NOTE: “The Story Of The Month” changes every month OR bi-monthly and might also have been featured in my collection DOWN INDEPENDENCE BOULEVARD published by MiddleRoad Publishers in 2017 and available on Amazon, or might be an Extract from my two novels RACING WITH THE RAIN and JUNTA or my collection UNFATHOMABLE AND OTHER POEMS
THE TOUCH OF PEACE
THE TOUCH OF PEACE
Edith stepped into the corridor as Freddie followed her and closed the door behind him. She heard the squeak in the door of the apartment opposite, turned around and saw the door ajar. Just a slight opening—narrow enough to maintain a semblance of secrecy, wide enough that she could see the two eyes peering, staring, observing them.
She’d seen those eyes several times before, when she and Freddie were either arriving home or leaving their apartment. It was as if the person had a sixth sense about their comings and goings and was keeping them under constant surveillance, a scrutiny, strange enough, she’d never found unnerving.
The eyes were attached to a small head, about three feet off the floor. Deep, wide, brown eyes glowing in a dark apartment, like an owl waiting to start its nocturnal circuit. She’d nodded the first time she’d seen them, smiled the second, said hello the third. There had been no response. There was none now, as she smiled, and said, “Hello there, what’s your name?”
Eyelashes flickering rapidly, the eyes withdrew quickly into the apartment and the door closed— a swift fluid movement, as if the person had been caught doing something that was haram.
Haram: Edith had come across the word by chance one day as she was doing research on the Middle East, her curiosity piqued by the arrival of her new neighbours across the hall two months prior. Others had swiftly followed and before long, several of the apartments in the building were occupied.
Haram: Forbidden, and her exploration had found there was so much forbidden in Middle Eastern culture. Ranging from food and drink—pork and any alcoholic beverage. Clothing—failing to cover the body properly, or transparency that made body parts visible in women. Mores of behavior—Adultery and sexual relations between two unmarried individuals; a crime punished with a harsh sentence. It made her wonder: was there something haram in her attempt to make contact with the little girl?
“Don’t know why you even bother, Edith,” Freddie said. “Why they came here in the first place, I will never know. They should have stayed in their part of the world!”
The apartment complex was filled with them. Over the last few months leading up to December the activity had never ceased—a virtual invasion is what Freddie had said. Edith followed the story in the news: bombings in Baghdad, sectarian violence following the withdrawal of the American forces, an unchecked flow of refugees through the porous borders of the Middle East. Canada had granted asylum to hundreds of the displaced. Freddie had the impression, though, that they were all located in his building. A radical transformation of everything to which they were accustomed, was the way he described it—the reason for his deep reservation. The skeptic in him said the change in their lifestyle was sure to happen sooner rather than later.
Some of them had been interpreters for the armed forces. It must mean they had a fair command of English, Edith realized. And yet, she’d been unable to engage any of them in conversation during the time they’d started taking up residence in the complex. They moved through the corridors, the men in white, like ghostly apparitions darting along, the women in their black abaaya, noticeable but hardly showing any sign of being accessible. One day she’d told this to Freddie and he’d shrugged, in his inimitable, indifferent way and said he’d be happy if they weren’t there in the first place.
Freddie said, “It’s a bloody waste of time. You’ll never get a response from any of them. I doubt if they even speak English.”
“Oh, I don’t know Freddie, there must be a way of getting through to her. I think she badly wants to connect with someone. She looks so young and sweet. Can’t imagine she’s more than ten, if that.”
“Don’t be deceived by her looks. She could be a lot older than you think. For all we know she might even be married. They do that at a very young age, you know. Might even be part of a concubine.”
Edith saw them all over the property: in the laundry room fiddling around with washers and dryers; in the lobby as they read their foreign newspapers; in the underground parking where they tinkered with cars. Sometimes she didn’t have to see them to know they were there—she heard the Arabic music with the distinct instrumentation of the Oud, the Santur and the Joza, as it streamed through keyholes or crept through the bottom of a door, or she smelled the unmistakable aroma of the Middle Eastern cuisine: the kebabs, the fried Falafel and the spiced Tabbouleh.
“If Canada had to take in refugees, why couldn’t they be from English speaking countries,” Freddie said. “And why couldn’t they at least know what it means to be a Christian. After all, this is a Christian country. The last time I checked, anyhow.”
