Iman Humaydan’s The Weight of Paradise, a story of memory, violence, and the elusiveness of homeland

“The homeland that killed us in its name”
Fiction Book Review
by Eman M.A. Elshaikh

Iman Humaydan’s latest novel The Weight of Paradise is a poignant evocation of the fight to defend and restore memory through the cyclical violence, exile, and suffering which seeks to annihilate it. Set mostly in Beirut in 1978 and 1994, the story lives “in the heart of the apocalypse” during the Lebanese Civil War and also emerges from its debris, struggling to piece itself together into an authentic whole. In this Beirut, even small distances are difficult to traverse, as the paths are encircled with violence or buried beneath its aftermath.

“Reconstructing, reconstruction,” laments Sabah, a central character who ties together and ruptures the narrative at different points. “Every day on radio and television they talk like this, too. Maybe they want to build and construct so that people will forget.”

Indeed, the novel feels like a rejection of forgetting, as the characters in their own ways are obsessed with retrieval. The novel interrogates memory and its antagonists masterfully. It probes the process of destruction and reconstruction and the ways in which they are irretrievably bound up in death, violence, and historical revisionism. In doing so, it is an unflinching portrayal of the violence that lives alongside the characters, who “had become skilled at managing their lives in its shadow.”

Humaydan intertwines the story of Maya, a recently widowed writer and mother who returns to Beirut from Paris in 1994 following her husband’s passing, with the stories Maya finds forgotten in a suitcase in an abandoned building. In the suitcase, Maya finds Noura, Kemal, and Sabah, and she instantly becomes obsessed with unpacking their history through their photographs, letters, and diaries.

She seeks out the eccentric but heart-breaking Sabah, an older woman living alone in the old Beirut neighbourhood of Khandaq al-Ghamiq, waiting for her disappeared husband to return and tending to her small garden, even through bombs and gunfire. Living virtually as a recluse, she initially meets Maya with hesitation, but ultimately tells Maya about Noura and Kemal’s lives as well as her own.

Sabah’s stories and recollections provide Maya with the connective tissue that brings Noura and Kemal’s story together. She learns about Noura’s self-imposed exile from Damascus after a tragedy in her family and how this exile becomes permanent once Noura starts writing the truth about what happened. She learns about the violence that follows such truths and will stop at nothing to silence them. She learns about Kemal, Noura’s lover in Istanbul, and the fragile life they try to build together. But these stories and their tellers are often treacherous, and Maya, like Noura, fights to save truth from oblivion.

Humaydan’s main achievement with this novel, which is full of despair and yet buoyed with a promise of love and hope, is in allowing the reader to “enter history through countless endless gates,” and in doing so, reread history. It imbues the narrative with a subtle promiscuity that disrupts even the reader’s own recollection. In doing so, it forces us to confront the silences and lacunas in our stories and how they can both ruin us and save us. It is also a meditation on the dangers of invented memory and the need to bear witness always. This force is present even in the sweet love story between Noura and Kemal. In her diary, Noura writes, “with him, my doubts about history books started to gain power and take on new meaning.”

Humaydan writes in a poignant and confessional voice, which shines most brightly in the pages of Noura’s diary and the letters from Kemal, where they write about loss, violence, and lost homelands. They trace their wounds together and look for origins and resting places. In their histories, one finds Arabs, Armenians, Kurds, and Turks and the lands that shift and subsume them under violent nations, lamenting “the homeland that killed us in its name” and yet finding fragments of homeland scattered everywhere.

Though these deliberations on homeland and its erasure are thoughtful, there is also a questionable sense that the violence and oppression of the Middle East are somehow primordial or inevitable. The various scenes, in Damascus, Beirut, and Istanbul, are seemingly always engulfed by death and violence. In these places, both the repressive state and its resistors, both communists and capitalists alike are irrationally cruel. A looming tyrannical government occludes all individuals, who are anonymous, interchangeable, and sublimated within classes or sects. It threatens to destroy indiscriminately and without reason. Government actors, like the ubiquitous and senseless “mukhabarat” are equally anonymous and robotic, incapable of poetry and truth. Though the novel is committed to history, these places seem to exist outside of it.

