A short story by Ihab Abdel Hamid from his collection قصص قميص هاواي (Merit, 2010) [Hawaiian Shirt] which won the Yusuf Idris short story competition in 2010. He is also the author of the excellent novel, عشاق خائبون (Merit, 2005) [Failed Lovers], a small excerpt of which has been translated by Samia Mehrez here.
For Saeed Braknan
She came to take a break from dancing and sat down beside me as I was lifting my head to drink what was left in my green bottle. A scent struck me, momentarily lifting me out of my drunken state then propelling me back into it with irresistible force. “Thanks,” I said to her, and that was that.
Her scent was the scent of my lover when she came home from work, which became mine too when I washed myself with her sweat. My Cairene sweetheart, who taught obedience to children by day and by night, schooled me in mutiny.
In a transport of drunkenness amidst Bob Marley melodies Talal was executing a simple dance, his body crooked, standing out from the dancers with his dark black colouring while Haidar merged with the music in violent movements that brought the blood jetting up from within him, mournful, raging and longing for life. Minutes earlier, he had been sitting on the ground weeping, after he saw a boy with honey-coloured eyes walking with difficulty behind his mother.
Saeed was standing with his arms folded, a slight and self-possessed delight upon his face, swaddling himself in a vintage overcoat while sweat trickled from the bodies of one and all. He fixed his gaze on Haidar who at that moment was dancing with a beer bottle, harassing the girls and, when they moved uneasily away, cursing them in Syrian using terms in no wise chaste, before turning his abuse on Cairo: a whore.
Talal, Saeed and I headed towards him as he swayed towards the chest of a girl in front of him so that he was almost touching her breasts with his head. We dragged him, laughing, out of the circle of dancers then I nodded an apology to the girl, who slowly grasped that he was drunk. We went towards the door.
“Who does she think she is?” he was saying. “Fuck her… I love tits. What’s her problem?”
We were no less drunk than he was, but his drunkenness had entered through the holes in his soul and drenched it, so that his body became heavy as we descended the shallow steps making our way to the night streets of Cairo. So it was that as we went down the stairs, Haidar fell and slid six steps before flattening out on the floor with a blood spattered head. The three of us halted, like statues. People were coming out and passing us by, some of them offering to help, some laughing and some showing their disgust, but we had no awareness of those about us, not at all. Hovering around him in a semicircle we three were preoccupied by a single question: How was it we’d been so heedless as to let Haidar fall? The business almost ruined the whole night and put us in touching distance of a depression we were only too ready to receive, but Haidar rose laboriously out of his slump and his inebriation, blood blackening his cheek, and said in an Egyptian accent that made us all laugh, “I’m the man!”
Saeed suggested we head over to Saad Thief, the café and restaurant nearby and nobody answered him, because we were already heading to the place without thinking about it. Realistically speaking, there was nowhere else that would harbour four famished drunkards two hours past midnight. Saeed was the most taken with the restaurant owner’s name. It was he who drew our attention to its peculiarity and pointed out that “Theif” must be a moniker the man had earned. This provoked astonishment: How had we not thought of it before?
We ordered food and three cups of tea. When the waiter asked for Haidar’s order, Haidar did not answer him, ignored him completely, and when he persisted, told him in a genuine fit of temper:
“What’ll I have, you mean? Coffee, like them.”
We laughed out loud and tamped ground coffee onto Haidar’s cut, after smearing our shirts with his blood in an expression of Arab solidarity. Haidar noticed that Saeed had soiled his sparingly, so wiped his head with both hands then wiped them on Saeed’s shirt, saying: “What’s this, Moroccan? No solidarity for your Syrian brother?”
We laughed then began to talk about cities. Haidar, first cursing all Cairo’s different faiths, said,
“Know what? This Cairo is the worst city in the world. Damascus is much more important… and Beirut.”
“Cairo’s the Mother of the World!”
“Fuck the mother of the world and fuck its sister. I swear, a Syrian’s sandal’s got more brains than all the intellectuals in Cairo.”
Then he started abusing Cairo; Syrian insults that God himself could not forgive. I caught sight of Saeed’s nose, with which he’d been sniffing an old wall, as he turned back round to read the poem he had written the day before.
“In Cairo I saw lentils the colour of oranges,/ Aubergines the colour of milk.”
We talked about Alexandria and Damascus and Khartoum and Beirut and Tunis and we talked about the press and culture, the Baath Party and the Polisario and John Garang, the ocean and hashish, and we recited poems whose authors we couldn’t quite remember, mixing classical verse with modern. And Haidar read us his poetry. Embarrassed, Saeed pointed out that some of the lines were from his own poem, while Talal insisted that Mutanabbi was the one who spoke them first, or at least the sense of them. As for myself, I was certain that I’d read them in a poem by Mahmoud Darwish.
We bickered for a while then made up and went on wreaking havoc on the Arab canon. In an effort to remember a verse Haidar smacked his brow with his hand and his head rebounded backwards striking the wall and the blood flowed anew. Talal remarked that such a donkey did not deserve to live, that God had given him the greatest of blessings by creating him an Arab, then pulled off his shoe. We all followed his example and started beating him with them, each heaping him with abuse in his own dialect.
