Apr/May 2002 Nonfiction

Sand Memories

by Kathleen McCall

My eleven-year old daughter tells me, "They're making the airplanes fly lower now, since the eleventh."
"You think? What makes you say that?"
"Because I never used to hear them before, and now I hear them all the time."

Saudi Arabia, 1974

When I was seventeen, I could do anything. Nothing frightened me. When I was seventeen, a world where they cut a man's hand off in the square below my parent's hotel was a play world, not real. I didn't see it, even though they told me it happened all the time. "Stealing is a great crime here," they said. "You can feel safe, you know."

I didn't feel safe in my long sleeves and my long skirt and my bandanna—all of it red to match the skirt, the long red print skirt I had made because they'd written to me, "Bring long skirts, it's all you can wear in public." I found fabric already gathered at the top and just stitched up the sides. Done. I would not be an Ugly American, I would not. I wore the skirt, I covered my head, and I did not know the red would scream my profanity, there.

I didn't feel safe because they looked at me, looked at me right in my face, my profane face, the face I showed in their marketplace; I was alone, I was undressed, I was, to them, naked. They stared and they talked to each other, guttural, as though my name was spit: hawadji, they said. Infidel? White person? Woman who dares wear red and go about our market in her bare face?

But I was seventeen, and Allah was no God to me, and these were men who cut off hands, and I was NOT safe, and I knew myself a stranger in a large desert and very far away from laws I'd thought were written in stone. I had not seen that they were written in English, until then.

I had a letter to mail, in the souk, and I had some money, although it was play money—all reds and blues and oversized bills. We had gotten them yesterday from the moneychanger in the souk. He kept the bills on clips on a big board behind him. Thousands of dollars. "No one steals here." But I did not know the right ones, and I did not know which way to go, and to stand was to be stared at. The taxis did not stop for the white women, the bare ones, even though King Faisal had said they must.

A crowd of dark young men approached me. Hawadji. I heard them say it. Young men, dark browed, white thobes, the white headdresses and coiled ropes we called napkins and fanbelts behind their backs. I had nothing. No words, no defenses. They closed around me, close close as we do not, here. They took my letter from my hand. And then they took my money.

They did not touch me.

They closed around me, and we went, swept without touching, moving me quickly in their deep, throat-clearing language, talking not to me since I was bare and uncomprehending, but to each other, every other word Allah, or maybe not.

They took me to the post office, and when the clerk told them how much for the airmail flimsy to home, they said no no no no—la la la la—and gave him less, and gave me back the rest.

And they smiled at me, and were gone.

"Can I put this flag poster up in my window?"
"Sure you can, if you like."
"Why don't you put one up too?"
"Because I am too sad right now."
"Is that why you have just the candles then?"

Zaid was Ethiopian. Or Eritrean. Or Amheric. I never quite got any of that straight; the politics were so intense and so compressed, like Maine hates Rhode Island or something. But anyway, we were told she couldn't go home, because of politics. Her sister wrote her there was work in Jeddah, working for American families. It paid well. So she came to live with my parents. Her son was still at home, though. I didn't know why. She didn't speak of it.

She spoke a little English, and I spoke a little Arabic, but we didn't talk. I just said, "Good morning," and a lot of embarrassed thank you's. I didn't like her washing and ironing my underwear. I didn't like it that when I came to visit my parents, she had to move in down the street with her sister and just come in daytimes, while I slept in her bed under her Coptic cross. I was a young rawboned liberal; noblesse made me blush.

Zaid wore white dresses embroidered at the bottom and no shoes. Never any shoes. She did the wash in the bathtub, holding her skirts high and kneading with her pink-soled feet in the Tide-foamy water. My parents had a washer, but it never worked. It was always in pieces on the stone tile floor, waiting for parts (yes, yes, tomorrow, Inshallah, tomorrow) that never seemed to come. I don't think she would have used it, anyway.

Zaid ironed everything. She was one ironing woman. When the power went out—it always did—she kept ironing, squeezing out that last little bit of heat, making it last. Sheets, shirts, underwear. Washed, hung on the back balcony to bleach dry in the Saudi sun, ironed, put away.

Her salary was nothing really, a tiny dipperful out of my father's salary. His salary was an even tinier dipper from the vast ocean of oil money that was washing out the old sand culture in those years, creating an urban desert, airlifting technology and dropping it right into the dunes. And those vast oil fortunes would only be a tiny dipperful compared to the loss of a son, I think. Odd commerce.

Zaid seemed to like us. Someone said that Captain liked lime Jell-o; and lime Jell-o we had—she called it "jelly"—every day for a month. My father, no more comfortable than I with noblesse, ate it quietly.

She made us ziggini sometimes: cubes of some meat she bought in the market, simmered in a spice blend she had brought with her in a jar when she left Ethiopia. Berbere, she called the spice blend. She couldn't get any more, but sometimes, for us, she would open her precious jar from home.

"Mommy, what does civilian mean?"
"Civilians are the sons and mothers and fathers and daughters of soldiers."

I have a tape somewhere, an old ninety-minute cassette with only the scratchy first few minutes recorded. I recorded it more than twenty-five years ago, on a borrowed cassette recorder, from a friend's apartment balcony, at about four o'clock in the morning. I recorded it and kept it because it is haunting. It is music of the soul, just as is a Gregorian chant or a Southern spiritual. It is the calling of the Muslim faithful to dawn prayers.

In the cities now, and even then, I know they use recorded calls. But in the outlying mosques in those years, the muezzin sat in the tower, traditionally with one black thread and one white thread over his hand, and when he could tell the difference between the two, he would call.

When I listen to that tape now, I can see in my mind's eye the men moving purposefully out of their houses in their thobes and ghutra, moving silently across the dirt roads and the sandy vacant lots, moving toward the mosque to worship.

The music from even the farthest church calls us all.


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