by Youssef Rakha

Youssef Rakha is a novelist, poet and essayist who writes in both Arabic and English. He edits тнє ѕυℓтαη’ѕ ѕєαℓ: Cairo’s Coolest Cosmopolitan Hotel. His interests include what a post-Muslim perspective might look like and the future of Arab porn.

And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground…

— Genesis 18:2


The first portent was erotic.

My name means light, as you know. But after a knife-sharp simultaneous orgasm—I had nearly died of hyperthermia—the woman I loved took to calling me Nar: fire. In turn I called her by the pharyngeal first letter of her name, the eighteenth of the abjad, which on its own means eye and spring: Ain.

The day Aisha and I talked for the first time, she said she had a wound that could be tended but would never heal. I asked her where she meant and, with the subtlest nod, her eyes pointed between her thighs. There was shyness on her lips but no blush in her cheeks.

Later, almost every time, she would comment on the way I tended her wound: fast or slow, artful or melancholy, with a rhythm like a dhikr or through banging pain.

When I became Nar and she Ain I told her that her wound was the cleft of the glyph’s two curves. She was the orb with which I saw and the fount from which I quaffed. She was the sight that gave the fire its brightness, the water that kept the blood running in my veins. She was supple and slender as the letter inscribed, I told her. And she said the bite of the fire tended her wound better than any treatment.

Neither of us thought of our new sobriquets as anything but lovers’ pet names, but as soon as we had them we could feel they had a presence.

Nar, and Ain.

They were the kind of names that stuck. Featherlight but palpable, like skin-tight garments clinging to an outline, telling you who you are.

Should you ever decide to take them off—but I didn’t want to think too hard on the sobriquets. It felt at once silly and risky, like the minor software glitch you keep trying to fix until you break the computer.

We married on February 10, 2012. I’d just turned forty on February 6.

On my first day at the office after our honeymoon—the charged, chilly afternoon of February 25—I bumped into the janitor Sami Lunch at the elevator door and he pointed to the meeting room, the closest to the landing and so also the visitors’ lounge:

— Guests waiting, Ustaz Nur.

— Sweet stuff?

— Cuckoo stuff, he said as he passed.

I found them in chalk-white suits, androgynous figures dressed to look like men. Like the bank salesmen who visit El Arab to peddle credit schemes and collect phone numbers, they were sitting upright at the imitation ebony round table, preemptive smiles on their lips and briefcases by their elbows.

All three had the same slight but athletic build, skin heads and sculpted faces. Unblinking, inky eyes. Except for fake-looking lashes and brows, I was sure their beige skin was totally hairless.

And, for a moment before I could feel anything, the idea crept into my head that I had been named Nar in order for this troika of transcendental hawkers to recognize me.

The idea crept into my head that I had been named Nar in order for this troika of transcendental hawkers to recognize me.

I noted, as if on our second or third meeting, that they looked foreign, though nothing in their physique suggested it. It wasn’t so much their shimmering outfits or the firm, pliant postures they adopted as the almost holographic quality of their presence.

They would prove solid to the touch. But they still seemed to exist in flashes strobing too fast for anyone to see, as if at a rate of several thousand times a second they were continually materializing out of the void, then vanishing back into it. The muscles of their faces, instead of forming expressions, seemed merely to suggest them—as if they weren’t live responses but automated sequences.

And the awe that hit me then…I might’ve felt it once or twice before, but only on hearing a voice in my head or seeing something magical in a daydream. Never in the presence of the physical. It had always brought back that terrifying sense of other worlds, that awe. Beyond anywhere that could be visited—all the unnerving venues I had visited since meeting Aisha notwithstanding—there were other places, other dreams. Now I quaked before the certainty that the epicene effigies waiting for me behind the door came bearing news of such places.

And maybe that was why, after I squeezed round to the far side of the table so I could kiss them on both cheeks like old friends or relations, I bowed to peck each marbly manus, touching my forehead to the knuckles. While I squeezed back out I caught myself patting my own head, too.

I think what that gesture means is, I kiss your hand because your place is above my head—as in, I seek your blessing or charity. But even when it was expected of me, I’d never performed the routine. For a moment while I begged my visitors to accept the hospitality of their grateful servant—what!—I was floating in the outer space of personality, not sure where was my galaxy, which my star.

I remember telling myself that, to truly learn something new, you should be giving up who you are.

They had not yet spoken when I went to the canteen to fetch them bottles of mineral water. At the top of my voice I called out to Sami, handing him my credit card.

