An excerpt from the novel Sweetmeats, or: Who Killed Issam Sukkar? by Alexandra Chreiteh
A Note on the Text:
In the following excerpt, Nafiseh steps into her sister’s basement in a small Lebanese town on the Syrian border and discovers a body hidden in the fridge. Who is this person, and who put him there? Was he killed by one of the town’s many warring families, or dragged into the basement by militias infiltrating from across the border? Or did the sister put the body in the fridge herself?
While Nafiseh searches for the killer, the novel examines the relationships between gender and labor, immigration and environmental disaster, and nationalism and violence. The thread that stitches everything together is flesh. Whereas skin functions as both a border and a sieve, it is flesh that allows Nafiseh’s story to probe the conceptual perimeters of inside and outside, of the material world and what lies beyond it.
The Arabic word for the human (more precisely, humans), or BaSHaR, is etymologically related to BaSHaRa—the skin, or the body’s porous mantle. But in other Semitic languages—such as Ugaritic, Aramaic, and Hebrew—BaSHaR / BaSaR is the flesh beneath the epidermis: human or animal flesh, flesh that decomposes and rots, flesh that that lends itself to being consumed, digested, and violated.
When does the human become porous? Who are the humans that become flesh?
There were many butcher shops, toy stores, and corpse-washing facilities in the peripheral town of Nun. So many, in fact, that anyone driving through would think the inhabitants of this town were only born to kill a poor calf for the Fitr holidays and light some fireworks from the roof of a low building, before departing from our world, reeking of orange blossom water and the stench of foole restaurants that bordered most local funeral homes.
In reality, however, the inhabitants of the peripheral town of Nun were rarely ever born; they rarely celebrated holidays and did not particularly care to burden their neighbors’ noses with the smell of sulfur dioxide. The air in their town was already heavy with diesel fumes emanating from the continuous flow of cars and various other vehicles on their way to cross the border between Lebanon and Syria. For when the events of this tale began, the peripheral town of Nun was the final resting place for exhausted travelers—bodies dripping with summer sweat and nipples frozen by the winter chill—before their entry into the narrow purgatory between the two national checkpoints.
That fateful night, the night that everything unraveled, Nafiseh arrived at her sister Sawsan’s house cradling a large watermelon, a whisky bottle stashed in one of her abaya’s deep pockets. The children hurried to take the weight off her hands, but Nafiseh had already begun unbuttoning her coat. Underneath shone a pair of golden pants, a shirt printed with lounging tigers, and a belt securely tucked inside her waist.
“Happy birthday!” Nafiseh yelled merrily, her deep voice rolling between the house’s tight walls. In the cacophony of yells and clanging pots and anxious news anchors’ daily proclamations of brewing violence, no one really heard her, and no one said anything.
That night, the night that everything began, was her sister Sawsan’s birthday– Nafiseh would think of the significance of this fact only much later. And once bellies grew full and Nafiseh lowered a plate of sliced watermelon onto the plastic tablecloth, Sawsan reached over for a piece. Her sleeve swished over her extended arm, and Nafiseh saw something dark printed on her sister’s wrist, a mark as blue as ink and as black as a fresh bruise.
The bruise flickered and disappeared, as Sawsan’s exposed skin was promptly swallowed up again by the flowing fabric of her shirt.
Nafiseh extended her arm towards her sister, but Sawsan slipped away before the inquiring hand could pull back her sleeve and inspect her skin more closely. Ignoring the watermelon slice slowly bleeding onto her cold white plate, Sawsan rose and walked hurriedly towards the kitchen, where she poured some more juice into her son’s glass.
“There’s one right here,” Nafiseh announced, pointing to the juice box on the table beside her.
Perhaps Sawsan didn’t hear her, or maybe she chose to pretend that she didn’t, but she said nothing. Instead, she stuck her head into the fridge and, smiling, pulled out a birthday cake.
“What happened to you?” Nafiseh’s insistence followed Sawsan’s slow itinerary.
But Sawsan again said nothing, so Nafiseh kept on digging and poking and nagging until her sister finally groaned and made an embarrassing confession. She’d slipped on a potato peel and fell– Sawsan explained– banging her flailing wrist against the kitchen counter. But Nafiseh smelled the stench of evasion in Sawsan’s words, especially because this season’s potato harvest was particularly dry, making it significantly harder for peels to be that dangerously slippery.
