“The Peacock” — a story by Sahar Mustafah

4 July, 2022

Sahar Mustafah


Feryal sits at the hotel bar and sips her sugary cocktail. Annoyed with the cumbersome fresh fruit garnish, she removes the plastic spear of sliced pineapple and strawberry and watches their juices soak into a tiny napkin the bartender gave her. He was much more amiable when he’d mistaken her for a tourist. As soon as she opened her mouth and spoke perfect Arabic, he nodded coldly at her order and set about blending her frozen virgin drink, casting glances over his shoulder.

Feryal swivels around and watches the hotel patrons. A white European couple sits in the lounge area, a private conversation drawing their bodies close, shutting out the rest of the world. A small group of hijabi women in stylish abayas and lavish couture purses, laugh and chatter above each other. They sip from the same tropical drink as Feryal’s. She’s the only woman sitting alone. Her neck flushes and she swivels back to the bartender

In her peripheral vision, a man heads to the bar, his silhouette tall and slender. When he doesn’t clear his throat or tap her on the shoulder, Feryal casually turns toward him and smiles. He glances at her then leans into the bar, his back to her. He thumbs his mobile and continually checks the entrance to the lounge until his pensive expression breaks. A beautiful woman appears at the man’s side and they order champagne. The bartender offers them an expansive smile before pouring two glasses that nearly fizz over. Between sentences, the woman’s laugh bubbles up like the champagne she’s sipping. Not once does she look over at Feryal.

Feryal is disappointed. Th man is handsome and fit — he doesn’t have to pay for sex. She hopes, for her first time, her appointment is attractive. She measures every man against Othman, the only one she’s been with. She misses his hard, muscled chest and dark features, in spite of his not loving her back. What a fool Feryal had been, believing he would leave his wife — even when Feryal lied about being pregnant

If you have the baby, it will destroy your family. Don’t be stupid, he told her. I will pay for you to pull it down. The easy way Othman had said it, like he’d found himself in this situation before, still scalds Feryal’s heart. How could he have professed to love her if he was perfectly willing to get rid of his child?

She took his money, told him she’d made an appointment at an Israeli hospital, bought herself a bus ticket, stuffed the leftover bills inside the compartment of her old messenger bag, and never looked back. To the undiscerning passengers seated across the aisle, she was a student attending university.

Feryal taps her sandal against the footrest of her stool until another man approaches. This time she keeps her gaze fixed straight ahead, fingers her plastic straw. Behind the bartender, she studies the reflection in the mirrored panel. A balding man with hunched shoulders shuffles toward the bar like someone about to deliver somber news. Feryal’s stomach sinks.

Don’t stray from the lounge. He’ll find you,Ani had advised her earlier, standing naked in the kitchen of their flat, rifling through a basket of clean laundry. Her roommate’s lack of inhibition shocked and impressed Feryal. Ani found a pair of panties and a loose summer dress, and slipped into them.

They met at a posh outdoor café in Ramallah. Feryal was sitting at a table by herself, newly arrived in town. She was anxiously calculating the cost of her meal before ordering, when she caught a stranger studying her from across the terrace. A woman with short fashionable hair, dark-tinted sunglasses that nearly swallowed her face, and a pair of golden hoops dangling from her earlobes. She flashed an amused grin at Feryal.

A server returned to her table. The sister wants to treat you to a meal, Miss. He pointed across the canopied terrace and the woman waved, summoning her over. Feryal’s cheeks turned splotchy red: she felt bumpkin in her long tunic and mules.

The stranger removed her sunglasses and two cat eyes peered intently at Feryal. Long bangs swept her forehead and she tucked them behind her ear with manicured fingers until they fell loose again. Ani is half Armenian, half Palestinian, though she doesn’t tell Feryal which side belongs to which parent, only that she’s a double-tragedy of history

Where are you from, ya hilwa? She drew on a black vape stick and tipped her head to release smoke away from her face.

