A side hustle among a group of quarry laborers balloons into a bureaucracy of shocking proportions in this short story by Muhammad Mustajab.
Whatever else the case, we wish ill on no man, not even those who give us orders, and I would like to begin here by saluting, enthusiastically, any person who is given the chance to do good and takes it. Good being, in its fullest sense, much like these far-flung red wastes studded with rocks and stones and camel thorn, in drifts of which lie cloistered their fierce and tender (and scarce) inhabitants: the rats and lizards and snakes, that is. From time to time one of us might spot a jackal. And Abou Awaja tells the story of the officer at the checkpoint who emptied his magazine at a hyena—that’s right, a hyena!—and then, having missed it entirely, tossed his gun aside and threw himself bodily upon the beast to wrap it in his arms and crush its ribs. Though we—and without wishing to label Abou Awaja a liar—have honestly never laid eyes on a hyena. Or an officer, for that matter. A rat, yes. Lizards, foxes, policemen up to the rank of sergeant, a handful of border guards, horned vipers (tiny, arched, and deadly): all yes. But discounting the officers and hyenas, the stones and camel thorn, the personal scandals passed on by tongues whose truthfulness we cannot vouch for, then this broad and spacious site can be said to harbor only this: us.
Which is to say: three hundred laborers, four engineers, and five clerks, and then tents, mechanical diggers, clouds scattered across the sky, a water truck, an asbestos office block, a small prayer room with mats to pray on, barrels of oil and barrels of diesel fuel, plus the small, wild zephyrs that whip up sand and deposit it over our heads.
What do we do here? I shall tell you. We quarry rock. And when we get down to it, when we get right down there beneath the sands, we can almost tell ourselves that we are digging a tunnel, a huge tunnel that will lead us to some other, underground world. Only to reemerge onto the barren surface, to be grilled by the sun and, well: then it doesn’t really feel like we’re doing anything at all.
The sign at the quarry entrance says the site is run by Somebody and Sons Contracting, which in turn is overseen by the Institute of Contractors, which in turn (forgive me) belongs to the Public Institute of Contracting, Construction, and Building Work, which in turn is part of another agency whose name escapes me. I say escapes me: to pursue this chain to its bitter end we would need to quit this quarry located on the Tropic of Cancer and travel all the way up to Cairo. But the quarry’s most proximate administrator—the first-named company—is located in the nearest town, which can be reached by a variety of modes of transport, among them the passenger seat of a truck: you rattle down a north–south road, then an east–west road, then a north–south track, then round a hill, and finally end up rolling along by the side of the Nile: the drowsing, delicious shade, the waters. Forty kilometers in two hours.
All right, but why that note of complaint in your voice? Doesn’t the company pay your wages? Doesn’t the company give you a paid day off? Well, about that. Concerning the matter of the company deducting weekend wages from those who don’t work weekends, we sent a letter dated February 12 requesting clarification from management. Look, I told the quarry manager, so long as the people in charge are looking into it, no complaints; all I’m asking is that you make an exception for Abou Awaja. At which the manager fixed me with a stare and, coming round from behind his desk (His Excellency has a large and well-furnished desk), laughed.
No no no no, he said.
The story’s simple as a fairy tale. Abou Awaja got it into his head that one way to make some extra cash would be to set up as a butcher, and though his scant resources fell somewhat short of fulfilling this dream, he did manage to acquire a goat, a nanny goat, which he slaughtered and sold to his brethren at the quarry. That is: to the innermost of his inner circle. Then the week after that, he butchered them another goat. And the week after that, the third week, the manager was conducting an inspection of the site and, as he was passing the tents, he happened to observe a goat carcass pegged up outside the entrance to Abou Awaja’s.
When had this happened? During official work hours, was it? I’m begging you, sir. Sir, I’m kissing your feet. God protect your children, etc. etc. No use. This is a crime. This donkey has gone and slaughtered a goat that could well be carrying disease—that’s almost certainly diseased; has slaughtered it on-site and sold the meat during shift hours. I’ll fire him. Please sir, no! I’ll fire him.
