Friday, April 12, 2019

Adrift in the Global Village by Fred Skolnik

An Algerian TV personality moves to Paris, where she lives alongside an Arab orphan, a German pimp, and an Israeli with mysterious motivations who has piqued her interest; by Fred Skolnik.

Samiyah was afraid one of the hotheads would do her in after she talked about masturbation on MBC so she didn't go back to Riyadh after they taped the show but went straight to Beirut from Amman and rented an airy apartment near the beach, but then the war came and though most of the bombing was in the south of the city she got jittery and flew to Paris. Meanwhile her Saudi husband divorced her so she couldn't go back there anyway without his consent, which was all right with her because she'd had just about enough of that godforsaken country, which was like a nightmare if you thought about it.

Samiyah liked Paris. She found a furnished one-bedroom apartment in the 19th arrondissement for 700 euro and settled in. A German pimp who brought in East European girls had the apartment above her and a little Arab boy who must have come from the projects attached himself to her from the first day, so these two became her new family. She let the boy sleep on the sofa and gave him the run of the apartment when she was out of the country. Samiyah had been born in Algeria but had made films all around the world and now she had the talk show which was being filmed in a different locality every week and transmitted by satellite from Dubai so she'd usually fly in in the morning and get the sheet with the list of topics an hour before the taping - wife beating, honor killing, masturbation, rape, or whatever else excited the minds of Arab men - and then fly out the same day.

Gunther kept an eye on the boy when she was away. They fed him and got him some new clothes and pretty soon she started thinking about putting him back in school as there was no sign of parents, a subject Hani refused to talk about, just as he refused to go to school, preferring, as he put it, to go to Palestine or Iraq and become a shahid.

"Don't talk like a crazy person," Samiyah said to him. "If you want to stay with me you better behave. If you want to be crazy you can sleep in the street."

"Is Abu Farid crazy? That's what Abu Farid said in the mosque."

"If you want to listen to him go sleep in his house."

"They arrested him," Hani said

Samiyah gave him ice cream and he forgot about being a shahid for a while. Gunther liked to come downstairs and hang around in the kitchen when she was making supper. He spoke French with hardly an accent and had picked up enough Russian to keep the girls in line. He had actually tried to recruit her when she first moved in but she had disabused him of that notion quickly enough and now they were the best of friends.

"Did you see our new neighbor?" he said one evening.

"Who?"

"An Israeli. He's right across the hall from you."

"I don't believe you."

"Go knock on his door. You'll see."

But it was the Israeli who knocked first, just a few days later. "Voisin," he said, pointing to himself. Then he pointed at his door.

"So?"

"I thought I'd introduce myself."

"I know who you are."

"Who's the boy? Is that your son?" He could see Hani in the apartment.

"No, that's an apprentice shahid," Samiyah said. "He wants to go to Palestine and blow himself up."

"That's not funny," the Israeli said.

"So don't laugh."

"And you? Are you going to blow anyone up?"

"Not in this life."

"Do you still have your apartment in Beirut?"

"How do you know I have an apartment in Beirut?"

"Knowing is my business."

"Ok, I get the picture."

"Would you like to, eh, take a trip there for us?"

"Are you crazy?"

"Just one," he said with a smile. "To pick up a package."

"That's not funny either."

"You'd bring it to Cairo. They know you there. No one would give you trouble. The photographers will be there to take your picture, and all the reporters. You're a VIP."

"What's in the package?"

"That's not important."

"Then why send it?"

"To you it's not important. To us it is."

"You really are crazy."

Samiyah told Gunther about the visit. He thought about it for a second and said, "He may be a drug dealer."

"Why send drugs to Cairo?" Samiyah said. "You'd figure he'd want to get them into Israel."

"It would come in through Gaza with the Bedouin then," Gunther said.

"Do you really think so? I thought he was with the Mossad."

"Not all Israelis with packages are in the Mossad. They're always expanding their horizons. Sometimes I get my girls through them."

"But they're all in the army over there. He could be anyone. He could be a general."

"No, the generals sell arms. It's the colonels who do the drugs."

