The Test

By Craig Loomis

The government is planning to study a project that will identify homosexuality through a clinical test, which will be added to the list of medical tests one has to undergo to obtain a visa. If an individual is tested as a homosexual that person will have an unfit stamped on his medical report and will automatically be disqualified from the visa application.

“That’s it? We’ve done all the blood tests?”

“Afraid so.”

“An urine?”

“Same.”

“Feces? Don’t forget feces. Nobody wants to look at the feces.”

“Lah, lah, we’ve looked at everything. There’s nothing there.”

He drums his fingers on the tabletop, until, “There must be something we missed. All that drips or oozes, or . . .? Something, Sah?”

It is late, and except for a small desk lamp that pools a weak yellow light across the desk, leaking ever so softly onto their legs and arms, the rest is grayblack lab. It is a bedroom-size government lab with a gang of steely machines neatly arranged around them. A Bunsen burner bubbles over there, a gassy blue flame flickers here. The many computers are at rest, ghostly gray and eyeless. A twinkle of tiny blue lights means one of the machines is thinking. And although the signs are clear, no smoking, the one wearing three gold rings is smoking a cigarette, flicking ash into a paper coffee cup. They wear white lab coats with nametags: Dr. Mohammad and Dr. Abdullah. Reams of paper full of charts and graphs and long columns of numbers cover the table. And so, the one continues to smoke while the other drums his fingers along the tabletop.

“Now what?”

“Yes, indeed, now what?”

“They want something reliable, something accurate. A test that can be applied at the airport if need be, in some back room, something with instant results. Sah?”
The smoker nods to this. Somebody, somewhere is talking too loud. Both of them look around to see how that is possible if they are on the eighth floor and they are the only ones in the building, and it’s late, and . . .

“How about an X-ray?”

“X-ray?”

“Sure, of the pelvic region. That might turn up something.”

“X-ray?”

He picks up a chart, reads it, turns one, two pages before dropping it back on the table. The sound of someone, somewhere talking too loud grows weaker, then louder, then disappears. Blue lights twinkling.

“How about a lie detector test?”

“They’d lie.”

“Of course, but the test would catch them, Sah?”

“It would have to be a yes or no question. Lah, lah, we need something more solid, more medical, something like a pregnancy test. Something we can see, something that does not take a specialist, a doctor, a PhD, something that says red for positive, blue for negative. Something like that, like a pregnancy test, Sah? Either you are or you aren’t, there’s no in between. You see?”

He gently lifts the vial of blood from its gleaming steel holder, asking, “And when do they need this test?”

“It’s top priority. The director even used the words ‘national security priority’–just like the movies.”

He fingers the vial of blood, and there is a police siren and then another, and then, back to the hush of a late night lab.

“My grandmother swears that a person’s face tells all.”

“Face?”

“Tells all. Actually, it’s the eyes.”

“The eye color?”

“Lah, lah, of course not.” Taking a long puff from the cigarette, filling the lamplight with a newer, brighter fog. “The space between the eyes is what she’s talking about. She says the greater the space between a person’s eyes, the more, . . . the more suspect that person is. You see? She says everybody knows this.”

“The more suspect? Your grandmother says this?”

“Nam, 82 years old this month,” he says proudly.

“And you believe her?”

He shrugs, saying, “All we would need is a tape measure.”

He holds the vial of blood up to the lamp light, peering to get a better look. “Again, what did he say about this blood?”

“The director says it’s the real deal. Says this is a sample we can use. He says it’s genuine, authentic. Those are his very words, ‘authentic blood’ from, he said, a most reliable source.”

Turning the red vial this way and that, until the two of them are looking at it together, squinting into the soft light.

“Where did he say he got it?”

Done looking, he quickly slides the vial back into its metal holder. While the one lights another cigarette, making a new smoke, a new fog, the other begins to stack the many papers into one neat pile in the center of the table.

“I didn’t ask.”

Tuya’s River

Prelude to the Great Tsunami of July 21, 365 A.D.

By Lukman Clark

Papa taught me to count in the Roman ways and told us to always speak Latin, in or out of the home, though it was Momma who gave us our Egyptian names.
True, day to day, it’s Roman things that get you by. Measures of weight, distance, money. Numbers of things possessed or wanted. Then there is time, with divisions of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and so on. Each of these has a name; the name fixing it and making it more real somehow. And everyone knows the Latin words for such things.
Papa was always telling my sister and me that knowing numbers and the names of things is more valuable than anything else, especially if one day he could not be here with us. I did not, could not, know what he meant by that, but I think he was right about this. I mean, mostly Papa was right but other things are good to know, too. I’m pretty sure that even what is Roman has to be part of something bigger.
Besides numbers, Papa taught me a little how to read. Then I learned some more on my own. People in the marketplace have come to know I am good in this way. They ask for my help with reading and writing, despite my age.

My name is Tuya. My sister’s is Tem. Our Momma named us this way because she never wanted us to forget that we were Egyptians – that we are Egypt. The land. That’s what she told us when we got older.
Tem and I were born in the Year 70 A.D., anno Diocletiani∗.
Diocletian is dead now, along with a couple of other imperators that came after him. This is what Papa said around the time me and Tem turned eleven just a while ago. I remember he looked at each of us then with sad eyes below his short haircut and, with his voice breaking a little, said the world was changing too fast, but for me it seems time moves too slowly and I will never grow up and I will always be in this place where I remember having lived my whole life with my twin sister.
Oh, yes, my sister and I are twins. She came out of our Momma just a short time after me. Momma says Tem almost didn’t make it because she didn’t start breathing right away. Tem has that extra finger on her left hand though and the midwife told Momma maybe that’s what finally helped her, but that she should try to not let people know about it.
As though the midwife herself wouldn’t talk. I know she did because people stare and whisper. Even about me. Twins, you know. Or maybe it’s something else, but I don’t mind.
I’m glad I have my twin sister. Funny, even though we are twins, we have always been opposites of each other. I am lighter. She is darker. My hair is reddish brown. Hers is brownish black. I talk a lot. Tem is the quiet one. Those who know both of us say I am the more practical, too.
Over a month ago, like I said, we passed our first decem anni by one year more. Ten years plus one together. Me first. Then Tem. But together.
Many children do not get as far as us, I know. Women are always losing their babies here and it must be the same everywhere. Papa told me how he was the third baby his momma had had. One came out blue and dead; the other came out with too many arms and legs, so was taken at night to be left on a hilltop. That really made Papa the first, like me; the oldest brother, like I’m the older sister. But he had four more after him. Three sisters and one brother. I just have my sister Tem. I love her and am glad she was not left out on a hilltop – but I think she’s enough.

Papa says he is more than four tens old. Quadraguinta. That seems a really long time to me, but somehow I can’t think of Papa as old. I mean, he doesn’t seem old to me at all. I just wonder where he is though.

“Back before your mother and I met, I was just a foot soldier. The army came through our village in my father’s land of Macedonia – the birthplace of the Great Alexander – looking for conscripts. You remember where Macedonia is, right?”
“Across the big sea!”
“Yes, Tuya-miau, across the big, big sea. Mare Nostrum. Good girl. Well, then they shipped myself and another hundred or so conscripts off to serve under the Dux Aegypti. Tem-Tem, it’s your turn to tell me what that is.”
Tem only stared at the floor and didn’t say anything, so Papa continued his story. I don’t know how many times he had told it to us, but I never tired of hearing it.
“Well, Dux Aegypti is the Egypt Command. So, having never been at sea before, I got terribly ill –“
“And you barfed your guts out over the side but it was OK because it fed the hungry fishes, right?”
“Exactly right. Unfortunately, our sea passage was not without incident. A few men fell overboard but the ship’s pilot would not change course to find them. Then after the third sunset–”
“You all tried to take the ship and turn it back!”
“My Tuya, you know your Papa would never do something like that! Nor would most others. Nevertheless, the few experienced soldiers on board quickly got matters under control and the leaders of the rebellion were dealt with severely.”
“They were dragged behind the ship in the water so the sharks could eat them up! Right, Papa?”
By now, Tem was faking being asleep. She woke up soon enough though when Papa paused to drink from his cup, then jumped off his lap and ran to the kitchen where Momma was making preparations for tomorrow’s breakfast.
Papa continued.
“Things went smoothly after that trouble. No one dared try anything again. Once back on land in the port of Alexandria, I quickly recovered from my sea-sickness. Then, as luck would have it, I was marched here to Heliopolis with a detachment of other soldiers. All of us part of the 5th Macedonian Legion, mostly patrolling the streets and alleyways of the city. Just our being around usually keeps the peace during the day.
“Night patrol though always has been the worst. Drunken men and women in and out of the taverns brawling and screaming. People killing each other in the streets and on rooftops. Spouses who normally did not have to face each other by day, quarreled once both at home after dark – too often with evil effects for one or the other and too often for any children they might have.”
In anticipation, I stayed quiet. The best part was about to come.
“Thieves did what thieves always do, too; especially the bands of roving youths, brigands who as often as not would taunt and attack us soldiers. It was while dispatching one infamous gang cornered in a dead-end alley – something we had well thought out and planned as part of a night round-up – it was then that I found your mother.”

So, because of my smart soldier Papa – now optio, not just munifex — that’s how I know a lot of what I know. The rest I find out for myself.
I can keep track of how more than ten tens or so kinds of different birds live around our river parts. For each kind though, they number too many to count. I mean, if you could even count them when they all fly up so beautifully together. Their wings glint in the day sky like the stars do in the night sky. I think sometimes the way they group or cry must have some hidden meaning. Really, I think they do talk to us in their way. Some people say they are messengers and that we just need to learn how to listen or read their signs.
I try.
Tem says that birds are just birds.
Still, despite her crankiness, I try to follow what kinds of birds come and go with the seasons, wondering where they go and why they return. I watch for the long-legged ones like the diver birds, the Great Cormorants, the pink-backed pelicans and cranes that come in winter. Usually they don’t lay eggs here, but they come back with young birds, so they must make babies in the other places they go off to. Some kinds of geese and ducks, quail, kingfishers, shrikes and kestrels do all nest with us though. Some stay here all the time; others take their surviving children away across water or desert when seasons turn.
One bird, a dusky-shaded brown and green ibis, flies in to visit its cousin called Pharaoh’s Ibis with its striking, black-fringed wings. I like pretending that our stay-at-home ibis invites its distant relative in for lotos and beer in exchange for stories of far-away lands.
Like I said, many other birds stay here all the time, just like we do. The benu, egrets and bitterns; doves and pigeons; cuckoos, owls, crows and bats; black kites, Horus falcons, vulturinum – all seem to like it here well enough. But, like the ibis, they have winged cousins calling on them year-round, while no one ever comes by to see our family.
The way I remember the different kinds is like this. I might make one kind of nest for one kind – in my mind, of course – and another sort of nest for a different bird. Or I see them moving in a particular way in the sky in my mind’s eye, individually for some and in flocks for some others. Certain birds I remember by seeing them doing a showy mating dance, or challenging one another with puffed out chests and ruffled feathers, or fluting a few sad notes of a song, or swallowing a frog.
This is all useful because along with what Papa gets from the army, birds provide part of the livelihood of our family. Me and Tem have been coming out with throw sticks, hoop nets and small ground nets to catch them since we were old enough to sit quietly in boat or blind – first with Papa; later with Momma when Papa started getting called away more and more. Because Momma has other things to do, later it was just me and Tem going out on our own.
Other birders, either singly or in groups, hunt with arrows, javelins, slings, clap-nets and long net fences. Some use tethered bitterns with their eyelids sewn shut to trick curious apedu with the decoys’ pitiful cries.
I do well enough without such deceits.
I say this because in recent months, Tem has come out less and less. When I ask if she will accompany me in the reed boat that Papa made for us to cover more of the river bank, she stiffens her back and shoulders, saying she needs to stay home to help Momma. She says seeing that I am the one who likes sitting out under the hot sun with the flies, gnats and crocodiles, why don’t I just go by myself? Then she turns and walks away. I don’t know what has gotten into her, but if all she’s going to do is complain and scare the birds off, she can stay home sweeping the dust from the floor and washing down the walls with that nasty natron.
Speaking of crocodiles, I don’t know what Tem is so afraid of. They never have bothered me. It’s like they don’t even hear or smell me. I am less than a shadow to them, I think. Besides, there are a pair of hawks who always seem to fly low overhead as a kind of warning for me to get off the river and, sure enough, then something you don’t want ‘round comes around. One time, one of the hawks dove right down to the back of my skiff and took off again. It happened fast but when I turned to look all I could see was the hawk flying off with a cobra in its talons.
Another time I thought I heard something coming from the papyrus thickets and though both hawks tried to warn me away, I went in to have a look. What I found was dead bodies of people. I didn’t think animals had killed them, because no animal I know of puts heads on stakes. After this, I always listened to my hawk friends.

One day, as usual, I had been out since before dawn. That’s the very best time of day. I was on the alert and gliding downstream in the reed boat along the thick stands of papyrus growing down to the river’s bank and into its shallows. The boat is like a second home to me. Though small and narrow, I feel safe in it. Protected. So much so that I sometimes nap in it under the shade of the tall reeds. At such times I might dream that the river is a path snaking warmly through a shadowy forest like those Papa speaks of. I am very familiar with this path. Just as I am with the river that dreams along with me.
But, as much as I like to daydream, I do have things to do. Things like checking the simple traps I have learned to make and set from watching birds’ habits; putting up nets; trying to locate nests by the hungry cries of young birds.
Like I said, sunrise is the best of times to be out and about on the river. Life there is stretching, shaking the night off and getting ready for the new day. The birds are waking to sing praises to the sun. They are hungry from their night fast and tend not to pay much attention to a little inops-girl, quietly drifting with the current.
So, as the sun stretches its arms out, its hopeful rays warming the air and chasing away the river mists, I unwrap a piece of bread to chew on to quash my belly rumblings. From around a weedy sand bank, a coot family – the mother bird and seven grey, not fully fledged young – come up to my boat, curious, I think, about my breakfast. I break off a corner of bread and toss it on the water, whereupon the adult snatches it up. I throw several more pieces a little forward of my skiff, while slowly taking up the handle of my hoop net. By now the chicks have joined the fray for my bread, which gives me the chance to bring my net quickly over the lot.
I’m not fast enough due to nearly losing my balance. I succeed in catching only four of the young. The mother and the rest of her brood run across the water’s surface in a flash, beyond my reach, splashing and squawking noisily along the way. All that commotion puts an end to any sneakiness I may have enjoyed, so I quiet the little birds, stow them and turn about to pole back upriver toward home.
On the way, I think it’s too bad that I didn’t get the mother. Besides being plump, her black feathers seemed especially shiny and healthy. I could sell them to the clothiers to dress up their wares.
Or use them myself.
I collect feathers of different birds and have used these to make a cap that is formed tightly to my head. By gradually bending the longer feathers from falcons and the like, I can shape them to my head without breaking the spines. The way I wear the cap is with the notches to the front and the quills in the back. I use the smaller fluffy feathers to fill in and cover the quills like a fringe. Tem wants me to make her one, but says she wants one where the feathers stand up – not laying flat like mine.
The day is warming up quickly, so I need to unload my morning’s catch, which has grown with the addition of a huge, sharp-jawed turtle, a clutch of dozens of round, white turtle eggs, and three quail from my set traps. The heat will spoil both birds and turtle eggs, already attracting an army of flies to the basket where I have stored them – the seven birds with their necks wrung. Also, though the turtle hides in its shell when I rap it sharply with my pole, it keeps coming out to try to escape over the side of the boat, making it all the more necessary to hurry back.
Quayside at the town market, I climb the embankment and am happy to immediately sell the turtle for its meat and shell to a fish broiler my Papa knows by the name of Felix. As two of his helpers carry the creature from my boat and away to slaughter, he laughs with his hands on his hips, saying, “You must be a child of Anukis to be able to subdue such a beast without losing all your toes and fingers to its rapacious jaws!” I smile up at him, sweat dripping down along my nose, and reply, “My Momma prays to Dedwen to accompany me at market, so that I may be paid well for my work.”
I cock my head a little to one side and give Felix the Eye, just to see if this has any affect on him.
With that, he bursts out with a guffaw and puts a generous sum into my outstretched palm.

I slip the coins unobtrusively into the leather wallet held at my side by a rawhide string across my bare chest, just as Felix scrunches up his nose while looking down at my other hand holding the covered basket with the dead fowl. He raises his eyebrows as though to ask about the odor insinuating itself over that of the fish, cooking oil and offal in his sector of the market. I advise him that my luck did not stop with turtles, so I had better move on to where people eat real food. I’m not quick enough to dodge a light slap to the back of my head that knocks my cap askew.
Our market, like most run by the Romans, is laid out in a grid fashion with different numbered sectors, each with its assigned products. Papa had explained that this made it easier to control what was sold by whom. Because the Prefecture also set the prices for every type of commodity, it makes it easier to locate and fine cheats, largely because sellers keep their eyes on other sellers in their sector. The aisle ways crisscrossing and joining the sectors are wide and vendors are supposed to keep them clear of their goods. Papa also told us this is so that soldiers can move with speed through the market when there is any trouble.
As many vendors, not just fishermen, bring their wares by boat, quayside is Sector One. It is from here that I then walk east, away from the river, through the vegetable sector. Onions, radishes, leeks, cucumbers, figs, grapes, cabbages, turnips, melons all reach out with their fresh scents to grab at my growling stomach as I pass. I walk fast to get through to the fowl and poultry sector to finish my business.
Farmers and market workers I have known for years call out their greetings to me. Customers haggle, despite the administration’s price controls. Small groups of squatting men drink tea, play with their 20-sided dice and natter. Women laugh and scold their children.
Drool slips from one corner of my mouth as my stomach rumbles and I wipe it away with the back of my hand. The dank, gamey smell of the river on my hands puts my hunger down.

