SHORT STORY CONTEST
A DESERT PRAYER
by Sakina Fakhri
The evening prayer call spread through the city in tiny percolations, coalescing upwards and outwards in a hundred booming voices, bubbling towards the sky as Cairo boiled. Raspy or sweet, bellowing or humming, straining voices weaved a holy sheet through a halting populace. The rising call bore its threads through narrow avenues and traveled through the sandy gutters, blew through fractured taxi windows and exploded through centers of crowds, scattering bodies like a gust of wind, settling souls into pockets where they rose and fell in astounding unison. It weaved through frenzied markets, where shopkeepers paused, raised one ear ever so slightly, disappeared for some minutes, and then returned. It muffled, like a feathered gauze, the imposing threat of rifles manned by the corner guards, and it coaxed these weapons low, to the ground, onto flattened cardboard rugs where their masters’ foreheads touched and lifted mere inches from forgotten triggers. It reverberated from the lowest accretions of humanity to the hills of Katameya, where humans shone in mansions, from the staircases with their stench of gasoline to the outlying deserts, from the fraying edges of reality into the doorway of the desperate stable, where two young women whispered to one another in foreign tongues.
The ground within the stable was a startling continuation of the desert world that extended beyond it. Though a wooden roof had been tacked uninvitingly onto the concrete walls, the stable’s flimsy door did not seem to signify a division between a public world and a private one. A familiar gravel crunched beneath their feet—the seeping Sahara, creeping outwards in grains and footfalls. Originally built for horses, the feeble structure now housed a small family of six. They slept and ate in the back room, while the horses—their livelihood—sometimes passed through the front.
The two American girls—young women, even—stayed hushed as they waited. They crouched expectantly near the stable’s entrance. Thoughts of escape flashed through their eyes, and then a willful patience, and then escape again…As their hearts beat out these nervous rhythms, their eyes stayed fixed on the stable door, where their guide might arrive at any moment with his horses.
“At least someone will take us at this hour—and for only 20 guinea,” one of the girls finally said, taking an inconspicuous breath through the semi-permeable protection of her sleeve, pretending to rub her nose.
The second girl, Fatima, wiped a fresh collection of dust off of her forehead, running her fingertips between her hair and the hijab that covered it. There was a lightened—forcefully lightened—concern in her voice as she replied, “Yes, we’re lucky.” She thought to herself (imagining the cold, wide desert) that in the daylight one did not need so much luck. In the daylight, the sun would smother the echo of the rattling gates, and dim the whispers of illicit transactions.
From the inner stable room came the sudden clatter of dishes and an open-handed smack of retribution. The girls turned to peer through a window frame carved into the decaying wall that delineated the living space of the humans from that of the horses. Through this hole they saw pieces: the splotchy, heavy arm of the mother, tears that streamed along the veins of the screaming child, and the dish, jagged and brown, scattered like poison among mounds of freshly wasted rice.
Minutes later they heard a shuffling behind them—it was their guide, Abdul Hamid, accompanied by three dejected- looking horses. Over his shoulder he smiled mournfully at the wasted rice, and then turned, brightly, to the girls.
The waiting was over. Abdul had been the fortuitous conclusion to the girls’ tiring search, appearing finally from behind a cloud of fruit-filled smoke in the nearby sheesha parlor. He offered them what the other stable-owners had refused. Without a complaint about the hour, the weather, the desert guards, or the offered price, he surveyed the weariness splashed on their faces and decided that, yes, he would bring horses for these girls. Abdul requested a half- money deposit for the subletting of his animals, and stipulated that first; he must eat dinner with his family.
Now he led the girls, along with the horses, away from his home and out onto the dirt pathway that wound through the desert. The horses looked hopelessly underfed and eternally unruly. They twitched and stomped in defiance, blew the life out of their bodies through flailing nostrils, and then, confused and bereft, sucked it immediately back in. The girl gazed at the purpled iodine that spread over the spotted horse’s pelvic bone like some retired Rorschach, the splayed imprint of a vibrant conflict. She winced as Abdul Hamid whipped the fidgety horses—weak as they were, they could have killed him, run him into the ground, crushed his knobby limbs beneath their tapping hooves!—but instead they hung their heads, and breathed.
Abdul Hamid walked up to Fatima, who was already mounted, and guided her foot cautiously into the stirrup. He inquired of them both in Arabic, “Are you girls Muslim?”
Fatima answered, “Yes,” while the other girl looked up at her small, spotted horse, wondering if those crisscrossed bones could carry her weight.
