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Yusuf Idris | from:Arabic

The Cheapest Nights

Translated by : Raphael Cohen

After the evening prayer, curses came streaming out of Abdel Karim’s mouth, striking the village fathers and mothers and taking in Tantawi and his forebears on the way.

The story was that Abdel Karim had hardly polished off his four prostrations before slipping out of the mosque into the narrow lane. Disgruntled and upset, he clasped his hands behind his back and, as if his shoulders were sagging under the weight of the blanket scarf he had woven himself from the ewe’s wool, he bent severely forward as he walked.

Not content with this show of discontent, he angled his neck in defiance, sniffed the air with his long hooked nose that was covered in small black pits, pursed his lips, and snorted. The bronzed skin of his face was stretched tight, and the ends of his moustache lined up with the tips of his eyebrows, which were still wet from his ablutions.

He had been thrown into confusion because as soon as he entered the lane, he lost sight of his thick bloated legs and could no longer locate his large flat feet, the soles of which were cracked so badly that they could swallow up nails whole.

The man was in a state, despite the force of his efforts to keep calm, because the lane was full of children, strewn about like breadcrumbs, playing and screaming and getting underfoot. One of them came running from a distance and butted into him; another tugged at his blanket scarf  from the rear; and a particularly naughty one hit his protruding big toe with a tin can.

In the face of all this, he couldn’t help but let his tongue loose on them. He called down curses on their families, and he damned the illicit seed that had sprouted one of them and the midwife who had gripped his leg and pulled him out.

Trembling with rage, Abdel Karim swore, frothed, and spat on the pathetic little town that had become nothing more than kids on top of kids. His blanket scarf quivering, he wondered what sort of hatchery had produced these creatures in quantities vaster than the hairs on his head. Swallowing his fury, he comforted himself with the thought that the future would take care of them. Starvation was sure to kill them off, and cholera would soon strike and dispatch half of them.

Abdel Karim mouthed the profession of faith, relieved to have left the palm trees behind him in the narrow lane and to be approaching the open expanse around the pond in the middle of the village.

The darkness spread thickly before him towards where the low dun houses squatted, the piles of manure in front of them looking like long-neglected graves. No hint of the living squeezed under the roofs remained, except for lamps scattered in the vast circle of blackness like the eyes of female jinn flashing with sparks as they lay in wait – a dusky red light that came prancing from afar only to drown in the blackness of the pond.

Abdel Karim’s vision blurred in the empty darkness. He turned his head from side to side, the  smell of the stagnant pond’s rusty water snaking into his nostrils. Suddenly distressed at his nose being blocked, he clasped his hands tighter and bent further forward, almost making his blanket scarf fall by the edge of the pond.

It was the snoring of the townsfolk, those procreating rabbits, as it spread with the darkness that had annoyed him and constricted his breathing. But at that moment it was Tantawi the watchman who made him seethe with rage. Tantawi and the cup of inky stewed tea he had invited him to drink as the sun set, and which Abdel Karim would never have touched, but for his inability to say no and the thought of the tea having made his mouth water.

Abdel Karim made his way across the open space. His ears picked up nothing: not a sound or a movement, not even a hen clucking. He might as well have been in the middle of a cemetery, not in the midst of a village full of people.

When he reached the middle of the open area, he stopped, knowing that if he kept walking, in a few more steps he would be back home. Then, if he shut the door behind him, he would have to calm his breathing and go to sleep. But right then there wasn’t a grain of sleep in his eyes. In fact, his mind was fresher than water from the pump and clearer than honey straight from the hive. He would have had no problem staying up till the new moon of Ramadan.

That was because he hadn’t been able to say no to any of them: to the cup of tea, or Tantawi’s smooth talk, or his crooked smile, or the invitation that it hadn’t occurred to him to refuse.

Can’t sleep? All right. The brutish men of the village had been fast asleep for hours and left the night to their damned kids. So what should Abdel Karim do? Stay up? But where? Should he play hide-and-seek with the boys? Or be paraded by the girls as they sang, “Yabu reesh, inshalla taeesh”?[1]

Plus, where could he stay out when he was clean broke, without a single penny to take to Abul Isaad’s hole-in-the-wall and order a coffee cooked on the fire followed by a waterpipe? He could sit for as long as he liked afterwards enjoying the smell of the coffee and the tobacco; watching the young lawyers’ assistants play cards; listening to things he couldn’t understand on the radio; guffawing with al-Siba’i, and elbowing a roaring Abu Khalil in the ribs. Then he might move on to sit with mi’allim[2] Ammar and the livestock dealers, and join in the conversation about the stagnant market.

He didn’t have a penny! God reward you, Tantawi!

