Leila Aboulela

They set out early, before sunset. Not the right time for visiting, but it was going to be a long drive and his sister Manaal said she would not be able to recognize the painter's house in the dark. The car slipped from the shaded car-port into the white sunlight of the afternoon, the streets were empty, their silence reminiscent of dawn. 

Since he had come on the plane from Scotland two weeks ago, Yassir had not gone out at this time of day. Instead he had rested after lunch wearing his old jellabia. He would lie on one of the beds that were against the walls of the sitting room, playing with a toothpick in his mouth and talking to Manaal without looking at her. On the bed perpendicular to his, she would lie with her feet near his head so that had they been children she might have reached out and pulled his hair with her toes. And the child Yassir would have let his heels graze the white wall leaving brown stains for which he would be punished later. Now they talked slowly, probing for common interests and so remembering things past, gossiping lightly about others, while all the time the air cooler blew the edges of the beds' sheets just a little, intermittently, and the smells of lunch receded. Then the air cooler's sound would take over, dominate the room, blowing their thoughts away and they would sleep until the time came when all the garden was in shade.     

In this respect, Yassir had slotted easily into the life of Khartoum. After five years on the North Sea oil-rigs, noisy helicopter flights to and from Dyce airport, a grey sea with waves as crazy as the sky. Five years of two weeks off-shore, two weeks on with Emma in Aberdeen. No naps after lunch there and yet he could lie here and know that the rhythms the air cooler whispered into his heart were familiar, well-known. When he had first arrived he had put fresh straw into the air cooler's box. Standing outdoors on an over turned Pepsi crate, he had wedged open the grimy perforated frame with a screwdriver, unleashed cobwebs and plenty of dust. Fresh powdery dust and solid fluffs that had lost all resemblance to sand. The old bale of straw had shrunk over the years, gone dark and rigid from the constant exposure to water. He oiled the water pump and put in the new bale of straw. Its smell filled the house for days, the air that blew out was cooler. For this his mother had thanked him and like other times before, prayed that he would only find good people in his path. It was true, he was always fortunate in the connections he made, in the people who held the ability to further his interests. In the past teachers, now his boss, his colleagues, Emma.      

But 'Your wife- what's her name?' was how his mother referred to Emma. She would not say Emma's name. She would not 'remember' it. It would have been the same if Emma had been Jane, Alison or Susan, any woman from 'outside'. Outside that large pool of names his mother knew and could relate to. That was his punishment, nothing more, nothing less. He accepted it as the nomad bears the times of drought which come to starve his cattle, biding time, waiting for the tightness to run its course and the rain that must eventually fall. Manaal would smile embarrassed when their mother said that. And as if time had dissolved the age gap between them, she would attempt a faint defense. 'Leave him alone, Mama', she would say, in a whisper, avoiding their eyes, wary, lest her words instead of calming, provoked the much feared outburst. Manaal had met Emma two years ago in Aberdeen. What she had told his mother about Emma, what she had said to try to drive away the rejection that gripped her, he didn't know.     

For Yassir, Emma was Aberdeen. Unbroken land after the sea. Real life after the straight lines of the oil-rig. A kind of freedom. Before Emma his leave on-shore had floated, never living up to his expectations. And it was essential for those who worked on the rigs that those on-shore days were fulfilling enough to justify the hardship of the rigs. A certain formula was needed, a certain balance which evaded him. Until one day he visited the dentist for two fillings and, with lips frozen with procaine, read out loud the name, Emma, written in Arabic, on a golden necklace that hung around the receptionist's throat.     

