Trust the one you fear.
The whites of the White City dazzled my eyes, making it hard to read the text on the screen of my phone. The little park where I sat, on the lip of a street carved into the side of a city hill, was walled in white. The bases of the trees were limed white. An ivory armor of self-regard shielded the massive French buildings of the neighborhood, the fading residue of colonial prerogative. Below the city, the white light of early morning glassed the surface of the sea where cranes stood idle along jetties and, farther out, big boats rested like cows in a placid meadow.
Trust the one you fear.
I liked the straight-on French, but it took me a moment to figure out the message. When I did, I looked around. A woman in a knee-length dress and blue heels sat on a bench smoking a cigarette and playing with her phone. Under a tree, a frowning man in a gray robe and skullcap held a newspaper at arm’s length. Three boys in flip-flops kicked a soccer ball against a wall, leaving tan scuff marks. A girl in a cloaking robe and headscarf paced back and forth looking at her feet, humming so low she couldn’t hear herself. None of them aroused any anxiety in me.
A slight man with a long beard did. He stood looking at me from the opposite side of the park, fists clenched, dead center in a field of hostile force. Rimless glasses and disapproving lips accentuated the ascetic look of his brown robe. Impulsively I went toward him, flinching when he reached into the plastic bag he carried under an arm.
“Bon jour, monsieur.”
What he pulled out from the bag was an envelope with my name, Bruno Noonan, on it. I opened it and read, Forgive the mystery, Monsieur Noonan. May I ask why you wish to meet? – Zahira Lounes
I turned over the note and wrote on the back, Because your writing is the only known antidote to a poison I swallowed.
I folded the paper and put it back in the envelope. I handed the envelope to the man in the brown robe. He bowed slightly. He tilted his head back and laughed. It was a deep blast of a laugh, strong enough to knock the leaves off unsuspecting trees. After a moment I was laughing with him. I was sure I’d just blown any chance of seeing the writer I’d come to Algeria to meet.
In the Shade of the Clementine was Zahira Lounes’ first novel. I picked it up knowing nothing about her, or the country she came from, except that Albert Camus was born there. I finished the book on a damp Tuesday in Rochester, New York, near midnight. I closed the cover and went outside. I walked around the block. With Clementine inside me, everything was different. Suddenly I remembered how asphalt could smell at night in the rain. I marveled at the uncanny ability of my feet to connect me to the ground. I stood for a long time in the corona of a streetlight watching the darkness approach and get beaten steadily back. Not since I was a kid had a book taken me over me so completely. When I got back to the house I opened it and started reading again. The next day I hunted up three more of her books and read them in a frenzy.
I was lucky. I was a teacher, and all I’d ever published was scholarly stuff in journals. But the editor at The Book Review I made my pitch to turned out to be a Lounes fan, and she pushed my proposal past her board. Lounes was on the cusp of discovery by the English-speaking world. There was talk of bringing out a collection in translation. So I wound up in Algiers at the El-Djazir Hotel with the phone number of a man believed to be her friend. And a warning. The writer was reclusive in the old-fashioned way. She took her privacy seriously. The odds of her agreeing to see me were slim.
I wasn’t worried. I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. Before I had finished the second book I knew what she was for me. Zahira Lounes was the anti-Daphne.
Daphne Noonan was a force of nature who happened also to be my mother. Flamboyantly handsome, she had long perfect legs, an elegant high torso, ginger hair and green eyes and the alabaster skin that went with them. She was demanding and unappeasable. She never let me call her Mother, never wavered in her explanation of the decision to yank me from middle school in San Antonio and take me with her to Paris. My father, Buddy Noonan, who went on paying the bills longer than a defrauded husband had any obligation to, felt absolutely no sympathy for the existential lifestyle. How could she possibly stay under the roof of a man so completely averse to risk, so oblivious to possibility?
My mother and I spent nine years together in France. Daphne had a talent for building relationships only to blow them up. Men all too frequently fell in love with her. Quickly and inevitably they offered her everything they had: their hearts, their secrets and debilities, fresh-caught trout. But Daphne was a wrecking ball on wheels. Walking into whatever apartment her lover of the season happened to provide us with, I learned to duck. My mother’s cry of love sent sharp objects flying.
