The 2021 novel Everyone Says I Love You, by acclaimed Egyptian novelist May Telmissany, was longlisted for the 2023 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. For Women in Translation Month, ArabLit editor Nashwa Nasreldin has translated an excerpt of the novel, which “gets under the skin of five middle-aged, middle class Arab intellectuals living in Canada and America, following the twists and turns of their love lives as they question their choices in life and reflect on (un)faithfulness in romantic relationships.”
By May Telmissany
Translated by Nashwa Nasreldin
As soon as I sat down on the leather-covered train seat, I felt my body instantly relax, all the way from my back to my fingers and toes. I sank into the seat like a huge load had been lifted, or like I was plummeting down a deep hole. Lately, everything had grown too much to bear: my workload, the long hours I spent on my feet in the classroom, sprinting between lecture halls and offices.
Nahed says that I’m making it worse with my atrophying stomach muscles, since this in turn weakens the muscles of the back. “You need to exercise, and to avoid carbohydrates and sugary foods,” she tells me. I listen with half an ear. I love her, and I don’t like to challenge her. And she’s stubborn and not very good at listening. Why should I deprive myself of the joys of life, or what’s left for me to enjoy, when I’m already over sixty? Food. Rest. Following the news from afar. Surrendering to time, to habits, to circumstances.
I’m good at pretending to listen to Nahed, and I smile politely. But I’ve stopped paying attention.
My weekend begins on Wednesday night. Part of it, I spend on the train, traveling to and from the city of Windsor, and the second part I spend in Nahed’s arms. We may not cuddle up anymore, not really, but I still need to feel her in my arms. I love the feel of her—that’s if she lets me touch her; usually, she lets me. She allows our bodies to meet, so long as this stays within the delicate boundaries of light petting, with a few quick pecks on the cheek or the shoulder. Following “Good morning,” and before bed.
Since turning sixty, Nahed has developed a very soothing aura. This suits me well, since I don’t need to try to please her anymore. It has been good for her too, and she’s much more relaxed about how she greets me. It’s this aura of hers that I miss; her smell, sensing her movements around the house, her looks, her smile, her frown, her sudden vigor, the way she slouches in front of the television. Living in estrangement may be lonely, but the memory of her embrace, along with the photos of her that I store on my phone, keep me company. And it’s not really estrangement, since we’re only a few hours apart by train or car. It won’t be long until I’m home in Toronto, ready to welcome the Canadian summer. Calm, happy, and cold. I look forward to the warmth of the home where Nahed lives. My home too, so to speak.
Passengers come and go along the aisle in the middle of the rows of seats; two seats to the right and two to the left. The movement is dizzying. I close my eyes and surrender to the comfort of my own seat. The word “alienation” comes to mind. What kind of estrangement is this, when we both live in the same country, in Canada, the country of foreigners and immigrants of all races and genders? “That’s not true,” I hear Nahed reproach. “We each live in a separate city.” Then she adds: “Do you call this a life?” I’ve spent twenty-five years in a city that’s a four-hour train journey from the city where Nahed lives. I live in Windsor, on the border between the province of Ontario and the state of Michigan. She is in Toronto, Ontario’s capital.
Twenty-five years, my God! I wonder how much of this life has been spent in train stations, and how long we have left?
But I exaggerate. My life has been spent working, running around, and arguing, as I tried to bridge the gap between our two separate missions in life. It was also spent in the arms of other women, and in yearly trips both within Canada and abroad, as well as traveling to and from Egypt. When I take stock, I see that I’m in a better position now than I was a few years ago, and I feel grateful to Nahed.
Closing my eyes, I allow my imagination to wander as I scroll through the years gone by. To anyone watching, I must look like I’m asleep, or dead, but in fact my mind is buzzing.
It’s been five years since we turned sixty, Nahed and I. Silence took the place of arguing, and the reasons for us to bicker gradually subsided. To us, it seemed as though we had succeeded in keeping our marriage afloat, and that in itself was an achievement that made our friends and acquaintances envious. She continued to work as a manager in the Ministry of Health, busy with her travels between the provinces. As for me, I finish work on a Wednesday night and run for the train.
