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Catalogue of a Private Life

Author: Najwa Bin Shatwan

Translator: Sawad Hussain   Cover design: Marie Lane   Cover illustration: Hassan Almohtasib  

The Burglar in White Socks

One summer, in our village – which we considered a city, for it had stood for centuries – Baqrallah’s family caught a burglar. Back then, the family was made up of the father, the mother, the grandmother and the children. It was clear that the sole boy among them wouldn’t fall far from the tree, what with his father and grandmother dictating his upbringing, keeping him on the straight and narrow – in a house up to its nose in daughters, he would be the only one to carry on the family name.
The father, Baqrallah, was a severe sort of fellow who was always frowning – no one had ever seen him smile. His neighbours, those who felt the ripples of his frowning the most, said he had always been a sullen boy, quiet until provoked. The neighbours had come to understand his nature after their first clash, the repercussions of which spilled out into the neighbourhood for the next ten years. They avoided raising his ire after that.
It wasn’t just the neighbours who had plenty to say about Baqrallah. His own wife was forever declaring that the only woman he’d listen to was his mother. As the first driver in Ajdabiya – a distant planet of sorts – he had a reputation to uphold. Being a driver was testament to his manhood and his nerves of steel, given the acrobatics that our roads required. But what can you possibly know about our roads if you haven’t walked a day in our sandals? All the world’s surprises and accidents are to be found on our roads, to travel them is to enter a race that only ever ends on Judgement Day. A camel, an ambulance with faulty lights, a flock of sheep, a flooded wadi, potholes of all sizes, huge great lorries rubbing shoulders, pick-up trucks whose drivers have fallen asleep at the wheel, tin cans and empty cartons, plastic bags blown in from faraway lands, camels on the run from Sudan, desert safari hunting enthusiasts who fight off boredom by driving with one foot on the pedal and the other dangling out the window. These things, and many more, had forged Baqrallah’s personality over all the years he’d spent driving his Peugeot 504 to the sound of two radio stations: The People’s Great Republic Radio and The Voice of the Revolutionary Committee.
Baqrallah’s wife was used to his ‘take this, bring that’ – the only words he ever spoke to her. She was nothing more than a vessel for giving birth. There was no tenderness, no reconciliation; whenever he found her disobedient, he would beat her until her face and body bore his fistprints.
It didn’t help that she often brought up how surly he looked even when they were alone, or that he frowned even when he wasn’t angry, when he wasn’t spitting at the radio and cursing the revolutionary propaganda it spouted forth.
But if Baqrallah’s wife never tired of broadcasting her views to the neighbours, the neighbours kept their astonishment at his ability to sire such a litter while forever frowning to themselves. They hid whatever misgivings they had, happy to simply imagine the couple’s relationship. Everyone had a different tale to tell. Baqrallah and his wife were a plentiful source of stories and people were far more used to hearing someone or other gossiping about the frowning man and his wife than saying anything that had a grain of truth to it.
Baqrallah’s wife did her best to avoid angering him by keeping her counsel in his presence. He was a traditional man of the kind only very few remained on the face of the earth, reproducing here and there. But she was unlike a traditional woman on account of her silence, a strategy that resulted in more peace in their household than any law might have compelled. She no longer fought with him over anything, or for the sake of anything, not even over sending her daughters to school. This, Baqrallah had strictly forbidden. For if they learnt how to read and write, love letters would be next, and Baqrallah would make damn sure such wicked behaviour never happened, couldn’t happen, even when he wasn’t home. He had a one-track mind when it came to his daughters’ upbringing. They should get married quickly so as to become homemakers and mothers, even though society could hardly be said to have been suffering from a population shortage. It was Allah’s will, after all, for Baqrallah to keep having girls and for him to marry them off, just as those who died, died, and those who lived, lived, and the Voice of the Revolutionary Committee kept on playing spirited songs that lampooned the imagined enemy.
Baqrallah knew it was Allah’s will. There would always be an enemy, and the enemy might be anything – the path a man chose, or even one that he didn’t.