“Happy birthday to me!” said Sawsan, hastily poking the cake’s creamy belly with candles and setting them ablaze.
Her outburst extinguished Nafiseh’s inquiries with the precision of a sniper’s aim. The children sat up in their seats and prepared to begin singing, and Nafiseh slumped back irritably, but her mood was instantly revived by the promise of chocolate and caramelized nuts, and maybe even a little whiskey, if she could just manage to sneak a small glass under the tablecloth while evading Sawsan’s stern gaze.
And the sky, too, was determined to explode in Sawsan’s honor that night. It flashed and thundered, cutting off every single electric light in the house. Eyes glowed, catlike, around the candlelit table, and then the heavens seemed to break open, spewing torrential rain on the peripheral town of Nun.
The rain pounded nearby roofs, clanged on the parked cars, and crashed on the streets and sidewalks and stray cats like a bag of falling rocks. It kept banging on the neighborhood’s tin awnings even after the lights came back on and Nafiseh’s belly grew round with the heaviness of chocolate sponge and cheap whipped cream, a little clotted from the heat of Sawsan’s kitchen fridge, capriciously powered by an unreliable current.
Groaning, Nafiseh landed on the couch and put her legs up on the pillows, unbuttoned her golden pants, exhaled in relief, and decided to spend the night at Sawsan’s.
(Her first mistake, Nafiseh would later realize).
“Go home, Nafiseh,” said Sawsan, but Nafiseh was already fast asleep, and neither the deep roar of thunder nor her mother’s protests against her weekly bath could stir her from her slumber. And when everyone’s snores flowed between the rooms like angry vapors, a rusty door squeaked and heavy footsteps thundered down the basement stairs, yet Nafiseh still kept on sleeping.
Then, a cold wind blew through the front door and tickled her toes, and Nafiseh cracked her eyes open. Her teenage niece, Rasha, walked out in a rush, and Nafiseh looked at her phone: two in the morning.
“Weird and marvelous things are happening in this house today,” she announced to nobody in particular.
Her belly gurgled in response. Nafiseh ignored it at first, but the gurgling grew louder and angrier. So she finally stood up, walked to the kitchen, and opened Sawsan’s fridge. Cold air slapped her in the face and the fridge’s new energy efficient lamp stung her tired eyes.
“Fffff,” Nafiseh sighed irritably, swatting away a fly that buzzed anxiously around her face.
Her senses were dulled with sleep, and in her mind’s eye she spied a cornucopia of the most delectable of treats: vegetables in bechamel sauce; spaghetti in red sauce; little pizzas dotted with mushrooms and peppers; curried basmati rice; golden french fries; cheese sambousek; mushroom and onion sambousek; and, at the very least, fattoush. Nafiseh had somehow forgotten that Sawsan rarely made food that she liked. And she only remembered that the bread lines now wrapped around entire buildings and bullet holes pierced round pita discs like craters on the smooth face of the moon when the moonlight spilled from behind a wandering cloud.
In its pale light, Nafiseh now saw that her family members had vacuumed up their small dinner, leaving nothing for a chance wanderer stumbling upon the fridge in the dark. The fridge roared emptily; a forgotten half-cucumber rolled on its bottom shelf.
“Gluttons,” she mumbled to herself.
Nafiseh felt her belly well up with disappointment, like a little bathtub. She poured a glass of water down her throat and her stomach gurgled in protest.
“Come on, Nafiseh,” it seemed to say. “Take us down to the basement.”
In the basement was another fridge, one that Sawsan had demoted some time ago. She usually filled it with extra meals poured into plastic containers and frozen for a rainy day– when electric motors stopped powering their neighborhood and everyone would sit around in the dark, stomachs grumbling.
Nafiseh pulled her abaya on top of the borrowed cotton pajamas that kept wedging mercilessly into her bottom. She turned the handle and pushed the door with her shoulder, but the white wooden rectangle didn’t budge, no matter how much Nafiseh pushed or pulled.
It was particularly weird because Nafiseh knew that Sawsan rarely locked that door anymore, especially after the twins grew older and no longer risked tumbling down the stairs like falling apples.
