An Excerpt from Khalil Alrez’s ‘The Russian Quarter’

The new anthology Russian-Arab Worlds, edited by Eileen Kane, Masha Kirasirova, and Margaret Litvin, is out this month from Oxford University Press. It includes, among other things, a conversation between Litvin and Syrian novelist Khalil Alrez, and a few excerpts from Alrez’s novel, The Russian Quarter.

For those who are in Berlin, on Thursday, June 29, Khalil Alrez will be reading at Khan Aljanub bookstore in Berlin from The Russian Quarter (2019) and also from his newer novel, Strawberry-Spotted Handkerchief (2022), which features Arab students in Moscow. The event will start at 6 p.m. Alrez will answer questions about the books, and Litvin is happy to discuss the translations-in-progress.

Then, on Friday, June 30, there will be a Russian-Arab Worlds launch party at EUME in Berlin, starting at 3 p.m.

The Giraffe and Nonna

By Khalil Alrez

Translated by Margaret Litvin

Nonna and her scallions were two important events in the life of the giraffe. My table had never lacked scallions, especially in the spring – either in the vegetable bowl with the green pepper, radishes, and pea sprouts next to my bowl of yogurt and rice; or in with the peas and carrots stewed in tomato juice; or minced with parsley and fried onions into patties of bulgur or lentil tshika; or perhaps on its own, dropped with a sprinkling of salt into a hot pita. The giraffe would follow along with her usual intense curiosity as I ate my supper in front of her on the roof, enveloped in an aroma of scallions that no one else in the zoo seemed to feel, expect, or sense. I never noticed how hungrily the giraffe would inhale my breath whenever I patted her face and ruffled her mane after supper. I would put the wicker chair at the edge of the roof and sit opposite her, just as though I had not yet supped at all. Before Nonna came I could draw no connection, not even the slimmest, between the giraffe’s enthusiastic sniffing and the scent of scallions I radiated — in fact, it had pleased me to be the sole target of her warm feelings. Whereas Nonna figured out the giraffe’s love of scallions right away, from their first meeting.

She had preceded me up the stairs to my room on the zoo roof, because I had first detoured to Victor Ivanitch’s office to drop off the bundle of newspapers. The length of the stairway to the roof allowed me to catch up with her at the very top, catching a first glimpse of her back in the golden yellow dress with blond locks overflowing onto her shoulders.

As soon as she saw the giraffe’s head facing her from the edge of the opposite roof, she gasped with surprise. She reached out a hand for the bouquet of scallions, took it from me without thought or hesitation, and approached the giraffe as one approaches a huge, beloved aunt. Then, stalk by stalk, in leisurely fashion, she began feeding her the whole green bundle.

I had often noticed how the giraffe chewed grass stems or leaves distractedly, her eyes clouded over with one steady endless thought. Sometimes I would bring a clump of her grass up to the roof so that we could have supper tête-a-tête, but even then she was distracted the whole time she ate by her one long and probably boring thought. Now, with the first scallion she took from Nonna’s hand, I waited for the same old familiar thought to possess her mind. But this time she kept chewing the scallion and smacking her lips for a long time, her eyes shining as though with feelings and images that were new, sweeter and more delicious. Then she seemed to be so involved with her fresh and fragrant morsel that she began murmuring to us, and perhaps to herself, in soft and firm tones that flowed from her flattened nostrils.

As she swallowed her first scallion and began on the second, with the same lip-smacking care, I considered, watching her old boring thought vanish from her eyes, that Victor Ivanitch would certainly refuse to change her diet of faded grass and withered leaves. No, he would never agree to feed her scallions, no matter how much he respected her as the hugest being, not only in the Russian Quarter, but in the whole Old City of Damascus. As the general director of the zoo and editor of its wall newspaper, he always looked at every little coin with eyes for the black day that might never come, but might come at any moment. Our allocation from the Russian Quarter municipal budget barely covered our minimum expenses. As for Borya, the zoo couldn’t rely on his financial assistance for any kind of planning; his help simply didn’t come regularly enough, even if it was true that he largely kept the zoo carnivores fed with his haul of game during hunting season. “But he leaves their jaws hanging open for the whole rest of the year, so what am I supposed to do with that?” Victor Ivanitch complained one day in the wall newspaper’s opening editorial, even though, in fact, our only carnivores were a hyena, a grumpy and unhungry fox, a pair of elderly wolves, and three black eagles that usually made do with the harvest of the zoo’s rat traps. In short there was no use bringing up the matter of scallions for the giraffe with Victor Ivanitch. And notwithstanding her faith in and affection for the giraffe, many reasons made it difficult, not to say impossible, for Nonna to provide twenty-five kilograms of scallions per day at her own personal expense. However, after a very brief back-and-forth with me she determined to continue to offer her scallions every day as a fresh dessert after her long and withered main meal. That very day she began setting aside one bunch for her every evening.

But Nonna’s friendship with the giraffe went beyond scallions. …

Also read:

From ‘Russian-Arab Literary Worlds,’ A Talk with Khalil Alrez

On Asymptote: Margaret Litvin on Khalil Alrez

The companion website for Russian-Arab Worlds