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What Everybody Knows

I’m a woman who’s been through terrible trauma. I’m a woman whose first husband committed suicide, and whose second husband woke up out of a dead sleep, murdered her son, then killed himself.

 

Kamal woke up, killed Mahmoud, and threw himself off the balcony.

 

Kamal woke up, killed Mahmoud, and threw himself off the balcony. Right from the start, from the beginning of the beginning, I never blamed Kamal for killing Mahmoud. Kamal is forgiven: he had a whore for a mother and a bastard for a son, and it’s at those two, bastard and whore, that the fingers of blame should be pointed. Not at Kamal, who was a victim the same way that I was a victim, and more so. The whore mother I’d already killed, but the bastard son, who’d played the lead in Mahmoud’s death, what were we going to do about him?

 

Justice is that the killer dies, right? That’s what I know. That’s what everybody knows, though they might deny it.

 

Hours I spent on Facebook, hunting for Haytham Kamal, trying every play
on the name I could think of, until I found him, and sent him a Friend request.
Then nights, scrolling down his wall. I wanted to know what he was doing,
where he went. Where I could find him, so I could kill him, so I could make the
world more beautiful, if only for a while. Okay, I was telling myself, I’ll kill him,
and I’ll turn myself in to the police, and I’ll go to prison.

 

But as I was hunting Haytham on Facebook, I was also searching on Google,
looking up Qanater Prison. I wanted to be fully prepared. I packed a few changes
of clothes and a toothbrush. Wasn’t leaving anything to chance.

 

When they took me to prison – when I took myself to prison – I wanted to
be ready.

 

I’m a woman who’s taken what people aren’t made to take. So what do I do? Die? Can you do that? Suffer all that trauma and just make up your mind to lie down and die? Well, yes, of course you can, but what I’m saying is: that’s not me.

 

*

 

If there was one person Harankash might say was her mentor, her godfather, then that person would be Amm Nagi.

 

Who was Amm Nagi? Amm Nagi was the first person to say the big things to her, the grown-up things. Things like, The president’s selling the country. From the same district as her father, Ismail, and a fellow officer. They had joined the Staff College on the same day and become inseparable, brothers, and when each was posted to a different unit it had been Amm Nagi who’d made sure to get transferred to Cairo, to be close to Ismail. Dropping in on one another whenever they could.

 

Amm Nagi had attended Harankash’s birth. Had loved her with all his heart. He would come round to their apartment and wouldn’t let her be until he’d told her the tales of all the prophets, Adam to Mohammed. Later, it would be stories of the railway workers’ strike, of strikes at the textile factories and the olive oil factories and the soap oil factories – every conceivable species of worker and factory; every type of oil – and when her father confided his ambition to see her enrolled at military secondary school, Amm Nagi had stood tall and told him, Shame on you, brother, she’s a little girl. You and me? We entered the army on a whim, we didn’t plan it, and your daughter’s life is nothing to do with a spur-of-the-moment decision you regret yourself. You should have been a poet, after all. The girl wants a public education, so give her a public education. And Harankash didn’t forget.

 

*

 

One winter’s morning Harankash put a call through to Amm Nagi. She told him she needed him urgently, something she couldn’t talk about over the phone, something personal this time, something for her. And ‘needed him’ meaning: wanted him to do her a favour.

 

And Amm Nagi, who had been waiting a lifetime for Harankash to tell him that she needed him, didn’t embarrass her. He said to her that whatever it was she needed and whatever it was for – anything at all, from the smallest possible thing to the biggest imaginable – she only had to turn up and she’d find it there waiting for her.

 

Carte blanche is what she had.

 

In the garden in his villa in El Marg they sat together as they always did, and she told him she hadn’t been able to move from Tahrir Square. That she was still looking for an apartment away from the square, and that every day the situation was worse than the day before: that for weeks now huge battles had been breaking out, that people were swarming into the street beneath her building. They’d even climbed up to the first floor, she told him.

 

And me, a woman living alone. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I almost died of fright. I want a gun, Amm Nagi.

 

Amm Nagi heard her out, listening intently all the while, then he got up, went inside, and came back out carrying a handgun wrapped in reams and reams of plastic bags. He kissed it and handed it to her. Anyone comes near you, you shoot them in the arse. In the arse, you hear me?

 

When it was time to say goodbye they held one another tight for a long time.

 

*

 

Harankash had never lost faith in her marksmanship. Everywhere and anywhere she went she would pick out a distant target, extend her forefinger, and fire. It was just eye and finger, hardly what you’d call training, but she never, ever lost faith in herself.

