Translator’s note: Shooq means “longing” and is also a woman’s given name. Following custom, Shooq’s mother and father are referred to in the story by the honorifics Umm Shooq and Abu Shooq (Mother/Father of Shooq) respectively.
It’s a wide street, and short, and anyone who enters it feels out of place there. There are no signs of life except for the old houses on either side, and the earth mound at the end seems to mark the end of the world.
Leaving it you find yourself in the street with the tram, with all its noise, its street vendors, and its small shops, and in five minutes you’re in El Manshiya.
That’s why it never occurred to anyone to open a grocery store on the street, or a café, or a mechanic’s workshop, since it would certainly lose money.
Even when Abu Salim, the owner of the only kiosk in the street, came back from Yemen and thought of opening the kiosk with the little bit of money he had, the municipality refused to let him set it up so that it would open onto the street with the tram because it would block the sidewalk. There were only two alternatives: either he opened it somewhere far away, or on the street itself. Because he’d hurt his back in the war, he opened the kiosk on the street, right in front of the house he was living in, saying as he did so, “That’s the way it is – the strong make sure the weak get the short end of the stick: the municipality wants me to try and make my living on a dead street.”
That’s what all the residents thought: “It’s a dead street.”
At the time, people were happy with the kiosk. Abu Salim made it look very nice and filled it with all the different kinds of candies and cigarettes and cookies.
The only person unhappy about it was his son, Salim, because they put it up right in front of his window. Whenever Salim got tired of studying, he would open the window and look out over the street with the tram, so the window was very important to him. Not to mention that he objected to the whole idea of the kiosk because in two years he would be going to university and he didn’t want any of his fellow students to know that his father ran a cigarette stand. Thus, his disgust with the street turned from a prayer that Our Lord would get him safely out of it into a decision to leave it one day and go.
As time passed, the kiosk started to take on the color of the street and become part of it. The jars of candy disappeared little by little and all that was left were a few packs of cigarettes. All Abu Salim’s attempts to make money failed but he didn’t get upset, and one day an idea came to him as he watched the men and the youths of the street coming home at night, some drunk, some stoned, some with something to get high on at home. He decided to do them a service and provide them with a place to go.
Then and there he brought a few sheets of plywood, closed the kiosk to the outside, and extended it all the way to the wall, blocking Salim’s window completely. Salim couldn’t take it a moment longer and he left home and went his way. This upset Abu Salim, but his vision must have been stronger than his anger, because he converted the window into a door and turned Salim’s room into a hashish joint cum bar.
Abu Salim sold beer and a little bad wine and he didn’t mind if someone brought a bit of hashish to roll on the premises, and his wife would make the usual pot of sprouted beans and soak a little lupine seed plus a few bunches of rocket, and so the night would pass. Anyone who had a habit would spend time at Abu Salim’s, and the night there was as busy as day.
Only one person avoided going there. Even though he came home drunk every night, he didn’t want anyone in the street to see him.
Abu Shooq had stayed drunk from the moment his son died. He would leave in the morning and come back at one or two at night, slipping unobtrusively into his house. He hated two things: the summer holidays, because the kids on the street would stay up late and as soon as they saw him turning onto the street would amuse themselves at his expense until he got into his house, and his wife, Umm Shooq, because she would always make a scene when he came in, especially if she found out that the kids had been making fun of him. He got scenes at night, the whole street got them by day, and Abu Shooq had to suffer the humiliation.
Saad had died a long time ago, before Abu Salim opened the kiosk. His daughters Shooq and Awatif were just of an age to start thinking of marriage and Saad, the adored youngest, was a boy of ten when he suddenly got sick. Abu Salim took him round all the hospitals. Umm Shooq took him round all the sheikhs and diviners, because she was certain that a demon like the one that had gotten into her must have gotten into him. “He’s got a bad one!” she’d say.
In the end, Abu Shooq found out that the boy had kidney failure, meaning that he had to do dialysis, and because there wasn’t any money, Abu Shooq spent all the cash he had and borrowed from everyone in sight. He was paid by the week at the cobbler’s shop where he worked and a week’s pay wasn’t enough for one dialysis. Umm Shooq helped him by selling coffee beans and telling the fortunes of the women of the street from the grounds. She had a roaster and would get beans, mix them with wheat to make them go further and sell a packet for ten piasters. She would read the grounds for the same and claim that it wasn’t her that did the reading, it was the Sudanese who possessed her who told her what to say.
