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Ansak Ya Salam

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”Listen, Tareq,” Mark said over their game of chess, ”what are you doing for Eid?”

”We are celebrating in the café,” Tareq replied. ”I will open it for women and children as well, over the holidays. It is a communal celebration. You are welcome to come, if you like.”

The invitation was more a courtesy than anything else; Mark was usually too busy with diplomatic affairs to spend more than an hour or so at leisure activities.

”Thanks, but no, that's the problem,” Mark said with an apologetic grimace. ”I've been called away, and Juliette's coming down, so if you could...”

At the mere mention of that name, Tareq forgot to listen further, as images came swirling into his mind: of her hair glistening in the sun, her low, mellow voice saying 'shokran' with a mix of shyness and pride at trying out her first word in a new language, the sound of her steps next to him on the streets, her scent as she moved closer, the sensation of her mouth brushing his.

Mark was waiting for something. An answer, of some sort. Tareq untangled himself from the memories as best he could and tried to figure out what that answer would be, and what the question might have been. What he found made his blood run cold.

”You want me to take care of Juliette over Eid?”

”Not if it's any trouble,” Mark hastened to assure him. ”But if it's a communal celebration, maybe she could come by? I'd hate for her to be alone when the whole city's partying, and I can't get out of this one, it's really important.”

Trouble? Tareq had a strange urge to laugh. Why would there be any trouble, bringing him once again in close contact with the woman he had kissed, had fallen deeper in love with than with anyone in the past twenty years, would have been sorely tempted to sleep with if Mark hadn't returned so soon? And at a time when he was supposed to rid himself of earthly desires, no less.

”No trouble. I would be...” Pleased. Thrilled. Happy. Tortured and ecstatic beyond the telling of it. ”...honoured to have your wife with us.”

Mark's face lit up. ”Thanks, Tareq. I owe you one.” He laughed and amended the statement: ”Another one.”

Of course Tareq offered to pick Juliette up; making her come alone would have been rude, and only raised suspicions. As he left the mosque after the sermon, though, he halted on the street, trying to will himself to keep moving. Things would only get worse if he didn't come, now that he had said he would.

He could call her from the coffee shop, telling her that preparations had taken more time than he expected and she'd have to come on her own.

He could not call her at all.

And would that be any more honourable, hurting her so for no good reason?

The call of his name made him look up, and he forced a smile as his old friend Bilal from school hurried up, hugged him and called, ”Eid mubarak!”

”Eid mubarak!” Tareq answered automatically, and stayed for a few more well-wishes and polite phrases before excusing himself.

The hotel was close; he had walked the road hundreds of times, even before Juliette, before he met Mark at all. It was made longer today by all the aquaintances who stopped him on the way, but by the time he reached his destination he still hadn't decided on what to say.

She was sitting in the reception with a newspaper in her lap when he arrived, and quickly put it aside to greet him.

”Hello, Tareq,” she said, taking both hands in hers.

”Hello, Juliette,” he replied, for her sake squeezing her hands for a brief moment before stepping back. She was even more beautiful than he remembered, in a dark dress with a faint glimmer to it, and a small black jacket. ”You look stunning.”

”Thank you. You're very distinguished too.”

He thanked her for the compliment with a small nod, and asked, just in order to have something to say, ”What would you say that colour is? Brown, or purple?”

”Maroon,” she said.

The shape of her mouth as she formed the word was almost unbearable.

”Maroon,” he repeated, and saw her eyes flicker to his lips. ”It's lovely. Did your journey go well?”

”Yes, thank you.”

They continued with the small talk as they stepped outside and started walking back to the coffee shop. Once they were well on their way, however, they both fell quiet.

”I never would have come if I had known Mark was leaving,” Juliette finally said, in a quiet voice. ”I'm so sorry about this.”

”Don't be,” he said.

Her smile was warm, but much too fleeting, and though he tried to think of something to bring it back, nothing came to mind. As the silence continued, he tried to make himself ignore the woman by his side, to think about the plans for the feast: whether he'd bought enough food, if the children would like their presents, what the best time would be to put the last finishing touches on the desserts. Aunt Maryam would have the preparations ready, and he trusted her judgement completely, but even so, it was his shop.

It was a relief to enter the coffee shop, which was starting to fill up with people, and to submerge himself in the crowd, guiding Juliette along and introducing her as ”Miss Juliette, Mark's wife.”

