The Debt

For multifarious and age-old reasons the dense central city was girdled by a wide belt of poverty. Near the southern edge of this shabby cincture lay a large village. Within the village was a sandy square of sixty meters in which children played and adults gathered to talk. Everyone crossed it as they went about their business.

Mustapha’s one-room, mud-brick hut sat hard on this square. Although he was a beggar, he did not call himself one, for he always said—to those he knew, at least—I’ll repay you in a week, or so. Fifty piasters here, a pound or two there, little more than pocket change, but enough so they sought to escape when they saw him coming. Even in an area as big as Cairo, the word got around, Watch out for Mustapha.

It wasn’t that he could not work, for he was strong and quick-minded. But a regular job did not interest him. He held himself separate, as if he were above everyone else. Perhaps his choice of begging as a profession was an outcry against the irrelevance, alienation, and pitiful wages available to the lower classes.

Because Mustapha kept late hours, his shutter was closed each morning when the young reporter, Youssef, rode through the square, his bicycle emitting a high-pitched screech upon each rotation of the pedals. Youssef did not earn much at the newspaper, where he was a junior reporter, junior in every way. The job was his because the editor was a friend of his uncle and because a bribe, collected by his family, had been paid. Not yet married, he lived with his parents, sister, grandmother, and his uncle’s family.

The two men had been classmates at school, Youssef the kind of boy who got along with everyone, but the other children did not like Mustapha, whose gaze focused somewhere beyond one’s shoulder, as if he were calculating how to sneak up and bash his victim on the head. He took advantage of Youssef’s easy-going manner by copying his lessons and asking him for favors.

On the way home one day three boys were beating Mustapha because of some coarse words he had said to one of them. Youssef saw this and rushed to Mustapha’s aid. Later, when the same boys caught Youssef alone, they punched and kicked him in retaliation. As he fell to the ground, he glimpsed Mustapha scurrying into a side street.

The next day he confronted him. “Why didn’t you help me?”

“I did not see you,” Mustapha replied. “I was on my way to visit my aunt. As you know, she lives on that street.”

After they finished their schooling, the two saw each other only by chance, once at a restaurant where Youssef noted Mustapha was eating a more expensive meal than his own. Although these meetings were cordial, Youssef tensed, because it was just a matter of time before he asked him for money.

One evening Youssef and Jameela, the woman he was dating at the time, exited the movie theater and stepped around a large pile of garbage. The village was enduring another of its garbage crises when, through corruption and incompetence, the money allocated for pickup—but not the garbage—disappeared. They were discussing the movie, Chahine’s The Destiny, when Mustapha stepped from behind the pile.

“Ah, friend,” said Mustapha. “Was the movie a good one?” He still had that maddening habit of looking past one’s shoulder.

“Quite good, yes. This was the third time I’ve seen it.”

“And who is this lovely lady you’re with?”

Youssef introduced Jameela.

Mustapha said, “Youssef and I have been good friends since our school days together.” He proceeded to make many flattering and insincere comments to her. Then he motioned Youssef to the side. “I’m in a bit of a pinch. Can you spare twenty pounds? I’ll repay you in a week, or so.”

What could Youssef say? To refuse a good friend would make him appear cheap in Jameela’s eyes.

After Mustapha left, Jameela asked in a starstruck way, “Who was that guy?”

“An old friend who turned out to be a big disappointment.” He hoped she hadn’t fallen for Mustapha’s act. Although Jameela was attractive, he had a rather prosaic assessment of her charms. As they walked, he said, “I’m still full from supper. Why don’t we skip the ice cream shop tonight?” He had eaten at home. Although his sister and grandmother were good cooks, the truth was, he no longer had enough money in his wallet for ice cream.

Normally in times when the garbage was not picked up, the people dumped it in unofficial but historically used locations such as empty lots and seasonal washes. Then one day the trucks would appear and haul the piles away. But the new mayor and his friends had expensive tastes. The usual places were full; fresh piles sprouted. The newspapers kept track of them as if they were the scores of the soccer matches between the Reds and the Whites.

Youssef was assigned to the garbage beat. They called him Garbage Boy. Each day his editor expected him to come up with a new story regarding the crisis. Of course he was not expected to find out where the money had gone—no one ever discovered that—and the newspaper would not print it if he did, because the newspapers had to be careful what they printed. Nevertheless it remained his shimmery ideal. The reality was that there was only so much that could be written about garbage. Soon he ran out of statistics to cite and minor officials to interview. He was reduced to collecting stories from the people, the inconvenience, babies bitten by rats, the smell. Cairo was suffering through its most brutal summer in years. The khamsin, the hot, sand-laden, southerly wind that normally blew itself out in April or May, had not yet ceased.

