I am recalling now that last summer before I was sent away. It was
1979, and the sun was everywhere. Tripoli lay brilliant and still
beneath it. Every person, animal and ant went in desperate search
for shade, those occasional gray patches of mercy carved into the
white of everything. But true mercy only arrived at night, a breeze
chilled by the vacant desert, moistened by the humming sea, a
reluctant guest silently passing through the empty streets, vague
about how far it was allowed to roam in this realm of the absolute
star. And it was rising now, this star, as faithful as ever,
chasing away the blessed breeze. It was almost morning.
The window in her bedroom was wide open, the glue tree outside it
silent, its green shy in the early light. She hadn’t fallen
asleep until the sky was gray with dawn. And even then I was so
rattled I couldn’t leave her side, wondering if, like one of
those hand puppets that play dead, she would bounce up again, light
another cigarette and continue begging me, as she had been doing
only minutes before, not to tell, not to tell.
Baba never found out about Mama’s illness; she only fell ill
when he was away on business. It was as if, when the world was
empty of him, she and I remained as stupid reminders, empty pages
that had to be filled with the memory of how they had come to be
I sat watching her beautiful face, her chest rise and fall with
breath, unable to leave her side, hearing the things she had just
told me swim and repeat in my head. Eventually I left her and went
When she woke up she came to me. I felt her weight sink beside me,
then her fingers in my hair. The sound of her fingernails on my
scalp reminded me of once when I was unlucky.
I had thrown a date in my mouth before splitting it open, only
discovering it was infested with ants when their small shell bodies
crackled beneath my teeth. I lay there silent, pretending to be
asleep, listening to her breath disturbed by tears.
During breakfast I tried to say as little as possible. My silence
made her nervous. She talked about what we might have for lunch.
She asked if I would like some jam or honey.
I said no, but she went to the fridge and got some anyway. Then, as
was usual on the mornings after she had been ill, she took me on a
drive to pull me out of my silence, to return me to myself
Waiting for the car to warm up, she turned on the radio, skipped
through the dial and didn’t stop until she heard the
beautiful voice of Abd al-Basit Abd al-Sammad. I was glad
because, as everyone knows, one must refrain from speaking and
listen humbly to the Koran when it is read.
Just before we turned into Gergarish Street, the street that
follows the sea, Bahloul the beggar appeared out of nowhere. Mama
hit the brakes and said ya satir. He wandered over to her
side, walking slowly, clasping his dirty hands tightly to his
stomach, his lips quivering. “Hello, Bahloul,” Mama
said, rummaging in her purse. “I see you, I see you,”
he said, and although these were the words Bahloul most often
uttered, this time I thought what an idiot Bahloul is and wished he
would just vanish. I watched him in the side mirror standing in the
middle of the street, clutching the money Mama had given him to his
chest like a man who has just caught a butterfly.
She took me downtown to the sesame man in the market by
Martyrs’ Square, the square that looked on to the sea, the
square where a sculpture of Septimius Severus, the Roman emperor
born all those years ago in Lepcis, proudly stood.
She bought me as many sesame sticks as I wanted, each wrapped in
white wax paper twisted at either end. I refused to let her put
them in her bag. On such mornings I was always stubborn. “But
I have some more shopping to do,” she said.
“You’re bound to drop them like this.”
“No,” I said, curling my eyebrows, “I’ll
wait for you outside,” and
walked off angrily, not caring if I lost her or became lost from
her in the big city. “Listen,” she called after me,
attracting people’s attention. “Wait for me by
Septimius Severus.” There was a large café on one side
that spilled out onto the passageway. Men, some faces I recognized
from before, sat playing dominoes and cards. Their eyes were on
Mama. I wondered if her dress shouldn’t be looser.
As I walked away from her I felt my power over her recede; I began
to feel sorry and sad how on such mornings she was always generous
and embarrassed and shy, as if she had walked out naked. I wanted
to run to her, to hold her hand, latch on to her dress as she
shopped and dealt with the world, a world full of men and the greed
of men. I forced myself not to look back and focused instead on the
shops set within arched bays on either side of the covered
passageway. Black silk scarves billowed gently above one, columns
of stacked red caps stood as tall as men outside another. The
ceiling was made with dark strips of fabric. The white blades of
light that pierced through the occasional gaps illuminated the
swimming dust and shone still and beautiful on the arches and
floor, but darted like sparkles on the heads and down the bodies of
the passersby, making the shadows seem much darker than they
Outside, the square was flooded with sunlight. The ground was
almost white with brightness, making the dark shoes and figures
crossing it look like things floating above the world. I wished I
had left the sesame sticks with her. Small needles were now
pricking my arms. I told myself off for being stubborn and for
letting her buy me so many. I looked at them in my arms and felt no
appetite for them. I leaned against the cool marble pedestal of
Septimius Severus. The Roman emperor stood above me, his silver
studded belt curving below his belly, pointing his arm toward the
sea, “Urging Libya to look toward Rome,” was how Ustath
Rashid described the pose. Ustath Rashid taught art history at
el-Fateh University and was my best friend Kareem’s father. I
remembered our Guide standing in one of his military uniforms like
this, waving his arm as the tanks passed in front of him on
I turned toward the sea, the shining turquoise sea beyond the
square. It seemed like a giant blue monster rising at the edge of
the world. “Grrr,” I growled, then wondered if anyone
had heard me. I kicked my heel against the pedestal several times.
I stared at the ground, into the heat and brightness that made me
want to sleep with my eyes open. But then, not looking for but
falling directly on my target, I spotted Baba.
He was standing on the edge of the pavement in a street opposite
the square, looking both ways for traffic, arching forward as if he
was about to fall. Before he stepped on to
the road he motioned with his hand then snapped his fingers twice.
It was a gesture that I knew. Sometimes he would wave to me like
that, as if to say, “Come on, come on,” then
snap his fingers, “Hey, wake up.” Behind him appeared
Nasser, Baba’s office clerk, carrying a small shiny black
typewriter beneath his arm, struggling to keep up. Baba was
already crossing the street, walking toward me. For a moment I
thought he might be bringing Nasser to Septimius Severus, to teach
him all the things he had taught me about the Roman emperor, Lepcis
Magna and Rome. For Baba regarded Nasser as a younger brother; he
often said so himself.
“Baba?” I whispered.
Two dark lenses curved like the humpbacks of turtles over his eyes.
The sky, the sun and the sea were painted by God in colors we could
all point at and say the sea is turquoise, the sun banana, the sky
blue. Sunglasses are terrible, I thought, because they change all
of this and keep those who wear them at a distance. At that moment
I remembered how, only a couple of days ago, he had kissed us
“May God bring you back safely,” Mama told him,
“and make your trip profitable.” I had kissed his hand
like he taught me to. He had leaned down and whispered in my
“Take care of your mother, you are the man of the house
now,” and grinned at me in the way people do when they think
they have paid you a compliment. But look now, look;
walking where I could touch him, here where we should be together.
My heart quickened. He was coming closer. Maybe he means me, I
thought. It was impossible to see his eyes.
