Madame Aswad

1960’s: Driving over Kubri Bahri
It was that part of the day where as the sun sets, heat waves gently smooth away squinted eyes into a relieved sigh. The swaying of the prayer beads draped around the rearview mirror is melodic, keeping in time with the azan. Dry heat no longer slapping his face the passenger extends his neck out the taxi window, basking at the lapping breeze. There were five hundred meters or so left of the bridge when a black form catches his eye. Confused he briefly closes his eyes, whispers ‘bismillah’, opens them to find curly hair, unbound, whipping at a young face, a young girls face, or a woman’s since she was dressed in a loose fitting black dress that billowed about her. Feet clad only in black henna, she raises one bare foot and lets it hang midair. This would have been an alluring scene of unabashed sensuality, except she was standing atop the bridge’s railing while clutching with one hand to a metal column.
The passenger is now profusely sweating as the taxi nears her statue form.
He is ready to yell only she makes an elegant leap without a scream. This all happens in a scatter of seconds and by the time the passenger could gather his wits while muttering a thousand ‘istagufrallahs’ per minute, they were already a kilometer past Kubri Bahri.
Present Day: A Wedding in Khartoum

Obscured in immense fortune, beauty and an old family name, no one cared to scrutinize the socialite darling, Salaam Badr AlHashim . She was married to a wealthy non-Sudanese who was always abroad , ‘taking care of his thriving empire’ they would say, of exactly what no one really knew, but they could tell you of someone who knew someone that was fortunate to attend the exclusive wedding. No one could recall ever meeting her parents, elders would frown at trying to remember when was the last time they’d seen a relative of the AlHashim’s but could easily recount the families known history; they were an émigré lot, fond of living outside the motherland and were rarely if ever seen within its borders.

To have Salaam accept an invitation was an honor for the invitee. She kept a tight schedule that was only open an hour after Maghrib prayer whether the function be a funeral, henna or wedding, and tonight was no different. An elegant dresser, her clothing was always simple yet classy, and no woman could quite match her unique style. Her signature look was that at least one article of her clothing be black, if not the whole ensemble, like this night; her chiffon toub jet black with a scarlet red lining. Many could tell you facts; where she’d gone to school (somewhere abroad), how many siblings (none), when she’d gotten married (five years ago), her occupation (ran a handful NGO’s), and trifle minor details but no one really knew ‘who’ Salaam was. This drove gossiping tongues wagging crazily; why did she insist staying in Sudan without her family, why was her husband practically never there, and why had they no children? With her dark mysterious looks it was only natural for married women to be suspicious of Salaam. But once they met and spoke to her their fears immediately vanished, instead replaced with slight sympathy for Salaam and great puzzlement at her constantly absent husband.

Yet it was a whole different story for these women’s husbands because Salaam was a tempting enigma. She was such an alluring woman that even the most devoted husband’s eyes wavered. It wasn’t that she invited such attention or had remarkable beauty, and it may have been just the idea of knowing there was no husband beside her to glare, but some men felt outright uneasy in the presence of Salaam. Whatever part of the room she was in, her aura was a strong pull that beckoned and teased and drove many married men outside for fresh air all the while shaking their heads muttering ‘Istagfurallah’, but not Sayid. No, this night he was enraptured, this night, he let himself be netted in.

Taking a drag from his cigarette he bids his friend over with a nod, while gesturing vaguely at Salaam.

-What’s her deal?
– Who’s?
– Madame…

Sayid grins.

– …. Aswad

His friend knits his brows then recognition lights up his eyes.

– You mean ‘that’ Madame Aswad.

They both chuckle.

– So what’s her deal?

His friend knits his brows again. Sayid takes his last drag, chucks the cigarette butt and while grinding it with his markoob he wears a sly grin.

– You don’t think she…

He lets his sentence hang for some seconds.

– … you know…
– She’s married!
-… and?

Before his friend could reprimand him Sayid feels a slight pressure on his right elbow, turns around to find a slight Filipino woman.

– Sir, Madame wife wants to go home

He looks over the woman to see his wife wearing an almost panicked expression sitting among teyab clad scandal mongering women. The table beside them is filled with Fillipino nannies and overactive kids, except his looked ready to make a bed out of the table.
Sayid grimaces.

