Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Evil Eye

Eric Maroney

8,511 words

    Ayman bin Abu Bakr suddenly noticed Jameel. The first time he was rushed, and hardly looked at the young man at all. Now every time the boy rose up, and his back straightened, Ayman felt the breath leave his body, as if a crushing hand had issued a blow to his chest. The line of praying men moved in synchrony with Jameel, and Ayman, from his dizziness, imagined that the room was locked in worship of Jameel, this slim young man, really no more than a boy. The words of the Holy Qu’ran kept repeating in Ayman’s head, to the beat of the praying men: “Will you fornicate with males and abandon your wives, whom God has created for you? Surely you are great transgressors.”
    How did it happen? It could not have been for lack of satiation. Ayman bin Abu Bakr was a prosperous man in his late thirties, married, mature, steady enough in his judgments of the world to satisfy his needs. There was his wife Fatima. Ayman fulfilled his conjugal duties to her, and that was not without some measure of satisfaction. She was considerably younger than him, and despite a sharp tongue and unpleasant manner she was passionate in bed, and denied her husband nothing within the limits of modesty. Every now and again Ayman requested more, and she grudgingly gave it. Ayman expected her to hedge; not to do so would reveal a flaw in her character. The Qu’ran says: “Enjoin believing women to turn their eyes away from temptation and to preserve their chastity.”
    When his wife could not satisfy his desires, or when he grew tired of her efforts, Ayman would go to the outskirts of town to fetch one of those creatures that sat in the tombs at night, covered from head to foot with the exception of their feet, and sold themselves for copper coins and sometimes, for more elaborate requests, silver. There were certain advantages to the use of these women. They were poor, abject cast-outs, unclean and forbidden and they answered a need in a place that did not tolerate such activity, but certainly required it. In a city where it was unwise to drink a glass of red wine with raised curtains, hiring women had its dangers. But there was hardly a man who did not employ one from time to time. And there was no lack of women sitting on the tombs, willing to sell their bodies from dusk to dawn. They did a brisk trade.
    Ayman tried to exercise great care. And he always did, until the night he met Layla. He was walking through the tombs that night, among this legion of shrouded figures who were seated on the graves, or standing near the freshly dug earth mounds. They were completely covered except for their feet. As he was walking, the women clicked at him. This was meant to arouse. But tonight, Ayman was disgusted. In a land where even the names of the dead could not be written on the tombs, the incongruities of finding a woman here to sleep with were dispiriting: Here was grief and death; here were decay and pollution; but here were women, and where there were women, there was pleasure and life.
    Ayman decided to leave. As he was about to open the tomb’s gate, he noticed one woman who was not clicking. He looked at her feet: They were bone white, and on her left foot she wore a black anklet, hanging from which appeared to be an ankh made of brass or some other reflecting metal. The white feet and brass ankh piqued Ayman’s interest. He gestured to her and she followed him from the tombs.

    Ayman kept a hut close to the tombs. It had a low door and no windows. He had a series of high iron grates installed through its walls for light and ventilation. In the center of the small room was one large, well-made bed, constructed of fine Lebanese cypress; upon it were several tasseled pillows from Turkey and beneath them, fine silk sheets imported from India. There was a small stove for cooking and heat. An elaborate Ethiopian lamp hung from the ceiling, molded in bronze and depicting scenes of reapers in a field where wheat and corn grew high and ripe. The figures of men embossed on the metal razed these crops with large sickles, while the women pounded the seeds to make meal. With the exception of these opulent touches, the hut was nearly bare. There was a cistern of water fed from a small well near the hillside where shepherds came to water their flocks, and a small table and two chairs. And there was a basin and two glasses of water.
The woman followed Ayman in as he lit the lamp. Sometimes he enjoyed disrobing these creatures in the dark and coupling like animals, without a word spoken. But the feet of this woman, so white they shown like polished ivory, and that slender black ankh, intrigued him. He wanted to see what he was getting.
The woman wordlessly removed her long robe. It was a warm night, and she had professional duties, so there was nothing on beneath it. Her body was white. When she removed her veil and head covering, Ayman was surprised. The woman was a Caucasian. She had high cheekbones, small, darting blue eyes, and a slender nose. Most astonishing of all, her hair was blond. She wore a copious amount of metal jewelry. A chain hung over her belly and rounded the small of her back. She wore a necklace of black chain, and from it hung any number of small objects (in the dim light Ayram could not see what they were). She wore several bracelets on each wrist. Her ears were pierced; stars dangled from the elongated lobes. Her small nose was studded with a half-moon. As he watched her place her clothes on the chair, part of his amazement faded. Despite her exotic appearance, she acted like all the other women who Ayman employed. She stood in front of him for a moment so he could see her, and then reclined on the bed. Ayman stood over her. The Ethiopian lamp was still swinging from when he lit it; its decorative cut-outs cast little dancing triangles and stars on her long body. Her blond hair had highlights of white in the yellow lamp light, as if it was fringed with snow.
    “Where are you from?” Ayman asked as he removed his robe.
    “I don’t know,” the woman answered in accented Arabic. “I was brought up a slave in a Christian house in Ethiopia. They bought me from an Arab dealer who bought slaves up north. That is all I know.”
    “How did you get from Ethiopia to here?”
    “My owners, who raised me, died, and I was sold with the estate. Their children didn’t want slaves. There was an earthquake in Fustat last year, and my current owners died. I made it out alive. I walked here and decided to stay.”
    “You are probably from Europe,” Ayman said.
    “I suppose so. I don’t know. I have always considered myself Coptic.” The woman was on the bed, her legs slightly spread. She raised herself on one elbow.
    “Say, did you hire me to ask questions or to sleep with me? The night is still young,” she said impatiently.
    “Don’t worry, my little lily.” Ayman removed the last of his clothes and fell beside her. “I’ll compensate you for my curiosity.”

