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Anne Sanow

 

 

THE GRAND TOUR


After a life of living in the desert, Hamid decided to admit a kind of defeat. He was an old man past sixty. By the time he rode into the village of Al-Kharj with his wife, Rafa, and theTexan, Gus, they possessed only the things they tied to the three aging camels and a pair of spindly, recalcitrant mares. Gus asked where they were going, in the mild way Hamid had become accustomed to. “A relation,” Hamid told him. “His father owed mine a debt.” Gus understood about extended Bedouin families; this relation, then, would take them in.
            He had been with the husband and wife — who were childless — since the day nearly twenty-five years earlier when they had rescued him from the aftermath of a storm. He had never meant to survive it. His companion had not. Hamid and Rafa seemed to understand Gus’s guilt, and had delivered him up from the wild sands, burying the other and with it, the Texan’s past. He was theirs and stayed theirs, through everything. Now Rafa pulled her camel’s reins taut and sat high in her seat. She surveyed the last downward slope to the village and said, very softly, “Here we will make another home.” Hamid grunted in reply.
            Rafa was some years younger than her husband, as was Gus. The Texan had grown into himself (he had been stripped back by his convalescence, Rafa remembered, in both body and mind), and though he remained slight, and the folds of his robes seemed always to find his bones to cling against, the fragility of his appearance was deceptive. His footing in sand was sure, and he was a steady shot with a rifle. On this journey he had been the one to keep them going with kills of small game: they took what they came across, birds and the occasional hare, once a spiny dubh lizard — a delicacy and, especially now, a good omen. That meal had been the day before reaching Al-Kharj; Rafa agreed with her husband that it was indeed good luck, and Gus’s providing it seemed to refresh a sense of good will among the three, but as Hamid continued to extol their fortune in the small fire’s light Rafa closed her ears to the sound of his voice.
            Hamid wanted her appreciation now, as the houses of the village came into sharper view, but what she had said did not achieve its mark.
            They turned the camels into the slope for the descent. Hamid was leading them and his camel — the one of worst temper, which gave the beast a semblance of spirit, from a distance at least — traversed the dune in a sloppy diagonal. Behind him Rafa pulled her reins up again, so as not to overtake him. Gus, as always, seemed in no hurry; he lingered on the rise and looped the mares’ ropes over his forearm. They would have to be dragged. It was late morning, the sun yet benevolent, and as they got closer to the village the thrum of harvest sounds shimmered up to them. They heard the knock of long knives, the slish and saw as workers carved off the stalks from the palms. The air carried the tang of ripe dates and would, in the weeks ahead, begin to feel weighted with it. Autumn was the perfect time to arrive (as Hamid had said); it was necessary they be there. In this way he had flipped their predicament, explaining to Gus and Rafa that his relation would surely require extra hands—so they would offer theirs. How many harvests had he supervised, anyway, in his time? His listeners had remained patient, hearing this throughout the yawning days of their journey; each could tote up, silently, the many oases they had hovered around or circled back to, year in and out, so many years, the others of their tribe falling away from them, dying off (the old women) or knowing better (everyone else). Gus had stayed, and Rafa of course had no choice. She thought: how do we appear now—as sad opportunists? They rode their camels down.The mares brayed in protest, digging in their hooves. The dune melted into the plateau, and Hamid cantered ahead toward the large house ringed with the greenest palms, the most luxurious shade. It was just like him. Sometimes, when his hopes were this high, Rafa overcompensated with a serenity she was afraid did not hide her pity.
            She need not have worried so much about how they would be perceived. As they waited a discreet distance away, while Hamid dismounted and went into the house, she admitted to herself that her husband still possessed one reliable talent: for talk. If she and Gus had sometimes endured it with exasperation in the desert (though with Gus, it was difficult to tell), here Hamid’s charm rose again just when it needed to. Rafa allowed her camel to amble over to the watering trough at the gate, after a permissive nod from a houseboy who rounded the corner holding a bright green plastic broom. Gus, who had dismounted too and stood with his back turned away, rubbing the flanks of both mares one at a time, to soothe them, was not yet visible. From inside the house Hamid’s most jovial voice could be heard, exclaiming in garbled unison with that of his long-lost relation. (A cousin? Rafa could not remember.) But clearly it was not to matter; Hamid had got it right this time. Rafa and Gus were quite a while in the rising heat of midday before Hamid emerged from the house with this other man, who was close in age but with a sheen of prosperity that rounded him out. His torso strained against the belt of his clean tunic; he’d worked many a day of his life, his musculature conveyed, but did not need to now. The two men had had tea and the scent of hot sugar trailed them out of the house. “God willing you have come, as if I had wished for it!” the man said heartily. To Rafa he nodded once, though he did not let his look stay on her; he took only this small liberty, as host, but would not abuse it. He appraised Gus and said, “Good morning,” but betrayed no surprise when Gus replied, “Alaykum salaam.”
            Later, when the afternoon heat softened, Hamid walked around the garden with his host. Bougainvillea vines draped the walls, and young palms sprouted from fresh dirt, their fronds tickling the side of the house.Water burbled in a small concrete pool where pale orange carp glistened below the surface. It was all brandnew, the man said—“just this year, I decided. And why not? I’ve lived behind the village walls all these years, and it is too crowded. The dates are mine, and I’d rather live among them.” He laughed. He was still getting used to the house: it was modern, not like any house Hamid had ever seen, with square rooms set in rows along hallways that pressed in, and blank white walls and spongy carpeting that was white too, and covered every inch of floor, even in the space where Hamid’s friend said he was installing a toilet and bathtub. That room was unfinished; the contractors who were proficient with indoor plumbing were all busy in Riyadh and could not spare the time to come to Al-Kharj. “Ah, well,” the friend said. “Inshallah.” Then he asked Hamid, “Have you seen one?” and described how the toilet would flush.
            Hamid must have been shaking his head in fatigue, and the other man took his hand and sat down with him on a bench. “Let’s rest,” he said, and laughed again easily, for both of them. “We’re
old men.”
            “I am grateful,”Hamid said after a minute. He needed to say it simply, at least once.
            His relative murmured that he too was grateful, and they made the customary back-and-forth of this. It was always a careful dance of words, among men. The debt to Hamid’s father would of course be carried through; it was nothing, it was honor, it was nothing.They sat there and Hamid felt a light caress of wind and he closed his eyes for a moment—very briefly. The relative thought, in that instant, God, don’t let him die on me, this unlucky man, and felt both guilty and righteous for thinking it. Then he decided that if this was what he was burdened with he could at least issue a little test, to see about the state of Hamid’s faculties. Guests, after all, had an obligation to entertain, whatever their circumstances. Gossip was always a good tradition. So he asked Hamid about the white man, and Hamid, understanding, began to talk, heightening and coloring his tale as he went along.

From 'The Grand Tour', Triple Time

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Description of Triple Time

For Jill, a young American living in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, life is in “a holding pattern” of long days in a restrictive place-“sandlocked nowhere,” as another expat calls it. Others don't know how to leave, and try to adopt the country as their own. And to those who were born there, the changes seem to come at warp speed: Thurayya, the daughter of a Bedouin chief, later finds herself living in a Riyadh high-rise where, she says, there are “worlds wound together with years.”

The characters in the linked stories in Triple Time are living an uneasy mesh of two divergent cultures, in a place where tradition and progress are continually in flux. These are tales of confliction-of old and new, rich and poor, sexual repression and personal freedom. We experience a barren yet strangely beautiful landscape jolted by sleek glass apartment towers and opulent fountains. On the fringes of urbanity, Bedouins traverse the desert in search of the next watering hole.