The burglar who had fallen through the skylight that evening had been casing the neighbour’s house, or so he said during Grandmother’s initial interrogation. (She had subjected him to the garden shears treatment and threatened to set her grandson on him with the kitchen stove lighter.)
The burglar claimed his target had been the richer family next door, but that his foot had got caught on something and he’d lost his balance, falling through the skylight. It was a fall of eight metres, so he was lucky it was daytime, for the skylight stood directly above a storage area where the daughters’ mattresses were kept by day, before being removed and unfurled at night. There wasn’t much difference between the way people lived in Baqrallah’s house and at the Revolutionary Preparation Camp: everyone followed the same routine, wearing the same clothes, uttering the same words, day in, day out without thinking.
On his mother’s life, the burglar swore that this was the truth. He may have been a burglar, but his mother’s life was not something he would ever fool around with. But Grandmother, whose brow was now dripping with sweat from so much circling, didn’t believe a word he said. She ordered her five granddaughters, who were each holding onto a hand or a foot, to tighten their grip and dig their fingernails in. Meanwhile, she went to the cupboard to get a strong rope to tie him up with until her son, Baqrallah, the master of the household, returned home to take over. In the meantime, her daughter-in-law secured the only exit, blocking it off and placing Hamala beside it. Hamala, a further fruit of those surly marital relations, looked around her as if seeing everything for the first time.
A few short steps away, Hamala’s sisters armed themselves with whatever lay to hand: the iron, a ladle, scissors, a wheel wrench – perhaps the tall, brawny burglar would lash out at them and try to escape. They all kept their grips tight and remained on their guard for the moment when the combined strength of ten young females might be needed to counter one adult male. In later years, Hamala’s own efforts would not be forgotten whenever Grandmother or father told the story of the burglar, a tale that became part of family lore, for history should never neglect to mention the role everyone played and afford each person due justice.
‘But he doesn’t look like a thief!’ the daughter-in-law said to Grandmother, loosening the knots in the rope.
Grandmother turned to her, ‘Of course not, of course he doesn’t. But how could you possibly know? The only men you’ve ever seen are your husband, your father and your brothers!’
Baqrallah’s wife shrugged off her mother-in-law’s suspicions. ‘I don’t know, but he doesn’t look like a thief, he doesn’t have any scratches on his face. He actually looks more like a member of the nobility. He’s even wearing white socks! No, he doesn’t look like a thief at all, he looks like a groom on his way to get married.’
(White socks were naturally a great measure of how fashionable a man was, or how noble.)
Grandmother cackled, twisting the rope around her coarse hands, imagining it around her daughter-in-law’s neck. ‘Wallah! So you’re the expert all of a sudden? Pull! Pull!’
Hamala listened to her grandmother and mother talk, watching them with her orphaned eye. She found the whole conversation very exciting, for since birth she’d never heard two women in her family talk about any man other than her father.
‘Come on now, help me tie up this dog.’
Hamala wiped her nose with her sleeve, then quickly, as if stung, ran over to Grandmother. The burglar was seated on a wooden chair, the girls pulling him in every direction so that he wouldn’t escape. They were looking at him the way that one might admire the statue of David; the burglar was the only man they’d ever been allowed such close physical contact with. The distance and difference between statue and observers melted away with each passing minute. Their way of holding him for the first time wasn’t childish and primitive, but mature, and even if the scene were repeated a hundred times over, it would never again be like this first time.
Who had taught them to look at him like this? And why were they all behaving in the same way? Grandmother was appalled by the sight, and the questions raced furiously through her mind. It was as if these weren’t the girls she’d brought up. It was as if they’d become stuck in some kind of group embrace in which time had stopped, with Baqrallah outside the circle, or never having existed even.
Grandmother needed to break the spell and get them out of such a disgraceful situation – how could they have lost their inhibitions so completely? When she’d been their age, she hadn’t dared, not even once, to get so close to a man she didn’t know. She hurried over to tie the thief to the chair and get the girls out of the way. The chair wasn’t like them, they who carried Baqrallah’s name. The chair didn’t have feelings. She trusted it infinitely more than her granddaughters.
‘The chair, girls! The chair!’
Not one of them understood what Grandmother meant by repeating the word. Was she reciting the chair surah for protection and strength?
Grandmother wound the rope around the burglar and the chair, hoping her son would return home soon so that they could get rid of this unexpected man as quickly as possible.


