Prickly pear cacti are always squat and spindly bushes—that much I know. The exception to this rule, however, is the prickly pear grove found in my grandfather’s village. It’s lofty. It towers into the sky, its foliage so dense it always struck me as foretelling of a secret that was to be hidden away for good in its myriad crevices and shadows. And what intensified this feeling in me, and brought me to the conclusion that cacti are far from innocent, was the sight of our beautiful, fair-skinned friend Heaven running to the prickly pear one day and trying to hide among its limbs and behind its broad, swollen leaves. She looked like the heroine of a fairy tale fleeing a terrifying kingdom.
Little beads of sweat were pouring off her forehead, her cheeks were even rosier than usual, and when she almost slammed into me on her way past, a shivery thrill went through my body, a strange jolt of energy. Heaven did not seem to be the same sex as me, even though I knew her well and I had seen her bathing in her birthday suit more than once; just like me, she had untamable, bouncing breasts. But deep down inside, Heaven was fundamentally different from me, as—in utter contrast to most girls in the village—she existed in a constant state of awe. She lived among us, but her almond-shaped eyes seemed to be seeing another world, about which we knew nothing at all. And what was stranger still was the color of those eyes of hers: they beamed out a brilliant sky blue that made her the talk of the entire village. Despite everything that was said about her and her eyes in the village back then, I didn’t understand anything about that awe they shone with until I grew up. As an adult I finally came to understand, with the benefit of hindsight, what the grown-ups had been hinting at about the djinns that had taken up residence in Heaven and imprisoned her in an invisible box called Desire.
—We simply must get a band in to play at the women’s section of the party. A party’s nothing without drumming and dancing.
—If my first wife demanded that of me, I would never have granted her wish. But you…you know the place you have in my heart.
Nuwara was twenty-two years old, slight, and a little snub-nosed. What made up for that, however, was the rosy bloom of her cheeks and the existence of that exquisite mole between her left cheekbone and her nose. And although her clothed body didn’t stand out as anything special, when she was naked and in the hands of a man, she became a real woman. She was tastier than any fantasy, as sweet as a ripe fruit out of season. Any man could see that. That’s why Ahmed was saying to her now:
—You know I give in to all your demands. But a male band performing to a group of women? I can’t imagine that.
To my counterpart in privation: The Awaited Mahdi, Mohammed al-Mahdi Saqal
If he’d obeyed me I wouldn’t be here now, and he wouldn’t be there, either… but he’s what they call around here head-cracking stubborn.
Lice and stench and cockroaches. I thought head lice died out ages ago, but in this dump they’re still going strong. The flabby woman sitting across from me is picking through her friend’s hair. From time to time she yells out, “There’s one. I’ve got it!” She squashes each little nit between her two thumbs.
My mother used to put my head on her lap, too, and search for those tiny little bugs. She’d set herself up ready with a bottle of paraffin next to her, and one of those combs made from sheep or gazelle horn that we all used in those days, and then she’d launch her attack on the parasites feeding on my blood. I’d be trying to wriggle away; she’d grab my arms; I’d keep struggling. Eventually she’d lure me in—I’m gonna tell you the tale of Hayna, who was abducted by the ghoul—and at that I’d surrender instantly.
She takes off her clothes and covers her chilly, naked body with a heavyweight green gown. She steps into the white plastic slippers and gets up onto the birthing chair. She leans back, gulping hungrily at the air and mumbling a plea for help in the form of the Quranic ayahs she’s been told will ease the pain of her contractions: “When the earth is leveled out, casts out its contents, and becomes empty… casts out its contents and becomes empty… casts out….” Her words are silenced by a new contraction slamming into her from behind, then bursting out from the middle of her back and wrapping its monstrous arms around her, engulfing her, linking its hands under her belly and squeezing, clamping down, pushing down, down, down. She bites her bottom lip and clasps her hands over her chest. She digs the nails of her right hand hard into her left palm, streaming sweat, a tear escaping the corner of her eye.
The uniformed conscript led the way, bearing aloft, on a small pink velvet cushion, a shabby-looking woman’s shoe. The leather was faded, stretched, and torn. Part of the sole had come off, and the heel had been roughly hammered back on with protruding nails. None of the repairs that had obviously been carried out in an attempt to restore the shoe’s former glory had succeeded. Behind the conscript came the cavalry, weaving their way through the houses of the city, searching for a woman’s foot to fit the shoe.
Regardless of how it turned out, the situation certainly demanded a courageous decision. I could no longer bear the chaos that had spread to all areas of my life—a life that I was constantly striving to keep in the best possible state of order.
We can’t believe that we’re on the brink of publishing our FIFTEENTH Issue! If you couldn’t make it to our Launch Party, you can still mingle with our Issue 15 contributors in this month’s Friday Reads. When you’re done reading, be sure to purchase your copy of Issue 15 here!
We awoke one morning to news of a death. The person we had lost was the one we used to call the Village Idiot—that buffoon who used to make us laugh and cry at the same time, that leaping, dancing ball of energy who would hurl himself around, wild with enthusiasm, stomping on our toes and crashing into us as he went gesticulating by.
The Second Battle
The women were weirdly dressed: short, revealing, feminine dresses over naval uniform trousers. An attractive French woman was topless, her lower half crammed into a pair of tight military trousers, while some of the soldiers living it up down in the belly of the ship were wearing women’s silk negligees, once bright white but now so heavily stained with vomit, urine, and semen that they were closer to dark grey. On board the Josephine—over the many days of her voyage so far—a professional, serious, and accurate reenactment of some of Sodom and Gomorrah’s wildest days had been performed. Thus the Josephine rocked heavily on the surface of the sea, her cargo consisting of dozens of woozy French women and dozens of French soldiers who were “guarding them,” while the port of Saint Jean d’Acre blinked on the distant horizon.