“A Room of Sabry’s Own” is from Samar Nour’s collection In the House of the Vampire, which won a Sawiris prize in 2017:
By Samar Nour
Translated by Enas El-Torky
A thick rope dangles from the ceiling of my room, like a twisted snake that can stretch and follow me everywhere, to every new home I move into, and even to every room I enter.
The night I saw the rope for the first time, I was listening to my mother’s snoring. Last night, as I listened to my husband snore, I imagined Sabry’s noose dangling in front of me, as if it had been just a few hours since I’d seen it, instead of more than twenty years!
What was going on in Sabry’s mind at the moment he put the noose around his neck and kicked the chair out from under his feet?
This elusive moment, so difficult to grasp, has now taken hold of my mind.
–The “sudconscious” mind, Miss, the sudconscious mind. It’s the sudconscious mind.
I smiled bitterly. Twenty years ago, when Aisha had said that for the first time, I’d laughed out loud, much to the surprise of Aisha, who simply tutted. I grew accustomed to her confident tone as she practiced psychiatry without realizing it.
Aisha had now become my only companion. Every morning, I awaited her visit. She would take care of the household chores and keep me company after my husband went to work. My daughter was studying abroad, and I no longer had any big responsibilities. I’d become housebound, rarely going out or communicating with others. It was as if I’d never been that young woman in her twenties who’ would spend her time in the newsroom, waiting for a job opportunity like a leopard waiting to pounce on its next prey, until the most irresistible prey took me by surprise, and my neck became caught in Sabry’s noose, Aisha!
At the time, I’d been sitting in the newsroom of a weekly paper. The managing editor came out of his office, leaned against the door, and gazed at those of us who were sitting there as he rubbed at his chin, as if in deep thought. He beckoned toward me and gave me a clipping from the crime section of a daily paper, even though I was an editor still training in the literary section, which only came out on the anniversary of Naguib Mahfouz’s birth and other similarly pompous occasions.
The managing editor looked like a thug from an old black-and-white film. Other colleagues cracked jokes about him when we talked. They said he’d originally been a stoolpigeon working for some security agency, till he finished his studies, graduated, and was promoted to the position of “stool journalist”. The joke, which always provoked laughter, seemed to have some truth to it.
“I started my career in the crime section, and any journalist worth his salt has to start there.” The managing editor spoke at me while circling a headline with his pen:
Mystery of the Death of Al-Marg House Painter Solved: Committed Suicide After Failing to Provide for his Children.
According to my editor, I had to turn this into a story with new “juicy details,” by which of course he meant invented.
I naively insisted on handling the job in a professional manner. I asked to go to the place where the death had happened personally, and to investigate the new details. He gave me a sarcastic smile and walked away, stepping into his office as he nervously rubbed his potbelly.
I was saved by the phone operator.
It was hard to pinpoint Amal’s exact age; her skin was completely hidden under an obscene amount of makeup. She spent all her time trying to make different journalists fall for her. The journalists all took advantage of her, so that they could use the phone whenever they liked, since the paper’s policy only allowed a few minutes per call, after which she was supposed to cut them off. A young journalist might compliment her elegance, then ask her to transfer a call, and she would coyly smile while playing with a strand of the dyed hair that had slipped out from under her veil. I smiled as I asked her about where the incident had happened—in one of the slum neighborhoods around Al-Marg—since she lived in a poor area nearby. She gallantly offered her services, as she assured me that it was close to her home, and that she’d takeme there. Our route started with the subway headed toward Al-Marg, followed by a microbus, then an open vehicle, like the ones used for transporting prisoners. We entered narrow alleys that were filled mostly with two-story houses that leaned against each other. They were scattered at random, with small rooms, some windowless. One could easily spy on the families who lived here. There was not a single room that did not have at least seven people in it.
The room that belonged to the man who’d committed suicide was located in the middle of the street. It was on the ground floor and had no window, but it seemed to have been recently painted white, which distinguished it from the surrounding houses. The noose was still in place; a thick rope dangling from a cracked ceiling that looked like it was ready to collapse. The rope ended in a secure noose, as if the person who’d knotted it had decided to leave no margin for error. Yet despite its oppressive presence, this was not the focal point of the room. The real focal point was the walls, where a mural had been etched using a range of materials and colors!
