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Fall 2008, Volume 25.1

Global Spotlight

 

Fadia Faqir

Al-Qaeda's Kitchen

Photo of Fadia Faqir.Fadia Faqir is a Jordanian/British writer based in Durham, England. Her first novel, Nisanit, was published by Penguin in 1990 and is currently being translated into Arabic. Her second novel, Pillars of Salt, was published by Quartet Books in 1996 and was translated into German, Dutch and Danish. The Danish translation was the runner up for the ALOA literary award 2001. She is the editor and co-translator of In the House of Silence: Autobiographical Essays by Arab Women Writers (Garnet Publishing, 1998) which was translated into Turkish.

Fadia Faqir has written numerous plays and short stories, as well as a collection of short stories entitled Sofia Blues. One of her signature stories, "The Separation Wall," will be reprinted in Dominican Literature and Arab-American and Arab Anglophone Literature edited by Nathalie Handal. Her third novel My Name is Salma was published by Doubleday in May 2007 and appeared later that year as Cry of the Dove in the United States and Canada. It was/will be translated into thirteen languages.

Fadia Faqir is currently working on her fourth novel entitled Al-Qaeda’s Kitchen. A group of people from different backgrounds, ethnicities and religions live next to each other in a block of flats in Hammersmith, London. There is violence, self-hate, guilt, pursuit of redemption, compassion, humor and forgiveness. But who stabbed to death the shady figure in flat number two? Below is the prelude to Al-Qaeda’s Kitchen entitled "Things Rank."

For more information and a full list of Fadia Faqir’s publications, please visit: www.fadiafaqir.com.


There was a goat serial-killer on the loose. He slashed their necks with a machete and then threw them in the well, poisoning the drinking water. One morning her mother threw the rubber pail in the well and the water came out mossy and putrid. The gypsy peddler told them about the "goat killer," who roamed the plains of the neighbouring tribes and "was determined to pollute the water everywhere." He had arrived to Khadra’s dwelling and could even be one of them. Who would do such a thing? Her mother in her black headband and farming dress squatted on the ground keening. The goat had to be fished out of the well and buried, the water had to be emptied, the walls scrubbed clean, left to dry and then they had to wait for the rain to come to fill it up again. It would take years to have enough drinking water.

Khadra was five years old when she watched her father strip down to his cotton trousers, tie a basket made of wire mesh to his belt, hold on to the rope and swing down into the well, his bare feet tracing the wall’s stone blocks. He threw his basket in the water a few times and what came out was not what he was looking for: old shoes, a belt, a bucket, her mother’s silver bracelet, which she had lost years ago, a headband and a gold tooth. When the men of the tribe pulled him out he wiped his face and said, "I have to dive down."

"But you don’t know how to swim," her mother said.

"I have to fish out the dead goat."

"It might not be safe," her mother said and tightened the headband over her veil.

The shepherd said, "You will get ill, drinking that cursed water." "We have to drink, water our plants, give water to our herds," he said and tightened his belt. When Khadra looked down the well the stink was so strong she almost fainted. She watched the sickly moss and white froth gobble up her father’s dark head.

Her mother folded her sleeves up, tied their ends together at the back of her neck and said that she would make an antidote to the poison. She lit a fire under the orange tree, filled a metal pot with dry camomile, aniseed, and sage, added some water and put the pot on the fire. "This will cure his stomach when he comes out safe, God willing." She stirred it and added a few dry green sticks to the mix.

"What’s that, mother?"

"Bugloss to ease his pain," she said

She stood above the pot stirring and humming until it boiled. She wrapped a cloth around her hand, held the handle and took the pot off the fire. The smell of sage filled the valley and travelled all the way to the river.