All that, and then the crisis was settled by deducting fifteen days wages from Abou Awaja’s pay packet, with each of his clients chipping in to cover two days of the deduction. And Abou Awaja, Mohammed Youssef, and Rifaei Mialawi were transferred to the night shift.
This is when it came to me: the most fearsome idea to enter my head in all the many years I’d spent between the deserts and mountains and villages and coasts of this land; pierced my brain the way a misfired arrow might hit a thing that turns out, after all, to be its target.
Look, I was in the quarry myself. I lived there, I mean. The engineers come through and hand out orders and punishments, and write reports, and drive their cars all the way back to town, and the laborers drive diggers and grease gears and shovel dirt and (once every three months) pack dynamite into holes and blow it up, and they drink water out of barrels, and eat lentils and onions and dust and salt and filth, and the manager, for his part, passes through very rarely and very briefly, glancing over a report or a digger or a tent or a punishment order, then drives himself away, it’s said, to another quarry that he oversees God knows where, and I . . . well. Sometimes I regard myself as part of the quarry workforce: I eat with the men and I drink with them; I join them in their councils of war and peace. And sometimes I find that I’m perhaps more like an engineer: screaming and cursing, demanding reports and recommending punishments and, of course, reporting back to the quarry manager.
But sometimes the hills and valleys flatten, the world smooths out, and I lose all sense of depth. I sit by the entrance to my asbestos cubicle, the far horizon held in my gaze, and something magical enters my being. Like a fixation. And then I’m almost a poet.
What if we bought a medium-sized bit of livestock—a calf, say—and butchered it for the whole workforce?
So, this arrow was cutting its way across my mind and I was trembling where I sat, and at the same time one of the men was standing in front of me, holding a mug of water and telling me about an adventure in Yemen, some story involving his cousin and an ambush and a broken-down bulldozer—how even as one of the crew was trying to get the bulldozer started and another man was emerging from the engine cowling with the machine’s guts in his hands, the cousin had swarmed halfway up the brick-red Yemeni mountainside to fight off the assault, had killed five (or was it nine?) of their attackers—and the man was shaking with excitement as he spoke, and the water was slopping out of the mug and onto the man’s hands, then onto his clothes, and in my skull the calf had settled down to stay. This had to happen! And I felt a kind of ecstasy.
Set romance aside. The desert loves the truth and despises tears and lies, and the truth was that anyone among the three-hundred-strong workforce to whom this thought had ever occurred (and every one of them could call on a friend to bear witness to prove to me, impartial observer and sometime engineer, that they had indeed discussed the issue) had to contend with another truth: the considerable difficulties that arose when their delegates were sent to town to buy beans and onions and cheese and meat. Ibrahim Al Badei had something to say about the time the meat had been spilling maggots, and Saber Abou Ras about the time the meat was nothing but fat and gristle, and Abdel Zaher of the many, many times they had suspected their meat was—begging your pardon—ass. Or donkey. Dog. Swear to you on my marriage, sir, there’s meat gone into these bellies of ours that comes from animals we wouldn’t know a name for.
This time, though, you’ll be filled with flesh you’ve slaughtered yourself.
We were sitting together at sunset outside Al Hagg Abdetawwab’s place, tea glasses in our hands and a fine dust gathering in drifts against the tent’s walls.
How many of us are there? Three hundred, right? So, everyone whose Friday pay packet is one hundred and fifty qirsh or less contributes a quarter lire, anyone who makes up to three lire pays a half, and so on and so on: contributions calculated by wage. Agreed? Agreed. But the manager might find out and object. No, no, don’t fret. There’s no problem so long as the ones doing the buying and butchering don’t do it during their shift hours. And the engineers? They won’t object if the manager doesn’t. At which point it became evident that at least three-quarters of those present had, at some point and in some form, worked as butchers. I’ll do the slaughtering! Let me skin! I’ll take the tripe! I’ll buy the head! And joy swept the company and the banter fell like rain. You’ll forget what carrion even tastes like! Hey, Abadi! When your father had a pound of meat in the house he’d bolt the door with his own neck! We should fast before we clean the entrails! We’re basically fasting already!
