I DON’T UNDERSTAND – by Tina Bexson (short story)

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It was in the first month of her abstinence. It was two weeks since she ran away from her family in England. It was 4 am and hot. She sat in the sand of the Sinai desert, her back to the cool stone wall of the Al Huda Mosque. She was waiting for Adnan, the call to prayer. From the minaret the muezzin sang mesmerising patterns into the microphone. They helped her forget who she was and where she had come from. They helped her to stop shaking.

‘Why do you come here every morning,’ a lithe man asked squatting down beside her. ‘You must know you are not allowed inside the Mosque.’

She didn’t say anything. He said his name was Ashraf and asked for hers. She told him it was Mary. He wore a torn Keffiyeh wrapped around his head and a pale brown Gabaleya that reached his ankles. She recognised him as one of the men who brought their thin Arabian horses down from the Nile Delta for the tourist season. She often passed him in the village. They would nod, exchange pleasantries. This was the first time he had told her his name. Now they were so close she wondered how old he was. Older than her for sure though it was hard to tell as his beard was quite heavy and his eyes were shielded by green reflecting sunglasses. She waited silently for him to enter the mosque and pray but he remained in place. He had the stillness of a Rodin statue. She tried to recall its name. ‘The Thinker’. Perhaps.

‘The call for the dawn prayer, it’s beautiful,’ Ashraf muttered in Arabic. He starred across the white sand towards the grey granite mountain range.

‘Ana mish fahma,’ she replied.

He laughed.

‘So, you have come to learn some Arabic since you’ve been here then,’ he said.

‘No, I just know how to say I don’t understand.’

His laughter called out as she made her way back across the desert. Why had he had sat beside her instead of entering the mosque to pray? Why had he been wearing sunglasses in the dawn light? And why hadn’t she let him know she understood Arabic?

When she arrived at the Mosque the next morning Ashraf was already there.

‘You’re late,’ he said. Without his sunglasses his eyes looked red and tired. She also thought they looked agitated, restless. Though again, his body squatted in the sand in a way hers refused to do. Later she knew she would fix his frame into her mind and study it.

‘Our prayer before the sun rises is the most important one of the day,’ he said.

‘Why, tell me?’ she said, surprised, quite suddenly by something urgent she did not recognise as her own. He turned swiftly towards the mosque. She saw the corner of his mouth twitch. Was this a smirk or a smile?

‘Well, you may have time but I don’t,’ he said quickly, rising to brush the sand from his Gabaleya.

‘Now I must go and pray,’ he hissed. ‘I missed it yesterday, remember.’

Was he blaming her? But why? She hadn’t encouraged him to stay. Then she felt his hand touch her shoulder. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, his tone now soft. ‘We will talk again.’

She lit a cigarette, watched a thin layer of smoke hover in the dawn light. A image came to her. One of a fragile glass pipe filled with a small rock of crack tinged blue green like the inside of a cave lined with ice.

The sun rose. She pulled the scarf from her head, arched her neck, let the heat hit her face. Then she imagined him chanting; rhythmically bowing. Touching his head to the ground. Again and again. Today she would wait until the prayer was over before she made her way back home.

His rigidity struck her as he came back down the mosque’s pocked stone steps. She had expected to witness a sense of calm. Perhaps similar to those she’d once seen reciting The Serenity Prayer. Then she thought of Sinead O’Connor singing it to start a song she used to listen to. ‘Feel so Different’? She couldn’t remember.

‘You have a television in your home,’ he stated bluntly as he reached her.

‘Why?’ she said.

‘For the Qur’an channel. I will find the one with English subtitles. It will tell you about all of our five prayers’

‘But I must get ready for work,’   she said.

‘No, you have time. You train those rich German woman’s horses don’t you? They can wait.’

She didn’t say anything.

They headed inland, through the dry wadis, past the camel corpses and the howling dogs scavenging among the dunes.

‘So you cover up’ he said, scanning her long dark skirt and lose scarf now hanging covering her head and shoulders. ‘This is good.’

‘Why?’

‘What do you think most men would prefer: a bar of chocolate without a wrapper, or one with?’

She coughed. He was playing with her now. Surely.

‘I’m just trying to help you.’ he said. ‘If you want a husband, you must be good.’

‘But I don’t. Why do you think I do?’

When they reached the main hub of the dusty village they saw men dressed in pure white galebeyas sipped Turkish coffee on scattered plastic chairs as they puffed away on shisha pipes. Before they reached them Ashraf immediately increased his pace so he was in front of her.

‘Why can’t I walk beside you,’ she asked.