I fancied a quarrel with Saeed.
“So tell me, where’s this Casablanca then, Saeed?… Next to Sri Lanka!”
Irritation showed on Saeed’s face. Talal started telling us about the adventures of a friend in Sudan who would drink cosmological quantities of arak then hand out his possessions to everyone around him, be they friends or enemies, until one day he woke up to find himself in nothing but his underwear. Well, he vowed he would never drink arak again and got ready to leave the house by making himself his favourite daytime tipple: yoghurt, coke, sugar, lemon… and half a glass of arak.
Another wave of laughter swept us. Haidar leapt into it out of his seat, his leg struck the table and a glass of tea fell to the floor, smashing violently. We went on laughing while he looked angrily towards the owner, then shouted at him, waving his hand in his face:
“Fuck your sister, Saad the thief! What do you make your teacups out of? Glass?”
A conversation about Arab culture engrossed us. We fell out over I don’t know what and voices were raised. Haidar, meanwhile, was silent, his eyes closed, so that we thought he must be asleep, but suddenly he shot up, saying: “Fuck Arab culture. The last day I was in Beirut I saw Muzaffar Al Nawab. He was living under the stairs and hadn’t eaten for two days.”
We agreed to compensate Muzaffar for the sad state in which he found himself and recited what we could of his verses thereby granting him immortality, despite Haidar insisting that this wouldn’t help him at all; better to take this immortality and wipe our arses with it.
Saad Thief shut up his café and the streets swallowed us. We tugged on raucous conversation, now this way, now that, until we came to the question of the most beautiful women in the world.
“My beloved,” I said.
“Ethiopians,” said Talal.
“Aleppans,” said Haidar.
Talal insisted on proving his case: “When an Ethiopian girl falls into cold milk…. Pop pop pop pop!”
He stood up, stooping and popping until I thought he must have triumphed, but Haidar settled the debate:
“Why? What did an Ethiopian ever do for you? Aleppans are the most beautiful women in the world because Ethiopians are black!”
While this was going on Saeed was sniffing the walls, inspecting everything on them—scratches, scrawls, drawings and posters; he was peering at the shop windows, the statues in the squares, the signs over stores. Two days before he had been walking in Downtown, asking the way to Al Mashrabiya which was to hold the poetry event where we had all met up by chance. Haidar had run across him in the street and given him directions, despite the fact Haidar had arrived in Cairo the week before: months after Saeed, in other words.
We began to sing, jumbling together Marcel Khalifa and Mustafa Sayyid Ahmed, Ziyad Rahbani, Sheikh Imam and Umm Kulthoum, breaking every rule of song with voices that only the deaf and drunk could bear. Haidar became excited, took off his shoes and started slapping them loudly together and hopping about. In solidarity, Talal took of his as well and the pair walked barefoot over Cairo’s cold ground, their voices raised. Fastening his overcoat securely, Saeed asked me about the police here.
“In Cairo no one’s going to put us in prison. We might spend the night in the shed, that’s all.”
He got what I meant by “shed” and the word made him laugh from his heart. The sound of pre-dawn devotions rose up from one of the mosques.
“Let’s pray,” proposed Talal.
“Fuck off! If we went into that mosque they’d hang us from the minaret until we sobered up!”
“We still don’t know anything about Casablanca,” I said to Saeed.
“A city where the rains fall,” he said then walked in silence along the mosque’s wall, sniffing at it. I walked next him, as Talal and Haidar went ahead singing, “Toot Toot in Beirut” and a medley of other tunes. A man passed in front of them pulling his young son, dressed in a white gown and white skullcap, towards the mosque. The boy was walking behind his father, his hand holding his and his head turned back to watch us in astonishment. “He won’t cry. He won’t cry. He won’t cry,” I told myself, but he wept and sat on the ground and we sat around him.
“My son’s in Aleppo. Nearly a year I haven’t been able to see him and this Eid I didn’t send him a new shirt.”
It had happened, the thing we had all feared, and our forced merriment was nearly at an end. Talal, though, made a final attempt to prevent grief donning the cloak of gloom, and patted Haidar’s shoulder.
“I haven’t been able to see my son, either.”
Haidar wiped the water running from his eyes and nose and eagerly turned to Talal.
“You have a son?”
The laughter exploded once more and together we continued on our way, but calmer. Saeed tucked my arm beneath his and set about trying to convince me that something was wrong in Cairo: oranges could not become lentils, nor milk, aubergines. My ears were listening, but my mind was stirring memories of smell so they might release once more the scent of my beloved as she came home from work. I started telling myself that perhaps I would see her tomorrow, perhaps she’d ring the bell at some unexpected hour and when she did, then I’d forgive the angels for the nighttime grief in which they drowned me.
The angels, watching us as we turn and turn: four friends, light-spirited in Cairo’s nocturnal crusher, our colours and odours blending together until we descend from the filter’s narrow holes a juice so clear…
The angels drink, and sleep.