Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Muezzin


Most people go to Egypt to see the pyramids, but I go for the pleasure of sitting at a cafĂ© in Khan al Khalili where Naguib Mahfouz wrote his intricate, Nobel-winning novels about ordinary life in Cairo.  I don't go there to start smoking again, or to become versed in Middle Eastern politics, or to find a husband, but in the end, I do all those things, and I see the pyramids.

          Before anything else, I wake up on my first night in Cairo, on the 18th floor of the Ramses Hilton, with my heart pounding.  Someone is, very gently, pleading for his life.  I open the doors of my balcony, beneath which the dark, crumbling city is barely outlined between night and day, and hear the call to prayer coming from every direction.  I had read about it, but this is the first time I actually hear it. The sound drives me to my knees, as it should, but what I hear is a masculine echo of my own, unacknowledged longing. Longing for what, exactly? I can only answer with tears and go back to bed.  

          The next morning, our tour guide takes us to the pyramids and the faceless sphinx. Tourists pay to have their photos taken on camels.  Photos of the pyramids have to be carefully cropped to exclude the encroachment of Giza, a modern suburb of Cairo, on the only surviving wonder of the ancient world.

          We crouch to enter a tunnel into the second pyramid. Some of us clutch a handrail because the tunnel enters the earth almost vertically, but I'm in the middle, propelled by the crush of tourists.  The tunnel narrows with each step till we are forced to form a single line leading to the dimly lit junction of several corridors. From hardly more more than a crawl space, we peer into a chamber that is lit with a fluorescent bulb and staged, behind glass, with bejeweled artifacts. We are instructed that these hot, airless tunnels were designed to lead marauders through a maze away from the buried treasure and that the real tomb was deep down and virtually inaccessible. When we are told to turn back I feel sick.  I also claim the distinction of vomiting at the pyramids.

          My tour guide apologizes.  His eyes are round and gentle, soulful as one of the Fayoum portraits hanging in the Egyptian Museum.  He has me sit in an area of hot, stony shade and buys me a bottle of Baraka.  He says, "Tonight, if you let me, I show you a Cairo tourists never see.  I show you the real Cairo, if you want.  Don't be scared." 


The Islamic Society of Central New Jersey is on the southbound side of Route 1, across from Best Buy and Target.  Every weekend after the prayers, when the weather is good, the mosque has an outdoor market where vendors set up their merchandise on long folding tables in the parking lot.  I'm eight months' pregnant with my first child and happy to be out in the sun, eating falafel and scanning the tables while my husband speaks Arabic with the men.

          After I buy a big jar of grape leaves and a bag of fresh pita bread, I spot something I've never seen before among the Qurans and cassettes: a bright-plastic miniature mosque with an empty window, flanked by two minarets and topped with a yellow crescent moon.  I ask a man behind the table what it is and he points to his wrist, so I tell him the time.  He shakes his head, opens his hands beside his ears and bends, as if he's praying.

          "It's a prayer clock," a kid with a Mohawk and an eyebrow piercing tells me. "It's so you always know when to pray. The one my parents use has a recording of the muezzin in Mecca, the guy everyone hears when they make the haj."

          "You mean, like a cuckoo clock that goes off five times a day?"

          "Yeah, I guess."

          I consider buying it as gag gift; I have a friend who collects kitsch specimens and I'm sure she's never seen anything like it. She could display it between the yarmulke and tallis for dogs and her glow-in-the-dark plastic rosary.

         Before we leave, I decide to show my husband the clock.  He shrugs his shoulders, but he doesn't laugh.

         "It's a clock," I laugh. I whisper, "Have you ever seen anything so crazy? Who do you think buys this junk?"

          He looks at me with those Fayoum eyes and pulls his wallet out of his back pocket.  He tells the man at the table to keep the change and he walks away from me with the clock under his arm.  In the car, he says only, "Don't ever let me hear you talk like that again."

          The clock becomes a permanent feature of our living room. At first, I pretend it doesn't bother me.  After all, I barely notice its cartoonish presence on a shelf that's already crowded with books.  Naguib Mahfouz might have met Walt Disney, I tell myself. We're just eclectic.

