Soheir el-Masadfa
"What is this thing she has written?"

Soheir el-Masadfa


“What is this thing she has written?”

A Chapter from the novel

The journey of the hyenas

Translated by Raphael Cohen


About a year ago I decided to pronounce the little beast divorced, distastefully grab her by her long hair, and throw her out of my house as if she were a dead mouse. I slowly do up my tie, unable to take my eyes off the bed. I contemplate her sleeping face, which looks like the face of an angel or of a saint in an icon on the walls of a ruined mountaintop church. From the day I married her, I have never felt her breathing when she sleeps. She falls asleep and instantly metamorphoses into a beautiful corpse or an image on the cover of a glossy magazine, while, for a whole ten years I have caught myself snoring frighteningly loudly when I jolt awake or have a nightmare. I asked her once whether my snoring annoyed her. She smiled kindly – and when she smiles she gets a sexy dimple in the middle of her chin, so attractive in fact that I would give her a hard time when we went out together so she did not laugh or smile and show off her dimple – kissed me on the forehead, and said with complete confidence in her every word: “I love everything about you, and everything that comes out of you, and everything that does not. Quite simply, I love you.”

I almost strangle myself with my tie as I look at her sleek black eyebrows, her kohl-rimmed eyes, her wheat-coloured face blemished by the red of sleep, her hair strewn over the pillow like a cascade of silken black threads, her full scarlet lips slightly parted as though she were collapsed in my arms in expectation of my kiss, the shadow of her nose across her cheek which I often like to bite. Actually, someone who makes erotic films would find no face more ideal than hers, and so would have no need to devise new ways to bring naked limbs into exhausting entwinement. I close the door on her as I imagine myself putting the pillow over her pretty face and taking pleasure in the sight of her thrashing legs. I press the pillow harder and she keeps fighting while I lick my lips from the intensity of the pleasure. Then all goes calm for ever.

I finally head downstairs, oblivious to everything but her blue face and her long red tongue lolling out. I answer the greetings of the parking attendant and my mobile. I apologise to the editor-in-chief, saying that the traffic’s bad but I’m nearly there. I am surprised once again by her innocent sleeping face; is that worm cheating on me, perhaps? Has she cuckolded me all these years, while I endured the guilt feelings associated with wanting to leave her and have a son to carry my name even though I am over fifty. What lies behind this infertile woman who has all these years made me believe that she worships me while I can think of nothing but her fate after I abandon her. Will she kill herself, perhaps? Will she get cancer as a result of her sorrow, and die? Will she hole up in some hovel until she goes totally mad?

For a whole year I have been trying to make up my mind to leave her, but I cannot find a single shortcoming in this woman to let me carry through my decision. Every day I create new scenarios, all of which evaporate in the face of her calmness and endless love. I come back from the newspaper to find my house clean, my dinner waiting, and she, beautifully turned out, awaiting me eagerly as usual. Her hunger for me drips from her eyes so I drag her by her long hair and shout any old thing in her face, like: “Why did you call me at the paper? Don’t you know how busy I am?” She surrenders her body to my hands, mumbling through her tears: “Didn’t you tell me to call you?”

I suddenly find her in my arms for me to lick away her tears and crush her body with mine, her long hair still in my hand.

My shaky hands grip the steering wheel tightly as if hanging on for dear life. On the windscreen her cursed dimple is dancing before my eyes. My eyelids grow heavy. I did not sleep at all last night and I feel slightly feverish and headachy. I keep coughing and sneezing, perhaps in order not to cry. Stuck in traffic at Ambulance Junction, which takes at least half an hour to get through, I go over the events of last night.

