The Scorpion Hunter

Abdel Rahman el Sharkawi

This short story was written in the immediate post¬war years, and gives a dual picture of Cairo as a leave-city for Allied troops during the Second World War and of the difficulties of life in a Lower Egyptian village during those days. The original title is Al-'aqrab (The Scorpion) and is found in the author's collection Ahlamun sagh'ira (Slight Dreams).

And now it has become difficult to find a bite to eat, Hassan, even though you own a house of your own in your home village. And you're better off than many others, Hassan. Ever since the day His Reverence the Sheikh kicked you out of the mosque, you've been shifting aimlessly from one job to the other. You even went to Cairo to work on the gharryl that your relative runs, lived through the air raids, got beaten up by the English soldiery, and broke a few ribs, only to come back just the way you'd gone. You beg and plead with His Reverence to hire you again as the attendant in the mosque, but he won't. You try to get yourself drafted into the army, but you're turned down. And the only way left for you to get a bite to eat is by catching scorpions.


Catching scorpions? Just one sting from a scorpion is enough to get rid of you once and for all. You're in a fix, Hassan. But a scorpion sells for a piastre-ten for the price of a measure of corn. Ten scorpions, man, will buy you enough bread to fill a sack. And a single man in the depths of Upper Egypt can fill a can to the brim with scorpions and nothing ever happens to him. The boys in Boulak said the men in Upper Egypt were never afraid of scorpions, hunted them easily and made great piles of piastres.


But this has never been heard of here in the village before.

* * *

Hassan raised his head from between his palms and sighed. He scratched his back against the wall of the guest house against which he had been lolling since late morning. His bare toes played in the hot dust. He stared across the sun-drenched village street at the mosque on the other side. Only his head was shaded by the wall of the guest house in the suffocating heat of the afternoon.


The sheikh passed by, looked towards Hassan and spat on the ground.


“Why look at me like that?” Hassan asked. ‘‘You could at least say good morning. Isn't it enough that you sacked me from the mosque?”


The sheikh stopped at the mosque door, took off his slippers, reciting some verses of the Koran as he did so, then tucked his slippers under his arm. He cleared his throat, spat again on to the roadway, and said, “You just stay there. Just stay slumped there in front of the mosque in the heat of the sun. Go on, punish yourself if you want to, Hassan, son of Zeinab ...”


“You leave Zeinab out of this, God rest her soul,” Hassan murmured, “If it weren't for her I'd have been in the army today with something to eat. But when I was first called up they said I was supporting her, and when she conked out they said I wasn't fit.”


The sheikh halted, his white beard shaking in sudden anger. “What are you muttering about, boy?” he shou!('0 “Isn't it enough that the wrath of God should bring you down to scorpion-catching? God have mercy on this village. It is God's mighty anger that blew this scorpion-laden wind against it. God damn you, you unbeliever: all you de, is just lie sprawling there in front of the mosque; you don't even bother to make your ablutions though I'm about to call the noon prayer.”


Hassan's reply came with a vigour that did not hide his fear. “By God, I'll never set foot in the mosque again.”What did I ever get out of it ? Only getting kicked out, having to tramp here and there, knocked about in Cairo with its air raids and drunken soldiers. And after all that to end up scorpion-catching just to find something to eat. And Heaven alone knows what I'm in for next.”


A quiet, solemn voice rose from inside the mosque. “Let us bless the Prophet, Your Reverence; it is noon and you had better call for the prayers.”


The imam swirled round, scrambled into the mosque, and made for the clean mat next to the pulpit where a fat, pale man sat, wearing a tarboush and a white linen gallabf:)J'a. “llight away,” said the sheikh, “right away, sir.”
He shifted his gaze from the man in front to the scattering of people behind him on worn-out old rush mats. He muttered' 'Greetings and God's blessings on you, sir; how have you been, sir ?”


The man, who was the owner of the nearby estate, returned his gold watch to his pocket, and said, “What they are saying is that the government needs all the scorpion poison it can extract, to use it in place of the stuff they can't import because of the war.”


He turned around to look at the men who were seated on the decayed rush mats; they were looking at him intently and listening in wonder to what he was saying. Then he added, laughing and letting his amber prayer-beads fall one by one through his thick, reddish fingers: “The war has made scorpions valuable.” He shifted his gaze forward again, towards the cracks in the mosque walls. A low, hoarse, anxious voice rose from behind: “And made men worth nothing.”


When the effendi turned round to reply, Hassan grabbed at his hand and bent low over it. The man withdrew his hand and said with a smile, “Why, so it's you, Hassan. So you've come into mosque after all ?”


He was silent for a moment while Hassan went to sit behind him, well clear of the clean mat. Then he added, “And why has the war made man worth nothing, Hassan? It's provided work for layabouts like you, hasn't it? Can't you ever say 'Thank God'? Was there ever any scorpion-catching around these parts before? Why don't you get to work ?”


Hassan was at a loss for a reply. He laughed in bewilderment. The sheikh's voice rose from the rooftop of the mosque, calling to prayer. Hassan said: “How many scorpions do you think there are in the whole village? How much can each of us make? If His Reverence were not so greedy, would he have done this to me? Call this Islam? He gets two pounds a month from the mosque funds. The omda gives them to him every month, before my very eyes. Out of which he gives me a measly five-piastre piece every month. I spend all day long car¬rying water to the mosque, shuttling back and forth from the river to fill the water-tank, come rain or summer blaze, never tiring or grum¬bling. A bull calf in a farmyard, or a government mule, would have collapsed. All this for a five-piastre piece a month. And I'm contented, and I thank God for what He gives. Then when the price of corn shoots up, and the measure costs ten piastres, and I come begging His Reverence io raise my pay a bit, he picks a fight with me. And when I ask the omda to put in a word for me, he grows furious and kicks me out. And swears by God's holy Book never to allow me near the water tank again. So that's why I'm scraping about like this.”


His Reverence was slowly descending the stairs from the roof after having called for prayer. He entered the mosque and headed towards the clean rush mat near the pulpit mumbling, “Now is the time to pray. Now is the time to pray.”


Hassan hissed, “I hope to God it won't be long before we pray for your soul.”

One of the neighbors shook him by the shoulder and whispered, “Drop it, Hassan. Why don’t you just forget it and praise Almighty God?”

Excerpt from: The Scorpion Hunter, by Abdel Rahman el Sharkawi. Arabic Short Stories, 1945-1965, ed. Mahmoud Manzalaoui. The American University in Cairo, Press, 1985. pp 180-184.