When she had finished she wiped her forehead and said that she also had a remedy for the stink. She sat singing and distilling jasmine flowers. She put jasmine petals into a bag, beat the bag gently, put some almond oil and orange peel in a glass jar, added the bruised brown petals to the mix, put the lid on and shook the bottle. She left the bottle in the sun. She then poured the mix into another bottle using a white sash as a strainer. She squeezed the jasmine tight until droplets of liquid fell into the almond oil. The stale smell of jasmine remained with her for years. Whenever there was a bad smell coming out of a manhole, a public toilet, a sink, a drain, Khadra concentrated and conjured up the scent of jasmine that her mother distilled fifty years ago in the plains of the Jordan valley.

 

This morning the damp air carried a bad smell to Sitt Khadra’s nose not dissimilar to the fetid smell of their well back in the old country, but they had no wells, no herds, and no goat serial-killer in London. The water came in clean metal pipes straight to your tap and was treated with chemicals to make sure it was safe to drink. She sniffed the yoghurt in the fridge, the sink, inside the kitchen cupboards, all drains, plugholes, taps, tubs, bowls, rubbish bins. She even opened the suitcases, where she stored winter clothes in the summer and they smelt of old eau de cologne and mothballs. When her husband Kamil went to work Sitt Khadra was on all fours sniffing the carpet and under the old sofa. The bad smell that wafted to her nose was like curdled milk or the vomit of a week-old baby. There must be a baby not too far from where they lived, but she never heard baby cries or babbles nearby. They were distant, across the road or further still.

Then the smell got worse as if you were boiling kippers past their sell-by-date. Her husband did not believe in sell-by-dates, "they were not cut off dates, but approximate guidelines." Coming from the shores of the Dead Sea she never ate fish before arriving in England. She was introduced to sea creatures gradually by first going to a fish and chip shop run by an English family, who fried the fish so much it was hard to tell whether you were eating fish, chicken or rubber. After they handed her the fish wrapped in old newspapers the lady asked, "Cod and chips twice. Sore finger?"

Sitt Khadra thought that her English was primo and that she would understand whatever they threw at her in the new country. But she stood as if she were the dumb man of the village, who mimed songs in wedding processions. After all the BBC conversational English she had practiced she still could not understand a simple question.

Kamil smiled and said slowly for her benefit, "No thank you! We don’t want salt and vinegar." He spoke slowly when he was in his school teacher mode. "Fish is good for you and I had kippers for breakfast everyday in Scotland."

So she fought the rising nausea and munched at the stinking pink flesh of kippers that were past their sell-by-date, knowing fully well that she would be sick soon. She hoped that only one throwing up session would be enough to purify her delicate digestive system.

But the foul smell kept wafting to her nose in waves and intensified according to the temperature outside. When it got warmer the foetid smell roamed around her flat freely. She went outside and sniffed the dirty stale carpets on the stairs, the door mats of all six flats, the plant pots outside some doors: African violets, mother in law’s tongue and begonia, Doris’s Christmas tree that was there most of the year, and went up to the landing at the top of the stairs and breathed in the air around the patio chairs, mattresses, cushions and boxes. The smell got weaker on the way up and stronger on the way down. Standing in front of her flat Sitt Khadra panicked. What would her English neighbour think? That she was a Bedouin from the Arabian desert, who knew nothing about cleaning and "disinfectation." "Ya wayli! Shaming all round," she cried, rushed into her flat and slammed the door shut.

That night Sitt Khadra could not sleep. The stench was unbearable. She once spotted a rat on the stairs, its eyes shiny and fixed on her. Someone on the radio said that rats were never alone; if you spot one then there must be a whole family living nearby and that it could live up to five years. What if it got into the flat somehow? She felt its cold thin long tail slid cross her foot, jumped up and screamed, "Oh my god! I have a dead rat in my house." "Please, sweetheart, go to sleep!" Kamil said and turned away. "What if it was behind the gas fire? They must have bricked up a real fire place and put this one against the wall. What if the rat managed to sneak behind it and was suffocated? How can we get it out without destroying the wall?" "If we have to pull down a wall, then logically the rat would not have been able to get in there." "But rats can squeeze themselves into crevices, cracks, holes. Oh! My god!"

