The International Literary Quarterly

February 2008

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. An extract from Hunger by Mohamed El-Bisatie  

A Modern Arabic Novel

(Hunger will be published in April 2008 by the The American University in Cairo Press.)

Translated by Denys Johnson-Davies

The days when he worked did not last all that long. She would see him coming along with his gallabiya thrown over his shoulder, and she would be dejected, thinking about the baking of bread, with the loaves in the basket almost finished. It would appear from his exhausted face that he wanted to sleep. She would join him in the living room: he liked her to massage his back before he drifted off to sleep.
“What do you find enjoyable about sitting at home?”
He did not reply.

She leaned over him and her breast touched his shoulder. Again she asked him.
“I don’t like anyone insulting my mother,” he muttered.
“And who’s insulted her?”
“The customers on one occasion, and once the owner of the café.”
“And why do they insult her?”
“Ask them. Insulting someone’s mother is something they enjoy doing.”
He slept for two days and nights. She hid him a couple of loaves in a piece of clothing beside the bedding. She heard him crunching the bread when he woke up to eat, after which he went back to sleep. Sometimes he asked her if there was something to dip the bread in.
“Where from?” she says.
“Then an onion?”
“Where from?”
“Not even a bit of salt?”
She gave him the salt and he gulped down some water and went to sleep.
Her feeling of fury went away. Every time, he had some sort of reason to give. So what if they insulted your mother or your father? Was that the end of the world?
“You listen to the insult and you just shut up.”

A week—that was all he worked. It was enough for her to go once to the bakery. There were only three loaves left in the palm basket for the two boys, and then she would go back to borrowing and calling in at people’s houses. If only he had helped her out with another week, or even four days, she would have been able to do another baking. “There it is, though—that’s how things are.”

He returned at night from his loafing around and sat himself down on the stone bench on the other side and stared into the darkness of the lane. “My goodness, if only I had a cigarette.”
He looked at Ragab, who was lying beside her leg, struggling against sleep. She understood what he had in mind: he wanted to send him to the grocer’s to bring him a cigarette on credit. “To you of all people he’ll not sell on credit.”
“I know.”

The night was quiet, the moon was out and there was not a sound. Everyone was asleep. Who but them in the lane was still up at this hour? Colic brought on by hunger keeps sleep away. It would only be an hour or so and their stomachs would quieten down. Stomach cramps do not last—a twinge or two and they settle down.

Her husband stretched out his legs in a relaxed way. He was in a good mood—she did not know the reason, and she did not want to know. She had enough on her plate. There was not one of her neighbors from whom she had not borrowed some bread and not yet given back what she had taken. What about going to them once again? Maybe there were two of them who would not turn her down. They all knew that she paid back what she borrowed—it was the first thing she did on the day she baked bread.

“This time he’s stayed home a long time,” she thought. “There’s not a thing on his mind.”
His voice came to her faintly. “That’s it, Sakeena.” He gave a sigh and was silent.
She turned to him in surprise.
“Education’s a good thing,” he said.
Her surprise increased. “What education?”
“Education, woman—schools.”
“Schools? Fine.”
“Schools and universities. Tonight the students from the village who are at university came back on holiday. They were spending the evening at the café on the other bank, the big café, the one with a wooden wall round it.”
“I know it, I’ve seen it.”
“I was sitting on its stone bench next to the wall and listening to them talk. Oh, what talk it was—I’d understand some of it and there’d be things I didn’t understand. I felt I’d like to ask them.”
“And what is it you didn’t understand?”
“As though you’d understand, Sakeena—just shut up.”
“I’ve shut up.”
“They say you shouldn’t work every day like the buffalo at the water-wheel. You should have time for thinking. That’s all very fine, but thinking about what? They didn’t say. I just looked at them and kept quiet.”
“And of course you enjoyed that talk and you understood it.”
“They said a lot of things, like what are we living for? And I say to myself, what’s it all about? You’re just living. They say you get married and have children. So what? And I asked myself, what more do they expect of us? A lot of talk. And after they went, I went too, with my brain boiling and spattering. What I say is that there are people who are contented and people who aren’t. It’s a funny world.”
“And what’s funny about it?”
“It just is.”

