Mad Woman

Cover Banipal No. 1

"Look Henry, that's the university of Vienna, and over there on the other side, that's the Votive Church … No, no, Henry." (an interesting female laugh) "Not there … I love you too … No, no, please." (A moment of silence). "Sit down in your place and keep still" (in a threatening voice). "Come here my darling, come and let me hug you, don't cry. (tenderly, then obscure mutterings as though someone is whispering something).

I am sitting in my seat on the Parliament tram, heading for my flat in the seventh district. A young English man sits in front of me. I've heard his chat with his girl-friend. He said goodbye to her before she got off at an earlier stop. A stop later a group of tourists got on speaking an English that is strange to my ear and unclear. This woman is sitting behind me and I can't work out who she is talking to; her husband, her dog, or her son perhaps? I don't want to look round, or my turning will seem like the only unnatural thing that is happening.

It is very hot. Everyone is stripping off their clothes. The sight of women in the heat only raises the temperature, and then there's the sight of men in shorts, some of them quite normal and others provoking only laughter. Here's a really fat man; a thin pair of legs and a big belly, and he's wearing a little pair of shorts. His face is really red. He's panting from the heat. I fear for his thin legs with the burden of this strange barrel. I smile to myself and look for others to amuse myself with. One pair of shorts … two … three … four … fourteen …

"How would you like, Henry, to get off and have a tea at this cafe? It's just so hot. You like beer don't you? Or maybe you will have some cold milk, or a mineral water … I love you Henry." (unintelligible mutterings).

At this point an English woman sits down beside me. Her husband sits in front of her, sideways, and they chat in this strange English. I don't even attempt to coerce my brain into deciphering their code. I want to look behind me. I use every trick in the book, to get a look at what is going on behind me; by following the ads as they pass, following a woman, following pairs of shorts, but in the end, my face always collides with the steaming hot window pane. I try from the right. My gaze collides with that of the old woman sitting next to me. I move my head automatically once more to the left. And the conversation of the woman behind me continues . I understand some of what is said, and then I lose the thread. Her words jump from one topic to another, and I don't understand … Seventeen … Eighteen … Nineteen …

I am just on my way back from the consulate. They won't agree to renew my passport. It is to expire soon, and I must have a new one issued.
"It will take some time to renew."
"How long?"
"Quite some time."
"I know. A year, for example? Two?"
"About six months. Burhan Seif-ed-din's passport is still back at home. The government has changed now, so the whole process has to start all over again."

These cursed English and these Americans visit the world and enjoy the sight of its museums and churches and fair grounds. They're the cause of these problems with my passport; this woman sitting beside me and her husband, and this guy in front of me, and the woman behind, toying with her husband or dog or child or whatever it is - all of them. Their ancestors sacrificed our countries in the past and they are still at it. They live in luxury and through travelling, and now here am I, submerged in this wretched travelling to and from the consulate, and the issuing of papers and certificates that are utterly meaningless.

"There it is, the Burgtheater, one of Vienna's most famous theatres. Do you see it Henry? I'll describe it to you, it is … " (And I don't understand.)

It seems that whoever it is with her is blind. My curiosity is temporarily satisfied by this discovery, but my appetite still longs to see behind me. The old woman sitting beside me winks to indicate that I should disregard what I am hearing. By this she means that the woman is mad. I excuse myself to get off, anticipating the tram's halt by a whole stop so that I may quietly turn my head and see this talkative creature. I am standing up now. I look at her. How extraordinary! The woman is sitting alone. She seems from her appearance to be a tourist. About forty-five or fifty. She is still chatting to herself. There is nobody with her. No husband, no dog, and no son. So the woman really is mad after all. She talks to herself continuously, and she will go on talking to herself all her life. This is my forefathers' damnation upon you, all of you! A vague feeling that I have had my revenge hits me. I am eased by this and smile to myself … twenty three … twenty four … twenty - … no, those aren't shorts, they reach below the knee … twenty four then.

I get off the tram and board the number 49 for the seventh district. I become immersed in my thoughts, and the renewing of my passport. My residence permit expires next month, and my passport takes six months to renew. How can I possibly stay in Vienna for five months without a visa? Should I go back to my country just to renew my passport? If so what is the use of all these embassies and consulates anyway? God damn you! May all your homes go to ruin! The embassy, the consulate, and in England and America and Austria! May you all be doused in tar, you dogs, you pigs, you sons of pigs! You are all behind this destruction and the …

"Excuse me, but if you must swear in this way I'll mind you not to lay into the lives of the people here! And in that loud voice! Go back to your own country and swear as much as you like there! Why did you come here if it was only to spew these uncivilized, ugly words all over us?"

Utterly dismayed. I don't reply, quite unlike my usual self when someone provokes me. My voice's echo reverberates still around the tram. Everyone is looking at me. Some shake their heads disapprovingly, and others look on threateningly, or rave indignantly in vulgar and varied accents.

I get off at the next stop, two stops before my own, and walk the rest of the way home.

Published in Banipal, No. 1, Magazine of modern Arab literature, London 1998.