Mourners circle a gravesite and huddle in clusters beneath their black umbrellas. An ancient oak looms over them, its gnarled limbs backlit by a glowering sky. It is the perfect day for a funeral in the perfect historic cemetery in Decatur, Georgia.
The man stands alone on a hilltop, too far away to see details. His dark eyes scan the Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs, and Lexuses lining the narrow road to the gravesite, then snap back to the scene playing out before him. He cups his hands, lights a cigarette, and squints against the cold drizzle blown horizontal by the wind. The smoke fills his lungs, drifts to his head and releases the tension in his body. God is good. The full lips curve slightly.
Yes, infidels, it is fitting that you mourn. This is only the beginning.
Ramallah, West Bank of Israel
The afternoon sun slanted across the marketplace. Kamal Nasser did not want to be there. He was deaf to the familiar sounds of vendors hawking their wares, children shouting at play, and cars clattering and honking through the narrow streets. He ignored the smells of baking bread, rotting vegetables, urine, and spices. A brass pot of cardamom-laced Turkish coffee sat in front of him. An ancient olive tree stretched knotty limbs to provide welcome shade over the table. Still, beads of sweat were forming on the crest of his upper lip. Kamal did not want to be here sitting across from this man.
He introduced himself as Al Ustadh, a term of respect for teacher or professor. Kamal did not know the man’s name and had no desire to learn it. He watched in silence as The Teacher, being careful not to disturb the sediment at the bottom of the pot, poured two small cups of steaming coffee. His brown hands were graceful with long tapering fingers. The two men raised their cups at the same time, “Alhumdulillah (praise God),” they saluted.
Smiling, The Teacher proffered a pack of Marlboro Lights. Kamal’s hands shook as he pulled a cigarette from the pack. The man struck a match and cupped it with his left hand. Hesitating a moment, Kamal leaned forward towards the flame. The man across from him nodded and smiled again, but his eyes were flat and dead as the darkest pit of hell. American cigarettes were a luxury, but Kamal tasted only ashes. He cursed himself for being a fool. But it was too late.
“So, tell me about your brother in America, the doctor.” Settling back in his chair, The Teacher steepled his fingers and raised an inquiring eyebrow.
“Sameeee! The party is starting.” Karen’s voice, bouncing off yellow plaster walls and aged oak floors, echoed down the long hallway.
Dr. Sami Nasser grunted as he completed a paragraph on the report he was typing and clicked ‘Save’. He was excited about the new Global Health Fellowship program with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). As a neurologist and researcher at Emory University, he welcomed the opportunity to work with leading epidemiologists on global medical concerns. Working on priority health conditions in conjunction with CDC staff, students would spend six to twelve weeks in a developing country. He wished he’d had the opportunity when he was a medical student.
“I’ve become soft,” Sami thought. Leaning back, he stretched the stiff muscles in his shoulders as he scanned the study. Cherry paneling gleamed on the walls, and books nestled in the built-in shelves across from him. A well-worn section of medical volumes and journals dominated, but was flanked by philosophy, history, literature, and a significant number of books in Arabic. The jewel-colored Bijar, thick and luxuriant, rested beneath his feet. Called the Iron rug of Persia, the densely packed pile produced a cushioned effect that was matched by few other rugs. This was his room, his sanctum sanctorum, and it was a far cry from a field tent in the third world.
Rising from his chair, he collected a pile of papers and dumped them in a desk drawer. Leaving the solitude of his study, Sami followed party sounds to the kitchen. He paused at the entrance to watch his wife rummaging through the junk drawer. Her tight black jeans presented a nice rear view.
“It’s about time!” Karen exclaimed as she turned to see him framed in the doorway. “Honey do you have any matches?” She brushed a lock of hair behind her ear.
Smiling, he pulled a battered Zippo out of his pocket and waved it in front of her nose. Shaking her head, Karen held out her hand. “Why do you carry this thing around? You haven’t smoked for years.”
Sami raised his dark brows and shrugged. “Habit. Now where is my beautiful birthday girl?”
“I’m here Daddy!” Five-year old Mira Nasser was balanced on her knees, bouncing in her chair. “Wait till you see the cake mommy bought!” Flanking his daughter was a ring of giggling, pastel-clad little girls. Sunlight from the bay window speckled the wall behind them. With her black hair and creamy skin, Mira looked like a princess from the Arabian Nights.
A ripple of “ooooohs” made its way around the table as Karen set the cake down in front of her daughter. Sami grimaced at the lavender tinged frosting and the pink and yellow Barbie adorning the center of the cake.
“Everybody be quiet now,” Mira commanded. “My daddy is going to sing Happy Birthday to me in Arabic.”
