Nadia first saw the foreigner on her third day in al-Arish,
as she and Ghaada went to swim. The Awar girls came here with their parents
every Augustjust the four of them, now that their older sister was married and
their brother remained in Cairo running a small chain of pizza parlors that
Papa ownedbut Nadia had never seen this stranger, or, for that matter, any
foreigner in this Mediterranean town, with its litter-blown beaches and donkeys
hauling carts of olives or apricots. He was wiry and ruddy, with angular limbs
and a hollow where his sternum met his throat. The girls passed him as he
returned from a swim. He was dripping wet and wearing gym shorts, nothing more,
and although his torso was almost hairless and milky in color, sunburn and a
grotesque pox of freckles stained his face and forearms. He had not shaved that
morning. He was blue-eyed and handsome, or would have been without the
freckles. He stared at the sisters, surprised, it seemed, to see young women
heading out to swim while wearing long dresses and Islamic head scarves. At the
last instant before he passed, he winked. Nadia looked away. Ghaada suffocated
They waded into the shallow waves, as salty as
bouillon, and their dresses billowed in the spume, so that someone swimming
under the roiling surface could have seen the teal and purple of their bathing
suits. He likes you, Ghaada said, and she gathered her garments around her
and submerged before Nadia could answer. At fourteentwo years younger than
NadiaGhaada had already joined the legions of conservative girls who had
concluded that there was no point in keeping ones weight down when even the
most general outlines of ones body are hidden from the eyes of men, so they
ate with the appetites of field hands and paraded the streets like blimps in
raincoats. For Nadia, however, baklava and Wagon Wheels did not provide the
escape they did Ghaada, and so she had grown up willowy, with a figure she
would admire in the bathroom mirror as she emerged from the shower: she would let
the towel slip away, revealing the volumes of her body, the breasts, the
shapely belly with its ant-like trail of hair, the spiral of a navel, the shorn
triangle where her legs met. Even on the streets in her formless dresses, she
felt mens eyes when the wind blew and the fabric clung to her.
When Ghaada surfaced, Nadia splashed her.
Youre an idiot. Hes obviously an infidel.
So? I saw how he looked at you. I wonder what
hes doing here.
Hes probably one of those crazy cyclists
heading from Istanbul to Cairo. Or maybe he was traveling to Sharm el-Sheikh,
and he got on the wrong bus. Anyway, hell leave soon, God willing. Whats
there to do in Arish?
But the stranger did not seem to be headed
anywhere. He settled on the patio on the beachside of his cottage, a
flat-roofed stucco villa as they were advertised, that sat beside an
identical one the Awars were renting. A walkway half a meter wide separated the
buildings. By the time the girls returned from their swim, the foreigner had
pulled on a T-shirt that read, in English, h-block
martyrsthe fabric a faded green that reassumed its original color below
his waistband, where it adhered to his swimsuit. He sprawled in a lawn chair
thumbing through a copy of the Middle East Times and drinking a bottle
of Stella beer, even at this hour, not yet one in the afternoon. As they washed
their feet at the saltwater tap, Nadia sneaked another look. The man was
watching her, and her gaze fell to a crack in the concrete that channeled the
runoff into a hydra-headed delta on the sand. Was he still looking? She dared
not check. Such a man was probably used to eyeing topless blondes shivering on
the windswept beaches of Europe, and Nadia imagined that he could discern
things about her in her wet garments.
Papaa stout man, prematurely elderly at
fifty-three, with wood-colored teeth that had rotted to fangs, like a
sharksstepped out for a smoke and noticed the foreigner. Hello, the
stranger said in Arabic, but Papa did not understand the mans pronunciation.
He glowered, and the stranger sat up a little, alert. Then it dawned on him
that Papa was directing his lightning bolts of wrath at the bottle, which now
stood on a low wall, and shaking his head, the stranger took the bottle
indoors. Moments later he returned carrying a coffee mug topped off with froth,
as if porcelain disguised his sin in the eyes of the Omniscient One, Most
Beneficent, Most Merciful.
