EgyptFictionSociety

FICTION: The seasonal realist

The cockroach makes its way casually up his neck. His body convulses in disgust. It walks along the crack running down the middle of his face – resplendent in its brown armour, its glory redoubled by the reflection of its underside. It pauses two-thirds of the way up as though it is waiting for something to happen. The mystery behind the pause lasts only for a moment. Another cockroach appears at the bottom of the mirror and races up the glass, following the path of the first cockroach. The drowsy-eyed observer concludes that the pursuing cockroach must be the male.

Soon enough, he catches up with the female. He tries to butter her up with a few agile manoeuvres – his wiry antennae fluttering seductively before her eyes, his walk has that little extra bravado, his talk that little extra charge. She plays hard to get and starts to move away. Never one to admit defeat, the male cockroach carries on with his attempts to court her. The female cockroach turns around and her antennae poke the air in outrage. The observer interprets this to mean ‘Drop Dead!'

Ali watches this endearing romance in disgusted fascination as it unfolds before him on his bathroom mirror. His bleary-eyed indecisiveness doesn't last long. “Shew! Scram!” he says as he waves his arms intimidatingly.

Unintimidated, the two cockroaches snobbishly size him up with withering glares. How dare he disturb their peace. How dare this pathetic creature intrude on their privacy. Doesn't he realise that this is their summer retreat and that there's no way a non-entity like him is going to spoil it for them?

The two cockroaches on the mirror continue their show of passionate sensuality. The man, like a heartless and disapproving chaperon, decides to put an end to this romance on the Riviera. “I sympathise with all dejected lovers. Allow me to put you out of your misery.”

He picks up the can, directs the nozzle at the two cockroaches and lets loose two deadly squirts in cold blood. They fall off the face of the mirror and land in a shallow pool, side by side, in the washbasin. They thrash their dying limbs in frantic helplessness, grabbing on desperately to the last vestiges of life – their kindred spirits seeping out with every withering gasp. They face each other, their antennae lamenting a love affair that, sadly, would never be – flushed down the drain for eternity. The ruthless perpetrator looks on as their souls follow their dreams down the drain and drift up to that sacred sewer in the sky.

The slayer of lovers shovels their limp bodies unceremoniously into the open grave of the bin. His conscience unaffected, he cleanses his hands of all signs of the massacre just committed – and he calls it hygiene! He picks up his razor to continue his interrupted morning ritual. The razor rises and falls with a constant regularity, swishing and swashing across the contours of his cheek. The foam is wiped away and, with it, the fuzz, revealing a shiny layer of smooth skin.

Before he is done, and with half his face covered in foam, another part of his morning ritual resonates painfully around his bedraggled head. The phone rings incessantly in a desperate plea to be picked up. The migraine beats away unceasingly at the insides of his skull, throbbing at the temples, in perfect synch with the ringing phone. The migraine, now many years old, has decided that his head is cramped living quarters. Tired of being stuck between two hemispheres, it now wanted to break out and explore the world.

He entertains the amusing idea of letting the telephone ring itself hoarse. Amusing that is in concept. Unfortunately, the reality is far removed from the fantasy: one more burst out of those insufferable bells and his head would explode. He rushes, Quasimodo style, to answer the shrill appeals of the phone.

He gets to it just as the last burst of energy dies away. He picks up the receiver, thinking there's someone still hanging on at the other end. Instead, he gets that deep groaning tone. Whoever was at the other end has obviously lost his or her grip and, not able to hang on any longer, dropped into that dark abyss to be devoured by the monster with millions of tentacles that the telephone company keeps in its dungeons. As he puts down the phone, he gets a feeling that the purring he can hear has a different quality today, almost a self-satisfied one – taunting him for not having the reflexes and presence of mind to get to the phone in time.

On his way back to the bathroom he is amused by the thought. He imagines the ugly monstrosity lurking deep under the telephone exchange, its cancerous web of copper and fibre optics enveloping the city, with an ear in every home listening in sinisterly to what is being said, bringing people closer only to split them apart and put barriers up between them. It sits there, like a bloated Jabba-the-Hut that dares not show its face nor speak its name, suggesting things, influencing, moulding, whispering propositions through a multitude of disembodied voices. He imagines the telephone company's management, dressed up as clergy, paying homage to their colossal master with human sacrifices. Not doing so only brings forth its wrath: lines go dead, calls are re-routed, and connections are severed.

Unfortunate clerks and pretty secretaries, as well as subscribers who have fallen behind on their phone bills, are offered in tribute to subdue, for a time, the beast's insatiable appetite. The clergy proceed solemnly down the narrow marble staircase, bearing torches to light the way, their shadows dancing erratically, almost devilishly, on the walls in contradiction to the earnest grace with which they carry themselves. The doomed victims are dragged lashing and thrashing down the staircase. Dazed, they realise the futility of their struggles and resign themselves to their destiny. They no longer resist. Their senses become more acute, perhaps latching onto the fact that they won't be operational for much longer. The whole scene takes on a surreal intensity. The flowing white gowns of the priests become fluttering screens onto which their thoughts are projected. One would expect them to see their lives flash before them or to think about all those things that they never did or make a wish or something. Instead, one looks at her husband's toes protruding from the end of the covers, twiddling in that way she so adores while he is fast asleep. Another sees the furniture in her house repossessed because her family couldn't keep up the payments without her income. A fat man sees himself preparing the dinner he would never now eat. He smells the savoury spices that give an overwhelming deliciousness to the air, making his stomach rumble with pleasure. It now grumbles emptily. Another man sees faces, lots of faces. He sees gleaming white teeth. He loves gleaming white teeth. He sees a collage of all the beautiful smiles he has ever known: strangers, ex-lovers, friends, and family. A last man sees a blizzard in a snowscape. There is a dark pit in the snow. The pit has him transfixed. He sees evil and doom.

