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In the Land of Kan’an

Dima Alzayat

Hayya 'ala s-salah. Hayya 'ala 'l-falah. Farid answers the call. Stands between two men that connect him to a row of two dozen others, to fourteen centuries of millions more. All facing al-Baytu l-ʿAtīq: The Primordial House, home of the Black Stone. A stone whiter than milk when it fell from Paradise only to be turned as dark as night by the sons of Adam and their sins.

He stares down past hands folded one over the other on his rounded belly. Eyes trace blue lines that intertwine to form the octagons and hexagons and other –agons woven through the crimson wool beneath his bare feet.

Allahu-akbar. Forward he leans. Palms on knees, back forming a ninety-degree angle with bent legs, stiff joints. The recitations turn and tumble in his mind like old acquaintances. Glory to my Lord, the Most Magnificent. Repeat and repeat.

Allahu-akbar. Up for a moment and then back down. All the way down this time. The carpet is rough against his forehead, its scent heavy and stale. He fills his lungs. Glory to my Lord, the Most High, the Most Praiseworthy. Inhales again and drinks the sweet mustiness like a newborn takes its mother’s milk, all-filling, all-fulfilling. When he exhales, he can feel the breath leave his lungs, exit his mouth, but it does not blend into the air around him. Just lifts and hovers above his head, waiting to be reclaimed at the door.

Allahu-akbar. And up and down again and two more times until he is sitting, staring at the feet of the Pakistani man in front of him. The soles of the feet yellowed. The skin dry, cracked.

***

That night, you lie on your bed and stare at the ceiling. Listen to Amina’s heavy breathing. You kick off the quilt, leave only the sheet. Pull both up. Kick both off. Amina mumbles and turns toward you, her lids closed. On her face a clear gel mask has cooled and dried. You reach out and let your fingers graze its hard smooth surface. She opens an eye.

“What are you doing?”

“I can’t sleep.”

“Say Bismallah. Bismallah.” She turns over and pulls the quilt up to her chin. You wait for the first soft snore before you grab the khakis and navy sweater off the armchair and head downstairs. The moonlight cuts into the living room in streaks and you dress in a strip of darkness.

It’s almost midnight and the street is silent. House and lawn connect to house and lawn. Glowing jack-o’-lanterns stare from their porches and stoops. Witches laugh and goblins glare as you get in your car.

Your hands steer you north on San Vicente, turn you right onto Santa Monica. Neon lights in purple, red, and green. Fiesta Cantina, Rage, the Abbey. Lines wrap around street corners. Small groups walk from bar to club. Thin boys in bright tight T-shirts and stonewashed jeans tucked into leather high-tops. Men with silver hair don blazers over white V-necks that plunge deep toward sculpted chests. Broad shoulders in sequin dresses and bright blonde wigs; strappy sandals lift frames of statuesque proportions.

You roll down the window, and the beat washes over you, cracking the car’s silence with drums and cymbals. Uhn tiss uhn tiss uhn tiss. The pulse of voices and music floods the car. You stop at a red light. As people cross, their conversations fill your ears. You pretend they’re speaking to you. Let’s go to Fubar. No, long lines. Let’s go to Akbar. No, too far. Besides, everyone there has a beard. I don’t want my dick scratched up by some lumberjack. Laughter.

A young woman walks in impossibly high heels. She’s flanked by two tall men whose arms link through hers, helping her balance on spikes of leather and plastic. One of the men is thirty, thirty-five. He has a trimmed mustache, wide shoulders, and a narrow waist. The muscles of his thighs push against tight blue jeans. You trace the inseams up to their meeting place, haughty and defiant. Drag your eyes back up and they meet the girl’s. She looks right at you and smirks. You let your eyes glide to the light and stare at the red orb.

You roll up the window as you head south on Fairfax and west on Olympic. Turn onto one street and then the next. You pull into the driveway, turn off the ignition, and rest your head back as the engine cools. Bismallah, la ilaha ill allah. Your legs ache and your eyelids grow heavy as you pull yourself out of the car.

Amina’s dark shape on the sofa jolts you awake. “I couldn’t sleep. Went for a walk.” She stares at the keys in your hand. “Went for a drive.” Astaghfar allah.

***

The first time you took a dick in your mouth, you were certain you would be struck dead. That baked clay would rain down from the sky and smash your skull into ivory dust. Indeed, in that are signs for those who discern. But in and out it went, its veins throbbing with vigor, until liquid tasting of salt and metal spread its warmth and coated your teeth. So thick you had to wipe your tongue on your sleeve.

