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“Sojourn,” Part One, A Serialized Story by Yasser El-Sayed

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Short Story, Writing on May 11, 2016 at 6:45 am

Yasser El-Sayed

Yasser El-Sayed has recently published fiction in Natural Bridge, The New Orphic Review, The Marlboro Review, Red Truck Review, and elsewhere. His short stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2014 and in 2008. Yasser’s prose focuses upon the intersections of Arab and American experience both in the Middle East and the United States, including the contemporary American South. He is at work on a short story collection, Casket and Other Stories. Yasser is a physician and professor at Stanford University where he specializes in high-risk obstetrics. He lives and writes in Northern California.

 

In Sidi Abdel Rahman, off the main highway, the roads were gutted with potholes, cracked asphalt. Nabil parked the car outside a cavernous store with wares spilling out onto the broken sidewalk: pots and pans strung together on a frayed rope, plastic soccer balls bundled in torn netting, brightly colored shirts and gowns on a metal rack and below that an array of sandals and cheap toys. Near the entrance stood a bulky, rusted ice cooler, on its front Arabic letters and a picture of a smiling boy holding an ice cream cone. The manager at the hotel had directed them here – the soobermarket he had said, pointing due east.  “A short walk,” he said, but then offered up his old Fiat.

The shopkeeper, dressed in flip flops and a sun-bleached galabiya, was parked on a plastic chair in the shade, smoking.

Nabil turned to Joanne, “OK. You’re sure you know what you need?”

Joanne nodded and swung her legs out the car. She was dressed in a short skirt that had seemed fine at the resort this morning, less so now.

El salam Alaykum,” Nabil said, greeting the shopkeeper.

He was an older fellow, bald, slight of build under his faded gray gown.  He stubbed his cigarette and spoke, a voice smoldered for years in tobacco smoke: “Alaykum el salam.” He eyed Joanne for a moment, gestured them inside with a wave of his hand.

Darkness.  The smell of coriander and cumin, of closed spaces, of spices desiccated in the heat and turned to dust. The shopkeeper followed them and sat in a dark corner behind the counter. A fan whirred loudly on a shelf above his head. Joanne strolled casually down the cramped aisles, her sandaled feet audibly shuffling on the dusty floor.

They had landed in Alexandria yesterday just as the demonstrations were erupting. Their limousine driver skirted the city center to avoid the crowds, but they could see billows of black smoke in the distance, the sounds of sirens piercing the late afternoon. And even coming down the desert highway to this forlorn place, 80 miles from Alexandria, they’d spotted a military convoy heading the opposite direction, towards the trouble. Joanne had smiled bravely when Nabil squeezed her hand. He’d spoken to the limousine driver in Arabic, tried to sound confident of his place in the country despite a surging wave of panic.

The limousine driver glanced at them over his shoulder. “Tell the lady not to be nervous, we are friendly people.”

Out of the city, she rolled down her window better to take in the darkening desert around them, the smell of gasoline fumes and sulfur slowly ebbing, a waft of eucalyptus. She lifted her face to the sky, pulled her hair back, her profile dim in the failing light. At the resort she had slept soundly. He on the other hand remained ill at ease, wandered the sparsely furnished rooms of their rented beach house on the grounds of the resort, unsettled less by the unrest around them than by the fact that he was now back in the one place his father had sworn they would never return to.

Joanne took her time scrutinizing the available goods – canned tuna, rice, beans, coffee, tea, milk, fresh bread – all displayed in no particular arrangement. She perused the vegetable stand examining cucumbers and tomatoes that looked smaller, their skin less vivid than back home. She raised a cucumber to her face and inhaled.

“Nice?” he asked.

“A little ripe,” she said.

“I’m going to step outside.”

No, she didn’t look nervous at all.  He left her looking at a curious array of detergents and cereal boxes, and with a nod to the shopkeeper, who raised a cracked, calloused palm, wandered outside.

He could feel the density of the air lift immediately, a sudden release from the stagnant miasma inside. The store was on the corner of a narrow dirt road that abutted the highway. In the other direction on both sides were high limestone walls, interrupted by the green, orange or blue wrought iron gates of private homes. Across the street, a young girl dressed in a loose fitting gown and a headscarf stood outside an open gate and hosed down a concrete doorstep, her bare feet wet in flip flops. Behind the gate Nabil caught a fleeting glimpse of a dusty front yard, a woman in a darkened hallway.

He strolled uphill to the end of the dirt road. From there he could peer down the desert highway and the heat percolating off the sweltering asphalt. It cut across the desert like a vaporous snake, slicing through a landscape sparsely populated with brightly colored Bedouin homes scattered amidst sand and sky, framed by a dusty sliver of horizon. Just east of here was El Alamein and its lonely mausoleums for the dead—soldiers from all over Europe—monasteries of scrubbed limestone and creeping bougainvillea. To the west was the long drift of sand-swept highway past the seaport of Marsa Matrouh and on into the ancient military outpost of Tobruq in Libya, the sand dunes along the coast like white mountains in the distance.  He recalled how he had described the town to Joanne, as much of it as he could remember. West of Alexandria, white sand beaches, war cemeteries in the distance, grave stones like yellowed teeth erupting from the earth. A remote outpost on a long desert highway, you could drift right past it, a fleeting glance in the rear-view mirror. He had in his mind for years.

Joanne had probed and he had told her about his childhood summers there, his father’s connection to the land, his mother’s drowning, an elusive notion of return, one step out of reach, chasing a shadow.

You get on a plane she said blandly. She was from the unhindered expanse of the Oklahoma Panhandle, steely skies as far as the eye could see. Fearless.

Nabil was startled to hear Joanne calling.  He turned abruptly and saw her outside the store, waving. How simple it now seemed, their transport across geography and memory.  He trotted back down the hill.

“I need to pay the man,” she said. “I can’t understand him.”

Inside, the shopkeeper pondered him. “Masri?”

Nabil replied that he was, yes, Egyptian.

Wah el hanem, Ajnabiya?” the man asked more kindly, handing Nabil the change, nodding his head at Joanne.

Amrikania,” Nabil said. Then for some reason he felt the need to explain, “I live there.”

“My sympathies,” the shopkeeper replied in Arabic.

To be continued….

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