As If I Were Me by Omar Khalifah

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Omar Khalifah is a Palestinian-Jordanian writer and academic. A Fulbright scholar, he received his MA and PhD from Columbia University and is now associate professor of Arabic literature and culture at Georgetown School of Foreign Service in Qatar. Khalifah’s interests also include Palestine studies, memory, literature, cinema, and nationalism in the Arab world. In addition to articles in Middle East Critique and Journal of World Literature, he is the author of Nasser in the Egyptian Imaginary (Edinburgh University Press, 2017), an Arabic short story collection entitled Ka’annani Ana (As If I Were Me) and a novel, Qabid al-Raml (Sand Catcher).

Omar Khalifah’s short story “As If I Were Me” is translated by Addie Leak for this issue.

 

As If I Were Me

I was standing on the sidewalk when a car started slowing down in front of me. I saw the driver look at me quizzically, and as he kept staring, it was obvious he was going to speak to me. I recognized him right off and realized he was trying to place me, to remember me, but I didn’t want to be the one who started the conversation. The street wasn’t busy, which meant the driver could slow down as much as he wanted. When he reached the point of having to either move on or speak, he stuck his head out of the car window and asked me about the nearby mosque he was looking for. I answered, knowing he was going to ask another question. Or did I really know that? I have no idea. It might just have been wishful thinking. I tried to predict the question. A few options came to mind:

“You’re X?”

“Aren’t you X?”

“Do you know X?”

“You look like X!”

Before I finished predicting, his question spilled out:

“Aren’t you X’s brother?”

I hesitated for a moment. The weird thing was he remembered our family name, too. I wanted to know if he really thought it was me, or if he thought I was my brother. I was afraid he’d start investigating the twenty-year gap in which he hadn’t seen me, and I really wasn’t in the mood. Still, I didn’t answer with a lie. Honestly, it was nice proof that this place and its people were still capable of noticing me. I looked him in the eyes again, then answered:

“I’m X.” (Really? I was wondering myself.)

I wanted him to know I recognized him, too, so I called him by name and asked him to get out of the car for a bit so we could talk.

It was my first visit back to my city in twenty years. Having once decided not to return until I’d accomplished a lot in life, being back felt as unlikely as rain in summer. I’d lived in New York and Europe, and the money I earned allowed me to invite my family to visit wherever I was, in each phase of my life. I taught in a bunch of universities and published a number of books, and I lived my life deep and wide, as they say: I got married, got divorced, had two kids, and loved every woman whose sadness seemed deeper than mine.

My visit came as a surprise not just to my family but also to myself. The thing was, I needed some pictures from my childhood because of the book I was writing. I didn’t have anything at my place. I asked my family to send a few pictures by mail, then hung up and started thinking: Why not travel to my country and bring the pictures back myself? At first, I wasn’t sure, but then I began to justify reconciling with my country. I’d go and bring back my childhood. It seemed like a chance to end the period of absence that had stretched on for so long, not because I’d achieved what I set out to achieve but because I was no longer sure I wanted to achieve anything at all. I decided not to tell anyone I was coming. I bought a plane ticket, went to the airport the next day, and arrived eight hours later.

At the airport, I thought about calling my younger brother so he could come with his car, but I didn’t have his number. So I picked up my small bag, stopped a taxi, and asked the driver to head for my city. On the way, I looked out the window to see what had changed in the world I used to live in, and when the driver asked me for the exact address, I impressed myself by giving directions with the precision of someone who’d never left. When we arrived, I circled the house twice before going inside, as if I were offering myself to it anew. When I was little, my father told me that I was born in another house, but my memory had only kept this one, even though it didn’t seem to remember me.

I don’t really remember the details of my reunion with my family (or maybe I don’t want to remember). What I remember, to my surprise, is that I soon found myself facing a mirror. I stood in front of it and looked at my features, as if searching for something I’d lost, something I’d left behind me when I left that house. Mirrors hadn’t meant much to me as I moved between the waystations I lived in abroad: I was like someone reborn with each trip, with no cradle or bed, changing from one city to another. But at that moment, before the mirror I had trusted so long ago in my home, I felt the desire to sketch out who I was when I lived there then.