Gunther made himself comfortable and started picking his nose. He was small and dark like Goebbels, looking more like a Turk than a German. Maybe that was why she got along with him, though after he'd taken her to see Der Untergang she'd observed him unconsciously dragging his foot around for a couple of days. Hani came into the room. He walked around now with some kind of electronic game, working the controls with an ardent look, as though it were a detonator. It made little beeping sounds while he played.

"Put that down," Samiyah said to him.

"Let's see," Gunther said. Hani showed him how to play. Gunther liked to take the boy's part, pretending that the two of them were allied against this unreasonable woman who kept them from having a good time. Samiyah went back to heating up the leftover couscous and tajine for supper. She shopped sometimes in the Goutte d'Or market and also took Hani to the Jardin d'Alexandrie occasionally for the koftah and mouloukhia. Now that she thought about it, she may have seen the Israeli in the vicinity on one or two occasions. He was a very noticeable type, with a big body and a lethargic manner. She couldn't imagine that he would have been following her.

"Sit down and eat," she said to Hani, and to Gunther: "Are you staying for supper?"

"I have to get down to the shop," he said. "One of the girls got hurt." The "shop" was on rue Saint-Denis. Gunther had a sleazy club there and housed the girls upstairs.

"I'm flying to Doha tomorrow morning. Make sure he stays away from the mosque."

In the morning Samiyah flew to Doha and the next day did a show on incest. Afterwards she met her friend Najma and they took in a match at the big tennis tournament. It was hot and windy in February. The stands were full of Europeans. Najma wore a head scarf and a Christian Dior suit under a black robe. Her husband had a hand in palace commerce. Samiyah told her about Hani and Gunther and the Israeli next door.

"I envy your exciting life," Najma said, perhaps ironically.

"I'm a nomad," Samiyah said. "I don't have a real home."

"Come live here. It's full of single men. We met a Moslem civil engineer from India at the Sheraton last week. Very civilized."

"They're crazy in India too."

"Maybe an American then."

"My English isn't good. I don't know how to say, Keep your hands to yourself."

Samiyah slept over at Najma's place and caught the Lufthansa flight early the next afternoon, arriving in Paris late at night. It was cold and windy outside. When she got to the apartment Hani was playing with his game in front of an electric heater.

"Go to sleep," she said. "It's after midnight."

"I'm not tired," he said.

"This house is for sleeping at night, not playing games."

Hani went to the bathroom to get ready for bed. Samiyah made up the sofa for him. When he came out in his Cheeky Monkey pajamas she said, "Maybe I'll get a bigger apartment. Then you can have your own room."

"I like it here."

"It isn't up to you, it's up to me. If you want to come along, that's fine."

"I'll stay with Gunther."

"He doesn't know how to make couscous. You'll be eating cat food."

"I don't like couscous."

"Where were you born?"

"No place."

"How's the weather there?"

Samiyah went to sleep late, reading a French movie magazine until 2am She got up at ten in the morning and went downstairs for a cup of coffee and a croissant. She was thirty-seven now and dreaded growing older. The way she saw things she might just as well have been seventy-seven, nearing the end of her days. Afterwards she took a walk in the park. It was a blustery day but less cold than in the night. Near the lake she saw the Israeli sitting on a bench.

"Are you following me?" he said.

"That's very funny."

"Have a seat."

"Did you find anyone for your package?"

"Maybe I'll go myself."

"You're not running drugs, are you?"

"Maybe."

"I could turn you in."

"But maybe not. Then I could turn you in."

"For what? Harboring a shahid?"

"Lots of people would like to know where you live. At the mosque, for instance. I've heard about your show."

"What do you want?"

"I told you. One trip to Beirut."

"You know I'm not going to do that. If you're not smart enough to know that you're not smart enough for anything else either."

"I'm smarter than you think."

"Maybe with your own people. That's not good enough anymore. The rest of us have gotten smart too. That's why you lose all those wars."