My straw basket is lighter; my purse heavier. The leavened barley bread smeared with olive oil, bean paste and garlic sits well in my belly. A small belch serves as a flavorful reminder of my well-deserved meal.
Just as I am heading for one of the latrine areas outside the market perimeter, a commotion starts up in the poultry and fowl sector behind and to my left. Although the spice sector and prepared foods sector are between me and it, I see shoppers and shopkeepers alike drifting that way and crowding around what is beginning to turn into something more than a scrap. I know this will quickly draw soldiers to keep the order, which means people are going to get hurt.
Later, I found that Timothy the live goose monger had gotten into an argument with a customer over something. The customer at one point pushed Timothy hard, saying that Christians like him were just brainless goose shit and ought to be thrown into the river for the hippos and crocodiles. Timothy then slashed out with a short-bladed butchering knife, cutting the man’s arm, while calling him a pagan son of a temple whore. At this point, others in the crowd began taking sides. Christians against pagans. Pagans against Christians. Jews in it just for a good argument, like so many others looking to have a little sport to spice up their dull lives so they might brag in the taverns.
Papa says it doesn’t pay to stick around to watch brawls like this because you never know how big they will get or how violent.
“Movete! Movete!”
That would be soldiers coming at double-time, telling people to get out of their way. There are just two of them, each strong and grim-faced; each carrying his light, round catra shield and short sword, with a puglio on his belt. The crowd will be no match for them and I know that this promises to be yet another of what Papa calls “bone-breaker containments.” Although necessary, in the end it will give fuel to rabble-rousers to stir up more hatred against the Prefect and his soldiers.
The pair jogs along the aisle where I am, so I jump off to my right side. A baker’s apprentice – an older boy I have seen before called Peter – trips me and follows that with a shove while calling me “bird brain.”
I try to keep to my feet but can’t. Falling, I want to yell something at him but my first angry flash gets instantly crushed when my head hits the edge of the baker’s wagon.
Hard.

The ceiling I see is the one I see every night before falling asleep and every morning when I wake up. The bed feels like my own and that I’m under my favorite linen coverlet with animal pictures on it. Cooking smells tease my nose and stomach, drawing me from muddled dreams.
Tem’s voice. “Momma! Her eyes are open!” Then quieter to me. “You’re going to get it now!”
“Daughter! What you done? People say you fight again in market! What me tell about wrestling market boys? Letting them put hands on you! Just wait! I tell you Papa!”
“Papa?”
I’m confused.
Momma says that I snuck into the house while she and Tem had gone out to do the laundry. She says I was asleep when they returned; that I didn’t wake up all the rest of that day and slept the night through, as well. She found me in my bed and says nothing she did would stir me. Tem says she even sat on me and pinched me, but that I didn’t notice that either.
Because of all the scrapes on my face, chest, arms and legs, not to mention a huge red knot on the side of my head, Momma says it’s proof I’d been fighting. And most likely met my match this time. While I do fight when I have to, most boys know to leave me alone. But I remember that I hadn’t fought with anyone, just that I’d been pushed down.
I try telling this to Momma – Tem is standing behind her and looking around at me like I’m some kind of fool – but she is having none of it.
“All time you on river make your brains cook. You lie to me all you want but me not your fool. So! Get dressed and eat something. Least you show some good sense putting wallet under big bed. Looks like good day you had from what you bring home. Just lucky no one steal all.”
Money always has a way of softening Momma’s anger.
She brings me a thick, hot porridge and a handful of berries to eat. I sit on the edge of the bed trying to collect myself, with the bowl in my lap and my feet on the floor. I stir the berries in with the porridge and start eating. With the first taste of warm food in what I guess is a couple of days at least, I close my eyes and take a deep breath. Momma sits with me and gently rubs some of her calendula ointment onto my chest. I yelp when she touches my left nipple and looking down it looks like it has been practically scraped off.
I should be fighting mad about this. But instead of thinking of how to get back at Peter, I’m feeling suddenly that life is really good. I tear up and clasp Momma’s forearm.
Sitting with Momma beside me on the bed, I think of how Tem and I each have a bed of our own, which is more than most kids we know have. The beds are just plain wood frames with short, squared legs, but they get us off the ground. Leather straps interlace and fasten to the side rails and a double layer of rush mats helps make the beds more comfortable. We use wood blocks with a cushion to pillow our heads.
Momma and Papa have a bigger bed because, of course, there are two of them. The legs are much heavier and turned by lathe. They are higher than mine and Tem’s, too. It also has a pluteus or headboard with horses’ heads carved on each corner. Papa loves horses. They have a down-filled mattress and a long down-filled bolster as their shared pillow. It’s nice to lie on their bed when they let us.
I think it is safe to change the subject now.
“Momma? Is Papa back?”
“No. Soldiers at garrison hear nothing yet. Eat. And stop you worry about him. None of that make him get home any sooner. And Tuya – just so if there speck of truth in lies you tell, me tell you stay away from boy who hit you. Momma forbid you go back to hit him. Next you know, you kill someone. Then what? You understand me?
“Tem! That two times as much for you, so stop eye-rolling! One day eyes go fall out of oh so pretty head. Then roll right out door. Bye!”
Momma pulls Tem to her.
“You both sweet desert foxes of mine. I love you. Tell Momma you going stay clear of market boy.”
Momma gets up and leaves me alone on the bed. Tem follows her out like a young coot.

My Momma comes from far up the river, from a place called Kush. I like when she tells me and Tem about what it was like for her growing up and how different river life is from so far away. She says she was much poorer there, so I’m sure that’s why Momma likes the extra coin I bring in. It helps the family, along with what she makes as a medicine woman, especially when Papa is away on patrol like he has been now for half a season. When he is away like this, we have to wait for what the soldiers call their salary.
Momma first came to Heliopolis when she was “fourteen floodings old,” as she says. Her father brought her along on a trading expedition that was supposed to make his fortune but he took ill with vomiting and diarrhea. A river sickness that killed him within just a few days. His partners said nothing when grandfather first complained of fever and tremors. They installed him at a cheap inn and bade Momma stay to put cool compresses on his forehead. A day later, grandfather’s cousin and their new leader – for grandfather had been the master on the journey downriver – told Momma they would carry out the trading and once finished come back for her. That was the last she saw of them.
Momma was kicked out of the inn the same day her father died. She had no money and no idea what had happened to her father’s body.
She would never say what she did to get by after that, except that some time later she met Papa.

It’s the third week of May, what some of Momma’s friends call Opet. She went out with them to visit their dead relatives’ sepulchri. Though Momma doesn’t know what happened to her father’s body, she says she honors his spirit at one of the cemetery shrines. She brought lots of perfumy flowers home.
Tem started her menses. Not so very sweet smelling. She had been complaining for some time about how her nipples hurt and I thought for sure she was just looking to take attention from me because of the way I had gotten grazed up. Now that she has started bleeding, I do notice that she also has a pair of walnuts beginning to pop up.
I always thought I’d be the first, like I have been in just about everything else. But, no, Tem is getting hit with the titty stick before me and is really letting me know about it. All she has been doing is marching around the house as though she is leading a procession down the temple avenue, flaunting her greening womanhood.
The scent of her blood at first made it hard for me to fall asleep at night. That and her moaning from cramps.
Momma gives her a borage tonic for the cramps and has shown her how to make cloth pads for catching the blood. I will make sure I am out on the river on laundry day.

Eight days after Tem’s menstrual blood has stopped flowing, several of Momma’s friends come by to visit. Momma explains to Tem that the women want to give a special Moon Ceremony for Tem to help her crossover to being a woman. They say it is a kind of celebration just for young girls like her and that it is very, very secret.
Why hadn’t we heard of this before? I mean me and Tem? We know all about cunni and tits and how to make ourselves feel good, and how could we not know about bleeding when every woman around us has had her monthlies while we were growing up. We had watched Momma wash out her rags and put them up to dry, while telling us all about the pestis. So it was like something you never wanted to happen to you, but still you looked forward to it just to know what it was like and be able to tell your own stories about it.
Poor Tem. Now she knows. But she is getting something special now, too, and I am not going to be a part of it. We’ve always done everything together, so this is hardly fair. I go back to my bed and when I am sure I am alone, I lift my linen and try to see myself down there and talk to whatever spirit might live there to tell it that it is time for me to join my sister, so we can do this Moon thing together.
Instead, I have to watch as the women come for Tem and Momma in the dead of night. All of them, including Momma and Tem, are painted with strange markings on their faces and everywhere else that I can see. I wish now I had made that feathered hat for my sister. She tries to keep a solemn look on her face, but I can tell she is very excited. I am told I have to stay behind and that I had better not try to follow. My time will come, they say.
After dawn, when Tem returns, she’s crying and groaning in pain, while holding her lower abdomen. Maybe this is not such a good thing after all.
Momma gives Tem something to drink that puts her to sleep, but she still moans and pumps her legs slowly, like she’s trying to get a foothold on to something solid. Meanwhile, Momma busies herself in the kitchen. I go up to her quietly. Tears are running down her cheeks, so I cough a little to let her know I am there. She turns and when she sees me, she opens her arms so we can hug.
Now I’m crying and I ask Momma what happened? What did they do to my sister?
Momma takes a few moments to compose herself, then takes me to a bench where we sit side by side. After a few deep breaths, she starts talking, not looking at me just yet.
“Thing start so beautiful! Tem your sister excited so. Me, too. All walk for hour to place of trees. Secret place where women already make safe circle. Circle have special magic showing earth, air, water, fire. Tem told stand in center then all we women stand around holding branches of fire. We sing for gods to bless Tem, we all, we families and world. Was such celebration just like we say.”
“It sounds nice, Momma.”
“Was nice – but then all changed. One woman from me home, upriver, go by name of Saka’aye, after olden times queen. Everyone call her Saka and have much respect for all know she able speak direct with gods. So. Saka drink magic water from Look-Ahead Gourd, she fall to ground, no hear, no see no one. All we think Saka must be talking with spirit and we pray she come back, bring good news and bless our Tem.”
Momma is breathing in fast, little breaths by this time, so she stops to get herself together again. I already know that things could not have gone well or Tem would not be in the state she is in, still fretful in sleep.
“What did Mother Saka say, Momma?”
“Such bad luck for our Tem! When Saka come back, she say because of Tem’s number six finger on left hand, she must do special work as kahin –“
“What’s that, Momma?”
“Oh, me think it what some around here call manti. Someone like Saka herself.”
“But that doesn’t sound so bad. Aren’t they healers, too? Like you are with all that you know about herbs and medicines?”
“Yes, dear Tuya, like that. This not the bad news though. Saka go on and say spirits no want our Tem bear any children. Ever. So, it then Saka tell us hold Tem down and she reach inside one hand, pushing down outside with other – and she break Tem’s womb neck. Bend it so no man’s seed find place.”
I can’t speak. I’m nearly exploding inside. Things are moving too quickly. I want to run away. Instead, I cry.

Although her menses had ended before her dedication, Tem bled for several days after her “celebration” but it has stopped now. I have been helping Momma nurse Tem along. Actually, once she could talk, she yelled hoarsely at Momma and told her to go away. Tem is better today but is still shaky, so I hold her up sitting to give her broth and medicines to drink. I wash her and keep her clean in other ways. She lets me brush her hair and asks me to sing to her, which I do in a low voice while stroking her head.
I think Tem is going to be all right. Some things are going to take longer to heal though. Momma says she has known of women who had this done to them, but they had asked a midwife to do it after already having a baby. Tem did not ask for this but now it’s done and that’s that. After a while, I’ll talk with her to get her to talk to Momma. It sounded to me like Momma could not have done anything to stop what Saka did and I see that she feels really bad about it. Tem’s tears have dried up but Momma’s haven’t.
Because we’re well into the month of June, I tell Momma that I need to get back out on the river. Caring for Tem has kept me away from my work and, besides, I need to be by myself to think about all that has happened. I don’t remember anything every being this bad in our family before and don’t see how they can get any worse.

Usually we do not see vultures this far north. Papa says they stick to the deserts east and west of Heliopolis, or farther upriver where it is dryer; though I have seen them on the ground a couple times before, making dinner of dead animals. Mostly crows take care of such things. That’s why I was surprised to see a pair of them making wide circles over this area. They stayed pretty high up in the sky, going around and ‘round, shaping an invisible snare over the city. Because they did not come down, they must not have spotted any remains. It was more like they were waiting for something to happen, for something to die.
This is on my mind as I make my way home from the river and the market. I only made a little money today as a result of my mind not paying attention to bird sounds and what they mean. There were some dead birds in my traps, but those that had not been mostly eaten by other animals were too far gone to even think of selling. I did reset my traps and I will go out tomorrow to check them.
Coming up to our house, my shoulders slump down and I am feeling tired. I don’t feel like seeing anyone, not even Tem or Momma – but there are people standing outside our gate. One of them is holding the bridle of a horse.
Papa has always talked about finally being able to buy a horse of his own. He says this would make him an eques, so that when he retires in a little while he could become someone important in the city, letting him make more money than his military pension will give us.
Did Papa finally get a horse when he was on this last patrol? And is he home now?
I go through the gate, with a quick look over my shoulder at the beautiful horse; then through the main entryway. Momma is sitting with a strange man, while two other men stand close by. These two glance my way briefly, but go back to the conversation between Momma and the stranger. He is military and from what Papa has told me about insignia and uniforms, he looks to be high ranking. Probably a centurion. That means the horse belongs to him, not Papa.
Though I have to pee, I hold it in and listen to what the man is saying to Momma.
“…so, you see, you are not really a Roman citizen. The one you call your husband was and your two daughters are citizens by birth, but Kush is not a part of the Imperium. I am sorry to have to be the one to tell you this.”
“But I tell you, I married to citizen. To soldier like you and two men here.”
“Yes, that is all well and good, but you see the laws say that soldiers cannot officially marry. Of course, we realize that they take up with local women all the time, and in your case, a foreign woman.”
One of the standing soldiers smirks and makes a knowing nod to the other at this. I want to kick him.
The centurion continues, “That is why I have to tell you that you may no longer live in this house. Legally this property belongs to the army. It was requisitioned for use for our officers when the 5th Macedonian Legion first came to this province. ”

That was nearly a month ago. Everything has changed since.
Papa is missing and the army says that if he did not desert, he must be dead. The centurion told Momma that he had ordered Papa and a few other soldiers to go to the army fort at Dionysias to oversee equipment distribution as a result of some irregularities. As this fort is at an oasis in the Western Desert, it is known that there are bandits and Bedouin in the area. At the time, there also had been rain storms and at least one big dust storm. Only one man from the group Papa led made it to the fort. He reported that he thought the others had drowned when water suddenly washed down a wadi to their night encampment. It missed him because he was squatting behind a bush and some distance from the others in order to relieve himself.
When word had gotten back to the centurion, he gave the surviving soldier a field promotion, directing him to take Papa’s place.
We spent the next several days sleeping in friends’ homes, usually on the floor because we had to leave our nice beds behind. When I think about those… those novi sleeping in our beds, it makes me feel hot and broken inside.
It was strange the way we left. The new soldier’s family just barged in and took over, bossing us around and telling us to get out. As we went out the gate like beggars, Tem turned around and stared at the house for some time. As though called, the family all came to the front doorway and seemed to be waiting for Tem to say something. And she did have something to say – but I have no idea what she said or in what language but it sounded like a curse. More than that, she said it so loud that passersby made a wide arc around us, a couple of Christians crossing themselves as they did so.
I have a new respect for my sister and told her so.
Momma had saved some money, so she found us a small, single room to the north of our old home. She said she did not want to live near our old place for fear that she would burn it down in the night and the army would know who to come looking for. She also said this is just temporary, until she can arrange for us to go upriver back to where she came from. Despite the betrayal by her uncle years ago, she is sure that there are cousins who will take us in until we can get back on our feet.
Meanwhile, we are making do here in this tiny room. The man she rents from says she can use the courtyard to cook in, as long as she keeps it clean. Fortunately, he is not around much but there is a woman he keeps that looks in on us every now and again. She seemed sympathetic when Momma told her our story but has not offered any real help.
I keep hoping that Papa will show up and take us away from all of this. It won’t matter if he is still in the army or not. I don’t give a cockroach’s ass for the army at this point.
What with Papa missing, losing our nice house and Tem’s agonies – these are just part of our troubles, it turns out. Though Momma has money saved up that she keeps well protected, I still need to help out with supporting the family. The walk to my skiff is now longer, given where we have relocated. All of my traps and snares had been damaged or taken, so I have had to redo all of them. The worst thing though is when I bring my day’s catch to market, people act like they hardly know me. Even Felix.
I always thought that we were good friends because of the way we joked with each other. When I saw him for the first time after everything bad started happening, he said he had heard about Papa and that he was really sorry. The thing is, he said all this in Greek. We always spoke before in Latin. Papa encouraged us to use the Roman tongue and learn Roman ways. Of course, there are a lot of people here from around where Papa came from and they use mostly the language from there – as do most others for that matter. So it’s not like I grew up not being able to understand Greek. But now everyone in the market, including Felix, only speaks to me in Greek.
Not only that, they don’t pay as much as they used to for what I bring in to sell. I’m still trying to figure all this out. Meanwhile, I speak Greek. Even at the place we now call home.
Momma sighs and shakes her head, but her gaze is hard and determined when she thinks I’m not looking. All in all, I wonder how she can stay as calm as she does. A lot calmer than me, for certain.

Because the river waters have been rising, Momma says we must leave for the south soon. Her plan is that we will travel by boat as far as Thebes; from there joining a caravan to Meroe. She says we have to be ready to leave quickly, so we find a cheap inn close to the water where the river people stay, for once a boat has its cargo loaded the craft master does not wait around.
It has been several days since we came to the inn. I go every morning to talk with the boat owners, craft masters and crews because I want to know what the river is like to the south. It’s hard to say who’s telling the truth and who’s stretching it just to scare me or impress me, but I’m getting an idea of what we can expect. It will be different.
Momma comes down to the docks later in the day to check with the progress of a certain boat and its cargo. She has made a small advance to its master, who is dark like Momma, and has agreed to take on cooking and cleaning chores once underway. He assures her that the material he is waiting for is likely to arrive any day.
Momma says this man’s word is good.
It is the twenty-first of July when Sirius the Dog Star joins the Sun at dawn during these hottest days. Before we go, I feel the urge to visit my old river haunts one last time.
I run towards the market quayside in hopes of finding the old reed boat Papa had made for us. It is there, hidden still in the papyrus reeds, so I climb in and catch the current to float downriver.
On the water, I begin to relax. By the time I catch my breath the eastern sky begins to brighten and a few birds are making their morning songs. This day I feel like they are singing not just to make the sun rise but also for me. I am as much a part of this place as are the birds. They are letting me know that just as they nest here, drop their still supple eggs to warm them beneath soft-feathered breasts, then greet the blind hatchlings into the world of the river, that this place has been my nest in a way, too. Though I may be curled inside a shell of my own and my eyes may yet be closed, light begins to penetrate my lids.
I think: It must be time for me to hatch, to learn to fly, to soar on my own. Things will be different now. They have to be.