The burglar slept in Grandmother’s room under her watchful eye. Hamala lay on her bed in the far corner, her one working eye half-closed, silently surveilling him. Halfway through the night, Grandmother lost all hope that her son would come home, and started to worry about his safety. Usually when Baqrallah went to Jalu, he came back late the same day. But this time, the night had stretched on without any sound of the front gate. In the final third of the night, the burglar cleared his throat; he needed the bathroom.
The whole house got up and discussed how he would go, how to stop him from hurting them or escaping. It was decided that his hands should be untied, but that his feet should remain bound, and that the door to the bathroom should be left open while he did what he had to do. There was a good deal of discussion about exactly how the man would urinate.
‘Standing or seated?’ Grandmother asked.
‘Standing,’ the burglar replied.
‘Light stream or heavy?’
Grandmother cursed him for going against the Islamic way of urinating, which every man should follow, but she managed to compel him to do the deed sitting down and to wash his thing and his hands before and afterwards. His mother really should have taught him better, but then so many mothers still needed edifying themselves.
The burglar stuck to Grandmother’s instructions. She insisted on standing guard outside the bathroom to prevent anyone from approaching, except for Hamala, her helper. Hamala had been born with half a mind and hunchbacked, so Grandmother had no reason to worry about her being led astray. How could she be? The girl knew nothing about her body; she was even so delusional that she believed she’d get married off like her sisters!
To lead a life like Hamala’s in such a wasteland was something to be feared: weighed down by reality, but buoyed by hope; striving to make an illusion become a beautiful truth, the same way beautiful truths become illusions over time.


In those critical moments when Grandmother had the bit, or the burglar’s collarbone, between her savage teeth, her son was driving his taxi on one of the most precarious roads in Libya. His car had already spun across the road twice, and he’d had to swerve to avoid a huge truck, when suddenly a large pit announced its existence. Baqrallah was like a brave knight astride his horse, swaying this way and that, evading one danger after another. He had a large number of passengers on the back seat, huddled together to form a human seat belt. The vehicle began to shudder, violently jostling those inside. No one was hurt, except for one man whose own knife – concealed under his cloak – had stabbed him. He’d chosen to jump out of the window and he’d survived the landing, but hadn’t been spared by his knife. They would have to do the best they could to try and save his life. Out there, there was nothing but the Ghibli winds and dust – the idea of calling an ambulance after an accident was out of the question. Furthermore, the man told them that his blade had been poisoned, so they rushed to tie a tourniquet around his thigh to remove the blood from the affected area. At the same time that Grandmother was gnawing away at the burglar, Baqrallah took out his oil canister and sucked out the dregs through a tube, hoping to disinfect the wound. It was an urgent, cooperative effort: one of them found the tube, another fetched some water, someone else held the injured man’s head towards the Kaaba… the passengers tried their utmost, with Baqrallah, their fearless leader, at the helm, to save their fellow citizen. He’d been on his way to sell parsley in Jalu, armed with a poisoned dagger for some mysterious reason.
Though the man was in extreme pain, he didn’t cry out. They lay him down on his back at the rear of the car, with one of them squatting beside him in anticipation of his sudden death, ready to raise an index finger and intone that there was no other God but God.
Allah didn’t miss a moment of their lives, even if signs of His compassion were conspicuous by their absence on the road from Ajdabiya to Jalu.
For the rest of the trip, the passengers stuck close to one another and the car stuck close to them, the back much heavier than the front, which put Baqrallah in the strange position of driving a car whose front was raised up, like the gaping mouth of a crocodile. The space between the driver and the passenger’s seat was now filled with three people. The young boy who was half sitting on the driver seat and the gear box controlled the gears for the rest of the journey.
‘Fourth gear, boy… third – in a bit there’ll be two holes in front of us and then a steep drop… go into second – the road’s broken here and there’s a checkpoint coming up; Inshallah, there won’t be anyone there to stop us and ask for our papers. Hopefully there’ll be a wedding or a funeral on somewhere and they’ll all be busy blessing or condoling, and we can drive straight through… third now – and quickly back to first. We’re stopping; we’re here!’


