Ahmad Al-Qarmalawi: Summer Rains, A Chapter from the novel, translated by Sophia Vasalou


Amtar Sayfiyyah (Summer Rains) by Ahmad
Al-Qarmalawi, published by Maktabat al-Dar
al-Arabiyah lil-Kitab (Cairo, Egypt) in 2017
was awarded the 2018 Sheikh Zayed Book Award in the Young Author category.




Ahmad Al-Qarmalawi

Ever since Zayna had said she wanted to talk, Youssef had been eager to meet with her. Maybe it was curiosity, or maybe it was that strange magnetism she had, which made one want to say yes to anything she asked. After receiving her message that morning, he was surprised to find how cagey he was about their arrangement, especially toward Rahma.
Shortly before the appointed time, he was standing inside the café taking in his surroundings. It was a café unlike anything he’d ever seen before, tucked away on the first floor of a residential building in the Zamalek quarter. As soon as he stepped through the door and had a glance at the interior he was overcome by a sense of surprise. A pungent smell of incense wafting incongruously through harsh modernist décor. Suggestive dim lighting that seemed to allude to all sorts of possibilities. The walls lined all along with pictures of whirling dervishes, staring back mutely in the murky light.
“I’m here for Zayna Dinari,” he informed the girl at the reception.
She told him to hold on, and within moments Zayna was popping out of a back room adjoining the management suite. That took him aback, but he had no opportunity to ask questions, as she instantly swept him up with that riotous, almost raucous, charisma of hers. As she led him to a table in what she said was her “favourite corner”, his eyes followed the undulating lines of her golden mane which swished downward and tapered off like an arrow pointing to her sculpted waist, just where her cropped top met her high-waisted jeans. With every step she took, a pale sliver of bare skin would show through.
Youssef felt relieved when they finally took their seats across each other at a secluded table and half of her charms vanished from sight under the red tablecloth. He could now redeploy his defences.
“Not a bad place,” he began, just to roll away the initial silence.
“I was hoping you’d like it. I chose it because it struck me as a cross between our worlds: your mystical Sufi world and the real world.”
He smiled. “Wh-who said I live in a different world? Besides, this place couldn’t have less to do with Sufis.”
“You mean, all those dervishes don’t convince you? What about the engravings on the ceiling? And what about the prayer beads dangling from the lamps – you don’t like them?”
He contemplated these points for a moment and then said: “I like them, but not because they have a Sufi style. In fact, I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a ‘Sufi style’. Sufism is a way of being, which can be taken anywhere in the world and to all kinds of people.”
“So you’re not just a virtuoso musician . . .” she broke off as the waiter came up to them and laid her personal things on the table – her mobile, her handbag, her slim feminine cigarette case. She quickly took out a cigarette, lit up using the candle that sat on one side of the table, and then asked in a friendly tone: “Would you like to drink something?”
“Maybe in a little while.”
She blew out a gentle puff of smoke towards him and said: “So, let’s cut to the chase.”
“O-of course.”
“Tell me about your plans for the future.”
“My ‘plans’! I-I don’t have a blueprint as far as that goes, I’m just looking for a greater sense of stability and fulfilment. I have an unfinished MA thesis hanging over me, and then I’d like to find a job at the Academy or the Opera House. I’m still living off my father’s pension and the way the cost of living keeps rising that won’t last forever.”
“And what about the Lodge?”
“What about it?” he asked with some surprise. She didn’t respond, so he went on. “The Lodge is the most important part of my life. It’s also the topic of my MA thesis. B-but it’s not part of any ‘plan’. I don’t get anything out of it financially, if that’s what you mean.”
“That’s not exactly what I meant, but I have a proposal relating to the Lodge which might be of interest to you. It would also release you from the need to look for extra income.”
“You mean a business proposal? The Lodge is just a Sufi brotherhood, though of a special kind, and I’m just one of its disciples. It’s been hardly 24 hours since I was appointed as a mentor over the other disciples.”
