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Rashad Rushdi

Yes, it’s cool in here. The shop faces due north, you see, why don’t you sit down and have a soft drink or a cup of coffee? You’ll be wondering where I’ll get the coffee from. I prepare it myself. I’ve everything in it: coffee and pot and all. How else could I stay up until one or two in the morning night after night? Come right in.

Do you like the coffee? I’m so glad. It’s a pleasure to have you here, Mister Salah, a great pleasure. I was wondering where you’d got to. I thought you might be ill, or have moved away from here. You haven't been getting your cigarettes from here for over a week; and I haven't so much as caught a glimpse of you. Oh, I see, you were out of town. Welcome back.

Yes, I always take the night-shift. I've got a partner, but he looks after the shop by day, and I take over at night. Until two months ago we used to take the night shift in turns. But he's got married now, and I think it's a shame to make him relieve me and leave his wife all alone at home.

Oh, no, thank you very much, I'm not married. I've been a single man for over seven years now. I've been married twice. My first wife was a relation of mine. I lived with her for a year, then I divorced her. The second was a city girl from right here in Cairo. That only lasted three months, but, God help me, every day of those three months was like a year!

Why? I'll tell you why, Uslaz Salah -- it was torment, one long, endless torment. Do you think I could stay in the shop of a night having a quiet chat with you like this while she was alone at home? Not on your life! I was never quite sure what she was up to ~ whether she was in or out, dressed or undressed, who she was talking to, or who might be flirting with her. She was fair-skinned and young ~ and so pretty. She was just turned twenty at the very most. The men down our way are just like wolves, and the Devil's a sly one. Here I was tied down to the shop for maybe seven hours at a stretch, and there she was alone at home. I couldn't stop my imagination running riot, whenever I was away from her, during the night -- and the day as well. I'd have gone stark staring mad if I -- God help me -- hadn't thought things over, and divorced her.

I don't know -- I didn't actually see anything and no one told me anything I could hold against her ~ but there was one of these dandified barbers living in the same building. Name of Mahmoud. Well, he seemed to be gone on her. He paid her all sorts of attentions – and him always dressed ready to kill, he was – and used to send his sister to keep her company, for hours on end.

One night as I was standing here m the shop at about ten o'clock, I began to smell something fishy. Perhaps she was with Mahmoud just then? Barbers shut up shop at eight. They'd probably been together for two hours already. But what was I to do? I almost went out of my mind -- feeling tied down to the shop like this. Why not slip back home and have a look? But who could I leave in charge? I was wor¬rying this over when, luckily, the newspaper boy -- you know, that bleary eyed lad -- happened to pass by. I called him over and gave him five piastres -- asked him to look after the shop for half an hour or so while I was gone. So I hopped on to a tram, half out of my mind -- I'd made my mind up to kill my wife and kill her lover -- but I sud¬denly remembered that I'd nothing to kill them with. Then I thought, “Why kill them? Why not divorce her and make an end of the torture I'm in?” I rushed into the house and opened the door. The lights were out and there was no sound. “She must be asleep,” I thought. I dashed into the bedroom and switched the light on. The bedclothes were crumpled, but she wasn't there. I heard her singing in the bathroom.

“Come out!” I cried.

“What's the matter, Ismail?” she asked coolly. “I'm drying myself. I'll be right out.”

“Come out,” I yelled again and threw the bathroom door open like a madman.

There she stood, fairskinned and her body slim and pliable like a wand -- really beautiful! I looked at her for a minute or two, then the blood rushed to my head. To think that Mahmoud the barber should enjoy all this, the filthy swine! I fell upon her, grabbed her hair and dragged her stark naked out of the bathroom.

“How dare you have a bath at ten o'clock at night, you brazen bitch. Who ever knew a filthier slut than you are?” And I fell to slap¬ping her on her face and her thighs and her breasts and all over her body, while she screamed and she whimpered:

“What have I done, Ismail? What have I done?”

“ Taking a bath at ten o'clock, you bitch!”

“What's wrong with that?”

“What about the bed? Why is the bed all in a mess?”

“I had a rest after I'd finished cooking. Oh, Ismail, you should be shamed of yourself.”

“It's you that ought to be ashamed of yourself, you dirty sow.” The next day I divorced her and moved away and swore I'd never get married again. I'm much better off like this.

My first wife? Women are all alike, Mr. Salah. She was a calamity too, and the year I spent with her was miserable from start to finish. No, she wasn't as beautiful as the second one, but she was.. how shall I put it ? Engaging, seductive. She never stopped giggling for one instant whether there was any reason for it or not. “Stop giggling, woman!” “Oh, Si Ismail, where's the harm? Hee, hee, hee !” Well, a woman like that will laugh with the first man she comes across, and you know how it is. It usually starts with a joke, then a chat, and soon turns into friendship - and then, I'd be a goner. She was a dark woman, tall and full of life - and so jolly. As I say, she loved to laugh and joke and have fun.

“There was a tall husky chap who ran his own carpenter's shop down our street. His name was Saad. He was one of those layabouts who think they're clever; always cracking jokes and fooling around.

Very amusing, she found him, and she'd laugh out loud at whatever he said, no matter how silly it was. I'd asked him to make us a little round kitchen board to chop the vegetables on. One day, as I came back from work I found the board at home.

“Whoever brought this here, Halima ?”

“Saad dropped in and brought it. Said we could pay later.” “Did he now? Are we living on his charity or something? How dare he come in here when I'm out?”

Oh Si Ismail, where's the harm?”

A bugbear began to haunt me. From that day on, I'd be standing behind the counter and I'd tell myself, “Who knows? Maybe Saad is with her in the house now, or maybe she's gone to see him in his workshop.”

Tall and well-built he was, just right for her, because she was nice and plump herself. When I went home at night she was always flat out and zizzing away. Of course, why not? wasn't she free to do as she liked all day long.. no one to pry at her, and no one to put a stop to things? At night, I used to stretch myself out next to her, unable to sleep a wink for the black thoughts that gnawed away at me. Whenever I looked at her plump, shapely, body, there'd come into my mind the manly figure of Saad the carpenter, with his tight blue jeans and his rubber belt. I'd nudge her and pinch her arms and her thighs. She'd turn heavily in her sleep ages afterwards, thinking she'd be dreaming. One night I'd been giving her a good beating, and when I went to sleep, I dreamt that she'd turned into a she-devil and was chasing me upstairs and downstairs all around the house, and trying to push me off the roof! By the end I'd grown to hate her and hate myself, and whenever I was at the shop I imagined her and Saad together in the house. No sooner had she gone to the village for her father's funeral than I sent her the divorce paper and got rid of her, and saved myself from the agony. Ah, I had some peace and quiet after that!

What? you think I did her wrong? Oh no, Ustaz Salah, there's nothing I hate more than injustice, but you will agree that women are like that - one long harrowing torment. Do you honestly believe that there's a woman alive who's satisfied with one man? Even when her husband lies in wait all day long and keeps a sharp eye on her, she still finds a way to cuckold him and waggle her tail around - even more so when her husband's a working man like me, and has to be away for seven or eight hours a day? Do you think a woman is going to sit and wait for him all those hours? Not on your life! Why should she? There's many another man around.

Excerpt from Just a puppet by Rashad Rushdie. Arabic Short Stories, 1945-1965, ed. Mahmoud Manzalaoui. The American University in Cairo Press, 1985. pp 137-141.



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