As the heat grew, Mustapha’s week or so ballooned into three, then four, then six. Thus began the dance of avoidance in which borrower and lender became entwined in ways both comic and maddening. For instance, Youssef and Nur, a copywriter at the paper, went to a club in the central city to hear a techno band. He and Jameela weren’t going out much anymore. After a while he excused himself to use the bathroom. On the way, in the narrow space between the bar and the wall, there was Mustapha chatting up a horsey woman in a miniskirt. When he saw Youssef, he threw himself against her. When Youssef returned, the woman was still draped against the wall, but Mustapha had vanished.

Another time, with Nur at a beach on the Nile, Youssef noticed Mustapha ambling their way along the water’s edge. Seeing no other way to avoid him, he waded into the current, lost his footing, and was swept away. Nur swam out and rescued him.

And finally, on a day off from work, Youssef rode a bus to the east and hiked in the Al Mokattam hills that overlook the city, the Nile, and the fields beyond, to the Libyan Desert and the pyramids at Giza. The khamsin filled the air with dust, obscuring these details, but assuring a beautiful sunset. As he waited for the colors to develop, he worked himself into a comfortable position in the soft ground and read from a paperback copy of Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun. When he glanced up, there was Mustapha darting behind a dune. Why, he wondered, was he seeing him more lately than in all the years since school?

But it was Mustapha who truly suffered from these encounters. Each of their families was a part of the vast underclass that struggle to lead respectable lives. By his choice of profession Mustapha had brought disgrace upon his. Each time he saw Youssef, he was reminded of the comparison others would make between them.

Mustapha was moping on his door stone after being woken yet again by Youssef’s bicycle when a mother and her three children, each carrying a pail of garbage, entered the square. Undoubtedly they were headed for the dumping ground. On impulse he called to her, “Why not put your garbage here? It’s OK, no one will mind.”

That was the start of it. Seeing the fresh heaps, others began dropping their garbage in the square. Mustapha approached anyone in the district who was carrying a bag or a bucket or pushing a cart. “Come, friend, no need to walk so far. Dump your garbage in front of my house.”

When his neighbors found out who was responsible, a committee arrived at his door.

“In times like these everyone has to make sacrifices,” he told them. “My house is closer than any of yours. The smell is not that bad. Pray for cool weather.”
In truth the smell did bother him, but he did not spend much time at home, only a few hours to sleep each morning. Usually he was on the streets in the central city, because it was important for a man to be seen at his job, even if that job was begging.

Inexorably the individual heaps became a monolithic whole. Since the people still had to pass through the square, the pile was crisscrossed with paths, like animal trails in an oasis. Eventually the pile became a lopsided hill with the steepest side cascading to Mustapha’s very door. He was safe now. Youssef had to pedal around the far side.

About this time the editor said to Youssef, “We’re filling the entire issue today with garbage, although I trust your contribution will rise above that level. Do you have any bright ideas?”

Youssef admitted he did not.

“What about this fellow in your neighborhood who’s asking people to dump their garbage in front of his house?”

“I don’t want to talk to him, boss.”

“Why not?”

“He owes me money.”

“Perfect. Then he’ll have to talk to you.” When Youssef blenched, the editor added, “You need to toughen up, son, if you want to be a reporter.”

The words stung, because his editor was right.

“Now get out there.”

“I’ll have to take my bicycle.”

“You still don’t have a car?”

“I can’t afford one.”

“What do you spend your money on, that girl back in editing?”

Youssef blushed. Nur was a costly blessing.

“All right, take mine. But this is the last time. And make sure you have it back here by one o’clock.”

Youssef parked the Fiat near the east side of the square. He marveled at the pile’s size. If all the garbage were heaped in a single place, it might make a Kilimanjaro tall enough for snow. Half hoping Mustapha was not there, he rapped on the door. When it scraped open, Mustapha’s pupils pinholed in the sudden flood of light. Irritation gave way to his public face.

“Well if it isn’t Garbage Boy. Come in, come in.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“I heard they call you Garbage Boy at the paper.”

“That doesn’t mean I like it.”

Mustapha broke the dun silence. “Do you want tea?”

“Tea would be good.”

“Sit down while I prepare it.”

Youssef sat at the table against the wall. “How do you stand it?” he asked after a while.

“What?”

“The smell.”
Mustapha did not answer. He set a steaming cup before Youssef and sat sipping his own. “Do you remember Aziza, the fat girl? I saw her last night in the Citadel Quarter. She’s beautiful now.”

“I thought she was beautiful then.”

“You did?”

“Her face, especially.”

