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|Translated by Nancy Roberts
C I T Y O F T H E P R O P H E T S
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t was past three o’clock in the morning when the vehicle came to halt
in front of the farmhouse gate, raising a din that roused the dogs out of
their silence. The moon was whispering to the earth with a soft light
that reflected off the river, turning its surface into fractured silver mirrors that
moved to the rhythm of the breeze as it strummed its tunes on the tresses of
the lofty willows. The wolf howled, calling out to the legendary rabbit that
had stolen into the sky’s luminous ball. Since its howling came from a
distance, it caused no worry to travelers, who knew that its territory came to
an end at the borders of the outlying fields. In fact, some of them were familiar
with its den next to the old tumbledown bridge.
The car’s engine turned off and silence reigned powerfully once again,
making way for the croaking of wakeful frogs singing their ode to romantic
love and a dog pleased with its own bark, their voices permeating the stillness.
Rushdi Musaylihi got out of the car, taking care not to let his
cast-enveloped arm touch the car door. With an athletic physique that he
took pleasure in maintaining, he had a kind-looking, round face with a
ruddy complexion that bore signs of exhaustion from the long journey.
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T H E B E D S H E E T
His face had an Egyptian twinkle to it despite his mixed features, the
blueness of his eyes, his black hair, and the bushy eyebrows that lent him a
harsh appearance, which only disappeared when he smiled broadly and
laughter graced his thin lips.
His steps, confident and relaxed despite the feebleness in his wounded
legs, rustled through the blue gum tree leaves that had fallen beneath the bay
windows with their wooden latticework. He stood outside Taha’s bedroom
window and coughed three times, the air piercing his weary chest.
“Abu Abdallah!” he called out.
The slumbering Taha stirred.
“Abu Abdallah!” Rushdi called out again.
Taha saw a wide road and a friend waving to him in the distance and
calling his name. He ran toward him, spreading his arms to receive him. Then
he began to rouse to the sound of someone’s voice, which suddenly
constricted the untrammeled, open space of his dream world. He opened his
eyes, which came up against the ceiling with its walnut beams, and realized
that he’d been asleep. He heard a voice coming from outside and knew it
wasn’t a figment of his dreams.
Despite the heaviness of his body, he jumped up without realizing
who was calling.
“Yes! I’ll be right there!”
As he opened the window to see who was calling, Wadida got out of bed
and lit the kerosene lamp. Hearing a commotion among the sentries in front
of the arms depot, she brought the large lantern while the mayor welcomed
his brother, who had returned from the Palestine war during the truce.
“Welcome! Welcome! Thank God you’re back safely! I’ll be right down!”
A gentle stir made its way through the rooms overlooking the street and
the river. Taha rushed to open the apartment door, leaning his body forward.
Then, adjusting his feet inside the yellow leather slippers which he hadn’t yet
managed to get all the way on, he crossed the upstairs landing that overlooked
the house’s inner courtyard and served as a corridor onto which all the
extended family’s living quarters opened. Burly and tall with a broad chest,
powerful forearms and venous hands, the sun had been his companion
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all-year round in the wide-open spaces, causing his forehead and nose to take
on a bronze-like sheen. He had piercing black eyes that he would beam into
the pupils of the person he was speaking to, who would invariably get
flustered without having committed any offense. He had a sharp nose and a
broad mouth guarded by lips with a bluish tint, and luxuriant black hair that
was hidden constantly beneath a white turban. So ingrained was the habit of
covering his head, he didn’t forget to put on his skullcap despite having been
awakened so early and unexpectedly, and his drowsiness fled before the
onslaught of his sudden burst of activity. Before reaching the door that led
to the stairs, he heard an unusual commotion. Looking up as he secured his
turban, he was accosted suddenly by a tall, thin specter. Stark naked, it looked
in the moonlight like a shadow leaping up the marble stairs toward the third
floor. After being thrown off balance ever so briefly, Taha ran after the ghost,
then raised the lamp higher in order to make out his features. He nearly took a
spill on the landing as he dodged two young servant girls who’d been sleeping
in the open air, and who were roused by the sudden commotion without
realizing what was happening around them. Then he noticed a third girl
curled up in the corner. She was clinging to a robe with which she tried to
conceal her body. The flame grew brighter, revealing the fugitive’s face as the
stairs disappeared one after another beneath the pounding of his feet.
“Stop, you dog. Where do you think you’re going? Even if you reach the
sky, I’ll catch up with you. In my house, you bastard? In my household?
