The car approached the last building on the block and gradually reduced speed until it came to a halt by the entrance. Abu Abir lifted his gaze then said, “The kitchen window’s ashut.” Ashraf parked the car in the building’s shade, switched off the engine, lit a cigarette and stared out through the windshield.
It was mid-afternoon and the day’s heat had yet to break. A man wearing a gallabeya walked past, glanced towards the two men then hurried inside the building. Emerging from beneath a parked car a filthy cat stretched and crossed the street. A woman’s hand reached out from a second floor balcony for the basket on a line and let it down until it reached the entrance. She stood looking out, leaning against the balcony wall. Ashraf flicked his butt out the window and said, “He couldn’t have left it with his sister in Suez?” Without turning Abu Abir replied, “He hasn’t had time to visit her, Ashraf,” and Ashraf exhaled noisily and was quiet. Between the buildings the nearby desert sands of Haram could be seen.
A boy approached the basket and looked up at the woman and she shouted down. He put his hand into the basket, took something and left. Ashraf said, “I haven’t seen his brother for a long time. Perhaps…” Abu Abir broke in, “Ashraf. Walid Taha’s no novice, you know that. He’s the best there is. He’d never stash the goods with his sister or brother.” Ashraf lost his temper, shouted, “That’s my money, Abu Abir. My money, get it?” and punched the steering wheel. “I know, Ashraf, I know,” Abu Abir replied, “And as you can see, we’re not going to leave a stone unturned.” Then they both fell silent. Their eyes were fixed on the windshield in front them, neither turning to the other. The boy returned carrying a black plastic bag and he placed it in the basket then started shouting up. When no one answered he grabbed the basket and tried swinging back and forth. Abu Abir said: “Walid’s had a spell cast on him, Ashraf,” and without opening his mouth Ashraf snorted. The woman came back out onto the balcony and shouted at the boy for a second time. He stopped swinging and she started to raise the basket. After a longish pause Abu Abir said, “Calm yourself, Ashraf. Let’s take a little drive till the Sunni gets back.”
The car left the Kafr El Gebel estate and drive slowly away down the Mansouria Canal road towards Beni Youssef. They had just passed the military base when the sound of a powerful thumping from the boot reached the two occupants. It was clearly audible despite the engine’s noise and Abu Abir cocked his ear for a brief moment then ignored it, staring out of the passenger-side window as Ashraf drove on until he had left the industrial zone behind then turned off down a bumpy dirt road lined with trees and field on both sides. The car pressed ahead, wrapped in a thick cloud of dust, farmers on their way to their fields crossing in front of it from time to time, then after a while the farmers disappeared, the thin strip of agricultural land vanished behind them and, at last, the car reached an abandoned rubbish dump. Ashraf pulled up next to the dump, switched the engine off and the two men got out and stood gazing around them. All that could be seen of the city was distant line of small redbrick buildings fringed by a faded green.
Abu Abir opened the boot and in a single movement grasped the leash, lifted Walid Taha out and set him on the ground, then untied his legs. Walid Taha instantly sprang up on all fours and started making a whistling sound through his nostrils, scampering in all directions with Abu Abir yanking hard on the rope that was tied around his neck until he calmed down. The two men leant on the back of the car and smoked in silence as Walid Taha strained to reach a rusty can lying on the ground. Abu Abir slackened the leash so he could get to it. He thrust his muzzle into the can then recoiled and slapped it away. Ashraf broke the silence. “It’s my fault. I went home and left him to stash it himself.” Abu Abir replied, “Don’t be so hard on yourself. He’s sure to have put it somewhere safe.” Then the two men stopped talking and started to watch Walid Taha combing through the rubbish. He had a clear limp, and would dig away at one spot as well as he could manage before abandoning the attempt, moving over and starting to dig again, until at last he flopped down on the dirt by the edge of the dump, the golden evening sun glinting off the pile behind him.
Abu Abir lifted his head and looked up at the building. The kitchen window on the third floor was open. They waited in the car outside the entrance until the movement in the street died down then got out. Abu Abir opened the boot and quickly heaved Walid Taha over his shoulder and Ashraf threw a sheepskin over him, then the pair walked quickly up to the third floor and rapped on the door. Moments passed and nothing happened, so Ashraf knocked more firmly and in a low voice said, “Open up, Sunni.” For a long time the Sunni peered through the peephole then made up his mind and opened the door.