 

Harankash was quite sure who her enemy was (it was Haytham), and she knew the means of her vengeance (the pistol), but what she did not know was the time and the place: where and how she could get a shot at Haytham and put paid to him. Her enemy gone for good. She looked carefully into all the possibilities. Obsessively stalked the child’s Facebook page. She was keeping an eye out for anywhere he went alone, far from the gaze of other people, somewhere she could finish him and bring this chapter of her life to a close.

 

And start a new chapter in prison.

 

And it was right in the midst of her fevered search for the places where Haytham went that the world, once more, stopped turning. War got into people’s heads and onto their social media pages and battles in and around Tahrir Square broke out afresh. From her window, Harankash looked down and saw the plates and tea glasses flying back and forth over the heads of the demonstrators, wounding wherever they fell. She saw people dropping from the impact of the glass, the fragmenting china, from the tear-gas, and amidst the flurry of defiant, bellicose posts, Haytham wrote: I’m going to Tahrir, who’s with me? In her heart she smiled and murmured, I’m with you, sweetheart.

 

Harankash went out. She took up her gun, wrapped in its reams of plastic, splashed her face with Pepsi the way the demonstrators did to protect themselves from the gas, and she ran and tripped and fell and stood and ran again, and fell again, and a demonstrator trampled her arm and gave her a graze that she would live with for weeks afterwards, and this time no one told her, No chicks allowed into the square. This time no one dared call her ‘chick’. But she didn’t see Haytham. For three days she demonstrated, did her duty as a revolutionary and combed the square for Haytham. And couldn’t find him. Her heart thumped violently all the while, but it didn’t put her off her plan.

 

By day four Harankash was approaching the outer limits of despair. She left the gun at home and sat, face buried in her hands, on the kerb in El Qasr El Ainy, two streets away from her own front door, looking across at what had once been a petrol station and was now an empty, tarmacked lot where demonstrators gathered.

 

It was raining: a light rain, a sign of good things, an omen that the world would get better. And there, on the tarmacked surface of the petrol station that was a petrol station no more, she spied Haytham. When she saw him she started to shake and she ran down a side street so he wouldn’t see her.

 

Get home, Harankash! Get the gun!

 

Okay! Okay! she muttered and didn’t move. She was scared. Even Harankash got scared at times. Haytham was sitting in the lot smoking a cigarette with a couple of friends. You’re smoking, Haytham? Little faggot. How old are you that you’re smoking? She was watching him from behind a cart selling hot chickpea and tomato broth and a man hawking candy floss. She could make out bits of him, jumbled and blurred through the gaps between the customers and the bags of floss and the steam rising off the hot broth, and she was filled with hatred towards him. The hatred, rising off her heart like steam and the sound of his voice echoing in her mind: Is your son retarded? She gave a great shudder, she scraped her feet hard against the ground, and she felt a nausea, as though the hatred was climbing up from the boiling centre of her stomach’s juices and she was going to flood the street and the bystanders and the cars and the demonstrators with puke, that the puke would spill over the walls and buildings of El Qasr El Ainy. During it all she never dropped her gaze from Haytham, from the broken, ghostly bits of him. And inside her was this buzzing hum, which, once a few seconds had passed, she would hear as the voice of her father, whispering to her, stubborn and insistent: Focus, Harankash.

 

Haytham was lighting a fresh cigarette from his previous cigarette and suddenly she saw him slump, and the tarmac was all blood and screams and chaos.

 

The boy beside him backed away, the people parted, then the boy ventured back and began trying to stir the body, but it didn’t stir. The buzzing in Harankash’s head was muddled with the short sharp cries from the pavement opposite. With blurred, unfocussed eyes she saw the little fallen body, she saw the blood, she saw the ambulance arriving, bobbing and weaving to the rhythm of the siren and the screams and the buzzing hum, and she was very frightened, and she ran home at great speed and climbed the stairs to her apartment.

 

The bedroom light off. Heart leaping madly in her ribcage. She opened the fridge in search of booze to calm herself, but all she found was a bottle of Pepsi. She downed it in one gulp and let off a chain of little burps, one after the other. Then she went over to the chest of drawers, took out the bundled gun and held it in her sweating palms. She threw herself onto the bed. Out loud, to herself, she said: I killed Haytham. The first words she’d uttered out loud for hours.

