A hot wind blows along the vacant street as a mighty sun glares through the noontime haze. Tall concrete buildings channel the wind, and it picks up speed as it moves. Now it lifts handfuls of sand and grit and places them spitefully on the just-swept cobblestones like some malevolent jinn. Black eyes stare at the scene; hard at the cracks separating the stones of the street that seem to heave up sand. Black eyes deep set in a dark face made darker by the desert sun as a morning’s labor is undone. Ignoring what lay behind, he stoops and sweeps his stick–broom across the road, at the line where the cobblestones shift to pavement. Always starting from the middle, sweeping the dirt and trash to the curb and into his battered shovel, lifting shovel to blue plastic bin and beginning the process anew.
Since the accident, the memories are always hazy and hard to grasp or hold, and always where he is not looking for them. So while he sweeps, as sweat that beads upon his brow just below the once-white and tightly wrapped turban evaporates before reaching his nose he remembers his first home, far from this place. He might have grown up at the base of the Himalayas near Barikot and a stone’s throw across the border from Afghanistan, where the Russian armies later left landmines but failed to cut down all the trees. There it rained, often as not. Clouds flew high and the cold wind raced through the mountain pass above as did the swollen Swat River below. He would tend goats that belonged to his father, or his uncle if his father had not survived the tribal wars. But regardless his mother called him home to eat and her voice rang clear across the valley. He recalls the pungent smell of the spiced mutton he loathed but would gladly accept now, and the thick rugs layered on the floor in shades of faded orange and teal and green. Her most prized one had come all the way from Herat.
Three sisters and five brothers might have comprised his family. He was the youngest. He remembers, perhaps, playing on the banks of the river in springtime, its waters cold and swollen with the melting snow. There he counted the stones by the riverbank, as interested in numbers as he was scared of the spirits his eldest brother said shrieked in the winds. There also his friends from neighboring farms wrestled and played as the flocks drank their fill. That day in the spring, he remembers fighting with Emal too close to the river banks. The wind spirits had howled as the small body was tossed and pummeled in the turgid flow, and later deposited farther down the valley.
* * *
A passenger bus speeds by and rips him from his reverie, barely changing lanes to avoid barreling over him. He looks around sharply for more traffic and his eyes tighten slightly in focus and shame while his mind subconsciously calculates the volume of air displaced by the bus. No more cars come, but they will soon, as the sun creeps down beyond the sands in the west and people come out in the lesser heat of darkness. Moving from street to curb, he pushes the pile of debris back toward the blue trashcan and waiting shovel, hurrying to finish before the evening call to prayer heralds the end of his day.
Sometimes, the old man’s dreams at night are filled with the raucous sounds of Peshawar or Rawalpindi, though he doesn’t know which. Garish colors decorating mule drawn carts and hanging limply from hawkers’ booths blur together in his vision. The language sounded different from the Pashto of his mountain home as street vendors cried their wares and waved them overhead. In his dreams, he missed the serenity of the mountains and cool wind of the Swat valley, replaced now by still heat and humidity and cacophonous noise.
They had left their home in the valley because of the blood feud his eldest brother told him later, a private war between two families where death was met with death. His fault, his brother had said: Emal’s drowning and the anger that followed. Even in his dreams he never recalled pushing Emal, but his siblings nodded their agreement against him. She never said a word, but he feared his mother agreed as well. Still she had uprooted the family to save him, her youngest and favorite and last child of his dead father.
* * *
Days and streets run together in his mind as quickly as the cars driving past him—a flash that he barely catches in his peripheral sight. Seasons change more slowly, hot to hotter to slightly cool; but even these eventually lose meaning. Even with years on the street the heat still surprises him. It shimmers off the pavement in visible ripples, mingling with exhaust and dirt until it seems to take on a life of its own, some creature amassed of disparate particles conjured up—some lost thing come haunting from his past or another plane of existence. Still he sweeps, sometimes around and sometimes through these unknown beings, his broom moving faster as he whispers short prayers. Still the images come.
The British had divided his homeland on their way out, leaving his family in the Islamic state of Pakistan and he recalls the turmoil the province underwent as millions of people, Sikhs and Hindus he later learned, migrated to India proper. His family took root in the guesthouse of a rich merchant from Kashmir. In exchange for room and board and a small salary, the merchant used their mother for cooking and cleaning and other things. He was loud and abrupt and had a thick mustache that covered his round face, but he was kind to the fatherless children growing up on his property. All the while, the dream child did double the chores, in vain attempt to earn back his place in the displaced family’s love.