The Israeli laughed. They walked back together. The park was almost empty. They walked under the Temple and came out through the Porte Secrétan. They were actually a handsome couple. They didn't look Parisian but they didn't look like tourists either. Samiyah was a striking woman, even without her makeup, lithe and dark and sensual. The Israeli ambled along like a well-fed jungle cat. Everything seemed to amuse him.

"Is it a coincidence that you moved in, or were you looking for me?" Samiyah said.

"I'd rather not say."

She parted from him in the hall. Hani was on the sofa with his game. There was very little in the apartment she could call her own. She had some things in the Beirut apartment and the lease running out in another couple of months but she had no intention of going back there. She was staying put for the time being and would look for some film work if she was ever strapped for cash. She had always been in great demand. Lelouch had used her in Les Parisiens and might want her again and Amor Hakkar had offered her a part in La Maison Jaune but she'd had no desire to return to Algeria either. She enjoyed doing the talk show which made her a celebrity and got her tons of hate mail every week along with the fan letters which her producer and his secretaries handled, showing her the more interesting ones. Usually they were from women complaining about their husbands and sharia law. Many were from single women, even girls, and quite intimate. The Arab world was changing and she was part of the change, almost an historic figure now, though not entirely at peace with herself.

"Are you just going to sit there all day?" she said to Hani. "Is this what you're going to do with your life?"

"I want to go to Palestine," he said.

"Go talk to the Jew across the hall. He'll get you a visa."

"I have to be trained first."

"Ask him to send you to Iran. You can fly business class. I'll make up the difference."

None of this made an impression on him. He went right back to his game. She couldn't really tell how smart he was though he must have had something in his head to survive in the street. She liked having him around. The beeping, however, drove her crazy.

Gunther came down. He was on his way out. He walked around with a leather shoulder bag, which made him look halfway respectable. He could have gotten away with wearing a Bavarian yodeling outfit for that matter. He was a man for all seasons. "I'll be at the shop," he said.

"Trouble with the girls?"

"One of them ran away."

"Sending out the dogs?"

Gunther didn't have a sense of humor. When he spoke German, at the club for example, he did in fact sound a little like Goebbels, or any of those other lunatics over there. Samiyah had looked in at the club once, which was full of drunken men pawing women. Gunther had treated her like royalty, virtually roping off her table and shouting at everybody when her watered-down drink didn't arrive fast enough. Today she had a dentist's appointment. She took the metro into the city. The dentist looked like a brain surgeon in his latex gloves and surgical mask as he drilled her tooth. Afterwards it started raining so she ducked into a movie house and saw an old film called Cléo de 5 à 7 which she vaguely remembered but which unsettled her now. When she came out it was still raining. She liked the rain in Paris in the spring but in the winter it was impitoyable. The cold weather depressed her and she wished she was back on the Mediterranean shore, even missing Algiers. Also, her jaw was sore. She sheltered in a doorway and looked for a cab. She was wearing a belted periwinkle blue raincoat, red leather gloves and a kerchief. She looked elegant and mysterious. The rain kept coming down and the streets were empty. For a moment she felt empty herself, unconnected to anything, alone in the world. When she got back to the apartment Hani was still playing his game. She made their supper and they watched TV until it was time to go to bed.

The next week she flew to Dubai and got a tour of the fancy studios. After the taping a woman media executive from TECOM invited her for dinner and told her about the plans to pour billions into the complex. They were joined by two men afterwards. One of them flirted with her a little but she didn't like him or his jalabiya. He lit a pipe and talked about his investments and his sports cars. He told her he was investing in Singapore with an Israeli real estate developer. He said this in a half-whisper with a smile on his face as thin as his mustache.

"I met an Israeli drug dealer in Paris," Samiyah said. "Maybe I can put you in touch with him."

The TECOM executive laughed nervously. She was an Arab woman who spoke Arabic with a slight American accent. The other man clucked his tongue. The one with the pipe sucked at it contemplatively as if he was considering the proposition. Samiyah excused herself. In the morning she flew to London to do a TV commercial in Arabic for some British junk food manufacturer. Then someone from the Daily Mail interviewed her about the show. She got back to Paris the next evening. It was still cold. The apartment was warm though. After a while the Israeli rang the bell. She noticed that he had a habit of leaning on things when he was stationary, doorposts in particular, perhaps to support his big body.

