Irlam likes to pat the necks of camels. He says they are beautiful creatures.
I say camels are ugly, and smell.
Irlam loves the desert.
I say the desert is just a patch of ground there to make you burn and starve.
Irlam’s been here before. He says he knows better than me. He wants to be a hero, he wants to be an upstanding man, a guide to the helpless, the unknowing. Irlam tries to fool me with his romantic wonder and Lawrence of Arabia nonsense. I only refer to Irlam by his surname. He thinks it sounds more exotic than John.
I think Irlam is full of shit. Especially now as we stand here alone and suddenly very lost and the morning has hardly begun. And I can’t find anything to make a drink in.
When I woke this morning the first thing I noticed was Ahmed’s empty hillock. Ahmed, our guide, our man of practicalities and knowledge.
Last night, as we slept, Ahmed must have left us. We had been camping out. Irlam said we should feel the desert sky on our faces, the intense cold, the purity, the sound of the sky. Me in one sleeping bag, covered up from the cold, Irlam next to me. Ahmed was Bedouin, Irlam said, he could watch from beyond. I said he’d freeze. Irlam said he could cope with that, he’s Bedu! Ahmed just shrugged his shoulders and went away from us, away from the fire, to a hillock of sand.
Irlam brushes down his shirt and says he’s gone to cleanse himself or something. I point out that his possessions have gone, the spare flask, his chained spicy amulet and his sleeping bag.
We wait. The city is somewhere west. Irlam had been hoping to get to the centre of the desert with Ahmed’s help. The sand stretches for miles and miles. I stand, awed by the glass-like chill of the air, the infinitesimal grains of sand and the geometry of the horizon, wondering if there is a heart to it.
Tall Irlam. Thin, gangling. He stands and surveys the desert, one arm tucked at right-angles behind his back, the other hand protecting his eyes from the sun.
We’ve been going deeper into the desert, as if searching for something, but it feels like going round and round in widening circles. Will we ever come out again? Irlam says he knows what we are doing. I have to believe him. But now, without Ahmed?
Been through the desert on a horse with no name—that is what he was singing as he came towards me, looking slightly drunk, when we first met. People scattering, looking bemused. He latched onto me. I was white, young, vulnerable.
Irlam says I’ll do.
Irlam says I am pretty enough for his purposes.
I smile. He kicks the sand, turns round and round, looks up into the sky and mumbles something in Arabic, a phrase he’d picked up from the back of a chocolate bar and had got Ahmed to pronounce for him. Yet being who he is, what he is, he has no idea what it means. He just repeats it over and over like he’s saying something profound. He has charm, knowledge, wit. He has purpose. I do like him though. Poor Irlam, poor boyish Irlam.
I pack up our belongings. Irlam stares at the horizon. I miss Ahmed’s conspiratorial smiles.
We have jeeps; we can drive till we find the city or find what it is people look for in the desert. Irlam says that’s just bullshit. Nothing can be found in the desert but sores and scorpion bites and dark nights of the soul. I smile enigmatically, saying nothing, knowing that’s precisely the point. But it’s all clichés! He says he hates my Mona Lisa smile. Mona Lisa was a boy, he says, making a dervish shape, whirling, arms outstretched.
Irlam is a romantic fool.
We have water. We can survive. Aren’t you glad, I say, that I said I loathed camels? I look at the jeep. Battered, hardly salubrious, but compared to camels…
Camels are eco-friendly, Irlam replies, standing on a hillock pointing east. Sousse must be that way.
We’ve been there before. It’s where we met, outside the Medina walls. Me standing there, him singing. Sousse. On the beach where the inept tourist train stops, where André Gide lost his virginity, Irlam tells me. André who?
Sometimes he likes to wander away from me and watch me without him. I know I am being watched, so I smile enigmatically. I know what he is capable of. I go with him. I play up to him and feed his fantasies. Out here, far from help, phones, Starbucks, the Sunday papers, you have to trust someone.
