Raquelle Azran

Lit-Mag #42 – The Arabian World

By the Roadblock of Bethlehem

The air was thick with sweat and exhaustion. Six snoring male bodies sprawled in darkness on metal cots. In their room at the base, the nineteen year old fighters of Dragon Squad, Team A noisily dreamed the final minutes of their six hour sleeping shift.
The door slammed open. The commanding officer inhaled the smell of his men, before blinding them with five hundred watts of bare bulb and yelling, “You won the lottery, you lucky bastards. You’ve been assigned guard duty at the Bethlehem roadblock as of 16:00 hours.  Move your asses and be outside in full gear, ready for transport, in twenty minutes sharp.”
“What the fuck lottery is he talking about?” mumbled Yossi.
Moshe, the team commander, reached for his cigarettes and considered. “Maybe fresh warnings about suicide bombers. It’s been pretty quiet here the past few days.”
Gideon kicked at his socks, stiff with sweat, before jamming his feet into them and lacing up his boots. “I’m due for leave tomorrow. Home is soft, clean socks and a soft, clean girlfriend.  A boring shift of guard duty under the stars is fine with me.”
“Idiots. Cretins. Made-in-Israel primitives,” grated Vladimir in thickly accented Hebrew. “Today, gentlemen, is December 24th. Have you geniuses never heard of Christmas Eve – as in Bethlehem, birth of Jesus, Church of the Nativity? People all over the world will be tuning in to watch the midnight mass in Bethlehem. Our roadblock will be the most important checkpoint in Israel today.”
David, always ready to pick a fight for Judaism, growled, “Take it easy, Vlady. And stuff the lecture on Christianity. You’re in a Jewish state now, remember. Bethlehem is where Rachel’s Tomb is, and that’s the only holy thing about the place.  I didn’t say goodbye to Ray’s New York Pizza to worry about some church.”
Vladimir bristled, his fists clenched. “So maybe, David, I’ll give you something else to worry about.”
“Cut it out, you guys,” said Shalom. “We’re all in this mess together, and if we haul ass now, we can grab some coffee before heading out.”
“I’m with Shalom the peacemaker (Shalom oseh shalom),” punned Moshe.
“Pissmaker,” muttered David.
“And I’m for fucking coffee,” bellowed Yossi, going out the door.

           Dragon Squad Team A leaped out of the command car as it screeched to a stop. Moshe took a quick look around. Everything seemed quiet. Cement barriers straddled the asphalt, and the makeshift checkpost in the middle of the road looked as uninviting as always. Floodlights illuminated wind-whipped olive orchards and empty roads, slick with rain.
Moshe huddled with the officer on duty before officially taking command of the post. The two men surveyed the bleak terrain. “Not much business today,” Moshe said. “Whatever happened to Christmas Eve and Bethlehem?”
“I scared away all the customers,” replied the other commander.
At Moshe’s signal, Team A took up their positions at the roadblock. The men fanned out, two in front and two in back of the roadblock and one in the checkpost. Moshe, as team commander, took first shift as ‘selector’, standing alone ahead of the roadblock where he would be the first to encounter traffic and decide which cars to pass through, which to refuse entry, and which to search. The men mentally geared up for the long, eight hour shift. Doing guard duty was the easy part. Thinking about why they were doing it was, they knew, dangerous.

           The hours passed. Not one car, taxi or truck approached from Bethlehem. From the other direction, uncommonly few vehicles – only about twenty cars with diplomats and clergy – crossed through the roadblock. With no routine duties to occupy their minds, the tension in Team A swelled. In the stark silence of the Bethlehem night, the men quietly dug inside themselves, searching for solace. Images of girlfriends, real and imagined, dissolved into other thoughts.
Gideon began planning the first things he would do when back home. He’d hug his Mom and wolf down the spicy stuffed peppers she prepared especially for him. He’d tease his sisters, talk some man talk with his father, and then rush off to Bella, as nervously and eagerly as if this were the first time.
Shalom nostalgically replayed his favorite childhood memories from the kibbutz, sitting in a circle and singing folk songs to the accompaniment of an accordion. Yossi, who prided himself on being a fucking strong silent type, wished for the thousandth time that his parents would buy him a shiny red Mazda Miata for his twentieth birthday. Vladimir thought longingly of white Christmases in Moscow, and David fantasized scenarios of a Greater Israel, from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea.
David was the first to crack. “Hey Vlady, what’s happening with your holy roadblock? You promised us Bethlehem would buzz tonight. What kind of crummy birthday party is going on with no guests? Man, what a loser that Jesus is.”
“Shut up, David,” said Yossi. “Shut your stupid American mouth. I don’t give a fuck about what you think. I don’t give a fuck about what anybody thinks. I want to finish my fucking three years in the army and live a normal life.”
“Forget normal, good buddy, here in Israel,” said Gideon. “If you haven’t noticed, we’re living a no-win existence. We’re not leaving, and neither are the Palestinians, even if David has wet dreams of etherizing them.” Gideon popped a fresh piece of gum into his mouth. “So we catch some terrorists and bulldoze their families’ homes, and other terrorists slip through our roadblocks and fences and intelligence networks and blast our friends and children into shreds of flesh which the Victim Identification Crews then scoop into doggiebags, and finally we get to hear the politicians sputter nonsense on prime time. If you call that normal, I call that insane.”
“Halt!” Moshe’s voice rang out. “Halt or I shoot!” he repeated, aiming an automatic rifle at two forms approaching the roadblock on foot.
“Don’t shoot, please don’t shoot. It’s just me and my wife. My wife is in labor and the child must be born in Bethlehem.”
“Cover me,” Moshe ordered his men, and slowly drew nearer the man and woman. The woman’s belly was huge, and he could see spasms of pain contort her face.
The man spoke in an excited mixture of Arabic and English. “Please, sir, we have walked for almost two hours and my wife thinks the baby will be born very soon. The Lord has commanded us to have the baby born in Bethlehem.”
“I’m sorry,” Moshe said, “you cannot continue on to Bethlehem. You’ll have to turn around.” He raised his M16 and motioned the couple back. They stood unmoving.
“Moshe,” pleaded Vladimir, “it’s Christmas Eve, it’s a baby, it’s Bethlehem.”
“Moshe,” said Shalom softly. “Give me permission to check it out. If they’re clean, let them through.”
Moshe hesitated. Say no, hammered fresh memories of women terrorists who had concealed explosives on their bodies and then blown themselves up with innocent bystanders. But this was the first request Shalom the peacemaker had ever made of him as team commander, and the situation was just crazy enough to be true.
“Go ahead,” he agreed unwillingly.
Shalom approached the woman. To still his trembling hands, he began singing Laila Laila, the lullaby his mother had sung in the peaceful kibbutz night to soothe him to sleep. The woman nodded in understanding, and sang the opening notes of “Ave Maria.” Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Vladimir heard himself joining in the familiar Latin, his rough voice soaring and falling. The imploring tones, Pray for us, Mary, in the hour of our death, Amen, echoed in the Bethlehem night. And then there was silence.
Shalom looked questioningly at his commander. Moshe stared into space, wrenched between rigid military regulations and what he, Moshe, the grandson of concentration camp survivors, knew in his heart was right.
Moshe slowly, heavily, nodded his assent.
Shalom stepped back.
The couple slowly crossed through the roadblock, the woman leaning heavily on her husband. The soldiers watched in silence as the two figures toiled on to Bethlehem, finally disappearing in the night.
The men in Team A surrounded Shalom, clapping and thumping him on the back.
“Piece of cake, bro, piece of cake.”
“Way to go, man.”
“Crazy brave, pissmaker.”
“Ave Maria,” sang Vladimir, eyes shining. “Peace on earth, Shalom, peace on earth.”
Only the team commander held himself apart. Eyes straining toward Bethlehem, the sour taste of dread in his mouth, Moshe could find no peace.

Jonathon Penny

Lit-Mag #42 – The Arabian World

Two Poems

Sila, Liwa, Bani Yas

They keep this up, there’ll be no desert left,
No space to wreck, no four-wheel desert cleft
To winnow down: no dry-heave, tinder bone
To let a man be lone.

The death-gasp of the culture that could tear
The banshee shriek of what is drawing near
Is such a modern thing it makes me grin
Like poison: sick of sin.

They keep this up, these mincing, drifting ghosts,
These zebra forms with all their Babel boasts,
They’ll blister from the artificial cold:
The center cannot hold,

The falcon cannot hear the falconer,
The tent is void, the women too demure,
And from the mosques a bitter incense fumes:
It’ll bring them to their tombs.

Lente, lente currite noctis equii (Allahu ackbar)

Given its head, the night runs faster than a man can breathe
Its nostrils pant, its dusky edges heave,
And I am pulled from sleep too soon:
The yellow tones of morning and the morning song
Too early crowed, but not in the cock’s throat.

The call to prayer comes early:
“Our alarm clock,” quipped a friend,
Indicating the humble mosque at his front door.
We have one, too. We all do in this garden city,
This oasis overrun but not yet ruined,

And the mosque with its staggered chorus
Of muezzin fairly owns us, night and day:
There’s hardly time to leave off praying my litany of regrets
From a day spent seeking more help than I had given
Before I’m called back to my knees.

I do not join the sweated worship of the immigrants,
But I think of prayer far more here than ever before,
For God is great indeed, and it is better to pray than sleep,
Even if all one does is pray to sleep a little more
Before the panting night is stabled, brushed, and fed,
And the mu’adhdhin clears his rooster throat.

Manfred Malzahn

Lit-Mag #42 – The Arabian World


They put nets on palm trees these days
Green plastic mesh shields ripening dates
From the forces of wind and gravity

They put glass on branches of pear trees
So that fruit grows encased in a bottle
Until it no longer fits through the neck

Remember the times when young men
Walked out of school and into a factory
Just as dates pass from tree to market?

Now the teachers are duty bound
To set young minds into corporate moulds
While not yet weaned off their mothers’ sap

And the hospice is near the maternity ward
And the graveyard still close to the church
And the hearses wait at the hospital gates

Green plastic mesh shields ripening dates
From the forces of wind and gravity
They put nets on palm trees these days

Andrew Madigan

Lit-Mag #42 – The Arabian World

Different People

“But there’s no bacon, Daniel.  There’s no bacon.”  Sarah grew frustrated, though she prided herself on never becoming frustrated.
“Sausage is fine.”
“But that’s just it, Daniel.  There’s no sausage either.  No bacon and no sausage, if you can believe that.”
“I can believe a great many things, Sarah.”  Daniel set down the newspaper, gingerly, looking over his glasses at his wife.  “Right now, I believe I’d like some breakfast.”  He smiled himself into Nick Nolte.
Sarah raised her eyebrows, especially the left, and tightened her jaw.  Daniel returned to the paper while Sarah continued to rummage through cupboards and drawers.
After thirty years, Daniel could measure his wife’s emotional temperature, to the degree, by something as vague as a fluttering eyebrow.  He’d read somewhere that everyone raises one eyebrow just a bit more than the other.  We’re either left- or right-browed, though he couldn’t remember what this was supposed to mean.
“There are no eggs in this house, Daniel.  Do you hear this?  I am now officially hunting for egg beaters.  It’s nearly 7:00 and I haven’t seen as much as an English muffin.”
“In the army, we lived on evaporated food.  Bring water to boil.  Add contents of packet.  Stir.  All the meals said this.”
“We’re not in the army Daniel, and we’re not boiling our breakfast.”
“How ‘bout some coffee, dear?”
“Not on an empty stomach.”
“There’s cereal in the cupboard over the sink.  With the crackers, peanut butter, macaroni and cheese.  Boxed things.”
“Cereal is not a proper breakfast.”  Sarah tied a tall kitchen garbage bag with a plastic fastener she’d brought from home, just in case.  “Do something with this, dear.”
Daniel put down the newspaper with good-natured frustration and escorted the garbage through the back door, which opened into a common area shared by each of the villas.  Wearing only pajamas and slippers, he felt underdressed.  When they’d arrived last night, it was dark.  He hadn’t noticed the other villas, which were huddled together like a small pack of wolves devouring a lesser mammal.
Daniel walked assertively toward a cluster of plastic bins.  He couldn’t read the Arabic writing; it was all scimitars and bugaboo.  He could make out the instructive icons, however, by positioning his glasses just so.  He quickly realized that they were supposed to have separated the trash.  With as much nuance as he could muster, he slipped the bag into a bin decorated with a flame eating away at three crossed logs.
Walking away, Daniel felt rather foolish.  He hoped no one had witnessed his ecological indiscretion.  His greatest fear was that something he’d done would reflect badly on his son.  Mentally, he scrolled through the bag’s contents, at least those levels of trash with which he was familiar.  No aerosol cans or plastics.  This was a minor relief.
“What took you so long?” Sarah asked.
“Just admiring the desert.  Beautiful sunrise.”
“Same one we get in Arizona over at my cousin Sheila’s.”
“Well, I imagine it’s more dramatic here.”
Sarah deployed a sound which, although seemingly obscure, was quite clear to her husband.
“Have you ever seen a kitchen like this, Daniel?  Have you ever?”
“I suppose not.”
“No flour.  There’s no flour, Daniel.  There are five types of coffee, five, for some reason, and very expensive looking coffee.  But no flour.  The priorities…”
“Maybe they like coffee more than flour.”
Sarah wasn’t listening.  “Can they even afford coffee like this?  I don’t think they can, Daniel.  I really don’t.  I haven’t seen one coupon, Daniel, not one.  Can you—?  Well, I can’t.”
“How do you know they even use coupons over here?  Maybe they don’t.”
Instead of answering, Sarah flattened her frilly, well pressed apron, making sure every line was perfect.  Daniel, watching from an armchair, knew what this meant.  Her insecurity had been awakened, like a cranky toddler from a nap.
“Do you think the child has coffee for breakfast?”
“Why don’t you ask her?”
“Very funny.  I’m serious, Daniel.  The child looks skinny.  I don’t think they’re feeding it right.”
“Did you say something, Daniel?”  Sarah was hidden behind the counter.  Only the square knot of her apron sash could be seen jutting out from where Daniel sat in the living room.  She appeared to be mucking about on the floor near the refrigerator.  A natural multi-tasker, she was searching for food while also composing a brief for her son and his family.  It wasn’t nagging.  No, nothing like that.  It was Sarah’s duty to coax them into a better, a more efficient and productive life.
Her.  You called Skye it.  What are you doing, dear?”
“Getting rid of the water from the drip pan.  It hasn’t been changed in ages.  With a name like Skye, who knows if it’s a boy or a girl.”
“Keep your voice down, Sarah.”
“Well, they’ve given it, her, some hippy name and they dress her like a boy.  Who ever heard of a three year old girl wearing black and gray and blue clothing?  I never have.  Back in Ohio—  You know, Daniel, I’ve never seen her in that party dress we sent.”
“You’ve never met Skye in person, Sarah.  You’ve only seen photos.”
“Exactly.  Most people would conspicuously dress the child up in the gift clothing, snap a photo, and send it off to the party in question.”
Daniel couldn’t help but laugh, even after being awake for nearly three hours without coffee.  Sarah was quite serious, though.  “That would be the proper thing to do,” he said.
“No bacon, no eggs, no flour.”  Sarah added, by way of counterpoint, the banging of pans and dishes to her verbal litany.  Waking people up in such an obvious way didn’t embarrass her.  She was the guest.  It was their duty to be up first.
“No sausage, no tomato juice, no oatmeal.”
“How ‘bout a nice ham steak?” Daniel asked, certain there’d be no such thing.
“Sorry, Dan.  No ham steak.”  Judy, halfway down the stairs, was wearing their son’s high school track sweatpants and a black, bleach-holed, paint-splattered t-shirt that read Lynbrook Elementary, Home of the Leprechauns.  She almost choked on her coffee when she saw her mother-in-law rooting around in the kitchen.  It wasn’t the old-fashioned apron, which Sarah must have brought with her, or the noise, or the advancement of foreign troops across the borderline of her kitchen, so much as the Sunday dress, fake pearls and heels.  Judy hadn’t owned a pair of good shoes in years.
“You know, Sarah, Sunday’s not technically the weekend here.  It’s like Tuesday.  You don’t have to dress up.”
Sarah frowned, but said nothing.  “Where’d you get the coffee, Judy?”
“I made it upstairs.  Hot plate.  I don’t like to wait until I come all the way down here.”
“Good thinking,” Daniel tapped the side of his head.
“Aren’t they dangerous?” Sarah asked.
“Are we still talking about ham steaks?”
“No, Judy.  Hot plates.”
“Oh, not that I know of.  But ham clogs the arteries, leads to colon cancer, heart attacks.  It’s hell on the pig, too.”
“You’re still a vegetarian?” Sarah asked.
“You bet.”
Daniel gave Judy a raised fist as if she were a recovering substance-abuser who’d survived another week alcohol- and drug-free.
“That can’t be good for Skye.”
“We’re not connected anymore.  Since the operation.”
Daniel laughed out loud.
“You let her eat meat?”
“She makes her own decisions.  Lately, she’s not so much a carnivore.”
For a few minutes, everyone retired to his own corner.  Daniel kept turning the Gulf News over and over, quickly and excitedly, as though there was something he couldn’t find.  Judy wondered if he was looking for Columbus weather reports, Ohio State football scores, The Family Circus cartoon.
Judy brewed coffee while Sarah watched anxiously.  The older woman was afraid of the sleek, black coffee-maker, of the dark and pungent grounds.
“You guys are up early.”
“We’ve been up four hours,” Sarah said.
“It’s nighttime back home.”  Daniel was pleased with his observation.
“Considering you only landed about nine hours ago, that’s amazing.  Must be really jet-lagged.”
“No.  We just like to get up at a proper hour.”
“4:00 am’s a proper hour?  For trout fishing, maybe.”
Daniel chuckled from the living room.
“What do you eat for breakfast around here?”
“I don’t eat breakfast, Sarah.  Just coffee until noon.  Maybe Fruity Pebbles for lunch.”
“She prefers Cap’n Crunch.  Really, I don’t know.  Stephen makes her breakfast or she gets it herself.  Tripe, I think.  Maybe tuna noodle casserole?”
“Very funny,” Sarah said, trying to bring the conversation under control, “but nutrition is serious.  You need to be very, very careful about what your daughter eats.”
“Well, I’m not.”

