Two dead mongrels swung in the wind. They had been hanged by the neck with wire cord at the entrance to the alleyway. These were fresh kills: the blood dripping out of their coats left spots in the mud. Men shouted loudly and anxiously; cars and motorbikes revved in the distance. It was Thursday night in the City of the Dead. The sun had set hours earlier behind the red crags of the Mokattam Hills.
These were months of madness. I could not sleep. By day I wandered the city like the living dead, and not even the nights brought relief.
The first person who gave me opium was called Khalid Ramzi. We’d met in a grimy inner-city café a month earlier. He asked for 150 Egyptian pounds, or geneihs, for the raw opium, which, wrapped in wax paper, he pressed into my hand. He gave me his mobile number.
With the opium I could treat my chronic insomnia. No longer did I have any idea what it was like to sleep normally, so those opium-infused days were exhilarating. I was able to work, able to sleep. There wasn’t a happier man in the world. Then the opium ran out. The insomnia returned. The visions returned. After the third day I pulled out my mobile and called Khalid. He told me to go to the City of the Dead. “I won’t be far from the Sayeda Aisha Mosque, near the Bahtak. Go there by nine.”
The City of the Dead is a necropolis where everything is muddy and gray. The paved access road does not lead in among the tumbledown tombs, but ends by the live-animal market.
The wealthy buried themselves here a long time ago. They built up imposing crypts. A city unto itself, which they had guarded by the area’s poor. The poor then brought their families up to Cairo, and slowly but surely they moved in among the crypts. Thus it was that the cemetery filled with life.
Right at nine I got out of the taxi at the Sayeda Aisha Mosque. An old man was sitting out front, leaning against a stick, and I asked him where I could find the Bahtak, at which he pointed toward one of the alleyways. Mud squelched under my shoes. My nose filled with the stench of garbage and urine. After wandering for half an hour, I realized the Bahtak was not where the old man had indicated. I walked round and round, darted among the narrow alleyways formed by the sinking crypts. I called Khalid’s mobile, but he didn’t answer. That was when I noticed two dog carcasses swaying against the wall and heard men shouting. Beside the corpses, a thin little road ran all the way to the foot of the Mokattam Hills. I went that way. The road led to a square where garbage was burning—which, together with a barrel of burning oil, provided all the light illuminating a throng of men who had gathered in the middle of the square. A rat-faced man in a djellaba blocked my way.
“Well now, what are you doing here, khoaga?” he asked, using the local term for a rich foreigner. He sliced the air with the spear he was holding.
“I’m looking for Khalid Ramzi.”
“What’s your business?”
“I came to do some shopping.”
The Arab looked over my sweat-splotched shirt and bloodshot, insomniac eyes, whereupon he nodded and made way.
The men were gathered around a ring formed by rusty metal barrels. They were shouting and shaking their fists. I went closer to see what was happening. Everyone was focused on two young teenage boys—barefoot, half-naked—pummeling each other in the ring. They were filthy and sweaty, with mud bubbling up from between their toes. One was a head taller than the other; he must have been the older, but he didn’t look a day past fourteen. The two were hitting with their fists, full force. Neither put up a defense; each simply jumped up close to the other and then parted for the length of a punch. They circled each other. They were fighting for stakes. Their lips and eyebrows were torn, and the blood had soaked through dirty gauze bandages wrapped around their hands. I quickly understood there were neither rules nor breaks. No trainer or assistant stood in the corners to throw in the towel if all hell broke loose. The crowd was waiting for one child to knock the other out.
The taller one had the upper hand. He was also heavier, and with his long arms he was able to ward off the shorter one so he couldn’t get a big punch in. How long they’d been at it, I didn’t know, but both were gasping for breath. After one more exchange of punches they clung to each other and flopped down in the mud. That’s when an onlooker stepped into the ring. With a reed cane half a meter long he went about hitting the two children until they got up. Tottering, they stood by the light of the fire, facing each other, their faces filthy with mud and blood. The smaller one lost his balance and crumpled to his knees. The crowd whistled as the other spread his arms in triumph and grinned.
“Finish it! Finish it!” the men shouted in unison.
The tall boy walked over to the one kneeling, stepped on his right leg, and with all his might struck him on the face. The dull thud could be heard even through the ruckus.
“Mustafa! Mustafa!” came the crowd’s rapturous cry.
The taller boy turned, held his hands high, and jumped around the ring.
What happened next, no one expected. The knocked-out boy appeared behind Mustafa as if from nowhere. Only the blood running from his nose indicated what a big blow he’d just received.
“Hey, you!” he shouted.
Mustafa turned, and that was when the blow struck him. A perfect right hook—you could hear the crack of Mustafa’s jawbone. The blow knocked him sideways, and he hit one of the oil barrels headfirst, losing consciousness immediately.
For a few seconds the crowd stood dumbfounded. Finally a clamor began: “Little lion! Little lion! Little lion!”
The short boy didn’t strut around. In an instant he climbed over the barrels behind him and vanished. Groups quickly formed around a few men: those who’d placed bets were demanding their due.
Still seeing no sign of Khalid Ramzi, I stayed by the ring. The boy who’d fainted slowly came to, at first getting up on one knee and then, holding a barrel, onto his feet. His head was hideously smashed; one of his eyes looked like an open wound. For a few seconds he wavered uncertainly before he, too, climbed out of the ring, and headed toward a bulky man in a tank top. The man must have weighed 120 kilos. He had a thick wad of cash in his hands and was using it to pay various others. Mustafa said something. Turning with disgust, the man gave him a slap. The boy fell facedown on the ground. The man added a few kicks before a couple of others tugged him away.
Finally I noticed Khalid Ramzi standing opposite the ring, beside the burning heap of trash. He was in a brown djellaba and black slippers. His belly stuck out from beneath the outfit and his face was smoky with filth. Beside him stood the boy who’d won the previous match, drinking water from a grimy plastic bottle.
“Abu khoaga,” Ramzi said on seeing me. “I was beginning to think you wouldn’t come.”
“You didn’t answer your phone.”
“Yes, there was a match. We won.”
“I saw. Do you have opium?”
“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. The bloody Bedouins are bringing it only next week. And I need an advance, too.”
“You can’t do that to me.”
“I’m sorry about it. What I have, I need too.”
“You can’t fucking do this to me. I can’t sleep without opium.”
The next few days passed through my mind at once. How I’d be lying on my back in my roach-infested hotel room, unable to sleep. Recurring in my visions: the end of a bourgeois life and the figures of a temptress and a little kid. That inexplicable, gripping, throbbing sensation in my head that didn’t let me rest, that tightened its grip every day until I thought of suicide. Like staring into the abyss of hell, that’s how I saw the stretch of insomnia before me.
Finally Ramzi took pity. “How much money do you have?”
“Two thousand pounds.”
“Where do you live?”
“In a hotel. Downtown.”
“Have you paid for it yet?”
“Yes, to the end of the month.”
“You could have stayed here until the Bedouins arrive. And gotten some of mine.”
“I’ll stay here.”
“Let’s have the money.”
I took the money from my pocket and counted it into his hand. I didn’t care. I just wanted to sleep; that’s all that mattered. It didn’t matter where, or in whose company. I wanted to lose consciousness.
Three of us plodded along through the mud, avoiding trash heaps and toppled crypts: Ramzi, the victorious boy, and me. Along the way we stopped at a food stand, where Ramzi gave the kid five pounds to buy kusherie.
“Eat, Amr, you deserve it,” he said, caressing the boy’s head.
“Thank you, sir.”
