When Kings Fall
Based on a true story, When Kings Fall retells the misfortunes of a physician and his wife in political exile from Syria and their nomadic trek for a place to call home.
It is set during the 1924 Arabian war, when the powerful armies of the Sultan of Najd and the King of Hejaz collided head-on, forcing the physician to make a difficult choice of allegiance; one which could tear him away from the woman he loves.
Heavy banging. Yasmina shot Rashad a look of alarm. He canted his head sideways and listened. More pounding. This time insistent, and a stiff yell. He approached the window and peeked through the curtains at the courtyard below. Six uniformed police and their horses stood outside his front door. One of them looked up, and Rashad shrunk away just as Abu ran into the room.
“Doctor—” the boy said, his eyes big and round.
“Shhh! Be quiet! Help, Yasmina!” Rashad rushed to his medicine bag and stuffed a few instruments inside. Yasmina grabbed him by the arm. Her lips moved but no words came out. She cleared her throat. “Maybe if I stay, they’ll let you go.”
“Nonsense,” he said. “They’ll throw us all in jail.”
“Not if I talk to them . . .”
Rashad looked at the blue storm in her eyes and shook his head, then zipped the medicine bag. He grabbed her hand, but she resisted. “We don’t have time for this,” he said impatiently.
He saw her eyes dart to random tiles on the floor. Again he tried to pull at her, but she withdrew. Her features twitched as if controlled by a nervous puppeteer. She looked up. “Promise me you won’t leave me?”
“What?” Rashad blinked, trying to clear the confusion clouding his mind.
“Yasmina,” he said, “Don’t say things like that. I’ll never leave you. Ever.” He gave her a hug, raised her chin, and gently kissed her. He wished the danger would go away—that they would be left alone—allowing them to live like any other family in this quiet neighborhood. The banging downstairs shattered the moment.
“Doctor must go!” urged Abu. The three rushed out of the room and down the stairs. Halfway down, Rashad spun around. “Abu, answer the door. Delay them.”
Confusion rippled across Abu’s forehead. “What I say?”
The banging grew so loud that Rashad thought the next round would unhinge the door, and he wasn’t wrong. He and Yasmina were already at the back door when they heard wood crack and metal snap, filling them and the house with an incubus of terror. Voices traveled uninvited through the rooms as heavy boots thudded through the open doorways and hallways.
Rashad paused and turned back, momentarily gazing at the kitchen, at the house of his youth, the memories. He could imagine the ghosts of his past around him; his Māma and Bāba cooking in the kitchen, his younger self playing with toys on the kitchen floor. He wanted to momentarily give in, to stop running, to not lose the precious memories that would become even more remote if he left this house.
But if he gave in, he’d be putting Yasmina at risk. His resolve strengthened under the weight of reality.
Quietly, he shut the screen door and hurriedly led Yasmina around the back of the house to the stables. The commotion behind them grew more intense. The sound of shattering glass chased at their heels as they ran into the outbuilding. Rashad stopped, listened. The house’s back door squeaked open. He pulled Yasmina closer to him and put a finger to his mouth.
Boots crunched on the gravel outside. A man barked orders. The footsteps drew near.
“Give me your hand,” whispered Rashad, his voice raspy and urgent as he helped Yasmina climb onto one of the horses. He hoisted himself up in front of her and secured his medicine bag onto the clips of the saddle. Sensing the disturbance outside, the horse whinnied. Rashad gripped the reins and was about to give them a good snap when a figure burst into the stable. A hundred stings of anxiety prickled down his neck as he froze, then let out a sigh of relief. It was the boy servant carrying a small suitcase.
“Abu,” he spoke through clenched teeth. “What are you doing here? Go back to the house, now!”
Instead, the boy hoisted himself up on the other horse and fastened the luggage.
“Who’s there? Come out!” barked a voice outside. Rashad cursed beneath his breath before poking his heels into the horse’s side with a yelp. The beast shot out of the stable, nearly trampling the policeman.
He yelled a slew of profanities at them, then called out to the others, “Over here!”
