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

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