Well, at around 11:30 last night I was dying to smoke a cigarette but could not find my lighter. I do not know why I did not wake her up as usual to look for the lighter. She is the one who knows everything, even the places where I secrete or mislay my most important things. I went into the kitchen – which I seldom enter. I looked for a match, but could not find one. I lit the gas stove with the auto-ignition, lit my cigarette, and was about to head out of the kitchen when the rubbish bin caught my eye. I contemplated it in amazement. On top of the remnants of courgette, tomato, and cabbage leaves there were some tiny pieces of paper which had been torn up in exaggerated fashion. I stubbed out my cigarette and carefully picked them out. I tried to discern a word but only recognised the handwriting of the little beast that I lodge in my house. I hurried to our bedroom to make sure she was still asleep, then went back into the kitchen. I carefully removed the vegetable peelings and got the iron out. I put the small pieces face down and ironed them with extreme care. Then I piled them on top of each other and stuffed them into my wallet. After that I could not sleep at all. I lay stretched out next to her asking myself: who was this woman writing to? And why tear up the piece of paper so fastidiously? Had the fashion for writing love letters not come to an end with the invention of the mobile phone, email, and chat? Then I started counting down the hours until I would go to work, thinking about how to restore her piece of paper to its original state and read it.

The name of Essam el-Shanawani continues to light up my mobile phone until I reach the office. His weekly column never goes to press without me subbing every single word of it. I recast some awkward sentences, correct the grammar and spelling, and may add a paragraph or two on the basis of some new information I tell him about, stressing the importance of its sources. He would nod his head and say: “No matter, put it in.”

I leave my car with the parking attendant at the entrance and make my way at a run to Essam al-Shanawani’s office, saying hello to my colleagues on the way. All of them know my status with him and are close to me, but at the same time they poke fun at my work. I am just a ghost writer for that oaf, with four others just like me, including a woman, who writes half of what appears under his name in four newspapers and a woman’s magazine. For that reason, even beginners at reading can spot the widely discrepant style of his articles.

I enter to his darkly angry face, which only mirrors his hatred for everyone and everything around him, most significantly himself. His narrow, staring eyes are set behind ugly glasses. Above the eyes are eyebrows which have all but disappeared except for a few thinly scattered hairs. He has an almost flat nose of ineffable ugliness, and thin determinedly-set lips that appear to have been drawn with a brown pen whose ink is running dry by a child no good at drawing. Each cheek is marked with a black triangle which appears to have been plastered on like rouge applied by a third-rate chorus girl. All of the above is set against a dark brown complexion and beneath an ill-defined baldness.

I thank God that he’s on the phone to someone. The conversation appears friendly even though his face is contorted with annoyance and dislike as usual. He tosses a sheet of paper across the desk to me. It will be his weekly column, so I pick up a red pen from his pen holder and make a display of getting down to polishing it up. I become aware of his sarcastic tones when he senses I am nearly done. “Have you added your full stops and commas, Ustaz Gamal?”

“All done, chief.”

He presses a button on the telephone and summons his secretary and PA with a single shouted “Come!”, that is laden with every sense of the word contempt. He grabs the piece of paper from me and shouts in her face: “Quickly!” Then he stops her by yelling in a bored tone: “Wait.” He takes the article from her, giving it and her behind a quick glance then curls his lips in derision, as usual: “So you didn’t add anything, Ustaz Gamal?”

“It’s great, chief. There couldn’t be a better way of putting it.”

He smiles, also contemptuously, and looks through his papers in the way which all his underlings have learned signals that he wants you to leave, and repeats slowly: “Thank you, Gamal.”

I hurry to my office and look for some clear sellotape. I push my papers and some page proofs of the newspaper to one side and lay out the small scraps of paper that I ironed the night before. I note whether the edges are square, triangular, or curved, and, because I was always able to solve jigsaw puzzles in a few seconds, I reassemble the sheet of paper that my wife tore into forty-three pieces in record time. I carefully and patiently stick them together on the back and then turn them over to read. In walks Hassan Abdel Sabbour, with his young la-la voice like that of a woman busy over her wash tub on the roof of a low-class building in the 1960s chatting to the man selling vegetables from a donkey cart: “The chief wants you, Sidi. I’m pitching an investigative piece that’ll cause a storm, and he says to me: ‘Let Gamal Ibrahim work on it with you.’”