A smile exploded onto Abdul’s face. “Then I will care for you as my sisters!” he exclaimed, releasing the stirrups so they fell impotently at her spotted horse’s sides.
He held out his hand and she rested upon it for a moment— only a moment—as she flung herself upwards and felt the warmth of the horse through the burlap saddle. He released his hold, and she felt that peace, at last, would begin. She smiled her salutations at the familiar winding road that led up to the gates of the great wonders—
“Will you hold my cigarettes in your pocket, please?” Abdul Hamid held out the small package, a smile simmering on his lips, and a strange weight in his eyes. And though she hesitated, she extended her hand for the cigarettes and quartered them away. The box bounced in her pocket, carving a slow bruise into the bone of her hip. The horses’ hooves stomped uncomfortably forward along the road, which hardened from dirt into concrete as they entered the outskirts of Cairo. The clicking of the hooves mixed with the voices of wailing children that lined the streets, of drunken old men that hollered at the girls from their outdoor sheesha parlors in the middle of the night.
But none of it mattered, in any case, at the moment when they reached the gate. Though it was wrought iron, it opened smoothly at Abdul Hamid’s delicate manipulation. Once inside, night began, and silence—this place admitted nothing of the town that shone behind them, of its disruptive transgressions; even in the din of this night, she knew the desert would be empty of human footsteps.
She saw Fatima’s figure several paces in front, sculpted atop her horse under a crystal moon, perfectly round, breathlessly, quietly sound. She felt as if she were whirling the sands in a painting, one visual landscape after another, and with each step of the horse, each image superimposed itself upon its predecessor with a tacit inevitability, a painstaking determinacy. She experienced at once the feeling of spying the sandy ridge that jutted out in front of her, seeing Fatima’s silhouette on the makeshift mountain dune, and simultaneously knowing what vision it guarded— she had been here before. She felt the picture of the desert from every possible angle and had memorized it as one might memorize the wrinkles and ripples that gather at the corners of a mother’s eyes or the stretched skin that shimmers in the incandescence of a lover’s smile.
Muscles that were not hers propelled her forward. The horse, too, had been freed—a wildness returned to its gait. No longer tormented by the repetitive pain of an inelastic concrete terrain, it lunged forward, leaving mushrooming clouds of sand in the miniscule graves carved by its hooves, second by second. These, the graves of moments fully perceived, of bodies fully realized, these were why she came, to feel the dance of her mortality performed in the sand.
From somewhere, the sound of a whip.
“Can I have a cigarette?” His sliding Arabic severed the desert into two perfect shards. First the words galloped towards her, and then his horse, which slowed at her side and melted into pace with her now-docile animal. Abdul Hamid reached over and held her reins with his, both in his left hand, and extended his right hand for the small package he had ushered so noiselessly into the desert. She fumbled in her pocket, now uncomfortable without the reins in her hands, and handed the cigarettes to Abdul.
Though he was the cause of her disruption, she conceded that he was also the architect of its possibility—he had agreed to bring them into the desert, and at this late hour, so dark. She imagined the little boy in the window frame, and how his mother had slapped him for the cracked dish, but that Abdul Hamid had grimaced lightly in empathetic absorption, and that he had smiled as he entered with the horses. Now, illuminated by the ember of a cigarette, a smile boiled again onto his lips, so slippery she waited for it to drip away…
She looked far ahead to where Fatima’s horse had halted in its trot, their distant silhouette etched into the still night sky.
“Are you married?” he asked, inching so close that she could see the dried spittle drift from his mouth as he spoke.
“Yes,” she lied.
He had not asked for a response; his question was a statement, the preface of an intention masquerading as an invitation—like this he would lay the foundation for her guilt, plaster it smoothly over the question so that now, later, forever she would find that she had been at fault, that he had asked, that he had been tame, awkward, hopeful, but always, always, the gentleman.
Still holding the reins, he moved closer. Somehow he smelled of his yellow shirt, reeked its color onto her legs, into her eyes. She inhaled as if struck, suddenly, and swallowed the bile that had surged into the back of her throat. That smile…
She could feel the heat of his upper thigh pressing into her leg, into her horse, and the sheer strength of his small body buttressed by the robust beast that carried him, and yet all this might have been trifling, had he not smiled.
“Is everything okay back there?” Fatima’s voice curved backwards, bringing with it new air, new space, new vistas of distance that, she suddenly realized, might be shoved between herself and Abdul Hamid. Echoing a response in relief—the moment had passed, the desert had returned— she steadied herself for a gallop. She needed only the reins and she might whisk off the diseased film that Abdul Hamid had wrought on her consciousness.
