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Samakh, the South Shore, 1948
Radi sat in his uncle's shop, behind the plumbline scales. As he waited for his uncle to come back, he sold a few things but mostly he was just bored. People in Samakh didn't really know what to do with themselves. They were waiting—waiting for the unknown. The whistle of the Haifa-Deraa train didn't sound now. There was nothing to fill the space of the small town except anxiety; nothing, any more, to evoke a sense of security.
His uncle, Abd al-Karim, had started opening old account books again, searching out hopeless or doubtful debts, trying to collect what he could here and there. He didn't go to Tiberias anymore to buy new stock. He'd been there two weeks before but come back in a panic at midday. Tiberias was a powder keg, he said. Ready to explode at any moment.
In the evening the men sat in the shop fronts, stricken with fear by the broadcasts from the Near East station. "You townspeople," said Haj Mahmoud, leader of the fighters in the 1936 rebellion, "had better start digging trenches. There are dark days ahead."
At nightfall the darkness grew blacker still. People started whispering, asking one another what they should do. Then there was silence. Silence and anxiety.
In the evenings the men huddled together at the threshold of the guesthouse, their faces pale, as though pinched by cold. They talked of last year's troubles, and the troubles of the present one—another cruel year, with a merciless winter; an outpouring of God's wrath, and days filled with bitternessstill to come.
Radi joined the group, staying close to his father Haj Hussein, feeling the deep, surging unease of the white-bearded old man as he rolled his homegrown tobacco in the Ottoman paper, licking the edge of the paper, then smoothing it down and lighting it.
Khaled al-Zaher made the rounds with glasses of tea. He was a shepherd, and he lived in the stables where the seeds and straw and plowshares were kept, along with various other old odds and ends, and where swallows and lizards and spiders made their home.
Coffee wasn't ground in a mortar anymore. And, since the latest round of troubles, all talk of harvest and the calves to be born in spring had given way to talk of the Jews, who'd started drilling behind the settlement of Degania and blocked the road whenever they felt like it. The men no longer told tales of hyenas and foxes and jackals. All the talk revolved around the coming days, whose terrors would turn the blackest hair white. Even the sparrows sensed the fear and, shunning the wide open spaces, settled on the telephone lines.
A disaster was coming and there was a sense of the earth starting to tremble. Around this time, the time of siesta, the trees and the wind fell silent. Even the waves of the lake were still.
It was like the silence and stillness before an explosion at the stone quarries.
* * *
Suddenly, standing there at the door, was a fair-haired soldier with a bag on his shoulder; one of those wandering British soldiers who were passing through more often these days, on the way from Jisr al-Majami camp to Haifa, loitering along the way to sell some stuff or buy cigarettes and chewing gum.
There he was. He seemed to hesitate for a moment, but in he came, then stood there without a word. Radi asked if he wanted anything. The soldier looked back, as if to make sure no one could see him, then put down his bag.
Radi felt an instinctive unease, but the soldier made a reassuring gesture. "I've got something worth selling here," he said. "Are you interested?"
Radi pushed the scales to one side. "What is it?" he asked.
The soldier pulled something out of the bag: a vest, navy blue. It was broad and puffed out, with big front pockets.
"This is a real protective jacket," the soldier said. "A bullet-proof vest, lightweight. It's got small plates inside reinforced with fiber-glass."
He held it up for Radi to see. But—what in heaven's name was it?
A bullet-proof vest a man could put on over his clothes, a vest tied at the back and hugging the chest so no bullet could get through to the heart.
"It's really useful for a fighter," the soldier said. "Something special. My mother sent it to me from London," he went on. "As I said, it's something special. She was afraid I'd be killed and this was the only thing she could find to protect me. Apart from her prayers."
Radi gazed, dazzled, at this thing that was so supple and beautiful.
"It's to be worn on top," the soldier said. "If a man wears one of these he won't be killed, and he'll really impress people too."
Radi was duly impressed, and the soldier kept egging him on.
"Have a look at it yourself. Shoot at it and see how strong it is."