Nothing But Alexandria

By Marina Chamma

Ten minutes were left for the express train to make its final stop into Alexandria’s Misr Station. For most of the two-and-a-half hour ride from Cairo, Rania’s head rested on her spotless, single-paned first class seat window. While she didn’t care for the luxuries of cleanliness and comfort on this trip, she had not been given much of a choice.
“A lovely lady like you travelling second class? Impossible!” the jovial middle-aged ticketing clerk at Cairo’s Ramses Station had told her the day before, as she tried to buy a regular one-way ticket to Alexandria.
“Thank you, that’s very kind of you,” she smiled, trying to keep her cool, “but I don’t want first class.” The clerk reached out for the booklet of first class tickets regardless.
“This is a first class ticket that will get you there in less than three hours!” he proudly exclaimed, as if the standard travel time to Alexandria couldn’t even escape Egypt’s obsession with haggling. Rania frowned, unconvinced.
“Besides, second class is only for Egyptians,” he triumphantly noted, ending the need for any further discussion. All the Egyptian movies Rania had watched as a teenager in Beirut had not been enough to keep even a short conversation going in the Egyptian dialect. Her colloquial Lebanese crept in soon enough, making it impossible to fool the natives. But being Egyptian or not wasn’t only about language. Luckily for the ticketing clerk, however, Rania had neither the time nor patience to argue about the definitions of a foreigner and whether she could even be considered one.
Rania had looked aimlessly out of the window throughout the ride. She took in as much of the hustle and bustle, the slums and crowds of the Cairo suburbs as her eyes could handle. Once out of the city, the vastness of the Egyptian hinterland was much simpler for her eyes to absorb. But the landscape was anything but monotonous, both arid and dusty, fertile and green, depending on how close the fields were to the bounties of the Nile.
Only after the train made its second to last stop at Tanta Station on the Upper Nile Delta, halfway through the trip, did the vast panoramas suddenly disappear. Rania could see nothing but Alexandria in front of her, without even closing her eyes. Its wide boulevards, chaotic narrow side streets and corniche – whose view into the city was blocked by endless rows of shiny new buildings, suffocating the remaining arabesque-styled villas that had yet to be brought to the ground. The way she saw Alexandria was drawn from the history books she read, the random documentaries she had watched and occasional dreams that were frighteningly lucid. No matter how different the city turned out to be from that of her imagination, she knew that once she arrived to Misr Station for the very first time, took a taxi heading northeast towards Al Ibrahimiyyah district and walked up Qena Street, she would find her grandmother’s house, just as it had been left and just as she had imagined it, waiting for her to bring it back to life.
As the train left Tanta Station, Rania suddenly felt a frantic urge to go through the neatly stacked contents of her brown leather messenger bag, most of which had been gathered during the past month. Handwritten notes scribbled around an improvised family tree going back to the 1860s. A list of family friends of her maternal grandmother with Levantine, Greek and Italian-sounding surnames with what would have once been their phone numbers and addresses in Alexandria. Rania knew she would be lucky if any of their descendants still lived there, let alone if anybody in the neighborhood recognized their names. The names of friends and relatives of her maternal grandparents who once lived in Cairo, whose numbers and addresses were also decades old. It was impossible that everyone had left without a trace and she would knock on their doors on her way back if she had to. Copies of the obituaries of her grandparents taken from three local newspapers, with nothing more than dates and standardized shallow epitaphs with post-mortem reverence for the dead. Photocopies of land deeds and a random collection of black and white passport pictures and colored family pictures delicately arranged in a rice paper notebook, every picture on a separate page. Delicately folded and placed at the front of the stack was a copy of the letter that had made the trip inevitable.

Barely one month had gone by since she had found the letter. Wandering at home on a lazy Monday evening, Rania stumbled upon a cardboard box everybody has in that ubiquitous dusty little corner of their attic. Mom must have thought it was filled with my faded teenage mementos and sent it here with the movers, she thought. The box was bursting at the seams and most of its contents came tumbling down as Rania removed the lid. There was everything from her baby pictures, souvenirs from family vacations, birthday cards from aunts and uncles, cassettes sent by her cousins as recorded letters and a small plastic box with two of her intact milk teeth. She found one of her favorite pictures of her mother as a fashionable, single 20 something year old, posing on a balcony overlooking an endless sparkling harbor she didn’t recognize. As she kept going through the box, five pages of elegant cursive handwriting suddenly fell into her lap from an envelope that was placed upside down. It was a letter to her mother and aunt Mona from her grandmother, written shortly before she had died. Coincidentally, Mona, the keeper of the family history and only one who would help her decipher what she had just found, would be visiting her in Beirut in a couple of days. Rania didn’t believe in signs, but if she did, she knew this is exactly what one would look like. It was a sign that she was ready to get her answers, to start uncovering the truth.

Rania’s maternal grandmother Rose and grandfather Hani were third generation Lebanese living in Egypt, their own grandparents having escaped Mount Lebanon’s simmering sectarian warfare of the mid-1800s in what was then part of the Ottoman Empire. They formed part of the community of Levantines, Greeks, Italians and other Mediterraneans, who settled primarily in Cairo and Alexandria, and made these metropoles so cosmopolitan. Each of these communities preserved some of the features of their countries of origin and never let go of their attachment to it. Together they forged a unique identity, a blend of Egyptian and the best and worst of their own cultures brought together in Egypt, their ultimate home.
Rose was born and raised in Alexandria and Hani in Cairo. They had met in Beirut, both back in the motherland for a month-long summer vacation with their respective families in the late 1950s. Hani couldn’t take his eyes off the charming brunette who had walked past him in one of downtown Beirut’s most popular confectionaries, while Rose was immediately captivated by the young man’s mischievous smile and captivating stare, more than compensating for his unassuming physique. The fact that they were both from Egypt and their families knew of each other only facilitated their relationship. After a six-month courtship, involving crowded afternoon gatherings in Beirut, lunches in Cairo and long strolls on Alexandria’s harbor, they got married and Rose moved to Cairo. Their two daughters were born and raised in Cairo, Rania’s mom married early and moved to Beirut, while Mona stayed until her father died.
Rania was ten years old when her grandfather passed away in 1982. How she and her mother had hastily flown into Cairo from Beirut on a stormy winter night, and rushed to see Hani for the very last time, was one of those memories that remained intact in her mind. For the next two days, Rania was confined to her grandparents’ apartment in Cairo’s Heliopolis district, left under the supervision of relatives she had never met. She realized something was wrong when strangers started flocking to the house, all dressed in black, paying their respects in an eerie silence and heading out the door quickly thereafter. Only hours after the condolences were over, Rania and her mother took the first plane back to Beirut and Mona was sent to Boston under the care of a distant relative. Rose sold the family’s Cairo apartment and moved back to her native Alexandria into her parent’s house with an unmarried sister and cousin. Mona had begged Rose to settle in the safety of America instead, but she had adamantly refused. It appeared as if Rose couldn’t stay in Cairo after her husband’s death nor could she live too far away from it either.
For Rania and her mother to go to Alexandria to visit Rose was never an option. They would go to Athens, Paris or Limassol to meet instead, or Rose would come to Beirut whenever a lull in the always precarious security situation allowed for it. The bond between grandmother and granddaughter was kept alive and strong through phone calls and letters, sometimes accompanied by pictures other times with checks, a grandmother’s gift to her one and only niece at the time. Back then, Rania was too young to ask why couldn’t her grandmother send less checks and let her go visit her in Alexandria instead. Even if someone was willing to explain, Rania wouldn’t have understood the answers anyway.
During one of many visits she had taken to visit Mona and her family in Boston throughout the years, Rose died of a sudden heart failure days before going back to Alexandria. Her wishes were granted and her body laid to rest in Alexandria, far from her daughters but as close as she could to her husband in Cairo. Rania had just turned 20 and had been two weeks since she last talked to her grandmother. Rose’s unexpected death was a blow to Rania that took years for her to recover from. The fact that she couldn’t lay a flower on her grandmother’s grave in Alexandria to bring some closure made the healing process longer and as an adult, made the mystery of her grandmother’s life, and subsequently that of her grandfather’s, even more intriguing. With nobody willing to answer her questions, Rania sometimes resigned herself to the idea of never knowing and living with her self-adapted version of the truth instead.
But it wasn’t always easy. The physical similarities she and Rose shared, her mother’s occasional slip of tongues of “you look so much like your grandmother” or “Rose would’ve said the same thing” only increased her frustration about not knowing. Her desire for the truth was intensified by what she felt was a conscious attempt to keep the truth away from her. “I don’t know” or “ask Mona,” Rania’s mom always used to say to avoid her questions. Rania knew there was more to her grandmother than her never-ending pool of family anecdotes, and more to her grandfather than her austere memories of when she last saw him. As she grew older, Rania also realized that this thirst for the truth was becoming a quest for something very personal, for discovering part of her own roots, to better define who she really was. While most Lebanese, especially those whose families had emigrated to faraway lands, went back to Lebanon to uncover their roots and with it some of their identity, Rania knew she had to take the opposite route and walk out of that little nation to get what she wanted.
Suddenly, the letter appeared. It was a treasure buried right beneath Rania’s eyes, one she had never in her wildest dreams believed even existed. The letter read like an abridged family history and will of sorts, as if Rose knew that whatever took her far from her home and late husband, even a trip to see her daughters and grandchildren, would one day suck life right out of her. Attached to the main envelope was an unmarked envelope filled with black and white and colored pictures, individual and group pictures of what looked like better and happier times. Based on the date handwritten on the back of them, the last one taken was a colored picture of Rose before her last trip to America. Her allure exuded a faded yet pure and simple elegance, but not enough to erase the melancholy radiating from her stare. Yet she stood tall and proud, resting on an ornate black iron railing of a balcony, overlooking a harbor that Rania also didn’t recognize.

Rania was absorbed in her thoughts, but could have sworn to have heard the first of several bilingual announcements that their final stop into Alexandria’s Misr Station was approaching. She pushed her mental rewind button one last time, wanting to make sure everything was intact in her mind before getting off the train.

Barely ten hours after landing in Beirut and Mona was already resting on Rania’s cough, getting ready to be interrogated. She knew this was bound to happen one day but just as Rania, didn’t quite know where to start. Before opening their first bottle of white wine, Rania had already put their second to chill in the fridge. It was going to be a long night.
“I told you I found the letter,” Rania announced, “the one nobody ever told me about and pretended didn’t exist.” Rania untangled her feet and walked up to a small drawer at the far end of the living room. Mona watched as Rania brought back two envelopes attached to each other. She was surprised they had remained almost intact, with their clear blue tint, bright red and navy diagonal borders and “Air Mail” and “Par Avion” emblazoned on the bottom left corner in bold.
Mona closed her eyes for a moment. She clearly remembered how she had hand delivered the letter to Rania’s mother two months after their mother passed away. They had opened the letter together and spent the rest of the day laughing and crying, wondering how things went so wrong and how their lives would have been if they hadn’t.
“We don’t pretend it doesn’t exist,” Mona said calmly, “but what do you expect your mom and I to do with it after all these years?” Rania stared at Mona in silence. “The letter is what’s left of our history. Look at it as you would any other history book, you read it, learn from it and try to never forget it.”
“But what about justice or at least telling people the truth? Why did I have to know by mistake? Don’t I have the right to know too?” Rania said, frustrated that she had to even justify her right to know.
“Well, now you do,” Mona drily replied.
“Oh goddammit Mona, they’re my grandparents too. I never really knew how grandpa died, nor why we could never go to Cairo, nor why Rose had to move to Alexandria. She died and it was all completely over, as if they only existed as your parents and my grandparents, not as human beings on the face of the earth in their own right.”
Mona nodded in silent approval.
“So there’s nothing left in Cairo, right?” Rania asked.
“Yes” Mona replied, trying hard to stay calm. “Mom sold the house right after Dad died. Hani had no siblings, so nothing is left.” Rania knew Mona didn’t like to talk neither about Cairo nor her father too much, they were two wounds that had still not healed after all these years. It was because of how Hani died so unexpectedly, and the way she was snatched out of college in Cairo and siphoned off to Boston without with no choice but to comply. The wound remained so deep, exacerbated by stories of how much Cairo had changed since she left, that Mona had refused to go back since.
“What about Alexandria?” Rania continued, “is there anybody left there, a relative or neighbor of Rose, do we know if there is a house or at least know where it was?”
“Addresses and names of relatives and friends are in the letter,” Mona said, “but they haven’t been verified in decades. Everything else I know Rose told me during the last years of her life.”
Rania stared at Mona with her eyes wide open. She was waiting for Mona to corroborate in her own words what she had read about in the letter. Mona took a deep breath and went on.
“I think about it more often that you think, so does your mom, but then we forget. The same happens after the questions I get from my own kids or from your mother, because of your own questions. Sometimes it hits me, the need to know the truth, for someone to account and to bring closure to us all. But then I think it much better for time to heal and take care of it for us.”
It was hard for Rania to fully comprehend her mother and aunt’s ability to remain so passive in the face of their father’s death and Rose’s struggle to live a relatively normal life afterwards.
“But what about Cairo? It’s part of who we are as a family. Don’t you feel like you want to go back? Don’t you feel part of you belongs there?” Rania asked, voicing her own questions on her identity and belonging more than a concern for those of her aunt’s.
“When it comes to the bond with the place we grew up in,” Mona explained, “you do suddenly discover this desperate need for a sense of belonging. The need to belong not only to a place, but to a certain space, culture and time, no matter how far that place is or how detached that culture may be from the one you now consider your own. Still, it has to exist and be protected in a safe place in your mind. Without it, there’s a part of your soul that is missing and constantly restless, wondering around with no place to feel at ease. I may never go back nor see it again but know that the Egypt to which I belong remains in a safe place in my mind and that’s all that matter to me now.”
Rania already knew the answer to her next question, but decided to ask anyway.
“Would you come with me if I went?” Mona looked away, her nostalgic stare quickly turning into something bordering on anger. Without looking back at her niece, Mona’s initial answer was simply silence.
“Shou?” what, Rania asked, “What do you say?”
“Rania, do you think this is a game? There is nothing to see there,” Mona’s tone clearly irritated, turning back toward Rania, looking intensely into her eyes, hoping to make herself clear. “I know I will barely recognize Cairo if I ever go back, let alone Alexandria.” Mona reached out for her glass of wine, took a slip and went on.
“You asked if there was anybody left, a relative, a neighbor or a house. I don’t really know and I’m not sure I want to find out. Relatives would have surely passed and their sons and daughters probably don’t care about the past. Old neighbors may have already forgotten or still saddened to even think about it. If Rose’s house it still standing in Alexandria, it probably no longer belongs to us, just another lovely old house, like they don’t build them anymore, with a breathtaking view of the Alexandria harbor. So it’s probably best to keep things as your grandmother left them, in that letter and in our minds.”
“But what if…”
“What if what!” Mona shouted, starting to regret having allowed the conversation to go this far. “Neither Alexandria nor Cairo are anything like the romanticized image you must have of them,” Mona continued, angrily. “I’ve come to terms with that and with fate itself, that my dad is gone, however that happened, and the way that mom dealt with it, no matter how much I agree or disagree with it. I’ve kept the family memories instead, the happy and sad ones and will leave my kids with those same memories and nothing else.”
“I want to go,” Rania whispered, partly to avoid another furious reaction from Mona and also because she wasn’t quite sure what she would do there herself. But there was something she felt she had to see or try to find. A road she had to walk up, someone recognizable she would bump into and talk to, who would tell her stories that belonged to her family that were still missing from that history book Mona mentioned. She believed and somehow knew that her grandmother had left the letter for a reason. It wasn’t for them to reclaim any material goods, but to start uncovering the truth and part of her own past with it.
Her aunt looked at her, then turned away so that Rania couldn’t see her and smiled. Mona knew that no matter what she said, she wouldn’t be able to change Rania’s mind. Her stubbornness is truly like Rose’s, Mona thought, and maybe that letter was meant for nobody else but her.

My Beloved Girls,
Something tells me I should write this letter once and for all before it’s too late. I’ve always felt that every day that passes since the day your father left is a luxury I have done nothing to deserve. You and your families are the only thing that has kept me going, but that will all come to an end soon. I hope it will.
There are things I was able to tell you and others I was never able to gather the strength to say. I hope this will be the first step for you to get to the truth, to fight the system that caused us so much misery, but without fighting the country or its people that we are also a part of. By the time you are ready for this, Egypt would have changed so much from the one we knew, that you would need to have to come to terms with that too.
They killed him, I know they did. The results of the autopsy became a state secret only a handful of officials knew the details of. Ghassan told me Hani was killed and I believe him. I never dared called him again to ask for details, after the last time I saw him at the hospital, for fear of putting him in greater danger than he already was in. Your father wasn’t alone. They all had something big planned, as big as the damage and corruption they saw unfolding in front of their eyes every single day they went to their public offices for the past ten years. Hani seemed to be the weakest link and so he was eliminated. They had set their eyes on us too, in case we got anywhere near wherever they buried him or if we tried to make some noise about what happened. Part of me died the day he did, the rest slowly melted away at my powerlessness to bring him justice or from knowing that I wouldn’t be able to lay next to him the day I died. The safest would have been for me to leave Egypt, you both had already been taken care of, but Alexandria was the farthest I could stay from him, even if it meant that they could come after me and silence me one day. I am sorry for not having done more to keep his memory alive or for not letting his death go in vain. I hope you will, I guess it’s never too late.
Know that everything you ever wanted to have, know, read and see is at home in Alexandria, 59 Qena Street. You’ll know where to find it if you ever decide to go back, to open the wounds of the past, even after all these years, to bring justice, closure or whatever you believe is right, you are his daughters after all. And if you’re asking whether it’s safe, I would say that by the time you see this letter again and are ready to go back, so much time would have passed that it would be more than safe to go back. Go back for him. Even if it means you will not recognize your country nor your city, not find the spirit that made us who we are, or its soul, part of which meant it was the entire world in one place…just go to see me, to go to find him, go back for him…

Rania could no longer remember how many times she had read the letter. All she knew was that it had only taken these four paragraphs to convince her that she was going “back for him” and Rose, no matter what it took.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we will be soon arriving to Alexandria’s Misr Station. Please make sure to take all your belongings…”
Rania’s nerves began to take hold of her senses and she couldn’t stand still. She stood up to get her carry-on luggage from the overheard compartment and didn’t sit back down. She opened her messenger bag one last time, making sure she had not left anything on board. She doubled-checked on her unbound notes neatly stacked in her bag’s outer compartment. Mona had finally agreed to cooperate and gave her everything she either had on paper or could unearth from memory. She was staying at a small bed and breakfast, close to where her grandmother’s house once was, initially booked for a week, though she already felt she would need more than that.
Rania slipped her hand into a smaller compartment of her bag and without looking took out a medium-sized black and white picture. It was the earliest picture she had of Rose, wearing a dark v-neck dress slightly above the knee, sculpted by a wide leather belt and brightened by an imposing pearl necklace. She looked straight into the camera, with a look of refreshing beauty and witty charm. Standing next to her was a shorter and darker man, with the most mischievous of smiles and captivating of stares, soon to be her husband. There were no guarantees that anybody would recognize the couple in the picture, but there was no way Rania would ever go to Alexandria without it, without them.
Before the train took a sharp turn left, as it prepared to make its final stop, Rania got a fleeting glimpse of the sea. It was a different kind of Mediterranean to which she was accustomed to see in Beirut, but it was somehow familiar. She was already hit by a feeling of deja-vu, of having been to or at least seen this wide stretch of Alexandria’s harbor somewhere before.
“Ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to Alexandria, Misr Station.”