The next day she lay flat on the floor, nose against the carpet sniffing and sliding slowly towards the gas fire. The closer she got to the fire the weaker the smell got. "Back to the fucking square number one," she shouted in a version of English picked up off the radio, television, BBC language tapes, and in the market place. She sat down on the sofa, breathed in and out as she had been advised in hospital. She then counted backwards, puffed out the air rhythmically as if she were in labour, something she had taught herself just in case. Sitt Khadra must gather herself, tidy up the cupboards of her mind, pull the strands together. The stink was driving her crazy. She went to the bathroom, took off her trousers and pants with trembling hands, opened her legs, stuck her finger in her vagina, pulled it out and sniffed it. Her womb that had shrivelled up a long time ago was not rotting away. The smell was not wafting out of her private parts.

While washing the dishes the stench, now like a huge fart after eating a bad egg, wafted to her nose from a different direction. Rubber gloves still on, she followed it slowly. It was coming from outside the flat so she opened the door and walked towards its source. Finally when the smell was unbearable she was standing in front of the main door of Mr Didan’s flat. She kneeled down and sniffed.

A foul smell like the rotting internal organs of chicken left in the sun for days travelled to her nose. But when you buy chicken in her Majesty’s supermarket they come without feathers, entrails and guts; they come clean in a blue tray wrapped up with cling film. The smell was "mega bad," as a lady she had met in hospital used to say describing her pain. She knew that once you had a sniff of that well you would never be free of it ever again. It would cling to the hairs inside your nose for generations. It was like burnt human hair or skin, like gangrene, like the vomit of a cancer ridden patient.

Sitt Khadra ran down to the second floor and knocked on Yasmina’s door. "It is I, Khadra. Please open the door." She stood shifting her weight from one foot to another and waiting to hear Yasmina’s light footsteps. As per usual she was not in. She was never in. Perhaps she was in Paris or in Mana visiting her mother. Walking away she overheard the phone ring, a recorded message and the voice of a woman talking kindly. Priti lived on the same floor so she knocked on her door and got no answer. She could be visiting her father or on nightshift. Perhaps she was walking back home from the hospital. She went down to the first floor, stood in front of Malik and Hakam’s door, hesitated then knocked gently and waited. She could hear footsteps and the sound of television somewhere, but the volume was turned down suddenly. Those young men were never in and they worked so much. She saw Hakam in his Islamic attire, his head wrapped in a kufiyya, scurrying to the mosque very early for the Sunrise Prayer. As for Malik he normally came back from the restaurant around one o’clock every night. So they were either asleep or unwilling to open the door for some reason. Finally she knocked gently on Doris’s door. She was her only English neighbour so she might have some answers and tell her what to do. But lately Doris had lost it "mega" time.

"Move closer to the door!" shouted Doris.

Sitt Khadra tidied up her hair as if she were about to be photographed and moved closer to the door viewer. "I don’t know who you are," said Doris. "It me your neighbour Sitt Khadra," she said and ran her tongue over her teeth to clean them. "No! Never seen you before in my whole life," Doris said. "Madam Doris, please check list. I am your OK," screamed Sitt Khadra through the keyhole. "The mad wife in Jane Eyre. No, I’ve never seen you before. Stop pestering me or I’ll call the police, I will," Doris shouted.

"The police, yes, the police," said Sitt Khadra, ran up the stairs back to her flat breathless, sprayed herself with eau de cologne, sprayed the sitting room with lily-of-the-valley air freshener, and dialled 999. "Come! Fire! Dead! Just Come to 140 Osman Road!"