Radi wasn't sure what to say or do, and the soldier probably noticed his uncertainty. "My tour of duty's over," he said. "I'll be in Haifa soon, then I'm going home. Look, I'm in a hurry. I'll sell it to you cheap."
Radi was thinking. Of the money in the drawer perhaps.
"I'll make you a good price," the soldier insisted. "Just twenty guineas."
Radi's eyebrows shot up in surprise. A car horn blared outside. Obviously someone was waiting for him.
"You can have it for ten guineas. Here."
Radi thought for a moment of his uncle, Abd al-Karim, who left him in charge of his shop when he wasn't there. Would his uncle be pleased or not, he wondered? Then he put his apprehension aside, took out the ten guineas and handed them to the soldier in exchange for the vest.
The soldier went out, then left in the car. It had all happened so quickly Radi was only now getting back his sense of reality. This thing had happened—the soldier coming in—then leaving. How had he dared spend all that money without consulting his uncle?
The vest was on the table, navy blue, its puffed-up front moving gently underneath the scales. It was light. It looked like one of those suits of armor the old warriors had worn to ward off sword thrusts or piercing spears.
Radi kept gazing at it, bracing himself for his uncle's storming rage when he returned. He took the vest down, put it in a corner away from prying eyes, then sat down to think.
When it came to buying eggs or a chicken, or even making a deal over a measure of wheat, he was authorized to handle things. If it had been a matter of a second-hand bed, or an old carpet, it would have been easier still. But to buy a military vest—that was sheer madness!
A storm of dust swept through the empty square in front of the shop, the square which, on Fridays, became a market for sheep and birds. The leaves were still flying about when Mansour, the ticket seller at the train station, came in to buy a pack of cigarettes. He greeted Radi and held out the money. He didn't need to ask for the pack, because he always ran out of cigarettes around this time of the day. He was wearing a navy blue uniform with brass buttons, and when he talked his smart false teeth showed from behind his lips.
Radi handed him a pack of Yater, and he took out a cigarette and lit it. Then he raised his head, and his eyes focused on the vest.
"What's that?" he asked. He knew something was up. "By God, what is it?" The vest had aroused his curiosity.
"It's a bullet-proof vest," Radi said.
"Where did you get it?"
"I bought it today. A British soldier just passed through. He sold it to me."
"How much did you pay for it?"
Mansour raised his eyebrows. "That's incredible," he said. "It's worth a lot more than that."
"He was in a hurry and sold it cheap."
"Let me have a look at it."
Mansour went around to the back of the counter, then kneeled down to examine the navy blue vest, while Radi watched his reactions.
Astonishment was written all over the ticket-seller's face.
"You're a lucky guy," he said wonderingly. "Make sure you let everyone know before your uncle gets back."
Radi felt a great sense of relief. Mansour adjusted the cap on his head, then went out in his brass-buttoned uniform, back to the deserted station.
* * *
A butterfly landed on the sticky flytrap hanging from the ceiling and struggled vainly to free itself. Radi popped a candy in his mouth, leaving it to melt slowly, determined not to look at the dazzling vest. He was still thinking, in spite of everything, of the moment his uncle would come. Najib the fisherman, whose clothes reeked of fish and the salt sea, came in. He usually bought what he needed on credit, and Radi's uncle Abd al-Karim wasn't too keen on him because he was always late settling his accounts. The man was lazy and besides, on top of that, had divorced his wife Badriyyeh, a relation of Abd al-Karim's.
He came in and greeted Radi, then let his eyes wander around the store. Radi got ready to refuse him credit, but instead Najib sat down without a word.
Customers with time on their hands often took a seat like that, but Najib seemed worried and preoccupied. Then he let out a suppressed sigh from his broad, sinewy chest, in a way Radi wasn't used to. Radi relaxed, feeling sympathy for the weary face, whose right temple was lit up by the sunshine now, the first gray hairs thrown into relief.
Najib gazed unseeingly at the square opposite, then said: "When's al-Taher coming back?"
Al-Taher—al-Taher—everyone asked the same question, and no one knew. Some said he'd been seen in the Yasmin quarter of Nablus, others that he'd been seen at the walls of Jerusalem, at Herod's gate. Still others said he'd reached Gaza on his way to Egypt.
