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

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Writing on July 27, 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.
On the third evening they received a note from Neena by way of the front office. Nabil tore open the envelope – a smell of lavender, the writing in fountain pen, sloping unevenly in a loose cursive down the single page.

“Mes chers, il est  inimaginable to leave without seeing the cemetery. It is where worlds collided. What is left,” said Nabil reading out loud. He stopped. Shook his head. “I don’t trust her,” he said.

“She’s just a lonely old woman,” Joanne said.  “How can we refuse?”

They were sitting on the patio, a simple dinner of a green salad, a large bowl of spaghetti bolognese, half consumed, the sea a black vastness before them, a bite to the late evening air.

“We just say no.”

“One day that could be me. Alone on my father’s ranch. Chasing chickens across a dirt yard. Staring out onto miles of nothing.”

“Barefoot,” added Nabil.

“Of course, barefoot.”

“Faded cotton dress.”

“Yes and still pregnant,” said Joanne. “A very, very long pregnancy. A fossil.”

She paused for a moment. “What do you want to do Nabil?”

“I don’t know. I’ve not wanted to think about it.” He stood and started picking up their plates.

“It’s not a decision I will make alone Nabil. I could but I won’t.”

 

*

 

Chérie, I have missed you so,” Neena said.  Joanne climbed into the car next to her.  They embraced as Nabil climbed in on the other side.  Neena hugged him tightly.  Suddenly she groaned and said, “It’s only been two days, but it feels like an eternity. How quickly I have grown in need of your company. It is truly frightening. Mon Dieu!”

“Frightening,” Nabil said.

“Be nice,” Joanne said lightly.

The driver, oblivious, guided the gray Fiat down the long road to the highway.

Neena slipped on her dark sunglasses and said, “When you didn’t show the other night, I thought, oh dear, I have scared them away. I can do that you know. I get so involved in the moment I forget how uncomfortable I can make people. That’s why the desert suits me—fleeting contact—no chance for the crazy Neena to be too crazy. But then I got so sad. I thought, “But I may never see them again, never set eyes on their sweet faces again.”  She laughed and squeezed Joanne’s arm. “Or in Nabil’s case, never see those moody, black eyes.”

Nabil smiled briefly at her.

The driver, a withdrawn, gaunt man in his mid-thirties whom Nabil recognized as one of the restaurant workers, drove faster, speeding down the deserted highway, west towards Alexandria.

Nabil gazed out the window as they passed a desolate tract of land beyond the edge the town, a few limestone brick homes dotting the arid terrain, a man in a donkey cart urging the emaciated animal forward with a stick. On the side of the road, a child ran past an empty school ground, propelling a bicycle wheel ahead of him with a metal rod. Nabil leaned back slightly and tried to catch Joanne’s eye, but she was peering out her window as the driver slowed abruptly and edged past a parked row of military vehicles on the side of the road.  A cluster of soldiers in green fatigues stood idly by, one of them waving them forward with his rifle.

Shortly they turned off the highway onto an older dusty road for about a quarter mile to the cemetery and came to a stop at the edge of an empty gravel parking lot. Joanne stepped out of the car and stretched in the sunlight. Nabil helped Neena climb out of the backseat.

“Thank you, darling,” she said, pulling at her black dress. “I always wear black when I come to this place.”

The driver stayed behind smoking a cigarette by the car while they walked together down a gravel path to the front court of the cemetery. They climbed a broad flight of steps to the limestone mausoleum, some 200 feet wide, and then passed through three arches into the marble interior. There they were shielded from the sunlight and could look out at an unimpeded view of the immense cemetery and beyond that the desert. Their footsteps echoed on the Travertine marble floor.  Neena pointed out the bronze words memorializing the dead. And on the walls more names on Portland stone.

Below them lay the dead; row upon row of neatly spaced headstones, over 7,000 in all. From England and France, Poland, Greece and Australia. At the far end of the cemetery, Neena pointed out the towering Cross of Sacrifice.

They descended the steps into the cemetery proper. There was little vegetation around them, nothing but desert between the rows of headstones.  A breeze off the coast brought with it the sudden scent of eucalyptus and jasmine. Neena led them past the white-washed headstones. “There are other, smaller memorials,” she explained, “the Italian and German sites are a few miles down the highway. But this place is like no other. Le plus grand, le plus dévastateur.”

“All these young men!” she shouted over the wind. “Could they have ever dreamed they would end up here, miles and miles and miles from anything that resembles home?” She put her hands to her face, shook her head in expressive despair, the breeze tugging her simple black dress. She wore a scarf over her hair to protect it from the sand and wind.

Nabil noticed her sandals, noticed how pale her feet and calves were, fragile blue veins traversing the sides and back of the exposed skin, as if she had never been in sunlight. She stooped to pick up random litter blown there off the road, and he saw her suddenly as a homeless woman, one of the small army wandering the streets of San Francisco.

Joanne took Neena’s arm and they strolled back through the deserted, sprawling cemetery, bending to read the inscriptions, conversing in private, hushed tones.

Nabil noticed that the driver watched them from the top of the steps, leaning as if casually against the back wall of the mausoleum. The driver lit a cigarette and blew smoke into the golden light.  He caught Nabil’s eye and gave a half salute.  “Natural enough,” thought Nabil, but it made him uneasy. The sprawling cemetery was deserted. The hot wind kicked up dust devils in the paths between the maze of headstones.  Nabil shielded his eyes. A second man had joined the driver, this one dressed in a brown galabeya, a rifle strapped over his shoulder.  The two of them were chatting comfortably. The driver offered the other man a cigarette, struck a match for him, cupped his hands to protect the flame.

Beyond the cemetery, Nabil could see a thin, blue strip of coastline. Everywhere else was the vast, brooding desert, impenetrable. He knew how they all must appear—foreigners in a foreigner’s cemetery.

Joanne and Neena laughed, far away.  They’d walked as far as the Cross of Sacrifice.

Joanne waved.

Nabil glanced back up towards the mausoleum. The driver was not in sight. The man in the galabeya with the gun was alone, watching them.

“Let’s go,” Nabil cried out to Joanne and Neena. He started to run towards them. “We should go. We should leave now.”

To be continued….

The Conservative Mindset

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, Emerson, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Politics, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on July 20, 2016 at 6:45 am

Allen 2

The following review first appeared here in the Los Angeles Review of Books.  Some of the references, such as those to the presidential primary season, may be dated now, but they were timely on the date of original publication.

The presidential primaries are at last upon us. The leading Republican candidates, including frontrunners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, have resorted to showmanship and grandstanding to make their case for the party nomination. Their harsh, uncouth rhetoric stands in marked contrast to the writings of Russell Amos Kirk, a founding father of modern American conservatism.

Books on Kirk exist, but they’re few. Fellow conservatives, many of them friends or colleagues of Kirk’s — like T. S. Eliot, William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, F. A. Hayek, Eric Voegelin, and Leo Strauss — have received more attention. In this regard, Kirk is the victim of his virtues: he was less polarizing, celebrated by followers and detractors alike for his measured temperament and learned judgments. He did earn numerous adversaries, including Hayek and Frank Meyer, who in retrospect appear more like ambivalent friends, but the staying power of Kirk’s congeniality seems to have softened objections to his most resolute opinions.

Bradley J. Birzer, a professor at Hillsdale College who holds a chair named for Kirk, fills a need with his lucid and ambitious biography. Birzer is the first researcher to have been granted full access to Kirk’s letters, diaries, and draft manuscripts. He has avoided — as others haven’t — defining Kirk by his list of accomplishments and has pieced together a comprehensive, complex account of Kirk’s personality, motivations, and influences.

Birzer offers five themes in Kirk’s work, and less so his private life, which Birzer only touches on: his intellectual heritage, his ideas of the transcendent, his Christian humanism, his fiction, and the reach and implications of his conservatism. Kirk isn’t a dull subject. One need not identify as a conservative to appreciate his polished charm and idiosyncrasies. A plump, bespectacled gentleman who feigned disdain for technology, Kirk was something of a spiritualist with a penchant for the weird. He considered himself a Stoic before he had converted to Catholicism, a regeneration that makes sense in light of the relation of Stoic to Pauline thought.

As a young man Kirk spent four years in the military. His feelings about this experience were conflicted. He suffered from a blend of ennui and disenchantment but occupied his free time with reading, writing, and studying. He was horrified by the use of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the United States had decimated the most flourishing Western cultural and religious centers in the Japanese Empire, just as he was by the internment of Japanese Americans.