Book Review of Saleem Haddad’s Guapa

By Eman El Shaikh

Shame, Revolution, and Identity: a Review of Saleem Haddad’s Guapa

The story and the novel both begin with shame. Rasa, a twenty-something queer man living in an unnamed Arab country, awakens to the vague but uncomfortable awareness of a shameful encounter the night before, when his grandmother caught him and his lover, Taymour, in the middle of a furtive passionate encounter. Rasa, the narrator and protagonist, begins his narration wondering about shame, or eib, an idea which reverberates powerfully throughout the novel.

But eib is not quite so simply collapsed into notions of shame, and as the novel unfolds—its frenetic and potent energy taking place within the span of a single day—Rasa interrogates the idea of eib and its tyranny over his life. “Taymour’s name is embargoed under a cloak of eib,” Rasa thinks. “The closest word for eib in English is perhaps “shame.” But eib is so much more than that.”

Eib confines and nurtures Rasa, at once concealing him and revealing him, and throughout the novel, many distinct but overlapping tyrannies converge in Rasa’s life, begging overthrow. As the events progress, Rasa circles elliptically around questions of revolution, identity, shame, and narrative.

Saleem Haddad’s debut novel is a text which brilliantly complicates the many oppositions we have inherited, unsettling them and interrogating their salience: public versus private, east versus west, gay versus straight, revolution versus apathy. The various threads are split apart and reconstituted adeptly and seamlessly, converging into a rich and moving story of a young man confronting the numerous iterations of his own power and powerlessness.

Guapa the bar, like the novel, is a nexus of optimism and frustration, a place of trauma and healing, confinement and freedom, climax and anticlimax. It in this bar where Rasa first meets Taymour, where he watches his friends dance in drag in the basement, where he plans revolutions with his friends, and where they collectively lament its abortion. It is in this and through this that Haddad vividly inscribes a microcosm of our modern life and all of the promiscuous possibilities and oppositions that populate it.

We enter into Rasa’s whirling, precipitous subjectivity, which hurriedly flits between urgent political disasters and unfurling love affairs and long leisurely excursions into the reservoirs of his memory. Yet this narration is neither cloyingly well-arranged nor laboriously jumbled, and so Rasa’s reality comes alive effortlessly, revealing all of the traumas and joys which inhabit Rasa’s world. We fall floridly into the sweet and fragile intimacies between Taymour and Rasa and endure Rasa’s harrowing encounter with the police. The tenor of the narrative is at turns buoyed by the exuberance of an incipient revolution and dampened by its anticlimax.

Yet through the disorienting present, the turbulence of past events is also palpable. Through these jarring moments, Rasa relives his estrangements: from his secretive, domineering grandmother, who presides over his small, diminished family with tight lips and tight fists; from his late father, who had cautioned him against fighting for change; from his absent mother, who chopped an endless supply of onions at the kitchen table to subsume her tears and ultimately left him behind. Haddad weaves these instances together with skillful and sincere prose.

It is the specter of the failed revolution that haunts the story, and Rasa vacillates between resignation and anger. It is unclear whether the failed revolution belongs to Syria, Egypt, Tunisia or to another country—or perhaps to no country at all—and it is this lack of specificity that imbues the revolution—and the novel—with a plausible deniability. Is the revolution real or imagined? Was it on the right or wrong side of history? Without the tapestry of history as a backdrop, one does not know if the revolution warrants condemnation or mourning, which both frees the revolution from scrutiny and demands it be subjected to it.

The novel is permeated with urgent political questions, though they are not met with incontrovertible answers. Haddad smoothly floats these considerations in the air but provides no explicit resolution for them. Nevertheless, the reader is nudged along to certain conclusions which eventually collapse in on themselves, leaving the reader in a sustained state of precarity.

If the personal is political, in Guapa, the political often recedes into the personal, with tense and calamitous political situations often punctuated—and superseded—by Rasa’s personal turmoil: his obsession with his withdrawn lover, his worry about his grandmother’s perception of him, his latent anxieties about his absent parents. Rasa wonders if his private life is realer than his public one, since his public self elides so much about himself and the true nature of things. And yet he wonders if shame and lost love are ancillary bourgeois concerns, imagined prisons as opposed to non-metaphorical ones. Tied up in this are questions of narrative, and Rasa does not grapple with narrative inertly. Rather, he is strategic in the very way he translates (and mistranslates) between languages and worlds, misinterpreting and omitting as a way of relating a politics.

As these tensions animate Rasa’s world, he questions the various identities through which he experiences the world, the oppressive force they exert upon them, and how to adjudicate between then. Rasa feels his homosexuality marks him in his home country, trying out different idioms to encompass his queer identity, experimenting with the words gay, shaath, louti, and khawal. And though his queer identification is at the forefront of most of his life, he becomes primarily an Arab when he goes to America. It is there that he begins to understand that the social contract of eib, the decorum and collective sensitivity that it entails, could sometimes become a refuge from the lonely individualism and the sharp, discrete personal spaces of the western world.

It would be a mistake to see all of Rasa’s struggles separately—nor can they be extricated from one another. Indeed they all flow together and sublimate into one another in the way human tensions often do.

Haddad’s debut novel is more than a captivating coming of age novel. It is a story which could easily lapse into stereotypes and cliché, but Haddad does not lose his brisk, bright, and perceptive voice. Guapa submerges the reader in the complexities and tangles of a liminal queer Arab subjectivity and all of its undulating contingencies. It does so while being not just politically attuned but politically revelatory. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Haddad’s novel is its unique allegory; it is unique in that it is an allegory that demands the reader observe the world around them but is not didactic about what they should see.

The Melancholy Oud

By Sahar Mustafa

As I come through the garage door, I hear the melancholy strings of the oud and I guess it’s coming from the soundtrack of an Arabian soap opera my mother’s watching on satellite. Quick, rhythmic clapping and another instrument I don’t recognize lends its sound, and its melody seamlessly weaves into the thrumming of the oud.

Allah, allah!” my mother croons, and I realize she’s the one clapping. “Ente a’yooni…”

She’s singing a ballad from Oum Kalthum—her favorite Egyptian artist. Every time my mother plays her CD she tells me that the entire world was present at Oum Kalthum’s funeral in the 1970’s, that she even surpassed Gamal Abdul Nasser—Egypt’s most beloved president—in attendance by dignitaries from all over the Arab world. I guess she was like the Elvis of her times, or something. To me, her songs all sound the same. The one my mother’s singing now is about a woman confessing her forbidden love. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an Arabic song that wasn’t about forbidden love, or unrequited love, or love that finally kills you.

From the kitchen, I see the back of a man’s head I don’t recognize sitting on a loveseat in our family room. His hair is slightly receding in the back so that the finely combed strands are visible lines like black thread against his pale scalp.

Khalo Ziyad is sitting opposite him on the big couch. His eyes are closed as he strums the oud. Seated beside him, my mother blissfully sings with her hand resting on her brother’s shoulder. She motions me over without halting and pats the cushion for me to sit down. She winks at me and I’m impressed that none of them has missed a beat with my intrusion.

I feel like I’ve stumbled onto a secret clan, chanting something mystical. They look hypnotized by the music they’re creating that lets them shut out the rest of the world. I suppose it’s like the way I feel when I listen to Black Veil Brides; everything around me just fades into the walls and seeps into the floor and I’m just, like, floating on a raft.

The stranger has a weird-looking instrument in the shape of a trapezoid propped across his thighs and two metal cases over his fingers that he uses to pluck the strings. It’s like a harp resting in his lap.

Almost five minutes pass, which feel like ten or more as I’m waiting for them to complete the ballad. After my mother belts out the final verse, they laugh and clap. Suddenly, they remember me and the stranger pounces with excitement.

Mashallah, mashallah! Who’s this?” the man asks me, setting his instrument on the loveseat before standing up with hand extended. “Where did this lovely lady come from?” It’s that funny way of asking like I’m five years old.

I extend my hand and he grips it tight while talking to my mother and uncle. “She’s a pretty one, mashallah! You better keep your eye on her,” he says. This is worse than the condescending tone—referring to me in the third person like I can’t hear. “She looks like just like you, Amina, thirty years ago, mish ah?”

His unkempt beard is speckled with white hairs, and he’s got deep grooves on his forehead like bike trails. His eyes are blue and I suddenly remember that he’s the one from Khalo Ziyad’s story. The rest of his face is dull except for those blue eyes glittering with tiny diamonds. He’s much shorter than Khalo and, like, only about an inch taller than me. His palm feels rough like he’s spent years scraping it against asphalt.

I try to politely pry my hand from his grip but he’s now going crazy over how much I resemble my mother, but declaring how much taller I am and definitely skinnier than her. She pretends not to hear the part about me being skinnier and keeps smiling.

He finally addresses me. “How are you, dear? I am Waleed.” It is Khalo’s best friend. I wonder if they can still see in each other’s faces—past the disfigurement and deep grooves of worry—how much of the children they used to be scaling the mountains and trekking across narrow valleys.

Elhamdulillah,” I say and tug again to get my hand back.

“Did you know that I grew up with your uncle and mother? We were neighbors. I could see their kitchen from my bedroom.” He laughs thunderously and turns to Khalo. “I’d see your father—Allah rest his soul—drinking yogurt right from the bottle.”

This prompts another story about my grandfather, and my mother and Waleed laugh so hard there are tears in their eyes. Khalo Ziyad just smiles and nods.

“What good times! Your uncle always led our expeditions, insisted he had a sharper eye for determining the horizon.” His head flits back and forth between Khalo Ziyad and me. “Did you tell her about the wadi?”

“Yes,” Khalo Ziyad says. I’m getting used to his monosyllabic responses. I wish I could get away with it when the idiots at school ask me questions, or when teachers demand I “elaborate, please” when I’ve already answered correctly.

“Are you hungry, habibti?” my mother asks. She never fails to ask me about food—with or without company present. Once again, I feel like a little kid.

“No, thanks. I ate at Panera,” I tell her.

“I didn’t know you played, Khalo,” I say, feeling ridiculous because I’ve only just met him so how would I know anything about him, really? His life is slowly unraveling like unwrapping a present in slow motion. Some parts are dull and expected, and other things are sort of cool surprises.

“Are you joking?” Waleed interjects. “The villagers made sure he was available to play at the wedding suhra before setting a date!” Waleed says. “Do you know what this is, dear?” He picks up his instrument and pulls me down to sit beside him. “We call this a qanoon,” he tells me. “It’s very del-ee-kate.”

I nod and then he slides the instrument, which is like an oversized board game, onto my lap. It has rows of strings attached to tuning pegs on one end. It’s actually pretty cool-looking, like an artifact from ancient Egyptian times. He places one of the metal clasps on my forefinger and urges me to pluck a string.

The sound is more twangy than the oud and softer. Waleed positions my finger on a particular string and he strums away on several at a time. We produce medium to high notes like a mother grieving over the loss of her child. It becomes too intense for me and I abruptly stop.

“That’s cool,” I say awkwardly and slide the qanoon back to Waleed.

My mother demands they play a song about Jerusalem and I can understand most of the words:

I passed through the streets

The streets of Old Jerusalem

In front of the shops

That remained of Palestine

 

My mother’s face is glistening with perspiration and she clutches a tissue paper and waves it in the air at certain intervals of the song. Waleed taps his shoe as he plays and his metal-protected fingers look like two miniature knights riding across a field.

I watch Khalo Ziyad as he strums his banjo-looking oud, and I’m impressed how effortlessly his fingers move over the strings. His face softens into a serene expression as though the tight fibers that make him smile or frown have gradually collapsed. His eyes are closed and the pulpy flesh temporarily disappears.

Towards the end of a verse, he opens his eyes in the middle of the song and catches me staring. He grins and winks like he’s just shared a secret he trusts I’ll always keep.

 

The Melancholy Oud

By Sahar Mustafa

As I come through the garage door, I hear the melancholy strings of the oud and I guess it’s coming from the soundtrack of an Arabian soap opera my mother’s watching on satellite. Quick, rhythmic clapping and another instrument I don’t recognize lends its sound, and its melody seamlessly weaves into the thrumming of the oud.
“Allah, allah!” my mother croons, and I realize she’s the one clapping. “Ente a’yooni…”

She’s singing a ballad from Oum Kalthum—her favorite Egyptian artist. Every time my mother plays her CD she tells me that the entire world was present at Oum Kalthum’s funeral in the 1970’s, that she even surpassed Gamal Abdul Nasser—Egypt’s most beloved president—in attendance by dignitaries from all over the Arab world. I guess she was like the Elvis of her times, or something. To me, her songs all sound the same. The one my mother’s singing now is about a woman confessing her forbidden love. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an Arabic song that wasn’t about forbidden love, or unrequited love, or love that finally kills you.

From the kitchen, I see the back of a man’s head I don’t recognize sitting on a loveseat in our family room. His hair is slightly receding in the back so that the finely combed strands are visible lines like black thread against his pale scalp.

Khalo Ziyad is sitting opposite him on the big couch. His eyes are closed as he strums the oud. Seated beside him, my mother blissfully sings with her hand resting on her brother’s shoulder. She motions me over without halting and pats the cushion for me to sit down. She winks at me and I’m impressed that none of them has missed a beat with my intrusion.

I feel like I’ve stumbled onto a secret clan, chanting something mystical. They look hypnotized by the music they’re creating that lets them shut out the rest of the world. I suppose it’s like the way I feel when I listen to Black Veil Brides; everything around me just fades into the walls and seeps into the floor and I’m just, like, floating on a raft.

The stranger has a weird-looking instrument in the shape of a trapezoid propped across his thighs and two metal cases over his fingers that he uses to pluck the strings. It’s like a harp resting in his lap.

Almost five minutes pass, which feel like ten or more as I’m waiting for them to complete the ballad. After my mother belts out the final verse, they laugh and clap. Suddenly, they remember me and the stranger pounces with excitement.

“Mashallah, mashallah! Who’s this?” the man asks me, setting his instrument on the loveseat before standing up with hand extended. “Where did this lovely lady come from?” It’s that funny way of asking like I’m five years old.

I extend my hand and he grips it tight while talking to my mother and uncle. “She’s a pretty one, mashallah! You better keep your eye on her,” he says. This is worse than the condescending tone—referring to me in the third person like I can’t hear. “She looks like just like you, Amina, thirty years ago, mish ah?”

His unkempt beard is speckled with white hairs, and he’s got deep grooves on his forehead like bike trails. His eyes are blue and I suddenly remember that he’s the one from Khalo Ziyad’s story. The rest of his face is dull except for those blue eyes glittering with tiny diamonds. He’s much shorter than Khalo and, like, only about an inch taller than me. His palm feels rough like he’s spent years scraping it against asphalt.

I try to politely pry my hand from his grip but he’s now going crazy over how much I resemble my mother, but declaring how much taller I am and definitely skinnier than her. She pretends not to hear the part about me being skinnier and keeps smiling.
He finally addresses me. “How are you, dear? I am Waleed.” It is Khalo’s best friend. I wonder if they can still see in each other’s faces—past the disfigurement and deep grooves of worry—how much of the children they used to be scaling the mountains and trekking across narrow valleys.

“Elhamdulillah,” I say and tug again to get my hand back.

“Did you know that I grew up with your uncle and mother? We were neighbors. I could see their kitchen from my bedroom.” He laughs thunderously and turns to Khalo. “I’d see your father—Allah rest his soul—drinking yogurt right from the bottle.”
This prompts another story about my grandfather, and my mother and Waleed laugh so hard there are tears in their eyes. Khalo Ziyad just smiles and nods.

“What good times! Your uncle always led our expeditions, insisted he had a sharper eye for determining the horizon.” His head flits back and forth between Khalo Ziyad and me. “Did you tell her about the wadi?”

“Yes,” Khalo Ziyad says. I’m getting used to his monosyllabic responses. I wish I could get away with it when the idiots at school ask me questions, or when teachers demand I “elaborate, please” when I’ve already answered correctly.

“Are you hungry, habibti?” my mother asks. She never fails to ask me about food—with or without company present. Once again, I feel like a little kid.

“No, thanks. I ate at Panera,” I tell her.

“I didn’t know you played, Khalo,” I say, feeling ridiculous because I’ve only just met him so how would I know anything about him, really? His life is slowly unraveling like unwrapping a present in slow motion. Some parts are dull and expected, and other things are sort of cool surprises.

“Are you joking?” Waleed interjects. “The villagers made sure he was available to play at the wedding suhra before setting a date!” Waleed says. “Do you know what this is, dear?” He picks up his instrument and pulls me down to sit beside him. “We call this a qanoon,” he tells me. “It’s very del-ee-kate.”

I nod and then he slides the instrument, which is like an oversized board game, onto my lap. It has rows of strings attached to tuning pegs on one end. It’s actually pretty cool-looking, like an artifact from ancient Egyptian times. He places one of the metal clasps on my forefinger and urges me to pluck a string.