Loud pops echoed behind them. Rashad heard a squeal of pain. Although Yasmina’s grip around him was still strong, he looked back just to make sure. Confusion and terror danced in her eyes, and he feared the worst. Thankfully he saw no sign of injury.
She glanced to the side, her features taking on a look of horror as Abu pulled up beside them. “Rashad, he’s been shot!” she screamed. He looked sideways to see runnels of blood snaking down the boy’s leg.
“Abu, go back!” yelled Rashad. But Abu yipped and snapped at his reins, racing ahead and leading them through a dusty street where mounds of sand and rocks were stacked high on a lot to their left. Rashad tasted the grit in the air, felt its grainy texture as he clenched his teeth. He couldn’t stop inhaling the sand as they galloped down another street.
“That’s the marketplace—we’ll be found!” yelled Yasmina over the clatter of hooves and the pounding of his own heart. Rashad pulled at his reins but the horse charged on. “Damn thing!” he exclaimed, pulling even harder but to no avail as the horse followed Abu’s. A moment later, they arrived at the edge of a bustling bazaar crammed with tents and goods piled up on tables and crates. Throngs of people bartered with conviction, negotiating, agreeing, and arguing.
Abu flung himself from his horse, grimacing, then untied the luggage and limped to Rashad’s horse. “Saida,” the boy said, offering his hand to Yasmina, who grabbed it and climbed down.
Rashad followed and gripped the boy by the shoulder. “Stop,” he said as he appraised the wound—a surface cut, but deep enough to require stitching. “We need to take care of this.” He opened his medicine bag and pulled out some gauze, which he wrapped and pinned around Abu’s thigh. “This should hold until you get some medical assistance. Don’t worry about us—we’ll find a way out,” he added, without the remotest clue how.
Abu’s brows knit as he vehemently shook his head and spoke in his broken dialect. “Abu stay with doctor.”
A tumult of hooves drew near. “Doctor come—must follow me,” Abu said, gesturing as he led their horses and ushered them behind a tent. Nearby, a dark man forked stacks of hay over the side of a wagon onto a pile in the street. Abu handed Rashad his horse’s reins, motioning at him to stay put before hurrying toward the man. They conversed in Sudanese. The man glanced over at Rashad and Yasmina with sunken eyes, then shook his head. The boy’s arms flew up emphatically. A heated exchange ensued as the boy stressed a single sentence repeatedly. The man looked over again, stared long and hard, and slowly nodded just as a group of mounted police trotted into the bazaar. They noticed Rashad’s horses and glanced around with suspicion.
“Doctor!” Abu waved them over.
“Stay down,” said Rashad, holding Yasmina’s hand as they huddled. Abandoning their horses, they half crouched, half ran to the hay cart. The merchant glanced at the policemen, seemed to teeter on the brink of indecisiveness, then hurriedly motioned for all three to get on the wagon. They clambered aboard and hid in the hay just as the policemen looked over. The merchant took his seat up front, hissed, and the cart creaked forward on the dirt road.
“I think they’ve seen us,” Rashad mumbled through a mouthful of hay.
Abu peered over the side of the caravan and ducked back in, shaking his head.
“Do not think.”
Rashad stared at the fourteen-year-old, then at the cart owner. “What did you tell him?”
“I say mister is scientist, guards want steal special medicine. He say he want special medicine too.”
“Special medicine?” Rashad frowned as he adjusted his glasses. “Is he sick?”
“Yes.” Abu nodded. “He have much bad luck. I tell him special medicine to make better luck.”
“You told him what?” There was no greater insult to his personal practice than fraud.
“Don’t argue, Rashad,” Yasmina interrupted. “Just give him something.”
Rashad’s mouth dropped open. “I’m a doctor, not a jungle medicine man!”
“We’re about to get ourselves killed! Can you come up with something better?” Her eyes turned a glacial blue, slowing his thoughts.
“I—I don’t know what I could possibly give—that would—” His eyes darted off, hesitant, then fell back on Abu. “Fine! Just get us out of here.”