Though clearly ready to drop from exhaustion and hunger, the boy didn’t stuff himself with the lentils and rice. He took it with him in a plastic bag while stumbling along the road.
Khalid Ramzi’s house was at the other end of the City of the Dead, where the flea market ended. This too was a crypt, with the name of the family that had owned it written on the entrance. Electricity ran in from the street by way of black wires that passed through the windows.
After rummaging in the pocket of his djellaba for a while, Ramzi produced a huge key and inserted it into the black iron gate. His crypt comprised two rooms, if, that is, the interior spaces where granite tombstones stood could be called rooms. The larger one was Ramzi’s. In it was an arabesque sofa, and a dirty rug he’d draped over a tombstone. The tombstone—engraved with the name of an influential nobleman of the early nineteenth century—was the TV stand.
“Sir,” Amr said. “if you don’t have any other work for me tonight, I’d go to bed.”
“Sure thing, go ahead,” Ramzi replied.
“Good night, sirs.”
He left the room, heading for the smaller space, where a pair of eyes glinted in the yellow light.
“Is someone else here?” I asked.
“Amr’s little sister. I let him bring her along. Make yourself comfortable, abu khoaga. Do you want tea?”
Ramzi turned on the boiler and I meanwhile lit a cigarette and sat on the floor. Amr and his sister, who was around seven or eight, barefoot and dirty, sat in view of us, eating the kusherie together.
Ramzi handed me the tea in a grimy metal mug. I took a sip. It was nauseatingly sweet.
“Your boy?” I asked.
“Son of a dog.”
In Cairo, that’s what they call the city’s innumerable street children.
“I said he could stay here as long as he keeps brawling well.”
“Do you pay him?”
“He gets 500 geneihs after every win.”
“And how much do you make?”
“That’s none of your business,” he said, capping it off with coughing laughter.
I took a drag on my cigarette. My forehead was throbbing from the insomnia.
“Where is the opium?” I asked.
“Here it is already,” Ramzi replied. “Don’t be getting impatient.” Reaching into his djellaba, he fished out a package wrapped in perspiring brown paper. The smell struck my nose at once. He tore off a chunk and pressed it into my hand, and I rolled the opium into a ball. It was tart, but I knew everything would be better quickly now.
“Sweet dreams, abu khoaga,” Ramzi said as he lay down on the sofa.
Pressing my back against the wall, I lit another cigarette and waited.
First my tongue went numb. It went numb and disappeared, as if it had never existed. No longer did I need to form words with it, for it had vanished without a trace. This was followed by my legs, which I no longer needed, and my hands, which I’d cursed a thousand times. My heart, which regularly pumped in a rage, quieted now. Its purring calmed me. Time ceased.
No longer did sweat form puddles on my skin, and the fine yellow dust sifting this way from the desert, which colored and sickened the palm trees in the yard, froze in the air. The stones in this forest of stones no longer crackled. The black hearses stopped on the access road.
In my dream I see a woman. A white-skinned brunette. Her eyes are a fire ablaze, glowing-hot brass in a smelter.
She is standing on a dune. The sand sinks under her feet, the wind blows her white dress. The brilliance of day glows behind her, yet it is night. The light hurts my eyes.
I stand at the foot of the dune and, driven by an inexpressible force, charge toward her, up to my knees in the hot sand, which burns my legs. I call out, but she does not hear. She turns with her face toward the night. In vain I implore her to help me. She doesn’t even look; she doesn’t hear my voice.
Years pass, it seems, by the time I reach the top. Both of my legs are scorched red. As I approach the woman, my strength leaves me. I lie prostrate. But I don’t need strength to take in the view. All of the light is from a burning city. Apartment blocks are ablaze, factories are ablaze, grocery stores are ablaze, bus stops are ablaze. The geraniums in the windows, they too are ablaze, as are the parks. Even the ground is burning with yellow flames. The smoke is suffocating. Greasy ash rises in a dense plume before falling in light flakes, daubing my face and hands.
The woe that takes hold of me as I watch is different from any I’ve felt until now. It is the sadness of someone who has lost everything he’s known and loved.
“Who did this?” I ask.
A black cloud rises beside the city. Soot? No, for the cloud changes direction and heads my way. It is a flock of crows. Their incessant cawing muffles the sound of the fire.
Until now the woman has stood with her back to me, looking into the night. She turns and opens her fist, and something falls out, twirling down into the sand: a blue plastic lighter of the sort available in any shop. The moment it hits, it bursts into flame.
“Why?” I ask, hunched up.
I try taking hold of her leg, but my hand passes through. I get up on my knees and then to my feet. The crows circle above, so close I can see the feathers on their extended wings.
“Why did you do it?” I ask again. The irises disappear from her eyes, leaving them as white as the moon. With slow steps she heads down the hill.
A voice reminiscent of a raging river bellows: “Everything is valid—you can do anything.”
The city, which just before was burning in one big flame behind me, is silent and still. I run down the slope, thinking I might find something to save in the charred ruins. For hours I poke through the debris, but nothing. I am set to give up when I find, in one of the mangled heaps, a board bearing this inscription:
“not believing in a thing is a great freedom.”
My teeth are chattering, my hands are trembling. I can see my breath.
“Just keep practicing,” someone said.
I felt the sun against my skin, the light penetrating my closed eyelids.
“I don’t want to.”
“Come on, give it one more try. It’s not so hard. See?”
I opened my eyes. I was inside the crypt. My lips were parched. I took out a cigarette and lit up.
“I don’t want to do this,” the little girl said again. She was sitting on the ground in the yard in front of a colored drill-book. Amr leaned over her. Her upper body was bare, her bones pressing visibly against her skin.
“You’ve got to do it, you’ve got to learn how to write.”
“Why? You can’t write.”
“Exactly. So you don’t turn out as dumb as your older brother.”
“And so I can teach you.”
A coughing fit took hold of me. Both of them turned. The little girl stared in shock. She began wildly scratching at her dreadlocks.
“Don’t be scared, Emira,” said Amr. “The man is a friend of Mr. Ramzi.”
“Good morning, sir.”
“Good morning. Don’t call me ‘sir,’ Amr. My name is Daniel.”
“Good morning, Mr. Daniel.”
“Where is Ramzi?”
“He asked me to tell you he’s waiting in the café.”
“Where is that?”
“Three streets from here.”
“Can you lead me?” I asked.
I stepped to the plastic barrel in which Ramzi kept water for washing up, and, using the mess tin tied to its side, ladled some over my head. It soaked my shirt and washed the remains of the opium out of me.
The City of the Dead was alive and breathing. Men sat by the gates of the dilapidated burial chambers, children scampered about on the muddy dirt road. Wafting through the air, the sickly-sweet smell of decomposition.
“How old are you, boy?” I asked Amr.
“I don’t know, sir.”
“How is it that you don’t know?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you know when you were born?”
“Where are your parents?”
“Our mother died. I don’t know about our father.”
I tried keeping pace with him, and for a while we fell silent. Dehydration had left me dizzy, so we stopped at a grimy kiosk where I bought a big bottle of water and a chocolate bar. I drank half the water in one gulp, then pressed the bottle into the boy’s hand. I gave him half the chocolate also. He gobbled it up and smiled.
“You’re a really good man, sir,” he said.
“Where did you get that idea?”
“You’re a friend of Mr. Ramzi. And Mr. Ramzi is a really good man.”
From the alleyway we arrived at a wider road. That’s where the café was. Fashioned out of a garage, it had plastic tables in front and was packed with men smoking hookahs and gesticulating ardently. Ramzi was at a table with two of them. He waved. Amr accompanied me to the table and courteously greeted the others, who returned the greeting. He then spoke.
