“The Peacock” — New Fiction from Sahar Mustafah

4 July, 2022
Roshanak Amin, “The Rain­bow,” mixed media on can­vas, 90x120cm, 2019 (pho­to Moham­mad Sadeghi).

 

Sahar Mustafah

 

Fer­yal sits at the hotel bar and sips her sug­ary cock­tail. Annoyed with the cum­ber­some fresh fruit gar­nish, she removes the plas­tic spear of sliced pineap­ple and straw­ber­ry and watch­es their juices soak into a tiny nap­kin the bar­tender gave her. He was much more ami­able when he’d mis­tak­en her for a tourist. As soon as she opened her mouth and spoke per­fect Ara­bic, he nod­ded cold­ly at her order and set about blend­ing her frozen vir­gin drink, cast­ing glances over his shoulder.

Fer­yal swivels around and watch­es the hotel patrons. A white Euro­pean cou­ple sits in the lounge area, a pri­vate con­ver­sa­tion draw­ing their bod­ies close, shut­ting out the rest of the world. A small group of hijabi women in styl­ish abayas and lav­ish cou­ture purs­es, laugh and chat­ter above each oth­er. They sip from the same trop­i­cal drink as Feryal’s. She’s the only woman sit­ting alone. Her neck flush­es and she swivels back to the bartender

In her periph­er­al vision, a man heads to the bar, his sil­hou­ette tall and slen­der. When he doesn’t clear his throat or tap her on the shoul­der, Fer­yal casu­al­ly turns toward him and smiles. He glances at her then leans into the bar, his back to her. He thumbs his mobile and con­tin­u­al­ly checks the entrance to the lounge until his pen­sive expres­sion breaks. A beau­ti­ful woman appears at the man’s side and they order cham­pagne. The bar­tender offers them an expan­sive smile before pour­ing two glass­es that near­ly fizz over. Between sen­tences, the woman’s laugh bub­bles up like the cham­pagne she’s sip­ping. Not once does she look over at Feryal.

Fer­yal is dis­ap­point­ed. Th man is hand­some and fit — he doesn’t have to pay for sex. She hopes, for her first time, her appoint­ment is attrac­tive. She mea­sures every man against Oth­man, the only one she’s been with. She miss­es his hard, mus­cled chest and dark fea­tures, in spite of his not lov­ing her back. What a fool Fer­yal had been, believ­ing he would leave his wife — even when Fer­yal lied about being pregnant

If you have the baby, it will destroy your fam­i­ly. Don’t be stu­pid, he told her. I will pay for you to pull it down. The easy way Oth­man had said it, like he’d found him­self in this sit­u­a­tion before, still scalds Feryal’s heart. How could he have pro­fessed to love her if he was per­fect­ly will­ing to get rid of his child?

She took his mon­ey, told him she’d made an appoint­ment at an Israeli hos­pi­tal, bought her­self a bus tick­et, stuffed the left­over bills inside the com­part­ment of her old mes­sen­ger bag, and nev­er looked back. To the undis­cern­ing pas­sen­gers seat­ed across the aisle, she was a stu­dent attend­ing university.

Fer­yal taps her san­dal against the footrest of her stool until anoth­er man approach­es. This time she keeps her gaze fixed straight ahead, fin­gers her plas­tic straw. Behind the bar­tender, she stud­ies the reflec­tion in the mir­rored pan­el. A bald­ing man with hunched shoul­ders shuf­fles toward the bar like some­one about to deliv­er somber news. Feryal’s stom­ach sinks.

Don’t stray from the lounge. He’ll find you,Ani had advised her ear­li­er, stand­ing naked in the kitchen of their flat, rifling through a bas­ket of clean laun­dry. Her roommate’s lack of inhi­bi­tion shocked and impressed Fer­yal. Ani found a pair of panties and a loose sum­mer dress, and slipped into them.

They met at a posh out­door café in Ramal­lah. Fer­yal was sit­ting at a table by her­self, new­ly arrived in town. She was anx­ious­ly cal­cu­lat­ing the cost of her meal before order­ing, when she caught a stranger study­ing her from across the ter­race. A woman with short fash­ion­able hair, dark-tint­ed sun­glass­es that near­ly swal­lowed her face, and a pair of gold­en hoops dan­gling from her ear­lobes. She flashed an amused grin at Feryal.