           “Do you have to smoke in the car?” Sarah asked.
“Judy.  You really shouldn’t smoke in front of your daughter.”
“Don’t worry, Grandma.  I’ve seen worse.”
Judy coughed.  Stephen looked out the window.  Sarah was aghast.  “What?”
“She’s just having you on, dear,” Daniel said.
“What have you seen, Skye?”
“Violence, war, disaster.”  Skye thoughtfully sucked her thumb, head tilted.  She leaned toward her mother, who was sitting in the passenger seat, and whispered, hands cupping Judy’s ears, carefully checking so that no one overheard.  “And adult language.”
“You shouldn’t stand up in the car, dear.”
“It’s okay, Grandma.  There’re no local reg, reg’lations.”
“Don’t you have a car seat, Judy?”
“No.  We’ve thought about wrapping her in Styrofoam until she’s thirty-two, but it wouldn’t be eco-friendly.”
“Safety’s nothing to joke about.”
Daniel, eager.  “You could get one of those bubbles…?”
Judy turned to face Daniel, carelessly blowing the smoke in Stephen’s face.  “Like The Boy in the Plastic Bubble?”
“Yes, exactly.”
“That’s a great idea, Daniel.”  Judy turned up the radio and bopped her head.
“What ever happened to that boy?”
“The actor?”
“Yes?”  Daniel leaned forward, hands gripping the headrest.
“That was John Travolta…?  The famous actor?  He made it big.”
“Good for him.”  Daniel smiled, looking out the window at the desert moving by.  Everything was in its proper place.
“Can you put that out, please?”  Sarah was leaning into the front seat.
“One more puff.”  Judy hastily inhaled three or four times in a concentrated, delicate-fingered way, as if smoking a joint.  The pantomime wasn’t lost on Sarah, who was old but not that old.  She read Cosmo and knew what a blow job was.
“Doesn’t the sun bother Skye?”  Sarah didn’t ask Stephen specifically, but it’s clear to whom she’s directing the question.
“No, Grandma.”
“I was speaking to your father, dear.”
“She’s cool, Sarah.”  Judy turned up the stereo.  Beck was singing about the Devil’s Haircut, the Replacements about Red Wine.
“Sorry, what?  I was trying to read the signs.”
“Don’t you have a sunshade for the car, for Skye?”
“Do we, honey?”
Judy didn’t answer.  Instead, she ignited another cigarette.  Sarah theatrically waved the not-yet-existent smoke away from her face.  She wondered when her son had become so spineless.  He’s completely dominated by this woman.  What does he even see in her?
The drive to Dubai, Sharjah’s glitzier neighbor, seemed endless.  Judy took another drag on her cigarette and flicked it expertly out the tiny slip of open window.
“I thought you were an environmentalist?” Sarah asked.
“I am.  Just not a very good one.”
Daniel took his wife’s hands and caressed them.
A white, black-windowed Toyota Land Cruiser, the default vehicle for Emiratis, cut them off.  It had approached from the center lane at 180 kph, crouched at their rear bumper for a half-second, then passed on the shoulder leaving inches to spare.  Stephen weaved.
“Good show, Stephen.”
“Thanks, Dad.”
“Yeah!  Bump, bump, bump.  More, Daddy!”
“We’re not driving in the wadi now, Skye.  We’re on the highway.”  Judy rubbed her daughter’s belly and leaned back for a kiss.”
“Can we drive on the sand, Daddy?  Bump, bump, bump.  Please?  Please?”
“Later, honey.”
“Not with me in the car,” Sarah said.
“Can I come, Stephen?”
Judy held Daniel’s hand, reassuringly.  Another black-windowed SUV nearly crushed  them.
“What is wrong with these Arabs?”
“They’re not Arabs, necessarily.  Emiratis come from a variety of ethnicities and national identities.”
“You sound like a guide book.”
“You sound like a Klan meeting,” Judy mumbled to herself.

           The passengers were dead quiet now, stuck in traffic, bored with what had become daily trips from Sharjah, where Stephen taught at the American university, to Dubai, a more obvious tourist destination.  At first, the cramped open-air souqs and camels grazing along the road had been astonishing.  Now they just seemed filthy.
Dubai was the cultural and urban center of the UAE whereas Sharjah was more rustic and traditional.  Judy wanted to poke around in the Blue Souq, help the in-laws buy a Persian rug, then eat at a greasy food stall or cafeteria, rubbing shoulders with sweaty workmen.  The Iranian, Indian and Sri Lankan food was wonderful and cheap, but Sarah wanted Italian.
Before dinner, they made a side trip to the Dubai Museum, to check off “cultural site” from their list.
“The museum was wonderful, Judy.  Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, Daniel.”  She took his arm as they guided one another across the street.  It had grown dark.
“You know, there’s a souq right here.  Behind that mosque.”  She pointed to a beautiful, massive, old building stained with soot.  The group watched as Pakistani men kicked off their rubber sandals and entered.  Outside, men washed their sandy feet from spigots stuck to the side of the mosque.  You could see hundreds of people inside, balled up on the floor.
“Can we go in?” Daniel asked.
“No.”  Sarah answered.
“Sorry, Daniel.  Muslims only.  Why don’t we walk through the linen souq, over there, and take an abraride across the khor?”  Judy waited, but no one said a word.  Maybe I should make the offer sound less ethnic, she thought.  “A small wooden boat?  Across the creek?  Beautiful view of the city?”
“Our reservation is waiting.”  Sarah was decisive, walking toward the car as if to persuade by virtue of inertia.
“We can cancel.”
Sarah stopped.  The group was now leaning toward an Authentic Middle Eastern Adventure.
“We don’t have to ride the abra.  But we can walk along the creek.  There’s some great Lebanese places down there.”
Fodor’s is pretty clear about that type of—”
“—Fuck the guidebook!”
They froze.  Trying to win them back, Judy nudged Daniel, “Smoke some sheesha?”
“What’s that?”
“A water pipe, like a Turkish hookah.  Strictly legal.”
“Oh, yes.  That sounds fun.”
“Come, Daniel.”  Sarah took her husband by the arm.

           Back in the car, finding their way through narrow alleys along the creek that would hopefully lead to the main road, Sarah and Daniel tried to take it all in.
“It sure is different than Ohio,” Daniel said.  He was proud of Stephen and his family, pioneers in an exotic place.  He saw men eating food deep-fried by the side of the road, others asleep in a vegetable cart.  He felt a surprisingly strong urge to jump out of the car and lie down beside them.  In a moment, the urge passed.
“Yes,” Sarah replied, derisively.  The dark men from poor countries frightened her.  Crowded together in food stalls, riding old bicycles, looking down from squalid balconies, holding hands on the street corner, whispering in alleyways.  She closed her eyes.
“Do you ever plan to come home, Stephen?”
“To Ohio?  I doubt it.”  He swung the car onto Trade Center Road.
“You’re from Pennsylvania, Judy, right?”
“Yeah.  Pittsburgh.”
“Well, Ohio would be perfect.  You could see both families.”
“Yeah,” Judy said.  “That’d be great.”
“You don’t—”  Sarah hesitated.  “—get along with your family?”
“As long as I live here I do.”
“Well, you can do your art just as well in Ohio, or even Pittsburgh, I imagine?  Isn’t that right?  Your sculptures.”
“Sure, I guess.  But the thing is, we want to be here.”
“I can’t imagine why.  I can’t see why you two don’t want to live in the US.  Who wouldn’t want to live in America?  Right, Daniel?”
Her husband made an ambiguous sound.
“We haven’t seen you in years, Stephen.  Years.”
“Just eighteen months, Mom.”
“Well, still.  We miss you.  We do.”  Sarah punctuated this string of staccato phrases with an awkward hand on her son’s shoulder.  He flinched somewhat, then relaxed.  The hand was withdrawn.
“What about Skye?  She’ll be starting school soon.”
Stephen and Judy exchange brief glances.
“Yeah, next year.  There’s a few international schools here, which is what we really want.  We haven’t decided yet.”  Judy paused.  “But I might home-school.”
Home-school?  I didn’t know you had your teaching certificate?”
Judy was quiet.
“She’ll learn to sculpt, I imagine.”  Sarah crossed her arms, momentarily pleased with herself.

           “Reservation for five.  Neumann.”  Judy smiled thinly at the hostess.
“You used your maiden name?”
“I kept my maiden name.”
“Right this way.  Mum, sir.”
They were seated in a dark corner of Il Rustico, the Italian restaurant at Rydges, an unremarkable four-star hotel.
“You should get that dark tint on your windows like those cars passing us on the highway.  We have tinting on the Taurus back home.”  Daniel looked over the wine list, lost in the alchemy of currency conversion.  “Medium tint.”  He smiled broadly at everyone, in turn.  “I took it to Firestone.”
“Only locals can get tinted windows, Dad.”
“Is that right, Stephen?  That doesn’t seem fair.  You should do something about that.  Can you talk to someone, a…representative?”  Sarah spoke from behind her menu.
“The UAE’s a hereditary monarchy.  No political discourse, no official discussion of social issues, no televised proceedings, no representation.  Emiratis do what they want.  The rest of us are just workers.  Hallas.”  Judy hoped to subdue her mother-in-law with a sprinkling of Arabic.
“But you make a good wage, right son?” his father asked.
“Yeah, but that doesn’t matter.  Outsiders don’t count.”
“I still think it’s unfair,” Sarah pleaded, while asking the waitress for more bread with a wave of the empty basket.  “How much do you make, Stephen?”
“Mom, we’re not discussing this.”
Judy rolled her eyes and swished the bourbon-soaked ice cubes at the bottom of her whiskey glass.
“I bet it’s a lot, though, huh boy?”  Daniel winked at his son, who smiled back weakly.
“Would Mum care for some coffee, tea, dessert?”  The waitress hovered behind Sarah, looking despondent.
“Tea.  Thank you.”
“Tea, Mum.  And?”
“And?” she repeated.
“No thank you.”
The waitress made her way around the cramped table, taking orders, smiling with great effort.  Sarah wondered what she was thinking behind that small, closed mouth and why she wasn’t writing the orders down.  If she gets anything wrong…  Daniel, giddy with the foreignness of everything, was amazed by her wonderful English.
“Is she Chinese?” Daniel asked conspiratorially, leaning over to Judy, gripping her arm, after the waitress taxied off.
“She’s a Filipina, Daniel.  Lot of them work as clerks, waitresses, whatever.”
“Why are there so many foreigners here?”
“Because the locals can afford them.”
“You know,” Daniel began, clearly still working out the theory in his head, “I hardly see any Arabs.”
“Or hear anyone speaking Arabic?”  Judy finished the thought.
Daniel whipped off his glasses.  “By god, that’s right.  Why is that?”
“We’re interacting with waitresses and shoe salesmen and merchants.  The locals are filthy rich from oil.  They hire other people to work.”
“I see.”
“You hear Hindi, Swahili, Malayalam, Bengali, Urdu, Tagalog.  You don’t need Arabic.”
Fodor’s recommends a basic Arabic course,” Sarah offered, afraid of being outside the discussion for too long.
Slightly drunk, Judy toyed with her.  “Fff-forget the guidebook, Sarah.”
“Biscuit, Mum?” the waitress asked, setting the coffee down.
“Why on earth…?”
Stephen cut her off.  “Cookies, Mom.”
“Oh.  Thank you, Dear.”  She nodded to the waitress in an ambiguous manner, uneasily wandering from her comfort zone.
“Why do they say biscuit, Stephen?”
“The British ran the area first.  Before the UAE became a country in ’71.”
“Well, not firstFirst, the people ran themselves.  Then, they were subject to occupation, social and economic imperialism…”
Eyebrows hovered, coffee spoons meticulously rang.  “That’s awful, Judy.”  Daniel patted her hand.

           In the parking lot after dinner, they enjoyed the fresh air.  There was a sidewalk café a half-block from the hotel, next to a roundabout.  The area seemed comfortable and not aggressively exotic or third-world.  Sarah agreed to have another cup of tea, al fresco, which was the Ohio equivalent of an orgy.
They sat down on flimsy aluminum chairs.  No one spoke.  Next door, at a Lebanese restaurant, three waiters huddled by an unidentifiable piece of meat, slowly twisting on a silver pole.  They were dark, thin and craggy, wearing black pants, white shirts, black bow ties.  They had mustaches and slicked-back hair, characters from the distant past.  Sarah waited impatiently for her own waiter, but said nothing.  She was trying to be a good sport.
Eventually, the drinks came.
“What a wonderful night.  Not too hot.”  Daniel leaned back in his chair.
“It’s actually a bit cold now,” Sarah said.  There was something she wanted to add, but didn’t.  She bit her lip for the moment.
Judy sighed, smiling.  She was someplace else.  Stephen checked his watch.
Sarah had waited long enough.  She couldn’t take it anymore.  “Should she be wearing a sweater, Stephen?  It’s chilly out.”
“She’s fine, Mom.  Don’t worry so much, okay?  You’re on vacation.”
“I have to worry, Stephen.  That’s what a mother does.”  Sarah rubbed her hands, as if applying moisturizer.
Skye was climbing in and out of her chair, nearly upsetting the table each time.  The cups and saucers rattled.  Sarah wished her son would so something.  He didn’t seem to understand the first thing about parenting.  There was an article from Redbook that she would cut out for him.  She gripped the teacup close to her chest, asking the waitress, with a nod, for more biscuits.
The table was quiet.  It was the nearest thing to peace they’ve known all day.  Judy couldn’t imagine how she’d manage for three more weeks.  She thought about a late night joint, lying in bed with headphones.
The adults watched Skye because there was nothing better to do.  She was kicking small rocks into the street, singing a made-up song about palm trees and birds.  Judy lit a cigarette and Stephen repeatedly, obsessively, stirred his black coffee.
Looking up, Sarah choked on her coffee, coughing it out onto her lavender dress, and upset the table.  She could see Skye darting toward the hotel where a truck was swiftly backing out from an unseen driveway.  She screamed, standing up.
Stephen jumped out of the seat as the child shrieked and moved three steps closer, oblivious.
Judy, half-asleep in the darkness, turned away from the others with her feet extended and crossed in front of her, a partial obstruction to pedestrians.  She was half-drunk on bourbon, lost in thought, dreaming of another kind of life.  She took a long drag and stubbed out her cigarette six or seven times in the hulking plastic ashtray.  From the corner of her eye, she noticed her mother-in-law standing, beginning to scream.
Daniel remembered the rain, the tiny box, months of grieving.  He hadn’t thought about his first child, not for years.  Sarah wouldn’t allow the subject to be discussed.
Skye!”  His roar was startling.  The girl looked around, smiled and waved.  She was surprised at how energetic her grandpa had suddenly become, and she was still drawn toward the oncoming tires.