Ain al-Deeb, Feryal responded, a pang of fear and nostalgia rushing her lungs.

The only thing in al-Deeb is a factory, I believe.

A warehouse, Feryal says, surprised this elegant woman has heard of her village. For textiles. She sensed men and other women glancing Ani’s way, catching their attention before they resumed their conversations and tea.

You’re visiting alone? Her cat eyes roved down her face to her breasts.

I’m never going back, Feryal blurted, cheeks blazing.

You’re a pretty girl, ismallah, Ani told her appraisingly, nodding toward a basket of pocket bread cut into neat triangles and a small bowl of hummus. Please.

Self-conscious, but ravenous, Feryal dipped the bread, brought it carefully to her lips.

Ani watched her intently. What will you do here? Another deep intake of her vape stick, smoke snaking into the air.

An important question to which Feryal had no answer. She was at the head of her class in math and linguistics, earning one of the top tawjeehi scores in her neighborhood. Yet there was no celebration for her matriculation from secondary school. Sitti Rasmeah, her paternal grandmother, prepared a batch of ghraybeh, Feryal’s favorite shortbread cookies. When she was a little girl, she had sat across from the old woman, eagerly waiting to offer her small contribution — a single thumbprint in the center of each, forming a tiny mound to be filled with ground pistachios or fresh-made apricot jam.

Now each cookie has your special mark, her grandmother winked at her. She cleaned the batter from her fingers with a dishrag and pull out a piece of hard candy from the breast pocket of her thobe. There seemed to be a wonderful surprise every time Sitti Rasmeah slid her hand inside the chest-panel of her embroidered dress: a silver shekel, a stick of gum, a sky-blue marble. It was a trove of delights. When she nestled in her grandmother’s lap, she traced a row of opposite-facing peacocks, sewn in variegated purple and yellow thread, each cross-stich perfectly uniform.

After she sat for her matriculation exams, Feryal’s mother announced her schooling was done.

It’s a shame. The girl is smart enough to be a lawyer, mashallah, her Sitti Rasmeah had argued. A doctor, even.

She can marry a lawyer or a doctor, her mother had scoffed. Until then she must pull her weight around here.

Feryal went to work in Othman’s warehouse, where a quarter of the villagers earned their wages. She expected to work the floor, pulling boards of fabric for orders, or standing on a wobbly ladder, dusting row upon row of crushed velvet, denim, and lace. She was grateful to be assigned to the office, and away from the prying eyes of the older women. Othman’s previous assistant, a sympathetic hijabi woman in thick glasses named Salma, was finally getting married. She trained Feryal on the computer, explaining the application process between enthusiastic interjections about her khateeb. He’s from Nablus, Salma told her.

He’s prohibited from traveling north, but he promises I can see my family whenever I want. She patted Feryal’s shoulder. Azeem! You pick up very quickly — mashallah!

At a small desk in the office, Othman drew the blinds after the workers went home and fucked Feryal in his swivel chair. He seemed utterly enamored with her, impressed at how quickly she learned and performed her duties, telling her how clever she was. She opened up to him like a crisp, new textbook, ready to be learned.

I hear you were first in your class, he said, zipping up his pants.

I could have gone to university, she told him, her chest flooding with pride. 

But then you wouldn’t be here. He pinched her bottom. Did the invoice for the Husseini order get settled? Those bastards never pay on time.

At the café in Ramallah, Feryal told Ani, I wish to enroll at university.

Ani’s gold-speckled eyes glimmered and narrowed. And how will you pay for it, ya hilwa?

Feryal bashfully chomped at her expensive shawarma sandwich which Ani insisted she order. It wasn’t as flavorful as the ones back home which were for half the price.

If you trust me, I can help you. Ani leaned conspiratorially. Women like us need to stick together.

Feryal wasn’t sure what kind of women they were — or more importantly who she was — but Ani’s easy laughter and the way she tenderly touched Feryal’s hand across the small table were disarming. She was already missing her grandmother’s kindness.