I put her reconstructed piece of paper face down in my drawer, lock it, and go off with him.

Her asphyxiated face and long lolling red tongue keep haunting me, only to suddenly vanish to be replaced by her sexy dimple. This plonks itself onto the face of Essam el-Shanawani at one moment and the face of Hassan Abdel Sabbour at another, then on the curvaceous behind of the secretary, which looks like her only qualification for her job with the editor-in-chief. I am busy checking my burning forehead; I seem to have a kind of fever I have never experienced before. I am startled by Shanawani’s squeaky voice that becomes hoarse as it rises when he wants everyone at the newspaper to hear him, especially the tea boys. “What you mean to say, Ustaz Hassan, is that there are crooks around who will supply you with the material to write an exposé on them, and then not take you to court? Listen everyone, if you’re scared of going to prison and being turned over by the courts, then don’t work in journalism. Is that understood?”

In fact, Hassan Abdel Sabbour, with his passion and his ability to walk the streets for ten hours straight and have his ear glued to his mobile round the clock, will complete his investigation. My role will be limited, as usual, to subbing the introduction and the questions, adding some punctuation, and formulating the paper’s opinion, which is pre-formulated whatever new information the investigation throws up.

In reality, I was not born to be a journalist. I am very lazy, haven’t got a single creative idea in my head, and am so emotionally dysfunctional that I don’t even know at what stage of life I stuck those things called feelings into a deep freeze whose power is always on. For a long time I tried to experience feelings of embarrassment, anger, or love, by using words – for example, by talking about Romeo and Juliet, corrupt people, prostitutes or pimps, or zombie rulers who at the peak of their un-death are still able to destroy their peoples. But I always knew what it meant for the words to remain mere words devoid of any glimmer of spirit. Three years ago, Essam el-Shanawani noticed that I had started roaming the corridors of the newspaper like a cockerel, stretching my neck, ruffling my feathers, flexing my back, and then shaking my behind in the faces of my colleagues. It seems that he also heard how dismissive of him I was and my arrogant claim that I could easily write his weekly column, which was unpublishable until I had run my pen through it. He called me to his office, smiled maliciously, as usual, while grinding his teeth and said with fake friendliness: “Gamal, you write well and you’ve been with us a few years now. Why don’t you write something, my friend? Choose any subject and write about it. I’ll publish it straightaway in the best place: the Opposing Opinions page.”

The proposal seemed like a promotion, and I don’t know how I made it home. That day, really, I was bursting with joy. I told the one with the sexy dimple that I was going into my office to write my article, as if I wrote an article every day! I warned her not to make any noise and to put cups of tea and coffee and clean ashtrays in front of me without uttering a single word, and then go and curl up like a pet cat in any spot far from me.

I sat down at my desk, where I don’t often sit. Behind me were hundreds of reference works, for I had long dreamed and hoped for the day when I would write about a subject that had preoccupied me night and day and that I believe is to blame for all the troubles that have befallen the country and caused all the problems that see it ranked among the underdeveloped countries, namely, the failure of the education system and the Arabic language.

I went to the paper the next day in the company of nothing less than my article of 1,500 words in total. I was naturally well aware of the amount of space allocated for it on the page, for I had long subbed such pieces for other writers. This time, however, nobody would sub it after me, for naturally I do not need subbing.