The room’s cracked walls were completely filled with drawings. Some were colored, and others had been done in charcoal: natural landscapes of vegetation and birds and trees, a rural atmosphere, and the face of a young girl with huge black kohl-lined eyes and long black bedu hair. Her picture was echoed all over the walls. On other places, there were charcoal drawings of a group of squatting women of different ages, all cloaked in black. I felt these beautiful drawings didn’t match the place’s filthy atmosphere and the unpleasant odors that filled every corner. It was as if the reason behind the drawings’ simple beauty was their presence amidst all the squalor that reigned in that filthy alley!
— Do you remember that room in Al-Marg, Aisha?
When Aisha straightened her back after bending down, she had to support it with one hand to keep it from breaking. She suffered from enough pain as it was, and was continually going to doctors and hospitals without knowing what exactly ailed her. She was as lithe as she’d always been, despite her wider backside. She was no longer the young, thin girl she’d been, but her body had not thickened, since she’d continued her hard labor in people’s homes. She cast an admonishing glance at me, as if to say: “How could I forget?” Still, she bent back down and went on chattering about the daughters and sons who’d grown up and whose need for more money had grown with them. She moved on to politics, speaking with the confidence of a guest on a TV talk show. Aisha no longer listened to me, or answered my questions as she’d done in the past, when she’d first moved in to work in my home two decades ago. She moved in with me again after my marriage. Aisha knew more about my daughter than she knew about her own children. And yet she no longer asked about her. I don’t know what’s happened to you, Aisha!
The news report said that the man who’d committed suicide was named Sabry, and that he’d worked as a housepainter. He’d committed suicide because of financial difficulties. The owner of the grocery shop near his house volunteered to comment after he’d recognized Amal, my guide in this very private area, where it was hard for any outsider to wander freely. Hajj Saeed, the grocer, confirmed that the police had not yet reached any conclusions about the reason for the suicide. That’s why the scene of the crime had been left as it was. He made his statements with confidence, as if he were an official in charge. He considered himself responsible for guarding the room and preventing the children and teens from tampering with the place. I asked him about the deceased. He said he had a “special temperament.” Sabry hadn’t paid any attention to the bearded men who came from neighboring areas, calling the young people to prayer. Nor had he taken part in the gatherings of those who drank and smoked hash. He leaned a little towards Amal and said: “God protect us all, he seemed like he was possessed.” Amal beat her chest with the flat of her hand. “Do you mean Sabry, the son of Uncle Ibrahim, who works for the Ministry of Interior?”
Nobody knew what Ibrahim did for a living, and maybe even Ibrahim himself had no idea what his job might be. Yet, despite that, everybody agreed that he worked for the Ministry of Interior. Although Amal was afraid, I insisted on going to the nearby alley where Ibrahim lived. She walked by my side, trying to dissuade me from pursuing this path. She told me what her mother had said about the exorcism sessions that had been held for the deceased—how even the most distant neighbors had heard the djinn screaming, and how his father had made him marry Aisha, so that God would bless him and have mercy on his soul, as the Sheikh had advised. Indeed, the boy had settled down and had four children with Aisha, before reverting to his old habits. I asked: What were these old habits? But I got no answer, save the same story retold in a different way, till we reached the house of the father of the deceased.
In that place, the houses all looked alike: the paint on the outer walls was peeling, which revealed the red bricks beneath. The stone staircases were mostly open to the sky, because, even though the buildings were old, they had not been finished. I climbed the stairs behind Amal without hesitation until we reached the second floor, where Ibrahim’s family lived in one room that was nearly bare. There was no furniture, save a large wooden bed facing the door. Ibrahim sat on the bed, puffing on his cigarette, wearing a dirty white jellabiya. Another young man sat by his side, and they were surrounded by children. A group of women dressed in black were seated on the ground, and there were children there, playing and screaming. It was a scene that perfectly fit the drawings in Sabry’s room. Amal was the key that opened all doors. She hastily introduced me to Ibrahim, who shouted at me, cursing the journalists who had no fear of God. “My son had the best life. I got him a room of his own, for him, his wife, and their four children. He’d never kill himself and sin against God. It must’ve been those junkies that killed him. I told Hisham Pasha to see what happened with those journalists, because I’m not giving up my son’s legal rights.”
I didn’t ask who “Hisham Pasha” was, since the person speaking was “Ibrahim who worked for the Ministry of Interior.” I wasn’t surprised by his rage, as he told me about this son who lived in luxury in a room of his own—when, in this room, ten siblings lived together, and Sabry used to be one of them. I tried to calm him down, telling him I was there to uncover the truth. His anger grew, as did the restless movements of his body, as if he was about to attack me in place of all those who had written about his son.
