Belal Fadl’s sharply funny “As Per Job Description,” in Mahmoud Younes’s translation, was shortlisted for the 2020 ArabLit Story Prize and appeared in the Winter 2020 DREAMS issue of ArabLit Quarterly.
Here, for the first time, it’s online.
As Per Job Description
By Belal Fadl
Translated by Mahmoud Younes
The proposed procedure was not critical, but it was awkward, due to the location of the abscess, and so when I would tell a friend or a relative that I would have an operation to drain an abscess, a complication of my diabetes, I would say that the abscess was located in my upper thigh, as it was hardly necessary that they know the true location, below the testicle, especially since to merely utter the word “testicle,” such that it falls on the ears of men, will spark an incomprehensible urge to hysterically laugh, even if it is mentioned in a medical context.
My attending physician chose the French Qasr al-Aini Hospital for the operation, despite my repeatedly expressed concerns about the neglect that is common in public hospitals, and which might lead to an unpleasant infection. The doctor noticed my panic at the word surgery, and so when making the referral, he was careful to answer all my questions and provided detailed information about the hospital, in which all his operations were performed. However, he did not tell me about the shave I was to undergo before going under the knife. This is why I had to call him after seeing such a decent and smiling man enter my room uninvited, telling me he was the hospital barber, asking me to remove the bedsheet to prepare for the operation, and, because he seemed so sure of himself, I decided it was wiser to postpone his expulsion until after I had called my doctor.
My doctor reassured me that the operation would be performed while I was under an anesthetic that would paralyze the senses in the lower half of my body, and that removing the body hair around the surrounding area was standard and routing procedure, and that I did not need to worry at all, and in fact I was not worried, I was embarrassed, or if you want to get really specific, I felt deflowered, and that’s why I wanted to get through this shit as soon as possible.
The barber, who looked to be almost sixty years old, had enough experience to be familiar with the embarrassment and distress I was in, and attempting to comfort me, he said that I should deal with the matter as though I were a groom being prepared for his wedding night, and it was not until he had uttered the words that he noticed that it might be the wrong description for my situation. However, he decided to cleverly change the subject, and started talking about himself and his career, which I had never imagined the existence of until this moment.
I closed my eyes for a moment, and then I took off my clothes and surrendered to my fate. And then, on second thought, I found it unwise to surrender my lower half to someone while my eyes were closed, even if he were a hospital barber aged around sixty, so I opened my eyes wide as I carefully watched how he diligently cleaned the area around the abscess, while he narrated his progress like a skilled radio actor, talking about the experiences that had come to link his life to hospitals, even though he had hated nothing so much in his life as entering hospitals, but there he remained, hating his daily commute, which he only accepted because of the collapse of the building where he had his salon in the 1992 earthquake, putting an end to a family business that had stood for generations, but after working in the hospital for a while, the barber’s feelings had changed, as he discovered he was no longer required to stay in his salon for long hours to earn his livelihood. Instead, he now worked in shifts, at the end of which he was free to go home and enjoy time with family, which he had not tried before. He discovered, after several months, that his regular hospital work spared them visits to doctors and clinics, with associated expenses, waste of time, and conflicting medical opinions, thanks to the medical expertise he gained with the likes of several “cases and places, may God heal us,” so much that he even dreamed of opening a medical school in order to join it, so that he could shift his career into a reputable practice of traditional medicine, unlike his unsuccessful grandfather, whose unremarkable history of failed circumcisions haunted the family to that day.
The barber cut off his stories abruptly, saying, “Excuse me, this will only be a moment.” I did not understand what he was getting at, but he did not wait for me to understand, but rather he grabbed my penis from the middle of the shaft and lifted it, steadily and confidently, with a remarkable self-control, and began to shave around it, and when he noticed my wretched confusion, as I did not expect the razor to come this close to the abscess, the barber apologized, saying it was the doctor’s instructions, as a precaution against any developments that may take place during the procedure, and when he realized this statement was rather vague, and it raised concerns about the intentions of a doctor whose reputation I never questioned, but whose history of mental or psychological health I did not know, the expert barber added, with a smile, “It’s even better, you know it’s an Islamic obligation to shave pubic hair, a practice that is rewarded in heaven.” To avoid unnecessary scholastic debate about the difference between obligations and recommendations, he masterfully changed the subject to reveal another professional secret, that was, the huge mistake some novice barbers made in similar situations, grabbing patient’s penis by the head, excusing his language, as this would alert the patient’s nerves, and an unwanted erection would make the situation even more embarrassing, the barber said, without denying that he had gone through such embarrassments at the start of his professional career. It was only after experimentation that the barber had discovered that grabbing the penis by the middle was safer and better for the three of them: the barber, the patient, and the penis.