A serv­er returned to her table. The sis­ter wants to treat you to a meal, Miss. He point­ed across the canopied ter­race and the woman waved, sum­mon­ing her over. Feryal’s cheeks turned splotchy red: she felt bump­kin in her long tunic and mules.

The stranger removed her sun­glass­es and two cat eyes peered intent­ly at Fer­yal. Long bangs swept her fore­head and she tucked them behind her ear with man­i­cured fin­gers until they fell loose again. Ani is half Armen­ian, half Pales­tin­ian, though she doesn’t tell Fer­yal which side belongs to which par­ent, only that she’s a dou­ble-tragedy of history

Where are you from, ya hilwa? She drew on a black vape stick and tipped her head to release smoke away from her face.

Ain al-Deeb, Fer­yal respond­ed, a pang of fear and nos­tal­gia rush­ing her lungs.

The only thing in al-Deeb is a fac­to­ry, I believe.

A ware­house, Fer­yal says, sur­prised this ele­gant woman has heard of her vil­lage. For tex­tiles. She sensed men and oth­er women glanc­ing Ani’s way, catch­ing their atten­tion before they resumed their con­ver­sa­tions and tea.

You’re vis­it­ing alone? Her cat eyes roved down her face to her breasts.

I’m nev­er going back, Fer­yal blurt­ed, cheeks blazing.

You’re a pret­ty girl, ismal­l­ah, Ani told her apprais­ing­ly, nod­ding toward a bas­ket of pock­et bread cut into neat tri­an­gles and a small bowl of hum­mus. Please.

Self-con­scious, but rav­en­ous, Fer­yal dipped the bread, brought it care­ful­ly to her lips.

Ani watched her intent­ly. What will you do here? Anoth­er deep intake of her vape stick, smoke snaking into the air.

An impor­tant ques­tion to which Fer­yal had no answer. She was at the head of her class in math and lin­guis­tics, earn­ing one of the top taw­jee­hi scores in her neigh­bor­hood. Yet there was no cel­e­bra­tion for her matric­u­la­tion from sec­ondary school. Sit­ti Ras­meah, her pater­nal grand­moth­er, pre­pared a batch of ghray­beh, Feryal’s favorite short­bread cook­ies. When she was a lit­tle girl, she had sat across from the old woman, eager­ly wait­ing to offer her small con­tri­bu­tion — a sin­gle thumbprint in the cen­ter of each, form­ing a tiny mound to be filled with ground pis­ta­chios or fresh-made apri­cot jam.

Now each cook­ie has your spe­cial mark, her grand­moth­er winked at her. She cleaned the bat­ter from her fin­gers with a dishrag and pull out a piece of hard can­dy from the breast pock­et of her thobe. There seemed to be a won­der­ful sur­prise every time Sit­ti Ras­meah slid her hand inside the chest-pan­el of her embroi­dered dress: a sil­ver shekel, a stick of gum, a sky-blue mar­ble. It was a trove of delights. When she nes­tled in her grandmother’s lap, she traced a row of oppo­site-fac­ing pea­cocks, sewn in var­ie­gat­ed pur­ple and yel­low thread, each cross-stich per­fect­ly uniform.

After she sat for her matric­u­la­tion exams, Feryal’s moth­er announced her school­ing was done.

It’s a shame. The girl is smart enough to be a lawyer, mashal­lah, her Sit­ti Ras­meah had argued. A doc­tor, even.

She can mar­ry a lawyer or a doc­tor, her moth­er had scoffed. Until then she must pull her weight around here.

Fer­yal went to work in Othman’s ware­house, where a quar­ter of the vil­lagers earned their wages. She expect­ed to work the floor, pulling boards of fab­ric for orders, or stand­ing on a wob­bly lad­der, dust­ing row upon row of crushed vel­vet, den­im, and lace. She was grate­ful to be assigned to the office, and away from the pry­ing eyes of the old­er women. Othman’s pre­vi­ous assis­tant, a sym­pa­thet­ic hijabi woman in thick glass­es named Salma, was final­ly get­ting mar­ried. She trained Fer­yal on the com­put­er, explain­ing the appli­ca­tion process between enthu­si­as­tic inter­jec­tions about her kha­teeb. He’s from Nablus, Salma told her.