By the time the girls had changed, Papa was back in the master bedroom complaining
to Mama. Fully dressed, she lay atop the bedclothes clutching a windup alarm
clock with double brass hemispheres on top, registering its hypertensive ticktock
like the pulse of a mechanical hummingbird. The shutters were closed, and a
ceiling fan stirred the indolent flies that patrolled the honeycombed volumes
of space in redundant sorties.
Who does he think
he is, strolling around practically naked out there, leering at good Muslim
girls? he demanded, as if Mama had been complicit in the foreigners lechery.
Mama drew a breath
as if to speak, but did not.
Look at him, guzzling
beer in front of the girls. And at this hour. Thats what these infidels are
like. Ive warned you and the girls about foreigners, and you laughed at me.
And now you all can finally see with your own eyes. A man like that would gladly
take advantage of you. This last statement he directed toward the living room,
where the girls stood, afraid to sit or retreat to their room. You can see
the kind of people they are. Nakedness, drunkenness, lechery.
Finally Mamas eyes
turned to him with such loathing that an attentive person would take a hint
and leave her alone. Why dont you go beat him up, then?
He did not notice
the sarcasm. If he keeps it up, I might do it, God willing. But Ill tell you
something: The girls are not going out on the beach while hes there.
Papa, we cant
stay indoors all day in the summer, Nadia said. Its forty-three degrees today.
Youve got better
things to do, anyway. Go listen to a tape and improve your mind.
The girls sat in their roomon the west side of the house, across the walkway
from the foreigners placeand listened to the preachers warnings about women,
who were weak by nature and, were it not for the teachings of the ProphetGods
blessing and peace be upon himand the supervision of their fathers and husbands,
would give in to the sins of gossip or flirtation or jangling their finery under
their robes, generation upon generation, always the same. For when the Prophet
went to hell did he not see more women there than men? The preacher illustrated
the sermon with an incident he had witnessed in Giza: a young hussy boarding
a bus wearing a black dress that bared her forearms and her legs from the knees
downso exposed was she that one gust of the dun western wind had been sufficient
to reveal certain garments to those boarding behind her, and when the good men
and women of the bus reproved her and said there were places where people knew
how to deal with the likes of herthrough stonings, honor killings, cutting
off noses, and suchlikethis defiant young harlot was reduced to tears and retorted
that she was an Egyptian citizen and they had no right to tell her she should
take the veil if she did not elect to. But who knows? Perhaps these good people
had planted the seeds of repentance that would save her from the unquenchable
fires of hell, God willing, for the Almighty was Oft Forgiving and Most Merciful.
This woman interested Nadia, but the preacher moved on to a denunciation of
similar transgressors, such as a tramp who stood in the doorway of her apartment
openly talking with a male clerk from the Energy Ministry who had come to collect
the electrical bill, or the woman who did not bother to put on her head scarf,
but merely a baseball cap, when she went out to hang the laundry from the balcony
of the mud-brick apartment where she lived, oblivious, apparently, to the longing
eyes of teenage boys nearby, or to the possibility that she might distract evensaya
devout man who might happen to be sitting at a window across the courtyard,
tearing him away from his reflection on Gods Holy Bookfor are we not all human
and corruptible if we do not exercise vigilance?
The tape went on
for a long time. Nadia peeked though a crack between the drawn curtains and
glimpsed, in the space between the cottages, the foreigners leg hanging over
the wall. Sometimes his handholding his cup, a cigarette, or bothrested on
the leg. Ill tell Papa youre looking, Ghaada said, but the threat was entirely
idle: the consequences would have been so direa firestorm of wrath that could
end in the beating of both girlsthat it could not be taken seriously.
The afternoon grew
hotter, but even without the presence of a foreigner, another swim would have
been out of the question, for there was dinner to prepare, and Mama could not
go to the market because visible waves of nausea were smutting her vision. The
girls walked up the road by the flat-roofed stucco houses. Most women they saw
wore the hijab, like Nadia and Ghaada, but a few saintly sisters ghosted by
in black chadors, their eyes flitting to take in the portion of the world allotted
to them, as if through a slot in a steel door. Two Coptic girls, in jeans and
T-shirts that read limassol wine festival
2002 and all the cats of cyprus,
strolled along chattering as they licked ice-cream cones. Farther on, a group
of teenage boys in shorts and T-shirts and floppy beach hats were wrestling
with each other on the sidewalk, but they stopped when the Awar sisters approached.