Essam el-Shanawani did not read my article. No comment, not even on the headline, and no slight tweak to it, as he would sometimes do with the senior writers, reasoning with them, “Because it’s the press, my dear, I’ve given it a punchy headline that will sell.” He simply signed it straight off for publication, writing beneath my name – Gamal Ibrahim – 16 point bold, meaning my name would appear exactly like his. My article appeared across three columns, and not just one, and I finally gave a smile of triumph as my colleagues volunteered to give me their free copies of the paper. I went home with ten copies of the paper containing my first article under the headline “Education and Identity: An Effort to Save the Language of the Holy Qur’an”. Visually, the headline resembled a campaign poster for the parliamentary elections, and beneath it my name in the florid style of a candidate running in the teeming al-Waili constituency, or of a wretched Arabic teacher advertising remedial sessions on a wall in some slum neighbourhood.

I put nine of the copies of the newspaper in the filing cabinet for my important personal papers in my study, and, straight after dinner, nonchalantly gave the tenth to the one with the sexy dimple. I watched her every twitch as she read. During the first paragraph she flicked her hair aside, a motion I had learned to associate with her being bored. I reminded myself that introductions are always a severe trial for the reader because they seek to say everything while simultaneously wanting to delay saying anything. She then became engrossed in watching a fly, and I could almost see her eyes passing over my words while thinking how the fly had got into her apartment which was as clean and disinfected as a ward in a private hospital. She swatted the fly away again and knitted her brow, an action I had learned to associate with her trying to concentrate when listening to my mother saying something she did not like, particularly when it concerned having children. It took her twenty-five minutes to read the article, and I knew full well that the most it could take, even when reading slowly, was a maximum seven minutes. I was immediately sure that her mind had wandered and that she had made a huge effort to reach the end. She raised her eyes, which were devoid of all expression, tossed her head, and stood up with difficulty. She came around the dining table where we were sitting facing each other, reached as far as my head and kissed it. I could almost feel the effort she was making to come out with a voice ringing with delight as she said cheerfully: “Wonderful, darling. Really, really good. Congratulations.”

When her lips touched my hair, I felt they were oozing pity. I don’t know where she got such pity from, she who was only fit for stuffing vine leaves. The same pity I had sniffed out in the cries of my colleagues that morning as they coldly and mechanically repeated again and again: “You’ve brightened up the opinion page, Jimmy.”

Subsequently, I kept my eye on all the seminars held at the Journalists’ Syndicate, the Writers’ Union, and the Cairo Atelier and the Mass Culture conferences, especially those whose main subject was education. Perhaps a speaker would mention my name or refer to my article in passing or directly. At one colloquium, I was even obliged to raise my hand and remind them of my major effort, accompanied with highly significant statistics and recommendations on how to emerge from the dark tunnel. Bitterly I added: “But who reads in this country, and who listens?” With nods of their heads, the audience acknowledged their support, while their faces reflected a fearful pity. Then the speakers – whose number exceeded the audience – resumed as though I was not there among them and never had been. My article passed like the breeze, not like a text distilled in my mind and written in my blood. There was not a single mistake in it and was a textbook example of an article, so what was it lacking to attract attention? The terrible thing was that I was certain large numbers of people had read it. I waited for them to comment on a line in it. I waited for them to attack me, even to claim that it was the very embodiment of corruption, since I worked for the paper and was friendly with the editor-in-chief. But I was pelted with silent brickbats. It was as if they read it to instantly forget it, and like them my damned wife. From that day on I was convinced that I had published a spotless white space.