The bald man lingers a few stools down from her. In spite of what she can make of his looks and age, Feryal hopes he’s the one so she won’t feel obliged to order another drink in case her actual date is running late. Ani has been gracious since she’s arrived, paying for Feryal’s food and keep, welcoming her to a box of Kotex pads and her expensive shampoo. You’ll pay me back, Ani smiled at her, as soon as you get on your feet.

He appears Arab — foreign-born, confirming what Ani has told her. She has a contact in the Palestinian Authority who arranges these things.

He’s some kind of a scholar. A director of a museum in Belgium, Ani offered as she waved her wet glossy nails dry. He’s on a temporary visit. Acquiring something for a special exhibit, I think. I’d take him except Mario has been giving me shit lately. She paused to admire her nails — the color of slick eggplant skin — then batted her eyelashes at Feryal. Do this for me, ya hilwa. I’ve already confirmed.

The fact that he’s affiliated with a museum makes it less egregious for Feryal to accept the proposition. And he certainly looks the part, she observes now.

“Good evening,” the man tells the bartender, glancing sidelong at Feryal. “A Scotch, if you please.” His Arabic is clipped as if he’s not accustomed to speaking it often.

Basheer — another customer had called the bartender by name — heartily greets him, placing a small round coaster in front of the man. “Welcome, ya Ustaz.”

Feryal notices a laminated badge on his lapel. Her heart beats wildly. For a moment, she thinks of leaving, hopping off her barstool and exiting as quickly as possible. But she waits, sipping the remainder of her cocktail until she hits ice cubes and is forced to stop slurping.

Wait until he addresses you first, Ani had instructed, zipping up Feryal’s long, tight-fitting black dress. It has a high neck with a mesh bodice. It belongs to Ani, is not something Feryal would ever own. Though she’s completely covered, the jersey fabric accentuates every part of her body and is uncomfortably tight around her bottom. You don’t want to stand out, Ani says. A wink, a smile. Nothing loud or crass. You want to appear as a quiet invitation.

“Good evening, Miss,” he finally says, his eyes darting nervously around the bar.

“Ahlan, ya Ustaz,” she says a bit too hastily, swiveling her entire body toward him. “How are you, Professor?” Icy sweat trickles down her back.

He slips her a plastic room key. “Wait ten minutes. Room 405.” He gulps the rest of his drink and abruptly stands, giving the bartender an overly jovial goodbye.

Feryal is stupefied. She expects dinner — something to break the ice. The hotel has an acclaimed Japanese fusion restaurant Ani raves about. She’s eaten there several times with customers.

Basheer gives her a long look and his lips part as if he wants to say something to her. Feryal quickly settles her bill — which she’d also expected the professor to pick up — and finds a washroom. Her key allows her admission to a hotel toilet off the lobby. The cocktail syrup churns in her stomach and she begins to retch. She clutches both sides of the stall and breathes through her nose. At the sink, she palms cold water and gargles before reapplying gloss to her full lips. She fluffs her hair which Ani had spent a long time straightening. It looks dull, the ends like straw. The mirror reflects her pale face, brown eyes shiny. She checks the time on her mobile and finds a guest elevator. A hotel attendant presses a button and bids her a good evening.

Imagine it’s someone you want, Ani had winked before Feryal heads out the flat. Someone you once loved.

She knocks on the door before waving her plastic key across the handle’s “Hello?” she calls, tentatively stepping in.

The professor is already naked except for his undershirt and socks. He’s laid a towel in the center of the bed, across crisp, white sheets. The fancy duvet is neatly peeled back to the foot of the bed. There’s a pair of folded hand towels on his nightstand and a single condom.

“If you please,” he says politely, gesturing to the bed.