The sound is more twangy than the oud and softer. Waleed positions my finger on a particular string and he strums away on several at a time. We produce medium to high notes like a mother grieving over the loss of her child. It becomes too intense for me and I abruptly stop.

“That’s cool,” I say awkwardly and slide the qanoon back to Waleed.
My mother demands they play a song about Jerusalem and I can understand most of the words:

I passed through the streets
The streets of Old Jerusalem
In front of the shops
That remained of Palestine

My mother’s face is glistening with perspiration and she clutches a tissue paper and waves it in the air at certain intervals of the song. Waleed taps his shoe as he plays and his metal-protected fingers look like two miniature knights riding across a field.

I watch Khalo Ziyad as he strums his banjo-looking oud, and I’m impressed how effortlessly his fingers move over the strings. His face softens into a serene expression as though the tight fibers that make him smile or frown have gradually collapsed. His eyes are closed and the pulpy flesh temporarily disappears.

Towards the end of a verse, he opens his eyes in the middle of the song and catches me staring. He grins and winks like he’s just shared a secret he trusts I’ll always keep.

Regret and other pleasures

By jennifer jazz

Dreamer - mixed media - 152x92 cm By Nouf Semari
Dreamer – mixed media – 152×92 cm By Nouf Semari

 

“So you want to learn Arabic.” Muna said while we sipped from paper cups. “Well, you know, it’s a classical language,” I said putting my foot, instead of more tea, in my mouth, because it would’ve been easier to just learn some of the laid back dialect she spoke when her phone rang. I was working again. My lessons were squeezed into lunch breaks. She wanted me to begin with writing the alphabet. My hands were too unsteady. Not that the notebook and pen on the table between us mattered once we started spilling our souls. She was no spring chicken. In Cairo, she had almost gotten married.

“This is him. He was a liar.” She said showing me his photo. She rented a room in Brooklyn from an old woman from her hometown who spied on her comings and goings. She traveled to random public places across the five boroughs, meeting students who had read her tutoring ad, most of them doing a few lessons and quitting or never showing up at all. I don’t know who sighed more as we’d occupy the table for two we’d gravitate towards, at a Starbucks with the seedy lighting of a pub.

“Why don’t you dye your gray hair?” She asked as if Prince Charming were only a few rinses away. As if I would make room on my twin mattress and single pillow for anyone but a dying millionaire with my name on his will. I’d give her the face palm. She’d swat my hand and insist, then before a full hour had passed, I’d grab my tote and pass her two twenties from my purse.

“I can’t charge you to just talk. I feel bad. Next time you must learn something” she’d say.

She had been working for a translation company that offered to sponsor her, but the friend filling in for her while her immigration papers were being processed was refusing to vacate her desk she told me when she showed up in a haunted kind of mood on one particular occasion.

“Human resources won’t intervene. I’m 36. I have no career, no husband. Nothing.” She said. So I called Mohammed who used to row the meat slicer at a market near my office. During a phase when I needed a voice to occupy the excess space of a house larger than I was used to, I’d vacuum and load clothes into my dryer with his voice in the receiver pressed to my ear. Quite the storyteller, he’d reminisce about growing up in Egypt under Sadat as well as the stunning Libyan widow he had tried to win over with expensive gifts until her family suddenly decided she should marry her deceased husband’s brother instead. The stress of courtship had left him resentful, but I had recently received email pics of him and his new bride cutting their wedding cake, and as soon as I asked him for advice on Muna, he brought up his middle-aged bachelor buddy Ahmed.

“I can tell by how Ahmed looks at me,” Muna said with a dopey smile. “It’s love.” By this time she had a stable full-time job and had given a housewarming party at her new apartment in Queens where she served kunefah that Zeinab, a jaded neighbor with a rug she rolled out and performed her prayers on while the rest of us talked in another room, said was overbaked.

Muna wasn’t only larger than life physically. Her exotic green eyes and glittery pinky ring hypnotized everyone around her into feeling better. Unfortunately, she couldn’t entirely cheer up Ahmed. He had overstayed a visa decades ago. Couldn’t fly to Egypt to meet her family because he would never get back into the United States if he left. The “M” word gave him cold feet. Her ultimatums triggered a series of suspenseful breakups. I was at her kitchen table, she was buzzing in another friend when a panic came over her as she told me her relationship with Ahmed was between us and asked me not to mention him.

I didn’t have fast enough reflexes to keep up with their action packed romance. I was selling electronic resources to librarians for a company where I had to close sales to make a living wage. Had to keep dialing and emailing or get on planes and fly to the states where buyers were based because sometimes this was really the best way to get them to write checks. There was also my mother’s older sister, Aunt M. 77 years old, recently wheelchair bound but all by herself. Life’s unpredictability would have had a field day with her if I didn’t cook, deliver and serve her meals. I would have found little relief in anything but sitting next to my son bathed in the rainbow of our TV if Muna’s number didn’t regularly light up my phone.

“You need help. Where does your aunt live? I can bring her food and clean for her sometimes inshallah.” She’d offer, though I knew she didn’t mean it.

“Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the lord my soul to keep and if I die before I wake…” I’d say at bedtime when I was a kid. I was supposed to just ask God to bless my parents, siblings and relatives but would include stray animals, victims of crimes I’d seen on the news, etcetera because I was the same way.

It started with a call to prayer that bent skyward like the most unusual flower prying itself loose from vines. Being African-American and raised Catholic had always been awkward. But it was at a point where everything old echoed. I didn’t need the Goth architecture, handbags and matching shoes. Just a quiet frame I could share with others who believed in doing things the way you’re supposed to that I found in the storefronts and renovated office spaces of New York where Muslims pray. I was given a heavy gold embossed Quran in one. In another, a Senegalese woman with tribally stained toe nails showed me how to ritually cleanse, as I ran wet fingers over my face, an innocent portrait of me in my first communion veil appearing in the sink water that gathered.

But years had passed since then and I was a fledgling convert only occasionally fasting the Ramadan Muna called out of the blue. We made plans to meet at a masjid over a Turkish restaurant in Midtown East. She was a heaving mass of warmth and good memories. It was right after work. We lined up with other women with our palms lifted in midair, then crossed them against our chests. We leaned forward with our hands on our knees like runners catching their breath. I was seated on the floor mat, staring just past my lap — we were done when, “Nothing has changed.” Muna began as if she couldn’t keep it inside another second. “He won’t pick up the phone and speak to my parents. It’s time to follow through. He earns very little. I would have to pay for almost everything if we got married, but…” She paused and for that moment, her eyes lost their usual glow.

My son’s father had been a musician who had studied painting, had the vocabulary of an art critic and expected me to afford him all the comforts of a wife without any strings attached. Shoveling snow, hauling heavy bags of groceries and clothes back and forth from the laundromat all by myself, my fundamentalist interpretation of feminism prevented me from realizing I was single. Born in 1960, I had come of age during the most liberal era in America. Casual arrangements with men were normal for women of my generation. I would have been acting if I had pretended to find Muna’s relationship with Ahmed unheard of. She was thinking out loud. I was eavesdropping when the curtain that separated the men’s and women’s sections parted, and the imam entered with milk and a tray of food. A woman in a kaftan embroidered with a scribbly pattern helped herself first. Then, the imam left, and a tide of heavy voices briefly washed across the smooth gray matting where we began eating our first meal since dawn. Tearing a fig from my teeth, I recalled being lost in a mosque on 116th Street and mistakenly crossing the men’s section without any of them even noticing I was there.

“How is Ousmane?” Muna asked.

“It doesn’t matter.” I said, stunned to hear his name. He was a man I never got to know, had only brought up once.

“Why not? Why not?” she teased pounding her fist on my leg.

“I need to feel like I’m taking a risk when I fall in love.” I said. “He’s too safe.” She gave me the same clueless stare I probably gave her when she talked about Ahmed. A woman in a veil so long it hid her feet, sat between us. The three of us forming a semi-circle. It was late and I had a commute ahead of me. My bag was a history lesson. Plunging my hand in to make room for some dates wrapped in a napkin that I planned to eat during my bus ride home, I touched a vial of blood pressure pills, faded supermarket receipts, loose cough drops, even the spiral notebook I had used before I realized that all I wanted was another woman to share a heart to heart with from time to time, not Arabic lessons.

 

Darśana

By Pd Mallamo

Discriminate between what gives you peace and what disturbs you. Whatever is better, follow that.

– Papaji, Sri H.W.L Poonja

1

Geneva

Fabian rode the bus from his home in Pottsville PA to Providence RI, three hundred and twenty two miles. The bus stopped forty-six times; the trip took thirty-seven hours. He drank a full gallon of black coffee he’d brewed the day before and poured into a pump-jug hidden in his backpack. He made fourteen trips to the abominable toilet at the back of the bus. Except for a three-hour nap, he spent his time working through the first two books of James Elroy’s underworld trilogy while looping Neon Indian’s “Polish Girl” over and over until it became trance music, an enhancement to Ellroy like sex in a hearse. His Pentecostal father, disappointed and distrustful that he had chosen Brown over Calvin or Hope, drove him to the bus station and advised him to be careful with the coloreds, even at Brown, sure there’s some good ones and a few who genuinely love the Lord. Maybe when you’re finished with college you’ll reconsider the Army. These days the Army is loaded with Christians, you’d be right at home, they’re doing the Lord’s work in the godless Middle East. Don’t be out late; half the wicked things in this world happen at two a.m. Beware the evil eye. Discern the antichrist. The woman in the seat next, a window seat, was black, beautiful and from Baltimore by way of Botswana, or so she said, and sporadically, when she wasn’t staring soundlessly and in perfect stillness out that window, began brief soliloquies with the phrase “I remember …” These inevitably became confessions, as if he were a priest or, better yet, a priest she would never see again. At one point she told him she had willingly lost her virginity to a nineteen-year old cousin when she was twelve, allowing that twelve was at the outer limits of consent but that’s how she chose to remember it. This was a week after the heat riots in Houston. At another, that she’d had a boyfriend every single day of her hilariously dysfunctional and now-defunct marriage because one man was never enough, ‘specially if he got no money; at still another, that she used meth and even though meth is considered a white man’s drug she likes it very much but knows it will kill her. Confronting the baleful twilight of a soon-to-be heat-dead universe without the comforting illusion of a loving god she has nonetheless switched to prednisone which is even Whiter and perfectly respectable and makes her feel like an angel but will eventually leach her bone like meth and destroy her liver and kidneys, though maybe not as fast. I won’t lose my teeth, she said, and I won’t look like I got hit by a truck. I’m not exactly a candidate for Celebrity Rehab. Her name was Geneva and she didn’t know who had named her or who her parents were, she’d bounced among foster homes until she was eighteen and then she bounced to the street where she’d taken her lumps, believe me! She was straight out of Ellroy, and little fissures raced through his heart each time she revealed a side of life so bad it was scarcely believable, color of pain, stench of fear, relentless anger, death everywhere. When she spoke she always touched his arm. He switched off Neon Indian, shut the book and twisted in his seat to regard her full on, this stranger he was not supposed to meet. He focused on the center of her eyes when she spoke, peering deep inside to see fire and destruction, evil and light, where erotic capital had soon enough become survival sex and only god knew what else. In her presence he felt his leaving home in the muscles of his bottom and thighs, interludes of fear, giddy joy, anticipation, premonition, dread, dark confusion – then, finally, deliverance and Amen, the entire limbic cycle compressed into hours instead of months, amplified by caffeine and bus motion, by the strange being sitting next to him, by the memory of the abrupt bewildering almost ex-nihilo call from Providence. Smelled briefly from somewhere in the back an aroma like pot-roast his mother made on Sundays; later, a voice, also from the rear, that sounded like his father, but half-drunk, unlike his father who was drunk only on the Lord. He comprehended that his brothers and sisters, all younger, were now permanently deprived of a secular advocate and would have to fend for themselves, resist the programming or dive right in, he’s gone to make his small way in the big world, fantastically lucky because first he’d been turned down cold by Brown as expected, a single-page form letter signed by the copy machine and mailed to nobodies; then, inexplicably, another letter admitting him provisionally but only if there were room and the gods did not continue to ignore him; turned down cold again two weeks later with another single-page form letter sent first to the wrong address; then informed by phone forty-eight hours prior that a place had unexpectedly opened, come immediately if you can tear yourself away from Pottsville, there is a scholarship because even though your high school grades suck your SAT is stellar and you maxed the math. Someone high at Brown had reached down down down and pulled him up up up as if his or her hand were the very hand of God, pulled him in one clean lift above religion, Republicans, patriotism, coal mines, KwikStops, little gray houses, four-hundred pound women, listing Pontiacs, television, girls who couldn’t read, bullies and dolts and drunken veteran’s parades. On cream-colored tile by a urinal flush-handle in a Wilkes-Barre men’s room at a Gas ‘n Go where the bus had stopped to offload three passengers a urinator had scrawled “This may be your day.” The final stop was still three miles from the campus. Geneva took his face in both hands and said with breath that smelled like Trident, I ain’t no white man’s dog, then wished him luck and blessed him, a soft wet kiss on his lips. She said Fabian was a lucky name unless you happened to be a Pope. Never forget me, she said, I will live in your mind even when I’m dead, that’s god for you. Exhausted but too embarrassed to call Brown for a pick-up from the bus station he lugged two suitcases and a duffle bag nearly the entire way until a family from Massachusetts with a van and another Brown freshman gave him a lift.

2

Cooper

Fabian met his advisor Monday afternoon at two p.m. in Archibald Hall. He knocked a door upon which the words A Cooper were printed modestly in gold leaf and when he heard a noise inside walked through. He closed the door carefully and turned around to see a very old man leaned way back in a swivel chair looking him up and down through half-lidded eyes.

Judas Priest, the old man said after a long moment. When did you drag in?

Last night, sir.

You the Pottsville boy?

Yessir

Bus?

Yessir

God almighty. He shook his head. Fabian is it? – nice name unless you’re the Pope.

So I’ve heard, sir.

Pottsville P-A. Wooo-E! You musta blowed the ROOF off that test! A Cooper dropped his chair forward and rummaged through papers on his desk until he found a green file.

As I thought, he said. Maxed the math. Well well well. Play ball?

Center field.

And?

.263.

Cooper plopped the file on the desk, turned around, leaned again back in his seat. You want the good news or the bad news?

I’ll take them both, sir.

Which one first?

The good news I guess.

By the way, I AM the Brown Department of Journalism.

Yes sir

Brown doesn’t have a Department of Journalism.

OK

Make sense?

Not quite, sir.

In reality I am the Brown University reality consultant – the Consultant on Reality, as it were. Journalists deal in reality. You follow?

Yes sir.

People come to me to make sure it makes sense.

What makes sense, sir?

Whatever. Two point five billion dollar endowment people tend to pull all sorts of things out their ass. It’s a self-reinforcing system with no actual referent to the real world. This is why they need a reality consultant. Follow?

Kind of, sir.

To Brown’s credit, they understand this – unlike Harvard with an endowment ten times bigger.

Yes sir –

So the problem’s ten times worse.

Yes sir.

The claptrap that comes out of that place…

Very interesting, sir.

You a Pollack, son?

Yes I am.

Rhetorical question.

Oh, I –

Your name’s Jarosinsky for god’s sake

Of course, sir.

The most beautiful women in this world are Pollack.

Yes sir

Did you know that?

No sir

Chiseled features. Statuesque. I saw Zsa Zsa Gabor once with her clothes off. Of course she’s Hungarian, but what the hell –

Yes sir

I’ll tell you about it sometime.

I’ll look forward to that.

You don’t know Zsa Zsa Gabor from Lyndon Baines Johnson.

I’m sorry, sir.

Is your mother beautiful?

A bit overweight, I’m afraid –

Of course she is. She’s a Pollack.

Actually, she’s Hungarian.

The old man slapped his knees and hooted at the ceiling. Well played, young man! Well played!

Thank you, sir.

Anyway, here’s the good news: You’ve done the hard part.

Which part was that?

They jump you through hoops?

They sure did!

A goddamn dog circus?

A dog circus it was, sir!

Sixteen letters, twelve phone calls and they still can’t make up their goddamn mind.

Exactly, sir

And if your daddy had two hundred fifty million dollars like Mitt Romney?

No dog circus?

One goddamn letter, one goddamn phone call, they meet you en masse at the airport – but you’re just a Pollack from Pottsville –

True, sir

Smarter than Mitt Romney’s sons put all together –

Thank you, sir

Want the bad news?

I’ll take it, sir.

No underwater basket weaving for you, I’m afraid.

Sir – ?

He pulls a volume from a bookshelf above his desk, ostentatiously closes his eyes and flips pages. He chooses a passage at random, then opens his eyes and reads aloud: But this emphasis would be lavished in vain, if it served, in your opinion, only to abstract a general type from phenomena whose particularity in our work would remain the essential thing for you, and whose original arrangement could be broken up only artificially.

He tosses the book back on the shelf. Is this comprehensible?

Not to me, sir.

We’re off to a good start.

Thank you, sir.

He holds up his hands: I’m not saying no wine, women, song –

No sir –

Without wine and women not to mention song old Brown is just not Brown. You may as well be back in Pottsville –

Understood, sir.

I’m just saying a Pollack from Pottsville has got to make this goddamn place PAY! What’s the major?

Don’t have one yet.

We’ll work on that.

OK

Will you listen to me?

Yes sir.

Will you trust me?

Fabian hesitated and the old man laughed again.

Son, he said, here’s the bad news. Here’s the reality from the Brown University Consultant on Reality: You have to come out of here knowing something very few people know. And – he jabbed his finger for emphasis – people have got to pay GOOD money for this something. You follow?

Trying, sir.

Otherwise go back to Pottsville.

Yes sir

That junior college on the hill –

Oh Lord –

One shot.

Yes sir

Hard work!

Absolutely!

Now, you don’t want to be a goddamn dentist or something – ?

No sir

Lawyer, MBA – ?

Heaven forbid, sir.

This is the golden door, boy. For you it opens ONE time.

Sir, I swear on a stack of bibles I will study my Pollack ass off!

A Cooper slammed both hands on the desk. That’s the goddamn spirit!

Thank you sir!

You’ve made me a happy man, son!

I’m very glad, sir!

Your people religious?

Highly, sir.

Strychnine? Rattlesnakes?

Not quite, sir.

