Fiction | March 01, 1985

BEHIND A BARRED basement window a child’s small face. To any likely passerby he cries, “Hey, Uncle, please ”

The passerby stops. “What do you want?”

“Out. I want out.”

“What stops you?”

“The locked door.”

“No one is with you?”

“No one.”

“Where is your mother?”

“She locked the door and left.”

“Where is your father?”

“He left a long time ago.”

The passerby interprets the situation in one way or another.

Then smiles and goes on his way.

The child’s face, small behind the bars.

Looking out with longing at the street, at people.

* * *

EVERY MOSQUE SEEMS to have a man who wanders around outside with a censer, wafting smoke over people for a pittance. In our alley, it was Am Sukry, a poor man with a big family jammed into one room. His youngest child was named Abdu. Since he was the last grape in the bunch, his father decided to have him go to the mosque school, where he excelled from the first day. The sheikh of the school advised Am Sukry to send Abdu on to primary school.

Am Sukry hesitated for some time, unable to decide whether to apprentice Abdu to a tradesman or set him on the long road of booklearning. The decision was difficult, for a pupil would have to be a parasite on his father for many years while an apprentice could help out with daily pay. However, Am Sukry at last chose schooling, and Abdu’s high grades soon dispelled his worry and fluffed his wings with pride. When Abdu graduated from primary school, his father beamed and said, “Now I have a son who’s a government employee.”

Yes, but Abdu insisted on going to high school—never mind that he had to go in a raggedy suit, patched shoes, and a greasy tarboosh. Because of his excellence and his ability to talk about politics, he walked with his head held high. Then he won admission to the engineering college on a full scholarship. And then got chosen to go to study in England. From that day on, Am Sukry’s name changed to Abu el-Muhandis, Father of the Engineer, and he became famous throughout the district. His son’s intelligence became a proverb. In his youth, Am Sukry had dreamed of joining the protection gang, even of being the boss, or, at the very least, of winning an important fight, but time brings changes and marvels.

* * *

Abdu comes to occupy a very high post in the ministry, and thanks to him we get electric lights in our alley.

* * *

THERE’S A WORKER in our saddlery named Ashur id-Denf, about forty, married, and the father of ten children. His outstanding characteristics are immense strength, tough looks, and wretched poverty. He works from dawn till midnight and is always tired and hungry. He strangles with distress if he happens to catch sight of well-to-do people in the coffeehouse or if the aroma of roasting meat happens to reach his nostrils. He envies the donkey at the mill in the saddlery as much as he envies the perfumer or the lumberyard owner.

One day he remarks to the imam of our mosque, “Allah creates wealth but forgets my children.”

This infuriates the imam, who shouts back at him, “Our prophet Mohamed, God bless him and grant him salvation, spent several nights with a big stone bound against his stomach in order to appease his hunger, so get out of here, God damn you!”

Around midnight Ashur id-Denf is on his way home from the saddlery, plowing through the darkness, when he hears a soft whispering voice. “Hey, Am Ashur!”

He stops and turns his face toward a closed ground floor window of the house belonging to Sitt Fadeela, the lucky widow who is going to inherit the waqf of the Shananeery family. “Who’s calling?” he asks.

“I want you to do something for me. Come in,” says the voice.

The place is so dark that the stuffed crocodile over the door is visible only as a vague outline. He passes through the door and moves toward the sitting room by following a ray of light glimmering from a peephole in the door. He sees Sitt Fadeela sitting cross-legged on a Turkish sofa and stands there in front of her, exuding the crude, penetrating odor of his sweat. In his eyes, she is a lush cow, provocative and appetizing—but she’s also a serious and modest lady, so his insides churn with contradictory feelings. The woman says, “I need oil and cake.”

She says it with simple-mindedness, a feighned stupidity which betrays an innocent cunning. Her scarlet face confesses for her, and he sees in her drooping eyelids the miracle of consent and submission. But it’s not the submission which first occurred to him, not at all, for she’s still quite untouchable, completely in control of herself, a prudent schemer. By the time he leaves her, he knows she wants him legally!