I watched him walk in that familiar way—his head pointing up
slightly, his polished leather shoes flicking ahead with every
step—hoping he would call my name, wave his hand, snap his
fingers. I swear if he had I would have leaped into his arms. When
he was right there, close enough that if I extended my arm I could
touch him, I held my breath and my ears filled with silence. I
watched his solemn expression—an expression I admired and
feared—caught the scent-edge of his cologne, felt the air
swell around him as he walked past. He was immediately followed by
Nasser, carrying the black shiny typewriter under one arm. I wished
I was him, following Baba like a shadow. They entered one of the
buildings overlooking the square. It was a white building with
shutters. Green was the color of the revolution, but you rarely saw
shutters painted in it.
“Didn’t I tell you to wait by the sculpture?” I
heard Mama say from behind me. I looked back and saw that I had
strayed far from Septimius Severus.
I felt sick, anxious that I had somehow done the wrong thing. Baba
wasn’t on a business trip, but here, in Tripoli, where we
should be together. I could have reached out and caught him from
where he was heading; why had I not acted?
I sat in the car while she loaded the shopping, still holding on to
the sesame sticks. I looked up at the building Baba and Nasser had
entered. A window on the top floor shuddered,then swung open. Baba
appeared through it. He gazed at the square, no longer wearing the
sunglasses, leaning with his hands on the sill like a leader
waiting for the clapping and chanting to stop. He hung a small red
towel on the clothesline and disappeared inside.
On the way home I was more silent than before, and this time there
was no effort in it. As soon as we left Martyrs’ Square Mama
began craning her neck toward the rearview mirror. Stopping at the
next traffic light, she whispered a prayer to herself. A car
stopped so close beside us I could have touched the driver’s
cheek. Four men dressed in dark safari suits sat looking at us. At
first I didn’t recognize them, then I remembered. I
remembered so suddenly I felt my heart jump. They were the same
Revolutionary Committee men who had come a week before and taken
Ustath Rashid. Mama looked ahead, her back a few centimeters away
from the backrest, her fists tight around the steering wheel. She
released one hand, brought it to my knee and sternly whispered,
When the traffic light turned green, the car beside us didn’t
move. Everyone knows you mustn’t overtake a Revolutionary
Committee car, and if you have to, then you must do it discreetly,
without showing any pleasure in it. A few cars, unaware of who was
parked beside us, began to sound their horns. Mama drove off
slowly, looking more at the rearview mirror than the road ahead.
Then she said, “They are following us; don’t look
back.” I stared at my bare knees and said the same prayer
over and over. I felt the sweat gather between my palms and the
wax-paper wrapping of the sesame sticks. It wasn’t until we
were almost home that Mama said, “OK, they are gone,”
then mumbled to herself, “Nothing better to do than give us
an escort, the rotten rats.” My heart eased and my back grew
taller. The prayer left my lips.
The innocent, Sheikh Mustafa, the imam of our local mosque, had
told me, have no cause to fear; only the guilty live in fear.
I didn’t help her carry the shopping into the house as was
usual. I went straight to my room and dropped the sesame sticks on
the bed, shaking the blood back into my arms. I
grabbed my picture book on Lepcis Magna. Ten days before I had
visited the ancient city for the first and, as it turned out, last
time. Images of the deserted city of ruins by the sea still
lingered vividly in my mind. I longed to return to it. I
didn’t come out until I had to: after she had prepared lunch
and set the table and called my name.
When she tore the bread, she handed me a piece; and I, noticing she
hadn’t had any salad, passed her the salad bowl. Midway
through the meal she got up and turned on the radio. She left it on
a man talking about farming the desert. I got up, said,
“Bless your hands,” and went to my room. “I will
take a nap,” she said after me. My silence made her say
things she didn’t need to say, she always took a nap in the
afternoons, everyone did, everyone except me. I never could
I waited in my room until she had finished washing the dishes and
putting away the food, until I was certain she had gone to sleep,
then I came out.
I was walking around the house looking for something to do when the
telephone rang. I ran to it before it could wake her up. It was
Baba. On hearing his voice my heart quickened. I thought he must be
calling so soon after I had seen him to explain why he hadn’t
“Where are you?”
“Abroad. Let me speak to your mother.”
“Abroad,” he repeated, as if it was obvious where that
was. “I’ll be home tomorrow.”
“I miss you.”
“Me too. Call your mother.”
“She’s asleep. Shall I wake her up?”
“Just let her know I’ll be home tomorrow, about
I didn’t want the conversation to end so I said, “We
were followed today by that same white car that took Ustath Rashid.
We were side by side at the traffic light and I saw their faces. I
was so close I could have touched the driver’s cheek and I
wasn’t frightened. Not at all. Not even a little, I
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said and hung
I stood for a while beside the telephone and listened to the thick
silence that seemed to descend on our house during those hours in
the afternoon, a silence edged by the humming of the fridge in the
kitchen and the ticking of the clock in the hallway.
I went to watch Mama sleep. I sat beside her, checking first that
her chest was rising and falling with breath. I remembered the
words she had told me the night before, “We are two halves of
the same soul, two open pages of the same book,” words that
felt like a gift I didn’t want.
I was woken up in the middle of the night by the sound of glass
shattering. A light was on in the kitchen. Mama was on her knees,
talking to herself and collecting pieces of glass from the floor.
She was barefoot. When she saw me she covered her mouth with the
inside of her wrist, her cupped hand full of broken glass, and
giggled that strange nervous giggle that was somewhere between
laughter and crying. I ran to fetch her slippers, then threw them
to her, but she shook her head and stumbled over to the rubbish bin
and emptied her hand. She began sweeping the floor. When the broom
reached the slippers she paused then put them on.
I could see her medicine bottle half empty on the breakfast table.
There was no glass beside it, just a cigarette burning in an
ashtray littered with butts and black-headed matchsticks. Her glass
must have shattered. Mama was ill again. I felt my cheeks burn with
anger: where is Baba? He should be here because when he’s
home everything is normal, she is never ill and I am never woken up
like this to find everything changed.
She sat down, stood up again, fetched another glass and filled it
with medicine. The kitchen reeked of it. The smell made my head
heavy. She turned to me. I was still standing in the doorway of the
kitchen. She giggled again, asked, “What?” and rolled
her eyes away. “What’s the matter with you? Why are you
staring at me like that? Have you got nothing better to do?”
She shook her head to herself. “I don’t know why you
are looking at me like that. I haven’t done anything.”
Then with an exaggerated earnestness she said, “Go back to
bed, it’s late.”
I went back to bed but couldn’t sleep. I heard her go into
the bathroom. She was there for a long time. I didn’t hear
any water running. My heart began to race. Then suddenly she came
out and went to her room. I walked to her door, then
“Hello, habibi,” she said. “What’s the
matter, can’t sleep?”
I shook my head to say no, happy to play her game, to pretend that
some bad dream had broken my sleep. She patted the bed and I lay
beside her. Just when sleep was curling itself around me, she
started her telling. Her mouth beside my ear, the smell of her
medicine alive in the room.