* * *
He stands in line at day’s end, a string of buses creep up to the curb one at a time and are boarded by countless men he does not know. Most are younger than he, though some may be of similar age. As he watches, full transports pull away and speed off in various directions—Jabriya, Jahra, and some to even more distant locations. In turn, he boards the proper bus. He is handed his pay for the week as he boards, meaning that it is Thursday again. Today he is one of the first men on the bus and he quickly finds a seat in the rear, rolling the money into clothes as he does so. His mind effortlessly calculates the different allotments his pay will be divided into— money to be sent home is the first, food and shelter are second. The last bit he will save for the new broom he is planning to purchase. The window is caked and streaked with a decade of exhaust but as he counts he tiredly watches the kilometers stream by while the horizon remains an unbroken line of red sand in the setting sun.
Thoughts do haunt him, decisions he regrets, a family and a life lost to the seeming expediency of easy foreign money. He remembers the tears streaming down his wife’s dark cheeks the day he decided to leave Pakistan. A distant cousin made twice his engineer’s salary in Dubai and sent the money home. He would do the same, ensuring his own family’s security in a few short years. The humidity was cloying in Rawalpindi that day. He remembers it was hard to breath and that a cockroach scuttled up a wall as she said the only security they needed was being together. More tears came down then, dropping off her chin and striking the forehead of the baby latched to her breast.
* * *
He pushes the stick broom along the edge of the Gulf Road, grateful that his day will be spent on the street along the coastline. On the large roads like this, he does not venture into the lanes, but sweeps along the curb to collect sand and trash. Smiling, the old man breathes in deep of morning air cooled by a breeze from the gulf, tinged with salt and only a hint of something unnatural. This section of the long highway runs north-south and he pauses to watch the sun lift slowly from the distant blue horizon and cast a bar of liquid gold across the small waves. Enjoying the sight, he leaves the blue trash bin by the roadside and walks toward the small strip of beach next to the water. Stone benches exist at regular intervals along the wide sidewalk that borders the beach and the old man lowers himself onto one, knees creaking in protest at the movement. Setting down the broom and shovel, he leans against an adjacent palm and watches the sun rays shimmer back and forth across the gulf – fire playing on water. His mind wanders from the volume of water rushing onto the sand and the wavelengths of visible light to the spirits moving within them as his eyelids slide slowly down.
He attended the university in Islamabad, he is sure of that. There he studied Islam as well as physics and mathematics, and there he met Nuri. Hair that fell in raven waves and smoldering eyes are what come to his dreams most often. She was his personal Iblis, leading him astray and showing that she too was made from fire in the hidden places. His passion burned for her and that one time he defied his family. He dreams of his brother’s anger. They had arranged a prosperous marriage for him, the only one sent to college to secure the family’s future. He broke that betrothal for this dark stranger who’d woven him into her schemes. Still, their mother loved Nuri as she did her youngest son. His sisters stood by her at the wedding and braided small white flowers into her hair. His brother, he dreams, did not forgive him and glared darkly through the vows.
He wakes to the sound of car horns on the road behind him, the road he should be much farther down. The sun, which had been rising before him when he began his rest now shone directly overhead. He shakes his head and sighs, then pushes up to his feet. He drinks deeply from one of the many public water spouts that line the coast and returns to where he left the blue trashcan by the roadside. From a fold in his shawal khamis he unwraps a piece of dried meat and gnaws on it as he sweeps rhythmically along the curb, humming in a tuneless fashion.
During the hottest hour of the day he rests in the shade of a bus stop, sitting cross-legged on the decaying wooden bench. Across the street rises The Palms, a luxury hotel. As heat radiates off the reflective glass in waves, he watches well-dressed westerners and Arabs in bright white thobes drive up to the security gate in shining cars. In front of the hotel sits a strip of restaurants, dominated by a large Starbucks. Inside the tinted windows lounge half a dozen patrons sipping out of white glass mugs, typing on miniscule computers or having inaudible conversations. The old man has sat here before and watched similar scenes. He remembers the room-size computers at his university in Pakistan and is amazed that technology outran the rest of human development. Shaking his head he stands to collect his broom and trash bin and moves back to the road.