    Ayman often felt guilty after he took a hired woman. But what could he do? It was forbidden, but everyone knew where to find them. It was like a father locking a cabinet when the children were aware that the key was in the drawer of his desk.
    When he was finished with the white woman he fell next to her. She was looking up distractedly at the lamp.
    “I’ve seen such lamps before. The craftsman in Gondar make them – the Jews. They are blacksmiths. People in my country fear the Jews. They say they give the Evil Eye. But if you need a gate mended, or a plough fixed, you go to the Jews just the same – Evil Eye or no Evil Eye.”
    “Do you believe in the Evil Eye?” Ayman asked sleepily.
    “Yes. My life is evidence of it.”
    The woman stood up. Ayman realized that she wanted her wages. He reached for his bag and gave her the equivalent of three times the standard fee. The woman looked skeptically at the coins in her open hand.
“For my talkativeness,” Ayman said as he turned over, exposing himself to her without shame. “You are not the first person to note it.” He laughed a little at that.
    As he snoozed, he heard the woman dressing. When he opened his eyes, she was covered from head to ankles. Only her feet were exposed. Once more the anklet glittered in the lamp light, the ankh pressed against her skin jealously.
    “What is your name?” Ayman asked.
    “Layla,” the shrouded figure answered.
    “Odd,” Ayman said, as if to himself.
    “Why?” the woman’s muffled voice asked.
    “With a name like that, Night, I’d expect you to be black as pitch. But you are as pale as the moon. Well, maybe it is a good name.”

    The next evening Ayman’s ears were drowning in the clicking. He looked for the familiar feet. The moon was out, so it was easy to find Layla. She was seated on a large white tomb. The moonlight made the stone of the crypt appeared to hover, as if it were lighter than air. He gestured to her and she wordlessly followed.

    “Would you like wine?” Ayman removed a bottle from his tunic. “It’s from Spain. Not the local stuff! A business associate sends me some every month. It is grown outside of Granada, I think. It tastes like the rivers of Paradise.” Ayman sat in the chair and opened the bottle. He poured two rounded glasses. She stood there for a moment, watching him, and then removed her veil. She sat and sipped the wine, which turned her face a deep shade of red. They were silent for some time. In the distance, they could hear a shepherd calling for his sheep in a series of rising shrill whistles and staccato clicks. It was a warm evening, but a cool breeze from the desert blew through the iron grates. Ayman opened some soft cheese.
    “I’m famished. Some new book that everyone is clamoring for arrived today, and I rushed all about town finding a good translator for it. I haven’t eaten a thing since dawn. You’d think it was Ramadan.”
    “What do you do?” Layla asked quietly.
    “I run a shop that translates books. Anything that is in demand. Anything that anyone wants and can find or that we can locate. Philosophy, theology, epic, romance, law, medicine. I have a wretched time getting translators. Because of the statutes, I can’t keep the translators on the premises. They have to work from home. We shouldn’t even be translating these works, but for years the authorities have turned a blind eye. But I’m always running around the city. It’s not like the old days. We had everyone in the back room working. We could keep track of things. Now we have to keep up appearances. Like today, for instance. Today, it’s Armenian. An important doctor at the university wants an Armenian medical text translated. My regular translator had to leave suddenly. No one will even tell me where he went! As if I am going to place him under arrest! I want to give him some money! So, I searched the Armenian quarter for a literate Armenian who can translate decent Arabic. I ransacked every blasted church in the quarter, may the Prophet forgive me, Peace be Upon Him. I finally found a lad, some boy, and he could do it. He is Muslim too; I could tell from what he told me about Arabic. That is my life: chasing people down with a book under my tunic so I can take something written in Latin, Greek Armenian, Jinn, whatever, and translate it into Arabic.” Ayman stopped to gulp some wine. He pulled a piece of flatbread apart and smeared cheese with a wooden knife.
When he began to feel the wine, he examined Layla through narrow eyes.
    “Layla huh? Night? Not a bad name for a whore.” The bottle was gone now. He produced another. “I didn’t like your name at first. A white woman called Layla! Someone is having fun with names, I thought. That is not good. A name can make a person. It isn’t for joking around. And who am I named after? My father’s father. He was a great scholar. Knew the Qu’ran by heart. It is a heavy burden, having that man’s name. And what have I done with that patrimony? I translate heathen books. What’s the saying? ‘If what a book says is not in the Qu’ran, it must be blasphemy; and if it is in the Qu’ran, then it is redundant.’ And I do other thing too, that squander my energies…” Ayman stumbled on the word.
    “Like what?” Layla asked after he fell silent.
    “Forget it, woman. Come over here.” When she neared Ayman’s chair, he firmly pulled her to him. He kissed her hard on the lips. He tasted the wine on her full mouth. He caressed her body. He pushed her down to the bed.

