A kid came to me
An extract from Youssef Rakha’s work in progress, the sequel to التماسيح (Dar Al Saqi, 2012) [The Crocodiles], which is due in English translation in Fall 2014 from Seven Stories Press.
Sunday, April 6th, 2008
A kid they marked up down at the Qasr Al Nil police station came to complain to me. (This was what was going on back then, with the April 6th Youth Movement and Kifaya and all of that stuff; and the Brotherhood, too, they were getting it together on the sly, even though, bit by bit, they were starting to get it in the neck: cunts.) A sweet kid and a sissy, a guy could get a hard-on just sitting next to him, who’d been working with me for a while and whose name was Ashraf Bayoumi. They marked him up and he came to my house. The minute I saw him I spat and turned my back. On the 4th of April I’d sent him along to a tiny demonstration whose purpose he didn’t know in Talaat Harb Square, and he was supposed to have reported back to me the same day. He bent and wiped my spittle from the doorstep with his sleeve then threw himself at me smearing his mouth against my brow. Just hear me out, he said. Then he followed me inside and asked for a glass of water. He said that at the demonstration this guy came up and spoke to him out of turn and he pulled a knife on him. The guy was a security officer and Ashraf didn’t have a clue. In the wagon he told them he was a state security informer but they just hit him harder. He gave me the details. His hands were cuffed behind his back and there were other captives in the wagon, most of them uncuffed; what happened to them later he had no idea. He told the cop sitting next to him that he’d been in among the demonstrators to spy on them, to carry out orders, and that he’d thought the officer was one of the opposition leaders. I laughed in my sleeve at this bit, because truth be told that’s more or less exactly what Tagammu Party members look like. And the cop heard Ashraf out and stroked his hair and shifted up on the bench till he had his hand on his thigh, then this other guy in civilian clothes got up from the bench facing them, punched the cop and told him, Get up, faggot. And the cop gets up, moaning and giving this faggoty laugh, clutching his face where he was punched. The other guy tied a strip of black cloth over Ashraf’s eyes and popped a balled-up sock into his mouth. Pushed it to the back of his throat causing him problems swallowing and a terrible nausea, the van speeding along against the traffic, until with his jaws he managed to shift it from the spot that was making him gag and began breathing deeply through his nose. The effect of the balled sock was to leave him absolutely calm, silent and still, till they took him to a room in the Qasr Al Nil station, released his hands, removed the blindfold, and with the balled sock still in his mouth asked him, You like that in your mouth, do you? So he took it out, swallowing his drool, drawing a breath and coughing. It was damp and disgusting and he understood that they’d been too revolted to remove it for him. They gave him a Cleopatra Super and a cup of dark brown tea and sat him down, and two hours later an officer arrived at the station who looked grand and said nothing. From the way they acted Ashraf understood that he was somebody important and when they left the two of them together in the room he flung himself down and kissed his feet and begged him to call the big basha. The officer kicked him in the head to get him away. He said, The big basha knows you’re here you son of a whore. His voice was cold as cold could be as he kicked him and his muscles taut. This was the only sentence the grand officer spoke to him before he disappeared. It seemed he’d come to check his face and go. Ashraf told me he was too frightened to mention my name because I’d warned him not to, but I had my doubts. He said that before night came they’d tied him up and hooked up the electricity. They put him in a bedsit and hooked up his head and balls and feet and him pleading with them, saying he was ready to do anything. So after he’s pissed himself they truss him up naked and one of them brings in a staff snapped in half and pushes it up his backside till it has him bleeding, held in place by his arsehole. The guy wiggled it as it dangled down so they could get a good laugh at how it looked, but then he untied him and went out cursing and laughing. I asked him, Remember what he looked like? and he said, I’d pick him out of a crowd of millions. Then the others went out and there was a long period without food or light and him sprawled out on the floor. I asked him about the half staff and he said it had fallen out by itself. A day and night went by, or more, and no one came and no sound. But the third day, when he came to and was battling to pull on his filthy clothes through the intensity