Unbelieving, he turns his eyes away. They lock in on the jumping shadows in morbid fascination, widening in horror as he sees the devil incarnate leer back at him. He screams out in horror and triggers off an avalanche of terrified cries. The truce over, they start struggling once more to escape their captors. They are dragged forcibly the last few metres to the pit where they are ceremoniously and pitilessly dispensed off down the hole with a prayer for their souls. Their screams fade away and are replaced by a satisfied pulsing rumble that sounds something like the engaged tone you get on the phone.

Ali sees his face looking back at him in the bathroom mirror: a schizophrenic face, half clean and gleaming, half a white beard of foam, with an irregular crack running down the middle.

The foam has set and is now caked in on his face. He picks up the brush to lather it back into vitality. He places the brush under the tap and turns it on. The tap gasps thirstily and lets out a pathetic, empty, breathless sigh. He curses out loud. His cheeks feel stiff and irritating, which makes him curse out louder.

His curses are interrupted by a distant chirping sound. He wonders for a moment what it could be. It's his mobile phone. He can't remember where he left it. He rushes out of the bathroom and follows the noise. He finds the phone on the bookcase, next to a book conveniently entitled What do you say after you say hello. A book not about telephone skills and protocols but about the unconscious scripts and scenarios people set themselves and follow in their daily lives. Following his own peculiar script, Ali picks up the phone, presses the green button and says with a courteousness he does not feel “Hello!”

“Ali?” queries a familiar female voice. Ali has always admired the way Noha radiated warmth and cheerfulness, even down a cold telephone line, first thing in the morning. She has a way of producing every word as if it was a delicacy especially dreamed up and cooked with you in mind. He was particularly impressed that she was able to do this with the chairman constantly breathing down her neck about meetings and memos. Today her voice still carried the individually crafted label but it lacked the sunshine. Instead it was filled with concern. “The boss wants to talk to you.” Ali doesn't suppose it's to check up on his well-being and Noha confirms his hypothesis.

“So, what does he want?”

“What else would the slave-master want to talk to you about?”

“Can't it wait till I come in?”

“He said ‘Now'”

“I suppose it's not about that pay rise I wanted a couple of months ago.”

“What do you think?”

“Wait! I can't talk to him like this,” Ali puts on a pretence of panic.

“Why not?”

“I'm not dressed. God, My hair's uncombed!”

In spite of herself, Noha gives out a stifled laugh. “Trying to wheedle our way out, are we?”

“I'm serious. I can't speak with his eminence with my face covered in foam.”

“He can't see you.”

“You're missing the point, I'd know. I'd be too self-conscious.”

Ali hears a muffled buzz in the background. “Hold on,” says Noha.

A few seconds later she is back on the line. “He's on the verge of eruption. He's decided it's best he doesn't speak to you. He wants you to go down to this address and win an order.”

“Give me the address and I'll go straight down there.”

“Be careful Ali – he's looking for an excuse to give you your marching orders.”

Ali heads back to the bathroom. He tries the tap once more. Nothing. He wishes his landlord a short life and a lack of prosperity. He feels that neither wish will be granted any time soon. People like him are a curse to humanity, but they have a shrewd ability to ward off the curses of others, especially their victims.

He checks the pea-green plastic bowl he keeps in the bathroom for such emergencies. Peeling plaster from the wall has dropped into the water. He curses again. In the kitchen, he stands before an ancient refrigerator that he is sure he once saw in a 50's film. He removes a bottle of water from the refrigerator. He turns and sees the decrepit cupboards sagging sorrowfully on the kitchen wall, sighs and walks off.

Back in the bathroom, he pours some of the chilly water into his cupped hand. Applying it to his face, he feels an icy exhilaration that is not altogether unpleasant. The razor is raised once more to his face and Ali butchers the rest of his beard.

A few minutes later, he is sitting enjoying a cup of tea made from the water that was left over in the bottle after his shave. The boss man can wait. He flicks through the newspaper. Wise, tolerant, pragmatic leader who can do no wrong. War. Peace talks. Oxymorons. Sanctions. Break ups. Freedom fighters/terrorists. Unification. Mergers. Monopolies. Genocide. Bombings. Refugees. Scandal. Religious persecution. Ethnic cleansing. A regular day's fare.

He hears his glass of tea start to chatter on the table like an old man's teeth. The couch starts to tremble violently as if trying to throw him off. “Lay off the weed,” he thinks. He gets up startled. The tea spills over the edge of the glass. The dust on the floor is disturbed and hangs, suspended in mid air, flitting randomly in a shaft of sunlight. ‘Earthquake' flashes across his mind. He stands unsteadily on the tottering floor. Plaster drops on his head. He panics. He crouches down. No. Under table. No! No! Under doorway. Don't go down stairs. Buildings cave in around the stairwell. “I don't want to be buried under the rubble.” Confusing the laws of physics, he goes out to the balcony, intending to jump off as the building gets closer to the ground. He observes with a feeble fascination the three buildings across the road swaying from side to side like some sort of depraved chorus line. The shaking gets more vigorous. The earth orgasms. The shaking starts to slow down and with it his pulse. The ground stops moving. His muscles relax and he breathes out in relief. He goes back in and sits down to regain his composure.

A loud crash thunders through his flat. The floor trembles a little. He tenses up. A heavy cloud of dust floats in and envelopes him. He sneezes. He hears loud screams. He goes to the window to investigate. There is something missing from his immediate field of vision. There seems to be more sun reaching his flat. Then he realises. The building across from his is gone, swallowed up by the ground, it lies as a mound of rubble in the middle of a gaping hole.

