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Albert Russo

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Books by Albert Russo
Souk Secrets
By Albert Russo
Posted: Friday, July 21, 2006
Last edited: Monday, July 24, 2006
This short story is rated "G" by the Author.
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Recent stories by Albert Russo
· The age of the pearl
· Lebensborn
· New York Bonus
· Fast food Lisette
· The spell of Mayaland
· Spirit of Tar
           >> View all 7
Young French marines taking a break in Tunis' souk and the often comical adventures they live.
SOUK SECRETS

first appeared in Amelia magazine (USA)
winner of the Willie Lee Martin Short Story Award ($200)



Clear-eyed Tawfik sat crosslegged at the Eastern Gate of the Medina brooding over that ass of an Uncle Nazredin with his scrawny neck, three front teeth missing and his adam's apple that bobbed like a crazed egg asking itself what it was doing inside of a silly throat.
"Let uncle squeeze that tender flesh of yours. Mmmmmaaarzipan ..., mmmmmarrrr tsss tsss. . . . " A scream had rent the hot spicey air, punctuated by gales of laughter. Tawfik felt his still swollen cheek, "The son of a camel whore! I'll fry his paws in boiling oil." He gazed at the hustle-bustle on the wharf as men gathered in front of a fishing boat to assess the day's catch and bargain a first price before the bulk was sold to the cooperative. Not long ago Tawfi k had thought he might one day join the fishermen's guild. But then he realized that the job entailed much toil and little adventure and, instead, he'd pictured himself steering a giant oiltanker. With the new moon, however, his ambitions had propelled him into the stratosphere, and he now deemed that he wouldn't be fit for anything less than to pilot one of those airforce jets screeching past the bay at low altitude and causing pregnant women to give birth prematurely. Tawfik was convinced he'd been ejected from his mother's womb after a sonic boom. Even the brother of a goat, his uncle, admitted he was a smart dazzler who would go far, very far; he read it in the devilish twinkle of his eye.
Tawfik's admiration for the leader of neighboring Lybia was boundless, and whenever he'd get irritated, like at this very instant, he'd invoke the handsome colonel. "Gedafi, may Allah grant you a hundred more years; you promised our two countries would soon be united. Hurry up and send in your troops. With you at the helm, Uncle Nazredin and the likes of him will have to watch out. He needs to be horsewhipped, I tell you, and reformed, from head to toe. He'd stop loafing around and begging mother for 'a few miserable dinars' behind my back. And to think that mother yields to him each time. 'He's the blood of your blood, Tawfik,' she says, 'the blood of your father - may he who is listening from the garden of Allah shower us with his blessings - you owe Uncle Nazredin respect.' Now, does one respect a mangy dog, I ask you?"
On these considerations Tawfik rose to his feet and caught the attention of two French sailors heading towards the Gate. The lad dashed to the leaner of the two and tugged at his pants, "I show you souk inside out," he offered boisterously, "and maybe something else too," he added with a wink. Tawfik knew how to deal with foreigners and had a smattering of the languages most frequently spoken by the tourists who called at the harbor. Even before the two young sailors could react, Tawfik decided the lean one would be 'Jeannot' while his bearded companion was gratified with 'Charlie' as a nickname.
"Ok," guffawed Charlie, "but we have just two hours." Still tugging at the leg of Jeannot's pants, Tawfik addressed the lean youth, who looked quite puzzled, "Where you from?"
"Toulon," answered Jeannot with a meek smile.
"Your face smooth like baby's ass, you still no tchik tchik?" Tawfik inquired, joining the middle- and the forefinger of his free hand. Charlie whispered something to the ear of his companion and giggled. Jeannot's cheeks had now turned poppy red. Blinking his amber-colored eyes like a ventriloquist's puppet, Tawfik shot a knowing glance at his bearded accomplice. "Little rascal!" Charlie exclaimed laughingly as the lad moved his tongue in and out of his mouth with a sucking sound.
"You've nothing more to learn from grownups, have you? Just how old are you?"
Tawfik thrust his two hands overhead and spread his fingers fanwise.
"First thing, I bring you to merchants for best no ripoff shopping in souk," the boy tagged on, leading the sailors into the maze of winding lanes. The heady odor of spices, the intermittent stench of the sewage, added to the clamminess of the air, made Jeannot's head reel. He had to quicken his pace lest he should lose sight of his companion and the lad.
"Hey, not so fastl" he gasped, now panic-striken. Weaving his way through the ever narrowing swishes of caftans and jellabahs, Jeannot felt the sudden onslaught of eyes. They were flicking and whirling around him, from the enigmatic looks of veiled women to the sniggering and blunt stares of youths. Eyes that glistened like steel blades or coarse as braided ropes, eyes that played hooky or that could in a single blow sweep, then drag, you into a vortex, eyes...
Jeannot fell with a thud, knocking his head against the ledge of a pastry stall. Upon regaining consciousness, he had the most awkward sensation, as after having traveled through space and time one reenters a place which has long been dismissed as a mirage. When his vision cleared, Jeannot saw those eyes again. But now they formed a circle high above him and ceased to look threatening. There were even, here and there, benevolent grins. Someone dabbed his forehead with a cloth soaked in eau de cologne, while emaciated fingers brought a glass of hot mint tea to his lips. He sipped the sweetish beverage as if out of regard for the trembling hand, which he soon learned belonged to the pastry vendor. The strong whiff of eau de cologne mingled with the taste of mint tea, sickening as it was, had an invigorating effect upon Jeannot, and by the time he was back on his feet holding a parcel of honey and almond cookies the kindly vendor had prepared for him, Jeannot recognized the faces of his companion and of Tawfik.
"We look for you now fifteen minutes; you chicken out or what?" the lad said, visibly annoyed. Jeannot thanked the old man profusely and greeted the onlookers who had started to disperse.