For months after, whenever I gave Essam el-Shanawani his weekly column after subbing it, his cheeks would puff out as he cried cheerfully: “Not planning to write another nice piece for us, Gamal? Man, you really are lazy.” Then he would chuckle gruffly because he knew that I knew what he meant by “another nice piece”. I scrutinized his darkly angry face in real amazement that I could not hide. That odious man really did have a certain passion that made him a writer. No get-together of journalists and writers would fail to refer to some sarcastic line he had penned or some judgement he had reached in one of his articles. Soon enough, those present would make up jokes about that judgement, like the one about the minister who was shuffled between several departments. Essam el-Shanawani advised the prime minister of the renowned government of businessmen in his last article that the Ministry of Culture would be right for him in particular since he had spent many years touting books on the pavements of the Cairo International Book Fair. I do not in fact know what these writers possess that I lack. Those writers whose columns I myself am incapable of resisting; the likes of Salama Ahmed Salama, Mohammed Eissa al-Sharqawi, Ahmed Bahgat, and Galal Amer, and above all of them, of course, the few lines written every day by Ahmed Ragab under a title “Half a Word” that has become as famous as The Arabian Nights. To me it seemed that everything they wrote was extremely simple, and within the compass of my pen, but when I tried to write it, the page would remain blank. Bah, I hate the pat answer that it’s talent! Writing, undoubtedly, is a whore about whom women are always asking, “What does she have that I don’t? I’ve got tits like her, and tapering legs, and a fine body quite capable of tormenting men and wrecking their homes.”

Hassan Abdel Sabbour, in search of someone involved in the importation of carcinogenic pesticides, flits off to his sources, starting with the minister of agriculture down to the lowliest official or botanist. He will drive himself into a frenzy to get at the truth, but without obtaining it. For the young idealist Hassan has yet to learn that criminals are always smarter than the police. What did a policeman stand to lose if he failed to arrest a criminal in comparison with the criminal’s loss of life and liberty were he to be arrested?

I sit on my chair correcting the articles of all the writers who are read, and of those, like me, who write blank pages, until I have a pain in the backside. My name will come before Hassan’s, above an investigative report entirely his own work, simply thanks to the order of the alphabet and my good fortune that G comes before H.

I don’t have five minutes alone at the paper to read what the whore I lodge in my house has written. I decide to go to my mother’s, and put the paper carefully inside a black folder to preclude anyone seeing it, and hide the folder between a few copies of the newspaper. I tell everyone I am leaving to make a few calls regarding the investigative piece.


* * *


When I drive up onto the narrow old Imbaba Bridge, where Mahmoud el-Maligi stood to throw Faten Hamama from its high iron pillars in a film whose name escapes me, I only ever smell the scent of my father emanating from a distance of forty-five years, and only ever see the beautiful women one no longer sees on the streets, but only in black and white films, their hair pinned up with bright gold hairpins, always wearing short sleeveless dresses in chiffon or lace lined with satin of the same colour, and shiny high-heeled shoes, with wide-buckled belts encircling their slender waists, and carrying large handbags decorated with sequins and chandelier crystals. I remember my father licking his fat lips and smiling his broad idiotic grin from ear to ear as his eyes lit up. Soon enough the crotch of his trousers would bulge slightly and he would sit down in embarrassment at the nearest spot he could find. I often heard my mother whispering bitterly to my eldest aunt: “Have you ever seen such a disgrace?” I would eagerly await this performance when we were invited to family or neighbours’ celebrations or Ramadan breakfasts in the village, or a group outing to the zoo, the Giza Pyramids, or the beach resort of Ras el-Barr, where we barely went twice his whole life. In those days I would amuse myself by trying to guess which beautiful woman it would be this time that allowed me to enjoy my father’s performance. I would wonder why my mother’s face reddened in shame and fury. If I was close to her, she would grip my hand or my shoulder as she hugged me and forgot herself to the extent of hurting me, and the marks of her fingers would remain imprinted on my flesh for days. When I grew up I understood exactly what was happening to my father, and from when I was sixteen I trained myself to avert my gaze and never smile directly at beautiful sexy women so as not to be the object of female mockery. But soon enough my mother’s look of reproach and derision alerted me to the fact that I was just like my father. I was shaking hands with a pretty girl and, like a real imbecile, I did not stop jiggling her hand with mine. Sometimes the girl would suddenly turn into a man and squeeze my hand with a force that made it stop. Many of them, however, were fazed by this idiot and simply stared like the rest of those present, following up and down my hand and arm as it happily shook her hand and flung her arm gaily around.