People gather round like a swarm of ants, frantically removing the heaps of bricks, hoping to salvage the survivors of this carnage – solidarity in disaster, the brotherhood of the downtrodden. The ants form an irregular line. The futile job of removing the huge mountain of rubble is underway. The bricks, twisted concrete and other debris are passed down the line and piled onto the pavement. The salvage operation gains momentum. The inevitable crowd of onlookers has assembled, trying to piece together what has happened, loudly decrying the tragedy. There is a constant frenzy at the expanding peripheries of the crowd as newcomers ask others what is going on. To one side are the beleaguered in black garb: community self-help groups that appear in Death's wake to offer support to those who have suffered a loss. A large woman seems to be leading the uneven chorus. They bewail all the poor souls lost under the rubble in such a meaningless fashion. They scream out at the top of their lungs, slapping their cheeks raw, crying, pulling their hair or their scarves, pulling at their clothes as if to tear them apart; shouting out laments at their poor fortune. “Ya Lahwi!” “Ya Mesbti!” “Poor Hamed!” “Snatched away too early!” “So young!” “Not my babies!” filter up to Ali as he stands on his balcony.

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He is overwhelmed by the scene unfolding below him. Tears well up in his eyes. Being relatively new to the neighbourhood he knew (No! knows) only two people in the fallen building well. Abdel-Hamid and his mother. He first bumped into Abdel-Hamid, aka Mido, who works as a credit advisor at a bank, at the local grocers. They got chatting away and took an instant liking to one another. Mido, who hated the paper-pushing tedium of his job, made up for it by living on the edge. He drove recklessly, went to parties all across town, listened to loud foreign music and drunk and smoked heavily. His loose ways were frowned upon by the elders and wisers of the neighbourhood. Once he was almost beaten into a pulp for befriending the local butcher's daughter. Mido discounted the whole incident with an “I knew it wasn't wise but I just can't resist the lure of flesh.” Mido and Ali complemented and offset each other. They were partners in crime. Mido, being a native of the town, knew all the best places to go and Ali was enchanted by his liberal, laid-back crowd of friends.

Ali was still mesmerised by the bright lights and allure of the big city. Mido was getting tired of the emptiness of it all and he was sick of his freeloading ways: drinking other people's booze and gatecrashing parties. Another side of their cosy arrangement was that once or twice a week Mido's mother would invite Ali round for dinner (Ali, a poor, lonely, overworked young man from provincial Mansoura, who'd come to to struggle against the odds and eke out an existence, appealed to her romantic disposition and she decided to become his patron). At weekends, they would sometimes entertain women at Ali's place away from prying eyes. They had to be innovative to get the women down the street and up to Ali's place unobserved by the local hawks. Mido, in particular, didn't want word to reach his mother, it would break her dear heart.

At a party in Maadi, Mido introduced Ali to the hypnotic Mona. Her roaring hair and apple-green eyes had an unapologetic sexual rawness about them that Ali had never experienced before. Mona was a bored and bright literature lecturer. Her colleagues and superiors found her so intimidating that they sidelined her, forcing her to teach the most unchallenging courses on the timetable, which frustrated her no end. Although she had advances and passes made at her regularly at work, she blocked them all and kept herself to herself because she found most of her colleagues repulsive and she knew that her sexuality would be used by them to discredit her. But off campus, she was another creature altogether. At first, playing the field suited both of them.

After they made love for the first time, Ali, overcome with pleasure, looked into her eyes and guilty images of trees of knowledge and fig leaves came to mind. Was sex meant to be this unbelievably pleasurable? All his previous encounters with women had been sad substitutes for this genuine article. But Mona needed no fig leaf to conceal her desires. She was unashamedly proud of her sexuality. Ali was, at first, surprised that Mona suggested they play the field, saying that she found it hard to commit and they were young and should taste as many apples as possible. Opening her heart to him, she explained how her sexuality was her path to spirituality – and each man lit up a different part of her soul – and those that didn't never saw her again. But, with time, the two grew, without saying it, increasingly monogamous – they were learning that their greatest pleasure was with each other. Now, although there had been no official shift in policy, they were effectively a couple. And, a few weeks ago, Ali suggested to Mido that he needed to find a new venue to take his lady friends.

Now Mido and his sweet mother may be under that rubble. Ali feels an urge to dash down and help out. But his job, his chance to stay in Cairo, his whole future is on the line today. If he doesn't make good in today's test he'll be out on his butt and in the street.

He hesitates. He stands in anguish. He is tormented by the moral decision he is being asked to make so early in the morning. He reproaches himself for not rushing down immediately to aid the people. His thoughts are shattered by an ear-piercing siren: the rescue team has arrived. Loud hailers ask the crowds to make way for the authorities so they can do their job. Ali decides to leave it to the professionals and heads off to the bedroom to get dressed.

“Mido is probably at work. I'll call him to see if he's safe.” Ali picks up the phone. No tone. The earthquake must have disrupted the service. Ali gets his mobile and dials the bank. Thankfully their numbers are still working but they are all engaged. Everybody wants to make sure their loved ones are OK. Ali eventually gets a number that is not busy.

“Could I speak with Mr Abdel-Hamid Hamdy, please?”

“I'm afraid he's out of the office visiting a client, sir.”

“When do you expect him back?”

“We're not really sure, sir. Everything's a bit confused after the earthquake. If you give me your name and telephone number I'll get him to call you back as soon as he is available.”

“This is Ali Amin. Have him call me on my mobile. He has the number. Thank you.”