Hamala was the only girl Grandmother asked to help as a guard whenever the thief had to relieve himself or when she went to fetch him food. Then when she left the hall where he was detained and closed the door, leaving him in total darkness, she would send Hamala to go and check in on him every now and again, lest he be contemplating trying to trick them or run away.
The second day passed, with Baqrallah still nowhere to be found. It was a highly unusual situation and Grandmother was forced to put on her abaya and go to the shop where there was a phone so that she could call one of his friends and ask after him. She took the number out of her brassiere and gave it to the boy in the shop, telling him fearfully, ‘My son hasn’t come home. I’m afraid that, God forbid, something bad might have happened to him.’
The boy made the call, trying to calm the old woman down, but the other end didn’t pick up.
During Grandmother’s absence, Hamala moved closer to the burglar and studied him silently, strange creature that he was. She had heard that grass grew on his limbs, and that in the springtime a coloured tail would appear, along with a beard that testified to his holiness as a man. With her one eye, she wanted to know all of him. She circled round him several times, then left, slipping out between her elder sisters who were busy recounting shocking stories, tales of the unexpected that had happened to people long before any of their lifetimes. Hamala didn’t know how they came to hear such tales when none of them had left the house to go anywhere their whole lives, save for three occasions: each of their maternal grandparents’ funerals, and a cousin’s wedding.
The older sisters weren’t concerned that Hamala would hear them whispering about the burglar’s body, how big his eyes were, how black his eyebrows were, how soft his hands were, and how other body parts were, as the list grew longer, the longer he was in their house. He was the only man they’d ever seen up close, he having entered their home in such an unprecedented manner. They would stop their whispering whenever their younger sisters were among them, planted there as a spy by their grandmother, but Hamala was a body without a spirit, a shell of a person; nothing to be afraid of.
Hamala went back to examine the thief again and in her hand was a plate of white bean stew, which she presented to him silently, with the unspoken question, are you hungry? The burglar raised his eyes to hers, pleading, ‘Please, no more beans! Your grandmother ate so many yesterday that I could barely breathe all night long!’
She took the plate away and left.
Grandmother returned from the store with a heaviness in her chest far greater than when she had left the house. She took off her sandals at the door and went straight into the hallway to check on the burglar. He was asleep, or feigning to be, still bound to the chair. His white socks had been removed so that the coldness of the floor would seep in through his soles. She drew near and poked him roughly with her crutch. ‘You bastard, my son is missing, while you’re here sleeping? God alone knows what’s happened to him.’
The burglar’s eyes flickered open. ‘May Allah keep you and your family safe,’ he said sympathetically. ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’
Grandmother was so taken aback by the insolence of this bastard burglar that she started to prod him again with her crutch, jabbing at his stomach.
‘Hah! Anything you can do for us? You, who steal into a poor man’s house, a man who struggles day and night to make a living, in order to rob him? Does this please God? Is that how you were raised?’
‘I told you, old lady, every time you’ve interrogated me, you and the boy, and the girls with the brooms and the scissors, that I didn’t mean to come here, to this house. I swear to you, it’s just my rotten luck that I fell into your hands.’ Then he pleaded with her, imploring her to loosen the rope. But she just cackled and pinched him hard on the thigh.
‘Ah, what do we have here, a thief giving orders? And what about the sanctity of our home that you invaded, you bastard, is it to be violated just like that? May you rot in prison!’
‘Okay. You’re right, I should be in prison instead of your home. So why not take me there to rot instead?’
‘The man of the house isn’t home from work yet. You better watch out when he gets back; you’ll soon see what he thinks of a stranger sneaking into his house. You don’t know Baqrallah; when he gets angry… God protect you! If he were here now, he’d put his cigarette out on your juicy skin. You’re lucky we’re women and women don’t smoke.’
She mimed what her son would do and the colour drained from his face in anticipation of the terror to come; a terror born and bred of Grandmother. Baqrallah would surely walk in at any moment and end the burglar’s life.