“Mr. Ramzi, if you don’t need me, I would go back to the house.”
Ramzi signaled with a wave that he could go.
“Sit down, abu khoaga,” Ramzi said, pointing to an empty chair. “These gentlemen are Mohamed Gamal and Mustafa Abdelkader. They have an interest in the matches.”
“Ahlan,” said the men, who immediately resumed their conversation.
“I say you should face him off against the Palestinian all the same,” said the one called Mohamed Gamal.
“It’s too early yet,” said Ramzi. “I need one more win.”
“You won’t find anyone. The little lion has a reputation.”
“Not as big as the Palestinian’s.”
“The Palestinian will eat him for breakfast.”
For a moment they pondered in silence.
“Abdelkader, isn’t your boy fighting today?” Ramzi asked the other.
“Well, there are no plans.”
“And don’t you want to make a plan?”
“For two thousand geneihs, yes.”
“Make it five hundred geneihs.”
“You don’t have a mother, Ramzi.”
Ramzi broke into a grin.
“Nor a father. A thousand, but not one more.”
“You were borne by dogs, like sin. A thousand two hundred.”
“A thousand two hundred.”
They shook hands, whereupon Ramzi counted 1,200 pounds into the man’s hands. Abdelkader gave a whistle. A young street kid ran up to him. Abdelkader whispered something in his ear, and the child ran on.
“It will be proclaimed,” he said, and then stood from the table and shook hands with us. Mohamed Gamal followed him. I remained alone with Ramzi.
He took a sip of his tea and grinned. “How did you sleep, abu khoaga?”
“Did you dream?”
“Don’t take these dreams seriously and don’t dwell on them.”
“Because these dreams are from the devil.”
“I don’t believe in the devil.”
“But it’s in these dreams that the devil tells you how he sees you.” He laughed. He lit a cigarette and waved over the café’s waiter. “What are you drinking?”
The waiter nodded, and shouted back to the shed where the stove was.
“Any news about the Bedouins?” I asked.
“Nothing yet. They always come on the weekend.”
I too lit a cigarette. The waiter brought a coffee. I leaned back in the chair and stared at the street. Not far from the café a group of rugged-faced old women sat on little chairs, killing chickens. They took the birds out of wooden cages, cut their throats with well-practiced motions, and let the blood drain to the ground. It gathered in a big puddle all around their feet and flowed with the sludge down the street. The sun flashed against their kitchen knives, blinding me momentarily.
Opening my eyes, I saw my boy’s mother, barefoot, in a miniskirt, taking little steps beside the old women, holding our son’s hand. She was smiling as the blood colored her foot to her ankle. I shook my head, and when I looked their way again, they were gone. Those few seconds had me late in noticing the two boys, street children, stepping over to the table. In torn slippers, shorts, and dirty, ad-emblazoned T-shirts they stood beside our table. The older one spoke.
“Mr. Ramzi, I can punch like a rocket.”
“Yes,” Ramzi said, knitting his brows.
“Yes,” the boy repeated. “Like a rocket.”
To prove his point, with full force he punched the kid standing beside him. The kid hurled ten feet backwards and landed face up on the ground. The scene elicited general mirth in the café.
“I can knock out anyone,” the boy said, while his companion got up slowly, dusted himself off, and stepped back to the table.
Ramzi hemmed and hawed. “That’s your friend?” he asked, pointing to the younger one.
“I want you to hit Rocket with all of your might.”
“Because anyone can hit. The big thing is to endure the blows.”
“Go ahead and hit me,” said Rocket.
“I don’t want to,” replied the younger boy.
“Hit me,” Rocket insisted, closing his eyes.
The younger boy looked around, took a step back, and put his weight on his right foot.
“Hit me already.”
He hit with full force, catching Rocket on the jaw. The blow spun him before he crumpled to the ground. Blood dribbled from his nose.
For the half a minute Rocket lay unconscious, the younger boy slapped him so he would come to.
“Get out of my sight,” Ramzi said once he stopped laughing. Their heads down, the two boys vanished into the alleyway.
“Is this how you picked up Amr?” I asked. “Did he apply as well?”
“Of course not. True gems are found in boulders, not at the market.”
“How did you find him, then?”
“By chance. I was heading home from the Bahtak, where I’d been to bet, when I spotted a baltagiya gang, eight of them, taking money on the street. One of them got the hots for Amr’s little sister.”
“They held a knife close to her eyes to show who she belonged to. That’s what they tend to do.”
“Well, I started watching them rip the clothes off the little girl. They had no idea what they’d gotten themselves into.”
“Amr showed up.”
“He struck down three of the kids at once. The rest gave him a hell of a beating. They hit him with sticks, and when they thought Amr wouldn’t be getting up anymore, they turned their attention back to the girl.”
“But Amr got up.”
“Yes. I think he even killed one of them, since that kid didn’t get up as long as we were there. So, I went over, struck two of them on the head with a board, and when the rest of them ran off, I asked if he wanted to work for me.”
“When was that?”
“About two months ago. They didn’t have a place to sleep, so I let them into my place. What can I say? The boy’s earned his keep. So far no one’s beaten him, and we’re through twelve bouts already. Soon he’ll pass the Palestinian’s record. Well then, let’s go, abu khoaga. I’d ask you to let Amr know he’ll be fighting today, too. I’ll go off and make sure everyone in Arafa knows about it.”
“Aren’t you worried the police will come?”
“I hope they do. They place the biggest bets.”
We stood from the table. Ramzi headed left, and I went the other way, back toward his place.
In the inner yard of the crypt, Amr’s sister was shouting through her sobs, “Cut it off, cut it off already!” In her hands was a pair of scissors she was trying to press into her big brother’s hands, but he did not take them.
“You’re a girl. What will people say if I cut off your hair?”
The little girl flung the scissors to the ground and ran inside.
“Did you know there’s a match tonight?” I said, turning to Amr.
“Yes, sir,” he said.
I went into the room where I’d slept, sat against the wall, lit up a cigarette, and looked out of my head.
Ramzi got back around five. He came in and sat across from me on the floor, opened a plastic bag of kusherie, and began spooning it out.
“Do you want some?” he asked.
“I’m not hungry.”
“They’re betting for the boy three to one,” he said, his mouth full.
“Are you happy about that”
“It’s not so good. Soon there won’t be anyone to take him on.”
He shouted out to the yard, and Amr appeared in the doorway.
“At your service, Mr. Ramzi.”
“Sit down. Abu khoaga has of course already told you that you’ll be fighting tonight.”
“Abdelkader’s boy is good. I’ve seen him fight.”
“I know him, sir.”
“Can you beat him?”
“I’ve got a lot of money on this fight.”
“Don’t you worry, sir. I won’t disappoint you.”
“Fine, then. Go and get ready.”
The sun was setting behind the Mokattam Hills. The boulders were red, the sky was red, the starlings zigzagging among the houses were red. Amr was running in place beside me to warm up his muscles. We didn’t talk. I watched the ground under my feet, the sewage-swollen mud. The locals burned trash at the end of the road, and the air was heavy with the smell of burning plastic.
We turned left, down the alleyway leading to the Bahtak. Two mongrels were again hanging from the walls. Fresh kills.
“Why do they hang dogs?” I asked Amr.
“Because it’s custom.”
People were gathering on the square, and the usual oil barrels had already been set up to create the ring. Ramzi waved to us from the other side of the square.
“You got here just in time.”
“What happens next?” I asked Ramzi.