— Yes, Ustaz Nur.

His face looked textured suddenly, like worn and crumpled cardboard, and I realised I had been looking at my visitors for too long.

— Why do they call you Sami Lunch?

— Because I get lunch for the journalists, pasha.

— Then listen…

I remember. The repast consisted of Wagyu kebab, fresh naan, Lebanese salads and deserts with two bottles of bootleg Bordeaux (wrapped in a bin bag, as alcohol in public generally must be).

It cost me over two months’ salary, but as it turned out the amount was never actually deducted (though I would’ve gladly let it be). Sami got all the cash I had on me for picking it up from three different neighbourhoods. All that mattered was that it should be laid out within the hour.

Meanwhile, I exchanged pleasantries with my visitors, shedding self. They carried themselves with salesmen’s intensity, but hearing their clipped speech only deepened my awe. It sounded archaic but might as well have been from the future, their way of speaking.

The problem was, at first I couldn’t tell which of them said what. All their mouths were half-open, the dry lips hardly moved and when one spoke it was as if the words came out of all three. But it was the very slight metallic timbre of the voice that threw me. It made me think of radio receivers broadcasting prerecorded messages. Or were the messages being transmitted live?

It felt important that they should enjoy the food, though it seemed they were beaming it into the void, not physically consuming it. They said nothing while it disappeared. Flitting in and out of the meeting room, I had placated Nancy with a discrete lick of the ear, promised Atris to pay the hashish money I owed and sorted what work needed sorting before they finished their meal.

— This hour we commence conference, the voice came as Sami and I cleared glasses of mint tea and saucers of baklava.

It must’ve been five minutes later, with the door to the meeting room still open, that they commanded me to close it. No one spoke the command, but I heard it. It was the first time someone said something to me without speaking.

The hinge creaked, and while it grated in my ears, the sight of Sami winking at me in the chink was a momentary return to my person. When I swiveled to face them—but even now there is no explaining what it was to live through the rest of this encounter. By the time it was over I felt extremely old.

I suppose it happens to most people. A moment comes when reality folds in on itself, experience accumulates faster than light and, in mere minutes, you grow old. Later that week I could see how well my job at the newspaper had prepared me.

I suppose it happens to most people. A moment comes when reality folds in on itself, experience accumulates faster than light and, in mere minutes, you grow old.

For twenty-one years the madness had regularly come through, a sealed envelope containing an implausible piece of reportage. It had seemed to ambush my life while in reality it was directing it. Now I could hardly believe I was the subject of the story, not just the man who took it upon himself to report it.

I wish I didn’t remember it all so vividly. For the next however long I was to become many and no one. I was to understand my entire existence anew.

The second portent was geometric.

The newspaper meeting room is a cramped, windowless cube, dominated by the round table and separated from the office proper by a long, narrow corridor. The floor is carpeted lime green, the ceiling painted pistachio. The off-white walls are lined with framed front pages. With the faint fluorescent light, the darkness of the corridor to one side and the brightness of the landing to the other, it feels like a stranded submarine even with the door open.

Sitting through the nepotistic battles and rigmaroles that pass for editorial meetings here, I had developed a way to pass the time: I would stare at the headlines until I forced bits of them to creep out of the frames and swim in this slimy sea. A few minutes of intent gazing and the thick glyphs would begin to split off, morphing into live creatures both nefarious and benign.

I got so adept at the exercise I could turn the letters into any arthropod or reptile I imagined. I could programme the patterns of their motion, change the sounds they made, their colour and size. I could make them tear at the head of a coworker or burrow into their crotch, bringing them to une mort petite or grande as the fancy flew.

But I’d always started and ended the process at will. I had never suspected that a large ain like the one that was breaking off the end of the headline in front of me now could start moving of its own volition, already taking on depth as it slithered through the glass.

I thought, I never even looked at you, how could you be?

I thought, Please go away.

I thought, Someone is fingering my cerebrum.

By the time they started to speak, the ain—now a dark grey-to-pitch black butterfly—was hanging over our heads. It was nearly the size of the table, a monumental Birdwing without the yellow, impossibly delicate and detailed. I could almost make out the scales on its wings, the spool of its proboscis, the horrifying ugliness of its face.

As I looked at it the thing dipped and fluttered, emitting a beat, like dance music (either house or trance—I couldn’t tell), but clearly acid and somehow centrifugal. A whirlpool of sound. Then the walls started rattling and I was momentarily convinced a Richter scale 6 seismic wave had hit the city. It was only the beat. Literally for millennia, starting then, the music would not stop.