‘Your wife-what's her name?' his mother says as if clumsily smudging out a fact, hurting it. A fact, a history: three years ago he drove Emma to the maternity ward in Foresterhill, in the middle of a summer's night that looked like twilight, to deliver a daughter who did not make her appearance until the afternoon of the following day. Samia changed in the two weeks that he did not see her. Her growth marked time like nothing else did. Two weeks off-shore, two weeks with Emma and Samia, two weeks off-shore again, Emma driving him to the heliport, the child in her own seat in the back. A fact, a history. Yet here, when Manaal's friends visited, some with toddlers, some with good jobs, careers, there was a 'see what you've missed' atmosphere around the house. An atmosphere that was neither jocular nor of regret. So that he had come to realize, with the sick bleakness that accompanies truth, that his mother imagined that he could just leave Emma and leave the child, come home, and those five years would have been just an aberration, time forgotten. He could marry one of Manaal's friends, one who would not mind that he had been married before, that he had left behind a child somewhere in Europe. A bride who would regard all that as a man's experience. When talking to her friends she would say the word 'experienced' in a certain way, smiling secretly.


Because the streets were silent, Yassir and Manaal were silent too, as if by talking they would disturb those who were resting indoors. Yassir drove slowly, pebbles spat out from under the wheels, he was careful to avoid the potholes. The wide open windows let in dust but closing them would be suffocating. From their house in Safia they crossed the bridge into Khartoum and it was busier there, more cars, more people walking in the streets. That part of the journey, the entry into Khartoum reminded him of the Blue Nile Cinema, which was a little way under the bridge. He remembered as a student walking back from the cinema, late at night to the Barracks, as his hostel was called, because it was once army barracks. He used to walk with his friends in a kind of swollen high, full of the film he had just seen. Films like A Man for All Seasons, Educating Rita, Chariots of Fire…      

There was still a long way for them to go, past the Extension, beyond the airport, past Riyadh to the newly built areas of Taif and El-Ma'moura. Not a very practical idea, a drain of the week's ration of petrol and there was the possibility that the painter would not be in and the whole journey would have been wasted. Manaal was optimistic though. 'They'll be in', she said, 'Inshallah. Especially if we get there early enough before they go out anywhere.' There were no telephones in El-Ma'moura, it was a newly built area with no street numbers, no addresses.

That morning, he had mentioned buying a painting or two to take back to Aberdeen and Manaal had suggested Ronan K. He was English, his wife gave private English lessons, (Manaal was once her student). Now in the car when he asked more about him she said, 'For years he sat doing nothing, he had no job, maybe he was painting. I didn't know about that until the Hilton commissioned him to do some paintings for the cafeteria. No one knows why this couple live here. They are either crazy or they are spies. Everyone thinks they are spies.' 

'You all like to think these sensational things,’ he said, 'What is there to spy on anyway?'    

'They're nice though,’ she said, 'I hope they are not spies'.   Yassir shook his head, thinking it was hopeless to talk sense into her.      

The paintings were not his idea, they were Emma's. Emma was good with ideas, new suggestions, it was one of the things he admired about her. Yassir didn't know much about painting. If he walked into a room he would not notice the paintings on the wall and he secretly thought they were an extravagance. But then he felt like that about many of the things Emma bought. What he considered luxuries, she considered necessities. Like the Bambi wallpaper in Samia's room must be bought to match the curtains, which match the bedspread, which match Thumper on the pillow-case. And there was a Bambi video, a Ladybird book, a pop-up book. He would grumble but she would persuade him. She would say that as a child she had cried in the cinema when Bambi's mother was shot. Popcorn could not stop the tears, the nasal flood. Of pop-up books and Halloween costumes, she would say, as a child I had these things. He would think, 'I didn't'.

This time Emma had asked 'What can you get from Khartoum for the house?,' They were eating muesli and watching Mr.Motivator on GMTV. Mr.M had a litre and a half of bottled mineral water in each hand. He was using them as weights while he squatted down and up, down and up, 'Knees over your toes.' The labels on the bottles had been slyly removed.

'Nothing. There's nothing there,’ Yassir said.

'What do tourists get when they go there?'

'Tourists don't go there,’ he said, 'It's not a touristy place. The only foreigners there are working'. Once when Yassir was in University he had met a British journalist. The journalist was wearing shorts which looked comical because no one else wore shorts unless they were playing sports. He had chatted with Yassir and some of his friends.

'There must be something you can get.' Emma said. 'Things carved in wood, baskets, ...'