As the horse’s awkward, uneven trot transformed to a rhythmic gallop, she exhaled Abdul’s memory into the air and breathed in a fresher, ancient reality.
The thrill of the gallop was in the pause, the moment of complete stillness that occurred between every lunge forward and every small return. In this moment the world held its breath and the rider and the horse were suspended, airborne, while the sand moved beneath them. In this moment the wind would stop rushing, her heart would stop pounding, and everything would rest in quiet, a supreme quiet…
And then they reached the ridge, its hidden bounty rising finally into view, that vision of stony constancy, placed purposefully within the rolling desert. Six geometric figures towered in the distance. Whether evinced from constellations or measured by human hands, they stood in the open sand with the grandeur of astronomical raindrops— six conglomerations of meticulously determined lines and angles, six pyramids (three larger, the same number smaller) grafted confidently onto the canvas of the earth. Even from this distance were visible both the crevices and the stunning geometrical precision, the jagged erosion of pointed edges and yet the integrity of the diagonals that seemed to persist, beyond the bounds of weather and time, into an imaginary vanishing point in the darkened sky. The structures floated in the desert’s waves, but stood perfectly still—the desert, for centuries, would crash its current against these sides and recede again, and yet the pyramids would be there still. They were more real, somehow, as perfect shadows in the darkness, as the ever-surprising conclusion to the journey from the stable. Here they were far more real than they were during the day, when they buzzed incessantly with tourists, tickets, horses and camels, sunlight, speeches, fanny packs and digital cameras. In the heavy gloom of the night, they were always a surprise—one never knew they were close, and then from atop the ridge and under the moon without a human in sight, they appeared.
Amidst this reverie—for there was always the pause—the horses dug their heels into the ground. Their muscles clenched and unclenched, and the gentle hum of their bodies rose to a thrashing gesture, a plea.
From the sandy cliff where they stood, the innocent structures looked bare, unadorned, and hardly aware of the complications involved in reaching them. The cliffs of sand encased the pyramids as mountains loop a valley. It was steep, and the horses could not gallop straight down. Reaching the pyramids was no longer a matter of horses, of gates or guides—it was determination, simply, and a willingness to move through the night without upsetting its fragility. They moved in concentric circles around their target, getting closer and closer as they rode lower and lower.
Finally at the bottom, both girls loosened their grip on the reins, and the horses’ heads surged forward. At this, the climax of their journey, the horses finally galloped to the full strength of their able bodies. As if this was what they, too, had been waiting for: to be alone at the beginning of civilization. The saddles felt warmer—though the air rushed past more quickly now—as the animals’ muscles strummed tightly between the girls’ legs. And they shuddered with the thrill of a microcosmic terror, a condensed realization of the delicacy—and the power—of mortal life.
She avoided stray rocks and misplaced trash, and flew quickly through the desert, sending streams of sand behind her like rocket-smoke. The largest pyramid loomed in the distance, growing larger by shades as they moved closer by paces. The magic was now in its reality—in the imperfections at its base, in the crevices fondled by centuries of vague disuse. In the knowledge that legions of academics, aficionados, and archaeologists were dreaming, at this particular moment, of the stunning angles of its perfect geometry, and that only three pairs of eyes now saw the crooked angles it cast on the nighttime sand.
She had thought she was the first to arrive, but then Abdul Hamid peeked at her from behind the base of the tallest pyramid, materializing now as he had materialized from the sheesha clouds just hours before. And then within moments, Fatima’s horse emerged and paused beside hers.
With his small party collected, Abdul Hamid’s rustic hospitality returned. “Would you like to climb the pyramid? Sit on top, for a minute?” But from time to time his eyes darted furtively towards the gate, the shadows, the cold night, and then his concentration would be with them again, completely, his pupils gleaming in the night.
“Who is that?” she asked quickly, innocently, and his head snapped towards the distant moving shadows. Were there guards about?
He ushered both girls into the pocket of darkness behind the smaller pyramid. He ran towards the shadows and held a silent conference with his hands—who was he speaking with? —as the girls crouched there silently, the cold bricks scraping their backs. He returned minutes later, whistling jovially to the horses, who whinnied softly. He indicated the side of the smaller pyramid with a sweep of his hand— gleeful, as though it were his creation. Before he could help them, both girls had jumped off of their horses and were holding their reins out to him. He collected them as though they were marbles, careful to keep them controlled in his grasp, and secured them tightly to a nearby boulder.