"Al-Taher's pretty slippery," Najib said. "No one can catch him." He smiled absently, the smile of a worried man. Then he said, as though to himself: "You're the only one who can save me, al-Taher."
Radi thought of asking Najib why he was so anxious, of trying to lighten the burden that weighed him down. The man hadn't, he noticed, taken out a cigarette to smoke. Realizing Najib didn't have the price of a loaf of bread or a pack of cigarettes, or tea, or sugar, he took a pack down off the shelf and thrust it in his hand.
Najib took it eagerly. "Tell your uncle," he said—evidently surprised by this generosity and anxious to avoid any misunderstanding—"I'll pay everything I owe him one of these days."
"Why are you asking about al-Taher?" Radi asked.
Najib lit a cigarette and blew out the smoke, "I want to join up with the fighters," he said.
Radi knew what was going through his mind. Scores of men were going east, to Quneitra and Qatanna, enlisting in the Arab Liberation Army, seeking out arms and khaki uniforms, dreaming of heroism and courage and medals.
Ahmad Bey had been a guest of his father's for the past few days. He was a commander in the Liberation Army, and he'd come to spread the news and reassure people, as well as looking out for new positions for his forces.
"Has he turned you down?"
"No, but he hasn't taken me either."
At that moment Abu Hamid's car stopped in the square opposite. It was a yellow Ford and it had come back from Nazareth, passing through Saffuriyyeh and the Subeih bedouins on the way. Abu Hamid got out and started untying the rope that held the baggage together on the top.
Najib gazed at the shiny yellow Ford, perhaps imagining himself riding in the back as it tore along the road.
"So you're waiting for al-Taher to come back," Radi said.
Najib nodded. "I need his advice. I'm going off." He made a gesture toward the horizon.
Al-Taher—al-Taher. That bold adventurer, addicted to wandering and reckless courage, cleaving his way through the heart of the fire, riding difficulty and danger.
"If Ahmad Bey turns me down," Najib said, "I'll just go to al-Kawuqji. They need more men."
His eyes roamed over the shop, stopping suddenly at the vest.
"What's that, Radi? What on earth's that thing there?"
Radi had known the vest would stir his imagination and wake a burning curiosity in him.
"It's a sort of armor, that's all," he said.
"What do you mean, armor. Be serious, will you?"
"I am being serious. It's an armor against bullets."
"Where did your uncle get it?"
"I'm the one who bought it, not him."
"How? Tell me, by God."
"I bought it from a British soldier. He was passing through."
"Can I take a look at it?"
Without waiting for any reply, he went to the back of the store, and Radi let him examine it closely. He turned it over and gazed at it long and hard, then placed it against his chest. Perhaps, for an instant, he imagined himself a warrior. Then he put it back where it had been before.
"What are you going to do with it?" he asked. "Sell it?"
"I don't know. That's up to my uncle."
Najib stood motionless. Then he walked off before stopping once more and giving the vest a final glance. "That armor deserves a brave fighter in it," he said. "Someone who'll be worthy of it. Tell your uncle that. Don't forget to tell him what I said."
He spoke proudly, as though talking about himself.
* * *
Khaled al-Zaher stopped in front of the store, reining in the horse that was pulling the cart. "Come on," he shouted.
Radi was still waiting for his uncle to come back, fighting off his feelings of drowsiness. The muezzin was announcing the evening prayer.
"Come on," Khaled al-Zaher called again, louder this time. He was a stableman and servant but a member of the family too. Occasionally he worked as a plowman as well, but he had the authority to give orders and stop people doing things.
Radi yawned, stuffed a few candies in his pocket and got up. The vest was right there in front of him, shrouded by the early dusk, but he would have been able to see it even with his eyes closed. He could see it, sense its metallic feel, even without touching it. He thought for a moment of taking it home with him, then decided to leave it there.
He opened the drawer, tied the money up in a bundle and thrust it down into his chest. Then he closed the door of the shop and climbed into the cart, which started swaying left and right as the tiring horse pulled it.