Rapture?

Any day.

We can set that little fable aside for now can’t we – ?

Yes sir

We can establish veracity in the present tense here at old Brown – ?

Of course!

Allow Saint Philomena be who she actually was, etcetera – ?

I’m not sure I –

Define “apotropaic”

Fabian thinks a moment. I think you’ve got me there, sir.

Who was E. Howard Hunt?

I know I’ve heard that na –

What’s tardive dyskinesia?

… I ….

He pointed to photographs on the wall opposite. Do you recognize these people?

That’s Earnest Hemingway. Speaking with Fidel Castro.

Who’s this? He pointed a shaky finger to a sitting man with dirty boots and an open shirt, laughing like he didn’t have a care in the world.

Don’t know, sir

A Cooper pulled another book off the shelf, Che by Jon Lee Anderson. I knew all three, he said, handing him the book. Fidel was sane, the others were artists. Sense the dichotomy? So of course Fidel’s still alive, Hem and Che long gone. Goddamn it, I’ll be dead soon, too. Wife passed five years and I miss her every day. Get as much from me as you can, I won’t last forever. First assignment: read the goddamn book. He reached out, tapped the cover. Second edition.

If I may ask, sir, why him?

Because you’re from Pottsville. Got a dictionary?

I’ll get one, sir.

A Cooper pulled forty dollars out of his wallet. Brown Bookstore, he said. Get a good one. Make sure you get the Cooper discount.

His joy was whole and perfect when Fabian chose Arabic. He said Beirut women were the most beautiful women on earth. They met for lunch every week for three years. Look deeper, he said, always deeper. The summer before senior term Fabian went to Damascus with a professor of Mideast languages for a conference on Islamic verse during the sway of Suleyman the Magnificent. Cooper died on an August morning sitting at that same desk in Archibald beneath the photographs of Fidel, Hem and Che Guevara. He left Fabian his cat and two boxes of books with explicit reading instructions penned in precarious handwriting. He also left him thirty-five thousand dollars. Fabian considered giving half to his family but knew most of it would go to the church. He bought a red almost-new Ducati, clothes, shoes and boots, a MacBook Air and the best electric shaver money could buy. When he graduated in May he joined the army as an Arabic linguist. He called his father, who shouted for joy. He sent his mother A Cooper’s cat. He stood mournfully at A Cooper’s grave wishing mightily he’d heard the story of naked Zsa Zsa Gabor. Then, after three month of basic training, he blasted his red Ducati across the continent to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California for a year of Pashto.

And, suddenly, Afghanistan.

            3

Aamir

عامر

One hot two a.m. at the end of summer he is inserted with a Ranger squad four miles outside an eight-hut hamlet midway between Qila Abdulla and the Afghan border. They tramp silently to a rocky overlook and wait for drones – and, if the night is a bad night, the Taliban or, worse, Pakistani commandos. A tap on the head means flip down your IR goggles and all-at-once he sees a Ranger’s arm extended skyward where three simultaneous exhaust trails from high orbit lance into the hamlet from different angles blip/blip/blip/STARBURST/STARBURST/STARBURST……………………………………

BOOOOM/BOOOOM/BOOOOOMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh………… detonations so deafening, fires so intense he knows the entire settlement is smashed and burning. Double-time to the site, sifting quickly through flaming debris and clothing attached to body parts for anything of intelligence value, papers, rings, watches, talismans, hard drives, phone bits, photographs, medicines. These are stuffed quickly into zipper bags along with DNA samples from dead men and unmistakable dead women and dead children he emotionally blocks as he works, dogs, he thinks (and knows he will later unthink) little dogs, when you kill the master you kill his dogs, these are the rules of war. A ranger jerks him by the arm and they run through flames to a man drenched in blood without feet frantically crawling into darkness at the perimeter, small intestines dragging out ten feet behind. The ranger flips him over with his boot and shines a light in his face/over his clothes and Fabian leans/looks/declares: Arab, take him! From the darkness a child crying and another ranger sprinting to the sound, emerging moments later with a small girl in his arms. Then the Blackhawks descend, the footless man and girl heaved in with the medics and all hell breaks loose AK’s/RPG’s east and north. Fabian runs and leaps for the hatch, hears the captain bawling GO GO GO/rounds splattering like raindrops against the hardened hull/screams/smell of blood. He digs for the seat restraint as the pilot hits full throttle, g-force hauling him so hard his legs buckle. He covers his head with his hands and shuts his eyes tight in the shuddering black cabin.

            *

NATO Hospital, Kandahar

When Fabian walks into the ward the man is craning his neck to see Walker, Texas Ranger on a television set across the aisle in the nurse’s station. When he sees Fabian, he first addresses him in Arabic:

Just a minute, he’s almost got the filthy criminal!

Fabian backs up to the door and shuts it.

What the fuck? I can’t watch Texas Ranger shoot the feet off the bad guy?

The footless man adjusts himself in the bed, sips water through a straw, and says Here’s the problem, buddy: I can’t find my feet! Where did you put my feet?

I think you are a man called Aamir, disciple of al-Awlaki. Or you are a disciple of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab –

The footless man laughs. That idiot. Your attempt at humor, maybe? But what have you done with my feet? My guts you have found – but what about the feet?

We will give you new feet.

Like the feet God gave me? Or by the hand of the devil, the same that makes your drones?

Feet that work.

Not even Chuck Norris would do this to another man. No, not even to the criminal! With these false promises you hope to woo me?

You are a murderer and a fanatic. What could I hope to gain?

Such hypocrisy! Cities of infants and grandmothers cooked with your atom bombs, but only I am the murderer.

*

An orderly wheels him outside to a porch shaded with camouflage netting. With a pushbutton-remote he moves both mattress and man to sitting position, then leaves. Fabian offers him a pack of Marlboros. He leans forward, takes them gently without a word or look, opens the pack to tap one out, closes his eyes while Fabian lights it. He inhales deeply and falls back into his bed..

The devil’s cigarettes, says Fabian.

Give the devil his due, the man laughs. Blackhawks roar overhead and he strains to see them.

All this – with the cigarette in his hand he motions around himself and to the sky – is Southeast Asia without the jungle. Why are you so stupid? Your human projects are an affront to God. This is why they fail.

We didn’t come here. You came to New York.

New York, he spits, that sewer. We did you a favor. Now look what you have done. Will you destroy the world for a filthy place?

We are anxious to learn the whereabouts of any captured American or Allied service member.

Of course you are.

If you will provide names and locations we –

If you will provide my feet.

Your feet are gone.

So are those men. This law is plainly written. You speak well the language of The Word yet you are ignorant of it. Where is your excuse?

*

I suppose it is time to move on with my life, he said. Isn’t that the Anglo-Saxon way?

Fabian has brought him another pack of Marlboros. Aamir holds his cigarette up to Fabian’s face.

At least with these I can talk, which is a relief for me also. It is up to you to judge the value of what I say.

Everything you say is valuable, Aamir. I am sorry about your feet. Actually, you should be dead.

Are the rest dead?

Yes.

All?

No.

Who is alive?

A child.

By God! He will grow to fight you!

She is already in California.

Aamir falls back into his bed-chair and flicks the cigarette away.

*

About the waterboarding, he said – let’s get it over with. Maybe I will remember something to tell you.

Shall we do it here, on this bed?

If not, you will have to carry me. Plus the bed moves up and down. Very convenient.

If you cooperate we will send you back to Thadiq.

Is this before or after you make the devil-feet?

Whichever you prefer.

I don’t want your devil feet. I would rather crawl. I was crawling when you caught me. That is good enough.

You don’t want to go home?

Of course not.

You want to stay here?

Oh no!

Where, then?

California! In Los Angeles you will find blond women with blue eyes and massive breasts. Bring one to me. Then maybe I will tell you everything!

*

I had a teacher, a wise man. He told me to work as hard as I could, then let it go, like a balloon to the sky. If it is the will of god, the rains will come and my orchard will grow.

An American said this?

Yes.

Well, by god, that is good advice!

Here’s the rest of it: He did not believe in god.

Aamir took a long drag on his cigarette and looked above himself. He sighed and took another long drag.

This is my world, said Fabian.

So it is. But I, too, have been to many places – Europe, Africa, once to Brazil and Venezuela – yes, the life of sweet fruits. A friend graduated from the University of Wyoming School of Social Work and lived with the hills-billies in Hardeman County, Tennessee. Yes, I have seen many things and heard of more but the Word of God is always within me. When I read a newspaper or book, or watch something on the television, or meet someone new, The Word is there. It is my focus and reality. How can you live? How can you think? How can you create these vast machines without consulting the true Creator first? If there is no center it will all crumble to nothing, yes, even your machines.

*

I am finished with the feet. All flesh is consumed. My feet just got there first. Insha’Allah

He is watching another episode of Walker, Texas Ranger. Fabian pulls up a chair and tosses him a pack of Marlboros.

Shall I now roll over and bark? He taps one out and Fabian lights it. He motions to the screen where the Texas Ranger endures a savage beating.

Walker is hurting for certain-ing, he says. Those cruel Anglo-Saxons! I see them on South Park.

Hurtin’ for certain. That’s how it’s said.

Hurt-ing for certain-ing?

Drop the first “g” – Hurtin’ for certain.

By God, even your language is corrupt. Who can understand this? Where is this written? There are no rules!

It is the people’s rule. It is the people’s language.

What people?

The people who watch Walker, Texas Ranger.

What kind of people are these?

Simple people.

Less simple people do not watch Walker, Texas Ranger?

As a general rule, no.

Do they say “hurting for certain-ing?”

They do not.

And why is that?

Their language is less precise – a language of deception.

And the show?

The plots are predictable and the outcomes sure.

Less simple people cannot agree with this? Do they not find this comforting?

Is life like that, Aamir? Here you are eight weeks later with no feet in an American hospital talking to a man in the intelligence service you think wants to waterboard you.

If you waterboard me I will be hurting for certain-ing, just like your countryman, the patriot Chuck Norris.

Fabian motions to the television. Maybe they should waterboard Chuck Norris.

Aamir slaps his knees and throws back his head. If God should allow this, he wheezes through gusts of mirth, I should like immediately to die! For how can life get any better? Only if they showed this on Cops.

*

One cannot live without God. Did your father not teach you this?

He tried.

You did not listen?

I did not agree.

Then it was the false god

That is certainly possible.

Not all gods are the false god. This is the error in your thinking.

This, too, is a possibility.

For obedience the True God gives us many wives. Therein lies great joy.

In my country it’s called something else.

Does your father wish for many wives?

Fabian laughed. After my mother, I doubt it.

There are many lovely flowers. No two are the same. But in America there is only one wife. In frustration the husband watches filth on the computer or divorces his wife and makes lawyers rich. This is not the way of God. How then do you think you provide answers for the people of this world? Pimps and the ho’s on television. Drugs in your children and old women. People so fat their faces look like the pig face, millions of them. This is madness. You have got everything backward, everything wrong. You have nothing to teach anybody.

*

At least let me have a good-looking Ukrainian nurse like that shitbag Gaddafi.

Wish I could.

Then tell me a story from your American life, a story of justice. But tell me in my own language so I understand better.

Fabian thinks for a moment. Texas Ranger justice?

Of course, the real thing!

I will tell you a story about my great-grandmother.

A woman?

Yes, the best story of all – but I must tell it in English, the language of justice.

I will hear it. Wait, wait! He fishes around for cigarettes. Let me light another Marlboro. Marlboros are the cigarettes of justice.

My great-grandmother had six children – five boys and one daughter. That daughter was my grandmother, my mother’s mother.

  1. What happened?

The five sons all grew up and became coal miners. My grandmother was the only girl and she was the baby.

  1. What happened?

Her name was Hattie. When she was fifteen she ran away and got married.

Fifteen was too young?

Her mother thought so. And, she didn’t like the young man.

What did he do, the young man?

He was a farmer’s son. He worked on the farm. That is also where they lived. He was a drunk. When Hattie’s mother saw her, she always had bruises and black eyes.

This man he would beat her?

Yes

Why?

He did not need a reason.

He was a piece of shit?

Obviously

What year was this?

1936

  1. What happened?

One day Hattie’s mother heard that her daughter was hurt. She took a bus to a little town thirty miles away called Moline, near the husband’s farm.

  1. What happened?

Hattie’s face was swollen and she had three broken fingers. He hit her with a pipe.

This piece of filth!

Great-grandmother found a doctor, then went to see the man’s father. He wouldn’t do anything.

Because he, too, was a drunk?

You learn quick.

  1. What happened?

Hattie refused to leave because she was pregnant – with my mother, actually. Six weeks later great-grandmother went back to Moline. Alone, at night.

Alone?

Yes.

How did she go there, this woman, thirty miles at night alone?

She borrowed her brother’s car, a Studebaker. Today my mother has it. I played in it when I was young.

Nobody saw her?

Apparently not.

  1. What happened?

Right down the road from the farmer’s house was a hay barn. You know what I mean?

Yes, food for the horse.

Well, she set it on fire.

By God!

Everybody ran out to see this fire, including my Hattie. When they did, her mother circled back to the farmhouse.

The farmers did not go because they were drunk. This I can tell. OK. What happened?

Great-grandmother had a little revolver.

What kind was it?

Smith & Wesson Hammerless .32. Nicknamed the “Lemon Squeezer” because it looks like a kitchen appliance. My mother has it now, too. It is a family heirloom. Do you know this word?

No

Something passed down generation by generation.

Yes yes, we have knives. In America you have guns?

And cars.

So she took that hair-moon in there? Ok. What happened?

She shot them both.

By God! The Woman did this?

Yes

They were killed?

Indeed

  1. What happened?

She went back home. Dark of night.

And did they find her? Did they catch her?

No. And since Hattie was at the fire and other people saw her there, the police couldn’t blame her.

Did people hear the shots?

Certainly.

Why did they not come running?

People shoot skunks all the time, even today. Do you know the word “skunk”?

A stinking animal?

That’s right.

Thereby this mother saved her daughter?

She did.

And how did you come to this knowledge? It is in your family of course.

Secret knowledge passed down.

Your mother told you.

That’s right.

Do the American police know?

They do not.

To this very day?

Correct

Have you told anyone else?

You are the first.

By God, you do me great honor!

Why shouldn’t I?

Because we are adversaries. But you are very interesting. And your great-relative was perhaps an Arab.

*

Your life in America – it is what I heard?

What did you hear?

Baseball and the apple pie?

Not exactly.

No pie or no baseball?

My father worked for a poultry processor. My mother worked at a dry cleaner. The big event was paying off the house. They’re still in it, that house.

What do they do in there?

Watch television. Take pills.

But you left that place – ?

One day I applied to Brown University. It was a class assignment, apply to a college, here’s a list. I chose one at random. Someone at Brown actually decided to let me in. It took a while but they did it. If not for that person I’d still be in Pennsylvania pulling chicken guts at the processor. I’d never have learned Arabic. We wouldn’t have met.

God helped you. He answered your prayers. Now you have fresh life in a new world!

I don’t pray.

We all pray. Even if we don’t pray. Here is the proof: You got into Brown University and learned my language.

How many have you killed, Aamir?

By God I have killed no one – or I too would be dead.

How is that?

I will not send a soul to heaven unless I can guide him to the gates of paradise. I promise you.

Why haven’t you done this, then?

Don’t you know? I am just like you my almost-friend! I speak the language of the enemy. We are both too valuable to die!

*

Fabian’s commander, a black bird colonel named Cornelius Monk who graduated West Point and has general written all over him, makes an unannounced visit to the intel shack. He does not seem to notice a poster on the wall hung by a long-gone linguist featuring Richard Nixon shaking hands with an obviously-high Elvis Presley in the White House above the caption “Two Great Americans.” You’ve had that piece of shit three weeks, he says. You got him because you two go way back (he makes quote marks with his fingers) but so far it’s been all relationship (he makes quote marks with his fingers). Your terms, right? Knock yourself out. Well here’s our status: Current? Zip. Corroborating? Zip. Directionals? Zip. Timeline? Zip. You’re all I’ve got Jarosinski, since Rumsfeld kicked out the queers – but real soon soldier, and I mean real soon, I render Abdul here off to Egypt. They hand out Marlboros, too. Then they shove them up his ass. When did you get to be so stupid? This happen on my watch? I’ll tell you this – Monk points a finger at him – he sings in Egypt we got a problem you and me. I’ll haul your ass up for dereliction. Or worse.

He sings in Egypt, says Fabian, you’ll see Christ Jesus fly over the desert at sunrise. Then we’ll really have a problem.

*

He tosses a pack of Marlboros on the bed. Enjoy them, he says. They may be your last.

Aamir slowly unwraps the pack and taps one out. When Fabian leans over with the lighter Aamir catches his eyes and holds them until he inhales first smoke.

I have a confession, he says. For you and for God. I will whisper.

Fabian leans again.

I am afraid. And therefore I am ashamed.

He smokes for a moment. Soon they will give you shit. They will say, Make him talk or we will send him away. He will be tortured and thrown alive from the helicopter over the Red Sea. This is reality.

Take the deal.

Either way I’m a dead man, even in Thadiq, one side or the other. Of course you know this. The only question is how do I die – like a man beloved of God and the Prophet, or like a dog – your dog. I will tell you. I will die like a man. They will burn me and cut me, then bind me with steel and drop me from great height into the sea. Insha’Allah

He pulls thoughtfully on the Marlboro and again seeks Fabian’s eyes but Fabian’s eyes are far away. Fabian leans in close and whispers, I knew a man who would do exactly the same.

As do I. Walker, Texas Ranger!

*

Suns in their multitudes seethe and cry upon the boundless plane of the night. Within this very firmament Aamir With No Feet has lately tumbled, somersaulting in clear air through flocks of gulls and Boeing drones and fiery Mohammadan angels shouting praise and courage. Though he unquestionably soiled himself and was abused for that, too, he found his voice and screamed the name of God over and over until the instant he struck the sea.

*

Onward and downward, says the colonel. How do you say “grunt” in Pashto? I hope you kissed him goodbye. We all need pleasant dreams. You will too, Jarosinski. Boots on the ground, troop! Welcome to the real Army. You know what I said to the last interrogator? – So be a bum and a dope addict for a while. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Just remember who butters your toast.

