For years, I have tried to describe the light: the dry, dry gold; the purple peaks of our horizon; the long-armed valleys sliding off the peaks. Craters tinseled after frost, glaciers before the recent years of drought. Late-afternoon glow over brown dirt walls, valley floors blasting green with sugar, and the black volcanic rock of the single mountain without snow. Light like liquid gold against the brown, radiant gold drizzled across the ridges.
And then I try to name a lack of light, the mist that isn’t gray and isn’t white and isn’t rain. Light through fog, light instead of fog, fog instead of light. The sparkle of dew along a leaf, even when it seems there isn’t any light at all. Light, and not-light, that you can get lost in. Light that misleads you, leads you on. The flicker of a flashlight through tent walls.
In my late thirties, when for a short period I lived in Moscow, I sometimes wondered if there were too many words in the English language. Longing and desire, for instance: was it really necessary to have both? Couldn’t a single, flexible word suffice? Maybe want would work. Not need; that was different.
Having plenty of words at our disposal wasn’t doing Jack and myself much good, in any case. We were at an impasse—my word for it now, though back then I might’ve called it a checkpoint. Jack would’ve have named it a choice-point, I imagine. At any rate, although neither of us was skittish about talking, we couldn’t seem to find common verbal ground, and our conversations had grown increasingly fraught. My husband wanted a kid; I wanted to want one, which wasn’t the same thing. You like adventures, Jack kept saying. You’re a curious person; you’ve always been open to new experiences. Yes, I kept responding, but this isn’t an adventure we’re talking about. We can bail out of an adventure if it’s not right; we can’t do that with a kid. What do you mean by right? Jack kept asking, and though I tried, I couldn’t give him or myself a clear answer. Right as in natural?As in obvious?As in doable?
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.”
The cemetery where she meets him after work is both vertiginous and claustrophobic. The graves are crowded closely together, like huddled children cowering from punishment, then there is a short stretch of lawn tilting to the cliff’s edge, and beyond that a sickening void she imagines rushing out to meet her. Why would it occur to someone to build a cemetery on a steep escarpment above the Pacific Ocean? The weed-hemmed tombstones are cracked and bleached. No one has been buried here for ages; they’re all in the fashionable new cemetery out near the airport. The paths are strewn with shards of glass, the torn petals of sad plastic flowers, scraps of trash, and shriveled cigarette butts, and the whole thing might have an air of tawdriness if not for that view: blinding blue sky sliced horizontally by the cliff edge, the wild ocean below. The audacious, swaggering drama of it.
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 am not pleased. Paint is dripping down my hoof and the colors are muddled together. I shouldn’t complain. I agreed to it, of course.
Hafiz is putting together a zoo. And he asked me to be the zebra.
“You’re a very good donkey, habibi,” he told me three days ago, “but the border is closed, and everyone says prices for using the smuggling tunnels have gone up. I can’t afford the zebra in Damascus, and the one in Cairo is twice that price.” He gestured wildly, scattering my oats. What a waste.
I don’t know much about borders, but I would do anything for Hafiz. He is more than a father to me.
Kimberley didn’t know that her estranged father, Mr. H, cloth magnate, up-and-coming politician, had been shot. While he was in Trinidad, sliding from the leather backseat to become a heap on the floor of his car, she was still in self-imposed exile in Barbados, her tongue traveling down the ripples of her “roommate” Rachel’s sculpted stomach.
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.
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.
—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.