When the boy got really sick, Abu Shooq thought of the past and remembered Umm Shooq’s rich folk in Tanta.
He remembered when he fell in love with Umm Shooq. She was beautiful and from a family that had a bit of money. Her small body did not conceal her beauty; she was just right for her size. Her hair was black and smooth and her eyes were large and gave meaning and beauty to her whole face. He remembered how the two of them had stood on the platform in Tanta station when they were running away, not knowing where to go, Cairo or Alexandria. They got on the first train that came and it was going to Alexandria.
That’s where life began for them. His love was great and her besottedness with the idea of it was greater still. All the same, she sobered up after she had the two girls, Shooq and Awatif. She took to feeling unwell and flying off the handle at the smallest thing. She dreamt of lots of things and a million demons possessed her. No one knows whether these demons of hers were real or whether she used them as a way of defending herself. She was always quarreling, whether with Abu Shooq or the neighbors or her daughters, and after each quarrel the demon would take her over. Sometimes she talked like a Moroccan, other times like a Sudanese, and on occasions she’d say things no one could understand. Often she’d knock her head against the nearest wall, saying in a Sudanese accent, “You’re killing her! If she dies, I’ll kill you all!” All that would happen was that everyone would gather round her and recite Qur’an in her ear till she came to, and in the end the problem would be resolved the way she wanted.
Abu Shooq decided to ask her to go see her people in Tanta, tell them what had happened, and ask them for money. She would have done anything anyone asked of her to make the boy get better and without giving it a moment’s thought she put on her black going-out dress over her house dress and gathered her hair in her white muslin kerchief, tying her headscarf over it. “I won’t come back till I’ve got the money,” she said as she slipped her feet into her slippers.
Umm Shooq went on foot from El-Labban to Cairo Station deep in thought the whole way. Her steps speeded up or slowed down depending on what was going on in her head, but she had high hopes that her family would take pity on her and her son and give her the money.
When she got to the station, she bought the 17-piaster ticket and sat waiting for the train going to Cairo.
Umm Shooq was past fifty, closer to fifty-five, but seeing her anyone might have thought she was a lot older. Her small size, the crouching in front of the coffee roaster, her poverty and hunger, plus the loss of two teeth, had all combined to age her and she looked as though she had passed sixty. On the other hand, her ever bright and wakeful eyes, her rounds of all the houses on the street to distribute the coffee, her incessant quarrels, her rapid gait, and the way she beat her two daughters (though over twenty, neither of them could stand up to her, so that people would say, “Where does she get all that good health?”), all these things made people give her, despite everything, a much lower age than her real one.
Umm Shooq boarded the train and sat down on the wooden seat next to the window in the last carriage. The train moved off and her journey of despair began. Where and to whom should she go? Who would still remember her after all these years? How come she was on her way to beg for money when it was she that had left her home, her town, and her family to run away with someone who had nothing to show for himself except his love for her? Who had died, she wondered, and who was still alive? How would she meet them and who would she stay with? She had to hear all the news, but who would tell her anything? Maybe they would throw her out again the moment they saw her, and if they received her, how could she revive a relationship that had been severed some twenty years ago, a relationship she herself had not liked? Maybe they would kill her, or her surviving relatives would drop dead when they saw her!
The train stopped at Tanta, and set off again for Cairo. Umm Shooq, however, remained in her seat, unable to get off and unable to make the decision to go back to Alexandria, because she had said that she would not go back without the money, even if it took a year.
At Ramses Station everyone was moving quickly and everyone had somewhere to go. Sometimes she would feel someone walking fast knock against her with his shoulder, or a bag would knock against her legs. Every part of her body was quiet; only her eyes remained wakeful, darting this way and that and turning towards anything unfamiliar, as though she was saying to anyone whose eyes might meet hers, “Help me. I won’t go back without the money. The boy’s dying.”