“Soon they’ll signal that the betting will begin. Meanwhile the boys will stand in among the barrels. Can I ask you for a favor, abu khoaga?” Ramzi pulled rolls of tape and sterile gauze from his pocket. “Would you put the bandages on Amr while I go around and talk with those I’ve bet with?”
I waved to Amr for us to stand off to the side. Amr took off his T-shirt, deferentially extended his arm, and I began to wrap the gauze.
“Aren’t you anxious?” I asked. We were next to a burning heap of trash, its sparks occasionally coming close as I worked.
“No, sir,” he replied.
“Not even a little?”
“No, sir. I wasn’t born to be beaten.”
I stopped wrapping.
“Then what were you born for?”
“I don’t know that. All I know is what I wasn’t born for.”
“That isn’t bad for a start.”
Having finished with his right hand, I took out my switchblade and used it to cut a length of tape.
“May I ask something, sir?”
“What are you doing here?”
“I don’t know. I have time.”
“You don’t belong here.”
“That’s not certain.”
“But it is, completely certain. Don’t you have a family?”
“I did,” I said, and finished his left hand.
“What happened to them?”
“They died. Now go.”
Amr headed off, slipping between the oil barrels and stopping in the middle of the ring. The crowd got boisterous, some people clapping and others shrieking as married women did at weddings. Finally, the other boy, too, got in the ring. He was just as tall as Amr, but a good bit heavier. One look at his arms made it clear he was used to manual labor. The two children stood side by side, not even looking at each other while the betting was underway. For several long minutes they stood there without a word, and then a silver-haired old man with crooked teeth, using the same board that had signaled the start of the betting, once again hit one of the barrels. The onlookers fell silent.
“May Allah decide which of you is better,” the old man said. The two children locked eyes and began to circle each other.
The pudgy boy swung his right hand. Amr dodged it and replied at once. His left hand cracked against the boy’s forehead. The crowd raved. Though Amr’s punch was by no means strong, the other boy was clearly consumed by rage. He charged at Amr. The momentum sent both of them into a barrel, which lurched and tilted until the crowd set it back in place along with the fighters. The pudgy boy pummeled Amr’s chest with both hands. He got in at least six blows before Amr drove an elbow full-force into his nose, sending him flying out of the corner, blood flowing from his nostrils.
“That’s my boy!” Ramzi howled.
Turning toward him, Amr raised his hands in the air.
He heard the crowd’s cautionary murmurs too late. The pudgy boy, taking advantage of his distraction, grabbed a wooden board from among the barrels and struck Amr in the side so hard the board broke off in his hand. Amr fell, pressing a hand to his side, and spat blood. By now the crowd was hooting, some people flinging rocks and trash at the pudgy boy, who dropped the stump of the board and shouted, “Stand up!”
When Amr got to his feet, the crowd fell silent.
Someone called out, “Kill him, Little Lion!”
The pudgy boy rushed at Amr and began to pummel his torso again. Pressing his left hand to his side, Amr took a couple of uncertain steps backwards and tried to defend himself one-handed, but pain showed in his eyes with every blow. At a lucky moment, he managed to shove the pudgy boy, just enough for him to lose his balance and fall, and Amr didn’t hesitate. He fired away with precise, mighty blows.
“My boy!” Ramzi howled through a mouthful of food, and with a self-satisfied grin he set off to collect from those who’d placed bets. Amr silently climbed out of the ring, and when he saw me, he came my way, extending his hands to have me cut off the bandages. I took out my knife and was snipping the gauze around his left hand when I noticed the suffusion of blood under his skin. A dark bruise covered the whole of his left side.
“Does it hurt when you take a breath?” I asked.
“A couple of your ribs might be broken.”
As I finished with his right hand, Ramzi appeared with a wide grin and a fat wad of hundred-geneih notes. He was ecstatic.
“This is yours, boy,” he said, counting out seven of them.
Amr was wide-eyed. “But this is two hundred pounds more than what we agreed on, sir.”
“No problem, you deserve it. You fought like a lion.”
“You are really generous, sir. I really thank you for what you do for me.”
“Abu khoaga, tonight we’re celebrating!”
“Did the Bedouins arrive?”
“Not yet, but this was a good day.”
He stopped at a food stand, shouted inside, and ordered a kilogram of koftas and rice. By the time we got back to the crypt, it had already been delivered.
We sat in the big room, on the floor, eating. Ramzi was in a jubilant mood. He put meat, salad, and rice on a plastic plate and called to Amr to give it to his sister. I wasn’t hungry. I just poked at mine.
“Abu khoaga, you are already waiting for Abu Salam,” Ramzi said through a grin.
“What was that?”
“For the father of peace.”
“Yes,” I said, realizing he meant the opium.
“And here you are,” he said, removing from his djellaba the plastic bag in which he kept his personal supply. He took out a bit and put it in my hand. I stared at the moist, red lump before placing it under my tongue.
Ramzi turned to Amr. “Do you want some?”
The boy stood up and immediately pressed a hand to his side. “What, sir?”
“Opium. It brings lovely dreams.”
He held the bag toward Amr, but I pushed his arm aside.
“You don’t need this, boy,” I said.
“Why wouldn’t he?” Ramzi asked, smirking.
“Because it’s those who don’t have dreams who eat this.”
I climb toward a tent encampment under the Milky Way, the stars glimmering above me like milk spilled on black fabric.
A gypsy encampment, I think on noticing the tents. The sort one still sees in the rural reaches of Eastern Europe. Carnival carts piled high with bric-a-brac and human beings. But they are not wandering. The tents are staked, the tarps stretched tight.
Over tamped-down earth I walk toward the camp. Millennia have passed since I heard a human voice. But if I encounter people here, it’s possible they will be nothing but shadows of who they were before moving into the desert. Now they savor the nighttime music of the jackals.
There’s a blazing fire in the middle of the encampment, flames shooting high, two women in the light, dancing around the fire, tambourines in their hands, bells on their feet. Light gathers in their naked navels.
“You did come, after all,” they say on seeing me, their bodies still shaking about.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” say toothless old people from the shadows as I reach the fire.
“Why?” I ask.
“Because you have business here.”
_The two dancing girls smile and wave their hands for me to follow. We come upon a chasm at the edge of the hill. It is deep and seemingly bottomless, like despair. I am not alone here, at this precipice, but surrounded by faces from several nations, people flinging their belongings over the edge. I have nothing to say. The two girls don’t stop dancing for even a moment. They beat their tambourines and drum with their feet. As I watch, cold sweat draws patterns on my back. _
The girls turn to me and smile, revealing their gold teeth.
“Now it’s your turn,” they say. “The time has come.”
A wizened man steps forward, holding a small child, which he hands to me.
_“Who is this?” I ask. _
“He’s dead,” they say. “And if he’s not, throw him down all the same. You can’t do anything for him anyway.”
I gaze at the blond boy asleep in my hands. Or really dead? If I throw him away, I really won’t have anything left.
“If you don’t,” says the old man, “you’ll be the one plummeting into the dark.”
The sand grated between my teeth. I lay on my belly, my face buried in the filthy mattress. I was parched. I reached into my pocket to check the time on my phone—it had lost its charge.
I stood up. My trousers sloshed about on me. Since this insomnia began, I’d lost nearly a quarter of my weight.
Nothing was stirring in the yard. I lit a cigarette, sat on the ground, dizzy. I thought, Life is actually wonderful as long as you can sleep normally. A green carrion-fly landed on my hand and rubbed its legs together. A clanking roused me from my thoughts. Someone was pounding at the metal gate. I couldn’t see a thing from where I sat and hadn’t the slightest intention of opening it. No one would be looking for me here.
