The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 7, No. 3

The Irish Martyr

by Russell Working

Untitled Document

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 August—just 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 owned—but 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 her giggles.
          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 fourteen—two years younger than Nadia—Ghaada had already joined the legions of conservative girls who had concluded that there was no point in keeping one’s weight down when even the most general outlines of one’s 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 men’s eyes when the wind blew and the fabric clung to her.
          When Ghaada surfaced, Nadia splashed her. “You’re an idiot. He’s obviously an infidel.”
          “So? I saw how he looked at you. I wonder what he’s doing here.”
          “He’s 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, he’ll leave soon, God willing. What’s 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 martyrs—the 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.
          Papa—a stout man, prematurely elderly at fifty-three, with wood-colored teeth that had rotted to fangs, like a shark’s—stepped out for a smoke and noticed the foreigner. “Hello,” the stranger said in Arabic, but Papa did not understand the man’s 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 foreigner’s 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. That’s what these infidels are like. I’ve 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 Mama’s eyes turned to him with such loathing that an attentive person would take a hint and leave her alone. “Why don’t you go beat him up, then?”
          He did not notice the sarcasm. “If he keeps it up, I might do it, God willing. But I’ll tell you something: The girls are not going out on the beach while he’s there.”
          “Papa, we can’t stay indoors all day in the summer,” Nadia said. “It’s forty-three degrees today.”
          “You’ve got better things to do, anyway. Go listen to a tape and improve your mind.”


The girls sat in their room—on the west side of the house, across the walkway from the foreigner’s place—and listened to the preacher’s warnings about women, who were weak by nature and, were it not for the teachings of the Prophet—God’s blessing and peace be upon him—and 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 down—so 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 her—through stonings, honor killings, cutting off noses, and suchlike—this 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 even—say—a devout man who might happen to be sitting at a window across the courtyard, tearing him away from his reflection on God’s Holy Book—for 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 foreigner’s leg hanging over the wall. Sometimes his hand—holding his cup, a cigarette, or both—rested on the leg. “I’ll tell Papa you’re looking,” Ghaada said, but the threat was entirely idle: the consequences would have been so dire—a firestorm of wrath that could end in the beating of both girls—that 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 martyr—just the head: his eyes smudges, his beard singed—lying 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, “Let’s go. I can’t 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 Arafat’s 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 don’t know what this word means in Farsi,” she said, “but in English it’s what the cat keeps doing behind Papa’s 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 gone.


That night after bedtime, Nadia peeked once again at the foreigner’s 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 dinner—the carcass of a chicken, an olive salad, some pita, a smear of hummus—was 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 rifle—a 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 mounts—an inverse V, with an I under the butt—and knelt behind the table, aiming in the direction of the beach. He peered through the scope and fingered the trigger.
          “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.
          “What’s he doing?” Ghaada said.
          “I want to look.”
          “Hush. You can’t.”
          “You’re looking.”
          “He just put a rifle together.”
          Ghaada shoved her way to the window. The man sensed something and looked toward them, and the girls ducked.
          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 he’ll do to us?”
          “Maybe he’s going to kill somebody.”
          “Why would a foreigner come to Egypt to kill somebody?”


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