There's a war to be fought. And Khadija Smith, sharp-nosed Khadija Smith, Khadija Smith in her body of cotton cloth and bare feet, pausing, puts her pen down.
A religious war? Of sorts, neither war nor religion really, but a re-assessment, if you like, a long due retrieval of talks, a snatch visit back, back to why things were, how, and if, if that's alright.
A religious war? And Khadija Smith writes on, writing her mixed womanhood for print for the next day's paper news, writing out her sense of faith, freedom, familiarity and all she wants to say while I disappear into the kitchen to boil black Turkish coffee. Sweet Turkish coffee, boiled several times, boiled foamless.
Our doom in bureaucracy, Khadija Smith writes, sounding the 'our' in full force. Our doom in sealing off further possibilities, Khadija Smith writes, four floors above in concrete and stone surrounds, wide open windows metal-barricaded in patterned floral.
Piled brown powder on three teaspoons makes hot water black, thick black and heavy to boil. White, pure white sugar seeps, tunnelling through the brown lumpy surface. The aluminium jug-like pot clatters unsteady on the blue-flamed ring.
What happened a thousand years ago? What happened fifty years ago? Khadija Smith writes, asking what event in history; what produced this fear, this mounted fear on horseback charging speared towards a person, a person saying I don't, no, I don't, you see, I don't quite agree.
The aluminium handle may be held for as long as it takes the coffee to boil. Stirred while being held, since the aluminium pot is narrow at the bottom and notoriously unsteady on the stove rings.
If I was writing, if only I was writing, I'd say there was too much of this understanding business, cultural enamourment and hospitality myth. Hospitality, translated into politics means ignorant trust. Or at least that was the advantage. On the opposing side, hospitality, often a strategy. I'd say there is one way out of the doldrums, and that could only take place outside this mad East-West love affair, out of reach, out of touch. And what I'd write, I'd write, well, we are the barbarians you've heard about. But we are.
When once I loved this Khadija Smith.
Landing that day, three years ago, on the sun-baked tarmac, stepping out heel first on the metal-studded steps, an English woman in veil, veil tips flicking, in the aerostrip desert and gale.
My spiritual homeland, she had said and held my hands, saying my name, and my hair, windswept, making me faceless while I smiled. Her Arabic was impeccable and newspapers carried her arrival in the next day's editions: committed, courageous, in adverse conditions, in spite of, despite the odds, indomitable spirit, this living proof. Khadija Smith, staying at my place, my place, having come straight from the airport to this fourth floor apartment overlooking the metropolitan wheatfields and the bedouin makeshift camps and early morning braying mules and the white square blocks that were the city.
Khadija Smith had turned and knelt south-east in dawn prayer, lingering minutes afterwards to meditate, her back upright over folded lengths of legs, bare feet wrinkled underneath. Khadija Smith had mentioned me in her prayer, me, while I rolled vine leaves in the kitchen, kitchen stove steaming with two pots. Khadija Smith in praise that day, praising, had been composed, almost charming, veil hanging still and starch white in the velvet air of the Marhaba Room, midday press conference venue at the Marriott Hotel.
" . . . of the Arab Herald. What made you come here?"
Personal choice and spiritual guidance, Khadija Smith had said. And this immense hospitality.
Veil tips hung from tightly sealed squareness and Khadija's face is camera-lit for two hours. Khadija Smith, English, from meadows, white fence and oak trees and cold, steamless cold kitchens. Khadija Smith in her impeccable Arabic, Oxford Oriental Studies and Semitic Languages learnt, here on research work, part us, partly us; in her words, boundaries erased.
A religious war? Khadija Smith writes of the bureaucratisation of belief, disputing rules, asking for evidence, calling for individual action and collective debate. Khadija Smith, three years down the track, in anger over last Wednesday's opinion column, where she was the subject being written of, written off as a woman deluded in her religious belief and whose opinions, anyhow, didn't matter.
Turkish coffee, unlike Arabic bitter, erupts suddenly, explosively. Stir, keep stirring, keeping an eye on the treacherous black mass.
Certain events, writes Khadija Smith, certain events have led to this now intolerable, inhuman sacrifice of opinion. What, she asks, went wrong; what caused this fear, this veil of suspense, this belief in the inevitability of chaos when an individual ventures to think?