I swear to God, even Azrael won’t be able to rescue you once I’ve got hold
The flights of stairs that had separated the two men vanished gradually
until Bashir, the household’s coffee server, reached the door to the roof
and hesitated. After turning to face the mayor and realizing he was
cornered, he took a few tremulous steps backward. His white teeth
gleamed in the surrounding darkness, and in his eyes there glimmered two
stars with a defiance that filled his pursuer with the kind of revulsion
that leads one to kill, not as a celebration of life—as when a hunter
rejoices in his quarry—but out of contempt. A bat fluttered out in front
of them, roused by the scent of blood soon to be shed. As Bashir stepped
back, his elbow pushed open the tower door that suddenly loomed behind
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him, and he went in. His pursuer approached the door and bolted the
Panting, he said, “You wait for me here. As soon as I finish receiving the
guests, I’ll be back to settle accounts with you.”
With sweat trickling down his face, Taha flew down the stairs in a fury,
forcing the servants who had been sleeping on the steps and their naked
companion to get hurriedly out his way. In the stairwell he saw dancing of
shadows, which would appear whenever the lamps glowed more brightly,
then disappear again. He recognized them as the women of his household.
They stood back to let him pass, none of them daring to utter a word to him.
He shot ahead like a rock that’s been released from a slingshot and is
headed for its target, his body snapping with a stifled explosion. The
commotion roused everyone who had been shrouded in slumber’s mist,
and the household awakened one room after another. Small lights were
apprehensively lit, and everyone in the extended household appeared in the
darkened courtyard—which resisted the light that was breaking in from its
various sides—blanketed in sleep like pilgrims circumambulating the
Kaaba in anticipation of the divine blessing. Audible kisses were planted
intermittently on welcoming hands, then on cheeks, followed by warm
embraces. People’s questions about Rushdi’s wound, which rose in a steady
crescendo, put a damper on the joy occasioned by having him home alive,
while other questions were being asked about the war, the truce, and the
number of wounded. They were shocked by how thin Naziha, Rushdi’s wife,
Wadida said to her, “If he’d known that his going away would eat you up
like this, he wouldn’t have left.”
Laughing, Naziha said to her sister-in-law, “Men go off to war, and they
don’t give a hoot if we die of worry!”
As conversation heated up about the trip back to Egypt, those present
temporarily forgot about the night’s other ‘surprise.’ Umm Hilmi stole away
from the family and headed up to the roof. No one noticed her disappearance
except Wadida, who came after her, sensing that she was up to something.
“Where are you going?” she asked, grasping her shoulder from behind as
she started up the stairs.
T H E B E D S H E E T
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“Get out of my way, Wadida, and ask people if they need some supper!”
“Ni‘ma . . . you wouldn’t dare! Your brother would kill us! Do you want
to create a disaster on top of the one we’ve already got on our hands?”
“A disaster is what will happen if we leave him on the roof. Taha will kill
him and be lost over nothing. Are we going to let him murder this cockroach?”
Not waiting for Wadida to reply, Ni‘ma continued, “Besides, what
business is it of ours what happens to the servant girl? It’s her family’s
problem. They can slaughter her or marry her off, but that’s their concern.
However, the mayor won’t let the matter pass!”
“Come back, Ni‘ma. Your brother will never forgive you for this. After all,
this man has violated the sanctity of his household.”
“Prudence is in order, my dear. Keep out of it, and I’ll take responsibility
for whatever happens.”
Ni’ma continued on her way up, her shoes clicking beneath the weight
of her plump, rounded hips. A tall woman, she had inherited her fair com-
plexion and sharp features from her mother, who was of Circassian origin,
and her dark, wide eyes from her father. She wore her long hair in braids, to
which she added strands of pure gold whenever she left the house.
Wadida withdrew, muttering angrily. Unconvinced of the wisdom
of what her husband’s sister was about to do, she asked God to grant His
protection. On her way down, she was accosted by a pair of panic-stricken
eyes glimmering in the dark.
Collapsing onto the floor, Rawayih implored, “I kiss your feet, ma’am.
Protect me! Protect me! And may God protect you in this life and the next!”
Then she burst into frenzied tears that rained down onto her hands as
they clung to her mistress’s feet. Pained, Wadida tried mightily to free her-
self from Rawayih’s grip without knowing what to do.
“Get up,” she said, “and hide in the grain storage room. Tomorrow’s
another day. If you went home now, the whole village would know about
The girl rose halfway, sobbing and wiping her nose with the back of
“He’s the one who comes to me, I swear to God. I was afraid to tell you.