The only things that mattered were in the past. And what mattered
the most in the past was how she and Baba came to be married, that
“black day,” as she called it. She never started the
story from the beginning; like Scheherazade she didn’t move
in a straight line but jumped from one episode to another, leaving
questions unanswered, questions the asking of which I feared would
interrupt her telling. I had to restrain myself and try to remember
every piece of the story in the hope that one day I could fit it
all into a narrative that was straight and clear and simple. For
although I feared those nights when we were alone and she was ill,
I never wanted her to stop talking. Her story was mine too, it
bound us, turned us into one, “two halves of the same soul,
two open pages of the same book,” as she used to say.
Once she began by saying, “You are my prince. One day
you’ll be a man and take me away on your white horse.”
She placed her palms on my cheeks, her eyes brimming with tears.
“And I almost didn’t . . . You are my miracle. The
pills, all the other ways in which I tried to resist. I
didn’t know you were going to be so beautiful, fill my heart
. . .” This is why I often lay in my darkened bedroom
dreaming of saving her. When Mama heard that her father had found
her a groom, she swallowed a “handful of magic pills.”
“They called them that,” she said, “because they
made a woman no good. For who would want to remain married to a
woman who couldn’t bear children? In a few months, I thought,
a year at the most, I’ll be free to resume my
It was a perfect plan, or so I thought.
“They rushed the wedding through as if I was a harlot, as if
I was pregnant and had to be married off before it showed. Part of
the punishment was not to allow me even to see a photograph of my
future husband. But the maid sneaked in to tell me she had seen the
groom. ‘Ugly,’ she said, frowning, ‘big
nose,’ then spat at the ground. I was so frightened. I ran to
the toilet ten times or more. My father and brothers—the High
Council, who were sitting right outside the room became more and
more nervous, reading my weak stomach as proof of my crime. They
didn’t know how it felt waiting in that room, where the
complete stranger who was now my husband was going to walk in alone
and, without introduction, undress me and do filthy, revolting
“It was a dreary room. It had nothing in it but a huge bed
with a square, ironed white handkerchief on one pillow. I had no
idea what the handkerchief was for.
“I walked up and down that room in my wedding dress wondering
what kind of a face my executioner had. Because that’s how I
saw it: they passed the judgment and he, the stranger armed with
the marriage contract signed by my father, was going to carry out
the punishment. When he touches me, which I was sure he was going
to do, there will be no point in screaming; I was his right, his
wife under God.
I was only fourteen but I knew what a man had to do to his wife.
Cousin Khadija, a chatterbox who had fallen as silent as a wall
after her wedding night, had later, when she and I were alone, told
me how her husband had lost patience with her and with his fingers
punctured her veil and bled her. It was the duty of every man to
prove his wife a virgin.”
I didn’t know what Mama meant, but feared that when the time
came I might not have what it takes to “puncture” a
“Betrayal was a hand squeezing my throat,” she
“Those hours seemed eternal. My stomach churned, my fingers
were as cold as ice cubes, and my hands wrestled with each
“On one of my journeys to the toilet, pulling my wedding
dress up and running like an idiot, I saw my father bury a pistol
in his pocket. ‘Blood is going to be spilled either
way,’ were the words he told your grandmother. She told me
this later, almost laughing, relieved, giddy and ridiculous with
happiness. ‘If, God forbid,’ she had said, ‘you
didn’t turn out virtuous and true, your father was prepared
to take your life.’
“Your father, the mystery groom, was twenty-three; to the
fourteen-year-old girl I was that seemed ancient. When he finally
walked in, I fainted. When I came to, he wasn’t there. Your
grandfather was beside me, smiling, your grandmother behind him,
clutching the now bloodstained handkerchief to her chest and crying
“I was sick for days. The stupid pills didn’t work. I
took too many and all that vomiting squeezed them out of me. Nine
months later I had you.”
The medicine changed her eyes and made her lose her balance.
Sometimes even before seeing her I could tell she was ill. I would
come into the house and notice a certain stillness, something
altered. I knew without knowing how I knew, like that one time
when, playing football with the boys, one of Osama’s mighty
strikes had hit me in the back of the head and I was knocked out.
Just before it happened I remember seeing Kareem’s face
trying to warn me, then I listened to that strange silence fill my
ears. This felt the same. I could be reading in my room or playing
in our street, and that quiet anxiety would visit me. I would call
out for her even though I didn’t need her. And when I saw her
eyes lost in her face and heard her voice, that strange nervous
giggle, I was certain that Mama was ill again. Sometimes I felt the
panic, then found her well, immersed in a book by Nizar al-Qabbani,
her favorite poet. That upset me more.
When she was ill, she would talk and talk and talk but later hardly
remember any of what she had told me. It was as if her illness got
the spirit of another woman in her. In the morning, after I had
fallen asleep exhausted from listening to her craziness and from
guarding her—afraid she would burn herself or leave the gas
on in the kitchen or, God forbid, leave the house altogether and
bring shame and talk down on us—she would come and sit beside
me, comb my hair with her fingers and apologize and sometimes even
cry a little. I would then be stung by her breath, heavy with
medicine, unable to frown or turn my face because I wanted her to
believe I was in a deep sleep.
She was shocked when I repeated to her the things she had told me
the night before. “Who told you this?” she would ask.
“You,” I would shout—shout because I was unable
not to. Then she would look away and say, “You
shouldn’t have heard that.”
Sometimes she talked about Scheherazade. A Thousand and One
Nights had been her mother’s favorite story, and
although my grandmother couldn’t read she had memorized the
entire book, word for word, and recited it regularly to her
children. When I was first told this, I dreamed of my grandmother,
whom I rarely saw, struggling to swallow the entire book. Nothing
angered Mama more than the story of Scheherazade. I had always
thought Scheherazade a brave woman who had gained her freedom
through inventing tales and often, in moments of great fear,
recalled her example.
“You should find yourself another model,” Mama once
began. “Scheherazade was a coward who accepted slavery over
death. You know the closing chapter? ‘The Marriage of King
Shahryar and Scheherazade’? When she finally, after having
lived with him for God knows how long, after sleeping with
him—nothing, of course, is ever said of that—bearing
him not one, not two, but three sons, after all of that she managed
to gather her courage, your brave Scheherazade, to finally
ask the question: ‘May I be so bold as to ask a favor of Your
Highness?’ And what was this favor that she was pleading to
be so bold as to ask? What was it?” Mama shouted, her eyes
not leaving me. “Was it to rule one of the corners or even a
dirty little cave in his kingdom? Was it to be given one of the
ministries? Perhaps a school? Or was it to be given a writing desk
in a quiet room in his palace of endless rooms, a room the woman
could call her own, to write in secret the truth of this monster
Shahryar? No. She gathered her children around her—‘one
walking, one crawling and one sucking,’ as the book tells us.
All sons, of course. I wonder how successful she would have been if
they were three harlots like her.”
What scared me the most during such nights was how different Mama
became. She said words in front of me that made my cheeks blush and
my heart shudder. Saliva gathered at the corners of her lips. She
didn’t look beautiful anymore.