He wouldn’t be able to drag his legs over to where he would find Sheikh Abdel Meguid seated, the stove in front of him, the copper pot gently bubbling and hissing. Al-Shihi would be sitting next to him, his voice reverberating with tales of nights that had turned his hair white, nights of old that were gone now, along with the decent empty heads of the old folks that made him renounce the cheating, thieving, and uprooting of crops perpetrated by the ruffians of the current generation.

He didn’t dare clear his throat and knock at Sheikh Abdel Meguid’s door. Just two days before, he had shoved the man and made him fall off the surround of the waterwheel and into the basin, making everyone around laugh, when an argument over the cost of fixing the waterwheel had broken out. And the Sheikh hadn’t spoken a word to him since.

Then, the Devil had been clever, but Tantawi with his invitation had been cleverer. God ruin you, Tantawi! But what if he got out his apricot staff with the iron grip and went to call on Samaan? They could set off for the hamlet of Balabis, where there would be company, a henna party, girls singing and dancing, bodies writhing, lute music, and tips…

But… Abdel Karim, where’s the cash to splash? Besides, it was getting late and Samaan might have gone to make it up with his wife at her aunt’s. And the path was treacherous, and it was  black outside. So why was he stuck staying up on his own? Tantawi, for sure, had found a nice clean bench and lain down “on duty” and fallen asleep. May a ton of bricks fall asleep on him!

But then again, would it be so bad to go back home like decent folk? Give his wife a pinch, wake her up, have her light the lamp and wipe its glass, then light the stove, warm up a loaf of bread, and fetch the peppers left over from lunch? Wouldn’t it be lovely if a piece of the fateera[3] her mother had slipped her in the morning was left? And if she then made him a cup of fenugreek tea, heaven! He could sit, the sultan of his age, and fix the three woven baskets whose bottoms had worn through and mend the handles that had fallen off.

What for God’s sake would happen if he did? Would the railway station relocate? Would the village headman do something for the sake of God, even if for one night? Would the sky fall in on the threshing floor? Of course not. Nothing like that would happen.

But of all people, he knew his wife best. He knew better than Shamhorous, queen of the jinn, that his wife slept like a sack of loose corn, the six kids scattered around her like hungry dogs. She wouldn’t wake up even if Israfil blew his trumpet. And if his prayer was answered and she did wake up, what could she do?

Was he trying to fool himself?

The lantern was actually only half-full of paraffin, and his wife would need all of it to knead and bake all the next night, if anyone lived that long. And the kids, no doubt, would have come back at sunset and eaten the peppers with the last loaf in the breadbasket.

Would any of the morning fateera have waited to keep him company? He also had to remind himself that there was no fenugreek or sugar or anything else in the house, may You be praised.

Never in his whole life had he enjoyed a cup like the one he had lapped up with Tantawi. God damn your soul to Hell, Tantawi son of Zubeida!

If it had occurred to someone to relieve himself outdoors and he had spotted Abdel Karim planted there like a scarecrow next to the dark surface of the pond, he would have thought the man had been touched by the Devil or inhabited by an old woman.

Abdel Karim had an excuse, of course. He was overwhelmed. He was just a simple man unacquainted with the night. His pockets were empty, it was a wintery night, and the tea was searing his brain. Others who, like him, knew nothing about night life, had long before been whisked by slumber to lands far away.

So the man went on feeling confused, and he went on standing there. Finally, his mind made up, he crossed the rest of the open space in resignation. He’d decided to spend his night the way he usually spent cold nights.

Barring the door behind him, he finally settled in the middle of his house, having stepped over his children as he crawled in the dark around the dome of the clay oven where they were scattered. He chewed his lips as he groaned at them and at the dark, silently railing against the One who had strapped him with six bellies that could digest brick.

He knew the way. Cold nights had taught him again and again, and in the end he came across his wife. Instead of fondling her, he cracked her knuckles for her and rubbed her dirt-covered feet. Then he caressed her roughly, rousing her body into a shivering wakefulness.

His wife woke up to the last curse to strike Tantawi that night. Yawning, she asked him apathetically what the man had done for him to be cursing him in the middle of the night.

As he took off his clothes and readied himself for what was to come, he said, “God ruin him. This is all his fault!”

Months later, the women, as usual, were congratulating him on a new baby, and he was consoling himself over the seventh child to come so late in life and whose belly, like the others, could have held all the bricks in the world.

Months and years later, Abdel Karim was still tripping over the ant colony of kids getting in his way as he came and went. And every night he still wondered, with his hands clasped behind his back and his nose sniffing the air, what crack in the ground or the sky they were coming out of!

 

[1] A children’s chant: “Crown of feathers on your head, God willing you won’t end up dead,” which continues, “Grow up for Mum in years ahead, then she’ll find you a marriage bed.” It probably derives from the now defunct custom of processing male children in a crown of feathers on the way to be circumcised.

[2] A title for a small business man, skilled craftsman, or foreman.

[3] A large, thick pancake of flaky pastry.

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