Negative Space, Non-Fiction by Bint Arab

Negative Space appeared in Issue Seven of Tincture Journal. There’s lots more inside, so please consider buying a copy.

Negative Space

1. I love dots. Each one is dimensionless until I plot it on an x- and y- axis or assign it numbers like longitude, latitude and elevation. They stand alone, but I can connect them by lines, colours, dates, figures. A dot only exists in one spot at a time. It is restricted in size only by the sharpness of my pencil. The big ones with a circle around them are capital cities while the small ones have random claims to fame: this one is home of the largest teapot in the US, and that one marks the birth of human civilisation.

The same holds true for triangles: I love triangles of all kinds. There are red ones beside the words “YOU ARE HERE” on the backlit screen at the mall that point to the dots that I love so much. A little bit over, a border with diagonal yellow lines marks the outer wall of a department store, a wall that has an exit from “Trident Sportswear” to “Parking Lot A”. Beyond those yellow lines—the parking lot, the world outside the mall—everything is black, non-existent, inconsequential negative space. All that matters, really, is the little red triangle and the spot it points to, the place where I’m standing.

Triangles, defined by three dots in the corners. They tell you where you are so you can figure out where you are not. With a bunch of dots and triangles, I could map the whole world for you.

Or so I used to think, but I was wrong; Nadia taught me that. There’s a lot more to those triangles and dots than “YOU ARE HERE”. The spaces outside the dots and triangles are the world.

2. I’d been living in a dorm in Amman, Jordan for a couple of months already by the time I had the chance to ask Nadia about her home country, Eritrea.

It wasn’t the official women’s dorm at Jordan University but a private one right across the street from the north gate of campus. Out of a dozen private women’s dorms in the area, I chose this dump because it had the best set-up for me to do my ethnographic research for my Fulbright fellowship. It was filthy and roach-infested, with a cheap proprietor who ran the hot water only three nights a week and with a constant drip in the communal kitchen that made the whole place stink of mildew. There were a hundred things wrong with the place, but one thing right that trumped them all: the lounge. The small bedrooms opened out onto one main lounge area where about forty residents spent most of their time. Half of the young women were Jordanian, and the other half came from other Arab countries to attend universities in Amman, hailing from Yemen, Palestine, Algeria, Morocco and more. And it got complicated for many, like the Palestinian sisters from Yemen and the Mauritanians who had grown up in Saudi Arabia. Where are you from? was a loaded question. Even the Jordanian women were displaced; if their families had lived close enough to Amman to make a daily commute to the university feasible, they wouldn’t have been living in the dorm.

They were all Arab women, speaking their own dialects of Arabic, wearing unique national dress, with political and moral convictions formed by their individual histories. They mingled in the lounge, confronting their differences, convincing each other to invest in new realities. They ate, watched TV, socialised and studied together. In my mind’s eye, triangles led from the cramped bedrooms and pointed to the lounge: “YOU ARE HERE”.

It was the perfect site for me to do my ethnographic research.

3. Most of the women were very open, eager to share their perspectives with me. Not Nadia. She was aloof and intimidated everyone, myself included. A dark-skinned black woman with an aquiline nose, she chain-smoked whenever she was in the dorm but never smoked in public. I worried that one night she’d fall asleep with a lit cigarette in her hand and burn us all to a crisp. But Nadia was very cool, very collected, and uber-competent. Only about twenty years old, she seemed twice as mature as the other young women, and her body language screamed, “Don’t bother me with your nonsense.”

So I didn’t. I talked with the more outgoing women and watched them interact with each other. I wrote pages of field notes every night, trying to process what I had witnessed that day.

One night, I couldn’t sleep. At some crazy hour of the morning, I finally gave up and went to the lounge, field notebook in hand, to see what was going on there. The little red triangle compels us all, even field researchers.

Only Nadia was there, watching TV, ubiquitous cigarette in hand and a full ashtray beside her on the couch. A captive audience! Maybe now I could get her story.

“Where are you from, Nadia?”

“Eritrea.”

“I thought you were from Saudi Arabia…?”

“No, my family lives there—I grew up there. But we are from Eritrea.”

I had no knowledge of Eritrea. Was that considered an Arab country? Where was it?

“On the East coast of Africa,” Nadia told me, but this didn’t help much; it’s a long coast.

I opened my notebook to a random page, handed her my pen, and asked her to draw it for me.

She didn’t take the book from me. “I don’t understand.”

“Just draw me a map. Show me where Eritrea is.” It wasn’t such a bizarre idea, I thought. Other women in the dorm had responded eagerly to the same request: Zaynab had sketched her home in the north of Jordan, and Fatima had drawn me a map to show me where Mauritania was.

But Nadia wouldn’t take the book from me so I decided to start her off, knowing that whatever I drew would bias her. I sketched a small outline of the continent of Africa, so small that it could have fit in the palm of my hand. I had reduced 11 million square miles to the size of a Monopoly card. What’s more, it looked more like South America than Africa.

Nadia glanced at it, but still refused to take the book. “What do you want me to do?”

“Draw a dot. Show me where Eritrea is.”

I pushed and prodded, and finally Nadia took the book. My relief was short-lived when I realised that she was drawing on the southwest coast of my cartoon-ish outline of Africa. Not only that, she wasn’t even using dots!

She wrote in the name Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, but didn’t assign it a dot. Massawa International Airport got a dot, but Addis Ababa got an X to mark the spot. She explained as she wrote: that was the airport her family had used to flee the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia to come to Saudi Arabia where her father was a guest worker.

When she labelled Sudan in the space that I thought should have been the Atlantic Ocean, I finally got it. She’d completely re-oriented the map from what I’d intended. In her interpretation it wasn’t the continent of Africa in that vaguely triangular shape I’d drawn—not land, but water. She’d interpreted it as the Red Sea, effectively enlarging my map by a factor of ten. Her conceptualisation had placed Saudi Arabia where I’d intended the Indian Ocean to be and put the very southern tip of Jordan right above where I thought Egypt would be on my map. She’d triangulated all three major geographies in her life: Eritrea, where she came from; Saudi Arabia, where she grew up and where her family still lived; and Jordan, where she was studying for her bachelor’s degree.

4. Not land, but water. An expanse you could fly over to escape a war or to get to your university. The water represented movement, the connection between the dots. And all that white space inside and outside of the triangle, the “negative space”, the empty space?

It was all just as important as the dot the triangle pointed to.

I’d drawn an Africa unconnected to any other land mass, remote and isolated on the page like the mall directories that delineate hair salons and department stores while everything outside the bounds of the mall is blank space, unimportant and irrelevant. Nadia changed that by making it all connected and yet unbound: the expanse of Africa extended indefinitely to the West, beyond the label “Sudan”; Saudi Arabia wandered off the Eastern edge of the map; Jordan barely touched the northern tip of the Red Sea and bled into the unlabelled space above it. No lines marked the borders between one country and the next. I finally understood that Nadia existed in three places at once—“back home” in Eritrea, in Saudi Arabia with her family, and in Jordan.

I finally understood triangles.

Born in Baghdad, raised in Brooklyn, and living in Texas today, Bint Arab is perpetually out of place and comfortable with that. She is an emerging writer, with stories published online at Expanded Horizons, Toasted Cheese, and in print in Best New Writing 2013. She administers the writers’ forum at www.bibliophilia.org/forum.

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