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from the December 2020 issue

At the Coffee Shop

A routine day turns suddenly violent in this excerpt from Rania Mamoun’s novel Son of the Sun.

 

Words Without Borders · Rania Mamoun Reads "في المقهى" ("At the Coffee Shop")

Listen to Rania Mamoun read "At the Coffee Shop" in the original Arabic.
 

The frenzied football fan banged on the table with a force that knocked the tea over. One glass shattered as it hit the ground. He shot up, angrily screaming at the man addressing him. He kicked the plastic chair; it fell over with its legs pointing to the sky. I looked at the shattered glass and, for a moment, couldn’t hear his angry voice anymore. Is our boss going to make me pay up for this glass? He told us a hundred times not to break any glasses. You break it, you buy it. Of course, he’ll say it’s my fault, that I should have cleared the table sooner . . .

I looked over and saw the enraged fan had slashed the other’s throat with a piece of broken glass. While I was brooding, he had bent over, picked up a shard of glass, and slit the throat of the man he was speaking to, sliced the artery right open! In that moment, one man lost his life. Oh God! Like that—just like that! In a blink of an eye, a man’s dead!

I was horrified. Looking over at Ibrahuma, I saw that he was too. I’d never seen anyone die in front of me before. Blood gushed from the man’s neck, it splattered on the customers’ clothes and on the killer, who had a frozen look in his eyes. People gathered around shouting: “Take him to the hospital!” “Save him!” “Help me pick him up!” “Call an ambulance!” “What have you done, man?” “Where’s the ambulance?” “Somebody call an ambulance!” “It’s all right, man, compose yourself, compose yourself.” “Shut up, he can’t hear you.” “Is he dead?” “No, no, he’s not dead.” “He’s dead you idiot, look, look, his eyes have lost their shine.” “Oh my God.”

The crowd grew. In minutes, a crowd of people gathered, each one of them eager to see the victim, to see how well they knew him. Everyone claimed they knew that the murderer would kill somebody someday. He was hot-tempered, red-hot, like burning coal, a fanatical supporter of his team, which happened to be losing that day.

Salem, our boss, roused us from our state of shock and confusion at what had happened. He yelled at us to bring in the cups, tables, and chairs.

“They’re going to attack the coffee shop next. Hurry up!”

We quickly started collecting cups and trays. This guy only cares about his money, even when someone had just been murdered right before his eyes. We passed through the crowd, trembling, moving cautiously and nervously, grabbing cups and bumping into each other. We picked up the fallen chairs and brought them into the restaurant, at times grabbing the same one and carrying it in together. We took all we could carry back into the coffee shop, then ran back out to bring in the tables. It wasn’t easy. Shorter people were standing on top of them so they wouldn’t miss out. We struggled, as there wasn’t much space for us to move the tables or lift them over our shoulders. The whole place was jam-packed, making what we had to do almost impossible.

Even after the ambulance had left with the body inside, and after the police had arrested the murderer and prepared a field sketch, the place was still teeming with people. Salem was agitated, screaming at Ibrahuma and me, barking out one order after another, leaving us tense and confused about what to do next. After some rushed hauling we were able to save many of the tables, if not all.

Some people sat at the remaining tables and started retelling the events over and over to those who kept coming in, and whoever heard the story passed it on. Everyone was talking, you couldn’t tell who was listening to whom! This one was telling the story, that one was analyzing it, someone else was sharing his observations, while another guy was reminded of a similar story he had heard or witnessed. The conversations drifted—soon enough they forgot all about the murderer and his victim. They started talking about violence, about how people have forgotten how to talk to one another, how they have become irritable and short-tempered and unable to handle criticism.

One of them, a slender man with a good head of hair and four different color pens sticking out of the pocket of his shabby white shirt, jumped on top of a rusty metal table and began talking to the crowd from his improvised pulpit:

“People, everything that’s happened here is the government’s fault! Yes, this government hasn’t left us a mattress to sleep on, it has made our lives intolerable, our work intolerable, we’re constantly tired and irritated, worn out as an old shoe! Brothers, if this government was just, our lives wouldn’t have been so miserable, we wouldn’t be killing one another, robbing one another and . . .”

This man must be high on something, I thought.

One of the people standing around shouted at him: “How is the government responsible?” Others answered back, their blood boiling: “What do you mean, how is the government’s responsible? If this killer had been content and carefree, if he wasn’t hungry, he wouldn’t have done what he did.” Another responded: “He committed this crime because he’s an angry and hot-tempered man. He’s nothing but a sore loser!” Another one butted in to say that it’s not the government’s fault but that the football players are to blame, playing like they’re drunk, unable to run or control the ball or score a goal.

Bragging, the man on the table said: “You see, it’s like I said, it’s all the government’s fault. If the government had taken an interest in sports these players would have been like the Brazilians. Even when they beat you, you come out happy because you’ve enjoyed the match. The score doesn’t matter.”

Another man hopped on the same table and said to him: “Hey man, what’s your beef with the government? It’s the coaches’ fault, they’re not doing their job properly and only care about their paycheck at the end of the month!”

“No, it’s not the coaches’ fault, it’s the government, the government, guys! You want to kill the elephant, you don’t stab its shadow! You’re cowards, scurrying off like mice to hide in your holes and leaving those running the government to walk all over this country like it’s their private property.”

“Who you calling coward? Who you calling mouse? Watch your tongue, man.”

“Cowards and mice, you’re all cowards, you’re all wimps! A cowardly people, cowards, cow—”

The words caught in his throat as he took a punch to the temple. A vicious brawl broke out between the two of them, right there, on the table. It collapsed under their weight and both men tumbled to the ground.

Hands shot out from all sides trying to separate them, and voices intermingled:

“Guys, calm down.”

“A difference of opinion shouldn’t come to this—cool it, guys!”

“I’m calm!”

We looked on with great interest and excitement, eager to pick up anything that fell on the ground: a wallet, a pack of cigarettes, a pouch of snuff, or anything else that might be in their pockets and which we could use. Ibrahuma and I stood side by side, now at some distance from the coffee shop, watching, on the lookout for whatever this chaos would gift us. It might just be our lucky day.

From Ibn al-Shams. © Rania Mamoun. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Nesrin Amin. All rights reserved.

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