The fourth novel by Jordanian author and gender activist Fadi Zaghmout is set in an alternate universe where people are divided not by gender but by height. In it, a character of middling height appears and throws a short dressmaker’s life into disarray.
A Needle and a Thimble
By Fadi Zaghmout
Translated by Wasan Abdelhaq
Once I realized my need to pour out my love for Tallsy on paper, I knew I didn’t want to write it in our spoken language. I refuse to honor that unjust vocabulary, which denies his existence and fails to find a suitable pronoun to define him. I detest the structure and rules of that language with all its pronouns and verb conjugations deliberately coined to revolve around height, to celebrate it as the ultimate gift, or to denounce it as a haunting curse.
Ours is a divisive language revolving around talls and shorts, ruthlessly and irrevocably discarding all those who fall in between.
That is why, today, I will tell you my story in a new tongue, in a language that doesn’t concern itself with height. A language that embraces and celebrates sex.
This is a language more just to him and more deserving of the love story uniting the two of us. I am aware that, by using this language, I am creating for him a special world different from the one he and I inhabit. I am also aware that, in doing so, I’m hurting others, treating them unjustly. But they don’t concern me. All I want, in sharing my story with you, is to let it live and breathe in a different language—a language befitting a secret, imaginary, kind world in which my beloved is welcome.
As if I were reborn anew
The best love stories start with a crack in the door. I am referring to those legendary tales of love we read about only in history books, where we find ourselves immersed in the force of love. Here, the only thing that separates us is a door that, once it’s opened, offers us the keys to our greatest destiny: as if we were reborn anew.
On the other side of the door is the other half of this love story.
I stand, puzzled, as he gives the door a heavy knock.
“Who is it?” I ask. No answer comes.
I reach for the doorknob, not knowing that that what awaits me will turn my life upside down. And, as cautious as I was in trying to avoid the bitterly cold weather outside, my hands had a different idea, and they opened the door wide, so that I faced someone I had met only in my most intimate dreams.
It didn’t occur to me that this was the moment I was reborn, and it didn’t occur to him, either, that my being was pouring right into his heart. Our love story started without either of us realizing it. It started with a confusion that tinted it throughout.
As my eyes continued to gaze at him, it took me a while to grasp that I was in the presence of a tall who would weaken my heart, shake my knees, and soften my soul.
I would have sent him away if it weren’t for the sadness I spotted in his eyes. And so I surrendered, opened the door as wide as possible, and said, “Hi.”
He gently replied: “Good evening.”
I saw more of him under the light
Quickly, I replied, “Good evening to you too,” as my eyes twinkled under the moonlight.
With a lot of confidence and a broad smile, he reached out his hand towards me. This unorthodox move caught me by surprise, as talls are not allowed to shake hands with us short ones, but I shook his hand, hoping none of the neighbors would see me.
I politely asked him to enter through the door to the right, the one designated for tall people. Then I went back into the house, stepping into the room where we welcomed talls.
I was in a hurry to discover the reason for his unplanned visit. Typically, a curfew that applied only to talls meant that they weren’t allowed the freedom to go out at such a time by themselves.
“Welcome. Would you like to have some tea? Or perhaps you prefer coffee?” I asked.
As a tall, his preference was for tea. So tea it was.
He remained standing in the middle of the room, allowing me to see more of him. Under the light, I could see him more clearly, and I realized there was something odd about his features. Yes, he was tall, but he was more of a medium height, rather than above average. He definitely stood somewhere in the middle, between those who were tall and we who were short. And he was neither thin like talls nor bulky like shorts.
When it came to hair, he followed the norm of his gender, and his sleek hairless head was covered by a cap. A finely drawn line of golden henna started on his forehead and moved down to where his brows meet, complementing his wide, warm hazel eyes—a clear sign of his refined background.
He wore a traditional light blue gown beneath a wool coat that allowed me to see his very thick bones.
I noticed he didn’t take his shoes off at the door. I hesitated for a moment, but then thought, Well, if he is brazen enough not to take off his shoes, which is our custom, then I won’t be shy about asking him to do it.” I have strong views on wearing shoes indoors.
