The gun dangling casually from the American solder's hand is bulkier than the handguns she has seen close up, being snuck from palm to palm. He has a bar of some foodstuff in his other hand, the carelessly torn wrapper glinting in the sun. He wears sunglasses so dark she cannot see his eyes, even though he is standing only a foot away from her. The hair on his knuckles is golden.
He is ready to kill her.
"Please, God, I am not ready to die!" His face contorts unpleasantly at the sound of her language, so she switches to English, lowering the panicked shrillness in her voice, making it smoother, rounder. "I am innocent."
She sees his eyes flicker momentarily to the children running towards the bombed out petrol pump, slippers slapping against the soles of their feet. The last woman in this neighbourhood who was `picked up for questioning' returned raped and mute with horror.
"It was very scary for all of us," she says. "These people who bomb innocent families are crazy. I pray to God they will never be able to hurt anyone else."
She prays because the cost of violence is too high for her people, for her country, because the only way to inflict any pain on great, guarded America is by mutilating oneself.
She can see her words acting like water on dust, dampening the soldier's nervous skittering, making his grip on the gun more porous. The more time he spends on her, listening, the less time beating up someone else. She tells him what he wants to hear.
"These people, they do not come from here. None of us would do such a thing. Why would we want to destroy our own home? I have a sister who lives in England, she says they pray for the Iraqi people to come together in peace so that you soldiers can go home to your families, pray that no Muslim brother kills another, because we all know Islam is the way of peace."
She wonders if she is laying it on too thick, but she has seen the way they talk on CNN about a cooked up Iraq of their greedy self-serving fantasies, and the soldier smiles at her--a boy with a gun ready to believe the most palpable absolutes set before him.
"Well," he hesitates, then decides, "... Ma'am, we don't want any trouble. As long as people co-operate with us, we're here to help you folks."
She sees her son being shoved out of the way by the bomb disposal squad that is inspecting the carcass of the petrol pump. He picks up a rock and squeezes his fist around it, then walks quietly back towards her, throwing it with careful aim at the wall of their home.
"Yes, you are here to help," she agrees amiably. Keep him engaged, throw any tall tale at the monster to pacify him. "My sister," second cousin on her mother's side, actually, but English does not have a specific word for that, "says that as well. She wishes..."
She wishes she hadn't come for this party, because the DJ is utter shite, and really, how bad do you have to be to bollocks up Bollywood songs? Rehana was the one who dragged her here, insisted it would be `such a blast' and she should, `live a little, already', and helped her convince Ammi that she was going to be studying for her A-levels at Rehana's house. And now, of course, Rehana is off snogging a boyfriend in a corner somewhere, leaving her standing awkwardly clutching her glass of fruit juice ("for reals?" the pimply bartender had asked her).
She sees a guy dancing with a group of friends, his arms poking the air in the worst attempt at bhangra she has ever seen. His friends are mostly girls, and they are wining and thrusting in an over the top way that has the entire group giggling. When the song changes, they stop, and roll their eyes, and she agrees, because `Khwaja Mere Khwaja'?! For a dance party? Seriously?
The girls go off to the loo in a chattering flock, and the guy walks over. Towards her.
"Hey," he smiles, and she nods back, bites her lip and responds, "Nice dancing."
He grins and shimmies elaborately. God, he's fit. "I know, right?" He laughs, utterly at ease. "I'm like, Shah Rukh and Govinda rolled into one, innit? I could teach Hrithik a move or two."
She giggles. She can't help it. He's about as gorgeous as Aladdin when he ruffles his hair in that Disney movie her little sister won't stop watching.
"So... you're not dancing?"
She shakes her head. "Bollywood isn't my thing..." She sees his friends come back from the loo. They are standing at the edge of the dance floor, and one of them is looking at him, but he doesn't seem to be edging away from her, doesn't seem to be in a hurry to get back to them.
"So what is your thing, then?"
This boy is actually interested in having a conversation with her. At some point, she really should string words into a sentence and give them to him. "I'm not into, well, in terms of music I mostly like weird people no one's ever heard of."
"Yeah? Like who?"
She eyes him. His skin is darker than Shah Rukh's or Salman's. "Well, I like The Narcicyst, you know-- Yassin Alsalman."
He doesn't even blink. Or rather he does, but just casually, letting his eyelashes flicker in enthusiasm as his smile widens. "Yeah? What kind of music does he do? Is he hot? Girls always go for musicians who are hot."