Perhaps this indictment of these societies as irretrievably violent is in fact an indictment of men, who in the novel are either absent or violent. Even the boys in the novel attain masculinity through violencing women, who in turn “retaliate against oppression by oppressing themselves.” In this novel, men push women out of their homelands, punishing them for their desires and their consciousness. “Oppression pushes women to emigrate, to flee,” Noura writes, “it’s the kind of oppression that often comes in the form of a man.” Indeed, Kemal, who was dressed as a girl in early childhood in order to avoid a curse against the family’s men, seems to be the only exception.

There is no denying the beauty of the intricate lives woven together by Humaydan in this touching novel. However, in The Weight of Paradise, some of these threads are too thin. The reader is riveted by the textured inner worlds of Noura and Kemal but is left craving more of characters like Sabah and Maya. Sabah’s fascinating story still craves excavation, as her inner life remains opaque. The reader gets glimpses of her effervescence and her desire to fly and senses the decay of that spirit over time. Through the moving stories of her two lives, her desire for freedom, and her will to be a witness, the reader does not truly get a sense of her pain, but merely its imminence. Maya’s voice is poetic yet truncated, and though the backdrop of her life is sketched, the reader gets only a hazy sense of its detail. Through the suitcase, Maya inherits a reservoir of memory and seems to exist primarily to dip into it. Because of this, the novel ends before its force can be fully explored and resolved. In other words, the problem with The Weight of Paradise is that it was too brief.

The Weight of Paradise is a powerful call to question our histories, and in doing so, it is a call to question the violence that lives at the heart of it and possibly at the heart of our natures. “But this is us: we feed the poor, we laugh at a passing joke, we love, we mourn, we dance, but we also kill our neighbours in civil wars. Since we are like that, how can we describe ourselves?

Left

By Lena Zaghmouri

What struck me most about Mom’s family was how their pictures looked so different from what Mom told me they were actually like. They looked so put together and all-American, untouched by any troubles. Just two white married parents and one cute kid that always stood in front of them in pictures with a big smile and her arms open, embracing the world and the photo that would capture that emotion forever.
In reality, though, Mom’s parents were divorced, and Mom said Grandma’s main concern was finding her next boyfriend or husband, Grandpa’s the new family he inherited from marrying his second wife, which was soon after he divorced Grandma.
Grandma looked sweet and virginal with blond hair and light brown eyes, but she had countless affairs since Mom could remember.

Grandpa looked kind with dark blue eyes, thin brown hair, a soft manly smile, but Mom told me he would become irritable and beat her for the smallest mistake when he was angry with Grandma. Mom had a collection of bruises on her arms and back that she showed me to prove it. He would let plenty of things slide if things were going well with her Grandma, but that was rare. He was easier to be around once her parents divorced during Mom’s early teens, but then he never wanted to be around her anymore either. Mom was part of his past life, the one he claimed was driven by anger. He needed to minimize contact with that as much as possible.
But Mom having a child out of wedlock with a Palestinian reawakened Grandpa’s latent anger. He called her a shameful slut and washed his hands of her and was unwilling to meet me, his olive-skinned granddaughter with a weird name like Isra, one he probably couldn’t even pronounce right.

♦♦
Grandma came to visit on rare occasions; the first time I remember was when I was five. She was upset that Mom had a child out of wedlock, but she was more forgiving. She was between marriages, and Mom had just kicked Baba out for good. Mom would complain about what a deadbeat Baba was to Grandma sometimes.
“Honestly, Carol, I’ve always told you if you just lost fifteen or twenty pounds, you could get yourself a decent man,” Grandma told Mom.
She visited once or twice a year, usually during the holidays; she would bring me a new Barbie or something as a Christmas gift. Grandma ignored me and vented her frustrations with the world and the men in her life to Mom.
But now, three years later, Mom had cancer, and Grandma went back and forth on whether or not she would take me after Mom passed away. Sometimes she said it would be nice to have someone to live with, someone to help out and spend time with her, but then Grandma would say the last thing she wanted to do was take in an eight-year-old at her age, especially one with a father like mine.
Mom didn’t trust her, though. “She’ll want you when she’s alone, and as soon as she gets a man, Grandma’ll find a way to get rid of you.”