"The horse is hungry," Radi said. "Why haven't you fed it?"
Khaled al-Zaher was wrapping his head in a black kaffiyyeh.
"I fed it an hour ago," he answered. "It's getting greedy."
Khaled treated animals the way he did humans. He was compassionate with them, and he'd keep them clean and take care of their hooves. Though some animals were disobedient, he never whipped them.
Radi offered al-Zaher a candy, which he put in his mouth as the cart swayed on, down the alleys and around bends.
"Your uncle isn't back yet," al-Zaher said. "Maybe he couldn't collect his debts. Times are hard, and people don't like getting their wallets out."
Sleep crept in on Radi. He closed his eyes.
"And if anyone did open his wallet," Khaled al-Zaher went on, "then it would be to buy an Ottoman rifle. The one with the long barrel."
Radi was too sleepy to pay any great attention.
"Haj Hussein told me he wanted to buy a rifle. He might sell a cow for that."
Radi leaned his head on al-Zaher's shoulder, unable to fight off sleep any longer. Al-Zaher stopped talking and, tugging on the halter, prodded the horse on.
* * *
At the gate the dog started barking and wagging its tail, and Radi, realizing he was home, opened his eyes. Khaled al-Zaher got down to open the big gate leading to the stables, while Radi jumped off and crossed the spacious courtyard to the stairs that led up to the attic.
His mother, her head covered by a white headdress, was lulling his small brother to sleep, and gestured to him, as he entered, not to make any noise. He went in on tiptoe, without a word, took out the bundle of money and laid it in her lap. She nodded her head, then went on rocking the baby, whose white skin was suffused with a rosy pink. He was asleep, with his eyelids half-closed and a smile on his lips. He smiled, his mother said, because a gazelle was passing through his dreams.
He sat down on the mat, waiting for her to finish so he could tell her about the vest he'd bought that day. He wanted to see how she reacted when he told her. Who else, after all, would be able to face his uncle?
He kept quiet even so, and the baby, sleeping now, went on smiling as though a whole herd of gazelles were grazing in his dream. Still Radi waited, then, when he tried at long last to speak, she motioned to him to go out and come back later when the baby was really fast asleep.
He went down into the courtyard where Khaled al-Zaher had untied the horse, hanging a sack of hay around its neck so it could eat its food, while the dog, called Wolf, sat watching.
Radi made his way to the lit reception room at the other end of the courtyard and greeted the guests, but no one heard him. The men were all deep in conversation: his father; his aunt's husband, who was the local mukhtar, or headman; the Circassian; Ahmad Bey, the officer of the Arab Liberation Army; and an unknown visitor. In their midst lay a rifle with a long barrel, which was the subject of their conversation.
Radi sat down and listened. His father had just rolled his usual cigarette, while Ahmad Bey, his snuff box in front of him, twirled his fair handsome whiskers every now and then and nodded his head.
They were talking about the rifle, which the stranger called "Austrian," only to be corrected by Ahmad Bey, who said it was a Khedive rifle, one of the spoils acquired by the people of Najd in their war with the Egyptians, at the time of the Khedive.
They were haggling over its price. It belonged, it seemed, to the stranger, who was somewhere from Galilee and wanted to sell it because he was hard up.
"It's not worth more than ten guineas," the Circassian said. The stranger insisted he'd bought it for twenty, and Radi's father broke in to offer him fifteen guineas.
The stranger relented and agreed to the price. Then Ahmad Bey butted in. "You can't find ammunition for this sort of rifle," he said.