The tremendous violence of the 20th century, occasioned by the rise of Nazism, communism, and fascism, impressed upon Kirk a sense of tragedy and fatalism. He came to despise totalitarianism, bureaucracy, radicalism, and “ideology” as leveling systems that stamped out the dignity and individuality of the human person. Hard to place along the left-right spectrum, he was as critical of big corporations and the military as he was of big government and labor.

When Kirk inserted himself into political debates he supported Republican politicians, becoming temporarily more interventionist in his foreign policy before returning to a form of Taftian isolationism, but he always remained more worried about reawakening the moral imagination than in having the right candidates elected to office. His was a long view of society, one without a fixed teleology or secular eschatology, and skeptical of utopian thought. Kirk advocated a “republic of letters,” a community of high-minded and profoundly sensitive thinkers devoted to rearticulating perennial truths (such as the need to pacify human violence, temper human urges for power, and cultivate human longing for the transcendent or divine) and preserving humanist institutions.

Kirk’s politics were shaped by imaginative literature and characterized by a rich poetic vision and vast cultural literacy. Fascinated by such disparate figures as Edmund Burke, Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, T. S. Eliot, Sir Walter Scott, George Santayana, and most of the American Founders, Kirk was also versed in the libertarianism of Albert Jay Nock and Isabel Paterson, whose ideas he admired as a young man but vehemently rejected throughout his mature years. Burke and Babbitt, more than any other men, shaped his political philosophy. And his irreducible imagination made room for mysticism and a curious interest in ghosts.

Kirk’s debt to Burke cannot be overstated. “Like the nineteenth-century liberals,” Birzer says, “Kirk focused on the older Burke, but he countered their dismissal of Burke’s ideas as reactionary and exaggerated.” Kirk also downplayed Burke the Whig, who championed the cause of the American Revolution, which Kirk considered to be not a revolution but a conservative restoration of ancient English liberties. Kirk was wary about the Enlightenment, as was Burke, because the scientism of that period tended to oversimplify inherently complex human nature and behavior. Kirk also thought the Enlightenment philosophes had broken too readily from the tested traditions of the past that shaped human experience.

Kirk appealed to American patriotism — which he distinguished from reckless nationalism — in The American Cause (1957) (which he later renounced as a “child’s book”), The Roots of American Order (1974), and Americas British Culture (1993), drawing attention to what he saw as the enduring customs and mores that guard against utopian conjecture. Yet American patriotism was, in Kirk’s mind, heir to the patrimony of Athens, Jerusalem, Rome, and London. From the mistakes and successes of these symbolic cities Americans could learn to avoid “foreign aid” and “military violence,” as well as grandiose attempts to “struggle for the Americanization of the world.”

Disillusioned with academia after his graduate work at Duke, Kirk was offered a position, which he turned down, at the University of Chicago. Kirk fell in love with the University of St. Andrews, however, where he took his doctorate and wrote a lengthy dissertation on Edmund Burke that would later become his magnum opus, The Conservative Mind. Kirk revised The Conservative Mind throughout his life, adding new permutations and nuances in an attempt to ensure the continued resonance of his cultural mapping.

The almost instant success of The Conservative Mind made Kirk an unlikely celebrity. The book featured sharply etched portraits of men Kirk considered to be representatives of the conservative tradition. Regrettably, and perhaps tellingly, Kirk tended to ignore the contributions of women, passing over such apposite figures as Julian of Norwich or Margery Kempe, with whom he, as a mystic Catholic anglophile, had much in common. Kirk shared more with these women, in fact, than he did with Coleridge or Thomas Babington Macaulay, who appear in The Conservative Mind.

Kirk was also woefully uneducated about American pragmatism. He overlooked Burke’s influence on, and compatibility with, pragmatism. (As Seth Vannatta ably demonstrates in Conservatism and Pragmatism (2014), Burke “is a model precursor of pragmatism because he chose to deal with circumstances rather than abstractions.”) Kirk failed to see the pragmatic elements of Santayana, whom he adored, and he seemed generally unaware of the work of C.S. Peirce. Kirk’s breezy dismissal of William James, Santayana’s teacher and later colleague, suggests he hadn’t read much of James’s oeuvre, for Kirk lumped the very different James and Dewey together in a manner that proved that Kirk himself was susceptible to the simplification and reduction he decried in others.

Conservatism, for Kirk, consisted of an attitude or mindset, not an explicit or detailed political program. Enumerating vague “canons” of conservatism that Kirk tweaked from edition to edition, The Conservative Mind was a “hagiographic litany,” a genealogy of the high-minded heroes of ordered liberty and convention. Kirk didn’t intend the book to be model scholarship. It was something more — an aestheticized bricolage cannibalized from Burke and Eliot and others, with inspirational and ritualistic value. It has never gone out of print.

Kirk is sometimes accused of being contradictory, holding simultaneously incompatible positions, in part because he lauded apparent antagonists such as John C. Calhoun and Abraham Lincoln. “Kirk found something to like in each man,” Birzer says of Calhoun and Lincoln, “for each, from [Kirk’s] perspective, embodied some timeless truth made sacramentally incarnate.” Tension between rivaling conservative visions is reconciled in Kirk’s desire never “to create an ideology out of conservatism, a theology at the quick and the ready with which one could easily beat one’s opponents into submission.” Ideology, Kirk believed, was a symptom of totalitarianism, and as such was the common denominator of fascism and communism. Kirk believed his own philosophy was not an ideology, because he, like Burke, preferred “a principled defense of justice and prudence” to any specific faction or agenda. He recognized that change was necessary, but thought it should be guided by prudence and historical sensitivity.

For a history buff, Kirk could be positively ahistorical and uncritical, ignoring the nuances and particularities of events that shaped the lives of his heroes. He ignored Calhoun’s commitment to the peculiar institution, and with a quick wave of the hand erased slavery from Calhoun’s political calculus, adding without qualification that “Calhoun defended the rights of minorities.” Kirk made clumsy caricatures out of his assumed enemies, calling men like Emerson “the most influential of all American radicals.” Emerson had met Coleridge, whose Romanticism partially inspired Emerson’s transcendentalism. Yet Kirk loathed Emerson and praised Coleridge and saw no inconsistency in doing so.

Kirk was not alone during the 1950s. The decade witnessed a renaissance of conservatism, exemplified by the publication of not only Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, but also Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community, Strauss’s Natural Right and History, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Eliot’s The Confidential Clerk, Voegelin’s New Science of Politics, Gabriel Marcel’s Man against Mass Society, Christopher Dawkins’s Understanding Europe, C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, and Buckley’s God and Man at Yale. It was The Conservative Mind, however, that “gave one voice to a number of isolated and atomized voices.” It also lent intellectual substance and credibility to the activist groundswell surrounding such politicians as Goldwater a decade later.

When Kirk joined Buckley’s National Review, the manner of his writing changed. Previously he had contributed to literary and scholarly journals, but, as Birzer points out, his “contributions to the National Review slowly but surely crowded out his output to other periodicals.” Working for National Review also drew Kirk into personality conflicts that passed as theoretical disagreements. Kirk sided with Buckley, for instance, in banishing from the pages of National Review any writers associated with the John Birch Society. Kirk despised the egoism of Ayn Rand, scorned the label neoconservative, and did not take kindly to the doctrines of Irving Kristol. Yet Kirk held Leo Strauss in high regard, in no small part because of Strauss’s scholarship on Burke and natural rights.

Strauss is sometimes treated as the fount of neoconservativism, given that his students include, among others, Allan Bloom, Harry Jaffa, and Paul Wolfowitz. But Kirk never would have considered the esoteric and conscientious Strauss to be in a league with neoconservative provocateurs like Midge Decter and Norman Podhoretz, who indicted Kirk for anti-Semitism after Kirk, in a speech before the Heritage Foundation, stated that some neoconservatives had mistaken Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States — a tactless comment that was blown out of proportion.

“Kirk never sought conformity with those around him,” Birzer argues, “because he never wanted to create a sect or a religion or a cult of personality.” Kirk labored for the sake of posterity, not self-promotion. “The idea of creating ‘Kirkians,’” as there are Straussians, Misesians, Randians, and Rothbardians, “would have horrified [Kirk] at every level of his being”; Birzer insists that Kirk “desired only to inspire and to leaven with the gifts given him,” adding that “[h]e did well.” “I hope,” Birzer concludes, “I have done at least half as well” in writing Kirk’s biography.

