Short story by Luay Abdul-Ilah
I only got that job thanks to the sheer chance which made me pick the Evening Standard from one of the empty seats. I used to follow Stars and the English football news in that paper whenever I chanced upon it on the underground. Perhaps the inevitable stopping of the train in its tunnel was the incentive for me to go on to read the advertisements, avoiding the looks of the passengers annoyed at the compulsory wait inside the closed underground carriage.
In the middle of the job advertisements page I encountered three lines in a narrow column offering an unusual job: “Translator and editor for a financial newspaper, proficient in Arabic and English. To apply please telephone this number…”
That rectangle packed with the words came like a personal invitation to me to take the job, after spending many months waiting for the money for my studies to arrive from my family. The war situation had prevented any payment from them arriving at the appointed time, and I therefore missed the chance to benefit from my academic acceptance that year. With the temporary job in the cafes and restaurants I was forced to tighten my belt severely to pay what paltry wages I received, for my small room, and for the expensive electric heating, far from the many temptations of the city, and only looking forward to the end of the war.
When I dialled the number I expected a rejection to come from the other party once he learned of my lack of any experience in the field of translation and journalistic work. But the male voice which crept into my ears seemed friendly and genuine. On the other hand, he avoided bringing up any question to do with the nature of the job and the qualifications required. One thing was established for both of us during that preliminary conversation – we both originated from one city: Baghdad.
On the day of the interview I wore my best clothes with a red tie with blue spots, and when I rang the bell of the office situated at an intersection of two roads, a young woman opened the door for me, and no sooner had I given her my name than a broad smile spread across her face.
She asked me to come in, where I was faced with the square reception room that ended with a half closed room. Tucked in the right corner was a short staircase leading to the upper floor, and behind it another staircase appeared to go down toward the basement. She sat me down on the small sofa and asked if I would like to drink tea or coffee, if I would like it with milk or without, with sugar or without. Her speech was difficult to understand, because she kept dropping letters from the middles and ends of her words, making me nod my head from time to time as an expression of polite agreement.
She handed me an application form, and asked me to fill it in. Apologising, she said that the office director would come down from his room to meet me the moment he finished with his wealthy client who had come on an urgent matter without previous appointment. What aroused my astonishment more than anything else at that time, was the way Suzanne mentioned her employer’s name. She was content with “Sami”(instead of Doctor Sami Al-Adhami!) giving me the impression that the boss was only a young man of my age. The secretary pointed out before she left the reception desk, that her manager was meticulous about time and what was most important to him was his employees’ performance to the same degree of endeavour which he himself had during office hours. She said that with implied sarcasm capable of wider interpretation.
There was nothing on the walls which indicated Sami Al-Adhami’s nationality. Except for that palm tree engraved on a metal dish, in the middle of Qur’anic texts written in Kufic script and embellished with gold, nothing suggested his connection to the East. I remember that calendar with pictures of Fiat cars, and hanging near it, a print of a faded painting of the English countryside from the seventeenth century. On the wall nearest me, there was another calendar.
Before I had finished filling out the application form, the door opened on the top floor, and I heard the client’s voice. He was repeating words of gratitude, reciprocated by the proprietor’s assurance about the imminent easing of the problem he had come on account of. I guessed from the visitor’s accent and clothes that he came from one of the Gulf emirates; a businessman or property owner moving between London and the oil-rich capitals. When the lawyer closed the door behind him, he sighed deeply, and came towards me rubbing his hands. I got up enthusiastically to shake his hands, but he met my exuberance with a look of surprise, as if he wanted to whisper in my ear, “is this the way the applicant for a new job behaves with his employer?” He took the form which I had finished with, and gave me an article cut from a financial magazine, dealing with the development the Gulf emirates had witnessed since the oil export boom there. He asked me to summarize it in three pages only. His words were blunt and clipped, and his penetrating looks across the thick glass of his spectacles left me feeling only dislike for him. What caught my attention was that large globular nose in the middle of a face mottled with the aftermath of pimples from ancient puppetry. It was possible to hear clearly his heavy breathing , as if was voraciously sucking up the air with his nostrils, leaving only a tiny amount for those present.