    When it was over, they rested. Then Layla rose up and began to gather her clothes. Ayman heard her rustling and looked up from the tangle of sheets.
    “Stay here Layla. I want you for the night. I’ll double the wages you’d get for a night’s work.”

    In the morning, Layla was still asleep when Ayman awoke. Sunlight streamed through the iron grates and cast a lacy pattern on the brown wall. A cock crowed in the distance. Ayman sat up in the bed. He looked down at Layla. In the light she looked young, and even more foreign. The light made her look no more than sixteen. Her fair skin was sparsely freckled. Her blond hair was streaked with white. Ayman had never seen such a thing. He touched her hair. It made the woman gently stir. It had been a warm night, so Layla was sleeping above the sheets. Looking at her body aroused Ayman. He began to stroke her from her head down to the souls of her feet. Her metal jewelry was a harsh counterpoint to the sublime softness of her skin. He stroked her buttocks and found his way inside of her.
    “It’s no longer night,” Layla’s muffled voice said drowsily. “If you want me again, it will cost you.”
“I’ll pay… I’ll pay…”

    When they stopped it was later in the day. Layla was draped over the seat of a chair, panting, just where Ayman had left her. He was on the floor, where he had fallen breathlessly, bathed in his sweat as well as hers. It was all too much! He had never been with a woman in the daytime, let alone a whore. Now here he was wantonly coupling with one in the bright light. As Layla sat on him, and he moved her small breasts with his hands, he could hear people moving along the goat trail, talking of trifles, of money and even of goats! And here he was with Layla. This white woman from Ethiopia: on top of her, and her on him -- they moved in every position that Ayman could think of, and Layla produced many more. When he gave her erotic freedom she acted less like a hired woman and more like a consort: limber, pliant, creative, playful, and even forceful. Ayman did not know that love making could be so nuanced.
    “Layla, can you hear me?” he asked her as he dressed. She mumbled an exhausted yes. “I left your money on the table. Don’t go to the tombs tonight, or anymore. I want you for my own. I don’t want to share you with everyone from the mullahs down to the bootblacks. We can talk about the terms tonight.” And with no small effort Ayman stepped out of the door and into the scalding day.

    When Ayman arrived at his shop his partner was irritated.
    “Where have you been, Ayman? I’ve had all sorts of problems to contend with, and I had to go at it alone!”
    “Poor Omar!” Ayman made a clucking sound with his tongue. “Can’t handle prosperity! You know the saying, the more the money, the more the troubles. Other people would give their eye tooth to have our worries!”
    Omar just grunted and then rifled through some papers. “Look at this! This translation is overdue, and the man came this morning, looking for you, looking for the translation, and I can’t read your blasted shorthand!”
    “Let me see,” Ayman held out his hand. He started to read the paper. It bored him terribly.
    “What is the news?” Ayman asked.
    “They say Moosa bin Muntir is very ill. As we feared, if he dies, his brother Kamil will take become vizer.” Ayman had been smiling broadly, but at Omer’s words, his face fell.
    “If that is the case, we are sunk.” Ayman answered. Omar said nothing. He gloomily returned to his work. Moosa bin Muntir was an old man. For the last ten years, he had been a Sufi, and had relaxed standards in the province. He no longer enforced the shariah. Only the most grievous and public offenses were prosecuted. One had to be a moron to be caught by Moosa bin Muntir’s government. But his brother was another story. Kamil was known for his austerity and cruelty. He brokered no compromise. The entire city had been on edge since news of Moosa bin Muntir’s illness.
    There was no time for Ayman to read his shorthand invoice. The muezzin called out; it was time for prayers.

    Omar and Ayman closed the shutters. It was so hot no one was out on the streets.
    “We are lucky it is summer, or we’d be in deeper trouble,” Omar said as the shutter hit the ground.
    “You worry too much, Omar. Remember what the Qu’ran says: Every hardship is followed by ease. We have had our hardship, now we have our ease.” Omar glared at Ayman and retired to the back room. After a moment, Ayman could hear him chanting the words of the Qu’ran.
    Ayman rested on a mat. Harsh rays of sun penetrated the shuttered window. He rolled over on his side. He could taste Layla in his mouth and feel her touch against his body. He felt satisfied. At any moment, things could fall apart, yet he felt no fear. No, there was no justification for this. By all accounts, his world could collapse at any moment. Yet as he listened to Omar chant the holy words, It is for Us to give Guidance. Ours is the life to come, Ours the life of this world. I warn you, then, of the blazing fire, in which none will burn save the hardened sinner, Ayman felt so good he wondered if Layla was casting a spell over him.

