Otared: An excerpt from Mohamed Rabie’s new novel

In the coming few weeks, Otared, a novel by author Mohamed Rabie, will be published in Arabic by Al Tanweer. Otared will follow Rabie’s first two novels, Kawkab Anbar (Amber Planet, 2010) and Amm al-Taneen (The Year of the Dragon, 2012). In celebration, we publish the novel’s beginning before its release in bookstores, as part of our aim to make Mada Masr a space for creative writing as well as journalistic and critical work. This is an English version of the excerpt, translated by Robin Moger.

A beginning

This line of blood puts me in mind of many things.

It’s traced on the wall, not quite vertically but leaning at a slight angle and at its apex bending sharply back to the ground. Small droplets hang down, running from the edge of the bend. It reminds me of an ostrich’s tail feather, a column of water rising from a fountain, the glowing tracks of fireworks launched across the sky.

The butcher was a true professional. With his massive cleaver he struck the calf’s forelegs a single blow to bring the animal down then passed the same blade over its neck, opening the rosy throat and an artery to send the blood jetting out in a clean line just like the line of water from a fountain — pulled down by gravity, held horizontal by the heart’s pump — only to meet the wall a few centimeters away and describe itself: the classic profile of airborne liquid, a profile on the verge of being lost forever and then preserved, a stroke upon the wall.

Many ate from the slaughtered calf’s flesh. Some think raw meat stimulates the sex drive, I’ve heard, and certainly the rites have something rousing about them: the slaughter, the stench of blood and dung, the skinning, the carcass hung up and butchered, the sight of dozens standing waiting for a cut of meat, of kids off to one side eating lumps of raw liver still hot and soft, a man rushing off with his plastic bag full of meat and smiling as he goes… and me, sat watching it all in my white robe, relaxing after the exertion of many months.

The Eid al-Adha holiday: a fine opportunity to wreck your diet, kick back and find out what’s going on out in the countryside; to ponder, too, the relationship between flesh and sex.

In the evening the poor gathered in numbers, come to eat from the vast spread laid out for them. They sat on the ground around a spotless white cloth with empty bowls of various shapes and sizes in front of them, and then a charity worker came round, dishing two pieces of meat for each person from a massive pot carried by his colleague, picking them out with his bare hand and not bending to place them in the bowl but waiting until the dish was lifted and letting them fall — at which the pauper would immediately start eating. Boiled meat swaddled in fat. Grey flesh, white fat. To me, it all looked revolting, but those doing the eating were thoroughly enjoying themselves.

On the wall before me a line of blood was traced like that I’d seen five days before during Eid at my family’s place in the country. On this occasion it had come from the artery of a 16-year-old boy. Between wall and bed, in the narrow gap no more than 50 centimeters wide, his body was stuffed in a most peculiar position: head to one side, mouth squashed but open, the two arms raised with palms half-folded into fists and, stranger still, his legs also raised, knees up by his face and one broken, the lower leg dangling forlornly from it and lying along the side of the corpse. On the opposite wall, clearly visible to the naked eye, was the line of blood. It looked to me as though the owners of the apartment had recently repainted the walls. The pale cream was even and flawless, unmarked by fingerprints, unscuffed by furniture: a wall in one color, a canvas or a blank page, and the line of blood showing its color ever stronger.

I was on my own. Impetuously, I’d rushed to the address provided to find officers from the Emergency Force had beaten me to it. Some of them stood dazed in the living room. Others were on the stairs outside the apartment. None had been into the bedrooms, just peeked past the open doors at what lay inside, and sure enough they’d been careful not to touch anything. Not out of any desire to keep the crime scene uncontaminated as the rules dictate, but because they were frightened. It was when I looked into the eyes of the first officer that I knew. I know what a frightened police officer’s eyes look like. It’s impossible to put into words. We’re the only ones who recognize it, who share it. Wordlessly, we confess our fear, we divide the burden between all those who lie within the circle of trust. I’d been in the same position many times myself, prey to the same fear, had shared my burden with colleagues using that same look and, a few times, carried it alone, and I know the pressure it brings. I was informed that the father had killed his family and prepared myself for a lot of blood, but the officer’s look told of something more. For an instant some of his fear transmitted itself to me and I understood that fear would be here for a long time.