♦♦

Mom told more positive stories about her family when she put together the photo album for me, her hands newly thin and lined with pale blue veins. She didn’t have energy to put it together before, and once in a while she said there was no point in it because what did all those pictures mean? Most of the people in them I had never met and probably never would.
Still, we sat in the full size bed we slept on at Baba’s place while she put it together. Mom explained who and what was in each picture before she pressed it down on the sticky surface. “Well, hopefully, Isra, your grandma will visit when you live only with Baba,” she said. “Maybe this will make her turn around.”

♦♦

Mom went into the hospice the next day, and Baba picked me up after school every day so we could go there and see Mom. Sometimes Baba would be in the room alone with her, but usually they kept me there to alleviate the tension between them. We had been living at Baba’s, but I was sure my parents weren’t together, and they wouldn’t have even spoken to each other if Mom wasn’t dying.

Every time Mom said she was tired and needed to rest in the hospice, I was sure that she was going to die then, and I would cry inconsolably, even though Mom assured me she wasn’t leaving yet. Baba would take me out of the room and try to comfort me for a little bit, but he would soon become angry and tell me to be strong. Plenty of people had gone through much worse back home in Palestine, so my pain now didn’t matter.

♦♦

Grandma came soon after Mom went into the hospice. She would take me to see Mom for the week or so that she was still awake and not drugged beyond comprehension.
And suddenly I wasn’t invisible to Grandma anymore.
Grandma now picked me to vent her frustrations about the man she was in the process of divorcing and Grandpa as well. “I talked to Carol’s father, and you know what he told me? He can’t get the time off work! Can you believe that?” She sighed and clenched her teeth together. “‘This is your child,’ I said to him. ‘Can you just pull your dick out of your wife’s pussy for two seconds and remember you have a daughter?’ You know those kids his wife has aren’t his. She had them with the guy before. I don’t see what’s so great about her. She’s as plain as wood.”

♦♦

Grandma took me out for ice cream once Mom slipped from consciousness, and she said she couldn’t stand to see her daughter suffering to death and that her granddaughter didn’t need to see it either, so Baba let her.
Though I loved ice cream, I wasn’t excited about getting some that day. Most of it melted on the back of my hand and dripped on the table, and Grandma had to take me to the bathroom to clean up. I could tell she was irritated I saw her roll her eyes in the mirror, and she told me that I had to eat like a civilized girl.
We went to the hotel she was staying in—she would spend the night at Mom’s apartment whenever she came before, but she hated Baba and his apartment—and she put cartoons on for me while she criticized all the men she had had in her life, reserving the worst for Grandpa. “I swear once I married that guy he became such a drag,” she said. “We were so young, and all he wanted to do was stay in and drink beer. Even convincing him to go out to the movies was like asking him to drink cyanide.” Grandma cringed at the thought of him. She moved on to her three other husbands: the second was too mean; the third had affairs; the fourth, the one she was in the middle of divorcing, was a drag like Grandpa, but it was more understandable because he was almost a senior citizen.
I didn’t say anything. My lack of response must have been made her sad; Mom always had some kind of commentary for Grandma, even if it was negative like telling her she should grow up or learn what monogamy was all about. “I’m not even sixty years old, and my daughter is dying. You’re not supposed to bury your child; it’s the other way around. Of course, it’s no picnic to lose your mother at your age.” She wiped a couple of tears that came from her overfilled brown eyes. “You know things are going to be different, right?”
Everyone used that phrase—“things are going to be different”—though they already were different. I hated spending time with Baba, having him prepare my food or ask him questions. He never knew the answers, and he would get irritated by them. “Don’t ask dumb questions,” he always said to me.
Baba was scary, too. Most nights I could hear him crying out in his sleep. When Mom was there she told that it was just because Baba had been through some terrible things since he was even younger than me, and he remembered them in his dreams, but I was sure that he was possessed. It was worse without having Mom there to tell me to go back to sleep.
I had to live without my mother.
At school everyone had a mother that I knew of. A few lived with their grandmothers or someone else, but they at least visited their mothers sometimes. And their grandmothers liked them a lot more than Grandma liked me. They didn’t talk about men all the time, and they didn’t tell their daughters that if they lost weight, they could find a decent man.
But I had a feeling that Grandma was feeling sorrier for herself. She was losing her daughter, the one she could turn to between men. She also started to put on a little bit of weight, especially in the middle. She probably would never be able to find another husband, at least not a decent one.