Abu nodded. His features were hardened, pointed, like those of a man hiding beneath the silky face of youth. Yasmina curled into a ball beside Rashad and rested her head on his chest as the cart rocked to and fro. Scarcely a minute had passed when the sound of horses’ hooves drew near, causing the three to sink deeper into the hay. The clatter pulled alongside the cart, remaining there like a stalker of their fears. Shivers chased each other up Rashad’s spine as the drumming in his ears snuffed the world out of existence.
The hooves were persistent. Clip, clop, clip, clop.
He prayed to Allah repeatedly.
Pulling Yasmina closer, he noticed the terror that nearly extinguished her pupils into the whites of her eyes. The hooves moved to the front of the cart and some words were exchanged. The sounds continued alongside them a while longer, and then the horses took off in a hasty gait.
Rashad stared at the sky and let out a long sigh of relief. But as his mind calmed, he felt despair. Running away in a hay cart—is this what my promising career has come to?
He clenched his jaw. He should never have married Yasmina. Not while she was engaged to the governor of Damascus. He’d known better, but love blinds even the most astute of men. Had it not brought down the city of Troy? Worse yet, he felt terrible for putting her in such a situation. Gone were the comfort and luxury he had promised her on their secret wedding day. Gone was his past, his medical schooling, his pride. Everything, gone. And for what?
He looked down at her. She lifted her head slightly, and their eyes met.
For a moment, there was no spark. Suddenly, her pupils blazed, and the fire in her gaze lit the torch in his heart. She smiled. His spirit bloomed. He admired her graceful jawline, the nose that, although not perfect, was Romanesque, sculpted. Far more elegant than the beak that protruded from his own face. Together they looked like a parrot and his angel. She laid her head back down on his chest and snuggled closer.
He looked up to see that Abu was eyeing them. The boy looked down at his caramel hands, then at his master’s ivory ones. He seemed on the verge of questions—questions that remained locked behind his Sudanese silence. Only now did Rashad feel the profuse sweat that was causing his shirt to cling to his body as the September sun immolated him. He wiped his forehead, then raised his head and looked back. In the distance, he could make out several mounted men in military fatigues. The guards must be on high alert.
He lay back down and stared at the hazy sky. Every clatter of horse hooves took him a step farther away from everything that had defined him to this point in his life, so that his identity, his future, diluted as they pressed on. What scared him most was the thought of what he’d become if they got out of the city alive. If he became completely diminished, would Yasmina still love him? Yes, they had married secretly, even though she hadn’t officially broken her engagement to the governor, but would marriage mean anything beyond these city limits? Even as he tried to bury the thought, another one crept out of his throat.
“Abu,” he said, shading his eyes from the sun. “Why?”
Abu stared at him. “Abu father long time with doctor father. Abu with doctor,” he said simply.
Rashad wanted to explain how childhood shouldn’t be wasted on dangerous escapades. How teenagers shouldn’t be involved in the affairs of adults, especially dangerous affairs like these. He wanted to explain how Abu could easily find work in another household; help was always needed. But he couldn’t, or, if he were honest with himself, he wouldn’t. Perhaps it was the selfish part of him that vanquished reason and wanted the familiar nearby when his identity started to fade.
The city’s noise gradually disappeared. He looked around. They were at the outskirts of Damascus. Limp ferns grew near desolate spots upon which tin shacks were clumsily erected. Within these, Rashad saw families living in utter poverty. Big eyes set in dirty faces watched them with curiosity from the darkness of the crude entrances. The wagon wheeled around and stopped beside a scorched tree that looked as if it had roused Allah’s anger and been struck by lightning. Abu leaped off and spoke a few words to the merchant, then nodded and returned to Rashad.
“We get off here,” he said.
“Here?” Rashad inspected the impoverished scene. The road from which they had come snaked away into the rocky distance toward the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon mountains, and all around, the pale landscape looked as though it had fallen ill and never recovered. He looked back at the city and the great Kassioun Mountain that rose from the center of Damascus like a king overlooking over his people.
