The only thing the residents of Sodset Kilo quarter knew about Abdou Said was that he had opened his little store there more than ten years earlier. He, on the other hand. knew everything about the people who lived in the quarter. especially in that area with the small houses where the neighborhood streets were always muddy from continuous rain, where, in the winter, intoxicating music played all night long, and hundreds of laborers and unemployed men sat guzzling Taja. the local alcoholic drink, while ogling prostitutes who had spent at least forty years in the business and where Saturday was a stage that played the same show week after week, to the point that Abdou knew its events even before they took place.
As for the quarter's residents, they loved him, but why? They themselves did not know. Perhaps they loved him because he was nicer than the other shopkeepers. Or perhaps it was his persistent smile that appeared even when they thought he was sad.
Sodset Kilo was the quarter of both nobles and slaves. It was the quarter of small elegant villas with perpetually green gardens, the quarter of princely palaces, the quarter of the zoo, where one could hear roaring lions each day competing with the shouts of drunks. It was a quiet quarter like the gardens in the heart of the capital city. And it was also boisterous as wine gurgling out of barrels into stomachs that were never filled or satisfied no matter how drunk they got. It was a wild quarter filled with the cries of ugly prostitutes as they were trampled under the feet of some drunk or some customer refusing to pay for a pleasure which, when it was over, made him feel like retching.
Abdou didn't care about all these. He lived among them but he was distant from them, like the distance between his dirty black clothes and smiling white face. No one could remember any change in the man's face. He had lived there ten years and still looked young, his expression friendly and full of smiles. How old was he? No one asked him, and even if he were asked, he himself didn't know. One might wonder. "But what did he write in his passport?" Again, even he didn't know.
His shop was like a small room, ten meters long and three meters wide, but it was not just a store, it was also his place of residence. On the front shelves he had piled up the cheap goods along with the expensive: rice, oil, honey, silk shirts, buttons, needles... all that the villa's residents needed, and all that a prostitute might need to mend an old dress torn in a fight. Behind all these things was his bed, out of sight. It was a strange kind of bed: some wooden boxes, a half-decayed mattress, and a blanket that he had bought from the surplus left by the British army that had once tried to occupy Ethiopia. In one corner was a stove, a large cooking pot, a teapot and an old box. Inside it was a suit he'd bought eight years earlier, which he wore whenever he went to Markato-Hamann to buy supplies for his shop, or on special holidays.
There was a small back door to his shop, so small that Abdou Said had to crouch down about a quarter of his height to pass through to a small yard where he could relieve himself, and to a modest garden where he planted some tomatoes and green peppers. The yard was more organized and more beautiful than the area he called his room. When you saw this plot of land from behind the fence, which he had built himself, you realized in an instant that a considerable amount of effort was put into caring for it. This was because Abdou didn't go anywhere on Fridays. Instead, he gave himself a vacation on that day for a couple of hours, which he spent gardening and mending what kids from the quarter had ruined.
Everyone called him "Camel Jockey," as they called all the Yemeni immigrants. This didn't disturb him like it did others. He responded to the slur with a friendly smile. Sometimes they called him "Saleh," even though the name registered on his passport was "Abdou Said." He didn't care about that, either. Why should he? A name was a name, so long as they bought all they needed from his store. His tolerance attracted lots of clients. Maids from the villas refused to go to the Armenian shop-keeper's modern, well-equipped store to buy what they needed, preferring to shop at Abdou's rat hole instead.
Each morning at six he would finish his dawn prayers and open his shop. reciting verses from the Quran and some prayers he had memorized when he was a young boy in the village. He shooed away flies with an old feather-fan, scattering dust into the air. which shimmered in the first golden rays of the sun. One could hear the sound of the kerosene stove with the teapot boiling on it. If someone entered when he was eating a piece of bread and taking a sip of his morning tea, he would drop whatever he was eating to wait on the customer.
"Work first, eat later"—that was his motto. He didn't want to miss anyone who entered his store. Within an hour, there would be tens of black hands stretched out with their orders. He smiled at all of them. "Patience, patience, everyone. Things will happen as God wills." Meanwhile, he might find the time to wink at a beautiful woman, or he might pinch a young girl's breast. He actually might even delight in flirting with an old woman. He carried all the goods his clients requested, and prepared their orders one by one. A kilo of rice for Abraham, a kilo of flour for Neruto, a kilo of sugar.... Each of them got what he or she needed.
The Armenian, who owned the well-equipped modern store, always wondered why he and his clerks never got to serve the large crowd that frequented Abdou Said's shop.
"That Yemeni is a devil."
"By God, how does he do it?"
He always knew how much each of his customers should pay. The Armenian was astounded when he heard that Abdou Said had never been to school a day in his life.
"But how can he keep track of his accounts?"
"That cursed man is a genius!"
If the Armenian were ever to see Abdou Said in the evening, after he had received a letter from his village and watched how Abdou spent hours trying to decipher what was written in it, and if he observed him as he held the pen, scribbling illegible letters, if he saw this, he would have been astonished. Abdou Said, despite the difficulty, would reread his letter ten times and then write down all he wanted to say.
"The wicked soul makes a lot of money."
"But where does his money go?"
"Yes, it's strange. If I had as many customers as he does, I'd be a millionaire in a year or two."
"There's got to be a secret behind that man!"
"Ha! You want to pry a secret out of a Yemeni? It would be easier to get a secret out of the devil!"
"He doesn't eat."
"He's always cooking some kind of stew."
"He's been wearing the same clothes for the past ten years."
"Do you think he's ever had a bath? Has he ever eaten turkey?"
But the Armenian's questions always remained unanswered. Abdou Said didn't hear them, and if he did, he just smiled and ignored them. He opened his store at six in the morning and closed it at nine at night. For lunch, he might eat a piece of meat and stew and some bread and tea, and afterwards one might find him chewing kat as did all the Yemenis living in Markatah or other neighborhoods in Addis Abaha.
When he chewed kat, his customers saw mysterious things in his dazed eyes, a smile hidden in the mist of faraway dreams, but that did not prevent him from answering a customer's order and smiling at them all. Those were happy hours that Abdou Said lived with himself.
"What is he thinking at this moment?"
"Only the devil knows."