Men can be angels when joy is in the air.
Then a song started: Muawad departed and left his heart with his friends . . . And Shukri Younis got to his feet and shut the singer up. Said, Sing something happier, man.
Sweet boy picking blossoms, gathering them in his kerchief. Long life’s a gift from God, so gift it to him ya Karim. . .
Enough singing! But our host Al Hagg Abdetawwab, seduced by the rhythm, had joined it: swaying and bending and begging the singer for more, and refusing to countenance the calls to stop.
The best livestock in the area comes from the Draou market, and the best two men at the quarry (the most trustworthy, that is) were Samir Samak and Ali Okasha. Neither of them, however, knew anything about livestock, while the pair that understood livestock best (that is, Qaoud and Mohammed Abadi) were trusted by nobody. And there was the money we’d collected at the last whip round: one hundred lire on the nose. The quarry manager had put in two pounds, the border patrol had contributed one lire and twenty-five qirsh (five men at a quarter lire each), and even the company cashier who stopped by once a fortnight had given half a lire. And then came the suggestions. Someone thought we should hire a butcher from town, someone impartial to ensure the cuts were fair, and another was of the view that we give our first animal to the poor in the name of Sayyid Al Badawi, so the saint might bless our venture, and a third believed . . . and so on.
But none of this slowed our momentum.
On Monday evening, four men rode the shift truck into town so that they could be at the Draou market early Tuesday morning. But buying the beast wasn’t the issue. The difficulty, as it turned out, was getting it back. The men bore the trials of the road as best they knew how—saintly patience, then songs, then stories, then gossip about the shortcomings of the clerks, then mockery of an engineer by the name of Mahmoud Hamdan who couldn’t tell a plow from a bulldozer—and made it back to the quarry just as Ibrahim Al Badei was concluding the sunset prayer. We were sitting outside our tents or hovering round Abdel Baqi’s tea stall when we first saw the mighty beast staggering up the track toward us, four shouting men trotting behind, and a wreath of roses round its horns.
The first to greet the rose-wreathed calf was Abou Awaja. A whoop of joy had gone up from the men, but the emotion had not moved them, so much as held them rooted to the spot. It was Abou Awaja who claimed the right to step forward and welcome the delegation in, as though his prior experience in the goat sector—for all that it had culminated in official sanction—lent him the necessary authority to take on a calf. Grasping the halter and waving at the crowds, he proceeded to lead it into camp, and when he reached the tents the men all gathered round him, clapping and capering and clashing their staffs together, dealing dizzying smacks to their neighbors’ napes out of sheer unbridled joy. And then, in the midst of all this, a thin man’s sudden cry: But we need scales!
Back in the days of the goat, Abou Awaja had cut the meat and weighed it out by hand, by feel, juggling it on his palm and narrowing his eyes and swearing he’d divorce his wife if that wasn’t upward of a kilo and a half, even though he, out of the goodness of his heart, was only charging for a kilo. Faced with a calf like this (and what a calf!) there was no way we could keep on with such a primitive and patently ridiculous approach. But (and now I was addressing the men) I can’t believe a lack of scales will stop us. Let us get scales! Steal them or rent them or buy them. Every one of you, I’m certain, must have scales at home or at least knows how to get hold of them. Surely all of you, at some point, have sold tomatoes and eggplant and cucumbers and potatoes at a stall. You all must have gone wandering through God’s fair land buying and selling. Are we going to let scales stop us? And the men roared, then applauded, and then the offers: I’ll bring the scales. I’ll bring the block. As God’s my witness the only way that calf’s being portioned out is properly wrapped in paper.
To a tent peg we tethered our calf, settled ourselves down on the rocks and lit cigarettes, and then the stories began to flow, of previous attempts at similar enterprises in other quarries, some of which we sought to learn from and some of which we mocked. A couple of the men slipped out among the desert shrubs and grasses. They ran their fingers through them by the deep dark starlight, and they picked them, and the next thing the calf was champing and chewing, lapping and lowing.