Hunter Liguore

Lit-Mag #42 – The Arabian World


I’m picking up pieces: a piece of black fabric in the shape of a square, frayed at the ends and still warm; a chunk of rubber, also black, from the sole of a shoe, which smells like oil; a tuft of dark, black hair, singed on the ends and bent into a curl; a child’s finger, no bigger than a cigarette filter, stiff, yet pliable, like a worm to bait a fishing hook; a piece of skin, bloody on one side, rough on the other, and resembles a fleck of paint. I collect the pieces—the remains of the boy—into a small, plastic bag. I work fast. I must get the package to the boy’s father before he takes him away. Sometimes there’s no hurry. Sometimes no one is left alive to collect the injured. Sometimes they die before I can gather everything. The boy still breathes, and so I must hurry.
Behind me, my neighbors run in different directions, like ants that scramble when their mound is stepped upon. People run for shelter, for safety, to divert bullets, another missile, or because they don’t know what else to do.
The boy’s father lifts his son through a broken car window, close to where I work. The car is deformed; its metal framework melted and shapeless. Flames burn from the backseat. The boy’s hand is smeared with purple blood and his index finger is arched in a pointing position. Perhaps he had been pointing at something pretty, something amusing, something only a child could see, but had been cut down before he could share it. The boy’s body looks like a pile of rags in the arms of his desperate father. His arm swings as his father runs against the grain of people, and places him on the debris-laden ground.
The father appears calm as he rubs his boy’s chest, but his eyes shift around. He’s thinking. He is dissolving inside. I imagine he will have thoughts similar to ones that I’ve had on previous occasions.
What should I do with him? Where will I take him for help? Will I make it in time or will he die in my arms, my only son? Will another bomb explode? Will I get caught in the crossfire? Where’s my wife? Does she know to go home? Is she alive? Is she far from here? Does she know she will have to keep the others safe, while I’m tending to our son?
The boy’s father wraps the child’s dismembered hand with a discarded scarf he finds from the street. The cloth seeps with blood upon contact. The blood won’t stop. He searches for something bigger to tie off the wound, but he knows there’s internal damage, because of the way the boy’s body twists unnaturally. He starts to cry, feeling helpless.
I bring the bag to the father. He takes it from me with little thought. We don’t speak to one another. He knows I am there to help. Together, we lift the boy and carry him away.
Gunfire rattles behind the next building, causing more of my people to scurry like hunted game. The women scream through their tears, as their children fall under the rain of bullets. How many times have these mothers warned their children about days like this? Didn’t they ingrain in them how to avoid the bullets? Run low, toward the side of the building, hide, run, get away!
The father and I hide behind a building. We see soldiers spreading out into the square. Their green uniforms make them look like tall bushes attacking us. Their M-16’s scatter more bullets, more bodies fall. No one is spared, the young, the old, perhaps the lucky.
“Is he still alive?” I ask.
The boy’s father nods. I can see the boy’s breathing grow heavy, impaired. I’ve seen this before.
“He was always a good boy. He never…” the man covers his face with his hand. The wet tears clear away the dust from his skin. He never finishes his sentence, nor needs to. I know he wants to say his boy never caused him anger, and never wanted more than he could provide. My boy was just like his. He was about the same age when he was killed in a similar attack six months ago.
The man scoops his boy up in his arms and disappears down the street. The bag I collected for him is gripped in his hand. He doesn’t need to thank me. He will appreciate my efforts at a later time. I run in the opposite direction towards home. The gunfire still rages. A second missile explodes toward my left, like an ocean wave, for there is a brief silence before it hits, and then an unfathomable crash, that covers everything in its path.
I run in the direction of the attack, passing through the crowd with resistance. Faces I’ve known my whole life go by with terror. Their eyes look alien, unfeeling and scared. The missile destroyed a market this time. Arms and legs protrude from the rubble when I arrive. Men gather. Our eyes glance at one another, each hoping the other will move first, as if one of us already has a plan to lead us all to pull the bodies out. I move first, indicating I have the most experience. I yell for someone to help me lift the cement block from the top of the pile. Four hands are not enough. Two others join in, and we’re able to slide the block off the top of the mound.
“They may still be alive,” I shout. This gives the others hope, as they dig with their bare hands through rock, dirt, steel, and blood.
This was how I found my mother. First I found a torn fragment of her scarf covered in the dirt, a piece I keep tied around my wrist in remembrance. After I recovered the rest of the scarf, I found her arm. Upon pulling, the arm came free of her body. I dug quicker, harder, like a monster without emotion, not noticing that I was scraping the skin clean from my fingers. Her eyes were open, staring toward the blue sky, which never seems to change or notice what happens down here. Her body lay contorted in different directions like street signs perched at the corner of an intersection. I tore her body from the tomb, though it was not in my physical strength to do so. The body is as strong as the mind allows.
When the first cadaver is pulled free from the shopping center pit, we are encouraged to go further to find more, but then a child’s voice behind us breaks our concentration. We divert our energy to the definite living. Beneath the rubble, a boy has found a breathing space; he calls for his brother. Someone goes for him. The rest of us dig. Sweat pours down my face, as I work with the others to lift the stone and rubble, to free the boy. We all know with one wrong move, we could bury him.
The boy’s brother comes. Upon seeing his younger brother buried, he screams for Allah to do something, anything to keep him alive. His hands dig and lash at the gravel to reach him. “You’re not going to die! Do you hear me?” the brother says with strength. I used to pray to Allah, until I realized that he could not hear my prayers over the bombing and gunfire.
Gunfire cuts over our heads. We drop to our bellies. “Quickly,” someone says. “We must go,” shouts another man. Several escape over the mound.
“We can come back,” I say to the brother. “He’s safe where he is.”
The soldiers spot us. Though we lie grotesquely upon the ruins of the building, and the remains of life, with little left for them to take, but our lives, they come. A bullet grazes my head, as I pull the brother’s arm to leave. My head spins; my ears ring. More gunfire. The brother’s chest spurts blood when three bullets pass through his body. I roll to the other side of the debris pile, watching, as the brother’s brains spill out onto the cement stone like vomit, as the deadening bullet pierces his skull. I hear the boy screaming below. He is terrorized, no longer a boy, but a caged lion, crazed with fear.
Children take to the rooftop of a building on the other side of the street, and throw rocks down upon the soldiers, who return fire willingly. The boys are quick to hide, and their efforts give me enough time to get away.
Blood runs down my cheek. I keep wiping it, but it still flows. I am dizzy, but determined. After the soldiers leave, I return to the mound. New faces arrive to help clean the debris and dig for loved ones. I notice the boy doesn’t call out anymore. I remove a plastic bag from my pocket. I keep a few with me at all times. I can never tell when I might need one.
When my boy was killed in an attack, a month before my mother, his body lay in pieces on the gravel road. As his father I should’ve been able to pick him up and put him back together. I sat beside my dead son for what felt like an entire season, until someone stirred me, a man, who handed me a plastic bag with my son’s remains. Every piece is sacred, he said. He did this for me so I didn’t have to; it was the most loving act anyone has ever done for me. My son was my first loss, then my mother was taken, then my wife and three girls. My whole family has been slain during one attack or another. I have no one left, but my neighbors. They are what’s important now.
I don’t know if anyone would come for the two brothers. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they’re never claimed. I didn’t know if the boy was still alive, or if he would live. I half knew he was already dead—his silence confirming what I knew in my heart— but the hopeful side of me did not want to admit the truth. I bagged the soft, slick brain. Beside the body was a crushed flower. Its color purple stood out from the disaster. I put this into the bag too. I laid it on the brother’s chest and forced his eyes closed. I carried him to the end of the row of bodies already collecting in the street. I looked at the faces for anyone I might know, but I knew them all in one way or another.
I look for the first boy and his father, but I don’t see them anywhere. Maybe the boy lived, or maybe I already knew he was dead. He probably died in his father’s arms, just like mine did. The hopeful side of me wasn’t ready to admit anything with certainty. A missile soared overhead crashing in the plaza several blocks away. I ran against the grain to get there, a body in pieces, waiting. I took out another plastic bag and began picking up pieces.

Dennis Leavens

Lit-Mag #42 – The Arabian World

Two Poems

Desert Walk

Blue-headed agamas dart and pause, and little
Lizards curl their tails like scorpions.

Under the rock, the puff-adder hides in shade.
Donkey droppings dry in the sun.

Foraminifera lie loose on rock,
Their ardent, snake-like bodies now only time.

What is there to learn?  Stay out of the sun?
The many-venomed earth turns in time to stone?

Mosquito larvae squiggle in the mud pond
left from last month’s rain.  Donkey prints

mark where they have drunk the fetid water.
An Egyptian vulture soars above white rock and red sand.

Life is death is stone
That is what we can call our own.

An Answer from a Camel

Problem: how to see the pinched skin
And red-edged center of the apricot
Pulling back from its desiccating

Seed and hold in the eye the taut fuzz of
youth, juices rushing to the lightest touch?
And more: to feel back to the pale

Blossom’s strength pulsing through
Petal-thin veneer, its luminous beauty
already brown at the edges, while the

seed surges within, seed to seed,
wet to dry, platinum sun to russet loam.
So the face of the camel, the Arab

symbol of patience and strength: shovel
snout with plum-pit nostrils, level head
held disdainfully still above brush and dust,

soft coffee eyes wet in the tears of time,
winking to the slow chew of a
precautionary cud, recalling centuries

of burden and slaughter, foreseeing
centuries of burden and slaughter.
But just now in the stretch for a few

Leaves of a flowering ghaf tree,
dreaming of great brown ancestors
and sheath-wet calves in the sandy

wastes of a desert sun whose center
is only hot and hotter gas that
can only end in immolation.

Answer? See, suffer, dream, dry up.

Yahia Lababidi

Lit-Mag #42 – The Arabian World

The Belly Dancer at the Wedding

Egyptians love to dance. The national conceit is that belly-dancing runs in their veins and that even an amateur local is innately superior to a professional foreigner. Upon the faintest prompting, women of every shape, age and class will put this proposition to the test. It is typical, for example, to see little girls wriggling at gatherings in an astonishingly accomplished manner for hours at a time. Equally common, to hear coy protestations one moment of a guest being invited to dance and then to witness a creature possessed the next. Forget about asking them to take their seat until the shaking subsides.
The ubiquity and sheer joy of dance, however, do not detract from the perception of immorality associated with the dancing profession. Egyptians are deeply conflicted about the respectability of the art form. It is alright, they argue, to perform this type of dance in private, among friends or family, but to do so before strangers and for money is unsavory. Islamic preachers have gone so far as to proclaim that belly dancers cannot partake in religious rites (i.e. feeding the poor during Ramadan or performing the Hajj/Pilgrimage). In short, professional belly-dancers are regarded as little more than purveyors of titillation and the embodiment of sin.
At a time when more and more Egyptian women are taking the veil, Cairo remains the world epicenter for those who wish to master a dance that is only a slight variation on the theme of Salome’s shedding of her veils. And when, seaside, the bulk of Egyptian women are opting to wade in gallabiyyas (full-length traditional dresses) it is not unusual for a belly-dancer to perform at a public venue wearing little more than a glorified bikini, like a beached mermaid in her glittering, gauzy garb.

           An incident illustrating the paradoxically privileged position belly-dancers occupy in society occurred nearly a decade ago. A video depicting one of Egypt’s top belly-dancers in flagrante delicto leaked onto the street and internet, following a police raid on the villa of a well-known (and married) Egyptian businessman. A lesser mortal would have perished beneath the heat of such a scandal, especially a woman in a conservative society. Yet, following a teary public apology and a short leave of absence, the uberdancer bounced back on stage. Moreover, to add legislation to lore, a new law forbids foreign dancers from practicing this lucrative local art, another example of the almost unassailable status of the belly-dancer in Egyptian society.
A love/hate relationship for the belly-dancer places her in a perceived moral netherworld somewhere between actors and whores. Both dancers and actors, whose testimony was once inadmissible in court, are accorded the same morbid fascination and contempt. Every twist and turn of their private lives is deemed newsworthy, and a renewed source of censure. Hishik bishik, slang for all things associated with belly-dancing (and shorthand for tsk-tsk) is actually onomatopoeia: the sound of the shaking belly-dancer, beads and all. It is also used figuratively, as a derogatory term for the shaking of values or the loosening of moral fabric associated with the dancer’s questionable position in the public imagination. What does this say about the people who heartily embrace belly-dancing as a form of self-expression?
To begin with, Egyptians do not call it belly-dancing, but rather raqs sharqi (oriental dancing) or raqs baladi (folkloric dancing), and the origins of the dance are ambiguous. Whether or not it was born in Ancient Egypt, it is widely held that the dance has its roots in fertility ceremonies, meant to strengthen abdominal muscles and ease childbirth. The dance itself is a kind of break dance, only more fluid, exhibiting a variety of muscle isolation techniques: rolling the belly, swiveling the hips, or making the upper and lower body appear as though they lead independent lives. In many ways, belly-dancing is the anti-ballet. Whereas the ballerina wears her pretty steel-tipped slippers, the belly-dancer is sensuously barefoot. While the ballerina strives for the ethereal and seeks to resist gravity, the belly-dancer’s feet are firmly planted on the ground, tapping into a boundless fund of earthy energy
That is the technique, then there is the inspiration, the wordless ecstasy communicated, the body eloquence. President Anwar Sadat once described a celebrated Egyptian dancer of the 70s, Souhair Zaki, as “the Oum Kolthoum of dance.” “As she sings with her voice, you sing with your body,” he said to her. Speaking of the same dancer, Geraldine Brooks put it slightly differently in her book, Nine Parts of Desire:

What she did with her body was what a woman’s body did-the natural movements of sex and childbirth. The dance drew the eye to the very centre of the female body’s womanliness.

           The fact that, in Egypt, weddings are hardly complete without a belly-dancer is revealing, given the function of marriage as sanctifying the union between a man and a woman who is expected to be a virgin. Costing the family of the bride or groom up to $3,000 for a 30-minute performance, and widely considered the highlight of the matrimonial event, the belly-dancer’s entrance is anticipated with bated breath. And what an entrance it is. Some time past the witching hour, often draped in a sort of a sparkling cape, she shimmies into the room with a manic enthusiasm, heralded and accompanied by the wild beating of drums. Having established her presence and reveling in the power of an intensity inhabited, the dancer sheds her mock modest veil to reveal herself-a half-naked, shimmering apparition. All anima and the daemonic, she then proceeds to stomp on the hallowed ground of the wedding ceremony.
This primeval emotional maelstrom is transmitted to the enthralled audience in general and the blushing bride in particular. Women study her intently, but with a more guarded enthusiasm than their drooling male counterparts. Having transfixed the audience in a sort of reverse mesmerism-where the snake charms those who summoned it-the belly-dancer now turns her attentions to the bride. Weaving and dipping in her vicinity, she initiates her into the rites of uninhibited womanhood. ‘See the effect I have on the room (and your groom),’ she insinuates, fearlessly brandishing her sexuality. ‘That power is yours, too. Your birthright. Celebrate it.’ And she’s off, back with the crowd; challenging them to take guilt-free pleasure in their bodies, as she snakes between them and dances with a deliciously self-absorbed exhibitionism.
Wearing a wedding cake of a gown, the bride must fret: how can I possibly compete with this woman invulnerable to taboo? Having spent a lifetime shrewdly protecting her virtue and a small fortune on the appearance of her dress, she is being upstaged at her own wedding by a woman who seems to care for neither. How can she possibly stand up to this dancer-radiating sex and naked confidence-with her flamboyantly flagrant disregard for the fundamental commandments of Family and Society?
In such a charged atmosphere belly-dancing serves as a kind of ‘licensed murder’. This is Bertrand Russell’s definition of war, only the war declared here is on conventional morality and its mind-forged manacles. The force of the belly-dance is a force of nature, perceived as unharnessed and disruptive, hence the fear. The fear is an ancient one: of desire, of female flesh. The belly-dancer’s twisting sisters are many and ruinous in mythology and the human imagination:Eve and the Serpent, Medusa (Woman and Serpent fused), Salome (disastrous desire), Kali (fierce transcendence), the Sirens (femme fatale), the striptease (look, don’t touch), and the lap-dancer (crude sensuality). All hint at a vision of woman engaged in a frenzied dance of Life and Death, of passion careening out of control, threatening to overwhelm and consume.
It is not without significance that a 1920s Egyptian law forbade the belly-dancer from showing her navel. Later in the ‘50s, belly-dancing was prohibited in Egypt altogether. The ban was repealed following a public outcry, however, on the condition that the belly button be covered. But, why the belly button? Given that it is not a sexual organ, one suspects the significance is symbolic. The belly button is, after all, where the umbilical cord was severed. Is it the scene of the original crime, then, from which people wish to avert their gaze?
„Every vagina has secret teeth, for the male exits as less than when he entered,“ writes Camille Paglia. Teeth that are razor sharp in a patriarchal society. Vagina dentata, in turn, denotes a fear of devouring origins, as may the offensive belly button. Something of this age-old anxiety over female sensuality appears to lurk stubbornly in the myths of many cultures. Hence, trafficking as the belly-dancer does, in the heady cocktail of dance and womanhood, creation and destruction, the object of desire becomes a repository of fear and loathing. To accept their spontaneous joy in dance without the attendant sense of sin, perhaps Egyptians might take a cue from Nietzsche’s declaration: “I could only believe in a god who dances.”

Ranjini George

Lit-Mag #42 – The Arabian World

The City of Gold

“Skin like the Taj Mahal,” he said, cataract eyes crawling like lice in her hair. Mother handed him a cup of cardamom-flavored tea and offered him a plate of sweets. The man waved the plate aside; “I’m diabetic,” he said, tongue darting, wetting a pendulous lower lip. Perhaps he didn’t eat food bought from tin-shack shops, feared adulterated ghee, or cheap food color.
“She’s still a child,” Mother said, resting her palm on Bina’s head.
Bony arms gestured towards mud walls and a rust-stained asbestos roof. White hairs grew like ferns from his ears and nostrils. “With the money that I give you, you could move to a new house. Buy gold. Clothes,” he said, smiling, revealing missing front teeth and gold-capped side ones.
Father got up from the charpoy, held the man’s hand in both of his, said, “Your proposal is a great honor. We’re grateful to you. God has been good to us.”  Bina could see the relief in Father’s eyes—his card game debts paid; maybe he could open a ration shop.

           That night Bina said,  “I will drink phenol, if you make me marry him. You murdered Third Sister when she was a baby. Now, you want to kill me.”
Father raised his hand as if to slap her, then turned away; his scrawny shoulders bent inwards, his fists clenched to his side. Mother sat on the floor and wailed. “You wicked girl! God will punish you for talking to your parents like this. You’ll regret not accepting the rich man’s proposal. Chances like this don’t come again.”
But Bina had watched enough of Bollywood cinema to dream of love with a man who was rich and handsome and young, a man who she could love and who would love her in return. For Bina, rich meant a house with cement walls, not one with cow-dung floors; rich meant three piled-up meals a day, maybe even a plate of after-dinner fruit or crisp snacks in the evening.
“Two daughters dead, Mother. Can you live with that? Die with that?”
Mother said nothing. Mother knew that Third Sister was still on the Earth Plane watching them. At night, Third Sister crawled outside the house, whimpering, swinging on the hammock, tipping over the bucket under the steel tap. Mother didn’t want Bina to commit suicide; she didn’t want a second ghost haunting their mud hut, never giving her a moment of reprieve.
“How long can I keep feeding you?”  Father said before he left the house and went to the cinema.
Bina knew that she would have to find a way to leave Father’s house, to leave the city of the Taj Mahal. That night, when Third Sister’s thin thighs dragged across the stone blocks beneath the courtyard steel tap, Bina prayed: “Third Sister help me. I have no one else but you.”
Third Sister’s hands and feet talked—scraped on the mud, poured out the water from the chipped green bucket, and made the flame of the kerosene lamp dance higher. “I’ll help you, Bina. God Promise,” she said.