Enough people knew Mark that he was spared any more questions; those who didn't took their cue from the word ”wife” and asked no questions either. He did his best not to hover over her, and was quite relieved when she was caught up in conversation with some of his neighbours. For the next couple of hours, he did his best to treat her like any other guest, to even, from time to time, forget that she was there. Of course, that was not how things turned out. Like the sun during a mid-afternoon nap, she was always there at the edge of his consciousness, and every conversation with her lingered in a way the actual words didn't deserve.

When it was time for desserts, she accompanied him into the kitchen, helping Maryam and the others fill large plates with kahk, qatayef, and other sweets, while he prepared soft drinks for those who preferred it to coffee.

The bustle was soon over as the desserts were carried out of the kitchen, and only he and Juliette lingered.

”I almost forgot,” he lied, having to raise his voice over the sound of the dishwater. Reaching into a cupboard, he took out a small, flat parcel and handed it to her. ”This is for you.”

”Thank you.” Her hand stopped for a split second halfway to the parcel, then she took it from his hand. ”I'm sorry, I don't have anything for you.”

”That's all right, you don't have to.”

Although he knew what she would find, he had a hard time breathing as she unwrapped the Umm Kulthum CD.

”Thank you,” she said, turning it over in her hands. She stroked her thumb across the name on the cover, and then her face softened in a smile. ”The mother of Egypt.”

”You said you liked her voice,” he reminded her.

”I did. I do.” She held the CD up and half-joked, ”Our song.”

The undertone was subtle, but still enough to make him throw a glance at the door, wondering if perhaps it was time to rejoin the others, if their absence would be noticed.

He had found it very difficult to pick out a gift for her, wavering back and forth on whether to do so at all. Everything he looked at had been either too impersonal or not impersonal enough, until the CD. Giving her the music she had admired on her previous visit was only polite – but now he wondered if he had the balance wrong after all.

”I should see if there's more needed outside,” he said and left the room. Soon he was caught up in the crowd again.

It felt like hours later until he once again found himself in a conversation with her, though people were still finishing their desserts, so it probably couldn't have been anything near that long.

”How is Yasmin?” Juliette asked, blowing on her coffee to cool it down. Her eyes had drifted to the view outside the window, and he went up next to her, watching the people hurrying down the street.

”Well, last I heard.”

”I would have expected to see her here.”

”She is probably celebrating with her family.” He added, ”We do not speak all that often.”

”That's a pity,” she said. ”I mean... it seems like you two could have something going on there.”

”That would be cruel.”

She turned back towards him, her expression intense and hard to face. ”Cruel? How?”

Because I loved her once, he wanted to say. Because I could have loved her still, had things been different. And maybe one day, I will again, but until then, I will not court her under false pretenses.

”Maybe 'unwise' is a better word,” he amended.

She watched him in silence, as if there was something else she expected him to say, and a thousand different phrases went through his brain, but none of them presented themselves as suitable.

”You're very hard to read sometimes,” she said at last.

”So I've been told,” he replied. They'd never openly spoken about their feelings, and he wondered if that was what she expected of him now – and at this, of all places! – and if so, if she was looking to open that possibility or close it. He wasn't even sure which of those options he wanted.

Or perhaps she wanted for him to suggest a walk through the city, one of the following days. He had missed their walks together, the long conversations, even the frequent disagreements.

Back then, though, Mark had asked him to take care of Juliette. This time around, his mission didn't extend beyond the party. Anything beyond that would be courting, even if nothing untowards happened and neither of them ever admitted it. Mark was his friend. If their marriage wasn't working, that was one thing, but Tareq wouldn't allow himself to be the catalyst of something that wouldn't have happened otherwise.

”Perhaps I shouldn't have come,” she said quietly.

”I'm glad you did come,” he replied. That much honesty he could give her.

She took a sip of her coffee and sighed. ”Your coffee really is excellent. Well. I'm going to have some more of those cookies.”


”Kahk. Yes. They're delicious.”

In barely more than a whisper, he called as she started to leave, ”Juliette.”

She stopped, waited.

”I'm not the one with a choice to make.”

”Aren't we all?” she asked. ”Thanks for the party, anyway.”

The next morning, Tareq opened the top drawer of his desk and took out an old calendar, leafing through it to the back, where Yasmin's name and phone number were scrawled across the page.

He placed the calendar meticulously on the desk, then went to fetch a newer one. The number in that one had been scrawled down last year, along with the name of the top-class hotel where Mark had said that his wife was staying.

Tareq stared at both pages for a minute, then gently closed the calendars, opened the bottom drawer, and put them in the pile of things no longer in use.