What to do? Nafiseh hummed to herself, then suddenly remembered that Sawsan hides her most precious things in a box behind the water heater in the attic, so she walked a few steps, stood on the tips of her toes, stomach gurgling, and ran a hand on its tiled floor. Eventually one of the tiles shifted, and Nafiseh held a key wrapped in a crumpled silk handkerchief in the palm of her hand.
The key scratched against the rusty keyhole, then the door swung around on its squeaky wrists.
“You won’t starve me today, Sawsan,” smiled Nafiseh, damp footprints lingering on the cold concrete steps.
The fridge spilled a rectangle of light onto the cold basement floor. The light swerved and ran up the entire wall behind Nafiseh, trapping her within its four diaphanous corners. Nafiseh gasped and rubbed her eyes. Her phone slipped from between her shaking fingers, clanging repeatedly against the floor,
What the hell was that?
The fridge’s weak lamp illuminated a piece of flesh hunched on the cold bottom shelf, its contorted limbs filling up the entire metal structure. Someone had removed the other glass shelves to fit it inside, but they were nowhere to be seen.
And the body?
The legs were bent at the knee;
shoulders slacked downward;
head nestled between kneecaps.
And the face, it was turned towards Nafiseh.
A lone eye stared at her without blinking, or tiring, or lowering its gaze.
Nafiseh opened her mouth. She wanted to say something, but the words never came, so instead she silently slid the palm of her hand over her gaping lips and blinked. She felt trapped in the rectangle of diaphanous light flowing from the fridge onto the wall behind her.
Then, suddenly– as if possessed– she grabbed the metal door and slammed it shut. The door thundered and cut off the light, leaving Nafiseh standing alone in the dark.
No—she said to herself—no, what she saw wasn’t right.
So she gathered all her strength and pulled the door open once more: the lump of flesh was still there, hunched up on the cold shelf. And the fridge lamp emanated a weakening light that flickered and crashed onto Nafiseh’s skin, brightening crevices and folds that had for years known nothing but darkness.
Inside the fridge, the legs were still bent at the knee; shoulders still slumped on top; and the lone eye still stared at Nafiseh like the eye of a fish, never blinking, or tiring, or lowering its gaze.
And the other eye—
Ah, well, it was crushed,
smashed into a deep crevice that began at the temple and ran all the way down to the chin. And the light brightened a matrix of muscle underneath the peeling skin.
Then, suddenly, the corpse stirred.
Its left arm slipped to the floor, fingers flowering open on the cold concrete. Nafiseh wanted to stuff it back inside, but what if it grabbed her by the collar and pulled her inside?
“Don’t be silly,” she said to herself. The corpse was a corpse; it wasn’t really moving.
The hand simply fell out, and on its wrist was a golden watch the likes of which Nafiseh had never seen before. Its green arms ticked incessantly, gliding over the unmarked numbers in ceaseless loops.
“There is no power or strength but in Allah,” Nafiseh whispered, as her fingers drew an anxious cross over the front of her body: temple to belly, shoulder to shoulder. Nafiseh believed in the horoscope more than she did in any religion, but in this dire moment, she really needed to double her chances.
“What was that?”
Then, fingers on the flowering palm seemed to twitch. They reminded Nafiseh of the cockroach that had still wiggled its legs after she’d crushed the top part of its body with a flying slipper.
Trembling, Nafiseh slid back against the wall behind her until she landed on the concrete floor. The fridge door was still open, and Nafiseh kept staring at the lump of flesh inside. One eye stared back: ever open, like that of a fish.
“We have a problem,” Nafiseh said, to no one in particular.
She leaped up the basement stairs, locked the door, slid the key into the polyester cup of her bra, and sprinted towards Sawsan’s bedroom.
But, just as Nafiseh’s fingers curved around the round metal door handle, she let her hand slide quietly down to her side. No, Nafiseh decided with thundering certainty, Sawsan’s bruise flashing ominously through her mind: no, there is no need to wake Sawsan now, no need to add one more thing to her sister’s long list of troubles.
(Why did Nafiseh assume Sawsan didn’t know about the body? That, she would later think, was her second mistake).
(But right then and there, Nafiseh knew that she had to dispose of it herself. And that, dear reader, was her third mistake).
The next day, Nafiseh waited until the afternoon spilled into evening. Her mother, the hajjeh, snored in her living room chair and Sawsan finally went to work her usual hours in the nearby butcher store. Nafiseh covered her mother’s body with a blanket peppered with lounging tigers, fished the basement key from the depths of her bra, and proceeded towards the kitchen.