           Words passing through water, turning fire to steam. Less than two weeks later, a sunny morning in Deepu’s pharmacy store, Bina turned and saw a man with thick gold-rimmed glasses and a polyester shirt puffed-out over his hanging belly.
“I’m here on holiday,” the man said, chickpea eyes watching Bina as she waited for the pharmacist to give her a strip of Actifed. He’d said “holiday” in English; he must be a very educated man, Bina assumed, rich enough to go to a private school not one of the vernacular ones. His dark skin was brushed with talcum powder and his sparse hair was slick with oil. He looked a bit like Govinda, the North Indian actor. Bina fidgeted with the strip of Actifed, turned the corners of the foil inward and outwards, as “holiday” rolled beneath her breasts, settling beneath her sari blouse, as the man’s eyes looked politely at the word in its movement down. “I live in Dubai,” the man said, puffing his shirt out further.
Bina knew Dubai was in the Middle East. Pallavi’s sister worked as a housemaid in Muscat, earned a fat salary, ate food like at a wedding feast. “In Kuwait?”  Bina asked, eyelids lowered.
“No, in the UAE….The United Arab Emirates. The City of Gold,” the man replied, leaned against the wall, “If you see the gold souq in Dubai, you’ll go crazy. Hundreds of gold shops. Italian designs. Indian designs. Damas. Allukas.”  He moved forward and left behind a ring of hair oil on the wall.
“How can I see the gold souq?”
“I can get you a ticket to Dubai. I’ll be your Agent and arrange a Housemaid visa,” the man said, held the door open for her, and followed her outside.
Bina looked away from him and blushed. He knew so many English words—“holiday,” ticket.”  Why was he offering to help her? “Holiday” fidgeted, jousted for space by coffee aureoles, kneaded breasts, not like her mother kneaded chapatti dough, but gently. “I wish I could speak English like you.”
“I’ll teach you.”  The man smiled again, revealing rows of perfectly aligned teeth. “Once the plane was full. I traveled Business Class.”
Bina didn’t want to ask him what Business Class was. She’d seen planes in the sky, but had never been in one. The Agent was a man of the world. His steel watch was shiny like his shirt. Maybe he’d fallen in love with her like Prince Shahjahan fell in love with  Mumtaz Mahal. When she died, Shahjahan built the Taj Mahal. Bina’s encounter with the Agent was like a scene from a Hindi movie. “Holiday” pushed “Ticket” and “Business” aside and rushed downwards.

           The next day they arranged to meet secretly in Ram Bagh, a Mughal garden built by Babur in the sixteenth century. The Agent paid the five-rupee entrance fee for the two of them, and found a spot under a pepal tree.
A policeman waived his baton at them and walked towards them threateningly. Bina pulled her sari pullav over her face. “What are you doing in this dark corner? Are you married?” the policeman asked.
Bina peeked through her sari and saw the Agent hand the policeman crisp rupee notes. “We are not doing any hanky panky. Don’t bother us again and I’ll give you another thirty rupees before I return to Dubai,” the Agent said in a fluent mixture of Hindi and English.
The Agent bought Bina roasted groundnuts and a Kwality Choc-o-bar. He sat down on the grass besides her and adjusted the cuffs of his shirt. “My life is hale and hearty in Dubai. I work in Khalid Apartments. It has twenty-four floors. I wear a white uniform. I have connections.”  Even though it was forty degrees Celsius, he had a leather jacket slung across his lap. He had a thick gold chain around his neck. Bina didn’t like the smell of neem oil that emanated from his scalp, but she knew that she could learn to like it; she guessed that he used the oil to control the dandruff that she could see on his hair. Bina licked the chocolate before she bit into the vanilla and watched the sweat trickle down the sides of his face, his features flowing into each other like melting jelly. God had brought the Agent to her, but Bina was scared that he might not want to see her again. After all, in Dubai he must know lots of women.
In a public bathroom, wet with urine and water, she’d prepared carefully for their meeting: washed her hair with a capful of shampoo that she stole from one of the houses where she worked part time—Sunsilk Almond; worn the sari that Mother had bought before the old man came to see her with his proposal of marriage; she had pushed her petticoat below her navel and tied a strand of fresh jasmine in her hair. Now, as she sat by the Agent biting the edge of a grass stalk, Bina flicked her hair off her face, let her pullav move sideways revealing more skin, and hoped he thought she looked nice, that he would love her, marry her, and take her away to Dubai.
The sound of a low-flying plane with blinking white lights made Bina look up. She watched the plane ascend into the whispery clouds of a dusk sky. She longed to fly in those steel birds and disembark in the city of gold.
“Skin like the Taj Mahal,” the Agent said, trailing a fingertip across her arm. He talked about a world of air-conditioned comfort, meals in abundance, perhaps a TV in her room. “Housework is a too much of a piece of cake,” the Agent said. Bina could not comprehend all the Agent talked about: washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, but she listened intently. She’d seen these appliances in some of the houses in which she worked, but she had rarely used them: most times the water supply was not enough to run the machines; or the Memsahibs said the electricity consumed would skyrocket their bill, or that Bina might turn the dials the wrong way and spoil the machine.
In Dubai there are fancy-shancy shops called “malls,” the Agent continued, with video arcades, food courts, ten cinema theaters under one roof: Lamcy Plaza, City Center, Wafi Mall and Mercatos. There, Bina could laze in air-conditioned comfort, watch her Memsahib’s child play, and eat a nice lunch with her—maybe a burger from MacDonald’s, noodles from the Chinese counter or a shwarma from the Lebanese grill. She would earn in a month what she now took half-a-year to earn.
After her parents murdered her baby sister, Bina had wanted to leave Agra. She’d worked hard, hid part of her earnings, and prayed for an opportunity to escape. “Why are you so kind to me?”
“Bina Oh Bina, dil tum ne hai cheena,” the Agent said, half-singing the words, scratching his head. “You robbed my heart! I can’t sponsor you on my job. But I want you to be with me in Dubai.”
In all her life, Bina had not known a happier day than this one. Heart bouncing forward like a paper boat on a stream, Bina said, “After Third Sister, there’s no one that I have loved like I love you.”

           Over the next two weeks, Bina and the Agent met many times: seemingly coincidental meetings beneath shop awnings and at the bus stop, surreptitious, prolonged meetings in the colorful alleyways of Kinari Bazaar,  and in the further recesses of public parks. In all those meetings the Agent never made any improper advances. “I want to marry you,” he said repeatedly.
The Agent was a man of his word. He took Bina to Rose Photo Studio to order passport photographs; he made trips to the Embassy to get her passport made; he arranged a forged birth certificate with a birth date that stated she was older than she actually was: twenty-four instead of nineteen. He wrote to his various connections in Dubai. Eventually he found a possible sponsor. He made an international call to a Punjabi couple that needed a maid; they lived at Khalid Apartments, the building where the Agent worked as a maintenance man.
The night he was supposed to leave for Delhi from where he would catch his international flight to Dubai, they met near Jama Masjid. They wandered through the Loha Mandi (Iron Market), Sabji Mandi (Vegetable Market), and the Nai-ki-Mandi (Barber’s Market). The Agent bought her a candy figure of the Monkey-God and half-dozen red and gold plastic bangles from one of the tube-lighted stalls. Bina handed the Agent an envelope of the money that she had saved over the years. “For my ticket. The rest I’ll pay you later.”
“You don’t need to pay me,” he said dismissively as he stuffed the money into his shiny ten-dirham wallet.
Two months later, just at the Agent promised, the visa papers arrived. Also, a letter.
Your ticket is confirmed on Emirates Airlines. My good friend in Agra has confirmed your railway ticket for 10 September on the  6:35 pm Taj Express to Delhi. I will be at Dubai airport. All you have to do my Dil ki Rani is to travel to me. I told your sponsors, the Kapoors, that you are my niece. So please behave accordingly. Hide your emotions for me and I will hide mine.
Two weeks later, Bina, Dil ki Rani, Queen of Agent-Uncle’s Heart, secretly left her father’s house. She took a cycle rickshaw to the Agra Cantonment train station. In Delhi, just as he’d promised, the Agent’s friend met Bina at the Nizamuddin train station and took her to Indira Gandhi International airport.
Then Bina, dressed in the sari bought before the old man came to see her, boarded the early morning Emirates flight to Dubai. When the flight attendant offered her meals on the plane, Bina’s mouth watered, but she didn’t take any; she thought she’d have to pay for the meals. She didn’t drink much water either because she dreaded using the toilet they showed in the flight demonstration tape: oval seats and push-button flushes. Where did all the waste go? Bina wondered. Did it spill out into open skies like the feces and sanitary pads that fell through the floor urinals onto the railway tracks?
Bina tried not to cry on the flight to Dubai. She would miss her two sisters, her brother. But Agent-Uncle had told her that she would get a ticket to Agra from her sponsors every two years. And she would write to her siblings and send them money. Maybe she could develop connections of her own and find a job for her sisters in Dubai.
But had Bina deserted Third Sister by leaving Agra? All these years, nearly eight years now, ever since Father wrapped a damp towel around Third Sister soon after her birth, and got the Doctor to write a certificate that said, “PNEUMONIA,” Bina had heard Third Sister’s knees knocking against the corners of walls, felt her hands clutch the charpoy bed where Father had thrown her down like a sack of rice. The night before she left Agra, Bina asked Third Sister to leave the Earth Plane and enter another happier body. “I’m scared to be reborn. A mother who didn’t love me. A Father who killed me because I was a girl,” Third Sister replied, making the kerosene lamp flame splutter.
Bina wished she could pull a chain, like the red one on the train, and make the plane stop. But when the Hindi movie came on, and the window shutters were pulled down, while some of the passengers slept, others drank Seven-Up and orange juice, ate sandwiches, and played video games, Bina dreamed of Third Sister. Third Sister in her arms, crying as the plane took off and pushing the bottle of milk away. Third Sister’s tears stopping when Bina unbuttoned her blouse (though she was shy doing that in a plane) pulled her sari forward and fixed Third Sister’s mouth against her breast. Third Sister holding the edge of Bina’s pullav, milk dribbling down her chin, falling asleep against Bina’s breasts, and waking up when the wheels of the plane touched the ground.

           The Agent was at Dubai International Airport just as he had promised. He looked more impressive than Bina remembered, his shirt puffed out more than usual. Bina’s heart leapt when she saw him pointing her out and the remembered words were restive again.
“Mr. and Mrs. Kapoor. Your sponsors,” Agent-Uncle said, gesturing deferentially at the smiling Punjabi couple. She stooped to touch their feet, but Memsahib held Bina’s shoulders and raised her up. There was much politeness and thanking on both sides; Bina looked younger than her age, Memsabib said, mascara eyes narrowing slightly.
Dubai looked like the American cities that Bina furtively watched on TV as she swept tiled floors. Tall buildings, glassy and gracious, six-lane highways with signboards pointing to places that she’d never heard of: Deira, Sharjah, Al Ghusais, Rashidya, Abu Dhabi, Bur Dubai. Most amazing of all, the city didn’t look like a desert. There were flowers everywhere and trees. Memsahib said,  “During the one-month shopping festival the city looks like fairyland.”
Khalid Apartments was just as Agent-Uncle had described it: the floors gleamed like marble; there were lighted fountains in the lobby, elevators with shiny doors and mirrors, and a gym, babysitting room, and swimming pool in the mezzanine area. Memsahib showed Bina the “maid’s room” in Apartment 2109: a freshly painted room with a bed, a cupboard, and an attached bathroom of her own; she showed her how to sit bottom down on the toilet seat, not feet down like on the floor urinal, how to use the shower instead of a mug and bucket.
The Punjabi couple ate dinner and left large portions of leftovers on the table. Bina was surprised they didn’t serve her lots of rice with little vegetable, like her previous Memsahibs had done. “Please eat well and go to bed early,” Memsahib said. “I’m putting the rasgullas back in the fridge so that it will remain cold. You must have some.”
Could she have as many rasgullas as she wanted? Bina wondered. Had they counted how many were left? She remembered the shop that Father had worked in when she was a young girl, “Madhuri Sweets and Savories.”  Father would bring her day-old petha or jellabis wrapped up in newspaper tied with string. Father was good to her then; Bina knew that he loved her; but after he killed Third Sister, she tried not to love him anymore. Her first morning in Dubai, Bina lay on her bed, heard the azaan, the call for prayer over the microphone, tried to feel the pressure of Third Sister’s vibrations of voice and breath, but there was nothing. Third Sister was not here. Bina was alone.

           After the Thursday-Friday weekend, Agent-Uncle came to see her. The Punjabi couple had left for work. Bina was happy to be with him, yet the Agent seemed different. His eyes full of something other than smiles. Gently pinching the exposed skin of her midriff, Agent-Uncle said that he loved her, wanted to marry her: that was his only goal in life. “I don’t have much time. In fifteen minutes I have to go to check the AC ducts in apartment 1707.”  His hand slid under her pullav and squeezed a breast tightly, as if he was trying to strain cheese from whey. “My friend in Delhi paid thousands of rupees to an agent. The agent took the money but never got him his visa. Another friend, when he came here his job was not what he expected. You’re lucky that you didn’t have to pay an agent fee. And for you, everything is as expected, my Dil ki Rani.”
Bina had heard her parents’ lovemaking ever since she could remember, but the actual transaction was still unclear. She’d wanted the Agent, but not like this. Agent-Uncle said,  “Don’t tell me you don’t want it too. Your pullav dropping all the time, your sari tucked so low.”
She lay back on her narrow bed, shut her eyes, heard the baby whimper in the nursery, thought of the old man with cataract eyes, said, “Please don’t be angry.  Don’t go.”
Agent-Uncle said that he’d not had a woman since the prostitute in Agra, and she’d coagulated powder between shriveled breasts and a mouth full of cavities. In Dubai prostitutes were expensive and he was scared of being caught. Impatient, he unzipped his pants, slid a condom over his penis, and pushed himself into her.

           For a couple of days, Agent-Uncle didn’t visit her, and Bina was happy. Maybe he was sorry and he’d be slower next time. “Are you okay?”  Memsahib said, peering at her face, patting her hand. “You must miss your family. In time, it will become easier.”
Two weeks later, after the Punjabi couple left for work, Agent-Uncle came to see her again. This time he smiled nicely when he bundled her petticoat beneath her chin, fondled breasts that had forgotten the words “holiday” “ticket” and “business,” his arms and legs slithering like the earthworms on her bathroom floor in Agra. He said that he hadn’t visited her earlier because he didn’t want to arouse suspicion; they could both lose their jobs if they were found out. Bina, acquiescent, spread-eagled, wondered if she would bleed again. She thought of Mr. Agarwal feeding laddus to a Madhuri Dixit poster on her Happy Birthday; of the field where she played with her sisters and brother, red lotuses and water lilies, stalks, spongy and soft, sinking deep in the sewer, waxy leaves glistening with water. All in all, this time with Agent-Uncle was better than the last time had been.
Some Fridays, Agent-Uncle asked her sponsors if he could take his niece out. He promised her father he would look after her, he said. At the cinema, Agent-Uncle sometimes managed a corner seat in the last row and dragged her hand over his unzipped trouser. Bina wished she could sit back and enjoy the film; her palm felt sticky though she wiped it clean with a tissue, and she hated resting her unwashed hand against her nice sari. But she reminded herself that Agent-Uncle had done so much for her.
After the movie, Bina and Agent-Uncle ate at Daily, the restaurant behind Strand Cinema, or in Karachi Darbar in Karama. Bina loved the green and red lights outside the restaurant, flashing the Indian and Pakistani flag, Chicken Tikka and Fresh Fruit Juice;  the green and pink sweets arranged on aluminum trays propped-up by glass windows, the blue-orange flame beneath the large iron kadais. They ate kababs and naans, papaad, pickles and mint-flavored yogurt in a hall with a large TV screen—the family section, not in the dormitory style hall for single men. Bina usually paid because she owed the Agent money for her ticket. Whenever the Agent paid, she ate less.   “You like biryani,” he would ask. “I’ll order some.”   Bina loved the saffron-flavored rice filled with chunks of mutton, but she didn’t want to be obligated to him more than she was already.
“No please. I’m full,” she would lie with a bright smile.