She walked out of the flat, walked back in, walked out again then paced the landing looking out for rats. Her toes were safe in her soft slippers, but the rest of her feet were exposed. What was that smell? An egg once got stuck in the carton so Sitt Khadra got a knife and tried to prise it out. It got broken and a mixture of white lumps and black liquid mixed with blood oozed out and slid down the kitchen sink. The stink was so bad she had to clean the sink five times with washing liquid, surface disinfectant and then spray it with toilet freshener. For days the stench drifted away, then came back to her nose stronger than before. She waited for the police looking at the arms of her watch. She was told once that it should take the police, or was it the fire brigade, four minutes to get to the scenes of the crime.

When they finally arrived an hour later Sitt Khadra’s hair was frizzed up, her nails bitten, her underarms dark with sweat, and her eyes tearful and wandering. "In there!" she shouted like an unhinged woman. "Please get out of the way, Madam!" said a police officer, with white teeth. "The smell not in my flat. In there!" she screamed again. "Please, madam, go back to your flat!" the police officer said again. "In there, smell, rats, egg, or mega worse," she screamed. The police officer pushed her gently out of the way and asked her to go back to her flat and stay there.

Deflated Sitt Khadra went into her flat, shut the door and listened carefully.

The police closed off the area and asked the residents to stay in their flats. They cordoned off the entrance to the building and Mr Didan’s flat with white and blue plastic ribbons. Sitt Khadra wanted a wider view of the street than the one she got from her sitting room window, so she stood on the top landing and watched the police through the glass wall of the staircase, which extended from the bottom to the top of the building like a see-through spine. Another group of inspectors arrived in a van masked, dressed in white overalls, wearing plastic shower caps over their shoes, and carrying huge hard-shelled briefcases. Seconds before the police cordoned off the area Sitt Khadra went down the stairs, filled her lungs with air, closed her nose with thumb and forefinger, stuck her head through Mr Didan’s open door and saw what she saw and smelt what she smelt. Then she ran up the stairs again and flung herself on the old mattresses piled up on the top landing.

Sitting on a picnic stool she could hear bleeps of equipment, English officers speaking quickly interrupted only by the crackling and spitting of walkie talkies, clicks of a camera flash, furniture being moved around, whispering in the hallway and laughter. She tried to understand what the police officers were saying, "Yes, dead, sir… Mr Didan… lying on the floor, head down and left arm stretched towards the front door. The key caught by the brush of the insulation under the door. Rodents got to him first… Asylum seeker… traces of a bomb… KGB camera… surveillance… torched out fingerprints… stabbed eleven times… fancy a potato pasty…" Then laughter, slapping of hands, hurried steps down the stairs and a period of quiet.

For the first time since she arrived in Britain Sitt Khadra searched the drawers of her husband’s bedside cabinet looking for a dictionary. She found Al A’mal al-Kamilah li Mahmoud Darwish: Complete Works of Mahmoud Darwish, Edward Said’s Gaza Ariha Awalan: Gaza to Jericho 1993-1995 and The Gun and the Olive Branch. Al-Mawridd English-Arabic dictionary, bound in dirty brown paper, was under the pile of books in the bottom drawer. She opened it with trepidation and looked everywhere for "Kay Gee Bee" and "pasty."

In the afternoon men in white loaded the white van with all the worldly possessions of Mr Didan: computers, cameras, tape-recorders, books, clothes, and many sealed silver bags. Sitt Khadra angled herself so as to see through the open door what the police were doing. A policeman scraped the carpet with a spoon and put the dirt in a plastic bag, sealed it and put it in one of the large briefcases. A woman in white was talking on a mobile phone saying, "Any family members? Look everywhere. Tasmania?! …don’t be rude!" she laughed.