Bringing Kirk into renewed focus during a contentious election season, as the term conservatism is bandied about, contested, and abused by commentators as varied as David Brooks and Phyllis Schlafly, Megyn Kelly and Rush Limbaugh, Karl Rove and Michael Savage, Birzer reminds us that conservatism, properly understood, is a “means, a mood, an attitude to conserve, to preserve, and to pass on to future generations the best of the humane tradition rather than to advocate a particular political philosophy, party, or agenda.”

One wonders, watching the campaign stops and debate spectacles, the ominous political advertisements and alarmist fundraising operations, what’s left of this humane tradition in our current political discourse. When our politicians lack a responsible and meaningful awareness of the residual wisdom of the ages, we get the leadership and politics we deserve. Would that we had more Russell Kirks around to remind us of the enduring things that, in times like these, are hard to find and difficult to believe in.

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

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Writing on July 13, 2016 at 8:45 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.

 

For the next two days they stayed in the hotel compound, cooked their meals in the beach house and ate there. In the late afternoon as the heat abated they made love before dinner and then again after, the windows to their bedroom pulled open, the smell and sounds of the sea wafting through.

“I showed you my past,” she said, propping herself up against the headboard. “I figured that gave me the right to barge into yours.”

“You were a little relentless,” said Nabil with a smile. From the beginning Joanne had pursued him with a self-confidence that at first alarmed him, but which eventually he accepted as emblematic of her. “You know, I had people vouch for your sanity.”

“Of course I knew that!” She laughed. “But I was sworn to secrecy; the Flemmings, the Castillos, Steve Pullman and his ridiculous fiancée who kept looking at me with this awful expression dripping with fake sympathy. Well, I honestly didn’t care what you thought. So polite. Reticent. Please. I grew up with a bunch of tobacco chewing rednecks. You think I was going to be so easily turned away?”

One Thanksgiving, he’d driven with her into that very epicenter of her childhood memory: Hooker, Oklahoma. They’d flown into Oklahoma City and then driven their rented car across miles of flat land, then rolling hills, plenty of scrub grass and red dirt, and finally funneling into the narrow strip of panhandle to her father’s ranch. The John Lee Casey homestead was announced with its own towering wood archway emblazoned with the letters JLC, and then Nabil was in front of John Lee Casey himself, all 6 foot 3 inches of him, Wrangler jeans and checkered western shirt and, of course, alligator boots and a silver belt buckle that looked like a weapon.

“Your father sized me up as if I was some exotic life form.”

“Well, you are.  And so’s my mother, because she’s from Tulsa. Anyway, he’d never seen an Ayrab before.”

“Imagine that!” Nabil laughed.

“Now he asks after you all the time.”

“You got laid under his moose heads and embalmed squirrels.”

“You got laid too, towel-head.”

Nabil had been given his own bedroom, graciously adorned with various hunting trophies and other memorabilia of formerly living creatures. Joanne had climbed into his bed and mounted him, and he had willingly bucked and heaved and groaned and came and yippeed his way into the early morning light, ascending on the glorious town of Hooker.

Far away Nabil thought he heard a muted thud. A faint boom.

“You had a home, a place to show me, my hillbilly,” Nabil said trying not to sound too serious.  But he was.  He was very serious:  “That’s the difference. There is no such place for me.”

“This is that place,” she said emphatically.

To be continued….

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

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Writing on July 6, 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.

 

The Australian took his chances at the airport. The German couple decided at the last moment to go with him. The Chinese tour group was gone, too, piling into a minivan which appeared one morning outside the hotel lobby, the driver cross-checking the names with a printed list on his clipboard.  Even most of the vacationing locals packed up and headed home, although a few families remained in the beach houses on the hotel grounds. Nabil would pass them as he walked along the stretch of beach leading up to the hotel proper, hearing fragments of Arabic. There remained a scattering of families from around Egypt, the parents drinking coffee quietly on the small patios overlooking the beach, watching their children play by the shore.

Every afternoon Nabil  saw more army convoys rumbling west down the highway; at night he and Joanne heard the percussive whomp whomp of military helicopters overhead, and the shriek of fighter aircraft flying low. In their isolation, these random bursts of mechanized rage were Nabil and Joanne’s connection to the unrest in the cities. The country was in turmoil; the police had disappeared from the streets; in every major city the violence was escalating. Cell phone coverage was intermittent at best, the Internet cut off entirely. Joanne got through to the American embassy in Cairo and requested advice. She was informed that if she could get to the consulate in Alexandria, perhaps something could be done to get her out of the country. But there were no guarantees beyond that. The prospect of making their way into Alexandria seemed terrifying especially to Nabil. He imagined them caught up in the tempest, their American passports a liability, his place of birth an added vulnerability. The thought that he could somehow be separated from Joanne only heightened the anxiety. They agreed to wait things out. Another week of vacation ahead of them, after which they could reconsider. An eerie quiet had settled over the resort premises. A skeleton crew of staff remained, and the service dwindled to non-existent. In the hotel proper the halls were deserted. When Nabil and Joanne wandered through one morning, the marble foyer echoed with their footsteps.

They availed themselves of long walks on the beach. In the distance the white sand dunes merged into the expanse of desert. The sky was a diaphanous blue and unyielding. By midday the glare of the sun was blinding. As they ambled west across a stretch of dunes, away from the shoreline and further into the desert, a lone hawk circled overhead, hunting, unnerving Nabil, escalating the feeling of emptiness around them.

Joanne laughed at his trepidation and said, “I’m entirely at peace with this isolation.”

“It’s the plains in you,” Nabil said defensively. “Space for the sake of space. But even you left.”

“I loved the space,” she said pensively. “I hated the emptiness. I’m not empty here. I imagine you as a little boy. It’s incredible to me that you were once here.”

“I don’t remember much.”

“You choose not to remember much.”

“I told you what I remember. One day she was here, the next she was dead. I was a kid. I remember a funeral and sometime later, weeks, months, I’m not sure, leaving. Flying across the world to a new country. All this put to rest. No pictures saved. Nothing.  A clean break. What would you remember of your childhood without stories and pictures?”

He pulled up suddenly.  His eyes scoured the empty skies as the screeching of a fighter jet somewhere in the distance shattered the still air.

To be continued….

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

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Short Story, Writing on June 29, 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.

 

At the end of another of these evenings—there were no other evenings to be had—Neena invited them to linger. “A nightcap. Just the three of us,” she said.

Abu-Bakr had left earlier than usual that night, exclaiming loudly that there were signs the unrest was spreading and he had to attend to business, and then he strode military style out of the bar. To which Joanne had quipped within ear-shot, “Working. Imagine that.”  But with him gone, both Joanne and Nabil could relax and enjoy their moment with Neena.

Behind the bar, Neena poured Nabil a scotch, a cognac for herself.

“Just mineral water for me,” said Joanne.

Neena tilted her head, eyed Joanne for a moment. “I have noticed this before, but now I am sure. My dear, you are pregnant.”

Nabil smiled, nodded.

“Mon Dieu! Félicitations! Mabrouk!””

“Thank you,” replied Joanne stiffly.

“Not exactly planned,” added Nabil.

“A little complicated,” Joanne said.

Neena made a face and shook her head. “How complicated is it? The process well understood, no?” She laughed, said, “Ah oui. Je comprends. You are not together, really together in that way. Not married.”

She poured Joanne’s mineral water. “No alcohol. The hardest part about being pregnant,” she said. “But I still adored it. How far? Can’t be too far?”

“Just barely,” said Joanne. “A few weeks only.”

“My daughter. She is in Canada now. She came back many years ago after her father died, for his funeral. Agreed to see me. Briefly.”

Suddenly the glass panes in the doors to the terrace rattled as if they might shatter in their frames and there was the roar of fighter jets overhead, low and deafening.

Joanne cried out and Nabil gathered her in. For a moment they both looked to the ceiling.

Neena slumped in her seat; her face sank in her hands. “Who knows what will happen,” she said, when the jets had passed. “Will it be better? True, everywhere across the country it is terrible. Getting worse. No freedom. No future. But here in this small corner of the desert we drink, we sing, we dance. A small victory. My only victory.”

Joanne watched her closely. She had told Nabil that she liked Neena. She saw in Neena something of her own restlessness. She reached out and touched Neena’s hand. Neena responded, immediately taking Joanne’s hands in her own. “You could leave,” Joanne said. “Your daughter in Canada. How lucky she would be!”

Neena, who had been taking in Joanne with a warm gaze, threw back her head and laughed. “My daughter would not be feeling lucky,” she said. “I am too careless for her. She is like her father. He comes from a family of masons. They all love laying one perfect brick on top of the other. Careful does it. Careful does it. Doesn’t really matter what is being built, just as long as it’s straight and strong and the pieces all fit perfectly and the mortar isn’t making a mess. No unseemly edges. I am too unseemly.”