– Tell the madame she and the children can take the driver and go home, I’ll most likely be heading to the club… tell her not to wait up for me

The nanny doesn’t hide her expression of relief. He looks up and catches his wife’s gaze.
He mouths ‘Love you’. They share a tender look.
Giving a final nod he turns just in time to see Salaam heading out. Grabbing for another cigarette he smiles at her receding form.

Part II
Tapping the shoulder of the taxi driver Sayid hurriedly hands his money. The driver doesn’t count it, only places it in his pocket. The taxi drives off and Sayid hangs back in the shadows to watch Salaam use her key on the gate. With a final click she goes in. Restlessly Sayid drums his fingers on the peeling wall facing Salaam’s house.

He’d never done anything like this before.

With unhurried steps he puts his hand against the gate expecting resistance only it gives without a creak. He pauses at the threshold, looks back over his shoulder, releases a sigh, then enters.

Part III 
On the ornately carved table is an ivory ashtray with a fresh box of his favorite cigarettes. Without thinking he grabs for it, takes a seat and lights one. Exhaling with a grin, he wonders how anyone was able to smuggle this rare kind. Lost in thought, Sayid is not startled to find Salaam half sitting on the table facing him. She wears a bemused expression as she gently takes the lit cig from his loose fingers. Taking a long drag, she looks chic, like one of those paintings that hung in her living room of those posing bohemian aristocrats.

In an amused voice she tells Syaid she never understood the fixation to cigarettes, how she hadn’t had one in ages.

He doesn’t answer.

They regard each other for sometime until finally with a lazy grace she stands up, leaving the end of her toub with him. Instinctively Sayid makes his hand into a fist, holding the end of her toub to his chest, letting the aroma of bakhoor that was lit somewhere near, lull him into a languid desire. He nets in the cloth by inches as she continues on.

She stops, then presses play.

The house is flooded with the rhythmic beat of the tar.

Tipping her head back she lets the smoke curl slowly through her nose and lips. She sways with the music and stops a few feet from Sayid, reaching over to place her cig on the ashtray. He grabs for her and she avoids his touch, nodding at his still clutching hand now wrapped in cloth, and as if on cue a nasally voice sings;

العريس ما بنوم غلبو الصبر صاحي و غلبو النوم الليلة يا دقر العريس
جيدليه و غلبو الصبر حنة فوق ايديه و غلبو الصبر العروسة معاه شمعة توقد لي الليلة يا دقر

She arches her back slowly, lets her neck move simultaneously with the words, her hips gently rocking. As if defying gravity her back bends even more, leaving her body open, vulnerable, a feast for Sayid’s eyes. He rises out of his chair and is at her side, taking his time in admiring, but not touching, in all she offered. She straightens her back and slowly circles Sayid, letting her wrap her toub around him, and he obliges by feeding back to her what he’d earlier netted in. It was a funny sight really, a grown man wrapped like a colorful mummy, but neither of them was laughing.

She pushes at his shoulder and again he tries to reach for her. She steps back and shakes her head, nodding at the chair behind him, reminding him the singer’s words.

Again he obliges, sits down, leans back and admires his lady in aswad as she continues her erotic dance. Even when his eyes became suddenly heavy, and finally closed, the music slowly becoming distorted, the words unintelligible to his drugged ears, he continues to admire his lady in aswad.

 

Part IV 
There was an old acacia tree that grew outside their house. It was an ugly one, its limbs grotesquely twisted, branches like knobby fingers reaching up to seven feet. Children of the neighborhood would be found hanging off its branches, transforming it to whatever their limited imaginations could muster. Sayid avoided the tree, not because of its impressive height, but its eeriness. It seemed sinister and otherworldly with its cruel and wild angles. Even as he got older Sayid would take a wide path around the tree so as not to walk under its branches.

Sayid is nine years old and is in the middle of a growing circle of children badgering him to climb up the tree. He wants to break free and run, but the boys taunt him, calling him a sissy, a mama’s boy, a queer without a father… He hikes up his jalabeya and holds it with his teeth, nimbly climbing, trying not to shudder at the barks texture.

Never mind he was frightened beyond reason, that vomit was creeping up his throat, that tears were rolling down his face. He was almost to the highest branch when suddenly he loses his grip, and while he should feel air at his back instead sees only white. This must be death he thinks, and he is happy except there is children’s laughter under him, growing in volume.

His jalabeeya had caught on a branch.