It seems I never loved my father, and it was my good fortune that he died when I was seven. In truth, I do not feel any guilt over those feelings. I tried hard to love him, but could not. My mother had an intoxicating smell, a mixture of Five Fives cologne and the Eid al-Fitr biscuits which she would make herself. I would go with my sisters to the bakery carrying trays of them for the oven. There I would fall into a delicious stupor – which I would never enjoy again subsequently – as we waited our turn to bake the cakes and biscuits, in what was an annual outing. I carried on sleeping with my head tucked under her armpit so as to inhale that scent until I was eleven. When I was six, a few months before my father died, and while I was trying to find a way to love him, I stole the bottle of Five Fives cologne and went up to him while he was asleep and snoring loudly. I poured half the bottle under his armpit and waited a few moments. Then I stretched out beside him to sleep up against his armpit as I would always do with my mother. I inhaled a smell I am unable to describe. His smell had poisoned the scent of the cologne that I had always liked. I stood up to escape him and the smell when he suddenly started. He lost his temper, almost certain about what I was thinking, and threw me to the floor shouting: “It’s impossible to sleep in this house!”

My mother came running from the kitchen and picked me off the floor even though I was too old to be carried. I buried my head in her bosom and she wiped away my tears as I kept on crying and inhaling the scent of her armpit, in the hope that I might divine the secret of the bottle that created such a vast difference between them.

In the tent for receiving his mourners, and while a distant female relative was kissing her and sobbing “He’s gone in the prime of his youth”, my mother’s face was stony. I continued observing her until the last mourners had disappeared and I have preserved for ever the long sigh of relief she then gave involuntarily and her inscrutable look – not one of sadness, pity, or confusion at being the inheritor of two girls, a boy, abject poverty and a loneliness that seemed likely to be lengthy. I preserved that look and ranked it alongside the many secret glances that passed between us as our new store of feelings towards the late departed.

Now I think, how did my mother manage her physical needs? She had lost her husband as a young woman barely in her twenties, while that whore I lodge in my house, who is forty-six years old, thinks of nothing but how to coax me into bed every night. Didn’t I read somewhere that a woman is over at forty, so what’s with this Nermeen whose curves grow more attractive, whose thighs remain shapely and firm, and whose breasts stand erect against any chill in the rooms? Apart from at most five white hairs on her head, I cannot discern any signs of aging on her.

I remember my mother being elegant and beautiful with her sweet and unique scent. In the afternoons, after teaching games to the children at the Shajarat al-Durr primary school, and until night time, she would run around the house, trying to beat the clock when it came to feeding a son and two daughters, dusting the furniture, combatting the cockroaches and mice, and sometimes lice and bedbugs, washing endless piles of dishes throughout the day, receiving neighbours, being involved in their minor disputes over the savings club they formed to manage things at the Eids, the beginning of the school year, and Ramadan, or over a child having hit me or a boy having teased one of my sisters. She struggled over every second and her only dream was to find enough time to sleep.

I arrive at Imbaba. Unity Street is chock full of cars moving at a standstill or standing still in motion. I have no choice but to park my car in front of Ali the barber’s. With difficulty I push aside the large stone with which he occupies a part of the public highway. In exchange for parking I get caught out by his promise to cut my hair today. I turn through two alleyways before reaching my mother’s house. My room is just the same. My mother really likes things to remain as they are. So as not to ring the bell, I open the door with the key she hung around my neck when I was seven. I hope she doesn’t broach the subject of Nermeen, and my having children, and how God permits me to marry another woman if need be, and that by this “if need be” God has just my situation in mind. I wait till she finishes her prayers, in which she is completely absorbed, while Leila Murad sings “On the Shores of Love” – “You’ve travelled and forgotten your love. I want you, by the Prophet, I want you.” Her voice transports me to as yet undiscovered oceans, as I consider in amazement the fat face of Hussein Sidqi. What could have possessed a woman with such an angelic voice to be tortured by being abandoned by a man who looked like that? Then my mother is in front of me with her smile, still lovely after losing some of her back teeth, and full of delight, which she always tries to conceal by making some gesture or uttering any old thing. I kiss her hands and the cheeks and hug her as I repeat the phrase that makes her squirm with embarrassment like a sixteen-year-old girl. “Isn’t she just lovely?” She pulls her hand away and rummages through the carrier bags.