He’s pro­hib­it­ed from trav­el­ing north, but he promis­es I can see my fam­i­ly when­ev­er I want. She pat­ted Feryal’s shoul­der. Azeem! You pick up very quick­ly — mashallah!

At a small desk in the office, Oth­man drew the blinds after the work­ers went home and fucked Fer­yal in his swiv­el chair. He seemed utter­ly enam­ored with her, impressed at how quick­ly she learned and per­formed her duties, telling her how clever she was. She opened up to him like a crisp, new text­book, ready to be learned.

I hear you were first in your class, he said, zip­ping up his pants.

I could have gone to uni­ver­si­ty, she told him, her chest flood­ing with pride. 

But then you wouldn’t be here. He pinched her bot­tom. Did the invoice for the Hus­sei­ni order get set­tled? Those bas­tards nev­er pay on time.

At the café in Ramal­lah, Fer­yal told Ani, I wish to enroll at university.

Ani’s gold-speck­led eyes glim­mered and nar­rowed. And how will you pay for it, ya hilwa?

Fer­yal bash­ful­ly chomped at her expen­sive shawar­ma sand­wich which Ani insist­ed she order. It wasn’t as fla­vor­ful as the ones back home which were for half the price.

If you trust me, I can help you. Ani leaned con­spir­a­to­ri­al­ly. Women like us need to stick together.

Fer­yal wasn’t sure what kind of women they were — or more impor­tant­ly who she was — but Ani’s easy laugh­ter and the way she ten­der­ly touched Feryal’s hand across the small table were dis­arm­ing. She was already miss­ing her grandmother’s kindness.


The bald man lingers a few stools down from her. In spite of what she can make of his looks and age, Fer­yal hopes he’s the one so she won’t feel oblig­ed to order anoth­er drink in case her actu­al date is run­ning late. Ani has been gra­cious since she’s arrived, pay­ing for Feryal’s food and keep, wel­com­ing her to a box of Kotex pads and her expen­sive sham­poo. You’ll pay me back, Ani smiled at her, as soon as you get on your feet.

He appears Arab — for­eign-born, con­firm­ing what Ani has told her. She has a con­tact in the Pales­tin­ian Author­i­ty who arranges these things.

He’s some kind of a schol­ar. A direc­tor of a muse­um in Bel­gium, Ani offered as she waved her wet glossy nails dry. He’s on a tem­po­rary vis­it. Acquir­ing some­thing for a spe­cial exhib­it, I think. I’d take him except Mario has been giv­ing me shit late­ly. She paused to admire her nails — the col­or of slick egg­plant skin — then bat­ted her eye­lash­es at Fer­yal. Do this for me, ya hilwa. I’ve already confirmed.

The fact that he’s affil­i­at­ed with a muse­um makes it less egre­gious for Fer­yal to accept the propo­si­tion. And he cer­tain­ly looks the part, she observes now.

“Good evening,” the man tells the bar­tender, glanc­ing side­long at Fer­yal. “A Scotch, if you please.” His Ara­bic is clipped as if he’s not accus­tomed to speak­ing it often.

Basheer — anoth­er cus­tomer had called the bar­tender by name — hearti­ly greets him, plac­ing a small round coast­er in front of the man. “Wel­come, ya Ustaz.”

Fer­yal notices a lam­i­nat­ed badge on his lapel. Her heart beats wild­ly. For a moment, she thinks of leav­ing, hop­ping off her barstool and exit­ing as quick­ly as pos­si­ble. But she waits, sip­ping the remain­der of her cock­tail until she hits ice cubes and is forced to stop slurping.

Wait until he address­es you first, Ani had instruct­ed, zip­ping up Feryal’s long, tight-fit­ting black dress. It has a high neck with a mesh bodice. It belongs to Ani, is not some­thing Fer­yal would ever own. Though she’s com­plete­ly cov­ered, the jer­sey fab­ric accen­tu­ates every part of her body and is uncom­fort­ably tight around her bot­tom. You don’t want to stand out, Ani says. A wink, a smile. Noth­ing loud or crass. You want to appear as a qui­et invitation.

“Good evening, Miss,” he final­ly says, his eyes dart­ing ner­vous­ly around the bar.

“Ahlan, ya Ustaz,” she says a bit too hasti­ly, swivel­ing her entire body toward him. “How are you, Pro­fes­sor?” Icy sweat trick­les down her back.