She stopped and shook her head, her face suddenly lit up with the urgency to make a point. “Did I tell you my mother was from Paris? I kept in touch with a few relatives there. And yes I thought at one point I might go there. I did in fact. Not for long though. I came back. You think you are from somewhere. Convince yourself of that. But not really. Suddenly you are just where you are. I caught the plane to Paris in Alexandria. I hadn’t been back to Alexandria for a long time, but each time I return I hardly recognize it. No. Seriously. It just keeps getting worse. I keep thinking how can it get worse? How can it get more crowded, more polluted, dirtier, more open sewers, more grime everywhere? How? But it does. It always surprises me. A talent really. An amazing gift for decline. So then I was really excited to leave. And when the plane took off, I said finally out of here. Gone. And I land in Paris and there is cooler air, cleaner streets, order, a beginning and end to the day. Each morning I get up in my little rented apartment. I make coffee, but it isn’t like the coffee I know. It isn’t mud. I tell myself I am sure I can find my coffee. I just have to look and find an Arab or Turkish store. In Paris they must be everywhere. Outside the streets are cleaner, there is no dust, no open sewers. El dinya nadeefa. Al aalam nadeef. No donkey carts pulling an open carriage with wares. But people hardly look at you as you walk past them. And there is the texture and smell of metal everywhere, steel, the glint of it, sunlight distilled to nothing, sharp as a knife, without warmth. That is what starts to strike me. The night rolls in. The lights go off. Each person in their own small cubicle. Their own prison. Isolement. That’s when I start to miss this place. Miss the desert. The smells, the merging of night and day, of water and sand, of past and present. I returned. Je suis revenue. Alone. Hina fee beity. Home.”

Joanne shifted in her seat. “I can see why you love this place,” she said. “Besides, with the restaurant you have no time to feel lonely.”

Neena brought her hands, which had been flying about, back to her lap. “The restaurant is failing. It has been for too long. No one cares anymore about the battlegrounds and the cemeteries. Those that did are themselves dying. I imagine them fading away in nursing homes all over gray Europe. Mon Dieu—but there were so many good years!”

“Your husband,” said Nabil. “How about him? How did he feel about this place?”

“My late husband. No. We lived apart for many years before he died. He stayed in Alexandria, with my daughter.”

A wave of irritation swept over Nabil. “So you just moved out here. One day you said, “I’ll leave my husband and daughter and move to the desert, build a restaurant.”

Joanne threw Nabil a hostile glance, but if Neena took offence at his words she didn’t show it. “You must understand some of this,” she said. “This not belonging. Then also perhaps I was not meant to be a wife to any man.”

She took the empty glass from Nabil’s hand. “Another?”

Nabil shook his head. She walked their glasses to the sink behind the bar.

“But I did not always feel alone here. One summer, soon after I started the restaurant, I met a young woman.” She had her back to them, rinsing the dishes. “She was from Alexandria. She used to stop by the restaurant every summer she was here with her family. She spoke French, which was nice. She was beautiful and lonely and there was a certain understanding. An attraction we couldn’t deny. We became close. I would look forward to the summers just to see her. We’d exchange letters the rest of the year. She wouldn’t let me visit her in Alexandria, but here, here it was different. She hated this place, and I was her reprieve.” Neena stopped, smiled, shrugged her narrow shoulders. “Stories. Too many stories. I could keep you up all night with them.”

Nabil stood up suddenly.  “It’s late,” he said. “We should go.”

Neena regarded him for a moment. “Not so late, Nabil. Mais bien. I’ll see you tomorrow night, though,” she said, then added quickly, “and please, please the cemeteries. You can’t leave without seeing the cemeteries.”

To be continued….

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

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Writing on June 22, 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.

 

Nabil stood by the French windows and gazed out onto the beach. “We’ll stay put for now,” he said. “We’re safe here. Who knows what it will be like in Alexandria.” He imagined the airport shut down, the pressing crowds at the terminals.

“I don’t know,” said Joanne. “We’ve come all this way. We can still travel around like we’d planned. The whole country can’t be shut down.” She paused. “Besides, who knows when we will have this time alone together again? Just the two of us.”

Nabil said nothing.

“Nabil. You know we’ll need to decide soon,” she added hesitantly. “By the time we get back to the States.”

Nabil nodded. His eyes tracked the turbulent wake of a police motor boat, flag fluttering furiously in the head wind, as it cut through the waters off the hotel, then disappeared behind a swathe of massive sand dunes along the coastline.

They were at Neena’s every evening, something to occupy the long nights. They had come to recognize the few remaining tourists from the resort.  Abu-Bakr would always swagger in late, perch on his barstool and survey the scene. He never touched alcohol, just ordered a steady stream of coffee, tea, and water.  Neena made her grand entrance, the same every night, stopping by each table, lingering with Nabil and Joanne. At the end of one evening, struggling to sustain the mood amid her dwindling clientele, she set up a microphone at the far end of the bar, and sang along with Edith Piaf, Frehel, Jacqueline François, Gilbert Bécaud. She had a nice voice, swayed to the music as she sang, and seemed to lose herself for a while. By closing time she was clearly drunk, steadying herself against a chair, propping her wispy frame against the bar, pouring another glass of her favorite red wine.

But both Nabil and Joanne looked forward to the nightly stroll to Neena’s, the sun low on the horizon, the searing white bleakness of the desert in midday now transmogrified by the setting sun into a tumultuous blaze of red and orange, and a turquoise hue coalescing in the distance.  And once there, his first drink ordered, Nabil would feel the weight of the day’s anxieties lift slowly.  He was secure in the cool depth of the bar. Even Abu-Bakr – his way of imposing himself into their midst – ebbed into the shadowy recesses of the bar.

“This is what happens when you stay and stay and stay, so long that you can’t imagine leaving,” Neena confided to Nabil and Joanne. She was tearful, her face distorted in the dim light. “I am going bankrupt. Soon I will have nothing! Nothing!” She said this holding her arms out to them, a moment later clasping her hands to her chest, a broken sob escaping her lips, her head hung despondently.

“My dear Neena! What’s all this?’ said Abu-Bakr, dislodging himself from the bar stool and pulling a seat up to their table. “Why the tears. Always tears. Then too much laughter. Then tears. It is always one or the other with you, no?”

“The country is on fire,” she snapped at him. “And what are you doing? You the big police chief. You and your friends who got us to this point.”

“We each do what we can. Why I am here every night, no?” replied Abu-Bakr curtly. “Keeping a close eye on everything. Everything! Keeping chaos from swallowing us up. Making sure no trouble-makers hiding here or there. Provocateurs. Destroyers of our country.”

Joanne laughed out loud. “Really?” she said. “That’s your job? That’s what you’ve been doing?”

Nabil glared at her and shook his head sharply.

Abu-Bakr smiled. “We adapt with the times, no? Just like our friends in America. They dance with us when the times are good, waltz away when the times are bad. Proclaim their innocence. Always their innocence.”

Neena shrugged, stood up abruptly, and said to Abu -Bakr “Vous m’ennuyez!” Then she brushed past him. She changed the CD.  Tempo now fast and furious.

“The Gypsy Kings.” Joanne exclaimed happily. “Bamboleo. I love that song,”

Abu-Bakr rose, held a fat paw out to her. “So a dance?” he asked. “Nothing cheers old Neena up like the sight of good friends dancing.”

“I think we are all too tired for dancing,” Nabil interjected.

Joanne didn’t respond; she kept her arms folded in front of her.

Abu-Bakr ignored Nabil and persisted, “Or are you afraid? Will you run away?”

Joanne stared at him.

“Maybe another time,” said Nabil.

Joanne laughed, rolled her eyes. “Alright,” she said. “Why not?”

She swung past Abu-Bakr, and he turned on his heels after her, caught up to her and pulled her close  He tried to spin her around the small open area in front of the bar, moved jerkily with her across the floor, his glistening face almost touching hers. She rested her hands gingerly on his shoulders, avoiding the two large stains soaking his shirt.  Like a songbird on the back of a lunging rhinoceros, Nabil thought.  He started to get up, but Neena waved him down, took it upon herself: “Let her go you buffoon!  Dégoûtant! She’s drowning in your sweat.”

Abu-Bakr pulled up short, let his hands fall off Joanne’s waist and stepped back. He turned to Joanne, palms up, and offered an exaggerated bow.

