Eighty miles out of Al-Hasa oasis in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, a Bedouin boy named Matar was flicking the knob of a portable General Electric television on and off. He was waiting with a crowd of other kids for Maghreb prayer, when the sun would set and the imam would finally turn the generator on. Only then could their night begin and with it, the TV! Or al-tel-ay-veez-yawn, as they affectionately called it. Like the watering well, the long-drop outhouse, and everything else in the tiny settlement of Kuzahmiah, the TV was for communal use. But unlike the other shared utilities of the town, it commanded pride of place in the courtyard of their one-room mosque, much to the disappointment of the devout young imam. The imam had moved from the big city to the Bedouin settlement hoping to find a pure Islam, untainted by modernity. But the spiritual authenticity he sought from the members of the Al-Dafira tribe was a fantasy made most obvious to him by their love of the TV. Attached by wires to an antenna of steel ribbons artfully bent into the rough onion-shaped spire, the town's boys had strung the latticework of jury-rigged wires up alongside the minaret on the mud roof of the little mosque. This vexed the imam, who often complained to the patriarchs of the tribe at Friday prayer about this. "Your television tower is taller than the minaret! Do you think this is acceptable?" But no one seemed to care about these details as long as they didn't miss an episode of Lost in Space. "Your children are being tempted away right under your noses," he warned. But the practical people of Al-Dafira were unbothered with the symbolic blasphemy the imam saw in a few inches of wire.
Every night an illuminated title-card of Quran shone coldly from the screen, silencing the children, who were transfixed in wait for the moment they'd be treated to a song or a cartoon. On this particular night, it was the beaming face of Samira Tawfiq that appeared to them. Her voice was beckoning and plaintive as she began with a modest maww?l : "AaaaA-AaaaA." Her wordless melody peaked across the airwaves and the crowd of barefoot children in the oil-field wasteland scrambled to get closer. A little boy named Matar watched. And his heart soared, then dropped, in unison with the warbling voice as Samira sang, with a cheeky grin, of returning to an abandoned abode. "Yesterday afternoon I went by where he lives. But I found nothing. Only sadness."
Matar noticed the deep dimple in her cheek when she smiled and wondered why she was so happy when this was supposed to be a sad song. But his critical thinking was halted when something new happened: Samira looked directly into the cameradirectly at Matar. He froze in her headlights; she winked! The string section swept upward to take the reins of the song, and the little boy went supernova with delight.
"She saw me! She winked at me! She loves me!"
He was jumping mid-crow when his older brother Mohamed cuffed him flat. "She was winking at me, retard," he growled.
Mohamed then trapped Matar easily in a sunset flip, shoulders pinned by knees until Matar fell limp. He knew his bear of a brother would lose interest if he played deadhe just hoped it happened before Samira's song was over.
It was around this time that the ten-year- old Matar began keeping a diarized account of his life in an old book of graph paper. He took detailed notes in blue pencil of his quotidian: what time he woke, how many times he prayed, how far they traveledhow long that took, how many times his brother Mohamed picked a fight, and columns to track who won. Matar wrote all about what he ate and how it tasted; what he watched on TV and how it rated. It was as though he were afraid of leaving anything behindand that was strange for a Bedouin boy.
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