For our Monday short fiction, Ahmed Sameer Saad’s “The Puny Pigeon Loft Proprietor,” a story of watching and witnessing, in translation by ArabLit Story Prize shortlistee Enas El-Torky:
By Ahmed Sameer Saad
Translated by Enas El-Torky
The young police officer noticed him standing on the highest rooftop, like a dark thin stick burnt by the sun, with bulging eyes.
He asked about him.
They told him he was the proprietor of the pigeon loft, and that he never left the rooftop.
So—he must have witnessed the robbery.
Then reality hit, as they all realized what it meant to have him up there, with his ability to see everything. Heads with pale faces and distraught eyes all nodded in agreement with the officer.
In a broken whisper, the pigeon loft proprietor denied witnessing the robbery. Yet faced with the officer’s dulcet tone of voice, the insignia on his shoulders, the other officers surrounding him, the bare walls of the police station, the faint light, the officer’s impatient gestures, and his persistence in the face of the man’s weak denials as he beat his fist against the palm of his hand, he broke down and confessed everything.
The light emitted by the flashlights the thieves carried seeped out of the closed windows. He followed their attempt to escape after they’d thought the coast was clear.
Hurrying toward the window, she drew it shut. She raised her hand, pushing off the hulking man who sought to penetrate her. His face was close to hers, trying to smother her with kisses. He stopped in the face of her cool demeanor, and his eyes grew quizzical. She howled and slapped her own face with the palms of her hands.
He had most certainly seen him from the rooftop as he entered her home, and hemust have noticed his frequent visits during these past few months. The man hadn’t told her husband, but she couldn’t rely on that.
Closing the window was safer for both of them, but it was also a change of habit that might arouse suspicion.
She leaned against the wall facing the window, out of his field of vision. The hulking man crushed her soft body with his own. He glued his lips to hers. She pushed him away, whispering to him coyly, saying that was enough for today.
In the evening, her husband turned off the lights and closed the window, cursing the stifling weather and the rooftop-dweller before holding her close to his chest.
He shouted at his companions, pushing them away from the window.
-What’s the matter?!
-The guy on the roof…
One of them stuck the cone-shaped blunt between his lips. He inhaled deeply. He pouted his lips before exhaling the smoke that he held in his chest for a few moments.
-You’re right, there issomeone on the rooftop. He’s standing perfectly still like the pigeons around him. I don’t know why I get the feeling that if somebody knocks nearby him, he’ll fly away like a pigeon.
-And fall down… down… down…
They burst out laughing.
-This is no time for jokes.
-Where did that party pooper pop out of?
-He’s been raising pigeons for ages. It’s been so long—before I was born even.
-How come we never noticed him before?
-It’s no problem, anyway. He must’ve seen us plenty before and it doesn’t really matter anymore.
-How about next time you ask him to come over and join us? I wonder what he looks like up close.
-Tell you what, my mom and dad are coming home in a couple of months, and I don’t need any headaches.
-Hey!! What are you doing?!! How could you throw the butt out on the street like that?!! You moron!
The Moalim sat in front of his shop, letting his apprentice fan the charcoal for the barbecue. His hand held the hookah hose while his lips embraced its mouthpiece. His eyes were troubled as his gaze wandered around all over the ground and such surroundings as did not exceed him in stature. He avoided looking up towards the rooftop and the pigeons.
He came back late every night after he’d closed the shop, carrying a full bag. After entering, he would empty its contents: the dead dogs he’d fed pieces of poisoned meat. He’d then skin them and prepare them to be grilled the next day.
It was said that that cursed man on the rooftop didn’t sleep like other humans, and that he had the eyes of an owl, penetrating walls with his gaze.
He violently beat the wall with the hookah hose.
-Hey, missy, this is not appropriate. Go get dressed properly.
-What’s wrong, Dad? I’m at home, and the weather’s unbearable.
-What about that guy up on the rooftop?
His wife intervened.
-Just let her be. How’s the guy on the rooftop going to see us when he’s on the same row of houses as us?
This idiot had no idea about the magic of glass; about how he stood on the balcony, staring at the glass of the window in front of him, where the image of Sameeha, the leafy greens seller, was reflected with her full feminine body that whet his appetite. Surely the pigeon loft proprietor knew about the magic of glass, too.
Then there was that other rumor about the pigeons, about how the puny dark man could understand their cooing, and how he sent them flying above everyone and followed what went on in private.
The pigeons could stand, clinging to the closed wooden shutters, peering through the slits and following everything: how he snored in his sleep, hiding his huge potbelly in his wide jellabiya, how he sometimes failed his wife in bed, and their daily breakfast of beans and the weekly meal of meat.
-I said go dress properly, bitch! As for you, woman, don’t you dare open that window. And you’d better cover it with a thick curtain too, or I swear I’ll divorce you, and you won’t spend another night in this house.
Sameeha stood up, raising a body that felt numb from sitting for long periods. She walked towards the cigarette butt that had been thrown out of the window of the kid’s apartment whose parents were away in the Gulf. She picked it up before heading back to sit once more behind the bunches of leafy greens piled on the burlap sack that covered two wooden cages, placed side by side.
She was certain that there were no passersby, and she was also positive that the puny man was up on the rooftop, watching her.
It was a hand-rolled cigarette butt. She unrolled it and let the hash fall into her palm.
She stared defiantly, with her steady shining gaze, at the rooftop where the puny man was. She wished she could see his eyes. He must certainly be able to see hers. Sitt Madeeha had sworn on the life of her children that his eyesight was so keen, he was able to guide the police to a ring he’d seen the thieves drop in the street while he was up on the rooftop.
She stared at him with an even steadier gaze, sending him a clear message. Gossip took place around her small leafy-green stand. Treasure troves of secrets were opened to her. She held the keys to them in her hand and would continue to possess them forever; she was not willing to accept any competition.
Indeed, his eyes devoured her as she reached into her bosom with her hand, shaking her breasts to free them from the tug of sweaty clothes that clung to her body after she’d made sure that there were no passersby. He drooled over her as she straightened her legs and rubbed her thighs.
At sunset, before she returned home, the gossip started once again: some loose woman had invited him to her bed so he wouldn’t tell on her, someone paid him money to keep an eye on his house as long as the occupants were away, and some guy asked him to keep an eye on his daughter’s behavior.
They set up the stage, hung the lights, and announced a belly dancer who removed her black robe, revealing her glittery dance costume and smooth white flesh.
The puny man stood on the rooftop. It was almost dark. He held a large flag, waving it right and left, calling his pigeons to land.
The pigeons gathered above him in a huge flock, circling before landing.
Every once in a while, he heard the sound of ululations and gunshots fired in the air in celebration.
He fell from high above. They rushed towards him, surrounding the body that had been shattered by the fall, its chest pierced by a stray bullet.
Ahmed Sameer Saad is an Egyptian doctor, novelist, short story writer, and translator. He has published several short story collections, including The Puny Pigeon Loft Proprietor (Fikra Publishing House, 2009, second edition Oktob Publishing House, 2015), Flotsam of the Imagination (Rawafid Publishing House, 2016), God, Country, Him (General Egyptian Book Organization, 2018). He has also published several novels and has won several awards such as the General Organization of Culture Palaces Competition for his short story collection The Puny Pigeon Loft Proprietor, 2009, and the Sharjah Award for Arab Creativity, children’s literature, 2018.
Enas El-Torky studied English language and literature at Ain Shams University, where she earned her Ph.D in 2003. She has published two short story collections; Altalita Ah (Triple Woes, 2014), Min Hona Tamor AlAhlam (Dreams Pass by Here, 2016), and translated Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger to Arabic (2018).