    “What’s wrong with you,? You’ve changed!” Ayman’s wife Fatima was in front of him, waving a finger at his face.
    “What are you talking about?”
    “You may be able to hide your goings-on from me, but you can’t hide them from God. God’s eyes see all!”
    “I have nothing to hide from God, from you, or even from the boy that brings us cheese!”
    “Don’t blaspheme! Where are you going?”
    “I have business to attend to. I need to go out!” He tried to push past her and failed.
    “Something is different about you.” Fatima tried to look into his eyes, but Ayman averted his face. She grasped his head and tried to hold him.
    “Watch it!” he spat.
    “It’s in the eyes, but not only the eyes. It’s in the skin, too. You have a glow you did not have before, a light. God save us, who have you been with? You deal with too many foreigners, they are all devils!”
    “Stop, let me pass, Fatima!”
    “No!” she grappled with him. “Come to bed with me!”
    “Now, come to bed with me.”
    “I have to go out. I have an important matter to attend to.” She began to push him violently; she tried to rip his clothes.
    “Fatima, have you lost your mind?”
    “I’m your wife, I have my rights!”

    Ayman’s back was scratched. Fatima had bitten into his shoulder. There were teeth marks and even some drops of blood. He looked down at Fatima. She was spent on the bed. Ayman stood and put his clothes on. What had happened? He stumbled out into the cool evening.

    The moon was nearly full. It hung low over the horizon, cool and blue, like a piece of ice incongruously suspended over the desert sky. Ayman wrapped his cloak around his shoulders. It had grown cold. Over the hills to the north he heard the sound of baying jackals. Their cries were long and hysterical, as if they had lost something and could not find it. In the light blue moonlight, the earth seemed enchanted, but also possessed. Eyes appeared to stare at Ayman from every doorway. When he walked out the town gate, every clump of trees, every well, flitted with lights, as if jinns or demons were dancing about in the long, swaying shadows. The earth was alive with a potency that Ayman had never known before. And he was being watched.
He hurried past the tombs. All those shrouded wretches were standing or seated, waiting. Male figures, also shrouded, moved about them slowly. It was as if the dead had risen from their graves and were courting each other in their shrouds. The scene made Ayman shiver. He was relieved when he reached Layla’s hut.
    He opened and closed the door quickly. The Ethiopian lamp was lit. A small fire of twigs crackled in the stove. Layla was not at first visible. Then Ayman saw her: she was on the floor and held a small lamp between her legs. With her small, precise hands she was holding two pieces of metal over the flame. Ayman watched her for a moment. All he could see from his vantage was her neck, for she was bent over her task. Her skin was luminous in the lamp light.
    “You are not asleep?” Ayman asked. She looked up from her work.
    “No,” she smiled slightly, “I sleep most of the day.” Ayman smiled back at her. He reached out and touched her bare head. Her hair was as soft as sable. Moonlight filtered through the iron grate, and it gave her a ghostly appearance, as if she were a piece of shivering, cold light. For a moment a terrible thought passed through Ayman’s head: was this a real woman, or a spirit roaming the tombs?
    Ayman sat on the chair and watched her work. She was soldering links in a necklace; from it hung a green stone. Layla’s bare white arms were slim and compact. She worked quickly and with economy. Her small breasts were pushed against her tunic, but Ayman could see their round, white tops. Her slim shoulders were hunched toward Ayman. Stray blond hair fell over her forehead. Ayman’s lust had been sated by Fatima. He didn’t even know why he had bothered to come here. But looking at Layla aroused him. He grasped her neck gently. She looked up at him and smiled wisely.
    “You work with metal?”
    “Yes. It helps me make a little extra money.” She stroked his hand gingerly. Their eyes met.
    “I’ll give you any money you need,” Ayman answered, hardly believing his words. “I’ll take care of you now.”
    “And what if you grow tired of me? I’m new to you now. But how do I know you won’t grow weary of me and cast me out?” Ayman said nothing to this. He pulled Layla to him and they kissed. When they stopped, Layla climbed up onto his lap. She ran her hands through his beard.
    “Besides,” she finally said, “what I make is needed.”

    Two months passed. Ayman visited the hut nearly every night. Ramadan came; the days grew shorter, the nights cooler and longer. The streets were empty after dark, and few people conducted business during the day. Even the tombs were empty of specters. But Ayman’s desire for Layla did not abate. Sometimes he did not even return home to eat. He rushed to the hut, and she made him a meal.
    When the sun set he would eat his fill. Layla watched him. They began to assume the posture of lovers. Ayman could not get enough of this woman. He had never known such strong lust.
    “What is it with you, Layla?” he asked her playfully as he fondled her on his lap. “Are the women of your country half human and half demon?”
    “Ethiopia?” she asked.
    “No, where you really come from.”
    “How should I know? I know nothing of where I came from. Once, a merchant came through Gondar; he had traveled widely and said the Rus look like me. But who knows?”
    “God knows, I suppose,” Ayman answered. He pulled her head down and kissed her. He ran his hands over her breasts. He then kissed them and took them into his mouth. They smelled like lavender. She did whatever he asked. She took him in her mouth. It lasted a long time. He pulled her up and bent her over the table. She looked spectral beneath him, even ghostly; but she was a woman, he could feel that. He was inside of her and she yielded like flesh and blood. When they were finished, he curled her up and lifted her to the bed and fondled and kissed her and they started all over again.

