Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Valley of Diamonds

 "Despair fell upon me as I gazed around and realized that I was desolate."  -Sinbad the Sailor, Second Voyage.  One-Thousand and One Arabian Nights

There is a little girl in a little yellow dress that watches as I run around the compound.  She is not like the boys who throw bottles at my feet or the others who sling stones.  She stays off to the side, hidden between two cars on her stoop.  She is only a glimpse I catch out the corner of my eye as I pass.  
 Waiting for the boys to leave, she jets out into the street and picks up a shard of glass, holding it up to the sun.  The silver light shines against her face and she is transfixed.  Then suddenly in a swift motion, she hurls the glass against the compound wall, shattering it into a million tiny pieces and runs away.
 It’s been months now, and I see her every day.  Watching me.  Waiting until I am around the corner so that it is safe.  But today I don’t make the turn.  Today I lay in wait.  When I see her dash for the glass, I race back to catch her in the act.
 “Hello,”  I put out my hands in whispers to show I wasn’t a beast.  “It’s okay.  Don’t be afraid.”
“Afraid?  I’m not afraid.  Why should I be afraid of you?”
Like a man falling from a great height, I must have splattered against the ground.  The little girl’s English was stunning.
“Who…?  What…?  Are you?”  I asked.
“I am Fatima, and you are in my house.”
I was shocked.  Was this a mirage?  Had I passed through some ancient oasis into another world?  How could it be that this little filthy girl without any shoes was speaking to me?
“I beg to differ,” I countered.  “I live here too.  This is my home as well.”
Fatima looked at me puzzled like I was a shard of glass held up to the sun.
 “And how did you learn English so well?”
“Fool!” she scowled.  “My mother taught me.”
I laughed.  “Your mother must be very clever.”
“More clever than you.  Who runs in the hot sun?  A fool, that’s who!”
Surprise gave way to dismay.  Desert or not, I would not be spoken to this way by a child.
 I turned to leave.  What good would come speaking to a rude Arabian child?  But then she spoke again, her voice dropping in humble tenor.  “May I ask you a question?”
Leaning down, sweat dripping from my chin, I said she could ask me anything she wanted.
“Why does a man… throw a diamond into the sea?”
I looked at this little child’s face.  Pig-tailed hair wild in knots.  Sand caked and dried on her cheeks.  Eyes black as the al-Hajar al-Aswad stone of Mecca.  I asked her to explain.
 Fatima said that all her life she had been searching for the Valley of Diamonds.  Her mother had read the story in the Arabian Nights, from Scheherazade’s 549th night with the great Sultan, which if he didn’t like the story he would cut off her head at dawn… the tale told of Sinbad, the great sailor, who on his second voyage lost his crew and was abandoned on a island inhabited by giant birds… Rochs, they are called… who feed upon snakes big enough to swallow elephants, and who guard a treasure of a million shinning diamonds on the valley floor.
“I know the story child,” I said.  “Go on.”
 Fatima nodded and said then that I must know how Sinbad tied himself to a Roch and stole the diamonds and returned to Baghdad a rich man.  She loved this story so much, she asked her mother if it were true, and her mother said, “Go find the valley for yourself.”  So Fatima came outside to look, but no diamonds could be found. 
“There was only you.  A mad fool running in circles with shinning objects at your feet, but when I held them up to the sun I saw they were only glass.”
I agreed.  They were only glass
“So I wanted to give up,” Fatima said, “but then I saw another man who looks just like you.  White skin like a devil.  Eyes blue as the Jeddah sky.  I saw him by the waters on the sands.  It was morning and my mother had taken me to bathe.  The man was crying and out of his eyes came a diamond.”
 “How did you know it was a diamond?”
Fatima smiled.  “The way the light shined against it.  Even from far away, I saw the light and knew.”
“What did the man do?”
“He stared at it a long time in his hands, then he stood and threw it into the sea.”
Fatima paused to question her own words.
“What kind of man does that?  What man throws a diamond into the sea?”
I told her that I didn’t know.
“You should,” she explained.  “He is your friend.”
“My what?”
“Your friend.  I have see you speaking to him.”
I looked at this queer little girl in the yellow dress with her stories of Scheherazade and Sinbad and the Valley of Diamonds.  “What do you mean… where?”
Fatima pointed, “There, around the corner.”  And with that she took my hand and led me away, around the mosque and past the row of waiting shoes, around the exercise room that would never be finished to a house in the compound I knew very well.
“Here, the man that threw the diamond into the sea lives here.  He is your friend, yes?”
I looked up at Mad Dog’s house. 
“Or maybe not,” the little girl laughed.  “Maybe you don’t know him at all, fool!”
She let go of my hand and skipped away.
“My father is calling, I must go.”
“Your father?”
“Yes, you know him too.  He is Abdullah Mohammed al-Farquah, and he will be moved by no man.”
At that, Fatima ran into the main office and slammed shut the door.  I turned and looked at Mad Dog’s house.  A diamond?  Things were about to get interesting…

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