Taking off your shoes at the door keeps the house’s energy and ambiance pure and clear. I knew that talls didn’t like it, but I asked him to do so, pointing to the door.
He politely apologized, then slowly and shamefully walked to the door and took them off.
In that moment, I stood astounded by what I saw. The man was not even that tall! And no! He was not a short, either. He was clearly one of those who stood in the middle ground. A neither-nor.
Inside, I was shivering. All through my 40 years on this earth, I had never met a person of middle height. As a dressmaker, I’ve spent the last 20 years designing gowns that accentuate the beauty of a bulky short and that of a slender tall—never doing so for a person of middle height.
I’d only heard tales about these people, whose genes had gone haywire, shoving them in with the cursed and deformed—the ones we avoid so that we won’t be afflicted by their evil spirit.
I wanted to kick him out and burn some sage to clear the air, but he noticed the fear in my eyes. He paused for a moment, pulled a bouquet of white jasmine from his jacket, and smiled in an attempt to calm me down.
I took the flowers with a smile, asked him to sit down, and told myself to relax.
We both sat down in our designated spots, me on the wide sofa and him right on the narrow chair. As he relaxed, he started to tell me his story.
Something about his height made me attracted to him like a moth to the light
“Please accept my apologies, I know it’s a bit awkward to visit at this hour, but it was the only time I could sneak out by myself. I know you don’t take any clients at night, but I thought I might be lucky this time. I hope I’m not burdening you.”
He paused for a moment in an attempt to read my face. Then he introduced himself: “My name is Talls.” He seemed to expect me to laugh, as the name contradicted reality. “Not so aptly named, I know.”
I laughed and nodded, signaling him to go on with his story.
“As a teenager, I assumed I’ll be taller, since my height surpassed that of a short. But for some reason, my body was done. I realized I was clearly in this mid-range for good. Back then, we lost my father, and my mother went through a period of financial unrest. This made it hard for her, a depressed widow, to pay any attention to my height issue and to fix it with growth hormones. Our family, the The Skys, helped us through this crisis, and we managed to regain our footing, financially, but my height remained the one catastrophic happening that we couldn’t fix or handle in any way. It was hard on my mother, since I was her favorite, and she repeatedly refused to shun me or send me to live abroad, as everyone around her suggested. My mother had been through something like this before with her brother, who was also of middling height, and that was before the government got firmer in coming to grips with height-related killings. The family sent her brother abroad in the way that wealthy families used to do, in order to escape the harsh reality and those sorts of crimes.”
Millions of questions were running through my head: Is it hereditary? Are you able to function like a normal human being? Does it affect your mental abilities? Is this a punishment from God to you and your family?
I knew I couldn’t ask all these questions at once.
“I didn’t want to confess that a new moon had entered my orbit.”
Rocky, my assistant, knew that I had feelings for Talls even before I did. She knows me too well and could read all my expressions.
Although Rocky was closed-minded, much like the rock she was named for, she was still witty, energetic, and fast-paced—despite her dense figure. She was wide-breasted and short, with thick thighs and chunky behind, yet she managed to move around so lightly that she looked like a butterfly.
Right after Talls left the talls room, she snuck up behind me, covered my eyes with her palms, and jokingly asked, “Who am I?”
I removed her hands and smiled at her before I asked, “What time is it, Rocky?”
“What time is it? It’s nine thirty! Good morning, Madam!”
“Good morning, lovely!” I answered jokingly, playing along as she continued to tease me the way she did whenever she caught me lost in thought.
“You’re late,” I said, teasing her back.
She laughed. “Oh no, I was waiting for you to land! Where have you been, birdie?” Although I am more of a T-rex than a birdie.
I didn’t answer. I was too shy to confess that a new moon had entered my orbit. I was about to fly off into a world where I dreamed of Talls.
“I know that look,” she said, ambushing me, not giving me time to consider my answer.
I kept evading until she bluntly asked if I liked him.
Then I gave up. “I’m still not sure,” I said, even though I knew she wouldn’t believe me.