“It’s a changing world, Freddie, and we have to change along with it,” she said. She wanted to add: Or be left behind but restrained herself.
They were heading for the shopping mall to stock up on groceries for Christmas dinner. She was bracing for the complaints she would have to endure. About how Freddie was sick and tired of encountering all of those statistical men who always waited for the last moment to do their Christmas shopping, when his had been bought months ago and was lying wrapped under the tree in the living room. And how the stores seemed to be clogged with a preponderance of foreigners who had no idea what the spirit of Christmas was all about. His firm belief was that they were only there for the bargains.
They came back from shopping. Freddie sat in his rocking chair, reading the newspaper. Edith was in the kitchen, when she heard the knock on the door.
“Who the hell could it be at this time of day,” Freddie said, as he folded his newspaper and dropped it on the sofa. The time when people visited on Christmas season was long past. Their older daughter was in far-off Australia where she’d emigrated with her husband and two kids. They hadn’t been seen in over three years. The younger daughter, still unmarried, was doing a stint as a volunteer worker in Guyana. Then, there were friends either deceased or long moved to cottage country or south to warmer climes. Freddie had said: And just where the hell is Guyana, anyhow, that she had to go all the way there? Edith had looked it up in the Atlas and found it: a former British colony, sandwiched between huge Venezuela and gigantic Brazil. And who lived there—probably just another bunch of heathens looking to come to Canada as refugees. I hope she doesn’t bring one back with her!
Freddie opened the door. From the kitchen where she was preparing the turkey for the oven, Edith saw the girl with the brown eyes. She had a thin, blue headdress over her head, thin enough that her light brown hair stood out. The headdress was pulled down to her forehead, all the way to her brows. But there was no escaping the eyes: they peered curiously into the apartment. Was she looking for Edith? Two large, sleeveless hairy hands rested on her shoulders. Edith had only gotten brief glimpses of the man in the building. He worked shift at the hospital as an attendant and was also holding down a part-time job at the local carwash. The rumour also said he had practiced medicine back in Iraq. The mother was rarely outside, and when she was, she moved with her head down, floating along in her abaaya as it grazed the rug in the hall. She never paused, not even to say hello.
“Yes, what do you want?” Freddie said.
“If I am permitted, I would like to introduce myself. My name is Isaah Al Qurain, son of Omar Al Qurain. I am recently from Basra in the south of Iraq. This is my daughter Sara.”
“And?” Freddie said.
Edith didn’t like the way the conversation was heading. Freddie’s tone was unmistakably hostile, and it seemed that it would take very little for the interaction to go downhill, even though there had been no change in Issah’s calm disposition. She hurried over to the door.
“Hello,” Edith said. “How nice to finally meet you. I’m Edith and this is my husband Freddie.”
Edith looked at Sara. She saw the features she’d grown accustomed to through the opening in the door: large eyes peering from out of deep wells and light brown hair flowing like a curtain at the back of her head. The little girl held something in her hands. It had a hand-towel draped over it.
Isaah removed the towel. It had been covering an ovenware dish. With his left hand he removed the lid and steam spiraled upwards. The aroma of a freshly baked dish filled the air.
“This is Baba Ganouj,” Isaah said. “It is one of our, how do you say it, national dish? Sara make it all by herself, for you and you. She wanted to make something for you for this special time.”
Freddie seemed dumfounded. After all his denunciations that the Arabs never communicate or connect on a social level with white folk who have been living for years and years in the building, he was speechless.
“Oh, that’s lovely,” Edith said. “And she made it all by herself?”
“Yes. From scratching. Is that how you say it?”
Edith nodded. “She must be a very talented young lady.”
Isaah nodded. “She can also sing and play the piano.” Then, he turned to Freddie. “I am sorry to be of a nuisance to you, sir, but I am wondering, that is.” The man tapped the girl on her shoulder. “My daughter was wondering, if you and your wife would like to join us in the courtyard for celebrations tonight.”
Freddie sputtered. “And what kind of celebrations might that be, that you would be having them in the courtyard, and at night?”
“It’s the feast of I du I-Milad.”
“Now, just what is Doo Milad? And what makes you think we would be interested in attending this… feast?”