Sometimes he would threaten me, and other times he’d promise to marry me.”
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They heard Ni‘ma coming down the stairs on tiptoe. In a stern whisper
she said, “Shut up, you tramp! Doesn’t your honor mean anything to you?
You’ve buried your father’s head in the mud. Come on now, up with you.
Sleep in the grain storage room.”
“What did you do?” Wadida asked her warily.
Not taking her eyes off Rawayih until she was out of sight, Ni‘ma replied,
“I opened the latch for him and let him go his way!”
The two women went together into the large sitting room in Umm Taha’s
apartment where the family was gathered, young and old, around Rushdi
Seeing her mother-in-law holding back her tears, Wadida said, “What’s
this, Mama? He’s back home safely. What more could we ask?”
“I’ve placed my trust in God,” replied Adila.
Taha’s daughter Kawthar got up to serve lemonade to the members of the
family, who sat and listened to Rushdi until dawn of the following day.
In the morning, after life had stirred anew throughout the five feddans
on which the farmhouse stood, they found out how Bashir had slipped into
the ladies’ apartments, since the rope that he had used was still hanging in
place, tied to a hollow crescent moon over the middle wooden door.
When Taha sent one of the sentries to bring Bashir and he came back
empty-handed, he said, “So, then! I swear I’ll bring him in, even if he’s hiding
under his mother’s breast! As for the one who let him go, his punishment is
postponed for now!”
Successive reports had circulated in the village to the effect that Radi the
fisherman, his wife Hamida and their son, Ma’mun, had woken in a fright to
the sound of something being knocked down on top of their roof, and that
it had shaken the walls of their house. They bought it would go through the
roof beams, which groaned and nearly gave way. Before they discovered what
was behind it, they saw a phantom leaping into the street and running away
without a stitch of clothing on. The peasant women, who had gathered to
fill the water jars at the time of the dawn prayer, added that they’d investigated
the matter and that there would have been no way for a man to jump out of
the farmhouse tower, and from such a high elevation, since Radi’s house,
which had been built in part of the area occupied by the cattle pen, faced the
T H E B E D S H E E T
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farmhouse’s high wall on two sides. And as for its eastern side and the side
that faces the qibla, they faced onto the street corner. In any case, Bashir never
showed his face in the neighborhood again.
One ill-fated day before noon, Qanu‘, the village midwife, personally
examined Rawayih in the presence of her mother and Umm Taha, and found
an unborn child in her womb in the beginning of its fifth month. She
informed the village matriarch that an abortion would be dangerous, and
that it could end the girl’s life.
Then she added, “It’s up to you. Consult among yourselves, and I’ll do
whatever I’m told!”
She left them to think it over, but before she’d gotten as far as the gate,
the mayor’s mother had decided that the servant girl would have to go, and
that the decision would have to be made by her parents. Despite her explicit
instructions that no one was to breathe a word about the matter, the news
quickly got out to the people of Muntaha. After all, it was highly unusual
for a servant girl to leave her job at the farmhouse before she married, or
even after she married for that matter, given the difficulty of finding
Some of the village women said they’d seen Rawayih washing out
blood-stained clothing, and that her mother had beaten out an entire robe
saturated with the remains of her abortion on a rock at the river’s edge.
Despite her valiant efforts to conceal it among her black garments and
clothes that belonged to her brothers and sisters, what she’d done wasn’t
lost on the women who had experience in such matters, and none of them
offered her any help. When the girl greeted them as she passed by with a
tub of wrung-out laundry on her head, her face yellow as a lemon, none
of them could bring herself to reply to her.
Pursing her lips, Umm Mahmud said in a long, drawn-out voice that was
audible to everyone, “We’ve lived and seen. Folks with sha-a-a-me are a
After turning the girl over on her back, Qanu‘ inserted a dry date stalk
into her cervix. W hen she screamed in pain and her wine-colored
complexion—which, on the day before the scandal broke, had been
the color of a ripe plum—turned blue, the midwife said sarcastically,
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T H E B E D S H E E T
“Some right you’ve got to scream! Shush, or I’ll make this the end
Rawayih wept silently while her mother looked at the floor, wiping her
daughter’s tears furtively with the edge of her black mesh veil. Qanu‘ had
prepared a mixture of herbs which she introduced into the girl’s vagina by
means of a clean oil funnel before interesting the rough stick. Then she had
her drink an emulsion of boiled cinnamon and pomegranate and take laxative
pills. The girl began writhing in pain, clutching her abdomen. But before
another moan could come out, the old woman stuffed the hem of her dress
into the girl’s mouth, saying, “Bite on this, or bite the ground. So you’re hurtin’
now, are you? It was nice at the time, although, wasn’t it, smarty pants?”