She laughs, she can't help it, he is so totally endearing that she can't even care how infatuated she is being right now.
"He's, uh... Iraqi. Well, Iraqi-Canadian. He's a hip-hop activist."
"Like M.I.A.?" he offers. "She's hot!"
"So you're into underground hip-hop. You must really not like this DJ then, huh?"
She rolls her eyes, and they both laugh. The DJ is now playing `Piya Haji Ali' and has driven all but two horny, oblivious, slow-dancing couples off the floor. The boy next to her is fidgeting just a little, and she knows that if she doesn't say anything, he will be polite enough to go away and leave her alone.
"Well, my name's Shankar," he says, extending a hand. She sighs internally. Hindu. Of course, because why would the universe want to make it that easy?
Then she takes his hand, and lets the warm weight of it anchor her as she tells him her name, and then hints that she'd like to go out on the balcony for some fresh air. She leans into him, just a very little, as they push past raucous partiers sprawling on the stairs, and starts talking.
"Another guy whose stuff is awesome is Rhymefest; I got some CDs of his from a friend in Chicago, she says it's so..."
It's so cold in Chicago that the snow has frozen to the clouds and refuses to fall down, weighting the shard-toothed wind instead. It is 8:50 am on a Tuesday morning, and the vague resentment of people awake against their will fills the lecture hall with a sullen leadenness. Being ecologically conscious means that instead of a thin layer of cardboard separating her hands from the warmth of her coffee, she is left clutching a bulky, plastic container with a lid on top. No way to look in, to see the hot swirling brown liquid. Only a small exit to suck out.
She stopped smiling at students as they walked in when she realised they felt put on the spot by her attention. Now she busies herself with her laptop, making sure the slides are focussed on the screen. She knows that when she walks in front of the table, the projection cuts a green line across her face. Half of the students are in sweatpants, and she is pretty sure most of them have not showered.
The turquoise earrings swaying against her neck match the weft of her two-tone trousers. They also match her Victoria's Secret bra, but that is not information relevant to anyone else.
"Alright ladies and gentlemen, it's five after, so let's get started. I know the readings this week were pretty heavy, so I'm going to start out by giving you a chance to ask some questions about anything you didn't understand... and simultaneously display to me that you did indeed do the readings."
The three who grin back are the ones who could turn into a brick wall and still get full points for class participation. The rest of the students slouch in their seats. A few textbooks are fluttered through. Finally a girl halfway up the seats raises her hand. She has the sort of light brown hair that everyone calls blonde. Names are getting easier to learn with the new class lists that come attached with photo IDs, but it's harder when Katelyn, Caitlin, and Kate-Lynne all look suburban and self-satisfied.
"Yeah, well, I guess, I just don't understand, I mean, in the reading, he's talking about, like, Orientalism and how bad it is to just lump everyone together, but isn't he doing the exact same thing when he talks about the West? Like, I mean I look at me, and then my friend's cousins who live in Kentucky, and there's nothing like, you know, common, and anyway isn't it a bit, like, you know, sort of un-PC to act like America's just full of white people, when there's the whole melting pot thing going on... so yeah, I guess I just don't get that. You know?"
She does not make eye contact with the students who stiffen, with those who roll their eyes, with the one whose hand is edging up in cautious challenge.
She smiles. "Yes," she begins, "I know."
There is a poster on the bulletin board outside the lecture hall that she can see through the open doors. It says, `Diversity is Beautiful', and it has an Asian, a Latino, a Black and a White girl smiling up at the camera posed underneath an American flag.
There is a young man sitting in the third row who is waiting for her response with a blankly arrogant look on his face. He is the one whose papers cite Samuel Huntingdon and Charles Murray and who talks about reverse racism. He has an intelligent, questioning mind. He will probably give her the kind of student evaluation that gets quoted whenever questions of tenure come up.
She takes a breath, so that everyone can hear her, and steps closer to the tiers of students. She remembers a class discussion cited by a Palestinian colleague, and continues, "So, let's start with a group example. All of you who think of Israel as being an Arabian country, raise your hands..."
"Raise your hands," she says briskly, and when he does, she pulls his dirty shirt off. "Now get under the blanket before you get cold."
As he huddles underneath the frayed woollen sheet, she untwists the ogaal holding her kaffiyeh in place, and slips out of her thob. She wraps a shawl around her head to protect her from the draft blowing underneath the corrugated metal door perched askew on its hinges. Blowing out the candle, she rustles into bed.
