The Unidentifiable

Khairat, El-Sayeda Zainab, Cairo

The speech of the honorable chief was being relayed live everywhere and his impassioned lecturing was even more unbearable than the honking cars outside. Through the TV screen, he asked, “Who are you?”, an existential question that kept everyone in the crowded café on their toes while waiting to catch the names of those being referred to; and all that collective excitement had to be handled without any sort of air conditioning, which had stopped working after the price of electricity had skyrocketed.

According to Mr. Star—the proud owner of the kiosk around the corner—the only way of reaching Rafiq’s place without being seen was taking the dark side alley. He also told me he hadn’t seen him leave his apartment in weeks. After giving me the papers I had asked for, he whispered, “Godspeed, míster!” Hence, I scooted off, the chief’s question, still echoing in my ears, and the patronizing smirk on his face, engraved in ...Read more

Surprise, Surprise

Salamiyah, Syria

One day, Nour’s sister-in-law showed up to her house while her husband was on a four-day business trip and told her that her brother was going to divorce her in a couple of days. She warned Nour that she was telling it to her in confidence and asked her not to disclose who she had received the news from to anyone. She assured her that she had decided to inform her because she liked her and thought she had a right to know in advance.

“Do you know why he might be doing this?” She asked her.

“No,” Nour replied, “I actually can’t believe he’s doing this to me! How did you find out? Did he tell you?”

“No, I heard him talk to someone over the phone. I heard him say he’s going to take you to the Shmemis castle, to the same spot where he proposed to you, to serve you with divorce papers. You’re sure there’s nothing you can do to make him change his ...Read more

Absent Figure

Roman ruins in Bir Kasdali, Algeria

“Liki? Is that you? I can hear you speak, even though your lips aren’t moving!”

“Don’t be a mammoth, stop believing everything you’re told!”

“A mammoth?”

“Mammoths were very naive. That’s why they died out. When thunder started growling and the advent of an ice storm became glaringly apparent, instead of paying heed to the signs of an impending catastrophe, they froze, both literally and figuratively.”

“That’s sad!”

“Oh, aren’t you the sensitive type! Sing something, I want to hear your beautiful singing voice!”

“Liki, please, stop! Sit down next to me! I don’t know where you get all that energy from! You worry me!”

“You remind me of someone. It might be the mischievous glimmer in your eyes. Do I know you? What are you doing here?”

“Very funny! By the way, is this where you hang now?”

“Sit down, sit down next to me.”

There is something about Bir Kasdali that unnerves me. People in this town are like zombies. They seem to have developed a habit of twisting the truth. According ...Read more

I can calm down now, there are no two suns in sight

Kuud AlNamer Beach in Aden, Yemen

The heat is unbearable. The power has been down for hours. The air is stale and smells foul. Indolence seems to be contagious in this worn-out city.

“What are we having for lunch?” my brother asks, sticking his head out into the kitchen, which has turned into a Turkish bath ever since he became the city’s most eligible bachelor. I don’t reply; I just go check the furnace. My head is throbbing and every activity I undertake demands extra effort. I am stressed out. I have had the feeling of running late since I have woken up this morning.

My hand is shaking. I grab a match and try to light the stove with it. I fail dismally. I try again, once more, to no avail. I think that perhaps I can manage without resorting to actual cooking, so I go take a look at the pantry. Unfortunately, we have nothing that can be eaten raw. My brother’s raised voice ...Read more

RIP

Reggane, Algeria

Before being brought out of my cell, I was handcuffed and blindfolded. Yet, I could still feel the scorching sunlight pressing against my eyelids. After having spent a whole year hemmed in by four walls, feeling the hot sand of the vast, almost never-ending desert warmed the cockles of my heart, despite the burning pain in the soles of my bare feet. I didn’t know where they were taking me, but, instead of panicking, I chose to focus on the pleasant sensation of the wind blowing in my face.

After a rather long walk across the desert, we stopped. We were about to enter a place with what seemed like a wooden door that was pushed open by one of the two French soldiers escorting me. They untied me and forced me inside, before closing the door behind me. I then took off the blindfold. My eyes took a few seconds to adjust to the light coming from the ceiling. I was locked inside a small windowless mud hut. Feeling enraged and trapped, ...Read more

Out of Juice, but in Luck!

