Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

All Roads Lead toMecca

 

 

 

 

Kassim wished, devoutly, that he could have put off his journey until Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month in the Islamic calendar. Only then could a Hajj be made. He longed to be addressed respectfully as Hajji, as one who has completed the pilgrimage to Mecca required of all who are able to make the journey. But his Hajj must be delayed indefinitely because his petition to Allah could not wait.

 

His mother insisted that he could not afford to put off his journey for even a few months. “You cannot wait for the seasons to change, my son. It is always winter in your wifes heart.” Financially, he couldnt afford to make the journey at all. His mother, Azar, had solicited funds from her two brothers to supplement their dwindling reserves. Najwa, his wife, resented that their savings were being exhausted by a pilgrimage that did not even fulfill her husbands obligation, but of late Najwa resented everything to do either with money or with her husband.

 

When the family lived in Beirut, they employed four servants, three in the house and one who tended the grounds and the automobile. Now Najwa was expected to do the work of all those, not that they any longer had a house or grounds or automobile to tend. All six of them – Najwa, her husband, their three daughters, and Kassims mother – shared a two bedroom third floor walk-up in the Mile End neighborhood of Montreal, "the End of the World neighborhood,” according to his daughter Hala. Kassim's mother and youngest daughter shared the second bedroom while the two teenagers unrolled a mattress that was used for seating in the living room during the day and fell asleep each night to a soundless flickering TV screen.

 

When Kassim had shepherded his family out of Lebanon in 1978, everyone agreed there were many more reasons to leave than to stay, but the reason that dwarfed all others was unambiguous: they had lost so many. Kassims father to a snipers bullet, Najwas brother and cousin to a suicide bomber, other relations were listed as casualties – their deaths so insignificant – of the fighting between Israel and the PLO. Leaving Beirut had been wrenching – they mourned their old life – but not only was that way of living already lost to them, they feared the loss of their very lives each day. Kassims family, what remained of it, had regarded him as their savior. Back then they blessed this man who brought them to a land of peace, of unbroken buildings and empty skies, but now fear for their lives had been supplanted by fear for his livelihood, the cataclysmic eclipsed by the everyday.

 

At home, Kassim had been the Assistant Director of Antiquities at the National Museum of Beirut. In Montreal the best he could find was work as a security guard at the Redpath Museum at McGill with its extensive natural history collections and relatively modest accumulation of archaeological and ethnological artifacts. Kassim was baffled by his failure. He had nineteen years of experience acquiring, cataloguing, and displaying significant archaeological treasures and supervising those who handled them. He spoke a more refined French and polished English than many of his Canadian counterparts. He assumed fluency in Arabic along with his deep knowledge of the gilded votive statuettes and other finds from the Obelisk Temple of Byblos, not to mention his paper establishing the sarcophagus of Ahiram with the oldest text written in the Phoenician alphabet as belonging to the Iron Age rather than his own Bronze Age, would  make him valuable in the museum marketplace.

 

His mother was known for saying that it was fitting that Kassim should work in a museum as he himself was a work of art. Saying so did not endear her to her daughter-in-law. Najwa was keenly aware of her husbands exceptional good looks and Azars remarks suggested that her mother-in-law did not find his wife worthy of her beautiful son. Azar and Najwa had kept an uneasy peace between them, one that had been buoyed up by the charged air that had buffeted.

 

After four decades, Kassim had almost given up asking his mother to stop drawing attention to his appearance. He found the unsolicited attention others paid to be disturbing enough without her reminding him that he was sought after and singled out for his countenance rather than the things a man hoped to be remembered for. As a small child, Azar had dressed him in lace and skirts in the European manner. He had been as pretty – more pretty! – than any little girl. As a schoolboy he had been thought shy. He had kept his gaze downcast, not just because he was self-conscious but because he wanted to veil his startlingly green eyes, a gift from his Persian great-grandmother.

 

His first stay in Montreal, as a young man doing postgraduate studies, he had inspired paroxysms of longing. Unaccustomed to open, aggressive declarations, he had recoiled at the advances made by women, not to mention those made by men. He was offered a cottage on an estate, a cruise to the Bahamas, an engraved Swiss watch, a gold and onyx ring with a ruby winking in its center (that for an afternoon tryst with a commodities broker), as well as modeling jobs and party invitations and endless romance. To receive these gifts he was not required to promise anything, just accept what was offered. When he declined, as he always did, Kassim became still more desirable. That face plus such virtue added up to -- if not the divine -- the sublime.

 

They craved to look at him or touch him or both. He was an object of intense interest. So perhaps it was not so surprising that he became interested in objects rather than people. He chose as his companions dusty artifacts so long buried that they carried no imprint of the hands that made them.

