Sherif Abdel Samad’s تشيخوف و السيدة صاحبة الشيواوا was published last year by Kotob Khan Books. An excerpt of the novel — set around Anton Chekhov’s visit to Port Said — appears here in Abdel Samad’s own translation:
By Sherif Abdel Samad
tr. Sherif Abdel Samad
About the novel:
Shortly before his death in 1904, Russian writer Anton Chekhov travels to the coastal and cosmopolitan city of Port Said to ease his tuberculosis-infested lungs. Chekhov spends most of his days in a house on the beach. A French nurse attends to his needs and encourages him to venture out of the house and explore the city. After he makes the acquaintance of three sisters, who dwell in a neighboring house, as well as their brother, who dreams of becoming the first Arabic novelist, he begins to take small interest in his immediate surroundings. A strange encounter with an Australian writer called Coetzee, who has been roaming around the house, induces Chekhov to eventually drop his guard.
He ventures into the city, without knowing he’s raised the suspicions of local authorities, who suspect he wants to stir up trouble. Egypt is in turmoil. The twentieth anniversary of the British invasion is looming. Chekhov eventually travels with the sisters to Cairo, where demonstrations against the Khedive are taking place, and where he finds himself embroiled in mayhem.
Wherever he goes, Chekhov finds himself entangled with the problems and dreams of people he meets at seeming random: peasants, artists, officers, anarchists, and young lovers.
The novel is an homage to Chekhov and his writings, as well as to the art of storytelling.
Chekhov and the Lady with the Chihuahua
I want to cry out, loudly, that I — a famous man — have been sentenced by fate to the death penalty.
Anton Chekhov: A dreary story
Through reddish watery eyes, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov glanced at the cautious waves that seemed mindful not to trespass the threshold of the beach, where rubbish fluttered in from afar, covered in sand and flea-infested cats that hissed and clawed at whatever they could reach.
The weather was autumnally mild. The waves hummed, as if objecting to their fate as sacrificial tokens at a mundane altar, surly dragged to the beach like some truculent donkey by a Russian peasant, while the birds wavered in the skies for hours, mulling the possibility of traveling to distant lands, weighing out pros and cons before deciding against it at the very last moment.
From the sea, his eyes wandered to the French girl cowering on the floor near his feet, sewing an old frock that must have been dear to her, immersed in the meditative act of wrapping the undetectable thread around the needle, while distant trains of thoughts — only God knows what — traveled through her head.
She’d been given many tasks around the house: To start with, the role of a servant and a nurse, although she also had a knack for the art of storytelling, sometimes even donning the hat of a jester, like those kept in royal courts, assigned to keep their king in high spirits, grasping onto their wild mood swings before they turned sour.
But her tricks had fallen short of late, as his despair and discontent took a greater and greater hold of him, especially during the bleak afternoons, when the light of day dimmed ever so slowly, seeming as if it would never make way for the night.
Having escaped his Siberian exile — as he called it — in Yalta, where he’d been forced to spend every autumn and winterso that his worn-out lungs could recuperate,Anton Pavlovich Chekhov had been full of optimism when he’d first arrived in Port Said about a month before. Yet despair and grief soon caught up with him in his new exile. And it turned out that the change of scenery did not, after all, make such a difference. His dreams of wandering the Orient, enshrouded in the mystical legends that had brought him here in the first place, soon evaporated, having turned out to be mere farce.
Since his arrival, he had barely left the little hut he rented by the sea. Time passed as slowly as a life-sentence.“Every day, I ask myself, ‘What brought me to this dreary town?’” he muttered. “It’s duller than Yalta.”
Without lifting her eyes, Lilli, the French girl, chided him lightly, as a mother would her child, though she was at least twenty years his junior, probably twenty-two or twenty-three.
“You shouldn’t talk so, Master Chekhov. You know the weather is good for you.”
“But the sea,” he muttered. “It’s so empty.”
By then, she had grown used to his unpredictable trains of thought, his intermittent speech and silence, his abrupt and incoherent utterances.
He did not care for the sea. He would rather sit somewhere nice and listen to merry music.
He contemplated her peaceful and tender face as she concentrated on threading the needle. In practically no time,he had deemed her intelligent and funny, and had become accustomed to her company. Thank goodness she had not turned out to be a boring old hag, to be avoided like a bitter medicine. When she was introduced to him by the Russian Consul in Cairo, Mr. Ivan Isovic, who leased the house and appointed her to his care, he had promised that she would be at his command at any time, remarking that she had a way with people. She had also read all his work, he said, though Chekhov did not really care whether she had or hadn’t. At least she was tactful enough not to mention it in his presence.
Fortunately, he was not attracted to her. He could not bear the thought of feeling an attraction at this stage. She was relatively short, with long red hair. Her face was full of freckles, and she had green eyes with tiny black dots.
“What good have women done me?” he asked himself. He had lately gotten in the habit of uttering his thoughts out loud, like an old man who was accustomed to reliving memories he had long suppressed and could no longer keep at bay.