He was older. You were seventeen. They called him Mukhannath, Manyak, Lut, Shaz. The scar on his face ran from eyebrow to ear. His white jeans too big, held up by a belt studded with silver. Scuffed black loafers. Shoulder-length unwashed hair. A common sight on the streets of Cairo. All-around peddler. Nighttime hustler. That day, he was unloading bootleg videos. Saturday Night Fever, Rocky, Jaws, Star Wars. You held out money for Taxi Driver as he stared you down.

“That is one sick fuck.” You watched his mouth move and wondered what the stubble on his chin felt like. Became aware of a seed lying dormant in the hollow of your belly, placed there by the same hand that sent storms of sulfur to destroy the twin cities. Astaghfar allah.

“What?”

“The film. It’s about one sick fuck.” You pretended to contemplate the tape in your hand even though its sleeve was blank, unlabeled. “I have more,” he said. “Come with me.” You hesitated long enough for him to hear the echo in the empty chambers of your lungs. “It’s late now. It’s fine. Come with me.”

You followed him through one cobblestone hara after the next, each narrower than the last. Past night women in black lace and old men sharing bottles of watered down zibib, milky white and smelling of fermented anise. The occasional needle passed from hand to hand to arm. Ahlan ya manyouk, they greeted him. Ignored you. He fished a dinar from his pocket and handed it to a man leaning against a garbage bin in silence. Stopped to bellow a verse of Umm Kulthum with a girl who had narrow ribs and a mountainous voice.

Finally you were alone. Behind a shuttered butcher shop your mother used to send you to for liver. You leaned against the cold steel and felt the seed lodge itself into a crevice in the lining, morphing into a bulb determined to feed. He leaned toward you and his breath, warm and peppery, caused the bulb, now the size of your fist, to sprout shoots into the hollow of your stomach. Grew stalks that reached and climbed toward your throat and threatened to choke you in their search for air.

He stepped back and lit a cigarette. Held it out to you. “No one comes here, relax.” The smoke you inhaled forced the stalks to shrivel and recede. He smiled at the fit of coughs that followed. “The first time is the hardest. After that, it gets so you need it.”

You turned toward the alley’s mouth. Tried to convince yourself you had come for a movie, began to retrace your steps. He grabbed the cigarette, took a puff and flicked it to the ground, and although he was not much larger than you were, pinned you against the cool metal of the shutters. The vines thickened and reached higher this time, past your throat and into your mouth. He looked down and smiled. You had betrayed yourself. He reached down and caressed you and for a moment you felt only calm because you knew you couldn’t choke on the petals falling on your tongue.

***

When Lot said, “These are my daughters, they are more pure for you,” he spoke of all the girls in the town, not just his own. This was his advice to boys like you. Marriage is solution. That and salah. Salah and du’a’. Pray and supplicate. And above all, repent. Repent, repent, repent. For the ultimate transgression is the unwillingness to feel sorrow for your sins.

***

Farid wakes up next to a suitcase lying open on the bed. It takes him a moment in the gray light to make out Amina emerging from the walk-in closet with a sweater and a pair of boots in her arms.

“What are you doing?”

She lays the sweater on the bed and begins to tuck in the sleeves. “Packing. My flight leaves at noon. Sarah is picking me up.”

Terror tinged with excitement runs through his veins as he watches her fold the sweater once, twice. He sits up, leans against the headboard. “Where are you going?”

“To a crafts convention. I told you.”

A drip of disappointment gives way to a stream of relief. He sinks back into the pillows. “I forgot.”

“It’s just one night. I’ll be back tomorrow.” She places the sweater and boots in the case and zips it shut. He watches her adjust her hair in the mirror and wants to tell her she looks beautiful, that the wrinkles around her eyes only make her more so.

She catches his stare and walks over to him, touches her hand to his. He leans up and pulls her toward him and lightly kisses her cheek. Her closed lips ease into a smile as she moves away, straightens her back. “Don’t stay cooped up here while I’m gone. Go see a movie. Take a walk. Do something nice for yourself, Farid.” Her eyes now look like his mother’s. All knowing. All merciful.

***

Cairo to Los Angeles. You were one of many in the great Arab Brain Drain. Graduate college and get a job in Emreeka and with it, a wife. Given a selection of four or five to choose from upon arrival. Your father made some calls, your mother arranged the details. “It is a blessing to marry, Farid. The rhythms of marriage make everything else easier,” she promised.