"How 'bout a cuppa coffee," he said.

She let him in. She already had the feeling she'd known him all her life, just as she had with Gunther, and didn't trust him any more or any less. The Israeli nodded at Hani in his amused way and sat down. Hani looked at him sullenly. The Israeli looked around the apartment, rolling his eyes in their sockets without moving his head.

"How much sugar?" Samiyah said.

"Do you have hel?"

"I have Kraft decaf."

"Five sugars."

"You want some cookies?"

"What kind you got?"

"Oreos."

"Ok."

They drank the coffee while the Israeli finished all the Oreos and Hani stared at him.

"Did you get to Beirut?" Samiyah said.

The Israeli chuckled. "I'd rather not say."

"Didn't they have one of you in jail?"

"No, the Hizbollah had him."

"They're crazy too."

"You're telling me."

Hani said something in Arabic under his breath. The Israeli winked at him and said, "Kif halak, habibi?"

"Leave him alone," Samiyah said.

"Does he still go to the mosque?"

"What do you know about that?"

"Not as much as I'd like to."

"I think we've had this conversation already."

"Relax, I'm your friend. And your neighbor. We're stuck with each other."

She told Gunther she now definitely knew he was with the Mossad. Gunther didn't think so. The Mossad people were clever but they weren't subtle, he said. This one was subtle.

"What's subtle about asking me to pick up a package in Beirut?"

"Think about it."

"What do you know about them anyway? You're just a pimp."

"A German pimp. We have a special relationship with the Israelis."

"The pimps?"

"No, the Germans."

"I still think he's with the Mossad."

Then the Israeli disappeared for a few weeks and they wondered if he'd moved out, but he showed up one day as if he'd never been away. He told Samiyah he'd been to Ghana to look in on his rubber plantation. She didn't believe him.

"He's playing with us," Gunther said.

"What does this have to do with you?" Samiyah said.

"You'll see. He wants something from me too. It's the girls. He needs couriers."

"You're crazy. The only thing your girls are good for is being locked up in a cellar. Maybe he wants to ship them to the Gulf. They still keep slaves there."

"Really?"

Samiyah kept busy. When she wasn't traveling she met her old Algerian friends in Paris and shopped a lot, slowly building up a new wardrobe. Gunther took her to see Tannhäuser at the Opéra Bastille. She'd never seen an opera before. She wore a low-cut aquamarine evening gown and her hair piled up fetchingly on her head. Gunther couldn't stop looking at her. The opera was enthralling. The fat German women on the stage could have knocked the building down with their stupendous voices. Afterwards they had coffee at the Café des Phares. It was clear that Gunther wanted to sleep with her but she was convinced he had a sex disease. She let him kiss her on the landing and said, "That's as far as it's going if you want us to stay friends." Gunther acceded manfully and dragged his foot upstairs. She wondered about the big Israeli too. What was he really after?

She saw him a few days later in the street. They walked to the park together. It was full of cedars and elms, footpaths and lawns, and of course the cliffs and cascading waterfall. It was warm now so they sat on the grass for a while.

"How's the shahid?" the Israeli said.

"I wouldn't take him too seriously."

"We take everyone seriously."

"What are you going to do, assassinate him?"

"I'd like to know what goes on in that mosque."

"They've arrested all the crazies. Everyone else is normal like me."

"I'm not so sure."

Afterwards they walked back together. Samiyah had the feeling he wanted to take her arm. Then they really would be a couple, though that was clearly impossible. She was a woman and he was a man but they had fifteen hundred years of history between them that she at least did not wish to lose. She felt herself shifting in and out of herself, holding on and letting go.

"Do you still want me to go to Beirut for you?" she said with a little smile of her own.

"Would you?"

"For the package?"

"It's not there anymore."

"Well, I'm flying to Bahrain in a few days. Is there anything I can pick up for you there?"

"Maybe some Brut in the duty-free."

