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The English version of "Eisntein's Last Hour".
Translated from arabic by Jayson Casper



Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins…

Vladimir Nabokov (LOLITA)


I was engrossed in reading a magazine when I heard the stewardess ask over the loudspeaker if there was a doctor among the passengers of the plane.

About an hour had passed since the takeoff of our Boeing 747, on our trip to Brussels. I put my magazine to the side and asked the lady sitting next to the window, on the right of the plane, what was happening. Without any sign of excitement, she replied, “It seems there is a very sick woman onboard, whose situation is critical.”

After a few minutes, I heard the stewardess inquire again if there was a doctor onboard, but no one answered.

Most of the passengers were elderly Belgians, and without a doubt most of them were enrolled with one of the agencies that organize cheap flights for retirees. The lady beside the window was Belgian also, as was clear from her accent. She was ugly and quite fat, to the extent one would wonder if she would be able to rise from her seat without assistance. She had not stopped eating since the flight began.

A few minutes later she addressed me, and that as if we had known each other for a long time. “It appears the husband of the woman works in the diplomatic corps. I heard the stewardess say so.”

I looked over my shoulder trying to catch a glimpse of the sick woman, but I couldn’t get a clear view, for she was all the way in the rear of the plane, and the seatbacks were blocking my vision. Just then the stewardess was making her way past us toward the cockpit, and the fat lady stopped her, and rained down her questions.

When the stewardess finally escaped, the Belgian lady said to me, “Her situation has gotten a lot worse, and they are in contact with Fiumicino Airport, since it is the nearest one.”

It was clear the fat lady was interested, for she had found in the saga of the sick passenger something even to distract her from eating.

Suddenly I heard the voice of the stewardess over the loudspeaker announcing we were forced to land at Fiumicino Airport, for the woman’s situation had become critical.

It was a sunny spring day, with a beautiful view of the Mediterranean from the airplane window. It was enough to make a man feel at rest. But then I turned again to pay attention to the fat lady, when she asked, “Do you think she’ll make it?”

She said these words as if she was talking to herself, for it seemed she was getting quite excited. She kept fidgeting in her seat trying to look back to see what was happening, and if not for the belt that tied her there, she would have left her seat altogether to get closer to what was happening.

I felt the plane begin to veer a bit from its route, and when I looked out the window it became clear it had completely changed direction. The murmuring of the passengers increased, and a sense of unsettledness filled the air. No longer was only the ocean visible, but fields and highways as well, and I realized we were now flying over the skies of Rome.

The plane did not land immediately, as I had expected, but remained hovering over the airport for some time. Finally, a voice announced over the loudspeaker to fasten seatbelts, for the plane was about to begin its descent.

The fat lady turned to me while inspecting her belt, as if this were some kind of police film, and said, “What an exciting trip!”


When the plane had finally landed at Fiumicino Airport, I noticed that it had stopped quite a distance away from the other aircraft. From the window I saw border police surrounding the plane in their vehicles as alarms began sounding from everywhere. The Carabineri descended and furnished their weapons, and I realized they had been ordered to investigate, making sure there was indeed a sick woman aboard the plane.

Two officers boarded, one of them with a walky-talky. The first went straight to the cockpit, while the other went toward the rear where the sick woman was.

A few minutes passed before we heard the captain inform us over the loudspeaker that we would stay in Fiumicino Airport for some time, until the woman could be examined. A small airport bus then arrived, and we were told to get inside. Meanwhile, an ambulance approached to transport the patient.

The bus took us to the terminal, and after passing through customs for the passport check and other formalities, I found myself in the duty-free area.

I strolled through the shops in the airport mall, and then searched out a cafeteria. I didn’t have to look long before finding one—quite clean—and with dim lighting.

Its chairs and tables were made of aluminum, with small cushions placed on the chairs for comfortable sitting.

I chose a quite place in the corner, and after ordering an espresso lit a cigarette and observed the travelers. The waitress wasted no time in bringing my coffee, and I sipped slowly scanning the other customers.