Once again, we returned to the scene of the crime, where one of the neighborhood teens volunteered: “Excuse me for saying this, but he was a sissy. He’d get upset over the slightest thing and cry like a woman. It was his father and brother who protected him. Without them, he would’ve got beaten to a pulp. But he was kind and gentle, really, and it always seemed like he was in a world of his own. I really liked him…in spite of everything.”
The stories I gathered from the people in the neighborhood who’d known him as a kid suggested he was twenty years old, and that he’d worked as a housepainter in the same slum area. His father had chosen the occupation when he was very young, and he’d became so good at it that his reputation spread to neighboring areas. As a child, Sabry would travel to his deceased mother’s village to visit his uncles. After that, he’d return to his alley, his job, and his life, feeling displeased with everything. He didn’t mingle with people, and he did nothing but draw on walls until his father made him marry when he was barely seventeen, so that he would “toughen and man up” as Ibrahim had said.
Have I told you before, Aisha, what happened to me before my marriage, and before you started working as a maid in people’s homes, when Ibrahim failed to take proper care of you and your children? I used to dream of a different life, Aisha, just as Sabry did. Ever since I’d graduated, I’d had a strong urge to be independent from my family, even if that was only three siblings, my mother, and my father. I wanted to live in a place of my own, governed by my own rules, controlled by no one but me, where I could practice a chaos or order that only I enjoyed, and where I’d know exactly what I wanted for my life without pressure from anyone else. The report I wrote about Sabry’s case was a major reason behind my decision to leave home against my family’s wishes. I moved in with a friend for a while—before I met Basim and got married. We’d shared the same thoughts and ideas, although we both changed after marriage. We succeeded in raising a family, but neither of us felt happy alone with our thoughts. We yearned to fly far from the boundaries of any room, but instead we found ourselves hanging by the noose in Sabry’s room, Aisha! Neither of us was happy with the other’s company all the time, and neither of us felt happy alone. And I couldn’t bring myself to accept the fact that this was simply the way life was!
The abstract idea in itself seems fatal to me, Aisha, but it’s a reality that must be lived. Do you understand me?
How could you understand me, when you couldn’t understand Sabry!
When I first met you, you were a living mural who occupied the void: a thin brunette girl cloaked in black, squatting with her back against the wall. Her body was bound to earth, but her thin neck was twisted towards the sky, gazing at a distant point with wide, dreamy eyes. She looked at me with the astonishment of someone who wasn’t used to strangers. Amal introduced me.
— Aisha, Sabry’s wife, may God have mercy on his soul.
Aisha talked for more than an hour that day. Everybody took part in putting their touches on Sabry’s portrait: the father, the grocer, the neighbors, even my own thoughts and puzzled questions played a part in writing that report. Yet it was Aisha’s face, looking out from the drawings on the walls in Sabry’s room, that was the greatest source of inspiration. Sabry had committed suicide while Aisha and his four small children were asleep in the same room. Aisha had been the last person to see Sabry alive. She was a young girl dressed in black, squatting as three small children of about the same age sat on the ground by her side. The fourth, an infant, lay asleep on her chest. She resembled the charcoal drawings in Sabry’s room, but her eyes were tired, and they didn’t have the dark kohl that lined the eyes in the drawing. She said: “He was very kind to me, and he never upset me. He was always drawing me, but he didn’t talk to me. I swear, I really liked his drawings, but they frightened me at night. My mother told me they’d bring misfortune, and by God, misfortune came. He’d stay without work for weeks on end, Miss, doing absolutely nothing. Eventually, all the foremen got sick of him, and a laborer has nothing but his good reputation. After all, the kids can’t eat stones, Miss, and those drawings of his can’t keep us alive. As soon as my mother suggested an exorcism, he started shouting and smashing everything up. He didn’t calm down till his father gave him a beating and insisted that he cover all those drawings with a coat of paint so he could be rid of the demons that he’d summoned.”
Aisha’s face, the way she sat and held her infant, all those details… Sabry had skillfully drawn them on the walls of his room in his amazing mural. That image has never faded from my memory.
Aisha’s face has changed a lot. Wrinkles have found their way around her eyes, and she’s come to look older than her real age. She used to be a mere child, but her work as a maid accelerated the passage of time, which left its mark upon her complexion. The pains that came from some mysterious source exhausted her even more. I made her tea and prepared her breakfast, and I tried to convince to stop working as a maid. She said: “Your broken back can’t handle the chores, Miss.”
Aisha couldn’t quit working as a maid. Even If I didn’t stop giving her money, others would.
Do you know, Aisha, that yesterday I was about to tie a noose just like Sabry’s? I wanted to be alone, but my husband wanted me to keep him company, as usual. He suffocated me, just like my mother. Do you know that I still want a room of my own, and that I fear Sabry’s fate? What happened that night when he killed himself, Aisha?