“Your heroine’s boldness was to ask to be allowed to .
. . ?” She held the word in the air, staring at me, casting
her hand slowly in a curve as if she was presenting a feast.
Her eyes fixed on me, expecting me to say something, to be
outraged, to slap my thigh, sigh, click my tongue and shake my
head. I faced my lap, pretending to be busy with something between
my fingers, hoping the moment would pass. And when she started
speaking again I was always relieved that her voice had come to
fill the void.
“To live,” she repeated. “And not because she had
as much right to live as he, but because if he were to kill her,
his sons would live ‘motherless.’” Mama covered
her mouth with the back of her hand and giggled like a child.
“‘Release me,’ your Scheherazade begged,
‘release me from the doom of death as a dole to these
infants. You will find nobody among all the women in your realm to
raise them as they should be raised.’ Stupid harlot. My
guess: five, maybe ten years at the most before she got the sword.
As soon as the ‘one sucking’ became the ‘one
walking’ and her muscles, Scheherazade’s fine, supple
muscles . . .” Mama said, frowning in disgust. The ceiling
light seemed too harsh on her face. I wondered if I should switch
it off, switch on the side lamps instead. “Those so important
for pleasing the king, the mighty, the majestic Shahryar, had
loosened . . .” Her eyes were wet now, her lower lip quivered
slightly. “As soon as she was no longer tempting, useful; as
soon as she was no longer beautiful: whack! Gone with the
head,” she said and then her own head dropped and her legs
extended before her. I thought she was going to fall off the sofa,
but she remained still, silent for a couple of minutes. I imagined
how it might be to live without her. A warm swirl spun in my belly,
something warm and dependable gripped my heart and sent a rush
through me. I wasn’t sure if it was fear or excitement that I
felt at the thought of losing her. Then she seemed to wake up. She
looked at me as if it was the first time we had met. She scanned
the room, paused for a moment, then lit a cigarette. “You
should go to bed,” she said, looking away.
On the mornings after she was always nice. She liked to take me out
driving. If it was a school day she would ask, “Anything
important today?” I would shrug my shoulders and she would
say, “I’ll telephone the school and tell them
you’re not well.” In the car she talked a lot and
wasn’t surprised by my silence. She didn’t mind
stopping under the pedestrian bridge that crossed over Gorgi Street
so I could watch the bad boys hanging above the fast traffic by
their arms and some, the truly brave ones, by their ankles.
Normally, when we passed under them, she would ask me to shut my
eyes. But on such mornings she was happy to park beside them and
let me watch. Sometimes she would even say, “I must admit,
they are quite brave.” Then, “Promise you would never
do that. Promise you would always protect yourself.”
Sometimes I nodded and sometimes I didn’t. On some mornings
she took me all the way to town just to buy sesame sticks. Or, if
she had been very ill the night before, she would take me to Signor
Il Calzoni’s restaurant by the sea, in Gergarish, for grilled
shrimp and spaghetti. In winter I ordered the beet-and-tomato soup
with bread and cheese and bresaola. I liked the way the beet
painted my spit and tongue purple for hours.
Signor Il Calzoni had a big machine that squeezed oranges all on
its own and he would take me to push the button that set the whole
thing working, cutting oranges and squeezing them in front of you.
I didn’t like orange juice that much but some days I drank up
to five glasses just to watch the thing work. After the meal I
always got gelati. Mama ordered cappuccino and sipped it slowly,
looking out on to the sea, squinting her eyes at the horizon where
on a clear day we could see Malta, a giant biscuit floating on the
sea. Signor Il Calzoni was always pleased to see us. He would take
us to our table by the window and hover in search of conversation.
He spoke about how much he missed Italy and how much he loved
Libya. And occasionally he would chant, loud enough for all in the
restaurant to hear, “Long live the Guide,” toward a
large mural he had had a couple of art students paint at one end of
the restaurant. It showed the Colonel in his full military uniform,
curling his eyebrows and looking very serious. And if the
restaurant had a table of Revolutionary Committee men, or
Mokhabarat, people we called Antennae, he chanted, “El-Fateh,
el-Fateh, el-Fateh,” punching the air with his fist until the
waiters joined in. Sometimes the chef too came out and I got to see
his tall, puffy white hat.
The things she told me pressed down on my chest, so heavy that it
seemed impossible to carry on living without spilling them. I
didn’t want to break my promise—the promise she always
forced me to give, sometimes over thirty times in one night, not to
tell, to swear on her life, again and again, and then be warned,
“If you tell a living soul and I die, my life will be on your
neck”—so I tried to tell her. We were at Signor Il
Calzoni’s restaurant. She kept interrupting me, pleading with
me to stop. So I covered my ears, shut my eyes and spoke like a
robot above her. She slapped the table and said, “Please,
Suleiman, I beg you, don’t embarrass me,” and whispered
sternly through flexed lips, “A boy your age should never
speak such things.” Then she changed her tone and said,
“Habibi, light of my eyes, promise you won’t tell
anyone. Especially Moosa. I know how much you love him, but nothing
ever stays in that man’s mouth. Promise.” I nodded,
wrapping my arms around myself, doubling over: this was the only
way I could keep it all inside. Signor Il Calzoni avoided coming to
our table when he saw us like this. He would stand beside his
cashier, pretending not to look.
Sometimes I couldn’t get myself to eat, and Mama would think
I was punishing her. “What do you want from me?” she
would whisper angrily across the table. “I have given up
everything for you. You’re not even satisfied.”
If I began to cry, Signor Il Calzoni would take me to squeeze more
oranges, holding my hand and talking in his funny accent. Then, if
the restaurant was completely empty, he would sit beside me, look
out on to the sea and say, “Ah. Look how beautiful your
country is, Suleiman. Now it’s mine too, no? I am also
Libyan, like you. I speak like a Libyan, no?”
“No,” I would say just to make him laugh. He had a
wonderful laugh. His entire body would bounce beside me. The seats
were spring-upholstered and so I would do the same. And that made
him blush in front of Mama.
“You should change your name from Signor Il Calzoni to Signor
al-Husseini.” That always made him bounce. On the way home I
regretted all the talking and laughing, regretted breaking my
silence, allowing myself to be tricked like a cat teased out from
beneath a bed with a string. I knew I had failed when, on our way
back home, late in the afternoon when the bread was no longer at
its best, she would stop by the empty bakery. I would stand to one
side, pretending to be drawing shapes with my sandal into the flour
dusted floor, and watch the baker Majdi reach beneath his deep
counter and think, that’s the devil. He would hand her a
bottle wrapped in a black plastic bag, and she would immediately
bury it in her handbag. And when we were in the car she
didn’t place her bag beside her as she normally did, but
beneath her legs, well out of view. I knew it was her medicine, bad
for her and bad for me, but, doubtful of the world and my place in
it, I said nothing. I massacred the hardened ends of each loaf and
she didn’t complain that I was ruining them.
