Read time: 9 mins

The Dance of the Middle Fingers

by Mostafa Eltelwany
28 August 2020

Translated by Nariman Youssef

‘Take these two joints, put them in a bowl, and you’ll find yourself writing the Odyssey.’

Khaled’s words rang through my mind as I prepared the first smoke since I had quit. I wiped my palm with a tissue, pulled the two finger-thick joints out of the cigarette pack, and sat on the sofa facing the TV. I scanned the table before me to check I had everything, then headed to the bedroom. I’d forgotten the most important things: a pen and blank sheets of paper.

My thoughts crumbled like pieces of bad hash whenever I tried to translate them into stories. For a while, I tried to walk the tight rope of the permissible, avoiding taboos, and it was like a runner trying to win a 100-metre sprint with an amputated leg.

I shut all windows in an attempt to block out the riot of songs and loud cries outside, but it continued to invade the flat anyway. There must be crack in the wall somewhere through which the noise seeps in. While I hide here like someone eating during daytime in Ramadan. I dimmed the lights and focussed on what was before me, with an eye on the blank pages.

I picked up a cigarette and snipped off a piece the length of a finger nail to make it fit the cup’s diameter. With a razor blade, I made a cut along its length, stuck the joint inside and lit it, then I hung the cigarette inside the cup like a bridge and spread my hand over it like a roof. I reclined my head against the wall and let the smell of hash stimulate my senses.

My nerves began relax as I pulled the first puff of smoke through my mouth. I gasped violently, then held my nose with my fingertips to let the smoke rush through me. It felt like wasps stinging my head. The sound of drums came in from the street and ignored it. I exhaled. I was drained. Tears poured out of my eyes.

As soon as I finished this joint, some fingers on my left hand started a mutiny, the index and middle fingers specifically. They broke away from my body and jumped on the table, showing a level of freedom that I envied. I watched as they pulled a cigarette out of my pack, lit it and passed it between them. This annoyed me. I don’t like it when strangers pilfer my smokes. Then then left the half-finished cigarette behind and started walking all over the table. The index had a full booty that swayed sexily side-to-side. It was starting to turn me on. But a yelp from the middle finger snapped me out of that. She was holding the razor blade, blood dripping from her head. I snickered.

‘How could you laugh at the misfortune of your own flesh?’ cried the index. ‘Bring us some gauze pads! Quick!’ added the thumb. I ordered them to return to my hand before I should answer their demands, and they refused. So I said coldly, ‘Let her bleed to death then,’ and looked away.

The remaining joint was nowhere to be found. I checked in the cigarette pack, under the plates on the table, on the rug, between the cushions. Nothing. Maybe I’d forgotten it on my desk, I thought, so I went to look and was rushed back by the sound of Abdel-Basset Hammouda’s song. Gimme a pound of love, you’ll get a gallon of care.

The fingers were rocking hysterically in the middle of the living room. They formed a circle and danced with the smoke around the joint which was burning on the rug. I charged at them to put an end to these shenanigans, tripped on the edge of the rug, fell and hit my face on the side of the table. As the music quickened, I collapsed on the floor. I’ll even top you up, you’ll have enough to share.

I woke up to Khaled’s hand patting my shoulder. He had a phosphoric face and his body was a giant finger.

‘You still haven’t gone out?’ When I didn’t answer, he added, ‘You’ve gobbled up both joints already, haven’t you?’

My mouth was dry. My palms sweaty. I wiped them on my shirt. I found my fingers where they should be. I could clench and open them with little effort.

‘What was mixed in with this hash?’ I asked him.

‘It just went straight to your head cause you’ve been away from the pitch.’

‘Do you have any more? I feel my head is on the brink of something.’

‘Get dressed and let’s go score some more.’

The hot shower energised me. A clutter of calls pelted my ears from the loudspeakers of the building opposite. What are you waiting for? The answer is in your hands!

I went back to the living room, buttoning up my shirt. Khaled was sitting on the sofa with one leg and no shoes. His body was made up of a head and two phalanges and he had to use the table for support to stand up. He was entirely naked, with no sign of genitals.

I began to enjoy this. It was going to be an interesting adventure.

‘I’m ready.’

‘So am I.’

Then he bounced by my side like a rubber ball.

The whole street was crowded with bouncing fingers. I saw the animosity in the eyes of some. One, standing in a group in the back of a truck, holding a white poster with the sign of a green apple and jumping up and down like she was being fried in hot oil, spat at me as I passed near her. It landed on my neck and I turned to face her in anger.

The faces of the other fingers around her stunned me into momentary silence. The truck stopped close to us. Thin like a wilted stem of wheat, her face blotchy with dead skin, she was swaying to some music, drunk on victory. I couldn’t restrain myself any longer.

Khaled pulled my arm as my voice trembled, ‘You’re nothing but a fucking bitch!’

The fingers chased us. We ran the distance of four metro stations and didn’t stop until we were sure we’d lost them in the crowd.

‘Why didn’t you insult her mother too? Then we could’ve just run all the way. We would’ve been done scoring and even smoking by now,’ Khaled said, out of breath. ‘Who needs enemies with cursed friends like you?’

I laughed and said, ‘Fine, we’ll do that next time. Let’s take the metro. Here, get us two tickets.’