Though it had saved him from a broken neck, it did not save him from the children witnessing him being caught in a wedgie; his jalabeeya over the upper half of his body, swinging like a graceless puppet. Sayid screws his eyes shut, hoping, praying, and begging with all his mental powers that no one had seen him piss himself. Whimpering he feels the dampness steadily running down his leg.

He swings back and forth, back and forth.

Muttering drowsily Sayid forces his eyes open. Fuzzy brained he pieces the night together; the wedding, his sudden obsession, Salaam, her delectable body dancing, eyes so unnaturally bright like burning stars, so captivating yet frightening that he had to shake his head and only call it the reflection of light. Something was out of place… suddenly he widens his eyes in amazement.

He was hanging, strung up in an intricate web of yards of toub.

Like a stricken insect he lunges about but finds his hands and feet bound in intricate knots. Strapped from the ceiling, his whole body midair, comfortable yet helpless.

He feels an unnaturally warm sensation beneath his feet, and smells rather than sees lit bakhoor.

While assessing his predicament Salaam strolls in, bends down at Sayids feet, passing her hands through the smoke, wafting it to her hair and face. Blessing herself, her solid golden bracelets chiming, henna so black that it glimmered. Sayid can’t help but chuckle. Salaam looks up from her crouching position.

– Am surprised you didn’t scream… you look like a screamer
– Scream? Why, are you planning to steam me with this bakhoor you lovely cannibal you?

A corner of her mouth lifts. A deep dimple unfurls.

– No, only to make you smell sweeter

Rising slowly, she gently grabs his chin and studies his face. He glances down and is startled, ready to wrench away but realizes that it was only the henna design of snakes, each wrapped tightly around her wrists, head resting near the apex of her forefinger and thumb, sinking its fangs into her brown flesh.

– Pity, you have your fathers face but nothing of his character

Sayid’s smile drops and he becomes ashen. Recovering his composure he leans his head toward her and through a forced wicked smile he rubs his lips against her fingertips and nails painted with a burnt red.

– It doesn’t lessen the fact that by the end of this, you’ll only spread your thighs and live up to the high standard of a cheating whore

Salaam only steps back, grabs a bowl with a spoon. Sayid is about to continue his insults only to find the spoon stuffed in his mouth. In shock he gulps and panics.
He finds its only sugar cane honey.

– Trying to sweeten my words too Salaam?
– No, only to make you taste sweeter

She stuffs his mouth again, he licks his lips and smirks.

Part V

Atop a sandy hill stood a small figure, squinting and staring at a distance. Salaam was already at her wits end and as she locates a small huddled group she is beyond irate. She walks quickly but smoothly, alarmed at what she finds when she stands over the huddled group of young girls giggling over an old frail Bedouin woman who was reading their palms. Though she was young, Salaams presence quickly sobered the even younger girls, sighing over being caught. As each of the guilty party stood up, she reminded them how their mother would disapprove of such antics. Reaching into her shawl Salaam pulls out coins to cover for the fortuneteller’s fee, but her hand is caught in a rather strong grip.

Looking up in quiet surprise, the Bedouin smooths over Salaams palm. It was an intricate language that only the fortuneteller could decipher, feeling rather than looking. She traces Salaam’s life line, follows it up to her forefinger, till its tip and goes off into the sand, drawing a long line until her arm is straight, pointing to the horizon.

She says:

Past this village, this city, this kingdom, the Nile & it’s borders, to seas & oceans, till your eyes squint & you cannot see the horizon; that is your lifeline little one. Though you are named after it, it is not in your destiny to find peace. Be strong, be patient, & be kind

The fortuneteller draws her hand against Salaams forehead and slides it to the back of her head to her shoulder, draws her closer & kisses the white streak in Salaams hair all the while repeating ‘be kind’.

Part VI

Growing up Salaam had always hated that white streak. It stood out in the shock of her black hair, starting from her widows peak, always drawing second looks from strangers. She was teased by the nickname ‘Skunk Head’ from her siblings, which at times drove her to frustrated tears. And it was those times that her mother would bend on her knees, lift Salaams chin & tell her it was only a clear blessing from wisdom, ending it with a kiss to her forehead.

Out of habit Salaam draws her hand across her white streak.

-Thats quite a collection of frames… are those all your victims?

She sees Sayid’s eyes roam with curiosity over the shelves and tables, loaded with so many pictures of children, men & women, old & young, some photos so delicate & historic, others crisp & brand new.

Each had a similar feature of Salaams.