“I ask him get help. Someone Abu know in city. Bus come soon. We wait here.”
As he nodded, a bird fluttered sadly in the cage of Rashad’s heart. He missed home already. Carefully, he stepped from the cart before helping Yasmina down. The driver cleared his throat, staring at them.
Abu tapped Rashad’s arm. “He want good-luck medicine.”
“That’s right—let’s see . . .” He kneeled and unzipped the medicine bag, staring at the paraphernalia within. What could he possibly offer? He looked up at Abu, narrowing his eyes. “What exactly does he want?”
“Good-luck medicine,” said the boy, as if it were a common formula one could find on a pharmacy shelf.
“Well, I could perhaps write him a prescription?”
“A prescription?” said Yasmina. “Find something now, before he goes back and alerts the police!”
Sensing a coming argument between his passengers, the merchant started to babble, his voice rising to a whine. After Abu calmed him down, the boy returned to kneel beside Rashad. “We need medicine now.”
“I know, I know!” Rashad fumbled through the bag, a moment later giving up in frustration. “I don’t have medicine for bad luck.”
“Move aside,” said Yasmina, leaning down to have a look.
“I only carry surgical supplies and—”
“Shhh. You’ll just get him agitated again.” She rummaged through the pockets and flaps.
“Be careful—you’re causing a mess.” He hated anyone digging through his affairs, let alone the most personal of all, his medicine bag. He ran a nervous hand through his hair. Yasmina stopped, frowned, and pulled out several phials of clear liquid.
“What those?” asked Abu.
“Ampoules of morphine—for surgery. They make the pain go away.”
Abu took one from Yasmina before Rashad could stop him.
The boy ran up to the merchant, waved the phial at him, and their conversation loudened until the man shook his head and pointed an accusatory finger at Rashad. Abu returned and kneeled back down.
“What did he say?” asked Yasmina. “He won’t alert the police, will he?”
Abu shook his head.
“He say one not enough.”
“This is serious medicine—an overdose could kill someone!”
“Need more.” Abu reached for two more phials. Rashad grabbed the boy’s wrist. Abu looked up.
“Rashad . . .” said Yasmina, laying a hand on his. Her soulful gaze mellowed him. He took a deep breath, then lowered his eyes and resigned himself to a dissenting grimace. Abu brought the phials to the man, who stared at them, took one, tapped it. He nodded at the transaction without so much as a smile and turned away. He snapped his reins and the horse started into a lazy trot, wheeling the wagon around. The three watched the trail of dust as it disappeared into the city. Rashad viewed the urban sprawl of grayish-yellow stone.
He stared at the face of his own ruin.
The sun seared the city’s edges, fusing the ground into one cracked plain extending out as far as could be seen. As if the air wasn’t dry enough, it was further drained of humidity, baked five times over by the unforgiving sun. In the hour that passed, four strangers clad in robes joined Rashad, Yasmina, and Abu beside the tree. Turbans wrapped around their faces concealed their identities, raising Rashad’s suspicions. They stood silently, watching him through slits in their turbans as he stitched Abu’s wound. The intense heat took its toll on Rashad, and he became drenched in sweat. Huge beads crawled down his face no matter how many times he wiped his forehead.
“Who are they?” whispered Yasmina, keeping her eyes averted. Abu shot them a furtive glance.
“Passenger, madam. This bus stop,” said the boy, pointing at a small sign nailed to the tree, which had come loose and now pointed down.
“Rashad . . .” she said.
Rashad looked at the men and nodded at one. “Ahlan, Saidi. Are you waiting for transport too?”
The man didn’t answer. An uncomfortable moment stilled the area.
“Do you think they are shurta?” whispered Yasmina.
Rashad smiled uneasily and looked away. “Nonsense, habibti. The police must still be searching the city.”
