pours milk on the carpet will turn into a monkey. My mother's features were stern and harsh. I heard her, at that moment in Norwich, as if I were six years old, as if I'd just come home from school exhausted, staggering under the weight of my huge school bag.
As I approached Mrs. Catherine at the washbasin to stop her, she turned to me with a strange look on her face. It wasn't the face I knew at all. I swear it was covered in hair, with two protruding jaws, and no lips. Her head was the head of an old monkey. I was terrified. I screamed and stepped back and collided with the banister and fell. I tried to stand up but an enormous monkey was standing on my head, leaning over me snorting loudly. Then I remembered nothing save that face which stands near me now, as I lie spread eagled on the white bed surrounded by an army of monkeys, who seem to be discussing the procedures for transferring me to a psychiatric ward.