“You always were a dreamer.” He packed a hookah and offered it to Youssef, who shook his head. “Are you so high and mighty now that you won’t smoke with an old friend?”

“I don’t smoke that stuff with anyone anymore.”

Mustapha’s eyes went cold. “What are you doing here, Youssef?”

“I want to interview you about the garbage.”

“Ah, the garbage.”

“Look, I don’t have much time. My editor needs his car back.”

“I’ve wondered why a big-time reporter like you doesn’t have a car.”

“And I wonder why you encourage them to dump in front of your place.”

“What’s it worth to you?”

Youssef’s brow knitted. “What do you mean?”

“A big newspaper like yours should be willing to pay at least twenty pounds.”

Blood rushed into Youssef’s head. He ought to walk out, but he would still need a story. Since Mustapha had no intention of repaying him anyhow, he said, “All right, we’ll call it even.”

Ever so slightly, Mustapha’s mouth widened.

“But only if you agree to let me interview you for free at any time in the future.” To emphasize his point, he banged his forearm—harder than he intended—on the table. “And you talk to me before you talk to another reporter.” This said, he sipped his tea and marveled at his boldness.

Mustapha scratched his cheek before offering a toothy smile. “But of course! You are my friend!”

His story was just that, a story, and not a good one. Luckily Youssef was already hip to the genteel art of journalistic embellishment. His editor was pleased.

On the face of it the debt was settled, but still the people dumped. The side of the pile facing Mustapha’s lair resembled a giant bowel filled with silage garnished with plastic. Whenever he came home, he beat out the rats with a broom. Like candy they ate the poison he put down, and they snapped the traps, startling him from sleep.

Lying on his pallet one morning, he heard voices unusually close and rushed outside. The people were balancing against the wall of the hut as they tiptoed around the glacier edge of the pile.

“No, no, no!” he yelled. “Give me some privacy. Go around to the other side. There is more room over there.”

Still, like cattle they came, bumping him in their haste to start their day. He went inside and drifted into a mean sleep. As the sun rose higher, the line slowed to a trickle. In the heat of the day few came.

When he awoke, he was a man with a plan. In the tiny courtyard behind the hut lay a pitchfork abandoned by a previous tenant. Because north was the direction from which most would return in the evening, he would block that end first.

The garbage was a compacted mass. The pitchfork was dull and two tines were missing. Each forkful stirred up mephitic odors. He tied a kerchief over his nose. As the dike rose, few were willing to scale it and risk the sweating, swearing, garbage-smeared wild man on the other side. By late afternoon it was as high as the pitchfork’s reach. Reeking, hands blistered, he went inside, drank some water and—because he was too filthy to sit on a chair—flopped to the tile floor. Soon he heard them milling. He laughed, giddy at the thought that they would have to walk around. After cleaning himself perfunctorily, for he still had the south barrier to build, he fixed a plate of food.

As the sun slid behind Garbage Mountain—for that was how he now thought of it—he started on the second rampart. The air was cooler, and his technique with the pitchfork improved. When finished, he threw his filthy clothes on the bricks in the rear courtyard and washed himself in the basin. He did not feel like going out, but it was a pleasant evening, and the streets would be full.

He puzzled over how to leave. If he climbed a dike, leaving evidence, however slight, of a successful traverse, some adventurer might follow. In the rear courtyard, which at one time had been part of the house itself, he stood on the rickety table next to the wall, hoisted himself to the top, and climbed down the scrawny baobab tree on the other side. Squeezing between neighbors’ walls, he made his way to the next street.

In the wee hours he returned. He scrabbled up the baobab tree, ripping his shirt in the process. His night’s efforts had resulted in a piddling amount, most of which was spent on alcohol. Before retiring, he opened the shutter and admired his handiwork.

Stomach queasy, head aching, he arose at midday. Each dike had a switchback worn into its side and a “V,” like a gun sight, creased each top. He screamed loud and long.

Through the winter the garbage grew more and more monstrous. Surreptitiously at first, then openly, Allah, Jesus, and even Pharaonic deities were invoked. In conversation garbage dominated over gossip about movie stars, the weather, and life’s usual cruelties. The opposition Environmental Party took the lead in clamoring for action. Wearing tall, red rubber boots, the party’s new spokesman stood atop the piles and gave fiery speeches denouncing the unnamed scoundrels responsible. He also accepted donations.

When, in the glimmering of spring, trucks hauled the piles away, those who didn’t know him said the Environmental Party had found a charismatic and effective new leader, and those to whom he was indebted wondered why Mustapha Said had suddenly become involved in politics at the ripe age of twenty-six. As for the new political reporter, Youssef Al-Kabsh, his star also rose. Whenever a contagion burbled in the cesspools of power, he was among the first to know.