"For a moment I thought you might be kidnapped," Charlie said flashing a smile. To which Tawfik added, more businesslike than jocular, "How about I take you to one men harem where rich Deutsch and Americans go? They pay good price for pretty boys, especially virgin like you. We instant partners, you give me only small percentage, okl"
"How about it?" challenged the bearded sailor, reverting the question to Jeannot. The response came swiftly and unexpected, "I'll manage to find my way back to the harbor," Jeannot said, cheeks slightly flushed with anger, and he pivoted on his heels.
"I was only pulling your leg," Charlie said apologetically, "Don't be so susceptible. Look, we've still an hour at our disposal, and you did want to visit the former bey's palace."
Tawfik introduced his two potential customers to half a dozen merchants. At Mahmud's, the carpet dealer, Charlie put his bargaining talents to practice, and after he'd deemed Mahmud's counterbid satisfying, he bought a Berber rug. At the next shop Jeannot chose one of those delicately wrought birdcages painted in white and blue, for which his companion got a twenty percent rebate. The merchants hit it off immediately with Charlie, appreciating in him the witty bon vivant, and, as a consequence, the two sailors were gratified with lokums of various flavors and several cups of Turkish coffee. To Tawfik though, all this was a lot of hogwash. "Bunch of constipated mules," he thought as he pressed the merchants to cut short the salaams and aleikums , warning them that he'd be collecting his commission later in the evening and that no word should reach the ears of his Uncle Nazredin; in the opposite case, he'd run to the competition, for the lad had learned the trade from his uncle, except the monkey-all-smiles of a Nazredin believed he could forever use his nephew, reaping the fruit as he sat on his bum. Very soon, however, Tawfik reversed the situation to his advantage and became very much his own boss. The merchants with whom the boy dealt directly got the message and allotted to the uncle only a minimal part of the commission, with the excuse that, hit by the world recession, the tourists were getting terribly stingy.
At the leather shop, Jeannot picked a pair of yellow babouches he'd wear as winter slippers, and Charlie, who had purchased a shoulder bag made out of camel hide, managed to get a free purse for his girlfriend.
Having finished their errands the two sailors decided to make for the harbor slowly, but Tawfik had no intention of letting the pièce de résistance slip by and said to Charlie, in a tone of hurried confidentiality, "I bring you to Madame Alina. She had French husband and her girls first choice, always medically inspected," upon which he smacked his lips. Then, noticing Jeannot had overheard, he quickly reassured the lean sailor, "You stay meanwhile in cozy sitting-room to drink lemonade." Jeannot felt too hot and sticky to argue and merely waved his head. After all, if that's what Charlie wanted, let him have it.
The young sailors were led into a courtyard, then past a porch through a succession of small rooms in which rolled up carpets were stored with address tags and ready to be shipped overseas. Tawfik knocked at a narrow door and opened it instantly. A charwoman was mopping the tiled floor. After all the dust and smells of the souk lanes, this waiting-room felt like an oasis with its singing fountain in the shape of a palm-tree and the delicate scent of rosewater that pervaded the atmosphere.
Tawfik said something to the charwoman who disappeared behind a partition lined with rows of glass beads and came back a minute later accompanied by a large-bosomed lady. She had a richly hennaed coiffure and wore a mauve sequined dress which hugged her hips snugly before tumbling like a bell-flower over her ankles. Her polished toenails gave the final touch to that air of luxuriance with which she carried herself.
Upon seeing Tawfik, Madame Alina heaved a deep sigh, "My dear dear boy," she said, raising her hands, "Allah be praised, I was about to have you fetched. It's your poor Uncle Nazredin."
"What about Uncle Nazredin?" the lad croaked, anticipating some unpleasantness. As if suddenly aware of the presence of the two young sailors, she glanced up at them with a coy smile and smoothed her dress in a gesture of coquetry. Then, lowering her voice while blinking her false eyelashes simultaneously, she drew Tawfik to her and, stroking the back of his head, said, "He's had a slight heart attack. The doctor's upstairs with him and says he will recover but that it's imperative he go to the hospital at once. It wouldn't have been proper to break the news to your mother, and, since you're the man of the family ... "
Tawfik did not wish to hear the rest and dashed to the first floor, his head sizzling with a hundred vengeful intentions.
"The son of a camel whore, it serves you right, lazybones, having fun with Madame Alina's girls while I sweat it out. Don't you worry. I'll take you to the hospital all right, and have you once and for all out of my way. I'll handle this with the doctor, for if indeed you should recover we'll see to it that you go straight to the madhouse where you've always belonged, toothless baboon."
Tawfik spent the remaining part of the evening at the hospital. Someone had to vouch for this uncle of his and go through the interminable administrative drudgery. How old was the uncle; where was he born; had he suffered a stroke previously; what other illness did he have? And you should have watched with what application the functionary wrote down the lad's answers! At the end of the questioning Tawfik said in a fit of anger, "Why this, why that, don't waste your time, there's nothing wrong with his health. It's his head that's missing a couple of screws. Will you let me go!"
When at last he went to the patients' ward with one of the male nurses and saw his Uncle Nazredin lifting a weak hand towards him, Tawfik turned livid as if suddenly his veins had been drained of all their substance. For a while he stared at that face almost in awe, and his mother's words came back to him, "He's the blood of your blood." Remembering then he'd left Jeannot and Charlie stranded at Madame Alina's, he chuckled.

Web Site: within The Crowded World of Solitude, volume 1, the collected stories  


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