♦♦

Though it was almost my bedtime, Grandma had no plans to take me back to Baba’s or call him to ask if I could spend the night with her. “Who cares what he thinks?” she told me when I asked if I was allowed to stay. “He isn’t worth a shit anyway.” She took me to the store and bought me some pajamas and a night light, though I stopped using one over a year before. “What about a toy or something?”
“No, I don’t want to play.”
“You sure are a mellow child.”
After I took a bath and changed into the new pajamas, Grandma talked more about how the man she was currently divorcing was trying to hide his assets and get out of paying her as much alimony. “It’s not like I’ll be getting much. We were only married for a year and a half,” she said. “Couldn’t stand him any longer than that.”

♦♦

Baba pounded on the Grandma’s hotel door so hard I thought he must have bruised his knuckles, shouting at Grandma to open the door or he’d call the police.
Grandma didn’t hold out for long, but she wouldn’t let me go without letting Baba know that she thought he was a worthless Arab.
“You don’t deserve a say in the matter!” Grandma said. “You haven’t been there for most of her life, and all you’ll do is lock her in the house until she gets married!”
Baba told her at least I wouldn’t learn to be a whore like she was and charged past her and pulled me by the hand. “My daughter comes home with me!” he yelled as he brushed her aside to leave.
He left me in the pajamas Grandma got me, and he talked to me for over an hour, which he never did before. “She is a sharmoota, a slut. Do not act as she does, Isra. You do not want to live as her.” He told me that he couldn’t believe that a woman could act that way. His mother, my sitti, he said, would have never spoken to a son-in-law the way she had. Well, he wasn’t really a son-in-law. He never married Mom, but it should be the same thing to these Americans because they didn’t believe in marriage the way Palestinians did, so Grandma should think of him as her son-in-law. And Sitti definitely wouldn’t have carried on that way, marrying all kinds of men for money or whatever the hell she believed she would get.

♦♦

Baba woke me up in the middle of the night and told me to put my shoes on. Mom had died, and we were going to see her one last time before she went to the crematory. I was still tired, but my heart was thundering in my chest, so it was easy for me to stay awake.
Grandma was at the hospice before we were, her face red and streaked with tears. Mom lied on the bed, no oxygen tube connected to her, pale and gaunt, her hair a darker brown than what it was before, her lips still red. I cried, and my chest felt so light that I wondered if the center of my body was still there. For over a week now, Mom had been unconscious, and the only way I could tell she was still alive was that she sometimes made a soft grunt when she was in pain. Then a nurse came in and gave her some more drugs to keep her quiet and comfortable.
Baba picked me up and carried me out of the room. People hadn’t picked me up for years on a regular basis, and by then, I was only five or six inches shorter than him, but I guess he still thought I was four. He said we should go back home and let them take Mom away.

♦♦

Grandma held the memorial service at a small banquet hall. I spent most of the time sitting at one of the middle tables next to my father, chewing on one of the black cloth napkins, my dripping saliva warming the back of my hand. I watched my mother’s relatives, trying to see if I could remember them from the photos, and if I could recall their names or if Mom had ever spoken of them. But I couldn’t place most of them, and they were just as distant from me in real life as they were in the pictures. They seemed uncomfortable around me and my father and gave us short, awkward condolences. They spoke amongst themselves, telling their stories about Mom, what she was like as a child and a teenager.

That day they all had had a close relationship with her when she was alive.

I slipped out and sat under a tree in the picnic area, crushing some of the dried leaves, mildly enjoying the slight pricks in my palm. Grandma found me out there and kneeled down as far as she could to speak to me. She was reconciling with her husband. “I might as well,” she said, tearing up. She always wiped her tears daintily. “Who else will have me at my age? And I can’t live off alimony. I should just pack it in and face reality.” She wished me luck with my father, though she doubted he would be a good one. “I hope he doesn’t send you back to his country, but what can you do?”