When they were all busy inside Sitt Khadra tiptoed back to her flat. After she’d consumed five cups of tea and had been to the toilet three times she opened her front door slightly and watched. Two officers carried a silver long sealed plastic bag on a stretcher carefully down the stairs. She could only see very little. That must be the corpse that probably has all the evidence. But how could that thin bag hold the body of a tall fit man? The bag was taped round as if he were a parcel, similar to the ones full of trinkets Kamil used to send to his mother back in Nablus. Who would be interested in killing such a gentle peaceful man that kept himself to himself? He must have been dead for a long time to fit into that narrow bag? She had heard about old people dying one Christmas in their flat and getting discovered the next, but she did not expect this to happen in their friendly building, where neighbours looked out for each other. If her family back home hear about this they would disown her for breaking the Bedouin codes of conduct. "Don’t eat before making sure that your neighbour’s stomach is full first!" her grandmother used to say.

The next day Kamil brought an evening newspaper. It said, "Another Recruit of Captain Hook."

"What does that mean?" she asked Kamil.

"They think that Mr Didan was a dormant al-Qaeda operative. That he was putting together a dirty bomb and things went out of hand, so to speak." "They think he blew himself up?" "Yes. That he was a member of a ‘sleeper cell’ and was preparing an attack on a key target in London. That is why he had all this surveillance equipment."

Sitt Khadra took off her Scottish slippers, stretched her legs out and said, "But he did not look blown up to me. Mind you it was a quick glance. What is a dirty bomb?" "A mixture of explosives and radiation," he said and switched on the television on BBC twenty-four news. "Do they think he is a member of al-Qaeda?" "Yes. Even a requiting sergeant for Abu Hamza, the imam of Finsbury Park mosque, nicknamed Captain Hook." "Is that why the police were talking about something called ‘Kay Gee Bee’ and ‘pasty’?" "KGB, the former Soviet intelligence service and potato pasty, like the one we buy at the baker’s on Saturday," he said in his teacher mode. "He was trained in Afghanistan?!" Sitt Khadra jumped and screamed, "We are living next to a dormant Osama Bin Laden! Oh my God! We must move out pronto!"

"We are still alive. He is dead. Calm down, wife!" Kamil said and turned up the television. The way her husband talks to her sometimes! Perhaps she should have married him off to an ignorant peasant second wife and set herself free. She put her slippers on and walked to the bedroom saying, "First we must burn all your Arabic books. They might think you’re a terrorist." "Having Arabic books is not enough to condemn me. Calm down, Khadra!" "Ya wayli! We must move out! Find me another flat! I will not stay here for one more night," she said slapping her face. Kamil held Khadra’s hands tight and said, "It will look suspicious if we move out. We have nothing to hide, sweetheart." He pulled her slowly closer, wrapped his chubby arms around her and stroked her wiry hair until her breathing evened out, her muscles relaxed and she shifted her weight against him. Whenever Kamil hugged Khadra tight she would cry. "There, there, darling. There, there, sweetheart. Don’t you worry about a thing! We are alright. Our health is fine. Don’t be sad!" Sitt Khadra placed her head against her husband’s collarbone, wiped her face with the white embroidered handkerchief that she always kept in her apron pocket, and breathed in his aftershave.

"I want to visit their graves," she whimpered.

"We’ll go next Sunday," he said and coughed.

That night Sitt Khadra dreamt of open meadows, olive and orange trees, a fresh water stream and a few lean goats drinking by the well. It was so peaceful you could only hear the twittering of sparrows, swishing of leaves and the barking of distant dogs. Then a dark figure pulled a goat out of the well and threw it on the ground suddenly. Instantly clouds of flies circled above it and landed on its bulging intestines. The goat had rotted away in the water, its eyes were putrefied, its skin flayed, its skull had lost the hair and skin covering it. Then rodents began gnawing at its remnants. Sitt Khadra pressed her nose with her thumb and forefinger to stop the stink from getting in. She woke up suddenly and sat up in bed covered with cold sweat. Was it a dream? What a stupid woman! It was a dream, but the foetid smell lingered in the room as if her husband had farted after a meal of spicy curry. She squirted some eau de cologne into the air and walked to the bathroom to wash her sinuses with water and jasmine essential oil.

 

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