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

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Writing on August 3, 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.

 

That evening, they had dinner on the veranda of Neena’s house overlooking the beach. They drove through the narrow, dirt streets to a small villa a few blocks from the restaurant.

The front of Neena’s house was hidden behind high limestone walls; the back opened to the sea. A stray dog poked around near a rubbish pile on the edge of the road, chased the car, barking furiously as they passed. A sulfurous odor of sewer wafted their way and dissipated.  Neena unlocked the gate, then her front door, and showed them in.  The small living room was crowded with overstuffed furniture, spilling over with a haphazard array of trinkets, figurines, ornaments, and the air of something bygone. The carpet was threadbare and the curtains frayed at the edges. Neena sighed, straightened her shoulders, suddenly relaxed.

“Come,” she said and led them out onto the veranda to a table already set for dinner. “A traditional Egyptian meal!” she declared. “Even if Maman was French, I am as Egyptian as they come! And I have prepared the meal myself!  Green peppers and zucchini stuffed with rice, ground beef. And even moulokhiyah!”  The traditional Egyptian soup, Nabil knew, in a colorful ceramic bowel, and of course other smaller bowls of steaming rice on which to pour it, fresh pita bread cut in quarters, a rack of lamb, a bottle of wine, then another, this one red, and yet another, white.

“Local wine,” said Neena. “Not especially memorable, but at least our very own.”

She poured Joanne mineral water, didn’t stop talking, directing her words mostly to Joanne, who remained attentive.

“So quiet?” Neena said to Nabil finally.

“He’s often quiet,” Joanne said.

He said, “I’m still thinking about my reaction at the cemetery. I’m embarrassed about it. Everything here is so alien to me.”

Neena laughed and threw up her hands. “A man you don’t know holding a gun – even if he is just the night watchman and the gun a toy. Très compréhensible.”

Joanne nodded.

Nabil shrugged and said, “The driver mentioned to me there’s word the president will step down tonight.  Rumor is, he’s already left Cairo.”

“Maybe he’s in his beautiful palace in Alexandria,” suggested Neena. “Or the other one in Sharm el Sheikh.  Never enough, darlings.  Same goes for all his cronies and lackeys—palaces, cars, fancy clothes. A gang of thieves.” Abruptly, she rushed to the railing, peered out onto the darkened beachfront.  “Well, speak of the devil!” she said with a laugh. “Out for a stroll are you?”

Abu-Bakr emerged out of the shadows.  “Beautiful evening, no?” He said, leaning his bulk forward against the railing, smiling broadly.

“It certainly was,” said Joanne.

Nabil caught Joanne’s eye, an admonishing glance. Joanne leaned back in her seat, looked over her shoulder at the stretch of beach behind her and the few darkened homes that lined it.

“Such a coincidence,” said Nabil. He wondered how long Abu-Bakr had been lurking in the shadows. He pushed his seat closer to Joanne, threw an arm around her shoulders.

“Please. I do not mean to intrude. Just an evening stroll.”

“A beautiful evening!” declared Neena. “We spent the afternoon at the mausoleum.”

Abu-Bakr nodded and followed Joanne’s gaze across the beach front. “A beautiful country,” said Abu-Bakr wistfully to no one in particular. “I imagine you will be leaving us soon.”

“Too soon!” said Neena. “I don’t know what I will do without my new friends.”

“Zerouni kul-i-sana mara,” said Abu-Bakr.

Neena laughed.  “It is a famous song,” she said by way of explanation to Nabil and Joanne. “She is begging her dear friends to visit her even if just once a year.”

“I know the song,” said Nabil.

“Abu-Bakr, I would invite you to join us, but I’m afraid my friends might object.”

Joanne said, “No objection here. It is the very least we should accommodate for all this security.”

Abu-Bakr smiled again. “How considerate of you. Well, only if you insist.”

“Of course we insist,” said Joanne coolly.