He slips her a plas­tic room key. “Wait ten min­utes. Room 405.” He gulps the rest of his drink and abrupt­ly stands, giv­ing the bar­tender an over­ly jovial goodbye.

Fer­yal is stu­pe­fied. She expects din­ner — some­thing to break the ice. The hotel has an acclaimed Japan­ese fusion restau­rant Ani raves about. She’s eat­en there sev­er­al times with customers.

Basheer gives her a long look and his lips part as if he wants to say some­thing to her. Fer­yal quick­ly set­tles her bill — which she’d also expect­ed the pro­fes­sor to pick up — and finds a wash­room. Her key allows her admis­sion to a hotel toi­let off the lob­by. The cock­tail syrup churns in her stom­ach and she begins to retch. She clutch­es both sides of the stall and breathes through her nose. At the sink, she palms cold water and gar­gles before reap­ply­ing gloss to her full lips. She fluffs her hair which Ani had spent a long time straight­en­ing. It looks dull, the ends like straw. The mir­ror reflects her pale face, brown eyes shiny. She checks the time on her mobile and finds a guest ele­va­tor. A hotel atten­dant press­es a but­ton and bids her a good evening.

Imag­ine it’s some­one you want, Ani had winked before Fer­yal heads out the flat. Some­one you once loved.

She knocks on the door before wav­ing her plas­tic key across the handle’s “Hel­lo?” she calls, ten­ta­tive­ly step­ping in.

The pro­fes­sor is already naked except for his under­shirt and socks. He’s laid a tow­el in the cen­ter of the bed, across crisp, white sheets. The fan­cy duvet is neat­ly peeled back to the foot of the bed. There’s a pair of fold­ed hand tow­els on his night­stand and a sin­gle condom.

“If you please,” he says polite­ly, ges­tur­ing to the bed.

She unzips her dress and paus­es. He says noth­ing, study­ing her cool­ly, as if she’s a new exhib­it and he hasn’t quite drawn a con­clu­sion about her. She slips out of her panties, unclasps her bra. He’s imme­di­ate­ly on top of her, eyes clamped shut, and she stares into his nos­trils, the long black hairs like the quills of a por­cu­pine. Per­spi­ra­tion beads his bald head. As he strug­gles to enter her, she exam­ines his face, wrin­kles deep­en­ing in ecsta­sy and tries to imag­ine what he’s like when giv­ing a seri­ous lec­ture. Do those same age lines con­tract in seri­ous contemplation?

Ani chuck­les at Feryal’s shock, that a schol­ar would req­ui­si­tion sex. All men have cocks, ya hilwa, she says. In the end, the only thing that sep­a­rates them is which head they think with. 

The pro­fes­sor final­ly begins to rock back and forth on top of her. After a short time, he grunts and she knows he’s close. He emanates a strange com­bi­na­tion of men­thol, cam­phor and lentil soup — not the crisp and spicy fra­grance of Oth­man. Per­haps these are the nat­ur­al odors of an old­er man. His body is no longer active, his brain becomes his major organ — besides his cock — until both begin to fail him. Fer­yal imag­ines the professor’s biceps haven’t always been so flab­by. His paunch slaps against Feryal’s stom­ach, an embar­rass­ing sound that makes it dif­fi­cult to think about any­thing else.


Feryal’s body has nev­er real­ly belonged to her. Not ever since she was nine years old and her mater­nal uncle coaxed her into his lap and pressed his erec­tion against her. When her body trans­forms, the boys in the har­ra notice, even under her loose clothes, hun­gry wolf eyes pen­e­trat­ing through the fab­ric, imag­in­ing her small, hard breasts, her round­ed bot­tom. The store clerk rubs the back of her hand when she exchanges mon­ey for gro­ceries until she learns bet­ter, spread­ing the coins across the counter, keep­ing her eyes down. The oppo­site sex sud­den­ly lay claims upon her body, one she bare­ly feels in pos­ses­sion of her­self. Her exis­tence becomes an affir­ma­tion of their desires, their pow­er to rav­ish her. She no longer belongs to herself.