The desire to sneak away from my chair and leave the office without coming back tempted me when Sami went to the other room. But the image of the owner of the Cypriot restaurant where I had been working passed through my head, and so made me keep writing on the small wooden table. I borrowed paragraphs from here and there, trying to make connections between them by using the prepositions, pronouns and adverbs of time and place I could call to mind. At the same time, the lawyer’s voice was booming discontentedly, regularly interrupted by Suzanne’s cheerful voice as she kept offering one justification after another for every fitful question Sami Al-Adhami fired in her face. But, bit by bit, the confident tone of the secretary changed into shrill disjointed sentences, and in the end she surrendered to the sweeping logic of her examiner, who was finally able to prove her negligence at work.
I had expected Sami to detect my weakness in writing the English language as soon as he collected the test papers, but he had only spent a few minutes reading them when I suddenly heard his voice, “Excellent.” When I asked him when I would start work, he replied without hesitation, “Tomorrow if you like.”
“Today is set to help you become acquainted with the job,” said Sami Al-Adhami. Then he took another look at his watch, making me swallow bigger gulps of the coffee which he had made me himself. The proprietor led me to the basement which would be my new workplace. Under the beams of the shimmering neon light, the short passageway seemed jammed with pieces of antiquated furniture scattered over its floor, to an extent that made getting to the only room in the cellar difficult. First I had to lift the typewriter and its iron stand, and put them out of the way, then lean the heavy filing cabinet against the wall.
The lawyer stated that he had bought all this furniture from a friend who had decided to close his office and travel to America, and he only paid fifty Pounds for it. But he followed, “that was its value ten years ago.” Turning on the light, he added, “I expect the day will come when I’ll use it.” When he noticed on my face the signs of disappointment at the conditions of my “headquarters”, he hurried to reassure me that he had agreed with an expert cleaner to start immediately to clean the room, and put it into order for me before the weekend. I noticed those webs full of heavy dust hanging from the low ceiling, where a large spider slid between their threads, and the sight of the metal furniture sent particles of ice into my breath. When we were climbing the narrow stairs lively feminine laughter reached us. The lawyer said furiously, “Janet doesn’t know how to work without a racket.”
Al- Adhami did not waste time in the secretarial office; he was content with introducing me to his accounts clerk in a mechanical way, deepening the furrows of the scowl on his face. He asked her to go up to his office after she finished checking the bundle of receipts lined up in front of her. He turned to Suzanne crossly, “Haven’t you finished typing that document yet?”She shook her head no without lifting her eyes from the typewriter, “Only one page left.” Enraged, he said, “This business loses hundreds of Pounds everyday because of your wasting half the working time by smoking. “But I don’t stop typing in the meantime,” Suzanne said. Then the lawyer plunged headlong into proving the error of his secretary’s viewpoint, mentioning in detail how much time lighting one cigarette took, how smoking affected the eyesight, and how it causes weakness in concentration.
It seemed to me that Sami Al-Adhami had prepared for that speech for a long time, because he quoted the views of some scientists and researchers on this subject, mentioning the sources from which he had gathered his evidence with himself several times; at times assuming the role of counsel for the defence, and at other times the role of public prosecutor. He was well versed in the details of the trial, to the degree that finding the accused guilty became inevitable. In spite of that, Al-Adhami’s overwhelming victory didn’t leave a great impression on Suzanne’s mood, with the exception of that light redness which crept into her face for a while, as her eyes continued to move between the notes and the typewriter, and her fingers continued to strike the keys delicately. She took a strip of chewing gum out of her handbag and began to chew it grudgingly. The lawyer’s aggressive tone suddenly changed and his conversation with Suzanne became warm and friendly. He pointed out to her that his anger was only due to his concern for her health, and that the rate of lung cancer victims had increased in recent years, not to mention other diseases like asthma and bronchitis that Sami still suffered from because of his excessive smoking when he was young. He suggested to her that she take the next Friday as a paid holiday, and asked her if she wanted to leave immediately, after she finished typing the document. To lighten the heavy atmosphere which his “defence” had caused, he told a joke which my father had told his friends centuries before. He must have repeated it many times as the latest joke he had heard from his compatriots, but it didn’t make an impression on the two women, despite his fascinating translation and slick delivery. Before we left the room I caught sight of a semi-sarcastic smile in Janet’s bulgy eyes. “you will certainly enjoy working with us,” she said to me, and the lawyer glared at her with a furious and distrustful look.