View from the car window of a road in Cairo, Egypt

I sprinted down the stairs and towards my car, which was parked close to the company building. I had to be careful not to trip and fall, for the tears that had welled up in my eyes were blurring my vision. I got into the car and started the engine. I didn’t have a specific destination in mind, I just wanted to get away from there as fast as possible. With my mind still reeling after the shock of being fired, I asked myself, “Why me? What did I do to deserve the abuse they are subjecting me to?” I had always been a model employee to all intents and purposes. I had been commended by my superiors for my productivity and resourcefulness on numerous occasions. There was no reasonable explanation for what had just taken place. After losing my job, which constituted what my entire life had ...Read more

Black Habiliments

Panoramic view over the city of Constantine, Algeria

Constantine, 1958

A young French officer went inside a bar in the old city, chose a stool to sit down on, ordered a drink and lapsed into a pensive mood. He had had a long day.

The city is perched on a cliff and its historic flair echoes that of goddesses like Ishtar. It is virtually impossible not to feel a little dizzy when standing on any of its seven mighty bridges and looking down the narrow gorge stretching below.

He had felt apprehensive about being in Constantine from the moment he had set foot in it. The problem he had with the city wasn’t the city in and by itself, which he found to be breathtaking, but the moment he had picked to discover it. He wasn’t proud of who he had become in his bid to move up the promotion ladder, but, the way he saw it, respect for human life and sympathy for ...Read more

Jasmine Garlands

Idlib, Syria

The sun disappeared behind a haze of smoke. All I could hear was people screaming. The streets reeked of death.

The market was particularly crowded that morning, because Ramadan started the following day and all the shops would stay closed until sunset. I was idly looking at the passersby and the old olive tree that grows in the middle of the square. I was thinking about my kids and how they would grow up around that tree to become staunch advocates of altruism and staying true to one’s roots. For once, I wasn’t minding the noise and the bustle around me, because I appreciated people’s happiness and excitement over the upcoming festivities.

There was a girl selling jasmine garlands on the street. Every time she managed to sell one, her face lit up and her eyes slid over to a colorful dress on display in the window of one of the shops on the opposite side of the street.

My boy, who was standing beside me, asked me whether I would take him ...Read more

A Message from the Lady of the Sea

Juliyana Beach, Benghazi, Libya

I was in a café admiring a glorious sunset over a calm sea. Most of the people who had come to spend the day at Juliyana Beach had already left and I could just lean back and enjoy the peacefulness of the surroundings. The smell of grilled fish wafted out from the neighboring restaurants and through the café’s old wooden-framed windows, even though there was no wind blowing that day. I was reading a book about Libyan history, while listening to the classical music drifting from the café’s speakers. Suddenly, I came across a paragraph that caught my attention:

“Legend has it that the Juliyana Beach owes its name to the older daughter of the English consul Libya had in 1850, who, apparently, was a spoiled blonde of unparalleled beauty. When she was just seventeen years old, she went out for a swim in the sea and drowned. The beach was renamed after her to keep her memory alive.”

It was already night—and a rather ...Read more

Forever in the Seagull’s Debt

Port El Jebeha, El Jebha, Morocco

Time stopped. My heartbeat started racing and I gasped for air. I felt like I was buried under debris.

It was as if I had just come across another layer of the human soul, which revealed itself wider than the sky and deeper than the sea standing in front of me. I never thought I would deliberately seek to face my worst nightmare!

The Seagull Shore is a beautiful beach on the Mediterranean coast which has yet to be discovered by outsiders. Only a few boats chug out to sea from the docks that can be found nearby. The women of the courageous sailors stay ashore, waiting anxiously for their safe return home. The shore is also frequented by youngsters, who go there to get high and stare at the horizon.

That beach is, in my eyes, the country’s crowning glory. It brings me hope for the future. From there, one can discern Europe’s coastline on a clear day. Europe, that promised land ...Read more