But Joanne glared at him, turned on her high heels, and strode straight to Nabil.  “Air,” she said.

“Perhaps I am not a good enough dancer,” said Abu-Bakr as he followed Joanne back to the table. “I am, as they say, self-taught.”

“You are, as they say, a fool,” said Neena sharply. “Take her out to the terrace Nabil. A nice breeze. Away from all this.”

“Let’s go,” said Nabil. He tried to put his arms around Joanne’s shoulders, but she shrugged him off.

On the terrace, in the moonlight, Nabil turned his back to the sea and leaned against the wooden railing. He said, “That fat fuck.”

“Oh please,” Joanne said. “I could give a damn. Just with all of you sitting around it felt like a spectacle.”

She turned away from him and clicked to the end of the terrace. Nabil followed, stood behind her, neither close nor far.

She peered out over the Mediterranean, white caps out there.  Finally, she said, “I don’t mind staying here.” She held herself tight. “I don’t mind one bit. I don’t need to go anywhere else.”

“Let’s see how things go,” Nabil said.

“It’s okay,” she said.

“Maybe there will be trains out of Alexandria and we can get to Cairo. Figure things out from there.”  He put a hand on her waist.

She shook her head, brushed windswept hair from her eyes. “It’s just fine with me to stay for now. Can’t imagine that it’s any better anywhere else.” She took a deep breath and peered out at the water that was dappled in the moonlight.  “Let’s go back in.”

In the bar the German couple was sitting at a table in the back and talking with worried intensity. The Australian hiker had dozed off in a corner, his sunburned legs and scruffy boots stretched out in front of him, his chin on his chest. A small contingent of Chinese tourists had stood up from their table to leave. Neena was nowhere in sight.

Abu-Bakr was sitting on his stool at the bar and waved them over. He looked at Nabil and then Joanne, a contrite expression on his face.  “I’m very sorry. Very sorry. I did not mean to upset. Truly. Please sit a while” The television was broadcasting images from Cairo, where traffic was moving smoothly across the Kasr El Nil Bridge. At the bar, Nabil placed himself between Abu-Bakr and Joanne.  “Nothing about the protests?” Nabil said.  “Never a word.”

Abu-Bakr laughed. “This orchestrated coup against the government will never work,” he said. “They like to bark; they like the sound of their own barking. When did you say you were last in Egypt?”

“I left when I was ten. A long time ago,” said Nabil.

“Yes, you have been gone too long. You don’t understand Egyptians anymore. I, sir, have lived here my whole life. I have been in this town for more than two decades! I know police work and I know people. These people you see demonstrating on television, it means nothing. Anyway, believe me, people are fundamentally cowards, even here in Egypt. They say a lot of things. Yes, sometimes they even do things. Sometimes terrible things. Then they run away. They pack up, they take their daughter, their son, whomever, and they run away. Sometimes to America, no?”

“I’m not sure I understand what you’re getting at,” replied Nabil.

Abu-Bakr adjusted his rear in the stool, which groaned, and he gazed past Nabil at Joanne, who was sitting stony faced. “My dear Joanne, my dear, All-American Joanne.  I am not the enemy. Please understand, I speak the truth. We here are complacent. Of course we are. We have been tamed by the whip, by poverty, by the centuries, by the cattle prod in the rectum. We are a hollow shell of a people, the detritus of history. There is nothing we won’t accept. Beat us and we will crawl. Yell and we will scuttle away.”

Joanne waited a few beats and said, “I think that’s pretty pathetic.”

He yawned and stretched his arms out in front of him. He seemed pleased with his monologue.

“Well,” Nabil said.  “It’s getting late.”

Abu-Bakr looked at Joanne and a sleepy smile crept over his face. “You are a believer, no? You believe in human energy, in the transformative ability of the human spirit, in the capacity of man to alter his fate and the course of human events. A can-do spirit! Manifest Destiny! The western frontier! How precious. How American. Here we have been slogging the same slice of narrow terrain for thousands of years. That is our frontier.”

The cleaning lady came out from the kitchen carrying a large rubber container for the dirty dishes. Abu-Bakr waved her over. “An example,” he said to Joanne.

“No,” Nabil said. “That’s enough.”

“But please,” Abu-Bakr said. “It is important I make things clear.  Mounira—come over here.”

Mounira approached hesitantly, a wavering smile on her face. “What! You think I am going to bite?” Abu-Bakr said to her. “You speak a little English, yes. I just have a question for you.”

Mounira nodded.

“My friends here are visiting from America. You know USA! USA! USA!”

Mounira nodded again. “They want to know the way to the Statue of Liberty. You know the famous one I’m talking about. Where is it exactly? Down the highway somewhere?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Before Marsa Matrouh?”

“A few miles before. A couple of towns before.”

“Thanks Mounira,” said Abu-Bakr. “Now that wasn’t so bad!”

After she left he turned to Joanne and said, “See what I mean. Statue of Liberty. She has no clue. Just, yes sir. Absolutely sir. Anything you say sir.”

“That’s absurd,” said Joanne. “She’s probably thinking you are an idiot. She’s humoring your stupidity.”

In the shadows by the kitchen entrance, Nabil saw Mounira staring back at them.

Abu-Bakr wagged a finger at Joanne. Under his breath he chanted: “USA!  USA!”

“That’s enough,” Nabil said.

To be continued…

Claire Hamner Matturro Reviews Robert Bailey’s “Between Black and White”

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Justice, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literature, Novels, Southern Literary Review, Southern Literature, The Novel, The South, Writing on June 15, 2016 at 6:45 am

ClaireHamnerMatturroforSoLitRev

Claire Hamner Matturro, a former lawyer and college teacher, is the author of four legal mysteries with a sense of humor. Her books are Skinny-Dipping (2004) (a BookSense pick, Romantic Times’ Best First Mystery, and nominated for a Barry Award); Wildcat Wine (2005) (nominated for a Georgia Writer of the Year Award); Bone Valley (2006) and Sweetheart Deal (2007) (winner of Romantic Times’ Toby Bromberg Award for Most Humorous Mystery), all published by William Morrow. She remains active in writers’ groups, teaches creative writing in adult education, and does some freelance editing. Visit her at www.clairematturro.com.

The review originally appeared here in Southern Literary Review.

Following the success of his powerful debut legal thriller, The Professor (Thomas & Mercer 2015), Bailey offers a second, stunning story in the series. In his novel Between Black and White (Thomas & Mercer March 2016), Bailey establishes beyond doubt that he is an author to be read and reckoned with.

Between Black and White is closely tied to Bailey’s first book and involves several of the same characters. In The Professor, readers were introduced to aging former law professor Tom McMurtrie, who returns to the courtroom after being forced out of his teaching position at The University of Alabama School of Law. Tom teams up with Rick Drake, an impetuous young attorney and his one-time student. Together, in The Professor, Tom and Rick pursue a tense and dangerous wrongful death lawsuit.

While Tom and Rick dominate The Professor, another lawyer—Bocephus Haynes, or Bo—steps into that story at critical times to boost and support Tom. Bo is a bigger than life black University of Alabama football star who blew out his knee and, instead of retreating into depression over the loss of a pro football career, goes to law school. Tom is one of his professors, and the two develop a close friendship.

As much as The Professor was Tom and Rick’s story, Between Black and White is Bo’s story. In the prologue, we meet Bo as a five-year-old who watches members of the Ku Klux Klan lynch his beloved father. From the opening pages of Chapter One—which finds a disheartened, angry Bo getting drunk on the anniversary of his father’s brutal lynching—to the shocking, violent conclusion, Bo leaps off the pages with boldness and spirit. But like all well-crafted fictional heroes, he is flawed, and his failings land him in a courtroom as the sole defendant in a capital murder case.

His near fatal flaw: hunger for revenge. Obsessed with punishing the man who lynched his father, Bo shapes his professional life around that goal. After graduating with honors from The University of Alabama School of Law, Bo turns down offers at prestigious law firms. He returns to his home town, Pulaski, Tennessee, to a solo law practice as the city’s only black attorney—and to pursue the man he holds responsible for his father’s death. Too many people in the city of Pulaski know Bo is driven by his fixation to punish the man he blames for his father’s lynching. His wife has even left him because his drive to avenge his father’s murder has endangered their two children.

Since Bo was five years-old, he has blamed Andrew Davis Walton, a powerful businessman in Pulaski, for his father’s death. Once the Imperial Wizard of the Tennessee Knights of the KKK, Walton shook off the robes of the Klan and made millions in the stock market. Known as the “the Warren Buffett of the South,” he tried to make amends for his Klan actions.

