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Abu Shawkat paused in the telling of his titillating story (its explicit nature demanded privacy). He sat back, leaving a gap in the almost closed circle of heads. For the old-timers of the coffee shop, their desire to know what happened had become a burning, tantalising compulsion that cooled somewhat when Abu Shawkat paused. Abu Faraj took a nervous drag from his cigarette and then ground its glowing butt under his heel. Abu Riyad irritably tapped his fingers on the table, and carried on doing it more loudly and insistently. Abu Hafez scratched his balls beneath the table with one hand and with the other straightened his coarse moustache. Abu Shadi wiped away the sweat trickling down his neck. As the coffee boy approached Abu Shawkat’s table with the tray of orders, the circle of heads filled with risquÈ images parted unwillingly and waited patiently for him to leave so that they could regroup. Deliberately and slowly the coffee boy handed round the orders. “Coffee with medium sugar, as always, and even better today, for Abu Hafiz.” “Cinnamon . . . the best cinnamon with walnuts and almonds, only the best for the Hajj here.” “And this for Abu Riyad . . . ya salaam!” Abu Riyad, whose patience was running out, unlike his desire, took the glasses of tea and distributed them between himself, Abu Shadi and Abu Shawkat, telling the boy who was smiling mischievously to beat it.
Abu Shawkat sipped his tea noisily, swaying to the rhythm of “Here Comes Spring Again” that was playing on the coffee shop cassette player. The elderly men looked at him imploringly – almost begging him to pick up where he had stopped. He assumed the role of the knowing story-teller who senses that the time has come to give in to the wishes of his listeners and reveal the end they are all waiting for. This desire was unanimously expressed by the old-timers of the coffee shop with the single question:
“Yes, Abu Shawkat, what happened next?”
* * *
Abu Shawkat had decided to avoid going to the old coffee shop with the old table and the elderly companions. Ever since cancer burrowed its way through the stomach of Abu Rasmi, the only conversation preoccupying the 60- and 70-somethings had been their lifelong friend’s condition; his subjection to three bouts of surgery that had removed part of his intestines and reduced him to eating food fit only for an infant. In nine months he lost more than forty kilos, he, the man whom only a few years ago the quarries of Yajuz had been testimony to his prowess. Finally, when Abu Rasmi died the conversation in the coffee shop became anxious and curt. Abu al-Faraj would be the first to excuse himself with athritis in his joints the moment the depressing topic reached a peak Abu Shadi would follow immediately with the excuse of his high blood pressure. Abu Riyad reminded the others of his inability lately, with the cataract in his eyes, to discern the numbers of the backgammon dice. Abu Hafez would also retreat, cursing his children, who were without shame, and swearing – as he had sworn six hundred times before – that to vindicate himself he would sell the land and the house and burn the money in front of their very eyes. Abu Hafez had been a widower the last two years and when he expressed his wish to marry Tamadir, a 40-year-old relative, for companionship his children raised a hell that had yet to settle. “Are you mad?” “Getting married at this age?” “To whom? Tamadir who is twenty years your junior!?” they asked in bewilderment. Abu Hafez was the closest to Abu Shawkat and confided to him that his children’s objection was caused by their fear of splitting the inheritance of the land and the house with a newcomer.
Abu Shawkat would remain alone in the coffee shop. He might as well stay alone in his own home. That is what it had come to. The solitude in the house, with all the emotions of loneliness, depression, boredom, reclusivity was – no doubt – more tolerable than the burdensome, colourless evenings in the coffee shop which his companions had lately turned into public auctions of the blues. Unconsciously, they competed between themselves to be the most miserable, sick or decrepit!
Abu Shawkat sat cross-legged on the wooden bench in the small garden of his house on the edge of al-Ruseifah. A large clear full moon emerged at the end of twilight and the beginning of nightfall; the almond, green plum, peach, plum, fig, mulberry and guava trees, the wild jasmine bushes and the lavender beds cast an opal-like blanket that blended with the moonlit tops of the trees and tinged the atmosphere with a blueish purpleish colour.
