By Fadia Faqir (UK/Jordan)
Published in Issue 21
Rashid was restless, unable to sleep, no matter how he fluffed the pillow, positioned it or placed his head on it. It was freezing in London, but he felt hot, a film of sweat spread on his forehead. He could hear distant coughing, a window being shut, footsteps, the sound of his heart, throbbing in his chest. It took a day and a half to travel by bus from Cairo to ‘paradise’, a small port south of the Mediterranean, where it was easy to arrange to sail to Italy. He lay on the ground in a camp by the abandoned railroad, covered with newspapers and cardboard, waiting for a word from the smuggler, whom he had paid 8000 Egyptian pounds. He told him that when the police raids subside he would be able to put him on a boat and whiz him across instantly, ‘like a fish swimming to its mum, a bird flying home, like Nemo, you shall go home.’ Rashid was hungry and the money his parents had managed to raise for the journey could barely cover the bus fair and the smuggler’s fee. He had some stale bread, a cup of tea, and found a space to sleep between the black bodies splayed here and there in Paradise Camp. Although teeming with people the camp smelled alright, a mixture of tuna, olive oil, spices and lemon blossom, wafting from an orchard nearby. He checked the few dollar notes he kept, together with his father’s letter, between the pages of his Egyptian passport. Secure inside a sealed plastic wallet, it hung around his neck like an amulet. He listened for the sea, the sound of distant waves breaking on the shore, searched for the moon behind the clouds and tried to locate himself in relation to their old neighbourhood in Cairo.
He woke up to a feeling of pressure on his neck and face. A hand, gripping a knife, crushed his mouth and another tightened under his jaw. All he could see was an inflated face of a camper, wretched like him and waiting for the day he would cross to the north and extract some gold. He felt his breath against his cheek, his chest heaving against his ribs, and his legs locked around his. He loosened his grip and began searching, his fingers, probing into his empty trouser pockets, were warm against his private parts. Rashid’s resentment grew. In his rage he didn’t see it there, right beside him. He held the hand, squeezed it tight, shook it, until the knife flew in the air, its blade glimmering in the light of a distant roadside lamp. Rashid held the black man’s head, felt his kinky hair, coarse and grimy, under his palms, kicked him hard then flung him on the ground. It was a sandy beach, dotted with shrubs and covered with empty water bottles, jerry cans, plastic bags, cartons, cardboard huts, and newspapers. His head hit a small rock, sticking out of the sand. Rashid heard a crack, just that: crack. And the thin, tall black man, wrapped in a light shawl, died instantly. There was silence, save the gasping of the sea and the beating of his own heart. Rashid pressed his fingers against his windpipe, on his wrists, on his chest, praying for a pulse. The wretched camper was dead. With tremulous fingers Rashid pulled the shawl up, closed his eyes, and covered his face. His teeth chattered and his lips quivered and could barely meet in an incantation. ‘We belong to Allah and to him we shall to return.’
As he walked away from the corpse towards the sea he felt that he was leaving his old self behind, the one he was used to, the one he had many conversations with. Now he’d crushed his skull against them he could see them everywhere, rocks with smooth, jagged, pointed edges sticking out of the amber sand. Perhaps he could whack his head against one until he lost consciousness; he could swim far into the sea and let go or find the knife and slash his wrists so deep pursuing an end. He looked up at the violet sky, at the stars radiating in the distance, and bowed his head. Allah held the planets, which revolved in their orbits, in their position by solar wind, cosmic rays and dust; he created them, drawing them to their specific spot in the universe. Rashid could not end his life. Suicide was forbidden in Islam. He pressed his hands on his ears, the way he held the head of his assailant, and let the tears, hot and angry, fill the sockets of his eyes, overflow, and trickle down his face. He tasted them, salty and bitter, against his chapped lips.
He had a bad night. In the darkness the past took hold of him and clattered him like a few coins in a tin cup. He was not working that day and felt the need for human conversation, for a natter with a neighbour, for trivia. It was about eleven o’clock Monday morning when Rashid knocked on his neighbour’s door for the first time. When she opened the door her hair was pulled up into a pony tail and curled around rollers.
‘Good morning, Sitt Khadra. Have I come at an inconvenient time?’ He checked his hair and stuck his hands in his pockets.
‘No, no. Please come in’ She smoothed her embroidered kaftan.
