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Authors: Elias Khoury

Broken Mirrors

BOOK: Broken Mirrors
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First published in the Arabic language as Sīnālkūl by Dār al-Ādāb, Beirut, 2012
First published in North America in 2015 by Archipelago Books

Archipelago Books
232 Third Street, Suite
Brooklyn, New York 11215

Copyright © 2012 by Elias Khoury
English translation copyright © 2015 by Humphrey Davies

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Khuri, Ilyas.
[Sinalkul. English]

Broken mirrors : Sinacol / Elias Khoury ;
translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies
pages cm
978-0-914671-29-9 (paperback) –
978-0-914671-30-5 (ebook)
1. Lebanon – History – Civil War, 1975-1990 – Fiction.
I. Davies, Humphrey T. (Humphrey Taman), translator. II. Title.
5613 2016
892.7’36–dc23         2015027232

Archipelago Books gratefully acknowledges the generous support from Lannan Foundation, the New York State Council of the Arts, a state agency, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

Distributed by Penguin Random House


One departure came between us and with death,

After that first departure, another parting comes.



bent to lift his suitcase out of the trunk of the black Mercedes taxi that had been taking him to Beirut airport en route back to Montpellier.

His watch said five thirty a.m., and the Beirut dawn was tinted with darkness and dust.

It had rained the day before. The Beirut spring had arrived, carried on the sound of thunder, the thunder blending in turn with the sound of the intermittent shelling that roamed aimlessly around the city.

The man had found it impossible to sleep on his last night in Beirut. He’d drunk a lot of whiskey, sat on the sofa in the living room, yawned, and waited for dawn to the rhythm of the thunder and the rain.

He’d celebrated his fortieth birthday alone. Ghazala had disappeared into her story, Muna had left to search for her future in Canada, and Karim was alone at home in Beirut. Bernadette had called a couple of days earlier and asked him to come back on the fourth of January, so he could celebrate the start of his fifth decade with the family. He’d told her he hadn’t been
able to find a seat on the plane until the morning of the following day. His French wife had cleared her throat, pretended to believe him, and hung up.

He sat there alone and decided to rewrite his story. He poured a glass of whiskey, placed a plate of roasted salted almonds before him, and darkness enveloped him. The electricity was cut, the light of the candle shuddered, turning objects into ghosts dancing on the walls, and Karim drank the whiskey without ice, feeling his stomach burn.

His life had become a broken mirror. He’d lied a lot and they’d lied to him a lot, but his return to Beirut and his consent to his brother’s hospital construction project were the mistakes that had brought his whole story out into the open and shattered it, making it hard to gather up the slivers and put flesh back onto a life that had been smashed to pieces.

He sipped the whiskey and sat there waiting. He was certain she’d call but the phone remained silent. When he thought about “her” he wasn’t even sure to whom the pronoun referred. Was he still waiting after all that had happened for Ghazala, or was he waiting for Muna, who’d closed her eyes as she lay dozing beside him, then told him the story of her romance with the Italian? He saw Hend with her brown face that became longer with sorrow and her diffidence hidden behind gray eyes, and remembered a love that had been killed by fear and then turned into a family secret that no one could mention.

He was enveloped by the sounds of the city, which seemed poised to fall into the valley of darkness. His brother’s words had traced an image before his eyes, and he’d seen the city on the brink of the valley and felt as though everything were sliding into a bottomless abyss. Nasim had said the ship had caught fire at the Beirut docks, he’d lost all his wealth in one fell swoop, and that the hospital project was over because he was now obliged to sell it, and the apartment, to pay off a part of his debts. Karim hadn’t needed the news of the sunken oil tanker to know the project had fallen apart and
that he’d have to return to France weighted down by disappointment and failure. Ghazala had proved to him that everything in Beirut was fragile and unsustainable, and the story of his father, Nasri’s, death had made him realize that his brother’s project had been nothing but an illusion.