There was a Bruno in Paris, an unprepossessing man with hooded melancholic eyes who spent long hours in a small bar reading newspapers with a glass of vin rouge on the table before him. Hard as it was to come to terms with, I was glad to learn a basic family fact. I was named after my mother’s erstwhile French lover. No wonder my father had fought her over the name, which he claimed was not quite American. I wondered how much he had known, or suspected.
It was Bruno who gave me the only useful understanding of my mother I ever had. I came home one fresh fall afternoon to find her snappishly out of sorts. What she called a ‘very special friendship’ was falling apart. We were about to lose an apartment with a balcony. The balcony overlooked a park where ducks scored ephemeral lines on the surface of a green pond, and an exhortatory general pushed his horse to the limit of its bronze strength. She scribbled a note and sent me to Bruno’s bar. He didn’t read the note, just tucked it into a pocket the way a person puts away a bill not yet due, promising himself to worry about it when the time comes.
I sat. He ordered me a glass of red wine. I was fifteen, I think, and the idea of having a midafternoon drink with a man my mother had once cared enough about to give me his name felt like a gift from God the cosmopolitan. Bruno did me the courtesy of assuming my French was competent.
“The thing about your mother,” he began. He put his hand in his pocket, but it came out without the envelope. “Daphne is cursed with an idea, you see. It rules her.”
Bruno had the knack of making me feel like his equal. We were comrades in a profound unspoken brotherhood of men who had been steamrollered by Daphne. I asked him what her idea was.
“Perhaps idea is not the precise word. What I mean to say is that your mother is dominated by a concept. It is the concept of perfect love. She has imagination, does she not? Good God, the woman’s imagination is relentless. For this reason, anything less than perfect love earns her contempt. She will never be satisfied with such love as comes her way. To Daphne, mediocrity is the fatal curse. Making do makes her ill.”
I sipped my wine, savoring the moment of illumination, which felt Parisian. I realized the value of Bruno’s insight and was grateful. What baffled me, later on, was how many years, how many botched relationships, it took before I understood that Daphne’s idea of perfect love was ruling my life, too.
At least as a writer, Zahira Lounes was the opposite of Daphne. The world in which her characters lived was anything but perfect. The civil war was over in Algeria, but the conditions that nourished it still flourished. Brutalizing poverty, a corrupt and heavyhanded government, dire renderings of Islam. Al Qaeda in the Maghreb had a home there, and you couldn’t walk two blocks in the capital without coming across cops brandishing serious guns.
On such unlovely ground, Lounes made love inevitable. Her subject was identity, arrived at through the beauties and tortures of sexuality. She spoke in the voice of a fearless young woman, asserting the personhood of her characters against the formidable social and political and religious forces ranged against them. Her books were banned in Algeria, and Zahira Lounes was assumed to be a pseudonym.
In Algiers, I was not secretly fantasizing that the mysterious Algerian writer was going to fall in love with an American fan. All I wanted was to be around her. I longed to be in the presence of a woman capable of making the dirt glow. If I was lucky, a little of what she had might rub off on me.
The faded grandeur of the El-Djazir was a perfect match for the city in which it sat. Since the Algerians had thrown off the French, Algiers had grown, spreading out and filling up with poor people looking for more life than they’d had in the country. At the same time it had deteriorated, although pockets of walled luxury where the rich could feel insecurely comfortable were sewn into the urban jacket. In the Mediterranean sunlight, the civic monuments rose substantial and enigmatic, reminding you that you were in a capital city, a place that mattered.
The hotel was an anachronism, trading on the visual nostalgia of copper and dark carpet and Turkish tiles. Bellhops in maroon suits and fezzes and pointy yellow shoes converged on arriving guests. On a rise of ground, connected warrens of old-fashioned rooms wrapped around a rambling tangle of a garden, where I sat on a bench waiting with a cup of tea. Down in the street, the traffic was relentless. Around me, speedy birds kept disappearing in the interlocking arms of trees and bushes. The garden itself was opulent, a green city of tolerant proximity. So many diverse species growing into one another’s space; it illustrated how Eden might work.