“But relationships with clients are a red line,” she said. “You’ve been through this before with your ex.”
I promised her that I’d learned my lesson well, but nothing could make her believe me.
“Anyhow, I don’t know what you see in him.”
I didn’t want to confess to her or anyone that what attracted me most was actually his middling height. I was in denial, and I could only imagine how she might react if I gave such an answer. I could see her getting furious, her eyes almost popping off her face and her mouth twisting up like a pretzel. I could imagine her fury, her disgust, and er awe at what I’d say. Not only that, I was sure she would start calling me a devil’s minion.
I didn’t need all that drama. But I was baffled by his existence and amazed at his story. And Rocky was not only my assistant, but also my best friend and my first confidant. Although she was late for dinner with her partners, I wanted to tell her Tallsy’s tale.
“Did you notice anything strange about our guest?”
“Something other than his surprise visit, by himself, at an inappropriate time for the talls, and the fact that you allowed him to enter?” she asked sarcastically, thenadded, “If any of my family had done that, it would have been a disaster.”
I didn’t want to argue. So I brought the conversation back to what I’d wanted to discuss before. “What about his height?”
She answered with disgust. “Mmm, I noticed he was neither tall nor short,” adding, “And he was a bit ugly.”
“He is not!” I found myself defending him, while also knowing that what I was about to say would make him even uglier in her eyes.
“Beauty is relative,” I reminded her. And before she could interrupt me, I said: “Actually, he’s shorter than he looks.”
“Shorter than he looks? What do you mean?” Her pupils dilated again, and she added. excitedly. “Any shorter than he looks makes him cursed. Is he cursed?”
I hesitated over my answer, because I was afraid of her reaction, but in any case she didn’t wait for my answer, but took my silence as confirmation.
“Oh my God!” Her eyes were about to explode right there in their sockets, as if some great misfortune had befallen her. She cried out, “What’s wrong with you today? Have you gone mad, welcoming one of those people into your home? And you like him, too?” I was used to her overreactions.
“Calm down,” I said lightly. “Take a deep breath and calm down.”
I knew that my calm might provoke her, but also that she wouldn’t go too far with me, since I was her boss. But she was stubborn. She left the room, walking to the kitchen and returning after a few minutes with an incense burner in one hand, walking around while muttering phrases that would presumably repel demons.
I let her finish what she was doing, knowing in my heart she was a hopeless case. There was no point in telling her that I liked him. She wouldn’t understand me. She wouldn’t sympathize or accept him. Despite that realization, I found myself telling her his story, after she’d finished her fifth circuit around the room and climbed into the stubby seat that barely held her. She sat in front of me, gasping for breath as she listened to me.
I recounted the entire story, with all the details Tallsy had told me. And despite my deep sympathy for him, he still confused me.
I expected her to be intrigued and ask questions, but she only heard what she wanted to hear. She wasn’t ready to consider anything that was different from her personal convictions. She waited for me to finish my story and then said, softly: “It’s all nonsense. I don’t believe a word of his story. If there’s any truth in it, I still don’t trust people like him, and I won’t sympathize with him.”
Rocky leapt out of her seat as she looked at her watch, ignoring my look of disapproval. “I have to leave now. It’s too late.” Then she raised her index finger in the air, nervously pointing at me. “And I promise you that you won’t help this Tallsy. You won’t welcome him into this house after today.”
Fadi Zaghmout is a Jordanian author and gender activist. He holds an MA in Creative Writing and Critical Thinking from Sussex University in the UK. He has 4 published novels: The Bride of Amman, Heaven on Earth, Laila, and Ibra wa Kushtuban. His work has been translated to English, French and Italian. In 2021, Fadi was one of the finalists for UK Alumni Global Awards under the category of social impact.
Wasan Abdelhaq is a creative writer, editor and translator. She worked with several national and international NGO’s in Amman, and government entities in Dubai. In addition to English, Wasan is proficient in Spanish and French, and has won first place in a 2005 short story contest by the Spanish Ministry of Culture.