She unzips her dress and pauses. He says nothing, studying her coolly, as if she’s a new exhibit and he hasn’t quite drawn a conclusion about her. She slips out of her panties, unclasps her bra. He’s immediately on top of her, eyes clamped shut, and she stares into his nostrils, the long black hairs like the quills of a porcupine. Perspiration beads his bald head. As he struggles to enter her, she examines his face, wrinkles deepening in ecstasy and tries to imagine what he’s like when giving a serious lecture. Do those same age lines contract in serious contemplation?

Ani chuckles at Feryal’s shock, that a scholar would requisition sex. All men have cocks, ya hilwa, she says. In the end, the only thing that separates them is which head they think with.

The professor finally begins to rock back and forth on top of her. After a short time, he grunts and she knows he’s close. He emanates a strange combination of menthol, camphor and lentil soup — not the crisp and spicy fragrance of Othman. Perhaps these are the natural odors of an older man. His body is no longer active, his brain becomes his major organ — besides his cock — until both begin to fail him. Feryal imagines the professor’s biceps haven’t always been so flabby. His paunch slaps against Feryal’s stomach, an embarrassing sound that makes it difficult to think about anything else.

Feryal’s body has never really belonged to her. Not ever since she was nine years old and her maternal uncle coaxed her into his lap and pressed his erection against her. When her body transforms, the boys in the harra notice, even under her loose clothes, hungry wolf eyes penetrating through the fabric, imagining her small, hard breasts, her rounded bottom. The store clerk rubs the back of her hand when she exchanges money for groceries until she learns better, spreading the coins across the counter, keeping her eyes down. The opposite sex suddenly lay claims upon her body, one she barely feels in possession of herself. Her existence becomes an affirmation of their desires, their power to ravish her. She no longer belongs to herself.

Her mother grows harsh, as if Feryal’s body is a liability, a precarious entity on the brink of catastrophe that will bring down their home. She stares while Feryal does her chores around their flat, sweeping floors, dusting the window frames. Her mother calls her away from the small veranda that overlooks a narrow street. Do you wish to be on display for all the neighbors?

Feryal’s father is the only man who looked at her with love, not scrutiny. She was 13 years old the night their building was raided. Israel’s occupation forces arrested her father, hauled him away on suspicion of conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism. Three soldiers threw a black sack over his head, so Feryal was unable to see his face for the last time, his pure adoration twinkling in his eyes every time he beheld her.

Sitti Rasmeah attempted to intervene, clawing at one soldier’s body until he knocked her down with the butt of his rifle, shouting at her to stay put. Feryal ran to her side and was violently shoved backwards by another soldier. Her mother was on the floor, clutching her husband’s leg and held on until a swift kick to her head finally released her father.

The next morning Feryal’s first period arrived.

Her father languished for four years in prison before Israel ejected him into Jordan. Her mother was inconsolable, snapping at Feryal, their only child, calling her a “habla” and “good for nothing.” She wondered what she was supposed to be good for, how in her father’s absence she might ease her mother’s pain. She moved around their bayt like a ghost, trying not to make a noise or disturb anything that would incite her mother. After her chores, she finished schoolwork and read a book her teacher Miss Basima had loaned her, a translation of Anne of Green Gables. Once a year, her mother travelled to a refugee camp on the other side of the border where her father took up shelter. Feryal pretended to be orphaned — not only of her father, but happily of her mother — and in her imagination, she embarked on new adventures like the red-haired, precocious Anne.

Sitti Rasmeah, who has lived with Feryal’s family since she was born, gives daily du’aa for her son and the members of her family — including her daughter-in-law whom Feryal secretly believes unworthy of supplications. In her mother’s absence, a calm settles over the flat, a gossamer happiness like the long white strands of her grandmother’s hair. Feryal looked forward to two months free from her mother’s cruelty, the horrible verbal lashings. Sometimes it was a hard slap across the face, or rough fingers snatching the soft flesh of her upper arm and twisting it awfully, making Feryal’s eyes instantly water.