“Monsieur Noonan? I bring an apology.”
He appeared the way apparitions do, with no warning. Bowing slightly, he offered a white hand. Alain Anouar was small and fine-featured. In a blazer with starched white shirt and thin red tie he was dapper, a holdover from an era of careful dressing, precise grammar, and the pleasures of nuance. His dark hair was slicked with what used to be called brilliantine. His soft skin had a pneumatic quality. He was a man it would be easy to underestimate.
A yellow-shod waiter brought him tea. Another carried over a chair. Seated alongside a profusely blooming Bird of Paradise, Anouar told me he was lobbying Lounes to meet with me.
“We have discussed the interview as often as I dare bring it up. Zahira is not a difficult person. However, being a writer in Algeria is no easy fate. The only ones who despise her more than the government are the fundamentalists. It’s all very well to have critics in Paris gushing over her work. They have the luxury of outrage over the conditions she puts up with. Lounes herself can afford no such indulgence. She must save her strength for the work, and for the life in which the work takes place.”
“How do you know her?”
He dismissed the question with a well turned out gesture. “We go back, Zahira and I.”
“Is she your sister?”
His eyebrows enacted a little theater of surprise, and he shook his head. “It’s a long story, Monsieur Noonan, which is not germane to the matter at hand. I know what publication in English would mean. And your interview can only serve the cause. She deserves readers.”
I agreed that she did, and promised to avoid predictable questions if she agreed to meet me.
More facial theater. “How can you know what Lounes will find predictable?”
When he was talking about her as writer, he used her surname. When he spoke about his friend he called her Zahira.
A thought came to me. What if Anouar was Zahira Lounes? It would not be the first time a male writer took a woman’s name to hide his identity. In a country as hostile to writers as Algeria seemed to be, it made a lot of sense. But I put the suspicion out of my mind and told him, “We don’t have to start with an interview.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’ll drink a coffee. We’ll talk about whatever she wants to talk about. Rimbaud, for example.”
He nodded. “An operation of multiple phases. It might work.”
We left it that he would do his best to convince her. He would be in touch. All I had to do was wait.
I did not wait long. That same evening Anouar called with a downtown address. I had spent the time reading some Rimbaud poems Lounes mentioned in an essay. They left me feeling jaunty, in the mood to trust my luck. I’d been warned about Algiers taxi drivers kidnapping Westerners in the service of an Islamist cause. But at the entrance to the hotel, Raoul Tindouf was polishing the fenders of his Renault sedan with loving care. He was sixtyish, and droopy, and wore a hearing aid in one ear. He dropped me at the nondescript office building to which Anouar had directed me and told me he’d wait. He rolled down his window and opened a newspaper, studying me over the rims of his reading glasses until I opened the cab door and got out.
The elevator rose to the seventh floor in fits and starts. The hallways lacked illumination and smelled of glue. But Alain opened the door at my first knock and led me into a dull office dominated by boxy obsolete computers and endless rows of bookshelves. In one corner, a stack of Arabic newspapers was piled shoulder high.
“You’re a writer,” I said.
“A journalist. A hack, really. The market for writing in French is shrinking in this country. It’s all Arabic now. One day soon I’ll be putting pen to paper in a foreign tongue.”
I looked around for clues to what kind of person Anouar might be. But the furnishings were drably anonymous, with the exception of a fine black and white photograph of a school building. He saw me looking and said, “You should go. It’s nearby. The lycée Camus attended.”
Having removed his suit jacket and loosened his tie, he was absorbed boiling tea water on a gas ring. I had a hunch he was an extreme introvert, and it cost him to have me intruding on his space.
“When I was at the park, was it you who sent me the text?”
Without looking up from the gas ring he told me, “That was Zahira’s idea. Her way of making you feel your foreignness, I suppose. I was instructed to watch from a discreet distance. The gentleman who gave you the note is an auto mechanic. I humor her because… I humor her.”
“Will she join us here?”