The householder was sitting in the living room in front of the television, covering his shoulders with a light blanket and staring at the screen. He seemed to be eating from a bowl held between his hands. In a well-stuffed armchair sat an elderly man, his hands in his lap and his head resting against the back of the chair, and I saw at a glance that he’d been dead for hours. The other man was watching an old film — Ismail Yassin cavorting in a low dive and singing the praises of alcohol, the other patrons all singing along — and wolfing from his plate with a spoon. The smell was deadly — rot and excrement and cooked meat and vomit — and I noticed hardened lumps of shit beneath the dead man, on his chair and the floor at his feet, even as the other finished his meal, laid the dish down beside him and went on watching the film. It was then I was sure that my brother officer’s fear had been a simple reaction to the scene before him.

The officer told me that there were four more bodies: the young man in the first bedroom, his older sister in the second and the mother and a young boy in the third. They had been killed by blows from a kitchen knife, delivered some time ago by the father now sitting in front of the television. The rigidity of the corpses and the smell of decomposition suggested that he had killed them approximately two or three days ago.

The kitchen was in a state of chaos: pots and bowls all over the floor and table, a putrid stench, patches of dried puke on the floor and shit everywhere.

In the first bedroom I stood transfixed before the corpse of the boy wedged between the wall and bed and after a minute had passed I realized that I was slowly losing consciousness. Losing it and conscious of it. I pushed out of the room and out of the apartment. It was on the top floor so I climbed the stairs to the roof and there, beneath stars choking on the filthy air, I threw up.

The nausea was overwhelming and, unable to stand, I sat on the grimy rooftop trying bring my stomach under control. The boy’s bizarre posture, his rigid body, face turned to the wall and hidden from sight: images that would never leave me, as though etched into my memory for eternity; images that, most regrettably, brought back every body I’d ever seen since starting in this job. Wretched faces, slack mouths, half-closed eyes surrendered to death. I made an effort to suck in fresh air, something other than the rot-heavy atmosphere inside the apartment. I filled my lungs as full as they would go. A grey haze stood between the stars and moon and me and looking up I saw, among those stars, my daughters and wife. I saw their names spelt out beneath their pictures in the paper: Wife, Abeer Abdel Haqq, 37; Daughter, Farida, 11; Daughter, Sally, 4. And my picture with them: Captain Ahmed Otared. The article bore no headline, contained no details, just black lines beneath the pictures where the writing would be, nothing I could make out or understand, and yet I knew that this was a item about how I’d murdered them, without the faintest idea why I was so certain that I would indeed kill them, and soon, and that I would be changing their fate for a better one, even if it were death. Then I saw that I would kill many people and that a great number of people would be killed in whose deaths I’d play no part. I saw that people would kill their children and eat their flesh and I saw that the man sitting eating and watching TV had broken the last of the seals and set loose everything that would later come to pass. All this I saw and understood nothing. This was before I had entered the remaining rooms. Before I had seen the other bodies. Before I had seen what the man had recorded on his phone.

The investigation and confessions established that the father had killed his family with the kitchen knife then spent a few hours preparing for the next stage. He had laid out a small knife and various cooking pots and proceeded to chop onions, peel garlic and deseed a large quantity of tomatoes. Next, taking his sharp little knife he had chopped up their lips and noses and ears, prized out their eyes, sliced away portions of their calves and thighs and dug out his wife’s breasts. He had put the eyes in a small bowl, the ears and lips in a larger one and the chunks of flesh in a third, while the breasts he laid in an earthenware dish. He had added the chopped onion, garlic and tomatoes to the bowls and then cooked it all in the kitchen. The smell of food wafting up had suggested meat being cooked for Eid and the neighbors hadn’t suspected a thing. The father had taken calls from family members, accepting their well wishes — had even called some of them himself — and when they’d asked after the family, he’d said that his son was out with friends, the other children were asleep and his wife was in the shower.

But the father had been careful to solicit the approval of the grandfather, the man I’d seen dead alongside him. He told us that he had recorded much of what had happened on his phone and with a video camera. We’d already extracted all the recordings and added them to the case file by the time he told us this and with all the footage we had it looked like it was going to be easy: a clean case with no complications; death sentence for the father guaranteed. If it hadn’t been for the cooking business it would have been a textbook case. Run-of-the-mill.