The surroundings felt familiar. Was it the oriental prints on the wall, the hand of Fatima, the Bedouin rugs on the sofa, or the smell of incense and cardamom? ‘What a warm flat you have?’ He straightened his knee and sat on the sofa.
He looked tired, his skin lifeless and he had dark patches under his eyes. ‘Give me a few minutes to comb my hair.’ She pulled the pins out of the rollers. ‘Make yourself at home! I won’t be long.’
Sitt Khadra made some Arabic coffee, put the dala pot on a straw mat, two demitasse cups, and a slice of semolina cake on a tray and took it to the sitting room.
Rashid was standing on one leg, admiring the incense burner.
‘I found it in a car boot sale.’ She poured the coffee.
The aroma of freshly-ground coffee beans and cardamom filled the room.
He sat down, held the cup and had a sip. ‘Allah! The taste of home! And what is this?’ he asked pointing at the harisa.
‘Semolina cake with sugar syrup. I made it last night.’
He ate some. ‘It’s so delicious. May Allah protect your hands!’
Sitt Khadra noticed that his fingers shook and that he kept rubbing his knee. How old was he? ‘How are you?’
‘I am fine . . .’ He clenched a muscle in his jaw.
‘You look tired, troubled.’
‘You don’t look fine to me. What is it?’
‘Can I confide in you, Sitt Khadra?’
‘Of course you can. Your secret will be kept in a deep well, as they say in the old country.’
‘I feel as if all the burdens of the world are on my shoulders, Sitt Khadra. The past is weighing heavy on me.’
‘One of the nurses told me, “Look through the windscreen not the mirror”.’
‘I should be excited about living in London, sending my parents money, working in a nice restaurant . . .’ He chased the cake crumbs around the plate.
‘I mixed it with yoghurt. It’s my recipe.’ She smiled.
‘My knee tugs. My heart palpitates. I cannot sleep. When I do I have bad dreams.’ He looked up.
‘You must see to this knee . . . get the doctor to check it.’ She followed his gaze.
‘I cannot . . .’
He must be an illegal immigrant. She tied her hair in a band. ‘Find a way to sort things out.’
‘God knows I have tried.’
‘You’re a Cairian. You’ll find a way.’
He looked at the square the sunrays had made on the rug. ‘The manageress Beth has offered . . .’
‘Has offered what? Has offered to marry you?’
‘Yes. She wants 6,999 sterling pounds.’
‘Did you tell her about your status?’
‘No. She must have guessed. I didn’t confirm her doubts or say anything.’
‘Good. Forget about her offer. Try to find yourself a nice girl.’
‘When, Sitt Khadra? I work all Allah’s given hours and finish my shift at one o’clock in the morning.’
‘You never know what’s around the corner. Just hang on there, Rashid!’
He thanked her, rushed out and took the underground to work.
As soon as he arrived he prepared a marinade for chicken, which Chef Steve had taught him a few weeks ago. He mixed soya sauce, corn flour, an egg and stirred then folded in the chicken breasts in the bowl. He would leave them for twenty minutes. Later he would sauté the garlic paste and chilli then add them to the mix. Chef Steve said as he worked the chicken into the marinade ‘This is an Indian recipe. Widen your horizons, old chap! One day you might work for Gordon Ramsay.’
He nodded although he didn’t know who this Gordon Ramsay was. The sharp smell of chilli filled the kitchen and travelled out to the front, tantalising the customers. He was seasoning the water when the old Polish helper walked in, wearing a long black skirt down to her ankles and a purple top. Chef Steve never nicknamed her or memorised her name as he normally did. With hands dusty with corn flour Rashid ran, locked his arms around her and tried to lift her up.
‘Put me down! You mad sheikhiski!’ She wriggled, trying to free herself.
He tightened his grip on her biceps.
‘Look what done! White dust everywhere! On skirt, sleeves! Dupek!’
‘I cannot help it. When I see your lovely curves I jump.’ He wiped his hands with the towel.
‘Cannot help! Cannot help. Just stop and think.’ She beat the flour off her sleeves with a towel, put on an apron and tied the straps tight.
‘You remind me of my mother.’ He slipped the chicken gently into the bubbling oil.
‘Mother, mother, mother. Cluck, cluck, cluck.’ She soaked the baking trays in soap and hot water. The steam rose and misted the window panes.
He giggled, stretching his facial muscles. They were stiff with disuse.