As my visitors spoke its tempo rose and the table began to spin. The butterfly that was the letter evidently controlled the axis of some invisible sphere. The table was the sphere’s diameter. And the butterfly’s humming made it revolve, first anticlockwise, then clockwise. That rattled all six sides of the cube until they thinned out and became screens.

Now those screens divided and multiplied, opened out onto closer and further perspectives in an infinite kaleidoscope of sensation. Real, human worlds beyond the newspaper’s meeting room, beyond downtown Cairo, beyond 2012. First in the past, then in the future. Real worlds with real people in them. And through the squares as the whirlpool reeled I could see these people’s lives unfold before me just as though I was there with them, my own—other—lives unfolding in tandem.

My visitors spoke. I tried to listen. But I could only experience their words. In perfect, five-sense 3D, complete with cognition and memory, it was as if I heard them by living out what they said.

First, they themselves. Cross-legged above their briefcases like yogis on flying rugs, they are gliding in and out of the worlds beyond the screens. Tunnelling and trundling, flower power-style, synchronized swimmer-style, upside down and right side up again. Astronauts or memes. But you turn your head and they are sitting as they were at the table, speaking to you. And through the walls, over centuries each time, their unheard speech is making manifest unknown identities:

You are a Hyksos king at a horse burial in a wadi near Faqqus, in the eastern Nile Delta. On their sides, the horses are as slender as their skeletons will be when flash flooding unearths them a thousand years later.

You are a Hyksos king at a horse burial in a wadi near Faqqus, in the eastern Nile Delta. On their sides, the horses are as slender as their skeletons will be when flash flooding unearths them a thousand years later. Their coats are blue-black, their riders arranged in gilded chariots behind them. The blood-red granite colours the shaded sand where the rivulet would be if it rained—and no sound save the deep, gravelly arghul of the wind.

You are a Ptolemaic painter mixing pigments in hot wax on a wood panel in Fayyum. You work fast, standing just inside the door of your patron’s austere courtyard, so that the light falls diagonally on the subject. Tinkling water in the orchard behind you and a distant lyre heighten the tension in the exchange. You’ve been fasting since morning, your patron is pondering his own death. And the likeness that emerges in a matter of minutes is more convincing than any photograph could be.

You are a knot of Copts in a palm grove in Akhmim, in Upper Egypt. With hemp rope and iron spikes, you are taunting a half-naked follower of the Sufi heretic Dhul Nun. Second-generation Muslims, you speak the southern dialect of late Egyptian but use the Arabic words for infidel and magician, imperfectly pronounced. Though your skin-and-bones prisoner with filthy matted hair seems to understand no others. While you are hanging him by his feet the azan sounds, harsh and melodic. Panting, blood breaking up the filth that covers his hide, your prisoner smiles with his face upended. And in impeccable Quranic Arabic his stentorian voice repeats the statement for which he is being punished:

— I can only know God through God, through Muhammad I know what is other than God.

You are an aide de camp to Général Charles Dugua tooling in a beach tent near Rosetta. Your café-au-lait guerdon appears to be the son of a Mohammedan fisherman whom your guards dispatched, but the boy hated him so furiously he was found stabbing the corpse. Your own bicorne holds his robe over his head where you’ve arranged him on all fours, eight fingers pressing down his flimsy waist as your thumbs raise and part the puffy moons, drawing out his abstemious arsehole. The waves break as you sheath your lance. Jiggling and blubbering, he lets loose the sharp scents of the sea…

I took in the grimness, the grace, the rage and the rapture in turn. These weren’t individual emotions but the composite histories of whole aeons. They were heavy and hopeless beyond empathy. For a moment, when there was a lull in the spinning, their weight felt so crushing I wished for complete nothingness. Death alone could never bring relief. But then we started spinning clockwise and, over more centuries at progressive points, I was four other people in the fullness of time.

I’ve since been told never to speak of the future—but I could hardly detail those lives if I tried anyway. So unfamiliar were the people I became, the feelings and thoughts they had. Like a sleeper surfacing from unearthly dreams, only to find himself in the middle of a terrifying nightmare, I gradually grew aware of the arm-sized insect limbs, the compound eyes, the wiry fuzz.