Her moth­er grows harsh, as if Feryal’s body is a lia­bil­i­ty, a pre­car­i­ous enti­ty on the brink of cat­a­stro­phe that will bring down their home. She stares while Fer­yal does her chores around their flat, sweep­ing floors, dust­ing the win­dow frames. Her moth­er calls her away from the small veran­da that over­looks a nar­row street. Do you wish to be on dis­play for all the neighbors? 

Feryal’s father is the only man who looked at her with love, not scruti­ny. She was 13 years old the night their build­ing was raid­ed. Israel’s occu­pa­tion forces arrest­ed her father, hauled him away on sus­pi­cion of con­spir­a­cy to com­mit acts of ter­ror­ism. Three sol­diers threw a black sack over his head, so Fer­yal was unable to see his face for the last time, his pure ado­ra­tion twin­kling in his eyes every time he beheld her.

Sit­ti Ras­meah attempt­ed to inter­vene, claw­ing at one soldier’s body until he knocked her down with the butt of his rifle, shout­ing at her to stay put. Fer­yal ran to her side and was vio­lent­ly shoved back­wards by anoth­er sol­dier. Her moth­er was on the floor, clutch­ing her husband’s leg and held on until a swift kick to her head final­ly released her father.

The next morn­ing Feryal’s first peri­od arrived.

Her father lan­guished for four years in prison before Israel eject­ed him into Jor­dan. Her moth­er was incon­solable, snap­ping at Fer­yal, their only child, call­ing her a “habla” and “good for noth­ing.” She won­dered what she was sup­posed to be good for, how in her father’s absence she might ease her mother’s pain. She moved around their bayt like a ghost, try­ing not to make a noise or dis­turb any­thing that would incite her moth­er. After her chores, she fin­ished school­work and read a book her teacher Miss Basi­ma had loaned her, a trans­la­tion of Anne of Green Gables. Once a year, her moth­er trav­elled to a refugee camp on the oth­er side of the bor­der where her father took up shel­ter. Fer­yal pre­tend­ed to be orphaned — not only of her father, but hap­pi­ly of her moth­er — and in her imag­i­na­tion, she embarked on new adven­tures like the red-haired, pre­co­cious Anne.

Sit­ti Ras­meah, who has lived with Feryal’s fam­i­ly since she was born, gives dai­ly du’aa for her son and the mem­bers of her fam­i­ly — includ­ing her daugh­ter-in-law whom Fer­yal secret­ly believes unwor­thy of sup­pli­ca­tions. In her mother’s absence, a calm set­tles over the flat, a gos­samer hap­pi­ness like the long white strands of her grandmother’s hair. Fer­yal looked for­ward to two months free from her mother’s cru­el­ty, the hor­ri­ble ver­bal lash­ings. Some­times it was a hard slap across the face, or rough fin­gers snatch­ing the soft flesh of her upper arm and twist­ing it awful­ly, mak­ing Feryal’s eyes instant­ly water.

Pray to the Prophet, Sit­ti Ras­meah would admon­ish her daugh­ter-in-law. Then she smiled at Fer­yal. Come here, my dear, Sit­ti Ras­meah smiled. Help me with this. And she’d set her to a task that made her feel use­ful and good for some­thing. Her grand­moth­er, on pow­er­ful and stur­dy haunch­es, showed Fer­yal how to core squash with­out pierc­ing the skin and how to mince pars­ley and onion for fold­ing into fresh­ly ground lamb.

You can still be book smart and a good cook for your chil­dren one day, Sit­ti Ras­meah had said with a wink, rety­ing a white man­deela at the base of her neck, a few gray, strag­gly hairs escap­ing her temples.

Around her black thobe, bright green and yel­low smudged her white apron, join­ing oth­er fad­ed stains.

One day, Fer­yal point­ed to the row of pea­cocks pranc­ing across her grandmother’s bosom. What kind of birds are those, Sitti?

Al-tawoos, her grand­moth­er smiled, trail­ing a crag­gly fin­ger over one. You see their feath­ers? They’ll be in jan­nat illah when we arrive some­day, by the Lord’s will.  

They are regal crea­tures to Fer­yal, evok­ing respect and ven­er­a­tion. Among a dozen stitched by her grand­moth­er, she loved this thobe best of all.


