I cannot think more, but Yussef says, Habibi, laysh? You have changed. Bah! I say. Sa’b giddan. What are words—diamonds even—compared to stars?
Yet when I see the moon rise over the Blue Dunes, feel myself sink in the pool by the well, and at night, wrapping myself in crude blankets on my rooftop cot, feel the freeze of the desert wind, and when I drift into rough sleep against the mosque’s midnight murmurs . . . well, I know there will be no end. And what I have now is paltry.
And why? argues Yussef. She said her hair was red, but I say it is the burnish of raw dates. Aiwa, I start this because I cannot stop.
My hotel does not attract travelers as they prefer to stay in the village, ruined as it is, rather than on the edge of the desert, in my garden of wild okra with the leaves of the cardamom tree crackling above. Aiwa, for three years I had but one guest, a Frenchman who loved the dunes. At great expense with many machines for dreams, he came every spring to capture their shadows. Once he brought a book he had made of my Dakhlah dunes. I showed that book to the people in Mut, but they do not know how to see it. Even Yussef shrugs, saying, Nam, hada laysa ramel. But I, Nasr—I drive many hours into the desert to find the places the Frenchman stole.
Aiwa, my attempts to find business are small, but that day the bus from Kharga arrives, I ride into the village. The two of them descend, round-eyed and staring—his eyes the green of the mud-rice pond and hers of morning sky.
I approach, tell them of my clean hotel, the fair price. The boy speaks first, says they have now arrived and had not yet time to see the village. Mafeesh moshkel, I say. No trouble, look what the others have to offer. When you are ready, you shall find me at the tea shop in the square.
It does not take many hours to walk round our village. I wait in the cool of the back of the shop, my afternoon pipe hardly lit when Yussef fetches me. The two are standing outside in high sun. Ya Yussef, I call for more shisha, but the boy says no, they want to see Nasr Hotel. I ask to ride on my motorcycle. He says to walk, but she says, can you fit three? Mafeesh moshkel, we leave together.
At my house, they drop their bags, examine everything in haste—the garden, the cardamom and pomegranate trees, the room downstairs and the stucco stairs to the roof. They stay above for many minutes. When they come down, she says up there will be fine. I have cots, blankets, what they need—it can be done, I say.
She asks for the bath, I show her how from the springs the water steams. But she does not mind the hotness, she is eager to bathe. She leaves her long skirt on the floor, coming out with small trousers. It has been a long time since I saw a woman’s legs. Hers are goat’s milk with specks of cinnamon.
I tell them they must supply their own food and the way to catch the truck to the village. They walk to the road and I hear the many children following, saying, what is your name, what is your name? They say, go, go, but something makes them stop. The boy says, Anxiety. She says, Depression. The children struggle with these strange names, running alongside them, and shouting, goodbye, Anxiety. Goodbye, Depression.
I suppose the two of them must have walked to the old mud ruins in our center of Mut, the only thing to see. Those ruins are empty, save for a few orphans who live on scraps left by the women. They are gone many hours, looking at these children.
In late afternoon, I ride into the village, hear the people speaking of the woman with the uncovered head. Sitting in the barbers’ shop, with the many men and children watching, Depression is having her long red hair chopped. I stand behind the people so she cannot see me. Anxiety is watching, too, smoking many cigarettes. Yussef says it has been almost an hour now, and several barbers have tried their work—these barbers are used to only beards. Finally, the oldest barber pushes the others aside. When he steps away, she holds up the mirror, looks at her hair like shoots of a young palm. It seems to satisfy her.
They come back at low sun with water, bread and tomatoes, talking about what they have seen. It reminds me of Mexico with the stucco and the people in straw hats and loose cotton, she says. But I know our people are not there.
That night is Eid-ul-Adha, so I wonder that she slept with the mullah singing until the black thread is visible against the white one. At midnight, I go up and see that their cots are at opposite ends of the roof. How can Anxiety sleep so far from her? I look in their bags downstairs. Depression has many machines for stealing dreams and Anxiety has a dream of her.
I make kahwa for them in the morning. That is when she says it had been windy in the night, and that she felt so cold until sunrise, when she felt baking again, and she dreamed with her blanket whipping about her that she was sailing on a sea.
The second day, they do not go away. Anxiety talks all morning, and Depression listens. Strange. Usually it is the women who talk. I cannot hear the words—I am teaching the houseboy to garden. He is thick, so after some time, I tell him to bring my pipe. Still, they refuse my shisha.
At last, Anxiety is quiet and they walk away, but they come back soon, dripping from the springs. It is nothing to sit here and dry. I bring out the Frenchman’s book. She turns the pages slowly.
Where are these dunes? Are they near? she says.
It is all dunes except for this village, I say.
Anxiety walks to the road, and this is the first time that Depression and I are alone. She sits on the low chair under the cardamom tree. Sand covers her toes.
How is it Anxiety leaves you, I ask.
He goes to think about what to do, she says.
So you will travel, I say.
She says she does not know. But we are not a pair, she says.
I ask if she will eat. In the kitchen, she finds a towel, knots it around her waist, and stands at the sink to see through the window. She washes the tomatoes one by one. Her hands are rough with short nails.
Where are the knives, she says. I push the jar on the table towards her. She picks through for a sharp one, but perhaps it is my watching—the knife slips out of her hand. Fast I reach for it under the table, and she reaches too, her arm straight from her shoulder—pale but so round and firm.
She looks at me seeing her. How is it you chop your hair, I say.