For a long time he simply can’t believe it and thinks he has fallen into a dream, but he does marry the rich widow and thus starts being mentioned in our alley as a great exception to the rule, a rarity, a great example. Without protest, he lets the marriage contract include a clause allowing her to divorce him and he leaves, as stipulated, his job in the saddlery. Then, in a new suit, in a new skin, and in a halo of wealth, he presents himself to people. Sitt Fadeela wanted him to keep his first wife, so he does, and since she and her children are provided with a generous monthly allowance, they bless the marriage from the bottom of their hearts. And so Ashur lives out his old dream and feels happy and satisfied.

* * *

Sitt Fadeela turns out to be a woman not only beautiful but perfect as well, and she loves him, takes good care of him, and makes him a new man. She’s gracious, well-bred, and faithful, but she won’t give up even one little piece of his life.

From the first minute, Ashur feels she is intent on total possession of both his surface and his core, self and shadow, even his thoughts and dreams. Whether in the garden or the guest room, it’s between her hands that he lives, and even when he spends an hour in the coffeehouse he spots her shadow looking in at him through the windowpane. Still, in spite of all this, he continues basking in love, comfort, and satiety.

* * *

Once Ashur grows accustomed to good things, once the miracles of plenty are clothed in habit, boredom creeps into his soul. He develops a craving to be alone and hence wanders around aimlessly by himself, perhaps stopping to joke with a friend or commit some innocent folly, but he still has a feeling of being watched, subjugated, hunted. It’s true that he lacks nothing, but he’s a prisoner. Silk chains, replacements for his old iron ones, draw tighter around his throat and boredom floods his soul.

He finds time long, he finds time heavy, he finds time an enemy.

One day he says to her, “Open me a shop.”

“What for? You have everything you could possibly want.”

“Every man works, even the beggars,” he complains.

He’s convinced she’s afraid that if he starts working he’ll be able to do without her, even become financially independent, but all he wants is a chance to be free of her fixed stare.

* * *

Ashur id-Denf goes back to his old way of rebellion and complaint. His tongue repeats slogans about grievances and injustice and their consequences.

His anger boils over and he decides to do what he wants, so winds of dissent sweep away the calm of the happy house.

Finally, his anger goes too far and he slaps her right cheek. She kicks him out of heaven and he leaves defiantly . . .

* * *

He faces many problems after his expulsion, making a living only with difficulty; he’s forced to get involved in some dubious business and gets beaten up at the police station one day.

Then the lady feels sorry for him and proposes a peaceful settlement under her old terms, but he refuses adamantly several times and goes his own dangerous and trouble-strewn way.

Thus he becomes a rarity of an extraordinary kind in our alley.

* * *

I’M ON MY WAY to the arch when the flour merchant’s door opens and his three daughters come out. Light beams from them, dazzling sight and soul. Their hair is light, their eyes blue, and their unveiled faces glow with pure beauty. A horsecart is waiting for them, but I stand between it and the girls, nailed to the spot. They notice my captivation, and the one in the middle, who is plumpest and has the fullest lips, says, “What’s with this guy, blocking our way?”

I still don’t budge, so she exclaims mischievously, “Hey, you, wake

Overwhelmed by the flood of life in all its obscurity, I reply, “My nightingale, khoon deli khord wakuli hasel kared.”

They burst into laughter, and the oldest girl says, “He must be a dervish.”

The middle one adds, “He must be crazy.”

I fling myself into the dark archway and stagger around until I reach the light of the takiya square.

My head buzzes and my heart whispers in the ecstasy of buds before blooming.

Their ravishing portraits hang deep in my deepest gallery.

Seeds of love planted too early to grow.

* * *

OUR ALLEY HAS GONE through a period which might be called The Age of Zenab.

Her father peddles fruit, her mother eggs. Zenab is the last grape in a cluster loaded with males. She is beautiful to the point of extravagance, and in her beauty lies her story.

When she was a baby, she was passed from hand to hand like a toy, and the first hints of beauty gleamed forth in her childhood. In early youth she became a paragon of brilliance and splendor.

Her father, Zedan, commands his wife to seclude the girl inside the house at all times.