“I’ll explain what I have in mind, but let me start with a little introduction which may clear up a thing or two.” He nodded encouragingly, so she continued. “No doubt you’ll have noticed me coming and going at the Lodge over the last year – attending performances, getting to know people, spending the odd hour reading or meditating here and there. Sometimes there’s one or more people with me and we have meetings with Mr Raslan who heads the administration, or maybe I should say he is the administration.”
“Y-yes, I’ve noticed.”
“You’ve probably also wondered why I keep coming around, but you’ve been too embarrassed to ask me directly even though we’ve known each other for a few months now and we’ve often talked.”
He blinked with a smile. “Correct.”
“Well, I can now dispel your curiosity. You know me as Zayna Dinari, a German-Egyptian musician with a special interest in Oriental music. So far, so unsurprising.”
“So tell me what I don’t know.”
“What you don’t know is that I have an exciting idea about the Mawsili Lodge which is light years away from the mindset of the current administration. I’ve a big dream which would turn this historic monument into a major hub for musicians all over the world. You can picture it as an international airport with lines flowing into it from east and west, pulsing out modern and progressive Oriental music all the way to the ends of the globe.”
He stared at her. A look of disbelief had crept into his face. “How exactly is all that supposed to happen? Could you maybe give me s-some more detail about this plan of yours?”
“It would take a while to go through the details. I have a comprehensive report which goes over the aims and methods of implementation. But to give you the big picture, the idea is to turn the Lodge into a global centre for Oriental pop and jazz which will include a state-of-the-art facility fitted with the most advanced production methods for manufacturing Oriental instruments to the highest standard. Controlled raw material, simple modern designs, electronic enhancements that open up a world of possibilities. You won’t be able to tell two instruments apart. We won’t just rely on the workmen’s skills or natural talents but on standardised procedures and precise specifications. We’ll also have a production line devoted to electronic Oriental instruments, using digital technology that works with the latest applications for musical composition and production. Just picture it, modern instruments like these will boost the quality of records produced by the Lodge’s Centre for Oriental Pop and Jazz and take it to an international level. We’ll take the markets in Europe, Canada and Australia by storm! I’ve contacts with some of the movers and shakers in the music industry in Germany, Austria and the UK. We’ll use Oriental music to make inroads into techno and digital and we’ll have musical scores for Oriental instruments written directly in modern compositions . . .”
“W-whoa, hold your horses! You seem to be getting a little carried away.”
“Why hold my horses? That’s the problem with you people in the East, you hold off and hold on and never manage to take a single step forward.”
“I mean, we should hold on so we can study the matter properly and consult Mr Zakir Raslan . . .”
“You think I haven’t already put the idea to him all this time? I’ve spoken with him more than once, and I met with him in the company of representatives from international music agencies who joined forces trying to persuade him this was a worthwhile project with great market potential. It was like talking to the deaf.”
“That surprises me. He never brought it up in our conversations.”
“In reality it’s not that surprising. Mr Raslan only looks for a second opinion in his own mind, that’s if he feels the urge to look for a second opinion at all.”
“If you wouldn’t mind, Zayna, I’d like to ask where I come into this.”
“Shall we order a coffee first so we can get our minds into gear? What would you like?”
“I’ll have a Turkish coffee.”
“They don’t serve Turkish coffee here. Coffee here means espresso and its derivatives.”
“No Turkish coffee! What do all these poor dervishes drink? I leave the choice to you.”
“A double espresso and you’ll forget you ever wanted anything else. Waleed!” Zayna waved the skinny waiter over and he took down the orders.
Youssef recovered his drift: “I was saying that what’s important to me is to keep the spirit of the place intact. The Lodge isn’t just some ‘business project’ we can discuss using detached cost-benefit calculations. The Lodge is an Islamic ‘monument’ where people have prayed and worshipped for centuries, using music for a higher purpose. I-I mean, music is not an end in itself.”
