– Translated from “The Stories of the Sahara” by Sanmao
It was a photograph with frayed corners, and in it was an Arab woman in European clothing. She had regular features and very big eyes, but her less than youthful face, plastered with makeup, was a riot of colors. She was wearing a low-cut sleeveless floral print top, an outdated apple green miniskirt that could not be any shorter, and a copper chain belt around her waist. Her fat legs were balanced on a pair of yellow shoes with very high heels and straps that crisscrossed up to her knees. Part of her black hair was styled like a bird’s nest, with the rest of it running down her shoulders. Her entire person was bedecked with cheap jewelry, and she even carried a shiny black plastic handbag.
The photograph alone was enough to make my head spin and I could hardly steady myself. If the real person were to appear before me, the effect, combined with the smell of perfumed talc, would surely be much more electrifying.
I looked at Salam. He was anxiously waiting for my response to the picture. I didn’t want to disappoint him, but I simply couldn’t find anything complimentary to say about this “artificial Arab flower”. So I slowly put the photograph back on the counter.
“Very fashionable. Really different from the Sahrawi girls here.” That was all I could say to not hurt his feelings, without speaking against my conscience.
Salam was delighted to hear me say that, “She is fashionable, and very beautiful. No girls here can compare to her.”
I smiled and asked, “Where is she then?”
“She’s in Monte Carlo,” he talked about his wife as if he was talking about a goddess.
“Have you been to Monte Carlo?” I thought I heard wrong.
“No I didn’t, we got married in Algeria last year,” he said.
“Why didn’t she come back to the desert with you after you got married?”
His face darkened after I asked that, the passionate expression disappeared. “Saida told me to come back first, and she would come with her brother to the Sahara in a few days, but in the end… in the end…”
“She never came,” I finished the sentence for him. He nodded, looking at the floor.
“For how long?” I asked.
“It’s been a year.”
“Why didn’t you write a letter to ask earlier?”
“I…” he couldn’t go on as if his throat got stuck. “Who can I talk to…” he sighed.
Then why did you talk to me, a completely unrelated person? I thought.
“Show me the address,” I decided to help him out.
I got the address, and it was indeed Monaco, Monte Carlo, not Algeria.
“Where did you get the address?” I asked him.
“I went to Algeria to look for my wife once, three months ago,” he said hesitantly.
“Oh dear… why didn’t you just say so? You made it so confusing, so you went looking for her.”
“She wasn’t there, her brother said she left, he gave me this picture and address and told me to come back.”
He went all the way just to look for that flashy woman? I looked at Salam’s honest face in sympathy.
“Let me ask you, Salam. How much bride price did you pay her family when you got married?” I immediately recalled the traditions of the desert.
“A lot.” He lowered his head again, as if my question touched a wound.
“How much?” I asked gently.
“Over three hundred thousand.” (Around two hundred thousand Taiwanese dollars.)
I got a shock and said in disbelief, “No way! You couldn’t have that much money!”
“Yes! Yes I have, my father left me that money when he died. You can ask my brother,” Salam stubbornly argued.
“Fine, let me guess. Your father gave you that money to buy goods in Algeria to send back here to the Sahara to sell, but you didn’t buy the goods, and instead you married Saida. You gave her the money, and you came back, she never came. Am I right?”
A very simple story of a scam.
“Yes, you’re right. How come it’s like you saw the whole thing?” He was even slightly excited that I got it right.
“You really don’t get it?” I stared at him, completely baffled.
“I don’t know why she wouldn’t come here, so please do help me write a letter to her, and tell her, I… I…” He got emotional all of a sudden, and held his head in his hands. “I have nothing now,” he muttered.
I quickly looked away. Seeing this quiet honest man revealing his true feelings, I was deeply moved. Since the first time I saw him, I had sensed a depressing air of melancholy and loneliness, just like the characters in the old Soviet novels who endured great pains.
“Come on, let’s get this letter written, I have time now,” I lightened up and said. Then Salam begged me softly, “Please don’t tell my brother about writing this letter.”
“I won’t tell, don’t worry.” I opened the notebook to write the letter.
“Okay, say what you want and I’ll write. Come on, start talking…” I urged him.
“Saida, my dear wife…” Salam spitted out a few words as if he was shivering, then he stopped again.
“This doesn’t work. I can only write in Spanish, how can she read the letter?” Knowing clearly that this con woman would not read the letter, and wouldn’t admit that she’s his wife for sure, I didn’t want to write anymore.
“It’s okay, please write. She’ll get someone to read it. Please…” Salam seemed to be afraid that I wouldn’t write and started begging again.
“Fine! Go on then.” I continued writing.
“Since we separated last year, I couldn’t get you out of my mind. I have been to Algeria to look for you…” I could just tell, if Salam did not love this woman with all his heart, he would not overcome his shyness and disclose his passion deep down to a total stranger.
“It’s done! Sign it yourself.” I tore the finished letter off from the notebook. Salam could write his name in Arabic.
Salam signed carefully and gave out a sigh. “Now we’ll just wait for the reply.” He was full of hope.
I took one look at him, didn’t know what to say, so I just kept quiet.
“Can I use your P. O. box number as the return address? Would it trouble Mr. José?”
“Don’t worry about it. José wouldn’t mind. Okay, I’ll write the return address for you.” It did not cross my mind to leave a return address.
“Now I’ll post it myself.”
Salam asked me for stamps, closed the shop and hurried to the town.
From the second day since the letter was sent, Salam would jolt whenever he saw me entering the store. An obvious disappointment on his face would show instantly when I shook my head. He was in so much pain waiting for a reply so early on, how would he survive the days that follow?
(to be continued…)