As she left the station, still peering into people’s faces to find someone who would help her, her eyes filled with tears such as she had not known for years and the first thing that she said, without thinking, was, “The boy’s dying! Succor the needy, O Merciful Lord!” She said it loud, and said it again without realizing what she was doing, and as she said it she put out her hand, not to anyone in particular, but perhaps to everybody.
The strange thing was that what she did bore fruit. In a little while, she found she had a good amount of change in her hand and she quickly went into the lavatories in front of the station, took the white kerchief off her head, put the change into it, put the kerchief into her pocket, and went out again.
She had no time to rest and the time passed quickly. She thought that maybe she would be able to get the cost of the dialysis in a single day.
In the end, however, she stayed in Cairo a week. She would make a circuit on Ramses, then go back to the lavatories. She was afraid she would get lost and the lavatories were the only place where she could go and close the door behind her.
By the second day she’d worked out that she shouldn’t wash the traces of the dust of yesterday’s train off her face, that she should take off her slippers and walk barefoot, and that she should let a little white hair show from beneath the head scarf.
She was obliged to make friends with the fat woman who sat in front of the lavatories. The lavatories had become her Cairo home and the woman who sat there and who almost never got up was sort of the mistress of the house.
Every day that passed, her dream came closer to realization, her happiness grew, and her affection for the street increased, to the point that she felt that it was all over and her son in fact cured-none of which made her take it easy, however, even for a moment. She discovered Faggala, Ataba, and Shubra, and after each outing she would come back to the lavatories, curling up behind them by midnight to sleep. By the end of the week, she had collected the cost of the dialysis and maybe more and she made up her mind that the next day she would set off so they could take the boy to the hospital. After that, it would be up to God.
But that was the day the whole street came out to walk in the funeral procession of the boy, who had died, leaving the street even deader than he was.
Umm Shooq couldn’t wait till the next day. Taking the army train at two-thirty at night, she arrived in the morning. The number of soldiers disembarking from the train was increased by one-Umm Shooq, who was livelier than any of the privates getting off the train and stepping out to make sure he wouldn’t arrive late at his unit.
Umm Shooq came to a stop in front of the street. The great breath she took slowly into her lungs and then released in a rush, the like of which she had not been able to take from the moment she left the house, she tried to repeat but couldn’t. Or perhaps she didn’t have the time to try, she went so quickly into the house.
The whole street was sleeping, and woke to Umm Shooq’s scream, which was followed by a second and a third, as though her daughters, who yesterday had wept for their brother, had been waiting for the support that would give them the strength and the means truly to express their grief.
For the first time they joined with their mother as one, in a high scream. They were used to calming her down when she got into fights or yelled or beat them, or when her demons took hold of her, and to saying, “OK, Ma. We wont do it again. Calm down.”
They loved nothing in her, except this time, when they loved her scream and her real grief, and they screamed with her with all their might, so that it was as if the boy hadn’t really died till that moment.
The women of the street changed out of the colored robes in which they sleeping, put on their black ones, and came out, one by one, and went to Umm Shooq, whose room filled up with women, weeping and screaming. Each woman wept for her own grief, one saying “My darling! My son!”*Šanother “Daddy, see how you’ve left your daughter!” and so on and so on.
In the midst of the weeping and screaming, Umm Shooq’s eyes roved over the women of the street. She only stopped weeping and screaming when her eyes came to rest on her daughters: she would look at them and become distracted for a moment, then recover and scream again. Then her eyes would come to rest on them again and she would become distracted. Nobody knew that she was taking a huge decision: the world had nothing left in it anymore but her daughters, whom she must protect, and whose future she must guarantee, and she must not let money be the reason for either of them to be snatched from her the way that Saad had been.
She decided that her journey would be repeated each week. Abu Shooq and the girls believed that she had got the money from her family in Tanta, and thought therefore that she must have made up with them once and for all.
From that day on, everything changed in Umm Shooq’s house.
Her husband, from the day the boy died, stayed permanently drunk. His world knew only two things: love and sorrow. Before he married Umm Shooq, he had been unemployed. He hadn’t been able to think of a reason to work, and when he did so he did it for her, and later for the boy who had come to him after such a long wait. He was the beautiful thing that was left in his life after he realized that his love for Umm Shooq was coming to an end.
From the day the boy died, he worked so that at the end of the day he would be able to forget the one beautiful thing in his life, which in the past had given him a reason to work.
