Deus Ex Machina

Sabeel AlHoriyat, Amman, Jordan

The legs of the old man lying on the pavement were always in the way, but he never had the chance to chide him for it, because every time he stumbled over him, he was in a bit of a hurry trying to shake off his pursuers. It should be noted that the secret to mastering the craft of pickpocketry resides in having nimble fingers and in knowing how to become invisible. The scarf that covered the lower part of his face served the latter purpose. Apparently, the old man had no misgivings whatsoever about where on the pavement to plunk himself down in downtown Amman. He only feared that, by indulging his itch for settling in a fixed location, he would be making it easy for Ahed to find him.

He begged on the streets for a living, a trade for which the ability to become invisible can also come in handy. Usually, he could be found at the groceries market with a taqiyah placed over his sunburned face when he was conked out. At times he also sat down on the stands of the Roman Theater. When he smiled, he skinned more holes than actual teeth. It was not like he cracked grins 24-7, but he did whenever he saw a female tourist uttering profanities in French after having been sexually harassed by a local.

Ahed had made a name for himself by dint of stealing, gambling, and blackmailing, which is why the people could not help but wonder what his true intentions were when he offered the old man the opportunity to take up residence under his own roof. Jameela, Ahed’s wife, had designed all sorts of schemes to get rid of their new elderly resident, but all her efforts had come to naught, leaving her with no choice but to comply with her husband’s dictate. Once he had moved in, he never complained about anything. The kitchen, which is where he had been quartered, lacked a door and thus gave him an unimpeded view of the only room lying on the opposite side of the wall. In order to avoid being discovered by the old man, Jameela told her lover to hang curtains in the middle of the room. However, they often forgot to close them.

Ahed knew about her wife’s lover. He surmised that there was some funny business brewing behind his back in the house by the way the old man puckered up his face while biting his tongue every time he returned home in the evening. However, he could not confront his wife about the matter. Every time he tried, the image of her wiggling her hips and licking her electrically charged lips popped into his head. She made him feel ashamed of himself as a man. It was outrageous how she could wrap him around her little finger.

What on earth had pushed him to lock horns over a loaf of bread that day? It must have been fear for starvation! The day before the incident he had only eaten a quarter of a loaf of bread that a boy had disposed of in the market and three almost rotten tomatoes that the grocer had already thrown away.

She took out her enemy by plunging a knife into his chest. One stab sufficed. Knowing that his filthy mouth would be shut forever took a load off her mind. The streets of Saqif As-Sail had been his home, but he had already bored everyone there to death with his hollow promises. She knew, for one, that he steered clear of the ruins of Sabeel Al-Horiyat because of what had happened there. She also knew that he enjoyed loitering with his pals around the stands of the Roman Theater and Hashemite Plaza, keeping an eye out for tourists whom he could con into buying gewgaws as if they were antiquities.

When the old man told Ahed that he had to leave the house, Ahed didn’t like it. Nonetheless, he deemed his excuse reasonable. Apparently, he wanted to get in touch with his children. He probably hadn’t made it. The rumor on the street was that it had taken no less than five men to dispatch him. What would Jameela do if he kept growing older? Would she be willing to accept him with the infirmities of old age?

“May he rest in peace. Not even his children attended his funeral! How thrilled he was to be holding properties. Now that he is dead, let his enemies gloat over what he has left behind.”

This was no soliloquy. It was what Ahed said after the old man’s funeral to a friend of his in a coffee shop where his money was no good—not because the owners owed him in any way, but because they served him under duress. Otherwise, he had assured them that the whole place would be blown up on the day they least expected it.

“Shortly before dying, he entrusted this envelope to me and asked me to deliver it to you,” the old man’s friend said while handing him an envelope. He watched Ahed take it. His fingernails were muddy.

“I cannot read.”

“You’ll manage to muddle through it. For now, it is important that you do not leave the house tomorrow morning. Someone will drop by your place and pay you a visit on behalf of the old man.”

The swarm of people swallowed him the moment he stepped outside the coffee shop. Ahed returned home with the envelope. At least Jameela knew how to read. She would be able to unscramble the old man’s message for him.

He caught Jameela with her lover the moment he set foot inside the house. He felt his head was on the brink of exploding; the whole world had collapsed under his feet. Suddenly, everything made sense: Sabeel Al-Horiyat, the groceries market, the old man’s death . . . He had been struck by the electricity generated from her lips. At least now he had broken free from her spell. He would not allow her to humiliate him any longer.

“Enough! I divorce you.

She howled loudly in glee, and the empty room echoed with her verve. Then she vanished into thin air.

He started crying but burst into laughter soon afterward. He got drunk and guffawed until tears trickled down his cheeks. Then he went to sleep.

And, since this is a story like the ones grandmothers tell their grandchildren, it also has one of those endings that will leave you completely flummoxed.

“Wake up! Abu Aun bought you a house and is willing to lend you some money as well,” someone said.

He opened his eyes and looked at the face of the man who had roused him. He raised his hand to shield his eyes from the sun. It took him a few seconds to recognize the familiar visage.

It was none other than the old man!


Written by Samar Radwan Alzobi.

Choose your own adventure

It is safe to say that when everything turns out to be self-explanatory, it will be because

a) evolution has turned humans into apes.

b) A.I. has made it to the top and is plying God with tea and sympathy.