I reach Toronto a little after midnight and catch a taxi to the house. Nahed will—or won’t—be waiting for me. Those moments of my arrival at the door and entering the house are some of the dearest to my heart. It feels then as though something momentous has been achieved, and as though at the end of the corridor, joy and respite await. The entrance to the house is lit up for me; the house itself is waiting. It’s important for there to be someone or something waiting for you when you return from work. Sometimes, the aroma from the oven wafts over, making me drool as I anticipate the surprise. What did Nahed prepare this time? Okra with beef from Arz Foods, the Lebanese supermarket? Salad and pastries from Salaheddine Bakery? Artichoke with minced meat and cheese from the church restaurant next door? If Nahed is waiting up for me, I kiss her on the cheek and follow her inside. I watch as she carefully prepares a small, sophisticated meal, which she places on the dining table before she sits across from me so we can talk. But if she’s asleep, I take the food out of the oven and devour it in the kitchen, then I take off my clothes and slip into the bed beside her. Usually, when I get into bed, she doesn’t stir. Her sleep is deep, like someone relishing the most pleasant of dreams. This is our form of embrace—my back glued to hers two or three times each week.
Each time I’m joined to her in this way, the same questions pursue me: how much time has passed since our decision to stop making love? Years, I think. Ten years, more or less. Recently, petting took the place of sex, and neither of us is interested in any other form of scuffle. Our marriage transformed into a relationship between roommates, and what resembles a friendship in the bed. We lean on familiarity and affection to help us cope with the absence and long distances. If she ever feels a pang of sadness, or if I experience a sudden burst of foolish desire, I pull her into my arms. She feels my hot breath and pats my shoulder. We smile and withdraw from this attempt at an embrace, as if teetering on the brink of an abyss.
Together for more than forty years. Since she was the girl next door in the Hada’iq Alqubba apartment block, and I was the son of the owner, living in the same building. Sometimes, she’s content to simply look at me or stroke my back and remember the happy days, which make her smile. The fact that we’re still together after all this time and the pain of emigration seems to satisfy her. But who can compensate me for my aching, and for the waning desire in our bodies? And how can my heart be gratified by fragments of emotions and scattered specks of memories?
The clock on my cell phone says that ten minutes have passed since the train left the station. Only ten minutes? It seems that the train heading east will be more dizzying than usual. I realize that I’m sitting against the direction of travel and it feels as if I’m moving backwards. What luck! How did I forget to check the seat and direction when I booked the ticket? I chose a window seat and forgot to check which direction it faced. As soon as I realize this, I feel dizzy. It’s definitely psychological, I say to reassure myself. But I’m ready and prepared as always. I take a small box of ginger-flavored anti-nausea tablets from my leather medicine bag and place a pill under my tongue. The pill is the size of a mint candy, enough to calm the appetite and to numb the nerves, if only for a while.
The window seat opposite mine is free. I’ll wait for the train to arrive at the next station. If no one gets on and takes that seat, then I’ll swap places. As for the aisle seat opposite, that’s occupied by a smart-looking man in his early forties. When the train left the station, he went to the restroom and hasn’t yet returned. He left his bag on the shelf above the seat and disappeared. Maybe he left the restroom, but I didn’t notice. No doubt he’ll return, and I will politely apologize for crowding him as I switch seats to settle beside him.
May Telmissany is an Egyptian writer and novelist, born in Cairo, Egypt in 1965. She teaches Arabic Studies and Cinema at Ottawa University, Canada, and is the author of three short story collections and four novels: Dunyazade (1997), Heliopolis (2000), A Capella (2012) and They All Say I Love You (2021). Dunyazade was translated into eight languages and has won prizes in Egypt and France. Her book of memoirs entitled Paradise Has a Fence (2009), about the experience of exile and travel between Egypt and Canada, was published in French in Montreal. She has published academic research on cinema, arts, popular culture and postcolonial studies in numerous periodicals worldwide. In 2021, she was awarded the French Order for Arts and Letters with the rank of knight, in recognition of her contributions in the fields of culture, arts and literature.
Nashwa Nasreldin (nashwanasreldin.com)is a writer, an editor, and a translator of Arabic literature whose book translations include the collaborative novel by nine refugee writers, Shatila Stories, a co-translation of Samar Yazbek’s memoir, The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria, and Taleb Alrefai’s Shadow of the Sun, which is forthcoming from Banipal Books. She holds an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and writes feature articles and reviews for literary and cultural publications.