All he knew from then on was sorrow.
He didn’t like to go to Abu Salem’s. He liked to sit in a place where no one knew him, so he didn’t have to talk to anybody. And he didn’t want to repeat the one time when he did go to Abu Salem’s.
Abu Salem was crazy and so was everyone who went to his place. Anyone who entered felt that everyone there knew everyone else, and after a while everyone would start talking to himself, though, at the same time, they seemed to be talking to everyone, and the stories were always the same: Abu Salim’s stories about the war in the Yemen, Hamida the fruitseller’s about his family in Upper Egypt, the neighborhood hoodlum’s about how his eyes had been gouged out in a brawl and about his glory days, as though he’d just cancelled the present and was living in the past of fifteen years before…all these and many, many more.
When Abu Salim heard Abu Shooq and his story of his great love for his son who’d died, he decided to give him a piece of advice. As usual he talked about about the war in the Yemen, and how he would be walking along with a soldier friend and suddenly find him stretched out on the ground, and when he looked would see the dagger that had killed him sticking out of his back. “After this happened a few times,” he told him, “I started feeling not so much bad about my friend as happy it wasn’t me that had died. One of us had to. I stopped feeling bad that someone had died. The important thing was that I was alive. I felt that as long as death had kept its distance from me, things were fine. OK, so my son is dead…”
“Shame on you, man! ” Abu Shooq quickly interjected, “He’s still alive somewhere!”
Abu Salim told him, “I swear to God, he’s dead! The moment I extended the kiosk, the boy left the house and went off. *ŠñAshamed of his father’ he was. I didn’t feel bad. I just told myself he had died and then I put up the hideaway. When he comes to visit me every two or three months, I feel great and I tell myself he’s come back to life. And when he goes, I tell myself he’s dead. As long as he’s dead, I don’t feel bad, and when he comes back to life again, I feel great and make him welcome and sit with him and tell him stories and he tells me stories. And then he dies and I don’t feel bad. When he’s dead I don’t feel bad and when he’s alive I feel great. See how great I feel that way? Don’t be stupid, my friend! What matters is that you’re alive and kicking. Be happy!”
Abu Shooq never told his story again; from that day he never went back to Abu Salim’s. It may be that he felt that Abu Salim was heartless. Or maybe it was because he was incapable of experiencing anything in his life except love and sorrow, and the love had died and would never come back again.
Umm Shooq would spend a week in Cairo and a week in Alexandria, but somehow the week that she spent in Alexandria became almost like three weeks: what she used to do in two or three weeks, she managed to do in one. She felt that the great secret that she was hiding and which gave her a feeling of weakness had to be confronted by a great force. It wasn’t enough for her just to read the coffee grounds now, she began to read them to know what was inside people, and she started trying to find out all about their lives and their secrets and to help them in so far as she could. She felt that they had to be as abject before her as she was before her own self.
She found out who was cheating on her husband, which couple had money problems, which kid had become addicted to pills and was driving his family crazy, and who stole and who took bribes.
It was easy for her-just look into their eyes, and sometimes be sympathetic so that the person before her would open her heart, and other times play the ghoul.
Once she was looking at the cup of the wife of Salih, the kerosene vendor, who was always at Abu Salim’s place, and she sensed that the woman had done something terrible. She looked at the cup and she looked at the woman and, turning it upside down, she said, “I will not read this cup!” “Why not, Umm Shooq?” the woman asked her, scared. “Because it’s unclean, God save us! Out with it, woman!” So the woman had to tell her about the mistake of her life, which she had sworn would never happen again. Umm Shooq didn’t care whether it happened again or not; what she cared about was that she now knew the woman had been unfaithful to her husband. She reassured her, looking at the cup and telling her, “The cup says no-one shall know your secret but me and the Sudanese who possesses me, so long as he’s kept happy.”
When she found out that the neighbor who lived across the street was hard up for money, she went to her and read her cup and informed her all about her troubles and agreed to help her through the rough patch, but on condition that Umm Shooq give the money directly to her husband-who was a bit cocky-with the excuse that the spirits who lived below the ground would never lend money to women. That way Umm Shooq killed two birds with one stone and brought both the man and his wife to heel.
