He appeared out of nowhere, no one noticed when or where; a messy woollen hat covered his dusty, unkempt hair, his face was thin and his teeth yellow, his middle toe peering out through a hole in his shoe, his denim trousers layered with dirt. His clothes were tattered and he wore his woollen coat in the summer and the winter. No one even knew where he got his name: ‘Golden-toothed Issa’, the madman of Almond Hill.
Many in the neighbourhood would try to persuade Issa to join them for food, or sit among them, given the belief that the elderly bring ‘blessings and good luck’ to the household, while others saw him as a source of entertainment. They asked him, knowingly, ‘Why aren’t you married, Issa?’ He replied shyly, ‘I’m worried I’ll give birth to rabbits.’ The neighbourhood children made fun of him. They would chant, ‘Golden-toothed Issa, the ill-mannered madman!’ He would then jump out from behind them, growling to show his yellow teeth, causing them to disappear down alleyways. Last time he caught up with one of them it was the baker’s son: he lifted him over his head and threw him into a skip along with the rubbish.
This skip and others were the daily refuge for Issa, his intense interest in the contents of bin bags confusing the neighbourhood. It seemed that he was waiting impatiently for the jeweller’s bin bag. He ran quickly as the driver threw the bag into the container, full of food scraps, clothes in good condition, dolls without arms, and some broken ornaments. Issa did not take any of those contents. He even went through the empty bin of Abu Hassan, the shoemaker. He was intrigued by it, as if in every bag he was looking for something that he had lost in that house which might be thrown out with the rubbish.
Almond Hill consists of two residential hills with an industrial area between. The rumour mill was rife with the possibility that the factories and workshops would be replaced with markets and a children’s park. Since the first time this rumour went around in the 1980s, the neighbourhood had become overloaded with car repair shops, metalworkers, joiners and industrial dry cleaners. Like most neighbourhoods in large cities, Almond Hill had become more self-sufficient with a good number of grocery stores, bakeries and greengrocers.
The neighbourhood had two main streets. Issa would choose one of them to walk up and down all day. He would spend his days going back and forth in front of the houses and shops. He would climb out of one skip and into another. He also stood to watch the passers-by, or this is what it looked like. Some people would speak to him about his day, while others would invite him to have a meal, and shop owners gave him shelter from winter cold or summer heat, until suddenly he disappeared one day at sunset.
The heat wave of June 2012 heavily impacted the people of the neighbourhood and summer hadn’t even started. Water services were disrupted in the middle section of the street, to the anger of Abu Kaamla, the laundrette owner. His phone didn’t leave his gold, ring-clad fingers, as he called up the municipality to find out the reason for this disruption. Umm Sa’eed looked out of the window to make sure that the water cuts had affected everyone, not just her house; she had torn up and thrown away her unpaid bills with the rubbish four months ago.
Lunch at the greengrocer’s house was not satisfactory for the children of the household. This was evident by the large amount of cauliflower stew thrown into the kitchen bin bag, although it wasn’t that bad. Abu Falah never stopped complimenting the food one moment, then complimenting his wife the other. Usually their four greedy children would not stop eating, and their voracious appetite was one of the reasons the shop wasn’t doing so well last summer, because they frequently snacked on vegetables while they worked in the shop. Astutely, Abu Falah fired them and appointed a young man, while the four of them went to try their luck in the Israeli markets. The markets got the most out of every penny they paid the children. They were paid according to the law; still, they came back exhausted every evening.
Meanwhile, Umm Ghalib’s children did not come out to play today. After their fight yesterday, their mother locked them in so as not to cause more problems with their neighbours. She hadn’t been able to stand up to the elders in the neighbourhood since she became a widow, and she didn’t have the support she needed. If any of her five children – despite their weakness – got into a fight with the spoiled, fat and arrogant son of the jeweller, and won, they would leave him bedridden for weeks, and she couldn’t afford to pay thousands of shekels in compensation.
The bag belonging to the shoemaker, Abu Hassan, contained only onion peel. All he ate was lentil soup, even during the summer. He went home from the shop with a bag of red lentils in his hand, and when his wife invited Issa for soup, Issa declined, so she told herself sadly, ‘Even the madman doesn’t want lentil soup’.