'There's a shop which sell ivory things. Elephants made of ivory and things like that'.

'No. Not ivory'.

'I could get you a handbag made of crocodile skin?'

'No yuck'.

'Snake skin?'

'Stop it, I'm serious'.

'Ostrich feathers?'

'NO DEAD ANIMALS.  Think of something else'.

'There's a bead market. Someone once told me about that. I don't know where it is though. I'll have to find out'

'If you get me beads I can have them made here into a necklace.’  Emma liked necklaces but not bracelets or earrings. The golden necklace with her name in Arabic was from an ex-boyfriend, a mud-logger who had been working rotationally from the oil rigs in Oman.

'Change your mind and come with me. You can take the Malaria pills, Samia can take the syrup and it's just a few vaccines....'

'A few jabs! Typhoid, yellow fever, cholera, T.B! And Samia might get bitten by this sandfly Manaal told us about when she came here. She is only three. It's not worth it - maybe when she's older...' 

'You're not curious to see where I grew up?'

'I am interested a bit but - I don't know - I've never heard anything good about that place'.

'This is just a two week holiday, that's all. My mother will get to see you and Samia, you'll have a look around...’ he said switching Mr. Motivator off.

'Paintings,' she said, 'That's what you should get. You can bring back paintings of all those things you think I should be curious about. Or just take lots of photographs and bring the beads.'


He bought the beads but did not take any photographs. He had shied away from that, as if unable to click a camera at his house, his old school, the cinemas that brought the sparkle of life abroad. So when Manaal said she knew this English painter, he was enthusiastic about the idea even though it was his last evening in Khartoum. Tomorrow his flight would leave for home. He hoped he would have with him some paintings for Emma. She would care about where each one went, on this wall or that. She cared about things more than he did. She even cared about Samia more than he did. Emma was in tune with the child's every burp and whimper. In comparison to Emma, Yassir's feelings for Samia were jammed up, unable to flow. Sometimes with the two of them he felt himself dispensable, he thought they could manage without him. They did just that when he was off-shore. They had a life together; playgroup, kindergym, Duthie Park. When Manaal came to Aberdeen she said many times, 'Emma is so good with the child. She talks to her as if she is an adult'.

Yassir now wondered, as they drove down Airport Road, if Manaal had said such positive things to his mother. Or if she had only told of the first day of her visit to Aberdeen. The day she reached out to hold the sleeping child and Emma said, 'No, I'd rather you didn't. She'll be frightened if she wakes up and finds a stranger holding her'.  The expression on Manaal's face had lingered throughout the whole visit as she cringed in Emma's jumpers that were too loose, too big for her. Then, as if lost in the cold, his sister hibernated, slept and slept through the nights and large parts of the days. So that Emma began to say, she must be ill, there must be something wrong with her, some disease, why does she sleep so much Yassir, why?  Possessive of Manaal, he had shrugged, Aberdeen's fresh air, and not explained that his sister had always been like that, easily tired, that she reacted to life's confusions by digging herself into sleep.

When they left the airport behind them and began to pass Riyadh, Manaal suddenly said that to make sure they get to the right house, she had better drop in on her friend Zahra. Zahra's mother, a Bulgarian, was a good friend of Mrs.K and they would know where the house was.

'I thought you knew where it is?'

'I do - but it's better to be sure. It's on our way anyway'. 

'Isn't it too early to go banging on people's doors?'    

'No it's nearly five.  Anyway her parents are away - they've gone to Hajj'.

'Who? The Bulgarian woman? You're joking'.

'No, wallahi,’ Manaal seemed amused by his surprise, 'Zahra's mother prays and fasts Ramadan. We were teasing her the last time I went there, telling her that when she comes back from Hajj, she'll start covering her hair and wearing long sleeves. And she said, 'No never, your country is too hot, it's an oven.” Manaal did an impersonation of grammatically incorrect Arabic with a Bulgarian accent which made Yassir laugh. He thought of Zahra's father, a man who was able to draw his foreign wife to Islam, and Yassir attributed to him qualities of strength and confidence.