Sami took a seat across from his daughter. His eyes never left her face as he sang.
Sena helwa ya jamila,
Sena helwa ya jamila,
The flickering candle flames reflected in her huge brown eyes.
Sena helwa ya Mira,
Sena helwa ya jamila.
“Now make a wish and blow out the candles, baby,” said Karen.
“But what should I wish for?” Mira asked, turning a pleading gaze on her parents.
“Wish for anything in the whole world, habibti,” her father answered. The little girl closed her eyes and scrunched up her face. Then taking a deep breath, she opened her eyes and blew out the five purple-striped candles.
Scooping ice cream at the kitchen counter, Sami watched his wife pass along slices of cake, while she sorted out who wanted strawberry ice cream and who wanted vanilla. The volume was rising as Karen sought to fairly distribute icing flowers and chunks of Barbie. A little redhead was clamoring for chocolate.
“I told you there is no chocolate,” piped Mira. “Everything has to be pink and purple because those are my favorite colors and today is my birthday.”
Sami smiled. The pink and purple streamers and balloons did indeed overwhelm the muted earth tones of the kitchen. Mira sounded just like his mother, her namesake. His daughter was not about to put up with any crap. He vowed she would never have to if he could help it.
“Girls, you need to eat your ice cream before it melts.” Karen had turned on her teacher voice. “No swimming until everyone finishes her cake.” This brought a fresh round of squeals as little mouths were crammed with sugar and cream.
“I’m done,” chirped the redhead, pushing away her plate and sliding out of her chair. “Me too! Me too!” Chairs scraped across the tile floor, and eight little bodies scrambled towards the back stairs.
Karen dropped the bowl she was washing in the sink. “Girls? Girls! Listen to me! I want each one of you to wash your hands in the bathroom before you touch anything. Understand? You can change into your suits in Mira’s room.”
She smiled at the chorus of “Yes ma’ams!” and rolled her eyes, as she pictured the destruction of her powder room. After dumping the last of the soggy paper plates in the trash, Sami came up behind his wife and circled her waist with his hands. “You are a good mother,” he said in her ear.
“You’re a good father.” She leaned back against his solid frame so that her head rested just under his chin, and he could smell her hair. “Mira was very proud of you today. So was I.”
“Hmph! Wish our neighbors were so accommodating.” Karen felt him stiffen and drop his hands from her hips.
“Sami don’t. Not today.” She turned to face him and put a soapy hand to his cheek. “You’re being too sensitive. Like my dad said, the world is different now.”
“Really? How many children did you invite to Mira’s party? Twelve? Thirteen?”
“You don’t know for sure why the others didn’t come.”
“Give it up Karen. We both know why they didn’t come. For the same reason the old fart next door runs back in his house when I say good morning.” Sami leaned over the sink and glowered through the window at the neighboring yard. “Thinks I’m going to plant a bomb up his shriveled ass.”
“Shhhh! The kids are coming down.” Karen’s lips twitched but she tried to look disapproving. “That is not very charitable.”
Sami smiled. “I’ll leave charity to you Christians.”
Mira burst into the room clad in a pink dotted two-piece swimsuit with a ruffle around the bottom. She’d picked up on the last part of her parents’ conversation. “Papa and Nana are Christians, aren’t they?”
“Yes sweetie, they are,” Karen answered.
“Are they coming tonight for dinner?” Am I really getting another birthday cake?”
“Yes they are, and yes you are. I’m starting a grown-up cake right now.” Karen plopped a dab of flour on her daughter’s upturned nose.
“Mommy!” the little girl giggled and rubbed at the white smudge. “Now I’ll have to wash it off in the pool.”
“You wait until an adult is with you,” Karen warned, looking over Mira’s head at her husband. “Can you honey? Just till I finish in the kitchen.”
“Karen I’ve got reports to finish,” Sami complained, but his daughter had already grabbed his arm and was jumping up and down.
“Yes Daddy, please! Please! You can throw us in the water!” Two dark pigtails bobbed up and down, brushing her tanned shoulders. A few wispy curls escaped to frame the small upturned face. Her cheekbones were already prominent, like her mother’s.
Sami sighed, allowing his daughter to drag him through the French doors to the backyard pool. “You owe me for this,” he called over his shoulder. “I intend to collect later.”
Karen raised a suggestive eyebrow. She watched them through the window. The yard was resplendent with the last breath of summer. The swimming pool shimmered like an aquamarine set in a nest of impatiens and ferns. Several huge magnolias served as a backdrop, their dusky leaves set off by a final showing of snowy blooms. A tangle of honeysuckle crept across the lattice covering the terrace. High-pitched whoops and shrieks cut through the humid air as the little girls splashed and swam, and Sami tried in vain to keep dry.