“Well . . . they scare me.” She moved closer to him. Rashad pondered what to do next when a distinctive rumble approached from the direction of the city. He squinted for a better look. A small bus in the distance negotiated the rocky road toward them. In a few minutes, it pulled up beside the tree, and the driver, a Bedouin dressed in traditional robes and seated in a cabin that was missing a passenger door, stepped down and called out to them: “Yallah, yallah!”
“You must be joking,” said Rashad, staring at possibly the clumsiest contraption he had ever seen: a flimsy-looking bus with dusty windows and no signs of symmetry to its battered body. Everything looked as if it had received two dozen repairs by a blind mechanic. Both front wheels were missing their hubcaps, and one looked only a journey short away from rolling off its axle. The four strangers ducked in through a door that swung open at the back and took their seats on one of two long, slanted benches running lengthwise inside the bus. Reluctantly, Rashad followed Yasmina and Abu in and sat next to them on the opposite side, facing the men. The driver slammed the door shut, startling Rashad as he realized with a mixture of dread and sorrow that the final link to his past had just been severed.
The feeling was like none other he’d ever experienced. He wondered whether this was how it felt when someone’s hand was cut off after being convicted of theft. It was a deep-rooted sadness that took but seconds to flourish from seed to sapling; a link to what one once had taken for granted, severed forever.
The bus sputtered and rumbled as slowly as a beetle along the rocky Syrian plain. Can this bus move any slower? Rashad peered through the window and saw the city of his childhood grow smaller and smaller. He gazed at the slow-moving landscape of flora-starved white-and-yellow rock. He inhaled deeply. The heat entombed them, although no one else seemed as affected as he. The open windows only invited in more hot air. He stripped down to his undershirt, then fanned Yasmina, who laid her head on his lap and soon fell asleep. He stroked her hair, remembering how much she loved that, hoping she wouldn’t awaken until this inferno had abated.
Abu stared. Rashad smiled at him. The boy got up and kneeled down beside Yasmina. He grabbed a thin piece of board from the floor and started to fan her.
“Abu,” said Rashad, lifting his glasses and rubbing his eyes.
The boy looked up.
“Promise me something. Promise me that . . . if anything should happen, anything bad to me, I mean, that you’ll get her out of here. Out of Syria. Somewhere safe.” He looked down at the peaceful face in his lap. A few strands of long blond hair danced about her cheek. Careful not to wake her, he tucked the wisps behind her ear.
“Nothing happen to doctor,” said Abu.
The boy’s face hardened and his fanning slowed. “I promise nothing happen to doctor,” he reasserted.
Abu laid a hand on Rashad’s knee, stopping him.
“Abu understand. Not want doctor repeat.” The two gazed at each other; Rashad’s lips didn’t move, but his eyes smiled. It occurred to him now that the four strangers had been listening all along. He shifted his attention to them. Hoping to break the ice, he nodded to one. He might as well have nodded to a statue.
“Doctor?” said Abu.
Rashad looked down at him. “Yes?”
“Shurta come because of madam?”
Abu cocked his head, wrinkling his brow.
“The police come not because of madam.” His attention flitted out the window in front of him. “Not because of her, but because of jealousy.” He looked back down at the boy.
Abu’s eyes moved sideways as if he were digesting the words. Rashad closed his eyes, but somehow that only reminded him of Pasha, the governor. In the darkness, demons of hate are born, so he opened them again as he felt the acrid sting of anger in his throat. That Pasha would insult him by desecrating his public image—that he could endure. But to force him to flee by framing him for political treason, a crime that carried with it the death penalty, was the mother of all travesties.
He tried to rest his head by leaning it back, but a sudden bump on the road caused it to bang against the sharp sill behind him. The sting lingered, spreading through his skull. He rubbed the sore spot and straightened. Though he tried to sleep and banish destructive thoughts, his predicament lurked like a ghoul in the shadows of his conscience, moaning and keeping him awake.