The house, in front of which Manaal told him to stop, had a high wall around it. The tops of the trees, that grew inside, fell over the wall shading the pavement. Manaal banged on the metal door - there was no bell. She banged with her palms, and peered through the chink in the door to see if anyone was coming.

Yassir opened the car door to let in some air but there was hardly any breeze. There were tears in the plastic of Manaal's seat from which bits of yellow foam protruded. There was a crack in the window, fine and long, like a map of the Nile and one of the doors in the back was stuck and could never be opened. This car, he thought would not pass its MOT in Aberdeen, it would not be deemed Road Worthy. What keeps it going here is baraka

The car had seen finer days in his father's lifetime. Then it was solid and tinged with prestige. Now more than anything else, its decay was proof of the passing away of time, the years of Yassir's absence. He had suggested to his mother and Manaal that he should buy them a new one. Indeed this had been one of the topics of his stay - A new car - The house needs fixing - Parts of the garden wall are crumbling away - Why don't you get out of this dump and move to a new house. But his mother and sister tended to put up with things. Like with Manaal recently losing her job. She had worked since graduation with a Danish aid agency, writing reports in their main office in Souk Two. When they had reduced their operations in the South, staff cuts followed. 'Start looking for a new job,’ he told her, 'or have you got certain plans that I don't know of yet?' She laughed and said, 'When you leave I'll start looking for a job and no, there are no certain plans. There is no one on the horizon yet'.

It was a joke between them. There is no one on the horizon yet. She wrote this at the bottom of letters, letters in Arabic that Emma could not read. Year after year. She was twenty-five now and he could feel the words touched by the frizzle of anxiety. 'Every university graduate is abroad, making money so that he can come back and marry a pretty girl like you', he had said recently to her. 'Really?' she replied with a sarcasm that was not characteristic of her. 


From the door of Zahra's house, Manaal looked at Yassir in the car and shrugged, then banged again with both hands. But she must have heard someone coming for she raised her hand to him and nodded.     

The girl who opened the door had a towel wrapped around her hair like a turban. She kissed Manaal and he could hear, amidst their greetings, the words shower and sorry. They walked towards him, something he was not expecting and before he could get out of the car the girl leaned, and through the open window of the seat next to his, extended her hand. The car filled up with the smell of soap and shampoo, he thought his hand would later smell of her soap. She had the same coloring as his daughter Samia, the froth of cappuccino, dark grey eyes, thick eyebrows. Her face was dotted with pink spots, round and raised like little sweets. He imagined those grey eyes soft with sadness when she examined her acne in the bathroom mirror, running her fingertips over the bumps.

With a twig and some pebbles, Zahra drew them a map of the painter's house in the dust of the pavement. She sat on her heels rather primly, careful not to get dust on her jellabia. She marked the main road and where they should turn left. ‘When you see a house with no garden walls, no fence,’ she said, ‘that's where you should turn left.’

She stood up, dusted off her hands and when Manaal got into the car, she waved to them until they turned and were out of sight. Yassir drove back on to the main road, from the dust to the asphalt. The asphalt road was raised and because it had no pavements, its sides were continually being eroded, eaten away. They looked jagged, crumbly. The afternoon was beginning to mellow, sunset was drawing near.

'I imagine that when Samia grows up she will look like your friend' he said.     

'Maybe, yes. I haven't thought of it before', Manaal said, 'Did you like the earrings for Samia?'     

He nodded. His mother had given him a pair of earrings for Samia. He had thanked her and not said that his daughter's ears were not pierced.       

'She's beginning to accept the situation.’ His voice had a tinge of bravado about it. He was talking about his mother and Manaal knew. She was looking out of the window. She turned to him and said, 'She likes the photographs that you send. She shows them to everyone.'

Yassir had been sending photographs from Aberdeen. Photographs of Emma and Samia. Some were in the snow, some taken in the Winter Gardens at Duthie Park, some at home.

'So why doesn't she tell me that? Instead of 'What's her name?' or whatever she keeps saying?'