“Did you say something, Master Chekhov?”
“No,” he mumbled, and tugged a scarf snugly around his neck to protect him from the chilly breeze whooshing over from Constantinople. “Not a word,” he said.
His eyes wandered again to the empty beach and he asked himself, for the thousandth time, why, of all the cities in the world, he had chosen this coastal town. If only they had a real autumn, like Moscow’s.
She raised her gaze and exhaled a light breath, which he knew carried some impatience. She tried to feign a look of interest, but she seemed tired.
“If you refuse to talk to me, I’ll go crazy.”
“But I don’t refuse to talk to you.”
Instantly, she rose, laid her frock aside and, as any woman obliged to alleviate her man’s pain and tune herself according to his mood, sat down beside him and proceeded to soothe him, taking up the tone of an adult explaining to a child why he can’t go to the carnival.
“You know, this is only temporary. As soon as you are fit and well, you can return to your beloved Moscow.”
“Moscow,” he uttered melancholically, like Masha in “The Three Sisters.”
He had finally turned into one of his own characters, the oneshe had mercilessly crafted over the years and who had now come to haunt him, gleefully teasing and taunting, “Now you’re desperate and jaded like us. See, you are no better!”
In the fireplace, the wood rustled and crackled, like bones being crushed, before turning into ashes. Meanwhile, hordes of waves had mobilized outside. as if after a long siege, their arsenal finally ready to invade the beach, knowing that no power on earth could stand in their way.
“Maybe if you tried mingling, you would find that people here are no different from Russians,” she tried. “Maybe you would find that life is the same.”
“You call this life?” he retorted, with an unfamiliar heaviness. “I feel like this Egyptian officer[i], whom Jules Verne defended.”
She pulled his hand and shook it softly. “Oh, you’re so sad, Master Chekhov. I don’t know what to do anymore.”
Like a sulky child, she curled her lips before gently squeezing his hand and fixating shyly on his eyes, like a woman expecting to be rejected. She mulled over what she was about to say while he thought, ruefully, that he had brought this upon himself.
“Listen, you and Olga will have another baby… And then life will change. You’ll see.”
There it was. Finally, she had spat out what she’d wanted to say all along, probably from the moment she had set eyes on him. Surely the Consul must have informed her.
He brushed it off with a slight nod to make her stop talking. And when she persisted with a look of pity, he creased his face into a forced smile, withdrew his hand from hers and looked away.
Warily, she rushed into the open kitchen that overlooked the living area and tied an apron behind her back, only to have a change of heart and return with new resolve.
“I have a suggestion for you.”
He frowned in anticipation.
“There is a physician who listens to people’s problems. She’s like Freud, you know. She helps them and gives them advice on how to change their lives. A friend of mine saw her recently and–”
“I have not lost it quite yet, Lilli.”
“But it’s not about losing it,” she said hastily. “Ordinary people go to her. Like in your story. Traders, army officers, physicians.”
“And what have you prepared for lunch?” he asked firmly, terminating the subject at once.
“I’ll prepare you an Egyptian treat that will make you devour your fingers afterward, as the Egyptians say,” she announced, swiftly bouncing back.
As she scuttled to the stove, he thought that she would have succeeded as a diplomat, going from one royal court to the next, mediating between monarchs with rotten psyches.
As he dozed, he heard her complain of the house’s never-ending dust.
Then he watched her, pityingly, as she crouched down on the floor, her broad bottom sticking out, not displaying any canny diplomacy now as she stuck her head into the oven and struggled to start the fire.
In the end, she rose and examined the gas valve, crouched back down, and hit her head against the ventilation pipe.
“I can’t get it to work,” she whined, as a child would, rubbing her head and expecting instant relief from a savior adult.
He could not contain a crooked smirk as he strolled to her aid. After she handed him a lit match, he knelt down beside her and carefully placed the match in the vent. Almost instantly, the fire sparked, with a bang so loud that he tilted his head back, startled.
“Are you trying to kill me?” he shouted. “You’ve left the gas on this entire time.”
“I’m sorry, Master Chekhov.”
He stared at her in disbelief, before rising tiredly. “After a long struggle with illness, Russian writer Anton Chekhov departed the world in a boring Egyptian coastal town, following a tragic accident in his kitchen, caused by his French nurse, which, investigations later proved, had been a deliberate act, so that she would no longer have to put up with his never-ending complaints about the evanescence of life.”
Sitting at the kitchen table, she cackled and began picking up green leaves, plucking them from their stems.
“Why don’t you help me chop molokheyya instead of giving way to your wild fantasies?”
In the coming half hour, they went at separating ripe leaves from the withering ones while Lilli cheerfully babbled, keeping him up-to-date with the people she had met in the market, whom he did not know, filling him in on their backgrounds, their beliefs, and their grudges against one another. As her plucking took on a more mechanical pace, she mentioned that she had finished one of his stories the night before.
It revolved around a young man who had whispered to a young woman that he loved her while they were ice-skating, and then pretended that he had not said anything.