The barber then noticed how his words were troubling me even more, and thus he decided to assure me that all patients, men and women, felt embarrassed when their genitalia had to be shaved because there was no other option, as the patients forget that, because of habit and repetition, he has changed how he looks at genitalia, and no longer associates them with privacy and shame. It was just a part of the body, “like any other part of the body,” he said, adding that in any case the embarrassment of the men was more merciful than the embarrassment of the women, which was compounded by the distress of their husbands and relatives to such an extent that they might even reject his services altogether, leaving him waiting outside patient’s room until the resolution of the debate between relatives and the doctor, which often ended with him handing over the shaving tools to the relatives, to do it on their own, while he had to be satisfied with standing outside, waiting to have his tools back, and trying to suppress his anger at those fools who believed that what he had been about to see was a “great treasure,” that no one possessed outside of their women. He believed that these relatives were blinded by backward thinking, which made them unable to understand that he was no different from the doctor, the anesthesiologist, or the nursing staff, and that if the hospital were to call him a “cosmetic specialist,” instead of a barber, then he would be treated differently, with no one daring to raise concerns or objections, but, “to these people, ignorance is wisdom.”
The barber finished his quick and neat work around the area of the abscess, its sides and surroundings, then covered me up with the bedsheet and began the full application of antiseptic to my thighs and legs, in line with doctor’s instructions, and as complementary to his main task, or so he said. He smiled, adding that he usually didn’t like to chitchat with “my patients,” but it was difficult to find a barber who didn’t like to chat, and it was such an uncommon trait that it used to cause him problems with certain customers in the barbershop, who considered his silence a sign of his disgust for him. Now, his work in the hospital had led him to change this habit, as he realized that patients were at the height of nervous tension before going into the operating room, and therefore he began to talk to his patients, especially if the patient was to undergo a procedure in such an awkward location “just like yours, Sir.” Moreover, he was looking forward to God adding his friendliness with patience to the balance of his good deeds, adding that what bothered him most in his work was that certain patients and relatives misinterpreted his approach and tried to tip him, which he most certainly rejected, as he considered himself to be a member of the medical team, arguing that a medical practitioner who had self-respect would never accept being paid twice; although it was true that some physicians “may they be forgiven,” did graciously accept gifts from patients. Still, at the end of the day, he was no doctor, “not yet.”
While putting back his tools back in his small leather case, which he had held respectfully ever since entering the room, the barber asked me: “Do you know, Sir, who it’s easiest to deal with here in the hospital?” And because I was not going to answer, he hastened to do so: “The dead, may they be pardoned a thousand times.” Noting the wonder on my face, which overcame my reservations, he elaborated enthusiastically that when a patient dies, whether due to a medical error or a natural causes, “may your life be spared,” he is usually sent to one on the morgue team, and they recommend summoning him, even if he is on vacation, because of the good reputation he has earned with his diligence in cleaning and beautifying the dead, so that their families can see them in the best possible shape, and that he always answered the call of duty without hesitation or complaint, without asking for gratitude or reward, because the “heavenly rewards for working with the dead are unmatched.” With a laugh, he added, “Besides, you don’t have to chitchat with the dead, as they are already saved from anxiety, which is for them pointless.” Then he wished me a speedy recovery and left the room, thinking that I would remember this man for the rest of my life, whenever I hated a job or a career, whenever I met someone who hated a job or a career, or whenever I felt stressed.
Mahmoud Younes studied English literature at university and since then has worked in translation as a full-timer by day and freelancer by night.
Belal Fadl is an Egyptian writer and scenarist whose work spans a number of genres and disciplines. He is the author of more than twenty screenplays, fifteen books, three short story collections, and has written numerous journalistic articles and op-eds, most notably for Al-Dostor, Al-Masry Al-Youm, and Al-Shorouk.