A kilo of meat (boneless) for twenty-eight qirsh. A kilo of tripe for four. Liver at thirty-two. Rifaei Mialawi bought the head for one lire twenty-five, and his brother got the hide and marrow for the same.
God destroy your houses: the skin alone should go for two!
The above a complaint, which we countered: lest they forget, a kilo of meat like the one they’d just bought went for eighty qirsh back home.
The Calf Committee comprised myself (chair), Abou Awaja (scales), Mohammed Abadi (butcher), and Rifaei Mialawi (skinner and butcher’s assistant). Thirty qirsh to rent the scales, thirty-five for the market delegation’s transport costs, plus another thirty for out-of-pocket expenses. Dawn was on the doorstep and outside the tents the coals were glowing in the grills. Only a very few were saving their share until they returned to their homes in town. The representative of the border patrol had been to collect his colleagues’ share and then departed, and some basic rules had been established. That everyone who wanted meat must pay again: the monies previously collected were considered a contribution to the enterprise’s starting capital. Some had paid in full, others had deferred settlement until payday.
The quarry manager turned up and strolled over from his car. I thanked him and explained what had happened. He didn’t say a word, kept quiet as I spoke my piece, then he laid a hand on my shoulder and said that just so long as the men weren’t distracted from their work, well, that was all that mattered. So I went over it all again, told him about all the strange and amusing adventures that had taken place, and he smiled. Then he looked carefully through the work reports, debated with an engineer the possibility of exploiting the left-hand side of the quarry, turned down a number of laborers’ requests for holidays, and finally went to his office, where he removed his glasses and asked me straight: when was the next one going to be? Next week, I said. God willing. For a while he said nothing. Then he stuck his hand into his pocket and, producing a heavily folded lire note, he spread it flat. If there’s any left over, look after me.
I sensed a pointed rebuke. The manager had contributed more than any man among us: how could we not look after him?
The next time round was less successful. The calf was bigger and, for the first time, we saw that our men were having difficulties deciding just what it was they wanted. You’d find one of them standing baffled before the butcher, mumbling for minutes on end before giving his order. Frequently, they’d order a kilo of chuck ribs when they’d meant to get shank, and this was because their fingers could never point out accurately enough those cuts that their tongues were misnaming. Which was entertaining.
Mahmoud Hamdan (an engineer of limited merits with a mortal aversion to the night shift who, after receiving news of the slaughter—and to everyone’s surprise—was suddenly to be found overseeing the repair of digging equipment in the dark) cautioned us not to forget to burn the refuse (the blood and the bones and the contents of the stomach), at which there was much grinning and winking between the men because the engineer—elevated by the occasion—was finally using his brain. And one sly onlooker saw fit to congratulate the engineer on this development, at which Mahmoud Hamdan began to relate a number of stories to the assembled company, all of which concluded with packs of wild desert beasts descending on piles of discarded offal. It was clear Hamdan was suffering from overexcitement, an unfortunate mental surge that had caused him to forget to so much as go near the repair workshop. A religious man swore—swore on his marriage—that the meat he’d eaten last time had been the finest meat he’d eaten in his life, to which another troublemaker commented that, well, didn’t that beg the question? And then it was time to settle the accounts and tidy everything away, at which juncture we realized—joy!—that we’d cleared a three-lire profit.
And when the quarry manager arrived and one of the men went over to hand him his parcel, the manager made a point of ignoring it. He conducted a tour of inspection round the workshop, then round the tents, then round the slaughter site itself. And here, finding men busy incinerating the refuse, he requested that a list of their names be drawn up. Once back in his office he proceeded to check whether these men were on shift or off duty, and having established that none of them were listed on roster for the night shift, he unwrapped the parcel, turned the lump of meat over a couple of times, and asked his driver to put it in his car. Then he remembered Mahmoud Hamdan, and summoning him to his office, he inquired why it was that an engineer was up at night repairing diggers. And then a painful scene, as it became clear that nobody had been near the workshop all night.