 

Now she would turn herself in to the police. She would tell them, I killed Haytham, and I killed his grandmother, and now this chapter of my life is over. Whatever you have against me, use it. She was careful not to switch on a single light, not to make a sound. Enough was the sound of her heart, which shook – or so it seemed to her – the apartment’s four walls. She opened Facebook. She wanted to write something about all this, about her life which was now behind her and her fear of what was to come. So she wrote. She wrote, and deleted, and wrote and deleted, until a picture of a bleeding Haytham appeared in her feed, and beneath it the words: Martyrdom of the child Haytham Kamal at the hands of an Interior Ministry sniper. Then another, and with it, a comment: The Interior are gangsters. And another comment, this time sarcastic: And they say the Interior can’t shoot straight!

 

And she smiled in her heart and thought of her father, teaching her to draw a bead on plastic plates frisbeed through the air and saying: At the right moment, Harankash, not too soon, not too late. Your heart will sense the moment and you must listen to what it tells you. Standing in front of the mirror her smile broadened. She liked the way she looked and she liked her smile. A cute thing, a cutie; she hadn’t seen herself like this for years. She pointed at the image in the mirror and she said, Lord, aren’t you the cutest little sniper?

 

*

 

At around two in the morning, with the photograph of the Interior’s thirteen-year-old victim all over Facebook, Harankash’s heart began to settle down. That was more or less when she started to think of Mahmoud. She gave herself over to the thought, to the sweet image of Mahmoud rapping on the door of her flat, and she went up to the rooftop to set up a second chair next to hers.

 

It was just before three when she heard knocking. She got up and opened
the door.

 

She had wanted him to come, and he’d come.

 

She just stared at him, robbed of speech, and he stared back at her, unwavering, until at last, half-smiling, he said, How are you, Mummy? Harankash absorbed the shock. Didn’t scream or become agitated. She was somehow ready for him, so she told herself afterwards. Had known that she would see him in the end.

 

Two whole minutes passed, then she smiled and said, Huh. So at last you remembered you had a mother? Call yourself a son?

 

His head was hatless, and he wore a filthy lined jacket. She smiled and led him inside. In he came and sat on the chair she’d put out for him. She asked him if he believed in her now, whether he realised she hadn’t been unfair to him before, that she had always known who the true bastards were, and he replied that he had never doubted her word and asked if she had anything to drink, so she said that she’d drunk the last of the Pepsi hours before he turned up.

 

He was confused for a moment, then he took a hip flask from the filthy pocket of his jacket and started to drink. Sorry, he said. Mahmoud! Mahmoud, what the hell is that? She reached over and took the flask and sniffed at it, and the reek of booze, cheap and powerful, assailed her nostrils. And how old are you to be drinking this filth? It’s Eid today, Mummy, today’s an exception, Mahmoud said as he swigged, then he added, And Mummy? Would you mind not calling it filth? As he asked this he held her gaze and smiled, a smile as tender as the boy himself.

 

On the tiles that covered the roof there was a cockroach, crouched motionless some distance from them both. Harankash glanced at it then did her best to ignore it, but every now and then it seemed to swivel her way, and it made her uncomfortable. In the end she couldn’t hold out any longer and she said to Mahmoud, Could you kill that cockroach over there? Mahmoud got up and went over to it, peered at it closely, and told his mother that it wasn’t a cockroach, that it seemed to be a pinch of tobacco or something. Harankash got up and went over, and she bent down and touched it, and saw that, indeed, it was tobacco, a relic of her old roommate Hind – Hind, who used to roll her cigarettes and never smoked the ready-mades that Harankash preferred. How strange that the wind hadn’t blown it away. Then she went back over to where they were sitting, next to the low rampart ringing the roof, and she tossed the tobacco into the street.

 

They watched it flutter down, flaking and scattering over El Qasr El Ainy Street: a cockroach, flying from the building and coming apart in midair. Kamal, with a pair of wings strapped on his back, soaring out from the balcony and down towards the pavement, his heart stopping before he reached the ground. The images looped through Harankash’s mind, over and over, until she decided to push them away. It’s a clump of tobacco, she told herself: No more and no less.

 

The streets below them were a shambles: the streetlights out, broken glass everywhere, demonstrators asleep and huddled in dark blankets, and the faint, acrid trace of gas hanging in the air. He watched her taking it all in and he said, Why don’t we go down and take a turn in Tahrir? The offer alarmed her. Weren’t they going to spend the night chatting on the roof? She said, But we can’t. Tahrir’s a wasteland. He gave a blithe shrug. And? Wasteland belongs to everybody. And he took a slug of the whiskey. Can I have some? she asked. He gave her the flask and she drank, and there again was the acid tang of the alcohol she’d tried that time, back when she was sleeping out on the street after the revolution, and her courage came back to her and she said, Let’s go.