They came in quickly, panting, and as soon as they were inside Abu Abir freed Walid Taha’s legs, keeping hold of the leash. The Sunni stood rooted to the spot staring at the latter who was now on his feet in the living room, making fruitless efforts to slip the rope in Abu Abir’s hand and staring at the Sunni with two coal black eyes, a high whistling sound escaping him. He looked like a zebra but the size of a goat. His limbs and frame were those of a zebra but much smaller than they should be. His legs were strong but short, his neck broad but squat; the black stripes that rippled over his skin, thin lines. The Sunni said, astonished “What’s this?” “Walid Taha,” answered Abu Abir.
The Sunni peered hard at the two men and without uttering a word went to sit down on the couch. The visit had come as a surprise. He’d not been in contact with the pair for a long time. The last time he had seen them had been at Ashraf’s. The Sunni had been angry with Ashraf after he’d made him the laughing stock of the gathering, going on and on about the fact he couldn’t find his way around the place because he was always stoned. He would have fought him if Walid Taha hadn’t calmed him down. The Sunni lit a cigarette and began inspecting Walid at a distance. He was plainly exhausted: thin, face drawn and dirty, missing the whiskers to the right of his muzzle. At last, the Sunni said, “What happened?” and Ashraf replied: “Nothing. I was in the bedroom at his place and he said, Go out onto the balcony for a second, Ashraf. I wasn’t paying attention. I went out for a smoke and when I came back I found him like this.” The Sunni stared at him: “You went out to smoke a cigarette and when you came back you found him like this…” “Yeah,” said Ashraf coolly. Abu Abir interrupted. “Walid Taha’s had a spell put on him, Sunni,” he said, and the Sunni flicked a glance at him and replied, “Shut your mouth, could you, Abu Abir?” and then Walid Taha gave a sudden jerk, pulled the rope through Abu Abir’s hands and scurried, despite his limp, towards the living room’s only window, slamming into it with all his strength in a vain attempt to jump out and shattering the glass. Recovering his wits after the initial shock, Abu Abir pulled hard on the leash and Walid Taha’s head snapped forward. Tension filled the room and the three men stood there, speechless, until the Sunni said, “Did you do anything to upset him while you were there, Ashraf?” and Ashraf said he hadn’t, and then went on: “When I opened the balcony door to come back into the room I saw Walid coming towards me. I got a hell of a fright at first, it’s true, but almost immediately I realised it was Walid, and when he got to me he sat down, kicking his leg and wanting to go out onto the balcony. I was worried he’d jump so I grabbed him by the neck and tied him to a leash and then I went down to get Abu Abir.” Fighting back his amazement the Sunni said, “A striped donkey who wants to fly!” and Ashraf shouted, “That’s not the point here, Sunni! The point is the goods. Walid Taha hid them by himself. I was tired and I left him to stash them while I went home. We’ve spent a week turning over every place he ever took goods and we can’t find a thing. Help me here, Sunni.”
From that day forward Walid Taha’s tongue had been stilled, his only sound a high whistling from his nostrils when he breathed. Whenever Abu Abir or Ashraf asked him a question, Walid Taha would look at the questioner and whistle through his nose. His absolute silence left the two men at a loss. They thought he must be deliberately keeping a secret from them and they decided to take him to Abu Abir’s roof, far from inquisitive eyes and ears, to question him more thoroughly, but no sooner did Walid Taha step onto the roof than he went into a violent frenzy and immediately tried to jump the low wall, for which reason the interrogations could not begin until they’d tied him up firmly. Their questions never went further than asking where the goods were hidden, but Walid Taha said nothing. During one of these rage-filled evening sessions, Ashraf gripped Walid Taha’s lower jaw and started forcing it open in an effort to get something out of him, and when that, too, failed he fell to with his feet, kicking him in the belly and legs to make him speak, damaging his hind leg. After two days of intensive interrogation it became obvious to Ashraf and Abu Abir that Walid Taha was no longer capable of making any sound save his noisy whistling, and Abu Abir drew two conclusions: One, that Walid Taha wasn’t hiding any secret, he’d just lost the power of speech; that he understood what was said to him—based on the fact that he looked at his questioner—but was simply unable to reply. Two, that Walid Taha might have been trying to tell them where the goods were through his repeated attempts to jump off the roof; that maybe he wanted to lead them somewhere. Based on these conclusions, he proposed they take Walid Taha on tours around any place they suspected he was wont to stash things and slacken his leash a bit and maybe he’d take them to the goods. “Where do you think he hid them, anyway?” he added: “They’re either in Tawabeq or Ashreini…” And Ashraf weighed these two conclusions and saw that Abu Abir’s proposal was sound.