When the pro­fes­sor is fin­ished, he rolls off Feryal’s body, wraps the slimy con­dom in tis­sue paper and toss­es it into a waste­bas­ket. He lights a cig­a­rette from a pack stamped in for­eign words, not offer­ing her one though she doesn’t smoke. He shuts his eyes as he exhales, mur­murs some­thing to him­self she can’t make out. Then he writes in a tiny note­book on his night­stand, as if he’s just worked out the answer to a prob­lem in his head.

Feel­ing ignored, Fer­yal props her­self up on one elbow. She hasn’t prop­er­ly tak­en in her sur­round­ings. The hotel room is mod­ern décor, fin­ished in a mut­ed white, black and roy­al blue palette. The professor’s belong­ings — a sin­gle opened suit­case, a few paper­back books scat­tered on a lac­quered cher­ry wood desk, and sev­er­al pre­scrip­tion bot­tles — dis­rupt the tidy space. Direct­ly across from the bed is a tele­vi­sion screen hid­den behind the doors of an enter­tain­ment cen­ter. There’s an oil paint­ing on the same wall, the sil­hou­ette of a woman stand­ing on a sandy shore, one hand clasp­ing her straw hat against the wind. Frothy waves crash at her feet as she watch­es the last traces of the sun dip­ping below the horizon.

Fer­yal wished she could linger alone in the cool sheets of the bed, order room ser­vice — Ani told her about the late-night meals she orders on her dates and which Ani con­sumes naked beside her lover. Eat­ing might help Fer­yal feel nor­mal again. It’s qui­et inside this room, unlike the noise of their flat, cars honk­ing below their steel-barred win­dow, loud music pul­sat­ing from a bar­ber shop below.

Sad­ness prick­les her skin. She wants the pro­fes­sor to dis­ap­pear along with all of his odors. She reach­es for a water bot­tle on the night­stand beside her and gulps, try­ing to wash down her dejec­tion, the same feel­ing she lugged home after an hour with Oth­man in his office. He’d kiss her cheek, exam­ine his hair in a mir­ror hang­ing behind the door, and lock up.

Her eyes trav­el across the oth­er side of the room. For the first time, Fer­yal notices a head­less man­nequin stand­ing near the wash­room. The fig­ure is draped in a white thobe cov­ered in a sheath of plastic.

“Who’s that for?” she asks the professor.

His head shoots up from his note­book, his inter­est sud­den­ly ignit­ed. “It’s a very impor­tant acqui­si­tion,” he declares, spring­ing from the bed. He stands beside the man­nequin, pro­duc­ing an absurd jux­ta­po­si­tion of real and coun­ter­feit bod­ies. His penis is deflat­ed in a nest of gray­ing pubic hair. He appears ready to give a lec­ture on the embroi­dered dress as he peels off the plas­tic sheath.

Fer­yal sits up against the head­board. “You came all the way from Bel­gium for a thobe?” 

“Not any thobe,” he says dis­dain­ful­ly before smil­ing in mock con­ge­nial­i­ty. “This belonged to a promi­nent fam­i­ly in Yaf­fa. My muse­um is acquir­ing it from the Uni­ver­si­ty. A pre-war rel­ic like this will enjoy a much wider audience.”

He del­i­cate­ly holds up one sleeve as if he’s tak­ing the arm of a beloved. “You see here,” he says, his eyes shin­ing. “There are idio­syn­crat­ic touch­es in the way the cross-stitch­es are…”

But Fer­yal has stopped lis­ten­ing. Sit­ti Rasmeah’s face sud­den­ly intrudes and her past tidal-waves into the hotel room. She’s swept back to her fam­i­ly bayt, her grand­moth­er brush­ing her hair when her moth­er has lost patience. Her grandmother’s cal­loused palm, cradling a small lus­cious plum she’s extract­ed from the breast pock­et of her thobe. Sweet like you, habibti.

Fer­yal finds it hard to breathe, the ceil­ing sud­den­ly col­laps­ing, the pro­fes­sor blur­ring into the blue walls, his dron­ing warped and dis­tant. She squeezes her knees togeth­er and clutch­es the bed­sheets until the hotel room regains its nor­mal proportions.

The pro­fes­sor is point­ing at the chest-pan­el, unper­turbed. “The reflec­tive nature of the pea­cocks reveals a per­fect harmony.”

“My grand­moth­er loves pea­cocks,” Fer­yal blurts out. “They roam in Par­adise. That’s what she told me when I was a young girl.” She bites her low­er lip to keep tears from falling.