We pushed through the jostling fingers. The carriage assaulted my nose with a mix of body odours and bad breaths. Khaled was looking at his foot, peeling off fine layers of his skin, and I felt bad for him. I leaned back on the door when a cry came from the other end of the carriage. ‘Piss off you dirty knob!’

A circle formed around the source, curiosity hung in the air, arbitrary words were thrown around. The embers of an argument exploded into an exchange rage and accusations, while the train continued on its way.

I tried to get closer, almost knocking over a few fingers on the way. Their balance was so precarious.

‘Where do you want him to go? Can’t you see we’re all squeezed in here?’ someone said.

‘I swear on my mother’s life I’m gonna call the police,’ she answered, screaming, as she grabbed someone’s neck.

The train stopped and opened its doors. An officer and three soldiers boarded. The circle opened up around them. Everyone went quiet. I watched the officer’s scrutinising eyes. He ordered his soldiers to take the accused. But the victim didn’t have a chance to savour her victory before the order came to drag her by the scruff too.

The doors closed shut but the train didn’t move. The doors reopened. The officer came back, this time ordering his soldiers to drag me away.

Time crawled heavily inside the narrow box of the police van in which I was stuck. The windowless walls had a hardened cruelty, like the look in the eyes of the person whose left wrist shared the handcuffs with my right. The air was stuffed full of the smell of vomit and human waste. I had difficulty breathing. With my left hand, I surreptitiously checked my pockets for anything that might have got me into trouble. All I found was a ball point pen. I let it drop to the floor while forcing a chat to push the time along.

‘No phone on the sly here or there?’

‘I wish.’

‘I have a friend who’d sort things out if I call him.’

‘Cute. Your first time?’

The door screeched open, cutting the chat short. The soldiers ordered us out of the van, and I found myself entering a vast desert ground. Giant concrete walls rose behind me, and for several kilometres before me, a queue extended, half of it made of humans and the other half of fingers smeared with the phosphoric election ink.

The queue crawled forward, resigned, and I broke out in a cold sweat. I got closer to the dividing line halfway down the queue, where a group of soldiers stood in a semicircle by a lake with a phosphorus sparkling surface, and with them was a higher-ranking officer with a steely face. The handcuffed humans were dragged, their heads were pushed underwater, and they emerged as phosphoric fingers. Their shadows shrank, elongated, as they moved indolently towards the gate of what looked like a Roman colosseum.

The soldiers dressed me in green shirt and trousers and made me stand in a corner of the main loge, the balcony wall to my right and the commanders’ moustaches before me. They told me to listen and, if I wanted to avoid the cutting off of one of my ears, to follow orders without delay. I cursed the snitch who told the officer that the pen they found in the van belonged to me, and that I’d been asking for a phone and inciting him to consider escape.

I recalled the officer’s threats, ‘I’ll show you, you motherfucker! Just wait till all this is over.’ The veins in his neck looked close to exploding as he turned me away from the lake and said, ‘This is an honour the likes of you don’t deserve.’ He then led the snitch to the lake and baptised him himself, and the snitch came out luminous with ink.

The commanders, immersed in side conversations and blue smoke, did not pay any attention to me. I glimpsed the bent phosphoric heads down in the stalls, a limitless sea of erect fingers, their knuckles shackled by silence, barely a crack out of any of them, not even an accidental one. One of the commanders barked at me, ‘Hey you, can you roll?’ but before I could answer, the earth shook.

A thunderous voice broke through the sky, spread its shadow over the gathered heads and made everyone kneel.

My crushing majority…

As soon as I learned of the vote count results, I ordered for you to be gathered here beneath my shadow so that I can look upon those who have not lost the righteous path.

Your consent lifts you up. And there’s no solace for the defectors. Those who plead and repent when misfortune hits them. Today, their repentance is futile. If I pardon them, you will not. For I know you better than you know yourselves.

His words brought ecstasy to the hearts of his listeners. The fingers swayed, undulated, and shook. A tremor grew within them, and they danced to the rhythm of His Reckoning. Their heads glowed beneath the shadows as they panted and pleaded. Their voices grew faint when His began again:

Thus, I have ordered that you be rewarded, for it would be meaningless to equate the deserters of duty with those who said yes.

His last word echoed in the space, the three letters broken into thousands of fragments on the excited tongues. The incantation had a thunderous effect. Yes … Yes … Yes … Yes.

His voice faded, the shadow dissipated, and the walls opened to let the soldiers in, carrying gleaming metal shears.

They came at them like locusts. They cut the heads off the bodies. The red of the blood mixed with the luminous black of the phosphorus ink, the groans mingled with the echoes of the chants and the vengeful laughter of the commanders. I tried to jump off the balcony but steely hands held me back. I clung to the edge until someone hit my shoulder with the butt of a rifle and I fell to the ground, only to be received by an unexpected kick between my legs. The scene began to slip away, leaving nothing but the joint burning on the surface of the rug.

Illustration by Karen Keyrouz.

About the Author

Mostafa Eltelwany

Mostafa Eltelwany is an Egyptian writer and storyteller born in Qalyubia in 1991, and has published two collections of poetry in vernacular Egyptian, the first titled Laughter of the Visa Student (2014) and the second Arabesque (2016). He is currently working as a literary editor and content producer for an audiobook company.