Authors: Rajia Hassib
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Copyright Â© 2015 by Rajia Hassib
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For Kamel, Sarah, and Yousef
hen Khaled fell sick at age nine, his grandmother descended on his parents' house and promised him healing. Armed with incense, a thermos filled with holy water from the Zamzam Well in Mecca, and a frayed pocket-sized book of prayers, Ehsan arrived at Khaled's bedside ready to fight any and all misfortunes that might have befallen her favorite grandchild. His illness, she insisted, had to be the result of an evil eye, its malice aggravated by her daughter's negligence of the simplest methods of protection from such wickedness. “Not a single blue ornament on display in the entire house! And when was the last time you played a recording of the Qur'an in the kids' rooms? How do you expect to protect them?” she chastised her daughter again and again. Khaled, with his jet-black hair, green eyes, and that coy smile that always caused Ehsan to burst into a recitation of the sura of Al-Falaq to pray for his protection, was particularly vulnerable to the evil eye. His mother's insistence on throwing him an elaborate birthday party a few weeks earlier must have been the last straw. “Why parade the boy around? Why invite people's envy?” Ehsan would repeatedly mumble as she tended to the sick child. They might as well have injected him with bacteria and saved the money spent on the inflatables.
Khaled, aware of his favored status, had not thought it strange that Ehsan would travel from Egypt two months before she had originally intended, risking a flight into JFK on the heels of the blizzard that ushered in 1996, probably spending the ten-hour journey imagining her plane
tumbling down in the middle of the unfamiliar snow she still feared beyond reason. On the day of her arrival she walked into Khaled's room, flanked by his parents and followed by his siblings, Hosaam and Fatima, and sat on the edge of his bed, the thermos held tightly in both hands. In a whisper that implied her words were meant only for his ears, Ehsan told Khaled the story of the holy water she had requested specifically for him, water her sister had carried all the way from Saudi Arabia to Egypt and that she in turn had carried from Egypt to the United States.
“This is blessed water,” she said as she unscrewed the thermos lid and poured just enough to moisten a washcloth. “It is water that has run since the time of the prophet Ibrahim, peace be upon his soul. It is so pure it can heal the sick. If you were in the middle of the desert, one sip only would quench your thirst for days. This water,” she continued as she put the thermos on his nightstand and held the white washcloth up for him to see, “runs out of the deep belly of the Arabian Desert, yet in this scorching heat it still comes out ice cold. This water will make you all better.”
Khaled listened to her, struggling to make out the words, which she pronounced in an Arabic he found different from the one his parents used and yet familiar, since he had spent months out of each year in the company of his grandmother either at his home in Summerset, New Jersey, or at hers in Alexandria. Keeping his eyes on her lips helped him understand her better and also filled him with comfort; years later, he would still remember how unfamiliar his own room had felt, crowded as it was with his entire family. Hosaam's bed, the upper of the bunk beds, loomed heavily over Khaled's head the whole time, and throughout his feverish nights he would wake up imagining the bed was slowly lowering and eventually flattening him, and he wondered what his mother would do when she walked into his bedroom in the morning and found her son sandwiched between the two mattresses. Hosaam had not slept in his bed for days, having been banished to the living room both to protect
him from potential infection and to give his brother some rest. Sitting on the edge of Khaled's bed, slowly dipping the washcloth in the small bowl now filled with Zamzam water, Ehsan's large body managed to make his bed seem more solid and less overcast in the shadow of his brother's. Looking at her, he could also ignore his other fears: that Fatima, standing in the corner, would accidently topple over the Lego that he had stacked on his desk, or that Hosaam would look under his bed and find the ladybug he had discovered crawling on their windowsill that morning, so rare in January, and that he had placed in the little jar with holes in its lid to keep safe until he could figure out what to do with it.
Ehsan put her hands under his armpits and lifted him into a seated position as she instructed her daughter to grab one of Hosaam's pillows and place it behind Khaled's back. Gently, Ehsan pushed his shoulders until his back settled in a Khaled-shaped groove in the pillows. He did not feel like sitting up, but he did not object. Ehsan, clad in permanent black since her husband passed away thirty years earlier, was not a figure he was willing to defy. Besides, as she leaned over him, adjusting the pillows, Khaled enjoyed breathing in the smell of incense, rosebud soap, and spices that always clung to her dress and her white veil, and the verses from the Qur'an that she hummed under her breath reminded him of her home and filled him with an unrealistic expectation of freshly baked cake and cold, frothy lemonade.
“How does the water work?” Fatima asked. She had inched closer to his bed, keeping to his left-hand side where their mother, Nagla, sat. The youngest of the three siblings and barely seven, Fatima's Arabic was the most riddled with an American accent that Khaled knew she was trying hard to mask. He looked at her and smiled. The sun, shining through the window behind the illuminated strands of her black hair, framed her face in a messy halo. He was grateful she had asked the question he had in mind but would not ask in the presence of Hosaam, who was leaning against the door frame, watching him.
“It works any way you want it to,” Ehsan answered as she started folding Khaled's sleeves up. “If the sickness is in your stomach, you drink it and it takes the sickness away. If it's on your skin, you wipe yourself with it and it heals you.”
“ButÂ .Â .Â . Khaled's lungs are sick. How will you get it there?” Fatima's eyes widened and teared up, her lower lip trembling as she looked at Khaled.
“Oh, we don't have to get it there,” Ehsan said, laughing. Khaled laughed, too, relieved. “We'll just wipe his chest and face with it, and maybe give him some of it to drink.”
Slowly, Ehsan started unbuttoning the front of Khaled's pajamas. Her hands, rough with years of cooking and cleaning for five children and twelve grandchildren, rubbed against his feverish skin and he winced. When she was done, Ehsan pulled the pajama top open. Khaled immediately started shivering, looked around him at his mother, his sister, and his father and brother, both standing by the doorway, and instinctively pulled the shirtfront closed. Ehsan, who had just had time to reach out and grab the washcloth from the bowl, looked at him and laughed.