He gives a mirth­less laugh. “It’s far more sophis­ti­cat­ed than the eye can see.” He lingers near the man­nequin, brush­es off a piece of lint before replac­ing the plas­tic sheath over the dress. He wraps a white ter­rycloth robe around his body and walks to the pair of trousers he was wear­ing ear­li­er and with­draws a worn leather wal­let from a back pock­et. He extracts few­er bills than Ani had advised her to accept.

“I was told a thou­sand shekels,” Fer­yal says.

“Per­haps a mis­un­der­stand­ing, my dear,” the pro­fes­sor responds. “Take it or leave it. I’m hav­ing a show­er. Please see your­self out.” He slips his wal­let inside the pock­et of his bathrobe and locks the wash­room door behind him.

The blood in Feryal’s body runs white-hot. She can hear Ani’s mock­ing laugh. Demand what you’re owed, ya hilwa. He’ll give it to you in the end. No man will want a scene. Remember—you’re in con­trol of the sit­u­a­tion, Ani told her as Fer­yal slipped into a pair of sil­ver strap­py heels.

She ris­es from the bed, damp­ens a hand tow­el with her water bot­tle and wipes between her legs. It’s not much dif­fer­ent than her first time with Oth­man. He kissed her gen­tly on her lips and neck before hand­ing her a roll of rough paper tow­el he’d brought from the employ­ee restroom at the ware­house. You’re still bleed­ing, he’d said, and Fer­yal could hear a kind of pride and it made her feel spe­cial and proud, too, that he’d been her first.

She hears the show­er run­ning and final­ly climbs out of the bed, slip­ping into her bra and panties. Before she reach­es for her black dress, she stud­ies the thobe, touch­es the chest-pan­el over the plas­tic. She runs her hand under the pro­tec­tive lay­er and slips it inside the breast pock­et. Once, Fer­yal had dis­cov­ered a tiny bou­quet of tiny jas­mine flow­ers, the mag­i­cal source of the del­i­cate per­fume that waft­ed from Sit­ti Rasmeah’s body every time she drew Fer­yal close.

Unsur­pris­ing­ly, the pock­et of this thobe is emp­ty. Whose grand­moth­er had once worn it? What had she car­ried inside?

There was noth­ing tech­ni­cal or ancient about Sit­ti Rasmeah’s thobe. Fer­yal had nev­er regard­ed it in any delib­er­ate way. It’s how it made her feel — safe, loved — that lin­gered still. Such asso­ci­a­tions mean noth­ing to the pro­fes­sor, pose no real val­ue in his impor­tant acquisition.

Feryal’s heart­beat quick­ens. She quick­ly and care­ful­ly lifts the thobe from the man­nequin. She paus­es, lis­tens for the show­er and hears a faint singing com­ing from the wash­room. She pulls the thobe over her head and sinch­es it at the waist with the professor’s belt, which she removes from his trousers. A musty scent emanates from the linen fabric.

She gazes at her reflec­tion in a full-length mir­ror mount­ed on a nar­row wall between the bath­room and exit door. She touch­es the sparse, though rec­og­niz­able plumage of the pea­cocks, then runs her fin­ger­tips along one tri­an­gu­lar sleeve where a parade of rosettes are stitched.

Before quick­ly gath­er­ing her purse and san­dals, Fer­yal drapes the naked, head­less man­nequin in her crum­pled black dress — Ani’s dress — its high col­lar droop­ing down one nar­row shoul­der with­out a neck to sup­port it.

She leaves the mon­ey on the nightstand.

Fool­ish girl! Ani might tell her if she decides to ever return to the flat.

For Fer­yal, it’s more than an even trade. 

 

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Sahar Mustafah is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, an inheritance she explores in her fiction. Her first novel The Beauty of Your Face (W.W. Norton, 2020) was named a 2020 Notable Book and Editor’s Choice by New York Times Book Review, a Los Angeles Times United We Read selection, and one of Marie Claire Magazine’s 2020 Best Fiction by Women. It was long-listed for the Center for Fiction 2020 First Novel Prize and was a finalist for the 2021 Palestine Book Awards. Her short story collection Code of the West was the winner of the 2016 Willow Books Fiction Award. She writes and teaches outside of Chicago.