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Were it not for the presence of the little tree I would have refused to think that the dream-like scene of the woman who had brought her grief from a land of ice and snow was real. That afternoon the usual barren routine settled over the Municipal Office and the usual things happened. And if I hadn’t watered the tree and felt, as I touched its damp leaves, how calm and self-confident it was as it advanced to meet its fate with such composure, then I would have considered what happened with the woman as a mere delusion of our miserable existence here.
Once in the street I decided to seek the help of a nurseryman in order to know more about the little tree. I went home and wrapped the pot in newspaper to shield it from prying eyes, just as people wrap some suspect package they are carrying. I hailed a taxi and asked the driver to take me to a plant nursery on the road to Ain Asserdoun with the patient crying in my arms. As I entered the nursery I was assailed by the smell of hashish. The owner was in the middle of his little forest, stretched out on a mat in the sun with a towel covering his face. When he became aware of my presence he removed the towel and got sluggishly to his feet with a deep, drugged gaze. The fleeting smile of welcome on his pale face was soon replaced by a stern inflexible expression, making me nervous and hesitant before explaining to him, as I removed the pot from the newspaper, the reason that had led me to interrupt his peaceful siesta. He gave me a sudden cold look charged with all his annoyance at the useless advice I had come to ask of him. With evident irritation he took the pot from me and laid it on the mat where, bending over it, he began fingering the trunk and leaves of the little tree with the deliberation of an experienced doctor. Then with unexpected enthusiasm he announced: “It’s a ficus tree.” He said it with a dry deep voice which emerged sluggishly from his carious mouth, and with great pomposity for such a skinny body as his, then straightened up cockily, the harsh lines of his face somewhat distended as if his knowledge and professional pride had been facing the challenge of identifying the species of tree, and had done so successfully. Having gauged the extent of my readiness to receive the knowledge, he added that this species of tree included many types, some of which did best in the shade and others in the sun,
20 BANIPAL 40 – LIBYAN FICTION ABDELKARIM JOUITI
but with a tree as young as this it was not possible to identify the type exactly. And, he went on, it was of an uncommon hybrid kind which sometimes died even if provided with the right conditions and sometimes lived even if the right conditions were almost completely lacking. Moreover, this tree did not like being moved from one place to another. With that, he lapsed into silence as if aware that he had blurted out all his knowledge with unreasonable speed.
“Where did you buy it?” he asked me suddenly.
I replied that I hadn’t bought it, it was a gift from Denmark. As if my reply had opened a crack in the gravity of the man’s composure, he let out a strangled silent laugh, a sort of trial run because it was followed by a great rolling guffaw, as if the effect of the hashish and the sun, which he had been controlling with difficulty, had finally succeeded in opening a breach in the wall of seriousness and had brought the jester out from under the robes of the plant doctor. “A gift from Denmark! . . . Ha! Ha! Ha!” He repeated this several times. I was becoming impatient and indignant and, retrieving the pot, I wrapped it up again in its newspaper and calmly withdrew. The man vainly attempted to stop me with a gesture of his limp hand and tried to say something but his hilarity was stronger than he was. As I was walking out of the door he finally managed to say, choking on his own laughter: “Denmark! . . . Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! For fifty dirham we’d sell you a forest of them!”
I decided to walk back, feeling my chest tight and full, open to all possibilities. In no uncertain terms I should throw the tree into the middle of the road, with no hesitation or regret I should cut my ties with this strange delight in self-punishment. It was going to die whatever I tried because it did not want to stay alive, it was going to die because it was complicated and I would never understand it. I, who hadn’t understood my own father, how could I understand a deaf, cold and hopeless tree? I felt my hands closing
BANIPAL 40 – LIBYAN FICTION 21