“What's wrong, boy? Are you shy?”
“I'm cold,” Khaled said, blushing. Fatima retreated into her corner and sat on the floor, pulling both legs up to her chest.
“Don't be silly, Khaled; it's just us,” Nagla said, pulling his shirt back open. Khaled's lower lip quivered and he looked at his older brother, who was grinning down on him.
“Do you know the story of the Zamzam Well, Khaled?” Ehsan asked as she slowly touched the wet washcloth to his chest. Khaled, the fabric cold and prickly against his skin, felt his eyes well up and shook his head so that he would not have to speak.
“Well, it goes like this: The prophet Ibrahim, peace be upon his soul, took his wife, Hagar, and their young son, Ismail, out to the desert as he went in search of God. This is the Arabian Peninsula, you know, and the
desert there is hotter and drier than the inside of a brick oven on an August day. So he set up camp for them between two large hills called Al-Safa and Al-Marwah, and then went up one of the nearby mountains, where the angels had told him he should go,” she said as she gently stroked his entire chest with the cloth. She paused for a moment, murmuring prayers and verses from the Qur'an as she moved the washcloth in circles. When she was done, she pulled out a dry towel and started patting his chest.
“Hagar and her child waited for so long, they ran out of water, and Ismail started crying of thirst. His mother, desperate and aggrieved, ran up one hill, hoping to see someone who could help her, but there was no one there. So she ran back down and up the second hill, again looking for help, but saw no one. Seven times she ran from one hill to the next, the cries of her son piercing the empty desert, and still she found no help. Finally, she fell to her knees by her son's side and asked Allah for the help no humans had given her. And what do you think happened next?” She leaned close to Khaled as she buttoned his shirt.
“What?” Khaled asked, his eyes fixated on her face.
“Young Ismail struck the ground with his heel and water spouted out of it! Water so pure they each drank their fill and all sickness disappeared from them. Water so abundant it still runs to this very day out of the hot desert, just as it did thousands of years ago at the time of Ibrahim. This,” she said as she picked up the thermos and held it high like a trophy, “this is water out of that same well that will not dry out until Judgment Day. This is water that God ordered to flow as He answered the prayer of one who needed Him, one who knew He was the only one to turn to in the hour of need. This is blessed water, and it is healing water, and it will make you all better.”
Khaled looked at the thermos, his eyes wide. He could barely feel her stroke both his arms with the cloth as he looked at Fatima and saw her staring at the thermos, too. His parents exchanged looks, his father
rolling his eyes, his mother looking away from Ehsan so that she would not see her smirk. Then he saw Hosaam, three years his senior, still leaning against the door frame close to his father, grinning.
“Oh yeah?” Hosaam said. “So this is holy water?”
“Yes, it is,” Ehsan said without turning to look at him.
“So this water is going to make him better, huh? How's that? Is it antibacterial water or something?” Hosaam laughed at his own joke. Khaled saw his father give Hosaam a stern look that Hosaam either did not see or chose to ignore.
“Don't make fun of that which you don't understand,” Ehsan said. Slowly, she turned and looked at Hosaam, holding his gaze until his grin collapsed into an uncomfortable smirk. “And mind your manners when you talk to me, boy. I'm not your mother.”
“He didn't mean it, Mama,” Nagla said, smiling at her mother and mouthing something at Hosaam behind her back, to which he waved a dismissive hand that his father quickly slapped down.
“This is no laughing matter, Nagla. You should know better.”
“I know, Mama, I know. I'm sorry. The kids are just not used to this stuff.”
is not something you get used to. This
is something they need to learn to respect. You know what happens when you disregard stuff like that, Nagla.”
Khaled's father snickered, and Khaled looked quickly at Ehsan, thankful she was still too busy pulling his sleeves down to notice his parents grimacing behind her back.
Ehsan stood and picked up the bowl and the thermos. “Still, they're your kids, and you can raise them any way you like. Here,” she said as she turned around and shoved the bowl into Hosaam's arms, “make yourself useful and take this to the kitchen. And you,” she spoke to Nagla, carefully handing her the thermos, “take this to my room. Let me have some time alone with the boy.”
“Come on, Fatima,” Samir said, holding out his hand. His daughter jumped up, ran to him, and took it. As the family walked out, Ehsan reclaimed her seat on the edge of Khaled's bed. Smiling, she reached out and pushed a stray strand of moist hair away from his eyes.
“You want to lie down again?” she asked. Khaled nodded.
Gently, Ehsan pulled the covers back and let him slide down before she pulled them back up, tucking them around him as he laid his head on his pillow. Then she sat back next to him, and softly and monotonously started reciting verses from the Qur'an, her right hand now stroking his arms through the covers, now his legs, and occasionally straightening his hair. Khaled closed his eyes. He did not care what Hosaam thought. He did not care what his parents thought. He believed everything Ehsan said. He believed because he could feel her coarse hand against his forehead but his skin did not ache anymore, and because he could already feel the tightening in his chest lessen and his breathing grow steady and deep, like he was finally able to pull enough air into his lungs to fill them all up.
“What did you mean when you said it was not good when people didn't respect stuff like that? You know, about the holy water?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I don't know. I was just wondering.”
“Well, do you believe it?” she asked as she stroked his head one more time.
“Yes, of course I do.”
“Then you have nothing to worry about, do you?”
Khaled did not answer. He thought he should ask her more questions, just to make sure nothing bad was going to happen, but his eyelids grew heavy, and her hand, suddenly lighter, seemed to push the questions out of his mind with every new stroke until he finally fell asleep.