Looking up from the street, he measures the day’s progress as light bleeds from the sky over the horizon. To the east, the gulf takes on an inky cast that almost hides the streams of sewage pouring out from large drainage pipes. The bus to take him home left hours before, but he knew that would happen while completing the assigned route. The night is warm, it would not drop below 25 Celsius, there is ample green space next to the Hard Rock Café in Salmiya, and this is not the first time he has been left behind. Narrowing his eyes for a moment, he seems content that his starting location is far beyond his sight. He figures it must be over ten kilometers away. Ten thousand meters. Thirty-two thousand feet or twenty thousand swipes of his worn stick broom.
Expatriate workers from the Subcontinent fill the grassy areas that line Gulf Road—maids, construction workers, security guards, kiosk salesmen and street cleaners. They cover the narrow strips of land lining the shore, and even spill over into the wide medians along the Gulf Road in large and small groups. Adults lounge in short folding chairs or on the ground and converse while attending to the portable charcoal grills that emit smoke and the aroma of sizzling lamb or chicken. Children run between the seated adults, kicking balls or chasing each other and laughing or screaming with joy or mock surprise. All are enjoying the lower temperatures and time together at the end of a long workday. Farther up the strip, he sees cabs line up in front of the Marina Mall to whisk Kuwaiti women in sequined burkhas to their next shopping destinations, and he has a twinge of remorse and nostalgia for the days when he had driven a taxi. Obtaining a job as an engineer had been his original goal, but education meant less than citizenship in the Arab nations surrounding the Persian Gulf. Still, driving the taxi had paid well and given him a lot of time to himself. The Kuwaitis he ferried about town never spoke to him save to give an address, but the other foreigners did and he had developed a steady clientele. He wrote frequently to Nuri and to his mother during that time, telling them stories of the lives he shared in brief stints of traffic in the stifling heat. And after nine months working as a taxi driver in Kuwait he had saved up enough money for a sizeable gift and a plane ticket. His wife was glad to see him and his brothers were elated at the money he brought back, which they divided amongst the growing family. More children had been born to them during his time away. His own daughter had taken her first steps in his absence and Nuri was upset he had missed that and other things in his protracted time away. The rest of the family, his brother told him, was overjoyed at the sustenance he provided through his small sacrifice of living abroad.
After watching the scene for a while, he pulls the blue trashcan up the curb and leaves the bin, broom, shovel and his dusty sandals next to a large palm on the edge of a grassy expanse. He walks towards the waterline, relishing the sounds of family and the feel of soft grass and then sand beneath his feet instead of hot concrete.
He stares out at the wall of darkness and remembers his last visit home. He had had three children, a wife and a dying mother who couldn’t recall his name or what had happened to the small farm in the Swat valley. And an extended family that had grown accustomed to the large sums of money he was able to send home from the Middle East, which easily equaled what any four of them could earn in a year. It was his duty to the family, his eldest brother reminded him. They had sacrificed so much for him, leaving the valley to spare his life, putting him alone through university and suffering as he broke the engagement they had arranged for him. He most remembered that his brother looked old, with cheeks that sagged and had hair streaked with gray.
Nuri had shouted and railed as he packed and rolled his clothes into large blankets before binding them in the multicolored industrial bungee cords that secured the items for airline travel. His children had seemed fearful of him, as they would be of a stranger suddenly found invading the safety of their house. He looked back as he left and saw the fire inside her barely smoldered.
The old man is brought back to the night as a small girl runs into his leg and stumbles backwards. He glances around to find a crowd of children has enveloped him in their play as they run up the beach. He smiles shyly at the girl, who looks back with frightened eyes. Bending down slowly, he helps her up and watches as she runs up the beach to a man who might be her father. He kneels and listens, then looks back at the old man when the young girl points to where she fell. Her father then walks along the beach and approaches with a smile. He says a greeting in easy Pashto, with perhaps a more southern accent and invites the old man to join them.