Mama and I spent most of the time together—she alone, I
unable to leave her. I worried how the world might change if even
for a second I was to look away, to relax the grip of my gaze. I
was convinced that if my attention was applied fully, disaster
would be kept at bay and she would return whole and uncorrupted, no
longer lost, stranded on the opposite bank, waiting alone. But
although her unpredictability and her urgent stories tormented me,
my vigil and what I then could only explain as her illness bound us
into an intimacy that has since occupied the innermost memory I
have of love. If love starts somewhere, if it is a hidden force
that is brought out by a person, like light off a mirror, for me
that person was her. There was anger, there was pity, even the dark
warm embrace of hate, but always love and always the joy that
surrounds the beginning of love.
That summer Ustath Rashid taught his son how to drive. He would
prop Kareem up on a pillow and let him drive around the quiet
streets of Gergarish. A week before we went to
Lepcis, Kareem took his father’s car keys without asking
permission and drove me to the sea. He tried to get as close to the
water as possible, but as soon as we reached the shore
the wheels sank into the sand.
“Why won’t you come to Lepcis?”
“Mama won’t let me.”
“Stop making excuses. She already told Baba you can. What are
you afraid of?”
“I am not afraid.” He didn’t seem convinced. I
worried he would think me a mommy’s boy, so I told him.
“She’s ill,” I said. “I think she will die
“But all women are ill,” Kareem said. “Mama
“Yes. Sometimes I go into the bathroom and find the toilet
water red. It’s disgusting. It’s their curse. But
don’t worry, it doesn’t mean they will
The sea was as flat and still as oil. We ran until the water
tripped us. We raced toward the turquoise, where the deep sea was
cooler. I felt bad for Kareem, but also relieved that
at least my mother didn’t bleed.
“You’ll love Lepcis.” He dived and tickled my
feet. Back on land we collected stones, wood and any rubbish we
could find to stuff behind the wheels. The engine moaned
and the car shifted sideways before it wriggled its way out of the
Kareem had been to Lepcis Magna several times with his
He had also seen Ghadames and Sabratha, the cave paintings in
Fezzan. He had even been on a boat to Crete, where he said women
swam naked. Like me, he was an only
child. This was very rare because parents with only one offspring
were always at risk of leading people to believe that either the
woman was no longer good, or, God forbid, both
the mother and the father were objecting to God’s Will. Mama
was often asked why she didn’t have more children.
She would blush at the question. Baba blushed too when he was
nudged by a friend and asked in a whisper why he didn’t take
another wife. Maybe it was this that in spite of
the age difference—Kareem was twelve, where I was
nine—had brought us close to each other. Because what united
Kareem and me rarely felt like friendship, but something like blood
or virtue. I wanted so much to be like him.
When Kareem and his parents first moved in next door, Mama went to
pay them a visit. She asked me to put on my black leather shoes,
which I hardly wore because they were
heavy and scraped against my ankles, and she ironed my white shirt
and insisted I button its collar. I didn’t mind because I was
eager to meet my new next-door neighbor, who, the boys in the
street had told me, was like me, without brother or sister. But
when we arrived, his mother, Auntie Salma, said that Kareem had
gone out with his father to explore the area, then smiled, tilted
her head to one side and said, “Sorry.”
Our street was mostly lined with building plots, the foundations
dug up and abandoned. The only five completed houses, identical in
design, huddled together in the center of the street: ours and
Kareem’s on one side; the other three, where Adnan, Masoud
and Ali and Osama lived, on the opposite side.
I wandered around our new neighbors’ house, amused by the
strangeness of being in a building that was the mirror image of
ours on the outside but on the inside was completely altered by the
different furniture and the colors of the walls: like two brothers
who had grown distant. Our walls were lined in Italian wallpaper,
European flowers in full bloom, autumn leaves falling always, the
same bird perched on top of the same branch and plucking at the
same twig over and over again, foreign butterflies on armchairs,
tables in dark, satisfied woods and our windows dressed in Dutch
cloth and French velvet. Their walls were painted pastel, the
baseboards a dark brown, “So that when they get dirty it
won’t show,” Auntie Salma explained, showing Mama
around the house. “What a clever idea,” Mama said, with
worrying enthusiasm. Their windows were covered in the same cotton
fabric, the sort of thing that was commonly found in Libya then,
imported from Egypt. They weren’t as well off as we were;
Ustath Rashid was only a university professor, whereas Baba was a
businessman who traveled the world looking for beautiful things and
animals and trees to bring to our country. That night I thanked God
for our wealth and asked him to keep us so forever and ever.
A couple of days before Ustath Rashid was taken I joined him, his
students and Kareem on a day trip to Lepcis. I felt a string in my
heart break as I looked back at Mama waving
good-bye. Baba wasn’t home. At the beginning of the trip I
was nervous, but then the whole bus began singing and clapping.
Ustath Rashid’s students were wonderfully jubilant; watching
them I burned with anticipation to be at university. A couple of
girls were pulled up to dance. With eyes downcast they shook their
hips and twirled their hands in the air. Passing cars blew their
horns. We were like a wedding party.
Kareem and I were sitting in the back, Ustath Rashid in the front,
occasionally looking back at us and smiling. When the dancing and
the clapping subsided, a chant took hold: “al-Doctor,
al-Doctor, al-Doctor” . . . We didn’t stop until Ustath
Rashid stood up and turned to face us.
“I am truly honored to have such an orderly, wellmannered and
respectable group of students. I would just like to know where you
unruly bunch have hidden them.”
We all laughed, clapping and whistling as loudly as we could.
“The city of Lepcis Magna was founded by people from Tyre . .
“Yes—very good—modern-day Lebanon. Subsequently
it became Phoenician, then, of course, Roman, when it was made
famous by its loyal son, Emperor Sep . . .”
“Yes, our Grim African, both a source of pride and
“Well, if you insist.”
Then the bus turned down a dirt road that led to the sea.
“Welcome to Lepcis,” Ustath Rashid announced.
He seemed transformed. Stepping down from the bus, smiling at the
abandoned city scattered by the lapping sea, its twisted columns
like heavy sleeping giants by the shore,
he gave a deep sigh and recited a poem:
Why this emptiness after joy?
Why this ending after glory?
Why this nothingness where once was a city?
Who will answer? Only the wind Which steals the chantings of
priests And scatters the souls once gathered.
Some of his students clapped. He smiled, bowed, his cheeks
“Sidi Mahrez’s lamentation for Carthage could have
equally applied to Lepcis,” he said, marching ahead. We all
struggled to keep up.
He took us to see a broken frieze that displayed part of the
emperor’s name. Absence was everywhere. Arches stood without
the walls and roofs of the shops they had once belonged to and
seemed, in the empty square under the open sky, like old men trying
to remember where they were going. Coiled ivy and clusters of
grapes were carved into their stone. White-stone-cobbled
streets—some heading toward the sea, others into the
surrounding green desert—marched bravely into the rising sand
that erased them. Ferns, grass and wild sage shot through the
stone-paved floor. Palm trees bowed like old gossiping women at the
edges of the city. He showed us the Medusa medallions carved in
marble and inset high between the leap and dive of the limestone
arches. They were boys with healthy cheeks full as moons, encircled
with lush curls, their foreheads flexed, eyes anxiously inspecting
the distance, lips gently open. “They are also known as the
sea monsters,” Ustath Rashid said, “always facing the
sea, always expecting the worst.”
