Somewhere in Afhanistan or elsehere

The room is small. Rectangular. Stifling, despite the paleness of the turquoise walls, and the two curtains patterned with migrating birds frozen mid-flight against a yellow and blue sky. Holes in the curtains allow the rays of the sun to reach the faded stripes of a kilim rug. At the far end of the room is another curtain. Green. Unpatterned. Concealing a disused door. Or perhaps an alcove.

The room is bare. Bare of decoration. Except between the two windows where someone has hung a small khanjar on the wall, and above the khanjar a photo of a man with a moustache. He is perhaps thirty years old. Curly hair. Square face, bracketed by a pair of neatly tended sideburns. His black eyes shine. They are small, separated by a hawk-like nose. The man is not laughing, and yet seems as if he is holding back a laugh. This gives him a strange expression, that of a man inwardly mocking those who look at him. The photo is in black and white, hand-coloured in drab tones.

Facing this photo, at the foot of a wall, the same man—older now—is lying on a red mattress on the floor. He has a beard. Pepper-and-salt. He is thinner. Too thin. Nothing but skin and bones. Pale. Wrinkled. His nose more hawk-like than ever. He still isn’t laughing, and still looks strangely mocking. His mouth is half-open. His eyes, even smaller now, have retreated into their sockets. His gaze is fixed on the ceiling, on the exposed, blackened, rotting beams. His arms lie passive along his sides. Beneath his translucent skin, the veins twine around the jutting bones of his body like sleeping worms. On his left wrist he wears a wind-up watch, and on his ring finger a gold wedding band. A tube drips clear liquid into the crook of his arm from a plastic pouch attached to the wall just above his head. The rest of his body is covered by a long blue shirt, embroidered at the collar and cuffs. His legs, stiff as two stakes, are buried under a white sheet. A dirty white sheet.

A hand, a woman’s hand, is resting on his chest, over his heart, rising and falling in time with his breath. The woman is seated. Knees pulled into her chest. Head sunk between them. Her dark hair—it is very dark, and long—covers her slumped shoulders, rising and falling with the regular movement of her arm.

In the other hand, the left, she holds a long string of black prayer beads. She moves them between her fingers, telling them. Silently. Slowly. In time with her shoulders. In time with the man’s breath. Her body is swathed in a long dress. Crimson. Embroidered, at the cuffs and bottom hem, with a few discreet ears and flowers of corn.

Within reach, open at the flyleaf and placed on a velvet pillow, is a book, the Koran.

A little girl is crying. She is not in this room. Perhaps she’s next door. Or in the passage.

The woman’s head moves. Wearily. Emerges from the crook of her knees.

The woman is beautiful. At the crease of her left eye, a small scar narrows the place where the eyelids meet, lending a strange wariness to her gaze. Her plump, dry, pale lips are softly and slowly repeating the same word of prayer.

A second little girl starts crying. She seems closer than the first, probably just behind the door.

The woman removes her hand from the man’s chest. She stands up and leaves the room. Her absence doesn’t change a thing. The man still does not move. He continues to breathe silently, slowly.

The sound of the woman’s footsteps quietens the two children. She stays with them for some time, until the house and the world become mere shadows in their sleep; then she returns. In one hand, a small white bottle, in the other, the black prayer beads. She sits down next to the man, opens the bottle, leans over and administers two drops into his right eye, two into his left. Without letting go of her prayer beads. Without pausing in her telling of them.

The rays of the sun shine through the holes in the yellow and blue sky of the curtains, caressing the woman’s back and her shoulders as they continue to rock to the rhythm of the prayer beads passing between her fingers.

Far away, somewhere in the city, a bomb explodes. The violence destroys perhaps a few houses, perhaps a few dreams. There’s a counter attack. The retaliations tear through the heavy midday silence, shaking the window panes but not waking the children. For a moment—two prayer beads—the woman’s shoulders stop moving. She puts the bottle of eye-drops in her pocket. Murmurs ‘Al-Qahhar’. Repeats ‘Al-Qahhar’. Repeats it each time the man takes a breath. And with every repetition, slips one of the prayer beads through her fingers.

One cycle of the prayer beads is complete. Ninety-nine beads. Ninety-nine times ‘Al-Qahhar’.

She sits up and returns to her place on the mattress, next to the man’s head, and puts her right hand back on his chest. Begins another cycle of the prayer beads.

As she again reaches the ninety-ninth ‘Al-Qahhar’,her hand leaves the man’s chest and travels towards his neck. Her fingers wander into the bushy beard, resting there for one or two breaths, emerging to pause a moment on the lips, stroke the nose, the eyes, the brow, and finally vanish again, into the thickness of the filthy hair. ‘Can you feel my hand?’ She leans over him, straining, and stares into his eyes. No response. She bends her ear to his lips. No sound. Just the same unsettling expression, mouth half-open, gaze lost in the dark beams of the ceiling.

She bends down again to whisper, ‘In the name of Allah, give me a sign to let me know that you feel my hand, that you’re alive, that you’ll come back to me, to us! Just a sign, a little sign to give me strength, and faith.’ Her lips tremble. They beg, ‘Just a word …’, as they brush lightly over the man’s ear. ‘I hope you can hear me, at least.’ She lays her head on the pillow.