Until the oversize Birdwing went away the acid beat never stopped, nor did the circular motion and the tremors it engendered. But, back in normal time, I could make out words through it now. And beyond the walls, the scenes I was no longer part of shifted so fast and so frequently I just could comfortably ignore them.

— Inhale ye breeze of earthly aether, O Reporter Nar, one of my visitors was saying.

His salesman’s manner had not changed, but in my abrupt old age it came across with all the depth and dignity of spiritual counsel.

— I am Sargon. He is Swift. And he, Simic. We are Emissaries. We are wind and oath. Storm and grain. We are rain and river, O Reporter Nar. We bring instruction and reminder.

The word vibrated through my temples. Reminder. Could these human wrappers give us access to lost memory, then? Little did I know—even though a faint anger pricked through my resignation. I tried to hold onto it.

— What makes you think, I started to raise my voice.

— We are wind and oath, the one he had introduced as Simic warbled like an infomercial performer. We come to tell ye your destiny.

I was still wondering about them calling me Nar and what reporter indicated when Simic’s briefcase swung open. His hand shot inside to fish out a small package. I cradled my face in my palms.

When I next looked up he was waving it in the air like the ultimate wonder product.

It was wrapped in lavender rice-paper with a plum ribbon and a red wax seal. The paper was printed with a floral pattern interspersed with the word Ubik in an elaborate Italianate script. The rice-paper maker’s brand name, I assumed. A retro dream gift. Even in the middle of my season in hell, I was curious.

Even in the middle of my season in hell, I was curious.

— Lepidopteran above heads is representation of your wife Carrier Ain.

It took an effort of will to acknowledge that the pout and head jerk that followed were Simic blowing me a kiss.

Carrier Ain, I thought, so wearily it felt like sensing the words in someone else’s mind. So it’s true. Aisha and I had been given our pet names. We were known to these creatures as Ain and Nar before we could come up with them ourselves.

— But who are you, I was yelping like an October Bridge madman by the time he handed me the package. Curse your mother’s religion! What could anything even mean where you and the Brotherhood of the Holy Bender here have just taken me? And you say this monster is supposed to be Aisha?

But then Swift caught my eye and what was left of the anger fizzled out. Obediently I slid the package in my pocket.

— Ingest ye substance in container next hour ere Nar and Ain are one, he began in the same canned voice. Ain grows heavy with child. She is delivered thirty-five moons after. Thirty-five moons, not nine. Expect ye no progeny of flesh. And ingest ye all substance, do ye hear?

— I hear, I mumbled.

— This hour Carrier Ain departs…

Then he too blows you a kiss. Already, while he does, the butterfly is morphing back into the letter: an agony or ecstasy of rasping electronica louder than anything you’ve heard in your life.

The spinning finally draws up while its window-sized wings fold and shrink, sucking in both head and extremities. Its thorax and abdomen stretch and curl to form the unequal curves of the glyph, their texture softening, their multitude of greys losing out to no-colour.

Now it is small enough to take back its place behind the glass of the framed headline. Like a rocket landing, everything stops.

But before you have time to breathe they are in and out of the walls again. Tunnelling, trundling. Upside down and—memes. No, signs. Not figures, but shifting cascades of the same four-integer sequence in infinitely varying formations: 2-6-6-6 twinkling across the gigantic monitor that has now replaced the ceiling.

Chip-less binaries, you are thinking. Even as you groan, Not again. Post-electronic assembly language bereft of all hardware. And while in green and yellow and white the code flits across the glistening black above your head, the cube that keeps the room together is breaking down. Not again.

The cube becomes a tesseract, the tesseract spawns a cube. Unfolding, the tesseract collapses into twenty-four flat squares and, following suit, the cube adds another six. Together they make three rows of ten squares each, chequered not in black and white but in night and day.

You find yourself in the middle of a rectangular draughtboard, perfectly transparent but marked out clearly by degree of light. No two adjacent squares are in the same range of brightness. And within each square, as with the walls-turned-screens before: a complete human world.

It starts out no larger than the meeting room but you blink and it is one thousand times the size, ten thousand, a hundred thousand times the size. And expanding. You are standing on a fraction of a fraction of one of the original squares—night in some tropical stone age, as it happens—watching the command-line sky where your visitors have camouflaged themselves and thinking of a way back to Nancy.

There are no more walls or screens, only this dome. This time you are who you know yourself to be, more or less. But the endless worlds unfolding beneath your feet are not chronologically ordered.

— Inhale ye breeze of earthly aether, the voice sounds again as you brace yourself like a walker in a snow storm, alone. This hour we disclose all.