    Layla had entered Ayman’s life suddenly. It took another month for Ayman to see her in a new light. Ramadan ended and life began to assume its normal pace. A month of fasting and repentance had taken its toll: the tombs were full again. Mean creatures wandered back and forth like lost souls; men entered singly and left with a partner. Omar complained to Ayman about his burdens. Rumor was rife that Moosa bin Muntir would die at any moment. It was also said that his brother Kamil was gathering an army to swarm down on the city. But life proceeded. Ayman and Omar both went about their business as if nothing would happen. They had nowhere else to go. But odd things were occurring.
    Fatima had developed a hungry, dry look, as if she saw some part of Ayman that was not visible with the eye. She did not approve of what she saw, but she was irresistibly drawn to it, so much so that she never uttered a harsh word to him again. She flattered him, and constantly sought his company in bed. Ayman did not see many women during the course of his work day, but when he did they cast him an other-worldly gaze, as if they were simultaneously attracted to and repelled by him -- but more the former. He watched them leer behind curtains, or in doorways, or behind wells. When he walked through the Christian quarter, unveiled faces cast dark almond eyes at him, dangling before him like entranced and raging butterflies, before disappearing into the undulating landscape of the teeming crowd. One night he was walking home from the shop and a whore accosted him. He told her that he had no money, which was all but true. She glared at him in that now familiar way. Her eyes were lean and murderous. She told him it was free. They slinked down an alley and he took her hard and fast against a wall. Soon, Ayman discovered on more than one occasion that he had to break the gaze that transfixed a boy to him and him to a boy. Ayman did not know what was happening to him. He felt powerful but at the same time essentially weak, at the mercy of some unnamed force.
    He grew suspicious of Layla. For one thing, there was all her metal work. The hut was cluttered with it. Since she had moved there, she had installed a large hutch studded with cubby holes: it contained bits and pieces of metal, all kinds of cheap jewels and stones, plates of bronze, copper, brass. She worked at the table, or on the floor, and she usually stopped when Ayman came over. He had never thought of her activity in any odd light. She was a woman, a Christian, and a foreigner. Who knows their ways? But then he began to have some disquieting doubts. What was she doing with all that jewelry? One day, he kept track of a small piece of red stone she had taken down from the hutch. He followed its progress for four nights. It was a loose stone on the first night; on the second, it was embedded in a metal plate; on the third evening it was part of a simple necklace composed of small metal rings. The fourth night it was decorated with words and symbols. Ayman was not unfamiliar with the appearance of most scripts, but he had never seen this one before. The following night after they were done, Ayman looked for the necklace. He did not see it anywhere.
    The next day he spied on her. He took the path to the hut through the hills and came to a halt near the stand of scrubby trees that bordered the wadi. He crouched down and pulled his hood over his head. The hut was still. The sun hammered it relentlessly, and if it were not for the shade of two overhanging tamarind trees it would be unbearably hot in there at noon time. For a long time nothing happened. Then a man came up the path from town. Ayman could not see who he was. He entered and stayed for some time. When he emerged, he shifted his clothing about, looked around him for a moment, and then quickly walked back down the path into town. Soon, another man appeared. He too entered the hut. Ayman stood up, intending to burst in, but the man came out quickly and headed down the path into town. Ayman crouched again. Was Layla whoring?     He was about to rise again, but another figure was walking up the path. From its gait he could tell this was a woman. Once she entered Layla’s hut, Ayman moved down the hill to the back, and looked through the iron grill. The woman was handing Layla money. Layla, in turn, gave her a necklace. They spoke for sometime in low tones. Ayman strained to hear them, but could not. When the woman left Layla, Ayman retreated back up the hill and headed to town through the hot, open country.