My father told me he’d been on the verge of mailing the pictures I’d asked for, and when I asked him to show them to me, he said my mother had put them in my drawer. My father asked me if the place had changed for me. I wanted to ask him, “What about me, Baba, am I different here now than I was then?” Instead, I nodded. After a week in the city, it felt like a faithful lover who’d stayed in place for centuries, waiting for the beloved who had abandoned her. Since I’d arrived, I’d been able to drive the car by myself, and I roamed through streets I’d left twenty years back, which was beginning to feel like a few short weeks.

I asked my father not to spread it around that I’d come back because I was thinking of returning to London soon to get some work done, but that was impossible. Relatives knew first, then the circle expanded to include neighbors and friends. Along with the happiness I felt seeing people every day, I felt something mysterious when I listened to my name on their tongues, pronounced correctly a hundred times over. I listened to my father on the phone say, “He’s home,” and when a guest came, he would ask about me before he’d even made it all the way through the door: “Where’s X?” I became the talk of the town, which stoked my pride, but I was overwhelmed by something else. Had I been longing to hear my name? Maybe I had, especially because it starts with ‘ain, a hard letter for non-Arabs to pronounce.

Even the small children in the family I’d never once seen in my life came to witness this return. “Where’s Uncle X?” they said when they entered the house, then danced in circles around me, ecstatic without knowing why because they didn’t know me. They asked me for presents and whether I had children their age, but I only wanted them to say my name. I was like someone discovering, after years, that he wasn’t sure of his own name, that his name really belonged to him. America and Europe didn’t pronounce my name right, and my children, even then, didn’t understand why their father’s name was so complicated. The woman whose love had tortured me told me, when I asked her to train her tongue to say my name right in my language and not hers, that my name started with a letter that was a plague on her vocal cords. I told her she couldn’t love a man whose name she couldn’t pronounce, and she answered that she would erase that name and call me by a new one. Now I think my name had a role in ending our relationship. I tried, because I wanted so badly to come to terms with it, to stay myself and not lose my name.

I decided, a week after my return, to extend my trip and delay going back. I had a sudden strong desire to see the places that had first shaped me: my school, the streets I used to play in, the mosques, the restaurants and vegetable shops, even the chicken shops where the birds are slaughtered in front of you when the butcher hangs them up after bending the neck, running the knife against it, looking you in the eye, and saying, like he wants to be sure you heard it, “In the name of God, God is the greatest.”

Nothing had changed.

The people who knew me were surprised to see me appear before them without a warning. Some of them thought I was my brother, or even my nephew, and others started in with a stream of questions.

“So did you have kids?”

“We’re always asking about you. We heard you got divorced. Why?”

“You look so different. Do you still pray?”

The weirdest comment I got was the one where they said I’d changed, as though I wasn’t supposed to change. I told them that they, too, had changed, but they didn’t believe me. I was perplexed, and I saw the images of my old life in every question I was asked, as each set of friends knew something about me others might not know.

After three weeks, I remembered I hadn’t checked back in on the childhood pictures I’d come for. I stood in front of the drawer, but I hesitated a little in opening it. I remembered that, two years before, I had asked one of my painter friends to paint me as a child. I don’t really remember what prompted the strange request, but I was eager to see what would come of it. The painter surprised me by saying:
“Do you want me to draw you as you were, or as I think you were?”

“What’s the difference?” I wondered.

“I know you well, and I can imagine you as a child based on that knowledge. In that case, I honestly don’t even need to look at you. I’ll paint my imagination.”

