Mohamed El-Bisatie’s ‘‘A Conversation from the Third Floor,’’ like most of his writing, is more like a painting than a typical short story. He creates a scene, then populates it with only essential and simple characters whose gestures speak almost as loudly as their few words. Denys Johnson-Davies, in the translator’s introduction to A Last Glass of Tea and Other Stories, in which this short story was published, states: ‘‘While there is drama in his stories it is never highlighted: the menace lurks almost unseen between the lines.’’ El-Bisatie, Johnson- Davies continues, ‘‘is a ‘writer’s writer’—which is to say a writer who makes no concessions to the lazy reader.’’
‘‘A Conversation from the Third Floor’’ is a brief story, almost as short and succinct as the conversation that takes place within it; and it is as stark as the barren environment that encompasses its setting—a prison that sits at the edge of a desert. This makes it read more like a poem, in that every word, every gesture is laden with meaning. Just as in a desert a small patch of green grass screams with color, so too do the quick remarks and the subtle movements in this short story. A small shadow moving across the street toward one of the main characters suddenly becomes a threat, a potent omen.
Describing his inspirations and motives for writing, El-Bisatie, in an article written by David Tesilian for Al-Ahram Weekly, stated that he was ‘‘interested in the dehumanization of the individual by circumstances.’’ He also said that he writes about people who live in small villages where life is slow and ‘‘always the same, and if things happen at all, they happen beneath the surface.’’ ‘‘A Conversation from the Third Floor’’ is an exemplary illustration of these sentiments. The careful reader who takes the time to dig down below the surface of this seemingly simple story will discover that El-Bisatie is not only a master of the written word but also a master of deception.
The story begins with the word ‘‘she,’’ and the reader does not know this female character’s name until her husband shouts it from inside the prison, where she has come to visit him; but this does not happen until later in the story. At first, the reader does not even know where the woman is standing. All that is told is that this woman has been here once before and that there is a policeman sitting atop a horse outside a long yellow wall. Inside the wall is a long building, and the policeman is trying his best to ignore the woman, who finally begs him to allow her to speak to someone. Who this someone is, where he is, and why the woman wants to talk to him remain a mystery.
When the policeman continues to ignore her, the woman adds, ‘‘You see, he’s been transferred . . .’’ No further information is given, as the narrator then describes the weather and the time of day, and adds one more character to the picture, that of a small child, whom the woman carries. Then the woman is described as ‘‘quietly’’ moving away, without protest. She finds a pile of stones and sits down, staring at the building inside the wall. She sees a line of laundry hanging from the ‘‘bars of the windows.’’ These bars are the first hint that the building might be some kind of prison. The clothes, hanging motionless by the sleeves and legs, are the second hint, suggesting lifeless as well as incarcerated images of their owners.
The woman stares at the dried mud on her feet and attempts to get rid of it by rubbing her feet together. The mud implies that she has walked a long way. Then she looks up at the third floor, an indication that she knows someone who might be there. Meanwhile, that narrator introduces another figure into the story, a soldier in a tower, confirming that the woman is standing outside a prison building.
Suddenly a man is shouting from a third floor window: ‘‘Aziza! Aziza! It’s Ashour.’’ The woman, Aziza, sees only two arms at first. She focuses harder and can just barely make out a face in between two bars. Other faces appear in the window as well.
The voice rings out again, calling her, asking her several questions in succession. Ashour asks about a letter he sent to her: did she get it? He asks about their children, identifying each by name. He also asks if she has been taking care of the property: has she pruned the date trees? Through his questions, the reader feels the emotions of this man, who misses being the husband of this woman, the father of his children, the caretaker of his home.
It is now Ashour’s turn to focus, this time on the child whom Aziza is holding. Who is the...
(The entire section is 1094 words.)