“Tupac’s not dead,” said Sami. “He’s at the sheikh’s palace.” Sami had heard from his friend Nadia, whose uncle arranged security for the sheikh, that Tupac Shakur, the king of hip-hop, Mr. Thug Life himself, was on Jebel Jais.
Marzouka? She’s carrying a bundle wrapped in a cloth on her back, and her earrings sparkle. Marzouka comes closer, and I move closer to her. The sun is scorching, and her large earrings are blinding. Should I greet her? I kiss her hand, so she kisses me on my forehead. I kiss her cheek, red like the late-afternoon sun. “Let me be your son,” I say to her. “And carry me like that bundle on your back.”
Prickly pear cacti are always squat and spindly bushes—that much I know. The exception to this rule, however, is the prickly pear grove found in my grandfather’s village. It’s lofty. It towers into the sky, its foliage so dense it always struck me as foretelling of a secret that was to be hidden away for good in its myriad crevices and shadows. And what intensified this feeling in me, and brought me to the conclusion that cacti are far from innocent, was the sight of our beautiful, fair-skinned friend Heaven running to the prickly pear one day and trying to hide among its limbs and behind its broad, swollen leaves. She looked like the heroine of a fairy tale fleeing a terrifying kingdom.
Little beads of sweat were pouring off her forehead, her cheeks were even rosier than usual, and when she almost slammed into me on her way past, a shivery thrill went through my body, a strange jolt of energy. Heaven did not seem to be the same sex as me, even though I knew her well and I had seen her bathing in her birthday suit more than once; just like me, she had untamable, bouncing breasts. But deep down inside, Heaven was fundamentally different from me, as—in utter contrast to most girls in the village—she existed in a constant state of awe. She lived among us, but her almond-shaped eyes seemed to be seeing another world, about which we knew nothing at all. And what was stranger still was the color of those eyes of hers: they beamed out a brilliant sky blue that made her the talk of the entire village. Despite everything that was said about her and her eyes in the village back then, I didn’t understand anything about that awe they shone with until I grew up. As an adult I finally came to understand, with the benefit of hindsight, what the grown-ups had been hinting at about the djinns that had taken up residence in Heaven and imprisoned her in an invisible box called Desire.
I’m frightened of everything. I walk around with my abnormal body. I haven’t learned to accept it yet, this body that bulges in every direction. Now I have two round lumps jutting out of my chest, and shrubbery growing in my armpits and between my legs. And then there’s the fear that’s plunged itself deep inside me.
I know a man whose heart is instructed in Bedouin life. He knows the desert and its moods, and has learned early on that it doesn’t like to be challenged. I know him walking without pause, teaching his feet and his heart the ways, walking slowly and deliberately, the trails trembling beneath him. Aimlessly he digs into the sand of the earth and settles nowhere, for his early existence taught him that a real Bedouin doesn’t settle except in death. He may pause, but if he does, life sneaks up on him with its poison. With every pause comes an ache. The trick is not to overcome life’s problems, but to understand its laws.
—We simply must get a band in to play at the women’s section of the party. A party’s nothing without drumming and dancing.
—If my first wife demanded that of me, I would never have granted her wish. But you…you know the place you have in my heart.
Nuwara was twenty-two years old, slight, and a little snub-nosed. What made up for that, however, was the rosy bloom of her cheeks and the existence of that exquisite mole between her left cheekbone and her nose. And although her clothed body didn’t stand out as anything special, when she was naked and in the hands of a man, she became a real woman. She was tastier than any fantasy, as sweet as a ripe fruit out of season. Any man could see that. That’s why Ahmed was saying to her now:
—You know I give in to all your demands. But a male band performing to a group of women? I can’t imagine that.
An hour before their father would wake up and take them to the beach, they lay under a block of sunshine in the courtyard of the house. They waited an hour, or longer, until they were almost fed up. But they kept occupying themselves lazily with the blueness above, as the hands of time crept by.
To my counterpart in privation: The Awaited Mahdi, Mohammed al-Mahdi Saqal
If he’d obeyed me I wouldn’t be here now, and he wouldn’t be there, either… but he’s what they call around here head-cracking stubborn.
Lice and stench and cockroaches. I thought head lice died out ages ago, but in this dump they’re still going strong. The flabby woman sitting across from me is picking through her friend’s hair. From time to time she yells out, “There’s one. I’ve got it!” She squashes each little nit between her two thumbs.
My mother used to put my head on her lap, too, and search for those tiny little bugs. She’d set herself up ready with a bottle of paraffin next to her, and one of those combs made from sheep or gazelle horn that we all used in those days, and then she’d launch her attack on the parasites feeding on my blood. I’d be trying to wriggle away; she’d grab my arms; I’d keep struggling. Eventually she’d lure me in—I’m gonna tell you the tale of Hayna, who was abducted by the ghoul—and at that I’d surrender instantly.
I looked at my wristwatch. Was it time for a surprise trip, or nearing an appointment? I approached one of the coffee shop’s customers and peered at the cup of black coffee and the glass of water—at the time, it would’ve cost the Ministry of Interior Affairs forty billion to quench the citizens’ thirst. This was therefore the most expensive glass of water I never drank!
I walk in and find the women there in the large hall. I can hear their soft, melodious voices, which means there is no man around. (More accurately: there is no man doing all the talking.) I instinctively head toward them, like an animal finally encountering its species. I take a seat and wait for my turn. Before I came up to the therapist’s clinic, I had run into Fast Lubna—with the hazel eyes, the kohl always smudged, and the newly blonde hair—outside the entrance. She was on the phone. She was dressed in black leather pants and a black leather jacket. I thought she smiled at me, but she didn’t move the phone slightly away from her ear to give me a warm hug as she would have usually done. She used to dress more normally, less severely, before she adopted this style and dyed her long hair blonde. She surprised me. The transformation of the vast majority of women I know since the eighties of the last century has been toward the hijab and extreme modesty, away from modern clothes.