With time, Umm Shooq turned into something that was half dream and half nightmare. She was both people’s salvation and the millstone around their necks. All their secrets were with her and no secret was ever divulged, but at the same time she was throttling them, and they felt naked before her.
During the weeks when Umm Shooq was in Cairo, the street had nothing to hold it together. It was full of quarrels and slanging matches among the women, such as could even lead to hair pulling. But when you entered the street while she was in residence, you felt it was under control-under the control of Umm Shooq’s eyes. What mattered was who she decided was in the right, and she only had to look anyone she wanted to silence in the eye and he had to shut up and watch his manners so that his secret would remain safely in the well to which he’d consigned it.
Umm Shooq’s eyes, which in the past had been so beautiful that everyone, Abu Shooq first among them, had loved to gaze at them, now became powerful and terrifying, and lucky was the one who could escape them.
Umm Shooq’s daughters, as time went by, despaired of finding husbands and despaired of finding again the love that had been there before Saad died.
Shooq fell in love with a boy from El Manshiya and lived in the hope that he would marry her, and the boy loved her too. Awatif helped them, with joy in her heart, because she felt she was helping herself and because she thought that the same love would be her future too. The two of them would go out to get the coffee beans and the wheat for their mother and when they saw Hussein waiting for them in the distance, it wasn’t just Shooq’s heart that beat faster, it was Awatif’s too, seeing in him the lover whom she would one day meet. She would take the money from Shooq and go and get the order herself, happy all the way, searching the young men’s faces for a second Hussein.
By the time the year was up that they’d agreed to wait after Saad died before Hussein asked for Shooq’s hand, Umm Shooq had lots of money that no one knew anything about. The strength that she derived from the people, who had started bit by bit to weaken before her, had turned into another strength, in a box under the bed. This strength made her feel that everyone was at her feet. The trouble was that Hussein’s family couldn’t see this strength when she made demands no rational person would make, and which they rejected, and she refused the marriage, after giving them the rough side of her tongue.
Shooq’s heart was broken, and Awatif’s too. She became afraid to look into the faces of the young men. Now she avoided their eyes.
The two girls ended up by sitting on the sofa by the window, and this went on for years. Shooq would sit on the left, so that she could see the corner of the street and think of Hussein the last time she saw him. It was Awatif’s fate that she should be able to see only a small part of the street, and the mound at the end of it, but she didn’t object. She knew that her sister too could see nothing but Hussein as he had looked that last time.
After being cursed out, along with his family, Hussein had tried for several days to stop himself from going, but in the end he couldn’t, so he went and stood at the corner hoping to catch sight of her or talk to her and solve the problem between them, away from his family and her mother. It was his bad luck that Umm Shooq was in Alexandria at the time and caught sight of him, and by the time he’d been standing there for half an hour she’d talked to a few kids, who ganged up on him, and he took a beating that made him hate himself and hate the whole quarter of El-Labban and hate love and hate even Shooq, and he never showed up there again.
Shooq had seen him and he never knew that the same day she poured kerosene over herself and that the only thing that stopped her from setting fire to herself were Umm Shooq’s demons, who appeared in the nick of time, the Sudanese threatening her that the fire with which she was about to burn herself would burn everyone she loved, burn her father and Awatif and the house and Hussein. In the end, the neighbors were able to get the matches off her and wash her off and she calmed down, and agreed to sit on the sofa.
The beating given Hussein, and Umm Shooq’s demands, and the poverty that people thought the family lived in, and the demons and the fights and their father who was always drunk-all these things kept potential suitors away. The years passed, and they went on sitting just as they were. Their hatred for their mother increased and their love for one another and their closeness grew. They got used to sitting like that, whether the window was open or closed. They would wake up in the morning to find their father had left and would clean the house, make the food, and sit on the sofa.
In the summer, they closed the window at noon and opened it at sunset, at the same time that they turned on the second-hand television that their mother had brought them saying it was a gift from her people in Tanta. They chattered to one another constantly, which didn’t stop them from laughing now and again when they saw something on the television that was, as they saw it, rude. Nothing disturbed their positions on the sofa till the scene in the film Lost Love where Rushdi Abaza kisses Soad Husni. The window was closed and they were sitting as usual on the sofa and when the film was over, Awatif asked Shooq, “Did Hussein ever kiss you?”