4

Fabian Jarosinski

He spends six months in El-Aaiún advising rich old men with coffee eyes and breath of cloves on the thrifty procurement of mail-order brides from Kazakhstan, sometimes three and four at a time, who are happily quarantined for the first three months against the possibility of herpes and HIV. The old men, paprika magnates, not only pay him well but treat him like a son, which is to say they love him. Don’t feel guilty, the girls whisper; you are not actually “procuring” because anything is better than Kazakhstan. These old men are harmless, they have let foxes into their henhouse, we will steal their desert jewels and flee to Madrid, come with us! Then another six months in Beirut where he begins a master’s program in Arab literature & language at American University. There he sees a countryman with green circles tattooed around his eyes, chain-smoking and talking to himself. On his backpack is a message scrawled on the bars of a childish representation of Old Glory rendered upon a dirty scrap of cardboard: SAY “HI” TO COMMANDER NAGASAKI SPREADING ACTIONS OF PEACE ACROSS THE WHOLE WORLD NOW JOIN HANDS!!!! In Cairo he meets a psychiatrist come from Boston for a conference on addictions who said he almost went crazy working with the obese – diabetes, sleep apnea, hypertension. Crackheads meth-freaks my freakin’ ass, they die because they won’t stop eating, it’s just that simple, I have four degrees from three good schools, I should know. Next week I’m doing a presentation at Johns Hopkins: “Pizza, A New American Religion.” Fabian estimates the psychiatrist weighs three-hundred pounds. A full year in North Africa learning Arabic dialects Hassanyya, Touareg, Juba, Nubi, Dhofari, Najdi. Outside a Riyadh mosque one day a woman with her white-blond hair covered along with part of her face so one saw only dark eyes surreptitiously took his hand and slipped him a note. She was a Polish journalist on her way to Western Sahara for a Der Spiegel piece on Mariem Hassan, so back he goes to El-Aaiún where they present themselves as a married couple and sleep together. At some level this is incest, she says, but at least it stays in the family. When something good happens is the universe functioning or malfunctioning, I can’t tell – but the gall of deity throwing us upon this senseless earth crawling with charlatans in His name then damning us when we can’t figure it out, that’s why we’re all atheists in Europe. Are you atheist? Will I ever see you again? When she returned to Poland he hired on with a food entrepreneur from Baltimore blessed with ardent Alewite relatives who convinced him that Damascus was ripe for a string a Taco Bells, then threw in all their money. After only one presentation to a preposterous Syrian version of an American chamber of commerce he is beaten half to death by outraged Islamists who also threatened to bomb any and all Taco Bells he might be so unwise to construct. Fabian later learned that both the man’s Alewite and American relations, who had likewise invested and lost everything, beat him yet again – an unforeseen risk of fast food capitalism in the Arab world. Another month with the Polish journalist who came to Jordan for a Paris Match story on Iraqi refugees, who, in some places, now outnumbered Jordanians. She revealed her intention to draw parallels with persecuted Mormons in nineteenth century America who also migrated and engendered resentment and bigotry when they outnumbered Missourians in parts of Missouri.

Do you think your readers will understand this, he asked, a Mormon-Iraqi parallel? It wouldn’t even fly in my country.

Sure, she said, the older generation reads books, they don’t give a shit what Lindsay Lohan is up to, they’ve been interested in Mormons for at least a hundred years, do you know any?

I’m Pentecostal, he said, somewhat lapsed.

I’m Roman Catholic, she said, the same. What do you get when you put those together?

A Mormon? he laughed.

She’s The Sherriff starring Suzanne Somers is on the hotel television, dubbed into both Hassanyya and Berber. My god, she says, your country is taking over the entire world one television set at a time. Meanwhile the reefs are dying because everybody in America has a constitutional right to air conditioning. You are burning coal to generate electricity to run machines that cool your houses, so the earth gets even hotter and the oceans acidify, does that make sense? Soon you reach a point of no return and then what will you do, jump in the ocean to stay cool? It will eat your skin and you will die like the reefs and fishes, which is what you deserve stupid capitalist pigs. He lunges and catches her ankle and she laughs so hard she pees herself, then blushes upwards over alabaster shoulders and long alabaster neck, which lovely rose, he observes, compliments those black eyes. Watch out, she says, or I will call the mutaween and tell them you want to build Taco Bells in El-Aaiún. Next morning in the bazaar they find Sudanese selling Taco Bell out of a freezer in the back of a spice store. The Polish woman shakes her head as if to say If you can’t beat them… and kisses his ear. Will I ever see you again? she asks.

One day, in the middle of the Sahara, Monk calls literally from out the blue to ask if he has overcome his crippling obsession with Stone Age religions because if so there is a place for him at NSA where Monk is a section chief. I made general, he says, and the next year they packed my token black ass off to the Pentagon. NSA made an offer I couldn’t refuse. I’m doing the same for you, Jarosinski, don’t ask how I got your phone number.

Thanks, says Fabian, but how sick and desperate would I have to be to even consider something like this?

Sick and desperate, well that’s interesting. Aamir took that dive for your sins if that’s what you’re getting at – and yes, by god, even California if he’d given us something to work with, but all he served up was horseshit and you ate every bit. Here’s a chance at redemption, think about it, that’s all I’m asking.

What about your redemption, Monk, how’s that going?

Hard to believe, kid, but I’m working on it, I really am.

Two days later still in the desert another call, this one from Red Cross in Tunisia telling him his parents had died in a car-truck accident the evening before in West Virginia where they’d gone to see his mother’s sister, Aunt TerriLois, who weighed nearly a quarter-ton and was in the final stages of congestive heart failure and had actually heard the accident report on her police scanner while working through a colossal bowl of Hostess Zingers. A semi driver hauling feminine products for WalMart had fallen asleep at 9 PM and crossed the divider. TerriLois herself died next evening reaching for her cigarettes, toppling from bed with a thunderous crash and puncturing a lung with a rib shattered by an oxygen bottle on the floor. After he’d settled his two youngest sisters with an uncle in Pottsville for the rest of middle school he rode the bus to DC and lunched with Monk in a jam-packed NSA cafeteria. Then he flew to Warsaw.

The Polish girl was more beautiful than he expected or hoped or, he knew absolutely, would ever in ten lifetimes deserve. She met him at the gate with her family, almost fifty people. Half of them are Catholic, she says, the other half still Communist, I don’t know which side’s worse. Only god knows.

I thought you were atheist.

No one’s an atheist, not even the Communists. They just think they are.

And you?

Some things you have to take on faith, Fabian. Even me. Especially me.

 

Intifada Love Story: 1988

By Susan Muaddi Darraj

When they came, they stayed on the rooftop for seven days. Nobody knew it would be that long, not at first. They came because of the demonstration in Ramallah, said Jamil’s father. He’d been the one to see them from the salon window, as they’d trudged up the walkway, their backs loaded with olive green duffel bags, their shoulders embraced by the leather straps of dusty AK47s. Four shebab killed in that protest, including one of the boys from Jamil’s history lecture class, and twenty arrested, they’d heard. All the villages were on lockdown.

The thumping of boots on the house’s flat cement roof could be heard most clearly in the kitchen, despite the insistent humming of the old refrigerator and the loud coughing of the pipes. On the first day they were there, the heavy thuds shook loose bits of plaster from around the light fixture to the floor, like a light coat of snow that Jamil’s mother sent him to sweep. Four, Jamil thought. There must be four of them up there. He counted their distinct footsteps and patterns of shuffling – one guy had a light, quick gait, while the another plodded like a giant with thick, flat feet – as he lazily swept the powdery plaster into a pile, then pushed the small hill into a dustpan. Since his last sister had gotten married, household chores had come down on his head. The usual bad luck of being the youngest, the last egg to be plucked from the coop.

He put the broom and the dustpan back in the pantry, then turned on the sink faucet to rinse his hands. The pipes groaned, then backfired sharply, and he smiled to realize that the footsteps above his head froze. He dropped the grin when his parents rushed into the kitchen.

“It’s just the pipes,” he calmed them. They knew that, of course; the pipes always made that horrible cracking. His father exhaled and sat down at the table.

“Go talk to them,” Jamil’s mother urged her husband, her hands picking on a hair of scratched wood on the table’s surface. With her thumbnail, she pushed the line out at the sides, until it tore a sliver of wood of and chipped a crescent out of her polished, pink nail.

“And say what?” Her husband seemed annoyed, like someone who thought himself clever but was easily beaten at a game of cards or tawla.

“I’ll go,” Jamil offered.

“No! God forbid,” his father replied, standing reluctantly, petulant at being pushed to the task. “This is my house.”

Up he went, trudging up the cement steps off the balcony to the flat roof, calling, “Salaam, salaam! Shalom, shalom!” as he neared the top. Jamil and his mother sat down at the table to wait, interpreting the noises – the stomps, the scrapes – above their heads. No shots fired, no yelling. That was good, at least.

When his father returned, Jamil could see the anger in his face, and the sweat that made his hairline slick. He sat down and croaked, “Water,” to his wife.

After he gulped down the small glass she filled for him, he told them, “Four or five days. They said it shouldn’t be longer.”

“Why our house?”

“It’s the biggest on this side of the hill. They can see everything from up there.”

Only later did he mention the rest of it. He admitted it nervously, like a confession wrenched from his guilty conscience by a priest. “They want us to stay inside.”

“We have to?” asked his wife sharply.

“And if we leave?” Jamil muttered. “What? Will they shoot us?”

His father slammed his hand down on the rickety table, catapulting the glass to the floor, where it shattered like a spray of ice pellets. His mother rolled her eyes at Jamil – that was the first glass from a new set, sent by her sister in Michigan, to break. “They shot four boys in Ramallah!” his father shouted.

After his father trudged out of the room, Jamil started to sweep up the glass shards from the floor, but his mother took the broom from him. “My turn,” she said. “And keep your mouth sealed. Let this glass be the only casualty this week.”

They played backgammon for the first night, sitting on the grape-colored, velvet-upholstered sofas in the formal salon, where they never sat casually. Tonight, though, his mother seemed not to care when Jamil’s father took out the J&B bottle, set a glass on the coffee table, settled on the largest sofa and opened the game board. Poor game board, Jamil thought, almost hysterically. Before tonight, its function had been to serve as a decoration in the room, its inlaid dark wood, in a geometric pattern, accenting the stuffy furniture. It had been set casually, like a movie prop, on the side table, to make it look like they played every day, to add to the aura of their perfect family: Father, a retired schoolteacher; Mother, a beauty in her day; and Son, a top student and soccer player – Tel al-Hilou’s model unit.

The phone buzzed steadily that first night. Their friends and neighbors, the Ghanems, called first. “I can see them from my bedroom window,” Mr. Ghanem reported. “Little kids with guns. These Israelis – what? Are they sending children to monitor us?” The old woman, Miss Salma, on the other side, could see them from her bathroom window: “Six rifles, but only four soldiers. They have a little stove, and they’re taking water from your roof tank with a metal pitcher.” She asked if she could bring them any food, but Jamil’s mother said no. It was better to wait and not cause problems. “They’re probably nervous, and a nervous boy with a gun is no good thing.”

“They don’t look nervous to me,” Miss Salma replied before she hung up. “But let me know if you need anything. I’m not afraid.”

***

For most of the morning of the second day, Jamil’s father fretted that Miss Salma was implying that he was. “I carried her brother’s body on my back when we buried him,” he said angrily to nobody in particular. “She had better not be calling me a coward.” Jamil’s father lived his life worried about gossip, and as much as he claimed to despise old women with free time, he also feared their storytelling.

His wife soothed him, saying she’d only meant that they wouldn’t bother an old woman. He reminded her of the girls who had been arrested in the demonstration three months ago, and the one who’d been released – pregnant – to her parents. “It’s like the French in Algeria,” he muttered. In his bedroom, Jamil listened, and while his annoyance with his father was blossoming, he was nevertheless sinking in the quicksand of his own worries. Being trapped in the house was upsetting his parents, who had to survive each other as well as the soldiers, but it threatened to suffocate a seventeen-year-old man.

The bedroom, large and square and white, had only become his when his last sister had gotten married. Years ago, he’d shared it with her and two other sisters: four children, crowded in one room, sharing the bathroom with their parents. When the house had been built eighty years ago, his father once told him, it didn’t even have a bathroom. The third bedroom had become the bathroom when Jamil’s parents had married. His mother – whose family had been the first to hold a wedding in the new hotel in Ramallah instead of in the church hall, like everyone else – had insisted. That left them with only two bedrooms, because she needed to keep a salon as well, to receive visitors properly.

Now it suddenly felt like the room, the whole house, didn’t belong to him anymore, like the soldiers on the rooftop could come in and take this too. As he lay on his bed, listening to his parents’ nervous chatter in the salon and the faint scrapes on the roof above his head, Jamil imagined that the soldiers would never leave. What if they stayed up there, nested, made the rooftop and the house their base, and Jamil stayed locked in this house forever? He’d never finish high school, never get married, never have children.

His thoughts spiraled like a hawk, seeking prey, until they centered and swooped down, as they inevitably did, on Muna, the Ghanems’ daughter. She would be home from school in a few hours and he could see into her living room from his bedroom window. He hoped she would signal him, even call, perhaps, pretend she wanted to give him the homework assignments he’d missed the day before, just so he could hear her voice. And if he could glimpse her sheet of black hair, her eyes from the window, it would end this terrible day happily.

In the other room, his parents had started up another game of backgammon. Jamil napped, not knowing what else to do until dinner, but his thoughts were filled with Muna: Muna next to him in algebra class, Muna secretly holding his hand under their white robes during their confirmation ceremony, Muna being attacked in a jail cell by a soldier wearing thick black boots, Muna collapsing in his arms after he’d broken in, kung-fu style, to rescue her. He awoke in a sweat, noticing that it was four o’clock, hurried to the window. But all the drapes in the Ghanem’s house were drawn. Of course they were. Jamil didn’t blame her father. They had three daughters too, just like his parents, but he felt like a castaway nonetheless. There would be no communication today.

Dinner that night was meatless, since his mother hadn’t been able to go to the butcher. Lentils and rice, a tomato-less salad since they couldn’t even go out to their own garden. “The last of my cucumbers,” his mother murmured like a mourner as they ate. “I suppose we can’t even go to the shed to get some pickled jars from our shelves?” His father didn’t reply, and she didn’t raise the subject again. They ate as usual, in the formal style she always insisted upon – quiet, cloth napkin in the lap, salad first. She baked a tray of haresia, since all she needed was the sugar and the tahine and the wheat, and they ate it as their dessert.

In the middle of the night, in his bedroom, he heard laughter above his head, two loud stomps, and a man’s explosive guffaw. He tried to fall back asleep, imagining his head so heavy that it sank into the thick pillow, but there was a pull, a tension in his neck that wouldn’t relax. He gave up, instead switching on his lamp and pulling Muna’s letters from his bedside drawer, where he kept them hidden under his old comic books. Every note she’d ever scribbled to him as they stood in line, had her younger sister discreetly palm to him – hastily written notes on napkins, plain notebook paper, on the pale blue sheets she’d used for half a year in tenth grade, all there in a bundle, organized from first to last from sixth grade, when their eyes first connected during Sunday mass, to two weeks ago, when she’d passed him a textbook in the library with a note tucked behind the table of contents. “All my love – mim.” Always signed with her initial, a simple circle – ﻢ – but the tail curliqued with a flourish, so secretly and lovingly. Whenever he saw a mim, in anything – a store sign, in the newspaper, in Mubarak’s and Shamir’s names, even – her face appeared, making the ugliness of it all more palatable. But her last letters were so insistent, and he hadn’t answered them. Girls, he’d thought. Always needing confirmation, something official, some way to prove how he felt. Why? Why couldn’t she accept the bare facts – she liked him, he liked her. Official things were in the distant future. He drifted off to sleep, wondering why Palestinians girls needed every little emotion clarified, every feeling uprooted.

He woke up in the morning, on the third day, startled, the letters under his chin, to the sound of yelling from the roof. An Israeli accent, speaking Arabic – “Shai. Bring shai. Four cups. Now.” The voice was so close, and then he realized it was in the house.

His mother scuttled by in the hallway, glancing in anxiously as she passed. He shoved the letters back in the drawer and hurried out, pulling his robe over his shoulders and licking the sleep off his teeth. His mother had put her small teapot on the stove and was digging in her canister for peppermint. His father walked in off the balcony, cursing.

“Sons of dogs, may their mothers burn at their fathers’ funerals – coming into my house! May the blackest plague swirl around them and kill them!” he fumed, his chest heaving even as he pulled four teacups from the pantry. “I should put some rat droppings in their shai, those bastards. Too bad you are too perfect of a homekeeper,” he muttered, consoling his wife, and even Jamal could see his father had now exploded sufficiently, released his anger, and could focus on calming his wife’s anxieties. That’s how it was in their home: the privilege of emotional outbursts always were awarded to his father before the others could share it.

“The roof is one thing, but to come into the house!” his mother said shakily, steeping the tea leaves in the pot, pushing them down with a fork she pulled from the sink. It seemed to Jamil, standing in the doorway, leaning on the wall, that the water boiled languidly, slowly, and their nerves bounced like the leaves in the simmering pot. “They just walked in like they own it!”

“Sons of dogs,” his father muttered again, pulling a tray from the rack. “Are we servants now, as well as prisoners?”

It was left to Jamal to carry the tray up to the roof. His mother had started to do it, only to be yelled at by her husband. “My wife is not a waitress for the Israeli army!”, but she wouldn’t let him ascend either, because his temper would get them all killed. “Send Jamil,” she finally said. And so up the cement steps he went.

He reached up above his head and knocked on the roof door, calling “Shalom!” as his father had instructed, listened for the mispronounced “Idfa’!” and walked through, pushing upwards, finally planting his feet on the cement roof and raising his eyes, to see a rifle pointed at his heart.

“You brought four cups?” asked a voice to the side, not owned by the curly-haired, rough-shaven teenager holding the rifle. The tray trembled in his hand and Jamil had the sense to steady it with the other.

“Yes,” he answered the Voice, his eyes focusing for some reason on the fingernails of the soldier – lines of black tucked deep in the nailbed, the knuckles below caked and peeling as the fingertips playfully drummed the trigger.

“Put it down,” instructed the Voice calmly. “Right at your feet.”

He did, and looked to the right. The Voice’s owner was younger than he thought, perhaps Jamil’s own age, his face and neck browned by the sun. Eyebrows like even rectangles, separated by a slit of brown skin. A chipped front tooth.