Sitting at the table across from me was a woman in her twenties. She took my attention for her hair was braided into two ponytails, which gave her a childish look, as if she was a true Lolita. As I was absorbed in these thoughts, she turned to me, asking in Italian if I had a lighter. I said yes, gave it to her, and after lighting her own cigarette she handed it back to me and said, “Grazie mile.”[1]

I asked her if she was Italian, to which she said yes, and then added, “I’m Italian, but I have been studying in Montreal, Canada for about the past two years.”

“So now you’re headed to Montreal?”

“Yes, I was on vacation, but now its over.”

Then she added, “I had hoped to spend today in Rome as well, as it’s my birthday today, but since the flights to Montreal are so packed, I had to either take this plane today or else wait a whole other week.”

Her manner of speaking went well with her ponytails, for it made her similarly appear as an adolescent, which, incidentally, only made me find her all the more charming.

I said to her, smiling, “Happy Birthday! And many more!”

“Thanks. But I had wished to celebrate with my family and friends.”

“Don’t worry about it. Sometimes life forces one to do things he doesn’t really want.”

While she was saying that, I was thinking of something I might give her as a present, but the only thing I found was my silver keychain representing Tanit. I took off the one key attached to it and gave it to her, saying, “Here’s a humble present for you; sorry, it’s the only thing I have.”

After initial reluctance she accepted the gift, and the appearance of her face indicated she liked it. She thanked me, and asked what it represented. “Its Tanit,” I replied, “the Phoenician fertility goddess. It is said among us that she brings good luck. I hope it works for you.”

At this point she asked me my name, and as it appeared a bit strange to her she asked if it had any specific meaning, which I explained to her. Then in turn I asked her hers.

“My name is Anabella, but my friends call me Anna. Take your pick.”

“They’re both pretty, but I’ll call you Bella, since truly you are.[2]

“Alright. If you really think so, then why not?”

We talked about travel, and I asked if she enjoyed it. She told me it was the greatest passion in her life, and that she spends almost her whole income on it.

She took her turn to ask me the same question, and I said yes. That’s why she appeared a bit perplexed why I said in reality I don’t generally enjoy the trips I take. I explained my travel was usually for business, which took all my time leaving little for pleasure. But before I could finish, it was announced over the loudspeaker that all travelers to Montreal were to get ready for boarding. And at that she said to me, “Too bad… this was a nice conversation.”

But before rising to leave and say goodbye, she searched a moment in her handbag before taking out a small crystal souvenir in the shape of a dolphin, and presented it to me. “I’m sorry also… I don’t have anything else either to give you but this dolphin. It can serve as your reminder about Bella…”

But before I took the souvenir from her hand she used it to take out a notebook from her coat pocket and quickly wrote her full name, address, and phone number.

“I’m really happy to meet you… it’s too bad it’s gotten late... I’ll await your letter and respond without delay… there wasn’t enough time to take your address…”


The designated gate for flights to Canada was quite a distance away, so Bella had to hurry.

When she disappeared after leaving the cafeteria, I took time to admire the crystal dolphin she had given me. It seemed quite charming.

Only a few moments passed until I heard the call over the loudspeaker for all passengers to Brussels to return to the airplane. I put the dolphin in my coat pocket, and held it as one might hold on to a precious piece of art.

When I took my place on the plane, I noticed the fat lady speaking with one of the stewardesses. After sitting down, she turned to me and spoke as if she had solved a great puzzle, “They’ve taken the sick woman to the hospital. She’ll stay in Rome… they’ve contacted her husband…”

It was only a few minutes until the plane took off. I, with tenderness, caressed the crystal dolphin in my pocket.

After the plane had taken its route above the clear Roman skies, I put my hand in my pocket to take out the paper with Bella’s address…but I didn’t find it in my right pocket, although I was sure that’s where I put it.

It wasn’t in my left pocket either. I frantically searched in all my pockets, but couldn’t find even a trace of it. It was then I realized it must have fallen from my pocket before getting on the plane.

I took out the dolphin from my pocket, and contemplated it disappointedly… it was all that was left for me of Bella, or Anabella, who was born this day the sixth of April, of whom I could only wonder if I would ever meet her again.