The deal fell through, and the stranger, taking his rifle, rose in a huff. The Circassian tried to calm him, but he wouldn't listen and left. After he'd gone the group fell silent. Suddenly Radi's father noticed he was there, and the mukhtar asked if his uncle had come back from his trip, while Khaled al-Zaher came in to pour the tea and offer it to the guests. Then, because it was turning cold, he lit the wood stove. Ahmad Bey went back to talking of rifles and the ammunition for them, about the different kinds and what they were like: the French ones, the German ones with the long barrel, the Ottoman and the Turkish, and, finally, the Czech one, which was excellent but which you couldn't find ammunition for. Next he went on to talk of artillery, the Tommy gun, the Boaz and the mortar gun, then of machine guns, the Sten gun, the French, the Hotchkiss and the Sidaum. Then he started talking about different kinds of bomb, the Miles and the Salabend. In fact he showed off all his comprehensive knowledge. Everyone was all ears, their burning curiosity aroused. Radi wondered whether to mention the treasure he'd left at the store, but Ahmad Bey was still talking loudly, and the men were listening intently and pressing for more. The fire in the stove burned fiercely, with occasional sparks flying out. Then there was a knock at the gate, and Khaled al-Zaher hurried out to open it. The thread of the conversation was broken by the entrance of Mansour, the ticket-seller at the train station. He greeted the others, took off his shoes and walked in.
He was wearing a cloak with a white robe beneath and the traditional Arab headdress on his head. Out of his brass buttoned uniform he looked like one of the effendis of Haifa, lacking only a red tarboush (fez).
They made a place for him among the group, and, after the usual greetings and civilities, Ahmad Bey went on with his disquisition, dealing now with TNT explosives and their effects; after which he went on to talk about gelignite, before passing on to anti-aircraft artillery with its different calibers, fixed and handheld, then to tanks and armored cars, and the different guns they carried, and the length of their barrels.
It seemed to Radi that the men were dazzled, that Ahmad Bey was some prodigy who could work miracles—which was, no doubt, why Ahmad Bey was going into everything in such exaggerated detail. The only thing left for him to talk about was the atom bomb. Then Mansour once more interrupted the flow of conversation. "What about bullet-proof vests?" he asked.
Radi felt the blood rush to his head as the image of the navy blue vest with the puffy front surged up in his mind. Ahmad Bey opened his snuff box and, taking a pinch of snuff, put it to his nostrils and threw back his head so as to take it well in. He wiped his nose, then, straight away, sneezed once, twice, three times. He'd just prepared himself to start talking again when Mansour beat him to it.
"I bet you haven't seen a piece of armor like the one Radi has."
All eyes turned to Radi, sweeping down on him like a sudden rainstorm. He felt the sweat break out on his brow. Did he dare speak, or should he leave? Then he plucked up courage, or pretended to. "I bought it today," he burst out. "A British soldier sold it to me cheap. I bought it with my uncle's money, and I'm not sure if he'll be pleased or not."
His father threw him a reproving look, "Why didn't you tell us when you came in, son?" he said.
Radi scratched his head and said nothing. "I've seen it with my own eyes," Mansour said. "It's really something. If a fighter's wearing that, all the bullets in the world won't pierce his chest."
Ahmad Bey seemed to need another pinch of snuff to take it all in. Then, after just a single sneeze, he said: "What's that? Do you really mean it?"
"I saw it with my own eyes," Mansour broke in. "I swear it!"
Radi's eyes moved from one person to another: his father, the amazement showing in his face; the Circassian, whose face had turned redder; his aunt's husband, who couldn't be moved by an earthquake even; Mansour, flushed with pride at the attention he'd managed to arouse. As for Ahmad Bey, he kept on shaking his head, then said:
"Right. Let's see this vest and make up our minds about it."
Once again they all turned their gaze on Radi. No one had noticed he was there earlier, but now, knowing himself the center of attention, he felt even prouder than when the schoolmaster had appointed him class prefect.
He glanced at his father; and, seeing his father's sympathetic eye on him, felt the old man's tenderness toward him to be as vast as the lake.
"Go back with al-Zaher," his father said, handing him the silver-hilted dagger to protect him in the small town's lonely alleys, "and fetch the vest from your uncle's shop."
Radi got up at once, hanging the dagger at his side. As he was about to cross the threshold, his father added: "Take Wolf with you."
Wolf was still sitting in the courtyard, but the moment he heard his name he sprang up, cocking his ears. He really was like a wolf, always alert and ready for any signal to race the wind.