Mahmoud Hamdan, standing there soaking up the manager’s abuse with a parcel of meat and a parcel of bones tucked beneath his arm.
There are certain issues I would love to expand on at this juncture, but I don’t want to lose sight of our story. To wit: fresh meat turning frowns upside down.
By this time the quarry worked to our time: so-and-so took a holiday ahead of the slaughter, X had a stand-up row with Y two days after the black calf was killed, Khalaf Tantawi got married the night of the short brown calf, and the first round of repairs on the mechanical graders was completed in time for the medium white. We made a loss on two occasions, but we broke even on eight. One of the guards was detained with meat in his possession that he was unable to account for, prompting the manager to issue an order banning Engineer Mahmoud Hamdan from the quarry site on slaughter nights, followed by a second order limiting the engineer’s share to a kilo and a half. The armed forces saw fit to strengthen the border patrol, whose numbers now swelled to seven, though we refused to accept contributions from the two new recruits, which we regarded as a mark of deep respect on our part, a signal honor.
A still greater honor: the approaches made by certain company directors with a view to obtaining our meat. Around the time of the fourth slaughter we received instructions from the quarry manager to take care of the director of works, and when asked how much the director of works might be wanting, he said three kilos of liver. By the time the seventh calf was bleeding on the ground we had five directors on our list: the director of works, the director of planning, the director of works planning, the senior engineer, and the director in chief. I won’t pretend I ever laid eyes on any of them: all five placed orders and paid either through the manager or one of the engineers. We were informed that one of them had attempted to offer just twenty-six qirsh for a kilo, claiming that his wife had weighed it and found that it came up light, but the complaint failed to sway the committee, whose refusal to give it a hearing was based principally on the fact that it had not been formally submitted.
Such obstacles notwithstanding, the project was a success. Indeed, the project was famous: the chairman of the board in Cairo, we learned, had mentioned us in the course of a friendly chat with Engineer Bahgat—though, less encouragingly, this had been news to Engineer Bahgat. And with the list of our triumphs growing ever longer the manager of the quarry granted us permission to use the shift truck to transport the calves back from Draou. To date, the most magnanimous of all the manager’s many gracious and extraordinary contributions to our cause. Now the delegation could leave the quarry in the morning and be back with the goods by the afternoon, though this led in turn to a necessary expansion in the provision of free cuts to our partners: a kilo for the truck driver (without which the truck would be unable to make it up inclines) and a kilo for the policeman at the checkpoint (to discourage him issuing either one of two potential tickets: one against the vehicle, one against the driver). Then the works inspector requested the head, and the quarry manager instructed us to give it to him and not to ask for payment, which request quickly became a rule, with the head dispatched immediately after slaughter.
By the fourteenth (or was it the fifteenth?) calf our subscription list furnished ample evidence of the venture’s flourishing fortunes, including as it did a public prosecutor who lived in the same building as the works director and a judge on the criminal bench. Which last came to visit the quarry on the pretext of inspecting the type of rock we were mining, but who, once on-site, was unable to find a moment to make it to the rock face. And soon afterward this eminent visitor wrote a letter in praise of our project to a national magazine: four lines in Our Readers Write.
A member of the town council was next to become enthused, and in a speech to the council put our project forward as a potential solution to the meat crisis in the governorate—and we were about to express our thanks to this councillor in material terms, when one of our number observed (the idiot) that perhaps we shouldn’t overdo the presents? The upshot of which was a surprise visit from a slaughterhouse inspector who descended on us one dawn, completely unannounced, and commanded his men to remove all the butchered meat from the premises and then to remove us, into custody, for operating without the necessary licenses.