“Youssef – please. Don’t try to be a carbon copy of your teacher. He represents a type that’s long passed its expiry date. You’re a musician – a gifted musician, I might say, with an imagination wide enough to take in the entire world. He’s an old man trapped inside a musty old galabeya that’s been handed down the generations since time immemorial. There were two reasons I decided to speak to you of all people. One is that you have a passion for art and you always treat music as a priority. You’re well aware that Oriental music is in its death throes even though it’s the richest form of music humanity has known. Why? Because people have antiquated mentalities and want to keep it locked up in the underground vaults of time. I don’t believe you share that mentality.”
“What about the second reason?” he asked.
She paused for a moment while the waiter set down their drinks. A faint smile played on her bright face as she flicked the tip of her delicate cigarette. Then she said: “I’ll be honest – because I like you.”
Youssef tried to camouflage his feeling of awkwardness under a sarcastic smile. “N-no need for flattery,” he said quickly. “I don’t have the power to give the green light to your dreamy plan.”
“Believe me,” she retorted dryly: “No-one has the power to give red or green, the juggernaut of civilisation won’t stop at boarded-up stations. It will crush anything in its path that tries to resist the march of time.”
He rotated his cup inside its saucer: “You don’t understand Zakir Raslan. There’s a lot of injustice in what you say about him.”
“Time will prove to you that there’s no-one who understands him better,” she replied quietly.
His mind drifted as he struggled to find a response. Finally he said: “Would you like me to speak to him about this?”
“I’ve already spoken with him several times, as I told you, and I’ve practically given up on him. What I want now is to convince you, so you can share my dream and my faith in this project – instead of putting your faith in old wives’ tales about al-Mawsili.”
A slight frown appeared on Youssef’s face: “I’m sorry, Zayna. My faith in the brotherhood isn’t up for negotiation. Your project might prove to be a quantum leap for the Lodge and I’d be delighted if that happened, but on one condition: that it do no damage to its spiritual core.”
She smiled back at him steadily. “Spiritual. What on earth are you talking about? Are you referring to the soul, of all things? Huh. A spooky thingamajig you can’t smell or see and you want to make it the ultimate court of appeal for everything. And when it breaks down, what do we do then? We’re unable to put things right and we cast about for any old trick and swaddle it up in a conviction of the last resort.”
“I-it’s not a trick – it’s a fundamental human truth.”
“Sorry. People needed these notions in the dark ages so as to be able to cope with the obscurity of life. Superstition was an important part of their culture and those in power used it to keep people in control. All of that makes sense. What makes no sense is that the East should still be clinging to its superstitions all the way to the present day.”
“Are you implying that Sheikh al-Mawsili is also one of those superstitions?”
“Why not? Just stop for a moment and think about all the improbable tales they keep dishing out about him. Doesn’t it make you want to rethink the question of his existence?”
Youssef hung his head and stared into his empty coffee cup. Then he spoke again: “Zayna, let’s agree to disagree – a-and let’s work together to do what’s best for the Lodge.”
“Wonderful. Let’s pool our energies to help bring about a quantum leap. Questions about the value of the ‘spiritual core’ and whether or not it makes sense, I’ll leave to you.”
A short while later, Youssef was taking his leave, with a sense of disquiet in tow that would stay with him for some time. It was the first time in his life he’d heard anyone speak so negatively about his teacher, and it had never once crossed his mind anyone could doubt whether the Sheikh had even existed. Nobody had also ever made him think about the Lodge in such brutal practical terms: a stone building comprised of so many physical spaces that could be put to profitable use, its assets capable of being converted into so many digital platforms. For him, it had always been a place of worship, a launching pad to the heavens. Just as his teacher had always been a source of guidance and inspiration. From that moment on, his picture was shaken and the colour drained from it.

