A Succession of Nightingales.
To Ibrahim Rahal, the road leading to the foreign book souq was a dull, leaden loneliness, and provoked in him an exquisite sense of desolation. It was flanked on either side with acacia trees and the skeletons of abandoned buildings, squatting in the duneless grey sand, their windows blind as gouged-out eyes. Beside them, dumpsters overflowed with garbage. And then the souq, and an afternoon badly spent among stalls brimming with dusty cell phones and rows of shoes and boom boxes, limp vegetables and lapis lazuli jewelry, where Ibrahim would sift through English textbooks. He was lost in all this gorgeous despair when heard soft footsteps on the road behind him. Turning, he recognized his neighbor Maram el-Sadaawi, eyes down beneath her headscarf. Soon she was walking beside him. Maram was seventeen, his age. Worn western jeans peeked out from the split in her abaya. Ibrahim didn’t greet her, in part because of his weak Arabic, but mostly because he shared his parent’s disdain for her big family, who were shopkeepers, loud and poor. They embodied, to Ibrahim’s parents, the provincialism of the town they had escaped, and to which they had been forced to return. Ibrahim scanned the road for others. He was about to excuse himself when Maram surprised him by speaking in flawless French.
“My mother says you’re an infidel,” she said. “But I saw your father go into the mosque the other day. My father’s mosque.”
“He was in a mosque?” Ibrahim replied in French. “He was?”
“Ha! You are an infidel!” Maram smiled. Her teeth were small and white, with pointed canines.
“I doubt I’m God’s favorite Muslim,” Ibrahim admitted.
“Mm,” she said. “Who is?”
A group of men approached them from behind, laughing boisterously. Maram fell back several paces. When they passed she came abreast again. The men were slowly swallowed by dust.
“Your French is good,” Ibrahim said.
“I’m at the French school. Yours isn’t. You must be at the American school.” She laughed.
“We lived in Paris a year,” he said. “Then Bahrain for six months, then London, then America, when I was eleven, so there have been a lot of countries in between. My mother speaks French in the house, and I understand pretty well, but it’s my English that’s good. The French is almost gone.” He trailed off, embarrassed.
Maram looked at her hands. Ibrahim waited for her to speak. “I’ve only ever lived here,” she said finally. “I probably won’t ever leave.” She stopped walking. He stopped, too. She gazed at him. They stood still. All around them, cicadas throbbed. Finally she said, in a voice so low he had to lean in, “Do you remember me, Ibo? From before?”
He shrugged, although he did remember her.