Sultan Al Ameemi’s One Room is Not Enough was longlisted for the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the first Emirati-authored novel to make the lists of the Emirates-sponsored prize:
By Sawad Hussain
One Room Is Not Enough sees the hero of the novel wake alone in a strange room. He doesn’t know how he got there and there is no way out. Through the keyhole of the door, he discovers someone else is living a normal life in the adjoining room. This person looks like him, behaves like him and has the same hobbies, but he is unable to communicate with him. In the room he finds a book entitled Sole Choices, with his name on the cover as the author. It contains a strange introduction, but the remaining pages are blank. In an attempt to escape his isolation, he fills the blank pages with the peculiar history of his family, followed by the account of his experiences in the room and what he sees as he spies upon his neighbor through the keyhole.
* * *
Excerpt by Sultan Al Ameemi, trans. Sawad Hussain.
In a room that’s not my own, and that I don’t know, I open my eyes as I wake up, surprised to find myself all alone.
I turn to the right to find a black phone on a small, drawer- less table next to the big bed with a blue duvet, big enough for two, which I’m sprawled out on right now. I straighten up and sit. Beside the phone I find a book, its cover gray, without any picture or design. The title is Sole Choices; my name is on it as the author.
I don’t know this book; I’ve never heard of it. I, whose writing attempts don’t venture past drafting stories that I’m too shy to publish, find my name printed on the cover of a book. How did that happen?
I don’t dare to leaf through the book. Ignore it. Don’t go near it, a voice inside me says. There’s a power button on the wall above the small table on the right-hand side of the bed. I press it and the room is plunged into pitch-black darkness. I press it again and the room lights up once more by means of a neon light in the center of the ceiling.
The walls of the room are a sky-blue color, my favorite. It makes me feel great inner peace, and reconciled with my soul, and even though we’re in the middle of winter, the temperature of the room feels moderate.
On the wall facing me is a painting of a black top hat with a black tie underneath. The tie is decorated with red crows, some of which fly off and soar in circles, their color morphing into black.
I remember my cellphone. Where is it? It should be in my pocket.
I stretch my hand down and try to feel it with my fingers, but I don’t find it in the strange nightgown that I’m wearing, made from one continuous piece of cloth, except for the one pocket on my left side, which contains a red ballpoint pen. What on earth is that doing there?
I take it out and place it next to the book.
I pick up the phone receiver, which has a dial tone, meaning I can call from it.
I try to call my cell, but the line goes dead after I punch in the third number.
Ah, maybe it’s a hotel room line! I press the number 9, as you would when you’re in a hotel and you want to make an external call, but the line immediately dies again. I press the zero button and wait to be transferred to the operator, but that also proves futile.
I put the receiver back in its place.
I wonder, where’s my phone? Where am I? When did I come here? And who brought me? What was I doing before I found myself in this place?
I try to remember. I remember! I was walking in the middle of the night on a back street behind the hotel that I was staying in for my annual vacation, and then…I don’t recall what happened next.
I concentrate. I shut my eyes. I try to remember. But my memory betrays me. I try to guess what could have befallen me.
Was I knocked out cold with a blow to the head then brought here like in the movies? I feel the back of my head, but I don’t find any evidence of injury.
Did someone bring me here after I fainted for some other reason? Had I been drugged?
I have no idea.
Okay. I have to get up. I try to stand. I feel an intense fatigue in my muscles, like someone who’s exerted a great amount of effort playing a sport after a long break from it. I stand up. The floor is very chilly. I notice my feet; they are bare.
There’s no sign of my shoes. I walk towards the door to the right of the bed. I turn the knob to open it, but it’s locked.
Fear floods me.
I notice that the lock has a keyhole that allows one to look through it. I haven’t seen one like this for years, and I haven’t used a key that would fit in here – a long one with teeth that jut out at the front – probably since we moved from our old house.
What’s behind the door?
I crouch down to the level of the keyhole and look through to discover what lies behind it. There is another room, and in the room there’s a person. He’s standing, putting books away on the shelves of his library, which kind of looks like mine at home. Then, before he sits down, he turns so that his face is directly in my line of vision.
I scrutinize his features intently. Wait, that’s me!
That other me is wearing the pajamas that I usually wear when I travel, and is sitting on a chair facing the television screen showing a foreign film starring Meryl Streep. She’s a movie star whose films I follow devotedly, but this film she’s in seems strange, and I’ve never seen it before. I figure it’s a new release, deducing this from her appearance, which looks anything but young.
He doesn’t seem to sense my presence as I turn the doorknob. He must be preoccupied with something or other.