Her grandson butts up next to her like a little goat, pressing his cold and undoubtedly dirty feet against her aching knees. She pushes him firmly away, and then rearranges him into her arms, one hand patting his belly. "Oounf," he whines, before settling in, his fingers idly tugging at the soft wrinkly folds of skin on her forearms.
"Jaddah," he asks, as he does every night, "Do you think Amma and Abba are sleeping?" Not alive, not safe, not even happy, but sleeping, as he is.
She makes a non-committal sound. "Your mother was just as restless as you were. I had to sing song after song to get her to go to sleep, and later on, tell her so many stories that my voice grew hoarse." She pretends to cough. "But you are not like that, are you? You are so well behaved!"
"No!" He wiggles delightedly. "I am as bad as Amma! I need a story too. Lots of stories! Or I will never sleep!"
"Tsch tsch tsch," she clucks mournfully. "And here I believed the neighbours when they said your grandson is such a good boy, he is well brought up, other boys might do some mischief, but Shukri we can always depend on."
He sighs happily.
"But here I find you being so obstinate. You know, boys who don't listen to their grandmothers get into very big trouble. You know who comes to get them?"
"The guards who took Amma and Abba away?"
"No!" she snaps. "Your Ammi did absolutely nothing wrong, and I am willing to swear it on the Holy Qu'ran." Her son-in-law she is less than certain of; there is only so much humiliation and injustice a proud, passionate man can take before he plunges his family into uncertainty for the sake of his country's honour. What do they expect, keeping people penned into a tiny strip of land, like sheep, behind barbed wire fences and gun-shielded barricades, begging for food and water from people who drove them away from the land they had lived on for generations?
"Little boys should be worried about djinns. That's who I was most frightened of, when I had done something wrong. One time I was so scared after we had broken my mother's big pot while playing, that I thought I'd run away from home. I thought I would walk for kilometres until I reached a village where no one knew me, and then find some family to work for."
"But what about the wall?"
"There was no wall then," she says, even though her own childhood was spent in refugee camps even more perilous than this one; the sound of missiles a constant drumming through the night. Her mother would tell her stories, then, as they huddled on the floor underneath a door-turned-into-table. Stories of her own mother's childhood, when there were no walls, and you could walk all the way to Bethlehem, if you wanted to. They are better stories to tell her grandson than her own.
"As I was saying, there was no wall, and everyone was very helpful to me. One farmer gave me a handful of olives, and one lady had the most delicious halvah I have ever tasted. And then when I got tired, an old rabbi let me ride on his donkey."
"A Jewish rabbi?" he asks incredulously.
"Yes yes, what other kind of rabbi is there?" she mutters. "But he was not like those soldiers. He looked just like you and me. Back then, everyone was fighting against the British.
"And then, as I was riding along, imagining if this was how Mariam Amma must have felt like as she was riding on the donkey with Isa Maseeh in her stomach, I heard a terrible noise. And what do you think it was?"
"A bomb?" he wonders sleepily.
She sighs. "It was a djinn. And the donkey got so scared it kicked and ran away, leaving me lying in the dust, while the rabbi holding on to his yarmulke, chased after the animal."
"What did the djinn look like, Jaddah?"
"He looked like a huge golden sandstorm one moment, and then he turned black as a thundercloud. Fearsome powerful beings can take any shape they want, you know. He seemed to have sharp, long teeth, and angry red eyes and when he opened his mouth, I was so scared that he was going to eat me, that I unwrapped the falafel in my sack and held it out to him.
"And you know what? The djinn laughed and laughed, so that I could feel the earth shaking with the heaving of his belly. He waved his hands grandly and said, `Keep your...'"
"Keep your mouth shut," he says, and there is no alcohol in his breath, no bleary sluggishness in his gestures.
There are no night-dark shadows for him to lurk in; through the window, the moon rises crescent like a banner. He does not care to turn the electric lights off before he steers her towards the bed. The pillows heaped on it prod her legs.
His fingers dig into her upper arm. When he fumbles, one-handed, at his waist, she closes her eyes.
He tugs her stiff body towards him, and she grunts at the wrench in her shoulder. When she pulls away, he slaps her.
His fingers are knotted in her hair; he jerks her head around as she listens for a sound coming from the children's bedroom. They seem to still be asleep.
His penis points accusatorily upwards, but it is his hands that she watches, as they wrap around her neck.
"Better not let the neighbours hear anything," he offers, and pushes her on the bed steadily enough to prevent a thump.
She opens her mouth. The night is an unknown page waiting to be written on.