I woke up in bed just after sunset with no memory of leaving the newspaper. I couldn’t have slept for more than a few hours, but it had been dreamless and it felt longer than a whole night. Directly I decided to go out—drop by the coffee house where Atris and the dudes nightly gather, or even call on someone—but the night was newborn.

I thought I’d read, make a pot of spaghetti alla napoletana, eat it and then go.

When I raised the covers, the pre-coital medicine the Emissaries had given me dropped by the foot of the bed. I picked it up wondering what it was supposed to make Aisha give birth to. I knew I did not want children, but I also knew that if this worked we would get anything but a child.

Holding the wrapping up to my face, gazing at the navy and gold implications of stalk and petal and that mysterious word, Ubik—neither believing nor disbelieving, I resisted the urge to tear it off. It belonged in my secret sandalwood box under the loose tile in the basement.

Under the tile is actually an idiom for hoarding. Not the only metaphor that has found literal expression in my life. Though I only hoard select mementos of intimacy, larger quantities of zero-zero resin and assorted toxins.

The strange thing is, when I got up I noticed I was in a different pair of boxer shorts. The clothes I had worn to work were neatly folded on the dresser seat, exactly as Aisha had left them for me yesterday when she headed to her father’s. Aisha would be at her father’s for another day, I remembered that. How the clothes I’d had on all through the Emissaries’ visit could be freshly washed and pressed, I did not know.

So long as you know you’ll wake up, it doesn’t matter what freakish things happen in a dream.

Later I was to understand how zombified I had been all this time, shielded from the day’s febrility by some clement cloud which, without obscuring anything, made all that I’d experienced both possible and bearable, a day at work. Like the rest of the nightmare once you recognize you are sleeping. So long as you know you’ll wake up, it doesn’t matter what freakish things happen in a dream.

I lazed, made the spaghetti, looked the ever fuzzier prospect of stepping out in the eye. I ate and read and phoned Aisha, to hole up in the hoarser notes of her voice. But it sounded like her father was in the room with her, all I heard were the smooth lower pitches with his bombastic bass badmouthing me in the background. We did not really talk. I ran a bath, slow-cooked a mug of strong Turkish coffee and opened a pack of cigarettes. I spent an inordinate time in hot water smoking and licking the pasty caffeine.

When I was dry I texted Nancy. I suppose you could call it sexting—with Nancy there is no other way. Her seeing me at the office had evidently bounced clear off her mind and by SMS she launched into her interminable complaint. Nothing has changed since the first time. Nancy complains, I make discreet love to her, then she is appeased for a while before she resumes her complaint.

I ate again, read again. I rolled a joint and postponed lighting it, remembering the number 2666, still hazily considering the streets. But like a junkie cheating himself into an extra fix, I ended up in the basement once more.

The third portent was chirographic.

Every time I descend into the house’s Hades, I remember the clacking of my father’s German-made SM5, the exquisite calligraphy of its keys and embossed metal label spelling out Olympia phonetically in Arabic.

It was below stairs that he interned himself to write, turning out not just the financial affidavits and counterclaims for which he was remunerated him but also documents of sociopolitical analysis which he refused to show to anyone, even members of his family who demanded it.

While tottering down to put the package away, I recalled the last such document I perused, ten years after its author had expired. A condemnation of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, typed up within a year of Khomeini’s return from France in 1979, it was the liberal analogue to Baba’s post-Marxist prattle. Eighteenth-century vitriol strewn with legalese, far-fetchedly conversational and full of bleak humour. It was like Taha Hussein, the blind twentieth-century Dean of Arabic Literature, but without the level-headedness or generosity of spirit.

This time when I elbowed the door open I found Baba’s ghost hard at work. He was the same as I remembered him on the few occasions when he allowed me into his slog pad, hunched over his Ideal stainless steel desk in vest and pyjama trousers, loading a sheet of paper into the Olympia. His toothless, coffee-stained jowls glittered with pinprick stubble in the architect’s lamp light. Fringed with two wisps of shredded graphite, halos of cigarette smoke ascended in tiers above his blistered, crud-specked scalp.

As I approached him he turned to me, an expression of utter despair on his face. Then the whole scene crumbled like a sandcastle under a bucketful of sea water. Darkness. When I walked over, having switched on the bare bulb in the ceiling, the typewriter and lamp were as they’ve always been underneath the tarpaulin-covered desk, and the tarpaulin covered in a thick blanket of dust.