We were transported, along with the product of our labor, to the nearest police station, where we faced interrogation after interrogation, our hearts quartered in our chests, and our meat heaped in a corner of the prison yard. But interested parties intervened—the judge, the prosecutor, the works inspector, the director of regional planning, the head of a department at the Ministry of Justice—and before the sun had reached its zenith a police van from town was pulling into the yard, pulling up beside the pile of meat, and disgorging the imposing figure of a sergeant, who took the unbending inspector to one side. They talked for a while, then smiled, then lit cigarettes, and then the inspector turned to us and started shouting, calling us idiots for not letting him know—though what I was supposed to have let him know I’d no idea—and the sergeant motioned us to load our meat into his van. We were going back to the quarry. Wild excitement, and Abou Awaja began to chant: first, Long live the sergeant, then, Long live justice.
Twenty-six kilos stacked in the manager’s office for Shukri Younes to pencil on names before they were passed to the truck driver to distribute among our friends in town. Plus five kilos and the head, earmarked for special friends.
A laborer shouting that this wasn’t his usual share was slapped down by a member of the Calf Committee who explained that since he had turned up late it hadn’t been possible to fulfill his order as requested. The man continued to carp. He’d never attended a single slaughter or hung around the carcass the way some people did, he said, but that had never stopped him getting his share before. I explained that a change in circumstances had forced us to consider an overhaul of the share system as a whole. Starting from now we were putting a cap on the size of individual orders. If you’d been down for two kilos, you were now permitted a maximum of one and half. One-and-a-half-kilo orders were reduced to one. But we made no move to cut into the kilo orders: they stayed as they were.
And these new measures meant that we had to learn how to plan things out prior to distribution. We also restricted meat sales to men who worked their shifts. There was no way we could set cuts aside for people who weren’t turning up to work, no matter what the excuse. Some of the men refused to accept offal as a temporary solution. They claimed they’d paid their contributions for fresh meat, not entrails—an ill-mannered and ungrateful attitude that threatened to unpick what good fortune our enterprise had hitherto enjoyed.
All this quibbling over God’s blessings: it filled us with foreboding. We decided to return their contributions and barred them. But profits had been accumulating and now stood at forty lire, so we had held our tongues when it came to the behavior of certain outliers.
A man’s mother passed away, so we gave him a couple of lire by way of assistance, an act which met with the wholehearted approval of the other men. Another had a child, so we sent him a lire by way of a gift, but in place of the lire the man requested three and a half kilos of meat, which request we promised to meet, only for circumstances to intervene and prevent us giving him either the meat or the lire. We arranged to have a modest notice published congratulating the chairman of the board of directors for completing seven successful months in the post—five lines in a national daily with my name among the signatories—and His Excellency sent us a letter of thanks by return, praying God that He might grant us success in contributing to the greater good of the nation.
Then we uncovered a conspiracy.
Certain elements—the outliers, strangers in our midst—were hatching a plot which aimed at the very foundations of our enterprise. Friendly eyes and ears brought word of a word, a dangerous proposal making the rounds of the quarry: that the workforce demand the return of their subscriptions, and the profits, too. We had no choice but to regard these elements as a fifth column, and when one of the agitators (Ibrahim Abdel Badei) began to address the men openly, we reported him to the quarry manager, who immediately—and to his credit—spoke out strongly against the individuals involved and their deplorable conduct, then placed Ibrahim Abdel Badei in (temporary) detention to persuade him of the futility of breaking rank. But having given assurances that he would not return to the error of his ways, the bastard promptly did so, and we were about to (were about to have to) report him to the manager for a second (and final) time, when the border patrol, in the course of a random search of his person, found him to be in possession of a quantity of hashish, and in accordance with due process and the rule of law we were forced to relinquish him into their custody. The manager of the quarry then gave further proof of his sympathetic nature by ruling that everyone who participated in the purchase and slaughter of the calf, and the burning of refuse afterward, should be exempted from work duties on the day of slaughter itself.
The imam from the town mosque drove in to lead our prayers on the day of slaughter, delivering an eloquent and learned sermon peppered with sayings of the Prophet then joining us for an afternoon redolent with the fragrance of true faith, following which we added his name to the list—along with the names of the local supervisor of sermons and the inspector general of mosques—and pressed him to come back any Friday he chose.