A few days earlier, the doctor had told him that his body – Praise be to God – was working like clockwork, and had then added smiling: “Like an old watch, even though its glass may be scatched or foggy or the wrist band worn out, nothing can change the fact that it is truly a watch, ticking on the dot.” And he concluded: “You’re a horse, Abu Shawkat.” The young doctor had patted his shoulder with a wet hand smelling of cheap disinfectant, which reminded him that he was in a public hospital with its detestable turnover of staff and extreme shortage in expertise and specialisation.
Abu Shawkat lit a cigarette and followed the puffs of smoke as he sat that evening looking at the pale neon lights on the neighbouring houses. The voice of Muhsinah Tewfik, in the Egyptian series that followed the news, could be heard from various television sets in the working-class neighbourhood where people left their homes early in the morning. There was some background music, the dominant drone of a violin making an oppressively sad atmosphere.
“Don’t worry. All there is to the matter is that you’re no longer a young man. You’re seventy. Others your age sit in their homes and barely move.”
That was what the young doctor, who had half his teeth filled with metal, had told him. Yet Abu Shawkat did not feel well. He had not confided this to his 60- and 70- year-old friends in the coffee shop when he stayed up with them the last few nights. The last thing he wanted was to advance to first place in the decrepitude competition. Nor had he confided to Umm Shawkat, who was worn out with maladies of old age such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart trouble that confined her so much that hardly did she get out of bed than she got back in. Nor had he confided this to his children, who no longer lived in al-Ruseifah; the area no longer suited their jobs in the new companies with foreign names that a few years before had hatched in Amman. They – the arrivistes – relocated with their wives to the western part of the capital that was clean, orderly, and it might be months before he saw them or played with their children. He used to seat them on his lap (he usually filled his pockets with candy in case they knocked on the door at any time, though the possibility of that was a bit far-fetched!). If it happened that they all gathered in the family home that is gradually being forgotten, with the hysterical cries of Umm Shawkat fussing over the wonderful mess the children were making everywhere and her forgiveness of her daughters-in-law smoking publicly in front of their “hen-pecked” (as Abu Shawkat described them privately to himself) husbands, their conversation never went beyond “How is your health, Hajj?” “How are you, Hajjah?” “How are you, uncle?” “How is uncle’s wife?”
“Thank God for everything.” Abu Shawkat and Umm Shawkat would incessantly repeat this refrain about their health and life. Their metropolitan sons were in a rush, as if chasing something incomplete that they had left behind. Their metropolitan wives would glance, worried, at their watches, and nervously swing their cross-legged feet, creating a pretext every now and then to pinch a child’s ear or slap another, thus upsetting Umm Shawkat who could not stand any of her grandchildren being beaten in front of her.
Summer nights were less cruel than its days. Umm Shawkat went to bed early and the entire neighbourhood succumbed to a communal unconsciousness in front of their television sets. Abu Shawkat enjoyed the quiet in the street, a cool breeze comforting his face and neck with a fragrance that was a mixture of jasmine . . . and lavender.
He was about to get up from his bench to go back inside when he noticed Umm Bassam inspecting the chicken pen in the garden of her house that was separated from his by a fence. Her face acquired a glow as it reflected the blending of the street light with that of the moon. This was the first time Abu Shawkat had seen his 50-year-old neighbour Umm Bassam without a headscarf. She had gathered her greying hair in a short plait. There was some orange henna growing out at the roots. It was also the first time that he saw her in a nightgown. Umm Bassam is one of the few people who stick in one’s mind in an image of long ago, static, unchanging. Umm Bassam – who else ? – the instigator of daily strife among the neighbours, arguing with taxi drivers – those “lowlife”, fighting with her distant relatives, dropping in on people with or without a pretext, confiscating the worn-out footballs the children in the neighbourhood kicked into her garden; Umm Bassam who disembowelled the footballs with a big knife, deaf to the dismayed cries of the boys and their begging that she would stop the wicked act she was intent on. Umm Bassam, the very woman, always in her dark blue gallabiya and blue headscarf. That night under the full pleasant radiant moon the white cotton nightgown, though decent, made Umm Bassam appear quite unlike the neighbour Abu Shawkat knew.