 

When he returned to Beirut, a marriage was arranged and, despite his travels and time away from the traditions and conventions he had grown up with, that suited him. Najwa had been a dutiful wife their years in Lebanon and Kassim was not the sort of husband who was aggrieved at being presented with daughters. Secretly, he felt relief that he was not responsible for fathering a painfully handsome son. Such a boy would either suffer, as he had, or glory in his looks, a prospect surely as repugnant to Allah as it was to Kassim. The daughters looked well enough, but none had the haunting, harrowing good looks of their father.

 

The youngest, Reem, whose name meant “white antelope,” had a bend in her nose that grew more pronounced with each passing year. This attribute was pointed out by her unremarkable older sisters and appreciated by her father who felt it saved her from being perfect. Reem was the daughter of Kassims heart.

 

When, in their cramped apartment in Mile End, Hala and Leila conspired with their mother in their grand scheme to ignore Kassim, to converse around him as though he werent there, to show him of what little consequence he had become, Reem would appear at her fathers side and slip her hand into his. Her sisters picked on her for her devotion to him, and for her independence from them. Kassim was pierced by the aptness of her name: a white antelope was an easy target as well as a symbol of purity.

 

Surprised at first by her disloyalty and then bewildered by her distance, he had admonished his wife to praise Allah for their deliverance. “You cannot wish our daughters back in that house, huddling against the stray bomb, the intentional bullet, unable to go to school in safety.” When that failed to arouse Najwa's finer feelings, he would remind her that it wasnt just the bombs and gunfire that had driven them from their home: the National Museum had closed and the cost of living had tripled in the three years before their departure. But she could no longer see where they had been, nor could she see where they would be now had they stayed, only where they were at that moment. He had brought her to this.

 

His pride was the first victim of his familys disdain, followed shortly by his pleasure. Gregarious by nature and more at ease with the intimacy of females than most of his countrymen, Kassim missed the interactions that family life should have afforded him. He was already bereft of the recognition and rapport that workplace relations had once furnished.

 

Though as disrespected as her son, Azar felt his disgrace more acutely. When Kassims employment prospects proved meager, Azar cursed the Canadians. “Spite and jealousy,” she spat. “These pasty cold blood pashas cannot bear to work around someone so much better looking than themselves.” In their third year in Montreal she decided that Kassim was unable to get a better position because only young men, or at least more youthful looking men, were getting hired to fill the most important posts. Now she blamed both his good looks and the deterioration of his looks. “All eyes would turn to you. Now they look away.” Kassim ignored her for months but when she pointed out that the disregard of his wife and older daughters coincided with the advent of his gray hairs, he thought perhaps his mother was right. He let Azar color his hair with the same potion she used on her own. He should have realized that every strand on his head would be painted the same flat, false color. He might as well have used boot black. He recognized the extent of his mistake when his daughter Hala laughed openly and his wife shook her head in disgust. “Now you look like a security guard who is chasing after the young girls.” So he felt the fool as well as a failure. Waiting for the hair to grow out and reading the scorn on the faces of his wife and daughters would only destroy the remains of his confidence.

 

Despairing of all else, Azar began prodding him to make an ‘Umrah, the lesser pilgrimage to Mecca that could be undertaken at any time of year, to appeal to Allah for His aid in once again achieving prosperity. “All will be better after your return, inshallah.” Kassim did not need much prodding. Once Azar had secured the needed extra funds from her brothers whom he had helped settle in Montreal, he contacted a Lebanese travel agent (who had been a surgeon in Beirut) and found himself two weeks later on the first of three flights that would take him to Saudi Arabia.

 

 

When Kassim arrived at the Meeqaat, he bathed and assumed his Ihraam. Before leaving Montreal, he had practiced wrapping himself in the two pieces of white sheeting, one for the top of the body, the other for the lower half. No other clothing was permitted during Ihraam. Kassim rejoiced in what was much more than a ritual: the visual acknowledgment that, stripped of their possessions, all stood equal in the eyes of Allah. He left behind him, in the pockets of his now shabby suit, his grief and his failures and even his distinguishing good looks  – the things that had set him apart. Mingling with the other pilgrims, he discovered what it meant to be faceless in a crowd.

 

He entered the state of Ihraam by making his intention in his heart while reciting the opening Talbiyyah. His heart brimmed with prayer and hopefulness as he passed through the mammoth doorway and crossed the threshold of the sacred mosque, careful to set out on his right foot across the cool marble. The sounds of the city seemed to recede into the mountains. “O Allah! Forgive me my sins, and open the gates of Your mercy for me,” he pleaded. All around him pilgrims were studying or praying from the Quran. He felt the peace of the mosque and the honor of their intentions.