The young girls reported to Grandmother what their older sisters had said about the thief’s eyes – that was all they’d managed to catch. They’d missed what was said about his belly button and the whiskers peeping out from his chest, despite their best efforts to eavesdrop from behind closed doors in the middle of the night, after the lights had gone out and breathing had slowed down, and all that could be heard was hissing from backsides.
Grandmother was afraid that the elder girls would fall into the thief’s snare and be seduced by him, for he was a man and they, mere teenagers who’d never seen a man before, except for those excuses for males who stared back at them from the national TV programmes.
How terrible it would be if such a thing were to happen!
She therefore came up with a new set of orders, forbidding anyone from even approaching the vicinity of the thief, who she and Hamala would henceforth guard more closely. The new rules took the rest of the household by surprise, not least because they made no exception for even the nine-year-old who still wet herself.
Hamala took over guard duty the second time Grandmother went to the shop. She promptly approached the burglar and bit into his neck. The thief was taken aback by this, for the biting didn’t usually start until after he’d got his daily dose of being rapped on the knuckles with a wooden spoon by the boy. He leaned back, burying his head in the chair’s back and closing his eyes. Hamala ran into the flour storeroom and closed the door behind her. Her sisters saw her go racing in and assumed she was chasing the cat, itself chasing a mouse. She sat there in among the sacks, sighed deeply, and then cried.
She’d been deprived of the means of speaking and no one ever noticed her in between the sacks of flour. She never had the chance to assert herself in a house where people crushed whatever they could. Her father crushed everyone with fear, her grandmother crushed her mother, her mother crushed her sisters, her sisters crushed her, and she crushed the cat – one of its seven lives at a time – which in turn crushed the mice, and the mice that survived crushed whatever they could
crush outside.
But now they had a common enemy that they were all trying to crush. They were simply awaiting the return of the head crusher, in line with family traditions, the same way that the thief was awaiting death, having nearly died a thousand deaths from their unorthodox rounds of torture: giving him hot, salty water to drink; cutting him with nail clippers; spitting in his eye; pulling his nose and ears with clothes pegs; tying him to a chair; making his naked feet touch the cold marble floor; rapping his fingers with a wooden ladle.
Both the thief and Grandmother became increasingly worried about Baqrallah’s absence. The burglar told her to go back to the store and try to get in touch with him again. So she went three times in one day, giving Hamala the opportunity to spit in the burglar’s mouth and bite him twice. As she moved in for a third helping, she fixed her one good eye on his two, which had calmly opened.
‘You seem like a nice girl,’ he said. ‘The nicest I’ve seen in this house, and even though you don’t speak, I can tell that you’re kinder than the others. Untie me and let me slip out through the window and I’ll kiss you the way a man kisses a beautiful woman, and I’ll touch you, all over, even that hunk of flesh you have on your back that makes everyone keep their distance. I’ll hug it when I hug you.’
Hamala ran back to the bags of flour. Once hidden, she wept while repeating the burglar’s sweet words to herself. In the evening, during some of Grandmother’s more negligent moments, she watched him bathe. She yanked on the rope that ran to the door where she and Grandmother waited, tightening the loops around his hands. Grandmother had locked the other girls in their room where they would have to wait until the burglar had finished bathing and returned to his chair.
Hamala couldn’t believe that she’d seen with her one eye what no other eye in the household had seen.
With Baqrallah even further delayed, Grandmother anxiously went to the police station. She wanted to inform them about the burglar, but the station was empty, except for a sergeant smoking at the door.