Whoever it was kept pounding until Amr emerged. He was shirtless, a huge purple splotch on his side. He took slow, measured steps, drew the latch, and pulled the door wide open. It was Mohamed Gamal, from the café yesterday.
“Assalamu Aleykum Arrahmatulla,” Gamal said.
“Va Alaykum salam,” said Amr. “Mr. Ramzi isn’t home.”
“No problem. In fact it’s you I’m looking for, Little Lion. May I come in?”
Amr opened the door even wider.
“Come, let’s sit down,” Gamal said, taking out a cigarette. “Want one?”
“I don’t smoke, sir.”
“That’s good. It’s not healthy.”
He put the cigarette in his mouth and lit it. I could hear the tobacco frizzling. For a few moments they sat beside each other in silence.
“You know, the Palestinian is my man.”
“Soon he’ll be taken away to the army. I’d like you to come over to me, fight for me. You could be the champion of all of Araf. I’d pay you very well.”
“I fight for Mr. Ramzi.”
“I don’t know how much Ramzi pays you, but I’ll double it.”
“It’s not about money. He saved our lives.”
“Oh, come now. Ramzi is a scoundrel. He doesn’t do a thing out of the kindness of his heart.”
“Get out of here, sir,” Amr said, standing up. Gamal followed.
“You don’t get it. If you don’t work for me, you’ll have to take on the Palestinian, who will kill you. I’ll make sure of that.”
Gamal turned around on the street. “I’ll be laughing my head off as I watch you drowning in your own blood, you little shit.”
Amr locked the gate and headed back. I could hear his sister whimpering inside their hovel of a room.
“I don’t want you to die and drown in your own blood,” she said through tears.
“No one will kill me, Emira, don’t be scared. Allah won’t allow it.”
I stepped over to the barrel to wash off, but as I dipped the watering can and lifted it out, the world spun around me. I have no idea how long I was out, but on coming to I saw Amr leaning above me, wiping my face with a wet rag.
“Are you all right, sir?” he asked. “I thought you had gone with Mr. Ramzi.”
“I was sleeping,” I said. “I forgot to eat, that’s all. I need to eat something.”
I sat up, then stood. The dizziness had not passed. “I’m off for some food,” I said.
“How is your side?” I asked.
“It hurts. Especially when I move.”
“It’ll be better in a week or two.”
I stumbled through the gate and down the alleyway, all the way to the first food stand, where workers were frying falafels in a huge pan. The oil was dark brown. I asked for two geneihs’ worth, and the clerk wrapped them in newspaper. Forcing myself, I took the first falafel into my mouth, chewed it, and swallowed. I thought I would throw it up.
I walked down the street eating, telling myself with each bite, If you don’t eat, you will die. At the café, I ordered a coffee. It felt surprisingly good.
As I sat there, a street kid stopped at every crypt, garage, and food stand, shouting, “Tonight, Palestinian the Terrible will return to the Bahtak to score a victory! After the Isha prayer he will finish off his victim.” When he was reassured that everyone had heard him, he moved on. I took a drag on my cigarette and signaled for another coffee.
Before long, Ramzi appeared at the other end of the alleyway. He seemed careworn as he shuffled along, his hands in the pockets of his djellaba.
“Master Ramzi,” I said.
“Abu khoaga,” he replied, and sat down in the chair opposite mine.
“I’ve heard the Palestinian will fight tonight.”
“Yes, they brought a boy for him from Shubra, since no one in Arafa will take him on. Mohamed Gamal, whom he is fighting for, has offered a fortune for Amr to go up against him tomorrow.”
“He’s that good?”
“He is. And he shows no mercy to anyone.”
“Amr was injured in the last bout.”
“I know. But it’s not so simple. Gamal was completely beside himself when I refused.”
“I figure he’s taking it badly when folks say Amr will be the next champion. He says it would be best if I reconsider while he is being nice about it.”
“What did you say to that?”
“That I would think about it. He offered lots of money.”
When we reached home, Amr and his sister were sitting in the yard, again practicing reading. Lost in thought, Ramzi smoked while I lay on the mattress.
Two hours passed before Ramzi spoke.
“Tomorrow you’ve got to fight, Amr. I didn’t want it, but I have no choice.”
“I understand, sir.”
“Mohamed Gamal is an influential man. And the police chief’s nephew. It’s not good to snub him.”
“You wouldn’t want the cops to take you away.”
“So you can fight?”
“Yes, sir. I will win. I won’t let you down.”
I stood and went into the yard. Ramzi looked at me. “I have no choice,” he said.
I went to the barrel, ladled out some water, and washed my face.
Ramzi wanted to go to the Bahtak to talk with Mohamed Gamal. I went with him. A big crowd had already gathered on the square; lots of people wanted to see the Palestinian. Separated from Ramzi, I cut across the square and leaned my back against the alley wall. I could see everything from there. The fighters were not yet in the ring, but dozens of men were placing bets with the bookmakers, who were easy to spot because they had big wads of cash in their hands. In the cacophony I could just make out that they were betting 5:1 for the Palestinian.
I lit up and stared at the crowd. Ramzi was across the square, nervously gesticulating at Mohamed Gamal and two other men. Gamal raised his hands several times to calm him down. After a while they shook hands and slapped each other’s backs. Gamal headed to the ring, and the first boy entered, sinewy and of medium build, wearing blue sweatpants.
“Is this the Palestinian?” I asked the middle-aged man beside me.
“No,” he replied. “This is just the kid from Shubra. That there is the Palestinian.”
A tall, sixteenish boy stepped in among the barrels. His skin was shockingly light, almost as white as mine. He was bald, and his face was disfigured by deep scars that made him look as if he was snarling. It was written all over him that he’d seen a lot in his young life.
“Is he really Palestinian?” I asked.
“From Rafah, in the Gaza Strip. His parents were killed by the Jews, but the devil saved him. At twelve he came alone to Cairo and the dogs didn’t gobble him up. He gobbled up the dogs.”
The kid from Shubra was jogging in place and shadowboxing. The Palestinian slowly circled him while also punching the air as the betting went on.
When the same old man as last time announced the start of the match, the two children stood face to face. The Palestinian raised his hands to protect his head as the kid from Shubra moved in. Several times, though, the kid struck nothing but air, since the Palestinian kept dodging his blows, practically dancing among the barrels. He knew how to fight. For several long minutes he toyed with the kid from Shubra. Then, once the other began to slow down and was clearly out of breath, the Palestinian stopped and leveled a single blow, a faultless right hook.
A beautiful blow it was; I could hear his nose crack. The kid was on the ground at once, the crowd raving.
“That’s all?” shouted the Palestinian, spitting on him. “What did you bring me? A lamb?”
“You show him!” people called from the crowd. “Show him!”
“Stand up already!” The Palestinian leaned down and, grabbing the boy by the hair, yanked him to his feet. Blood was flowing from his nostrils and he wasn’t completely conscious.
“You thought you’d come here and take what’s mine?” the Palestinian asked, screaming it so everyone could hear.
“That’s what he thought!” the crowd shouted.
“You were badly mistaken!” said the Palestinian, striking the boy’s face again, sprawling him into the mud. The boy crawled toward the edge of the ring. The Palestinian stood still at first, celebrating himself. Only when the boy reached the barrels did he intervene.
“And just where are you going?” he shouted, grabbing the boy by the right leg and pulling him back to the middle. The boy gave a kick. It caught the Palestinian’s thigh, but it wasn’t strong.
“What do they do with sheep around here?” the Palestinian asked.
“They cut their throats!” screamed the wild crowd.
“Exactly!” the Palestinian cried, and jumped on the boy’s chest.
