Robin Moger: Two 1975 Stories by Muhammed Mustajab

Muhammad Mustajab, undated. Source:

The guide

He wandered into my path. My shoulder knocked into his shoulder and we smiled or apologised. The traffic, he said. I walked on. He turned and followed me. He said again, The traffic. I moved to the kerb and waited. He said shyly, I’m looking for the university placement office? He held out a piece of paper. I didn’t look at the piece of paper. He said, My eldest boy. He said, I’m from Tanta. He said, It’s cold. The traffic. I said, The office isn’t far. Take the first bus you see. I said, Get out at the university. Take any bus, I said. He put the letter back in his pocket and he smiled. Started moving his feet again. Started to walk away. I paused for a second and let him pass. I looked behind me. I called out. Don’t take the bus, I shouted. Listen to me. He came back. My voice was raised. Don’t take the bus, I said: It’s not far. The traffic, I said. I gestured at the pavement. I said, Just keep going on this side. I said, The office you want’s at the end of this street. He smiled. This way’s better, I said. He smiled. I said, The end of the street. Better than the traffic, I said. The letter was in his hand. He started to cross the street. I said, This side of the street, all the way down. He paused. Took a step forward. Immediately after the university, I said, and he was thrown up in the air. The whole world screaming. Rolling to a stop over his body the car.

A list of cuts

Come quickly. Reading the telegram’s summons, it never occurred to me that I would find him murdered. That I would find my father, murdered. They led me straight from the train—a tearful silence through marsh-thicket darkness, through foul-smelling gloom—to a stand of reeds and the shadow of smoke from burning pampas dancing round the dim light’s halo. A hoarse weeping and their hands, clamped on my neck and pushing my eyes under, down to the scene. A lump of flesh, bulky and tattered, in the reeds. A piece of bloody meat, undressed. My father’s stump. My father’s trunk. And the moans swelled, and my veins shrank and tightened, and grief began to rattle in my ribs, and I fell.

They bore me on their shoulders, and brought me back to the house, and there they put me away in the corner, laid out my grandfather’s settle to receive the clan’s murmured oaths, a deluge of threatened vengeance against our enemies.

It was only the next day that I managed, in my grief, a whisper: I want to go back to work. Which proposal they chewed over, champed and swallowed, and belched a mournful assent.

1/ The morning after that, grief abounding, my apartment with its drifts of soft dust took me in. For a while I lay sprawled on my bed, then I took to the streets and placed a phone call to my love. Two dates in succession she’d skipped. I chided her and she soothed me deftly. Tried to find out what was upsetting me, but I wouldn’t tell. And I began to prepare the food for the sad supper we would take together: grilled liver, tahina, a glass of beer. I cleaned the apartment twice over, I shelved and sorted, took a pill to pick me up, and bathed, and then, in no time at all, was fast asleep.

I woke as the day was ending and circled round the dish of liver beneath its white cloth. Twice I glanced at the cloth, and I wept. The sound of footsteps on the stair, and my ears pricked up, but my love didn’t come. Another turn about the little table, more tears, but my love didn’t come. I took to my bed and I tossed and I turned and pulled the sheets over me and threw the sheets off, the smoke from the pampas grass stinging in my nostrils, but my love didn’t come. And I sat up in bed and told myself that I would take our son off her, that I’d take our son back. Yes, I would take our son back so that she could feel pain. And I got up and paced around my grimy rooms. I lit one cigarette, then another. I would pour the flame of this grief over her heart. I would deprive her of my son, of her son. I went back to sit on the bed and I started to weigh which I wanted more: to kill her or deprive her?

2/ By means of an artful query, posed to a spinster who’d come with her brother to pay her condolences, I learned that rat poison can be used in place of arsenic. I thanked her and escorted them both to the building’s entrance. The rest of the night I spent alone. Read from a book on Al Azhar, listened awestruck to the second movement of the Eroica, leafed through pages of surpassing loveliness narrating Ahmed Hassanein’s journey to the Western Desert.

3/ My editor told me that I could go home to rest. I wept again and again he offered his condolences. The office boy passed me a telegram with compassion. We have located the right thigh. I crumpled the telegram. Then a bedlam of weeping, the tears’ long arms carrying torches, by their light leading me down to that bloody trunk. There is no god but God, my editor exclaimed, and now it was killing her I wanted. Then out of his office and into the hall and the power to make my body move in any direction quite lost, and then, quite unexpectedly, I found myself thinking of a friend of mine whose mother had died one morning, who had buried her that afternoon, and who, that evening, had taken his fiancee to the cinema, and then a great confusion came over me as I began to see that he hadn’t been my friend at all. But I walked into the street perfectly calm.

4/ Elbow and shoulder located. Search continues for remaining parts. And the night after that I waited for my love and she didn’t come. The liver grilled with parsley and rat poison grew cold and on the plates’ chill discs a layer of fat congealed. Ever devoted, ever obedient, your servant begs forgiveness, Lord, for the fruits have withered, a rot is in the vine, and this is the fourth time this bitch has left me waiting cold before my cold table. Desire for her like a storm. I shook it off and sat. I listened to music. I opened the file of telegrams. I welcomed those who came to offer their condolences. I necked banned pills. I changed the pillowcases. Our son first, then an end to her. And I slept.

5/ Left knee and feet. The fire sprang up. I would go to my true love’s home; a raid. As the Good Lord famously said, When the flood comes, climb on your son. I wiped whole dunes of grit from my eye, I drained a glass of night-wrecking liquor, then I went down and out, into the street. I stepped round a friend, round an argument, round a beautiful woman, round a dog that howled, round a cow, round a beggar, round a man selling explicit postcards. On the night my love had told me that her belly now held my salvation we had danced naked round the fire and dropped to the floor at the foot of the bed in joyful exhaustion. One evening, a wise man was asked, Why must you make such a fuss about the sins of men? to which he gave his now proverbial response—Because I’m a wise man—and went back to home to practice those sins in the company of his two daughters. And once, while my grandmother was bent at her devotions, a dog had slipped up and stolen a loaf from her basket, and she had leapt up from between God’s hands and taken hold of that dog and bitten its ear and cursed and swore until the loaf was back in her grasp, and then had returned to her place to finish her prayer. From taxi to bus to square to alley. The matter had to be brought to an end.

6/ Head. Part of the neck. Fingers. My love opened the door and peered out, then leant against the frame. Her eyes wide with surprise. She held out her hand. I stood in her hallway. I was utterly exhausted. Whispered, First, I want my son. She was closing the door and saying in a faint voice, Sit down and rest. You’re absolutely filthy. I repeated myself. Insisted. First, I want our son. The silence yawned and swallowed my voice. Sit down, she said. I was screaming, First, I want my son, and beaten now, she brushed past me, opened a door, and beckoned me over. There were dozens of children in neat, bright clothes, and the children were hopping and bumping about my legs, merrily and noisily, and I was trying to find my son among them. She reached out to a drawer and slowly, carefully, slid it open. And she took it out—tiny, blighted creature—and tenderly handed it over.

These two stories were part of a series published in Al Thaqafa magazine in 1975, and later collected in Al Qissas Al Ukhra (or The Other Stories)