31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 11: “Mme Zitta Mendès, A Last Image” by Alaa Al Aswany (trans. by Humphrey Davies)

May 11, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From Friendly Fire

Friendly_FireThe Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany has been compared to his countryman, the late Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, both for the gracefulness of his prose and his ability to locate the universal in the geographically and culturally specific. Best known for his 2002 novel The Yacoubian Building, Al Aswany’s novella “The Isam Abd el-Ati Papers” (which is included in the collection Friendly Fire) was effectively banned in his own country for “insulting Egypt.” Al Aswany is a passionately engaged political writer, an advocate for the rights of women and the increased representation of women in Egyptian government, and a denunciator of despotism and fanaticism. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Al Aswany says, “If you understand art, you will never be a fanatic, and if you are a fanatic, keep yourself away from art, because you will never understand it.”

“Mme Zitta Mendès, A Last Image,” however, is not a political story. It is, rather, an achingly human story about youth and age, love and loneliness, and testifies to the kind of emotional power a strong writer can wrest out of a very limited number of words (the story runs a scant seven-and-a-half pages).

Set among the expatriate community in Cairo, “Mme Zitta” is broken down into two parts. The first, which takes place in 1961, involves a father and his young son, who narrates the story in the first person. Each Sunday, the father would take the son to the house of a woman named Zitta Mendès, to whom the son affectionately refers as “Tante Zitta.” Tante Zitta is a warm, exotic figure with whom the son enamoured. It also becomes clear that she is the father’s mistress.

The second part of the story takes place thirty-five years later, in 1996, when the son encounters Tante Zitta, now aged and frail, at the foreigners’ table in a Cairo restaurant.

Al Aswany’s tactic is to have the son narrate the story retrospectively. The earlier section is tinged with the narrator’s sense impressions, those things that stand out in his memory about Tante Zitta and her apartment. He recalls her “strong, titillating perfume, and the feel of her warm, smooth skin,” and the lunch table festooned with a “shining white table cloth, the napkins ironed and folded with offhand elegance, the polished white plates with the knives, forks, and spoons laid round them in the same order.” Consider for a moment how much information is contained in the apparently incidental detail about the napkins: Al Aswany does more here with a single clause than many writers can accomplish in entire paragraphs.

The details in this section of the story are highly sensual: taste, sound, touch. The narrator recalls Tante Zitta singing Edith Piaf songs – “Non, je ne regrette rien” and “La vie en rose” – which also take on metaphoric resonance in the context of the story.

The son dispassionately reports the way in which he would flirt with Tante Zitta and the willing collusion he entered into with his father to cover up the affair, lying to his mother about where the two had been: “I’d say, ‘Father and I went to the cinema,’ lying without either fear or the slightest sense of guilt or betrayal.” Some readers will want to vilify the son for his behaviour, but Al Aswany resolutely withholds judgment, preferring instead to present the situation without comment. “Great literature,” the author has said, “means we don’t judge people, we try to understand them.”

Tellingly, the second part of the story also takes place on a Sunday, but the context has changed radically. The table at Groppi’s restaurant is peopled by elderly expatriates who have reached the twilight of their lives: “All of them are old – Armenians and Greeks who have spent their lives in Egypt and kept going until they are completely alone.” The loneliness of old age is heartbreakingly rendered in a few, well-chosen details: the women, “once skittish charmers,” are pictured “wearing clothes that had been in fashion thirty years ago”; the old men’s suits are “crumpled and crooked”; and even the building itself is creaky and decrepit, “the paint on the walls is peeling and the bathroom, of old-fashioned design, is in need of renovations the budget for which remains forever out of reach.”

The Sunday meeting, Al Aswany writes, provides the old people with “a moment of happiness, after which they surrender once more to their total and terrifying solitude.” This solitude is made more poignant by the photographs of children on the walls,

children who are now old men and mature women who have emigrated to America, speak on the telephone at Christmas, and send tasteful colored postcards, as well as monthly money orders, which the old people spend a whole day standing in long, slow lines to collect, counting the banknotes twice just to be sure once they have finally cashed them, and folding them and shoving them well down into their inside pockets.

The brief images sketching a group of people abandoned by their children, who have gone off to pursue their own lives, and whose only passing gesture is to send an impersonal money order once a month, is agonizing in both its woefulness and its recognizability. The reunion of the son and Tante Zitta at the story’s close is similarly melancholic: a moment of fleeting joy at the memory of a distant past, when the world seemed young and vibrant and alive.

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