In our New Voices series we publish the work of emerging fiction writers exclusively on the website. Our latest New Voice is Pakistani writer Ali Akbar Natiq, whose story ‘A Mason’s Hand’ impressed us with its melancholic tone and black humour. It has been translated from Urdu by novelist Mohammed Hanif. Read other stories in our New Voices series here.
A Mason’s Hand
Haji sahib, these kids are beyond me. I can’t teach them any more. Please make some other arrangement,’ he said, throwing his hands in the air.
‘Why do I need another arrangement when I have you?’ Haji Altaf sounded apologetic. ‘I have tried every good tutor in the city but nobody has lasted even a month. I thought you were from a good family and needed a job. You are the only one who can teach these rascals. You can go and look for another job but while you are looking, please keep teaching them.’
‘Haji sahib, that’s all very well. But your grandsons don’t respect me, they don’t listen to a single thing I tell them. I am wasting their time as well as my own. I do hard manual labour all day – I just don’t have the energy to do this too.’ Asghar started to walk out of the door but stopped and turned. ‘Haji sahib, if you really have any sympathy for me, see if you can get me a proper job.’
‘Okay,’ Haji said. ‘But I don’t want you to spend the rest of your life building minarets for mosques.’
‘Then what shall I do?’ he asked.
‘Why don’t you go to my sons in Saudi?’ Haji Altaf patted his shoulder. ‘God will create some opportunity for you there.’
Asghar put his palm on the wall to check if it was wet. If the wall was even a little dry it would be difficult to plaster. He decided it wasn’t ready yet. He asked a labourer to splash some more water on the wall and went to his father who was fixing decorative tiles on an already plastered section of the wall. Tiling was easier than plastering, so this is how they divided their work. Asghar did the hard labour himself and let his father do the lighter work. They had worked together for fifteen years. Asghar observed that his father’s hand trembled slightly as he fixed the tile. He looked at the old man’s white beard closely, the little specks of cement stuck to it. His cheek bones stuck out.
He had an overpowering feeling that his father had grown too old for this kind of work. He was an expert mason and had worked on many of the new mosques in the city. Everything that Asghar knew, he had learned working alongside his father.
He remained silent for a while, then abruptly related his conversation with Haji Altaf to his father.
His father put his trowel and bucket aside after hearing him out. ‘You should do what you think is good for you. But let me tell you one thing. There is nothing but humiliation in those Arab places. You know that I was in Kuwait for three years. My lot didn’t change; I couldn’t put down this trowel and hammer even for a day. As for Haji Altaf and his sons : those traders and jewellers will get themselves skinned but won’t spare a single paisa. They’ll never help you out.’
Asghar listened to his father’s advice patiently – but he had already made up his mind.
After arriving at Jeddah airport, Asghar rushed to the immigration queue. There were five counters but no staff. He found himself in the queue at one of the counters. Soon there were hundreds of people in every queue. Then came another large group of people with shaved heads, long beards and rosaries; they all wore ihrams. They gave off a terrible odour. Asghar thought that if he had to wait with them for a long time he would throw up. Reluctantly he spoke. ‘Baba ji, you should get in the queue. I was here before you.’
‘Don’t worry son,’ the man in the ihram replied. We know that we have to wait for our turn to get our passports stamped. We are here on a pilgrimage, we’ll never do anything unjust.’
But as soon as the immigration staff arrived the pilgrims surged forward, shoving everyone aside. In the ensuing pandemonium, Asghar found himself at the end of the queue. After being pushed around for more than an hour he reached the immigration counter, where shurtas pounced on him and snatched his passport. He wondered what was going on. ‘Be warned Haji, fifty riyals,’ one shurta said.
‘But I don’t have that kind of money,’ Asghar said in his broken Arabic.
‘Then you head straight for Mecca. You have got a visa for umrah. You’ll get your passport back in Mecca. You are not allowed to enter any other city,’ the shurta told him.
Asghar started to think about his situation. He wasn’t wearing an ihram. He didn’t have enough money to stay in a hotel. Of course he wanted to perform the umrah but first he had to meet up with Haji Altaf’s sons in Jeddah. He had informed them of his arrival over the phone and they had reassured him that they would receive him at the airport. But here he was in a situation that he hadn’t anticipated. He had only one hundred riyals. After mulling over the situation for a while he approached the shurta again. ‘Can’t you reduce that a bit?’
‘Fifty riyals or straight to Mecca,’ the shurta said cruelly.