Her mother agrees this is a good idea—but grudgingly, since she would much rather see Zenab go out and earn her own living, if only that were possible.

So many suitors turn themselves into fawning dogs for her that the family is embarrassed. Her mother says, “Well, it’s simple justice that her destiny be formed by her beauty.”

So, for that reason, her mother refuses the hand of her sister’s son, a mere horsecart driver, thus breaking family ties and causing quarrels between the two sisters which the whole alley—the spiteful, the curious, and the condemnatory—watches.

Two men propose to her at almost the same moment, Hassan and Khaleel, apprentices, respectively, of the tarboosh-maker and the butcher. They get into a ferocious fistfight from which each emerges with permanent injuries.

Immediately after this, the schoolteacher, Farag Idduri, asks for her hand. Since he is a respectable gentleman, a government official, and, in comparison to Zenab’s background, the dream of dreams, the mother announces, “This is the man we favor for her hand.”

But Ali the waterpot-peddlar blocks the teacher’s path one day and whispers in his ear, “If you truly love life, stay away from Zenab.”

The teacher asks for protection from a husky relative of his who is used to threats and fights and who beats up the waterpot-peddlar. But Ali carries his grudge quietly until one day he ambushes Farag Effendi and puts one of his eyes out!

So, for the sake of peace, all the decent folk in the alley give up their proposals, and no one is left in the arena but gangsters and tough guys.

The infuriated mother screams, “What’ rotten luck!”

Gangsters and bullies tangle with each other, drubbings continue, and threats pile up while the Zedan family maintains total neutrality out of fear of reprisals. In spite of all their trials and tribulations, they still get jinxed by people who say they are very lucky! One day Zedan finally says to a few of his friends, “Lucky?! We’ve been annihilated by a curse called beauty!”

The battle rages on, injuries increase, and Zenab and her family become an embodied curse which causes hatred, envy, resentment, and the craving for revenge.

Zedan never has a chance to breathe in peace and fears that one of these perfidious ruffians will act treacherously with Zenab herself, ruining her forever . . .

One morning we can’t find the slightest trace of the Zedan family. Despondency and sorrow descend. I suffer from a frustration no one notices. I ask myself sadly, “Is it impossible for beauty to thrive in our alley?”

* * *

BERGOWI IS DEDICATED to his work in the falafel shop.

Kefrowi happens by one day and asks for a drink of water. A humorous whim seizes Bergowi, and he points to the donkey trough. “There’s a trough. Have a drink.”

Some of the customers chuckle, making Kefrowi angry. “You’re an uncouth coward!” he shouts.

Bergowi gets mad too and yells, “To hell with you and all your ancestors!”

They fire insults at each other, and a group of watchers of all ages gathers. The imam of the mosque tries to calm things down, but when no one pays any attention to him, he stalks away in a huff.

The battle heats up. Kefrowi grabs a brick and throws it at the shop. When it breaks the big gas lamp hanging from the ceiling, Bergowi loses control of himself, snatches up the falafel pan, and beats Kefrowi over the head with it till he’s dead.

Relatives of Bergowi and Kefrowi converge on the scene and a bloody battle ensues. Bricks, clubs, and knives are weilded. Several men are killed and the rest end up in jail.

For a long time I never see anything but women dressed in black in the houses of both Bergowi and Kefrowi. This makes me feel sorry, of course, and I say what should be said on such occasions.

But a number of people in our alley honor the memory of this destructive rage and recite tales of the bloody battle with a pride utterly disdainful of jails and hangings.

* * *

A GUEST SAYS to my mother, “Nazzlah—may Allah forgive her!”

My mother says she hasn’t heard the latest about her yet, so the guest goes on. “She chased a certain young fellow until he fell for her and had to marry her. He took such good care of her that she was the happiest woman in the whole district—but now look at her, the whore, she’s left him because his illness has got him down.”

My mother questions her further about the situation, so the woman continues. “He lies there, prostrate in bed, alone, spitting blood and coughing till his lungs burst, wishing for death. When I visit him, he says, ‘Look, Aunt, what Nazzlah has done.’ I comfort him and try to cheer him up, but all the time my heart is breaking . . .”

