Novel excerpt from The Scorpion’s Whisper
The Scorpion’s Whisper is a novel inspired by a desert expedition that took place in 1920 to the mysterious oasis of Kufra, deep in the Libyan Sahara. The expedition was led by an Egyptian, Hussein Bey, and an Englishwoman, Rose. In this excerpt, the foreigners’ caravan has just arrived to the oasis. Gamila, a beautiful local girl, is overcome by a sense of foreboding. She is concerned that the intruders’ sudden appearance may somehow upset her upcoming wedding to the man she loves. Gamila asks her cousin, Sondos, to make use of her occult skills to determine if the intruders are indeed a bad omen.
The two girls sit cross legged on their small hassira, just before the azan calls the faithful to the sunset prayers. It’s their favorite hideout at the edge of the sandy cliff. Their isolated knoll, unnoticed from either plateau or valley, provides an imagined sanctuary for both girls and scorpions.
The sun’s glare has mellowed and the wide flat wadi is a mirage of paradise, lying there, just below their bare knees.
“Let us listen to the scorpions,” she says. For the first time, it is Gamila who begs Sondos to perform her trick. They’ve never found a suitable name for their secret game.
It is Sondos who has taught Gamila the wisdom inherent in all scorpions. Her wild cousin has of course, accumulated a wealth of knowledge and expertise reserved for the chosen few. After all, who else confers with the likes of cross-eyed Khadra who lies on her belly for hours conversing with the ants, or the old woman from Tolab who speaks in different voices and throws stones at the sneering boys, or Zakia whose back, it is whispered, is covered in reptilian scales? After some hesitation, Sondos acquiesces to Gamila’s request.
Sondos stands up and takes a few steps closer to the edge. Deliberately, she overturns a loose stone, uncovering a scorpion’s lair. With a practiced eye, she contemplates the three or four scorpions as, alarmed, they scatter in different directions with their tails menacingly high above their heads. She hums as if she were playing a game of chance with the little brutes, or simply studying their personalities.
Her selection made, with lightning speed she picks up the chosen scorpion by the tail. The creature lashes out in terror, but in vain. Held by the girl’s firm fingers just beyond the sting, the potential killer acquiesces, suddenly no more threatening than a locust.
Gamila cannot bear the idea of losing her best friend. She wrinkles her cheeks to ensure that her eyes are kept firmly shut lest they slide open in distraction, or out of curiosity. She drifts to that moonless night, when just before dawn she awoke to a hushed commotion. The women’s subdued gasps and hurried footsteps were more alarming than the social shrieks and wailing that would come later. The sight of her relatives with swollen eyes and indigo painted faces, told Gamila what she already knew. It was an ugly, physically repulsive affair: Death. But not the earth-shattering event she had been led to assume.
And then there was the loss. The sense of irreplaceable loss. Her mother had passed, and she’d been left alone with her helplessness.
She remains sightless, until Sondos’ teasing prompts her to reopen in time for the coup de grace. With a quick twist, her friend chips off the tail’s tip, and holds the scorpion head up. Mesmerized, the two virgins watch the venom droplets as like a man’s unwanted seed, they drip onto the sand.
Sondos then wombs the wretched creature in her cupped palm, raises it to her left ear, then to Gamila’s, and intently, they listen to the scorpion’s whisper.
This extract was published as The Scorpion’s Whisper and appeared as a novel excerpt in Offshoots VII, Geneva, 2003.
M.M. Tawfik was born in Cairo, Egypt. He has pursued careers in engineering, diplomacy and writing that have taken him to numerous countries in Europe, Africa, the Americas, and Oceania, and produced diverse literary works that provide “a seamless blend of the personal and political, whether in terms of dreams or disillusionment.”
He is one of the few Egyptian writers who self-translates his work into English. His most recent novel, The Scorpion’s Whisper, was released in Arabic in June 2021. The English version is still in the pipeline.
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