          But why does it wake only me and the baby at 5 a.m.? My husband tells me he doesn't hear it.  Instead of lowering the volume, he asks why it is that I'm disturbed and he isn't. What is the deeper meaning? When he's at work, I turn down the volume, but the next morning the call to prayer is even louder than before. Arabic is read from right to left, so I wonder if the direction of the dials is reversed and twist it the other way, but it's still too loud.

          One day, my husband notices that he hasn't heard the call to prayer for several days.

          "Why did you turn it off?"


          "Why don't I hear Allahu Akbar anymore? This is important for our child to hear every day. I am Muslim, our son is Muslim—you know this. You can't just change your mind."

          "I'm not changing my mind. I always tell you that clock is crazy. I don't know what happened, but I'm not to blame."

          "I don't blame you, I just hold you to your word." He turns the dial and the sound blares again until, eventually, the batteries start to wear out.  The plaintive cry sounds at random, punctuated by hiccups, and then a single phrase is repeated incessantly till one of us whacks the clock against the shelf.

          In the middle of the night, when the muezzin's sweet tenor slides into an incomprehensibly low, drawn-out basso profondo, our son howls with night terrors.  My red-eyed, wild-haired husband pulls out the batteries, and I privately savor my victory.  But after only a day or two of silence, he brings home fresh batteries.

          While the clock is not an especially reliable timepiece, it's an accurate measure of all the disappointments in our marriage, ticking off each resentment.  The clock keeps score and, predictably, I'm always the loser, taunted by its mocking entreaty.

          Many years later, when we negotiate our divorce contract, one of my husband's few demands is that I maintain the prayer clock.  Although I refuse to put it in writing, I agree to his terms.  He leaves; the clock stays.


As I approach the midpoint of my life, I find myself stuck at the top of an enormous Ferris wheel in Wildwood, New Jersey. I'm there for a reunion with some of my closest high school friends, who've come back to our home state with their children and spouses for a week at the beach.

          I’m pausing at the apex, dangling in midair from a big bucket, sitting beside my kitsch-collecting friend. My kids sit across from us, looking away, bored or dreamy or, most likely, on the verge of whining. The Ferris wheel is my only ride because I’m scared of everything else and now I tell myself there’s no reason to panic. What’s the rush?

          It’s remarkably quiet up here in the dull afternoon sky. On one side, far below me, tiny people scramble about on the sand or scurry to the boardwalk, unaware of my godlike eye. On the other side, the wholeness and immensity of the ocean is fearsome and dizzying. Wave after wave proceeds to the shore like a signal that's not understood. I look at the sky instead. 

          Something silver shimmers in the air far away. It comes and goes, catching the dying sunlight and fluttering, sometimes like a beckoning apparition and at other times like a scarf tossed to wave good-bye. Our bucket sways slightly, though the air is still, and I hear the call again. I long to obey and drop to my knees, to fall, head first, and surrender. Before I have a chance to wonder if anyone else has noticed, my friend takes my hand.

          “Look," she says, "seagulls.” With her free hand, she points to where they glimmer. When I recognize the demanding, yearning, particular grief of the gulls' cries the wheel starts to turn again. I wish I could hold it back, but it keeps turning, away from the treasured moment.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Undertaker

Pablo's meowing so I open the front door, but something's not right—why is his tail so lush? It's a squirrel, for God's sake, the size of a small dog, belly-up on my doorstep.  His bushy tail ripples in the breeze, but otherwise, he's not moving.  Pablo claws at the screen door, purring and adorable. I turn around, slam the front door, and proceed to operatic screaming. Soprano tessitura.

          Moments later, an Indian dance, genetically repressed for generations, finds expression in my hopping tip-toes and hunched back while my hands clap the open-mouthed scream.

          "Pablo, a squirrel," I pause to explain to my elderly mother who sits at the kitchen table, not looking all that alarmed, I think. Then I resume the ritual dance to cleanse my horror but, like a ringing bell in a Buddhist monastery, it just brings me back to the present.

          When I'm fairly sure I've finished screaming, I snap open the tab on a Diet Coke, take three gulps, and call my ex, alias Rambo.

          "What's the matter?"

          "It's Pablo."

          "Oh, God." When he was over to pick up the kids last weekend, he yelled, "This isn't a house, it's a zoo!" Still, he's the only one for the job.

          "A squirrel," I explain.