Yet people have a long memory when it comes to the Klan—and no one more than Bo. Though Walton was hooded the night five-year-old Bo witnessed the lynching, Bo recognized Walton’s voice. But no one in law enforcement was ever willing—then or later—to prosecute Walton on the testimony of a child claiming to identify a voice.

On the 45th anniversary of his father’s lynching, Bo gets drunks in a local bar. Walton and Maggie, Walton’s aging, beautiful wife and one of the local landed aristocracy, seemingly accidentally run into Bo in the bar. Face to face with Walton, Bo threatens him in front of witnesses by quoting the Old Testament’s “eye for an eye.”

After the bartender breaks up the confrontation, Walton steps outside. But before Bo leaves the bar, Maggie returns to tell him that Walton is dying. She asks that Bo leave her terminally ill husband alone. Bo staggers out, lamenting to himself that Andy Walton was going to die before he could bring him to justice.

That night, someone shoots Walton and stages a mock lynching at the site where Bo’s father was lynched four and a half decades before.

Physical evidence points directly at Bo. Everyone in the legal community knows he had the motive and opportunity. Even before Bo recovers from his hangover, he is in jail. The prosecutor, a fierce woman attorney who has butted heads with Bo in court before, decides to seek the death penalty.

Pulaski was the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, and many residents and officials in the city strive to live that down. So when the murder, with its roots in the old KKK lynching, puts Pulaski and its Klan heritage back in the spotlight of national media, city officials attempt to pressure Bo to plead guilty and avoid the further media circus of a trial.

Bo refuses. He is innocent of murdering Walton—or so he claims, though no one in law enforcement believes him. He calls on his former law professor and close friend, Tom, to defend him. Reluctantly, Tom agrees and retains local attorney Raymond “Ray Ray” Pickalew, another former U of A football player. Rick, who is now Tom’s law partner, is dragged into the case as well.

Though Tom and Rick sense a setup, they struggle against multiple roadblocks—and the overwhelming physical evidence of Bo’s guilt—to determine who had a motive to kill Andy Walton and frame Bo. During their quest, Tom is assaulted and sidelined by his injuries; Ray Ray is a drunk with an attitude, and young. Overwhelmed Rick is left to unravel the seemingly unrelated pieces of a complex, emotional puzzle. Villains from The Professor return to taunt and threaten Tom and Rick, adding further intricacy to the plot.

Thus, Bailey sets up the classic formula of a legal thriller. Mind you, formula is not used as a derogatory term here. Shakespeare’s sonnets were formula and critics do not dismiss them in disparaging terms. As used here, formula simply refers to the structure and elements that define a genre or a literary style. In a legal thriller where the focus is on a criminal defendant on trial for his or her life, readers expect the odds to be stacked against the defendant. They expect the defense attorneys to be complicated, troubled, overwhelmed and conflicted. And, owing perhaps to the Perry Mason standard, readers expect a surprise witness and revelation near the close of the trial which allows the defense attorneys to prevail and the defendant to be found not guilty.

There are, of course, notable exceptions to this basic formula. Lincoln Lawyer and A Time to Kill come to mind. Both of those legal thrillers had guilty defendants, yet with vastly differing twists at the end.

Given the formulaic elements at play in the genre, a successful legal thriller author has to avoid creating a stale, mechanical plot that reads like a written version of a paint-by-number canvas. Yet the author has to keep the plot within the confines of the genre or publishers will scratch their heads and throw the manuscript on the reject pile.

In other words, authors working within a prescribed genre face a kind of delicate yet vicious circle. On the one hand, they must write within the parameters of their chosen genre. But, on the other hand, they have to do something new, exciting and fresh. It’s kind of like saying: Color within the lines. But don’t color within the lines.

Within this catch-22, the author has to give the reader something more—and something different. This Bailey does, and does with a bang.

Yet, having said that much, to say much more about the surprising, original twists of Between Black and White risks spoiling the plot. Thus, this reviewer will only observe that per the Perry Mason/John Grisham model, an unexpected witness with a startling revelation does pop up at the end of the trial. But just when the reader settles back to relax and believe that justice has been achieved, something complicated, violent and utterly surprising happens.

It isn’t just that Bailey knows how to surprise us, but he also writes well. Very well. Make no mistake on that point. His sentences are clear, clean, distinctive, and when they need to hit with a punch, they do. His pacing is excellent—an edge-of-the-seat, can’t-put-it-down momentum fuels the storyline from the prologue to the climatic ending. His characters are well-drawn, his sense of place and world-building excellent. The plot is intricate, but believable. There is redemption for some characters, resolution for others—and those that deserve neither are left to flounder in their own hell. Justice is achieved, albeit in a confused, violent way.

In short, Bailey wrestles what in less talented hands could have been a formulaic story into something wholly fresh, engaging, and ultimately rich and satisfying. This is a book you want to own and read.

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

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Writing on June 8, 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.

 

By the time the food came, kabobs for Nabil, chicken for Joanne, the bar had filled up slightly.

“Not so good about the airport,” said Nabil. “I’m thinking this was all a mistake. We shouldn’t have come.” His mood turned dark. He stared at his plate, a worried expression settling on his features.

They recognized some of the faces from the hotel – Joanne pointed out a German couple they had met briefly in the hotel lobby, also a young man with unruly sandy hair and an Aussie T-shirt.  A comforting handful of others sat in groups of two or three; most looked like tourists from Europe and Asia.

Nabil’s food was mediocre; the kabobs too few and too lean. Joanne had chosen well, her chicken perfectly regal on its bed of puree. But the atmosphere had picked up with the chatter of customers and soon a more comfortable air had settled in, the events moving across the country momentarily receding into the background.  Nabil, relaxed, his fears abating, found he could eat. Joanne dug into her food, stopping only to watch as a woman they had not noticed before strolled through the dining room and chatted with a few of the guests. Behind her, Nabil saw, to his surprise, the police chief, Abu-Bakr. He had stepped back from the woman once she started conversing with the diners, and made his way to the bar counter, settling himself on a stool, a few feet away from their table. His trousers, taut over each substantial thigh, looked more than uncomfortable, his girth spilling over his belt as he sat hunched over on the barstool. He glanced over at Nabil and Joanne, nodded his head in acknowledgement. Joanne regarded Abu-Bakr briefly, waved a few vague fingers in his direction, turned her attention back to her dinner.

The woman walked into the bar. She was older, slender, small, clad in a black evening gown, silver hair tied up in a bun, a string of pearls shimmering across the pale skin of her throat. She looked overdressed for the setting, but somehow comfortable in her presentation, as if in her mind she was somewhere else, presiding over a different kind of clientele in a different kind of place.

“Neena in the flesh?” Joanne said.

They watched her move around the tables and greet patrons.  Soon, she stopped at their table.  “Hallo,” she said, in French-accented English. “How do you like your meal?”  Her face was a perfect oval of carefully placed eyeliner and shadow, blush and lipstick, nice but still failing to hide her age.

Joanne said, “The roasted chicken is divine.”

“Very nice,” Nabil lied. “Looks like things are picking up a little.”

“You must be American,” Neena said. “We get so few Americans these past few years. British, French, Italian, German, even Canadians, everything. But no Americans. It’s a shame. Malheur de la politique.” She had a throaty voice, a habit of stretching out certain words for emphasis, her mannerisms a little too expressive, as if this were a speech she had practiced and delivered countless times before. “Le monde est vraiment petit n’est-ce-pa? No need for all these problems.”

Abu-Bakr overheard the exchange, laughed, leaned over in their direction and said, “Neena, perhaps our American friends could inform us as to why in god’s name they hate us so much?”

Ignore him,” said Neena. “Unfortunately I have to tolerate his presence.”

“We are American,” said Nabil to the woman. “But my father’s family was from around here. Used to own land around here.”

Neena nodded distractedly. She placed a hand lightly on Nabil’s shoulder, smiled warmly at Joanne. She assumed a faraway expression, two fingers floating momentarily across her temple as if to smooth out the fine worry lines. “Well I was raised in Alexandria, but I vastly, vastly prefer this place. I’ve been here so, so long now. Fell in love with the desert. Madly. The terrible, wonderful emptiness of it all. And then history of this town. The wars that raged.” She pointed east in the direction of the old battlefields of El Alamein.

She stopped, ran a finger absent-mindedly across a loose strand of hair. “What’s the family name?” she asked.

“Awad,” replied Nabil.