Abu-Bakr gave a half bow before settling himself in an open chair across the table. He reached to accept a bowl of the moulikhaya from Neena, tore off half a loaf of the pita bread, dipped it into the soup and bit off a large chunk.

“Bil hana wa el shifa,” said Nabil.

“Thank you,” said Abu-Bakr. He smacked his lips and wiped them vigorously on a napkin. “You know more Arabic than I would have thought, for one gone so long. And the song, how did you know that?”

“My father used to play it,” said Nabil.

Abu-Bakr shook his head. Smiling almost to himself, he looked up at Neena. “Amazing, no? The way the world works. The father leaves only to have the son return, speaking the language, knowing the songs. Hah!”

“What’s so strange about that?’ said Nabil.

“Not strange. Not strange. Just fate. Fate. You try to get away. You get away. You move half way across the world, maybe you never return. Then years later, there is a return. The circle complete.” He spooned up the moulikhaya rapidly, inhaling it.

“My father immigrated to America,” said Nabil. “Not so unusual an occurrence.”

“Yes. Yes. I understand. It is a figure of speech only. Get away from Egypt, one’s past, a fresh start. It is an old story.”

He paused and regarded Nabil. “Please understand, the present is even more unsettled than the past, no? So many troubles.” He shook his head as if in distress. “Alas. The police can’t be everywhere.”

“From what I hear the police aren’t anywhere,” quipped Neena.

“Some would blame the police for anything, of course,” replied Abu-Bakr, unfazed. He took in Joanne and then Nabil. “Listen. You are the last remaining foreigners here.”

“We will be leaving soon,” said Nabil stiffly.

“Of course. That is expected. But all else, so unpredictable. As for your safety, I do what I can.”

“What does that mean, exactly?” said Joanne.

Abu-Bakr shrugged. “My dear, there is chaos in the cities. People shot dead in the street in Cairo.  Even in Alexandria. Alexandria – just a short drive from here!”

He stood up abruptly and turned to Neena.  “Your food is as delicious as ever, Madam Neena.”

Neena nodded an acknowledgement.

He trotted energetically down the steps. “Safe travels to both of you,” he said to Nabil and Joanne from the bottom of the veranda. “Maybe we will see you here again next year. A regular pilgrimage to one’s past, one’s home, I hope.”

They watched him as he moved past them down the beach.

“What a creep,” muttered Joanne.

Neena sighed and shook her head. “The poor fool. He’s been stationed here for years, keeping an eye on all of us and the tourists. Entirely forgotten by his paymasters. But still such a hopeless chien fidèle.”

“You sound deeply sympathetic, Neena,” said Joanne.

Neena smiled and shook her head. “How can I not be just a little? In the past he has proclaimed himself my protector. I think he is a small bit in love with poor old Neena.”

Joanne shook her head. “You deserve so much better than that.”

Neena looked at Joanne with mock deliberation. “Perhaps I could see it as my penance. A punishment of sorts. Tolerate his heaving and sweating and pawing in that way.” She threw her head back and laughed. “The dog image again!” She put her face in her hands, laughing even more, Nabil and Joanne with her.

After that, for a few minutes, they all sat quietly, a moment of tranquility settling in with the sound of the waves lapping the shore. Eventually, Neena stood and started to clear the dinner table. Nabil got to his feet to assist her, but she waved him down. “My guests don’t do my work,” she said, scolding. “Anyway, let’s go inside for coffee.

Neena emerged from the kitchen carrying a tray laden with tiny cups and a brass kanaka with the Turkish coffee. She set the tray down on the living room table by the couch and poured the coffee, thick, black, an aroma of cardamom.

“You are too alone here, Neena,” Joanne proclaimed, resting her head on Nabil’s shoulder.

“That is why you must not leave. Ever!”

“What about your friend. The woman who used to come by the restaurant. Someone you grew close to. Whatever happened to her?”