When she got back from Bahrain Hani was gone. She looked for him at the mosque and in the suq but he was nowhere to be seen. Just as she was starting to get worried, two very tall police inspectors dressed like De Gaulle in the pied-noir days brought him back and she had to pretend she was his mother. They'd taken him off a freighter docked in Marseilles and bound for the Far East. He'd thought he was going to Palestine.

"Are you crazy?" she said, shaking him by the arm.

He didn't say a word. He sat down on the floor in a corner of the room and started playing his electronic game.

"If you ever do that again I won't let you come back here."

"I don't care," Hani said.

"So why did you tell them to bring you here?"

He ignored her. Samiyah told Gunther that she thought he really was crazy.

"Let's take him to Disneyland," Gunther said. "That'll take his mind off Palestine."

Instead, she took him to Spain for the summer, swapping her flat for one in Barcelona and spending her days on the Sant Sebastià beach. Hani didn't like it there but Samiyah had friends in the city and enjoyed the vacation. They got back a couple of weeks before Ramadan. During Ramadan, Hani fasted until nightfall though he didn't have to. It was part of his shahid training, he said, purifying the soul. It made Samiyah feel guilty so she only nibbled on saltines in the house during the day or ducked out for a quick meal at McDonald's, always feeling slightly sick afterwards, either because of her conscience or because of the food. The Israeli showed up there too, materializing at her side. He took everything big, the double burger and the frites, grande and the kingsize coke. The girl in the red McDonald's visor who took his order squinted at him from behind the counter, leaning forward with an intent look to make sure she caught every word. Maybe she was a foreign student still shaky in the language, or someone who took her job too seriously. Then he took his tray and followed Samiyah to her table. "Do you eat ham?" he said, biting into the burger.

"No," Samiyah said.

"Me neither. You see?"

"See what?"

"We're more alike than you think."

With friendly relations reestablished he came by to borrow sugar about twice a week. As the weather was still mild, he appeared in his "at home" wear, khaki shorts, biblical sandals and a soiled undershirt, sometimes leaning against the doorpost while she rummaged around in the kitchen, sometimes bringing a package of Turkish coffee with hel and inviting himself in. He even brought Hani a new electronic game.

"What movies have you been in?" he said to Samiyah, watching her make the coffee.

"Don't get too interested in me. This is a temporary arrangement."

"What is?"

"Being neighbors."

"Are you going someplace?"

"I'm always going someplace."

"So am I. Maybe we'll run into each other again."

"Don't bet on it."

Samiyah was sure he slurped his coffee on purpose, just to provoke her, or even as a form of self-parody. Maybe he was subtle after all. His feet were enormous. He wasn't fat, just big.

"How long are you doing this?" she said.

"Doing what?"

"Moving packages."

"All my life."

"Sure. And you have a rubber plantation in Ghana."

"Actually my ex-wife is running it with her boyfriend now. We're partners."

"And you do the drugs."

"Not necessarily."

They looked at each other for a moment. Then he smiled, charmingly, and she smiled back. He was, in a manner of speaking, irresistible. But Samiyah was guarded. Hani watched them both, perhaps confused.

"More coffee?" Samiyah said. The warm night air came through the open window and touched her face. She should have been stirred by it but was not. The materials at hand were not of the kind that encouraged romantic thoughts. The big Israeli inhabited another universe, as did the little shahid. Samiyah was not really connected to either of them. But she was curious. "Are you a general?" she said.

The Israeli laughed, but he didn't reply. He took the second cup from her. "Don't you have a finjan?"

"I left it in my tent."

The Israeli laughed again. "You got any of those Oreos?"

He took up half the sofa and scratched himself a lot. Hani watched him like one of those rodents mesmerized by a snake. Samiyah sat down opposite him and crossed her legs. The Israeli looked at her legs with interest. She also wore sandals and her skirt rode up above her knees. She was not displeased to see that he was aroused but was not sure how she wished to proceed. The Israeli seemed to sense that she was measuring him, just as he was measuring her. Samiyah found the tension between them pleasurable and would have liked to prolong it. The Israeli put down his cup and folded his hands over his belly, indicating that he was satisfied, with the coffee, with the moment.