There, she gasped.
The basement door looked so different in the light of day. She hadn’t dared approach it while everyone else was at home, but now that they were gone, she could take a closer look. Black fingerprints dulled the brass handle’s shine, and deep scratches caressed the dirty white wood.
She couldn’t really remember if the scratches were there the night before. Perhaps she hadn’t noticed them, but now the sight of the door filled her stomach with dread.
“What if,” she suddenly thought, “what if someone is already down there?”
“If you ever had to defend yourself,” her niece, Rasha had said to her once, “just stab your attacker in the jugular with a pen.”
Then, Nafiseh had wondered how a teenager knew this. Now, she found a pen lying on the kitchen table and brandished it like a sword.
“Open sesame,” she whispered, slipping the key into the basement door. The door squeaked, every single hair on her arms. She inhaled deeply and slid on the basement steps. The basement was pitch dark, but the fridge’s rectangular silhouette appeared clearer and clearer with every step, like an iceberg emerging from the mist. Nafiseh tried to descend in complete quiet, so she held her breath until she stepped onto the basement’s concrete floor.
Was that a rustling noise?
She looked around, but it was so difficult to see anything. If something lurked in the basement’s shadows, it needed to make itself known some other way.
Nafiseh kept holding her breath, waiting. But the basement seemed empty, so she climbed back up the stairs and locked the door from the inside. Now, no one would disturb her work, but no one could open the door to save her, either.
“Except if they broke it down entirely,” she thought.
There was no electricity in the neighborhood that day, and the air inside the fridge was noticeably warmer, but the body was just as cold.
Nafiseh lit the flashlight app on her phone and aimed it at the open fridge.
“Hi,” she said, looking squarely into the motionless eye, but the eye just stared back at her. The mouth said nothing.
Nafiseh had spent last night staring at a crack in Sawsan’s ceiling, thinking about what she had seen in the fridge when she’d opened it for the first time. As she replayed the scene in her head, she twisted and turned on Sawsan’s couch until the sweat-drenched sheet tangled around her legs like a mermaid’s tail. And as dawn finally broke, Nafiseh felt her senses go numb.
“Crocodile skin,” she thought, feeling apathy envelop her body and cling to her like plastic wrap.
But something flowered in the depths of that apathy, something sharp and vague, something like anger. It flashed across her senses, distant as a faraway storm, and then just as quickly, the anger was gone.
Now, in the darkness of her sister’s basement, Nafiseh felt that anger swell up again. But she had no time to dissect her state of mind; she knew she had to work quickly, to finish before her mother woke up and Sawsan returned from the butcher store.
Where to begin?
She’d rehearsed this very moment in her head over and over again. But now that it was finally here, Nafiseh felt numbed by infinite possibility.
“First,” she finally said to herself, “First, bury the evidence.”
She’d watched enough crime dramas to know that she needed to empty the pockets as fast as possible and get rid of the clothes. But the body was so twisted upon itself that she had to turn it around. Nafiseh buried her fingers in the fabric of the pants and pulled.
The body was so much heavier than she’d imagined. She grabbed its cold arm and pulled again. Still nothing. She yanked the soles of the feet; she pinched the chest until the faded skin balled up in her domed palms and a drop of sweat slid down her temple, but the body remained rooted in the metal rectangle, like a morbid tree.
“We have a big problem,” Nafiseh finally announced. She had an eerie feeling that the body would have nodded in agreement, if only it could.
Her heart pounded. What now?
She was a little embarrassed that she hadn’t already considered this: how on earth was she going to drag the whole damn thing up the stairs by herself?
After it was all over, Nafiseh would often think of this exact moment, her final instance of suspension, when she still teetered on the brink of uninvolvement, when she could have easily reversed the course of things by sprinting up the stairs, returning the damned key to its hiding place, and running like the wind to her apartment on the top floor of Nun’s tallest building.
This— Nafiseh would later decide— this was her last chance to back out of a series of events that hurtled her forward like a speeding train, leading her to another body, and then another. And then came a nationwide search that spread Nafiseh’s face all over the internet, plastered it on the surface of every vehicle in town, and printed tiny graffiti images on the scaffolding of faraway city buildings and smudged them on the bare walls above public garbage cans.