I loved the painting, even though I was convinced it was far from the reality. Reality? I opened the drawer to find out what was real, and I was flooded by contradictory feelings as I turned over a picture that didn’t look like me. I felt lucky to have pictures from different phases of my life, and I began to try to pick out the moment when my facial features became fixed as they are now. How did people hold onto their memories before photography was invented? I was looking at myself in all the forms I’d ever had. My birthdays. Soccer. Trips. Food. My mom. My dad. Before. After. Ugly me. Handsome me. The one I was. The one I will be. The only thing the photos hadn’t kept was the me I would never be. I picked out a few pictures I saw that represented important phases of my life. When I was sure I’d seen nearly everything, my eyes fell on a picture in which I was standing at a table facing a little girl, both of us slightly stretching one hand in front of us, our mouths half open. I studied it, but it only took a few seconds for me to remember her. It was that daycare I went to when I was six, and the picture was taken, as I remembered, on a free day at the end of the year, when they’d asked us to sing something. I looked really skinny in the photo, so skinny that I guessed the love of food wasn’t something I was born with but something that came later in life. What was I singing? Of course I didn’t remember, but as I was just about to put the photo aside, I looked at the girl again.

I couldn’t make out her features well because we were standing face to face in the photo, which had been taken from a distance. I didn’t remember her name, but I remembered what she was to me. It was the first time in my life I felt something like love for a girl. The photos brought it all flooding back: I remembered I told my mom about her, that in daycare there was a pretty girl I liked to talk to. I saw another photo. How could I not remember the name of the first girl in my life? Frustrated, I turned to my mom, trying to remember her. The weird thing was that she remembered her and remembered that I talked a lot about her at home.

“Do you remember her name?” I asked, eagerly.

“Really?” My mom was indignant. She stared at me, then continued: “We could have forgotten your name, you were gone so long. And you want me to remember the name of the girl my son knew forty years ago?”

That made sense, of course, but I still felt very sad. I just wanted to finish filling in the features of this person who’d shared the first part of my life. What letter did her name start with? What color were her eyes? Her skin? I studied the photo. Everything was fuzzy, like my memory. The irony was that in the picture, I was staring at her face the way someone might stare into their beloved’s eyes. Was I in love? Was it my first love? What is first love? The first time you lose the one you love, win the one you love, cry over the one you love, or laugh with the one you love? I wanted to scream into the photo: “What is your name?” Then it occurred to me: since we all had one father, one mother, and one name, couldn’t we also have one love? Maybe I’d failed in my relationships because I was looking for this photograph that had gotten stuck in my head once and colored my view of every woman I met. Maybe. I pushed the photo away from me and decided to stop thinking about it immediately. I was never going to search for that girl/woman. Search for what? I thought. Maybe I needed to keep searching for myself first.

My mother noticed I was a little sad when I told her I wanted to be alone that day. “Don’t tell me that picture’s the reason,” she said, with her usual clear-sightedness. I told her I’d been surrounded by too many people over the past few weeks and went out by myself to take a drive through the city streets. It was nighttime, and I didn’t have any particular goal in mind other than spending some time away from the routine family visits. I looked for some nice music on the radio, closed the windows of the car, and started driving.

Half an hour later, I found myself in a neighborhood I didn’t know well, surprised to be there. I looked around. There was no one in the street. I turned right at random, but I realized that I was a long way from the heart of the city. I parked the car and got out. I walked to the beginning of the street to check its name. It wasn’t written. I wondered, should I keep going or wait for someone who could guide me out of there? The scene I found myself in just meant one thing: I was lost in my own city. Suddenly I started laughing. Out loud. I was lost. Who gets lost in their own city? Maybe my city was taking its revenge on me. Showing me how much I surprised it. Lost in my own city. I wished the girl from the picture would come out and guide me. I would tell her not to be afraid of me. I would tell her that I was me, the one from daycare, and that in spite of the women I’d known, I’d never stopped missing her name. I went back to the car and resumed driving until I found a little convenience store on the side of the road.

I got home at 11 p.m., and the house was still full of guests. I didn’t want to greet any of them, so I went in through the back door and into an empty room until my parents came.