On your wedding night, Amina changed into a slip made of satin and sat beside you on the bed. Pulled hairpins from an elaborate bun until strand by strand, loose curls fell to her shoulders as you lay shaking beneath the covers. She leaned over you and held your face between her palms and kissed your cheeks. Placed her head on your shoulder and held your hand in hers for an hour and when she finally spoke, her voice was kind. “I’m glad it’s the first time for both of us. It is your first time, Farid, isn’t it?”

And so it was. It is He who creates human beings from liquid, then makes them kin by blood and marriage. She took your hand and placed it on her full breast, the nipple growing hard beneath your fingertips. You stared at it, imagined that one day your son would suck life from that nipple. She pulled your face closer, moved your hand down, over a slender waist and a soft stomach. Your fingers slid further down still, towards the patch of hair reaching up to greet them, but lingered only briefly, circled her hips and grabbed her from behind. She let out a nervous laugh as you moved on top of her, brought your face next to hers, closed your eyes, and sought the streets of Cairo.

***

Farid remains in bed until he hears Sarah’s car pull out of the driveway. In his robe he walks to the kitchen and sets the kettle on the burner. Twists the knob to the left until it clicks once, twice. Blue and orange flames shoot up. He watches the narrow plumes of fire reach for the teapot, a hint of yellow visible in their centers. They are steady in their aim, a focused dance intent on making the kettle scream.

He pulls out a chair and sits, stares at Amina’s business guides and manuals on how to mold clay pots and make jewelry, quilt blankets and build birdhouses. The shrill whistle of hot steam jars him to attention and he rushes to the burner to quiet the sound. Pours the boiling water into a mug with a ready teabag and carries it to the living room. He draws open the drapes, letting in the ashen morning light, and after turning on the television, switches the channel to the news and mutes the sound. He walks over to the mantle and looks at the Qur’an, thick and leather bound, but does not touch it. Sets down his mug and leaves the room.

In the bathroom now, he rolls up his sleeves and turns on the sink faucet. Bismallah. He washes each hand three times, starting with the right. Cups his palms and fills them, pours the water into his mouth and gargles, spits. Repeat and repeat. Cleans his nose, splashes his face, returns to his arms but washes them all the way to the elbows this time. Repeat twice. Runs his wet hands over his head, around his ears. Turns off the faucet and walks over to the bathtub, adjusts the knob until the water runs warm. Dips in one foot at a time. Repeat and repeat. Lifts his right index finger. Ash-hadu an la ilaha illa-llah.

In the dim light he sits on the sofa, rests the closed book on his lap. His fingers trace the grooves of words etched in gold into the green leather cover. Without aim, he flips the pages, allowing the book to determine a destination. Inside, the letters curve into one another, connect long melodious vowels with short crisp consonants. The harakats suspended between the lines, miniature ornaments of sound. Together, the movements on the page form more than words, connect and interlace into a filigree of language. As he reads, his lips linger on each sound, savoring its nectar as it leaves his tongue. Rich syllables that rise and fall to a sublime rhythm, an ethereal cadence. Inimitable verses more eloquent than poetry, more fluid than prose. Achieving a resplendent euphony belonging to no land, floating in the ether between Paradise and Earth.

***

Later that afternoon Farid drives through the flats of Beverly Hills, up Crescent, and down Rodeo. He keeps to the residential streets, avoids the persistent gridlock of the main roads. His phone rings and Mazen’s name appears on the screen. He slips on an earpiece and presses a button to answer.

“Mazen.”

“Hi baba,” the voice booms in Farid’s ear. “How are you?”

“Good, good, habibi. How are you? Are you still studying for exams?” Farid hears muffled voices in the background. Laughter.

“Yeah, just taking a break with some friends. Getting something to eat.”

Farid realizes he’s driven to the end of a cul-de-sac and steers the wheel to turn the car around. “So you’re doing well? School, everything, good?”

Mazen covers his phone, says something to the others with him. The laughter moves farther from Farid’s ear. “I’m great, baba. I was calling to check on you. I know mama’s gone. Wanted to make sure you’re okay.”

Farid steers the car closer to the curb and presses down on the brake, keeps the ignition running. “Habibi, of course I’m okay. I’m not completely useless alone you know.”

“Mama mentioned you’ve just been hanging around the house.”

“I’m on vacation and mama is too busy to take a trip right now.”

“Yeah, I know, but maybe get out a little by yourself, you know? It’ll make you feel good.” Mazen’s last words come out shaky, uncertain. They make Farid cringe.