At the caves of Matmata he was in his element pretending to be Luke Skywalker, pretending to be Darth Vader as a boy. He grinned at the people who live there and handed out CDs like a missionary. Play these, play these. They walked away smiling strangely, shaking their heads at his lack of understanding.
Without him here I don’t know what I would do. I’d be lost.
Lost in Sousse! He laughs at my ineptitude. Lost in Sousse. Once, he confesses, I was lost in Sousse. A guide, just after I had arrived, we are all green at that point, took me deep into the heart of the Medina, saying he would show me the Grand Mosque. I had a map but it was useless, the streets are a maze of twists and turns. I was frightened but pretended I wasn’t. After all, who am I to agree with cultural stereotypes and believe this man would lead me astray?
Cultural stereotypes, I say, like what?
That Arabs are untrustworthy, that Americans know what they are doing, that the English are snobbish.
They’re not true?
He says nothing but looks at me: Irlam unamused.
What did you do? I say finally.
I smiled a lot and watched every corner, but I’d rather not talk about it. He turns away and jumps into the jeep. Are you coming?
He can’t get the jeep started—the gearbox for a moment confuses him as if he’s forgotten how to work it.
Been through the desert on a jeep with no name.
I wonder what it’s like to be really alone out here.
He told me he would show me the real North Africa. He said he was an expert. It sounded plausible. Irlam was a student of architecture, he said. Studying was his passion. He revelled in the beauty of knowledge. He’d point things out to me, fill me in on what I had missed. He says it’s not safe for me to travel alone. With a man you are protected. Without me what would Irlam do? He is so like a boy with his pouting full lips and his frazzled dark hair and his smile that makes me want to please him. He tells me about places I have never visited. He can show me things that tourists never see. He says that if I stay with him I will be rewarded. I promise, he says, looking directly at me, to look after you.
I don’t need looking after.
It’s dangerous alone, he says. Having you with me is important. The most important thing.
We have seen oases at dawn, rotting palm trees,waterfalls and pools of Tamarza, sand dunes like mountains at Douz; markets where the sandals were made by a small beardless man whose eyes never looked at me, who handled my feet as if precious cargo—he reeked of urine and leather; we have seen villages of Sidi Bou Said—the blue, the white buildings, the hypnotic skies—and empty fishing villages as prayers were said in hillside mosques, overlooking caramel rocks. We have stood on cliff edges above villages, above the sea, just breathing in the crisp air of the continent.
We have seen horses emaciated and falling, Berber children posing for pictures, the sun rising on the desert, which quite stunned us. We have seen many things, Irlam and I. And he is still a mystery to me. I have seen him beat a boy who came to him for change. I have seen him dance at sudden parties like a wild man. I have seen him screaming in French to men who came towards us in a village, who wouldn’t leave us alone. I have seen his face red to bursting as he shouted and screamed and gesticulated until the men walked away back to the bar. He enjoys these things. I have seen him so angry at the phone system in one hotel that he hit his fist against the wall, leaving a hand-sized hole.
We get lost searching for the city. We travel in circles. I trust he will get us there. I need a bath and a good bed. We criss-cross the sand, passing our tread marks. We make our circles wider and wider, increasing our radius. He will get us there. I trust being with him.
Sometimes Irlam goes as far out into the night away from me as he can and just sits there. I have no idea what he thinks as he sits there looking out across the black horizon. He likes to be charming, but sometimes he looks morose. I still like him. I wonder if my like is more survival dependency than real affection.
We meet up with some Westerners, faces deeply tanned. They are
a party from the tourist areas, people Irlam despises but today he welcomes them. I hear him getting advice about directions. He talks in German. He says he is an expert on the nomadic tribes of North Africa, he says he comes from San Francisco. He advises them to avoid Djerba. They tell me about their hotel, about the service on little trays at poolsides, about meals delicately prepared: lemon-cooked fish and couscous and salads, how they play tennis in the mornings after wandering the harbour’s attractions, after drinking espresso surrounded by orange-sellers and hawkers desperate to get you inside their shops. Everyone wants something, they say, everyone wants something from you. They would sell their souls to make money out of you. I yearn for the tourist train to safety.