Samira managed to lock herself out of her flat as she chatted with her jealous neighbours. All the gentlemen of the neighbourhood ran to offer her their help with their newfound chivalry. Some of them offered to break the door down, and others offered to jump from one balcony to another. But, because they were too weak to do so, they brought the shy one, Fadi, into the staircase and he climbed the sewer to her flat on the third floor.
Everyone sought Samira’s approval. All the men, old and young, were enamoured with her and feasted their eyes on her exposed cleavage and bare thighs. Even Issa, regardless of how he was, couldn’t escape her flirtatious gestures as she came down to throw her rubbish out in his favourite skip, and when he opened the bag that she flirtatiously disposed of, he found a newly used condom on top. She winked at him and laughed her high pitched laugh before she went back up to her flat.
Fadi, the shy young man, had thought that this was a good opportunity to enter Samira’s flat. His friends gathered round as he told them about the vast quantities of perfume and scented creams that he saw resting on her dressing table, and how he couldn’t resist peering through the partially opened cupboard to see her transparent lingerie. He went into thorough details as his friends’ eyes sparkled and widened with excitement; he told them off for their incessant knocking on the door while he was in there, as he was in the middle of looking at her silk sheets and his imagination was swimming in the waves of her soft bed.
This is some of what can be said about Almond Hill, just before the crazy man disappeared.
The residents were preoccupied for two or three days, exchanging news of golden-toothed Issa. He disappeared the same way he appeared, suddenly. Some favoured the likelihood of him dying in a car accident in a nearby town. The neighbourhood’s elderly people considered his disappearance to be an angry act of God because they didn’t deserve such a ‘blessing’. Others were relieved at his disappearance as they considered his presence a parasitic burden on society, while others cast doubt on reality: ‘maybe he was some kind of ghost whom we grew used to having among us’.
Three years after the madman’s disappearance, a research book was published with the title, ‘A study of social relationships amongst the residents of a large neighbourhood by analysis of household waste: Almond Hill case study’, by researcher Dr Issa Abu Dahab. One of the neighbourhood residents who studied at this university stumbled upon it in the library, and even though all the names were altered, the residents knew who each of the pseudonyms referred to. Scandals started to circulate, and accusations were made about the stories told in the book. Abu Kaamla was exposed as an Israeli informer, and that explained to everyone his ability to solve issues with the Israelis. Umm Sa’eed had been syphoning water from the laundrette, and once Abu Kaamla found out, he blackmailed her to have sex with him. The baker’s wife found out that her husband had taken a second wife, so she asked for a divorce. The greengrocer was exposed for being a cheapskate when everyone found out how rich he actually was. Samira, ‘the princess’, had AIDS, and once Fadi, ‘the timid’, found out, he had a nervous breakdown and was transferred to a mental health ward. Everyone found out about the jeweller’s secret marriage to Umm Ghaleb, the seamstress, and her sons took advantage of this information to beat up his spoiled son every chance they got without anyone standing in their way.
Issa exposed lots of other stories, unintentionally and on purpose, which strained all the relationships in the neighbourhood. Furthermore, the neighbourhood retaliated against the university that published the research, while the research facility claimed its work adhered to its code of ethics, as no real names were disclosed. A Facebook page was created urging people to boycott the researcher on the grounds that he caused scandals and rifts amongst community members, and others called for his punishment and exile to prevent him from doing the same to other communities, or to ensure that people could retain trust in their neighbourhood madmen. Few people supported the researcher and his work.
After a short while, Dr Issa resigned and walked out of the Dean of Sociology’s office. He gathered his belongings from his office, went home, packed a small bag containing whatever he used that morning, carried his worn out woollen coat before anything else, closed the door to his house, and sneaked into another neighbourhood as a blind beggar in another far away city.
‘The Madman of Almond Hill’ was written as part of Beirut Short Stories, a collaboration between KfW Stiftung and the Goethe-Institut for the promotion of young literary talent in the Middle East. The project consists of writing workshops for young writers writing in Arabic who develop short stories under the direction of renowned writers (including Abbas Khider and Dima Wannous). The best texts are translated and published in Arabic and English on adda.