Feeling hopeless, Asghar put fifty riyals on the shurta’s palm and left the immigration hall quickly. Taxi drivers mobbed him as he came out but he didn’t pay them any attention. He was sure that Haji Altaf’s sons would be waiting outside. He came out of the airport and looked everywhere but there was no sign of them. He went into a telephone booth and called them and found they hadn’t left for the airport. They gave him their address and told him to take a taxi.
His bag slung on his shoulder, he stood reclining against the trunk of a date tree. A taxi driver looked him over and approached him. ‘Sir, are you from Pakistan?’
‘Yes,’ he said.
‘Where do you need to go?’
‘Bani Malik,’ Asghar handed him the address. The taxi driver glanced at it, returned him the piece of paper and opened the cab door for him.
Gingerly, he approached the taxi. ‘How much would it cost?’
‘Brother, forty riyals only, since you’re from our own Pakistan.’
‘Forty riyals is too much.’ He backed away.
Asghar took his bag, walked away from the taxi stand and wondered what would happen if he walked up to the road leading to the city and tried to get a lift. He could save some money that way. He walked on the roadside for a while and left the airport behind. There were clusters of date palms on both sides of the road. He put his bag next to one of the trees and entered the moonlit orchard. In the last hours of the night, the moonlight filtering through the date trees in the desert transported him into a world of wonder. Ripe dates were strewn on the sand. He picked one up and ate it. The fruit was sweeter than anything he had ever eaten. He picked up more dates and ate them. The fronds of the date palms rustled in the wind and cast a magic spell on him. Whenever he saw the headlights of an approaching car, he would come out and wave but the cars whizzed past him. This would have bothered him, had he not been feasting on the dates. For about one hour he roamed around in the orchard. He picked quite a few dates and put them in his bag. Then he heard the azan for morning prayers. As soon as he heard it he came back on the road and started walking towards the airport. He was bored with eating dates and wanted to reach the city as soon as possible. He had concluded that nobody was going to offer him a lift here because of the simple reason that he had left his Pakistan behind. He came back to the taxi stand.
After arriving at the house of Haji Altaf’s son, Haji Nasir, he slept. He woke around the time of Asr prayers. The air conditioner had chilled the room and he felt very cold. This was the first time he had slept in a room like this and Asghar felt that his whole body had stiffened. He came out of the room and a gust of hot wind scorched his face. He had never felt winds this hot. He made his ablutions, returned to the room and offered his Asr prayers. He promised himself that he would never be late for any of his five prayers, and that as soon as he found a job he would call his family.
He started to enjoy the idea that the next day he would see with his own eyes all the places that he had read about in history books and sacred texts. He was lost in these thoughts, as he roamed Jeddah’s street with Haji Nasir. He was surprised to see thousands of Pakistanis, Indians and Bengalis in the streets. Some seemed prosperous, but there were beggars too. They reached a square where they saw gangs of Indian boys loitering around. When he asked about them, Haji Nasir said that the boys who were standing in that square sold blue movies to Arabs. Some sold themselves as well, he added.
As soon as the azan for evening prayers went up that night, humans of a thousand varieties reached in their pockets for their prayer caps and rushed towards the mosques. Asghar found himself joining them.
That night he was restless and couldn’t sleep in anticipation of his pilgrimage to the haram in the morning. He thought about all those multi-millionaires who are so forsaken that despite all their wealth they never get to see the aram. He was still lost in these thoughts when the morning arrived. He got up quickly, took a bath and put on his ihram. Haji Nasir had lent him three hundred riyals and his own ihram for the umrah. For ten riyals he took a taxi that he shared with three other men. As soon as he sat down in the taxi he asked the taxi driver impatiently. ‘Brother, how far do you think is the haram?’
‘We should get there in an hour,’ the driver replied.
‘What would you say is the total area of the haram?’ Asghar asked him.
‘How should I know, my friend?’ the driver said, bitterly.
After the driver’s rude response, Asghar sat quietly in his seat, leaned back on the headrest and watched the desert and barren mountains on both sides of the road. They sped past the occasional hut, and every so often a dust devil rose from the sand and headed for the sky. He wondered if the Holy Prophet had walked the same route. Although the taxi drove fast, Asghar found the journey slow; time seemed to have stopped. He distracted himself by thinking about the tribulations of fourteen hundred years ago; Prophet Muhammed’s invitation to Islam, Abu Talib’s support, the exile, the battles of Badar, Uhad and Khandaq. He was lost in these thoughts when the taxi driver startled him. ‘This is where you get off brother. Here is your haram.’ Asghar picked up his bag and jumped out of the taxi. Right in front of him was the haram’s east door, which pulled him towards it with its terrifying splendour.