Together they approach a gathering of adults and several small barbeque tins resting on the ground. A woman hands him a plate of meat and bread with pickled vegetables on the side and asks him his name. He thinks she is the age Nuri was when they first met He ponders while chewing the first mouthful, enjoying the crisp lamb, then tells her about his home in the Swat Valley and how he came to be in Kuwait. Many express surprise that he has lived alone in the desert for so long and he is proud. The old man sits down slowly and listens as the other adults relay events or observations of the day. Had he remained in Peshawar or Rawalpindi, they may have been his neighbors. For this night, they are his family and he is content.
He wakes on the small patch of grass when the sun strikes his eyes, causing them to water even though they are closed. He sits up to find the vestiges of the previous evening: left over tin trays with ash swirling about their rims and a few scattered plates and plastic bottle. Next to his head someone has placed several slices of lamb and flatbread tightly wrapped in a thin sheet of plastic. He smiles and imagines it was the young woman who had asked his name. Standing slowly, still full from the meal he had eaten, he gathers the discardings of the previous night and dumps them in the blue trash bin before starting his journey up the road.
* * *
Heavy clouds cover the sky in a sheet of darkening gray streaked through with brown. He pauses in lifting the nearly full blue trash bin and squints up in the bright silver light, knowing these clouds will produce no rain. Shaking his head wistfully, he continues in pouring the collected sand and trash into the large metal dumpster which sits behind a strip of stores adjacent to the Fifth Ring Road. Wincing at the sounds of grit scraping against rusting steel, he looks around, to see if his presence has been noticed. When his own trash bin has been relieved of its weight, he picks up his broom and shovel and moves quickly back to the road. Twice before he has been caught while emptying his trash bin in the narrow alley. The store owner had thrown an empty plastic bottle at him and yelled the last time, probably in Arabic. But the small chance of an altercation is still worth the lightened load, and the bottle’s velocity had been low—to light for the initial force to transfer into sustained momentum against the resistance of the air.
This day he works the access street to the Fifth Ring Road, one of several major avenues that loop around the city of Kuwait in meandering concentric arcs. On the freeway cars shoot past, weaving in and out of lanes at high speeds. Sweeping the curbsides and gutters here is a futile task, but he goes through the motions in silence, occasionally looking behind to see dirt and trash pulled in the wake of cars—or thrown from their windows—quickly erase any sign of his passing. Several taxis, some with passengers, pass by him and he thinks on the many times he drove down this road, bearing passengers from Salmiya north into the city, west to the university or south to the international airport.
It was only a few miles farther, on this same road, where the accident had occurred. He remembers being almost the only vehicle driving on the freeway as it passed under Highway 40. He felt the impact before seeing the black car. The sounds of strained metal filled the air as the vehicle struck from behind. In his mind he relives the fear and his body jerks reflexively. The force of the impact threw his taxi into a guardrail and both cars skidded dozens of meters before coming to a stop. He doesn’t remember hitting his head, but the blood flowed freely into his eyes and down his white collared shirt and dark sports coat. The other driver was walking around and inspecting his own crumpled hood by the time the police arrived on the scene.
In the initial police report, the other driver, a Kuwaiti man in his forties had admitted the fault. By the time the report was filed and damages assessed, however, the ruling had been reversed and the accident declared the fault of the foreign taxi driver for recklessly cutting off the Kuwaiti citizen as he tried to merge. So he was charged with repairing the Kuwaiti’s vehicle. Then his insurance company declared that he hadn’t paid the yearly due and wouldn’t cover the damages to either vehicle. A lifetime later, as he sweeps along the now congested freeway, a tear of anger slides partway down his cheek before dispersing into the dust that has gathered there.
* * *
The noise of water trucks shambling through the camp wakes him and he calls out his daughter’s name before remembering she is not there and would not know him. A small pallet arranged on the ground in the corner of a concrete room is his home now, his family the strangers nearby fighting the final throws of sleep who were merciful enough to take in an old man last year. This is the eighth group he has stayed with he thinks but is uncertain. He pays a small sum of money to keep his corner. Occasionally he has to move buildings, but usually it is the other group that moves on. A young boy sits up and says something to him in a language he doesn’t know. This family may be from Bangladesh. Some have also been from Pakistan, though once he had a group of Indians. Children are a rarity here as most of those housed in the complex are men, like him, who send money back to the countries where their families remain. Some carry pictures of those families. The old man thinks all the pictures of his own children must have been lost long ago.
