A New Map of the World
Mahmood leans against a low wall and closes his eyes. He listens again to the sounds around him, lets his ears travel to their furthest thinnest points, and then the sound of it comes to him, his homeland prayer, and it sings to him, higher and higher, a repeating throb, higher and warmer, until he's like something between stars and the sea or between the quiet of air cracking itself open. Labayka alahumma labayk [translations at bottom]. It would all be okay, Inshallah. He sees the moon in the sky, round and full. The eucalypts whisper, sigh, and he sighs with them. He knows he should feel lucky. He holds his hands to his chest, bends his head into another whispering, and stays in this whispering, until he feels strong again. A breeze lifts the night up and over him. Then there's more quiet.
When he looks up he sees the youth. The youth hasn't seen him. Mahmood watches. Then the youth lifts his gaze from his red sneakers. Aah, he has the face of an angel. His skin the many colours of the fair. Mahmood smiles, something in him lifting with this surprise connection. He whispers again, touching his chest. The youth nods and passes.
Soon after, Mahmood, too, starts to walk, feeling, as a poet would say, like moonlight on water. He smiles to himself. He may no longer be an engineer, but he still has his poetry. Up ahead he sees the moon glow of the petrol station. He will buy milk for his dear wife. She liked milk in her tea in the morning. Maybe he could get his children a small treat too. They would be so happy. He remembers the sound of their breathing as they slept, how he could still smell the rose scented soap they'd used in the shower. He remembers his wife, wrapped in only a cotton sheet, because of the heat. One day, Inshallah, we will have a house with a water fountain, and extra rooms for guests, a house by a river, where we can watch the world pass by. For a moment he's somewhere else again, in this other prayer of belonging. Then he hears something moving against itself, in a hurry. Feels an immediate banging panic.
And as he turns. They're coming out of the trees, the moonlight, many dark shapes, he tries to run, and in just a few breaths he's on the ground, he sees them on him, they're punching him, he can see a man's beard, the first kick connects to his stomach, then his nose, his arm is pulled over his head, and then he's just hearing his bones, he's lost his bones, he's trying not to hear anything, he's praying: aaoozobillahe minushaitanir rajeem, rahmatullahe alaihe, aaoozobillahe minushaitanir rajeem, and they keep going, aaoozobillahe minushaitanir rajeem, rahmatullahe alaihe, aaoozobillahe minushaitanir rajeem, they're kicking him, rahmatullahe alaihe, until there's no more sound left in him, until there's nothing left in him, until his throat sounds like thin water, and then it stops, it's quiet, every part of him beating from the inside now. His hands open up, they don't feel like hands, there's a thickness, his face is running with water like a river and a sticky, salty thickness, he's lost everything and he's trying to hold it in his hands. It's a river.
Then Mahmood sees a red sneaker, the youth's face. And his head thinks, he can help me.
"Please," he utters. He thinks, please, don't do this please. He sighs. He thinks he hears the youth sigh. Or the trees.
Donna's at Aamir's Fremantle apartment when she wakes. The sun coming through his curtains is like a ghost. She stretches. Her fingers touch Aamir's back like a spider, and he turns. She sees his face on the pillow, soft with sleep, as if the feathers of the pillow have entered his head. She feels his fingers on her face, tracing it with small strokes. She doesn't move, feels her face through his fingertips.
"You're so symmetrical," he says.
She watches Aamir lift her hands up against his so that their palms touch, he pulls her arm up into the air, so that together they make an arch, and on the pillow with their heads close his free hand touches her arm and he names her bones, her humerus, her ulna, her radius. She turns her head, licks the inside of his ear.
"This is the concha bone, it's very hard to anesthetize. You know, it's the heart's most exterior nerve."
"You remembered," he says and laughs a soft circle sound in the back of his throat. He kisses her ear, pulls her hand to the middle of his chest, holds it for a moment, his lips moving in a silent prayer. Then he's rolling himself into her, their hands and legs weaving, and then she's pulling away.
"You haven't forgotten," she says.
"That this year is going to be the best year of your life?"
"No," she says, ignoring his sarcasm for a moment. "You haven't forgotten the Open Day?" she says.
"Of course not," he says, turning away from her to look at the ceiling.
"'t's a good thing. It could be powerful. To do it on Australia Day."
From the kitchen bench Donna watches him rolling out his green prayer mat. He steps forward onto his mat as if stepping onto the edge of another land. Feet together, arms slightly out from his side, head slightly bent. He's still Aamir but calmer, standing, kneeling and prostrating to Mecca. She waits for her favourite moment. When he stands looking up to the sky, his palms held up like small wings. For her this is the moment of connection to his other world. He whispers, and in the soft white of his palms he seems to hold light, and is caressed and quietly made radiant. His eyes flicker over to her, he smiles, then kneels down to resume his prostrations to Mecca.