Aisha squats as usual, holding her glass of tea between her palms, and twists her neck towards me as if it were made of bamboo, saying: “Your husband has died, Miss. You’re all alone. Even I’m in the hospital, between life and death. It’s just the sudconscious, Miss. It’s the sudconscious.”
Aisha rambles on, as is her habit when she’s in pain. She forgets, so she tries to evade questions by directing her wrath at me. As if she weren’t the reason behind Sabry’s death, as if I was unable to bear that solitude which I’d sought? Aisha won’t remember that I’d asked her the same question in my report, and that her answer had been an indictment of everyone.
–What happened the night he committed suicide, Aisha?
–It was the demons prancing in his mind that killed him, Miss!
His father had insisted that he wipe his mural from existence, and he had to do it before morning. He spent all night finishing his mural, filling out the remaining empty spaces, coloring and shading as he wanted. After he was totally done with his finishing touches, he put an end to his life before he was forced to wipe out his drawings. He had killed himself before they killed him.
The police logged it as a suicide.
My report wasn’t published, of course. Another was published instead, with the headline:
“The Mysterious Suicide of the Housepainter of Al-Marg’s ‘Haunted’ House”
The rooms in my house aren’t like Sabry’s room, Aisha. but the ropes are similar, and the “sudconscious” is also similar. You left without a farewell, as did your husband, and mine, too. He hasn’t returned yet, and all I have left is Sabry’s noose, hanging from the ceiling.
Translator’s note from Enas El-Torky
“A Room of Sabry’s Own” is from Samar Nour’s short-story collection In the House of the Vampire, which won the Sawiris Cultural Award for short stories (in the “senior writers” category) in 2017. In this collection, Nour mixes elements of fantasy, surrealism, and realism. There are several common themes that join the heroes of her stories, such as a longing for individuality, a pressing need for privacy and a personal space, and the mounting pressures of the public space, leading to a loss of security and a sense of being trapped that can lead to death, suicide, or insanity.
“A Room of Sabry’s Own” is based on a true story; as the writer was starting her career in journalism she was reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Her job led her to investigate an incident that had occurred in an impoverished neighborhood, where a young man had committed suicide. He was an artist at heart, living a life that was not his own. Unable to cope with the pressure, he took his own life. These events remained stuck in the back of Nour’s mind for years, till they came out as a short story, mixing elements of reality with imagination.
In the story, Sabry’s suicide is a result of his cramped and suffocating reality. He was trapped in a society that had no understanding or sympathy for his free spirit and artist’s soul. Even the small space inside the walls of his room was not truly his own. When he was cornered and forced to destroy his art, he chose to take his life instead in a symbolic gesture of final liberation and freedom. In parallel lines to Sabry’s story, the narrator, who is also the journalist covering the story, is seeking her own private space. She leaves her family home only to be further crushed in her marital home, where she ends all alone, hallucinating.
Enas El-Torky was born in Cairo, Egypt. After graduating from the department of English language and literature, Ain Shams University, in 1995, she earned her MA (1999) and Ph.D. (2003) in English literature. She worked as a lecturer in the department from 1996-2008. She has published two short story collections; Altalita Ah (Triple Woes), 2014, and Min Hona Tamor AlAhlam (Dreams pass by here), 2016. Her translation of Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger has been published by the Kuwaiti Ibdaat Alamiya Series (International Creativity Series), 2018.
Samar Nour is an Egyptian journalist, novelist and short story writer. She has published two novels; Alsett (The Lady) 2017, and Mahallak Serr (Walking Still) 2013. She has also published several short story collections; Fi Bait Massas Aldemaa (In the House of the Vampire) 2016, Bareeq la Yohtamal (Unbearable Shining) 2008, and Meerage (Rising Passage) 2004. She has been awarded several prizes, of which the most recent has been the Sawiras Cultural Award for short stories – senior writers- 2017 for her short story collection In the House of the Vampire. She has been awarded the prize for Best Cultural Report from the Egyptian Syndicate of Journalists, 2007. She has also won the Naguib Mahfouz prize for short stories from the Egyptian story club, 1997, for her short story The Sorrows of Farah. Her stories have been published in various Egyptian and Arab magazines and newspapers. She is currently head of the culture section of Al Akhbar daily newspaper, and was the Managing Editor of 3 Hawadeet (3 tales) children’s literature periodical.
Copyright Samar Nour and translation copyright Enas El-Torky.