He fell silent. Drawing up his legs, he went to sleep on his side, after which he stretched out on his back and began scratching between his thighs.
“The whole day I’ve been scratching.”
He asked her if she had cleaned out his underpants before washing them.
“I cleaned them, Zaghloul—piles of fleas and lice. Be careful where you sit and where you throw them.”
“I don’t sit with anyone but you—and no one but you takes them off me.”
“Who’s listening? Since when? A month ago?”
“Woman! What about last Thursday?”
“And you count that? Anyone else would be embarrassed to mention it.”
“It was just the once.”
“Once? All night going here and there till your strength runs out—what am I supposed to say?”
He gave her a kick, which landed on her thigh. It was the first time he had kicked her. She curled up and kept quiet, while he stood up and walked off.

It was a bad day for him when he got to know the students. He went out each day at sunset and returned at first light. He looked for them throughout the village until he found them, and then sat not far away so that he could hear their voices. He did not want to attract their notice so that his presence would annoy them. Sometimes he realized that he was laughing when they were or that he was nodding his head in agreement when he heard something he understood and liked.

Occasionally he would not find them, and he would continue searching around for them until he lost hope and made do with any group of people he happened to come across, when he would settle down quietly beside them and listen. But he would not be happy with what they were saying, the same old talk they had talked before: So-and-so went away, So-and-so returned, So-and-so beat his wife, or she got angry and went off to her family’s house, So-and-so had his animal stolen, the price of things goes up day by day, and what the ration grocer steals every month. He was not excited by anything he heard, and more than once he fell asleep and woke up when one of them shook him to stop his snoring. How could they compare with his friends the students? True, he did not understand all that much of what they were saying, but what he did understand exercised his mind for a long time, and even what he did not understand he found himself attracted to, enjoying his perplexity as he turned it about in his mind. Yes, and also their enthusiasm when they were talking, their voices mingling and becoming louder. He would nod his head as he listened to them with real pleasure. He liked the words “my friends,” and he would go on repeating them to himself.

They numbered five, and sometimes there would be one more or less. They always gathered in the large café, in the same corner that overlooked the street. When he did not find them there, he would look around everywhere, sometimes catching sight of them walking along the road through the fields. The sounds of their loud laughter would reach him, while he was far off and could not hear what they were saying, and this would upset him, though he was happy just to be near them.

Sometimes when he did not find them anywhere, he would pass by their houses, having found out where they lived, and he would find them all gathered together in one house. He could distinguish their voices from hundreds of others. He would listen a little and would know from what they were saying that they would not be going out that night, and so he would go off and look for some other people.

Once he was sitting on the stone bench of the large café alongside the fence, while they were inside. They were silent, smoking water-pipes and coughing loudly.
He said to himself, “They’re too young to be smoking. If only they’d wait five years, it would be better for their chests.”
They were talking in low voices and he could not make out what they were saying. Then little by little their voices grew louder: they were talking about girls and women they had known at their universities in Cairo, Alexandria, and Helwan. One of them was renting a room in a flat without a door, a flat consisting of two rooms on the ground floor. The other room was occupied by a woman approximately in her forties. She lived alone and went out early at night, not returning until the following afternoon. On some days she stayed in her room without a sound being heard from her. She dressed modestly and did not wear any make up; she always had a green and black shawl around her shoulder. They would greet each other fleetingly, but without saying anything. They both closed the door of their room. He was shy of her, not knowing anything about her. They had a shared toilet, and without any agreement on their part, each would give a loud cough so as to tell the other that they were on their way to the toilet, and after finishing they would close the door of their room with a loud bang to indicate their return. He said, “It’s a lousy life.”
And they asked him if he had slept with her.
“Sleep with her? She’s as old as my mother.”
“Older women are nice.”
“Nice, and kind too.”
“Listen to the rest of it.” And he went back to his story.