How right his accounts clerk was right! I still remember distinctly Al-Adhami’s suite situated on the top floor of the office. As soon as one had finished with the narrow ascent of twelve steps and pushed the door back he was confronted with a short corridor. To the left another door led to a gloomy room, where there stood a table in the middle with files lined up on it, and to the right the corridor was divided into two very small rooms opening onto each other. It was obvious that this floor was only a spare storeroom, and after buying the building the lawyer had converted it into a maze which he had moved all through; here was the refrigerator and the electric kettle, there sat Janet to do the accounting. In another location, near the dividing wall between Al-Adhami’s damp “empire” and the outside world, he had installed telex machine through which he kept in contact with his clients spread throughout the oil-rich countries. What encouraged them to heed his advice, and have confidence in him as an agent for their interests, was seeing his Doctorate which he had obtained from Oxford, his Arabic origin and his good reputation among businessmen.
In that place alone, I saw Sami Al-Adhami in harmony with himself, despite its narrowness, and despite the lack of the large window which allowed sufficient natural light to enter to illuminate it. In that cocoon, that lawyer assumed the spirit of Robinson Crusoe. From his insulated castle, he skilfully held the puppet strings, moving the money and merchandise from one continent to another via his office. Sami Al-Adhami knew what happened in the stock exchange and despite his manifold activities, he followed the rise and fall in the price of the English Pound every day, and what was the current price of a barrel of oil, and how much it was expected to be after one month. I asked him, one day, how he was able to pursue his many various jobs by himself. “it’s the ability to concentrate. When I sit down to do a particular job my mind is shut off from anything else except it.” From time to time, whenever he found me “negligent” in my work he would always repeat his favourite saying to me, “Science can overcome all obstacles except time, and if you don’t make use of it you will never be able to get it back.” Most of the time he accompanied that expression with a seething look, and repeated again the old English proverb: “Time is money.”
When I asked him one day if he felt a longing for his homeland, he turned to me shuddering, “What would have been my position in your country if I had returned after studying? A minister for a little while? Then what? Prison after a military coup or perhaps execution?” But the choice to remain abroad didn’t make him happy in his private life. Janet said that his wife had left him, preferring a truck driver to him, and she had stated in court that the cultural difference between her and her husband had made her life ”boring”. But he, with his legal expertise, was able to wrest his daughter Scheherazade from her mother, claiming that his wife’s betrayal and her decision to live with a violent man, tattoos covering his chest and arms, did not make her fit to care for their child.
I could regard the first month of my job as a period of training and harmonizing with the new environment. My first duty which Al-Adhami asked me to do every morning, was to go up to his room and hand him the file for exports, and collect the file of items ready for typing. He had been able to confirm that my job as an editor for the financial newspaper, as expected, would gradually come to include broader activities which had no relation to journalism. The lawyer said, when I asked him about his new venture, that what he proposed to publish was a monthly bulletin of eight pages aimed primarily at Western companies, since it would contain useful information for businessmen about economic projects which Arab countries intended to establish.
As part of the duties of my job, I had to read British and Arab newspapers, and booklets issued by banks, looking for “appetizing” articles for the clients! On his part, he would help me to compile these selected articles and convert them to material whose style related to his bulletin.
Al-Adhami maintained that all journalists stole from each other in the Western world. “the importance is the way of editing which covers up the tracks…” he told me about his inveterate experience in journalism when he was a student; he had worked as an editor for a newspaper representing a group of left-wing Iraqi students. However, the organisation had finished when it split at first into two factions, then into four. As for the newspaper, it was no longer possible to finance it. He said, shaking his head, “It was a period of folly.” In spite of that, the hidden motive behind the idea to publish the magazine of wide prestige and a great influence on people’s thoughts and feelings. But the dream of adolescence had materialised in the form of an advertising magazine of doubtful commercial success. “I will write an editorial every issue,” the lawyer said proudly, “And its ideas will certainly surprise you.”
