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from the July 2006 issue

Wet Sleeves

They meet every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday morning in front of the newspaper shop, where they discuss concerns of the day, most of them too old to remember their exact age, the years only evident by their wrinkled and parched faces, their trembling hands. Some blow their noses, some chew tobacco and some smoke, drawing at their cigarettes with great effort.

Haj Bu-Zaid sneezes, looks at the locked door of the newspaper shop and says, the scoundrel is late. Perhaps he tripped over his own feet.

Haj Awadh shoots his words through a toothless smile, "Perhaps we'll find his name in today's obituaries. Only two days ago I asked him about his health and he replied, 'Never marry a Libyan and an Egyptian at the same time. The Egyptian wife will feed you fava beans for breakfast, the Libyan wheat stew for dinner. You'll need an elephant's stomach to survive.'"

Then the old men alternate from consoling to blaming to encouraging one another, and when their frivolity settles they ask Allah's forgiveness and pray that their friend be granted a long life.

In the cafe opposite the street, Somali newspaper boys sit drinking tea, blabbing away in their dialect, waiting for the newspaper shop to open. The sun rises, breaking the thick majestic clouds. The shopkeeper arrives. He releases the brass lock from the metal ring and pulls the door open. He takes in bundles of newspapers. Each old man hands over his quarter-dinar and takes a copy of the Benghazi News. Some impatiently turn to the obituaries page, others fold the paper beneath their arm and walk out. One of them, dressed in a long coat, lets his cigarette drop to the ground then stamps it out, puts on his reading spectacles and begins searching for advertisements of second-hand goods.

Haj Bu-Zaid walks to the door and stops for a moment in the sun. He looks at his watch then at the sky, and walks away heavily, newspaper in one hand, the cane in the other, his weary gaze stretching into the distance.

Many days passed and even more came. One of the old men didn't turn up to Friday prayer, another name was added to the obituaries list. They asked after him, and they grieved, wiping their tears on the ends of their sleeves. And even more days passed and two old men were added to the group, and three lost, and a further four gained. Life's routine persisted and more sleeves became wet, then dried, then became wet again, and so on. And the obituaries list grows and shrinks like the day's shadows.

Nails are hammered and presses print and stamps are licked and birds chirp and insects float and grass sprouts through the earth and rain falls from the sky and the tide comes in and out and the sun doesn't let up and life's relentless procession grinds as crying babes come into a world full of screams and ululation.

Read more from the July 2006 issue
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