Shooq’s eyes filled with tears and she said, “Ah*ŠIt was so beautiful!”
Awatif took her in her arms-maybe because she felt that she had been wrong to remind her of something like that, but also because she wanted to make up to her for Hussein’s love, and perhaps to make up to herself for the love she had never known-and the hug went on until it changed, without either of them making a decision, into something between love and sex, and their lips, which had been far apart, started to get closer, moving from quick pecks on the cheeks till they finally met in one long wild kiss. In the end they parted, and fell into a huge fit of sobbing and of cursing their mother for keeping them away from anything beautiful in life. She kept them from going out and she kept them from dressing up, from being happy and from being sad, from love and from sex, and she let them die while they were still alive. At that moment they took a decision that they would look into boys’ faces, though not for love.
With time, people started noticing with surprise how the boys would hang around on the corner of the street, especially when Umm Shooq wasn’t there. They had their suspicions but all the same they couldn’t say anything and the girls benefitted without knowing it from their mother’s power, which prevented anyone from looking Umm Shooq in the face and saying, “Your daughters are sluts.”
On Umm Shooq’s last day in Cairo, she had breakfast with the fat lavatory woman. For the first time, they laughed and laughed-so much in fact that Umm Shooq said, wiping the tears from her face, “God protect us!”
On that day, Umm Shooq went downtown. It was a Monday, and she loved to make a round of the stores at the beginning of the week. She would go into one, take in at glance who was the owner, call out a couple of prayers for him, and take whatever he gave her. This didn’t mean that she wouldn’t get off one of her famous Help-the-needy-Generous-Lord’s between stores on the off chance that some man walking in the street might feel sorry for her and give her something.
She made her rounds on Fouad Street and Abd El Khaleq Sarwat and from there turned onto Shawarby, emerging on Kasr El Nil Street, and the whole way she was day-dreaming, thinking sometimes about the street, her daughters, and her money, and at other times smiling at what the lavatory lady said as she put one over the people who came in-for instance telling a woman who’d just entered, “Don’t use that one, dear, take the other, it’s cleaner,” so she’d give her any small tip, even though each lavatory was as filthy as the other.
It was getting close to two-thirty, the streets were crowded, and she had come to a stop half-way along Talaat Harb Street. She was making up her mind whether to turn right or left, and saying, “Succor the needy, Generous Lord,” so that someone would stop and take twenty-five piasters out of his pocket and give them to her and say… “How are you doing, Umm Shooq?”
Without thinking, she replied, “And how are you, lovey?” Then she came to her senses (though this didn’t stop her from taking the twenty-five piasters). He walked away from her, laughing. She, feeling as though the whole of the mound at the end of the street was crushing her chest, could think of nothing to do but wander the streets, not to beg, but to try and think, Who could possibly know her in Cairo?
By the end of the day, she had made up her mind that she had noticed him standing with a few kids on the corner of the street one day when she was coming back from Cairo.
Umm Shooq didn’t sleep that night. She was preparing answers for anyone she might meet on the street, in case the word was out. She went over all their problems and secrets and scandals again and again, so that if anyone dared to challenge her she would know how to deal with him.
Umm Shooq reached Alexandria during the hottest part of the day, carrying herself as though she was out to challenge the whole street. She entered it, looking people straight in the eye. She was waiting for a nudge or a wink or a mocking word, so that she could seize whoever it was by the throat and throttle him. Strangely enough, however, she found nothing of the sort.
Umm Shooq stopped before entering the house and emptied her lungs of all the breath that was in them, as though throwing down all her weapons before entering the one place where she felt safe. And when the door opened, she found that all the questions, queries, and mockery that she had been looking for in the eyes of the people outside were in the eyes of her daughters, along with anger, hatred, and rancor.