Asghar let himself get pulled in. People of various races, black and white, walked around in an easy companionship. Thousands of pigeons roamed and fluttered in the compound, feeling no fear. It was eleven in the morning and despite the sun he felt no heat. He entered the haram, offered his prayers and started performing the umrah rituals. Staying close to the wall of the Kaaba, he completed seven circles around it all the while reciting, ‘O Allah, I am here.’ Although there was a sea of people, during every circle he managed to kiss the Black Stone. Then he did his walk between Safa and Marwah. On the Safa Mountain he could see groups of women, looking like fairies in their white ihrams, but he didn’t want such distractions on a day like this. He sought out and studied every place that he had read about in history books. He held the sacred black cloth that covers the Kaaba and prayed for a very long time. After spending his whole day in the haram, he came out just before nightfall.
After performing the umrah, there were other places Asghar wanted to visit but he felt too tired and postponed the visit to the following day. In an open field, he placed his bag under his head and went to sleep. He was right next to Abu Qubais Mountain, where the Prophet’s uncle Abu Talib once lived. Many pilgrims who couldn’t afford to stay in the hotels were sleeping here. Oblivious to his surroundings, Asghar slept a deep sleep and was finally woken up at the time of Fajr prayers, when a shurta kicked him.
Asghar offered his Fajr prayers and went out into the streets of Mecca. All the streets and roads were paved and very clean. Wandering around, he asked for directions and reached the Station of Hajoun where the graves of the Prophet’s family members and Bani Hashim were. He visited a number of other holy places by noon and returned to the haram for his Zuhr prayers. This became his daily routine. He would wander around in the valley of Mecca in the morning and return to the haram before the afternoon.
It was his eighth day in Mecca, and despite being very careful with his money Asghar had spent one hundred and forty riyals. He decided that he should immediately go to Medina and, after his pilgrimage, find himself a job.
He had just got on a bus after paying forty riyals for a ticket when a fifteen- or sixteen-year-old black boy accompanied by two little girls boarded the bus. They were probably his younger sisters. There was a strange and attractive innocence in their features. The girls occupied one seat; the boy looked around and then sat next to Asghar. As soon as the bus started its journey, the boy broke the silence.
‘What is your name?’
‘My name is Ali Asghar.’
‘My name is Abdullah,’ said the boy. Then he took out banknotes from various countries and started showing them to Asghar. He told him that he had friends from every country: America, Europe, Africa, Iraq, Syria, India, Iran; everywhere.
‘Don’t you have a Pakistani friend?’ asked Asghar.
‘No. No. All Pakistanis are bastards. Thieves all of them.’ He was suddenly very angry. ‘I do not have a single friend from Pakistan.’
All colour drained from Asghar’s cheeks and he turned to look out of the window. After a few moments’ silence, the boy spoke again. ‘You are from Iran?’
‘No. I am from Pakistan,’ Asghar said in a cold voice.
It was his fifth day in Medina. He had visited the Prophet’s Mosque, Uhad, Khandaq – all the places he knew about. Day and night he would roam the open bazaars and clean streets of Medina and then head for the date orchards surrounding the city. Here he would watch the sunset from a lush green valley of date trees to the west of Medina. The sun would put little red and golden robes on the floating clouds before disappearing behind the mountains. Every day he would stand in front of the Prophet’s mausoleum and say his benedictions. He was surprised at the Iranian rascals who carried their shoes in their bags, desecrating the Holy mosque.
That day Asghar wanted to see the entire Medina, as he wasn’t sure when he might be able to visit again. After visiting the Prophet’s Mosque and all the other holy places he went to the west of Medina where he spotted a plaza under construction. If he got mason’s work on this site then not only would he be able to continue to live in Medina, he would be a permanent pilgrim and could earn a living as well. He went in, found the supervisor and introduced himself.
‘What can you do?’ The supervisor observed him closely.
‘I can do all kinds of masonry work,’ Asghar said with confidence.
‘You are here on an umrah visa, right?’ The supervisor asked him.
‘Yes, I have an umrah visa but if you give me a job here, slowly I’ll be able to work my way towards a work permit as well.’