           Life as housemaid was just as Agent-Uncle promised. There wasn’t much to do in her sponsor’s home besides taking care of the baby; the baby was more attached to her than to Memsahib. The couple worked a split shift: 8:00 a.m.-1: 00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.-7:00 p.m. In her free time, Bina watched Star TV and Hindi videos.
Agent-Uncle was who he’d said he was. He was a maintenance man in the building. He wore a white uniform. He shared a room with a Filipino worker. He spoke English with confidence to the white people who lived in the building; Bina was so impressed by that; she, on the other hand, could barely understand anything they said and was nervous when they acknowledged her in the elevator.
And, Agent-Uncle had given her the job he’d promised and had not taken an agent fee. Bina heard stories from the other maids in the building about women who’d mortgaged their land, taken loans from the bank, and paid lots of money to Indian agents for a housemaid visa—thirty to forty thousand rupees. When the women arrived in Dubai, the agent locked them in a flat and forced them to be with ten to fifteen men a day. If they didn’t agree to be prostitutes they were beaten and starved. Prostitution is illegal in Dubai, but the women didn’t manage to escape, or were too scared to go to the police. Some of the women tried to kill themselves because they couldn’t bear the shame of telling their families back home. The agents in Dubai charged fifty to three hundred dirhams a customer; but the women didn’t get any money; the agents kept everything. At the end of two years, all that the women possessed was a  toothpaste, towel, couple saris, comb, and contraceptive pills. In one-year the Indian consulate had freed twenty to thirty girls, put them in the Shelter House of the Indian Association, and sent them back to India.
Agent-Uncle was a hardworking man. He told Bina that from his seven hundred dirham salary, he saved quite a bit. Besides his job as a maintenance man, he cleaned cars for the residents of Khalid Apartments, helped move furniture, fixed curtain rods, and watered houseplants when the expatriates went on holiday in the summer. He was saving money so that he could marry her, the Agent said; maybe Bina could open a joint account with him. Bina agreed because she didn’t want him to think that she didn’t trust him; but she kept aside some money to send to her sisters and brother in Agra.
Bina accompanied Memsahib to Spinneys or Safestway and watched her buy four-liter plastic boxes of ice cream for dinner parties, boxes of Belgian chocolate, peaches, and plums. (Memsahib never ate much; she was always worried about her weight, and ate low-fat, no-cholesterol foods). Bina wished she could mail some of the food to her sisters and brother. How they loved chocolate and ice cream!
Agent-Uncle had a more frugal diet because he bought groceries from his salary. Sometimes when he dropped in to see Bina, she would give him parcels of food: chicken curry, vegetable korma, ice cream, and apple pie. Bina appreciated Memsahib’s kindness, but rationalized that it was easy to be kind when one had so much. “They spend in one day what I earn in a month,” Bina thought; but she would eat less than she normally did; that way she felt she had given her share to Agent-Uncle and hadn’t stolen food.
Agent-Uncle spent only a hundred dirhams a month on food. Every weekend, on Friday, he went to the Deira or Karama Fish market, bought half-kilo Kingfish for seven dirhams. For dinner, he fried a fillet of fish and papaad and ate it with rice and dal, and some Mother’s Recipe lime pickle. For lunch, he ate the leftovers. The Agent spent another fifty dirhams on the occasional movie, or sometimes on Friday Thalis at one of the Karama restaurants—Venus or Saravan Bhavan. Sometimes Bina accompanied him; they ate curries, puries, rice, and dessert—an all-you-can-eat deal—for just ten dirhams. It was less than the price of some of the coffees her Memsahib bought—a Starbucks or Dome coffee for twelve dirhams each. Bina couldn’t imagine why people would spend so much for a cup of coffee. “One hundred and fifty rupees for a coffee! That would feed my family for a week,” she said. A two-dirham cup of Instant Nescafe was good enough for Bina and her Agent.
She envied the smiling Punjabi couple’s wealth: the heavy bags they brought back home bulging with shopping: Liz Claiborne clothes, Clark Shoes, Debenham and Armani ties and shirts; Memsahib bought Clinique Anti-aging serum, Lancôme face masks, and Paloma Picasso perfume for more than two hundred dirhams each. Bina knew the disparity of her sponsor’s existence was a fact of life: being their dependent was better than being independent in a hot mud hut with dry chapattis and lentils to eat. But with all their money, the Sahib and Memsahib didn’t seem very happy. They squabbled constantly, doors would bang, and most nights they slept in separate rooms. Bina didn’t really sympathize with Memsahib. The Sahib was nicer than Father: he didn’t beat Memsahib and didn’t make her pregnant all the time.
Bina worked very hard for her sponsors and tried to please them as much as she could.   But she feared that her job continued to depend on Agent-Uncle’s recommendations: he cleaned the Kapoor’s four-wheel Pajero and BMW and did odd jobs for them, like bringing the suitcases down from the attic for Memsahib and fixing their light bulbs. They were very fond of him, and gave him the Sahib’s old shirts, complimentary watches, money, and shoes.

           Despite Agent-Uncle’s scrupulousness and the infrequency of their surreptitious encounters, safe sex proved not always safe. A condom ruptured: Agent-Uncle held it up under the flickering tube-light and they watched it leak.
A month later it started, the nausea and the fatigue.
Agent-Uncle tried to persuade Bina to abort the baby in India. “Abortion is very illegal here. Just yesterday they put a doctor in prison for a year. After that,  she will be deported to Iraq! The doctor was making abortions in her apartment and clinic in Karama. She charged four thousand dirhams for one abortion. And anyway, who can afford that!”
When Bina started to cry, Agent-Uncle grew more conciliatory. “I’ll marry you. You must be patient. Tell the Kapoors there’s a family emergency. They’ll give you a ticket home.”  Before he shut the front door behind him, he said, “You mustn’t trouble me about this anymore. Maybe your nail tore the condom. I have worries of my own.”
Almost imperceptibly Agent-Uncle’s ardor began to cool. When they ate at Bombay Chowpatty in the Lamcy food court, he watched Spiderman on the plasma TV screen or flicked through the Gulf News as men from the subcontinent in red T-shirts stacked brown trays on steel trolleys and wiped tables. Bina drank masala chai and watched flickering lights reflecting off squares of mosaic, children squabbling around one-dirham gumball machines. “There’s war in Iraq,” Agent-Uncle said. Bina didn’t know where Iraq was, but she’d heard of America. “George Bush,” he pointed,  “Saddam Hussein.”
In the maid’s room, on weekday mornings, Bina patiently kissed Agent-Uncle’s pear-shaped stomach and chubby legs. She needed to thaw the coldness that sheathed Agent-Uncle, thin as the sheath he’d stopped putting on himself. He had to marry her: Bina wanted her child. Tirelessly, she sought to please him—tried to be inventive and enthusiastic, all the while thinking of the new mutton recipe that Memsahib had taught her or how Memsahib’s baby swung her hands and hips when she heard nursery rhymes or Hindi film songs.
As the weeks passed, Bina’s stomach began to show beneath the loose kurtas that she now wore. Agent-Uncle grew increasingly panicky and angry; he told the Sahib that Bina’s father was very ill and she needed to make a visit to Agra. The Punjabi couple believed him and comforted her. They booked her ticket, bought her a suitcase, and filled it with clothes, fabric, deodorants, soaps, halwa, dates, and saris.
Memsahib hugged her tightly the evening before her flight. They’d miss her, she said. The baby would miss her. “You’re a good maid,” she said. “We’ve bought you a round trip ticket to Delhi and back. Please return.”
“I have to come back.”  Bina slipped her sandals in a Spinney’s plastic bag and dropped it into her suitcase. “I must pay back Agent-Uncle for my earlier ticket.”
Memsahib stared at her. “What ticket? We paid for your ticket and visa. We also reimbursed your Uncle generously for all his efforts in finding us a good maid.”
“I meant my ticket from Agra to Delhi,” Bina said quickly, not looking at Memsahib. She could feel her face go hot and sweaty; she could hear her heart pounding.
For a moment Memsahib said nothing. Then she placed the pile of folded saris in Bina’s suitcase, and said, “If you need anything while you’re in Agra, please call me. You’re part of our family.”
Bina looked away to hide the tears that filled her eyes. Memsahib seemed to mean what she’d said, but Bina was not sure. Memsahib liked people quickly, but seemed to forget them when they were not around; Bina had seen her do that with her office friends who resigned and went away: to Australia or England or Pakistan; with her parents who lived in Chandigarh and her brother who lived in Hong Kong.
Her last night in Dubai, Bina lay awake. She could not understand how Agent-Uncle had lied to her, just as she could not understand how Mother and Father killed Third Sister. She wondered if she hated the Agent as much as she hated Father and Mother; she wondered if she loved the Agent as much as she loved Father and Mother. Agent-Uncle was the first man Bina had loved. He was the only man who’d touched her. How could she forget him? Sometimes she’d felt safe when he put his arms around her, stroked her hair and back, and let her sleep against his chest. And Agent-Uncle was the father of her child. Maybe that’s why she’d lied to Memsahib: Bina didn’t him to want to him lose his job; she didn’t want to cause him harm. But she didn’t know if she wanted to see him again.
That night, Bina longed for Third Sister and wondered where she was. Had Third Sister left the Earth Plane? Or was she still in Father’s home in Agra? Had Third Sister forgotten Bina? Bina missed her two younger sisters and brother in Agra. But she had always loved Third Sister best.
The next morning, before Bina left for the Airport, Agent-Uncle came to see her. He slipped an envelope into her hand with the phone number of his friend in Delhi and a five hundred dirham note. He had written in Hindi beneath the phone number:
Come back quickly, my Dil ki Rani. Don’t be sad. I wish I could come with you. God willing, we will be married and have another child soon.

           Bina arrived in Delhi and didn’t contact Agent-Uncle’s friend. Nor did she travel to Agra; she didn’t want to see Father and Mother. She wrote a letter to her sisters at her friend Pallavi’s address; she also sent them a draft for two thousand rupees.
Bina slept in a plastic tent near a construction site in Kaka Nagar, near the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. “You’re beautiful. Young. Why don’t you become a prostitute? There’s money in that,” the other women who lived at the construction site said.
An auto-rickshaw boy arranged an appointment with a Bihari doctor who lived in a ground floor flat near Tilak Bridge. The Doctor agreed to see Bina before the clinic officially opened in the morning; he said that he’d abort the child for a thousand rupees. The boy told Bina that the Doctor might charge less if he found her pretty enough.
The night before she went to see the Doctor, Bina called Agent-Uncle. She asked him if she could keep the baby, give it to an adoption agency or something. He said the shame would be too much. The news might spread. His parents would never accept her as his wife. Trust me, my janaam, my darling, he said. She had to be patient and believe in his love. Their savings were increasing. He was cleaning more cars. He’d used their joint account money as down-payment for a plot of land near Faridabad.
“I’ll give you good discount,” the doctor said the next morning, fingering his handlebar moustache that stretched almost across his cheeks.
Bina lay back on the bed. Outside it began to rain. This year the rains were late: 1,100 people had already died of drought and heat; on dried lakebeds, children played and villagers offered prayers for rain. The baby turned and kicked. It was still alive. The doctor had not begun. Not with the scooping out bit.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” Bina said, sitting up suddenly.
“It’s a very easy procedure. Nothing to get worried about. After this appointment, come and visit me again. Next time who knows, I’ll pay you,” the doctor said, returning to his desk, shifting his wife and children’s framed photograph to the side and playing with his ballpoint pen.
In the bathroom, Bina looked at her face that looked like someone else. Through the open window, she heard the street vendors pushing their carts, dogs barking, a scooter start, and a man blowing his nose. “All these years, I’ve waited for a mother who will love me,” Third Sister said suddenly, hiccupping, elbows pushing, feet kicking.
Heart filled with air like the stem of a free-floating water hyacinth, Bina draped on her sari, opened the side door and walked out into a street edged with light. She saw men and women, steel katoris in hand, squat on the railway tracks, a boy in a tattered shirt rummaging through garbage, and a school bus hurtling by. Bina rested her hand on her distended belly, turned her face upwards, and drank the rain.

Stephen Bremner

Lit-Mag #42 – The Arabian World

The Backpacker’s Tale

‘How long have you been travelling?’
There it was again, that question, the backpacker’s mantra. How quickly people sought to establish their credentials. At first Tom had found it irritating, almost threatening, and would try and ignore it, to treat it as an empty greeting. Not that this ever deterred anybody. He was reminded of his first week at university, being endlessly pestered by acne-ravaged adolescents eager to tell him their A-level grades. And now here he was on the Khao San Road, being put to the test once more. On a couple of occasions he’d attempted to somehow imply that Bangkok was the latest in a series of exotic destinations, but had ended up instead having to provide excuses for his English pallor. With every passing day, though, he felt more confident in fielding this enquiry.
He looked at the man sitting diametrically opposite, who had an unlit cigarette in one hand, an empty glass smeared with fingerprints in front of him. He seemed oblivious to the flies buzzing around its rim. ‘About three weeks?’ Tom offered. Not quite true: he’d gone back to England after spending twelve days with his parents in their house in Brittany, and then flown out here. ‘Just getting going really.’
The man nodded slowly, as though he had known this all along. ‘Yeah, it takes a while. It takes a while.’ He nodded again. Tom noticed his hair, which appeared to be woven from old rope. ‘Me?’ he said, although Tom hadn’t spoken. ‘I’ve been on the road for ten months now. More than ten months.’
On the road. This suggested movement, purpose – not the mantle of torpor that seemed to have settled on this man. ‘Where have you been?’ asked Tom. He couldn’t disregard the rules of dialogue completely, and anyway, this was the first person he’d spoken to all day, apart from a couple of waiters. The man fingered his glass wistfully, as if it contained part of his story.
‘Do you want a drink?’ After the best part of two weeks with his parents, Tom’s sense of social duty was finely tuned, almost automatic.
‘Yeah, thanks man. A beer. Singha.’
Eventually a waiter brought over a couple of Singha beers. Why had he ordered this? He still hadn’t got used to its chemical taste.


           ‘Cheers.’ The man clinked his bottle with Tom’s, a deft wrist movement enabling contact both at the neck and the base. What was that about? ‘That’s how they do it in East Germany,’ he explained. Even this seemed like a challenge of some sort. Tom had seen travellers drifting in and out all day, and watched their interactions, witnessed clumsy high five rituals and other more complex and arcane manoeuvres that passed for greetings. There seemed to be so much to learn.
‘Did you say East Germany?’ This didn’t seem to be an obvious avenue for the conversation to go down. It didn’t even exist now.
But the man appeared to be unswayed from his original agenda. ‘Ten months.’ Now he shook his head: it was almost as if he needed to convince himself that this was what he had done. ‘Yeah. I was in India for a couple of months. Sri Lanka, too. Laos…Vietnam. Been here a while, too. This is some place, man.’ He looked slowly around him with an expression of subdued awe. Did he mean the café? Tom wondered. It was fairly unremarkable. ‘Yeah, this is some place.’ The man was about to enlarge on this, but paused to take one of the two beers that had mysteriously arrived at their table. They hadn’t been drinking particularly fast – it was more that the man had taken ages to divulge even this meagre amount of information: he seemed to be functioning in slow motion.
‘So you were in India.’ Tom still hadn’t abandoned the idea that the conversation might be in some way interactive.
‘Yeah. The south east – Tamil Nadu. The monsoon’s different down there. It’s pretty cool.’ Again Tom wasn’t sure what he was referring to. ‘Chennai, Mamallapuram, Ooty, Pondicherry, Rameswaram, Madurai.’
‘Madurai?’ He’d never heard of the place. Or any of the others for that matter.
‘Yeah…yeah. Madurai…It’s kind of…’ He nodded once more. ‘I got this there.’ He stretched across the table.
Tom looked at the proffered hand: a thin scab behind the two central knuckles, a fraying bracelet of braided string, and what looked like an ink stain, although it could at a pinch have been a tattoo. ‘Cool,’ he said. But he sounded as if he was describing the weather.
For nearly two hours Tom listened and grunted in counterpoint to the man’s nods and claims. And yet what emerged from this extensive debriefing was a sense of void, a lack of substance – he wasn’t sure if he had even been listening. He had found himself looking around the café, wondering whether interaction with this wispy man represented progress. Was this really better than being on his own? He tuned back in: ‘…And she said to me: “Robbie, there’s no way you’ll get one for less than ninety rupees – no way”.’
Robbie. That was probably his name – he hadn’t introduced himself, but his narrative seemed to consist largely of these self-referential set pieces, for the most part involving his triumphs over greedy traders and obstructive bureaucrats. And when Robbie wasn’t defeating the forces that were out to ruin things for the honest traveller, he was finding ever more intrepid ways of making his way from place to place. Everything is tricky, he seemed to be saying, and yet Tom had seen the numerous travel agents offering tickets to almost any destination you could think of. It all looked disappointingly straightforward. He turned back to Robbie, who was looking at him expectantly. As he weighed up possible responses – somehow he had slowed to the same lethargic pace as Robbie – he noticed a girl enter the café. He had the sudden sense that the world had fallen silent; he was no longer aware of anything except this extraordinary creature floating through the room.
If there was an antithesis to his edgy, journal-clutching shuffle, the faux nonchalance of his café performance, this was it: although the girl could have been no older than him, she exuded a composure, a self-containment that embodied everything he aspired to. He glanced away, his face hot with discomfort. It was suddenly appallingly stuffy in the café. He lunged at the newly arrived bottle of Singha – was this number four or five? – nearly knocking it over in his haste. Robbie looked at him with something approaching curiosity. ‘You all right, man?’


           Tom was not particularly surprised that he found himself paying for all the beer – he couldn’t even remember what evasive strategy Robbie had resorted to. He was too preoccupied with the girl, torn between wanting to stay so that he could observe her, however obliquely, and the feeling that being with Robbie – who was now discoursing on the various tropical ailments he had overcome – would reduce him in her eyes. Not that she had noticed him.
Later, once he had recorded the hole that the afternoon had ripped into his budget, he tried to describe her in his journal. This was more a crutch than anything else, providing a veneer of purpose in bars and cafes. It still retained its tell-tale sheen, its crisp pages. As a literary document, though, it was a pretty dismal affair, a prosaic chronicle of non-event. But here was an opportunity to change all that, to rise above the quotidian.
‘Saw a girl in a café this afternoon,’ he wrote. What was he going to say about her? ‘Slim, tanned…’ He was reminded of his own pallor, the hallmark of his fledgling status as a traveller. He had hoped that his time in Brittany would give him the beginnings of a tan, but it had rained almost incessantly, confining him to the damp living room, where his father would read out crossword clues and then solve them, endlessly surprised by his own promptness, while his mother tutted and sighed at the grey sky outside.
This wasn’t getting him very far. He’d never been particularly convincing when it came to being positive – his enthusiasm always sounded doubtful. ‘Yeah, it was great.’ ‘He’s a really nice guy.’ ‘It’s delicious.’ He could hear the vapid phrases rattling around emptily. It was even more difficult on paper. Describing misery was so much easier. He fell asleep before he could get any further though, waking with a still powerful image of the girl.


           Tom felt unconscionably hungry. Not so surprising, given that he hadn’t eaten since yesterday lunchtime – he had somehow sensed he would have ended up paying for Robbie’s food too. His budget was already shot to pieces. He wandered along the Khao San Road, looking for somewhere to have breakfast. As if there was any great difference between these places – they all served the same stuff. But what he knew, even if he wasn’t prepared to admit it to himself officially, was that he was hoping to see the girl. The only person he recognized, though, as he trawled up and down, consulting endlessly identical menus, was Robbie, leaning forward and displaying whatever he had picked up in – What was the place called? Madara? – to some luckless traveller.
As he was leaving the café he had finally settled on, he caught sight of himself in a large mirror: again it struck him how pale he looked, as if he had spent the last six months writing poetry in an igloo. He wandered over towards the King’s Palace – he could sit in the sun for a bit, maybe pick up a bit of colour. Of course the beach would be a better place to get a tan, but Tom didn’t feel ready to head out into the unknown.

