"If you behave," he tells his thirty-nine-year-old niece Sirine, "I'll tell you the whole story this time."
"You always say I'm too young to hear the whole story," Sirine says. She carves a tiny bit of peel from a lemon for her uncle's coffee. They're up in the bluish white predawn, both of them chronically early risers and chronically sleepy.
Her uncle looks at her over his glasses. The narrow ovals slide down his nose; he tries to press them back into place. "Do I say that? I wonder why. Well, what are you now, a half-century yet?"
"I'm thirty-nine. And a half."
He makes a dismissive little flick with his fingers. "Too young. I'll save the juicy parts for when you're a half-century."
"Oh boy, I can't wait."
"Yes, that's how the young are. No one wants to wait." He takes a ceremonial sip of coffee and nods. "So this is the moralless story of Abdelrahman Salahadin, my favorite cousin, who had an incurable addiction to selling himself and faking his drowning."
"It sounds long," Sirine says. "Haven't I already heard this one?"
"It's a good, short story, Miss Hurry Up American. It's the story of how to love," he says.
Sirine puts her hands into her uncombable hair, closes her eyes. "I'm going to be late for work again."
"There you have it-the whole world is late for work, and all faucets leak too-what can be done? So it begins." He situates himself in his storytelling position-elbow on knee and hand to brow. "Abdelrahman Salahadin was a sensitive man. He never forgot to bathe before his prayers. Sometimes he knelt on the beach and made the sand his prayer carpet. He just had the one vice."
Sirine narrows her eyes. "Wait a second-you said this is the story of how to fall in love? Is there even a woman in this one?"
Her uncle tilts back his head, eyebrows lift, tongue clicks: this means, no, or, wait, or, foolish, or, you just don't understand. "Take my word for it," he says. "Love and prayer are intimately related." He sighs. Then he says slyly, "So I hear Professor Handsome was in today eating some of your tabbouleh. Again."
Once again, her uncle is speaking of Hanif Al Eyad, the new hire in the Near Eastern Studies Department at the university. Hanif has come into the restaurant four times since arriving in town several weeks ago and her uncle keeps introducing him to Sirine, saying their names over and over, "Sirine, Hanif, Hanif, Sirine."
Sirine leans over the cutting board she has balanced on her knees and steadies the lemon. "I really don't know who you're referring to."
Her uncle gestures with both arms. "He's tremendous, covered with muscles, and shoulders like this-like a Cadillac-and a face like I don't know what."
"Well, if you don't know, I certainly don't," Sirine says as she slices the lemon.
Her uncle lounges back in his big blue chair. "No, really, you can't believe it, I'm telling you, he looks like a hero. Like Ulysses."
"That's supposed to sound good?"
He leans over and picks up the unsliced half of lemon, sniffs it, then bites into one edge.
"I don't know how you do that," Sirine says.
"If I were a girl, I'd be crazy for Ulysses."
"What does Ulysses even look like? Some statue-head with no eyes?"
"No," he says, indignant. "He has eyes."
"Still not interested."
He frowns, pushes his glasses up; they slide back down. "As you know, if you're fifty-two, that makes me eighty-four."
"Except that I'm thirty-nine."
"And very soon I won't be here. On this planet."
She sighs and looks at him.
"I would just like to see you with someone nice and charming and all those things. That's all."
From Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber. Copyright 2003 by Diana Abu-Jaber. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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