‘Okay. Let’s see if you can raise this wall by one foot.’ The supervisor pointed to a wall that was being built.
Asghar stepped forward, picked up the tools and, like an expert builder, started on the wall. Within no time he had raised it by a foot and a half. The supervisor seemed pleasantly surprised. After evening prayers he gave Asghar food and told him that he himself used to be a mason, but that his employer, Iqbal sahib, had been impressed by him and appointed him supervisor. ‘Tomorrow is Friday. Come over the day after tomorrow – I’ll talk to him and then give you work.’
‘Who is Iqbal sahib?’ Asghar asked.
‘He is an engineer, he is from Lahore. He is looking after a number of construction projects here.’
‘Why don’t you just give me some work now?’ Asghar said impatiently.
‘Brother, this is a dangerous place. You see all these shurtas roaming around? They check us three times a day to make sure that nobody is working without a permit. Engineer sahib will first talk to someone. Only then will you get a job.’
After Isha prayers, he returned to the compound of the mosque – delighted that, because of the blessings of the Prophet’s mausoleum, he was soon to get a job.
Asghar now had fifty riyals left and he thought that if he got a job within the next two or three days, he wouldn’t go back to Jeddah. He’d stay here in Medina, and every morning, every evening bow his head at the Prophet’s mausoleum. The very idea made him ecstatic; he took off his shoes and went inside the mosque. He sat next to the mausoleum for a long time. When the mosque administration expelled all the pilgrims from the compound at ten that night, he also came out and started looking for his shoes. But despite desperate efforts, he couldn’t find them.
He went barefoot for the rest of the evening. At night-time he put his bag under his head and slept next to the wall of a plaza. He woke up with the call for the morning prayers, rubbed his eyes and saw a boy sitting next to him. Both went to the mosque, and after offering their prayers they began talking.
‘Where are you from?’ The boy asked.
‘I have come from Okara,’ said Asghar.
‘Found work yet?’
‘Not yet, but someone has promised. Where are you from?’
‘I’m from a little town called Raja Jang near Raiwind. Name is Naveed. I have lived here for two years. These days I have no work and I have run out of money as well. I saw you sleeping last night and I thought you were a Pakistani. Maybe we can get to know each other and do something together. What can you do?’
‘Tiling, plastering, painting, mirror work, I can do all types of masonry work,’ said Asghar.
‘On the other side of Uhad mountain there is a settlement and I have a Bengali friend who lives there,’ said Naveed. ‘He also works as a mason. If you want to find work, I can take you to him. I am also thinking of working with him. And the real advantage is, there is not a single shurta in that place.’
They arrived in the Uhad town before ten in the morning. After paying for breakfast and a taxi, Asghar was left with fifteen riyals. The Bengali wasn’t home so they had to wait till the evening. Asghar thought that he should get himself a cheap pair of shoes so that he wouldn’t have to put up with the shame of walking around barefoot. They both visited the little bazaar in the town but they couldn’t find a pair that was less than twenty-five riyals. The gravelly earth burned like hot brass and it was impossible to step on it. As the sun rose, heat crept up to his head. Burning pebbles pierced the soles of his feet. Finally they sat down under the shade of a date palm. In the afternoon he gave Naveed five riyals and asked him to get some food from a restaurant. He was in no condition to walk there himself. Naveed brought food, they ate and then lay down till the evening.
Your daily wage will be fifty riyals.’ The Bengali spat out betel juice and said, ‘I won’t charge you anything for food and accommodation. If your work is not up to the mark, there will be a deduction from your wages. On your day off you’ll have to pay for your own meals. If you accept my conditions you are in, otherwise do what you will. But just remember one thing, I am taking a big risk by offering you this work.’
Asghar inspected the room while the Bengali spoke. A mat, bedding and some filthy utensils were strewn all over the place. He felt very unsettled. Everything in the room, including the Bengali man, was so filthy and smelled so foul that Asghar was nauseated. Whenever the Bengali opened his mouth to speak, his stained teeth frightened Asghar. Instead of listening to the man’s conditions, he wondered how he could bear to spend even one night in that place.