Karen smiled. She was a lucky woman, and she knew it.
Running fingers through his thick black hair, Sami closed his eyes, opened them and refocused on the computer screen in front of him. He scanned the article sent to him by Moussa Hayek, a friend and epidemiologist from the CDC. It touted the newly appointed director as the first woman to be appointed to the position. She was praised as a champion of global warming research, and rumors abounded that she planned to reduce the focus on bioterrorism.
Sami was appalled by the political pandering. Ideologies of any kind should not influence science. Unfortunately, the real world intervened. The usual suspects aligned themselves with their parties and expressed outrage at supposedly watered-down or trumped-up research— as if they could recognize a scientific study if it slapped them in the face. Politics, as usual, trumped everything.
He wondered how this might affect his own fellowship program. Brooding over the far reaching tentacles of political correctness, he contemplated a decanter of single malt on the shelf in his study. The glow from his desk lamp glittered on the vessel’s crystal facets and ignited the amber liquid within.
His attention was diverted when his office phone rang. He glanced at the Caller ID which displayed “Out of Area”, and this annoyed him. He pushed the speaker phone button and prepared himself for some telemarketer’s screed.
“As-salaamu aleikum (Peace be with you).” The voice reverberated in the silence of the incubated room. Its accent was Egyptian. The disembodied caller continued in formal Arabic. “I bring greetings from your family and your homeland. A messenger awaits you. You will be contacted soon, Inshallah (If God wills).”
Sami snatched up the receiver but heard only the distinctive click of disconnection. He recorded all calls on his work phone, so he could refer back to details, if needed. Now he jabbed the button to replay the call. He listened intently and then played the call again.
Was this a prank? His instincts told him no. He wondered if he had been randomly selected or if his family back in Ramallah was involved. Up until now, they had remained apolitical to his knowledge. As educated Muslims living in the occupied territory, the luxury of remaining neutral was possibly no longer an option. He feared this during his last visit home two years ago.
Prior to that, Sami had not been home since 2001. The change during those seven years was phenomenal. Astonished by the Western-style coffee shops and bars, he noticed the English slang peppering Arabic conversations. Men and women chatted openly, some sipping beer despite the Islamic prohibition on alcohol. The upscale restaurants and nightclubs attracted Americans, Israelis, and Europeans. Sprouting embassies reinforced the feeling that Ramallah would become the internationally recognized capital of Palestine.
But factions existed that resented the abandoning of Jerusalem in favor of Ramallah. They accused the Palestinian Authority, formed in 1994 to govern parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, of being in collusion with Israel. Despite the booming economic and cultural growth, an undercurrent of violence was always present, as if the city existed in a bubble that could burst at any moment.
His parents had enjoyed a visit to the United States when Mira was a baby, and Sami had pressed them to emigrate. They refused, and he understood their feelings though he feared for them. He feared even more for his younger brother, Kamal. Dropping his face into his hands, Sami thought of his parents.
Ramallah, West Bank of Israel
Nabil Nasser married his bride Amira late in life. They met at Birzeit College, later to become Birzeit University, where both were teachers. Photos of Nabil taken in his youth showed him as tall and strikingly handsome, looking much like Sami. But the photos did not show his club foot, which marked him as tainted in a culture that viewed physical affliction as a sign of Allah’s displeasure.
Barred from most physical games and the camaraderie of boys his age, Nabil poured all his energy into his studies and music. He excelled at math and was a natural musician playing both the violin and the Middle Eastern lute called an oud. Though a bachelor, he was much in demand for local weddings where he sang the old folk songs in a pure and vibrant voice as his nimble fingers plucked out melodies in their complex rhythmic structure.
Nabil’s father owned several shops in Ramallah. A successful businessman, he valued education and innovation. Fortunately Nabil’s elder brother followed in his father’s footsteps which left Nabil free to pursue a doctorate degree in statistics. He found his calling as a professor. His music and his duties at the college dominated his life and compensated for his physical affliction.
At Birzeit, his colleagues viewed the middle-aged statistics professor as an aloof, almost stern man. Amira found him attractive with his fine features and thick dark hair sprinkled with gray. But she had never seen him smile, until one evening when she watched him perform at a cousin’s wedding. Years later, she often related the story to her sons—outside of their father’s hearing, of course.