* * *

Those who are privy to the hearts of things will tell you what happened to the stripling ‘Ubada after his feet brought him to Egypt. They’ll tell you how he took shelter in the Sesame Trading Lodge where foreigners and traders flock to from all over the land, and how he was hounded and mocked for sharing his roof, a mere adolescent, with traders and their households. He would be forced at the time to steal away and seek the company of four-footed beasts in a stable adjacent to the Lodge, calling down imprecations on the heads of those who had scorned and humiliated him. He would make them the subject of a quatrain like those bringing fame to Persia and Iraq at the time, and the verses would make a nest in people’s minds. Wretched mendicants at the Lodge would hurl them back at merchants or money-changers or princes who had doled out abuse to them.
Now the year of the famine is sweeping through the land, more implacable than the Mongols in their passage. Sesame seed becomes an unaffordable luxury, and the Trading Lodge, once bursting with life, falls to waste. Then the Sultan orders its founder to be strung up from its massive front gate and its iron bolt is hammered into his ankle. An evil portent overshadows those who dwell in it. But the wretched souls who cluster around master lute-maker ‘Ubada will count these events among the marvels performed by the god-fearing youth, and they will spread his spirit-filled poetry up and down the districts of Darb al-Ahmar and Jamaliyya. They’ll say he’s a saint, turning a deaf ear to his protests, and they’ll share his quarters at the woe-struck Lodge and name it after him.