Surely ribs splintered under the weight. From the outside, though, all we could see was the boy lying helplessly on the ground, grimy with dirt and his own blood.
The Palestinian kept jumping on the boy’s chest. “Get this lamb out of my sight!”
The crowd went wild. They took the Palestinian on their shoulders and carried him around the square. For some twenty minutes they raved and cheered away. The boy from Shubra lay in the ring just as the Palestinian had left him. An hour passed by before the crowd calmed enough for the bookmakers to start paying out. The boy had not come to.
“I think he killed that kid,” I said to Ramzi on the way home.
“Yep,” Ramzi replied and spat on the ground.
I am going to die_, I think as I charge through the sand. I free my right foot and take one step upward. That step, too, sees my foot sink, but by putting my weight on it I am able to free the other. And so I go on, ascending the hill._
It is scorching hot, the air choked with fine grains of sand. Everything is the color of sand, even the sun. The wind is strong but it brings no relief. It burns like red-hot steel, and the gusting sand scratches at my skin. For several hours I’ve been trudging up and down hills to reach the city that I glimpse from the summits. Will I ever get there? I’ve been walking for half a day and seem no closer. I lost time somewhere back in Alexandria. Maybe in the Tugaria Café, on the Corniche, after breakfast, when I was reading the papers and the cardamom was still stinging my tongue. I might have lost it by the diesel-smelling fisherman as he wrapped squid in yesterday’s papers. Or perhaps at the sandy beach of the Greek club, Omilos, along with my lifetime membership, as I drank light beer under the blue-and-white striped parasol. Nor is it out of the question that she took it along with the child. It got into the suitcase while packing, between two diapers and the baby food.
The point is I’d lost time and sought after it in vain. No one has returned it. Since then it has always been just now. So I don’t know exactly when I first heard the words “I am going to die.” It might have been at the foot of some hill as I prepared to ascend. It would be an hour at most before I’d find myself standing in the kitchen of my own home, letting water run from the tap.
I’m going to die_, I think at the foot of the hill._
One more hour_, I reply, dragging myself further._
I’ve just reached the top when my legs can no longer move. I collapse. My head hits the ground with a thud. I know it’s over. I wait for my heart to stop.
There are no clouds in the sky to help me guess at the passing of time. The sun does not move from its place. At some point I notice a figure wobbling at the foot of the hill. It seems as if I’m hallucinating from dehydration, but the figure keeps approaching. He looks like a child, with small hands and small feet. Only his eyes and face reveal him to be old. He is leading a donkey just as little as he is.
“You are exhausted,” he says, grinning at me.
“Leave me alone.”
“That cannot be done.”
“I want this whole thing to end.”
“You really think it matters what you want?”’
The dwarf takes various tools from a bag affixed to the donkey’s side. He leans toward me and rips open my shirt.
“Leave me alone, please.”
“I’m afraid that isn’t possible,” he replies with a whistle while examining my chest. “I’m not the one who sets the rules…What do you know, found it already!”
With a yank he pulls open the skin of my chest. Underneath—where there should be lungs, a heart, muscles—there is instead a complex mechanical structure. Interconnected cogs by the thousands turn and hiss. The dwarf locates a key in his pocket and places it in a hole. It fits perfectly. He winds counterclockwise, with an expert hand.
“And we’re all set,” he says, whistling calmly as he puts his tools back in his bag and heads down the hill.
“Who are you?”
He exclaims in return: “Who are you?”
I sat in the yard of the crypt, a couple of minutes past noon, waiting for my heart to beat the opium out of it. The day was unbearably hot; what little wind there was, was blowing from the Mokattam Hills, scattering fine dust over the City of the Dead. I looked at the wash hanging out to dry. Faded, stretched T-shirts, sweatpants, and djellabas, water dripping on the ground.
Amr was doing the laundry.
The boy crouched in front of two plastic vats, rubbing clothes with detergent in one, rinsing them in the other, then hanging them to dry. For a long time, I watched him work. He was bare from the waist up, his sides purple, his ribs pressing against the skin. He was emptying one of the vats in the dirt when the iron gate squeaked open. Ramzi was returning from the street, a black plastic bag in his hand.
“So, you’ve woken up, abu khoaga.” He sat beside me and took a sandwich from the bag. “Want some?”
“Hey, Amr!” he shouted, throwing the bag to the boy, who caught it and looked back with gratitude.
“Thank you, sir,” he said, and went inside his space.
For a while Ramzi ate in silence beside me.
“They’re betting seven to one against Amr,” he said.
“After yesterday’s bout I’m not surprised,” I replied.
“Do you think he’ll lose?”
“I don’t know. The Palestinian learned to fight. And Amr’s side hurts.”
“Amr fights well, too.”
“When he’s not injured.”
Ramzi reached over with a cigarette. We had a smoke.
“Excuse me, sirs,” Amr said, emerging from his room, “but I heard what you were talking about.” He paused. “Would you allow me to say something. Mr. Ramzi?”
“Don’t worry about the bets. I will win tonight’s match.”
“What makes you think that?” I asked.
“All the Palestinian can do is hit. If I get close to him he won’t be able to do a thing.”
“Have you seen him fight before?”
Amr nodded, then turned to Ramzi. “Bet on me, sir. You can win lots of money with that, and I can maybe show my gratitude for your kindness.”
Ramzi nodded and stood up. “I’m off to take care of it.” From the gate he called back to the boy. “You don’t owe me anything, by the way.”
After Ramzi left, I remained alone with Amr.
“Did you really see the Palestinian fight?”
“Yes, sir, I saw three matches. If I can pull him to the ground, I can beat him.”
“And if you can’t?”
“I can, sir.”
“How can you be so sure about this?”
“Because I’m fighting for something.”
“For this,” he said, waving his hand around the crypt.
We went out to the Bahtak early, walking beside each other in silence. The sun was still up and blazing strong.
The square was completely empty; only the barrels indicated where matches were held. With Amr I sat in front of one of the garages. We stared at an old color TV as six grimy Egyptians repaired a black Lada inside. There was neither nervousness nor tension on Amr’s face.
“Where you came from, sir,” Amr said, pointing at the TV, “is life really like this?”
“In a few places.”
We fell silent.
“Why don’t you take your little sister and leave while you can? The Palestinian will kill you.”
“Don’t you worry, sir. There won’t be any trouble. Besides, where would we go?”
He turned his attention back to the movie. I watched the empty square, the rusty barrels, the adobe walls charred by the burning trash. An hour must have passed this way. The sun was setting fast by the time I noticed the old man who opened the matches appear at the end of one of the alleyways. He was dragging two slight-framed mongrels by the cords around their necks. The animals were resisting. The old man pulled them all the way to the barrels and there let go of the wire cord and stepped on it. Tails between their legs, the dogs whined and gasped for breath, trying in vain to escape. The man reached beside the barrels and pulled out an iron rod. The animals became frantic. He swung four or five times. Silence. Then the man came toward us, stopped beside me, and called in to the garage.
“Can I take your ladder, Ibrahim?”
He stepped into the garage and got a battered aluminum ladder from the corner, put it on his shoulder, and carried it to the dogs. Noticing Amr, he smirked. He picked up the carcasses and stood the ladder by the alleyway entrance. The sun set behind the Mokattam Hills and the trash heaps were set alight. The two dog carcasses dangled in the wind. The flames from the burning trash cast a huge black shadow that danced on the sooty walls of the square.
A crowd gathered on the Bahtak, people pressed against each other so tight you could hardly walk. Once again Ramzi handed me the roll of gauze and went to arrange the bets. Yesterday’s fight had brought lots of takers.