 

Even though not yet the season of the Hajj, the sight of the multitude in the roofless courtyard surrounding the Kaaba caused Kassim to gasp. Then his eyes fixed on the Kaaba itself, the structure of stones brought from the hills surrounding Mecca, the holy structure that had been ordained by Allah, constructed by Adam, rebuilt by Ibrahim and his son Ismael, and then rebuilt again by the later prophets. Kassim knew that at the East corner, five feet above ground, he would find the most sacred Black Stone. The Stone that had been white when given to Adam on his fall from Paradise, the Stone that had turned black from absorbing all the sins of the millions of pilgrims who had grazed it with outstretched fingers, the Stone that had been last set by the Prophet Muhammed. Dazed, he watched the blur of bodies swirling around the large, cubical structure tautly enshrouded in black fabric covered with Quranic text, a black as deep as faith against the radiant sun-illuminated whiteness of the marble floor of the courtyard there in the center of the Grand Mosque -- that center toward which he had pointed his whole being in prayer five times each day of his life.

 

Kassim was propelled forward by a surge of pilgrims into the vast open area. He joined the whirlpool composed of streaks of brown and yellow and pink and black bodies draped in white. He was one of thousands at that moment performing a Tawaaf -- “around the House” -- the counterclockwise circling of the Kaaba seven times. As Kassim strode, each circle converging more nearly on the black edifice, he meditated upon his own name, which meant “dispenser of food and goods” and prayed that Allah would again make him worthy of it. It was said that every prayer recited within the Grand Mosque was of 100,000 times more worth than any spoken outside it.

 

He felt he was himself in a way he had not since leaving Lebanon, and yet he felt that he no longer existed as a separate entity. He was a part of the swirling mass of humanity. A particle of it. His spirit flowed alongside and through his brethren.

 

As he neared the Kaaba on his seventh round, he ached with joy, his fingers

stiff with anticipation. “Allahu Akbar,” he whispered as the palm of his right hand brushed the Black Stone in the Eastern corner. “Allah is the Greatest .” Suddenly he was alone with Allah in a sea of a million people.

 

When Kassim left the mosque, he was torn, both reluctant to turn away from the Kaaba and eager to complete the ‘Umrah. He fell into a procession heading for Mount Safaa to perform the Say. At the foot of the hill he recited the verse ending with “Allah is the All-Recognizer, All-Knower.” He climbed Safaa until the Kaaba became again visible, and he recited, “Allah is the Greatest, Allah is the Greatest, Allah is the Greatest. None has the right to be worshipped except Allah alone, Who has no partner. To Him belongs the dominion, to Him belongs all praise, and He has the power over everything.” When he had completed the prayer, he repeated it twice more, inserting his own petition between the repetitions. His imam back in Montreal had laid a firm hand upon his shoulder when he instructed Kassim, “Make supplication from your heart for that which will benefit you. Whatever it is you need. Do not be reluctant to ask. Do not hesitate. You cannot be embarrassed before Allah. You cannot bring false pride with you on this journey. But for your petition to be granted, you must ask.”

 

Kassim finished his supplication and descended from the summit of Safaa. He trotted to Mount Marwah, ascended that, and then returned to Safaa. Given the 107-degree heat that day in June, he appreciated that the distance between the Mounts was a matter of meters rather than kilometers and that the Mounts were mounds rather than mountains. He wondered if they had eroded since the story of Ibrahim, Ismael, and Hajar had been recorded in the Q’uran. He appreciated that the distance between the Mounts was a matter of meters rather than kilometers. He made the prescribed seven circuits, ending on Marwah, completing the re-enactment of Hajars frantic search for water to keep her son Ismael alive in the desert until Ibrahims return. He was never struck by the irony that men were expected to run the Sa’y – jog more accurately described the pace – while women were instructed to traverse the circuits with a measured decorum, yet all were replicating a woman’s desperate ordeal. Hajar could not have been more uplifted when the Well of Zamzam miraculously appeared than Kassim when he drank from the sacred well. Kassim could feel the water of the Zamzam Spring, a tributary of the Waters of Paradise, flow through him like grace.

 

The Say complete, Kassim submitted to the final ritual of the ‘Umrah, the halq, the shaving of the head. Now he was ready to go out of Ihraam, out from being a pilgrim, a searcher, and return to the known world.

 

He exchanged the two panels of white sheeting for the white shirt and discreetly pinstriped suit that had seen better days. They seemed like the clothes of a past life, as indeed they were. For him, the halq was transformative. Shaved bald and beardless, he felt fresh, newborn. This exhilaration of rebirth would carry him through the long days of travel overland and by air, across continents and across oceans. It carried him almost as far as the door of the flat in Mile End.

 

He had not let the family know when to expect him. Overseas calls were prohibitively expensive. An unjustifiable indulgence after all his other expenses.

 

His wife and daughters might be at the shopping mall gazing at all the things he could not buy for them. Reem might be playing in the first floor apartment of her little friend. His mother could be at the Halal Meat & Grocery rejecting cuts of lamb as not good enough for the celebration of her sons return, expected one day very soon.