For some reason, he went out one night directly after she had gone out. He saw her some steps ahead of him. He slowed down so that she might be far enough ahead of him. They reached the main street, which she crossed to the other side. He spotted her entering a café on the square there. Driven by curiosity, he followed her and entered the café. He was surprised to find her sitting at a table opposite the door. Their eyes met. Meeting her stern gaze, he was at a loss and seated himself on the nearest chair he found. After this she ignored him, not looking in his direction at all. He stole glances at her, and found her sitting with a man in his fifties or slightly older. His hand fell several times on hers as it lay on the table. He gently moved her fingers between his and then moved her hand away. When the waiter came with their order he leaned across slightly so as to put the tray down on the table and rested his free hand on her shoulder. After that she left with the man and the two of them took a taxi.

They shouted around him, “One of those.”
“As soon as you said a green and black shawl I knew. There’s not one that came to my place without that same shawl on her shoulders.”
“And then?”
He went on with the story. He said that at noon the next day he was going out to the college and was closing the door of his room when he saw her coming from the entrance to the flat. She stood in the passageway between the two rooms. She was beside herself with anger and said quietly, “Would you be so good as to tell me why you were following me yesterday?”
He was confused and said that he had not followed her and that he had entered the café by chance and did not know she was in there.
She was still angry as she looked him straight in the face and said peremptorily, “Yes, I’m like that. Anything else you’d like to know?”
He was at a loss and wet with sweat. Without another word he rushed outside.

When he stopped talking, they shouted at him, “And then?”
“Yes, and then?”
“Nothing.” And he laughed.
He said that the two of them went back to as they had been, exchanging greetings without saying anything, both minding their own business.
“And she didn’t come to your place?”
“She didn’t, and she had no intention of coming.”
“And you didn’t try?”
“Try what, my friend?”

He said that the only thing he was afraid of was that someone from the village would come to visit him and see him in this situation and that there would be a scandal, and so he began to look around for somewhere else to live. The day he was moving his things he was surprised to find her opening the door of her room and coming toward him. She was wearing her dressing gown over her house gallabiya, and her face was calm and sad. In a hoarse voice she asked him if she had done something to annoy him.
“Not at all.”
“Then why are you leaving?”
At this he was frank with her. He said that she no doubt knew about the customs of country folk. His father or one of his brothers would certainly come to visit him one day, or would have something he had to do in town, and would stay with him for a day or two until he had finished. It would not be possible that they would not come to know of her presence, and he would be put in an embarrassing position, whether through the way they would look at her or their attempts to talk to her and give her advice, all of which would put him in a difficult position.
“I understand,” she muttered, without looking at him. Turning round, she went to her room and locked the door.

After that, each one of the students told his story with women, how they had got to know them and then had sex with them, with or without payment, and the number of times they would do it in one night, and the positions they did it in.
“The biggest lie you hear is that they are all the same in the dark.”
“That’s right—no two are the same in anything.”
“The best moment for me is when I’m undressing her bit by bit.”
“Like in the films.”
“Films maybe, but it certainly has the right effect.”
“I’ll cut my arm off if you’ve even touched a woman before.”
“Look, after much experience I’d say there’s nothing better than masturbation—alone with yourself, embracing together in a moment of white heat.”
“You’re dead right. I know a woman who told me that her husband leaves her in the bed and goes into the bathroom to masturbate.”
“Ridiculous talk—from a degenerate woman. There’s not a man in the world who would do such a thing.”

First published in Arabic as Ju‘, 2007
Copyright © 2007 by Mohamed El-Bisatie

English translation copyright © 2007 by Denys Johnson-Davies