I call him by my name and stare at him through the keyhole, but he doesn’t even turn towards the sound of my voice. “HEY YOU!” I call out in a raised voice. But he’s silent, unmoving.
The TV’s volume isn’t that high; in fact it is low enough for him to hear me. I try opening the door again, jiggling the knob forcefully, but my doppelgänger doesn’t bat an eyelid, as if he hasn’t heard anything.
It’s impossible that he’s deaf or hard of hearing; I mean he’s watching TV!
I have to calm down. I return to the bed. I sit on its edge. My eyes survey the room. Below the crow painting is a midsized fridge. I get up and go towards it. I open it. I find it full of pop-top cans, water bottles, high-quality juices, and fruits that don’t need to be cut with a knife. The amount in there could last a person an entire week.
I think about knives. If I find one in here, maybe that’ll help me escape somehow, either by breaking the lock or using it to slowly bore into the wall to create an escape route like I’ve seen in a number of movies.
In the wall on my left is an open door leading to a small bathroom. I go in to investigate. I discover that the door only has a handle on the inside. The bathroom, now that I’m in it, is tiny, with only a sink and a toilet, and no exhaust fan. It’s going to reek in here quickly. There is no mirror or towel, meaning it’ll be difficult to wash up, and impossible for a person to see his own face and check on his appearance.
I exit the bathroom. I go back to the bed. I sit. “What am I doing here? And what is my carbon copy doing in the room next door?” I wonder aloud.
Maybe I’m dreaming. Yes, that’s it, I must be dreaming.
And this fatigue is still weighing down on my body. I need to rest. I lie down on the bed, wrap myself in the duvet and fall into a deep sleep, running away from everything.
I wake up alarmed. I dreamed that I was driving my car for a long distance to attend an important meeting with some bigwigs in a building outside of the capital. After I got out of the car I found that I’d forgotten to wear my sandals. I was in a bad predicament, and I couldn’t control or resolve the situation.
In any case, waking up from this dream confirms that my being here in this room now is a reality, and not a dream as I previously imagined.
I try to go back to sleep, but the phone rings. I turn to the handset next to me, but realize that the sound isn’t coming from there. I remember the room next to me where I saw my doppelgänger. The ringing is coming from in there and it’s still going on.
I get up and make my way to the keyhole. I bend down. I peek through. I’m not there; I mean he’s not there!
How long have I been asleep?
I don’t know, because there’s no way for me to know the time or even today’s date. All I remember is that we’re in the month of January…maybe in the middle of it.
In the past few days I haven’t been interested in knowing the date because I was on my annual vacation and had decided that I wouldn’t be mindful of the time, or how many hours I slept, or wake up to my alarm as usual.
The ringing stops and then starts again.
I go back to peering through the hole; no one’s in the room. I’ve got to find a way to get out of here.
I turn right and left searching for something, anything to help me execute my plan. My eyes settle on the book beside the bed. I remember how scared I was to read it. Was I avoiding it because I had been afraid of what might be written inside?
I pick up the book. I open it. After the cover is a page that also has my name below the title, all in an elegant script.
On the next page is a sole paragraph in the middle, headed by the word Introduction. The paragraph reads: In a small room in an unknown place, there was a person who spied through a keyhole on another person who was spying on someone else in the room next to him. They were all constantly spying on each other, and did nothing else!”
I cannot fathom what is meant by this odd introduction. I turn to the page after it, only to find that it’s blank!
I riffle through the remaining pages, and what do you know, they’re all blank! I close it and put it back where I found it, pondering, I’ve become the author of a book that has only one paragraph, an odd and funny paragraph at that. What a joke!
I go back to peering through the keyhole. My body double still isn’t back. I go towards the bed. I sit. I think of my family.
They won’t notice my absence, and won’t ask any questions for two weeks at least. I had asked them to do so before I set off on vacation. “I’ll be staying somewhere secluded. I need to be alone, to clean myself of the residue of everything. “I’ll turn off my cellphone as it’ll be redundant during my time off,” I had told them.
I remember now that I didn’t carry my cell when I went out walking that night. I’m trying to remember more of what happened that night but some black hole in my memory has swallowed up what happened next.
I remember Mahra; she’s the only one I told where I was spending this vacation. She even knew the phone number of my room in the hotel.
Will she notice that I’ve not got in touch with her? Will she care that I’m missing?
Will she call the hotel to ask about me? Is she thinking of me right now?
Translated by Sawad Hussain. Translation Copyright: 2017.
Sawad Hussain is ArabLit’s Cambridge-based better half. She’s also an Arabic translator and litterateur who holds a MA in Modern Arabic Literature from the School of Oriental and African Studies. She is passionate about all things related to Arab culture, history, and literature.