He tries to call home to see if they felt the earthquake and to tell them that he is OK, but the phones are out there, too.

The streets are flooded with people afraid to re-enter their buildings. The pavements outside towers and high rises are inundated with bursting rivers of agitated bodies. Ali navigates his way through the throng to the main street. Finding no fareless taxis, he tries unsuccessfully to stop one with a fare. Failing that, he waits restlessly for the 99 bus that will take him downtown to materialise. Miraculously, the wait is not a long one today. He half pushes and clambers onto the bus. The other half he is carried on the back of a human tidal wave.

Suddenly and startlingly, a clipboard emerges from the inner crowds. Then the conductors head, sweating profusely, squeezes out of a narrow gap between two skinny 's shoulders. Ali looks up at this three-headed monster as it asks him for his fare. Letting go off the bar, Ali loses the precarious purchase he had. He fishes around for change in his trouser pocket. The bus brakes heavily. Ali is thrown back violently and everyone on the stairs nearly falls out onto the road. A loud, agonizing screech of poorly oiled clogs travels through the bus and down Ali's spine. The bus stops dead. The conductor, in a loud, commanding voice, tells all the passengers to get off the bus and another one will be along shortly which they can ride. Ali, frustrated by such trivial delays, gets off the bus to try, once more, to flag down a cab.

All the cabs disregard Ali's vain attempts. Packed with passengers they whizz by him on the outside lane, their drivers not even giving Ali a second glance. Many excruciatingly long minutes ensue as Ali curses his rotten luck, public transport, cab drivers and the day he was born.

Finally, a cab that appears to be carrying no passengers emerges from the smoggy mists. Ali's heart fills with elation, his head is light with anticipation. Not only is the taxi free, but it is also on the inside lane and making slow but steady progress towards him. He starts to raise a hand to flag the taxi down. Something peculiar about the scene gnaws away at the peripheries of his awareness. Something's wrong, disquietingly so… In addition to not having any passengers, the taxi appears to not have a driver. Ali hesitates. His hand falters. Driver or not he is going to stop it. He sticks his hand out. As it approaches, Ali spots a little old man, his head barely reaching over the dashboard, sitting awkwardly behind the wheel. The taxi comes to a gradual halt and stops about 20 metres up the road from Ali. Uncomprehending and a little annoyed by this, Ali dashes towards the stationary vehicle.

Ali opens the door of the ancient Fiat, which is about five years his senior. The door hinges are at the back and the handle is at the front making the door open in the opposite direction to what one would expect. Ali gets in and greets the ancient cabby, who seems old enough to have driven a chariot in times gone by. The driver turns his head towards Ali and returns the greeting. His voice has a certain rough, unpolished quality about it. He sounds as though someone has poured a ton of gravel and tar down his throat, which is probably not all that far from the truth. The dust and the air pollution provide the gravel, half a century of dedicated smoking provide the tar. In fact, one would suspect that there is more tar knocking about in his lungs than was used to surface the new ring road around Cairo. Ali sits uncomfortably in the wobbly passenger-seat. The seat, leaning hazardously to the left, threatens to spill him into the gap between the two front seats. One thing he can be grateful for is that the gear-stick is not floor mounted and will not dig into his thigh. The car bumps over a pothole, the shock is magnified by the poor suspension and is carried via express courier through every creaking, ill-kept joint to be delivered as a powerful jolt to Ali's buttocks. Ali winces in pain.

The driver flashes a smile at Ali. Some people's smiles are as sweet as honey, his is as brown as thick molasses: generously coated over uneven, jagged teeth. He is wearing thick glasses that magnify his eyes into a look of confounded confusion. The thick lenses and the jerky progress the car is making do not inspire confidence. Ali reads senility in the set of the driver's face and foresees trouble just round the corner. “Comfortable,” asks the driver over the rim of his glasses. Ali grimaces in reply. “Have to get that seat fixed,” remarks the driver indifferently as the car passes over another, deeper pothole, almost dismantling itself.

That car should have been written off centuries ago, thinks Ali. The cab cannot be doing more than 20 KPH, although Ali can't be sure as the speedometer is permanently stuck at the zero mark. Angry motorists overtake the cab, honking their horns, cursing and waving their arms angrily.

“Can't you get a move on? I'm in a hurry,” complains Ali impatiently. The cab driver giggles to himself insanely. His laugh is mucous-laden and viscous.

“At this time of morning and after an earthquake too!” he chuckles.

!” grunts Ali.

“I know how it feels when your motor is all revved up and ready to go – you just want to let it rip. A young lad like you needs to learn some restraint.”

“Listen, old man, forget about the state of my motor. All right? Just concentrate on getting this glorified cart into gear.”

“I know it's frustrating, especially when you're so young. Try Viagra.”

“What?” replies Ali annoyed and perplexed.

“If you're having trouble try Viagra. It's great. I thought I was past…”

“I don't want to know. Be quiet and step on it or I'm getting out.”

“I can't.”

“Why not? This is a bloody car, isn't it?”

“Yes.”

“I can walk faster.”

“It's not wise.”

“It won't kill.”

“No brakes.”

“Are you nuts?”

“No, I'm driving slowly.”

“You are nuts. Let me out!”

“Don't worry.”

“In this death machine?… With you? No way. Stop this car! Let me out!”

“I have never had an accident with this car.”

“You have no brakes! You've got to have an accident. It stands to reason.”

“An angel watches over me.”

“Yeah, which one?”

They are approaching an intersection. A man on a bicycle dashes out into their path. “Watch out!” yells Ali alarmed. The cab swerves round the bike and almost collides into a truck in the next lane that is coming up alongside it. Ali's heart thumps and pounds in his ear as he sees the dented door of the pick up get bigger and bigger. The driver tries to avoid a collision and loses control of the car. The cab spins dizzyingly round and round and round. Ali feels sick. He grabs for the latch, opens the door, and rolls out of the cab dazed, cursing the driver loudly.