'You should have given her some idea very early on, you should have...consulted her', Manaal spoke slowly, with caution, like she was afraid or just tired.

'And what would she have said if I had asked her? Tell me, what do think she would have said'.

'I don't know.'

'You do know.'

'How can I?'

'She would have said no and then what?'

'I don't know.  I just know that it was wrong to suddenly write a letter and say 'I got married'- in the past tense. Nobody does that.’     

He didn't answer her. He did not like the hurt in her voice, like it was her own hurt not their mother's.

As if his silence disturbed her and she wanted the conversation to continue she said, 'It wasn't kind'.

'It was honest.’

'But it was hard. She was like someone ill when she read your letter. Defeated and ill...'

'She'll come to accept it'.

'Of course she'll come to accept it. That's the whole point.  It's inevitable but you could have made it easier for her, that's all.' Then in a lighter tone she said,'Do something theatrical. Get down on your knees and beg for her forgiveness'.

They laughed at this together, somewhat deliberately to ease the tension. What he wanted to do was explain, speak about Emma and say, She welcomed me, I was on the periphery and she let me in. Do people get tortured to death in that dentist's chair or was I going to be the first, he had asked Emma that day, and made her smile, when he stumbled out of pain and spoke to her with lips numb with procaine.

'It would have been good if Emma and Samia had come with you', Manaal was saying.

'I wanted that too'.

'Why didn't they?' She had asked that question before as had others. He gave different reasons to different people. Now in the car he felt that Manaal was asking deliberately, wanting him to tell her the truth. Could he say that from this part of the world Emma wanted malleable pieces, not the random whole? She desired frankincense from the Body Shop, tahina safe in a supermarket container.

 'She has fears,’ he said.

 'What fears?'

'I don't know. The sandfly, malaria…Some rubbish like that'. He felt embarrassed and disloyal.


They heard the sunset azan when they began to look for the house without a garden wall which Zahra had told them about. But there were many houses like that, people built their homes and ran out of money by the time it came to build the garden wall. So they turned left off the asphalt road anyway when they reached El Ma'moura, hoping that Manaal would be able to recognize the street or the house.

'Nothing looks familiar to you?' he asked.

'But everything looks different than the last time I was here,’ she said, 'all those new houses, it's confusing.’

There were no roads, just tracks made by previous cars, hardly any pavements. They drove through dust and stones. The houses in various stages of construction stood in straight lines. In some parts the houses formed a square around an large empty area, as if marking a place which would always be empty, where houses would not be allowed to be built. 

'Maybe it's this house,' Manaal said. He parked, they rang the bell but it was the wrong house.

Back in the car they drove through the different tracks and decided to ask around. How many foreigners were living in this area anyway? People were bound to know them.

Yassir asked a fat man sitting in front of his house, one knee against his chest, picking his toe nails. Near him an elderly man was praying, using a newspaper as a mat. The man didn't seem to know but he gave Yassir several elaborate suggestions.

Yassir asked some people who were walking past but again they didn't know. This was taking a long time as everyone he asked seemed willing to engage him in conversation.

'It's your turn', he said to Manaal when they saw a woman coming out of her house.

She went towards the woman and stood talking to her. Sunset was nearly over by then, the western sky, the houses, the dusty roads were all one colour, like the flare that burns off the rig, he thought. Manaal stood, a dark silhouette against red and brick. One hand reached out to hold her hair from blowing and her thin elbows made an angle with her head and neck from the which the light came through. This is what I would paint, Yassir thought, if I knew how, I would paint Manaal like this, with her elbows sticking out against the setting sun.

When she came back she seemed pleased, 'We're nearly there', she said, 'that woman knew them. First right, and its the second house.'

As soon as they turned right, Manaal recognized the one-story house with the blue gate. She got out before him and rang the bell.


Ronan K. was older than Yassir had imagined. He looked like a football coach, overweight yet light in his movements. The light from the lamp near the gate made him look slightly bald. He recognized Manaal, and as they stepped into a large bare courtyard while he closed the gate behind them, she launched into a long explanation of why they had come and how they had nearly got lost on the way.