Kareem continued staring up at the Medusa medallions long after the
group had wandered off to the next object.
“What’s the point?” he said.
“To scare away the enemy,” I said.
“And how do you expect them to do that?”
“I don’t know,” I said and walked away.
“Children are useless in a war,” he said, following me.
We caught up with Ustath Rashid in what were the baths, tiled
rectangular cubes carved into the ground and under domed roofs.
Flaked frescoes of men stabbing spears into the necks of lions and
cheetahs, others on boats in a river full of yawning fish, lined
the walls and ceilings. Ustath Rashid stopped in front of a
painting of a naked woman.
“This is a maenad, a follower of the cult of Dionysus, the
god that alleviates inhibitions and inspires creativity.” Her
eyes were as strange as a bird’s, her lips full an
melancholy, the area around her nipples glowed pink, and her
stomach stretched down to hips that widened out softly. She was
dancing, one hand above her head, the other out by her waist. I
could hear Ustath Rashid’s voice going further, footsteps
following him. I came closer to her, traced my finger around the
dark swirl of her belly button. I turned
my finger around the pink center of her nipple. Then my eyes fell
on her dark lips. I kissed them, hearing my own breath against the
cool dry stone. Something like guilt or
fear made me withdraw. I felt a swirl of excitement in my belly.
Her eyes seemed to be looking at me. I quickly kissed her again and
ran to catch up with the others.
We picnicked there, and when everyone was lying under trees
resting, Kareem and I went exploring. We spotted two of Ustath
Rashid’s students hugging below a chestnut tree.
We watched him slip his hand beneath her jumper. She moaned a
strange moan. Later the man got in a fistfight with another
student. We weren’t sure if it was over the girl.
When one punched the other in the face it didn’t sound like
it did in the films; instead of a bang it was more like a wet kiss.
Ustath Rashid put himself between them and got his
spectacles knocked off. Everyone fell silent then. He smiled
strangely while he searched for his spectacles. They all watched
him. Kareem spotted them in the dirt and picked
them up. He placed them in his father’s hand. Ustath Rashid
fixed them over his ears and smiled again, facing the ground, as if
it was he who had lost his temper and was now embarrassed.
Just when everybody was preparing to leave, Kareem took me to see
the amphitheater. We took turns running down to the stage to hear
our voices amplified against the rising steps shaped in a crescent
moon. By this time thick clouds were drifting into the sky, black
and bruised. The sea was growing louder, crashing against the
shore, then the
On the way back most of the bus was asleep. I watched Kareem nuzzle
into his father’s side.
At times I used to wish that Baba was more like Ustath Rashid. The
two men were good friends, if unalike. Baba was much more aloof.
The times I felt closest to him were when he was unaware of my
presence: watching him spread his library of neckties on the bed,
for example, humming an unfamiliar tune. Even the way he swam
seemed distant: floating on his back, his toes pointing to the sky,
his eyes shut, unconcerned where the waters might take him. At home
he was often busy with a book or the endless number
of newspapers that appeared at our door every morning. I would
sometimes curl up beside him, but his powers of concentration were
amazing and he would hardly notice me. I would study his face as he
read. Even the English mints he bought on his trips abroad, and
which he kept in a small silver box, seemed mysterious: they were
the size of small aspirin pills, but as soon as I put one in my
mouth it set it on fire. He would sometimes say something in
Italian at the newspaper. That always made Mama laugh. “Your
father is swearing at the paper,” she would say.
Although he traveled more than Ustath Rashid he never took me with
him. I begged him several times and once I felt so sick with
sadness that I screamed, kicked his shins and
pummeled his thighs, and, when Mama restrained me, I cried and
called him “Ugly!” He drove off just the same. I never
again asked him to take me with him or cried in front
of him when he came to leave.
At other times I secretly wished that Moosa, Baba’s closest
friend, was my father instead. Moosa was much younger, closer to
Mama’s age, and as tall as a tree. He often carried
me on his shoulders to pick the high fruit, sweetened by the sun,
on the crowns of the plum and orange trees in our garden.
Once Baba returned from one of his business trips with a huge open
truck full of trees that had come by sea from Sweden. It was
strange to have them sleep outside our
house. They were dark and moist and smelled like human skin. Mama
and I spread the atlas on the kitchen table to see where exactly
Sweden was and by which sea route
Baba’s trees had come. Another time the truck was full of
cows, black and dark brown from Scotland. We—Baba, Mama,
Moosa and I—fed them without letting them off the
truck, stuffing the feed through the fence, their round big black
glassy eyes following us in silence. Mama sang to them the way she
sang to herself when she was in the bathroom, or when she was
hanging clothes on the clothesline in the garden, softly like a
little girl unaware of herself. Baba walked around the truck
several times, making sure each cow got its share. The cows were
silent the whole time, chewing gloomily.
I spent the whole of that day unable to leave them alone, turning
around the truck, looking up at their pink titties, climbing to
stare into their peculiar eyes. After naptime the boys came out and
began teasing them too. Masoud wiggled his bum at them and mooed,
causing his brother Ali to laugh so hard a vein on either side of
his tiny neck bulged out.
Osama wanted to hear them moo so he threw a couple of stones at
them and the cows huddled together, their sudden movement causing
the truck to rock slightly. This seemed to awaken a new fear in
Ali; he ran to his front door and stood frowning at his fingers.
“Come, don’t be such a baby,” his brother Masoud
said. Ali ran inside his house and didn’t come out for the
rest of the day. When I threatened Osama I would tell Baba, he
sighed and dropped the stones in his hands. By nightfall the cows
began to moo.
“Maybe they are frightened,” I suggested.
Moosa said it was the heat that bothered them. “Where they
are from the sun has no heat and barely any light,” he
“So you want to convince us you’ve been to
Scotland?” Mama told him.
“No. I saw it in a film. I felt a chill just watching
it.” Baba couldn’t say how cold Scotland was because he
had bought the cows off a man in Malta, which was only across
The following morning, after Baba had driven off with them, Um
Masoud came to our door to complain. She was Masoud and Ali’s
mother and lived in the house across the
street from ours. Like her two sons, Um Masoud was fat. Her
buttocks were the size of giant watermelons. Although I never tried
it, of course, I was certain I could balance a glass of water on
one of them. Holding her youngest, Ali, by one hand and waving the
other beside her ear, she said, “I can still hear their
mooing and suspect I will for a long time to come. Ali
couldn’t even sleep.” Ali was only six and, standing
beside his huge mother, he looked like a dwarf. I stuck my tongue
out at him. He frowned and looked away. “He woke up several
times screaming. And this is to say nothing of the stink they left
behind in our street.”
“You just have,” Mama murmured.
“What did you say?” Um Masoud said, suspicion
her eyebrows into a deep V.