Amira was small, dark and wiry with flashing black eyes that dominated her otherwise unremarkable face. The youngest of four sisters, she was the most inquisitive and intelligent. Amira’s father was a successful merchant though his grandmother, Salima, was born a Bedouin. As a child, she roamed the borders of Jordan with her tribe, but over the years the members became increasingly settled in the villages and cities. In her old age, she was taken in by her grandson, Suliman, who was the son of her eldest son and Amira’s father.
From the first, Amira and her great grandmother formed a bond that spanned the generations. When not in school, the little girl spent her free hours at the old woman’s side. She delighted in tending to her grandmother’s needs, doling out medications and reciting from her lesson books. Amira’s parents and sisters were mystified but relieved that Site (grandmother) was cared for so cheerfully. All felt it was their duty, but for Amira it was her pleasure.
Site’s face had been burned brown from eight decades under the desert sun and was dry as a withered leaf. But the blue tribal tattoos still showed in the wrinkles on her upper lip and on her forehead. A film marred her once beautiful eyes, and she appeared to gaze into some far off world, especially when her great-grand daughter sat at her feet and listened with rapt attention to stories of the desert. She wanted the child to understand her heritage which blazed with tales of courage and honor and was peopled with beautiful women and fierce warriors. It was a dying world that could only live on in the children and their children.
When she finished high school, Amira begged her father to let her study at the prestigious Birzeit College. Teachers invited to their home for tea and sweets broached the subject but were quickly discharged by the head of the household. Two of Amira’s sisters were already married, and Suliman was adamantly opposed to the idea of his daughter attending a school with men. Only after months of Site haranguing him to the point of distraction, did he throw up his hands and agree, adding a stern warning of dire consequences should his name be dishonored.
Three months after entering the University, Amira’s beloved Site died in her sleep. The girl was inconsolable and withdrew into her studies. Fiercely determined to excel as a tribute to her great-grandmother, she shut out all frivolous past times and acquaintances. Her reputation as a scholar with a quick tongue warded off male suitors, as did her direct attitude. Amira saved her smiles and mischief for her nephews and nieces whom she adored, and she became universally known as Amti.
Amira was thirty-three when she attended the wedding that would change her life. She sat back in the shadows of an arbor and watched the young people dance while the old women clapped and trilled in the ancient Bedouin way. Her eyes locked on the face of one man transfigured with joy, as his long fingers cajoled the heavenly notes from his instrument. She could hardly believe this was the man who would look down and barely nod when he shuffled past her in the hallway at the University. Sitting on the dais, he was whole and beautiful and perfect. His voice spiraled up into the black night sky and then descended to pierce Amira’s heart.
After the initial awkward and shy conversations, the two people slowly opened their hearts. During stolen hours on their breaks at the University, they shared their dreams. They spoke of the plans to develop a four-year program leading to bachelor’s degrees in arts and sciences. Nabil described the new campus that was slated to be built on the outskirts of the town of Birzeit and the Board of Trustees that would be formed to ensure the continuity of the school. Amira urged him to run for the board. Always shy in the presence of the opposite sex, Nabil forgot his inhibitions and basked in the glow of this remarkable woman’s encouragement.
The prospect of marriage had never entered Nabil’s mind, but he slowly came to realize that this special friendship could not continue without causing harm to Amira’s reputation. She, in turn, lived for the snatches of time spent with him. Finally, Nabil hinted at approaching her father and was astounded when Amira agreed at once.
Carefully broaching the subject with her mother, Johara, Amira anticipated objections. She was surprised and pleased to find an immediate ally. “It is not fitting for a woman to be alone, and you will soon be too old to marry,” her mother warned.
Enlisting the help of her three married daughters, Johara created a formidable cabal to confront her husband. Suliman argued and ranted and threatened. Then, as with Amira’s education, he finally capitulated and agreed to receive “The Cripple” as he called him.
Nabil brought gifts of sweets and flowers for the house, American cigarettes for her father, and a gift box which he handed to her mother. He sat ramrod straight in the wicker chair across from Suliman and made all the correct thanksgivings and blessings before sipping his Turkish coffee. Amira watched the vein in his temple throb, the only sign of his racing heart. After an interminable amount of time, Suliman smiled and gave his blessing.
He found Nabil to be serious, polite and likable though he hated to admit it. His family was respectable and when seated, he was an attractive, if not handsome man. His daughter was well past her prime, and searching his conscience, Suliman could find no shame or dishonor in the pairing. Allah would be merciful, he thought as he motioned to his wife to give the small package wrapped in blue paper to Amira. She felt all eyes on her as she opened it, and then held up a thin beaten gold chain. Johara helped clasp it around her daughter’s neck. Amira would never take it off.