Edith interrupted. “We would love to come.”
Freddie scoffed, shrugged, returned to his rocking chair, picked up his newspaper and buried his head behind it.
Isaah smiled. He had a thick, black moustache and when his lips parted, they revealed a chiseled set of glimmering white ivory that would have been the envy of Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia.
“So, it start seven. We have snacks and a fire to keep us warm. Looking for you out, then.” He turned to go, his daughter trailing behind. She looked back once and smiled. Edith waved at her just as she closed the door.
“What did they bring us?” Freddie said. “One of their pagan meat dishes no doubt. It has to be lamb—that’s all they ever seem to eat. I can tell from the smell every time I pass their apartment. If it’s lamb, I want no part of it.”
“Baba Ganouj is a vegetarian dish, Freddie. It’s called Babaganoush in the west.” She brought the container over to him and waved it in front of his face. He recoiled in the rocking chair and held his breath. “It’s made of eggplant, olive oil, garlic and lemon juice.” She took another sniff. “From the smell of it, they probably added Tahini. I’ve always wanted to make this.”
“Huh,” Freddie said. “What the heck’s Taheenie?”
“It’s a paste made of sesame seeds.” She waved the dish in front of his face again. “Don’t you think it’s wonderful that little Sara would take the time to make it for us? We can have this instead of a salad.”
He came forward in the rocking chair, slowly at first, as if he thought there might be something lurking in the dish, something that would spring out and bite him. Then, he sniffed the aroma, hesitantly at first, finally taking it in with a deep breath. “Why did you agree to go to their festival? It sounds like another pagan rite. And of all nights, Christmas Eve, we’re going to have to be there? I don’t like it at all.”
“Oh Freddie, stop complaining. It was nice of them to think of us and extend an invitation. You’ve done nothing but moan and groan about how detached they are. Here’s your chance to know more about them. Who knows, you might learn something from the experience.”
“What can I learn from a bunch of Arabs hanging around a bonfire in a parking lot? It’s not as if they’ll be roasting marshmallow or something traditional like that, or drinking warm cider. Would be nice if they spiked it, too, but they don’t drink alcohol, do they?”
“No, they don’t drink alcohol. It’s part of their religion, Freddie.”
“And just what is this Doo Milad thing he’s inviting us to take part in?”
“I du I-Milad is the Day of the Birth of Christ, Freddie.”
“Oh? Jesus Christ? Are you sure?”
“Yes, I am. They’re Christians, just like you and me. They just celebrate Christmas in their own way, like so many other Christians all over the world.”
‘Well, I’ll be darned.”
“Christians are called Assyrians in Iraq, Freddie. And even though they’re a minority and the country is majority Muslim, Christmas is supposed to be a national holiday.”
“What’s it all got to do with lighting a bonfire in the parking lot? They can burn the whole place down!”
“The bonfire is part of their tradition. A child, probably the little girl, Sara, will read the story of the nativity from the Arabic Bible. One of their bishops will bless the congregation. He will then touch someone. That person will touch the next person, he will touch the next, and so on. It’s called: The Touch Of Peace. It would be nice if you can be one of the people touched, Freddie.”
December –The Touch Of Peace
Jan – The Interview
Feb – The Underground [2nd Prize Polaris Magazine]
Mar –Welcome To Punta Canada
APR – Return Of The Prodigal [from Down Independence Boulevard and Other Stories]
MAY- No Thank You
JUNE – The Shoplifter
JULY/ AUGUST: The Last Straw [from Down Independence Boulevard and Other Stories]
SEPTEMBER/ OCTOBER: Relics In The Attic [from Down Independence Boulevard and Other Stories]
NOVEMBER: The Day Queen Victoria Lost Her head [Published in The Caribbean Writer]
DECEMBER— The Touch Of Peace
JANUARY/ FEBRUARY –The Effect Of Light Rays On The Milky Way and Minor Constellations
APRIL/MAY: The Other Side
JULY/AUG: Love Through The Ages
OCT: Don’t Cry For Me
MAR: Going Back
JULY: Unfathomable And Other Poems
SEP: Tropical Rain (poem)
OCT: The Conversation
NOV: Visions and Tropical Night
DEC: The Touch Of Peace