Alif the Unseen

By G. WILLOW WILSON  |  August 14, 2012

Dina was silent. Alif looked impatiently over her shoulder: he could see a section of the Old Quarter glimmering on a rise beyond the shoddy collection of residential neighborhoods around them. Intisar was somewhere within it, like a pearl embedded in one of the ancient mollusks the ghataseen sought along the beaches that kissed its walls. Perhaps she was working on her senior thesis, poring over books of early Islamic literature; perhaps she was taking a swim in the sandstone pool in the courtyard of her father's villa. Perhaps she was thinking of him.

"I wasn't going to say anything," said Dina.

Alif blinked. "Say anything about what?" he asked.

"Our maid overheard the neighbors talking in the souk yes-terday. They said your mother is still secretly a Hindu. They claim they saw her buying puja candles from that shop in Nasser Street."

Alif stared at her, muscles working in his jaw. Abruptly he turned and walked across the dusty rooftop, past their satellite dishes and potted plants, and did not stop when Dina called him by his given name.

In the kitchen, his mother stood side by side with their maid, chopping green onions. Sweat stood out where the salwar kameez she wore exposed the first few vertebrae of her back.

"Mama." Alif touched her shoulder.

"What is it, makan?" Her knife did not pause as she spoke.

"Do you need anything?"

"What a question. Have you eaten?"

Alif sat at their small kitchen table and watched as the maid wordlessly set a plate of food in front of him.

"Was that Dina you were talking to on the roof?" his mother asked, scraping the mound of onions into a bowl.


"You shouldn't. Her parents will be wanting to marry her off soon. Good families won't like to hear she's been hanging around with a strange boy."

Alif made a face. "Who's strange? We've been living in the same stupid duplex since we were kids. She used to play in my room."

"When you were five years old! She's a woman now."

"She probably still has the same big nose."

"Don't be cruel, makan-jan. It's unattractive."

Alif pushed the food around on his place. "I could look like Amr Diab and it wouldn't matter," he muttered.

His mother turned to look at him, a frown distorting her round face. "Really, such a childish attitude. If you would only settle down into a real career and save some money, there are thousands of lovely Indian girls who would be honored to — "

"But not Arab girls."

The maid sucked her teeth derisively.

"What's so special about Arab girls?" his mother asked. "They give themselves airs and walk around with their eyes painted up like cabaret dancers, but they're nothing without their money. Not beautiful, not clever, and not one of them can cook — "

"I don't want a cook!" Alif pushed his chair back. "I'm going upstairs."

"Good! Take your plate with you."

Alif jerked his plate off the table, sending the fork skittering to the floor. He stepped over the maid as she bent to pick it up.

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