“Where were you?” My mom asked me.

“I got lost,” I answered.

My father heard and looked at me in surprise, “Well, at least it’s better than when you got lost as a child.”

I paused. Looked at my mom. “I got lost as a child?”

The guests left a few minutes after midnight, and afterward I asked for the keys to the second car. My dad asked where I was going. I didn’t answer. “I won’t be too late,” I said. I went to the street my mom had told me about. I’d been six years old, she said, and I was walking with her when I asked her to let go of my hand because I knew the way to my aunt’s house by myself. I arrived at the street. It was dark. I stopped in the middle of it. Had I gotten lost before that picture with the girl, or after? My mom couldn’t remember. Maybe it was the same year. First love and first time getting lost. Beautiful. Bright future. I stared, and I thought I remembered the scene: I was crying, and an old man came and asked me who I was.

“What’s wrong, little man?” I remember him saying.

I looked around at the street. So I got lost early on in life. I looked around again. Suddenly I saw a boy standing alone on the other side of the street. I went up to him. He was crying. I asked him why he was crying. He said that he was lost. I told him that he was me. He said no. I said: I got lost when I was little, too. He said: Only when you were little? I said: And I’m lost now. He said: Why not be lost together, then? I said: Because I’m trying to find the name of the girl I loved. He said: I loved her, too. I said: What’s her name? He said: I’ll tell you when I stop being lost. I said: Then why don’t we look for the way together? He said: Because I don’t want to remember. I said: Lost forever, then? He said: Lost forever.

I woke up the next day determined to leave the city right away and get back to London. I picked two photos from the ones I came for and put them in my bag. I went over to my mom.

“Are there other photos?”

She said there were photos in the bag my father kept all the official documents in. I told her I was looking for the oldest photo of me there was. I asked her if anyone had taken a picture of me at the moment I was born. She stared at me. Asked me what exactly I wanted. I responded that I didn’t know. I told her that I wanted physical evidence of my first appearance in the theater of life. I told her that I wasn’t sure if these photos were really photos. She asked if I was okay. I said I didn’t know. My mom went to her room and got some photos out of the bag and then, after sorting through them for a while, gave me one:

“I think this is the oldest one of you.”

I asked my mom not to let anyone into the room I was sleeping in that day. I took all my photos, taped them together, then hung them in chronological order in front of me on the walls. They stretched all the way to my bed. I heard my mom on the phone talking about me. I guessed she was probably talking to my aunt, her sister. I heard her say he’s changed, and she started giving examples. I looked again at the photos hanging in front of me, then left the house.

I went to the store my father worked in. After I had been sitting there for a few minutes, a man came in. I recognized him. “Aren’t you X?” he asked. Yes, I am, I answered. Someone else came in. “Heeeeey, aren’t you X?” Yes, I am, I answered. An old lady came in. “Oh! Aren’t you X?” Yes, I am, I answered. A pretty girl came in. “Aren’t you X?” A little boy came in. “Aren’t you X?” Yes. My uncle came in. “Aren’t you X?” My grandfather who died twenty-five years ago came in. “Aren’t you X?” My children came in. “Aren’t you X?” My dad came in. My mom came in. “Aren’t you . . . ?” I looked out the window. The little girl I’d loved in daycare was standing outside. I recognized her. The weird thing was that she was still a little girl. I told her to come in and ask me if I were me, but she refused. All my teachers came in. “Aren’t you X?” My friends came in. “Aren’t you X?” A dog came in. “Aren’t you X?” A mouse came in. “Aren’t you X?” Then I came in:

“Aren’t you X?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” I said to myself. “I’m not sure. It’s as if I were me.”

 

 

Acknowledgement: “As If I Were Me” by Omar Khalifah, translated by Addie Leak, was first published in Exchanges 30th Anniversary Issue, ed. William Blair, Allana Noyes, and Rebecca Hanssens-Reed (The Song Bridge Project, 2020)

 

Interview with translator Addie Leak

Shuddhashar: When did you know you wanted to be a writer/translator? How did you come to this realization?