"You could probably get into Israel without any trouble at all," he said. "You're a French citizen, aren't you? You don't even need a visa."

"Why should I want to go to Israel?"

"I could take you around. You could even do a show there. Al-Jazeera has correspondents all over the place. You could do the show in Tamra or Umm al-Fahm."

"What about Hani?"

"That's a different story. Where's he from?"

"I don't know."

"Min wen inte?" the Israeli asked him.

Hani ignored him.

"He's not too talkative," Samiyah said.

"What do you say? We could go together."

Samiyah looked him straight in the eye and said, "Not on your life."

The Israeli laughed and looked at her legs again. "That's too bad," he said. "Are you open for negotiations?"

Samiyah laughed too. "What have you got to offer?"

"What do you want?"

"You'll never know."

The Israeli laughed some more. She wasn't sure who was playing with whom. Finally he got up and said good night, but it was clear he wasn't giving up.

She didn't see him for a while after that. She did a show in Cairo and brought back a crocodile puzzle and some scarab beads for Hani. She suffered again in the winter and when spring came she thought about going back to Spain or spending some time in the south of France. She figured the Israeli was off on one of his trips. She couldn't deny that she missed him. He was as much a part of her life now as Gunther and Hani, an unreal part perhaps but somehow fitting right in. She was in touch with her ex-husband too and after protracted negotiations and many delays he shipped a big trunk to her filled with her clothing and jewelry. She looked through it and found nothing she liked so she dragged the trunk into the bedroom, covered it with an embroidered tablecloth and kept her new Sony radio-tape there. The first night she played with the dial as she lay in bed quite naked in the stuffy room leafing through old copies of Elle with a sheet close at hand in case Hani wandered in. She got a French poet reading some of his verse in a heavy, tired voice and then a solemn requiem and a news bulletin and some women chatting about breast cancer so she stuck in the Abdel Rahim cassette one of her Cairo friends had given her as a joke and listened to him sing the crazy "I Hate Israel" song. Naturally enough it made her think of the big Israeli. It was hard to sleep and the fan didn't help much. She stood by the window where there was a little breeze, that unfortunately didn't reach her bed, and looked down into the empty street and felt again that she had no real home and was not connected to anything in the world, and felt a terrible loneliness for a moment.

Later in the week she took Hani to the city to visit a tourist couple she'd been introduced to by mutual friends. They ran a big sewing shop together in Ramallah and had a boy Hani's age. They talked about the "situation" for a while and the couple told her they were worried because there was always tension in the air and you never knew what would happen next and you might end up getting lynched yourself if you didn't act crazy like everyone else and there wasn't much work either now that the Israelis were doing their sewing in Egypt and Jordan so they were thinking of emigrating to Australia. They were an attractive couple in their late thirties, people like herself, and she thought it was a shame that such people couldn't find a place for themselves in their own world with their well-behaved children and their progressive or egalitarian ideas. In any case Hani was too adventurous for the boy, running wild through the hotel lobby, so they cut the visit short and before she knew it he was gone. Samiyah did some shopping and went home. She wondered if she could adopt him. She knew she could never control him, not in Paris and not anywhere else, not in Algiers or Beirut or Amman and certainly not in Ramallah or Jenin. Gunther seemed to have more of an influence on him. Maybe they had something in common that she lacked.

Samiyah was beginning to run out of closet space and thought it really was time to move, though she was reluctant to break up the ménage. The way Gunther and the Israeli were in and out of the apartment they might just as well have been living together, and other than them she knew no one in the building. Opposite Gunther there was a M. Thierry, a retired accountant who showed up at the club twice a month with a pocketful of eurocash for Gunther's girls and a few drinks, presumably at a discount. There was also an overdressed woman who lived on the ground floor and talked to herself in Polish but apparently considered it beneath her dignity to exchange pleasantries. That was all right with Samiyah. It was, on the whole, a quiet building, on a quiet street. Whatever dramas were in the making would play themselves out in broader fields.