And I imagine the sick man, the blood, and the whorish woman.

Some time later, the guest comes to see my mother again, saying, “Will wonders never cease? Only a few months have passed since Hassan died and now the brazen hussy has made his brother Khaled fall for her and marry her.”

My mother shouts, “Nazzlah?!”

“Who else would do such a thing? May Allah wreak His vengeance on you, oh Nazzlah, daughter of Amuna.”

And I conjure up visions of the dead man, the lover, and the whore.

Time passes. I am studying in my room when I hear my mother greeting a guest. “Welcome, Sitt Nazzlah.”

Very interested, I ask myself, “Could this be the whore?”

I sneak into the dark hallway and peek into the living room. I see a woman between forty and fifty, full-bodied, beautifully shaped, and elegantly dressed. I have to admit that she is a provocative woman, worthy of falling in love with. I have recently heard the news that her second husband, Khaled, also died—after giving her a son—and that she has left their apartment opposite the archway to move into a small place near us. I realize that my mother couldn’t have been greeting her sincerely, so, after she leaves, I say, “She is a wicked woman.”

But my mother says prudently, “Allah alone knows what’s inside the heart.”

“You sympathize with her even though you don’t welcome her?”

“I’ve heard a lot, but what I see is a weak woman with a son and no husband and no money.”

Whenever I get a chance, I watch her from the window. I recall the two dead men, Hassan and Khaled, but I don’t care. I feel I’m about to begin an adventure more dangerous than any I have been through before. But this story never gets off the ground . . .

One morning an echoing scream convulses our alley.

Word spreads that a neighbor threw lye in Nazzlah’s face and accused her of trying to steal her husband.

Nazzlah loses her charm forever.

She is forced to take a job in the public bath-house of the neighborhood.

A deep sorrow fills me for a long time, and I repeat what my mother said: “Allah alone knows what’s inside the heart.”

* * *

HASHAM ZAYID AND I sit near each other on the same bench.

Though he is tall, husky, and muscular, he is also shy, kind, and well-behaved. Because his mother is a rich merchant who not only owns houses in Birma Street but is also the partner of the biggest spice merchant in the neighborhood, we regard Hasham with admiration and envy. Ibrahim Tawfeek’s jokes sneak up on him from behind, and Hasham is unable to stifle his laughter. Since the teacher sees him instead of the real culprit, he is the one who gets to take the punishment—a slap, a punch, a kick—and he takes it with the submissiveness of a polite student.

Hasham fails and has to leave school, but when his mother dies, he becomes, in an instant, one of the most influential people in the alley. Our paths separate. Once in a while I see him sitting in a carriage or, in native dress, enthroned in a halo of sycophants. His character becomes weird, so I avoid even shaking hands with him. He begins to swagger, put on airs, and exploit his power aggressively, imposing his will on people. How could a shy, kind boy have changed into this ferocious monster? I ponder and wonder in vain . . .

Not a day of his life passes without a fight, for he considers wallops quicker than words and prefers clubs to fists. He takes over the square, and we all avoid him like the plague.

Had he lived during the gangster period, he would have been a futuwa, a leader; as it is, he is nothing but a pest to both police and alley. He spends a lot of time in the local jail but gets out by bribing the officers and the sheikh of the alley.

Although he’s always surrounded by a court, he doesn’t have a single friend. In spite of his wealth, he never marries, nor is he known to care about women.

His attidude towards his mother’s memory is puzzling and thought-provoking, for sometimes he recalls her with deep sorrow, praying for mercy on her soul, but at other times he criticizes her with bitter sarcasm, saying things like, “She was niggardly and greedy, she neglected herself to the point of being dirty, and she treated the servants with insane severity . . .”

One day he goes too far in attacking her and then—suddenly—breaks into tears, forgetting himself completely. When he becomes aware of his weak behavior, he laughs, but later heaps anger on everyone who witnessed his tears, holding a grudge against them . . .

And Hasham Zayid vanishes from the alley and from his house.

He is missing so long that he begins to dissolve into dark oblivion.

You hear people say he has emigrated and you hear people whisper that he has been murdered and his body hidden.

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