Short Story Review – Mortada Gzar – While He Was Sitting There (trans. Claire C. Jacobson)

I don’t think someone is beautiful unless he attracts the eyes of onlookers and passersby

He’s a student.  Most of the time he studies.  He eats and he sleeps, and the months pass by.  But then, oh then, he’ll make his way to a certain bar, the bar he calls his ‘Tuesday bar’, and there he’ll find an American soldier, there he’ll give them a name, there he’ll listen to their stories, and there he might – might – have sex with them.

My Tuesday bar is open every day; it’s cheap, and has filthy bathrooms, walls scribbled with insults and expletives. These are their memories and stories, their questions and jokes, their truths and lies. One of my made-up names is written on the wall in congealed grime, and what looks like my face has been sketched on the door beside a series of badly written Arabic letters, a soldier’s memory of the last thing I had tried to teach him.

What is he looking for?  It isn’t made clear.  He’s confident in himself and his sexuality, and he sees the American soldiers as both men to teach, and men to learn from.  What he teaches them is pretty clear – he is a sexual, educated, confident, coherent, entire person. A personality.  An individual.  How strange, to kill all of these people, and then find out that they have names and thoughts and stub their toes.  That’s what he teaches them.

They show him, I suppose, the gamut of America, part of what he calls his ‘curiosity jinn’, and he enjoys being the centre of attention when he is there.  And why not?  He’s a handsome gay Iraqi man.  Revel in the fetishisation, friend.

He’s the third white soldier I’ve met this month. If I went every Tuesday, I’d meet a whole battalion of them, all soldiers from the occupation. I don’t give them my real name, but say something like Jibran, Miran, or Uftan, starting up my mental crane and pulling out easy, musical names. If they ask what it means, I say Jibran is a mountain in the south, Miran means “happy boy,” and Uftan is the heavenly angel who comes down to rub the bellies of married couples to spark in them lust for a night of passion.

The soldiers talk about him, too, which we know he likes.  He gives a different name depending on who he is with, letting the word out into the world, and when the name returns to the bar, when someone comes looking for this or that version of himself, he knows just how satisfied his soldier has been.  And there’s power in that.

The first half of the story provides us with this overview of our narrator, who is frankly pretty charming.  The second half, though, zeroes in on a single interaction between him and an American soldier who seems cold.  Other people in the bar seem to avoid him – why?  It’s a challenge, but also somewhat repellent.  He knows there must be something wrong for the others to shun him, and in his voluptuary way of thinking, he recognises that if a person is incapable of raising lust in others, then they can’t in him, either.

My ardor wavering, I forgot the issue of the Arab beast trapped in my pants.

Oh yes, and he’s rather fun to go along with the charm.

We discover by the end, after they have coupled in an alley, why the soldier was avoided by others.  Let’s avoid moralising – because the author, Mortada Gzar, avoids it entirely – and instead appreciate the stylistic flourish of the ending, with the repeated, I said, “Yes. I liked it.”, which brings home the strength of the narrator’s ardor, passion, intellect and, oddly, humility.  He’s touched by the encounter, with the simplicity of the four words showing us, the reader, that even the most outwardly confident lush is, at times, sensitive and in need of tenderness, from wherever it may come.

While He Was Sitting There is a short story by Iraqi writer Mortada Gzar, and was translated by Claire C. Jacobson.  You can read the story online at Words Without Borders.

Author Mortada Gzar
Title While He Was Sitting There
Translator Claire C. Jacobson
Nationality Iraqi
Publisher Words Without Borders – June 2018 – The Queer Issue IX

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.


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