To the memory of Princess Misha'al bint Fahd al Saud
He was asleep again.
Masha-il put her book of Nizar Qabbani poems on the floor and looked to the bed, where he lay. Darkness covered the window in the tiny room, and beyond it, crisp hot air, fields of sand and heat, sandy dunes rising like ramparts into a moonless sky. The only light came from the bedside lamp, which cast an amber glow onto his face. She could sit here for hours. All night, if she dared, just gazing at him.
Sometimes he cried out in his sleep. Words she couldn't understand. Some of them sounded like names. At night they stabbed through her dreams and brought her to the doorway, where she watched him toss and mumble like he wanted to throw off the blankets and get back to his mission, whatever it was.
Slipping off the stool, she crept closer to his mattress. He lay on his back, mouth slightly open. The yellowish light washed away the pallor of his skin, the shadows under his eyes, made him look younger and healthier. And he did look healthier now that the hollows of his cheeks had filled out thanks to Mother's hearty mutton shorbo.
She straightened his pillow and pulled the red wool blanket closer to his chin. He might be cold, she reasoned, even though the fever was almost gone and he had stopped shaking like he had malaria. His black hair tangled around his face, touched his shoulders. She should brush it for him. He smelled of soap and tea leaves, anise mixed with sweat. A manly smell.
Around her finger she twisted a long black ringlet, one of the two that trailed from underneath her crimson headscarf. A habit when she was near him. Delicately, she stroked a lock of hair from his forehead, as she often did while he slept, feeling her breath tighten at the scar carved through his right eyebrow, ending at the top his cheekbone.
There was so much she wanted to know. So much to learn in a shrinking amount of time.
The memorable morning had happened in early February, almost a month ago. Would she ever forget it? Nahar, her eight-year-old brother, had bounded into the valley, AK Kalashnikov rifle bouncing around his neck, shouting that a Saudi spy had tried to shoot one of the sheep.(Because we do not consider ourselves Saudis but Hijazis, the original and proper name of our country and our nationality).
When he was convinced that Nahar wasn't playing a joke, Father had taken the family gun and gone off to investigate.
He came back half an hour later with a black-haired man slung over his shoulder, unconscious. Found face-down in the snow outside a cave, gripping the barrel of an AK, more dead than alive. Not a Saudi, in fact, but an Egyptian army officer—declared by the copper Saladin Eagle insignia on his military beret. On their side in the war against the (House of Saud), Saudis & Salafis clerics spreading through the region.
Although it didn't matter, Father stressed. When you were sick or wounded you didn't have a "side." You belonged to everyone.
And so he belonged to them, this mysterious stranger. No telling how he had come to be in the Hijaz Mountains, or what he was doing there. During those early days they weren't even sure if he would live. His breathing was shallow and laboured—tuberculosis, they assumed—and whenever his eyes fluttered open, he was too feverish to speak or make any sense.
Frightened for him, she hovered while Mother sponged his forehead and pressed poultices to his chest to rid his lungs of the infection. Anxious to be of some use, she would sing to him, lullabies she remembered from her childhood, ones she had sung to Nahar when he was a baby. She would have liked to hold his hands, to comfort him as he sweated and shivered, but that would not have been proper.
Two weeks had passed before he woke up. A wonderfully happy day for Father, Mother, and herself. Less so for Nahar, since he had to apologize for almost shooting him.
At last he had a name.Abdel-Nasser. Sergeant Abdel-Nasser Mohammad Ali from a special unit of the Egyptian Army. He wanted to leave immediately, but Father insisted that he stay with them. It was decided that as soon as Abdel-Nasser was well enough to travel, Father would sell some of his yaks and buy a satellite phone so that Abdel-Nasser could contact the army and go home. Back to Egypt. He had been away for a long time, he said. That was all she knew about his circumstances, all he would say, though she suspected that Father knew a little bit more.
The communication barrier disheartened her. She didn't speak Egyptian dialect like Father or play chess like Nahar. But she could spoon-feed him shorba (soup), hold a cup of tea to his lips, and read to him from Father's small library—poetry, romantic and historical epics, even a few children's books. He would listen, a smile on his face, and she would take care to animate her voice so that he would be transported to the worlds she wanted to share with him, even if he had no idea what she was saying. It was the least she could do. The best she could do.
Today, however, she had made a bigger effort.
"Tell me more of you," she said in painstaking Masri (Egyptian dialect). "Do you have brother or sister?"
