Isolation's Cooing

The start of summer

Isolation; I imposed it on myself intentionally. My fortunate material circumstances allowed me to live in this peaceful district, far from the centre of town, in a spacious apartment on the top floor of a modern building. From up high I bear witness to the beauty of the city, and enjoy the peace of my solitude. When evening comes, and the city dresses in its evening clothes and peace sinks into humble repose, my link with the world is severed at last. I put out the lights and unite with the awe of nightfall in a mournful lover's prayer.

In the morning I stand behind the sound-proofing window of the living room and watch the stillness of those staying and the motion of those moving off. I commune with nature in my own way. I read it from behind the window pane, and do not allow my ears to eavesdrop, so as not to spoil the invented conversations taking place in my imagination, where I set it up in whatever way I please with who and what I see.

The weather has turned. The heat becomes intense at times, and I have no choice but to open the window from time to time to change the hot air for a refreshing breeze. But the world appears differently to me. Its presence is an imposition on my isolation, and my sense of hearing overwhelms all the other senses, forcing me to listen in whether I like it or not. And so I hear a babbling, a rustling and a barking, and a clamour of vehicles that I do not see. And so it goes on every day, and so the noises go on, and so the purity of my isolation is corrupted. When I close my window, I clean the living room thoroughly of the dust from outside, returning the wooden floor of the room to its impressive former gleam. Using oil, I spend a great deal of time shining the floor. Though it has not been so terribly affected by the window having been open I am, nevertheless, always mastered by the feeling that something has changed and that it must return to how it was.

One day, I opened the window to air and, as usual, was forced to listen in. But something was different. A new sound stood out from among the collection of sounds that I heard. It was a bright cooing. I put my head out of the window, and found her, close to the window, walking up and down on the broad ledge, moving her neck back and forth in a regular swaying movement of meditation in which the delicate colours of fantasy rippled down her neck. I stood looking at her, trying not to move suddenly so that she should not fly away. She stayed, looking at me, and I at her, for some time, the gap fixed between us, astonishment on my part and fear on hers. I went back in to get something for her to eat, and when I returned she was not there.

She appeared the following day at the same time, and stood in the same place. I had made ready some seed for her, hoping for her return. I put it out for her on the window ledge. She thought at length, approached slowly, and then she ate. And so she began to come every day at the same time, and gradually she overcame the limits of her imagined fear. I got used to her and became fond of her. I began to wait for her.


Whenever she came I would leave the window open and move back a little to allow her to come in. She remained hesitant for days, but what with the bothering of the wind and the seed's blowing off the window-sill in gusts, at last she entered, fearful of me and ready to escape at any moment. In time she became used to coming straight into the living room and would eat quickly from the food I had kept for her, watching me all the while, after which she would retreat quickly to the window. And so it went on, so that she got into the habit of staying longer with me and I would set aside a weekly sum for her feed.

She managed, forcibly, to change my habit of closing off completely from the outside world. She managed, forcibly, to get me back into using my sense of hearing, to a new end. She changed my world, and made me love to listen to the sound of cooing.

It made me happy to have a friend who visited me every day, to check up on how I was; and I was upset by the freedom she possessed to escape into the wide emptiness whenever she wished, without so much as a bye your leave. Friendship became reliance, and reliance, in turn, the desire to possess. I planned for a way to keep her with me in the spacious apartment so that she should not escape every day into the emptiness.

When she came the next day the plan was ready. First she had to be persuaded to come in and then not allowed to leave. She arrived, and came in. I shut the window. She was panic-stricken, and went flying around the room in crazy circles, crashing several times against the closed window pane. Then she dropped down to the floor in the farthest corner of the room from me. I offered her some seed and water, but she neither ate nor drank.

My happiness was at its peak that night as I returned to my gazing from on high upon the sleeping city in its dark clothes, studded with sparkling gems. I had shut my window once more, and my friend was with me.

She was afraid, and flew to the furthest corner of the room every time I approached. I left her in the room and shut the door.