Pray to the Prophet, Sitti Rasmeah would admonish her daughter-in-law. Then she smiled at Feryal. Come here, my dear, Sitti Rasmeah smiled. Help me with this. And she’d set her to a task that made her feel useful and good for something. Her grandmother, on powerful and sturdy haunches, showed Feryal how to core squash without piercing the skin and how to mince parsley and onion for folding into freshly ground lamb.

You can still be book smart and a good cook for your children one day, Sitti Rasmeah had said with a wink, retying a white mandeela at the base of her neck, a few gray, straggly hairs escaping her temples.

Around her black thobe, bright green and yellow smudged her white apron, joining other faded stains.

One day, Feryal pointed to the row of peacocks prancing across her grandmother’s bosom. What kind of birds are those, Sitti?

Al-tawoos, her grandmother smiled, trailing a craggly finger over one. You see their feathers? They’ll be in jannat illah when we arrive someday, by the Lord’s will.

They are regal creatures to Feryal, evoking respect and veneration. Among a dozen stitched by her grandmother, she loved this thobe best of all.

When the professor is finished, he rolls off Feryal’s body, wraps the slimy condom in tissue paper and tosses it into a wastebasket. He lights a cigarette from a pack stamped in foreign words, not offering her one though she doesn’t smoke. He shuts his eyes as he exhales, murmurs something to himself she can’t make out. Then he writes in a tiny notebook on his nightstand, as if he’s just worked out the answer to a problem in his head.

Feeling ignored, Feryal props herself up on one elbow. She hasn’t properly taken in her surroundings. The hotel room is modern décor, finished in a muted white, black and royal blue palette. The professor’s belongings — a single opened suitcase, a few paperback books scattered on a lacquered cherry wood desk, and several prescription bottles — disrupt the tidy space. Directly across from the bed is a television screen hidden behind the doors of an entertainment center. There’s an oil painting on the same wall, the silhouette of a woman standing on a sandy shore, one hand clasping her straw hat against the wind. Frothy waves crash at her feet as she watches the last traces of the sun dipping below the horizon.

Feryal wished she could linger alone in the cool sheets of the bed, order room service — Ani told her about the late-night meals she orders on her dates and which Ani consumes naked beside her lover. Eating might help Feryal feel normal again. It’s quiet inside this room, unlike the noise of their flat, cars honking below their steel-barred window, loud music pulsating from a barber shop below.

Sadness prickles her skin. She wants the professor to disappear along with all of his odors. She reaches for a water bottle on the nightstand beside her and gulps, trying to wash down her dejection, the same feeling she lugged home after an hour with Othman in his office. He’d kiss her cheek, examine his hair in a mirror hanging behind the door, and lock up.

Her eyes travel across the other side of the room. For the first time, Feryal notices a headless mannequin standing near the washroom. The figure is draped in a white thobe covered in a sheath of plastic.

“Who’s that for?” she asks the professor.

His head shoots up from his notebook, his interest suddenly ignited. “It’s a very important acquisition,” he declares, springing from the bed. He stands beside the mannequin, producing an absurd juxtaposition of real and counterfeit bodies. His penis is deflated in a nest of graying pubic hair. He appears ready to give a lecture on the embroidered dress as he peels off the plastic sheath.

Feryal sits up against the headboard. “You came all the way from Belgium for a thobe?”

“Not any thobe,” he says disdainfully before smiling in mock congeniality. “This belonged to a prominent family in Yaffa. My museum is acquiring it from the University. A pre-war relic like this will enjoy a much wider audience.”

He delicately holds up one sleeve as if he’s taking the arm of a beloved. “You see here,” he says, his eyes shining. “There are idiosyncratic touches in the way the cross-stitches are…”

But Feryal has stopped listening. Sitti Rasmeah’s face suddenly intrudes and her past tidal-waves into the hotel room. She’s swept back to her family bayt, her grandmother brushing her hair when her mother has lost patience. Her grandmother’s calloused palm, cradling a small luscious plum she’s extracted from the breast pocket of her thobe. Sweet like you, habibti.