A journalist came escorted by the company’s head of public relations, and took photographs of us (us slaughtering, us skinning, us burning the blood and guts) and two weeks later the publication arrived and inside it we found a photograph of the chairman of the board, then a photograph of the vice-chairman, then one of the director general of quarries, then of the manager of our quarry, then two pages of dense text about the company’s various projects. And then, up in the left-hand corner of one page, a tiny column about us, although the journalist had managed to confuse our story with the quite separate matter of company-led initiatives to combat problems facing the workforce. We didn’t find the photographs we were looking for, and yes, we were a bit downcast, but we looked forward to their appearance in future issues.
Anyway, the manager made up for the disappointment by arranging an interview with the presenter of a famous radio program. And although when we actually spoke to her we were sitting together in the manager’s office, we were surprised to find that, on listening to the broadcast itself, she had in fact encountered us on a street corner in town, leading a calf by its halter, which charming oddity had attracted her attention in the first place. But listening to our voices coming out of the radio that afternoon we were in a forgiving mood, and couldn’t have cared less whether the presenter had met us in the street or over a table laden with grilled meat in a room.
On the radio, the manager had managed to sound far more enthusiastic about the project than us. And another surprise: Abou Awaja’s voice turned out to be both more powerful and more melodious than my own. Indeed, the presenter seemed quite taken by Abou Awaja’s assurances that he slaughtered chickens and duck as well as calves, and that he was a mere twenty years old, which favorable reception prompted a disquisition from Abou Awaja in which he attributed the admiration of his clients to his innate fairness in weighing out his cuts.
Our tale, it seemed, was drawing to its conclusion.
Certain matters had begun to take on an unpalatable hue. Understand that we won’t stand by and allow ourselves to be traduced or accused. There’s not a man in that quarry can deny the improvement that those calves brought into their lives, but if the backbiters will insist on having their say, if they must try to talk us down, well: measures will be taken.
Yes, Mahmoud Ibrahim. You. What’s your problem? Don’t you get a kilo of prime beef for twenty-eight qirsh? All right, sure, you used to get your kilo deboned, but changes have been forced upon us and there’s going to be a quantity of bone in every measure. Perforce. And as for the prices . . . Brother, listen: prices are up in every market in the governorate. If you weren’t so close-minded, such an idiot, you might have noticed. Like, the cost of clover alone has doubled. And anyway, you won’t find better meat than ours anywhere. Wasn’t that you complaining to Rifaei about the meat from town?
The manager proposed a solution, one that he would be happy to abide by himself: anyone who takes a share this week forgoes his cut the next. That way we’d be able to meet all our orders. He, personally, would be taking his share now, but next time? Nothing. Somebody (tiresomely) wanted to know if this solution would be enforced on those special friends of the enterprise who resided outside the quarry, but since the question was posed by an individual without any official capacity (without the capacity for official capacity) we didn’t trouble ourselves to answer. At which three, maybe four, of the assembled workforce began to voice some very regrettable sentiments. The manager heard them perfectly clearly but for a while he held his tongue, and then, breaking the silence, he declared that we had to be men, to be strong; that we had to ignore those who would cast doubt on our abilities. Words that demonstrated his comprehensive and deep understanding of the circumstances in which we were operating. He was sympathetic, courageous, enthusiastic, and we applauded him.
Now the manager was down for three kilos, and Shukri Younes whispered, why didn’t I make it six? I sat back and stared at him. Why? The manager’s hosting a banquet? And Shukri Younes just stared back at me, willing me to use my brain, but I couldn’t work out why the manager’s share should be doubled and moreover, I disapprove of issuing executive orders in whispers. Anyway, I tried to understand, and failed, and then I was called over to help the butcher prepare the orders for the head registrar of the criminal court, the head of the licensing department, and the head of legal affairs on the town council. At which point Abou Awaja approached me and (another whisper) notified me that the fifth columnists were hovering about our current location and looking at us out of the corners of their eyes. When the eyes of that sort of person start looking at you sideways, they give off sparks. Pure evil. What did he think they were up to, I wanted to know. Abou Awaja made no reply.