The first thing they did was to take Walid Taha to Tawabeq, having first roped a sheepskin round him so he wouldn’t attract the attention of people in the street. While they were still in the car, Abu Abir had fixed his gaze on Walid Taha’s black eyes and asked slowly and clearly, “Where are the goods, Walid?” then the two men had walked him down the street, Abu Abir holding the leash. They walked past Hamada’s store where he’d stashed them the time before then took him down alley after alley in the next neighbourhood along, hoping that he’d lead them straight there. But Walid Taha trotted calmly along between them. Even when they sat at the café to take a break and drink their tea he lay stretched out peacefully at their feet, from time to time his body jerking as though about to launch an attack, at which Abu Abir, hand on the leash, would ready himself, but in the end he would settle back down again. After that they took him to Ashreini, his old neighbourhood, maybe there… but the strolls through the streets led nowhere, Walid Taha walking always calmly between the men. Nor was this street-walking always without consequences, since with time the oddity of Walid Taha’s neck and legs began attracting attention and brought children running in his wake. And so they took him back to the roof and tied him up. After a week of failure, Abu Abir said: “Walid doesn’t want to run. Walid wants to fly.”
“God make it up to you, Ashraf. What’s gone never returns,” said the Sunni after prolonged consideration. Ashraf went completely still. “We brought him here so you could talk to him,” said Abu Abir: “Maybe he’ll listen to you. He always thought the world of you.” The Sunni replied: “Walid’s finished. He’s not one of us any more. He doesn’t speak our language.” “Cut the crap,” said Ashraf, “Just tell us how we’re going to talk to him,” and the Sunni gave him a look. “How did you end up in this line of work, Ashraf? The pill business isn’t for you. How many times have I said he shouldn’t be working with you?” Ashraf turned his head suddenly and swiveled his eyes, then he snorted and yelled, “Where’s the goods you son of a whore?” Grabbing the chair he was sitting on he brought it down on the head of Walid Taha, who had started to hiss through clenched teeth. A piece of the chair remained in Ashraf’s hand and he starting to beat him with it so that the blood flowed from his head, continuing to hit him until the Sunni grabbed his arm and snapped, “That’s enough. After all, Ashraf, Hagg Taha raised you.” Rage had taken possession of Ashraf and he stood in the middle of the room, purple-faced and bellowing unintelligibly. Abu Abir circled him with his arms and Ashraf tried to wrestle free, almost throwing Abu Abir to the ground, but Abu Abir dug deep and didn’t let him go, until at last Ashraf calmed down and began looking over at Walid Taha, trembling as he said, “That’s how it is between us, Walid?” Walid Taha pressed himself into the wall, his neck stretched out and his legs shivering, then his strength left him and he collapsed on the floor. The others stood silently over him. Time passed, then the Sunni said, “Walid stays here tonight, Ashraf.” Ashraf turned to face him, as though he didn’t understand, then said in a weak voice, “And the goods, Sunni? My money? Walid stays with me until he speaks” Abu Abir spoke up: “It’s late and the streets aren’t safe these days. Better to keep him here.” And the three men stood there, silent.
Sunni didn’t sleep a wink. He spent the night sitting and smoking and listening to Abdel Wahhab. From time to time he caught the sound of Walid Taha’s whistling breath from the bathroom. A whole lifetime passed before him. The first spell in Tora prison with Hagg Taha. The kid Walid playing with a flick-knife. The battle of Kafr Kaabeesh that brought down El Dahshouri’s gang, and left Hagg Taha and his men to take their place. The second stretch in Tora. Walid, a young man, marking up the faces of his enemies, thin scars that never disappeared no matter how much time passed. The decline of hashish and the dawn of bango. Walid crowned king of Faisal due to his unmatched skill with the knives. The cassette came to end and the machine stopped and the Sunni’s stream of thoughts was broken. He listened to Walid Taha’s whistling, clearly audible in the living room, then he got up, went to the bathroom and opened the door to take another look at him there, tied to the U-bend beneath the sink. Light fell on the head of Walid Taha, who lay curled up on the tiles. He turned to see where it was coming from. His eyes were coal black. The Sunni looked at him then went to the kitchen, picked up a square tin which he filled with water, came back to the bathroom and set it down beside him. Walid Taha struggled to his feet and dipped his muzzle in the water, lapping urgently. The Sunni went closer and Walid Taha lifted his muzzle and looked up at the Sunni, who flinched, stood there for a long time uncertain what to do, then at last he laid his hand on Wahid Taha’s head, who growled. Reassured, the Sunni picked up a flannel, wetted it and started wiping at the traces of blood on Walid Taha’s head. He patted him. “What is it, Walida? You don’t like our life any more? Now you’re a zebra, and a fright into the bargain. Why couldn’t you have been a normal little pony, so we wouldn’t have all this trouble? And anyway, zebras don’t fly.”