          "FuckinMuzzerFucker."  Rambo rolls his 'r's so it takes him twice as long to say it. Instead of sounding coarse and threatening, as he intends, his Egyptian accent brings to mind a snake charmer, seductive and impersonal.

          Rambo has buried three cats and four guinea pigs and presided over their funeral services, where he has spoken in both Arabic and English. When my father died at home, Rambo whispered La ilaha illa Allah in his ear and accompanied his body in the back of the hearse and into the funeral home, as far as he could go. Muslims do not leave their dead until they are buried, so he was able to persuade the undertakers to bend their rules for him on the basis of his religious belief.

          Before I was able to manage it on my own, Rambo also took care of several field mice, some of which had been decapitated.  A pair of frog's legs, once. Once he shot a caterpillar the size of a grapefruit at point blank range with a BB gun. (My neighbor had lent me her ceramic ornament as a joke and, when she observed the green and yellow shards spattered with tomato pulp, asked me to please not replace it). But this was Rambo's first squirrel.

         Pablo is a determined cat.  He managed to dislodge the plastic accordion pleat that's been fitted to seal the air conditioner into my mother's bedroom window on the first floor. He'd been outside, working at it for a while, when all of a sudden—ta da!— there was Pablo, having jumped in through the blasted window, eating crunchies from his bowl on the floor. While Rambo re-sealed the window ("FuckinMuzzerFucker") my mother was dispassionate.

          "He's an interesting cat," she said.  "Very intelligent, and such a curious mixture of wild and tame."

          By the time Rambo gets off work, Pablo has the squirrel relocated. Luckily, the tail is sticking out from a pile of leaves under the bushes in front of our house, waving unenthusiastically.

          From the front window, I see Rambo standing outside the house with his hands on his hips, wagging his head from side to side and moving his lips in silence. FuckinMuzzerFucker.

          I gather the necessary supplies:  rubber gloves, reams of paper towel, a garbage bag, and tongs, just in case.  By the time I get to the door, Rambo is already ringing the doorbell.

          "Here," I say, extending my armload of stuff.

          "Eff!  Get out of my way." He stomps ahead of me through the dining room and into the kitchen.  "Turn on the fuckin water so I can clean my hand.  Full of microbe—" he says mee krob "—too much mee krob.  Squirrel is the dirtiest animal."  His upper lip curls in what appears to be a smile, but I recognize revulsion tempered with pure male pride.

          I turn on the tap at the kitchen sink, wondering if Egypt even has squirrels.

          "What you doing? Kitchen is for food."  I follow him to the bathroom and turn on both taps.  He thrusts his hands into the jet of cold water.

          "Four.  Four times."  I pump the soap dispenser into his open palm four times, thinking that's what he means.

          He narrows his eyes in the direction of the towel hanging on the towel rack and grabs a fistful of tissues instead, rubbing his hands so hard that bits of fluff pill up and drift to the floor like confetti.

          "You have to use your brain, Charlotte.  The same teeth—" he says teess "—the same teess that go in the squirrel, they go in your children's neck. In their neck!"

          I ask Rambo how he got rid of the squirrel.

          "What you think?" he says.  I wait.

          "I take the damn squirrel by his tail, I swing him around and around and around, and I throw him in the fuckin garbage can.  Eff!" he says.  I blink.

         "You crazy?  I use a stick and put him in a box.  By the way, I count four" he rolls the r for what feels like a quarter of an hour "four mouse, one as big as my arm with a long tail—what you call that?"

          "A rat?"

          "A rat!  Three mouse and a rat, in a nice, very neat pile under the leaves.  He make a pyramida with the dead bodies."

           I smile; he doesn't.

          I say to Rambo, "You know who Pablo reminds me of?" Rambo raises his eyebrows. "If you were a cat, what would you do?  You would kill everything in sight, right?  You'd kill animals even bigger than you—and then you'd come home for a nice dinner and some loving."

         Now Rambo does smile, but not for long.  "What kind of name is Pablo for a cat? You should call him Mish Mish."  Mish Mish means apricot in Arabic, but it's also Egyptian for Rover.

          "Eh, you just call me The Undertaker.  FuckinMuzzerFucker."