of the pain and the burning he heard them through the wall, talking about these really huge demonstrations in Al Mahalla Al Kubra. One snorted obscenely: Cunts are calling for a general strike on Facebook. Ashraf told me the man snorted twice, once before General Strike, once before Facebook. Facebook? he asked himself: What does Facebook have to do with Al Mahallah Al Kubra? He thought he might be hallucinating because he was all in pieces, his arsehole felt like the staff was still up it, and he would catch his breath whenever the agony in his muscles reminded him of the electricity. But having got himself together he felt on firmer ground and he crawled to the wall to hear the man say that it was the Fourth of the Sixth. They said the kids taken in Talaat Harb weren’t the ones they wanted and there was no reason they couldn’t go home. A brief silence descended then the first man, the one who’d snorted, said, A general strike, on Facebook. He considered begging them to let him go home but then he discovered a passageway with metal stairs at the end leading down to a back door that, yes, was open, and with a supernatural effort he hobbled out of the building rubbing his eyes against the light. He found himself in Garden City, then in Qasr Al Ainy Street, and limped on, panting, just another headcase discharged from the Abbasiya Hospital, till he came to Tahrir Square. He told me: It was epic. They’d said to him, You so much as think of telling anyone about this… He ate and changed his clothes in a friend’s apartment in Mohammed Mahmoud Street, without saying a word to the friend. Even when he broke down and wept he still said nothing. He would have come straight to me but sleep overcame him and as soon as he woke up he came to tell me. His eyes teared up again as he said, piteously: This is what I get, Paulo?
He was a man, I told him, no one could push him around, and handed him a fresh joint, pre-rolled, for him to smoke by himself. The cat emerged from its hiding place when it smelled the joint and I said to Ashraf: See, Sultan’s got a head for highs. My black cat is called Sultan. And I laughed, without real joy, because right now I’m wrapped up in this important thing that will happen in the apartment that I bought in the name of another kid, out in this deserted area in New Cairo near the First District—Saeed Atwa, fat and one-eyed, the fool I agreed to buy an apartment for in return for its use from time to time… about a year back, and ever since he’s been threatening to put state security on people and never shy to mention my name: I got a telling off from Wadieh Bey because of him—as though the cat was reminding me that only now would she be coming to. Her cell phone stolen, no landline, door locked, windows likewise, and anyway, there she was in a building full of empty apartments in the middle of the New Cairo wasteland. A girl passing the night with a former lover, photographing her, fucking her and furnishing her with wine, then sleeping in his arms, unaware that there’s a powerful sedative in the wine, and not waking till more than twenty-four hours have passed. Did she eat the food I left for her, I wonder? And Atwa, who stayed over at his brother’s, did he give it away at all that he’d be committing a crime the following night, or rather, as he believed, carrying out an important mission for state security? I said to Ashraf, And there was me wondering what you were up to, and grinned at him as he smoked. To myself I said, If it turns out you’ve mentioned my name, young Ashraf, you’ll be back where you were and the only place you’ll be going after that are the paupers’ boneyards, you know them? But I was engrossed by this terror of hers, which had severed whatever held us together, for ever. The hardest thing was not that I wouldn’t sleep with her, but that I wouldn’t photograph her again. After I’d cheered Ashraf up I gripped him by the shoulders and said, I’ll see you get justice. I got the description of the individual who’d put the staff up him then made a phone call with him standing there, in which I asked if my name had come up in any state security records over the last few days, and was promised a speedy response. While I was speaking I tried to give Ashraf the impression that the purpose of the call was to find out what had happened to him. Then I handed him five hundred pounds and told him, Go home. He was looking at the money and sighing, as if to say that what had happened to him was worth more, and I was about to smack him in the face when he rapidly made his way out, hissing in that sissy way of his, Fine! Quarter of an hour after that I went to the office. I opened up with my key and went downstairs in the dark to my room. I removed the pistol from the locked drawer, loaded it and polished it with a lens cloth, then, without my fingers touching