The ringing phone broke the silence of the night. The Sunni lifted the receiver and, as he had expected, found Salah Basha on the line. “What’s happened to the kid Walid?” asked the Basha. “So you heard about it?” said the Sunni, but Salah Basha was angry: “Who hasn’t? Tell me what happened to him.” “I don’t know,” said the Sunni, “He’s here with me now.” Salah Basha asked the Sunni to bring him over right away but the Sunni pointed out he couldn’t walk around at night with Walid Taha in this state, and Salah Basha hurriedly ended the call, saying he was coming over immediately.
It wasn’t half an hour before a knocking on the door announced the Basha’s arrival and for the second time that night the Sunni received an unexpected visit. Salah Basha had never come to his home before; if he’d needed him he’d always asked him to come straight down to see him at the station. The Sunni had made ready for the session and cleaned out the pipe before his guest arrived.
The Basha entered alone and the Sunni glanced behind him before closing the door to make sure there was no one with him. Before he sat down the Basha asked the Sunni to show him Walid Taha, so he took him to the bathroom and pushed open the door. Salah Basha stood frozen to the spot as he looked down on Walid Taha, curled up on the white bathroom tiles with his striped hide. “That’s Walid Taha?” he murmured, then went back to the living room and took his place. The Sunni filled the pipe and handed it to his guest. Salah Basha took a great many drags without speaking a word and the living room filled with smoke and Abdel Wahhab’s voice singing, “At sea I never left you, but on land you passed me by…” The Sunni drifted, mulling over the lyrics, then came to when Salah Basha asked, “What’s to be done, Sunni?” “Whatever you say, sir,” the Sunni replied, and added: “You’ll get your money of course and God will have to compensate Ashraf for the goods he lost.” The Basha said, “Fuck the goods and fuck the money, Sunni,” and he went quiet for a long time, concentrating on his smoke, then said: “Look here, Sunni. This won’t wash with me. This time it’s a zebra, next time it’ll be an ogre… The business can’t operate like this…” The Sunni said, “There won’t be a next time, Basha. I’ve been sitting up all night thinking about what happened, and I say Walid is finished. We just set him loose in the desert and we’re done.” “And tomorrow someone else will be at it,” Salah Basha replied: “Same as him.” The Sunni sighed and put a fresh plug of hash in the pipe. Mohammed Abdel Wahhab’s voice came back into the room, singing, “I passed the house of my beloved.” Salah Basha broke the silence: “If someone doesn’t like the work he can give it up and we set him up with his own house and he stays our man, so when we need him he can do us a favour. One of my men gets arrested I get him out the next day. The goods get seized I get them back that night. But what Walid’s doing will fuck up everything. Anything but this. What, does he think he’s going to save his skin like this? No, no, sweetheart, not a chance. Wake up, now.”
After Hagg Taha’s passing the world had changed and the Sunni found himself lost down unfamiliar byways. Hashish was scare, the sources had dried up, and cheap bango appeared, the market for it growing till every man and his wife was joining the trade, dealing all and any drugs they could lay their hands on. Kids young enough to be his sons were coming in hoping to get rich off a big deal or two, and police officers even younger were running the business to make maximum profit in the shortest possible time. The trade was being run like a village full of hired labourers: no risks and no adventure. From time to time Salah Basha would summon him to the station, come on all humble, and ask him to sell off some goods or enquire about the details of some operation or other. The Sunni saw the changes and what they brought and, unable to hold onto his place, he chose to retire to the Kafr El Gebel estate at the edge of the Giza desert. Hagg Taha’s gang soon fell apart after his death and everyone around the Sunni started to get rich as they got on board with the officers, while he made do with dealing hash through his old contacts. With time everyone left him, and he had no choice but to go solo again and him past sixty: a doddering old crook who inspired no terror in the hearts of those he held up in the street, pecking out a living amid a pack of boys. If it hadn’t been for the respect shown by some well-off members of the profession, in recognition of his past, the Sunni wouldn’t even have been able to hold down this basic apartment. From time to time one of them would remember him and drop by, leaving him a sum to live on. The Sunni spent his time in his out-of-the-way apartment, alone, occasionally going down to take a stroll among people most of whom had never entered a police station in their lives, frowning and muttering, “Everything passes,” then going home again.