I waited for the boy in a corner, not far from the barrels. Fifteen minutes later he turned up, a plastic container in his hands. He was spreading something all over himself with fierce determination. I figured it was some sort of oil, and when he got close to me, I smelled the sesame. His chest and hands sparkled in the firelight.
“Are you ready?” I asked.
“We can begin.”
“Allahu akbar,” Amr replied with a nod.
I bandaged his hands quickly. I took care to make the wrapping neither too tight nor so loose the gauze would slip off.
“Be careful,” I said.
He nodded and sidled his way through the crowd. When he reached the ring, the audience began to rave. They smelled blood. The noise crescendoed when the Palestinian arrived. The old man had to pound the barrel several times to get everyone quiet. The two boys faced each other. For several long seconds they stared wordlessly.
“What are you waiting for?” someone shouted.
“Kill him, Palestinian!”
The Palestinian opened his harelip in a grin and raised his hand to his neck to signal that he would now kill Amr. He then jumped around him. Amr moved in sync. The Palestinian took jabs that Amr dodged or blocked.
“Come on already,” the Palestinian yelled, but he could not unnerve Amr.
I found Ramzi and stood beside him. We watched the match in silence.
Both kids were taking rapid breaths, but there hadn’t been a serious exchange. Again the Palestinian jabbed at Amr’s head, but Amr dodged and hit right back. The punch wasn’t serious, but it was enough to get blood flowing from the Palestinian’s nose.
“Little Lion!” the crowd shrieked.
The Palestinian wiped his nose with his bandage, enraged. He charged, and though Amr raised his arm in defense, the fifth blow caught his upper body, right where the board had broken over him the day before. Blood spurted from his mouth. After three more blows to his ribs, Amr collapsed. The Palestinian knelt on his face and then, standing up, knocked his head against one of the barrels.
The crowd went wild, and this the Palestinian liked most of all.
“So, he’s a Little Lion?” he asked.
“Kill him, Palestinian!”
Amr stood, pressing his hands to his ribs. Mud slid down his oily body. “Is that all you can do?” he asked.
The Palestinian ran at him and hit his head full force several times, the thuds resonating across the square. Amr was on the ground again.
Swimming in his own sweat, the Palestinian raised his hands triumphantly. “This is no lion, this is the son of a dog.”
I turned toward Ramzi, who stood gazing silently. “This is butchery,” I said. “Can you stop it?”
“Huh?” He cast me a look of incomprehension.
The crowd was screaming, “Kill him!”
“What do we do with dogs?” the Palestinian asked, passing his eyes over the people, and the crowd bellowed in reply, “Hang them! Choke them!”
Not wanting to see, I turned away. But everyone fell silent. I looked back, and Amr was standing again. His eyebrows were torn and one of his eyes was swollen shut, but he was upright. “Is that all you can do?” he asked.
The Palestinian rushed at him and pounded the boy’s head. Again, Amr collapsed. The Palestinian went on kicking him until he had to lean against a barrel.
“So, stand up now, Little Lion,” he said, gasping for air.
The crowd raved, then fell silent. Amr was up on his knees, and, wobbling, he staggered to his feet. The Palestinian stared at him in shock.
“Is that all?” Amr asked. His teeth were bloody. “Is that all you can do?”
Screaming, the Palestinian lunged. He hit Amr’s face again and again, until he too collapsed.
“He’s going to kill him,” I said to Ramzi. “Stop this.”
The Palestinian got off Amr and stumbled to one of the barrels. “Just get up now,” he said, spitting on the ground. “Let’s go.”
Amr didn’t move. I couldn’t tell if he was breathing. The Palestinian panted for half a minute.
“Mongrels are beaten to death around here,” he said. He raised one of the barrels over his head, and, as the crowd screamed on, he headed back to Amr. “Farewell, Little Lion.”
Before he could throw the barrel, Amr struck the Palestinian’s balls dead on. The barrel landed on the older boy’s belly as he fell backwards.
Amr slowly got up and, stumbling along, went toward the Palestinian. He clutched the older boy’s neck, then threw himself backwards to the ground, putting him in a chokehold. The Palestinian kicked out in vain. Amr went on clutching until finally the body stiffened, then slackened. The crowd stood numb.
Amr let go. At that, the crowd went wild. Amr, though, just sat in the mud, one hand pressed to his side. He’d gotten a hell of a beating. I jostled my way to the ring. On spotting me, Amr clambered out from among the barrels and put his hands around my neck. He couldn’t hold himself up. I had to drag him as people slapped his back, wanting to touch the hero. Only when we reached the corner of the square was there space to sit down and remove his bandages.
“I won,” he muttered into the air.
“You won,” I echoed.
Ramzi came by an hour later, as the crowd was dispersing.
“Are we leaving?” he asked.
Amr nodded and, with my help, managed to stand.
“Was I good, sir?”
“Yes,” Ramzi said. “It happened like you told us.”
“Aren’t you hungry?” I asked.
“Yes, sir,” the boy replied. By now he was on his own feet.
“Fucking lion.” Ramzi shook his head. “A fucking lion.”
“That he is,” I said.
We stopped at a food stand and bought sandwiches. Amr ate slowly. Suddenly he stopped, pressing a hand to his belly, and threw up, then fell over, unconscious. Both Ramzi and I jumped to help him. The boy’s lips were purple, his skin gray. I slapped his cheeks lightly, but he didn’t come to.
“He needs a hospital.”
“Like hell he does,” Ramzi said. “He’s just exhausted. He’ll sleep it out, and that will be all.”
“He’s bleeding inside. If we don’t get him to a hospital, he’ll die.”
Ramzi looked at me. “Are you sure about that?”
“He threw up blood and he isn’t coming to. He needs a hospital.”
Ramzi looked hesitant. “Okay,” he finally said. “There’s a hospital by Sayeda Aisha. Help me lift him.”
He gripped the boy under his arms while I held his legs, and that was how we went the length of the alleyway, out to the main road. It was packed. Vendors were selling their wares, and cars zigzagging around people, their headlights illuminating the fine dust swirling in the air. Finally a black Lada stopped and we sat Amr on the back seat. It took half an hour for the taxi to work past the muddy streets of the City of the Dead and reach the paved access road.
The Egyptian public hospital was a flat, sand-colored building with broken windows, grimy floors, and flickering neon lights. Ramzi paid the driver through the window and we lifted Amr out of the taxi and jostled our way through the crowd by the entrance. The receptionist—a fiftyish woman wearing a headscarf—sat beside an old, colonial-era office desk.
“He collapsed on the street,” Ramzi said.
She looked us over. “You have to wait,” she said.
We waited by a wall, Amr on the floor beside us. He was white as milk but still breathing. Twenty minutes passed before the doctor emerged. When he saw the child, he shouted. Nurses appeared and lay the boy on a stretcher, then rolled him into a room. Another twenty minutes went by before the doctor re-emerged, waving to Ramzi.
“Stay put,” Ramzi told me. “It wouldn’t be good if they saw a khoaga too. Your being there would jack up the price.”
I stayed put. Ramzi spoke to the doctor for a long time. Meanwhile a woman screamed in the hallway. Her belly was huge. She kept invoking Allah and demanding that she be helped. I watched her face as contractions came and went.
Ramzi emerged anxious.
“What did the doctor say?”
“Broken ribs and a ruptured spleen. Internal bleeding. They’re asking for a thousand pounds to operate.”
I looked at him, waiting.
“I have five hundred pounds, abu khoaga. Don’t you have five hundred?”
“No.” I shook my head.
“Then we have to take him away from here. He won’t survive that.”