Irlam looks out for me. Irlam needs me too. I cannot leave him. I say goodbye to the tourists in the immaculate jeeps. And we travel on, to Sousse. Irlam whistles and bangs the steering wheel, cursing as the jeep hits against rocks.
Sousse is ugly in many ways. It is good to be back. I climb the Ribat to see the whole of the town. I can look down upon the forbidden Mosque. Irlam said Sousse was a place of geometry—squares upon squares, reflected patterns in buildings, heavy rectangular doorways opening into hermetic cells for warrior-monks. From here Sousse looks like a chaotic mass of beige-white and eggshell-blue doorways disappearing into the horizon. Down there is the twisty non-geometric Medina. Chaos enclosed by geometry. Then a mass of industrialization, fat oil tankers slicing through the sea.
The Grand Mosque, he says, and the Kasbah, and then this house, deep in the Medina, where someone I know lives. We will visit. You must taste his qahwa. He will be most upset if I do not visit him.
Socks, bed linen, nightwear hanging outside a shop, a front full of shoes, a shop selling leather jackets—we go inside the Medina along the straight street that runs parallel. People staring at us as we travel. Scrawled pictures of symbolic fish pinned everywhere, and the protecting Hand of Fatima. Then he makes us turn right, inwards, into the centre. Irlam in front, me trailing. He says don’t catch their eye, don’t trust them if you speak to them. We go along straight for a while, turn inwards again, then straight, then up. There are little alleyways everywhere.
Shouts of hey English? English! We push forward like combatants into the crowd. Irlam strides forward. We go deeper. He shouts. We turn corners, passing Hands of Fatima painted, mosaicked, carved on ornate doorways. We go deeper. Crowds thin out. We are the only white faces. The streets narrow. We pass open doorways revealing women shunting carpet weavers, the smell of dyed sheepskins, raw sheepskins. The chatter of women. The lethargy of hovering men. More corners, going left past orange tasselled banners. Deeper.
I mark the banner. I mark patterns and colours, fan-shaped palms, aromatic smells drifting from open windows, thinking left then right, right again. Keep track. Up a hill. I can see no sky. The houses reach over us. Irlam is moving so fast. As purposeful as a scorpion, for once. Or is it more bravado? Does he know where he is going? It is all so confusing.
Wait, wait, I cry. Slow down.
The street gets even narrower, fewer people. We turn into a small square with a large drain in the centre, all the streets just here seem to end and flux into the drain. Beige squares. So many streets end here. To one side is a large woman. As imposing as a Sumo wrestler. I think she is female. We are arrested for a moment by her screaming. She lifts up her layers of skirts. Not Bedu, says Irlam, shaking his head. She squats, layers of linen, tied, wrapped, hanging from her waist, gathered up into her arms. Her face is open, dark dark and filthy—but her head is similarly wrapped. She stinks. She squats silently for some time before a long river of piss runs into the drain. It is as if she is pissing into the navel of the Medina and her urine spirals to the centre. She begins to scream and shriek once more. And moves towards us. She sees me, takes a stride closer, skirts creasing. Irlam puts his arm around my shoulders and hurries me forward.
Streets straight then curved. Walls painted green. Fish symbols. Doors with black engraved patterns like the ornately hennaed hands of the market sellers. We bend right, move straight, bend left, snaking through streets, feeling as if we’re getting tighter and tighter to the heart of the Medina. Irlam stops, turns round, says this way. I ask if he’s sure. He says of course he is. We backtrack, take the right instead of the left turning.
Come on, Delise. I try to walk quicker, looking backwards, forwards, always ready to run, looking for friendly faces, white faces, tourist faces. I want Irlam to stop, I want us to turn back, not zigzag endlessly into the centre of the Medina. I don’t know if Irlam is lost as I am. I want to go back.
I wish Ahmed were here to show me what these symbols painted here mean. I wish I could see the sky and feel the chill of the desert night. Delise is tired, I say, tired. There is a beach here. Gide, I shout. Let’s stand on the beach where Gide—
Later. Nearly there. It will be worth it.