The house inside had no tiles on the floors, its surface was of uneven textured stone, giving it the appearance that it was unfinished, still in the process of being built. Yet the furniture was arranged in an orderly way, and there were carpets on the floor. Birds rustled in a cage near the kitchen door. On one of the walls there was a painting of the back of a woman in a tobe, balancing a basket on her head.

'One of yours?' Yassir asked but Ronan said no, he did not like to hang his own paintings in the house.

'All my work is on the roof', he said and from the kitchen got a tray with a plastic jug full of kerkadeh and ice and three glasses. Some of the ice splashed into the glasses as he began to pour, and a pool of redness gathered in the tray, sliding slowly around in large patterns.

'You have a room on the roof?' Yassir asked.

'That's where I paint', Ronan said ,'I lock it though, we've had many  haramiah in the area. Not that they would steal my paintings but its better to be careful. I'm in there most nights though, the kahrabah permitting'.

Hearing the Arabic words for thieves and electricity made Yassir smile. He remembered Manaal copying the way Zahra's mother spoke. He wondered how well Ronan K. knew Arabic.

'My wife has the key. But she is right next door. The neighbors' daughter had a baby last week. There's a party of some kind there,’ and he looked at Manaal as if for an explanation.

 'A simayah.’ she said.

'That's right,’ said Ronan, 'a simayah. Maybe you could you go over and get the key from her?  It's right next door.'

'Is it Amina and her people? I've seen them here before,' Manaal asked him.

'Yes, that’s them.’

'Last time I was here, Amina walked in with chickens to put in your freezer. There wasn't enough room in theirs.'

'Chickens with their heads still on them and all the insides', said Ronan, 'Terrible...This morning she brought over a leg of lamb', and he gestured vaguely towards the kitchen.

'So who had the baby?' Manaal asked.

'Let's see if I can get this one right', he said, 'The sister of Amina's husband, who happens to be - just to get things complicated- married to the cousin of Amina's mother.'

They laughed because Ronan gave an exaggerated sigh as if he had done a lot of hard work.

'I thought you said it was the neighbors' daughter,’ said Yassir.

'Well this Amina character,’ he said and Manaal laughed and nodded at the word ‘character', 'she is living with her in-laws, so it is really the in-laws house.'

Manaal got up to go and Ronan said, 'I'll tell you what. Just throw the keys up to us on the roof. We'll wait for you there. It will save time.'    

The roof was dark and cool, its floor more uneven than that of the house had been. The ledge all around it was low, only knee-high. El-Ma'moura lay spread out before them, the half-built houses surrounded by scaffolding, the piles of sand and discarded bricks. Shadows of stray dogs made their way through the rubble. Domes of cardboard marked the places where the caretakers of the houses and their families lived. Their job was to guard the bags of cement, the toilets, the tiles that came for the new houses. Once the houses were built they would linger, drawing water from the pipes that splashed on the embryonic streets, until they were eventually sent away.

From the house next door came the sounds of children playing football, scuffling, names called out loud. A woman's voice shrieked from indoors. Yassir and Ronan sat on the ledge. He offered Yassir a cigarette and Yassir accepted though he hadn't smoked for several years. Ronan put his box of matches between them. It had a picture of a crocodile on it, mouth wide open, tail arched up in the air. Yassir had forgotten how good it felt to strike a match, flick grey ash away. It was one of the things he and Emma had done together- given up smoking.

'A long way from Aberdeen, or rather Aberdeen is a long way from here,’ Ronan said.

'Have you been there before?'  

'I know it well, my mother originally came from Elgin. They can be a bit parochial up there, don't you think?'

At the back of Yassir's mind questions formed themselves, rose out of a sense of habit, but drooped languidly as if there was no fuel to vocalize them. What was this man doing here, in a place where even the nights were hot and alcohol was forbidden? Where there was little comfort and little material gain? The painter sat on his roof and like the raised spots on the girl's face did not arouse in Yassir derision, only passive wonder.