I would dismiss it as a hallucination until I worked out what was going on that night, and only then feel the chill of the patriarch’s prodigal apparition. For now the basement felt comfortingly clammy. And back at the escritoire in the hall, the package shed its skin like an exotic fruit eager to be devoured.

I seemed to be waking up again. Androgynous salesmen wearing chalk-white suits ransacked the harem in my dream. They knocked out and dragged away the many-hued Nancy clones who occupied it.

The morning of what should’ve been Monday, February 16, I found my car parked where I had left it on Saturday evening. I had cleared a dried mud patch off the bonnet then, chucked a Yemini restaurant flier that was behind the windscreen wipers. Both were back where they had been. A throb in my thorax that I’d totally forgotten returned, too. And as I drove to work I spotted the same run-down vehicles and haunted-looking faces all along the Corniche. But never mind all that, the cloud formations over the water were identical.

Towards the end of the journey, the mammoth red bus that had blocked Ramses Road for ten minutes at this time yesterday was gurgling smog at the same location. It shoved off after ten minutes. Even the old woman passenger with a maroon satin scarf who had stuck out her tongue during the ordeal, she too was in the same seat, wiggling her eyebrows afresh while she stuck out her tongue.

At some point on the way I’d tuned into Nile FM to force some difference on the day. On Sunday, the original Sunday, there had been no radio. Now Lady Gaga came on the heels of Katie Perry, then a slowish Rihanna segued into more Lady Gaga. How better to deny or delay what was dawning on me?

But just before I left the car to the informal-economy valet in charge of my newspaper’s stretch of road (it was where I had pulled up yesterday, and the troll was just as unctuous) the music stopped. Screeching and yawping, the DJ announced the next number before adding:

— Exactly one thirty PM in Kahirah, folks, Sunday the fifteenth of February…

Someone was definitely fingering my cerebrum.

Someone was definitely fingering my cerebrum.

I could hear the valet baying anew as I lunged out, my head still trained on the little speakers, nearly falling:

— We cannot bear you leaving us all this time, Ustaz Nur. Two whole weeks without the sight of your beautiful face!

On the second floor, the Personnel Affairs Department, too many people crammed in at the risk of their lives, just like microbus passengers at a busy junction. Squashed between the shoulder blade of a body-building security guard and the man boobs of some ageing bureaucrat, I admitted it to myself at last: As far as the rest of the world could tell, all of yesterday had never happened.

For at least half a day, I had departed the hours. I had been elsewhere. That half-day actually lasted millennia. And, though I possessed physical evidence of my journey, it would prove nothing to no one.

For the second time I bumped into Sami Lunch at the elevator door. He pointed to the meeting room.

— Guests waiting, pasha.

— Cuckoo stuff?

— Why, no, Ustaz Nur, he chuckled. Only the usual.

There were just two of them at the round table, indubitable men who spoke normally, though they too wore suits and bore briefcases. They stood up when I went in.

— Ustaz Nur Amin?

We shook hands. There was something measured about their bearing, a rhythmic steadiness so faultless it felt inhuman.

— How may I help you, gentlemen?

Unlike their forerunners, these two would remain nameless. Anonymous cogs in my cosmic conveyor. Until this moment, in fact, I have yet to see them again. Had I known, I would’ve been glad. They did not behave like salesmen so much as mafiosi: less flamboyant, more frightening. But in my mounting awareness of what had happened, I was neither addled nor adulating.

As I sat down to listen to them I thought of Baba’s ghost, of all the people I’d been in no man’s time. I thought of Aisha at her father’s and Nancy on the LED display, how like my three visitors when they were code on that sheltering sky of a monitor. But by now the time warp, instead of continuing to fear-dry my bones, had somehow emboldened me. Unaccountably confident, I sat down ready to get it over with, whatever it was.

Not that it would’ve thrown me, I think, but this time no letters crept out of frames. No door was closed, no claret decanted into canteen cups. I offered them only Coke, which they guzzled with incongruous slow-burning cigars. Their glares gouged into my cheeks while they hissed to punctuate their clauses, pausing and pulsing in a subtle parody of the intimidating interrogator.

As they took turns putting forth.

Youssef Rakha is a novelist, poet and essayist who writes in both Arabic and English. He edits тнє ѕυℓтαη’ѕ ѕєαℓ: Cairo’s Coolest Cosmopolitan Hotel. His interests include what a post-Muslim perspective might look like and the future of Arab porn.