By Fatma Al Sibani
He was not a man of wealth. Neither did he have a lamentable life that would have finished him years earlier than the day he left home to the city souq, forever. The day when the front door was knocked in a rapid pace, leaving the five siblings and their mother shocked and cold to their bones. He left home that day with the same protocols he had carried along the past 20 years: a handful of dates, a long stick to lift his hunched body up and a flat, threadbare bag that he refused for no apparent reason to be laundered or replaced. No one knew what was inside that bag except for the salted, open-eyed, entirely breathless fish that would accompany him on his way back.
Monitoring the bag
Usually when he returned home, he would take the salted fish out of the bag, put it in a metal-round plate and step out of the kitchen to leave the bag for an hour or less under the blazing sun. The bag would not be left there without him monitoring the tranquil scene of the sunbath: either sitting on the steps of the kitchen’s external door or gazing at it from the window while he is sharpening his knife to give the fish a quick, pitiful cut.
Street-sights tingle memories
He wrapped the bag’s strap around himself and put on his sandals that were exposed to sun and water enough to give the impression that they would fall into pieces at any moment. It took him 20 minutes of walking to reach the massive gate of the souq. Crowds of people marching back and forth, a buyer and a seller negotiating a silver blade at the corner, a bunch of kids gathering around a huge cage of whistling quails trying to find a special-looking couple to purchase, cows mooing in moving and still trucks and sheep being dragged on the street to a new owner, or if less lucky to a fancy meal. A little boy passed him in a navy-coloured bike trying to find a delicate balance, so he can eat the shawarma with his right hand without losing his left hand’s balance on the handlebar. A rushing memory circled him: he, a little boy, driving his bike home with beans and one or two pieces of tomato so his family can fulfill their famished bellies before a long night.
A bag that was an extension of him
He tightened his grip on his bag even though he knew with absolute certainty that nobody could snatch it from his body, unless he would lose a fatal fight. He did not remember since when it had earned this worth to him, neither did he recall at what age he owned it; it was as ancient as his earliest memories of his boyhood.
Salting the fish for later
He arrived at the gate and took the sidewalk, waving his hand and sending salaam to his friends, who were distributed in separate blocks along the wall. He headed to the fresh fish block, as always, and bought a medium-sized fish for lunch. While he was checking the fish, he started his regular health-family-friends chat that would not normally finish before a fish got picked, scaled and eventually priced. He took the fish aside from the block and put a good punch of salt, to it so it would stay fresh until noon. He wrapped it with a paper and packed it attentively in his bag. His shop was at the far end of the souq: a tiny, well-lit place that was abundantly immersed in the smell of old leather and iron rust.
Peaceful end to a daily routine
Repairing watches was the only craft practiced in that tiny hole, as it wouldn’t bear another form of artistry. He housed his bag in the open window and grabbed the kit of tools from a shelf behind him to carry the work forward. He settled himself in the chair and opened the tool kit to take out a wrench, but he did not. A man entered the watch-repairing shop and rushed out right away, screaming and calling out for help. A group of men gathered around the entrance, two of them were able to enter and pull the watch repairer’s body from behind the table and carry him outside. “It was peaceful, exactly as he had lived”, a stranger uttered in a sorrowful tone. Another voice arose from the gathering, “someone should get to his family, now!”
Fish ends up as cats’ meal
The mass of people started to vanish, and the entrance of the shop looked empty. Everything remained exactly where the watch repairer left them: the bag with the long strap and the salted fish in the window, the broken watch on the table and the tools from the open kit scattered all over the narrow ground. They could be taken to the watch repairer’s house or, for one reason or another, locked there for a good time that the salted fish would be a luscious meal for the maverick cats that were hovering around the place stirring up nothing but trouble.
A middle-aged watch repairer leaves his home for a normal working day to his tiny shop in the city souq and never returns. A story that revolves around ordinary belongings, images and scenes, which carve themselves enough to become the heart of a man’s memory.