He brought me a cup of tea, along with a plate of sliced lemon and a pot of sugar on a tray. “I’m sorry. I was unable to convince her to see you.”
The suspicion was growing on me that I was already in the presence of the author of Clementine. It made sense. A serious introvert who needed to hide from the government and from the Islamists might well take the pen name of a woman. I asked him about Rimbaud.
“I know the poems one reads in the anthologies, nothing more. Zahira is the one who feels strongly about him.”
I tried a few more approaches, to test how far he was willing to go. Not far, it turned out. Every path I took quickly reached a dead end. So I asked him, “Am I on a fool’s errand?”
“What do you mean?”
“Is there any chance at all that Zahira Lounes will meet with me, or am I wasting my time? Should I give up and go home?”
I suppose I meant to come off sounding curt. He curled into himself almost visibly. “That is a question I would not presume to answer, Monsieur Noonan. You must decide for yourself. I can only assure that I will continue to attempt to persuade her.”
I had no choice but to take him at his word. We shook hands with ritual reserve, and I drove back to the hotel with Raoul, who described in detail the place in the countryside in France he would purchase if he had the wherewithal. The thought of getting out of Algeria animated him the way soccer, or sex, or politics moved other people.
That night I sent an email to the editor at The Book Review, warning her that getting to Lounes was turning out to be harder than I had anticipated. Despite the time difference she responded immediately. Don’t blow this, Bruno. You won’t get a second chance. I didn’t mind the direct shot, but the fact was, the longer I stayed in Algiers the less I cared about interviewing Lounes, or writing an article. What I really wanted was to see her. Or him.
In the morning, Raoul took me to have a look at Camus’ high school. A cottage, that was all the driver required. His wife had died, his children had emigrated. A shack, really, anywhere in France that would have him. Did I not understand the economics of his situation? No chauffeur de taxi could make enough to move on, not if he worked round the clock seven days a week. He was stuck. He would die and be buried in a place that had forgotten how to know him.
There was nothing I could do to help him, and I was relieved when my phone rang on the ride back to the hotel. It was Anouar, telling me he had finally broken through the wall of Lounes’ resistance.
“This afternoon,” he said. His excitement seemed genuine. “This very afternoon, my friend. We must strike while the iron is hot, before she gets cold feet.”
He picked me up at three and we drove to a downtown pâtisserie. Zahira had chosen the place, in fact had insisted on it. The woman was fond of sweets, Alain admitted. It was the first revelation he had ventured since we met, little as it told me. La Cigale was bustling and cheerful, with the palpable feel of colonial nostalgia. We ordered coffee, both of us feeling light-hearted and optimistic.
I did not know how to move forward but decided to give a little, while we waited, in the hope of getting something back. I told Alain about life with Daphne. Her restlessness, her contempt for the kind of love the men she conquered were capable of giving. And the legacy she unknowingly bequeathed me long before she died.
“I understand,” he said. “The love one finds in Lounes must be a refreshing contrast.”
“From the moment I read Clementine, I have been building up a picture of Zahira Lounes.”
“You have elaborated a fantasy, perhaps.”
“Yes. A fantasy. I see her in her thirties. Her dark hair is quite long, it half hides her face. She is attractive, but it is the kind of beauty that sneaks up on a man. He must learn to see what is there. She is extraordinarily self-contained. Dominated by reserve. This is her way of coping with the extremes of feeling she undergoes.”
He nodded. “And this fantasy, what is your own part in it?”
Not until he asked did I realize I had been lying to myself. “I can’t stop imagining she will choose me as a lover.”
Saying it I felt sheepish, but he appeared to find nothing strange in the idea, and nothing shameful. “A natural sequence of thought.”
I had a sense that he might give way, might actually tell me something about her, or about himself. But this new mood of solidarity tanked the moment the bearded man came through the door. It was the same guy who had delivered me the note in the park, the car mechanic. He came directly to our table and spoke in Arabic to Alain. He handed him an envelope. Then, nodding courteously to me, he left. Alain opened the envelope with jittery fingers and read fast.
