The Cheapest Night's Entertainment

Yusuf Idris

After the evening prayer a torrent of abuse gushed out of Abdel KaJ:im's mouth, falling upon the fathers and mothers of the village and sweeping before it Tantawi and his ancestors.


Barely getting through the four prostrations, which he speedily dispatched, he stole out of the mosque and turned into a narrow alley. With his hands behind his back, irritably and angrily pressed together, and his body bent forward, he was fuming within; his shoulders looked ns though they would give way under the weight of the heavy shawl which he himself had woven from the wool of his own ewe. But this was not all. He twisted his neck about cussedly, and sniffed around him with his long nose, hooked and black-pitted. As he growled, clenching his teeth, the skin of his brass-yellow face wrinkled, and the tips of his moustache ran parallel to the tops of his eyebrows where a few drops of water still hung, left over from his ablutions.


His physical discomfort was due to the fact that no sooner had he entered the alley than he had lost the feel of his thick bloated legs under him, and he no longer knew where he was placing his two big fiat feet whose soles were so cracked that they might well have swallowed up a nail, head and all. In spite of the severe constraint he put upon him¬self, he was agitated because the alley was swarming with children dotted around like bread crumbs, playing and screaming, and running back and forth between his legs. One headed towards him from a distance and butted into him, another tugged 3t his shawl from behind, and a third mischievously aimed an old tin at his protruding big toe.


In the face of this, all he could do was lash his tongue at them, calling upon God to bring their homes tumbling down upon the heads of their fathers - and their forefathers as well -- and cursing the midwife who had hauled them into the world, and the unholy seed that had conceived them.


He shook with rage as he swore and spluttered and spat in disgust upon a miserable country that surged with children wherever one turned. And he, Abdel Kerim, marvelled, as his shawl swayed, at an incubator that hatched children more multitudinous than the hairs on his head. But he suppressed his fury, consoling himself with the thought that the morrow would attend to them. Starvation would, no doubt, put an end to it all, and the cholera would soon spread and claim at least half their number.


He heaved a sigh of relief, and a genuine sense of peace now fell upon Abdel Kerim as he left the swarming brats behind in the alley, and approached the waste ground which surrounded the pond in the middle of the village.
Thick darkness spread before him where the low grey mud huts huddled together, and the heaps of manure lay before them like long¬neglected graves. The only signs of the crowded life under the roofs were the lamps scattered in the dark wide circle. These looked like the eyes of crouching water-sprites spitting fire: their deep red looming up from the distance, to sink into the blackness of the pool.


His vision lost its bearings in the empty darkness. As he turned his head here and there, the stench of the mire spiraled up the curve of his nostrils. Overcome by a feeling of suffocation, he clenched his fist, bent his body still lower, and almost flung his shawl down at the edge of the pond. What irritated him 10 bursting point, as it increased with the growing darkness, was the loud snoring of the human rabbits in their village warren. And what fanned the flame of his fury even more at that particular moment (vas the thought of Tantawi, the night watchman, and the glass of lea he had offered him just at sunset. If it had not been for his weakness and greed, if his mouth had not watered so at the sight of the tea, he, Abelel Kerim, would never have touched it.
Padding through the waste ground, he could detect neither sound nor movement, not even the clucking of a hen. He felt as though he were in the midst of a cemetery, rather than the heart of a village teeming with God's creatures. When he reached the middle of the waste he stopped, and with good reason. Had he obeyed the summons of his legs and gone on walking, he would have reached home in a few paces. Once there, he would have had to turn in for the night as soon as he closed the door behind him. But at this moment he could not for the life of him have slept a wink. His head was as clear as pump¬water and as unclouded as pure golden honey, and he was quite prepared to stay up until and see in the next month of Ramadan.

It was all because of his weakness and greed and that glass of black tea, all because of Tantawi's craftiness and deceptive smile, that Abdel Kerim had never thought of refusing. And now there was no sleep for him. Ah, well !

Excerpt from: The Cheapest Night’s Entertainment by Youssef Idris. Arabic Short Stories, 1945-1965. Edited by Mahmoud Manzalaoui. The American University in Cairo Press, 1985. pp 227-229.