Through the haze that has settled in front of his eyes, he sees a ghostly body approaching him at superhuman speed. He gazes at it in bafflement. Bemused, he puzzles what this optical illusion could be. He hears the horns section.

SHIT! That's no optical illusion. It's a car. Ali's finely-honed survival instinct kicks in and he leaps out of the car's path. Ali checks his watch. 10:00. Half an hour late for the appointment that will salvage his career. Bloody marvellous!

Dejected, Ali sits on a nearby bench and idly follows the traffic with his eyes. He blankly counts all the dented cars that pass by him.

54… 55… 56… Lose my job… Keep my job… Lose it… Keep it… Lose it! He gets up and continues the rest of the journey on foot. ‘Lose my job' rings loudly in his mind. He walks mechanically along the busy streets. He blocks out his surroundings. He is oblivious to the noise. Out of focus, the scene around him takes on the quality of a speeded up silent movie – a farce. He feels an impulse to lay down, like Harold Lloyd, on the tram track and wait for the tram to slice through his body – if only they hadn't uprooted it. Even if it was still there it had become so unreliable before they abolished it that he'd probably have had to wait hours for it to make its laboured progress to the spot where he was lying, by which time he would have probably been removed off the rails by a concerned bystander. Not the quickest way to go.

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Ali sits in the waiting room. He is not sure how he arrived there, but he has more important matters with which to contend. Ali feels extremely nervous; more nervous, in fact, than he has ever felt waiting for the dentist, even when it involved major root surgery.

He thinks the secretary can sense his agitation. He tries not to fidget and only fidgets more. He finds her knowing look repulsive, not to mention disconcerting. He feels unnerved. He can see the scaffolds being assembled in her eyes.

“Mr Samir will see you now,” her voice betrays a sign of pity not unlike that expressed to a condemned man by a sheikh just before his execution. As Ali walks into his client's office his mind is preoccupied with questions of sanity. “Am I paranoid or is the world out to get me today?” He suppresses the thought as he is asked to sit down. Samir seems non-chalant and unimpressed by Ali's presence.

“I detest laxness. It gives the wrong impression to others. You don't get far in this world without discipline.”

“He doesn't waste time,” thinks Ali.

“Look at me. Dedication and devotion are the keys to my success. It's an open secret, there's no mystery or magic about it. There are many kinds of partnerships in this world – marriages, you can say. Personally, I'm married to two: my wife and this company. Which do you think I put first?”

“Poor dog,” decides Ali, “he must be married to a monster if he prefers this pathetic company to her.”

“I can only guess, sir,” is Ali's non-committal remark which is delivered with a touch of sarcasm.

“Why are you late, then?” demands Samir having detected the jab.

“Sorry sir, but you know how it is with earthquakes. So unpredictable and disruptive,” says Ali with feigned joviality.

“Let me not waste any more of your valuable time,” mocks Samir. “You see we've decided that our couriers don't require mobile phones.”

“Sir, we discussed the advantages extensively,” points out Ali imploringly.

“Too cost inhibitive.”

“Imagine the improved efficiency. The removal of multiple journeys. The reduction in delivery time. Reduction in courier lost time. Decreasing bottle necks at the depot. Not to mention the enhanced prestige it would give your company.”

“That's hardly going to outweigh the cost. Phone sets, phone cards, increased accident rates.”

“I'm afraid your company's image and prestige desperately need this boost.”

“That's enough!” interjects Samir angrily. “That'll be all, thank you. If you don't mind I have…”

“Did you let me in just to give me a brushing down? Who the hell do you think you are?”

“I….”

“There's been an earthquake. I may have lost my best friend and his mother in it. I haven't called home yet to tell my family that I'm all right because my job is in jeopardy and I had to come here and put up with an ignorant megalomaniac, full of his own self-importance, to salvage it.”

“Watch what you say, young man.”

“Why? Is it too close to the truth? Does it hurt?” says Ali leaning over the desk.

“I'm not listening to this. Get out before I get security to kick you out.”

“A coward, too!”

“That's enough! GET OUT!” Samir stands up to face him.

“Make me,” challenges Ali with murder in his eyes and a coolness he does not feel. Samir picks up the phone. “Can't fight your own battles!” mocks Ali. Samir puts the phone down. Ali begins to feel a little giddy. Samir is about half a head taller and looks 10 kilograms his senior. As Samir makes his way round the desk, Ali wheels the chair he was sitting on into Samir and rams him up against the wall. While Samir is recovering his balance, Ali delivers a powerful jab to his nose. Blood pours out of Samir's nose and drips onto his well pressed white shirt. He reaches for the box of tissues lying on his desk and dabs at his nose.

The fight taken out of him, Samir sits down and nurses his nose. More sympathetically, “I'm sorry about your day but there's nothing I can do about it. Now could you please leave, I need to change my shirt before my next appointment.”

“All I need is a break,” says Ali more reasonably.

“The world's a cruel place. You have to make your own breaks. Take me…”

“Yeah, I hear you brown-nosed your way to the very top.”

“SECURITY!” Samir yells into his intercom. Ali walks out of his office. He passes the security officers as they are climbing the stairs and is possessed with an uncontrollable fit of laughter. He doesn't know quite what he finds so amusing. Maybe it is the comical look of solemnity on their faces as they rush to their boss's rescue. Maybe it's the frantic disorder of their offensive. It could merely be a nervous release of negative energy. It may even be another sign of his descent down the slippery slope of sanity. In short, Ali can't be sure. And if he can't, there's no way this narrator can know and should waste no more of his readers' precious time in pointless speculation.

