Soap and Ambergris
I live in a small, single-story house in Al-Atayef Quarter. My husband didn’t leave me anything, apart from a mud house that shakes when the thunder crashes and the rain pours. I live off the kindness of other Muslims, either from charity or zakat. I wash the dead for Allah’s sake, and take whatever kindness or generosity the family of the deceased offers in return.
One day, an hour before the afternoon prayer call, I heard a knock at the door. It was a bearded man, his beard full of gray hair. He spent quite a while asking Allah to preserve me and grant me a long life before asking me to go with him to wash the corpse of a deceased woman. He said, by way of reassurance, that there was another woman with him in the car so it would be lawful for me to go with him. Anyway I was comfortable with the man. There was a look of goodness and faith in the features of his face.
I quickly put on my abaya and picked up my equipment and followed him into the street. I got into the back seat of a pickup truck, a Datsun or a Hilux, I can’t remember. I sat next to a young woman who didn’t return my greeting. She was wrapped in black and made a gesture with her index finger as if she were saying “la ilaha illa allah” inaudibly. The car set off and I uttered a blessing for the dead woman and asked Allah to have mercy on her soul. I asked Allah to grant them patience and consolation but I never heard the voice of the woman next to me at all. She never even said “Amen.” Not a single cry or sob, and her body didn’t shake with weeping.
The driver, the old sheikh, was calm and composed. He drove carefully, never went too fast. When we had been going for a while I asked him, “Is the place far?” He didn’t answer. When I asked him the third time he said, “Put your trust in Allah, woman! We’re almost there.”
I stole a glance at the woman’s feet. She was wearing cheap black plastic shoes and her heel and the side of her leg that showed under the abaya almost glowed they were so white. I noticed a gold ring with a zircon on her middle finger and felt convinced that she really was a woman. I had begun to fear that she was in fact a man in an abaya, and that the two of them had hatched some plot against me and were spiriting me out of the city. The man who was driving didn’t look like someone who would do such a thing, but then we’re always hearing how criminals can mislead their victims by acquiring innocent, honest, and noble features.
Suddenly, after sitting with these doubts and misgivings a while, I realized we were heading down a steep hill to the west of the city, and there was nothing around us save the hills and the highway heading to Taif. I noticed a black barrel of water in the back of the pickup, lunging left and right, and I knew that things were indeed grave, and that my end might well have been near. But I decided to hide my fear and remain calm. I asked the woman next to me if the dead woman was her mother. She didn’t answer. I said quickly, stammering with dread, “May Allah reward you handsomely,” as if it were my own funeral, and I was asking Him to have mercy on me and my life as its end rapidly approached.
After a short while during which we heard nothing but the hum of the car as it devoured the tarmac I ventured to speak to her again. “My daughter, say you take refuge in Allah from Satan!” But she didn’t. She didn’t say a word. I reached out my hand to touch hers, and the coldness of her palm made me jump. The driver snarled, “Shut up, woman! Take refuge from Satan yourself, and don’t take my mind off the road.”
I was silent, but my heart was not. It trembled like a bird chased by marksmen from tree to tree. I thought maybe the woman was dead and had just been propped up in the back seat, and this man was the killer. But then why did he want her washed and buried? A murderer doesn’t care if he stuffs his victim in a rubbish bag and throws it into a cesspit or a well or any other place.
The car turned onto a paved desert road. The sun was now to the left. The driver never hesitated or slowed down to check the road in front of him. He clearly knew it well, or was someone well versed in the secrets of the desert, the hills, wadis, and dunes. Yes for sure he knew the trees and found his way by the lay of the land and the acacia and the shafallah and the rimth and ghada trees. A man like that would never lose his way, not even at night. The daughters of Na’sh, the stars of Ursa would lead him, and the Pleiades, and Canopus and Bellatrix, and the morning star which all desert dwellers know.
He drove the car between two huge mountains and approached a sand dune. I remember how surprised I was that there could be a sand dune there on such rocky ground. Anyway he stopped the car and opened the back door for the woman who I’d imagined might be a corpse and would fall to the ground. But she got out slowly, calmly, obediently, and walked in front of him without closing the door. He walked behind her with deliberate steps as she headed with amazing posture and serenity towards the sand dune. Once they were on top of the dune he moved in front of her and she followed him down the other side. I saw their bodies gradually disappear until all I could see was the woman’s head. Then that disappeared too without turning back once to look at me. It was as if she had made some resolute decision, or as if she were drugged and in a trance. She didn’t say a word or interact with anything around her at all. My questions hadn’t had any effect on her whatsoever.
After a few moments, as I sat alone in the car with the door open, I heard a gunshot shatter the silence of the mountains. Even now years later I hear the echo of gunshots in my little mud house and wake up terrified in the middle of the night. I don’t know if there were three shots, one after the other, or if the echo bouncing round the mountains made it seem like the shots were repeated. My heart thumped wildly, as if it would fly out of my rib cage, and a shiver passed up my neck and made my hair stand on end. It was as if not a single drop of blood remained in my body.
After a few minutes, which seemed like an eternity, I spotted somebody coming into view from behind the hill. It was him, plodding heavily along as if he was dragging his outrageous crime behind him, as if he was dragging a million murdered people. He untied the barrel of water from the back of the pickup. “Get out!” he ordered. I couldn’t refuse, or even speak. I got out and walked behind him as he rolled the barrel along in front of him. He reminded me to bring my bag with my washing tackle: soap and oils and musk and ambergris and other things. I was like the young woman had been a short while before, following behind him, stupefied and silent. I did not look back, just followed his huge feet as they sank into the sand and he lifted them out again with considerable strength and power.
As I walked down the other side of the dune I saw her, spread out on the sand, still wearing her abaya. I began my work, taking particular care to mop up the blood that had flowed from her chest. When he reached the bottom of the dune he must have turned round and seen her silent and submissive eyes, waiting to go to eternal death. Then he shot her, the most important thing in his life. And now he was digging in the dust with the spade he had carried over his shoulder. He wept incessantly and wailed like a woman and his beard soaked up the copious tears. When the grave was finished we wrapped the young woman in her abaya. As he was placing her in the hole, he slipped and fell in on top of her. He began to howl inconsolably. I was afraid he might do something to himself so I began to ask Allah to have mercy on her soul and I said some prayers and consoled him. After it got dark he took me home.