Neena started to hand Joanne her cup but paused for a moment. “Will this be too strong for you, darling?”

Joanne shook her head. “It’s fine.”

“It was such a long time ago. But I have never forgotten. She was killed. A tragic accident.”

“An accident?” said Nabil.

Neena passed Nabil his coffee. She paused a moment and then settled herself in a chair across from them.

“Her husband said he was teaching her to swim. He said they got caught in the undertow.” She sighed. “I never met her husband. She talked about him.  She was unhappy. And of course I had grown to love her madly. It is my way, no. The desert always seemed like the safest place for secrets, but this town, this town…”  Her voice drifted off. “And my love always too loud.” Neena stopped and shook her head. “I knew she wanted to get away. She told me and so we devised crazy, desperate plans. Impossible plans – we would leave together for Alexandria, disappear there for a while, and then catch a ship across the waters to France or Italy or Spain.”

“Did you?” said Joanne.

“We didn’t get very far. Not very far at all. Not even out of town. He stripped her, shackled her to the bed. Left her like that the whole night. She called me after that. She said she loved me.”

Joanne leaned forward towards Neena. “Did you ever see her again?”

Neena shook her head. “No. Never.” She stopped, gazed blankly at the space in front of her. “There was a young boy,” she said finally. “One time she brought him with her to the restaurant. We sat in the dining room talking and the boy slipped into the kitchen, made friends with the chef, stuffed himself full of desserts and sweets. She was so upset when she realized what had happened. Then she was furious at me when I couldn’t stop laughing.”

Nabil stood up. He was suddenly tired of Neena’s company, claustrophobic in her cramped living room.

Will I see you again?” Neena cried. There was something wild in her eyes. “Will I see you? I must see you before you go.”

 

*

 

Nabil dreamed of a head of thick, black hair gripped forcibly under water. A sudden frenzy, a burst of movement, in a choppy ocean on a sunny day.  He woke gasping for breath, got out of bed and dressed hastily. The house was silent, in darkness. He called out for Joanne but got no response. Outside on the patio the beach stretched before him, a crescent of silver merging with the blackness of the sea. In the moonlight, he could see fleeting white caps in the distance, an illusion of still life rolling in the small waves that breached the shoreline. He peered again into the water, called her name as he rushed out onto the sand, searched for a shadow in the waves, and then scoured the moonlit dunes in the distance. Abu-Bakr’s words preyed on his mind.

“Joanne!” He was shouting now, his voice hollow, toneless, an echo.

“I’m here,” she called finally from somewhere on the stretch of dark shore.

“Where?”

“Here,” she called again. “Are you afraid? Don’t you recognize me? The faded cotton dress. Miles of nothing. I won’t move until you can see me.”

The End

“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….

“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…

“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…

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

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Short Story, Writing on May 18, 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.

 

They drove to the beach house and unloaded. Joanne changed into her one-piece—her body still trim—crazy crimson against her pale skin, her backside like a split peach. If she felt poorly with the pregnancy, she had not mentioned anything to Nabil. She unlocked the French windows, hurried out onto the rectangular tiled patio, rolling desert all around them except for the back of the house which opened to the sea, a crescent of blue.

The desert drifted into the cool expanse of water. “A slow ebb of pain,” said Joanne.  From where they stood it was no more than 100 yards across the white sand to the sea.  The beach was deserted, the midday air uncomfortably dense.

“You should come with,” she said.

I’ll watch you from here,” Nabil said. How beautiful she looked to him, her auburn hair radiant in the harsh sunlight.

She shrugged, turned her back to him, moved briskly across the sandy beach to the water’s edge. She waded in, barely a ripple, water lapping hip level.  He thought of his mother, his father by her side, their bodies leaning into each other, braced against the breaking waves.  His parents had seemed close at that moment, almost intimate.

“Bathwater!” Joanne called.