When he finished he folded the note back into the envelope and tucked it away. He took a long breath, and exhaled. “Zahira seldom uses the Internet. But a friend has informed her of a threat that was posted this morning on an Arabic-language website.”
“A threat against her.”
He nodded. “By a group with inscrutable initials. One doesn’t know whether they have three hundred members, or three. However, someone took the trouble to read Lounes. The communiqué lists the specific offenses against Islam that may be found in each of her books.”
“And she has to take this threat seriously.”
He looked at me archly. Could I possibly be that stupid? He spoke with careful precision. “It is known, among a few, in a certain sector of society in this city, that Zahira is my friend. It would have been foolhardy for her to keep the appointment.”
I wondered whether this might be elaborate staging, some sort of creaky machinery being hauled into place to prevent me from suspecting that Anouar was himself the writer I was so anxious to meet. I did not know what to say, and after an uncomfortable moment he told me, “You will understand I can no longer attempt to be the bridge between you. It would be dangerous. Above all, for her.”
I nodded. In fact I did understand. Back at the El-Djazir, I sent another note to the editor. Without going into detail, I told her that a new security threat had emerged, and it would be irresponsible to go on pressing for an interview. This time I got no immediate response.
I didn’t mind giving back the money The Book Review had fronted me for the trip. I had made it to Algeria. I had felt the place, been stung by it. Just looking for Zahira had shaken me up. Maybe that was good enough. I decided to spend one more day in country and made arrangements with Raoul to take me to see the Roman ruins at Tipasa, along the coast of the Med.
We left early, and getting out of the city cheered the taxi driver. So did strolling the paths through some of the finest Roman ruins in existence, and a brilliant sea, a sky speckled with loud gulls, and fresh salt air. He seemed to hate his country a little less. Both of us were knocked back when a troop of Algerian Boy Scouts came out of the woods, single file, singing in unison, colored neckerchiefs around their neck. In rollicking spirits they followed their leaders toward a couple of waiting vans, their singing exuberant and pure.
Raoul shook his head. “How things should be. Our life.” He jammed a thumb downward. “Here. In Algeria.”
What I felt that evening, packing my bag, was a kind of anticipatory nostalgia. I was going to miss the White City: the hotel’s dense garden, Raoul Tindouf polishing his taxi, the civic monuments promoting a future few believed in, Scouts with the voices of prepubescent angels horsing around with soccer balls as they marched. But there was a sadness wrapped into that feeling of pleasurable loss, threatening to strangle it. Somewhere in Algiers, as I sat safe, separating dirty clothes from clean, the most compelling writer I knew was being hunted by zealots offended by words on her pages. Whether that writer was a reclusive woman or a man borrowing her identity made no difference at all, finally.
When the phone rang I assumed it was Anouar, calling to wish me a good trip. I was not prepared for a woman’s voice, or what she said.
“My name is Koude,” she told me, “First name Dunia, Arabic for the world.” The voice was hoarse, as though she’d been cheering. “I am a friend of Alain Anouar. Alain has a contact in the police. A friend, really. They grew up together. This friend informed him today that the group that posted the threat against Lounes has him in its sights. If she is a whore, why then, he must be her pimp. Is the conclusion not obvious?”
I wondered why she had decided to tell me.
“Will the police help?”
“There is little they can do. Alain is fortunate they gleaned this bit of intelligence in time to be useful.”
“What will he do?”
“He has gone to ground. More, I cannot say. But before he left, he spoke to Zahira. I was there. It was a long conversation, and difficult for both. He told her she must agree to see you before you leave Algeria.”
“Who are you?”
“I am their friend. Well, perhaps something more, in the case of Zahira. I function as a kind of guardian. I do my best to protect her. But the essential thing is, she said yes.”
“She’s going to see me?”
“Tomorrow morning you must go to the Casbah.”
I thought about sending another note to the editor but decided against it. The last time I’d heard from her, she was rehearsing a theory of why it would be good for Lounes to have me track her down and publish an interview, never mind the threat to the writer’s life. The world, she insisted, had the right to know the truth. Her reasoning excruciated, and I deleted the message without replying.