* * *
Khaled al-Zaher harnessed the horse, which looked livelier after its meal, while Radi sat down next to him, carrying a lantern that threw off some of the darkness. Al-Zaher tightened the reins, and this time the cart moved off more smoothly. The horse, its hooves deep in mud, was pulling strongly now, while Wolf sometimes raced in front of the cart and sometimes walked alongside it. When the cart reached the main road, the horse started trotting on the paved surface, while, here and there, municipal sentries blew the odd whistle to show that they were there and all was well.
The night guard in front of the police station was wrapped in a thick coat, and he'd lit a fire to chase away the cold and loneliness. Far off, in the distant plains, they heard a howling that send a shudder through them.
The cart came to a halt in front of the store. Radi got the vest and locked up again, while the dog leaped up in the air and frogs croaked nearby. As Radi was about to climb back in the cart, there was the sound of an explosion, which lit up the horizon. Radi felt himself tremble. Then there was a second, more powerful explosion.
"Get in," Khaled al-Zaher said. "Get in!" He pulled him up, turned the cart around and gave the horse the rein. The horse must have sensed the danger, because it sped off, together with the dog, who wouldn't stop barking.
The horizon, heavy with clouds, was rent by a third explosion. "Oh God," Khaled al-Zaher said, "have mercy on us."
The street was totally deserted now, and no one peered out from behind windows or doors. The cart turned into the narrow alleys, the horse going by instinct. Radi had almost forgotten about the vest. One hand carried the lantern, the other firmly gripped the dagger.
By the time they reached the big gate the explosions had stopped, succeeded by a mysterious, impenetrable silence. Wolf was panting and the reception room was in an uproar. Ahmad Bey, who'd just come down from the roof, said: "There's something happening in Tiberias." Then he added, to himself: "Still, Subhi Shaheen got there a few days ago with his men. It's all under control."
"But there are more Jews than Arabs in Tiberias," the Circassian broke in. The men looked fearful and lost.
"There's nothing to be afraid of," Ahmad Bey answered. "The Arab Liberation Army's getting ready at the borders. The second Yarmouk battalion." He took some snuff. "We'll wipe them off the face of the earth, the bastards."
At this point Khaled al-Zaher came in carrying the splendid vest, and Ahmad Bey, speechless, sprang to his feet.
What power made him stand with such dignity? He took hold of the vest and turned it over, inspecting every part of it, up and down, inside and out. He tapped the metal with his fingers, while everyone gathered around him in awe.
"This really is something," he said. "It's a Bristol-type bullet-proof vest, British made. A superb vest."
Mansour's voice sounded out. "Didn't I tell you?"
Ahmad Bey turned to Radi.
"You did well, son," he said. "How much did you pay for it?"
"I'll give you five more. Will you sell it to me?"
Radi was elated. They were treating him like a man.
He glanced at his father, to draw strength and approval from the old man. His father smiled, then said, "You're standing in for your uncle. Act like a man."
Radi looked at Ahmad Bey in his military dress, at the stars gleaming on his shoulders. Ahmad Bey, he thought, was the one worthy of this vest. He was the knight who could wear it and set off boldly to war.
"Bey," he said, "the money isn't the important thing. What matters is that the vest finds the man who deserves to wear it."
Mansour laughed, and the Circassian cried out: "May God favor you, son."
"You're the one, above all, who should have it," Radi concluded.
Ahmad Bey's face relaxed, and his chest swelled. His eyes gleaming, he pulled two ten guinea notes out of his pocket.
"Here are twenty guineas. Fifteen for your uncle and five for you. You're a brave boy and you'll be a good fighter one day."
Then he picked up the vest and felt its sturdy material.
* * *
Najib came in the early morning, beaming and wearing pants tucked into shoes with a high flap and a dark khaki winter jacket. The face that so rarely saw a razor was clean-shaven now, and his thin black moustache made him look younger and more handsome. Where had he found all those clothes? At any rate, there he was. He knocked twice on the door. The gate, through which Khaled al-Zaher had passed with the cart on the way to the pasture near the Karantina, where the flock was, had already been opened at dawn by the old man as he went to pray to the Creator.
Najib crossed the courtyard, which was filled with puddles of rainwater, and came into the reception room whose corner was dripping too.