"I have one brother," he answered, speaking very slowly. "Ismail. We're twins. He looks just like me." With a note of pride, he added, "I'm ten minutes older."
He broke their gaze. "Yeah."
Masha-il had felt an ache around her heart. Did this brother know where he was? Did he know, she found herself wondering, that Abdel-Nasser was even alive?
War was a terrible thing and no one could argue that. Then again, what did she know, a twenty-year-old Hijazi girl who had left commercial secondary school two years ago, who spent her days tending sheep and would probably end up marrying a dull boy from a neighbouring village? What on Earth could she possibly know about how the world worked? Yet as despicable as war was, she felt a helpless gratitude for whatever chain of events had crossed her path with Abdel-Nasser's.
She touched his forehead again. Was someone else waiting for him in Egypt—a woman sleepless with worry who had no way of knowing that he slumbered on the floor of a white-washed stone bungalow at the bottom of a valley of Tihamah, while she knelt beside him and listened to his quiet, steady breaths?
She missed his eyes when they were closed. He had the most beautiful eyes, sometimes black, sometimes as brown as hers, with gold flecks close to his irises, like bits of sunshine. Exquisitely shaped lips, too. The tiny mole above his left lip gave her mouth a tingle.
She could kiss it. If she had the nerve.
Just then Abdel-Nasser stirred and the blanket slipped from his shoulder, exposing his neck and a triangle of skin where the grey flannel nightshirt hung open. Her palms itched. She twisted the ringlet tighter around her finger. The shirt, her father's, was far too big for him. So baggy she could unbutton it without touching him. Easily.
She wiped her hands on her dress. They left smudges on the flowing lavender material. Her prettiest dress. She had made it herself.
She was right. The flannel fell away from his skin after she peeled back the blanket and went to work on the buttons. She had never seen a man's body before (her father and her brother didn't count, of course).
Nor had she ever seen anything like the scars.
She had first glimpsed them when Mother changed his shirt. They spiderwebbed across his torso and back, harrowing slashes of red that made her seethe. Tears came to her eyes. Who had done this to him? What had he done to deserve it? What could any human have done to deserve being beaten so badly?
Watching the scars stretch and sink over the bony ridges of his ribcage, she wanted to kiss them. Run her tongue over the welts and whorls and make them disappear so that his body would be perfect again, as it must have been once.
The cluster of hairs around his navel pulled her eyes downward. His belly was almost concave, like the flesh below his ribs had been sucked out by a cannibal with a drinking straw. She would eat less from now on, she resolved, so that there would be more for him. Even if it meant he would go home sooner.
She followed the hairs to the waistband of his flannel trousers, to the loose knot that held them together. They were just as baggy, but not baggy enough to conceal the mound between his legs.
Her heart pounded in her throat.
She wanted to see him. It. All of him. Nahar and her parents were in bed and Abdel-Nasser could leave any day. She might not get another chance. But what if—and this was a terrifying thought—what if he woke up? He could wake up right now. What would happen then? Would he be angry with her? Would there be trouble?
She looked at his face. His eyes stayed shut. No change in his breathing.
Deep breath. One ... two ... three ... Her hands trembled and her heart beat loud enough to deafen them both, but she did it anyway. Untied the knot, slid the pants over the twin knobs of his hipbones, making sure her fingernails didn't graze his skin. Should she close her eyes, too—make it a surprise? No, she didn't want to miss anything.
Her mouth tingled again. It looked like a mushroom with a long thick stalk, a fleshy tube nestled beneath a patch of wiry hair that was so much darker than the hair on his head. What an odd thing to compare it—him—to. But she had no other image to plant next to it. The only other time she had seen a boy's private parts was when she bathed Nahar when he was little (which also didn't count).
A heat had started to spread, warming her face, her chest, her arms, gathering in the place where she occasionally touched herself, thinking of Abdel-Nasser as she did (and before him, a certain handsome boy from school). Now that she had gone this far, she wanted to touch it. Just once, so she would know what it—he—felt like.
She brushed her forefinger against the tip. The mushroom cap.
After a few seconds it twitched and she snatched her hand away, breathing hard. It looked bigger.
Where the courage came from, how she found herself straddling him, she would never be able to say. For once, her gangly limbs came in handy so that she could perch without touching him, her dress puddled around her waist and her ringlets hanging on either side of his face and all she wanted to do was kiss those beautiful lips, so close to hers.
Would he mind?