The night ran on and calm descended. Salah Basha lit a cigarette and the Sunni went to the kitchen to make tea. When he returned Salah Basha said suddenly, “Where’s your blade, Sunni?” Sunni stared at him, seized by a great terror. He said, “Sir… Walid made a mistake, but he’s always been your man.” The Basha said: “This is bigger than Walid now, Sunni.” “But Walid can’t speak sir, as you’ve seen. If we leave him in the desert no one will find him.” The Basha was cool as could be: “Life’s not a free-for-all, Sunni. It’s kill or be killed, cop or dealer, and I’m both. There’s no third way. No people turning into animals and animals becoming people.”
“But sir, Walid’s not one of us any more. He’s an animal now, he’s got nothing to do with anything.”
“He’s still a living creature and he’ll take his punishment.”
“But sir, Walid’s gone for good.”
“If he’s gone and turned into an animal, then the animal will have to go, too.”
“Not me, sir… Please, sir.”
“Yes you, faggot. Now where’s your blade?”
They fell silent, then the Sunni said, stumbling over his words, “Not me, sir. Get someone else…” and the Basha glared wordlessly at him and the Sunni was quiet.
Near dawn the Sunni braced himself behind Walid Taha, knife in hand, while Salah Basha looked on. Walid Taha turned his head, trying to look at the Sunni, but the Sunni stopped him, then reached forward, bent Walid Taha’s neck back and up, cried “Ahhhh…” and cut his throat from side to side, and the blood gushed out in every direction as Walid Taha rose to his feet making a tremendous braying sound, the Sunni’s arm still about his neck, until his movement slowed and the Sunni released him, his body falling to bathroom tiles now sticky with shed blood.
Abu Abir stood on his own surveying the scene and calculating the size of the job before him. The noise outside repeated and he exited the bathroom to see the Sunni standing by the smashed window and gripping Ashraf by the collar with an open flick-knife in his other hand. Ashraf had his feet firmly planted on the floor and was looking the Sunni in the eye, his arms hanging loose by his side. The Sunni brought his face right up to Ashraf’s until they were almost touching, and holding up the bloodstained knife. Seeing the blood-madness in his eyes, Abu Abir grasped the Sunni’s arm and tried pulling him away, but the Sunni just brought his face even closer to Ashraf’s until each man could feel the other’s breath, then Abu Abir managed to separate them and Ashraf’s shirt slipped from the Sunni’s grip, though the pair continued to stand there facing off. Abu Abir took out his pack, gave each a cigarette and went back to the bathroom. He took off his leather sandals and put them to one side, lifted the corpse into the tiny bathtub, then connected the hose to the tap in the sink and turned it on, the water splashing onto the floor. He pointed the hose at the lumps of congealed blood, pushing at them with his foot if they didn’t move, and cleared the remaining traces of blood from the tiles and walls with a rag. When done, he laid a towel on the floor, lifted the body from the bath and set it down on the clean white cloth. He wrapped it up and secured it well, the towelling turning pale pink as it absorbed the blood, then put it in a black rubbish bag.
He clapped the boot shut and got in next to Ashraf. Ashraf drove the car past the industrial zone and turned off down a bumpy dirt road lined with trees and fields on both sides. The car pressed ahead, wrapped in a thick cloud of dust, farmers on their way to their fields crossing in front of it from time to time, then after a while the farmers disappeared, the thin strip of agricultural land vanished behind them and, eventually, the car arrived at the abandoned dump. Ashraf pulled up next to the dump, switched the engine off and the two men got out and stood gazing around them. All that could be seen of the city was distant line of small red-brick buildings fringed by a faded green. Abu Abir said, “As God’s my witness, Walid Taha had a spell put on him and no one believes me,” and Ashraf looked at him in silence. Then Abu Abir opened the boot and in a single movement heaved the body over his shoulder. Ashraf took one end of the bag and Abu Abir took the other. They started to swing it back and forward, two times, then let it fly and it landed with a muffled bump on one side of the huge pile of rubbish. The two men looked at the bag. It had split in places from the impact and here and there the towel wrapped round the body could be seen. They got into the car and set off.