"Good morning Bey," he said.
Ahmad Bey, huddled in fur, murmured a greeting, and Najib sat down nearby. Najib rarely entered the reception room, where he wasn't welcome, but when he did he knew where the likes of him should sit. Another drop of water fell in the corner.
"All these rains have made the roof leak," Najib said.
The Bey nodded. Perhaps he'd noticed the clean clothes Najib was wearing, because he'd looked hard at the handsome khaki jacket but made no comment. Meanwhile Najib's eyes fell on the bullet-proof vest near the Bey's pillow. "That's a marvelous vest!" he said. "I've seen it before, haven't I?"
The Bey coughed and still said nothing, obviously not wanting to be too familiar with this tiresome man, who never stopped banging on closed doors.
"It's a sturdy thing, isn't it?" Najib went on.
Ahmad Bey stayed silent, but he was only outwardly calm. Inside he was losing patience. It just wasn't proper for this man to keep trying to break down barriers in search of his goal. It was also improper for a would-be soldier in semi-military dress to talk with an officer in his pajamas, whose uniform was hanging from a nail on the wall.
"I bet there's nothing to beat that vest."
At this point the Bey's anger boiled over. He covered the vest with a corner of his fur to hide it from view, then said, in the manner of a military order:
"Stop chattering and go make some tea."
Najib jumped to it, taken aback rather, but pleased too at the recognition reflected in this exchange with him. He searched for some wood in the corner and lit the fire, then he found the sooty kettle, which he cleaned by the threshold. He took some tea and sugar from the box, threw them in the big kettle that was kept over the fire all day, pulled up a cushion and sat down to wait for the tea to boil. In the meantime Ahmad Bey, in a white flannel shirt and coarse woolen longjohns, got up to wash, then went to the toilet in the stables. As the sounds of wind released from the Bey's intestines gurgled like the liquid in a water pipe, the water in the kettle started steaming. The Bey, who suffered from constipation, was making loud popping sounds, and Najib had to fight back the laugh that wanted to come out. When the Bey returned, his face red from the strain, he found the tea all ready in the big glass.
The Bey knew well enough that Najib must have heard the sounds of his struggle in the stables, but he gave no sign whatsoever, moving toward his uniform, which he put on. He thrust his feet into his boots, then, standing erect, seemed a very different man from the one who'd been heaving and straining such a short time before. He issued his second order.
"Now tidy the bed."
In the manner of a soldier who was still a conscript, Najib was happy to obey orders, and did what he'd been told to do straight away. Ahmad Bey sat cross-legged on the mattress, which was actually made up of two mattresses one on top of the other, provided as a mark of respect by the master of the house.
He sat and raised the glass of dark tea, brewed now so that its fragrance spread, while the flames leaped high in the stove. Wolf stood by the door with his dirty shaggy white coat, probably drawn by the smell of the fire. He never crossed the threshold, even by an inch.
Najib looked at the bit of the vest peeking out from under the fur, wishing the Bey would reveal this tempting object, wishing he could wear it one day, the way real warriors did. The Bey drank the glass to the last drop, and Najib poured him another.
"Bey," he said. "Sir. I want to be a soldier with you."
This wasn't the first time he'd made the request—in fact it was maybe the fifth or sixth time, and he'd never received a reply.
The Bey reflected. What was it, finally, that stopped him taking this young man so overflowing with vitality? Why shouldn't this man be his orderly and servant? He seemed obedient and he was burning with eagerness to join the army. But what would the people of the small town say? What doubts would they start feeling if the army took in layabouts who weren't really and truly patriotic?
"Look, Najib," the Bey said suddenly. "Before we can take you, you have to prove you're fit for a place in the army."
Najib poured him a third glass of tea. "Right, sir," he said.
The Bey drank some more tea. "It's war we're talking about, Najib," he went on. "And war needs proper soldiers."
Najib stood up and saluted in his joy. The Bey's words meant he was halfway to being accepted.
The Bey opened his snuff box and took in some snuff, "You must get a testimonial from the mayor or one of the other top people," he said.