           When he woke, it was with a headache of indescribable dimensions. How often he had derided people who had ‘a migraine coming on’, ‘a pounding hangover’ – he had always thought of himself as impervious to such weakness. But this was something else: a searing light penetrated his eyelids, his skin felt as if it had been shrink-wrapped onto his head. And… Christ, was that the time? How long had he been asleep? Three hours? Maybe more.
It was only when he got back to his room that he began to appreciate the full effects of his midday nap in the glare of the sun: no amount of water was able to quench his thirst, even though he could feel it audibly sloshing around in his stomach. Much worse though, were the visuals: the removal of his tee-shirt suggested that an alien head had been grafted onto his body, a head that – in colour at least – resembled a ketchup dispenser in a motorway café. What would she think? The girl, that is – he was already in regular conversation with her on a range of topics and experiences, despite never having met her. But of course he couldn’t possibly go out looking like this. Certainly not during daylight.
For two days he crept out in the evenings in search of food, like some nocturnal animal, hoping that that he wouldn’t bump into the girl in this sorry state. By now she would probably have moved on anyway: there wasn’t a great deal to keep people in Bangkok, as far as Tom could see. On the third day, his face now resembling the surface of one of the nearer planets – an uneven terrain of pink and brick – he ventured out in daylight, diary in hand.
‘Tom!’ He looked around. Who could this be? The only person he had spoken to in Bangkok, naturally. Robbie crossed the road. ‘Come and have a drink.’ Robbie was paying? It didn’t seem very likely, although he called the waiter over with the largesse of a rarely sighted uncle.
‘A bottle of Mekong, some coke… And four glasses,’ said Robbie. Four? Who else was coming? Tom followed Robbie’s gaze to see, with a mixture of consternation and exhilaration, the girl and what was presumably her travelling companion – Tom dimly recognised her – entering the café. She looked even more beautiful than before. He rubbed his forehead anxiously. A few flakes of grey skin drifted onto the table. ‘Helen… Rebecca…’ Robbie held a hand up as if admitting people into a tepee for peace talks. ‘Come and join us.’ The swift look that passed between the women, a split-second exchange, could not disguise their reluctance. ‘It’s my birthday.’ That explained a number of things, thought Tom, as they approached the table. At the end of his nose he could see a flap of parchment-like skin, an ongoing reminder of his extended doze in the park.
Tom wondered if it really was Robbie’s birthday, how old he was. But it would be absurd for Robbie to lie about this. Not that it mattered greatly: his announcement – they could hardly have said no – had ensnared these girls, for the time being at least. Bottles were brought to the table, saving the need to initiate conversation. Robbie poured out the drinks meticulously, an alchemist at work.
‘Mekong and coke.’ Robbie held his glass up to the light as if it was a goblet of some rare nectar. The others raised their glasses. Now what? Tom wondered. Again he felt at sea, a neophyte in the world of travellers’ ritual. But no particular ceremony appeared to attach itself to this moment. He sipped and almost gagged.
‘Great stuff, man.’ Robbie was in full nodding mode. Tom gazed down his nose at the dead skin that sat at its end, almost sail-like in its prominence. Wasn’t anybody going to say anything? Perhaps this seemingly reverential silence was the protocol here. But eventually Robbie spoke, leaning forward conspiratorially. ‘Yeah, this is great stuff, man.’
This was ridiculous. Tom swirled the contents of his glass experimentally. ‘It’s a bit like meths…Or maybe paint stripper.’ He sniffed the drink, wrinkling his nose like a snuffling rodent, watching with alarm as a flake of skin floated gently into the glass. What was this? What was he doing? But the girl nearly smiled. Encouraged, Tom introduced himself. But it seemed odd to be saying his name, an afterthought in an encounter that was already going nowhere. And this gambit was met with a strained smile, as though he had said something tasteless.
But it elicited the required response: ‘Helen…and Rebecca.’
‘Where you going from here?’ asked Robbie. He proceeded to elaborate his own plans: Ko Samui, Ko Phang An, Krabi, Penang. Over Robbie’s shoulder Tom could see more or less the same list in the window of a travel agency, prices inscribed alongside. And yet Robbie’s tone suggested a journey of untold danger and uncertainty.
The girl – was she Helen or Rebecca? – again attempted a smile of sorts, but it seemed more like a sigh, this hybrid expression somehow dismissing Robbie’s tired itinerary. She turned to Tom. ‘What about you?’
What was the right answer? He could hardly repeat the same list, even though those were the places that he too had been planning to visit. ‘I think I’ll go to Chiang Mai…Spend a few days there…See what happens,’ he said, each phrase slow and ponderous. He was beginning to sound like Robbie. ‘And you?’ He braced himself for the answer, knowing that it would be palpably better than anything that he or Robbie could come up with.
‘We’re going to Ko Surin…’ He’d never heard of the place. ‘Up towards the Burmese border. It’s a protected area.’ Protected from what? How do you get there? Is it popular? he wanted to ask, but thought better of it. Perhaps Robbie could help out here.
‘Yeah,’ said Robbie, nodding once more and busying himself with the bottles.
‘Is that on the west coast?’ The stupidity of his question hit him even as he said it. You fucking halfwit, he thought, taking a huge swig of Mekong. He wiped a streak of dribble from his chin.
The girl looked at her watch. ‘Mm…But we’re not going to stay around here much longer.’ Tom felt his heart clench up and then do a little back flip. Christ. What was this? What was happening to him?
‘No,’ said her companion. It was the first time she’d spoken. ‘There’s too many people in Thailand. We’re heading out soon. Aren’t we, Helen?’ Where to? Can I come? Tom rubbed his forehead, itchy with dead skin. At least he knew who was who now.
‘Yeah, we’re going to Cambodia. And maybe Laos,’ said Helen. ‘But after that I’d like to go to Africa. Do something a bit different. Asia’s getting overrun.’ It was as if she was describing an infestation of greenfly among her tomato plants.
‘Africa,’ Robbie intoned in a deep voice, like the front man in a reggae ensemble. For a brief moment his coiled, matted hair made sense. ‘Whereabouts you thinking of going, man?’
‘Kenya, maybe Uganda…Tanzania…Zanzibar…’
‘Zanzibar?’ Tom savoured the exotic sound. ‘Fantastic.’ He shook his head – quite why he wasn’t sure. At least he hadn’t nodded.
Helen – he was pretty sure that this was her name now – looked at him with some interest. ‘Why? Have you been there?’
Had he just said that? Had he really just said that? Now he’d have to say something else. ‘Yeah…yeah…one of the best places I’ve been.’ He ignored Robbie’s inquiring expression.
‘But this is great – you’ll have to tell us all about it. Where did you go? How did you get there? Did you get a dhow over?’
Tom felt a huge surge of panic shooting through his body. Now what? ‘Yeah…yeah, that was quite an experience, I can tell you.’ Was that the right answer? The right number of tentative ‘yeahs’? The appropriate degree of archness? ‘You twat,’ he thought. He sounded breathless, like a presenter on children’s television.
‘Was it expensive?’ That was Rebecca – why was it that the first thing people wanted to know was how much everything cost? (‘You went to the Taj Mahal? Do foreigners pay the same as locals?’ Or: ‘Angkor Wat? Don’t you have to get a taxi out there? How much was that?’) How many of these exchanges he had overheard. But he hadn’t answered her question. ‘I suppose we had to haggle them down a bit.’
Now Rebecca was nodding. Clearly he had said the right thing, but he was pretty certain that he couldn’t sustain this for much longer. And he could sense everyone looking at him, expecting…expecting what? Information? Stories?
‘Did you go diving? I heard that it wasn’t bad up by Nungwi…Not as good as Pemba, obviously.’ Helen was utterly, utterly stunning – and she was looking straight at him. But what on earth was she asking him?
Tom wondered whether anyone would notice him flushing beneath the cratered landscape of his sunburnt face. He looked at his watch – 9.40. ‘Actually I’ve got to go now. I’m meeting someone…At…um….twenty to ten…Anyway, nice to meet you all.’ Even Robbie looked sceptical as he stood to go.
But as he turned towards the door, Helen spoke. ‘Listen, I’d really like to chat to you about Zanzibar. You’re the first person I’ve met who’s actually been there…Most people just talk about going there.’
‘No, it’s definitely worth visiting.’ He noticed the swell of her breasts for the first time.
‘Will you still be in Bangkok tomorrow, Tom?’ She knew his name. Amazing. His heart somersaulted wildly, a manoeuvre that defied categorization. ‘We could meet up for…’
‘Yeah…yes…That’d be good.’
‘Here? Eightish?’
‘Yeah, that’d be fine.’
‘Great,’ said Robbie, examining his empty glass thoughtfully.
Tom stumbled out into the night, almost knocking a small Thai man flying in his bid to get away from the scene of his extraordinary claim. Now what? he thought as he weaved along the pavement. What had got into him? How was he going to get out of this? But it was obvious really – he would have to leave Bangkok that night. How could he possibly spend an evening telling someone – someone he found breathtakingly attractive – about a place he had never visited, that he knew more or less nothing about?
Where would he go? There was no shortage of suggestions – the whole area was overrun with travel agencies. He wandered into one at random. Where do you want to go? asked the man behind the desk. Ko Samui? Krabi? Chiang Mai? Maybe Pattaya? he hazarded.
‘Chiang Mai?’ said Tom, a little antipodean upturn in his voice, an attempt to reassure himself rather than a genuine question. It was after all where he had told the girl he was going. But what was he thinking – that she’d follow him up there? Hardly likely – not once he’d stood her up the following night. The bus would be leaving the next morning.
He made his way slowly back to his guest house, zigzagging among the travellers, occasionally catching his mottled image in café and shop windows, again wondering why he wasn’t heading south to the beaches. He wanted to lie in the sun, to get a tan – somehow he thought this would protect him from the vague, unarticulated threat that other people seemed to present. He was about to cross the road when he saw Helen and her friend – what was her name? – browsing through a stack of books for sale on the pavement. Tom hesitated, but as he teetered on the kerb Helen looked up, and fixed him a dazzling smile of recognition. For a second his peripheral vision dimmed and blurred – all he could see was the image of Helen, her shirt rippling in the light breeze, seemingly beckoning to him, like someone in an advertisement for hair conditioner, or some coconut derivative. But when he refocused he saw that she was pointing at her watch, mouthing ‘Eight tomorrow?’ accompanied by a thumbs-up gesture. And again that smile. His bowels gave a loose gurgle.
Did she like him, or was it the ‘fact’ that he had been to Zanzibar that interested her? Tom shuddered, imagining the conversation, his admission that he hadn’t actually been there. But as he passed another café – ‘Internet available’ – an idea occurred to him. Pushing the door open, he found a free monitor and sat down. ‘www.lonelyplanet.com’ he typed, and proceeded to click his way to Zanzibar.
‘Low in political coups and high in bliss-charged activities, the Zanzibar Archipelago is a mere hop, skip and a jump from the Tanzanian mainland,’ he read. ‘Zanzibar island (known locally as Unguja) gets most of the headlines, but the archipelago also consists of lush Pemba to the north, and numerous smaller islands and islets.’ Pemba. So that was what Helen had been talking about. On it went: ‘If coral islands poised in luxuriously turquoise seas, the labyrinthine streets of Stone Town, fecund land and plenty of undiscovered pockets fail to entice you, it’s time you headed home!’ It sounded idyllic. By the time he had trawled through the website, trying to memorise as much as he could, Tom was beginning to feel that he should be going there too. But there were several lacunae, as far as he was concerned: under the heading ‘Money and costs’, for example, all he could find was the bald statement ‘Inflation here is at 5.1%’. This wouldn’t have a great deal of meaning for Helen, though – 5.1% of what?
For much of the night he lay awake, wondering whether he might go through with his new scheme, or whether he would get onto the bus for Chiang Mai. At various points it seemed that both options had their appeal, while at other times the downside of each appeared to be illuminated in neon on the ceiling. But when he woke up, exhausted by this gruelling internal debate, one choice had been removed: the bus had departed some two hours earlier. He wondered if he could get a refund, perhaps get a later bus, or – even better – take a bus to the south.
But somehow he found himself making his way towards the café at the designated hour, reciting facts about Zanzibar under his breath as he negotiated the busy pavements. He was looking a bit better, more tanned than burnt now, but he didn’t feel particularly confident. Part of him hoped that Helen wouldn’t be there, that it had been a casual suggestion, never intended to happen. But his worst fears – and greatest hopes – were fulfilled: she was at the same table as the previous night. It was almost as if she had never moved, that she had been waiting patiently all this time for his briefing on the African island. This sense was reinforced by the fact that sitting at the same table were both Rebecca and Robbie. ‘Fuck off out of my life, you cretinous throwback!’ Tom wanted to shout at Robbie. ‘What’s the point of you?’ But he sat down meekly, as if about to be interviewed for a job.
And as it was, Robbie opened the proceedings. ‘Zanzibar,’ he said portentously. ‘Yeah, that’s where it’s at, man.’ Again Tom wanted to shout abuse at him, to punch him – perhaps a couple of jabs to the kidneys, and then a huge blow to the nose. He was quite small.
‘Yes…Tell us about it, Tom. I’ve never met anyone who’s been there,’ said Helen, flagging the lie once more.
‘The locals call it Unguja,’ he offered, stalling for time. Why would they want to know that? But everybody nodded – not just Robbie this time – and Tom suddenly realized how easy this could be. They obviously knew next to nothing about the place. ‘It’s got everything, Zanzibar – turquoise seas, labyrinthine streets…undiscovered pockets…’ What was he on about? But at least he hadn’t used the word ‘fecund’.
And then came the inevitable question, courtesy of Rebecca. ‘Is it expensive? I mean…How much does everything cost?’
‘I seem to remember someone saying that inflation was around 5%…5.1%, I think.’
Helen looked at him curiously. This wouldn’t do. ‘You can get a beer for a couple of dollars,’ he continued. This appeared to have some resonance – with Robbie, anyway. ‘And a pretty decent curry for three dollars.’ (Would they have curry in Zanzibar? It didn’t seem very likely) ‘Fresh fish for about the same…Perhaps a little more,’ he added, beginning to sound plausible, even to himself. And with this mention of fish he found himself moving to a higher plane of invention. ‘And of course the diving’s fantastic. You can’t really compare it to other places.’ This at least was true in his case.
But his last comment had some effect. ‘You dive?’ said Helen, a sparkle of curiosity evident.
‘Yeah, a bit,’ said Tom bashfully. What did that mean? How could you dive ‘a bit’? Just put your head underwater for a couple of minutes?
‘Paddy? Beesack?’
Now what was going on? What on earth was she on about? Could he demand a time-out? What was the first one? ‘Paddy,’ he said, sounding more confident than the situation warranted.
‘Paddy? Oh, okay…I did beesack,’ said Helen.
What could this mean? Yet there was no doubt that he had hit the spot with her. Even the wildest fantasies he had played out over the preceding nights had not included this dewy-eyed gaze of excitement: he hadn’t thought to introduce diving into the equation – but for a fairly obvious reason. He needed to steer the conversation in another direction, though, before his flimsy identity fell to pieces completely. How much longer could he sustain this pretence? His next question hardly helped: ‘Do you dive, Robbie?’ He didn’t want to include Robbie, didn’t want him to be here – he wanted Helen all to himself. But if this hairy troglodyte could provide some form of diversion, a smokescreen of fatuity that Tom could hide behind while he considered his next move, then he could stay.
But Robbie remained firmly on topic: ‘Yeah, beesack.’
‘Beesack?’ Tom’s voice rose wildly in his panic. He sounded incredulous, outraged. Everybody looked at him.
‘Oh, you paddy people,’ said Rebecca, joining in for the first time.
Robbie huffed. ‘Owwh, we’re not going down this road, are we? Paddy, beesack… beesack, paddy. The number of times I’ve had this conversation…’ It was as if they were taunting him.
‘The coolest and driest time to visit is between late June and October, but this is also when the place is bulging at the seams and air fares are at their zenith,’ said Tom. There, that shut them up. His delivery was flat, monotone, like an utterance generated by a computer. Which it was, more or less – he had learnt this line word for word from the website.
‘When did you go, Tom?’ asked Helen, apparently putting aside – for the moment, anyway – the paddy-beesack debate.
‘Me?’ said Tom, implying with his squawk that this question bordered on prurient intrusion, although touched by her use of his name. He tried to recall the months of the year. ‘Um…’ His mind was a total blank now. He looked around for inspiration. ‘Good Lord!’ he shouted. ‘That’s William!’ And charged out into the street, suddenly aware that he was dripping with sweat. William? Who had friends called William? That was the name of his parents’ cat, for God’s sake.
Now what? He couldn’t keep running off like this. And – oh God – he hadn’t paid for his drinks.
About an hour later he found himself in front of a computer, far from the scene of his latest escape. ‘PADI. Professional Association of Diving Instructors,’ he muttered, gazing at the screen. And a minute later: ‘BSAC. British Sub-Aqua Club.’