I unpacked my bag. I changed my flight reservation again. I went to the bar and drank two glasses of red wine listening to Edith Piaf being smokily regretful. So much seen, so much known, and done, and felt. So much, and she knew how to console.
In the morning, Raoul didn’t much like the idea of my going to the Casbah. The old citadel on a hill was rife with crime. I could not help looking American, he pointed out; I was vulnerable. But he followed the directions Dunia Koude had given me, steering with slow confidence as we approached the maze of crowded streets that all seemed to go only up, until we reached the edge of the hardscrabble neighborhood wrapping around the Casbah. He found a place to wait and told me grumpily he’d be there when I returned.
During the hard days of the revolution, the Casbah had been a center of activity against the government, an anonymizing home for the Islamists fighting to overthrow the government. The citizens who sympathized with them provided good cover, and better intelligence. The place was poor, and congested, and tourist-free. Climbing a steep stone street, I was aware of being watched. It was not a good feeling.
Around a corner, I came to a fountain set in the lidded alcove of a stone wall. I could not read the inscription in Arabic, but the cracked and weathered tiles were blue and white, with a wreathing pattern of yellow flowers. They matched what Koude had told me to look for. The spigot was on, and a thin stream of water – urban blessing – ran glistening into a stone basin, overflowing and seeping into cracks in the stony ground. Alongside the basin, an abandoned pair of men’s shoes, black with worn heels. Past the fountain, a short street so narrow you could touch the walls of the houses on either side without stretching. On the second story of the houses, wood balconies hung over the street making permanent shade, an assumption of familiarity no one could change or challenge. At the end of the stubby street, a sign advertising the handiwork of Atif and his son, who made coffins.
Three partly built coffins rested on sawhorses in front of the building on whose ground floor Atif had his workshop. His son was planing a board when I came into the shop. He spoke no French, or pretended not to understand it. Atif could not get away with the pretense and politely pointed me in the right direction.
I went up a circular flight of stairs precariously rising through the interior of the enormous building, which smelled so strongly of cat urine I held my breath. Going up, I passed three floors whose entrances were blocked with blankets, rather than doors. The blankets hung draped on pegs. It was impossible to say whether anyone lived there. Where the blankets did not completely cover the opening I saw mounds of junk, piles of boards, cast-off pots and pans, old clothes and broken furniture. On the third floor I lifted the blanket and saw a harp sitting on a floor of clean bare boards. It looked to be in good repair and was placed in front of an empty chair. A score was clipped to a music stand with a red plastic clothespin.
On the fourth floor, a woman in a dark brown robe, her face hidden by a white veil, answered my knock. She led me down a long hallway into the front room of an apartment that was solid and well put together, an island of grace in a rugged sea. As we came into the room, Dunia Koude rose from the low, brocaded sofa coming out of the wall, Turkish style, where she had been resting. She was a compendium of roundnesses, in a long robe that was a cross between a dress and a nightgown with a high waistline, cinched by a velvet tie below her round, drooping breasts. Her hair was dyed black, but a quarter inch of gray showed at the roots. She put out her hand.
“So good of you to come, Monsieur Noonan.”
“Very well. We shall be American and informal. Call me Dunia.”
She spoke to the maid, who disappeared for a moment, coming back with tea and a silver plate of honey cakes. Dunia and I sat in wingback chairs facing one another, and she told me directly, “Naturally you are disappointed not to find Zahira here. As I told you on the telephone, I am a kind of guardian. We have done our best, Alain and I, to give her the free space she requires.”
“You are not her mother?”
She shook her head. “It is a longstanding arrangement, it is how things worked out in our family.”
“Where is she?”
She shook her head. “Nearby. I hope you can understand, this latest threat has laid her quite low. It is so specific, and the charges against her writing so overwhelmingly detailed, one is not surprised at her reaction.”
“Will she see me?”
In response, she called the maid and spoke to her in Arabic. The maid nodded and left again.
“Janan is resolute. She will speak no French. It seems such a shame, I mean that throwing off the yoke of colonialism has required abdication from a language, and a culture. Why not know a bit more than one needs to survive? At any rate, I told her to advise Zahira that you are here. Later, after our coffee, we shall see whether the girl is up to an interview. I certainly hope she will be. But, Bruno.”