* * *

One day, as the moon took over the night shift, the Lodge was empty as usual from students and devotees. More unusually, the lamps fixed to the ground in the courtyard were shining brightly, Zakir Raslan having switched them on on his way out to evening prayer. After prayers were over, he headed back to the Lodge. This time he was not alone. He had in his company a structural engineer who always prayed at the Endowments Mosque. They made their way through streets crouching in the shadow of clothes lines and tattered billboards. The air was heavy from the whirr of dusty old air-conditioners. Heaps of rubbish bulged at every corner, making one gag for air. They walked past rows of houses squashed together, their façades carved by time and neglect. Like decrepit old women they huddled together as if waiting for death.
The engineer gasped in amazement as he stepped into the Lodge. It was beyond his imagination that such beauty could spring forth at the end of that dark and dreary course. He was bewitched by the sight of the open courtyard, crowned with a sheet of the purest blue sky. Wasn’t this the same sky that hung over the dreary streets outside . . .? The question engrossed his thoughts for a moment before he finally turned to the old man to express his admiration. The latter gave him time to take in his surroundings in all their detail.
“What an architectural jewel, Master Zakir – one of its kind!”
“God keep you. As an engineer you’ve got what it takes to appreciate its special character.”
“You don’t need to be an expert to appreciate it. There’s a strange magic about it.”
“That’s the spirit of the place. Every place develops its own spirit, depending on the kind of experiences it’s exposed to. These walls have never looked on a quarrel, over hundreds of years they’ve never heard anyone raise his voice. Not a drop of blood has been spilled over this ground and not one person with an evil heart has crossed the threshold. Even mosques are defiled by people who coming thieving for shoes. This place is different – God has given it special protection.”
“Glory be to God, Master. I’m honestly amazed at the sense of peace one feels the moment one walks through the doorway, even while the racket carries on outside.”
“This little spot has a direct line to heaven that’s always open, so its walls don’t strain to listen to the noises made by humankind. That’s why I ask everyone who graces us with his presence to switch off his mobile, or at least put it on silent.”
“Would you like me to do the same?”
“That would be a great kindness on your part.”
The engineer quickly complied. Zakir offered to show him around the Lodge, and led the way. The devotees practising their rituals had left their mark in every corner, and he felt their tranquility wafting over to him. He was dazzled by the workshop, with its distinctive perfume and the different instruments lying around, some still in parts, others all polished and complete. He was delighted by the detailed commentary Zakir provided at every chamber they entered and every storeroom in the building. But what left him spellbound was the chamber where Sheikh al-Mawsili had his resting place. This was the room in which his precious remains were preserved: his caftan, his cotton belt, his inkwell and some of his implements, including the quills made out of eagle feather. But also, most importantly, here were the various bits of paper he had left behind. The passage of time had left them stained and their dark edges had frayed, and some of the obscure symbols traced out on them had faded away. These pieces of paper were preserved inside a glass chest that was lit up from the interior.
“What’s all this paper?” the engineer asked in some surprise.
“They’re the Sheikh’s effects – musical scores he pioneered.”
“Did they use musical notation in his time?”
“Our Sheikh was inspired by God. He realised how important his music was, and he tried to write it down so it could inspire later generations and ease the way for people searching for God.”
“He was a genius!”
“Very few people have ever seen what’s in this room. But there’s something else I’d like to show you.”
“Another one of the Sheikh’s effects?”
“Alas, no – it’s the problem I mentioned to you.”
“Of course. Will we have enough light?”
“We have a powerful searchlight which will do the job, don’t worry.”
They went out through the rear gate and circled to the southern façade of the Lodge. The sounds of the outside world drifted into their hearing – cars honking, dogs barking, the lone wailing of a woman. The engineer groped his way along in the darkness behind Zakir, aided by a spray of silver light the moon was casting over the uneven ground. In a few moments, Zakir switched on a roving searchlight and trained its beam on a distant corner of the southern façade. It brought to view a crack wide enough to put your fist through, zigzagging upwards all across from the base of the wall like a creeping plant. The engineer gazed at it in evident dismay. His face grew rigid as he stuck his fingers into the crack feeling for its depth.
“Is there any sign of the crack on the other side?”
“What other side?”
“I mean on the interior of the wall.”
“I haven’t noticed anything.”
“Let’s make sure – the crack looks deep.”
As Zakir bent down to retrieve the searchlight, he felt a stab of pain tear through the disc in his lower back like a searing rod. His face convulsed and he bent over double in the vice grip of pain. The engineer noticed and rushed over to support him, propping him up by the armpits.
“Why must you bend down like that, my dear man!” he implored. “Let me carry things for you.”
“Don’t give it another thought. For a moment I forgot my doctor’s advice that I must bend my knees every time I want to pick something up, even if it’s not especially heavy. The body is weak, my good friend. We travel through life with defects and sufferings stacked high on our shoulders.”
The engineer raised the searchlight and followed the old man as he tottered unsteadily through the gate. From the inside, the surface of the wall seemed intact. The engineer ran his hands over it and tapped on it using a smooth stone he’d picked up outside. Shortly, he held up the searchlight and began to go over the wall bit by bit in its luminance. Every so often he’d knock on different points of the wall with the stone. He then began to point out a number of delicate cracks snaking across the wall, which seemed to be a continuation of the fissure on the outside.
“Why don’t you notify the antiquities inspectors about this problem?”
“Please – spare me from that pack of crooks. What do they know about fixing what’s broken? No-one needs fixing more badly than they do.”
“But they’re the experts, my dear man. This building isn’t made of concrete, the kind a civil engineer like myself knows how to handle. It’s made out of stone and it needs special materials to be repaired.”
“We’re not talking about repairs yet. All I want from you is an assessment of the gravity of the situation.”
“It seems grave indeed. The fissure is wide and deep, and it might deteriorate very rapidly. These historic buildings rely on their stone walls to carry the weight, and the blocks of stone are hefty in themselves even if there’s no additional weight pulling on the structure.”
“Wouldn’t it be possible for you to take on the management of the repairs? Money is no issue. And we can ask for help from foreign experts if you like. My main concern is to keep a safe distance from archaeological authorities and their inspectorates.”
The engineer set the searchlight on the ground and said gently: “Please don’t ask me to take on this responsibility, Master Zakir. We’re in real need of an expert, and it would be wrong to take shortcuts and try handling a fissure of this magnitude in a less than professional manner.”
Zakir smiled with composure. “You’re right,” he said in tones of conviction. “Leave it with me and I’ll handle it in the best way possible. The Ministry of Antiquities doesn’t have a monopoly on the experts after all.”
“I wish you every success. Please keep me informed on how things develop, and maybe I can lend a helping hand one way or another.”
“You’ve already been a help, my good friend,” Zakir said as he switched off the searchlight and began leading the engineer away. “I’m truly grateful you stopped by, and I’ll update you on developments as they arise.”
At the northern gate, Zakir slid the brass bolt across the door and shook his visitor’s hand. He thanked the engineer again and they said their goodbyes. Then he went around the courtyard switching off the lamps. The stone columns were plunged into darkness once again. Bathed in the silver of the moonlight, they surrendered to a peaceful slumber for a few hours until daybreak.