Ali steps out onto the street and breathes the air of freedom. He has shaken off the shackles of a stifling job. A whole new world of opportunity is opening up before his eyes.

“Opportunity? What opportunity?”

“Think positively. Do all those things you dreamt of doing. Release yourself. Scale. Swing. Soar.” Says a voice coming from a remote corner of his head.

“Prices soar, unemployment figures soar, I don't.”

“Do great things. Aspire. Achieve. Accomplish.”

“What? Create a masterpiece of art and die a martyr of my times, to be celebrated posthumously?”

“Are you taking the piss?”

“No way!”

“Well, don't be so melodramatic.”

“Don't be so naïve.”

“You're a good leader waiting to happen. Why are you wasting your time with something as mediocre as selling mobile phones?”

“The position of president is occupied right now and I expect it'll be a while before it's vacated.”

“Bitter! You can be a great manager. The communications explosion and people still can't communicate. Teach them to talk to each other and understand each other without mobile phones.”

“How? Telepathy?”

“Tele this, tele that. You're hopeless. Try to have some vision without the tele. Vision. Virtue. Vitality. That's what you need.”

“How spiritual! I have vision and the future looks bleak right now.”

“Something good will come up. You wait and see. Be patient. Persevere. Persist.”

“You're alliterations are annoying me. In the meantime how do I eat and pay the rent? Do I go back to my hometown empty handed? My parents depend on my income and now that's gone.”

“You're a hopeless wimp. I give in.”

“I know. So do I.”

Ali walks on aimlessly through the streets. He wonders if he should report in to the office and get the ordeal over with: collect the rest of his dues and hand in his company-issue mobile phone. He half-hopes that his boss will turn to him with pleading eyes and say, “This company can't afford to let someone of your calibre go. Would you please disregard the little misunderstanding we had this morning.” But Ali knows that fairies don't exist, mice don't turn into horses, genies don't live in lamps, and salesmen are expendable.

Ali feels something soft and fleshy press up against his right leg. He hears a bleating sound. He looks down. A sheep tied to a tree stares helplessly up at him.

“Poor lamb,” he sympathises. “Don't worry you're not the only one who is up for the chop. Actually, I've beaten you to the knife. You've still got a few more days to go. At least they feed you well first.”

The sheep bleats uncomprehendingly. Ali detects fear in those tender eyes. Moved by emotion he turns away and starts to walk off heavy-footed and heavy-hearted. He can't shake off the image of that cute wooly face. He turns back.

“I like my mutton just as much as the next man and I know you will die to feed the poor but I can't bear to think of you under the knife.” He unties the rope, gives the sheep a powerful kick to the back end to send it on its way.

“Hey you!” he hears. He sees the tip of a thick bamboo stick emerge from a shop door to emphasise the words. Ali doesn't hang about to find out if the words were directed at him and sprints off in the opposite direction to the sheep. “Stop!… Thief!… Sheep!…” The man looks to his left and to his right torn between retrieving his sheep and giving chase to the nutter who let him loose. He hesitates. In the toss up between salvaging his investment and getting vengeance, luckily for Ali, rationality wins through and he goes after his sheep.

Onlookers follow Ali's hurried progress with some degree of bafflement and amusement, trying to piece together exactly what it is he is fleeing with such fervent haste.

Ali, looking over his shoulder and realising that he is not being followed, sheepishly slows down to a brisk stride and walks adamantly into a coffee-house. He sits down purposefully and orders a tea from the waiter. The waiter yells out his order to the man standing at the counter immersed in steam from the boiler in the back of the shop. Relieved, but still out of breath and high on adrenaline, Ali begins to relax. Ali has never been into a coffee-shop at midday and he finds it surprisingly full. Once the preserve of retired men who came to escape the dullness of their tedious existence and introduce an element of challenge and unpredictability into their otherwise uneventful days, played out with clanking domino or backgammon chips. Now it has been taken over by unemployed young men, whose fertile ambitions are being gradually encroached upon by the harsh sands of time blowing in from the deserts of despair. Ali looks around him in alarm at the young men sitting in groups or pairs or on their own and is horrified by the thought that he will soon be joining them, his prospects dispersing into oblivion like the thick, sweet-smelling cloud of smoke that wafts past him and is lost in the big, wide expanse beyond.

The waiter races past him and, barely slowing down, slaps a tray down heavily on the table by Ali's side. No sooner has he done this than he disappears into the gloomy interior. Ali's thoughts are derailed and some of the tea and the water spill over from the inertia of the landing, forming a little brown pool in a depression on the tray. Ali picks up the glass and takes a sip, oblivious to the tea dripping off the glass (which he hasn't bothered to wipe today) and into his lap.

He looks out over the rim of the glass. They are talking and joking loudly. To a casual observer they would appear not to have a care in the world. But Ali is not a casual observer. Their eyes. Yes, that's what gives them away. The lack of sparkle, the darkness within them stands out against their bright smiles. Their animated liveliness seems exaggerated, not genuine, as though by an unspoken consensus they passed a decree stating that they must all be cheerful. But the joviality is a muscular motion, one not rooted in their hearts – a rainbow of colour over a stormy sky. Leave a motor idle for long enough and you can't get it restarted – the spark just won't catch. It dies with a pathetic burst of choking.