           I want to thank him but he's already gone.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Days of Desire

          On Bald Mountain, at the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, there are no windows, just mountain ranges that ripple out in every direction. The sun is high in a cloudless sky when I shrug off my backpack at the summit. I savor the floating sensation and the exact temperature of the soft wind and sparkling light. The feeling takes me by surprise, like love, and I want to stretch out in it. The only two people for 360 degrees are me and a scrawny shiatsu practitioner named Dean who, it will turn out, doesn't love me.

          Of course I'm in love with him. He easily seduced me with his Southern charm, brainwashed me with his slow smile and glassy blue eyes, the dreamy way words come out of his mouth, so round and soft, more lullaby than ballad. The way he says the word Clorox makes me swoon—I ask him to say it and he rations it out for me, pressing his lips to my ear so his breath makes me shiver, Klo Rocks. 

          Instead of undressing each other on the mountaintop while the sun is warm, we set up the tent and make a stew of dried lotus root and shitake mushrooms over a little blue flame as the sun sets. Before we finish eating from our tin cans, it's drizzling, and by the time we zip our sleeping bags together, hail is bouncing off our tent and, unseen, every softly undulating feature of the dark landscape turns to ice.

          My first awareness of this day may be before I’m able to speak. We lay down at the foot of the bed to catch a breeze from our open window. The white pillowcase is cool against my cheek and because the tip of my nose lightly touches her bare arm, I inhale her scent of fennel seed and warm bread. My grandmother and I take a nap under a quilt she has sewn with the pattern of a brown-haired girl in a yellow dress bending to pick forget-me-nots. Over and over again she reaches. The girl's blue flowers match the color of my sky. This is how I think of it; the sky and the wind are mine as much as my grandmother and the quilt.

          Dean's mother has already made wedding quilts for his older brothers. Now she opens the quilt she's been working on for Dean, spreading it out under the soft lights of the Christmas tree, over the living room floor of the house in Winston-Salem where he grew up. There is an element of ritual in her unfolding, with the careful revelation of each perfect panel of squares. His mother is shy and strokes the side of her face, watching her son crouch before her work.

          "Huh. Well, Mama, it's really beautiful." He stands up and pushes his hands into his pockets. "It truly is, and I can see how much effort you put into it. I can."

          He tells her she misunderstood what he asked for, that she's reversed where some of the colors should be, that he only wanted the purple, black and gray squares, not this buttery fabric with the tiny flowers she's worked in as a softer counterpoint.  Maybe she could use some red there, instead. She will have to pull out most of her work and start over.  Dean hugs her before he kneels again to fold up the quilt.

          There are days every year that are the same: when the rain finally stops after that first heat wave and the swampy steam first rises into cooler air like an answered prayer; or later in summer, a day when mounds of impatiens, like rosy loaves that steadily rise,  look, perhaps, a little leggy and for no particular reason you sense the approach of fall with its first touch of grief; or, in the midst of all those fiery colors—shaking themselves from the trees like so many little banners, shy as the flutter of lashes, impatient as fists in a crowd—because you've hardly noticed any of this, the day when you ache, seeing the trees bare; or the day of first snow, hushed, with lacy, cartwheeling flakes, when time itself rests; or the day when you are compacted, migraine-like, between the dark bed of morning and the dark lid of late afternoon; the giddy, muddy day of reckoning in spring when hundreds of live worms are washed up on the shore of every pavement; and always, year after year after year, that spring afternoon when a soft breeze, only slightly cool, rushes through all the open windows, lapping, caressing, and your only wish is to prolong the sensation with a nap, under a light cover, with someone you love.  Every year has an almanac with such days.

          In Cairo, this first warm day with a cool breeze comes in March and we close our shutters and roll up the car windows. The khamseen, or sirocco, carries sand, dust, and soot in squalls and enters every human opening—eyes, nose, ears, mouth, and even the openings that aren't exposed—enters tender places like a gust of ground glass. When I shower, black filth flows down the drain and however much I scrub, more sand comes out of my hair. Even here, in New Jersey, my Egyptian ex-husband considers this a dangerous day and warns our children to cover their ears or stay inside.

          I can count these days of disappointment and foreshadowing as I tally up the years, numbering losses and tracing the residue of their flare, like the brief arc of a comet's tail. But these are also the days of open-armed hope. Forty-nine less days of desire as I wait for love.