She left the room carrying a rag in which there struggled a black fetus
that expired a few minutes later.
“Be strong, Abu Shu‘ayshi‘!” she said. “There’s no end to the trouble in
this world, brother.”
Weeping, the man said, “It’s God’s will.”
She patted him on the shoulder, saying, “Pray for blessings on the
Prophet. Pray for blessings on the Prophet. And ask God for guidance. For
every problem, there’s a Lord to solve it. Cast your burden on your Maker!”
In a remote corner of the cattle pen wall, everyone who entered noticed
some soft new clay that had been pounded and was still damp. Dark-colored,
with golden straws glistening on its surface, the days of misery hadn’t altered
it yet. And when Abu Shu‘ayshi‘ came into the farmhouse carrying a sack of
wheat on his stooped back to store it in the upstairs granary, he happened to
catch Umm Taha’s eye.
After getting out the bottle of carbolic acid, she came up to him and said,
“Buck up. Take one cup of this and your troubles will be over!”
The man hung his head and, without looking up or putting the bag down,
he said, “One’s offspring are precious, ma’am. She’s my daughter, and this is
no small matter.”
He sighed repeatedly and, without his being able to wipe them off, the
tears streamed down his cheeks, filling the canals and crevices that the years
had etched into his face.
“It’s no small matter,” he repeated.
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Squeezing her cane with an agitation that caused the Turkish-Circassian
veins to bulge out of her aging neck, the woman’s face turned the color of
Then, squinting her already narrow blue eyes, she accentuated the
sharpness of her features with a shriek.
“Where’s your courage, man! This is your honor!”
He swallowed the words, the heavy load flaying his back like a whip in
the scorching heat.
“One’s offspring are precious,” he said, then went his way muttering,
“There’s no power or strength but in God!”
A week later, the sound of joyous ululations could be heard, and Sheikh
Eissa’s wife, the seamstress, spent the night making bridal attire out of
white, rose-colored, and off-white satin. She sent the groom to the chief
town in the province to buy a black velvet dress for Rawayih to wear
on special occasions for the rest of her life, just like all the other women
in the village. Meanwhile, a tray filled with henna—which blankets
the ground in Paradise—and piled high with small pieces of paper
folded into cone shapes, was taken around to all the houses in the
village to invite people to the wedding. As they received the invitation,
mothers would say to the invitation bearer, “I’d be delighted to come, dear.
Of course we’ll be there. A thousand congratulations, and we wish the same
for all your beloved children!”
As late afternoon approached, Abu Shu‘ayshi‘ sat holding the hand
of Farag, his brother’s son, waiting for the ma’zun to draw up the marriage
contract. Before coming into the house, every woman in attendance had
her mouth to her neighbor’s ear, swearing she knew the details of the
scandal. However, not a woman in the entire village was absent that day.
They came laden with paper cones filled with sugar, bottles of fruit syrup,
baskets of rice, and bags of flour. In fact, one of them was so bold as to
slaughter for the bride a male duck that she’d fattened specially for the 27
of Ragab season. The women sat on a large mat in the house’s inner
courtyard while the men occupied the street, sitting on benches and sofas
which they’d collected from neighboring houses and sipping a red infusion
made from roses and strawberries that Umm Shu‘ayshi‘ kept pouring into
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glasses and handing to her girls to pass around until she was sure everyone
had been served.
Kamal warbled in a shrill voice in praise of the bride’s beauty, a beauty
she had never seen. She had been born blind, and her mother, none of whose
sons had survived, had named her Kamal in the hope that she would have a
son, which she did!
The girls sang the refrain:
There’s excitement at Abu Shu‘ayshi’s house . . .
She’s a pretty young thing, and leaves nothing to be desired.
As the long-awaited final scene was about to begin, the groom entered,
causing a great stir among the guests. They all stood around him with hands
raised as people clapped with a single, if uneven rhythm. The women did
a group dance, hopping and stamping as they pushed the groom in the
direction of the bride, who gazed at him furtively through the openings in
her white veil. Then he sat down beside her in a corner of the room that had
been decorated with palm leaves. He lifted her veil and took a sip of the drink
with her, then carried her a few steps into the house of his father, who had
reserved for him and his brother’s daughter a new room that he’d built
recently on the roof of his house. Successive gunshots rang out from the
mouths of the sentinels’ rifles, while tambourines jangled and the girls sang:
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