S. A. Boyd

Lit-Mag #42 – The Arabian World

The Last Days of the Raj


           He stands tall and flaccid among his boxes and bags. He is shirtless and sallow and his shorts hang low on his ass. He searches for something, scans the floor while wiping his face with an old t-shirt. ‘Turn on the air. What time is it?’
‘Aircon’s broken,’ she says. She sucks her cigarette and turns a page of the newspaper. ‘Eleven almost. You gonna to miss the plane. I tell you pack last night.’
He bends and rummages. ‘I thought I put it on the dining table. Did you move anything?’
He stands and wipes again. ‘Damn the thing! I wanted to read it on the plane.’
‘I tell you last night…’
‘Yes, you told me. And then you started into the gin and shrieking and went to bed. We said we wouldn’t do that. You said you’d help.’
You said, not me. Why I should help?’
He frowns at the floor. ‘I guess I’d have packed all of it by now if I’d really wanted to take it. I’ll let Anthony have it… but hang on, what’s this?’ He picks up a small embroidered cushion. ‘Got this in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh,’ he says, pointing at the face stitched into the fabric.
He hears the tone, trying to spur him. It’s working. ‘It’s called kitsch value. You wouldn’t understand.’
‘Means trash?’
He turns and looks down at her lying there on the divan, the furious grin and the tumbler of whiskey next to her. ‘You really want ugly? Last night wasn’t enough?’ She just sneers and says something sharp in her own language without looking up. He studies her: flat out, hung over, drunk, sour, gnashing her teeth like a goblin, brown skin yellowing from the cigs and this indoor air-conditioned living, the drape of black hair losing its lustre, crimping up into that brittle frazzled malnourished look. He’s seen it on a hundred old women peddling papayas in the wet market. Five more years with the smokes and whiskey and she’ll look like an old shrunken head or a voodoo doll. What happened to that lithe gyrating youngster he picked up in the Ayampu Fried Chicken restaurant not so many years ago? Only trace elements now, mostly down around the slim tight rump and in those hard-driving eyes, watching you, greedy, wanting everything. Oversexed and underfed was the category. It was that greedy look that always got him up, even when he knew she was just angling for a necklace or some shoes or a pricey Caesar salad down at Markett’s. It didn’t matter. He liked the idea of holding rewards in escrow until she came to where he was sitting with his fly undone. A fair trade; we’re all adults here. Lip-smacking greed and sharp black eyes looking at him, well aware of the game, telling him she’ll do anything, wants it all, and she got her share of necklaces and salads. It was always that look that held him when others cuter and with bigger tits were vying for his attention. But the whiskey and tobacco have sucked out the essential oils and now her greed looks desperate and her mouth is creased and grim. Then she started with the homey tenderness angle when she saw she was slipping, and that was it – everything went limp after that. Only her tail holds firm because she runs on the treadmill like a gerbil, but it is not enough. Of her own free she’s cured herself in sour mash and tobacco on that divan in the face of clear warnings from him, and now, soon, a light breeze will come and like a dried-up leaf you will float back down to Earth, back to Ayampu and the fried chicken stench you hated so much because it got into your hair and wouldnt come out, washing your hair twice a day in the tub to get it out, still smelling it up in your nostrils even when I told you it was all out. I felt sorry for you there in the tub like a sad little kid, crying about chicken fat. He looks at the crown of her bowed head reading the paper. He wants to stroke it, to bow down and kiss her gently and say he is sorry it had to go this way, but thinking of that scowl and tone she’s using now he isn’t sorry at all, so he doesn’t say it. Instead ‘So it goes…’ slips out absently and with a drone of unconscious thought like sleep talk that makes her look up from the newspaper and squint at him.
‘So what goes? Fuck off,’ she says with a backhand swipe at him like he’s a fly.
He puts palms up in truce and turns back to his luggage. He squashes the cushion into a bag. ‘There!’ He stands and looks at the remaining things. ‘There really are some nice pieces here,’ he says to no one, picking up a woven pencil case. ‘Bali. That first Ubud trip. It looks a bit touristy but it’s hand-woven. I should keep it. Or maybe you’d like to have it,’ he says, turning, asking himself what in hell he’s saying as he turns, but it’s too late – she’s heard the question.
She looks up, contemplates the pencil case, points with her cigarette and smirks. ‘Keep it for next one. You wrap it up nice, I bet she suck your cock,’ she says with a wink. ‘Keep it. You save fifty cents. You love that.’
The cheapskate implication was always a good starter. He can’t leave it alone. He wipes his face, drops the t-shirt on the floor and sighs. ‘No, Iris, I’d be leaving you with nothing, and I wouldn’t feel right about that.’ He tosses her the pencil case and then hurries away down the dark hall to the bedroom before she can find more words.
She watches him: roiling blubber in dirty shorts, the stinking fissure between the cheeks, the pocky pits and blemishes scattered up his slab of back, the halo of grey hair skirting a pink skull. Forty two years old, that, the end product of low-cost perversions in grimy Bangkok alleyways with filthy people and tainted substances long before they met, and after. She’s wondered more than once whether he didn’t have AIDS or syphilis to achieve that rot, that stench, now slipping away from her down the hall forever. Slipping away, not to return, not to be reeled back in, not in her present condition. ‘Nope,’ she says to her whiskey, swirling it, draining it down her throat. She throws the pencil case down the hall with a grunt and a spit.
She falls back on the divan, lights a new cigarette and then pans across the living room: polished hardwood floors and teak furniture, fixtures with dimmer switches that went down low in the evening for a warm candlelight effect, big screen TV and this divan for sipping wine and watching movies, the pair of them cosy with popcorn and slippers and sparkling wine and that warm safe glow, safe like she’d never been, a kind of clean heavenly peace for once, sleeping without frightened dreams, feeling almost at home – drunk and high and conflating the customer next to her with the pleasure of the moment, when really it was just the Cava and the duvet that were doing it. But she didn’t know that then, wanted to say something to him, bring him in, wanted to kiss without the tongue for once, hold his hand rather than his organ. Maybe she thought saying something clean and kind might de-grease things a little, give her just a little more reliable footing on the divan somehow. She doesn’t know exactly why, seems insane now, terrible strategy: he always sensed it was coming long before she’d opened her mouth. It was as if a still silence and the right temperature under the duvet set off an allergic reaction. He’d shift around and then take her hand and guide her fingers down under the duvet and say something filthy to stanch the glow and keep her cold, and then there was the time you went ahead and started saying it anyway and he just cut in and said he had to go for a piss, and when he came back he had his trousers off and he stood over you with a woozy leer and a nod. And you took it. ‘God, you did,’ she says with a wince, with her palm up and waving around the room as if to acknowledge the furniture and fixtures as witnesses.
She rolls her head and looks out at the wicker patio furniture and potted plants and the late-morning sun cutting across the balcony. She stands, walks slowly out to the balcony railing, looks down at the steaming jungle and the asphalt of the car park fourteen floors down, feels the air beginning to stir, a breeze blowing back her hair. She looks over the jungle canopy out to sea, looking into the breeze, looking at nothing. Her eyes widen and moisten, not in misery but in physical pain, struggling to accommodate nothing as it reams her like he used to do when he was in that rough guy mood. She grunts and swallows and blinks the water out of her eyes and wipes her cheeks with slaps. She bares her teeth at the sky, looks down the fourteen floors to her friend Anthony, an ant of a man from her village back home, down there washing a tenant’s car. She grunts at him, grits her teeth, grips the railing and steps forward, leans over while watching him bobbing down to the bucket. She wants to shriek down the fourteen floors and land on his head, but she stops herself, steps back, lets go of the railing and turns back. She picks up her tumbler from the coffee table, goes to the bar and takes slow deep breaths while sloshing a final Glen Livet into the tumbler, laughing a little, laughing at nothing and wiping hair out of her eyes. ‘Ayampu,’ she says, taking up the tumbler and strolling out to the balcony with empty eyes.
He steps into the shower. ‘Where did you put that damned book, idiot?!’ He needs to calm his nerves. He squirts conditioner into his palm. He remembers the time, strokes quickly, leans against the wall tiles and watches it drip to the floor and slip into the drain with the soap and water. He rinses and twists the tap, pulls back the curtain and sees no towel hanging off the wall hook. ‘Iris! I need a towel!’ He stands there dripping in the cubicle. He glances at the mirror hanging on the back of the door. The daylight’s too bright in here and the mirror is almost full-length. The raw light shows the contours of the flab and the varicose veins. It’s too much in the morning. But in the evening that mirror was always a pleasure. He could adjust the dimmer switches for best effect. He’d slip into the Jim Thompson silk robe. He had a little twinkle in the eyes in the evening, something a little mischievous, cocktail and a smoke in hand, light jazz drifting down from the living room, his cock hanging lower, warm, pleased, feeling good, liking life, swinging around the flat. Things always got a little horny in the evening in the robe. He sticks his tongue out at the mirror, tries for a grin, and then shouts. ‘IRIS! A TOWELLLL! for fuck’s sake please.’
He hears those little feet padding down the hall, little feet forever bringing something. ‘I have to bloody well hurry up here, Iris!’ She holds the towel with both hands, like hotel staff. He takes it and turns away to dry off. At first it feels only as if she’s punched him hard. He jerks up straight. ‘What the hell!’ but as he turns she does it again, and this time he feels a deep gutting gouge up under the ribs, and now he can see the knife as she pulls away, the big chef’s knife, German stainless, a hundred dollars worth of knife that he told her never to touch so it wouldn’t get nicked, and he slips and cracks his head on the wall and then the floor, and he’s down and gasping and looking up at the knife.
She surprises herself. She comes forward again. He squeals at her to stop as she sticks two high up in his guts as hard as she can and then takes a swipe at his scrotum as she pulls back. The blood spills out in waves like it’s sloshing out of a bucket. She watches for a moment, shocked by the flood and the way he just dropped like a sack of potatoes, easy as that. Then she turns and runs.
He rolls his head and sees her go, watches a child running, his greedy woman-child running off with his expensive knife and his important blood. ‘Iris!’ he hears himself say but can’t raise it to a scream. He rolls onto his back and looks up to the dripping spigot and the tap, wheezing, trying to shout but only hooting and rasping and waving at the steel fixtures coated in lime scale and the mildewed grouting that was snow white when he moved in. He’s giddy and wet and cold, and second sight comes as he coughs and his head rolls over to the corner and eyes begin to glaze and he sees her tiny frame trembling out in the living room. He wants to hug and strangle her. ‘Ah Jesus, Iris,’ he says to the tiles. And then he sees his book, right there snug where he packed it last night just before bed so he wouldn’t forget it in the rush to the airport and dealing with Lin. And now he realises. He arches and heaves one last time to fill his collapsed lungs for a final redemption.
‘In the vest! Iris!’

            She sits at the dining room table, smoking a cigarette and waiting. She washed herself and put the knife in a pot of water to boil, unlocked the door and now waits for Anthony or Lin. She closes her eyes and bathes in the rush of whiskey, lets the shock and the shudders subside. She’s heard not a sound since that one awful gurgling shriek, and she won’t go back in for another look at what she knows is no longer moving. She fondles her cigarette and watches it quiver, sets it in the ashtray and goes to the bar for another whiskey. She hears the faint ding and slide of elevator doors and then Anthony’s quick knocks. ‘It’s open,’ she says in their dialect, and he pops his head in around the door. He looks around the room and squints at her as she sits again with her whiskey and takes up her cigarette. He raises his hands and eyebrows in a plea for information.
She says, ‘It’s okay. He’s gone.’
He creeps in and closes the door. He sees all the luggage and boxes on the floor and looks again at her, whispering, ‘Where?’
She waves at the hall door. ‘In there.’
He comes nearer. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘Go on. It’s okay.’
He goes to the door and eases it open. He can see down the long dark hallway to the bright lit bathroom at the end. The door is ajar and he can see the shower and the body wet and flat out with one foot hanging over the stall’s ledge. He inches forward, squinting with his mouth hanging slack. He goes a little further forward and can see the flood of blood pooled around. And then he sees the scrotum half severed, turns away and grunts and then looks again. He goes as far as the doorway and then stops, cocks his ear toward the stall, then steps into the room, closer, down touching the chest with his palm for a moment, then he stands again and stares while wiping his palm on his coveralls and backing away into the hall. He closes the door, holds the knob in the darkness and looks into the gloom of the master bedroom. Then he turns and runs back down the hall to her. He screams in a whisper. ‘You were going to take some cash and come down! It was over! You said!’
She just waves her hand as if to brush him away, lifts her cigarette from the tray and looks out the window.
‘You know what they’re going to do to us?!’
She waves again and smokes.
‘What happened!’
‘What happened?’
‘Were you fighting?’
‘Just being ourselves,’ she says. ‘It was a parting gesture.’
His bug eyes take in her leisure, the crossed legs and the poise and what looks now like a mild smile. He opens his mouth but nothing comes out. He shuts it again and watches the smoke curl off the cigarette up to nowhere in the still air, rising and swirling in the lampshade above her head. Still she won’t look at him. He clutches his head like he’s trying to plug leaks from his ears. He rakes his scalp with his nails. ‘God DAMN you, Iris. You god damned …!’ and then bows his head. He squats down close to her, ‘Could anyone have heard it?’
She blinks at the sky. ‘He shouted once, after I came out.’ She draws on her cigarette and considers it. ‘I think he said Invest.
She shrugs. ‘Always about money with him,’ she says with a definite smile now.
He reaches to grab her by the throat but then he stops and stands again. He wipes his face, takes a gulp of her whiskey and studies that frozen calm, tries to imagine those little hands doing it. Still she gazes away out the door. He drops onto a chair, drops his hands in his lap and looks back to the hall door. ‘It’s done. It’s done! Isn’t it? Dead. Dead! Doesn’t matter what I do now,’ he says. She flicks ash and scratches her nose. He stands again and circles the chair and looks at the door once more, takes a long breath. He releases his words softly and slowly as if patiently instructing an idiot: ‘Nobody’s around right now…. I go get Lin… We get him out of here…’
‘You’re not really angry, are you,’ she says, turning to him for the first time, reading in his kind, oily brown pock-marked face the same thing she hears in his voice.
He turns, looks and purses his lips as if he’s holding back from spitting on her. ‘Dump the whiskey and wake up. I’ll get Lin.’

           They washed him off in the shower and slid him like a wet seal down the hall into the living room and rolled him up in the rug. Anthony got the big luggage trolley from the storage room in the basement and they heaved him on. Lin went ahead and got the lift doors open, went down to the car park and got his van backed up against the lobby entrance. They brought him down and rolled him into the van. Iris stayed behind and mopped everything up while the two of them took him up to the quiet jetty in the jungle on the river where Lin had his little outboard boat. You could back your car right down the road into the water and load on and off the way Lin did with all his smuggled crates. They rolled him out of the van right into the boat, climbed in and whizzed up river to the estuary where Lin knew there were plenty of sharks. They grabbed hold and hauled him over the side naked with an old jeep wheel tied with a stretch of rope around his waist. They threw the rug in after him and watched it all sink and drift out toward the open sea. They stood in silence until the surface was just sparkling darkness again. Then Lin said ‘long pig’ in their dialect and they both laughed a little. They wiped their faces and turned the boat around.
The ease and speed of the whole thing softened Lin’s fury a little and now he feels almost giddy, ready for a drink as they drive back into town. ‘We got to make the story. He was going to Jakarta, right?’
‘Uh huh.’
‘From the Island airport or city?’
‘Iris said Island.’
‘Why good?’
‘He had to take the ferry over. If they check it, that’s where he disappeared. They’ll dredge over there, not here.’
‘That’s where his wallet and passport will be. After lunch we go to the ferry terminal.’ He shifts gears and shakes his head. ‘But we go and check on the butcher first. I can’t believe it,’ he says as he rolls down the window, shaking his head again, almost laughing while lighting a cigarette. ‘She might start screaming or something once she has to clean it all up. Never seen that much blood before. Sick. I’ve never gone this far, boy. My hands are shaky.’ He draws on his cigarette. ‘I need a good look through his stuff.’
He looks askance. ‘He owed a lot. He was going to give it to me when I dropped him off at the airport. I got to pay up this week. There wasn’t much in his wallet. It must be in the bags somewhere. You sure she couldn’t have taken it before you got there?’
‘You saw her. She was out of her mind. No chance.’
‘I saw her.’
‘Maybe he was going to take it out of the cash machine at the airport.’
‘He said he’d closed his account a few weeks ago, said he had cash yesterday. It’s in the flat somewhere. For her sake it better be. I told her to keep her hands off.’
Anthony glances at him. ‘She heard you, Lin. She won’t touch anything. You don’t have to hurt her. You know what it was like for her. She…’
‘Who’s talking about hurting? One step at a time!’ Lin shoves the gear shift and pinches his nostril and snorts some snot out the window and wipes his nose with his sleeve. ‘And spare me the sad stories! Look at me!’ he says, pointing at his T-shirt. ‘I got blood and dick juice and guts on my shirt and pants here and you’re trying to tell me sad stories! No more talking.’



           The scorched parking lot is empty. Anthony shuffles along in the sun with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, sweeping up leaves with his broom and long-handled dustpan. He drags his flip-flops as he walks. That lazy hiss, hiss, hiss of his sandals is the only sound out here in the steamy heat apart from some birdsong and a cicada buzz in the tamarind trees between the car park and the road. He’s thinking about a beer and a nap but then his phone rings. He checks the screen. It reads Matussin.
‘Yah?’ he says.
‘Anthony? You got a viewing today.’
‘How many?’
‘One. From the university. Wants to see a three bedroom up high. I think 901 and 1401 are ready, right? You finished painting them, right?’
He doesn’t answer.
‘Yah yah. Uh, 1401 isn’t finished yet.’
‘Why not? It’s been empty for three weeks.’
‘Had to fix a lot of holes in the walls. Uh, and the toilets were …’
‘He can look at it anyway. Get it done fast. They said they got more people coming this month. We need all the places ready. Full house by next month.’
He squints up the side of the building. ‘Okay, okay. How many coming today did you say?’
‘One guy. He asked about one bedrooms. He’ll be there before lunch. Call me when you’re finished with him.’
Anthony slips the phone into his pocket and wipes his face, goes into the shade and sets his broom and pan against the wall by the maintenance office. He goes to the lobby, steps into the elevator and presses 14. All the way up he picks his nose and frowns at the sliding doors.
He raps five times so she’ll know it’s him. She opens the door a crack to check and then opens up and goes back out to the balcony. Anthony follows, looking at her tight little ass in those spandex shorts and her long dark hair wet from the shower. She’s getting darker by the minute from all the sun tanning, looks rested and younger with all the sleep since she finished all the whiskey and started going to bed early, hair bouncy and swishing like plush drapes across the belt of her shorts out onto the patio.
‘How’s life?’ she says, lying back down on the chaise.
‘Not so great. Matussin just called. Someone’s coming to look at apartments today.’
‘Not this one.’
‘There are other ones you can show.’
‘Only two vacant, 901 and this. Matussin told me to show this one too. I can’t say no. It’s vacant as far as he knows.’
She raises her head and squints at him. ‘Come on, Anthony. Matussin won’t know. Just show the other one.’
‘I can’t. He’ll find out if I don’t. Anyway, he said more people are coming this month. Time’s up, Iris. You had over a month up here. Haven’t you found a place yet?’
‘No!’ She jumps up and stomps inside with her towel. ‘What time?’
‘Before lunch.’
She puts the towel up to her face and shrieks into it. She falls on the divan with the towel over her head. ‘Come on, Anthony. Please! Show them the other one!’
He hesitates, looks her up and down and then drops into a chair and sighs. He wipes his face and looks up to the ceiling, takes a cigarette from the pack on the coffee table and lights it while studying her legs. He blinks hard a few times, shakes his head and laughs at the room like a resigned man laughs at the gallows. ‘Jesus Christ. I don’t know why I’m telling you this – sorry, I do know why but I can’t believe I’m letting myself get sucked again….’
‘Stop mumbling. What is it?’
‘…by a god damned pussy in spand…’
He falls back, blows some smoke at the ceiling and looks at the towel. ‘It’s one person, Iris.’
‘One person?’
‘A guy. He’s alone.’
She pulls the towel off her face. ‘Are you sure?’