 

When he inserted his key in the lock of the door, he stood frozen for fully three minutes. Then he removed the key and slid it back into the pocket of his suit coat and turned and walked softly down the stairs.

 

Back on the street, he couldn’t help but contrast this neighborhood -- its jangle of voices, the shabby residential and commercial buildings and abandoned warehouses  -- with the dignity and splendor of the Grand Mosque. But both were peopled by seekers from elsewhere, he reminded himself as he passed the Greek restaurant with its Mediterranean blue and white walls and the little Portuguese grocery and the squat brick building – was it a temple? a school? – with its Hebrew inscription over the double doors.

 

What was he expecting from his family? He asked himself this question as he circled the block for the sixth time. It was on the last circle that he told himself that the answer was that he should not expect anything from his family, but he should expect much from himself. After all, it was he alone who had made the journey. Only he could be expected to have been changed.

 

As he completed his seventh circuit, he paused to inhale outside the steamy café where the old Italian men hunched over their playing cards and their espressos. He thought of the kahva that his mother would prepare for him, even thicker and stronger than espresso, made from finely ground beans with pinches of sugar and cardamom dropped into the boiling pot.

 

The stairs to the third-floor apartment did not seem so steep as he climbed. He turned the key decisively in the lock. When the door fell open he was surprised to see all three of his daughters, his wife, and his mother gathered in the living room, as though waiting for him. Except for meals, he couldn't remember the last time he had seen them seated all together. They stared at him but no one spoke.

 

"I have not been gone so long that I should be a stranger to you," he smiled.

 

Still they were silent. His daughter Hala, who was never at a loss for words, leaned forward, her mouth gaping.

 

"Is it my baldness that alarms you?" He brushed his palm over his scalp. "Already the hair is growing back."

 

Still nothing from them.

 

"I have been reborn in the love of Allah, but I am still your father, husband, son," he said, nodding around the room at each of his daughters perched along the rolled up mattress draped with carpeting and at his wife and mother sitting stiffly on the brocade couch. "When I change from these much-traveled clothes and shave the stubble from my face, I hope you will then at least be able to recognize me."

 

Still no one spoke. Kassim wondered if something terrible had happened in his absence. If another family member had been killed. Or if Allah had sent a plague to their small flat that had left his women dumb. For a fleeting moment, he pictured a future with no nagging, no scorn, no conversations that excluded him, but then shook off the vision as unworthy of a returning pilgrim. Later Najwa would confess that she and their middle daughter had both heard his footsteps stop at their door, heard his key in the lock, and then heard the footsteps that could only have been his retreat and had been paralyzed with fear. They had told the others and, for the time it took Kassim to complete his circles around their neighborhood, they had huddled together in the windowless living room thinking the unspeakable: that Kassim had abandoned them. And they thought of all the reasons why he should have done so.

 

While he stood puzzling, Reem ran into the bedroom he shared with Najwa and came out carrying the hand mirror that lay on their dresser. Seeing that cheap plastic mirror that Najwa had picked up at a flea market reminded Kassim of all that had been lost. Throughout their time in Lebanon, his wife had used the heavy, gold-encrusted vanity set that had been a wedding gift from her aunt and uncle. Najwa had personally packed the set into one of the crates that had accompanied them to Canada but it was missing when the crate was opened. Azar cursed the Customs officials, but Najwa blamed the housemaid whom she had long suspected of coveting the set when she brushed her mistress's hair. Kassim resolved that he would buy his wife a new vanity set, not gold but one suited to their renewed life together.

 

He wondered why Reem saw fit to bring him the looking glass. Because he was not comfortable with his looks, Kassim had learned to avoid glancing in mirrors. He didn't want to see himself, nor see others looking at him. He even managed to be oblivious of his image in windows and, most recently, the mirrors in airport bathrooms.

 

Reem held the streaked glass up to her father's face and he saw what they had seen when he came through the door, what they could not stop looking at. There was only a short growth to be sure, but there was no denying the evidence of one's eyes. All the hair on his scalp and cheeks and cleft chin and along the plane of his upper lip was growing back in the luxuriant dark brown of his youth.

 

 

 

Margaret Hermes has had recent stories in The Wisconsin Review and Laurel Review with others forthcoming in Art Times and Fiction International. Her short-story collection, Relative Strangers (Carolina Wren Press), won the Bakwin Book Award and second place in the Balcones Fiction Prize competition. Her novel, The Phoenix Nest, was published in English (Contemporary Books) and German (Wilhelm Goldmann Verlag). Dozens of stories have appeared in magazines and journals such as The Missouri Review and The Literary Review. Several have also won or been finalists in competitions (Glimmer Train, River Styx, and others). When not writing fiction, she concentrates on environmental issues. This is her fourth appearance in GHLL.