* * *

In the small room, the curtains swelled inwards, holding back the gusts of a quiet evening breeze. That was more than enough for the naked bodies stretched out on the bed; they had no need for extra curtains to shield them. This dingy little room had become Ziyad’s standing getaway ever since his mother had decided to move back from the Gulf for good and established herself at his dead grandmother’s house. As a child growing up, he’d become used to being on his own, to the point where he’d even refused to join his parents when they’d clamoured for him to come over two whole years after they’d upped and gone. At the time he’d made up excuses, saying he didn’t want to change his school and that he’d grown attached to living with his grandmother. He’d managed to make some kind of peace with his life, to work out an equation in which he was now the chief master of his destiny, and he wasn’t prepared to subject himself to new and untried fears. He no longer felt capable of sharing his daily life with anyone. He didn’t itch for anyone’s company and he didn’t care what anyone thought. He was happy letting the bitter past skulk in some bottomless pit of his being, only rising up to claw at him from time to time.
Ziyad’s eyes travelled over the patches of scaling paint on the ceiling, scrambling and unscrambling them in his imagination to make different kinds of patterns, tracing out maps of the world at random along the lime surface. Maps, nations. Nations pumping out petrol for his father to suck up, that man whom he wouldn’t recognise if he passed him on the street, nor be recognised back. He saw him in his mind’s eye as he fawned on a crusty old sheikh in traditional headgear who had the power to extend his time on those petrol fields he was so in love with. So he could die on those fields and be buried there, and so his corpse could decompose and turn into new petrol millions of years in the future and some other human in some faraway time could be love-struck with it and neglect his family for the sake of it.
Ziyad began dragging on his joint and blowing out great big puffs of smoke toward the maps on the ceiling, dead set on burning to the ground all those cities and countries that didn’t care a jot for his existence. Yasmeen – they also called her Mabruka, or “Blessed” – tugged at the joint and prised it from between his fingers, taking in the bliss in a few deep long drags before beginning to play with the curly hairs on his chest, twisting and turning them in a signal she was ready for seconds.
“You’re on another continent tonight,” she whispered over.
It flashed through his mind that this girl was truly blessed and her parents had hit the mark when they’d named her – assuming anyone knew who her parents were – as he was indeed oscillating between all types of continents and feeling a sense of rage against the entire world. Usually weed would make him mellow. Tonight his mood cut like a razor, and this girl didn’t know what she was getting into wanting to go for a second round. But it was not like her to bother about such formalities. She was like an ashtray – she felt her existence only had meaning when he was putting out his fire in her dripping flesh. She continued grinding against him. He gave her a cold look and blew out his smoke in her face. He would burn her to ashes just as he’d burnt down maps and nations only moments ago. She responded with a smutty purr of joy, taking it as the overture to an even spicier move.
“I’m going,” he said abruptly.
She gave a start. “Why? Didn’t you say you’d stay the night?”
He stood up with an air of determination. He stubbed out the joint in the ashtray and reached for his shirt, putting an end to debate. She slumped back in defeat, turning her back to him and drawing the bed sheet over her naked body like someone lowering the curtain over the final scene.
He felt around in the shirt pocket for the Iraqi client’s cash and he asked her, taking the time to relish the insult: “You want money?” She said nothing in reply.
On street level, he was met by bolder winds. They whirled about his well-built body and buffeted his shaved head, ploughing up the ground beside his hurrying steps and whipping up little eddies of air around him. Beams of light registered his exit and windows listened to the quiet patter of his feet as he made a dash for safety. How he hated the Talibiyya district. Tramps popping up where you least expect them and senile old codgers with eyes swivelling to another place and time as if they lived in a different dimension.
A taxi slowed to a crawl alongside him. The driver haggled with him for a moment before allowing him to climb in, giving him a ticket just to be on the safe side. He started cruising along the near-vacant streets at a steady pace, chatting away. Ziyad could have done without his chatter, but he didn’t try to shut him up. He also wore people out with his endless chatter when he was trying to get things done.