it, dropped it into the grip I’d left there—inside a plastic bag—having first wiped it down, too. Inside this grip was her cell phone, one of her shoes, and five thousand pounds. I dropped the pistol on top for Atwa to find first when he reached in his hand. I’ve got three guns I keep in this drawer with whatever 9mm ammo comes my way: a service-issue Helwan 915, an original Italian-made Baretta M915 (almost identical to the Helwan but more accurate and rapid firing), then a Kel Tec P11—one of the newest and lightest American-made pocket arms—a gift from Wadieh Bey that I’ve great faith in, and if I need to use a pistol, I won’t use any other. That night, of course, I took the service-issue Helwan. I was thinking how I would switch it as I made my way to Café Vienna in Qasr Al Ainy Street, about fifteen minutes away on foot. I chose an empty corner of the café in which to sit and ordered a strong coffee, no sugar. The sadness came and I thought the best thing in the circumstances would be a line of cocaine to snatch the black veil forcibly from off my face—but if I started then who knows when I’d stop and anyway I had neither stuff nor cash to score. I called Atwa, my voice muffled by my sleeve, and told him to meet me at Serene Publishing House, a secure location we all frequented. His voice was troubled as he asked about the gun. Everything was ready, I told him. They were pleased with him. Then I drank the coffee in my own time and sauntered down to Tahrir, because Atwa had a long way to travel and sitting around at Serene wasn’t always pleasant. The black veil was darker still as I mounted the front steps to the building at the start of Qasr Al Nil, and when I saw myself in the window with its plywood backing I was reminded of my hump, of my skin like wood bark, of my great size, then of the kind-heartedness with which I’d started out in life, in places like this, with Gear-Knob and Nayf. I was reminded that when I first came to Serene in 1999 or 2000 there were these whores there, who laughed at me. And because Nayf and Gear-Knob were in my thoughts I mourned Nayf. The sadness possessed me entire, so much so that I even asked myself if there might be another solution to my problem with Atwa, other than this. Every time death is sadder than it should be. Evil doesn’t come from your needs or their urgency, evil comes from forgetting that these urgent needs don’t have to be sad. I’d been standing on the staircase and now I came to in the embrace of a stoned poet whose stuff, they say, is good. He said he missed my writing and I felt no need to inform him that I had given up writing ten years ago. Camaraderie at Serene is like gravel at a construction site. Before I’d even had the chance to see if Atwa was among those present there was a bottle of beer in my hand and over my head a young novelist I didn’t know kissing both my cheeks and tugging at my shoulder. I found Atwa in the corridor, chatting to the secretary in hijab with the remains of a hand-rolled cigarette in his hand. I’m always taken aback by how fat he is, his ashen skin, the coarseness of his features, the strange expression lent his face by the dirty white that filled one eye. Atwa had an eye without an iris; couldn’t see with it. But when I imagined the last moments of her life—just that face and three bullet holes in the head—my sense of the absurd returned and it was only with difficulty that I stopped myself from laughing.
It was as though he shuddered when he first saw me. The secretary came over to say hello, then fell in with a third person down the end of the corridor. I handed him the plastic bag and in a loud voice, said, Here are the books you asked for, then in a whisper: Take a taxi. Don’t even think about opening the bag until you’re at home and ready to go. And on my face I set the expression of a man who isn’t joking as I told him, in a normal tone of voice this time, Give me a call when you get there, and remained where I was while he greeted everyone and left. That night I enjoyed my brief time with the kids at Serene. I didn’t finish the beer because the weed was good and plentiful. We were discussing Bahaa Taher’s novel Sunset Oasis because the month before it had won the first ever Arab Booker in Abu Dhabi. We all agreed that Sunset Oasis was far and way Bahaa’s worst novel and that Mekawi Said’s Swansong, shortlisted alongside it, had deserved it more, but that it was great they’d given the first prize to a respected author like Bahaa—you know: it was important for their credibility. The novelist who’d been kissing me, when he heard this, he started snorting derisively for no reason at all, and after every snort would laugh by himself. Come on, man, he said, Booker? Bahaa? My ass. For the first time I noticed that he was very tall and very thin, and his skin was unusually dark. The weed made the