“We must take her on her own terms, and her own timetable.”
As she spoke, she ran her fingers through her unnatural black hair, clearly pleased by the sensation. She was red faced, as though she had been exerting herself, and spoke in the same chronically hoarse voice I had heard over the phone. As she reached for a cake on the tray, which Janan had placed on a low table between the chairs, her breasts sagged, and I knew that Alain Anouar was not the writer I was looking for. I knew that Janan was playing her own little part in the play being enacted. She would deliver no message because there was no one to whom she could deliver it. I knew that the plump round woman across from me with a dab of honey on her lower lip was Zahira Lounes.
I decided, without having to think about it, that I would respect the fiction. That was the reason I was in Algiers in the first place, I respected her fiction.
We talked about the books. It was not an interview. There would be no article, commissioned or otherwise. She didn’t care whether I wrote about her. She was seeing me because Alain had wanted her to. I told her about Daphne. I told her that what I loved about In the Shade of the Clementine was how Lounes made the dirt glow.
She nodded. “Zahira will understand what you mean. She will understand completely. She has taken a stand, you see.” She paused for a moment, then corrected herself. “I should say, perhaps, that a stand has been forced on her by events. By circumstances, which are never in one’s control, are they? Come what may, she will insist on being human, with the inconsequence which that implies. She will be a woman, with a woman’s demands and desires, a woman’s voice. If she tells a lie, it must be artful, and obey the rules of harmony. She will elucidate the mysteries she finds herself enmeshed in, or at any rate she will try.”
“Is she writing something now?”
She handed me the plate of cakes, insisting I take one. It was overwhelmingly sweet. She poured more coffee from the carafe into my demitasse. “Shall we see if she is up to speaking with you?”
She called the maid and gave her an order in Arabic. She stood and put out one hand to shake, resting the other flat against her belly as if to hold in her girth, against all odds. “If you go with Janan, she will take you to Zahira.”
I knew. It was okay. I knew. Decorum mattered, and we kept the goodbye short.
I followed Janan through the apartment to a back door, which was double bolted. She slid the bolts, and we went through it onto the landing of another staircase, just as foul smelling as the one I had come up though half the size and less rickety. Down. Past more floors of curtained wreckage, and out into the street, where the sun blinded me. Janan said something I didn’t understand. She stepped back inside and closed the door after her. It was quiet, and for a moment I could hear her footsteps going back up the wooden stairs.
It took me a while to find my way back to Raoul. Coming out the back door threw off my sense of direction. I went generally down, passing on the way a boy in dirty clothes who was lying on a stone terrace with his arms around a long-haired goat. Stretched at its ease on the sunny warm stone, the goat had long, elegantly twisted horns. Its fur was daubed in purple dye. Boy and animal were tranquil in the bustle around them.
I went past another fountain, where a woman in jeans and a blue blouse was filling a bucket. Past a two-wheeled cart piled with copper pots and aluminum utensils. Two young women in pale robes leading an elderly blind woman in black. There were tears in the old woman’s eyes, and the women escorting her went at her halting pace as though time did not enter into their thoughts, there was no such thing really as black hands moving around a white clock face, why should there be?
When I found him, Raoul stood leaning against the haunch of his vehicle reading a paper. He folded it neatly and tucked it under his arm.
“Did you find what you were looking for, Bruno?”
“Let’s drive for a while.”
“At your service.”
We got into the taxi, but he could not pull into traffic right away because two boys with staffs taller than they were leading a small flock of tawny sheep down the street.
“You look different,” Raoul told me. “You look happy.”
I didn’t know what I looked like, but what I felt was clean.
The sheep were gone, and he eased the Renault into first gear. “So tell me, where is it you want to go?”
“I guess I’d like to keep going in circles.”
Mark Jacobs has published 100 stories in magazines including The Atlantic, Playboy, The Iowa Review, The Kenyon Review, and Southern Humanities Review. His most recent book is Forty Wolves (Talisman House).