Most of what took place was caught on camera. We found a clip of the father cutting up a section of his wife’s thigh and another of him slicing her breasts with a showy deliberation. There was a clip of him unhurriedly and calmly chopping noses, ears and eyes. Except the eldest son. He left him untouched. The father said that the boy had resisted fiercely and died suffering so hadn’t deserved to be cut up and eaten. Then another clip of him placing all the flesh in a bowl, adding vegetables and seasoning, and stirring everything together. A long clip of a steel saucepan with its Perspex lid and the meat gently stewing inside: the longest of the lot.

But the most extraordinary set of recordings were those of his father — the dead grandfather swamped in his shit on the well-stuffed armchair.

The camera had been mounted on its tripod. The footage was of higher quality and clarity than the earlier recordings from the phone. Father and grandfather filled the screen, the father attempting to feed the grandfather from a dish in his hand. He was holding it in his left hand, bringing it up to the grandfather’s face and lifting out a spoon containing a small quantity of meat. The grandfather glared at him furiously, slapped at the dish and shouted something in his face with such anger we couldn’t catch what he had said. By that stage in the investigation everything was crystal clear but we still needed an explanation or a clarification — a hint at least — as to the motive, and the angry grandfather came as a surprise to us all. It was clear that the grandfather was immobile, that his old age confined him to the chair, and that he was aware of what his son was doing but had no way of stopping him. He knew his son was chopping up his grandchildren one after the other and no doubt knew that he had cooked them. The most he could manage, it seemed, was to slap the dish and send it flying. All he could do.

In the next clips the father was trying persuade the grandfather to eat. Pressing him to eat. Whispering things we couldn’t hear. We couldn’t hear a thing he said and couldn’t imagine what a man might say to convince his father to eat the flesh of his own grandchildren. Initially the grandfather reacted angrily. “You’re a liar,” he was shouting: “Don’t say that…” The father spoke calmly, whispering, and the grandfather turned from anger to despondency, from shouting to weeping and then to moaning. The more the father spoke to him the more he moaned and the recording ended with the grandfather murmuring, “Enough… enough…”

The next recording was made a few hours later. A whole day had now passed since the murders had been committed. Father and grandfather were sat as before and the grandfather was trying to force himself to eat from the dish held by the father. He was gripping the spoon, bringing it to his mouth and saying, “It’s better for them… Fine… But I can’t … It’s hard… Eating them’s hard… Killing them, it’s hard…” Then he began to whimper like a child and ate the first spoonful.

Between each spoonful and the next the grandfather wept. He was eating and murmuring: “It’s best for them. A good father, a good grandfather… They’ll go to heaven for sure… They won’t come back here…” Then he finished the first bowlful and after that he was silent, though he went on eating with a strangely mechanical air. In less than half an hour he’d gone through five bowlfuls and the clip ended as he laid the empty dish in the father’s hands.

From the autopsy we learned that he had died from severe poisoning and had expelled a torrent of shit and vomit before he’d passed. The father must have watched him dying and not moved a muscle. The pair of them had been on a suicide mission to eat the dead: the grandfather had died almost straight away and the father had gone on eating even after we had entered the apartment. Had eaten and eaten and got up to defecate anywhere and everywhere. Five whole days and not a thought for keeping himself or the apartment clean. We later found out from the medical report that between them they’d consumed more than fifty kilos of flesh.

On the sixth day a neighbor called the emergency force, bothered by a putrid stench coming from the next door apartment. The father had calmly opened the door to the jumpy officers then gone back to the television to finish the very last bowlful of a feast that had lasted all the days of Eid.

We all know the rules: not a finger must be laid on the killer. He is to be treated with great gentleness. Officers, recruits and prisoners treat him as a dead man — particularly if he’s confessed, particularly if he hasn’t resisted or screamed at us. This is a man marching to the gallows of his own accord, so let him march.

During the trial the judge didn’t ask him much, other than the one repeated question: Had he killed his family or not? The man confessed to what he’d done in the court’s first session and repeated his confession more than fifty times in the sessions that followed. Given the details of the case the judge’s boorishness and clumsy insistence on the point were completely out of place. The man had opened the door of his apartment himself and surrendered to the police. He’d put up not the slightest resistance. He had confessed to the prosecutor and confessed to the judge. I could not understand why, every session, the judge repeated the same question: “Did you kill them?” When the judge asked him to put his confession in writing, the man produced a confession in his own hand, a large, clear hand with no mistakes or crossings out; maybe he took pride in this document. There was one small detail that no one dwelt on for very long: his statement that he had murdered his family because he’d lost a lot of money on the stock exchange, and for no other reason.