Hani didn't get back that night, which was not unusual. Gunther told her he'd seen him in the street and the next day there were signs that he'd been in the house while she was out. This part of her life more or less took care of itself, with only occasional disturbances like little seismic shocks. The Israeli came back late in June and started dropping in again for coffee and cookies. One evening he took her to a movie and rested his hand on her shoulder for a moment. In that moment she was not herself and he too was without a past. But then reality intruded and he sat somewhat awkwardly at her side in the dark theater. Hani, apparently, did not like to leave them alone. He was always in the vicinity when the Israeli was around. So was Gunther for that matter.

"You like him better than you like me," he said.

"No, not at all," Samiyah said. "You're like a brother. Really."

"And him?"

"A cousin for the time being."

"And then?"

"Who knows."

She put off her vacation and bought Hani a new pair of Nikes for 90 euro and took him to the Louvre. She couldn't tell whether he was staring at the paintings or at the walls. He was impenetrable. Afterwards he slipped away again. He must have had friends somewhere. He might even have given them some of the money she supplied him with from time to time. She took the metro home. The motion of the train almost put her to sleep. She was like everyone else in the car with her packages and her blank face. Some noisy Arabs came through and everyone gave them a look. She was annoyed too. She did not belong to their world. They were raping women by the dozens out there in the projects with those huge gangs of theirs and she thought she might do a show about that too though she herself would never go near them unless she had an armed escort. She always filmed in front of a live audience and took questions and had guests and the women applauded when she said something militant about women's rights. The men applauded too and that was gratifying though they were not the type of men who made waves, just reasonable university types who wanted to be engineers and computer programmers. It was Samiyah who made the waves. She was the future, or someone's idea of it.

Back in the apartment Samiyah threw off her clothes and took a hot shower. She could feel her period coming on and again the life about to leak out of her. She examined herself in the mirror and caught a hint of the lines that were going to invade her face before too long. Now she did the matronly junk food commercials but once she had advertised facial creams and hair sprays. Her breasts were firm and she had dark, tangled hair between her legs. She turned around and looked back at her behind. It was firm too. The doorbell rang. The Israeli had one kind of ring and Gunther had another. This time it was Gunther. She threw on a dress and answered the door. Gunther had his leather bag hanging from his shoulder and was wearing an Alpine hat with a yellow feather in the band.

"Are you going mountain climbing?" she said.

He looked at her wet hair and the wet dress clinging to her body and seemed to lose his voice for a moment. "You shouldn't answer the door like that. It could have been anybody."

"You coming or going?"

"Where's Hani?"

"He isn't back."

"I thought we'd have some pizza."

"I have to wait for him."

The Israeli came out too and stared at her like Gunther after he locked his door. She remembered doing a scene like this once in Algeria where she was drenched in the rain and her nipples stood out very plainly under her dress and they had debated brushing them out but decided in the end to leave them right where they were.

"Did I hear pizza?" the Israeli said.

Just then Hani showed up. "Come on, it's my treat," Gunther said.

After Samiyah got dressed the four of them went downstairs. It was a pleasant evening. Samiyah held Hani's hand so that he wouldn't run away. Gunther and the Israeli were a half-step behind them. Samiyah could feel their eyes on her. There was undoubtedly a certain rivalry between them, even hostility. What could they be thinking? In the restaurant the Israeli studied the menu for a considerable length of time and ordered the hot seafood antipasto and minestrone soup before the big pizza came. Samiyah and Gunther had fresh salads. Hani sipped his coke. He seemed to sense the big Israeli's interest in Samiyah because he watched them very closely and when they began to talk he started coughing and knocked over a few things, conceivably to disrupt their conversation. Gunther waved at a tall black woman who came into the room accompanied by three middle-aged white men. She looked somewhat regal, being perhaps Senegalese; she could have been very important over there, and here as well; the three men scurried around her like mice.

"Who's that?" Samiyah said.

"My landlord's wife."

"You're kidding."

"Honest to God."