conversation sluggish and funny, till someone said, S’true they’ve done a good thing in the Emirates but fact is, Weedsong’s better than Swan Oasis, and the snorting novelist started weeping, while we roared till we couldn’t breathe. He too looked funny, this very tall thin trunk of his, curling and uncurling as he perched half-sat on the edge of the couch as on the hood of a car. Then he stood erect, weeping still, and said he was going up to the roof. And he really did go up, and three went up after him. He was going to throw himself off, snorting and weeping. I told the guy next to me, handing him the joint before getting up: For sure, brother. Weedsong’s better than the mood this local brandy dishes up. Fuck literature. When they went out after the novelist I took my chance and quickly walked out of the building before anyone could insist I stay. In the street, Atwa called, so I spoke to him as I walked. He said he was outside the front door to the apartment and I said, Well done, champ! Zero hour in thirty minutes. From home I called my friend the officer to whom, for a while now, I’ve been passing information on crimes that will help his career in exchange for the many favours he does me, and I told him to keep an eye on the young artist Saeed Ali Al Sarsawy Atwa. Without any pleasantries now, I tell him: Remember the murder I was telling you about a couple of days ago? Turns out it’s for real, ya basha. A few minutes ago I got cast-iron confirmation and now’s your chance to move. Got the address? Great. Take a team with you right now and catch him in the act and enjoy the promotion. Listen here. He’s going to spout a load of nonsense and tell you I’m in on it with him, that kind of thing. Just make sure my name doesn’t come up in any reports. You know what I’m talking about… And when he’d put my mind at rest I downed the quarter-bottle of whiskey that was left with two valiums as I listened to His Lashes Taught Me Love, then I switched off the phone and slept. When I woke up I started hunting round for the letter of authorization Atwa had given me and a copy of the contract for the New Cairo apartment and other documents the lawyer had asked for so he could begin the process of selling the apartment. Son of a whore’s going to take a third of the price. I’d forgotten all about Ashraf. When I looked at the phone I saw it was the Culture Ministry employee I’d spoken to the day before with Ashraf there and who’d promised to call me back quickly. I was eager, but I made strong coffee before returning the call. He told me my name hadn’t come up and gave me to understand he knew what was what: A kid who worked for me had been turned over in Qasr Al Nil station but he hadn’t said anything, and on the third day they’d let him escape. That was when I knew Ashraf was sound. I said to the ministry man, See, somebody put something up his backside and the boy’s pretty unhappy about it. Do you think the fellow could come and apologize or would that be a problem? He’d make some calls to see, he said, and reminded me of the video-artist, the girl I promised I’d introduce him to on the grounds that he too was a young photographer. I knew her well from my work at the bookshop. She was the daughter of a well-known businessman—well, an arms dealer. Within a week, I said: Okay boss? Later on, as the reports came in of the Mahallah workers’ strike, of efforts to show solidarity, of the April 6th Youth Movement’s protest vigils, dressed in black and ranked on the sidewalks each one reading their Quran or Gospels in silence, as reports reached me of arrests and campaigns of character assassination—later on, it was Metr I thought of: as soon as I closed my eyes I saw his teeth—cubes. The only one who knows I don’t care. Reports of the investigation and trial of the New Cairo Butcher, that’s what I care about. A young Fine Arts graduate from Ain Shams snatches a young socialite, a mother of four, and holds her for two days in an apartment in an isolated spot then kills her with three bullets to the head from a stolen service-issue pistol—all for her cell phone and five thousand pounds? Her stunned husband could only concur with the talk-show host’s words about the crime’s barbarity, the paltriness of the motives and the absolute necessity of a death sentence… And when Ashraf came back, the man—whose name it transpired was Salah Nasr—was waiting for him. I took him in my arms and ushered him into Salah Nasr’s presence, then opened a jackknife and handed it to him. Without saying a word I hit the man in the face as he sat there. Then I stood back and looked on as he rose to his feet and bent to hold the underwear off his buttocks for the sissy boy called Ashraf to carve a deep line into the bulging flesh with the jackknife, step away, then clap him on the back as a signal he could pull his trousers up.