Ali's eye's make contact with another man's. He immediately turns away. In those tiny brown discs he sees an undiscriminating, universal hatred of the all-consuming intensity of a black hole. Ali thinks that this man had a mammoth reserve of drive that, confined by circumstance and bad fortune, turned in on itself and swallowed up all that energy and in its place was left a huge swirling mass of resentment – destructive to himself and others. We turn a blind eye. Isolated explosions hit and we act surprised and wonder how it could have happened. Clapping our hands together in disbelief, we say, “This doesn't happen here.” Well, just wait and see, carry on with you honey-doused fantasies. Sleep now, I'll wake you when the eruption occurs.

Ali is troubled by the image of this man. He has premonitions of an ugly end to his story. History repeating itself and we miss the lesson. Unaware of the countdown, two old men sit in front of their backgammon board well into their third round of the morning. Almost leaning into the backgammon board, they give all their attention to the game and, like a married couple past their diamond jubilee, the rolling of the dice is only interrupted sporadically with speech. Ali downs the last of his drink and is about to leave his future home when he sees a remarkable face; one in which the joy of living seems to emanate from deep within. The man holds himself with an unintimidating aloofness: one that is not coupled with condescension because it originates from an untroubled soul with a clear, uncomplicated conscience and vision. Ali is intrigued. He hungers to know the secret to this man's peace because he yearns for a similar one. He looks more intently at this middle-aged man's face. He reckons it would have been the face of a prophet if that age had not long since died: a face that preaches silently, that inspires through the generative energy it radiates.

There is a certain chill to the air. Further along his bladder relays a red-alert signal to his distracted brain. He feels it throbbing painfully, prodding him to rush along in search of a toilet. His agony is indescribable. His brain declares a temporary state of emergency: a reconnaissance team is sent to the tower to keep an eye out for a toilet, dockers struggle desperately to keep the locks from breaking and water bursting forth to cause an embarrassing flash flood. The cold wind blowing outside is not much help to them. He looks around futilly for a public toilet. He sees a shopping mall around the corner. He bursts in through the door and past the metal detector in a flash. In the toilet he finds four young men occupying the four urinals and all the doors to the cubicles locked. He paces around frantically. The four young men chat loudly and amiably to one another about some girls they are going to meet, unaware of the dire straits inside Ali's bladder. Finally, they zip up and leave. Ali is unzipped in a second and Niagara Falls flows out from between his legs. Ali sees the shadow of a man cast over the wall from the next urinal along. As is his habit in public toilets, he fixes his gaze squarely at the wall, anxious not to let his eyes wander. They might inadvertently go places they should not. The man next to him seems to be carrying the same concerns. Ali is amused by how fascinating tiles in male public toilets tend to be.

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Ali heads home. There are still people standing outside the 16-storey building near his. The building has developed some serious-looking cracks. Some of the people are arguing with the landlord, loudly demanding that he gets a specialist in to check the foundations. The landlord is insisting that they are only surface cracks and that if they are so worried then they should get a specialist in themselves. The argument gets louder and louder as they exchange accusations. The tenants accuse the landlord of cutting corners, he counters that the rent he receives is paltry, they claim that he makes more than enough out of them and that he's added six floors illegally to the building which caused the huge fractures, he tells them to go to hell, they tell him they're going to the police, he says that they don't intimidate him, they say may be a judge will, he says they can prove nothing, they say the proof is standing over them in the form of an ugly pile of bricks for all to see. The whole commotion loses coherence as Ali gets further away, until, up in his flat, it sounds like the distant barking and howling of a pack of dogs.

Ali goes into the kitchen to prepare dinner, not a terribly challenging affair. He takes out a large pot of red lentil soup from the fridge, heats it up, pours it into a dish and adds dried bread and fried onions to it. Prison food it may be, but its cheap and it does the job. He tries not to let the stench of early decay put him off. He kicks himself for his indulgence over the last few days, eating out and getting expensive sandwiches from the flashy sandwich bars and takeaway joints that have been opening up all over town: spreading like a rash, eating away at his budget. Ali knows he has now got to become a functional eater. He can no longer afford to eat out. He's got to start using his old granny's worn and tested filler recipes, passed on to him by his mother. Ali smiles fondly as memories of all those ends of months (and middles come to think of it) when the monthly allowance had all but disappeared and his mother, Um Ali, would be forced to show her ingenuity and whip up a new culinary invention to feed her fold.

You may wonder how such a miserable scene could bring a smile to his face. Actually, this is not another sign of the degeneration that has taken hold of him today. Any lifelong companion, such as poverty, becomes such an integral part of the fabric of one's life that it can trigger off nostalgia. The fond memories he had were images of his mother, with that thoughtful turning up of the brow she had when she was thinking. Her in their tiny kitchen, her hair beginning to fall out the bun or scarf she had on. Her attempts at concealing the fact that they were broke – the kids could always tell this because she invariably became more cheerful and both her and their father would try to entertain the kids at night with card games, backgammon, even puppet shows using puppets that his mother had sewed herself. Those shows, his parents brave attempts at hiding the harsh reality of life from their kids were what made life bearable. Ali often went to bed feeling hungry, his stomach gargling with hunger, but he always pushed the hunger away. He loved his parents too much to complain to them. He thought of himself as a brave little boy and he did not want to burden his parents with more troubles. He knew that even if he threw a tantrum it wouldn't put more food in his stomach. Instead, he sent himself to sleep by replaying past puppet shows, making up his own, or humming a favourite tune until he fell asleep. He feels a powerful urge to call his mother. After dinner, he decides.

He must become that brave little boy again. It doesn't matter if his diet becomes a little repetitive and monotonous, he'll just have to find ways to spice it up. This is just what he does with the lentil soup to try to conceal the taste of the stench. He adds some salt, pepper, cumin, cardamom, thyme, anything and everything he has in his kitchen. He stirs the contents. The concoction plays havoc with his taste buds – they're not sure just how to react. The fiery fluid flows down his throat and lands in the pit of his stomach, scorching ulcerously. Ali winces, first in pain and then in disgust as the taste finally hits him.

