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“A disaster from Denmark!”
The words came tumbling out of the doorman’s mouth as he dragged me after him to meet the director. He tried, while encouraging me to lay aside the book I was holding, to explain the reason for such an unexpected summons, unprecedented since I had set foot in the Municipal Office; but his words came out broken and bizarre, as if in a dream. I walked after him with slow and hesitant steps, not wishing to be drawn into that ability minor officials have of changing the requests and orders of their superiors into mighty affairs to be dispatched with great speed and concern as if the destiny of the world depended on the pettiness of local authority offices. The usher, having finally managed to explain that the question involved some intricate and obscure matter, told me to enter the director’s office by the back door.
I knocked on the door with great dread and went in without daring to offer a greeting. The director was enthusiastically recounting his adventures to a group of Municipal Office employees amid a haze of laughter and smoke. He didn’t notice my arrival and I remained motionless and silent, feeling out of place in the joyful atmosphere reigning in the office. Then – perhaps because I was an intruder among the acolytes dancing ingratiating attendance, ready to perform any service as they competed with one another to convey their feigned enjoyment at his stories – the director regaled me with one of those awe-inspiring glances with which only high-ranking officials know how to convey appropriate indications of superiority and annoyance, and particularly the gravitas of a hierarchy that knows how maintain due distances. He examined me from head to toe, following that well-tried tactic used by senior officials to strip you of the only advantage you can possibly feel in their presence, as you stand and they sit in the opulence of their spacious offices: the advantage of looking down on them. They begin by focusing on the dirtiness of your shoes and slowly range upwards, then with beguiling skill they flip you upside down to restore you to your proper place. And all you can do to free yourself from the optical illusion that fools you into thinking the senior official is under you, is to lower your gaze
12 BANIPAL 40 – LIBYAN FICTION ABDELKARIM JOUITI
throughout the interview and focus it on where you’re supposed to be: under their feet. “What are you doing here?” the director asked.
“The doorman called me to speak to you.” “Ah yes. . . . They tell me you can speak English.” “A little,” I said hesitantly. He pressed a button and the doorman came in. The director ordered him to find a comb from one of the female employees and to be quick about it, then instructed me to take off the tattered overcoat I was wearing and told one of the group in the office to give me his jacket. I hesitated for a moment then took off my overcoat, with no small amount of embarrassment and considerable confusion, and put on the jacket while desperately seeking signs of disapproval or support in the empty eyes of the group surrounding the director. The doorman came back and, reaching into his shirt pocket, presented me with a small comb which the director ordered me to run through the tangled forest on my head. I began combing my hair while turning my baffled gaze onto the director and his companions.When I had finished he told me that there was some mad woman from Denmark sitting in reception. “They got rid of her from the Governorate and foisted her onto me.” They had told him that she wanted to make a small gift to our citizens. “Present yourself as the deputy director. Tell her the director is busy in an important meeting, listen to her then send her packing.” And with that he went back to his vulgar gaiety.
She was in reception, absorbed in her thoughts, wearing a black dress and clutching an envelope and a bunch of keys. She rose to greet me and I could see that, despite the freckles covering her skin and despite the fact that she was over fifty, traces of great beauty still remained in her tired and lined face, and in her slim compact body. She spoke good English and, following some initial embarrassment and the usual commonplaces, which flowed from my mouth with a facility that surprised me, she told me in a clear voice, not without overtones of sadness, that it would be difficult for me to understand the matter that had brought her here from Denmark if she did not tell me, if only very briefly, the story of what had happened to her in Beni Mellal twenty years ago with her husband Robbie. Everything about her expressed deep sorrow kept under tight control, though from time to time it filtered
BANIPAL 40 – LIBYAN FICTION 13