    Layla was straddling Ayman. She was bearing down hard on him. He placed one hand on her stomach and another on her back and helped her movements. Ayman moaned. He moaned so loud that he was sure that they could hear him all the way down to the river. But he didn’t care. He had no choice. He felt like Layla was squeezing the life out of his body and the sensation of release was not only welcome, but delicious. When he was finished, Layla bent down and kissed him. Her hair formed a tent around his head. Their tongues circled each other with satisfaction. She fell next to him; they were both saturated with sweat. A cool breeze blew in from the iron grate. Someone was walking along the path, humming a tune in the local dialect.
    “You sell your body to me, but never offer to sell me one of your amulets,” Ayman said when he could finally speak. She laughed softly when she heard this.
    “You figured out my little trade. From your mocking tone, I gather you don’t disapprove.”
    “I suppose it’s harmless,” Ayman answered softly. He looked up at the Ethiopian lamp, long dark now. He could just see the outline of their dark reflections in its shining surface. In the distance a jackal wailed. A moment later another one answered, far down in the valley on the other side of the hill. “I don’t believe in magic much. But lately – well, since I met you, I think, odd things have occurred.” When Layla heard this her interest perked. She pressed him for details.
    “Everyone’s eyes are on me. And I don’t know why. Fatima noticed it the day I met you. I think she thinks someone has cast a spell over me.”
    “Who looks at you?” Layla asked intently.
    “Everyone. Strangers mostly. Mostly women, but men too. I don’t know if it’s lust. It seems so. But it seems mixed with something else. Maybe envy. Maybe hatred.”
    “Perhaps it’s the Evil Eye,” Layla answered flatly, as if it was common place.
    “Nonsense. The Evil Eye doesn’t exist. To believe so is blasphemy. It gives man a power that only God has.” They were quiet for a moment. They listened to the dull percussion of bells from sheep pasturing on the hill behind the hut.
    “I can see. There is a way,” Layla finally said. Ayman opened one eye and looked at her. In the dim light, she was as white as bone stripped of its flesh.
    “Very well,” he answered.
    They both sat up. Layla threw a shawl over her shoulders and lit the lamp. Ayman sat up in the bed. Layla went to the cupboard and returned with a small bowl filled with water and a flask of oil. She knelt behind Ayman. He could feel her nipples brush against his shoulder blades. It aroused him, and he reached behind and grasped her thighs.
    “Stop, you devil. I’ll spill the water and oil.” He let go of her; she was doing something over his head that he could not see. He heard the drizzle of the oil in the water. She clucked at what she saw.
    “What? What is it?” Ayman asked with some concern.
    “It’s the Evil Eye, alright. I see it here. The oil is congealing into a well-formed eye. It’s as clear as day.”
    “Let me see,” Ayman grasped the bowl, but when it was under his nose all he saw were a few specks of oil floating on the surface of the water. “I see nothing,” he said flatly as he handed the bowl back to her.
    “It needs to be above your head,” Layla answered disapprovingly, “and you need to know what to look for.”
    “Witch,” Ayman whispered as he reached back and fondled Layla roughly. She slapped him across the back of his head. He pushed her on her stomach. She opened her legs and he climbed between them.

    In the morning Layla handed him an amulet. It was very simple. A blue stone hung from a simple chain.
    “Here,” she said, “keep this around your neck. It will ward off the Evil Eye.
    “No. It’s witchcraft. I want none of it.”
    “The Kaba is a stone,” Layla answered tartly. Ayman gazed at her quizzically. He took the amulet.
    “Who are you?” He put the amulet around his neck and hid it beneath his tunic. “Who am I?”

    When he arrived at the shop, Omar was having a fit. The doctor had arrived for his translation of the Armenian medical book, and of course, Omar did not have a book for him. Not only that, he did not have a record of the order.
    “Where is the record?” Omar raged.
    “It’s up here.” Ayman pointed to his forehead.
    “A horrible place to keep records. If Moosa bin Muntir dies, may God not permit it, that head may be rolling on the ground. You made me look like a fool in front of that doctor!”
    “Omar, no one can make a man look like anything that he is not already. What is the saying? A camel is a camel even without a hump, and a fool is a fool even when he is asleep! I’ll be back.”
    “It better be with a translation!” Ayman was on the street, and Omar’s voice was clipped off.

    Ayman had problems remembering where the Armenian boy lived. As he was walking toward the Christian quarter, he heard the muezzin make the call for prayers. The mosque was just down the street. He decided the pray there. That is when he saw Jameel, the Armenian. He was standing next to his prayer mat. He looked at Ayman, recognized him, and the gaze penetrated him. Ayman found himself once again breaking a powerful and ambiguous glance. The boy’s large, nut-brown eyes were etched in Ayman’s mind. He could not shake it. It was torture. Ayman watched him bend over and rise up, sit and kneel. When they were done Ayman stood on the street bewildered. He watched people pushing carts with their wares: fruits, nuts, cloth. He felt a hand on his sleeve. It was Jameel. The boy smiled at him. His white teeth glowed beneath his full lips. His lustrous black hair shown in the sun; it all flashed before Ayman’s eyes in an instant, like a vision.
    “You’ve come for the translation?” Jameel asked.
    “Yes,” Ayman answered slowly. His throat was so parched he could hardly speak. “Is it finished?”
    “Yes,” Jameel smiled cheerfully. “Come with me.”