He points to something round a corner. There he is: Irlam. White shirt, black jeans, red rucksack with the words “Ascent” emblazoned in black lettering. Irlam smiling. Irlam happy. Paint is peeling from the walls, narrow doorways, no sky, an exit left, an exit right. A shape fills a doorway to the right. Beside him a black Hand of Fatima. The shape filling the alleyway to the left coughs. Irlam is chattering, telling me stuff I cannot hear. I move towards him, he backs away. I step closer, he steps back. He’s still talking and smiling, calling me forward with precise motions of his hand. There are three exits—Irlam stands in one. Behind him I can see an alleyway opening out to the sky. A man comes from behind him, startling him. At first he looks frightened, then he smiles, taps the man in a knowing way on the shoulder, and walks past him. Then I hear the sound of Irlam running up the alleyway. Where he once stood another man stands. I watch Irlam’s shape vanish as the corner takes him away. Irlam escaping. Irlam leaving me here. I can’t even shout out, I can’t think what he is doing.
The other exits are blocked by shapes that show themselves now as men. They come towards me, heads downwards, like bulls charging. I can feel them closing, just a slight breeze of light between their shapes. They encircle me, touch my hair, I can just see their teeth as I lift up to look at them. But I am too scared to really see them, to really see what Irlam has led me to, what Irlam has abandoned me to.
The alleyways close in, buildings cover me, the Hand of Fatima to the side swells. I close my eyes and then open my eyes in fear of not knowing everything, of being blind to the inevitable. All I see is the Hand of Fatima, and I taste the men’s smell in the back of my throat, their sweat and their labours, gagging on the astringency of aftershave. I can feel their touch on my face, their sweat on my skin. I can’t scream. I want to close my eyes, I want to get out of here. I daren’t look at their faces, I cannot say what sort of men they are for I close my eyes again and put up my hands to keep them away, to knock their fingers and smell away from me. I push against them. Push hard against them. Keep pushing till the smell is that of the street once more.
I find Irlam some months later, working as a guide for the tourist trade. He is alone, standing by the Matmata caves, as the tourists intermingle with the cave dwellers. He is twisting a wooden cross pendant
in his hand.
Delise, I say, Delise. He seems surprised to see me, looks up at me, shielding his eyes against the sun. We say nothing for a while. I am expecting him to ask what happened. I am expecting a logical explanation for him running away. Eventually I ask why he left me there. He says he doesn’t know.
He says nothing, looks away. Then he says I don’t know why I did it.
Money? It was deliberate.
It wasn’t arranged like that. They were people I knew.
You said you would make sure no harm came to me. You said I was important to you. What did you expect to get from it? I can’t believe you did it.
I don’t know what to say. I have no excuses. I am sorry. He is afraid to look at me. He is afraid of his own behaviour. To hurt him in return would be like hurting a child because it spat on your clothes. I don’t know what to say to him anymore. I don’t know how to explain that what he did was unforgivable.
I walk away.
Did they hurt you? he shouts, standing up. Are you okay? I worried.
The memory-smell of their cheap Western aftershave: stinging, lively; the rough snagging touch of calloused skin; musty stench of old clothes, arms wrapped round me like binds, and the memory of the bile-fear in my belly. These are my dreams.
I always see me escaping through the alleyways. My dreams are seared with the image of the Hand of Fatima and blue doors and streets and the palm tree on the right, shaped like a fan, followed by a turn to the left, into the main square, back to the Mosque, back to the main part of the city, to trains cutting through streets and men calling out from shop doorways, hey English? English!
The dreams show Irlam as he was when I first met him, singing, Been through the desert on a horse with no name. Got to get out of the rain. And drunk.
Jai Clare lives in Great Britain. Her fiction has appeared in, among others, AGNI, The London Magazine, The Barcelona Review, Zoetrope All-Story EXTRA, Pindeldyboz, Night Train, and Cadenza. (updated 2004)
Her AGNI Online story “Bone on Bone” was named one of the Top Ten Online Stories of 2004 by storySouth.