He lies back down in the dim light and shuts his eyes. The memories are hazy now, since the accident, and they come and go like the spirits in the wind. It took him three years to pay back the Kuwaiti from the auto accident he recalls vaguely. With his cab gone he had no means to earn money besides physical labor, so he took up a job in construction. He frowns at the fleeting unpleasant recollections; the seeming endless days spent hauling mounds of stone and concrete for projects that were never completed; the mass of sweating men of different nations and strange tongues toiling beneath a blaze determined to grind them into the sand. He did that for years, he thinks, before his body began to wear out. Then the foreman made him responsible for sweeping up debris around the construction site and helped him transition to his job of sweeping streets. He remembers the foreman’s face.
* * *
A rare fog hangs above the road, a vapor blown in from the gulf that diffuses the predawn light. It obscures sight, making the boundaries of close by objects indistinct, and muffles the distant sounds of cars and sea birds.
The old man’s step is lighter than usual. Dampness in the air has settled into the earth and his sweeping quickly fills the curbside with piles of wet sand and debris. The weight of the fog is nearly tangible, but promises a cool morning before the piercing sun burns it off. He breathes deep and then waves a hand through the earth-bound cloud, causing it to churn about.
He makes one final overhand wave of his broom through a patch of fog and watches as it fractures into small eddies and dissipates. A wistful smile touches his mouth as he calculates the angle and speed of the air’s rotation and for a moment he can see his children playing in the mists. His eldest daughter, who died at seven from an infection that spread into the blood, so a letter said, chases her younger brother across the street as the breeze lifts her hair.
Shaking his head to clear the relics of a past long gone by, he looks up as a sleek shape erupts from a bank of fog. His mind tells him the car has far exceeded proper or safe speed limits. In the midst of solving the car’s acceleration he realizes his earlier reminiscence took him far from the curb and he now stands in the path of the oncoming sports car. The high whine of the engine reaches his ears as he tries to back quickly away. Behind the first car comes a second, bronze instead of black but moving as quickly. The old man waves his stick broom in warning causing the driver of the first car to see him just before impact. The first car swerves slightly to the right and sucks air past the old man in its passing.
As he exhales in brief relief, he hears the sounds of screeching tires, sheering metal and shattering glass behind. Before he can look around pain and light explode within him as something strikes his right side with enough force to lift him from the ground and toss him four meters back. He lands on the edge of the curb with a heavy thud in a large pile of sand he had earlier accumulated.
The old man doesn’t know how long he lay on the ground at the street’s edge. Time comes in spurts as he listens to the noises around him. He cannot get up but can slightly tilt his head back to take in surroundings. Flashing lights from police cars leave specters in his vision. A scant distance from him, a dark Mercedes Benz lies in ruins at the base of a large palm tree. Emergency crews pry at the doors to reach an unmoving form dressed in a white dishdasha that is now spattered with blood. Next to that is the bronze racer he had seen earlier, a small dent on the front left side.
The old man tries to call to the emergency crew, thinking they may not realize he is still alive, but shudders at the pain of drawing in a deep breath. He blinks at the bright flashes of agony that shoot across his eyes. People point at him and talk in excited voices he cannot make out, but then continue working at the door of the Mercedes. He thinks briefly that the injured person must be rich enough to own a parking spot underground. No one else would drive a black car. Then he ponders the rate of solar absorption differentiated by color and reflectivity.
Slowly, he turns his head to look up the street in the opposite direction and sees nothing but a wall of fog that slowly moves towards him. He squints, thinking that all the fog should have burned off by this time of day, even though he doesn’t know what time it is. And though he played in the fog before as with an old friend, now he fears its presence. He tries again to cry out but is unable.
Then he sees a figure coalesce in the dense mist, a form that seems familiar to him, yet hidden.
“It is time to come home,” a voice seems to whisper to him from the fog.
“Nuri?” he sighs. The fog rolls over him, filling his eyes and lungs. He gasps and tries to force it out as panic fills his mind.
But then he feels a hand close over his own, and another touch his brow. “Let us go,” the voice seems to say.
Finally, the old man ceases to struggle, and relaxes and smiles. He sighs deeply and air rushes from his lungs. She has come to him in this desert land. It is his Nuri, come to him at last. The old man closes his eyes. He was lost but she has found him and will take him with her to their home. Or so he believes.