But he showed no grief in the way he conducted himself; no feelings at all, in fact. Throughout the course of the trial he was like the living dead, heedless of what went on around him. The prosecutor’s sallies seemed ridiculous given the confession made in the presence of so many witnesses and repeated so many times, and the defense’s arguments even more so. Everything about that trial seemed ridiculous. Even the judge, who insisted on hearing the confession more than fifty times, who demanded a written statement, who brought the accused out of his cage during the final session, handed him his written statement and asked if it was his (to which he replied, “Yes”) then asked if it was in his handwriting (to which he replied, “Yes”) then asked for the last time if he had killed his family (to which he replied, “Yes”) — even the judge was a joke.

Only the man himself didn’t seem ridiculous, and yet how to describe him I could never figure out.

People were confounded. They all felt for the killer. This familicide was a man of the middle class: comfortably off, a respectable job, didn’t take drugs (just smoked), owned a big apartment in a classy neighborhood and two cars, his children at foreign schools and the eldest daughter graduated with honors from a private university — the beau ideal of the contented middle class, the man with a secure future, envied by many for his stable life and beautiful family. And yet not one of the stunned onlookers thought to ask why it had happened. Psychologists and sociologists offered no analysis. Of course, the pretext of losses on the stock exchange was very thin, too weak for the prosecutor to have advanced it as a motive in court, and were it not for the man appending it to his detailed account for what he did, it would definitely have been consigned to the trash. TV talking heads seized on his story, but no one asked what his real motive was and talk of the man was followed by pop songs, reports on fashion shows and political debate. Even I never gave a thought to the true cause, though I knew “financial losses” was a fabrication.

I followed the case with great interest, attending every court session in anticipation of some surprise or dramatic turn in the course of events. I’d stare into the face of the man sitting in the defendant’s cage, racking my brains for a complete memory of that face, but all that came to mind was the back of his neck and shoulders and the blanket covering them. This was the only mental image I’d been able to retain. Even during the interrogations, with him sitting before me or beside me, seeing him plain with only the desk between us… all these images had gone for good, nothing saved but the image of him sat before the television.

I was going to attend one of the final sessions of the trial when my car broke down and I had to flag down a taxi to take me to the courtroom. I arrived late. The session had already begun; I can’t remember if it was the turn of the prosecution or the defense. It was good as over. All that remained were those formalities beloved of the Egyptian bench — like judges everywhere — so that the matter could be elegantly concluded. A crisp life sentence; a duly solemn death sentence. Everyone knew that during one of the sessions the accused’s case would be forwarded to the mufti, whose plea for clemency would fail to shake the certainty of the judge, who would then, in the next session, order the defendant’s execution.

I delayed going in till I’d had a quick cigarette and a small cup of tea. I took a sip from the cup and it was bitter, no sugar, so I ordered some from the tea boy who apologized with a smile and brought it to me with a little spoon. I stirred the tea and spent a few minutes looking at my phone. By now I was very late and estimated that the session must be halfway through. When I picked up the cup again, intending to finish it in a few quick gulps, I found a black beetle bobbing on the surface. A dead scarab.

My eyes fastened on the motionless insect and I recalled that the cup had been empty before. Maybe it had fallen in while I’d been busy with the phone and died, either drowned or from the heat of the tea, and just like that I tipped the contents of the cup onto the floor, the finely chopped tea leaves moving in the red liquid over the marble floor and the scarab rolling quite a distance away, before it started to move. So: not dead.

I asked the tea boy what he had ready to go — tea, coffee, anything. Someone had ordered coffee then walked off, he told me. He said that the coffee was ready as though it had been made just for me.

He poured it calmly, picked up the little saucer that held the cup and handed it to me, and volunteered the following: “That’s a cup of coffee with hope stirred in. Hope’s important. That guy who murdered his family lost hope; that’s why he killed them…”

As the session ended I watched the man walk out of the cage. Hair combed, in clean white overalls, he walked the way he’d done since I first clapped eyes on him, but it was only today that I noticed what made his walk so distinctive. He walked with all hope lost. 

Mohamed Rabie 

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