Addie Leak: I grew up in a small, sports-obsessed Mississippi town where very few people traveled outside the US, but I was lucky enough to have parents who gave me books that brought the world to me. Reading encouraged me to both travel and write, and in college, my French poetry professor suggested I consider translation. It seemed like the ideal way to combine all of my loves–travel, writing, reading, and languages. And of course, back then, I was also convinced that everyone else would see it as I did–an essential service–and that it would be easy to make a living doing it, but that’s another story…

Shuddhashar: What impact do you think contemporary political reality has or should have on short fiction?

Addie Leak: Contemporary political reality has an impact on everything–I don’t think it’s possible to keep it from permeating our short fiction. And then, contemporary reality in general has shortened our attention spans, so I think that short stories now have the ability to spread messages farther than novels, which can make them valuable tools. I mean, think of something like Kristen Roupenian’s story “Cat Person” in The New Yorker, which went viral in 2017. I was living in Jordan and spending very little time on social media–I didn’t have Twitter at all–and it still made its way to me. It was short enough that I think a lot of the people talking about it had actually read it–obviously a plus when it comes to a piece of art’s ability to spark social or political change!

Shuddhashar: If you were to recommend one writer or collection of short stories to a reader, who/which one would it be? Why? OR Tell us about a single short story that moved you to tears!

Addie Leak: One of my favorite reads in the past couple years was the Syrian author Shahla Ujayli’s A Bed for the King’s Daughter (2021, University of Texas Press), translated by my mentor, Sawad Hussain. It’s a slim collection of experimental short fiction that won the AlMultaqa prize in the original Arabic, and Sawad’s brilliant translation was later shortlisted for the 2021 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Translation. It’s surreal, it’s feminist, and it’s definitely influenced by contemporary political realities, both global and local. There’s also an interesting interview on ArabLit.org with Sawad and Shahla where Sawad talks about how hard it was to find a publisher willing to take on a short story collection.

Shuddhashar: What, to you, are the key elements of a great short story?

Addie Leak: The most important part, for me, is sticking the landing, ending the story in a way that may be relatively unexpected but feels deeply satisfying, as though it’s really the only way things could’ve gone. I just spent some time with my family in the Southern US, where I picked up an old volume of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories; after reading one per day for a week, I found I could immediately guess which dark, disturbing twist each story was going to take. She’s one of the greats, I know that, but I think my favorite short stories these days are the ones that have quieter or implied endings rather than that “twist.”

Shuddhashar: What is one thing that the art and practice of writing/translation has taught you?

Addie Leak: Having to focus on every last detail of a text I’m translating has made me a much better reader–of both the text and the author’s intentions, as I try to get inside their head to convey their voice–but it’s also taught me to be a much better writer. I remember that, in undergrad, my creative writing professors would have us “borrow” the styles of famous authors as an exercise in inspiration. It added new tools to our toolboxes as writers and helped us find our own styles. Translation is like an extension of those exercises. I learn something about writing from every author I translate.

Shuddhashar: What are you working on right now? Tell us a little bit about your current project!

Addie Leak: At the moment, I’m looking for a publisher for the literary memoir In Anne Frank’s House, by the exiled Syrian/Kurdish author Maha Hassan. The memoir is about her year as writer-in-residence at Anne Frank’s family home in Amsterdam and the unlikely friendship that develops between her and Anne Frank’s spirit, who inhabits the house and stays with her in the years that follow the residency. It takes on questions of war, exile, marginalized identities, and Jewish/Arab relations, this last point a sensitive one that initially resulted in less press for the book. I interviewed Maha in October 2021 to try to fill in that gap and raise some awareness about the text. It’s just this inventive and incredibly compassionate memoir that I found really touching. It’s been translated into Dutch and Sorani Kurdish so far: I’m really hoping to add English to that list.

 

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