Her fingers fly at a strand. Ah, it was too much on me, she shrugs.
Ya rabee, it is good now, I say. I hand the knife to her. She chops all the tomatoes, puts everything in my large bowl.
Anxiety returns, so I bring the bowl and the bread to the garden table. The lantern lights half her face. We all three talk about how we have come to Mut. Then the night wind quickens, blowing out the lamp.
The three Polish women arrive on the third morning. I wonder that they have made their way from the West from Farafra, which is a difficult route, and I cannot account for them hearing of my hotel. They’re hard women and do not look at me like her.
With many guests, I tell everyone to come at noon, instruct Yussef to bring his truck, and I will have them see the dunes. But at two o’clock, the Polish women are nowhere to be found. Depression says to leave without them. I insist on waiting because Yussef wants all the money.
The sun is not so high when the Polish women appear and then they argue about the fee for the petrol. One woman says she will not pay, but the others do not want to leave her alone. Finally, Depression says that she will pay her fee because it is now late and we are missing the dunes. She sits in the front of the truck. I want to see everything, she says.
First, we drive to Al Qasr on top of the limestone cliffs at the edge of Dakhlah Oasis. We walk through the covered alleys, past the Roman columns to the mosque, and I read to them the writings from the Quran that decorate it. We look, too, at the ancient madrassah in which people even now have their school. Depression steals many dreams, but at the mill, the one with the burros pulling the stone, she is lost to me. Anxiety cannot see her either. We look many places until I find her. In a narrow passage, she is pointing her machine through a broken wall at the moon, full and round now through the slats.
The Polish women fight again, this time about the lateness and driving in the dark. We drive quickly to the great hill between Al Qasr and Mut, to the cemetery of the ancestors. I regret my decision to bring them here, as the one who will not pay walks on the graves. Like mules these women are—I become very angry as does Depression. She steals a dream of the woman walking between the tombs. Here is an ugly tourist, she says.
i shout at them to get into the truck, but at the White Dunes the bad feelings change. We stop at the largest dune that is crescent shaped. It is beginning to be night—the long shadows in the dunes curve like swords. Still, in the darkness the sand shines as white as diamonds. Anxiety and I make a race to the top, but I win with all my breath. The women follow, struggling in the sand, sinking to their knees. When Depression reaches the top, I do not know what dishonors me to do this. I push her to the sand, and pulling her arms, drag her all the way down. It is far to the bottom but we fall with ease, slowed only by the sand filling her clothes. She laughs at Anxiety’s dark face.
Then I shame myself again. After Yussef drives to our stone pool by the well, I remove my shirt and I alone sink into the water, swimming an entire length under the surface. When I come up, Depression has slipped into the pool, too. All the guests are silent. I wonder if they are offended, as I am at myself, or they are looking at the moon, yellow now in the pool.
The rest of our expedition is quiet thinking. It is black with only stars.
On the fourth morning, the Poles tell me they must leave. The route east to Kharga is easier as you will not see the Libyan desert patrol, I say. They insist on going back the hard way because that is the way they know.
Then I do not see Anxiety. He has gone to walk again, she says.
Will you see the Blue Dunes? I ask.
At first, she is silent. Then she says, why not?
We ride, we two, on the motorcycle. It is difficult to drive on shifting sand. One must aim for the hard patches, and even then one must be strong to keep from being tossed off. I tell her to hold me and follow my balance and not move in her own direction.
As we get closer, it becomes more and more tiring to move forward. I stop the motorcycle and say this is enough. The dunes are stretched out in front of us, but before I can warn her to go with care, she rushes away. I cannot tell why. Later, I will say that it is the Blue Dunes which are much larger than the White Dunes. They are so high that the sky is dark above them and to the east make a line with the sky as a shore. She climbs one great dune, and when she is a speck no bigger than a promised prize, I follow her.
I catch her at the top. There the earth is covered round below you. She is stealing dreams and still I do not understand why it is needed to make a dream when a dream cannot be made. She makes one of me, however, and tells me to make one of her. She stands at the point where the sand falls like a pyramid of salt, and stretches her arms straight as she were sailing or perhaps flying this time.
We sit to see all of it. Answer me this, she says. In Cairo, like every woman, I covered myself down to my toes. Does not Allah want us to feel this sun on our arms and legs and this wind tickling us from the heat?
I say, look at these dunes. Are they not more beautiful that no eyes have seen them?
She says nothing. I see then that her eyes are paler than the sky, but that sky could never be as high as in her eyes. We sit silent, listening to wind, watching the shadows darken, and feeling the heat rise into the night.
And then I do the other thing. I dance. In all of this that has happened, I do not know what disgraced me to look in her bag and drag her and sink in the pool and now that I dance. On the hard sand I jump high. I dervish on the desert and she smiles and says, Oh, Nasr Desert Man. Ana mabsout kaman, I say. I do not even mind when she takes out her machine again to steal another dream of me.
Ya wayli, that night before they left. Anxiety says to go, and I ask Depression, and she tells me she wants to stay but cannot and that she will return, and I say, aiwa—the dunes are a secret to share with you. I, Nasr Desert Man, who can take care of himself.
I never got the dream she said she would send. I wonder what the machine stole of me spinning on the sand. In my head the picture does not stop.
I ride the motorcycle past the stones strewn on the sand and past the larger rocks that turn into the hillocks. I drive carefully between the hillocks until they become the dunes. I ride far into the dunes to catch their slow shift. They are bare, but the stars are still sharp.
Inkwell. Fall 2007.