A religious war? and Khadija Smith, who once loved, bellows from over ink-riddled paper, print and table; surely you don't expect me to keep quiet? And Khadija Smith quotes, centuries old quotes from chronologically woven stories, testimonies from the prophet's entourage, visitors, individuals entering, exiting, carrying cats, bearing scars, twitches, strengths like fearlessness, weaknesses like stammers. There was talkativeness, and in the talkativeness, mistakes and discoveries. Wives, slaves, divorcees, lovers, widows, daughters, not all mothers. Then there were men who concocted stories and mutilated events; why? Because there were benefits too at that time and that was not such a long time ago; a thousand years; politics was firmly entrenched and the results mattered. Khadija Smith from misty meadows, narrows her eyes down, back on paper. Mutilated events, she repeats, for these were haunted men.
Second boil, and third. Brown foam vanishes miraculously from the simmering surface at the fourth boil. The aluminium pot with the long handle rattles, then rests.
And if I was writing, I'd say the nightmare wasn't over yet. Open, oversized windows on the south-east side invite in the sounds of the wheatfield swaying in the city desert breeze. Wheatstalks sway, humming. Mules blink long lashes in the dusk, tied up and resting. Square stone houses echo coffee pots rattling and the smell of coffee brew. Bedouin tents flutter noisily, Arabic bitter brew and cardamom seeds. If I was writing I'd say whirlpool argument. Intrigue spelling deception, spelling outsider.
Somehow, over the centuries it was established, says Khadija Smith; writes Khadija Smith. Opinions didn't matter. Only rules. Rules laid down from disfigured events, and rules became indisputable. Once a rule, always a rule. Time did not absolve but time was a sensitive matter.
At dusk Khadija Smith turns south east again towards the metal barricades and aluminium-framed windows, glass-tinted, standing, kneeling over prettily woven prayer mats. She prays for me, in the meditative windup, whispering, I can hear, my name.
Turkish coffee, when the coffee in its cup has been drunk, leaves a thick layer of almost solid mass, a mass of muddy powder. Coffee cups can be turned upside down on saucers and left for five minutes to allow the mass to slide down the inner sides and dry.
But if I was writing, I'd say something else must have happened and that was not so long ago. The far east was further away; this was closer. Still, the distrust was there, bedouins shooting down curious travellers, explorers, scholars who wrote chronicles and kept diaries until the travellers came travelling in Arab garb and exotically bad accents.
Khadija Smith, over pen and papers, newspaper cuttings and documents, pauses to sip and look up, sip and look down, penning poise, writing with all her familiarity, what the world looks like from her place, my place, this place with the wide-open windows.
That was Khadija Smith, having come straight from the airport one day, historian, anthropologist, linguist, adherent.
What happened? That was how it ended, boarding a place back to Heathrow, Khadija Smith repeating over and over again the need to do some further research at Oxford, the position was too good to reject, once in a lifetime; well, there were always other opportunities to return and to see me, especially me, since it was me who mattered most. Did I understand? She wanted to know.
Once the muddy mass has dried, the cup is picked up and read. Inside the cup, hieroglyphs of events, past and future. Coffee powder paths that lead to ponds, eagles on paths, closed doors, high buildings, eagle's nest, a woman with long hair, a dog with three legs. A waterfall. And this, now this looks like a birthday cake, upside down.
Khadija Smith. Last minute packing and long distance phone calls. Some people just always leave in such a hurry. She left a box full of downtown collectibles, souvenirs and some documents in Arabic.
I'll pick those up next time I'm here, she said, but I didn't want them.
There's a war to be fought. A mounted camel-back war, long double- jointed legs and hooves spread heavily on the sand. Armies of women veiled against the desert sun and sandstorms. Women at the time when religious laws were still being planted, women at a time when faith was still an experiment. Did all this matter? After that, after the seething midday sun and the proclamation of victory, women sheltered in the shadows.
Evening desert breeze and the airport howls khamsin wind and dust. Khadija Smith holds my hands for the last time. Khadija Smith, sharp-nosed Khadija Smith, veil tugging at her head, flattened hair and smiling, steps off the cooling tarmac. Khadija Smith having spoken, written her reverberant answer to one columnist, having spoken, written her historical perspective about the bureaucratisation of belief, now flying off in a mumbled hurry, to escape a pending fatwa. Did I once love Khadija Smith? Back in my fourth floor apartment, aluminium framed windows and the wheatfield singing, a prettily woven prayer mat lies empty, while I disappear into the kitchen to make sweet Turkish coffee. Strong and very sweet, boiled several times.
New: 13 December, 1996 | Now: 22 April, 2015