She pours the boiling water into the glass teapot, tea leaves swimming like fish, sits the teapot on its glass mount, and lights the tea candle beneath. The candle flame flickers bright and then holds a quiet almond shape. Today they're happy. This is her morning prayer.
In the car, she pats the long pink headscarf folded on her lap. Aamir knows she will never become Muslim. But she thinks he's pleased to see her dress like one. Aamir turns the steering wheel. She watches him in profile, his eyes, his lips, the outline of his face. She runs her fingers through him, his skin, like water and sun to her.
A youth is waiting to cross the road. Aamir pauses his new Range Rover and waves with one hand for him to cross. He waves his hand, as if he's parting the air, and the beautiful youth looks intensely through the windscreen, then nods and walks past. Donna is in a hurry now to get to the Open Day. She's holding her breath. The car moves smoothly, slowly, across the road and into the petrol station. Donna breathes out. Yet another stop, she thinks.
She gets out of the car, looking over the Rover roof to see his curly hair.
"Want a drink, mahboobe?"
She sees him look up from behind the haze of the petrol fumes as the nozzle pours fuel into the car. She sees him shake his head.
Inside, she opens the fridge door, lets its cool beat onto her, grabs a bottle of water. Then waits in the queue. There's a woman in front of her with white flat hair holding a two-litre container of milk, and a man in brown shorts and a t-shirt, jangling keys. At the counter two Indian youths are serving. She shifts to the newsstand and skim reads the front page of The West. Sees a beach image. A front-page summer heat story, she assumes. Her fingers are touching the corner of the page, preparing to turn it. But she's caught again by the image. The circle of young lifeguards squatting on the beach, and another man in board shorts and a rashie holding up a white sheet. Behind them is the calm deep blue of the ocean, and the calm light blue of the sky. In the water a woman the size of a thumbprint, in a red bikini, is looking on. Donna's eyes snag on "Iraqi". She reads: "Police are investigating the death of an Iraqi man.'" "An Australia Day Tragedy."
They drive. Donna's huddled over the paper, reading. "Oh my God, it happened at Leighton beach, that's just up the road." They have stopped at traffic lights. Aamir's reaching forward to turn Bocelli down. "Put your seatbelt on, mahboobte," he says, touching her shoulder and then both of his hands are on the steering wheel. The lights have turned green. She reaches for the strap, clips herself in and returns to reading out the barest facts from the newspaper.
"Suspected Muslim. Discovered yesterday afternoon. Feet and hands bound."
The view from the car window opens to the ocean. From Stirling Highway, houses fall away to the railway tracks, to the footbridge, all legs and wire in the early morning light, to the white and blue curves of Leighton, still the same. She closes her eyes, and sees the ocean, coming in, constant, sees the shells, hears their sounds of infinity. Their peace.
She looks at Aamir. Waves the newspaper in front of her face to cool the thickness of her skin. Aamir turns the air conditioner up. She thinks again, if they'd walked on the beach yesterday morning, she thinks again it could have been them who found this man. Then she thinks, it could have been Aamir's body, and she sees herself running on sand, falling to her knees, pulling and dragging to hear his infinity.
The electric window shifts down, and she breathes out into the last view of the beach. Aamir grimaces, muttering something about it being hot.
She turns to him. "Sorry," she says. "But I'm not feeling well. Can you pull over?"
On the street curb, Donna sits half-turned towards him. He speaks to her in Arabic, and brushes his fingers across her forehead, collects her hair, teases out single strands, lets them go.
"It could have been you," she says, tears on her face.
"Nothing's going to happen to me." He pulls her into him, holds her, then releases her.
She watches his expression stay calm, his eyes look away. "Why aren't you shocked?" she asks.
"It's human nature to be cruel," he says, quietly. "The Romans persecuted the Christians, the Buddhists the Muslims, and..." His hand circles in the air.
"In the Koran," he says, "there's a passage where an angel asks God why he has made humans when they're so selfish, greedy and mean. God replies because of their goodness."
She holds her head in her hands, feels another lightning strobe of pain, thinks how unkind the world is, that she can hardly stand it, can never make sense of it.
"It's okay, mahboobte," he said, stroking her arm. "Really."
"Mahboobte, I think we should go home, I don't think you're up to the mosque.'"
She keeps the car window down, smells the freshness of the salt, and she's smoothing out the front page of the newsprint across her knees as if she could remake the whole event with her hands, as if with a wave she could change the front page to just another summer hot shock story.
She reaches out to him. He gives her his hand. She strokes his thenar eminence, the round rump of his hand beneath his thumb, traces the lines of his hands with her fingers; wishes she could make a new map of the world.
- Here I am at Your service, Oh Allah, here I am.
- God willing
- I seek refuge in Allah from evil Satan. May Allah have mercy on him.
- My beloved (feminine)
- My beloved (masculine)