           Anthony sits with his feet on the dirty little desk in the office, drinking a can of beer and waiting. He doesn’t want her in the apartment any more but he’s afraid of her. He also thinks about her three or four nights a week when he masturbates. And she’s from the village not far from where his parents live back home. He just can’t kick her out. But her presence is a daily reminder, and every morning he wonders whether today someone will come – police or, worse, the investors, the collectors, to find out with a sharpened screwdriver whether he and she are lying. He’s sure they will come. Lin warned him, said they weren’t all convinced that it was stuck in the bank account, and anyway a beating had been mooted a few times regardless, just as punishment. She said she didn’t know anything about it. And then she surprised Lin. She came back with her teeth bared and a sharp icicle finger pointing at him, said she knows who they all are, knows they’re all just cowards and they wouldn’t ever try any such thing, and if they did they better kill her because she’ll call the wives and police and explain what those poker nights up here were all about. Then she looked at them both and said, ‘We all hang on this. You think about that.’ And Lin looked at her and saw something that made him shut his mouth. That was a first, and he hasn’t said anything since. But still it lingers. Anthony told her she should get out and slip away just in case. She said she would if she had all that money. She says staying here proves she doesn’t have anything. She says it all while combing her hair or massaging lotion into her thighs and he always gives in. But still he sits here in the office chewing the callous on his thumb and worrying. If she were gone and someone else moved in he’d feel like a layer of history was being paved and the fear would fade. He can’t shake it, and he knows it won’t go away while that horny little witch torments him from her lair in 1401.
He hears the van pulling in to the car park. He quaffs his beer and tosses the can in the bin, takes his feet off the desk, picks up an invoice and studies it with fake interest. He watches out the open door as the van stops by the gazebo. Anthony can see Muhdie in the driver’s seat. The guy is in the back seat looking out the window up the side of the apartment building. He’s younger than Curd, maybe 30, big boulder head covered in thick curly chestnut hair, looking soft and tubby with a stupid smile on his face – your standard teacher’s face when they first arrive. Anthony drops the invoice on the desk and stands. ‘God,’ he says, ‘spare him.’
He lights a cigarette, picks up his ring of keys and shuffles out into the sun. The guy pulls the van’s sliding side door open before Mudhi has a chance to get round the side and do it for him. ‘Not to worry there, Mudhie, I can do it!’ He hops out, shakes hands with Mudhie and looks around, grinning as Anthony comes across the lot. Anthony can hear him saying, ‘Wow! This is great!’ Mudhie leans against the van, lights a cigarette and points with it, ‘This Anthony,’ and then he smokes and fiddles with his phone.
The guy holds out his hand. ‘Anthony? Neil Trench.’
‘Uh huh. You want to see apartments?’
‘That’s right. Thanks for making time for me on short notice. I only need a one bedroom, maybe two. I don’t need a whole lot of space.’
‘We only got three bedrooms apartments. Everything three bedrooms here. All same.’
‘Three bedrooms? I’m allowed that?’
Anthony points to the lobby and they go in. They enter the lift and Anthony presses 9. ‘I got a nice one on nine. Already painted. You can move in tomorrow.’
‘Mr Matussin said there were two. One on the 14th or 15th? I’d like a really high floor. I really want a view across the jungle, you know what I mean, if possible.’
‘Uh huh.’ He glances up at Trench. ‘Uh, you lecturer, right?’
‘That’s right.’
‘Three years contract?’
‘Yep. Looks like I’ll stay longer with a place like this to live in!’
‘Family coming?’
‘No no. I’m not married.’
‘Uh huh. You from America?’
‘No. Canada.’
‘That’s okay. We sound a lot alike.’
The door opens at 9 and they step out. Trench looks both ways. ‘Incredible! Only one apartment on the floor?  Great elevator. Is that real wood on the door frame there?’
‘Yah, wood.’ Anthony stubs his cigarette in the ashtray next to the lift. ‘Nine floor is pretty high up. Nice view,’ he says and unlocks the door. ‘You like it. Maybe better than 14. 14’s too high. Takes a long time in the lift.’
They enter the gloom and the stink of fresh paint. ‘No lights working now. I switch on the electricity when you move in.’ Anthony goes to open up all the curtains and sliding doors. He pulls the dining room balcony door open for air, and as he turns round he sees Trench over in the living room opening the others. Anthony sits at the dining table and watches Trench go out to the balcony.
Anthony has seen this man before. Ten years of showing apartments to new faculty have given him insight. This is a nice one, an ignorant one, inexperienced. He’s going to shake hands with Anthony at the end of the tour. After he moves in he’s going to make very polite requests and pay Anthony extra money for fixing things even though he doesn’t have to pay. And he might keep paying even after he finds out he doesn’t have to. He’ll be embarrassed about this luxury flat once he’s seen Anthony’s converted broom closet-bedroom down in the parking garage. And then after a while one of two things will happen: he will adapt, or else he will reject the life and go. Anthony rubs his eyes and chuckles in disgust at Iris upstairs, ready to tilt the table. A fucking spider in spandex. He watches Trench out there wiping off his glasses, looking daft, spinning around in circles, soaking up the view and the patio, now looking back inside at the marble-effect floors and teak furniture, amazed, thankful, humane. Anthony likes this man, wants to help him stay likeable. He wipes his face, leans his elbow on the dining table, cups his chin in his hand and does not know what to do.
‘I really can’t believe this. They told me the accommodation was good here, but wow! Are the bedrooms through there?’
‘Yah. Bathroom with shower end of the hall. Another in the master bedroom.’ Down that dark hall. ‘This is better one. New light bulbs, good water pressure! I fix the toilets last week! You move in today no problems!’ he shouts as Trench disappears down that hall. Anthony watches after him, down into it where he lay gashed and bleeding and still warm but slimy wet and dead. There was nothing left, nothing you could have done, never occurred she could do such a thing with those little hands no matter what hed done, or was it worse than she told? Or was it not worse? There were never any bruises on her and he always seemed the beaten one the way shed wiggle away from him and tease the others at the parties and hed get that hurt doggy face on and then shed tease him too and then hed laugh again. Like some fish being played, you thought. Like she had it all in hand. But he was the one who ended it, she said, broke promises, reamed and ran. Abandoned, she said, felt left for dead, she said … and here Trench comes, alive and snickering out of the darkness like Curd used to with a bottle in hand and cigar in his grinning mouth and his music up loud and people shouting and laughing with him when he was still breathing before she gutted him like that with that awful carving knife shes still got in the block in the kitchen as if it didnt happen. Cold, something very wrong with someone who can still use that god damned knife like she almost did with the pork roast the other night before he screamed at her to put it away for Christs sake and she didnt even see what the problem was …
‘Just great, really great. Got to send some pics of this to my mother. I’d like to see the 14th as well. You said it’s exactly the same?’
Anthony stares with eyes out of focus, as if he sees right through Trench’s belly to the dark hall beyond. ‘You okay, Anthony?’
He refocuses, coughs, nods and heaves himself up out of the chair. ‘Yah. You want to see 14.’
‘Please. Can we go up now?’
Anthony shrugs, nods and leads him out, locks the door, presses the lift button and they step in.
‘So this one on 14 is exactly the same?’
‘Almost. Didn’t paint it yet. Water pressures not as good, higher up.’ Now he looks up at the LED display for the floors and says what he was told to say. ‘Uh, last guy’s maid is still in.’
‘Still in what?’
‘Inside. She stay to clean the place.’
‘I see. She’ll be leaving soon?’
‘Yah. But, uh, maybe you need amah. You know? Maid, I mean? She looking for a job.’
Trench chuckles. ‘I don’t think I need a maid – amah, is it? It’s just me. If I had a family maybe we could use a little help. What would I need an amah for?’
‘Cleaning. Laundry. She cook nice, too.’
‘You know her well?’
‘From my country. She lives here for a long time, amah for the last guy.’
‘How long?’
‘Five years maybe.’
‘Where did he go?’
‘Dunno. New job. Lecturer. Like you.’ The doors slide open at 14 and they step out. ‘Maybe not so nice on this hall as nine.’
‘Looks the same to me. Just fine.’
Anthony sighs and gives his up-to-you-I-tried smile. ‘Okay,’ he says, knocks on the door and lights a cigarette. As always he bows his head and tries not to recall but can’t block the visions of her sitting there at the dining table telling him it was okay, the boxes and luggage, Iris all weird and quiet at the table, moving toward her, knowing something had gone wrong, opening that hall door just knowing it was all wrong. The lock snaps from the other side and he jumps back. She pulls open the door and he looks her up and down. He wouldn’t have recognised her on the street. At first glance she looks about ten years younger in a clean loose frock and this light, underhanded make-up job. She half bows, looks quickly up at Trench and says ‘hello’ almost in a whisper. She smiles like one of those helpless girls who’ve just arrived from their home country and scared as hell of everybody.
Trench sticks his hand out past Anthony, ‘Hi. Neil Trench.’ Anthony looks askance at the hand as she takes it. She pulls the door open wide and stands aside.
Anthony goes in first, still looking at her. Trench goes right past them both through to the living room, swivelling his head around and heading out to the balcony, saying ‘Paint looks fine, Anthony.’
Anthony studies her now with a grim twisted frown, shaking his head at her. She glares back at him and points to the dining area. He shuffles through and sits at the table. She stands in the centre of the room and waits for Trench, posing like a little ballerina with her feet pointing just so, hands clasped behind her back like a waitress, poised to dance into the kitchen at the snap of his fingers.
Trench comes back inside shaking his head. ‘I don’t care about the water pressure, Anthony. This is IT! What a view! I can see the ocean from up here! I can smell it!’
‘Uh huh.’
Trench turns to her. They stand facing each other, he looking down at her, she flicking her eyes up with the servant’s sad smile. They look like different species, a huge fortified bear next to a brown Tinkerbelle in a frock. Anthony has a vision of Trench trying to get his cock into her, she screaming and suffocating under him and biting his nose off. Trench looks to her and then to him, shifting his eyes back and forth, not sure who to address. ‘Uh, do you speak English?’
She says nothing. Anthony says, ‘She speaks okay.’ He looks at her and says in their dialect, ‘Say something. It’s your move. I did my bit.’
She smiles at Anthony and then turns to him. ‘I am amah for Dr Curd,’ she says, looking at the floor.
‘Yes, Anthony told me.’
‘You like some tea?’
‘Uh, no thanks, no,’ says Trench. ‘I don’t have much time here. I’ll just go check the bedrooms. Anthony, maybe you could, uh, explain my situation. I’ll be back in a minute.’ Trench turns and escapes through the hall door.
She looks at Anthony. ‘Situation?’
He shrugs. ‘Says he doesn’t want an amah. Wants you out.’
She hadn’t considered it. ‘What do you mean he doesn’t want an amah? They all have one.’
‘He’s new. Doesn’t know.’
‘Stop smiling, Anthony. You got to help me.’
‘How? Better yet: Why?’
‘Tell him how much he needs me.’
‘You tell him.’
She opens her arms and invites him to look at what’s she’s portraying. ‘Does this give a hard sell?’
He looks her over and puffs his cigarette, coughs up some soot and swallows it. ‘Why you think I should help, I do not know.’ He studies his finger nails and digs out some grime with his thumb and looks at her again. He can smell that sweet scent she likes to splash on when she needs something. He butts the cigarette in the tray and slaps the table with his palm and looks at her, shaking his head again. He stands and stomps to the hall door, looks back. ‘But this is it, Iris, the last time.’
She nods and puts her hands together in a disgusting little-girl beg. He turns away and shoves the door open. He shuffles down the hall and gets that sick feeling when he sees the light at the end. He goes to close the bathroom door but Trench comes out of the master bedroom and says, ‘Wait wait, I’d like to see.’ He opens it, goes in and leans into the shower, turns on the tap. A hard blast of water comes out. ‘No pressure problem there, Anthony.’
Anthony looks at him standing in there with that jolly mug of the lucky prize winner. He wonders how long the chummy face will last before it makes the turn. It would be easier if they arrived as pre-assembled bastards so he didn’t have to be reminded anew that morality and manners dissolve like salt in this tropical sweat. Youll wash it all down with iced vodkas at Marketts patio on the boat quay in the evening while old hands like Swales tell you how it really is, what you can get away with, and then youll wobble home and kick my door at 3am and tell me you lost your keys, but I cant tell you to sleep in the fucking parking lot, can I. The time will come.
‘Not many people taking showers now. Everybody at work.’
Trench steps out. He checks the grouting and the taps in the sink, looks out the window. ‘Anthony, it doesn’t matter. A little mildew is nothing. This is the nicest apartment I’ve ever seen. I’ll take it.’
‘Uh huh. You say you want one bedroom. Other buildings they got one beds. Nice. Not too big.’
Trench bends over and plays with the fancy doorknob’s tricky lock. ‘It’s okay. I think I’ll cope with three, Anthony. I’ll cope just fine.’
Anthony watches him fondle the door knob with a loving touch as if it’s a precious ornament. And theres the glint! Right there! That quick shift from disbelieving touch to greedy clutch. There he is, squeezing his new knob, soaking up this special-treatment three-bed pad that he doesnt need and could never afford anywhere else, ignoring advice that recommends modesty, enjoying a great fat erection over the hardwood floors and dimmer switches and ocean view, absorbing it all, adjusting to it, soon to be demanding more of it. It took about five minutes to inflate his ego and fill the three bedrooms, probably a few months to start complaining it isnt enough, a few more still to see the staff can be pushed around with impunity. Its a law of nature, cant be stopped any more than gravity. And once he grows big and ugly enough, Iris will circle in and feast on the colossus until there is nothing left but a pale grey sack of fat bleeding on the tiles for you to shovel up and dump in the river. Anthony looks in at the shower stall one more time, bows his head, draws breath, shrugs and looks back to Trench. ‘Up to you. But uh, this big places need lots of cleaning.’
‘It’s still only just me.’
‘Yah but, you know, last guy lived here said no amah first, then a few weeks he asked me do I know a good amah. Lots of laundry, you sweat, new clothes every day. Dishes, laundry, cleaning this toilets. You got four toilets in here. Ironing…’
Trench blinks at the last item. ‘Ironing. True. I’d just never thought about a maid before. Never occurred to me. I don’t know anyone at home who has a maid. It’s for the very rich only.’
‘Yah, cheap here. Iris works cheap.’
‘Oh. No. No-no. I’m not interested in paying someone badly… like that, you know. I don’t do that kind of thing.’
‘So you pay her more! She’s very happy for that.’
Trench smiles. ‘Good point. Thing is, I don’t want anyone living in the apartment. It looks like she was living here – her clothes are in one of the bedroom closets.’
‘Yup. Lived in.’
‘That’s a problem. All I’d need is someone to come in a couple of days a week. She’d really have to find a place to live. I feel bad about asking her to leave but I need privacy, Anthony. I just can’t.’
Anthony sees the wall. ‘Okay, I tell her. I come back in a minute.’ He turns back down the hall to the living room.
She’s out on the balcony hanging the wet shirts. ‘Okay?’
‘He says a couple of days a week is okay but no live-in.’
‘No!’ She drops a wet t-shirt back in the bucket. ‘What do I do now?’
‘Put on some tight shorts and try again?’
‘Go to hell.’
‘I’m not joking. That dress didn’t sell a thing. He didn’t even look at you.’
‘He isn’t ready! You don’t…’
Trench comes out and she stops talking, goes back to hanging the laundry with a smile. Trench and Anthony watch as she stretches a shirt across the two lines. Anthony looks askance at him, sees a buyer.
‘Maybe you’re right, Anthony. A few days a week might be helpful. Irene, is it? Iris, sorry. But as I say, I really don’t need someone to live in. Being alone, you know, I don’t need a full time person. I can’t afford it either. I hope you understand my situation,’ he says, looking at her, then at Anthony, not sure she’s getting it all.
She turns from the line and looks around at him with a soft smile, a pout but not pushing it, and then she looks at Anthony. ‘Done.’
He sniffs and rubs his eyes ‘She says okay.’
‘Where will she live, Anthony?’
She takes another shirt from the bucket and turns to the line, saying back to Anthony, ‘Ninth floor. I’ll work him from there.’
She turns and smiles at Trench and then Anthony. He looks at her one last time, holding her eyes, those cold clear black eyes of hers that remind him where he stands, has to stand, even now, in spite of it all. He grimaces at her, gripping her eyes one last time, saying, ‘She stay downstairs for a few days. She find a place soon. She has friends.’
She smiles and nods and Trench gives the chummy two thumbs up. ‘Great! Okay, what’s this arrangement going to cost?’