I woke unusually early the following morning, and went to say good morning to my friend. I was shocked at what I saw. The clean room that I polished every day had, in a few hours, become like a chicken coop. Seed was scattered all over the place, and water spilt on the floor. There were spots of bird dropping here and there, traces of feather and down in various places, and a strange smell exuded from the whole place. I exploded in a rage against her and tried to grab hold of her. She flew madly around the room, some of her feathers falling out, and the ornamental fish bowl fell and smashed. My fury only increased. I opened the window and threatened her with a newspaper that was in my hand, cursing her in the most derogatory terms.

She flew off, and wheeled around in the emptiness in a wide circle before descending into the trees in the distance. I pursued her with my curses until she disappeared. Then I went back into the room, and collected the glass of the broken bowl and gathered up the fish that had died, putting them in the bin. I got out the polishing stuff and proceeded to polish up the room all over again.

By afternoon my outburst was calmed. I opened the window to see if perhaps she had come. There was no trace of her. My eyes searched around me from the ground up into the air. I did not see a single bird. I left the window open, all day. All the next day. All week. And she did not come back to me. I repented of my anger and wished that she would come back once more. I would allow her to stay and do whatever she pleased. All it would mean would be my having to clean up the room more often, and there was nothing wrong with that. I would even let her stay on the window ledge if she wanted to. The long, melancholy months passed and my hopes for her went cold like the coming days of winter.


I opened the window this cold morning intending to clean the outside of the window panes, and heard the sound I had been waiting for for months, eclipsing all other sounds. She has come back to me once more. She was poised on the very ledge where I had first seen her. I felt every conceivable happiness, that she had forgiven me and come back once more. I rushed inside to look for food for her, and came back to find her gone. I was at a complete loss; had what I'd see been real, or my fantasy? I was wretched for the rest of the day.

The next day she returned and stood in the same place. I stood watching her at length, to make sure for myself that I was really seeing her and not just imagining things. Then, quickly, I went to get her some seed. She had not moved from her place when I returned. I put out some of the seed for her in a trail that led into the room, so that she might come in once more if she wanted to. But she ate up a quarter of the trail I had made for her and stopped dead in her tracks at the edge of that same imagined fear she had had in the past. This time I sought her forgiveness, for I was the one who had begun the betrayal. I did not want to force her to come in, I contented myself to watch her from afar. And so it went on day after day. She would come and then fly away, to come back again and fly away, the gulf of fear remaining ever fixed.

The new year began, and snow began to fall heavily. She would come to me promptly and stand in her place. I would present her with the seed, she'd eat and then fly off into the emptiness. I left my window open for days in the vain hope that she might come in of her own accord. She refused, and I came down with a cold and a cough.

One day I was obliged to be out of the city for a whole day and I returned very late. It had become very cold that day. Ice covered the streets and the snow fell relentlessly. I opened the door to my apartment and took off my coat, gloves, long heavy boots and the rest of my heavy clothes, and sat near the heater waiting for the frozen blood to run to the ends of my fingers.

"Ohh! My dear friend, my friend, I forgot about her today!" I said out loud to myself, and jumped up from my place, rushing to see her, to open up for her and save her from the torments outside. She was just behind the window, covered in snow. I opened the window quickly, knocked the snow from her and took her inside. She was stiff, as though I had pulled her out of the freezer. I put her on a small pillow next to the heater in the hope that life would not escape her. For a long time I waited, and she did not stir. A large, warm tear moved instead, and loosed itself from my eye. It fell onto the back of my thumb and I felt it as if it were a stone falling upon my head.

I got up for a while, to look out of the window into the void. I saw nothing. The snow was tumbling down relentlessly. I put on my heavy clothes once more and went out of the apartment, not knowing where I was going or what to do with her.

I was roused by the sound of the door shutting as I locked it behind me with my key. It was louder this time than usual.

Translated by Rebecca Porteous from Al-Gamal La Yaqif Khalfa Ishara Hamra
(A Camel Does Not Stop In Red). Short stories, Al-Hadara Publishing House, Cairo 1993.