Shukri Younes said, Leave it. Rifaei Mialawi said, No good ever comes from people like that. And Abou Awaja had raised the cleaver aloft and brought it down, straight through the meat and smacking into the block, when suddenly—despicably—one of the lurkers ran forward and chucked dirt all over us. Over our faces, over the carcass, over the cut meat on the block. The dog had heaped dust on God’s blessing. And he was shouting, too, swearing and cursing our fathers. Asking God to destroy our houses.
We were, I will confess, a little startled. Our hands froze and our tongues froze and the cleaver halted midair, and then the block crashed over and the trestle table collapsed into the refuse. The bastard had bombarded us. Someone would later describe this behavior as a sign we were on the right track; for one pious witness it brought to mind nothing so much as the Prophet’s treatment at the hands of the unbelievers. The trials of Ali Ibn Ali Talib. Even so, I would like to reserve a word of praise here for the efforts made by the manager, the engineers, sundry observers, the border patrol, and the meat distribution crew, to ensure that the perpetrator was identified and held to account for the disruption and disturbance he had caused.
Now it has been alleged that we beat the man about the head and face and fractured his skull, but this is not the place to waste more words on the wretch. Suffice to say he was—he must have been—an agent of one of the butchers in town. The quarry manager was exemplary in his attempts to safeguard the project, conducting a series of (scrupulously fair) interrogations with anyone that the aforementioned perpetrator had named in the course of his own confessions. And he was decisive: seventeen men barred on his orders from partaking of the quarry’s meat and their financial contributions to the project confiscated. As for the perpetrator, his contract was voided and three other workers from the same village were transferred to other quarries.
As for the meat, well, we were able to rescue it, and with it our smiles, and a celebration was held by the light of glowing coals.
For a fortnight after that our operation experienced no problems worth mentioning. Then we had to cancel it for a week because the men were busy righting a crane that had overturned in the storage depot, followed by another week’s delay because the men hadn’t moved quickly enough when a fire broke out by the barrels of diesel.
The manager of the quarry reached an agreement with the border patrol that the latter would safeguard the former from the actions of the troublemakers. The border patrol responded by setting up an observation post next to the slaughter site.
This, the eighth chapter of our story, finds us preparing the cuts destined for our more distinguished friends: Umm Kultoum trilling from a radio belonging to Rifaei Mialawi, while to our right an assortment of felons was clearing out the trench in which the dung and refuse and bones were to be incinerated.
A light wind sprang up from the north and the stars in the clear night sky first glowed, then dimmed, then tucked themselves away behind the hilled horizon line. A border guard on lookout was sitting by the carcass and taking bites from a chunk of grilled liver, and a particularly unrepentant felon, in charge of the flaming blood, was warbling a sad song about a woman white as marble who had taken a lover and betrayed her husband, and then, when her husband had left her and abandoned her to her lover, had betrayed her lover with the husband. Every so often he would break off to wipe away tears brought about by the rising smoke. Then he would tell a joke, and laugh. Would heft his shovel—God curse all kings, their sires and scions—and heap dust and dirt over the smoldering gore, and the dust would be everywhere, filling the air, carpeting the slaughter site, blanketing the meat and the butcher and the border guard and the man at the scales and me.
Then he could do no more. The fire had died and he tossed the shovel aside, and everyone was silent. And when the silence had peaked, only then, the butcher hefted his cleaver and brought it down through the meat. The last of the embers cracked and popped amid rivulets of blood. The radio gave a dying rattle. And when nobody came to its aid, there was quiet.
“Haraq Addamm” first published 1973. From Muhammed Mustajab, Qiyam Winhiyar Aal Mustajab (The Rise and Fall of Clan Mustajab), 1998. © Muhammed Mustajab. By arrangement with the author’s estate. Translation © 2019 by Robin Moger. All rights reserved.