We looked at each other.
I said, “Wait here.”
I went into the bathroom, whose floor squelched of piss. I stepped into one of the stalls and removed my right shoe. I took out the insole and, from underneath, my emergency reserve, wrapped in tissue. I counted it: four hundred fifty pounds. I put it in my pocket and went back to Ramzi.
“I have four hundred pounds.”
“That’ll do,” he said. He took the money from my hand and returned to the room. This time he was back in five minutes.
“Has he come to?”
“No. Let’s leave.”
Without a word we headed out of the hospital, beating our way through the crowd by the entrance. We stopped by an overpass on the two-lane road, and for a while we stood beside each other in silence, smoking. Ramzi reached into his pocket and took out a plastic bag.
“Here is your opium, abu khoaga.”
“Did the Bedouins come?”
I slipped the bag into my pants pocket.
I had no more reason to go with him, as we both knew.
“I’ll be off now,” he said, stepping on the remnant of his cigarette. He flagged down a cab and got in. “You can give me a ring anytime if you run out,” he said, and gestured to the driver.
When the car reached the end of the road, it turned onto Sayeda Aisha Street. I held out my hand for another cab.
The Bluebird Hotel was just as I had left it. The elevator didn’t have a door. The front desk clerk didn’t look up from the soap opera he was watching, that was how he handed me the key. I had to shove the door to my room with my shoulders, since it was still stuck. In the shower, a week of dirt and grime washed off me into the drain. I plugged my phone into the charger, opened my knapsack, and removed two cans of warm beer.
Sooner or later I had to work, I knew, to pay for the room. But I felt too tired to start bombarding editors now. I stared at the vibrating monitor, smoked, and drank. It was three a.m., but I couldn’t sleep.
Fuck it, I thought, and took out the raw opium. I set it in front of me on the table. I pinched off a larger portion than ever before, placed it under my tongue, and waited. When my mouth went numb, I clicked open the second can of beer and washed away the opium taste.
By the time I reach the top of the last hill, I know I’ve been going in circles. I am not far from where I set out, by the burned city. The view shows nothing but soot and debris. Charred ruins. Steel structures have opened like black flowers. Black rainwater gathers on black ground and flows into black canals.
Looking closer, I can see the woman’s tracks and, further on, the arsonist herself as she trudges toward the city. She hasn’t gotten far. She walks aimlessly, naked and wet, her hands pressed against her belly, in which she carries a child. Who impregnated her is a mystery, but the child will be very big. At the first ruins, she stumbles to a halt and cries out as her water breaks.
She takes deep breaths before moving on. I pick up my pace to keep from losing her. The ground is covered everywhere with thick, black ash, revealing her tracks. I pass the train station, charred black by the flames; and then by the big park, where the trees’ black branches stare blindly at the sky.
Following the sounds, I find her leaning against a tall pine, her legs wide apart. Her face contorts in pain, blood flowing between her legs. The convulsions are increasingly frequent. Finally, she squeezes something out of her womb. She faints and topples over.
She is not dead. I see her chest rise and fall as she breathes. And then I notice that what she pushed out is starting to stir. It is covered by a membrane or sac. It must be some kind of animal. Using claws, it tears through the membrane, and now I see what it is: a big, black dog, bloody and slimy. Its eyes shine red in the twilight.
I know what will happen. I stand still, but I can’t watch. The sounds are enough. When the black dog finishes devouring her, not a bit is left. The dog’s eyes flash red. It climbs onto one of the ruins, sniffs the air, and lumbers away.
I start after it, since I have no other choice. I will be following this beast as long as I live.
It was morning in Cairo. The sun lit up the Bluebird Hotel. Its light was warm and white, as always in the desert, anticipating the blazing hot afternoon.
I stared at the wall, which had been scribbled over with a pen. I shivered. Flies landed on my skin and bit, but I couldn’t move. My head was throbbing, and my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth. Several long minutes passed this way.
Gathering strength, I felt around the bed for something drinkable. My fingers met with a half-full can of beer. I lifted it, trembling, but as the warm liquid reached my stomach, I retched.
Somehow I made it to the hotel’s public toilet, which was across from my room.
For a long time, I heaved and spat, gripping the filthy pot with both hands. When the spasms ended, I staggered back to the room, sat on the edge of the bed, and forced the remaining beer down my throat.
Slowly, life came back into me. I knew who I was and what I’d done in recent days. I looked at my phone—the date and time told me I’d slept for forty-eight hours.
I remembered Amr and Ramzi, the bouts, and the City of the Dead. I turned on the phone and called Ramzi. It rang for a long time before he picked up.
“Abu khoaga. Don’t tell me that what I gave is gone already.”
“Because if it is, I can get as much for you as you want.”
“How is Amr?”
A long silence ensued.
“Good,” Ramzi said at last. “But you’ve got to see the new kid. A real champion. He hits like a rocket.”
I put down the phone, stood up from bed, and lit a cigarette. After showering, I made my way to the food stand across the street from the hotel.
I never looked up Ramzi again.
Sándor Jászberényi is the author of _The __Most Beautiful Night of the Soul: More Stories from the Middle East and Beyond _(New Europe Books, forthcoming January 2019) and The Devil Is a Black Dog: Stories from the Middle East and Beyond (New Europe, 2014). In 2017 he received Hungary’s Libri Literary Prize. As a correspondent and photojournalist for Hungarian news sites, he has covered the conflict with Islamic State, unrest in Ukraine, the revolutions in Egypt and Libya, the Darfur crisis, the Huthi uprising in Yemen, and the Gaza War. His writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, AGNI, Guernica, and the Brooklyn Rail. He divides his time between Budapest and Cairo. (1/2019)
Paul Olchváry has translated more than a dozen Hungarian novels and other books of prose into English, including András Forgách’s No Live Files Remain (Scribner/Simon & Schuster UK, 2018), Vilmos Kondor’s Budapest Noir (Harper, 2012), György Dragomán’s The White King (Houghton Mifflin, 2008), and Károly Pap’s Azarel (Steerforth, 2001). He has received translation grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and PEN American Center. He is the founder and publisher of New Europe Books. A native of Amherst, New York, Olchváry was born to Hungarian parents and lived in Hungary for many years as an adult. He lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts. (1/2019)
Sándor Jászberényi is the author of The Most Beautiful Night of the Soul: More Stories from the Middle East and Beyond (New Europe Books, 2019) and The Devil Is a Black Dog: Stories from the Middle East and Beyond (New Europe, 2014). In 2017 he received Hungary’s Libri Literary Prize. As a correspondent and photojournalist for Hungarian news sites, he has covered the invasions of Ukraine, the conflict with the Islamic State, the revolutions in Egypt and Libya, the Darfur crisis, the Huthi uprising in Yemen, and the Gaza War. His writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, AGNI, Guernica, and the Brooklyn Rail. He divides his time between Budapest and Cairo. (updated 3/2022)
He gave us his thoughts and his reporting on the war in Ukraine.
Paul Olchváry has translated more than a dozen Hungarian novels and other books of prose into English, including András Forgách’s No Live Files Remain (Scribner/Simon & Schuster UK, 2018), Vilmos Kondor’s Budapest Noir (Harper, 2012), György Dragomán’s The White King (Houghton Mifflin, 2008), and Károly Pap’s Azarel (Steerforth, 2001). He has received translation grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and PEN American Center. He is the founder and publisher of New Europe Books. A native of Amherst, New York, Olchváry was born to Hungarian parents and lived in Hungary for many years as an adult. He lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts. (updated 1/2019)
AGNI has published the following translation: