translated from Italian by Allison Grimaldi-Donahue
3 March 2002
We saw each other in a land that was strange to you, the first time: me on the other side of that metal detector, hoping you would make it sound.
There you are, fresh off your flight, suitcases in hand, hair stuck to your forehead.
You step forward, place your suitcases on the belt, take off your jacket, fold it in the tray and set it on the belt as well. Letting it move forward, holding your passport, you cautiously proceed through the metal detector.
It is my first trip. They said I chose the wrong moment to travel, that all of the security checks would drive me and my family crazy, but above all what a risk it was to move from one continent to another with all of the terrorism that had been happening recently. Nonetheless, the idea of getting to know a new country called to me, becoming a necessity. As soon as my parents made the announcement and showed me the plane tickets, my mind was already flying off to Rome. I packed my suitcases in five minutes, and they sat in the corner of the room, ready to go, for three and a half weeks. Twenty-five days of staring at the world map while I prepared tabbouleh and hummus, laughing and singing songs to myself, songs my mother sang to me and maybe my grandmother had sung to her.
I must have closed my eyes for an instant, to better savor my doubt, because I don’t exactly remember your expression when the metal detector let out that acidic beep. I must have imagined you blushing as you took a step back and then forward again, uncertain of what to do, but I don’t have complete memories. A glance from my colleague and I give you the signal to come over, I put out my hand, stiff in my uniform, I lead you to the cordoned-off square where I pat down people’s bodies. I do the women, my colleague does the men. I used to feel a strong sensation as I touched women I didn’t know, donning an authoritative and mysterious air, a serious face, the simple formalities of the profession. But then it became habit, the bodies I touched were shirts, pants, clumsy bags, glasses that fall, rivets driven deep into bell-bottoms, yes it is probably this, or necklaces, rings, house keys left in a pocket as people hurry through.
Magdi took us to the airport: we left him the keys, food for Sandy the dog, and told him to keep an eye on the garden once in a while. I spent the trip reading the guide to Rome I forced my parents to buy.
“What are you doing, do you have a secret boyfriend somewhere?” asks my mother.
“No, she doesn’t have anyone, she will marry one of us. Maybe he’ll live in Italy or France or in Canada, but he’ll be Lebanese,” mumbles my father, his tone somewhere between serious and joking.
“I can’t wait to get there!” I say, changing the subject to avoid starting a discussion about things that are too uncomfortable. My father gives me a pat. I know that when my father stops giving me pats there will be another man by my side to give me kisses instead, and from one moment to the next there won’t be a second to catch my breath, to deceive myself into thinking I am my own person.
At one o’clock sharp the flight attendant brings us a plate of rice with chicken. My father devours it and then asks me: “The snacks you made me, did you bring them?”
“Shit, no! I forgot them at home, before leaving,” I reply, without looking him in the eye.
“I knew it, I knew it. I pity your poor future husband!” Another laugh, another pat, another knot in my throat pushed down.
“Madame, excuse me, do you have any bread?”
Half an hour later the slow descent begins. I guess this as I see us move closer to the water outside of my window, then it is confirmed on the overhead screen. We emerge from a group of clouds we had been cloaked in, we lose altitude lazily, until I hear a noise and my mother says to me, squeezing my hand and making the sign of the cross, that it’s the wheels, we’re landing, Insh’Allah.
The screeching of the friction gives me shivers, and it is that same screeching I continued to hear the first two days I passed in Rome: everything screeches, everything clashes, everything seems so dissonant when it makes contact with our physicality.
Chewing the five or six phrases of Italian I had a friend teach me, I manage to get around the airport, to go through customs without much confusion. I have to look out for my parents as well.
Then I see the infamous metal detector: my friend defined it as a Russian roulette that sounds or doesn’t sound arbitrarily, and that if it goes off, you’re obligated to endure tedious extra pat-downs, passport checks, insistent questions from suspicious faces. The issue of terrorism frightens me perhaps more than the Europeans, the idea of being mistaken for a terrorist, to fall into that generalization that mistakes all Middle Easterners for Arabs.
I don’t say a word to my parents about the inherent risk in that door-shaped Russian roulette, I let them pass on their own, praying for them. I pray they pass and don’t sound. My turn.
I place my jacket in a container, let my suitcase move along the belt, I think again about how in Beirut the alarm didn’t sound for any of us three, so there is no reason it should go off now.
I move forward. It goes off.
I have no idea what could happen next, I feel investigated, searched for, the police watch me without much suspicion, they look at each other, a girl with short dark hair signals for me to come forward, she’s my age.
She brings me to a small room and she lifts my arms up from my sides, high as my shoulders, I can’t keep them still, I tremble, I feel like Christ on the cross, a little embarrassed.
You’re so afraid to make me feel uncomfortable: while I touch your hands I feel you tremble, you close your eyes and leave your young body at my mercy, your olive skin, your small and blunt breasts that I prepare myself to brush ever so lightly— you have a more pronounced quiver—I bite my lip to keep myself in check, stepping back into my professional role. I touch the arm that you’ve left midair, just as I had positioned it. I touch your armpits and you, instead of laughing from the tickle I know I’ve caused—many girls just like you laugh and look me in the eye and say, “When will I convince you I’m not a terrorist?”—squeeze your eyes shut even harder. I opt for some questions that seem obligatory, routine.
“Is this your first visit to Italy?”
“Yes. It’s my first trip.”
“Where are you from?”
“Lovely, the Country of Cedars. What is the purpose of your trip?”
“To take a vacation with my parents.”
“Your parents—you still live with them?”
“I am looking for a husband.”
“A husband . . .” I know I am losing professionalism. Maybe also credibility.
“Yes, to stop living with them I must—I don’t know how to say . . .”
“You have to get married?”
“Yes, you have to get married.”
“I have to marry.”
“Yes, I have to marry. If not, I can’t . . .”
I interrupt you like this, mid-sentence. It is becoming a personal interview, one of those dialogues between cultures for peace and progress, rather than a simple antiterrorism check. You remain rigid, like you’ve been impaled, but you do nothing to cut it short, you continue to search for words in this language that isn’t yours. Only speaking, slowly, the tremor in your arm calms and under my hands I feel your chest relax, your heart about to go into cardiac arrest.
“Not even a night . . . ?” I begin the phrase with an interrogative tone, I interrupt myself, I fall silent. “Never mind. May I see your passport, your identity card?”
You hand me your documents, I try to memorize everything: Layal Khalife, street, province: it’s difficult, the names are so different. I decide to let you go.
“Thank you. What do you do for work?” I ask, finally opening the curtain of the little room.
“I don’t work. Sometimes I help my parents in the fruit stand we manage, on the ground floor of our house.”
“Ok. How long are you in Rome?”
“Perfect. You can go.”
You run off. I step away and let you go to your parents, relieved. While you’ve already forgotten about me, I shout to you and your family: “Welcome to Rome!” with a professional smile.
Who knows what you expected behind those curtains, who knows why you trembled.
We saw each other again in a land that was foreign to me: I was lying in my bathing suit on the beach, awkward, inexperienced; you and your sea, relaxed, at ease.
10 June 2002
I didn’t make the trip for you: I’d wanted to see this country for a long time.
I know your address—my job hadn’t actually required that I check it, but once I’d read it, it was imprinted on my mind, leaving a lasting trace—your name, your parents’ shop. It wasn’t difficult to find that fruit stand in a nation the size of Abruzzo. You’re still there, you haven’t found a husband. You don’t remember me, from the airport. Maybe you had your eyes closed for too long, or maybe I have one of those faces you forget the following day, maybe my bathing suit makes me completely different from the version of me embalmed in my work uniform.
I don’t dare push you to make the connection to that embarrassing episode. I show up at the stand in the morning, I buy some fruit, tomatoes, you give me some parsley as a gift, you tell me in startling English that here people make delicious salads with this. You are so different from that distant day when anxiety controlled your every move.
Then I find you again by the sea, always accompanied by your parents, lingering on the rocks. I say hello, the fruit was so good, I’ve never had apples like that, you smile at me. It is strange to pretend to never have met you before, but I cannot erase the memory from my mind, that tenderness that I touched with my hand.
Sometime later, with some craftiness, I find a way to meet you alone—three, four, ten times.
The eleventh time I have you in my arms, the prize for the persistence with which I pursued you. Even if I know that there is nothing behind your kisses, that they are just a small, secret pleasure you can steal while you look for a husband . . .
That for now, for you, this is the only enjoyment allowed, the only possible pleasure, it is between equals, doesn’t leave traces, won’t deflower you.
You explain that you gave in to me because I won’t take away the purity you must respect: you content yourself with crumbs of pleasure, you force yourself to remain on the boundaries of each thrill. You nearly cry, while you whisper that this is the only way to preserve your virginity, that our game is the only way to grant yourself some pleasure during the wait. I understand and it hurts, but you do me such good as you caress my back.
“Don’t ever get married,” I whispered to your breast, which stopped trembling at first contact. You laugh, wrinkling your nose, but you say nothing.
Then that trip, too, comes to an end.
24 February 2003
Eight months have passed since I returned to Rome.
Eight months equal 250 days of metal detector sounds, touched bodies, curtains closed and reopened. Many suspects, no terrorists.
The metal detector continues to go off when it wants, and somehow I am positive that, when it finally does meet a real terrorist, it won’t make a sound. While I touch new bodies in increasingly complete apathy, negligent behind my little curtain, I focus on the voices outside.
“You can go.”
I cut the pat-down I am doing short, letting an elderly woman with an enormous faux gold necklace go. I peek out from behind the curtain.
You are already far away, hand in hand with a broad-shouldered man who has a full beard and skin darker than your own.
Leyla Khalil is an Italian writer and social worker of Lebanese origin. In 2015 she published Piani di fuga, her first novel. She won the Slow Food Prize Mother Tongue Competition with her story “Ricordi Congelati.” She currently works in a shelter for asylum seekers.
Allison Grimaldi-Donahue is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in Words Without Borders, Electric Literature, Gramma Poetry, The Brooklyn Rail, and Cosmonauts Avenue. In 2016 she published her chapbook Body to Mineral with Publication Studio Vancouver. She has been an NEA Fellow at the Vermont Studio Center and a Bakeless Fellow at the Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference. She is fiction editor at Queen Mob’s Teahouse and associate editor for translations at Anomaly. She is a PhD candidate at the European Graduate School and teaches writing at John Cabot University, Rome.
“In a Land Strange to Us” was originally published in TLR: Babel Fish.