“Get the fuck out of here. And tell your mother to make us sandwiches for lunch.”

Jamil left, the gun still pointed at him, although he understood now that the initial splash of fear had dried off his body – they would laugh to themselves later, over and over, about his expression, imitate his reactions to pass the time.

His father roared, and his mother groaned, even as she began to pull the bread from the cabinet. When Jamil took it up to them, there was no gun now, only four pairs of eyes, four foreheads greasy and sweaty from the hot sun, four pairs of parched lips. They made Jamil nreak the corner off one sandwich and eat it, then the Voice took the small tray from him and they began devouring, not caring whether he’d descended or not, as they sat around the water tank.

Jamil stood awkwardly, feeling oddly like an intruder on their meal, despite the fact that they were gnawing on their hummus and pickle sandwiches while perching on his father’s – his grandfather’s – rooftop. He looked over the ledge, down into the courtyard, where the gate of the old chicken coop, long unused, swung lazily, unattached to the wall. Further up, he saw the metal doors of the old well, which they hardly used anymore.

The Voice licked his fingertips and picked up the fallen crumbs like a magnet attracting metal shavings, while the Gun paused, thumped his chest with a closed fist and burped. Jamil saw their guns leaning casually against the water tank, the large cylinder he’d helped his father install a few years ago. It caught the rainwater and stored it, a reserve right there on the roof, a modern development his father loved and was proud of, no longer depending on his well as many of their neighbors continued to do.

Across the street, in the window, a movement – small, quick – attracted his attention. A curtain pulled back at the Ghanem’s house, then dropped hastily. He waited, wondering if Muna had seen him, but the curtain stayed in its place. He looked back at the four soldiers only to find the Voice staring at him.

The Voice handed him the tray, cracking, “You have pretty neighbors,” in his rough Arabic. Jamil grabbed it as the others chuckled. He hurried down the steps, spent the rest of the day quietly reading and re-reading the three-day old newspaper, filled with turmoil that was meaningless in light of this moment. Riots in Jenin. A suicide in Lebanon, a girl jumped off her balcony. King Hussein is feeling better, the Queen says in an interview with the New York paper.

That night he dreamed of himself in black ninja pants, his hands slicing through the air, breaking noses and cracking collar bones, defending his love. He woke up, sweating hard, his hands searching for the comfort of the bundle of Muna’s letters.

***

On the fourth day, Jamil worried that he might scream at his mother, who was obsessively fretting over her inability to hang the laundry on the lines. Or at his father for his bluster, promising between TV viewing and snacking to slaughter the army with his bare hands. Jamil opted to be even more alone than he was: he spent most of the morning watching a crackly video tape of a king-fu movie. It was in Chinese, as far as he knew, dubbed into Russian, or Polish, or something, but he didn’t care. He could still follow the slow, angry glares, the face-offs, the jumps, kicks, and flip – the anger and its release. He knew every move by heart, had his favorite moments of the carefully choreographed fight scenes. But even that grew wearying, so he went into his room and spent the afternoon looking through his books. What were his classmates doing now? He lay on the floor in front of the low bookshelf. His sisters’ old textbooks filled half of it, and all the family’s other books – some inherited, some borrowed, the old Bible, some funeral memorial booklets of old people he didn’t know, a couple of photograph albums – sat dutifully, side by side, like victims condemned and waiting at the gallows. He pulled a battered, creased literature textbook, his eldest sister’s name scribbled in the front cover. Literature of the Globe. He opened it to the contents: “The Ancient World,” “The European Middle Ages,” “The Islamic Golden Era.” He turned to this section: he read Moses Maiomenedes, scanning the biography: a Jew. Nobody had ever told him that. Back to the contents: “India and the Subcontinent.” Tagore: he flipped to this section, and read “The Punishment,” about a wronged girl who stubbornly accepts her unjust sentence without a fight. Picked up the old newspaper again: some stories he missed… food riot in Thailand. George Bush elects his new cabinet. The girl in Lebanon again. Enough victimization. He felt confused, his world was not right. He skipped dinner and went to bed early.

***

On the fourth day, they ran out of bread. Jamil told the Voice, whose beard and mustache were thickening, that they were out of almost everything else too: milk, butter, eggs, vegetables.

“Tell one of your pretty neighbors to bring it,” he replied gruffly. “And we need more tea.”

“How long will you be staying?” Jamil asked boldly, but his only reply was a glare. Irritated by the casual reference to the Ghanems, Jamil repeated the question, regretting it instantly, feeling in that second that he had betrayed his father, his mother, his priest, Muna, including his own intelligence. The Voice rushed to his gun, reaching the tank in three strides, spun and pointed it at Jamil in one fluid motion, while one of his comrades watched casually. While the gun centered on him, Jamil still saw irrationally another soldier to the left, behind the Voice picking his teeth with his fingernail.

“What did you ask me, you filthy dog?”

Jamil felt surprised by how smoothly the Voice cursed in Arabic. How did he learn it? This question circulated persistently in his head as he stared, for the second time in his seventeen years, at a gun aimed at his heart.

“What did you ask me?” the Voice was shouting now, and when Jamil still did not reply – did he learn it in the prisons? – the Voice lifted the gun skyward, perpendicular to the flat roof, and with a casual contraction of his index finger, punctured the cloudless blue sky with a single bullet. He just deflowered the sky, Jamil thought, and wanted to burst out laughing at his own insanity.

A small silence, and then Jamil sensed several things at once – a curtain pulled back, two sets of panicked footsteps below, his own heart pausing in its beats, a desert in his throat.

He moved to the steps to block his parents, to show them he was fine. His mother dragged him down by the hems of his pantlegs, then by the shirtsleeves, to the kitchen, ran back and locked the balcony door, and, despite his protests, searched every inch of his face, arms, and chest. “Are you sure? Are you hurt?” she muttered over and over, not listening for his responses and reassurances.

The phone rang and his father, his face gray, his tongue quieted for once, answered softly. “We are fine, thank God,” he said robotically into the phone and hung up, but it rang again almost immediately. Six more phone calls followed.

That evening, Jamil sat on the couch, reading the newspaper yet again. The story of the girl in Lebanon startled him out of his reverie, as if he hadn’t already scanned it ten times. Suspected rape, an uncle, fourteen floors, cement courtyard. The church wouldn’t bury her because it was a suicide. Sadness flooded over his body again, and he stood abruptly, asked his father to play tawla out of sheer desperation to fill his mind.

After playing several rounds to soothe his father ad himself and after eating every seed, nut and pastry his mother placed before him, after they’d all gone to bed, to empty his own heart, Jamil wrote a long letter to Muna.

***

The next morning, the fifth day, shortly after dawn, old Miss Salma hobbled over to their front door. Jamil’s mother opened the door quickly and let her in. She carried two plastic sacks of her homemade bread, a jug of milk, and a block of cheese wrapped in cloth.

“God bless your hands, Miss Salma, and may God bless our lives with your presence for many more years,” Jamil’s mother said, accepting the sacks without the usual feigned reluctance and disappearing into her kitchen.

“Come here, Jamil,” Miss Salma said, sitting down heavily on the velvet sofa, her thick ankles ballooning out under the hem of her blue dress. Her diabetes was worsening, he could tell. Her legs were like heavy slabs of meat, pushed into her shoes so tightly that the front bulged out against the leather tongue. Her mottled blue calves and shins looked like a world map. “Are you alright, young man?”

“I’m fine. They didn’t touch me,” he replied, putting a small side table next to her as his mother called from the kitchen that she was boiling tea. He walked to the kitchen and took from his mother a small dish of watermelon seeds and a glass of ice water.

“Those bastards stared at me as soon as I came out of my front door,” she said, cracking the seeds expertly between her teeth and spitting out the shells into her palm. Jamil grabbed an ashtray and put it before her politely. “They leaned over the roof and watched me all the way until I got here and knocked on your door.”

“Sons of dogs,” Jamil’s father grumbled from where he sat on the other sofa, his arms folded across his chest. “That other boy in Ramallah died yesterday. They couldn’t find a kidney.”

“They had one, but they couldn’t get it in. And a new checkpoint around Ramallah, did you hear?” Miss Salma asked.

Jamil’s father shrugged. “All I hear, my dear lady, is this news from you and sometimes whatever I can get on the radio. Our newspaper is a week old. The only thing playing on the TV are soap operas. We could have a full-out war, but Abu Ammar would find it only suitable to play Egyptian soap operas for us!”

“Sugar in your tea?” asked Jamil’s mother, and Jamil wondered, ludicrous as it were, whether his polished mother would always fret over etiquette and appearances even in the midst of an apocalypse. While the world burned around them, she might spend precious minutes wiping down the silverware or folding napkins. Yet, while it irritated him, this image also soothed him; there would always be order, as long as his mother was around. Women, he felt, brought stability, like Miss Salma who’d arrived and solved their problems with her bags of bread and cheese, like Madame Amira, the former nun who lived on the other end of the village, who threw herself on top of boys so the army didn’t drag them away.

“Two spoons,” Miss Salma said. “You know, they’re closing the schools, no?”

“What?” Jamil asked, panicked into joining the adults’ conversation.

“Oh yes, all the schools in Ramallah will shut down, starting tomorrow. Seven o’clock curfew.”

“But not here in our village,” Jamil clarified.

“Well, be prepared,” she said, leaning forward conspiratorially. “Yesterday the principal of the middle school called and asked if they could use my cellar as a classroom if they need to. All the villages are making back-up plans.”

During the rest of her visit, Jamil barely spoke, feeling fretful and anxious. As she prepared herself to leave, he suddenly decided on a course of action. He rushed to his room, grabbed the letter, and then returned, insisting on helping the widow at the door. Sure his parents were not listening, he pushed the letter into her bag, asking her quietly to give this to Muna, Mr. Ghanem’s oldest daughter. Not Huda or Lena, but Muna.

“Miss Salma…” he stammered.

She smiled and whispered, “Trust me, young man. Nobody keeps secrets better than me.” And with a wink she was gone.

***

Jamil sat in his bedroom window that evening, having just delivered bread and cheese to the roof. His parents watched the new Egyptian soap opera on the television, but he knew they weren’t paying attention. His mother was knitting a sweater for him that he didn’t need and his father leafed through one of Jamil’s calculus textbooks, for lack of anything better. “If they need schoolteachers,” he’d told Miss Salma, “I’ll come out of retirement. They will need math teachers.”

He thought back to Muna’s last letter, which he’d memorized by heart – it seemed like she’d written it and slipped it into his satchel years ago and not just two weeks – and her insistence that something be made clear between them. She wanted an answer. Why had he interpreted it so badly? She was right – there was no time to be lost anymore.

It was nine o’clock, and he peered out the window. Across the alley, the curtain moved aside, although the room inside remained dark, as he’d instructed in his letter. A pause, then the curtain fell twice, and was still.

Yes.

“God bless you, Miss Salma!” he said to himself.

***

The soldiers left on Saturday night, the seventh day, while they were sleeping, slipping away in the dark, leaving crumpled napkins and dirty tea cups next to the water tank. Sunday morning, they woke up and realized they could attend Mass. He would see Muna, make plans. They could do a long engagement, marry when they’d finished college, lock it in now, rather than search for a bride later. Or maybe they’d just marry this summer, and attend classes together. Why waste time? There was no time anymore, and nothing was certain.

Jamil hurried into the bathroom to shave, scrubbing his face with a soapy rag. The water pipes creaked as the water flowed, and Jamil looked more closely at the water as it pooled in the white basin. A horrible thought came into his head at the same time that he heard his father cursing from the kitchen and footsteps stomping up to the roof.

His mother rushed into the bathroom, shrieking, “Don’t use the water, Jamil! I think they –“

“I know. I thought as much.” Jamil swabbed his face with rubbing alcohol, ignoring the sting and his watering eyes, then climbed up to the roof and stood over the water tank, staring down into it with his father. An empty bucket, which Jamil had never noticed before on the roof, lay on its side next to the tank. “They were using it,” his father kicked the bucket, “as their bathroom, and then dumped it into our tank before they left.”

Jamil stared down at the waste floating in their modern water tank, and suppressed the nausea creeping acidly up into his chest.

“Goddamn animals,” he screamed. There, the anger did it. The anger quenched the nausea. His father was right to always vent.

He knew what to do. This week had made him into a man, with a man’s problems and solutions. He walked down to the cellar and fetched a metal tin and a long rope, then strode down the courtyard steps to the well. He hadn’t visited it in a long time, but he knew his father always opened it before a big rain. He pulled back the old, metal door, and he let the rope slide down its stone-blocked sides, the tin clanging, echoing, as it clunked down. The well was deep, deep, deep in the earth, and not as vulnerable as an open tank on the roof. The well was old, but could not be contaminated.

As he carried the bucket of icy, clear water to the house, he calculated how much it would cost to empty the roof tank, to sanitize it, and then how long it would take for the rains to refill it. He’d look for a job soon, start earning some money. Before he stepped through the doorway of the house, he glanced over at the Ghanem’s window. He would see her today, no matter what, in church, would see, maybe touch, the black ribbon of her hair.

Take me with you, to Tel Aviv

By Firas Khoury
Translated from the Arabic by Thoraya El-Rayyes

My Occupier and I ride the train together. “Excuse me” I say, smiling, asking if I can sit in the empty seat next to him. My Occupier lets me through graciously, smiling.

I get off the train. My Occupier serves me coffee and lunch at a restaurant. “Do you need anything else?” my Occupier asks.

“No” I tell him, smiling. My Occupier smiles and backs away, so as not to disturb me by hovering over the table for even another second.

My phone rings. My Occupier speaks to me through the phone, “Can I offer you some of our products?”

“Sorry, I don’t have time.”

“Have a good day,” he smiles.

“You too,” I smile.

I leave the restaurant and head to the bank next door. I get stopped by my Occupier’s car, he asks how he can get to the Occupied street named after a leader of the Occupation. I think, I choose my words in the language of the Occupation and I give him directions. My Occupier thanks me and smiles. I smile.

I go into the bank. Next to me, my Occupier is reading the newspaper of the Occupation. Our eyes happen to meet so he smiles to avoid that pointless awkwardness. I smile back, and wait for the screen to announce my turn. My Occupier processes a cheque for me, a cheque I received from my Occupier after he deducted a percentage for the Occupation army. The money goes into my account (my Occupier’s account). I thank him and I smile, so he smiles.

I enter my Occupier’s university to pay off a debt that is a few years old. It is the first day of the academic year and my Occupier is joyous: my Occupier frolics, dances, sings, jumps. My Occupier is flying high!

“Me and my Occupier are in a garden, under a canopy of roses”

***

I call my Occupier, I want to meet. My Occupier is a dulcet beauty with lips like Golan cherries moist with dew. Nothing can turn my gaze from her breasts except the curve of her hips, my Occupier’s hips. We meet in my Occupier’s bedroom. My Occupier kisses me, I shag my Occupier. She comes, so I come. Me and my Occupier have just come (together).

***

In his taxi, on my way to a party, my Occupier asks me “Shall I turn on the meter?”

“Yes,” I reply, smiling.

“Thirty shekels. OK?” he asks, not smiling.

I say “OK.” I imitate him, and do not smile.

My Occupier has thirty shekels. My Occupier has no meter. My Occupier hates keeping count. My Occupier hates history.

Here we are now…

My Occupier and I are celebrating in the same place. My Occupier raises his glass high towards me as he drunkenly passes me in the queue for the toilet:

“Happy New Year” he says in a voice that pierces through the loud music. “Happy New Year,” I reply, smiling.

My Occupier has a drink and a holiday. My Occupier has no meter. My Occupier hates keeping count. My Occupier hates history.

***

My Occupier hunts me down before dawn between the folds of the last drink in the final bar. He wants to talk to me about politics. My Occupier is a “Leftist”- his hatred of me is gentle and my hatred of him is banal. My Occupier is my Master and feels guilty about his status, so he tries to endear himself to me in the tackiest ways, and smiles. What else can I do? Eternally bored, I smile.

He tells me about his earnest love for the superficialities of my culture and his commitment to the two-state solution. My Occupier has chewed up Yaffa and spit on Haifa, urinated on Akka and swept away the Galilee, cast Safad into darkness, wiped away Al-Lid and Ramlah and combed the coast. He has choked Al-Nasra and swallowed Al-Quds but he would like to take Tubas from the hands of my Occupier and liberate it for me.

My Occupier is a Leftist. My Occupier is a Leftist.

Whether I like it or not, he has publicly declared himself to be a Leftist.

My Occupier is the same as my Occupier.

***

As the first rays emerged from behind the deceitful cement buildings, he began to get comfortable in my company (in his own company) and so he asked me for the only thing I have left, my right to be “Occupied”. He wasn’t content with what I offered because according to him, he is not my Occupier.

My Occupier thinks he is “not” my Occupier, but I think that is the only thing he is. That is how he started out and that is how he insists on continuing. To me, nothing remains of him except this “not.”

My Occupier has no meter and I don’t have anything left to pay him with, so I pay for the glass of whiskey and get up. I do not see him anymore, I do not see my Occupier. I see beyond my Occupier, and I smile.

 

This story first appeared in Arabic on Qadita.net

Translator’s notes

“Me and my darling are in a garden, under a canopy of roses” is a line from a song by the iconic Arabic singer Sabah Fakhry.

Yaffa, Akka, Al-Lid, Al-Nasra and Al-Quds are the Arabic names for Jaffa, Acre, Lydda, Nazareth and Jerusalem. The English spelling for the other cities mentioned in the story reflects the Arabic pronunciation.

Context

Firas Khoury is a Palestinian citizen of Israel living in Haifa. He is one of over 1.5 million citizens of Israel whose cultural, linguistic and ethnic heritage is Palestinian. They are the descendants of indigenous peoples who did not flee to neighboring Arab countries during the 1948 war that led to the establishment of Israel.

Although they were granted citizenship, Palestinian citizens of Israel were subject to martial law until 1966 and continue to face institutionalized racial discrimination today. Several prominent Israeli politicians have even gone as far as to call for the revocation of their citizenship, or for their collective transfer to a future Palestinian state.

Take me with you, to Tel Aviv is a bold expression of this community’s unique experience of exile within their own homeland. It is a defiant expression of a collective identity that is still considered subversive in Israeli political culture, written in a strikingly detached voice that mirrors the alienation of the protagonist.