Umm Bassam stood facing him. From behind their common fence and sitting on his bench, Abu Shawkat was able to see her from the waist up. As she turned to the right and then to the left she allowed – without intending – the light of the moon and the street to bathe her face, making her look rather unique and magnificent, anything but the set image that her name conjured up. She definitely did not see him; otherwise, how could she stand there in a nightgown and without a headscarf? Not only that, she was softly singing “In one Day and Night”. When she could not remember a word she would replace it with another or invent something to match the rhythm, or hum the tune instead.
Abu Shawkat moved closer to the fence, taking cover in the thick shadows of the trees. He went nearer and searched for a small opening the size of a child’s head that he knew was there. He sat by the fence and stuck his face into the opening.
The sight of Umm Bassam was now complete. The gold bracelets on her white arms jingled as she played with her chickens. She swept one of the garden beds of leaves and unripe fruit that had fallen from the trees. She continued humming. Her voice was not beautiful at all: for many long stretches of the song she was out of tune, yet a feeling of contentment and peace of mind dominated her singing.
With her back to him she squatted on the edge of the mint bed. Suddenly, she lifted up her nightgown and pulled down her knickers, assuming a urinating position. Abu Shawkat was stunned. He swallowed a gasp that almost exposed his presence. He pushed his head further into the opening in the fence. He was astounded by her large backside, a generous wide roundness of overflowing flesh. Her flesh was rampant, agile, vast, unfettered, overflowing on either side. Her backside appeared excessively white in the light of the moon. As she squatted her buttocks, resting on her ample thighs, appeared even more unrestrained and desirable.
She peed into the mint bed. The sound of long, continuous peeing on wet mud – from such a close distance – ruptured his ears. She must have felt comfortable and was sure she was alone. This certainly wasn’t the Umm Bassam one ran into every day. Umm Bassam under that moonlight that night was . . . well, she was a woman! What Abu Shawkat saw that night was a backside! Imagine, a backside!
Abu Shawkat then demonstrated with his hands a round shape, moving and swaying his open hands to indicate vastness, expanse, heaviness, fullness. The panting heads of his listeners pulled back. Their body temperatures flared up. The old men mumbled with new energy. Abu Faraj put out his third cigarette. Abu Riyad suggested they play a round of backgammon now that things were really hotting up. Abu Shawkat said it was getting late. Oh God, how had they not paid attention to the time? They looked at their watches quite displeased. The coffee shop was almost empty and the coffee boy was turning the chairs upside down on tables vacated by customers. Abu Shadi whispered loudly that it had been fourteen years and seven months since he had slept with a woman. Abu Hafez slapped his hand on the table in agitation and promised: “Tomorrow I will propose to Tamadir. I will marry her. And have children. Those low lifes can bang their heads against the wall.”
Abu Hafez got up to leave first, catching the cool breeze of the night air. His companions walked behind him, each mulling over the delicious relaxation of the evening. They looked taller, broader, and for a while appeared to block out the moon. At least, that was how Abu Shawkat saw them as he stayed behind. The coffee boy began washing the floor with soapy water after putting a new tape in the ancient cassette player. Abu Shawkat stood at the door of the coffee shop respectfully . . . observing.
He did not want to miss the beginning of “Will I Meet you Tomorrow?”
‘Laylun Ahla’ [The Best Night] is translated by Mona Zaki from a collection of short stories
published by al-Mu’assassa al-Arabiyyah lil-Dirassat wal-Nashr, Beirut, 2002
The translator would like to thank Rene Boatman at Princeton University and Samuel Shimon for their help in making this story available as early as possible, and the author for her many helpful and insightful comments.
First published in Banipal 15/16 (Autumn 2002-Spring 2003)