Safya had married Jabir when she was fourteen. Like everyone back then, Safya and Jabir were cousins. He had taken her from a tough family of the larger Dafira tribe who kept within the borders of the Empty Quarter, an infamous desert where the night sky was laden heaviest with the Milky Way.
When Matar was little, they still kept far from Doha or Al-Hasa, where the city light smeared an electric haze on the atmosphere. After long days of travel, Safya bunted her hungry children and talked them to sleep, teaching her first three children, Mohamed, Moody, and Matar, the names and shapes of all the stars and constellations she knew. Curled at her sides, shielded from the wind by the saddle-matted hump of their mother's camel, they'd repeat as she pointed:
When they came to an antiquated or explicit name like Al-Maraqq (the Genitalia), she would say "that bit between the belly and the legs," translating the meanings she knew for them and wondering to herself about those she didn't. It was an effective pacifier for the long nights in the deep desert. But even when folded under their blanket of sky, Matar was often unable to sleep for the wattage of the stars.
Then one night when Matar was sick with fever, Safya stroked his sweaty forehead and distracted him from the chills: "Choose a star and it's yours."
Matar squinted up from his misery at all the twinkling possibilities. They were extra vivid from the fever, changing from silver to pale pink and back again. He felt rich and spoiled for choice at all these shimmers in the sky, appearing like the shiny pieces of metal his mother sewed onto her woolly black winter cloak. Head cradled in his mother's lap, Matar settled on the westernmost of the two stars known as the First Leap. She smiled because he had chosen west, the direction of Mecca: "Someday you'll go and I'll be proud of you."
But Safya could never have guessed how far west her son would want to go, or what destiny was manifesting itself for him there.
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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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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