Early in the morning he woke Naveed and they left without informing anyone. They didn’t have enough money for a taxi fare so they decided that they would take a short cut by climbing the mountain and coming down on the other side. That way they would reach the Uhad plain; the Prophet’s Mosque was only three kilometres from there. But by the time were halfway up they had realized it wasn’t as easy as they had imagined. The rays of sun were slowly heating the dry rocks and just putting a foot on the ground was torture. And the mountain seemed endless. As soon as they climbed over one rock, they confronted another. By now Asghar had blisters on his feet which grew inflamed and painful. With great difficulty they reached the summit at two in the afternoon and realized that descending on the other side was much harder than climbing it. The field of hot, pointy stones that he saw ahead scared him. They were surrounded by small bushes but there was no shade. Thirst and hunger had completely drained him. ‘I can’t walk any more,’ he told Naveed and collapsed in a small cave, surrounded by tiny acacia bushes. He had been lying down for a long time when a wave of pain travelled up from his feet, which were now swollen. He could hear the call for evening prayers in the distance; he could also clearly see the minarets of the Prophet’s Mosque. They had slept for four hours but only felt more tired from hunger and thirst. The moon rose in the east and they started their journey again. The rocks had cooled down a bit and he liked it when the wind caressed him softly amid the silence of the mountains. Although the blisters in his feet had burst, and his soles were bleeding, they wanted to continue their journey in the moonlight. At about eleven o’clock they lay down again. Asghar’s feet bled so much that when he stepped on a stone, it was stained crimson. The pain was now stabbing with such intensity that Asghar fainted.
When he came to and wiped his face with his hand he realized that he was covered in dew. He looked around but Naveed was nowhere to be seen. He looked everywhere, then called out for him but there was no response. As the sun was beginning to come up again, Asghar decided to make a move. But as soon as he reached for his bag, he was shocked to find out that it wasn’t there. His passport and other papers were also in the bag. Involuntarily his hand reached into his pocket. It was empty too. Naveed was gone with his bag and his last five riyals.
He invoked Allah’s name and started to walk. After stumbling forward for three hours, he came down the mountain. He was dying of thirst. He desperately looked around for water and saw an iron drum next to a goat barn. There were stacks of dry hay in the barn and the goats were busy munching.
He put his hand in the drum and started drinking the same water that goats had drunk earlier.
The water was so hot that it pierced his throat and burned his stomach.
Somehow Asghar managed to start his walk towards the Uhad plain. He tried to harness all his energies and go as fast as he could. When he approached the plain he saw a ten- or twelve-year-old boy outside a house. Asghar fell in the shadow of the wall and signalled the boy for some water. He felt alive after drinking some cold water but before he could ask the boy for something to eat, he went in and shut the door. Starving and weak, Asghar walked on his injured feet and arrived in the Hamza mosque where he splashed cold water on his face. Then he reclined against the wall and started to stroke his feet. He was overwhelmed with hunger, but he had never before begged for food, or anything else. He wanted to get hold of something to eat but the very idea of going out in the sun again frightened him. His feet were still swollen and bleeding. He had not yet made up his mind when the call for Asr prayer began and people started to come in.
He got up, stumbling, and came and stood at the mosque door. He saw an Arab in a very fine dress arrive, take off his shoes at the entrance and go in. The shoes were made of soft leather. As soon as the Arab entered the mosque, Asghar slipped into them and turned to go. The guard standing by the mosque door grabbed him and started to shout ‘Sariq, sariq!’ People came rushing at him as if a roadshow had just started. He was slapped and kicked. The Arab caught him by the scruff of his neck and two people tied his hands at the back. They kept asking him questions in Arabic but he couldn’t reply. In fact, in his weakness, he could hardly hear a thing.
‘My lord, right in front of my eyes this wretched man stole this gentleman’s shoes. Both these gentlemen witnesses and many others saw the crime with their own eyes,’ the mosque guard said in his statement in front of the court. After the guard, other witnesses testified. ‘But the accused must get a chance to defend himself,’the cadi ordered, looking towards the interpreter.
The interpreter repeated this to Asghar three times but Asghar stood mute, with his eyes shut. His ears were ringing. He didn’t even understand why he had been brought to the court.
Because of his shabby appearance and refusal to utter a single word, the cadi was convinced that the accused was a hardened criminal and professional thief. Keeping in mind the demands of justice as well as the injunctions of Sharia law, the cadi delivered his verdict. It was heard and hailed by everyone present except the accused.
After the call for morning prayers, when they brought him out of the lock-up to chop off his hand, Asghar had forgotten that he was an expert mason. He couldn’t even remember his old father’s face. ■
Tomorrow we will publish an interview with Ali Akbar Natiq about this story and how he came to write it. Read other New Voices stories and interviews here.