Janet claimed that my working in the office had had an agreeable effect on Sami, since he no longer concocted legal cases with her or with Suzanne. The typist had nodded her head in affirmation, and her face clearly showed signs of relaxation. The lawyer must have taken great delight in his ability to praise himself constantly in front of me. By my being there with him he was able to discover how successful he was in his work, and by his speaking with me in the old Baghdadi dialect he recognised his vast achievements in the world of unfamiliar to him. He said to me one day, self-consciously, “Would you believe that all my dreams take place in Baghdad, mostly in our neighbourhood or in our old house.” Sometimes he saw his late mother in the dream, speaking with his father and brothers in English(she who didn’t know how to read one sentence in her mother tongue,) and then he would wake up panic-stricken.
If listening to Al-Adhami’s great glories was one of the enjoyable duties of my job, then coping with his argumentative nature was something else, requiring the greatest patience and power of endurance. The transformation in the boss’s attitude towards me only took place after some three months had passed. During those three moths I basked in a favour Al-Adhami had not conferred upon any employee before me, as if an alliance had formed between us against the other side: Janet and Suzanne. This alliance allowed him to release what feelings of bitterness he harboured toward their “negligence” at work. It seemed that battling with them did not give the desired returns, for no sooner had the working day ended than they both forgot what happened in the office, despite all the blood which had been spilt in his duels with them!
Sami attributed his bookkeeper’s shortcomings to heredity. The blood which flowed in her veins, so he believed, was a fountain of inconsistency: The Indian father left in her the spirit of patience, and the black mother awarded her the spirit of rebellion. As for the Caribbean islands where she came from, they endowed her with a boisterous cheerful disposition incompatible with any sedate office work. Still, there were strange bonds connecting Sami with Janet, making her presence in the office necessary for its internal equilibrium. On her part, Janet found herself obliged to stay with him for inexplicable “fatalistic” reason, as she had already left the job several times following stormy quarrels with the lawyer, but each time she came back to the office after a short time, with an undertaking from him or from her. “A few weeks, and I forget everything except his good nature and how much he needs me,” Janet said, “But it doesn’t take long before he goes back to his old ways.”
Perhaps the reason for their staying at work together for more than twenty years resembled the ordeals of their marriages, as both of them were divorced, and both of them had one daughter. Janet’s daughter had gone with her husband to live with him in the Caribbean, and Scheherazade had left her father’s house at the age of sixteen.
Unusually for him, Al-Adhami came down to my office one morning, and he must have smelt the smoke of the cigarette which I had hastily finished a few moments before. But he didn’t show any displeasure apart from a slight turning up of his mouth, and a soft groan. I tried hard during those moments to dispel the suspicion that he was annoyed at my behaviour. The lawyer said calmly, “I’m going to the post office… would you like to come with me?” His suggestion bewildered me, making him add reassuringly, “It’s only a chat…” to relieve the state of uneasiness which had suddenly come over me.
With each stride we took, the lawyer was collecting his thoughts and arranging them in sensational sequences, to express them with a torrential eloquence. He began his chat by declaring his satisfaction with my work, ad my assistance to him in the office had become indispensible. How greatly I reduced the weight of performing those minor tasks which were consuming precious hours from him every day: sticking the stamps on envelops, receiving telexes from his clients, photocopying documents… But despite the importance of this work, it was far from the position which he employed me for. Nevertheless he had not lost his confidence in my ability to learn from him, and to bear the burdens of the magazine in the near future. After pushing his letters into the post-box, he turned suddenly to me saying, “Don’t you think the wages you earn as an editor are too much for your present work?” It was inevitable that I felt embarrassed at that distinction between the actual nature of my work compared to the work I was appointed for, so I nodded my head in agreement. Al-Adhami had expected me to object to that question, and he had undoubtedly worked out convincing arguments that would allow him to enter into a heated debate with me that would end with his victory. But my silence deprived him of the pleasure of indulging in a game for which he had prepared for a long time, and he proceeded to exhale angrily. The downpour came to save the situation. We rushed to the office with swift steps; he under his large umbrella he always carried with him, and me at the mercy of the pouring rain.
