Before the sun set that evening, Nayir filled his canteen, tucked
a prayer rug beneath his arm, and climbed the south-facing dune near the
camp. Behind him came a burst of loud laughter from one of the tents, and
he imagined that his men were playing cards, probably tarneeb, and passing
the siddiqi around. Years of traveling in the desert had taught him that it was
impossible to stop people from doing whatever they liked. There was no law
out here, and if the men wanted alcohol, they would drink. It disgusted Nayir
that they would wake up on Friday morning, the holy day, their bodies
putrefied with gin. But he said nothing. After ten days of fruitless searching,
he was not in the mood to chastise.
He scaled the dune at an easy pace, stopping only once hed reached the crest. From here he had a sprawling view of the desert valley, crisp and flat, surrounded by low dunes that undulated in the golden color of sunset. But his eye was drawn to the blot on the landscape: half a dozen vultures hunched over a jackals carcass. It was the reason theyd stopped here another false lead.
Two days ago theyd given up scouring the desert and started following the vultures instead, but every flock of vultures only brought the sight of a dead jackal or gazelle. It was a relief, of course, but a disappointment too. He still held out hope that they would find her.
Taking his compass from his pocket, he found the direction of Mecca and pointed his prayer rug there. He opened his canteen and took a precautionary sniff . The water smelled tinny. He took a swig, then quickly knelt on the sand to perform his ablutions. He scrubbed his arms, neck, and hands, and when he was finished screwed the canteen tightly shut, relishing the brief coolness of water on his skin.
Standing above the rug, he began to pray, but his thoughts continually turned to Nouf. For the sake of modesty, he tried not to imagine her face or her body, but the more he thought about her, the more vivid she became. In his mind she was walking through the desert, leaning into the wind, black cloak whipping against her sunburned ankles. Allah forgive me for imagining her ankles, he thought. And then: At least I think shes still alive.
When he wasnt praying, he imagined other things about her. He saw her kneeling and shoveling sand into her mouth, mistaking it for water. He saw her sprawled on her back, the metal of a cell phone burning a brand onto her palm. He saw the jackals tearing her body to pieces. During prayers he tried to reverse these fears and imagine her still struggling. Tonight his mind fought harder than ever to give life to what felt like a hopeless case.
Prayers finished, he felt more tired than before. He rolled up the rug and sat on the sand at the very edge of the hill, looking out at the dunes that surrounded the valley. The wind picked up and stroked the desert floor, begging a few grains of sand to flaunt its elegance, while the earth shed its skin with a ripple and seemed to take flight.
The bodies of the dunes changed endlessly with the winds. They rose into peaks or slithered like snake trails. The Bedouin had taught him how to interpret the shapes to determine the chance of a sandstorm or the direction of tomorrows wind. Some Bedouin believed that the forms held prophetic meanings too. Right now the land directly ahead of him formed a series of crescents, graceful half-moons that rolled toward the horizon. Crescents meant change was in the air.
His thoughts turned to the picture in his pocket. Checking to see that no one was coming up the hill behind him, he took the picture out and allowed himself the rare indulgence of studying a womans face.
Nouf ash-Shrawi stood in the center of the frame, smiling happily as she cut a slice of cake at her younger sisters birthday party. She had a long nose, black eyes, and a gorgeous smile; it was hard to imagine that just four weeks after the picture was taken she had run away to the desert, no less leaving everything behind: a fiancé, a luxurious life, and a large, happy family. Shed even left the five-year-old sister who stood beside her in the picture, looking up at her with heartbreaking adoration. Why? he wondered. Nouf was only sixteen. She had a whole life in front of her.
Excerpted from Finding Nouf by Zoë Ferraris Copyright © 2008 by Zoë Ferraris. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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