F. North, wet and ruffled, walked in swearing. ‘Eeeee! Fooking London underground! Aaful! Afore comin heor aa was aalreet!’
Chef Steve, who was doing the rota behind the bar, heard him and rushed to the kitchen. ‘And translated into English?’
F. North smiled, pleated his lips and said imitating him. ‘Awful service today. I was shipshape before I came here, old chap.’
Chef Steve smiled, cracking his taut, botoxed face. ‘Keep practicing! Perhaps in a million years.’
F. North put his hand behind his back, pressed it against his white jacket and stuck his middle finger out. ‘Aye, Chef!’
‘Ze führer’ walked in ruddy and annoyed. ‘Have you finished your prep?’
‘I just flippin arrived.’ F. North put his cap on his head, loosened his peroxide fringe and pulled it down over his forehead.
‘Stick that greasy hair of yours back under the cap!’ She checked that her earrings were in place. With her shorn hair the chandelier-style hoops with dull pearls seemed large, cascading down her blotched neck.
‘One day, boss, I will throw the frying pan at her. Full of sizzling oil, of course.’ He stuck his fringe under the cap.
‘Aywa ya ‘am!’ Rashid laughed and put the fried chicken in the seasoned water.
‘Oi! Omar Sherif! Stop yelping in the Arabic!’ She tapped her pen on the steel worktop.
‘Frigging spinster! Leave him alone!’ F. North stopped chopping the salad and spreadeagled his arms and legs.
Rashid looked down at his shoes, its leather upper stretched over his numb toe, over bunions, tendons and muscles, the laces tight against the arch and the anti-slip sole hard under his feet.
‘Say something!’ F. North took his cap off and flung it on the floor. ‘Don’t just stand there!’
Rashid looked out. The mist on the window dried up leaving grimy streaks behind like lines on a face.
Watching the Polish helper scrape and wash the baking trays, F. North grind the carrots, Chef Steve rub the lamb with chopped sage and black pepper, he wondered whether he would ever forget that sound, crack, or the black man’s eyes, anguish ruffling the surface of their calm. How could you erase what was imprinted under your lids, there in the optics of your brain? He had violated the sanctity of life and somehow Allah would punish him and make him pay for his black deed.
After his shift had ended he sat on an empty crate in the backyard, enjoying the cool breeze after the furnace of the kitchen. It was a busy night and they had done their maximum, one hundred and sixty covers. He untied his bandana and wiped the film of sweat on his brows and upper lip. He unknotted his shoulders, widened his chest and breathed in the fresh night air.
The back door of the kitchen squeaked open and Beth came out. ‘Sitting all alone?’
He looked up at the stars and tried to figure out their constellations.
Beth pulled her earrings down. ‘Ignoring me? Have you thought about my proposal?’
‘I don’t think it’s good idea.’
‘They might expel you. That’s all I’m saying. You might find yourself on a plane, travelling back to Egypt or wherever the fuck you come from.’ She waved a napkin at him.
‘Please give me some time. I don’t have this kind of money. Most of what I make here I send back home.’ Rashid straightened his knee, rubbed it, stretched the arch of his foot.
‘You haven’t got much time, Omar Sherif. My patience is running out.’ She pretended to dial a number on an imaginary phone and talk through the handle. Smirking, she went back to the restaurant.
Sitt Khadra advised him not to give in to her threats. Tonight he was not sure whether he would be better off here in London or in Cairo with his parents. Rashid looked up at a clear shred of sky, wedged between the dense clouds. Was it the same piece of sky his father pondered back home? Would he be singing about finding a cure for losing heart? It was the first time he was able to see the stars since he had arrived in London, sparkling like a piece of silk embroidered with sequins or like his mother’s festival veils, long and glittering. Praise be to Allah the creator! One of the stars was large and bright. It could be Adhara, which used to be close to the sun and was the brightest star in the whole galaxy. It moved away and became the second brightest. Even through hundreds of light years it scintillated far and wide, captivating the hearts of medieval Muslim scholars, who called it ‘virgins’.
Perhaps one day he would be able to forgive himself.
Fadia Faqir (Arabic: فادية الفقير) is a Jordanian-British author. She has published several novels to much critical acclaim. Faqir’s work is written entirely in English and is the subject of much ongoing academic research and discussion, particularly for its ‘translation’ of aspects of Arab culture. It is recognised for its stylistic invention and its incorporation of issues to do with Third World women’s lives, migration, and cultural in-betweeness.