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tained instructions on how to care for that variety of tree, although she was sure the Municipal Office experts would have no need for that. I nodded in agreement, my mind going to the weary and decrepit Municipal Office employees who spent the whole day leaning on their tools and exchanging banter over withered flowers and parched grass in what remained of waterless gardens.
I invited her to have some lunch but she excused herself on the grounds that she had to return to Casablanca immediately because she was flying back to Denmark that evening via Paris. She bade me farewell once more with a movement of her left hand and, while manoeuvring her car towards the street, said she would certainly come back to see the tree when it had grown. I reiterated my gratitude and emotion then, turning back, holding the pot, started in amazement: all movement in the Municipal Office had stopped and everyone – including the gendarmes – was occupying the windows, doors and everywhere else overlooking the street, standing there motionless as if someone had transformed them into living statues. Only their protruding eyeballs followed the movement of my hand holding the envelope and I thanked God that the envelope distracted them from noting the humiliating improvement in my appearance. I placed the pot near the main door in the care of the dumbstruck gendarmes. The director was also standing motionless by the door of his office, waiting impatiently for my arrival. He flung himself on the envelope, ripping nervously and roughly at the flap. When it became clear that it contained no money or cheque he threw the papers in my face. I picked them up off the floor and followed him inside, removing the jacket and donning my overcoat. On my way out I stopped at the door and turned to ask him with painful humiliation:
“What about the tree?” He smiled and replied: “Eat it!” As if he had given his troupe of acolytes some sign, shrill clamorous laughter broke out behind me as I withdrew, my tail between my legs, like a soldier abandoning the last position after a lost battle. I took a chair from my office and from my vantage point began to contemplate the little tree, exiled and abandoned. It was standing next to the boots of the gendarme guarding the excessively shiny and solid main door, weak and fragile but at the same time peaceful and upright. If the guard were to raise his foot
16 BANIPAL 40 – LIBYAN FICTION ABDELKARIM JOUITI
then drop it he would squash the plant into its soil, and every time the boot chafed against the pot as he went through his mechanical motions by the door I felt the danger the tree was facing.What was it yearning for at this moment?What could it bring to a city where impatient landowners and businessmen complained of the inability of science to invent an effective means to dispose of trees quickly and quietly? They had tried cutting off the water supply, bleach, washing powder, machine oil, lime, lighting forest fires in the night and stripping the bark.Yet the agony of the trees continued, as did the anger of the landowners.What significance could it bring to a city which had begun to see trees as lost housing space? Was the tree now feeling the same sense of loss and sadness that human beings feel when thrown into some unknown place? Or was it still young and, like a child, unable to appreciate the seriousness of its fate? How much endurance, patience and toughness was it going to need? I had no clear idea what would happen to it and, I said to myself, it was going to take a miracle for it to remain alive. I have no faith in nature here, or in its power to provide even a small amount of tenderness and love. Nature too is full of malice and cruelty.
However, when I signed out of the office I found myself bending over the tree and lifting it up. I was incapable of passing the main door without doing so. I carried it away in an entirely neutral manner, thinking of the injustice the two lovers had done to it. It was manifest hypocrisy on my part. After all, what had I done for all the other trees condemned to death before my eyes? I discussed what had happened with al-Halbi who had been absent that morning. He had a long chuckle and kept repeating: “Poor woman! If she’d come with a pot full of dollars they’d have laid out the red carpet and spoken to her even in extinct languages!” Then in a sad and serious tone he went on: “If we were in better state, then her gift – with its related love story, thousands of kilometres of distance, death and last will and testaments – would have been a big deal in this one horse town. Perhaps we still need another century or two, and a lot more progress, in order to understand these things.”
I pulled the paper out of my pocket and once again focused my attention on Oscar Wilde’s saying: Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the
BANIPAL 40 – LIBYAN FICTION 17