‘They told me that after two weeks you’d be able to move, to respond … But this is the third week, or nearly. And still nothing!’ Her body shifts so she is lying on her back. Her gaze wanders, joining his vacant gaze, somewhere among the dark and rotting beams.

‘Al-Qahhar, Al-Qahhar, Al-Qahhar …’

The woman sits up slowly. Stares desperately at the man. Puts her hand back on his chest. ‘If you can breathe, you must be able to hold your breath, surely? Hold it!’ Pushing her hair back behind her neck, she repeats, ‘Hold it, just once!’ and again bends her ear to his mouth. She listens. She hears him. He is breathing.

In despair, she mutters, ‘I can’t take it any more.’

With an angry sigh, she suddenly stands up and repeats, shouting: ‘I can’t take it any more …’ Then more dejected: ‘Reciting the names of God, over and over from dusk till dawn, I just can’t take it!’ She moves a few steps closer to the photo, without looking at it. ‘It’s been sixteen days …’ She hesitates. ‘No …’, counting on her fingers, unsure.

Confused, she turns around, returns to her spot and glances at the open page of the Koran. Checks. ‘Sixteen days … so today it’s the sixteenth name of God that I’m supposed to chant. Al-Qahhar, the Dominant. Yes, that’s right, that is the sixteenth name …’ Thoughtful: ‘Sixteen days!’ She takes a step back. ‘Sixteen days that I’ve been existing in time with your breath.’ Hostile: ‘Sixteen days that I’ve been breathing with you!’ She stares at the man. ‘Look, I breathe just like you!’ She takes a deep breath in, exhales it laboriously. In time with him. ‘Even without my hand on your chest, I still breathe like you.’ She bends over him. ‘And even when I’m not near you, I still breathe in time with you.’ She backs away from him. ‘Do you hear me?’ She begins shouting, ‘Al-Qahhar’, and telling the prayer beads again, still to the same rhythm. She walks out of the room. We hear her shouting, ‘Al-Qahhar, Al-Qahhar …’ in the passage and beyond …

‘Al-Qahhar …’ moves away.

‘Al-Qahhar …’ becomes faint.

Al …’ Imperceptible.

Is gone.

A few moments drift by in silence. Then ‘Al-Qahhar’ returns, audible through the window, from the passage, from behind the door. The woman comes back into the room and stops next to the man. Standing. Her left hand still telling the black prayer beads. ‘I can even inform you that while I’ve been away you have breathed thirty-three times.’ She crouches down. ‘And even now, at this moment, as I’m speaking, I can count your breaths.’ She lifts the string of prayer beads into the field of the man’s uncertain vision. ‘Yes, since my return you have breathed seven times.’ She sits on the kilim and continues, ‘I no longer count my days in hours, or my hours in minutes, or my minutes in seconds … a day for me is ninety-nine prayer bead cycles!’ Her gaze comes to rest on the old watch-bracelet holding together the bones of the man’s wrist. ‘I can even tell you that there are five cycles to go before the Mullah gives the call to midday prayer and preaches the hadith.’ A moment. She is working it out. ‘At the twentieth cycle, the water bearer will knock on the neighbour’s door. As usual, the old woman with the rasping cough will come out to open the door for him. At the thirtieth, a boy will cross the street on his bike, whistling the tune of Laïli, Laïli, Laïli , djân, djân, djân, you have broken my heart, for our neighbour’s daughter …’ She laughs. A sad laugh. ‘And when I reach the seventy-second cycle, that cretinous Mullah will come to visit you and, as always, will reproach me because, according to him, I can’t have taken good care of you, can’t have followed his instructions, must have neglected the prayers … Otherwise you’d be getting better!’ She touches the man’s arm. ‘But you are my witness. You know that I live only for you, at your side, by your breath! It’s easy for him to say,’ she complains, ‘that I must recite one of the ninety-nine names of God ninety-nine times a day … for ninety-nine days! But that stupid Mullah has no idea what it’s like to be alone with a man who …’ She can’t find the right word, or doesn’t dare say it, and just grumbles softly ‘… to be all alone with two little girls!’

A long silence. Almost five prayer-bead cycles. Five cycles during which the woman remains huddled against the wall, her eyes closed. It is the call to midday prayer that snatches her from her daze. She picks up the little rug, unfolds it and lays it out on the ground. Makes a start on the prayer.

The prayer complete, she remains sitting on the rug to listen to the Mullah preach the hadith for that day of the week: ‘… and today is a day of blood, for it was on a Tuesday that Eve, for the first time, lost tainted blood, that one of the sons of Adam killed his brother, that Gregory, Zachary and Yahya—may peace be upon them—were killed, as well as Pharaoh’s counsellors, his wife Asiya Bint Muzahim, and the heifer of the Children of Israel …’

She looks around slowly. The room. Her man. This body in the emptiness. This empty body.

Her eyes fill with dread. She stands up, refolds the rug, puts it back in its place in the corner of the room, and leaves.