n Arabic, there is a saying, “When the sky is red, saddle your horse, put on your gandoura, and get ready to gallop.” No sooner had she exchanged her money, the beachcomber had flown to the oasis of her room, galloping past a bizarre bazaar of tethered cows, spearmint growing out of rock, snake charmers, water sellers, and dolls made of white cloth with mouths painted black (from the navel down: stone).
Her body is naked now, on the bed. The room is unearthly quiet. She has not one dirham extra, in preparation for taking possession of her life (life will possess her), to buy a rug, or perfume, or the pottery she coveted in the street. She intends to sleep on the cool floor on cushions, and steal a few pieces of silverware, and eat off a cutting board. Understanding little history, seeing it as a fabulous and frightening endless night, she pledges small acts of faith. She pledges, now, to wash the bright sequined cushions. She will have done a little work, she can see that much, seeing herself later, cooking eggplant and tomatoes on a wood fire outside. One comes in, goes out, changed. The light changes, the fig juice stains her lip. She can see herself, in the little mirrored sequins, a thousand and one eyes staring back.
Autobiography has the pejorative connotation in Arabic of madihu nafsihi wa muzakkiha (she who praises and recommends herself). She learns, too, that a Muslim’s private life is considered ‘awra, an intimate part of the body, to be concealed. A glimpse of the past—a woman in djellaba and veil, a surface it is indecent to fathom—materializes behind thorny hedges. The veiled woman is arrayed in hot colors, is a hot coal, an event stared at, not seen. She burns night after night. To explain her is to behead her. She is glimpsed beneath a mulberry tree, among chickens, setting out a pot of water and an embroidered towel so her guests can wash before they eat dates in a perfume of...
I shall tell you tomorrow night, if the King spares me…
She sinks into the pillows. She has moved to a champagne-colored desert of serpentine bougainvillea. Upon leaving the dock, she’d been overcome by tremendous heat, blown at her by the slow, steady wind, although nothing moved (a landscape in which hard, waxen plants stand like soldiers). Although it was early, the sun felt high overhead. The day had gone like this:
She needs a place to exchange money, but first, to secure a hotel room. She slows past the Kasbah, once the residence of the Sultan and his harem. It is tempting to get out of the rented car, but the Kasbah feels rich, sealed.
The car is hotter than before. Her mouth tastes like the Dead Sea. I must get through this one day, she says out loud, to the man on the radio, a man who is advertising—her French is pretty bad—a cock fight? kidding around?, something about a head chopped off, and which now sounds like one way to get cool.
She pulls in front of another hotel to be shown another room she might have otherwise booked without seeing. It has outdoor carpeting indoors, like a little plastic grass skirt covering bare concrete skin; here is a dirty white wall with dead mosquito blood, like a face with shaving cuts, staring at her, saying, off with your head!
Lunch would be an oasis, but she feels she should book something first, anything inexpensive that doesn’t crawl with nightmares. Then, she sees it, another walled yard, this one newly painted mauve and, inside, a facade of arches. A tub as big as a Turkish bath, colored ceramic tiles—zillij, she reads later; for now, she thinks the clerk says, homage or frommage—she realizes she’s starving—she’s hearing Arab dialect and slang French and god knows—and large uncovered windows. She takes it, and before setting out for the bank, changes clothes. Her encounters with people, society, are already awkward. She knows it takes more than proof of an identity to fit somewhere.