I watched Mustafa Abu Khadra from inside Alia’s shop. He smoked long cigarettes nonstop, inhaling them between his fat lips and spitting out the tobacco that had stuck to his tongue. He stole glances at me from behind his fingers while I hung up dresses on a clothes rack inside. I dropped them, distracted.
I started working with Alia after the sawmill owners, the vegetable sellers, and the butchers in Souq Al-Qamih had all refused to hire me. They told my father I was too scrawny. That I could not endure the exertion. He handed me over to Alia, and I helped her with arranging the women’s clothing and tidying the shelves of makeup bottles and boxes that imitated French brands. It was a job that I didn’t need long to learn and never got fed up with—in fact, I enjoyed looking at the lace dresses, the satin and the silk and the chiffon dangling from gold-colored hangers. I discovered the dresses’ feel with my hands. Behind the curtain, I wrapped some of them around my body, whose little hairs looked like kitten fuzz.
Renting dresses was common practice. The women attracted to Alia’s shop were from middle-class and poor families, unable to have dresses custom-made by the high-priced tailors, or they simply preferred not to own dresses that would go out of style after a while. They came in clumps. Three or four women, some in hijabs, some waiting for other women to finish their shopping elsewhere—the shop teemed with women just standing or contemplating the gloomy people passing by. None of them hesitated to nibble on falafel sandwiches, or liver sandwiches from the butchers who grouched about the decline in sales after families from Zgharta stopped coming down to the city.
The women came in in a hurry. They chose what their daughters would wear to engagement and wedding parties. They bargained in loud voices. They finished the errands that might be disrupted by the war at any moment. Within earshot, they talked about someone dead at the Chekka checkpoint. One of them said that families in Tripoli had left their houses in Ehden just as they were. Given the circumstances, they couldn’t move the furniture, which had been carefully customized in the carpentry souq.
I didn’t care at the time what was going on, or what the women whispered, as if telling closely guarded secrets. I spent my time waiting for his arrival.
He would enter the shop like a thief, wearing broadcloth pants and a long coat that hid his body. We would notice him all of a sudden. He would compliment Alia’s dresses, which made her look slimmer. Dresses that she sewed herself. She had asked me to help her with the measurements. I had slid the measuring tape around her waist, and she had laughed at my small fingers and held them gently. She massaged them. She said they were girls’ hands. Embarrassed by her words, I hid my hands in my pockets. I contemplated them later, extending them in the air like the dancers in the Egyptian films that I used to watch, eyes fixed on the illuminated screen at Al-Ahram cinema—dancers like Najwa Fouad and Tahia Karioka and Naima Akef.
When the shop was congested with women, he wouldn’t come in. He stayed in front of the door, watching people on the street with anxious eyes. He smoked incessantly. I watched him with a silent longing. He milled around and I felt glee creeping into my body. I didn’t get tired of arranging the dresses’ pleats and collars, or of moving the little stacked-up boxes filled with fabric and other sewing accoutrements.
He pinched me on my cheek as soon as he did enter. He moved closer and asked if I was happy with my work. I told him yes.
I didn’t know how the words came out of my mouth in front of him. They slipped out without thinking, so I looked like a windbag, trying to talk about things that didn’t matter. I told him about sales and the women who had come in. I would wait till Alia was busy counting money and calculating other expenses to talk to him, to contemplate the prominent features of his face. His face, chock-full of masculinity and pain. He would listen to me carefully. He would let me finish my sentences without interrupting. He told me I was better at talking than him. The smell of his cologne drifted over me. A manly scent. Intense, it saturated my nose. I enjoyed it, alone, as if he had put it on for me.
Mustafa was not just a visitor but a man Alia entrusted with fulfilling fabric orders, and she paid extra attention to him, frittering away long stretches of time in front of the shop mirror whenever she expected him to come. She put kohl around her eyes, and they glittered. Alia wasn’t afraid of what people said, of what they said about her. She and Mustafa ate lunch together in the back room. They dealt cautiously with the whisperings about my father’s men, who were transporting arms to the Al-Muqaddam family storehouses.
Usually, Alia and Mustafa ate skewers of grilled kefta accompanied by two bottles of tamarind. I didn’t interrupt their shared gaze, but I would peek in on his meetings with her. His hands looked more attractive, the roundness of his muscles cruder when he moved his elbow to eat. Very occasionally, he chased me with his eyes too. He would catch me staring at him, and smile a restrained smile.