The words of Paulo, son of Baghagho, one of those in Tahrir Square:
On April 6th, 2008, Farida came to me in a dream. I am Amer Mohammed Aboulleil. Farida Mansour Al Tetsh came to me in a dream and she said that she was in need of orgasm with me and that the sweetest thing would be for me to photograph her. This was at the start of the dream, in the corridor at Serene House, the secretary in hijab standing with us. I handed Farida a plastic bag and she leant in to me and whispered in my ear and with those words addressed me. After this I was in Café Vienna, in an unoccupied corner, and she was coming toward me, yet it was as though Qasr Al Ainy Street were a serpent and Café Vienna its head. And I was sitting in the head and Farida was coming from down in the tail, from far away. Behind me was a nothingness, the encircling void where the serpent’s mouth hung open and the world as we knew it, as I and she and so too all the others in Mounira, Garden City, Tahrir and Downtown knew it, came to an end. Farida was coming on foot, walking down the middle of the street and the buildings, which were the serpent’s innards, were dancing all around her—see there a building bowing and straightening before her or behind her like a gigantic cobra, and her walking on. And though she was far away and tiny in the distance her face was right in my face, too, the size it would be were she sitting opposite me or I lying on top of her. Everything was rubbery inside this serpent, as though there were no solid, nor liquid, nor gas, just this rubber from which everything was made. And Farida was coming through it. And I was waiting to see the expression that I loved upon her face, that childish pique I loved, but stonily she stared, her breathing clockwork as the buildings danced and the asphalt heaved and me, sitting. And when she drew near I was calling out to her as though addressing her face before me, voiceless, telling her that I was ready to take her picture now. She was staring, stony faced as before, when I discovered I was in her and she beneath me, me thrusting saying we must die now, and the orgasm flushing her face and her not speaking, and at the same time coming towards me and me sitting in Café Vienna and the whole rubber world in Qasr Al Ainy Street as though the Day of Reckoning were come, had arrived in the body of a serpent. Then her face was gone from before me and her footsteps remained. She was near now; she was coming. I had a sudden suspicion of how I must and I started searching for mirrors, for I suspected I had the face of a lion and not that of a human. But there were no mirrors anywhere in Café Vienna and the serpent in the encircling void was curling, bend and sway went the buildings, and Farida coming on. Then she was cross legged on green sward her arm over her head in the shape of a triangle pushing out her breast, and in the background over the grass a sky with clouds of different colors, and between her thighs held fast, fast between her thighs a green apple. I was cross-legged before her the Nikon to my eye but no grass beneath me nor behind me sky, and Farida turned into a postcard in my hand and on the table before me a Kel Tek P11 and a box of matches. After that the waiter came and I opened my mouth to order a plain coffee with a joint of the potent strain they call mango-bud that I lit with the matches, and a bar of chocolate I also ordered because I was hungry and needed something sweet after smoking the weed, but when I spoke a roar came from my mouth and the roar was terrifying and the buildings through the midst of which Farida walked danced harder and the instant I was certain I was a lion I knew that the serpent in whose head I sat would spit me out into the encircling void because I am lion and he loveth not that anything but a human sit in his head. What counted now was that I speak to Farida before he spit me out, that something other than this stoniness show on her face, that a voice should once more issue from her mouth once she sees that I am a lion. And I remember that when she whispered to me in the corridor of Serene House she was staring stonily there, too, and the orgasm is flushing her face and I am thrusting but she is coming from far away, from the serpent’s tail. At last, when her face returns to the size it would be were she sitting with me she tells me that it really would be the sweetest thing if I would take her picture, that she could die now on condition she has her orgasm with me. A black sadness entered me like a gloomy veil as I drew the weedsmoke into my chest and trapped it and whenever I tried to talk I heard a terrifying roar and the Day of Reckoning came on faster in Qasr Al Ainy Street in Downtown. Saddened with sadness was I, for I am a lion and the serpent shall spit me out and Farida is staring stonily, cross-legged on the sward, her arm above her head, her beautiful breast pushed out, an echo of the green apple between her thighs. After that came something like a storm, but in reverse, you see it didn’t push, it pulled, and this thing drew me after it, like it was a storm but it was like a whirlpool that sucked with the power of electricity and did not pull and I was roaring and roaring and I was a lion flying in the darkness then I was sleeping in the Serene House corridor and Farida was sleeping in my arms gently breathing and unaware I had turned into a lion and my head was five times bigger than her head and opening my mouth to speak her whole head disappeared inside. And when I saw that the story ended there I went to sleep within my dream and I knew that I was asleep twice over. I shifted Farida down to keep her clear of my fangs and I was yawning, a lion inside a serpent, and down I sank into sleep…