He tried to take his mind off the driver’s nattering by going back over the row he’d had with his mother that morning. Was 50,000 pounds a sum even worth debating in this day and age? It meant nothing next to all the things he’d had to go without all those years. His mother’s warmth, her soft breast . . . those bedtime stories, which left the house with her . . . that tender indulgent smile she’d give him when she found out he’d wet his bed. Wasn’t it enough that he’d put up with that gruff old grandmother with her bony hands? Wasn’t it enough that he’d borne the burden of his unhappy childhood all on his own, and that he’d marked his days as a young boy by the number of quarrels they contained? That his father had refused to foot the bill for private tuition after he had failed his exams at secondary school? That he covered the cost of his weed and his pills by the sweat of his brow and by sacrificing his dignity so as to make time pass and make sure no-one else had to bear any responsibility?
Everything he’d done had ensured his father enjoyed the best possible conditions to keep warming himself at his petrol fires and stuffing his coffers with money, counting his pennies every evening without a care in the world. Didn’t he deserve some compensation for all this? Other people his age who had fathers working abroad went about looking like A-list footballers with their fancy clothes and flashy cars and took women to 5-star hotels while he broke into a cold sweat thinking the price of weed might go up a smidgen, and got his physical needs covered in a seedy stinking room in the Talibiyya district.
But since his father had said no to his idea flat out, he had to change tack. As of today he would start spending his nights at the house, and he’d work to open lines of communication with both his father and mother. More than that, he’d try to impress on his father that he might yet succeed in living up to the ideal he had for him in his mind. He’d fan his mother’s hopes that she might see him settle down quietly at her side. He’d pray, yes, he would pray . . . not just on Fridays but on most days and times. He wouldn’t return to the topic before a week had come and gone, maybe even two weeks, depending on how things went. It was imperative to contain the situation that had come to a head that morning. He was the only loser in this contest of wills.
What a strange woman you are, Mother! You dutifully wheel about in my father’s orbit all those years and almost drive me out entirely, and then you clap your hands and want me back at the first sign of serious conflict with him. The fact that you’ve left his orbit makes me anxious, because it means you won’t be able to help me put pressure on him. But the real catastrophe will be when his new marriage produces an unexpected poisonous fruit, which will put paid to any hope that remains. A sense of fear crept over him. “Patience, patience.”
“Did you say something, Mister?” the driver broke into his thoughts.
Coming to himself, he quickly replied: “Me? Nothing.”
It was hard not to laugh at himself now. How could he ever have thought his father would say yes? He’d never said yes to anything before, why would he start now? He was the same old curmudgeon, what on earth would get into him and make him loosen his purse-strings on this day of all days? Maybe it was that he found it hard to imagine how he could say no to a project quite like this one. A recording studio with 100% chance of success and an unlimited base of potential customers. Some dream about writing music or singing or about getting into sports commentating, others are into dubbing or advertising, or into audiobooks and the production of automated marketing messages. He’d even open his doors to fans of religious music and to all those radio stations spreading over the internet like a disease. He’d got to know a lot of people like that, and had invested a lot of time preparing the ground for the project. He’d spend hours prowling around a café next to the night club, which was across the road from a famous recording studio. He’d come up with God knows how many excuses to get its customers to talk to him and had even found an opportunity to enter the premises and have a look around.

A friend of his who was a sound engineer and looked after the equipment at the club had assured him that all he needed was to rent a small two-bedroom flat and get it fitted with the essentials and some second-hand equipment, which could be had for a reasonable price. Fifty thousand would be more than enough to buy him the ticket to success – an amount that would hardly make a dent in the piles and piles his father had squirrelled away in the stores of his eternal absence.

Never mind. He wouldn’t let himself be defeated by this sum, even if it meant filching it from his mother. He was sure she had gold jewellery stashed away somewhere around the house – her reward for all the years she’d endured the scorching desert sun. Give it a few days or weeks around the house, and he’d sooner or later sniff it out.




First published in Banipal 65 Summer 2019


Republished here with agreement