'If you look this way,’ Ronan said, 'You can see the airport - where the red and blue lights are. Sometimes I see the airplanes circling and landing. They pass right over me when they take off. I see the fat bellies of planes full of people going away.

Last August we had so much rain. This whole area was flooded - we couldn't drive to the main road. The Nile rose and I could see it with my telescope - even though it is far from here'.

'How long have you been here?' Yassir asked.

'Fifteen years'.

'That's a long time'.

Giant wisps of white brushed the sky as if the smoke from their cigarettes had risen high, expanded and stood still. Stars were pushing their way into view, gathering around them the darkest dregs of night. On the roof, speaking Emma's language for the first time in two weeks, Yassir missed her, not with the light eagerness he had known on the rigs but with something else, something plain and unwanted; the grim awareness of distance. He knew why he had wanted her to come with him, not to 'see', but so that the place would move her, startle her, touch her in some irreversible way.


Manaal threw up the keys, Ronan opened the locked room and put the light on. It was a single bulb which dangled from the ceiling, speckled with the still bodies of black insects. The room smelt of paint, a large fan stood in the corner. Conscious of his ignorance, Yassir was silent as Ronan, cigarette drooping from his mouth, showed him one painting after the other. 'I like them', he said and it was true. They were clear and uncluttered, the colors light, giving an impression of sunlight. Most were village scenes, mud houses, one of children playing with a goat, one of a tree that had fallen into the river. 

'Paper is my biggest problem', said Ronan, 'The brushes and paints last for quite some time. But if I know someone who is going abroad I always ask them for paper'.    

'Is it special paper that you need?'

'Yes, thicker for water colors'.

'I like the one of the donkey in front of the mud house,’ said Yassir.

'The Hilton don't seem to want mud houses.'

'Did they tell you that?'

'No, I just got this feeling.'

'That means I could get them at a discount?'

'Maybe...How many were you thinking of taking?'

Yassir choose three, one of them the children with the goat because he thought Samia might like that. He paid after some haggling. Downstairs the birds were asleep in their cage, there was no longer any ice in the jug of kerkadeh. Manaal was waiting for him by the gate. She had a handful of dates from next door which she offered to Ronan and Yassir. The dates were dry and cracked uncomfortably under Yassir's teeth before softening into sweetness. It was now time to leave.  He shook hands with Ronan. The visit was a success, he had achieved what he came for.          


Manaal slept in the car on the way home. Yassir drove through streets busier than the ones he had found in the afternoon. This was his last day in Khartoum. Tomorrow night a plane would take him to Paris, another plane to Glasgow then the train to Aberdeen. Perhaps Ronan K. would be on his roof tomorrow night, watching Air France rise up over the new houses of El-Ma'moura.

The city was acknowledging his departure, recognizing his need for a farewell. Headlamps of cars jerked in the badly lit streets, thin people in white floated like clouds. Voices, rumbling lorries, trucks leaning to one side snorting fumes. On a junction with a busier road, a small bus went past carrying a wedding party. It was lighted inside, an orange light that caught the singing faces, the clapping hands. Ululations, the sound of a drum, lines from a song. Yassir drove on and gathered around him what he would take back with him, the things he could not deliver. Not the beads, not the paintings, but other things. Things devoid of the sense of their own worth. Manaal's silhouette against the rig's flare, against a sky dyed with kerkadeh. The scent of soap and shampoo in his car, a man picking his toe nails, a page from a newspaper spread out as a mat. A voice that said, I see the planes circling at night, I see their lights ... all the people going away. Manaal saying, you could have made it easier for her, you could have been more kind.

Leila Aboulela’s latest novel Lyrics Alley was Fiction Winner of the Scottish Book Awards and short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers Prize. It was long-listed for the Orange Prize as were her previous novels The Translator (a New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year) and Minaret.  Leila is a recipient of the Caine Prize for African Writing and her work has been translated into 13 languages. She grew up in Khartoum and now lives in Aberdeen. www.leila-aboulela.com