Something like recognition passed briefly over her face.  She covered with more verbiage. “You should come back. You should come back every night. There is nothing else to do around here. We can talk more. Nous pouvons parler toute la nuit! I need to understand more why you are here.” And with that she bade them a good evening and paused for a moment by Abu-Bakr at the bar.

Joanne saw her exchange a few words with Abu-Bakr, and both glanced quickly in their direction. Then Abu-Bakr rose from his seat and followed her back into the dining room.

Nabil was looking around the bar trying to catch their waiter’s attention.

“When did you say the airport closed?’ Nabil asked the waiter after he finally brought them their check.

“Just few hours ago. Tonight.”

“Any news on when it will re-open?” Nabil said trying to sound more nonchalant than he felt.

The waiter shrugged. “No one knows,” he said. “No one knows anything.” He nodded, looked past them into the dining room, his attention focused there where it was busier.

When they had stepped outside the restaurant, Joanne said, “What did she mean by that comment?”

“Who? By what?”

“Neena. Understanding why we are here?”

Nabil shrugged, “Who knows. Just her English turned around.”

A few cars were parked at odd angles in the small dirt cul de sac at the front of the restaurant. There was something that felt especially familiar to Nabil about this place. He’d sensed it the moment they’d first come upon the restaurant. It was more pervasive now, perhaps the alcohol, the quality of the light approaching dusk. He stood for a moment looking around him. Behind them was the sea, the sound of waves breaking on the shore. Before them, a dirt path, bordered on either side by a barren terrain of sand and scrub grass, led back to the highway. Joanne held herself close to Nabil as they ambled along.

“Somewhere here,” Nabil said. “It looks different now. I think we were standing near here. She was trying to cross.”

They’d stopped at the edge of the highway.  The sun was low, and Joanne shielded her eyes from the dusky red glow off the desert.

“It’s more built up now. I remember an empty road, desert, lots of open space.”

Joanne looked around. The small storefronts on either side of the highway, the few scattered homes nearby, the level road ahead. She laughed and said, “built up?”

They doubled back down the highway away from the town and towards the resort. Nabil spotted the convoy first. “Look,” he said.  The armored vehicles, at first hazy in the distance, were rapidly approaching them, then passing, throwing up clouds of dust. Green tarp covered the beds, but the back flaps were open, revealing rows of seated soldiers, rifles at hand. The last vehicle stormed past with a heart-seizing blare of its horn. They froze and watched until the convoy was out of sight, speeding in the direction of Alexandria.

To be continued…

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

In Arts & Letters, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Short Story, Writing on June 1, 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.

 

The resort was running a limited dining service, the disturbances having left the establishment nearly vacant. The front desk directed them to a small restaurant called Neena’s, within walking distance. The path from the beach house curved along the back of the hotel compound, then past a fading parking lot to a dusty road lined with towering, spindly palm trees, their reed-like motion in the sea breeze at once resilient and unsteady.

Neena’s was located a half mile down the highway, barely in town, which wasn’t much—a few miles of low-flung limestone homes and stores, narrow roads. The restaurant was a clean, modest affair; a small dining area led into a dimly lit bar. There Joanne chose a table by the bar and ordered a mango juice. Nabil ordered a Stella, the local beer for more than a century. The bartender drifted between the dining area and bar, straightening out the wrinkles on the tablecloths, and making subtle adjustments to the seating, in no apparent hurry to get their drinks. The decor was simple, mostly paintings of ancient Cairo and Alexandria during the Abbasid period depicting men in turbans and flowing gowns gathered around crowded market-places, or camped in clusters in an expanse of desert outside the Citadel. Scratchy music played overhead.

“That’s the singer Umm Khalthoum,” Nabil said. “I grew up on this. She was my father’s favorite. In New Jersey after we first arrived in America it was all he listened to. Every night when he thought I was asleep. He would sit there in the living room in the dark with the same record playing night after night, filling the place with cigarette smoke.”

“More actual detail about him than you have ever shared, Nabil,” said Joanne.

At home, they lived two hours apart. He saw Joanne on weekends. She was a financial analyst at a firm in San Francisco. He lived outside Sacramento, a technical writer at a civil engineering company. They shared a fondness for books and movies, restaurants, wine. He loved her apartment in the Marina district, the flood of sunlight from the expansive bay window, overlooking the Pacific and a slice of the Golden Gate Bridge.  He would drive to San Francisco most Friday nights, head back home late Sunday.  The distance kept them together, they always said. The pregnancy an accident, both of them momentarily unhinged, relying just this once on a timely withdrawal. Coitus interruptus interrupted.

Their drinks came. “What is she saying?” asked Joanne.

“Love. Despair. A little more love. A touch more despair.”

“Of course he was thinking of your mother.”

“Maybe,” said Nabil.

“What does that mean? His young wife drowns on vacation. Leaves him with a small boy to raise alone. He is devastated. Escapes to America. A new life.”

Nabil sipped his beer. “My mother hated it here. Did I tell you that?”

Joanne shook her head, regarded him. “No. As I recall the official line is you don’t much remember anything about her.”

Nabil looked away, eyed the array of liquor bottles along the glass shelves above the bar. He had kept reminiscence of his time here as a child at a distance, even to himself. Joanne, at one point frustrated by his resistance, had eventually abandoned her forays into the topic. Still, but for Joanne, there would have been no trip here. “You get on a plane,” she had said, and meant that he spare her the drama. She’d been right, and now that they were here, it felt absurd not to allow himself the freedom to give more form and substance to his memories, share more with her.

When his beer was finished, Nabil tried to catch the bartender’s attention, but the man was in the dining area, his back to them. Nabil sighed and leaned back in his seat. “She was from Alexandria, a city girl, private school, French sprinkled in with the Arabic at home. Piano lessons. Marble foyer with ridiculous plaster busts of Beethoven and Mozart. All the pretenses. My father tormented her for it. ‘Why Merci? What’s wrong with Shokran?’ Here he reclaimed his place. Returned to his roots. I’d feel it. Everything harder. Coarser. His language changing. His laugh.”

Joanne said, “All you ever told me is that you came to the U.S. with him. That you picked up and moved every few years after that.”

“We were not close and we rarely spoke of her or of this place.

“You said he never married again, but there must have been someone, another woman sometime along the way?”

“No. Not that I saw. And we never stayed in one place for long.  New Jersey, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Saint Louis. He avoided everyone.”

“Even other Arabs?” Joanne said. She played with an edge of her napkin, looked up at Nabil.

Especially other Arabs. He kept to himself. Listened to Umm Khalthoum.  He drove a cab, worked night shift as a janitor, manned convenience stores. Anything.”

“Such a depressing childhood, Nabil,” she said. “I thought mine was bad enough.”

Nabil shrugged.  “He was not a bad father. He provided everything I needed. But yes, what I remember most are gray skies, cold winters, run down apartments in random cities.”

A young waitress, hair in a pony tail, dressed in a simple tan skirt and green blouse brought over quarters of pita bread in a basket and small saucers of hummus and tahini and olives. Nabil handed her his empty beer glass and ordered a scotch, but the girl didn’t seem to understand what a scotch was.  He pointed to the bottles of liquor behind the bar, tried again, the girl listening carefully.  “Ah,” she said, nodding quickly before seeking out the bartender who had just come in from the dining room.

Joanne leaned back in her seat, she was wearing jeans and a white button down that left her arms bare. “It’s so peaceful here,” she said. “Was there truly nothing your mother liked about this place?”

Nabil shook his head. “She loathed the summers. Long months of nothing but desert and sea, and the three of us alone.  Even as a kid I’d sense it as she prepared for the trip out here. Each piece of clothing ironed and folded and neatly packed in suitcases. Like she was putting some part of herself in storage.”

Joanna crossed her arms, hugged herself, rubbed her arms gently with each hand.

“Are you cold?” Nabil asked. “I can have them lower the air conditioning.”

Joanna shook her head. “No. I’m fine. Just trying to imagine things, that’s all.” She scooped up a dollop of hummus with the pita bread and offered it to Nabil. He waved it away, and she plopped it into her mouth.

“There was one time I do remember clearly. She was holding my hand, looking back at him.”  His father in the sun and haze, white shirt, sleeves rolled half way up his arms, black trousers. “I was pulling back from her, and she kept holding onto me, tugging, cajoling me to cross the highway with her until she finally just gave up. And we stood there at the edge of the road and watched him approach.”

The bartender brought over Nabil’s scotch. Nabil thanked him, gestured at the empty bar and asked, “Where are your customers?”

