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.


Sakina Fakhri is a novelist and screenwriter based in Brooklyn. She
received her BA in literature from Northwestern University and completed
her MA at NYU; subsequently, she was part-founder and teacher at a high
school in Cairo, Egypt. Her observations in Cairo served as inspiration for
the above short story.

Committed 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.
HONORABLE
MENTION
GeminiMAGAZINE
2014
Short Story
Contest
$25 Prize