Umm Shooq understood at once that they knew and almost fled their look to busy herself with anything else, if only to find time to think of something to say. But in the end she couldn’t bear to let anyone stare her down, so she looked them in the eye and said, “What’s up with the two of you? What’s got into you?” She knew well enough what had got into them, but was trying to show herself the stronger, in the hope they’d get scared and lie and change the subject. It didn’t happen. Shooq answered, “Where’ve you been, Ma?” Awatif, as though the question didn’t please her, went further, “What were you doing in Cairo, Ma?” At Awatif’s explicit question, the strength that Umm Shooq had left outside the house came back to her and she said, “I was begging for you, my little beauty! In case you’ve forgotten, let me remind you. Ten years ago we didn’t have two pennies to rub together and I was supposed to go to my people to borrow from them. But who was I to go to?” Umm Shooq’s words became a machine-gun burst of everything that had been going on in her head when she was on the train, ending up with, “There was no other way. I had to come back with the money, and the boy was dying.” Without thinking, Shooq said, “But the boy died long ago, Ma.” Umm Shooq looked at them and said, “But you didn’t die, and I had to take care of you and give you a future.” Awatif said quickly, “Who says we didn’t die? We died long ago. We died with Saad. We died when you chased off any boys who wanted to take us for wives.We died from your fights and your demons. We were buried alive in this room.”
Umm Shooq was sure that she would win the battle in the end, either with the money that was under the bed or with her demons, and she said to them, “No. You didn’t die, you fools! It’s done – I’ve made your futures, and now we’ll go somewhere else, where nobody knows us. I’ve got plenty of money.”
She crawled all the way under the bed and came out after a second with the box. She opened it in front of her daughters, looking at them like one for whom the battle is already won.
But the sight of the money drove them crazier still. Shooq, who used to ask questions so timidly, exploded at her mother, “We sold our honor for this money long ago, and this future you talk about is even further off now, after the awful thing you’ve done!”
The first sentence was the one that stuck in Umm Shooq’s head. She grabbed the girls by the fronts of their dresses and shook them violently, screaming “What did you sell, you bitches? What did you sell?” With a mighty tug, the girls tore her hands from their dresses, as though they were casting off all the fear of her that had built up in them over the long years.
Umm Shooq immediately saw red and started slapping herself and banging her head against the wall, saying, “I’ll kill you, you bitches!”
Shooq and Awatif’s eyes kept darting here and there, from the money, to one another, and to what their mother was doing, and in the end they fixed on her with a look as though all Umm Shooq’s demons had transferred themselves to their faces. They moved closer to their mother and, with a sudden move, almost as though they had worked it out beforehand, took hold of her below the armpits, saying, “Enough, Ma. Enough now.” This time, however, it wasn’t to stop her but to help her, and the demons of all three united in one violent blow. The fountain of blood that spurted from her head to paint the wall in numerous rapidly forming shapes brought Shooq’s demon to its senses, but too late. The girls couldn’t stop, especially after they heard the crazy knocking on the door and the voices of the neighbors outside saying, “What’s going on? Bless the Prophet, everyone!” and they had to finish off what they’d begun with a second blow and a third. Umm Shooq’s voice, which at first had risen above all the rest crying, “You’re killing me, you bitches!” began to grow lower and fade and all that could be heard was the voices of the neighbors outside, and the weary voices of the girls saying, “Enough, Ma. Enough now.”
Their eyes, which hadn’t met as they banged her against the wall, came together again and brought them back to the world. They had to open the door, but first they had to put the box back under the bed.
The neighbors came in and said, “Dear God, she’s been banging herself again.”
As though God had granted the girls a special reprieve, they said, “Yes. She banged herself” and with a heavy heart Awatif said, “We couldn’t stop her.” One of the onlookers responded, “What happened that was so terrible? What did you sell, girls?” Awatif’s eyes wandered over the room searching for something missing or hidden. “We sold the coffee roaster.” A little laugh that was half a sigh came from the people.
Umm Shooq was buried on the strength of the neighbors’ testimony that she had banged her head against the wall until she died.
The street grew peaceful. It relaxed and was content, relieved of the great mound that had been pressing down on it.
A week after she died, towards three in the morning, when Abu Salim had closed up the kiosk after the last drunk had left and Abu Shooq had entered the street and made his way to his house and gone in, leaving the street empty and yet more lifeless, and before day came, the two ghostly figures of Shooq and Awatif emerged from the house, going in the direction of the street with the tram, carrying between them a box wrapped in a shawl. And no one saw them but the mound that was behind them.