Unbidden, the foggy northern California coastline came to mind, the place he’d first met Joanne, Steve Pullman’s 35th birthday party at Half Moon Bay.  She was as exotic to him as he was to her, the daughter of a Scotch-Irish rancher from the Oklahoma Panhandle, her hair settling gently against her pale shoulders, which were bare in a strapless dress. You could hear an accent when she talked about it: “I got tired of the red dirt and scrub grass and rednecks and wandered west.”

Joanne cut a path into deeper water past a patch of seaweed.  She twirled and waved to him, dove in, did a flawless breast-stroke parallel to the coastline before turning back to the shore.  Nabil had experienced a surge of anxiety watching her, but it was transient, immediately suppressed.

He jumped at the sound of knocking on the front door: a stranger.  He shielded his eyes from the sunlight to get a better look. The man was short, heavy set, dressed in a loose short-sleeve shirt, embroidery on the sides, gray slacks. Not a uniform per se, but still something official about his appearance Nabil thought.

“I hope I’m not disturbing,” the man said in surprisingly good English. “Sorry for the trouble. A routine security check.”

Nabil, uneasy by the man’s presence, said, “Is there a problem?”

The man laughed pleasantly. He had his sunglasses perched atop his head, a stubbly double chin. “No. No. Please. Not at all. You arrived very late last night. My name is Mr. Abu-Bakr. My security officer didn’t have a chance to do the standard passport inspection at the registration desk, that’s all.” On his face an expression of regret for the tedium of official protocol. “I am very sorry to bother you. It will just take a moment.”

Nabil stepped aside to let the man enter. “If you give me a moment, I’ll find our passports.”

“Please,” said Abu-Bakr.

In the bedroom he peered out the window at the beach for Joanne and didn’t see her. He grabbed the passports from the drawer where he had slipped them under some folded clothes, then hurried back out to the entranceway, determined to finish up with Abu-Bakr as rapidly as possible and check on Joanne.

The man hadn’t moved. He leafed quickly through Joanne’s passport, more slowly through Nabil’s.

“The lady,” Abu-Bakr asked, “is she here?”

“She went for a swim,” said Nabil. “Are we done? I need to check on her.”

“Certainly,” said Abu-Bakr, then peered past Nabil as Joanne appeared in her bathing suit, the material still wet, molded against her breasts, snug against the gentle fullness of her hips. Nabil wished he could wrap the towel which hung from her shoulders around her.

“I think she is now found and safe,” Abu-Bakr said pleasantly, handing the passports back.

“Indeed I am,” she said, looking unperturbed. “And who are you?”

Nabil admired her confidence. So unlike his own untidy emotions. The hardest place is the “in between”—not tourist, no longer native.

“My dear lady. I am Captain Lutfi Abu-Bakr, the head of the police here.”

“Impressive! The hotel has its own police department?” said Joanne

Abu-Bakr regarded Joanne for a moment, impassively at first, then he broke into a grin, said with a laugh, “No, just for the entire city, unfortunately. A much more trivial responsibility.”

“A routine security check,” said Nabil. “I think we’re done?”

Abu-Bakr nodded, his gaze lingering on Joanne, though he spoke to Nabil. “Do you still speak your native tongue or have we lost you completely?”

“Itsharafna,” Nabil said.

“The pleasure was all mine,” replied Abu-Bakr in English, now eyeing Nabil directly.

“Strange character,” said Joanne after Abu-Bakr had left. She roped the beach towel around her hair. “Not sure he wanted to leave.”

“He was enjoying the view,” said Nabil. He pulled her close to him, her swimsuit damp against his shirt, kissed her.

“Well that’s just not right,” whispered Joanne, her tongue sea-chilled, darting between his lips. “I almost feel like I cheated on you.”

In the bedroom she finished peeling off her bathing suit, pressed herself against him. He ran his lips between her breasts, tasted the salty skin down to her navel and below where part of him now resided, the child that he’d never wanted.

To be continued…

“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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