Near the mosque were a number of bearded Islamists, wearing white skullcaps
and short-sleeved outfits like nightshirts, through which the silhouettes of
their legs and their underwear could be discerned. Scriptures droned melodiously
from the loudspeaker in the minaret, and a drowsy policeman, dressed in a red
beret and white uniform and black boots, guarded an automated teller machine
with his Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder. A new photo lab had opened since
the Awars were last in Arish, and the owner was crouching inside the display
window, adjusting his portraits of newlyweds in gilded frames. But his own handiwork
was dwarfed by posters of the gold-domed Noble Sanctuary, of the decapitated
head of a martyrjust the head: his eyes smudges, his beard singedlying in
a supermarket amid a shambles of arms and legs and crushed cantaloupes and grapes
and strollers. According to a caption, he had blasted himself straight through
the gates of Paradise, God willing, while sending several infant Zionists and
their mothers and a reserve soldier to hell. There was also a poster of a dead
boy of eight or ten years lying in a coffin draped in a Palestinian flag, but
when Nadia stopped to study it Ghaada said, Lets go. I cant stand this.
Along the market street the girls picked through the shops and side stalls selling
dates, peanuts, cages of live chickens, Orbit gum, Crest toothpaste, Coca-Cola,
packages of Abu Ammar potato chips decorated with a cartoon of President Arafats
gaping bespectacled face, Iranian soaps of a brand called Barf. When Ghaada
had come home recently with a bottle of Barf dishwashing detergent, Mama laughed
for the first time since before the day in February when they found her unconscious
on the kitchen floor with an empty bottle of sleeping tablets beside her. I
dont know what this word means in Farsi, she said, but in English its what
the cat keeps doing behind Papas chair. Sides of beef and goat hung out in
front of the butcher shops in the Sinai heat, but their colors were bad. Eventually
the sisters found some fresh mutton. By the time they returned, the boys were
That night after bedtime, Nadia peeked once again at the foreigners place.
His window was opposite the girls, and his lights were on. The curtains were
of tulle, flimsy and translucent, and Nadia could see into the room where he
was pacing about in blue shorts and his martyrs T-shirt, gnawing on a drumstick.
The remainder of his dinnerthe carcass of a chicken, an olive salad, some pita,
a smear of hummuswas served on paper plates laid out on a tablecloth made of
a copy of Al-Ahram. What are you doing? Ghaada said.
Nadia shushed her
with a scowl. For a time the foreigner was out of view. Then he returned and
swept the remains and the newspaper into the trash and wiped down the table
with a rag. Vanishing again, he left only his shadow on the wall, his arms working
at something; then he came back drying his hands on his shorts. From a shelf
nearby, he grabbed what looked like a billiard case and opened it on the table.
He unpacked some steel rods and pipes and a pencil box and the padded end of
a crutch, all of them black. With a glance at his watch, he fit them together
rapidly, biting his lip. Can you see him? Ghaada whispered. He screwed the
shoulder pad onto a rod, and fitted that to the pencil box. A thin pipe was
attached to the other end. It hit Nadia that he was assembling a riflea sleek,
lightweight weapon, nothing like the bulky Kalashnikovs shouldered by the police.
He screwed on a silencer and rechecked his watch. Satisfied, he set the rifle
on its mountsan inverse V, with an I under the buttand knelt behind the table,
aiming in the direction of the beach. He peered through the scope and fingered
Pow, he said.
Nadia could read his lips through the windows. Pow.
Then he disassembled
the rifle and cleaned it with rags and a long, thin brush.
Whats he doing?
I want to look.
Hush. You cant.
He just put a rifle
Ghaada shoved her
way to the window. The man sensed something and looked toward them, and the
After they deemed
it safe to speak, Ghaada whispered, We should tell Papa.
Tell him what?
That we were spying on a man in his room? You know what hell do to us?
Maybe hes going
to kill somebody.
Why would a foreigner
come to Egypt to kill somebody?
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