The bartender waved in the general direction of the hotel. “People try to go away,” he said. “But airport shut down.”

To be continued…

Claire Hamner Matturo Reviews Robert Bailey’s “The Professor”

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Fiction, Humanities, Justice, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literature, The Novel, Writing on May 25, 2016 at 6:45 am

ClaireHamnerMatturroforSoLitRev

Claire Hamner Matturro, a former lawyer and college teacher, is the author of four legal mysteries with a sense of humor. Her books are Skinny-Dipping (2004) (a BookSense pick, Romantic Times’ Best First Mystery, and nominated for a Barry Award); Wildcat Wine (2005) (nominated for a Georgia Writer of the Year Award); Bone Valley (2006) and Sweetheart Deal (2007) (winner of Romantic Times’ Toby Bromberg Award for Most Humorous Mystery), all published by William Morrow. She remains active in writers’ groups, teaches creative writing in adult education, and does some freelance editing. Visit her at www.clairematturro.com

This review originally appeared here in Southern Literary Review.

Move over, John Grisham, there’s a new kid on the legal thriller playing field.

Robert Bailey, an Alabama trial attorney and graduate of The University of Alabama School of Law, returns the kickoff for a 100 yard touchdown with his debut novel, The Professor. The football reference is apropos as the protagonist of The Professor was a member of Alabama’s famous 1961 National Champion football team, and the book opens with a guest appearance by venerated Alabama football coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant. Alabama’s 1961 national championship was the first of the six that Bear Bryant would win as head coach of the Crimson Tide, and the fighting spirit of that 1961 team resounds throughout the novel.

But one does not need to be a football fan or even a fan of legal thrillers to enjoy Bailey’s book as its writing is smooth, captivating and, in all the right places, emotionally moving—all the more impressive in that Bailey only took a single creative writing class while an undergraduate at Davidson College. According to Bailey, “We wrote four short stories, and the critiques I received were mostly positive.  It was definitely a confidence builder and a whole lot of fun.”

How did he go from taking just one creative writing class to writing a riveting debut of a legal thriller?

In law school, Bailey served on the law review, an honor generally reserved for those who can write well. Yet there is a football field of difference in writing an analytical, academic, footnoted and blue-booked law review article and composing an edge-of-your-seat legal thriller.

The bridge, then, between writing like a lawyer and writing like a top-drawer novelist was part inspiration, part studying other novels, and part the hard work of rewriting, redrafting, and revising. Bailey’s inspiration came from growing up in Alabama as a Bear Bryant fan and from wanting to write about a brash young “bull-in-a-china-shop” new attorney—a character whose experiences resemble Bailey’s own days straight out of law school. As for studying other legal thrillers and books, Bailey has said, “Yes, I have learned a lot from reading other novels.  Also, Stephen King’s instructional memoir, On Writing, was a big influence and inspiration.” And as for the hard work of revision and rewriting—it took Bailey eight years to finish The Professor, though he was practicing law, trying cases, and raising a family at the same time.

Bailey, a history major and a Huntsville, Alabama, native, is quite the Bear Bryant fan and a football historian. These personal interests enrich The Professor and play into Bailey’s creation of the lead character, Professor Thomas Jackson McMurtrie.

In some ways McMurtrie, the protagonist, is an unusual leading man. For one thing, he is 68 and his glory days on the famous Alabama football team of 1961 are long behind him. He faces serious health issues, mourns his late wife, and has been unfairly manipulated out of his position as an evidence professor at the University of Alabama School of Law into an unwanted early retirement. One of his former students—and a man he had called a friend—was complicit in the scheme to push him out as a law professor, and the betrayal wounds McMurtrie deeply.

Yet, in other ways, McMurtrie is the ideal leading man—for one thing his skills and instincts as a trial attorney form the perfect balance to his headstrong, volatile former student, Rick Drake, when they take on a trucking company in a wrongful-death case. McMurtrie, named after Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, epitomizes what we would want in both a leading man and a lawyer—he is somewhat of a modern Atticus Finch, albeit with some different demons. Bailey writes in his author’s notes that he wanted to create a character that was a “man of exceptional integrity, strength, and class.” This Bailey has done.

Rick Drake, the lawyer version of a yin to McMurtrie’s yang, is more of what readers might expect in legal thrillers. A young lawyer, brash, over his head, yet passionate about his client and the case, Drake has more gumption and zeal than skills. He needs the experience and even temperament of McMurtrie. Drake also needs an expert in evidence, and McMurtrie literally wrote the textbook on evidence law in Alabama.

But here’s the rub: Drake and McMurtrie have a turbulent history. Drake was McMurtrie’s law student and the two came to blows—literally—after Drake hotheadedly dashed his trial advocate team’s chances of winning a national trial competition. McMurtrie was the team’s coach. After a video of the angry clash between the professor and the student was posted on YouTube, a conniving new dean at the law school used the incident as part of his plan to push McMurtrie out of his tenured position.

So, let’s just say Drake and McMurtrie are not best friends.

Yet each man knows the value of the other. Drake has the vigor McMurtrie fears is waning in himself. And McMurtrie has decades of knowledge and the calm, deliberate skills Drake lacks.

Thus, out of these conflicts and contrasting personalities, the characters of McMurtrie and Drake form an integral part of what makes The Professor work so well. This is a book about people, vividly drawn and fully realized, overcoming obstacles within themselves—as well as obstacles placed in their way by unscrupulous others.

Superb writing and engaging protagonists, though, are not the only things that make this debut so compelling. This is a bam-bam-bam book as far as plot goes, with plenty of action in and out of the courtroom. In the opening chapters, there is a horrific and fiery automobile crash, betrayal, suicide, murder, blackmail and enough suspense to keep the reader turning pages all night. There’s a good reason Winston Groom, author of Forrest Gump and another Alabama writer, calls The Professor “[g]ripping from the first page to the last.”

In a tightly woven plot that unfolds naturally in well-paced scenes, McMurtrie refers a former girlfriend (from the days before his marriage) to Drake for representation in a wrongful-death action after her granddaughter, daughter and son-in-law slam into a speeding eighteen-wheeler and die. McMurtrie recommends that she retain Drake in part because Drake grew up in the town where the lawsuit will be tried and McMurtrie believes in the home-court advantage. Yet McMurtrie also believes Drake can win the case—and he wants to help the struggling lawyer.

The defendant trucking company’s owner is an unscrupulous yet tough adversary who has the power to pervert the quest for hard evidence. Drake and McMurtrie have to prove in a court of law what they know is true—the trucking company had a consistent, deliberate pattern of forcing its truckers to speed in order to clock more miles and make more money for the company. Yet the trucking company’s owner doesn’t play by any rules, which gives him an apparent upper hand in disposing of key witnesses and the paper trail of evidence. Compounding the pressure on Drake and McMurtrie, the trucking company’s attorney is none other than McMurtrie’s former friend who betrayed him and helped oust him from his teaching career.

The stakes go beyond money. The plaintiff wants the world to know the truth about the accident—that her family died because of a concerted, greedy corporate plan that turned its eighteen-wheelers into dangerous weapons.

McMurtrie wants to avenge himself against his former friend and later betrayer, and he wants to help his former girlfriend. Not incidentally, he hopes to prove that even at 68, “The old bull still has a little gas in the tank.” And, maybe, he hopes to get his job as a law professor back. He definitely wants to help Drake and set matters right between them.

Yet in some ways, Drake is the one who has the most at stake. The YouTube of his shoving contest with McMurtrie painted him as an uncontrollable hothead and cost him his position at a big law firm. He is barely earning his rent as a solo practitioner. He questions himself. If Drake is going to survive as an attorney, he needs a courtroom victory. But beyond building his career, he needs to get right in his own head and prove he is capable of being a winning trial attorney—one who will not blow up and ruin the case as he did during the law school trial team competition. Drake is a young man, not fully formed as a man or an attorney, and this trial will make or break his maturation.

The trial scenes resonate with realism. Naturally so, given that the author is a practicing attorney and a shareholder with the law firm of Lanier Ford in Huntsville. Interestingly enough, the author defends—among others—trucking companies. Similar to his character Drake, Bailey was a winner in trial advocacy competitions while in law school.

The Professor introduces the character of Bocephus Haynes, McMurtrie’s favorite former student. Bocephus plays an important yet secondary role in the story as ally and emotional support, but he is set to return in a leading role in the sequel, Between Black and White. A third manuscript, now in the works, will take Drake and McMurtrie back to Tuscaloosa, and Drake’s story line and growth as a character will be explored further and in more detail.

 

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