No, Nafiseh never imagined this to be her comeback. Her singing career had ended abruptly twenty-five years ago, when she was arrested while performing at a wedding, and ever since then, Nafiseh had longed to emerge from obscurity– but not like that.
The fridge light flickered nervously. Nafiseh put resolute hands on her hips.
“No,” she whispered to herself. No, she can’t give up now. She had to keep trying.
So she grabbed the thick hair sprouting on the back of the cold head, and pulled. A scream welled up in her stomach and broke out, steam forcing its way out of a pressure cooker. It cracked the basement stillness, a rock meeting a polished glass window.
And only then did the trunk finally shift; the body crept ever so slowly towards Nafiseh.
“At last,” she sighed and gave the hair one final tug.
But the body suddenly gathered speed and hurtled towards her. Nafiseh took a step back just in time to let the head tumble onto the concrete floor. Its loud thud reminded Nafiseh of a basketball slamming on a wet court.
She looked down at her hands. Her fingers were twisted around a lump of hair, its roots still connected to a narrow piece of scalp.
And the body? It lay suspended between the fridge and the floor:
and chest hung over the lower shelf,
while the torso and legs remained twisted within the metal frame.
Nafiseh put the piece of scalp in her pocket, grabbed the pants, and pulled. The fridge rocked back and forth, then vomited the rest of the limbs onto the concrete.
“You’re finally free,” she said, smiling.
Her back glowed with pain; her sweat dripped to the floor: a cluster of wet stars, a constellation of momentary secretions that evaporated, traceless, from the cold concrete.
As she pulled the pile of limbs away from the fridge, Nafiseh noticed that it wasn’t wearing any shoes, and the index finger on the right hand was missing.
“Who did this to you?” she said, caressing the piece of scalp in her pocket.
She turned the body on its stomach, leaving its face to kiss the cold concrete, and peeled off the pants. There was nothing in the pockets except some crumpled bills and a doctor’s business card with a Beirut address printed in black ink, some chewing gum wrappers, clumps of dust and tissue, and nothing more.
Who was this person? Even with half of the face crushed, Nafiseh was sure she hadn’t seen him before. It had to be a man in his mid-thirties– she decided– since the skin had begun to loosen in areas of the jaw and chin and arms; wrinkles carved their way through the forehead and around the eyes; fat had slowly begun to settle in the belly, thighs, and neck.
“All right,” said Nafiseh finally, as she stuffed the clothes into a plastic bag. “At least we can keep you warm.”
She rolled the naked body in a thick blanket that she’d hastily pulled out of one of Sawsan’s closets (Sawsan hadn’t returned from work yet).
She then secured the blanket with a nylon string found in a kitchen drawer (her mother the hajjeh was still snoring in her chair).
And when she was finally done with it, the body looked like one of those giant green banana stems that Sawsan buys from wholesale markets and wraps in blankets, trapping their warm gasses inside and forcing them to ripen, far away from the tree.
A Note on the English Version
The above is not a translation but an experiment. The two texts that appear here are not an Arabic original and its accompanying English mirroring, but rather two semi-autonomous worlds linked together by play and refraction.
Having worked extensively on the English translations of my first two novels, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have written them in English in the first place. So, when the opportunity arose for me to translate this contribution to The Derivative, I decided, instead, to think about the ways in which building the same scene in a different language can affect a story.
How elastic are texts, really? How elastic is human skin? What can I express in one language that I can’t express in the other? What would be interesting, or funny, or pathetic, in English, and completely banal in Arabic? Which instances should I accentuate in each case, and which should I do away with entirely?
Perhaps in an even longer experiment, the very structure of the narrative would change; maybe a particular story in Arabic would be unable to stand as a story in English—; that is, without major modifications. What, then, is the political toll of such modifications?
As I worked on these two imperfectly twinning texts, I tried to leave lots of room for play by allowing language—at least in the way that I understand and savor it— to guide me a little bit. This entailed a lot of back and forth, but also many independent gambles, intuitive decisions, and rhythmic arrangements.
Since the novel is not yet published, I figured that this body of text can be as porous as a breathing body, albeit one that bleeds much less when cut.
The appearance of this text is made possible thanks to the American Academy in Berlin, where Alexandra Chreiteh is the Fall 2022 Mary Ellen von Der Heyden Fellow in Fiction.
Sweetmeats is partially funded by the Creative Capital Award, 2022-2027.