She tenderly touches a frame, her dimple unfurling. In the distance they both hear the azaan. She arches her face to the sound, and a look of acute longing passes over her features. She vaguely answers him.

-They keep me company
-Do you know them?
-I know of them… but most don’t know of me
– Why don’t you leave Sudan?
-Why are you unfaithful to your wife?
-And why do you have to be the sexiest, lying, cannibal?

She tilts her head at his avoidance of her question. As if coming to a decision she walks up to Sayids immobile body. He cant help but widen his eyes, because he was still unsure if this was some sort of a twisted foreplay, or was he dealing with Sudan’s first serial killer.

-Sayid Hussein Hashim, I’ve been called many things, but never a liar

She rests a palm against his now quivering heart. Looking up, Sayid stares into the worlds most weary eyes.

-Your restlessness is a disease eating away at you Sayid. Your father…

At this he snorts and looks away. She patiently waits till he looks at her again.

-Your father was one of the few good men, with a good soul

She adds pressure to his chest.

-…. and a good heart
-Am I going to die tonight Salaam?
-No child

He doesn’t even bother with the odd endearment coming from a psychopath. Her face is now so close that he can see specks of silver in her eyes, her cool breath fanning his neck.

-But forgive me… this will hurt

And his sight explodes into a thousand bright spots, a pain so unbearable that he forgets how to scream. But the pain was outweighed with the thought that Salaam was a liar & a bad one. Because he had barely taken his first steps as a toddler when his father had passed away, and Sayid was at least six years Salaams senior.

black-and-white-new-york-cityscape-pamela-canzano

Part VII

Sayid is startled out of his absentmindedness by a slap at the back from his friend.

Both were on a break from work.

-You’ve been out of sorts today Sayid… what happened to you last night? One sec you were asking me about a ‘madame aswad’ and then you were gone!
-I went to the club…

Resting his face against his hands he sighs in frustration. Speaking through his fingers;

-…. I went to the club… and… I… I…

He screws his eyes shut and tires to remember, and he thinks he gets a tug of a memory only he suddenly remembers the intense smell of bakhoor and taste of sugar cane honey.

-And then I went back home

He glares at the table in front of him as if it were a puzzle missing a piece that was just out of reach.

-Isn’t it a wonderful feeling? To only want to be with family?

Sayid expects to feel the familiar choking of restlessness yet his chest is only gripped with a longing for home. In surprise he agrees.

-Theres a gathering tonight; whist, drinks, the usual. I myself am not going since I’ve lost taste for such things but I know you enjoy them
-No

Sayid finally sits up straight and his mind is in full clarity.

-No, tonight am taking out the madame and kids

He says this with a genuine smile and look of relief. His friend nods and absentmindedly scratches his neck that is draped with a winter scarf although it wasn’t that chilly, but Sayid was also wearing one, and a few other gentlemen.

Part VIII

There was a point in the year that every villager knew. There wasn’t an exact date, but it was a night that all of them felt. As the story goes, it was decreed by the village’s first Sheikh that on this night, no harm would be done and a wide path would be given to whomever, or whatever visited.

Even in present day, this decree, although not written, was followed by the elders and the local imam. They called it the ‘night of the fallen star’.

Some claimed it was a young girl, others a young a woman, but all could agree that it was a ‘she’.

Each year, at the same moment, on a date that no one could tell you, on the last note of the maghribs azaan, a streak of silver, the sudden blip of a falling star could be seen upriver on the Nile near the capital.

The entire village would be encased in an intense aroma of bakhoor.

She’d be first seen at the rivers banks, submerged to her waist in the water, contemplating her reflection. The skies on this night would always be thronged with stars, with the reflection of the glass like Nile the heavens looked endless. She would emerge from the river in silence. She never spoke, and would go on her pilgrimage. Some would come across her, but would pause, and let her pass. If you should look up to her face, you would look quickly down because her eyes were unnaturally bright.

Some would say with supernal light, others would say of tears.

Each year, she would stop at the same exact spot, right outside the masjids door, and some would swear they could hear her whispering ‘Let me kneel, let me kneel, let me kneel…’

In past times, some imams were courageous enough to invite her in, and in some legends they say she replied with ‘I have been denied by the most high. He has forsaken me.’

All could agree that she was harmless. Not exactly good, but neither evil.

This fallen star, this girl in black, would then continue on, far into the distance, till your eyes squint & you cannot see the horizon.

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