The cement tone of the walls made the place even gloomier. After we moved in I started seeing the walls as heat magnets, like the sand outside that the sun had burnt black. Laying the keys in my hand, my father observed that no doubt my brother and I would paint the walls soon. My brother — who was fearless about speaking his mind in front of our father even though he was younger than me — said that whoever built this place spent all their money on creating outsized rooms. Behind his jocular words he was finding fault with my father’s insistence on keeping us there, letting us know how lucky we were to have these two enormous useless rooms. It was as though he intended to make us understand that he was giving us a shop and a place to live not just so that we could make a living now, but for our entire lives.
Only now, twenty years after we came to live here, it dawns on me that there’s no cemetery here. Still lying in bed, I reason that if I didn’t see this before, if it never crossed my mind, it must be because we take places as they are; accepting them, we engross ourselves in what we find. I started picturing myself as I have been here, moving amongst places but hardly covering any distance since they are so close together, getting out of my car only to climb back in and, the moment I’m behind the wheel, feel it sinking under my weight. And then I sense how cramped and constrained my actions have made me. It’s as though there is nothing more to life than this constant shuttling from place to place, none of them more distant than three minutes’ drive. Even so, I find myself heading for the car every time, preferring the ease of it to the fatigue of walking. But this is what everyone in Zahraniyya does. ‘No one walks here’, I was told once by someone who arrived in this neighbourhood before I did.
That our living space and our workplace were so close by, separated only by a few stairs, helped lighten the burden of insomnia. I could climb out of bed, put on my outdoors clothes, which I’d hung on the window knob or draped over the high-backed chair in my room, and run down to our shop to open it. At night passing cars were rare, but I could keep myself alert and engaged thanks to the strong light flooding from our façade window onto the street. I could entertain myself watching a man climb out of his car merely to ask me what we were selling. Like me, he was eager for distraction. ‘Had he come a long way?’ I would ask, appearing unconcerned about whether he was there to buy something or had come in only to give his legs and feet a rest from sitting for so long in his car. To keep him there longer, sometimes I found myself getting up to rinse yesterday’s residues from the little Turkish coffee pot, telling him that coffee tasted especially good at this hour.
Our shop and the rooms in which we live haven’t changed at all since the day we took the keys from my father, twenty years ago. That is, we never did paint the walls, which no one before us painted either, nor did we enlarge the windows in the two enormous rooms behind the front shop. We didn’t repair any of the damages of time, either. The outside wooden window shutters, onto which direct sunlight fell relentlessly for most of the day, began to splinter and crack, and then the wooden frames began to warp and come apart so that the two shutters no longer closed properly together. The sink, which began to split, we left as it was. We didn’t do anything about the porcelain toilets which showed permanent black rings where the water collected after emptying. In our first year here I said repeatedly to my brother that we must keep our home clean and well-appointed like the homes women manage. That’s the way he wanted our home, too, and that’s why — a few days after we arrived — he bought two lamps made of fancy glass that he placed to either side of his bed, and over it he hung a painting of a woman with long loose hair and bare shoulders playing a small stringed instrument. In that first year he was the one who was always arguing that we must give some thought to the décor in the shop. He was the one who painted the bars that were no wider than the rulers we used at school but went almost all the way up to the ceiling. These, too, remained their original colour, ugly as I see them now, and cheap-looking, as if we hadn’t paid almost half of what my father left us to acquire them.
Sometimes I wonder whether maybe we would have made a better life for ourselves if people hadn’t been the way they were in Zahraniyya. I am thinking of the people living ‘above the road’, where our shop and home sat. If we were to paint our walls a different colour, my brother would say, it would be as though we were pointing accusing fingers at our neighbours whose walls would remain as drab and colourless as ever. He was referring to the inhabitants of the flat next to ours. ‘We might as well be saying to people, “Look how dirty they are”,’ he would say, raising his arms, hands reaching to each side to show me where there’d be colour and where there’d be just a dirty grey. As for the space separating our front doors, we couldn’t have half of it clean and the other half soiled, and we couldn’t put up a wall to separate them halfway.