"I already have one from the mayor, sir." He pulled a folded piece of paper from his pocket and presented it to the Bey, who opened it and gave it a brief glance.
"Right," he said. "Then, as I'm sure you know, you'll need a physical examination."
"No problem. Can't you see I'm as strong as a rock?"
"And you'll have to undergo intensive training, at the Qatanna base."
"I know that, sir."
"A tough military training that only strong men can get through."
"I know that too."
"As for your wages, they'll be four and a half guineas."
"I want to enlist to defend my country, sir. Not for the money."
The Bey looked closely at Najib to be sure he was telling the truth. "Then you'll be a good, disciplined soldier," he said finally.
A tear almost escaped Najib's eye. Then he said, in a heartfelt voice: "I'll make you proud of me, sir."
Wolf suddenly slunk off as Radi arrived with the breakfast tray.
* * *
It was a big tray, laden with food. There were plates of fried eggs, different sorts of cheese, olives, thyme, honey and a pile of hot bread. Radi had woken early, opening his eyes to see a perfectly clear sky and a bird preening its feathers on the window sill.
The heavy rains had stopped, but there were still streaks on the windows, and still the delicious warmth of his bed kept him tucked up inside. His mother's voice had woken him right up, for it was already halt past six and he had a lot of chores to do before going to school. His mother had already finished her early morning tasks. She'd watered the flower pots, the basil and the utrah. She'd fed the baby and washed its clothes. Then she'd prepared breakfast for the guest, before starting to chat with his aunt across the rooftops.
When Radi came in, Najib, clean-shaven and with clean clothes for once, stood up and, taking the tray, set it in front of the Bey who was sitting there cross-legged in his uniform.
"May God bless you," said the Bey. "You're a good boy."
He picked up a loaf of bread, tore it in two, and broke off a piece, which he then dipped in olive oil and honey and stuffed in his mouth. It was such a big mouthful he could hardly chew it, and, when Najib inquired whether he'd like some tea with his food, he couldn't answer but just had to raise his eyebrows to say no.
Radi sat down alongside Najib, who hadn't dared approach the food. His glance fell on the tip of the vest, and he wished he could see it once more before the Bey left.
The Bey swallowed his mouthful, or rather he gulped it down. It had lodged in his throat, and he would have choked but for Najib, who'd fetched him a glass of water. Then he dipped the second piece of bread in olive oil and yogurt. Before he could put it in his mouth, though, Sheikh Hussein arrived from his dawn prayers, preceded by his cane and some benign supplications he knew by heart from the book called The Guide to Good Deeds.
The Bey put his food aside and made to get up, but the Haj insisted he shouldn't interrupt his meal. The Haj sat down, then asked his guest: "Did you sleep well?"
"Yes, God be praised," answered the Bey. "Won't you join us?" he said, indicating the food.
But the Haj never took anything in the early morning except a cup of the purest olive oil. "May you enjoy your food," he said. The Bey went on eating, while Najib still watched and waited.
"Eat, Najib," the Haj said. "God's bounty is great."
Najib's eyes were glued to the Bey's face. He was anxious nothing should spoil the atmosphere. The Bey made a gesture, an almost imperceptible nod of the head, from which Najib understood there was no objection, and he stretched out a hand and began eating hungrily.
"Haj," the Bey said. "Najib's become a volunteer in the Arab Liberation Army."
The Haj had just taken out his tobacco and cigarette paper. "God shows the way," he said. The words were rather unclear. Did they show enthusiasm or not?
"Najib's brave and strong," Radi broke in eagerly. The Bey looked up at the Haj, who went on rolling his cigarette.
After he'd eaten his fill, the Bey said: "Haj, the country is calling its sons." This meant he'd decided to leave.
"The house is yours," the Haj said. "We're the guests here and you're the master."
"May God preserve the house and those in it," the Bey replied.
He pulled at the fur, to reveal the vest on which all eyes became fixed. Najib looked at it in awe, and the Bey gave him his third order that morning.
"Get moving, Najib. Go and fetch your bag. The car's coming within the hour, to take us to Beisan."