Saturday, January 26, 2013


At first the only hint is a faint hum that seems unrelated. You recline, transfixed, awaiting a single pixel to prick the center of a black TV screen. The scintillation expands, little by little, like cells dividing, till the image grows to the size of a fist.

          You want to tell Magdi, the man you married yesterday, that you had the same kind of black-and-white TV when you were growing up in New Jersey in the 1960s, more oceanliner than home appliance. It, too, was set into a vast console and flanked by speakers covered in a woven honeycomb. Your Armenian grandmother would press the big plastic button on the side with a satisfying click, and then you would curl up together under a quilt she had made and wait for the picture to fill up the screen. She hadn't understood the language, either.

          In Cairo, you and your new husband lie on a hard bed in your first apartment. You must be watching a comedy because he shakes with laughter. Your cheek bobs against his chest, and you hear his heart beating as if it were your own, the way when you hold a shell up to your ear the ocean is yours. His free hand plays with your hair as you tip your cigarette ash carefully onto the jiggling saucer over his navel.

          When you glance up Magdi blinks, but his eyes remain focused on the screen. His smile is fixed, as if he were posing for a portrait, cheeks dimpled and teeth bared. His front tooth is chipped. You feel embarrassed for him, and then for yourself.

          Inside the small picture that is no larger than a human heart, you think you can make out the swirls of a galabaya or shifting sand, but the words you hear are indistinguishable. The sounds of Arabic consist mostly of breath being expelled, softly sighing and shushing, or harsher exhalations, growling and hissing that bear the force of curses. When you don't know a language, you can't distinguish where one word ends and another begins. You think All words are meaningless, because you can't understand. Or you imagine a whole conversation, invent a story, a history, a reason, a future out of gibberish. You think, Love is an act of faith.

          You are only able to make out the words insha’allah and khallas: "God willing," and "that’s enough." For now this is the sum of your Arabic. All future words will have to latch on between the poles of hope and finality.

          The room is dark because you've closed the green shutters of the balcony. Three fingers of light move slowly across the dusty carpet as the sun sets. The world manages to creep in, little by little. You hear the sounds of the street, muffled car horns and impatient voices. The smell of molokhiya and garlic frying in another apartment reminds you to start dinner.

          Instead of filling the screen, the picture bubble is shrinking. You are reminded of The Wizard of Oz, how the good witch Glinda departs and arrives in a soap bubble, saying, “But my dear, you've always known how to get home.” Insha'allah, Glinda. You think, I will be able to tell you about this someday, Magdi. The image distills into a single pixel before flatlining, but the sound continues. Khallas, Magdi.

          When you wake up in Magdi's arms, the room is completely black. You listen for the hum but hear nothing at all. Goosebumps, a soft breeze from the balcony. Then his mouth is on your ear, fingers in your hair and for a long time, this will be enough.

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