There was a large café on one side that spilled out on to the passageway. Men, some faces I recognized from before, sat playing dominoes and cards. Their eyes were on Mama. I wondered if her dress shouldn't be looser.
As I walked away from her I felt my power over her recede; I began to feel sorry and sad how on such mornings she was always generous and embarrassed and shy, as if she had walked out naked. I wanted to run to her, to hold her hand, latch on to her dress as she shopped and dealt with the world, a world full of men and the greed of men. I forced myself not to look back and focused instead on the shops set within arched bays on either side of the covered passageway. Black silk scarves billowed gently above one, columns of stacked red caps stood as tall as men outside another. The ceiling was made with dark strips of fabric. The white blades of light that pierced through the occasional gaps illuminated the swimming dust and shone still and beautiful on the arches and floor, but darted like sparkles on the heads and down the bodies of the passersby, making the shadows seem much darker than they were.
Outside, the square was flooded with sunlight. The ground was almost white with brightness, making the dark shoes and figures crossing it look like things floating above the world. I wished I had left the sesame sticks with her. Small needles were now pricking my arms. I told myself off for being stubborn and for letting her buy me so many. I looked at them in my arms and felt no appetite for them.
I leaned against the cool marble pedestal of Septimius Severus. The Roman emperor stood above me, his silver-studded belt curving below his belly, pointing his arm toward the sea, "Urging Libya to look toward Rome," was how Ustath Rashid described the pose. Ustath Rashid taught art history at el-Fateh University and was my best friend Kareem's father. I remembered our Guide standing in one of his military uniforms like this, waving his arm as the tanks passed in front of him on Revolution Day.
I turned toward the sea, the shining turquoise sea beyond the square. It seemed like a giant blue monster rising at the edge of the world. "Grrr," I growled, then wondered if anyone had heard me. I kicked my heel against the pedestal several times. I stared at the ground, into the heat and brightness that made me want to sleep with my eyes open. But then, not looking for but falling directly on my target, I spotted Baba.
He was standing on the edge of the pavement in a street opposite the square, looking both ways for traffic, arching forward as if he was about to fall. Before he stepped on to the road he motioned with his hand then snapped his fingers twice. It was a gesture that I knew. Sometimes he would wave to me like that, as if to say, "Come on, come on," then snap his fingers, "Hey, wake up." Behind him appeared Nasser, Baba's office clerk, carrying a small shiny black typewriter beneath his arm, struggling to keep up. Baba was already crossing the street, walking toward me. For a moment I thought he might be bringing Nasser to Septimius Severus, to teach him all the things he had taught me about the Roman emperor, Lepcis Magna and Rome. For Baba regarded Nasser as a younger brother; he often said so himself.
"Baba?" I whispered.
Two dark lenses curved like the humpbacks of turtles over his eyes. The sky, the sun and the sea were painted by God in colors we could all point at and say the sea is turquoise, the sun banana, the sky blue. Sunglasses are terrible, I thought, because they change all of this and keep those who wear them at a distance. At that moment I remembered how, only a couple of days ago, he had kissed us good-bye. "May God bring you back safely," Mama told him, "and make your trip profitable." I had kissed his hand like he taught me to. He had leaned down and whispered in my ear, "Take care of your mother, you are the man of the house now," and grinned at me in the way people do when they think they have paid you a compliment. But look now, look; walking where I could touch him, here where we should be together. My heart quickened. He was coming closer. Maybe he means me, I thought. It was impossible to see his eyes.
Excerpted from In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar Copyright © 2007 by Hisham Matar. Excerpted by permission of Dial Press Trade Paperback, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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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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