Christmas approached that year with snow, as snowflakes began to fall over the city of London with an extraordinary persistence from the second week of December. There was no denying that I felt relieved at the arrival of Christmas, because a particular warm- heartedness towards relatives, friends and acquaintances came over people, taking expression with the exchange of greeting cards and presents wrapped in beautiful sparkling paper. It was as if that occasion gave them the opportunity of indulging in the enjoyment of extravagance without considering its consequences. As well as that, the Christmas atmosphere had forced Al-Adhami to observe an undeclared truce with me.
Since my consent to reduce my wages, the boss had plunged into a fierce battle against me, in which he used all the concepts of Aristotle’s logic, and the principles of legal defence with infinite stringency. At first he began with my “persuasion” by increasing the number of working hours as part of the “training” requirements, then he expanded my duties to an extent that they included inspecting whatever texts Suzanne had typed. I had to do any “useful” job during working hours, otherwise it prompted the lawyer to erupt in front of me with a flood of questions and comments directed to upset me, and sometimes to a counter- eruption which forced him to slick from my cellar. Afterwards he would send me the kind-hearted Janet to make peace, suggesting to me through her a slight increase in wages or a short holiday.
Sometimes, under the delusion of a sense of my importance in the office, I set about cutting out parts of articles for the magazine he intended to publish, then I undertook to make slight adjustments to them, with Janet’s help, for Suzanne to type them. But as soon as I placed them in front of the boss, he proceeded to wail over the time I had squandered in finishing the “wretched” text, and the electricity which had been consumed during the typing. Sometimes he would rush to prosecute me upon the two women without a job, and he would reiterated resentfully, “You must find them any job to do, you are my deputy here…”
The office was deserted on those days, the ground floor had become devoid of occupants; Suzanne had travelled on holiday to her family living in Birmingham, and Janet had flown to spend two weeks with her daughter’s family in the Caribbean. She said to me laughing, “I will be with the hot sun, when you will be spending your days with the boss.” She had whispered her last phrase pointing her finger to the ceiling. What increased my sense of isolation was that penetrating cold from the North Pole, which turned the electric heater in my cellar into a useless steel hull, and which forced me to wrap myself up in my coat and scarf all day long. Through the wide window of the secretaries’ office it was possible to see the grey oak tree where the white snowflakes covered their bare branches, and the street was covered with thick layer of brown white paste.
The boss must have felt double the loneliness. I heard from Janet, his daughter had decided with her husband to travel to Scotland with their two children to ski, as It was customary that the lawyer meets them only in Christmas and Easter.
How strange it seems to me now, the state of the office in those days. Amid an atmosphere filled with gaiety and friendliness outside the small building, on the inside we were living a battle of silence; the lawyer on the top floor looking for reasons to argue and squabble, and me in my cellar endeavouring to avoid a conflict with him, rummaging in my memory for my shortcomings and blunders which were (so I thought then) a reason for the conflict, trying hard to overcome them. Each of us was present in the consciousness of the other, he virtually came with me to my home, so I entered into arguments with him that had no beginning and no end, and he also must have been absorbed in the same game with his young sidekick!
It was as if my job with Al-Adhami had banished the feeling of emptiness from his soul, and given him the opportunity to awaken that efficacious side of his character, and I was preoccupied with it; that argumentative part which had died since the lawyer gave up his political activity. If my presence in the office had contributed to the blooming of Al-Adhami’s personality, the age difference and lack of experience had their negative effect on me, to the extent that the other man satisfied the need in himself to feel successful and superior, so he, to the same degree, had sown inside me a feeling of incompetence and complete failure. He had asked me once, derisively, if I had obtained any academic qualification.
Nevertheless the sense of insignificance had its advantage. I remember those times I had spent in the secretaries’ room, when the boss was away from the office, where there was pleasure in the warmth of the room and the daylight, and inhaling the smell of women’s perfumes, and joining in the chatter which Janet perpetually kindled. Due to that same feeling I invited Suzanne to my bedsitter, without any preambles. Her answer to my invitation must have been made under the influence of her astonishment at my boldness, which didn’t conform to my situation that aroused compassion within the office. Yes, I relished what motherly concern Janet afforded me, and I relished too the hours of warmth which I spent with Suzanne in my cold bed which forced us to melt together on the weekend nights. I enjoyed greatly her immodest chatter about her previous lovers, and about her adventures with them. Thanks to those two women, staying at Al-Adhami office became bearable, but thanks to them also, I lost any desire to leave that job for another alternative.
