It was raining nonstop, and the flowing stream of rainwater collected anything it met along the dirt track. As if this apocalyptic scene weren’t savage enough for God, the rain brought with it thunderstorms and gales that threatened to uproot the streetlamp and thin cypress trees dotting the neighborhood.
It was freezing cold, and my grandmother crouched in a corner of the house near the dakhoon, which no one had lit, shivering under her black woollen shawl. From time to time, she muttered, “Oh, Mary, mother of Jesus, protect us!”
I was leaving El Rafidayn supermarket in Ramallah. I had bought coffee, wet wipes, and two cans of tuna. One of the Israeli occupation’s patrols was parked at El Rafidayn roundabout. I was alone in the area, and the hour was approaching midnight. The patrol blew its impudent horn. I ignored it and kept my course due home. But a soldier opened the window and called out, “Come over here, monkey.”
He stormed out of the house, yelling and cursing. His belly, hemmed in and taunted by high-waisted underpants (which had once been white), flopped over his waistband as if trying to flee from his too-short pants. He cursed those raucous kids; cursed their parents, those bastards; cursed the father who spawned those wretched creatures. As for his other neighbors: in a matter of seconds they were at the black iron railings, gripping onto the bars that surrounded the high windows to stop reckless children from falling yet still allow the adults to enjoy the view over the city. Meanwhile, the Syrian characters of the soap opera were left to discuss amongst themselves the various methods of smuggling weapons and prisoners, and how to free themselves from the yoke of the French colonizer.
“Let’s see if he’s working now. Yes, there he is.”
Ayed heard these sentences inside the shawarma shop where he worked on Calle Elvira. As he turned around, he recalled what had been uttered just previously, in the middle of the evening rush: “Assalamu alikun, Ayed!”
“Wa ‘alaykum as-Salam. How are you, Tony?” he answered in Arabic.
Antonio, Ayed’s friend, was an amicable young man who joked quite a lot in a manner that erred on the sexual side. He also was learning Fuṣḥa at one of the many language centers in Granada. Ayed liked him for his good nature and because he was Ayed’s umbilical cord to the happenings in Granada’s nightlife. Often Tony came accompanied by one girl, or several—for the most part, tourists—to say hi to Ayed at his workplace. He would then ask him, before throwing him a knowing wink, to join them after his shift. So, Ayed was puzzled when he saw that Antonio’s escort was a lanky, short guy. The guy’s face was smeared with an obvious awkwardness, camouflaged under a half smile. The young man greeted Ayed with a nod and said, “How’re you doing?”
“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.