Karen cracked Sami’s office door open and poked her head inside. “Knock, knock,” she said. “Haven’t you burned the midnight oil enough for one day?” Entering the office, she came around behind him. Dropping her hands to his shoulders, she began kneading the bunched up muscles.
“You are so tense,” she admonished, “Relax.” He obeyed willingly, closing his eyes and groaning softly. His body relaxed though his mind was still reeling.
“Did I hear your phone ring?” she asked, her hands doing wonderful things to the back of his neck.
“Mmm, telemarketer. Don’t know how they get this number.” He hated lying to her but couldn’t think of a way to describe the call he just received, especially since he had no details yet.
“When are you coming to bed?” she asked, removing one hand to stifle a yawn.
“Soon,” he replied, patting the hand that remained on his shoulder. “You go ahead, I won’t be long.” He looked up as she bent to kiss him. A curtain of hair fell across her cheek. She had changed into light cotton pajamas covered by a flowered robe. She smelled clean, like soap and shampoo.
“You work too hard,” said Karen, her hand rubbing across the beginning of nighttime stubble on his cheek. “If you come before I fall asleep, I’ll give you a back scratch.”
“You’re too good to me,” he confessed.
“You’re right,” Karen agreed, and turned to pad across the room, her terrycloth mules slapping gently on the floorboards. She paused in the doorway and turned to give him a smile and a mischievous wink. She left the door open.
Sami considered calling his parents’ home in Ramallah, but it would be 3:00 am. He didn’t want to alarm them. Turning over every possible scenario, as his rational mind told him to do, Sami could find no explanation. What could this mysterious Egyptian possibly want with him? Needing time to harness his emotions, he waited almost an hour before retiring. Karen knew him too well not to be suspicious.
He used the small half-bath, off his den, to wash before going upstairs. Creeping along the hallway, Sami winced at the creaking floorboards. Pausing at his daughter’s room, he cracked open the door. The lavender walls were less garish in the glow of the nightlight. His daughter lay sleeping amidst a sea of pink and white ruffles. Her dark hair fanned across the pillow, her face turned away from him. Easing the door shut, he moved on down the hall to the master bedroom.
Karen was asleep, curled on her side like a child. In the dark, Sami shrugged out of his clothes and slipped into bed beside her. He listened to her even breathing, bracing himself for a hesitation, or a murmur. But she slept on in innocence. He was relieved. For now he would keep his foreboding to himself and wait for the promised messenger before deciding a course of action. He had no choice.
* * *
The summons came sooner than expected. Sami was seated in his study as the night before. Staring at the computer screen, he willed himself to concentrate on the unfinished report he was editing. The jangling phone startled him, even though he had been expecting it. The caller ID displayed ‘Out of Area’ and he snatched up the cordless receiver. Silence. But a palpable presence on the other end.
“Dr. Sami Nasser?” The voice was younger, less cultured than the Egyptian’s. The accent was Palestinian or Jordanian.
“What do you want?” Sami demanded.
“To meet with you. We need to talk.”
“Has this anything to do with my brother?”
“Answer me or I will hang up.”
“He is well, Inshallah, and sends you his love. We must meet in person, Doctor. Shall I come to your home?”
Bile rose in Sami’s throat. “There is a coffee shop called Java House on East Lake Drive. Do you know it?”
“I will find it. Shall we say tomorrow at noon?”
Sami scrolled through his calendar. “That is not a good time,” he replied. “I can be there at two o’clock. How will I know you?”
“I will find you,” came the response. “Ma’a as-salaamah.”
Come to his home?
Sami fought to keep his temper. He vowed that whatever game these people were playing would end tomorrow. He had finally contacted his parent’s home in Ramallah that morning. His mother was delighted to hear from him and asked many questions about her granddaughter. His father sounded distant and old.
Guilt stabbed at Sami’s heart, as it always did when he spoke with his father. As the eldest son, he knew it was his duty to be with his parents, and he was not. He knew they were proud of him, but it was not enough to compensate for the loss.
Kamal lived in the family home now and was a good son. He had married two years ago when Sami and Karen were visiting, and his wife had recently borne her first child, a boy. The two brothers had discussed Sami’s vocation several times, and Kamal assured him it was not wrong to follow his calling. Each man has a destiny and must decide which path to take.
When Sami asked to speak with Kamal, there was a pause. “He has been away from home for a time,” replied Amira. “You know he is on the board with the university now and is required to travel. Do you wish to speak to his wife?” she continued. “She knows more than I.”
“No,” replied Sami. If Kamal’s wife did indeed know anything, she would not speak of it over the phone. “Give everyone my love and I will call again soon. Ma’a as-salaamah emmi.”
* * *