“Nothing,” Mama said.
Um Masoud walked away, pulling Ali by the hand, and repeating,
“Cows? Cows in our street?”
“Next time we will import snakes,” Mama said under her
breath. “Silent, odorless snakes.”
“What would people say?” Um Masoud continued.
“That we bring cows into our homes? It’s not normal,
this.” I was glad she hadn’t heard what Mama said about
the snakes. Um Masoud’s husband, Ustath Jafer, was an
Antenna, a man of the Mokhabarat, “able to put people behind
the sun,” as I had heard it said many times.
Two days after we returned from Lepcis, and a week before I had
seen Baba walk across Martyrs’ Square, Ustath Rashid was
I had seen men interrogated on television before. I remembered once
a man who used to own a clothing factory in Tripoli. He was accused
of being a bourgeois and a traitor.
He was dressed in a light gray Italian suit that shimmered slightly
under the spotlight. He sat stiff in his chair, as if he was in
pain. I was standing just outside the entrance of the room, where I
wouldn’t be seen. Baba and Moosa sat on the sofa, Mama beside
them in the armchair. Moosa said softly to Baba, “They
deliberately spare the face. I bet his
body is a patchwork of bruises.” Then a dark cloud grew out
of nowhere on the man’s groin, a stain that kept
I saw it first. I ran to the screen, stabbing my finger at
“Move,” Baba yelled. I ran and stood beside Mama.
“Go to your room,” he said. “It’s all
right,” Mama told him and he shouted, “He
shouldn’t see this.” “It’s his country
said calmly, facing the screen. He stormed out of the room. We
watched the man trying to cover the wet patch with his hands,
squirming in his chair.
But to see Ustath Rashid arrested was different. I had heard it
said many times before that no one is ever beyond their reach, but
to see them, to see how it can happen, how quickly, how
there’s no space to argue, to say no, made my belly swim.
Afterward, when Mama saw my face, she said, “You look like
you’ve seen a ghost.” When I told her what I had seen
she brought her hand to her forehead and whispered, “Poor
Salma.” She took me to the bathroom and washed my face.
“You shouldn’t have watched. Next time run straight
home.” Then she made me soup and tea as if I had the
Somebody, a traitor, was printing leaflets criticizing the Guide
and his Revolutionary Committees. They came in the middle of the
night and placed them like newspapers on our doorsteps. I say
somebody, but there must have been hundreds, maybe even thousands
of men. The boys and I took turns staying up, hoping to catch sight
of one. We imagined them to be all in black, masked and very fast.
Ali claimed he saw one. Masoud whacked him across the head and
said, “If you lie about such things again I’ll tell
Everyone feared these leaflets and made a point of tearing them up
in full view of their neighbors. Others, like Mama, took them
inside only to watch them burn in the kitchen sink, then ran cold
water over the ashes. I overheard her once say to Auntie Salma,
“They are going to get us all in trouble.” When I asked
her what she meant, she sighed and said, “Nothing.”
Another time she stood stiffly out on the pavement listening to Um
Masoud speak against the “traitors,” saying,
“Jafer is very distressed by these leaflets.”
Mama spoke differently to Um Masoud; she seemed sympathetic. She
frowned and shook her head and agreed with everything Um Masoud
said. “May God forgive them, they
don’t know how wonderful the revolution has been for this
The morning before Ustath Rashid was taken the boys and I were so
bored we took the leaflets the traitors had left during the night
and tossed them over the garden walls,
where they immediately became, officially, inside people’s
houses. We only did this in neighboring streets, where we
didn’t know anyone. We tied their light paper bodies to
small stones and hurled them over the high walls the way grenades
were thrown in war films. The act was exhilarating, but soon
boredom set in again, so we returned to our
street and began preparing it for a football match.
Gergarish was a newly constructed district and apart from the main
roads that connected it to the center of the city, most of its
streets were yet to be named or tarmacked. We called ours Mulberry
because there used to be an orchard of mulberry trees here, the
last one remaining was next door in Ustath Rashid and Auntie
Salma’s garden. The sun reached the center of the sky. We
heard the crackle of the local mosque speaker. We could see the
pencillike minaret rise in the distance above the low houses of
street. Then Sheikh Mustafa’s voice came. We marked the
goalposts with rocks and empty plastic bottles, argued about the
sides and finally the game kicked off. After a few minutes a car
hurtled toward us, billowing dust as if it was the only creature in
the world. When we saw it, white in the sun, we stopped playing and
ran to the pavement,
letting the ball roll away.
The car pulled over in front of Kareem’s house. Kareem froze,
as if his heart had dropped into his shoes. Four men got out,
leaving the doors open. The car was like a giant dead moth in the
sun. Three of the men ran inside the house, the fourth, who was the
driver and seemed to be their leader, waited on the pavement. He
smiled at the two fat brothers Masoud and Ali. I didn’t
register then that he knew them.
None of us had seen him before. He had a horrible face, pockmarked
like pumice stone. His men reappeared, holding Ustath Rashid
between them. He didn’t struggle. Auntie
Salma trailed behind as if an invisible string connected her to her
husband. The man with the pockmarked face slapped Ustath Rashid,
suddenly and ferociously. It sounded like
fabric tearing, it stopped Auntie Salma. Another one kicked Ustath
Rashid in the behind. He anticipated it because he jerked forward
just before it came. The force of it made him jump, but he
didn’t make a sound. He wore that strange embarrassed smile
of his. He didn’t argue or beg, as if the reasons why, all
the questions and answers, were known. His
shirt was torn. But no blood. I was surprised by this, and later
thought that if he had bled—even a little—it would have
made it easier on Kareem, because we all would have respected a
bleeding man. Ustath Rashid looked toward us, and when his eyes met
Kareem’s, his face changed. He looked like he was about to
cry or vomit. Then he doubled over and began to cough. The men
seemed not to know what to do. They looked at one another, then at
Auntie Salma, who had one hand over her mouth, the other clasped
around her braided hair that fell as thick as an anchor line over
her shoulder. They grabbed Ustath Rashid, threw him into the car,
slammed the doors shut and sped between us, crushing our goalposts.
I couldn’t see Ustath Rashid’s head between the two men
sitting on either side of him in the backseat; he must have been
Kareem took a few steps after the car. For a moment I thought he
was going to run after it. He stood with his back to us, then
turned and walked home. Auntie Salma was standing, still clutching
her hair, looking in the direction the white car had vanished, as
if it was arriving, as if Ustath Rashid was in fact finally coming
home from a long trip.
No one knew why Ustath Rashid had been taken, but the next day the
rumors began to spread that he had been a traitor.
Um Masoud came to our door, clicked her tongue, looked around her
and said, “That’s the fate of all
Baba had heard Um Masoud gossip before: she claimed that Bahloul
the beggar was richer than all of us put together, that Majdi the
baker didn’t only sell “innocent
bread”—that was how she put it—but something else
too, called grappa, which wasn’t only haram, but also illegal
in our country. Such rumors didn’t bother Baba, in fact
sometimes they amused him, but Ustath Rashid was his friend.