He waited without knowing for whom he was waiting. When love turns into waiting for love, a person ceases to be capable of knowing his own feelings. What did it mean, this story he’d found himself caught up in? Let no one think it had anything to do with what people call marital infidelity: Karim had never for a moment felt he was being unfaithful to his wife. He’d had brief affairs with French and Moroccan nurses and patients, but he’d never felt he was what they call “unfaithful.” Maybe it was because he’d never loved his white-skinned wife, or because he did love her; he didn’t know. Ghazala had been unfaithful to him with that boy with the strange name from the militias and Muna with her husband the architect who had decided to emigrate to Canada, and Hend had betrayed him with his memories.

He was sitting in the dark, engrossed in the reconstruction of his story, when the phone rang. He picked up the receiver and heard his wife’s voice coming to him from somewhere distant and deep. It woke him from his illusory waitings. It screamed “Hello!… Hello!” then suddenly was cut off.

He felt hungry, lit his lighter, and went to the refrigerator. He opened it, then closed it again on smelling rotten apples. Everything went bad in this city that had electricity only three hours a day.

During his long stay in France he had dreamed of Lebanese apples, their perfume mixing with the smell of coffee as he inhaled the ecstasy of his childhood.

Karim really understood the scent of childhood only when away from his country. He could see his father, the pharmacist, holding out his hand, pouring out a spoonful of ground coffee, adding half a spoon of sugar, mixing
them, and then setting about licking up the strange mixture with his tongue. He would close his eyes and sway in ecstasy at this “hand-coffee,” as he called it. Then he’d open the refrigerator, take out a couple of red apples and hand them to his two boys, repeating lines of old Arabic verse by Abu Nuwas in which the Abbasid poet sings the praises of the apples of Lebanon, whose aroma is so inevitably brought to mind by the bouquet of a good wine:

Pure wine from a tun that, as it mixes with the water

Gives off an aroma like that of the apples of Lebanon

The fragrance of the apples would blend with that of the coffee in the pharmacist’s hand and he’d tell his sons to eat an apple a day at five o’clock, for the apples of Lebanon were better than any medicine. The boys would eat their apples, the taste blending with the odor of coffee, and watch their father lick his lips before telling them it was time for him to go to the café.

There, in that distant French city, Karim had been tormented by that vanished smell. He’d try to tell Bernadette about the scent of apples mixing with that of coffee but found it indescribable. How can one describe a fragrance to someone who hasn’t already smelled and savored it? Karim discovered his failure with words when he realized that he couldn’t translate that memory, or the strain produced by the nostalgia that devoured him; in the end he found that “making love” was simply a translation of “talking” and that when words ran out so did love.

The lover is like a translator. He transfers the words of the tongue into the words of the body, as though translating and rewriting a story. That was how it had been with Ghazala. When he’d felt the darts of love bury themselves in his back, his tongue had been untied and he’d begun to talk, recounting to her the stories of his days as a student in France and how he
used to swig wine like water. He’d spoken of the endless different kinds of cheese and when she’d said she liked “white meat,” which was what they called cheese in her village, he’d answered that he preferred brown and grabbed her by the wrist, but she slipped out of his grasp. He caught up with her and she kissed him on the lips before escaping to the kitchen.

He took a rotten-smelling apple from the refrigerator, felt nauseous, and threw it into the trash. He stood in the kitchen not knowing what to do. The darkness shuddered to the feeble light of the cigarette lighter, which burned his fingers, and Karim grew hungry. He went back to the living room, drank a glass of whiskey, and decided to stop waiting.

He wasn’t waiting for a call from Ghazala: his infatuation for her had evaporated when he’d realized he was scared of her husband. He was waiting, rather, for Muna, whom he knew wouldn’t call. He’d never told Ghazala he loved her. He had believed, as he writhed in her arms, that he was just having sex, and it was only at the end, when his fear had dissipated, that he declared his love – and discovered that he’d been made a fool of.

BOOK: Broken Mirrors
7.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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