    Ayman followed him. The boy went to a desk and handed Ayman the Armenian book and the Arabic translation. He smiled shyly.
    “It is bad Armenian. I took the liberty to correct some of the grammar in the translation.”
    “I suppose the buyer will never know,” Ayman answered nervously.
    “Do you know what it is about?” the young man laughed in anticipation of saying the words.
    “No,” Ayman answered abashedly, “I didn’t think to check.”
    “It is about cures for impotence,” the lad smiled. “Would you like some juice? It is so hot today!” Jameel asked. “I squeezed some oranges this morning.”
    “Thank you.”
    Ayman drank the juice. He felt the stringy pulp on his tongue and clinging to his pallet. It was a pleasant sensation. He let down his guard. Jameel’s face was suddenly next to his. They were kissing. It lasted for a long time. Jameel put his hand on Ayman’s chest and felt the amulet.
    “What is this?” the boy asked mischievously.
    “For the Evil Eye,” Ayman answered, looking deeply into the boy’s eyes. They kissed again. After a while, Ayman broke it off.
    “No, no,” Ayman finally said, “not here.”

    Ayman burst into Layla’s hut. She was just putting down a necklace. From the dark look on his face, she knew something was wrong.
    “What is it, Ayman?”
    “I need you to do something,” Ayman answered in a low and urgent tone.
    “What Ayman? Anything, of course. You look like death, what is wrong?” Ayman did not answer; he went to the door and pulled Jameel in. The boy removed his hood. Layla looked at him quizzically.
    “What is going on? Who is this?”
    “I need him to take you,” Ayman answered sternly.
    “What? Why?” Layla asked.
    “That is not important. It’s a job. I’ll pay you.”
    “But I thought you didn’t want me to take other men to bed?”
    “Take off your clothes, Layla. You, Jameel, do the same.”

    Ayman watched them. Layla was on her back and Jameel was on top of her. Layla did not take the care which she did when she was in bed with Ayman. She grasped the boy firmly, but she looked up at the Ethiopian lamp with an empty expression, tinged with sorrow. Jameel moved quickly on top of her. It did not take long. When Jameel was done he collapsed beside Layla, panting and nearly asleep. Layla was still for a moment and then made a movement to get up.
    “No,” Ayman said as he moved forward, removing his clothes quickly. “Stay down.”
    “At least let me wash, Ayman!”
    “No, stay.”

    Every night Jameel came with Ayman to Layla’s hut. Jameel would take Layla, and then Ayman would have her. Soon, Jameel and Ayman would stroke each other while they were with Layla. In a short time, they made love while Layla watched. Sometimes business detained Ayman and he was late. He would find Ayman with Layla already. He would watch them. They were both young and slim. He enjoyed watching the contrast between Layla’s skin and Jameel’s dark, nut-colored skin. Jameel began to wear Layla’s creations: there was an amulet around his neck, and bracelets around his wrists. As he watched them together in the dim light, their bodies were like apparitions, one demon and the other some spirit, locked in erotic combat.

    One morning sometime later Ayman entered the shop. Omar was not in front. He found him in the back, cowering among papers. Ayman knew something was wrong.
    “What’s happened?”
    “Moosa bin Muntir died last month! Kamil kept it a secret. I know a man in the palace. He said we are in danger. Word has been leaking out slowly. Kamil has already rounded up Moosa’s Sufi masters. He didn’t have the nerve to execute them. He banished the Sufis. But he will kill us! My man in the palace said we are in danger, and particularly you! He said you’ve been keeping a Jewish whore, a witch out by the tombs. And that you are a sodomite. You’ve been seen with a boy known for engaging in such acts. Is it true?”
    “She’s not a Jew,” Ayman said in astonishment. “She’s a Christian.”
    “She is a Jew, curse you! The people who owned her in Ethiopia were Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity. But they were secret Jews. Don’t you know anything? All the Jews in Ethiopia are sorcerers and witches. My friend told me she had to flee Fostat. She was casting spells on men. Forcing them into all sorts of illicit unions. How could you get involved with such things? We are already in terrible danger, and you’ve made it worse. If there is a round up, we will be at the top of Kamil’s list. We have little time to plan!”
The blood drained from Ayman’s face. He could not believe a word of what he was hearing. He rushed out of the room.
    “Wait! Where are you going? Help me burn these records!”