April 2004 – January 2006

Translated from arabic by: Jason Casper

[1] Meaning: Thank you.

[2] “Bella” means beautiful in Italian.


To Song-Eun Lee


At that time I was studying in Barcelona, living not far from the famous avenue, La Rambla. At night I would go out to wander about the streets with their sublime buildings, or perhaps to the port, be it to pass the time or go in search of adventure.

One evening, my wanderings led me to a side Street, not far from La Rambla. It was a quiet, clean street, and a small square lie in its middle. Upon the sign hanging there I read its name, “Jean Genet Square”.

The area drew me in, and I found myself sitting in a park bench facing the middle of the square. From the backpack I was carrying I took out my favorite book – The Book of Sand, by Borges – my companion wherever I went. I began to read, peacefully, surrendering myself to the quiet breeze of the evening which had just begun to blow that sweltering day. As night fell, I had already read the greater part of it.

When I left the area, I purposed to come back regularly to read, and to enjoy the breeze that wafted through the square.


The next day, I came to the same place, at just about the same time, and sat in the same bench. As I opened my backpack to take out my book, I noticed there was a relatively old man sitting beside me. I wasn’t taken back so much by his presence, as by the uncomfortable feeling that I knew him from somewhere.

He was a little portly, but not unfashionably so, with his head completely shaven, and from his bloodshot eyes it was clear he didn’t sleep much. But what really captured my attention in his grey eyes was the luster that bore into the eyes of others with a fiery intelligence. When our eyes met, he took the Cuban cigar from his lips, and greeted me in French. That was the first thing which aroused my misgivings, wondering how he knew I spoke French, especially given that we were in Spain. But I found no time to continue with these thoughts before he engaged me with a question:

“It appears you aren’t Spanish… It’s obvious you’re from the southern Mediterranean.”

“It’s true. I’m studying here… but I’m a foreigner!”

“We’re all foreigners in this world!”

“I agree with you completely, we’re all foreigners in this world... and you, neither are you Spanish, I assume?”

“The world is my home… geography doesn’t concern me much…”

While I was talking with him, I tried to remember his face, but without success. I found him once again putting a question to me, this time referring to the book in my hands.

“What are you reading?”

I said, “The Book of Sand” by Borges. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it, and I carry it with me wherever I go. I never get tired of reading it over and over.”

“Sometimes books can become a drug… but even so, I think, Borges is one of the greatest writers of our time.”

There was something in his tone that conveyed a bit of mockery; at least it seemed as such to me, that I began to feel as if I was speaking with a puzzle.

“The failure of sand… nothing grows, everything gets erased.”

He said that while leaning with his hand on the back of the park bench, and I noticed that he did not seem as imposing as I had first supposed. It was clear his life had not been a walk in the park. He then took the straw hat he had been fingering and put it on his head, saying, “Do you know who said that quote?”

“Honestly… my memory fails me.”

“James Joyce, in Ulysses.”

But before I could find a moment to ask him his name, or if we had met previously, he disappeared, leaving me to flounder in my confusion.

With him, my desire to read also disappeared that day, as his solemn voice continued to ring in my ears. I remained there, motionless, until nightfall.


In the days that followed I continued going to the same place, sitting in the same bench, patently hoping to meet that man who appeared to me a connoisseur of the world of literature. But he never came. In fact, nothing at all transpired that could confirm to me the reality of our meeting, that it was not simply all a confused dream.


Summer had begun to expire when one day I entered a large bookshop specialized in foreign literature located in the center of Barcelona. I was looking for a copy of Ulysses by James Joyce. While I was rummaging through the shelves, my attention was taken by a group of black-and-white photographs hanging above the bookcase. They were pictures of famous authors, and there between Sartre and Camus – I trembled when I saw it – hung a photo of one with a completely shaven head smoking a Cuban cigar.

I put the book I had been holding back on the shelf so as to get closer and confirm it by reading what was written underneath. When I read the name, I couldn’t believe that the shaven individual who had sat beside me, and spoken with me, was in fact the person in the picture: “Jean Genet,”

July 5, 2006

Translated from Arabic by: Jason Casper