“Can I try?” he asked her, unaffected by what she had read, as he observed her with interest, chopping leaves in synchronized up-and-down movements.
She handed him the mincing knife. But his arms swung awkwardly, as if he were attempting a complicated Russian dance.
“Not like that.” She tried to direct him. “You have to find your rhythm. And watch out or you’ll scratch the table. What was I saying? Ah. The story. Was it just a joke, as you put it?”
His focus was entirely on the strange saber he could not control.
“The man who skated with the woman.”
“Yes. I mean, no.”
“Why did you call it a joke then?”
“Because that’s how he viewed it.”
“So he didn’t love her?”
He shook his shoulders.
“What, didn’t you write the story?”
“Writers are not always aware of their protagonists’ intentions,” he said as he admiringly removed the chopped molokheyya leftovers.
To save time, she snatched the tool from him. The clock was nearing midday, and the Consul had instructed her that he should take his meals three times a day at regular hours.
“Anyhow, it reminded me of my fiancée. He also said he loved me. He said lots of things, actually.”
Her chopping took on a more professional note. “You shouldn’t say such things if you don’t mean them.”
He glanced at her to assess whether he should take her contemplations seriously. Her face had grown more pensive and gloomy.
“You want to talk about it?” he asked. “I’m a good listener.”
“I know you are. Or you wouldn’t have written all these stories.”
She took off her apron, put the pan on the stove, and walked to her room. She returned with a wine glass and stood frozen on the terrace, watching the waves sway, curling and uncurling. Usually, in situations like these, he would grab a pen and craft another story about the trials and errors of love. But he had to finish his play first. Olga had asked him to write a comedy, to fulfill the spectators’ expectations. And he had promised her a role that would outshine even that of Masha in “The Three Sisters.”
He felt this play would probably be his last, somehow. Hopefully, it would not be as catastrophic as “The Seagull.” Since “The Seagull,” he had become nervous about the performance of his plays. At the premiere, the actors had not memorized their lines, nor had they managed to grasp the play. Even the great directors, like Konstantin Stanislavski, didn’t get it.
That evening, he had invited the real people who had inspired his characters to watch, without prior warning. But after the horrific performance, he had fled, ruefully, swearing to never again write for the theater. He then wrote “The Three Sisters.”
While the molokheyya gradually boiled, he began to edit the draft of “The Cherry Orchard,” a play that revolved around an old lady from Russia’s withering aristocracy who discovers that she has gone bankrupt and that nothing will save her except leasing her land. To ensure that her property is not snatched away, she must chop down her family’s pride and joy, her favorite orchard tree.
But an hour had passed, and the words failed to materialize. He only managed to turn around an expression here and there, and to cut off some redundant dialogue, until the midday prayer torpedoed out of the sky from a mosque he could not locate with his eyes. Then Lilli called for lunch. “This is the second call to prayer. It must be half past twelve now.”
He took a seat opposite her at the kitchen table, covered with a white cloth and old newspapers, so he would not spill the molokheyya, which he stared at in abhorrence.
“Are you sure the Egyptians prepare it this way?” he asked warily, stirring it in curvy diagrams with his spoon.
He pulled himself together and suppressed the image of snot that the dish provoked in his mind.
“What do you think?”
He smiled bitterly. “It’s just so sludgy.”
“Try to dip some bread in it, like this.” She creased a little piece of bread to absorb the fluid, but when he imitated her, he inadvertently dropped it in his bowl and had to fish it out with his spoon.
“I don’t know what to cook for you anymore. You’re driving me mad. And you don’t eat enough to sustain yourself.”
“Why don’t you tell me about your fiancée?”
“Ex-fiancée. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“But you know everything about me, and I don’t have the slightest clue about you.”
“That’s not true. You could ask me anything about my childhood, if you wanted.”
She listlessly stoked her food with her spoon, having also forfeited her appetite. “There’s really nothing to tell. The guy kept me on the back burner, then disappeared. Whenever I think about it, I get angry.”
Usually at moments like this, he would offer pats on the shoulder and drop a comforting line or two.
“Anyway, we weren’t compatible,” she continued. “There are so many things I’d like to say to him. But what good would that do?”
Just another failed love story, like the dozens he’devoked in his writing.
“You’ll get over him,” he mumbled.
While she was washing the dishes, lost in thought, she went back to the subject that he’d insisted on raising.
“What I’d like to understand is: Why did he say he loved me? Why would you say something like that if you didn’t really mean it?”
She fixed her eyes on him, since he’d written a story about a boy who whispered in a girl’s ear while they were ice-skating, saying that he loved her, and called it a joke.
“You’ll find someone better, Lilli.”
…After she finished the dishes, she wearily balled up her apron and threw it on the kitchen table before buzzing off to her room without a single word — as if he had forced her into doing something she loathed, he thought, guilt gnawing away at his conscience as she closed the door.
Sherif Abdel Samad (born 1979) is a writer, critic and journalist, living in Cairo. He holds a PhD in American Studies from the Free University of Berlin. Chekhov and the Lady with the Chihuahua is his third novel.