My relationship with him solidified as time went on, when I started accompanying him. I would go with him in his car. We would buy stuff for the shop together. I flaunted my knowledge of fabric. I outshone him in choosing and distinguishing between the different kinds in front of the shopkeepers. They praised my intuition and assured him that I would be a skilled tailor. He escorted me to Souq Al-Areed. We headed for the shop of a Palestinian man from Al-Bared camp. He was a fat man, and he sat behind a small wooden table sipping cups of tea in a hurry, despite how hot they were. The two of them left me on my own. Between the fabric piles, I kept myself entertained by reading the different material names. Mustafa and the Palestinian man returned after a few minutes carrying dozens of colorful Indian taffetas, and Mustafa sang to me:
A fine young man, of the gentleman ilk
His shirt made from Indian taffeta silk
Then I went with Mustafa to the Al-Badawi camp. There, he delivered the fabric to women who sat behind sewing machines, trying to finish the tasks at hand quickly. Some came with their children, who accumulated in one of the corners with broken toys. When the women caught sight of me, they called me over to drink tea with them. Mustafa didn’t let me and reprimanded me angrily in front of them. He didn’t want me to mix with them. So I went back to the car, holding back my tears which quickly fell. He followed me, apologizing. He wiped my tears with his hands. He skimmed them over my lips. He promised he would teach me how to drive a car and hold a gun.
One gentle moment between us would leave me preoccupied with him, with his cracked hands. I imagined them on my body, cutting into its soft skin, and in a rush in the shop bathroom I played with my dick. I came out dizzy, my heart throbbing.
I began sewing dresses for myself on the shop’s machine with the fabric left over from the women’s orders, or what Alia granted me after she had finished with it. Dresses that I saw on the pages of the magazines Samar and Ahel Al-Fen and Al-Mo’ad, and some that I saw in catalogs Alia kept for her clients. I decorated their collars with lines of little roses, or I narrowed the waists with long red ribbons.
The dresses made me feel beautiful. When I put them on, I felt goosebumps and fear, both of which dissipated when I stood in front of the room’s mirror and my body appeared, lithe. My tan body looked brighter in the short dresses. I stretched out on the bed in them. I imagined Mustafa fiddling with my mouth with his cracked hands, moving them right and left, and then drawing them in toward each other to make my lips pucker, as if he was playing. I thought, if only he kissed me like Rushdy Abaza kissed Sabah in their film Those Were the Days, which I had watched with Masouda at the Amir Cinema in Bab Al-Ramel. Its scenes had long stayed suspended in my head, and I recovered them now through the satin dresses which I hid from the family under the bed. I worried they would discover them. I laid them out in nylon bags so they wouldn’t get damaged. And whenever I was overwhelmed, longing to feel joy, I set them free.
As business declined, I stayed in the shop alone, or with Alia. We locked the door just in case the militants tried to enter. They passed by slowly, their guns dangling from huge shoulders which looked even bigger under the lofty uniforms. She and I exchanged glances in silence. I later learned that she was using the shop’s basement for arms storage.
I kept track of what business there was in the store. I sat close to Alia. She taught me the details of buttonholes or trimming the ends of dresses and setting their folds. She also made me practice working with wool. I would take my tools with me back home to my room. I sat for hours next to a burning candle in the corner after electricity cuts increased because of the Events, continuing my work on a shawl I was making for Mustafa.
The shop transformed into a sewing workshop, and it started to resemble a warehouse heaped with merchandise. Its clients were afraid of the roads closing and the spread of party checkpoints. Alia said that women were no longer able to buy. She started going around to the houses of some clients that she knew, laying out her wares on their tables, and returning disappointed. Some clients came in briefly and stood, anxious, in the middle of the dresses, passing their fingers over the fabric and buying in a rush. Each one of them started coming on her own, entering and keeping the conversation short, buying what she liked and leaving. The shop missed its gossip, and the militants began hovering around it.
They were looking for Mustafa.
From Rajul min Sātān. Copyright © 2018 by Souhaib Ayoub. Published 2018 by Hachette Antoine-Naufal. By arrangement with the publisher and author. Translation © 2023 by Sharon Grosso. All rights reserved.