The doorbell penetrates through the heavy shroud of sleep. Ali wants to ignore it but he just cannot resist the tolls of the bell. He stumbles to the door and opens it. A pretty female face, which he doesn't at first recognize, looks in at him. It takes him a visible moment to overcome his amnesia and register the visitor's identity, during which time the smile on the woman's face adapts itself into a frown and her brows knit together in confusion and concern until Ali stutters out her name, Mona. This throws her identity back into focus for her and, regaining her casual, off-the-cuff manner she diagnoses: “And I thought I was unforgettable! You must be suffering from amnesia!!”

For all her beauty and outer facade of confidence, Mona constantly needs the confirming presence of being noticed by others to keep her anchored to reality. Although she despised the pleasure she derived from adoring men, she enjoyed the unspoken power she exercised over them. They may collectively marginalise her in the workplace, but one-on-one she was usually the undisputed boss. Without the lavish attention of her boyfriends and male colleagues, she feels somewhat invisible, like a hologram or, worse still, a ghost. Not that she would ever admit it or show it.

“I've got a lot on my mind,” Ali admits.

“Well, never mind, ya habibi, you don't have to tell me about it. I know how to cure your bad day without you having to say a word about it.”

Ali brightens. Laughing seductively, Mona flashes her bright green eyes, as if to signal ‘Go!'

“Let Mona help you find some peace of mind. Kiss me. Let's lose ourselves in the mindlessness of the moment.”

At Ali's door, she felt that she was beginning to fade. Now, inside, seeing her boyfried step out from under the dark shadow of worry that had been submerging him, and take such an undivided interest in her, helped her feet touch the ground again, while her soul, and his, spiralled upwards with the growing intensity of their kisses. For Mona, sex is an affirmation of humanity, the highest form of unison achievable by two humans – two bodies linking their spirits. Ever since her first orgasm, she has experienced no higher spiritual state. Her vagina was her gateway to her own particular Nirvana. Through Mona, Ali has undergone something of a transformation. He, too, no longer sees sex as a carnal and essentially sordid act, and is beginning to see it as the most beautiful expression of human unity and love.

Mona senses that their motions are not as fluid as they normally are and, as Ali penetrates her, he is overcome with a peculiar and profound sadness – it is as if his hips are gently sobbing. After their lovemaking, they lie in the darkness, silent, with Ali deep in thought. Mona, wondering what is on his mind, is gripped by a worrying premonition.

“I'll stay tonight,” she said, “and you can tell me what's bothering you?”

“I think it's best you leave. I'm not very good company. I'll tell you all about it tomorrow,” he promises.

After Mona leaves, Ali yawns and decides to go back to bed. His mind is a hubbub of activity, pumping away like an overcharged dynamo. He tries to regulate his breathing but the conscious effort to do so becomes self-defeating. His body is drained, his eyes are heavy, but his brain reels off images that fill the darkness behind his eyelids: his final encounter with his boss tomorrow, the melancholy that washed over him with Mona, who normally brings him joy, the assumed death of Mido's mother, and images of his pathetic old age.

In the silence of the night, the sound of bleating sheep singing a sorrowful melody is intensified manifold. He wonders if the sheep are aware of their fate. He tries to block out the melancholy calls, but he can't. He turns over, irritated. He sees a sheep's throat being slit. He sees his own throat being slit. He sits up and switches on the lamp (a bulb on an iron bar) on the table by the bed. The light restores some perspective and he gets a glass of water to redirect his wandering thoughts. He paces aimlessly around the flat. He turns on the television and watches some boring presenter host a still more boring show. He can't remember a time in his life when she wasn't on television – not the healthiest diet to grow up on. He flicks through the channels and then switches the television off.

Back in bed, sleep continues to elude him. He remembers hearing somewhere that there are people who count sheep to get to sleep. He counts some sheep in a field. After fifteen or so, the bleats interfere with his counting. He counts bleats instead. The field turns into a butcher's shop with a boisterous crowd of poor people gathered outside, waiting in gleeful anticipation for the free meat upon which they can feast. Their mouths water as they imagine lamb: grilled, kebabed, skewered, dripping with delicious delight. As Ali counts off the sheep, a butcher with thick arms and a long knife makes the customary blessing to God and slits the animal's throat. Given no respite, Ali gives up on sheep and sleep.

Resigning himself to the prospect of a long night ahead, he goes back into the kitchen to make himself a cup of heavy Turkish coffee. He fills the small coffee kettle up with water and puts it on the cooker. Lighting a match, he turns the knob, ignites the flame and leaves the water to heat up. As the water nears boiling point, he adds a spoonful of coffee and stirs gently. He, then, turns the flame on low to let the coffee brew.

He hears a hissing sound. He snaps to attention and sees brown lava splash over the flame, extinguishing it. Not wanting to lose the face on his coffee, he quickly pours it into a cup and sits down to drink his coffee and read a book.

A few pages into the book, he feels a pleasant mellowness fill the air. He takes a deep, soothing breath. His head feels light – lighter than air. He thinks he may be levitating. His muscles uncoil and relax. The tension is gone. He smells gas. He has trouble breathing. He panics. He starts coughing and choking. GAS! Turn off the gas!! No. Rest. Relief. Relax, you're going somewhere new. A better world with new opportunities. Ali draws a deep breath, coughs violently, smiles and is gone.

____________

This short story was written in 2000.

Author

  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the and the UN, as well as civil . Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the , and has lived in , on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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Khaled Diab

Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled’s life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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