The two would often go walking by the sea when the sun was low. And
many times they sat talking softly in Baba’s study, where
they were sometimes joined by Nasser. I would bring them coffee.
Mama would knock twice, then open the door for me. Walking in
slowly, balancing the tray, I would be hit immediately by the
coarse, smoke-filled air. It made the bitter smell of cardamom and
gum arabic rising up from the coffee almost pleasant.
“Don’t spill,” were often Mama’s last words
before she swung the door open on those secret meetings. I quickly
learned that the best way was to look ahead; not caring if I
spilled, or not caring overtly, seemed to be the trick. But at the
beginning I walked with my head down, facing the three black pools
of coffee on the silver tray, telling my hands to be firm as I
caught to my left, in the periphery of my vision, the knees of the
two men sitting in the comfortable butterfly-cloaked armchairs, and
to my right the brown wooden expanse of Baba’s desk. When I
had safely placed the tray on the desk, Baba would say, “Well
done, Suleiman.” When I looked up to face him I sometimes
heard my neck crack. Their conversation was suspended from the
moment Mama had knocked on the door, they were eager for me to
leave. “Close the door,” Baba would say, but then he
often called me back at the last minute. “Here,” he
would say, “empty this,” handing me an ashtray full of
cigarette butts and dead matchsticks. And a few weeks before Ustath
Rashid was taken, I placed the tray on Baba’s desk and saw
tears in his eyes. He was reading something. Ustath Rashid and
Nasser were sitting in silence watching him. I went to his side. I
nudged him and asked, “Who upset you, Baba?” Ustath
Rashid held his hand up and smiled. “I am afraid it’s
me, Suleiman.” I was confused; why would Ustath Rashid upset
Baba? Nasser chuckled.
Baba put his hand on my head and in a scratched voice said,
“No one upset me, Slooma. I was just reading . . .” He
looked at the piece of paper in his hand. “It’s so
beautiful. We will have to publish this,” he said, handing
the piece of paper to Nasser. Nasser folded it twice and put it in
his shirt pocket.
I had never seen Baba cry before. I couldn’t understand why
reading something beautiful made him cry.
When Baba heard Um Masoud click her tongue and say,
“That’s the fate of all traitors,” he
couldn’t keep silent.
“That’s a lie,” he told her, his voice bubbling
“A lie the authorities spread to justify the disappearance of
Um Masoud studied her fingers, comparing the length of her
“But then they don’t need to, obviously; there is
always a volunteer more than willing to lie for them. The
effortlessness, the automatism by which it happens . . .”
Mama tugged at his sleeve. “Let me,” he snapped. He
squinted his eyes at Um Masoud. “Weeds!” As he spoke
the word, he turned his hand as if tightening a screw, as if that
word was meant to fix Um Masoud in her corner. “Weeds, like
rumors, need no help.” Baba’s face reddened. It
frightened me to see him like this because, although he was often
serious, he very rarely became angry.
Um Masoud continued to study her fingers, smiling knowingly now, as
if some old suspicion had finally been confirmed.
Ustath Rashid had once told Baba that their wives were like two
lost sisters who had finally found each other. The first time they
met—standing in Auntie Salma’s kitchen among the
half-unpacked boxes—the two women seemed happy that fate had
finally brought them together. Since then, no two days would pass
before one called or visited the other. They found excuses to
interrupt each other’s life. Many mornings Auntie Salma would
come to our door to borrow sugar or flour or salt, and Mama would
always ask her in. “I am short of time,” Auntie Salma
would say, but then forget herself until Ustath Rashid or Kareem
would come for her, upset she hadn’t even started preparing
lunch yet. And sometimes it was Mama who went next door, and we
were the ones left without lunch. Mama never forgot herself as she
did with Auntie Salma.
They drank tea and talked endlessly; occasionally they would hunch
over into whispers, then one of them would clap her hands and burst
out laughing. They brought the latest
music to play for each other, and sometimes one would play the
tabla, calling out aywa aywa with the beat while the other
danced, knocking her hips from side to side. And once
I saw them dancing in Mama’s bedroom to Julio Iglesias,
dancing slowly the way men and women did in foreign films, then
Auntie Salma bowed and kissed Mama’s hand.
Mama pulled her hand quickly away when she saw me. Auntie Salma
came to me, held my hands and we danced. She was so sweet, full of
smiles, her cheeks red.
When Baba was away and Mama became ill, we didn’t answer the
door, pretended we weren’t in. But once I was so frightened I
opened the door for Auntie Salma. She saw
Mama on the floor in the bedroom, smelled her. It was as if a black
shadow had fallen on Auntie Salma’s face. She left the room,
then came back with a wet towel. She patted Mama’s face. Mama
woke up, she seemed disoriented.
“What are you doing here?” she said. Auntie Salma
helped her up to bed, then asked me to fetch a glass of water. When
I returned I found Mama crying. Auntie Salma said, “Praise
the Prophet, girl,” and with a deep sigh Mama praised. After
Ustath Rashid was taken Mama didn’t go to Auntie Salma and
Auntie Salma didn’t call or visit. Mama didn’t want me
to see Kareem either. “No need for you to be so close to that
boy,” she said. She had never called him “that
boy” before. “This is a time for walking beside
wall,” she said. When I asked her what she meant, she
“Nothing, just try not to be so close to him, that’s
all.” She could feel my eyes following her, trying to
understand, so she added, “It just isn’t good for you
to be so close to all of his sadness. Grief loves the hollow; all
it wants is to hear its own echo. Be careful.”
I was affected by Mama’s words; I did feel myself nudged by
guilt whenever Kareem and I were alone. She was right: a certain
sadness had entered his eyes the day Ustath Rashid
was taken, but it wasn’t the sadness of longing, it was the
sadness of betrayal, the silent sadness that comes from being let
down. Or at least that’s how it seems now. He became
quieter—he was always quiet, but not this quiet—and
refused to join in any of the games we played. Instead, he would
lean on a car nearby as we played football in the street, looking
at us in a way that made me feel far away from him. At those
moments I wished the Revolutionary Committee would return and this
time take my father so that we would be equal, united again by that
mysterious bond of blood that had up to that day felt like an
advantage. Later, when we were alone, I told him, “Sorry,
Kareem. Sorry we didn’t all stand arm in arm to block the
way. After all, Mulberry is our street.” He curled
his lower lip and shrugged his shoulders. I felt the way Mama must
have felt when, after she had been ill, I was angry at her; I
wanted so much to bring him out of his silence. I took him
swimming. But instead of heading for the deep, clear waters of the
sea that touch the horizon, quickly past the blue-black strip that
always frightened us because its floor was alive with dark weeds
and movement and things, Kareem swam reluctantly. When I was past
the dark waters, moving like a streamer with my long flippers,
stabbing my arms fast into the pale turquoise, I looked back and
saw him on the shore, walking away.
Excerpted from IN THE COUNTRY OF MEN © Copyright 2011 by
Hisham Matar. Reprinted with permission by The Dial Press, a
division of Random House. All rights reserved.