The black woman and her companions ordered an enormous meal. Samiyah wasn't too hungry. The Israeli took her second slice of pizza. They had coffee afterwards. Hani had the tiramisu. "Wasn't that good?" Gunther said He exchanged a few words with the black woman before they left and she nodded at Samiyah and the Israeli, almost as if to encourage them. Gunther left them in the street. "I've got to get to the shop," he said. This time the Israeli took Samiyah's arm and they walked toward the park. "Nice evening," he said, and it was true. Samiyah experienced a little rush of feeling. This time the breeze and the warm air and the rustling of leaves and the lights of the city spoke to her. Hani ran ahead. "What are you going to do with him?" the Israeli said.

She was tempted to tell him that she wanted a child but she was not accustomed to speaking frankly to men. "I'll just keep him with me," she said.

"Did you think about coming to Israel with me?"

"I'm not going to work for you."

"Of course not. That isn't what I meant."

"What else is there?"

"We'll never know if we don't try to find out."

"I don't like the way you're talking."

Hani disappeared and she went upstairs with the Israeli. She knew he was going to try to kiss her so she turned around and opened her door very quickly and closed it in his face after she said good night.

She couldn't sleep. Again she stood by the window looking down into the street. The streetlamps made little pools of yellow light on the sidewalk. From time to time a car came by. She wrapped herself in a sheet and went into the other room. Hani was asleep on the sofa. He must have been dreaming because he kept mumbling to himself. Like Samiyah he was not at peace. For a moment she was tempted to knock on the Israeli's door. She'd played such a scene once but it hadn't ended well. She was convinced now that he really was subtle. He had seduced her without her even realizing it.

In the morning she could hardly keep her eyes open. Hani wasn't there. She went downstairs to get some groceries and saw Gunther out front talking to the Polish woman. The Polish woman had her head bowed as if she was being scolded and Gunther was ranting a little. He got very excited when the halls weren't kept clean. He didn't even see Samiyah when she slipped past him. The Israeli spotted her from across the street and waved. She waited for him at the corner and they went into the supermarket together. Samiyah got her groceries and the Israeli bought some cheese. "I haven't had breakfast yet," he said. "Can I have a piece of your bread." She tore off a piece and he made a sandwich for himself. In the street he said, "Did you get olives?"

"Can it wait?"

"Just a few."

He spat out the pits on the sidewalk. Samiyah understood that Paris amused him too. He must have felt superior to it, and to the rest of the world as well. "Here, let me take your bag," he said.

"It isn't heavy."

"Nonetheless." He took the bag and spat out the last of the olive pits. He glanced at her and she caught his smile. "You're a beautiful woman," he said. "How tall are you?"

"What kind of a crazy question is that?"

"My wife was as tall as me. Big woman. Too big."

"Did you have children?"

"No. What about you? You were married, weren't you?"

"No, we didn't have any."

"Well, you have the shahid now. Where are his parents?"

"I don't know."

"You'd better straighten him out or he's going to get into a lot of trouble one day."

"Don't worry about him."

"I have to worry about him."

"Why are you here?"

"Where?"

"Next door to me."

"It was the only place I could find."

They walked upstairs together. Hani was back. They could hear the beeping in the bedroom. He came out and watched them. Samiyah put her groceries away and sat down on the sofa. The big Israeli sat down next to her and laid his hand on her knee. He must have thought they could have a future together. But the little shahid wasn't going away.

4 comments:

  1. this is a truly impressive story. I loved the dialogue interchanges and the totally convincing and sympathetic characters. An unlikely bunch of 'misfits' thrown together, each superbly portrayed. No spoilers from me!
    Mike McC

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  2. Gripping and intriging. The characters are very interesting and fully realized,their dynamics and the pace of the story exciting. This reads like the beginning of a spy thriller.

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  3. Very absorbing story, hopefully part of a much longer tale, I’d love to hear more of these fascinating people, they became real very quickly.

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  4. An interesting piece, with laconic Chandleresque dialogue, and an oddly detached and uninvolved style of narration, as if every character, and/or the narrator, is talking ironically throughout.

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