The following is the sequence of programming on Dhahran TV as remembered by Matar. The schedule, from what he understood, was calibrated by the Saudi Aramco Oil Company. At the time he was moved into the Kuzahmiah settlement, it ran something like this:
18:00Looney Tunes or Popeye. Olive Oyl was translated into Arabic as Zeitoonah, and this is what Matar nicknamed his lanky, cow-hocked older sister Moody.
18:30Children's hour: Mr. Ed, Lassie, or both. A few years later came Little House on the Prairie, which was a runaway hit. The settling traumas of the Ingalls girls struck a chord with Bedu kids being relocated to villages like Kuzahmiah from scattered camps that had been caught in the drill lights of oil derricks. 19:30News, with auspicious tidings of the king's good health as the lead item; once Matar remembers seeing American astronauts bouncing on the moon.
20:00Asha prayer, more Quran.
20:15Perry Mason, Rawhide, or Star Trek. Being the town Trekkie, Matar kept particularly detailed anthropological notes of the alien tribes and cultures in the show.
21:30An Egyptian comedy, an Indian musical, or an American western.
But the imam usually cut the generator early, whether or not the film had ended. Even though the imam was an intelligent and educated young man, he was also deeply suspicious of the television broadcasts. Were they meant to make Al-Dafira children prize the deserts of America over their own? The crowd of kids would groan in such bitter disappointment when the cowboys lost. And he resented that the children had to watch Robert Mitchum stride into a saloon, gulp a shot of whiskey, and then growl in classical Arabic: "Hey, partner, thanks for the cold tea, I needed it." The broadcast would fizzle into static with cool finality and the imam would break the gathering of sleepy kids, wading through the pool of boys and girls, long braids spread over bare feet, and send them home. The older kids usually took his cue out of respect and slung their younger siblings onto their hips to leave. But while they scattered into the dark doorways of their homes to dream of cowboys and border collies, Matar remained stubbornly in front of the TV fantasizing about space travel. He furiously noted all the action down in blue graphite. It was only when he caught a glimpse of the imam's reflection smoldering from the darkened screen that Matar would rise and shuffle reluctantly along the treads of the one truck in town to his home. As he stumbled along the dark path strewn with goat turds, he often saw, through bleary eyes, a faceless figure float toward him. It would bounce in the dust, as weightless as a man on the moon. This khayal, or shadow, followed him, keeping watch from behind its mirrored visor, a mask that reflected a bowed version of Matar's world back to him, letting him see things he couldn't alone. But the khayal always disappeared when he reached the standard-issue government hut where his family slept. Then Matar would crawl into his bed of wool blankets and jumbled siblings and stare up through a crack in the ceiling just wide enough for him to make out a few weak stars.
Matar was old enough to remember a time before his clan had gotten situated into settled life. Back then, their nights were longer. He had spent very little time with his father, Jabir, who was a wilderness detective for the police and had become famous for his tracking abilities. Able to tell if a missing woman was pregnant by her footprints and to intuit the moves of a criminal on the run "like a hawk to a snake in the open," Jabir was the last of his kind. Matar had managed to pick up some practical desert skills from his fatherwhich cracks in the sand might bare truffles, as well as more uncanny skills, like how to tell a storm was coming by the patterns in the sand. But all matters to do with the sky he learned from his mother, Safya.
Excerpted from The Girl Who Fell to Earth by Sophia Al-Maria. Copyright © 2012 by Sophia Al-Maria. Excerpted by permission of Harper Perennial. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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