“My son, have many times have I told you that you don’t know how to buy fruit. They always rip you off.”

“So what should I bring you, my dear, when you’re so sweet but have diabetes and can’t eat sweets? Plus, dear lady, they wait all month for someone careless like me to come along so they can make a living. Throw away the rotten stuff and eat what’s good and sweet, my sweetie.”

“Stop it now! How’s your wife?”

No doubt a frown passes over my face as I think to myself: “No, not on this black day of all days. I won’t let her drag me into any conversation about her.”


“Listen, Hagga, I want to grab an hour’s sleep and eat what your lovely hands come up with. I’m really tired out and very hungry.”

I really dislike calling her “Hagga,” something my big sister taught us as a result of her years’ working in the Gulf. My mother knows that I don’t use it unless in a deplorable state. I’ve learnt by heart the phrase she will respond with to my request and which has not changed for almost half a century, “My darling, my son.”

I know by heart how she will run to the kitchen, take everything out of the freezer, and think hard how to cook all the dishes I like in one go, as if this were the last time I would eat at her house.

Why am I delaying reading her piece of paper for as long as possible? I could have parked the car in a quiet spot and read it. Am I that afraid? And what am I afraid of? From her words to a lover, from a page out of a failed diary, like the ones women write giving their opinion on men and naturally airing the infinite needs of their voracious bodies and the abuse they experience at the hands of human wolves created without hearts or feelings? Who am I afraid of? Of that mound of smooth flesh whose psychological state is determined by whether my hands play with it or leave it alone? Once again I see her blue face and long red tongue hanging out of her mouth, which has now become revolting. I stretch out on my old bed and wait, just like in the old days when I wanted to indulge some vice, like smoking or wanking, as I visualized the bowed-open thighs of the People’s Starlet. I wait in the same state of anticipation. The ugly hoarse voice ends its call to afternoon prayer. It seems that Uncle Awwad, the dogsbody for the tall building which we would sneak into as kids to play on the lifts – a real excursion for us at the time – is still alive and kicking. His aim in life could be summed up as grabbing the microphone before the call for prayer time, repeatedly intoning the sura of the Rising Dawn – the only one he had memorized, it seemed – and then shouting out the call to prayer in his hideous voice. When the owner of the building and the neighbours tried to prevent him by setting the amplifier to play Holy Qur’an Radio, he had his first heart attack. Of the biography of the Prophet and the history of his companions he knew nothing except the story of Bilal, the Prophet’s muezzin. Whatever oaths were sworn on the Holy Qur’an, he could never be persuaded or made to believe that his voice was not like that of Bilal, but worse than a donkey’s bray. Eventually everything goes quiet. I can hear the clattering of pots in the kitchen and I am sure she will be occupied for at least two hours. Finally, I set her page, reconstructed by me, before my eyes:


I scurry into a rocky hollow in the depths of the sand dunes that I have spent all morning seeking. As soon as I have scrapped a hole big enough to hide my waste, I hear the far-off braying of a she-ass. I cannot bear it any more and hitch up my robe, exposing my behind, and direct it at the hole. The wind is howling in my ears and I breathe deeply. I have barely broken wind when I feel an iron grip push my head into the sand. I struggle to avoid being suffocated by the grains of sand and fight to rest the side of my face on the ground. I pray fervently that the man – who with one hand has lifted my behind up in the air like a dog’s – does not penetrate me.


Published in Banipal 52 - New Fiction

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