“Habibi, I’m fine. I worry about you, okay? Not the other way around.”

“But I’m good, baba. I’m very happy.” Farid listens to his son’s voice, clear and bright. Feels a quiet calm spread through his body.

“Well then I’m happy too, habibi.”

The laughter grows loud once again, fills Farid’s ear. “Thanks, baba. I should go now. Everyone’s waiting on me.”

“Yes, yes, of course. I’ll see you soon.” Farid removes the earpiece and looks down the tree-lined street. Great big oaks with thick yellow leaves. He watches a cat cross the road in leisure, its gray tail wagging.

***

You pull your car into a metered spot near Santa Monica and Hayworth. You’ve never been here during the day. Driven through but never stopped. You feel the blood rush to your head as you leave your car, as your shoes touch the sidewalk. Become certain that people are staring. It takes you three blocks to notice you’re passing a post office, a bank, a grocery store. Streets not unlike your own. People walk dogs. Bicyclists pass you by. Cars honk. In the sunlight, the colorful flags seem cheerful, appropriate even.

A row of restaurants with outside seating, mostly empty tables awaiting the lunch rush, beckons you. You choose an Italian place with checkered table covers and cloth napkins. At your request, the hostess seats you beneath one of the larger umbrellas in the corner. Only one other table is filled: two men sit on the opposite end of the patio, holding hands. You make out the slight frame in the denim jacket of one, the broad shoulders and beard of the other.

“What can I get you?”

You look up at small eyes surrounded by thick lashes, curly hair shaved into a mohawk. Your hands fumble with the menu, your tongue attempts to form words. “Yes, I—just an iced tea please.”

You look back at the couple. The one in the jacket reaches out his arm toward the other, caresses the shoulder, touches the neck. He catches you staring. Your eyes dart down to the menu.

The waiter sets the iced tea on the table. “Are you sure you don’t want something to eat?”

“Yes, okay. How about a hamburger?”

He perks up, smiles. “Good choice. That’s my favorite.”

The man in the jacket is now laughing at something the other said. Slaps him playfully on the arm. The bearded one grabs the hand and pulls it to his mouth. Kisses it once, twice. This time he is the one to meet your gaze. He leans and whispers to the other, the denim jacket who now turns in your direction.

Your hand starts to shake. You shove it beneath your leg, sit on it until it goes numb. Focus your attention on the passers-by. Young men in sweat shorts and tank tops. Gelled hair and smooth skin. Your lungs tighten and you start to get up. When the waiter reappears, you pull a bill from your wallet and place it on the table. “Sorry, I have to go,” you say, not looking at him, your eyes tracing the straight lines of the tablecloth. You feel the two men in the corner watch you as you walk.

Back in your car, you sit in complete stillness, concentrating on the aching bulge in your belly, willing it to subside. A car honks and you pull out to make room for an impatient driver waiting to take your space.

***

You sit in the kitchen with the lights off watching video after video. Men dressed in thawbs and keffiyehs, suits and ties, khakis and polos, standing before groups large and small, speaking in prayer rooms and halls. One man calls it a “postmodern epidemic,” another traces it to “western liberalism.” Over and over you watch them, excised clips posted then played thousands and thousands of times. By whom? Replayed for signs. Of what?

Yes, I bear it, this burden, sometimes high above my head like the burlap sack of a traveler and at other times low in my stomach like a tumor, but it was born as east as I was. It was born in Hara el-Hamd in Giza. And if the angels disguised as handsome boys—those who led Him to turn the cities of the plain upside down and bury their people in stone and fire—can’t convince me otherwise, you, sheikhs and scholars, crooks and liars, don’t stand a chance.

Astaghfar allah. Repeat and repeat.

***

The sharp beep of his phone jolts Farid awake on the sofa. Like pruned branches his thin limbs jut out from the round of his belly and hang over the cushion’s edge. The moon is high now and sends a single strand of light through the slit between the drapes. His eyes come to focus on the muted television, the silent news.

He reaches into his pocket for his phone, listens to Amina’s voicemail telling him she’s returning on a later flight. He tilts his head back, shuts his lids, and grasps at pictures, images of too big white jeans and the touch of cold metal. Of hands that at once opened and unraveled, that reached down and accepted what they found. Wanted it, had sought it. His own hand now moves down and unzips, unbuttons. And as his breath grows shallow, his gasps for air coming closer together, he begins to feel the small coarse grains that fill his mouth. The taste brackish, the flow relentless.