Evil Spirits

By Haya Anis

I need to pee, Fatima thought as she nestled deeper into her fortress of cotton blankets. She ignored the gnawing at her bladder and stayed put. She felt something watching her. Evil spirits, she rationalized. She sensed their stealthy onslaught. Their presence was tangible and ominous, their aura dark and murky, like the waters of a voidless swamp. Her blanket was her only protective shield. She made sure everything was safe and covered, save for her nose and mouth; she needed to breath, after all. It was still dark outside; the call for Fajr prayer sounded an hour earlier.
I should have prayed earlier, she lamented. Prayer required ritual ablution. Ritual ablution required access to running water. Access to running water required a trip down the eerie, unlit hallway to the bathroom. The bathroom. The bathroom, where the evil spirits congregate and revel in their deviance. Or that’s what her mother tells her, anyway. For all she cared, the congregation of evil spirits hovered above her head tonight, waiting, waiting for her to reveal the slightest bit of flesh to feast on her festering soul. Never, she thought, and sunk deeper into her fortress of cotton blankets.

The air conditioning unit murmured softly. Outside, it was hot and humid. The morning dew stifled the air, offering conveyance to insects, the bloodthirsty and otherwise. It was 4 A.M now. Or was it 4:30? Fatima was too afraid to check her phone on the nightstand beside her bed. She knew light attracted mosquitoes. She knew because she once witnessed a mosquito haplessly fly into a light trap set up by her aunt in the heat of a summer night. Poor mosquito, flew to its own demise. It died noiselessly, save for a frazzle, like the one emitted by a frayed wire twisted and turned too much. A noise so small, proportional to the magnitude of a mosquito’s life. Fatima felt bad for the mosquito, but it was better that way; she didn’t want to spend her night itching swollen bites. So Fatima didn’t check her phone. She didn’t want to attract leftover mosquitos that may have entered earlier in the day, when the windows were open. The windows are shut now.

Rays of light seeped through opaque clouds, rendering them in hues of indigo. It must be 5 now. Fatima brushed her tongue against the inside of her mouth. The back of her two front teeth felt gritty. She no longer needed to pee, but she was thirsty now. The blanket’s comforting embrace now turned into a suffocating hold. She loosened the blanket’s grip and bared some of her arms and feet. Her soul felt less susceptible to espionage now; the heavy load of the spirits lightened. I might as well pray now. In a bout of courage, Fatima kicked off her blanket, grabbed her prayer gown and threw it on her shoulders and made her way to the bedroom door. Her brother slept soundly on a second bed in the room. His legs were splayed in odd directions and his blanket lay strewn at the corner of his bed. Fatima rearranged her brother’s limbs and tucked him back under his blanket. She worried about him. He was 10 years old. He was smart and quick but awfully lonely. His eyes twitched in an odd way and when he sniffed, he contorted his face in manner so ugly, it was impossible to watch. She worried about him.

Fatima opened the door and looked down the long, narrow hallway separating her from the bathroom. The bathroom looked menacing. Its door gaped like the mouth of Goliath, the shadow within breeding fear in Fatima’s heart now. Fatima quickly shut the door. She threw down her prayer gown and scuttled back to her bed.

I’ll pray when I wake up.
But she never did.

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.”

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.

Interview with Hedy Habra

By Rewa Zeinati

Publications, Paintings and the Multi-language of Art

Rewa Zeinati: Your collection of poetry Tea in Heliopolis was an Award-Winning Finalist for the 2014 International Book Award in Poetry. Your book Flying Carpets won the 2013 Arab American Book Award Honorable Mention in Fiction and was an Award-Winning Finalist for the 2014 Eric Hoffer Book Award in Short Fiction. You won an Excellence in Teaching Award 
at Western Michigan University in 2014. And your individual poems and short stories have been published widely and often. What drives you on?

Hedy Habra: I feel honored and grateful for these publications and awards. I have been studying, writing and also teaching Spanish language and literature for a very long time. I believe that these continued activities stem from an insatiable curiosity and a passion for learning combined with an urge to share and communicate my enthusiasm and love for languages and literature. With each project, I learn a bit more about the world, about others, but mostly about myself. Literature is the best way to transcend one’s reality with its unavoidable ups and downs. Immersing oneself in the virtual space created by fiction or poetry allows for a much richer and more intense life.

RZ: How has being multi-lingual and multi-cultural shaped your craft, if at all? And while growing up, who affected your writing the most, and how?