 

Down they went together, Mahmoud a touch drunk and weaving, Harankash bright and sober. They wandered through Tahrir, through the vendors selling tirmis and peanuts and tea and candy floss, and sat together in the little garden facing the Mogamma, Harankash with her arms wrapped round herself against the cold. When he saw he said, One second, and sprinted off. Two minutes later he was back with a couple of ragged blankets. Where’d you get those, Mahmoud? At first he was tongue-tied. Mumbled things like, It’s nothing, and, Doesn’t matter, but she insisted. He said that he’d pulled them off the sleeping body of a Salafi sheikh. You stealing from people? she said, angry now, and he answered that it wasn’t like that. The Salafi sheikh was hugely fat, and the vast quantities of fat cladding his body were enough to keep him warm. Because fat’s a very poor heat conductor, Mummy. The response surprised her, and after a moment or two her anger turned to pride. You’re still going to school then, Mahmoud? Yes. And you’re getting good marks? Better than anyone could possibly imagine, he said, tongue thick from the booze.

 

And as they dozed side by side, a car came racing into the square. Harankash took fright, but Mahmoud said that it was handing out meals to the demonstrators, and he jogged off, and for a moment he was lost to sight amid the crowds thronging round the food. There were journalists, standing back and taking pictures of the scene. Suddenly a commotion broke out and the crowds round the car began drumming on the doors and the back and shouting things that Harankash couldn’t make out, and then she caught sight of Mahmoud, shouting along with them, his voice quite possibly the loudest of them all. He was saying, The demonstrators aren’t starving! And then he turned to face the people around him and in his reedy, child-like voice, he shouted, Think of the impression we’re making, people! The vehicle sped off, fleeing its attackers, and Harankash went and caught up with Mahmoud, grabbed him by the hand and led him away. After a while, his eyes fixed on the ground, Mahmoud said, They want to show people that those demonstrators are trash, that they’re starving, that they’ll gnaw any bone you toss them. Then he turned to her. Mummy, do you think that the revolutionaries are starving? She stayed silent for a bit, then, hesitantly, because she didn’t know whether to shout at her son or be proud of him: Are you a revolutionary, then, Mahmoud? And he didn’t answer.

 

They went back to their patch of grass, Harankash still confused: so many words in her heart and not the first idea how to speak them to her son. And for a long time she stayed this way, stuck between speaking and not speaking, and then she made up her mind and decanted the lot: out of her heart and into his ears. I’m a revolutionary, too, you know. I’m an activist. Not a passivist. Don’t go thinking that just because you go out and demonstrate you’re more of an activist than I am. What I did, who’d I do it for? And she lowered her voice dramatically, so low that she herself couldn’t hear it. You know I just murdered someone? And bit by bit, her voice began to rise: And who for? Isn’t it for you, for you and all your little comrades in the revolution? Isn’t it so the world might be a better place for you? The last two questions were uttered with a degree of vexation, of strain, but contrary to her expectations, Mahmoud did not flare up. He stayed silent, staring into the distance. Then he said, still staring away, Everyone’s a revolutionary in their own way, Mummy. Her heart thumped with joy to hear his words, and she gave him a big hug, and she said, My darling boy! My dear Mahmoud!

 

About half an hour after the dawn prayer was called, as the sun began to climb up over Tahrir Square, Mahmoud informed her that he was off; that he had important things to be doing. She gripped him by the collar of his jacket and said, Don’t. Don’t go now, please. Can’t we just celebrate a while longer? He pried her hand from the collar and took a step back – Sorry, Mummy – and walked away, calling out Bye! over his shoulder. She waited for him to change his mind and then, when she saw him determinedly disappearing from view, she swallowed back the bitterness in her heart and climbed the stairs to her apartment.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

NAEL ELTOUKHY is an Egyptian novelist, essayist, journalist and translator of Hebrew literature into Arabic, who currently lives in Berlin. He has published two novellas and three novels in Arabic. The English translation of his second novel, Women of Karantina (AUC Press, 2014), was shortlisted for the fiction prize of the 2015 FT/ Oppenheimer Funds Emerging Voices Awards. His most recent novel, Out of the Gutter, which is extracted here, was published in Arabic in 2018.

ROBIN MOGER is a translator of contemporary Arabic literature, based in Cape Town.

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