    Ayman threaded his way though the city. It appeared that people had not heard that Moosa bin Muntir was dead. Ayman saw a large cart drawing casks of wine down the middle of the street. He felt somewhat relieved. Perhaps Omar was wrong. He was prone to hysteria. Rumors had been flying about the city for six months about Moosa bin Muntir’s death. He may still be alive, may God make it so.
    Ayman wandered about the city for some time, unsure what to do. Then, as night fell, he heard a large explosion. There was the sound of clamoring, and even a few screams. Kamil’s troops were moving through the city. They raided a warehouse that stored wine. They pulled the casks out onto the street and split them open with axes. They bound the wine merchants and beat them and threw them into open carts. Other troops sealed off the Christian Quarter, which was an area where Muslims often committed all sorts of infractions, and often out in the open. Ayman covered his head with his hood and quickly moved away from the advancing troops. All he could think of were Fatima, Layla, and Jameel. He wanted to flee with all of them from the city. He’d rather starve to death or die of thirst in the desert then be strung up on a wire by Kamil’s men. But he couldn’t get to Fatima. They had secured that area of the town. He could not reach Jameel either, since he lived on the border of the Christian quarter. All he could do was move south, toward the tombs, toward Layla.
    He had to pass his book shop. He hurried his pace. Kamil’s men were there already. They were piling books in the street. When Ayman reached the corner, he looked back. They had set the books on fire. Dark smoke rose into the night sky. Ayman did not see Omar.
    Out past the town it was as if nothing was occurring. A few shepherds were preparing to bed down their flocks for the night. Night fell quickly, and it grew very cool. A sharp wind blew in from the desert. In the tombs shrouded figures sat on the stones, or moved about in groups. Amazingly, these women had not heard about Kamil’s sweep through the city. They probably lived in outlying villages to the south, Ayman reasoned, and had not heard about Kamil. He thought of warning them, but dared not bring attention to himself. He stood in front of Layla’s hut for a moment and listened. He heard low moaning. He burst in: Layla and Jameel parted for a moment from surprise, and then laughed when they saw Ayman standing there panting; they confused his panic for lust. They laughed and invited him to the bed.
    “No, no!” he shouted, “God have mercy on us for our iniquities! Kamil is in power. He has been so for a month. They are sweeping the city!”
    There was an uproar on the road. Kamil’s troops had reached the tombs. Ayman heard screams. Ayman went to the door and looked out. In the dark he could just make out the women being stripped of their clothes, thrown to the ground, and beaten with sticks, hands, feet.
    “God have mercy! Hurry, both of you, hurry!” Jameel and Layla quickly dressed. “Come, our only chance is to flee south, to the river. We may be able to get a boat and head downstream. We have a better chance in the desert than here!”

    When they reached the flatlands, they encountered crowds of people fleeing the city. They all had the same idea as Ayman. About a mile from the river, at the crossroad with the next town, a phalanx of troops was blocking the path. Some in the crowd tried to turn back, or move into the desert, Ayman, Layla and Jameel among them, but unknown to the people, cavalry troops were following them, swords drawn. In the chaos Ayman lost Jameel and Layla. There were too many people for Kamil’s men to capture or kill. In the clash, Ayman slipped off into the desert.

    Ayman headed east. It was a random decision, but temporarily fortunate. Kamil’s nephew had disputed his uncle’s claim as vizier, and headed a revolt. He had loyal men in the east, and they formed a new state. It was a harsh place to live. But Ayman was not known there. Every now and again he saw a refugee from the west. Their eyes would meet but they would not linger long, or speak. If someone fled from Kamil, he had good reason. Ayman lived like a beggar. He had fled with the clothes on his back, which were now in tatters. He ate meals in charity kitchens. Ayman often wondered if he had been stricken by the Evil Eye. He thought of Layla’s words: “My life is evidence of it.” Ayman fingered the stone amulet around his neck. Was it bringing him luck, or was it cursing him? He had lived, and so many others had died. That was lucky. But what kind of life was this? It was a living death. He thought he would toss the amulet, but could not let go of his attachment to it. It reminded him of beautiful white Layla, and handsome dark Jameel, their limbs entwined in lovemaking, their movements urgent and ardent: the furious lovemaking of youth.
    Ayman continued like this for a long time. Then a plague gripped the city, and he fell sick. For two months he languished in the courtyard of a madrassa, expecting to die at any moment. But he unexpectedly recovered. When he was well enough to walk around, he fingered Layla’s stone again. Was it good luck, or was it bringing him closer and closer to perdition? Ayman was a broken man. All his teeth fell out. His hair turned grey. He looked twice his age. He needed money, and with the plague still ravaging the city, there was demand for gravediggers. So Ayman bought a shovel and dug graves from dawn to dusk.
    One day Ayman was returning from the tombs with the other grave diggers. A crowd had gathered in front of the court. A fellow grave digger asked a woman what was happening.
    “Someone is going to be tried – some foreign woman.”
    “What did she do?” the grave digger asked.
    “Whoring. But worse still – sorcery.”
    The woman was being led into the courtyard by two exhausted soldiers. She was completely covered but for her feet. The large crowd began to jeer at her, and scream and cast small stones. They blamed her for the plague. She had either caused it by her spells, or God was punishing the city for having her in its midst.
Suddenly the crowd pulled her away from the soldiers. There was nothing the two men could do to stop them. The crowd pushed the woman down into the dust. Several men ripped her clothes from her. The woman’s body and hair were white. The crowd now fully believed she was a demon. Shrill cries rose and fell. People beat her with fists and kicked her. The woman was screaming, kicking, thrashing: it was like she was being torn apart by animals. She was dragged to a tree. As she passed, Ayman saw the ankh on her ankle and ample jewelry on her wrists and neck. It was Layla. They tied her to a tree with rope and the crowd pelted her with stones. All the grave diggers put down their shovels and threw stones. Ayman stood for a moment and watched, fingering the amulet. Then he put his hand inside his shirt, pulled it off his neck, and dropped it to the ground. It was at his feet in the dust. Next to it was a large stone. He picked it up, grasped it in his hand, and felt its full weight.

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