HH: I was born and raised in Heliopolis, a residential suburb of Cairo, Egypt, and was schooled in French, Arabic, and English. I was mainly influenced by French literature and read extensively. I have always loved Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Aragon and Paul Celan as well as most of the classics. I studied Pharmacy in Beirut’s French St. Joseph University, and lived there till the onset of the civil war.

After spending several years in Europe, I came to the United States where I pursued graduate studies in English and Spanish. Some of my favorite poets are T.S. Eliot, Theodore Roethke, Charles Simic, Tony Hoagland and Mark Doty, but my list would be endless. My favorite author is usually the one I am reading and enjoying at a specific moment. Each great author provides a unique experience. Some of my favorite Middle Eastern writers are Adonis for poetry, and Amin Malouf and Tahar Ben Jalloun for fiction.

When I first discovered Latin American literature, I knew that it was the sort of writing I would like to emulate. My favorite writers are Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez and Juan Rulfo, for fiction, and Octavio Paz, César Vallejo and Pablo Neruda, for poetry, to name only a few. But I admire lots of Spanish and international authors, so it is hard to tell which writers have left an imprint on my work. I am also a great admirer of the fiction of Italo Calvino, Alessandro Barrico and Dino Buzzati, and I try to read them in the original Italian.

RZ: What makes a good poem?

HH: For me, it is a desire to reread the poem over and over again. I am very sensitive to a poem’s music and to the way the language flows. I love poems with striking images that create unusual and unexpected connections but that still won’t reveal it all, letting the reader make the leap and use his (or her) imagination.

RZ: What makes good fiction?

HH: I guess that my preference goes to novels that are well crafted and require the reader’s participation like Mario Vargas Llosa’s fiction. I have read each of his novels several times, always with renewed delight and interest. I love stories that have a surreal or fantastic dimension, that’s why I regularly reread Buzzati, Calvino, Cortázar and Borges. Good fiction is a text that you want to keep returning to, always discovering something new in its pages.

RZ: Some writers dedicate a couple of hours in the morning to write. Some after a jog. Some wait for the evening hours to settle down. What is your process?

HH: I don’t have a specific routine or ritual. Sometimes working in the yard, gardening or walking helps me enter a meditative state that is propitious to writing. It does seem to me that I am constantly writing, with occasional interruptions. And because I also like to write criticism, paint and cook, it is necessary to juggle with time.

I have always kept a journal, and at times, I like to leaf through the pages and highlight some passages that strike me for different reasons and seem to lead me into writing. I always record thoughts, impressions, epiphanies, and have tons of drafts and material that serve as inspiration. Many of my poems are inspired by visual art.

I find myself writing in different languages in my journal. Oftentimes, I work on the same poem in three different languages because some lines would come automatically in a different language associated with new images that I then try to translate, and by doing so I find unexpected ways to express the same thought. This process enriches each version in a reciprocal movement like osmosis.

RZ: What are you working on right now?

HH: I have just finished revising my second book of poetry and sent it to my publisher. Most of the poems in this collection are inspired by paintings. I have a passion for visual art and I am also an artist. I have painted a watercolor to illustrate the cover of the forthcoming book, as I did for Tea in Heliopolis. I am also working on a collection of poetry that focuses on my personal connection with the Middle East. Some of the poems are responses to what is going on in the area in an attempt to convey the sense of helplessness that we feel when we see it all from afar.

RZ: How important are literary journals, if at all?

HH: Print and online literary journals are very important. I subscribe to several journals, such as Poet Lore, Cutthroat, The Bitter Oleander, Nimrod, Rattle, Crab Orchard Review, and read them with great interest. They are a bridge that allows readers to discover a multiplicity of voices and genres, and enables to keep up-to-date with the evolving tendencies of contemporary literature.

RZ: Do you have any advice for emerging writers, or other writers of many native tongues?

HH: I would say that persistence and discipline are indispensable. I think we learn writing by reading. So the more we read, analyze and try to emulate the authors we admire, the better our own writing will become and we will eventually find our own voice. This works for painting as well. Visual artists first learn to copy the classics before developing a distinctive style. Regarding multilingual writers, I would recommend that they maintain their languages alive by reading constantly in the original. Writers should consider this ability as an advantage instead of a hindrance. In addition, every language brings along a wealth of original metaphors, which cross-pollinate and enrich one another.

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.