The Mobile Prison Cell
They pass by us like sullen tears. They fill the place with quiet clamour, alert to our comfort, working silently so that we can sleep peacefully. Ragged clothes, eyes full of yearning and salt, skin dressed in its darkest tones by the sun, and a body still able to provide free services. They knock on our doors like light shadows, they greet us with a nod of the head as a bell might ring upon request. They give us our things and they leave us in peace.
And so as not to disturb us, disrupt the details of our lives, spoil our moods, and so that we do not waste our time making the trip to the grocery ourselves, the grocers await us in their mobile prisons.
Rajin the grocer wastes decades of his life between the first and the twenty-fifth floor, hanging inside a vertically moving metal room that closely resembles a solitary prison cell with a horizontally sliding metal door; or what we call an elevator or a lift. But Rajin the grocer calls it “the room of myself”. This is where he has been living for the past two years; the doors of his room open to people leaving never to return and closes on new people arriving with no hope of return.
What is surprising about Rajin, in his endless travel between the edge of the earth and the limits of the sky, is that he knows more about the residents of the building, their living conditions and family affairs than he does about the family he left behind decades ago. The children he has never met and the wife on whose bosom he rested but a single night. What goes on in his head is nothing more than numbers; apartments and floors, the price of consumer products, calculations of money he takes and change he returns. He recognises the residents of the building from their voices on the phone, their parked cars, their visitors, their guests, and from the way they dress, the way they walk, the fragrance they use.
Candles, a lighter and cigarettes for the tenth floor. Hossam's electricity has been cut and the light in the hallway is not enough for him to study his language lessons. He's a good man looking for a new job.
The fat-free Saudi yogurt, potatoes and Digestive biscuits are for the second floor. Perhaps Umm Samir's son is suffering from indigestion or a serious illness.
The Marlboro, salted nuts, Red Bull and orange juice can only be for Marwan, the lover who divorced his wife immediately upon his return from abroad, and who appears in a new suit and with a new girl every day.
Onions, olives, parsley and two apples are certainly for Mr. Rajab who insists on building a house in his hometown with the money he saves on food.
Rajin doesn't want to go up to the twentieth floor; not because he fears heights or dislikes the residents of that floor. It was simply because in order to please the fussy boy he needed to go up and down to the grocer three times to buy the one dirham brand of chocolate the boy saw on TV the night before, and then a fourth trip to give the boy change for the 100 dirham note – a note which Rajin took with much anguish in his heart and a gulp in his throat, but without saying a word.
What saddened Rajin was that everyone leaves and never returns, and he remains alone in the "room of myself" making door to door deliveries. No sooner does Rajin consolidate a relationship with new residents and the tips and change he gets from them than they quickly leave without permission to another building and another grocer.
Rajin collects all the requests of residents in his building and brings them all at once. He remains in the lift like a bird in a cage, moving from one floor to another, from one apartment to another. He sees what he sees, he hears what he hears. He hums unintelligible tunes that help him shatter the monotony and he sings in a language only his cousins at work understand.
On his way up he gives a lift to those returning from work, and on his way down he helps carry their personal belongings, never forgetting to cajole their children, as if he were a taxi driver, but without a meter and without getting paid.
Some smile at him out of pity, some eye him cynically, some shout in his face and accuse him of stupidity, some move away from him and his sweaty smell as if he were an animal climbing out of a dump.
Rajin works from eight in the morning until two past midnight. He takes two hours off, which he spends cleaning cars for an extra 200 dirhams, making a monthly salary not exceeding 800 dirhams, so that he can send his family the bread and butter they wait and hope for.
Never once did it occur to us to stop to ask him what he was humming, what he was thinking, or where he slept.
Does Rajin the grocer - whom we pass by uncaringly, indifferent to his groans, unfeeling of his suffering - does Rajin dream of shortening his sentence in the metal room that always makes him feel as if he were in solitary confinement? Or of reducing the hours he spends working, sometimes soaring, sometimes plummeting? Or does he dream of receiving a raise on the lowest wages ever received by man on the face of creation? Or of a victorious return by a man whose family multiplies in his absence because the brothers become the guardians in the absence of the husbands? Or does he dream of a revolution spurred on by the most patient man ever to chew and swallow the bitter pill of loneliness, exile, and poverty with a jovial face?
Do you know who walked into my room just now as I write about Rajin? Rajin himself! With bright eyes, a body carved by this path, and a face washed with depression. He put a pack of Gitanes Light on the table and left quietly, adding its cost to another month's expenses; as if he knew exactly what I wanted and exactly what I would say.
Translation by: Fadwa Al Qasem