‘Suppose I caught a thief in my house, what should I do?’
‘We’re a bit short-staffed at the moment,’ he answered. ‘Plus there’d be no vehicle to transport him, and the whole thing would have to go through our central administrative system, and today is Thursday, meaning no outside requests are taken, Friday being a day off for Muslims, and then Saturday and Sunday are national holidays, and of course Monday is March the second, you know, the anniversary of the Establishment of the Authority of the People, so that’s another day off. All in all, I’d say if you caught someone stealing, or got caught yourself, you’d be better off sorting it out amongst yourselves.’
Grandmother departed downcast. On her way home she stopped by the store and asked the owner, ‘Hasn’t Baqrallah called yet?’
‘Maybe he called and I wasn’t around,’ he responded. ‘Today I was late in because I was waiting for a truck of tomatoes to come from Jalu.’
‘Touch the phone. Maybe it’s hot; maybe he just called.’
The owner guffawed. ‘The phone doesn’t get hot when it rings; it’s the receiver that gets warm after it’s been in your hand for a while.’
Grandmother made no comment, but examined the tomato in her hand, then made for home, silent and preoccupied. Her daughter-in-law disapproved of the idea of handing the burglar over to the police before Baqrallah got home; she had a house full of daughters and when news got round, people would think he’d come to meet up with one of them. Why wouldn’t they, when her family was poor and everyone knew they had nothing worth stealing, nothing except for their flock of fine young fillies. People would draw their own conclusions.
The blood in Grandmother’s veins ran cold from her daughter-in-law’s rational conclusion. She felt a wave of guilt for rushing to the police station without consulting her. Her daughter-in-law had a point. She was protecting her girls’ futures and they were Baqrallah’s girls, after all. If the neighbours got wind of any of this, their reputation would be dragged through the mud and no one would marry them. She had to think of her son and avoid bringing disaster upon the household in his absence.
Overcome with doubt, she quietly entered the hallway. She didn’t even look at the burglar, let alone curse him or bite him or summon the boy to help nibble his thigh. Indeed, she forgot all about him being there, or that she was waiting for Baqrallah to get home and deal with him. Come the evening, she began to look ill from having thought so much.
Unable to even move her feet, she asked Hamala to drag the burglar into the bathroom to let him relieve himself,. Her son going missing and not calling was strange, but maybe he had called when the shop was closed; maybe he’d gone on to some other city from Jalu, found a large group of passengers heading home for the national holidays. Besides, if he were dead, she’d have known about it by now; news of anything that happened between Ajdabiya and Jalu came in with the tomato truck, whose people talked as if they were relaying the gospel. No, her son couldn’t be dead, there must be some other, work-related reason for his absence.
While Grandmother drowned in her own thoughts, the burglar was in the bathroom kissing and hugging Hamala just as he’d promised, in exchange for his freedom. Hamala, a gentle little creature, wrapped in his warm embrace, who simply wanted a taste of life. The burglar tied her hands up with Grandmother’s thick rope and slipped out the window, but he never left her thoughts. With tears in her one good eye, she prayed for him to come back, or for him to fall back through the skylight again. She tried to open her mouth and say something for the first time in her life. ‘Aa… a… a… aa.’
Meanwhile, the burglar carefully made his way onto the neighbour’s rooftop; maybe he would get to see Maryam, their daughter, whom he had ventured out to see in the first place.
But would she recognise him dressed in Grandmother’s robe?


RRP: £7.99

No. of pages: 96

Publication date: 03.12.2021

Re-print date: 03.12.2021

ISBN numbers:
978 1 912868 72 8
978 1 912868 88 9

Dedalus World English