From the Publisher
2006 and the Guardian First Book Award 2006, and won the Commonwealth
Writers' Prize for Best First Book in the Europe and South Asia region.
About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The window in her bedroom was wide open, the glue tree outside it silent, its green shy in the early light. She hadn't fallen asleep until the sky was grey with dawn. And even then I was so rattled I couldn't leave her side, wondering if, like one of those hand-puppets that play dead, she would bounce up again, light another cigarette and continue begging me, as she had been doing only minutes before, not to tell, not to tell.
Baba never found out about Mama's illness; she only fell ill when he was away on business. It was as if, when the world was empty of him, she and I remained as stupid reminders, empty pages that had to be filled with the memory of how they had come to be married.
I sat watching her beautiful face, her chest rise and all with breath, unable to leave her side, hearing the things she had just told me swim and repeat in my head.
Eventually I left her and went to bed.
When she woke up she came to me. I felt her weight sink beside me, then her fingers in my hair. The sound of her fingernails on my scalp reminded me of once when I was unlucky. I had thrown a date in my mouth before splitting it open, only discovering it was infested with ants when their small shell-bodies crackled beneath my teeth. I lay there silent, pretending to be asleep, listening to her breath disturbed by tears.
During breakfast I tried to say as little as possible. My silence made her nervous. She talked about what we might have for lunch. She asked if I would like some jam or honey. I said no, but she went to the fridge and got some anyway. Then, as was usual on the mornings after she had been ill, she took me on a drive to pull me out of my silence, to return me to myself again.
Waiting for the car to warm up, she turned on the radio, skipped through the dial and didn't stop until she heard the beautiful voice of Abd al-Basit Abd al-Sammad. I was glad because, as everyone knows, one must refrain from speaking and listen humbly to the Quran when it is read.
Just before we turned into Gergarish Street, the street that follows the sea, Bahloul the beggar appeared out of nowhere. Mama hit the brakes and said ya satir. He wandered over to her side, walking slowly, clasping his dirty hands tightly to his stomach, his lips quivering. 'Hello, Bahloul,' Mama said, rummaging in her purse. 'I see you, I see you,' he said, and although these were the words Bahloul most often uttered, this time I thought what an idiot Bahloul is and wished he would just vanish. I watched him in the side mirror standing in the middle of the street, clutching the money Mama had given him to his chest like a man who has just caught a butterfly.
She took me downtown to the sesame man in the market by Martyrs' Square, the square that looked on to the sea, the square where a sculpture of Septimius Severus, the Roman Emperor born all those years ago in Lepcis, proudly stood. She bought me as many sesame sticks as I wanted, each wrapped in white wax-paper twisted at either end. I refused to let her put them in her bag. On such mornings I was always stubborn. 'But I have some more shopping to do,' she said. 'You're bound to drop them like this.' 'No,' I said, curling my eyebrows, 'I'll wait for you outside,' and walked off angrily, not caring if I lost her or became lost from her in the big city. 'Listen,' she called after me, attracting people's attention. 'Wait for me by Septimius Severus.'
There was a large cafe on one side that spilled out on to the passageway. Men, some faces I recognized from before, sat playing dominoes and cards. Their eyes were on Mama. I wondered if her dress shouldn't be looser. As I walked away from her I felt my power over her recede; I began to feel sorry and sad how on such mornings she was always generous and embarrassed, as if she had walked out naked. I wanted to run to her, to hold her hand, latch on to her dress as she shopped and dealt with the world, a world full of men and the greed of men. I forced myself not to look back and focused instead on the shops set within arched bays on either side of the covered passageway. Black silk scarves billowed gently above one, columns of stacked red caps stood as tall as men outside another. The ceiling was made with dark strips of fabric. The white blades of light that pierced through the occasional gaps illuminated the swimming dust and shone still and beautiful on the arches and floor, but darted like sparkles on the heads and down the bodies of passers-by, making the shadows seem much darker than they were.