Abdul Hamid waited for them to climb first, and then he followed behind. Though there were no stairs, the rocks were stable, the crevices deep, and their footholds solid. The girls scurried up the incline with youthful agility and Abdul Hamid scrambled behind them, panting and wiping the sweat from his collar. Their chosen path upwards along the stone was illuminated by the moonlight that lay sprinkled among the bricks.
Then, without warning, she felt a weight upon her. Something warm encircled her like a serpent, and she felt his sweating flesh seep into hers, his hands embracing her waist and dragging her uncomfortably from secure footholds. She wriggled out of his grasp, snapping in an instinctive English he may not have understood, “I can do it myself!” She shuddered his heat off of her body and grasped for surfaces that would lead her upwards.
She reached the ledge-platform—at about three-fourths the height of the pyramid—long before he did, and she and Fatima looked out. They could see the gate that marked entry into the desert, but it looked small, hardly the obstacle now as it had been then. To be in the desert is one thing, they thought to themselves, and she remembered standing below and looking up at the pyramids. It is quite another feeling, she realized—quite different from feeling the sand in your feet and breathing it through your nose—to look upon the desert from above.
“Oh no,” Fatima whispered, “I forgot to pray ‘Isha before we left.”
She bit her lip in guilt. It had been her fault that Fatima had come. This had all been her idea. “Is there still time?” she asked. “Can you pray it here?”
An exhausted Abdul Hamid emerged from beneath the edge. Fatima repeated her request: “I need to pray ‘Isha. Do you mind if I pray over there, very quickly?” Abdul agreed without compunction, and Fatima walked to the precipice, stood within the beam of the full moon, and approximated an upright posture as she softly began to recite the call to prayer. Past Fatima’s straight back was immeasurable distance, a world defined only by leagues of sand.
She turned from Fatima, looked out to the left, where the city draped beneath her. It was blanketed in a prison of smog, smothered by the impermeable weight of its darkness. There, the machines of the day deposited a dense corpse of pollution into the air. This corpse rushed, thickly, into the lungs of its denizens and emerged, sparsely, in a cloud of smoke. This smoke rose in twirls back into the air— and like this, in just that way, the people painted layers of their thickening shroud.
She sat on the ledge. Abdul Hamid seated himself beside her, and though she winced, she did not turn to face him. Having finally cornered his prey at the top of the shining city, Abdul Hamid bared again his reptilian lips and slid his hand up her thigh, so slightly.
She might cry out, but to whom?
If one were to look further than the coughing and the smoke- filled corridors, through the market and the heat-worn walls, into the boys who stared woefully outward through the cattle-bars of army trucks, away from salacious proposals and lewd gestures, and deep into the dogmatic certainty encased within their hearts, patches might become clear— hazy contusions of light that scatter into the smog. Here, where the green light of a minaret or the fertile belly of a dome stretches the darkness to its thinnest point, or the fog clears and reveals a vision of the far-off step pyramids at Sakkara, here one is satiated, where in the memory of simplicity, of diagonals, and points, and spheres, one thinks that it may be possible to begin again, and she thought, perhaps it could be built again…
She heard still the faint sounds of Fatima’s prayer, which filled the air with a bright incense and settled like fairy dust around her shivering limbs.
Committed to writing in all of its forms (except the factual!), Sakina Fakhri believes that, given enough time and enough creativity, nothing should ever have to be said in quite the same way twice. Her literary aesthetic tends towards theme-driven ornate prose, lyrical fiction, controlled absurdism, and political satire. Her first novel manuscript, “The Speech Of Flowers and Voiceless Things,” probes the idea of a web of globalized mistranslations against a backdrop of a personable philanthropic enterprise and a caricaturesque dictator. Her first short film, “The Word Trader,” debuted in 2013 at the Cannes Film Festival Court Metrage and at the Manhattan Film Festival. She continues to develop television and feature film concepts as she writes her second novel, which intertwines motifs of micro-trading, blindness, particle physics, and ballet. to writing in all of its forms (except the factual!), she believes that, given enough time and enough creativity, nothing should ever have to be said in quite the same way twice. Her literary aesthetic tends towards theme-driven ornate prose, lyrical fiction, controlled absurdism, and political satire. Her first novel manuscript, “The Speech Of Flowers and Voiceless Things,” probes the idea of a web of globalized mistranslations against a backdrop of a personable philanthropic enterprise and a caricaturesque dictator. Her first short film, “The Word Trader,” debuted in 2013 at the Cannes Film Festival Court Metrage and at the Manhattan Film Festival. She continues to develop television and feature film concepts as she writes her second novel, which intertwines motifs of micro-trading, blindness, particle physics, and ballet.