‘It is the Muslim way for the woman to respect the man. And for the man to avoid… now what is the correct word in English? Excitement?’

She wondered what he meant and asked if he had a wife. He nodded and said he had six daughters.

It was dark when they entered the long winding narrow ally she lived on. He relaxed and halted so she could walk beside him and lead them to her door. Once inside her house he strode straight for the remote control. Within seconds he had found the correct channel on her television. .

‘That was quick,’ she said. ‘There are hundreds of channels. So you must watch the Qur’an in English too?’

‘No, I only ever watch it in Arabic,’ he said, watching the screen.

She handed him a tiny glass cup of steaming amber Egyptian tea. He smiled taking his first sip. She had put around six spoonfuls of sugar in it. Then he asked if he could use her shower. Suddenly, for a reason she had yet to realise, she felt guilty, ashamed even. She knew most of these men lived in their stables and washed with the buckets they used to water their horses.

She led him to her pale blue tiled bathroom.

‘Ah, I see you have a Shataffa,’ he said. ‘You should always use it after the toilet. Never use paper. But, tell me, where are your shoes?’

‘What shoes?’

‘The ones for the bathroom. Under Islam, you must always have a separate pair for this.’

‘But I’m not a Muslim.’

‘This is the room where you wash. It is..now what is the word in English?’

‘Sacred?’

‘Yes. Sacred.’

She closed the door.

Back on the Qur’an Channel the Iman was talking about the pillars of Islam while a sweet Adhan sang in the background. Sitting crossed legged in front of the television she felt a gentle hypnotic pull, like that of the perfect rap tempo.

He shouted from the bathroom. ‘Come.’

‘What’s wrong?’

‘Come in.’

When she opened the door, he yanked back the shower curtain. His hair and body were covered in lather.

‘Do you want to swim with me,’ he asked.

‘Swim?’

‘Yes, swim! Look.’

She followed his gaze down to his groin.

‘Jesus.’ She slammed the door.

‘Don’t say those words!’

Should she tell him to leave? Call the police? But what police? She had never seen any. She sat and wondered why she did not feel more afraid.

He was fully dressed when he returned from the bathroom and sank into her sofa, staring at the television. Blank eyed.

‘So,’ she said, ‘Does the Qur’an allow you to have sex outside marriage?’

‘Okay, I am not always good,’ he said, sinking further.

‘I am allowed four wives though.’

‘Oh, really? Can Muslim women have four husbands too?’

‘Don’t be stupid.’

Boiling the water for more tea, she thought about all the things she had wanted Ashraf to tell her about the prayers. Should she start asking him her questions? Yet she knew so little. She would sound stupid and naive. And now he seemed agitated, angry even.

‘Where did you learn to speak English so fluently,’ she asked instead.

‘Here of course. From tourists. And from girls like you.’

‘You’ve never visited England?’

‘What do you think? You think they would let in someone like me without an English wife? Your country want engineers, surgeons, scientists. And then only if our ones are much better than yours.’

He lit a cigarette, took a long hard drag. ‘My country will let anyone in of course.’

She reached for her own packet.

‘It’s not so great there these days, you know,’ she said quietly.

‘I don’t care.’

‘We can’t even smoke anymore.’

‘No?!’

‘Well, we can’t smoke inside cafes and restaurants like you can.’

‘Well,’ he said, sarcastically, ‘the Qur’an doesn’t allow me to feel sympathy for non-Muslims.’

Then he giggled. Quite hysterically. She considered his mood swings. So sudden. Did he inject or smoke? Did he suck opium? Or did he just take Tramadol? She knew most of Egypt needed Tramadol just to get to work each day. She wanted to ask him about this too. But she did not.

‘Fine, but what about Muslims, Ashraf? Your brothers? They can’t smoke in England either, you know.’

‘Oh, yes, that must be terrible for them,’ he said solemnly.

‘Yes,’ she said, looking up to smile at him. ‘You know what, she added quickly, hoping to lighten his mood. ‘The owners of a Shisha pipe cafe in London were raided last winter. The council even used a ram to batter down their door. You know what they found? A sliding wall hiding a Shisha den.’  She laughed. ‘The wall was just like the one from that eighties TV show ‘Blind Date!’ But anyway why didn’t they realise the council would find out what they were up to when they’d named the cafe ‘Tutun’. ‘Tutun’ means…’

‘Yes, yes, I know Tutun means tobacco in Turkish,’ he said impatiently. ‘But, tell me. What is a ‘Blind’ Date?’

(To be continued.)

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