A Conversation from the Third Floor Essay - Essays and Criticism

Mohamed El-Bisatie

Essays and Criticism

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Mohamed El-Bisatie’s stories, such as his ‘‘A Conversation from the Third Floor,’’ are often described as paintings. This description aptly fits El-Bisatie, who likes to create scenes to which only the barest form of narration is applied. In other words, his narration is used to fill in the setting as a painter might use a brush to paint a picture. His sparse narrative is journalistic, in a sense, making El-Bisatie appear more as a reporter than a storyteller. His stories are told from what he sees, not from what he feels, and what the reader must do, in order to fully grasp and appreciate what is going on in the story, is pay attention to the intricate and subtle details that El-Bisatie offers. His stories may appear deceptively simple, but a studied reading reveals the depth that the author intended.

In the opening lines of ‘‘A Conversation from the Third Floor,’’ El-Bisatie offers two descriptive sentences. In them, he conveys the message that a woman (whose name is not revealed) has come to some place (unnamed) and stands in front of a policeman. This is the basic information of these first two sentences, but there is a lot more being said here. First of all, El-Bisatie mentions that this is the second time that this woman has come. With the mention of this circumstance, the woman’s intent grows a bit more serious. The fact that she has no name creates an atmosphere in which the reader looks at her much as the police officer sees her, as a nameless peasant woman. The details that this po liceman is sitting atop a horse and is looking down at her give the reader the woman’s perspective. She is not only nameless in this simple introduction, she is also belittled.

Next, El-Bisatie’s narrator conveys a glimpse at the landscape and setting. The woman and policeman are in the middle of a long street that has a yellow wall running along it. Inside the wall is a nondescript building with windows ‘‘that looked more like dark apertures.’’ The overall feeling of this next section is that of unrealized tension. Why is the building surrounded by the long wall? Why is the woman standing so close to the policeman’s horse? Why does the officer allow his horse to move so undirected while the woman is standing there? And, of course, why does the narrator describe the windows with the foreboding image of dark holes? In contrast to this underlying tension is the seeming nonchalance of the officer, who closes his eyes as if to sleep.

The woman then moves even closer to the horse. The horse responds by bending one of its forelegs, which gives this moment a sense of expectation. What will the horse do next? Will it move toward the woman in an aggressive manner to impede her progress? The narrator relieves the tension by having the horse replace its hoof back on the ground. The horse, like its rider, is somewhat uninterested in this woman, who next offers the first words spoken in this tale. She begs the officer, not to see or touch her husband, but only to speak ‘‘two words to him.’’ The policeman says nothing. He does not even look at her. She is of no signifi- cance to him.

The narrator never tells the reader that the woman is standing in front of a prison. However, the reader is able to deduce this fact from the barbed wire on top of the wall and the guard who stands somewhat idly in a wooden tower at the end. The tension of the story increases with the woman’s second comment to the officer that whomever she has come to see will soon be transferred. This adds an element of urgency to her mission. Her sentence also ends on a note of incompletion, with an ellipsis, a hint of resignation or perhaps a loss of hope. This person inside the jail that she has come to see is important to her. She wants to know where he will be sent, when he will go, how she will find him on her next attempted visit. All these questions are implied, but never stated.

With a couple more strokes, the narrator turns up the heat of this story. The woman is carrying a small child. The afternoon sun is hot. The policeman’s face is sweating. The woman walks away from the officer ‘‘quietly.’’ She is carrying a heavy burden, but she does not want to irritate the officer who is uncomfortable in the afternoon sun. She has not given up, but she must protect her child.

When she looks up at the windows of the jail, she notices laundry hanging out to dry. This is the first glimpse she has of the prisoners, or at least a representation of them, hanging suspended above the ground, entrapped by the clothespins that fasten them to the line, ‘‘hung by the arms and legs.’’ She fixes her gaze on one gallabia, a long, usually white shirt-like garment, possibly her husband’s. The gallabia is usually worn in the country by peasants, so with the mention of this type of clothing, the narrator is providing more information about the characters of this story.

Everything in this part of the story appears still. Even the clothes do not move in the breeze. There is no mention of any passersby on the street. There is only the woman, who is now sitting on a pile of stones, her eyes half-closed, the police officer halfasleep on his horse, and the guard who leans against the wall of his tower,...

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