The doorbell rang and pulled me from my daydreams into my narrow cellar, where those metal pigeonholes perched in front of me with a letter stuck to each of them. The time must have been midday then, and when I opened the door, the young postman faced me with genuine smile. “We’re lucky this year…” he turned back, pointing to the slowly falling snow. “Christmas without snow isn’t real, is it?”he said, then he handed over a bundle of official letters, and a greeting card in purple envelope, Al-Adhami’s name written on it in beautiful handwriting.
When I went to see the boss to give him the letter the atmosphere of the room seemed eerie in its silence and sobriety, like a funeral parlour. The thick brown curtains were closed, and there was no light other than the table lamp which lit up the pages opened in front of it. Some sneaking rays reflected on the gold frames of two photographs placed on the bookcase behind it. One of them was of his fair-haired daughter, and the other of his two young grandchildren. The expressions of delight engraved on their faces were almost torn in pieces under the intense severity in the creases carved in their grandfather’s face at that time. In spite of that, a rare tranquillity had covered his face, making him completely different from the boss well known for his irritability and his swift anger.
Al- Adhami said softly, indulgently, “You can leave now if you like…” His gaudy tie caught my eye, and I guessed it was a present from Scheherazade for Christmas. I must have been filled with a sense of disbelief when the boss generously gave me a paid holiday of two weeks, starting from the following day. He asked me, for the first time, about news of my family: if any of my brothers had been injured in the war.
Under the weight of a profuse sense of happiness and gratitude, I asked him if he needed any help before I left the office. After a little hesitation, and merely wanting to encourage me, the lawyer handed me a typed document of five pages, and asked me to make ten photocopies of it. Instead of keeping an eye on me from nearby, he left me this time, and I went down by myself to the secretaries’ office, where the photocopier was set up in one of the corners.
Was it an unfortunate coincidence that made the machine be out of copy-paper at that time? I ought to have asked Al-Adhami about the whereabouts of the box of suitable paper for this purpose, but instead of that, I pulled out a ream of the paper piled on one of the tables, and placed it in its special drawer to prove the error of the lawyer’s misgivings about my practical capabilities!
Only seconds passed before one of the small warning lights began to flash red, then the flow of papers stopped completely. The machine was transformed into a lifeless body in front of me. I pushed all the buttons, imploring impatiently, but to no avail… in that moment I could see the boss in my mind’s eye, standing behind me, wailing, bemoaning the heavy losses I had inflicted on the office. And in that moment also my bitter memories of him burst forth, gushing like torrents of lava, then blazed with their movement on the surface. He remained still for a long time. I reeled blindly about the room, chasing phantoms and devils, dispersing my fury and my fire over the papers and chairs and tables…When Al-Adhami came down he saw a wonder the likeness of which he could never dare to dream of. The lawyer had prepared himself to leave the building, he wore his fur coat, and covered his head with a woollen hat, and wrapped his neck in a thick scarf. But as soon as he poked his head into the secretaries’ office to say goodbye to me, an astonishing world confronted him; it made his breaths roar with strange noises. In the middle of that wreckage stood a spectre from another planet, carrying in his hand a giant pickaxe, and muttering an unintelligible incantation.
In the middle of the frost which encompassed us, I could see the first time, Al-Adhami silent like the Sphinx, beleaguered between thick layers of isolation, and between the hooks of chaos that he had spent the best years of his life controlling.
The time must have passed seven o’clock, and the festive lights must have been glittering in the city streets. Perhaps Scheherazade was thinking, at the same time, of her eccentric father coming from a world of Sheheryar and fairytales.
Translated by Peter Daniel
(1) Iraqi-Iranian war (1980-1988)
(2) Scheherzad’s husband in Arabin Nights
 Iraqi- Iranian War (1980-88)
 Scheherazade’s husband in Arabian Nights