Feryal finds it hard to breathe, the ceiling suddenly collapsing, the professor blurring into the blue walls, his droning warped and distant. She squeezes her knees together and clutches the bedsheets until the hotel room regains its normal proportions.

The professor is pointing at the chest-panel, unperturbed. “The reflective nature of the peacocks reveals a perfect harmony.”

“My grandmother loves peacocks,” Feryal blurts out. “They roam in Paradise. That’s what she told me when I was a young girl.” She bites her lower lip to keep tears from falling.

He gives a mirthless laugh. “It’s far more sophisticated than the eye can see.” He lingers near the mannequin, brushes off a piece of lint before replacing the plastic sheath over the dress. He wraps a white terrycloth robe around his body and walks to the pair of trousers he was wearing earlier and withdraws a worn leather wallet from a back pocket. He extracts fewer bills than Ani had advised her to accept.

“I was told a thousand shekels,” Feryal says.

“Perhaps a misunderstanding, my dear,” the professor responds. “Take it or leave it. I’m having a shower. Please see yourself out.” He slips his wallet inside the pocket of his bathrobe and locks the washroom door behind him.

The blood in Feryal’s body runs white-hot. She can hear Ani’s mocking laugh. Demand what you’re owed, ya hilwa. He’ll give it to you in the end. No man will want a scene. Remember—you’re in control of the situation, Ani told her as Feryal slipped into a pair of silver strappy heels.

She rises from the bed, dampens a hand towel with her water bottle and wipes between her legs. It’s not much different than her first time with Othman. He kissed her gently on her lips and neck before handing her a roll of rough paper towel he’d brought from the employee restroom at the warehouse. You’re still bleeding, he’d said, and Feryal could hear a kind of pride and it made her feel special and proud, too, that he’d been her first.

She hears the shower running and finally climbs out of the bed, slipping into her bra and panties. Before she reaches for her black dress, she studies the thobe, touches the chest-panel over the plastic. She runs her hand under the protective layer and slips it inside the breast pocket. Once, Feryal had discovered a tiny bouquet of tiny jasmine flowers, the magical source of the delicate perfume that wafted from Sitti Rasmeah’s body every time she drew Feryal close.

Unsurprisingly, the pocket of this thobe is empty. Whose grandmother had once worn it? What had she carried inside?

There was nothing technical or ancient about Sitti Rasmeah’s thobe. Feryal had never regarded it in any deliberate way. It’s how it made her feel — safe, loved — that lingered still. Such associations mean nothing to the professor, pose no real value in his important acquisition.

Feryal’s heartbeat quickens. She quickly and carefully lifts the thobe from the mannequin. She pauses, listens for the shower and hears a faint singing coming from the washroom. She pulls the thobe over her head and sinches it at the waist with the professor’s belt, which she removes from his trousers. A musty scent emanates from the linen fabric.

She gazes at her reflection in a full-length mirror mounted on a narrow wall between the bathroom and exit door. She touches the sparse, though recognizable plumage of the peacocks, then runs her fingertips along one triangular sleeve where a parade of rosettes are stitched.

Before quickly gathering her purse and sandals, Feryal drapes the naked, headless mannequin in her crumpled black dress — Ani’s dress — its high collar drooping down one narrow shoulder without a neck to support it.

She leaves the money on the nightstand.

Foolish girl! Ani might tell her if she decides to ever return to the flat.

For Feryal, it’s more than an even trade.


Sahar Mustafah is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, an inheritance she explores in her fiction. Her first novel The Beauty of Your Face (W.W. Norton, 2020) was named a 2020 Notable Book and Editor’s Choice by New York Times Book Review, a Los Angeles Times United We Read selection, and one of Marie Claire Magazine’s 2020 Best Fiction by Women. It was long-listed for the Center for Fiction 2020 First Novel Prize and was a finalist for the 2021 Palestine Book Awards. Her short story collection Code of the West was the winner of the 2016 Willow Books Fiction Award. She writes and teaches outside of Chicago.

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