The bus stopped for the night and a meager dinner of biscuits and fruits, which the driver produced, was shared before they all went to sleep on the uncomfortable benches. In the morning, his bones aching from the restless night, Rashad stirred awake as they resumed their trek down a dirt road toward the Anti-Lebanon mountains. Through the window, cedars emerged from the dull yellow and gray rock as the terrain increased in altitude. Grass and flowers gradually replaced the rock, and birds filled the air with their melodies, banishing the travelers’ predicament behind nature’s warm pall. As if cognizant of the surrounding beauty, Yasmina awoke and her eyes fluttered open. She sat up, leaning against Rashad’s shoulder and staring at the passing scenery outside the window—a flash of trees against a backdrop of mountains and valleys.
She grabbed Rashad’s hand and squeezed. He looked at her. Her eyes pulled him into their sapphire depths. He swam in her admiration, in those blues that brought ocean to desert. Like two shy lovers in the presence of strangers, they gave each other a hint of a smile, then reluctantly averted their eyes.
Lunch was a simple assortment of smoked meats from a roadside stand. Hours passed as they traveled on, and daylight faded. Behind the mountainous panorama to the west, the sun weakened into shades of orange and red as it settled to sleep, and a cold chill blew in through the windowsills’ cracks. Feeling her shiver, Rashad drew Yasmina against him and wrapped an arm around her shoulder. Her soft breath touched his neck while her eyelashes, flicking every now and then, tickled his chin.
Since yesterday, Yasmina had not spoken a word about their predicament. Now, at last, she asked softly, “Where will we go now?”
There was silence. He looked at the four men, then said in a low voice, “Seems like we’re headed for the border into Lebanon.”
“Lebanon is beautiful. We could stay and settle there.”
“It might not be safe. The Ottoman Turks have been causing trouble to the north. The unrest could spill over the border.”
She stroked his hand, tilted her head, and looked at him with dreamy eyes. “I’d love to see the sun set over the ocean.”
He could tell she wanted to kiss him. Warmth crept up his spine to his shoulders.
“You will, habibti. One day,” he said. It looked as if she was about to say something, but a sudden shout interrupted her.
At the front of the passenger area a slat opened, and the driver peered through it. His glassy eyes studied his cargo. “Travel documents out for border!” he said, then abruptly shut the slat.
The bus puttered, then came to a stop. In the twilight at the Lebanese border, men in dark uniforms warily watched them approach. Rashad heard the driver exchange formal greetings and answer procedure questions. He stretched and peered through the window behind him. A wooden barricade blocked the road ahead, and beside it was a dilapidated shack where three guards stood seemingly engaged in mirthful conversation. This was it, their way out. Beyond the barricade was freedom from Syria and the governor and the rumor of Rashad’s treason. A flitting thought crossed his mind—could the outpost have been alerted of his escape? Worry snaked around his stomach. The four strangers pulled out their travel papers. Rashad opened his medicine bag and removed his passport and documents. He glanced at Yasmina, then back at the paperwork in his hands. A wife could usually travel on her husband’s paperwork as long as she was in his company. Yasmina, however, was not on his paperwork yet. She pushed herself closer to him, as if knowing.
Outside, footsteps moved to the back of the bus. The door handle wobbled momentarily then unlatched, and the door swung open. A chilly wind punched into the cargo area, causing Rashad to grit his teeth and pull Yasmina closer. Carrying an aged musket, a border guard stared at the passengers with shifty eyes. His jaw was broad and wide, like that of a bulldog, and a pot belly bulged over his belt, begging to find its way to the floor.
“Papers, please,” he said in a deep voice as another guard, tall and wiry, joined him. Both of their gazes seemed drawn to Yasmina. Perhaps it was because she was the only female passenger on board, and pretty at that, but it still caused Rashad unease. The bulldog stretched a beefy arm toward Rashad, his sausage fingers beckoning him for his papers. Rashad handed them over with what he hoped was a confident smile. He forgot about the cold as anxiety burned across his neck and shoulders. The guard’s forehead wrinkled as he closely examined the documents. He turned the papers this way and that. There was no organization to travel documents, especially in Syria, and government workers at the foreign affairs ministry scribed their lines and notes or stamped their affidavits at the corresponding angle to which the paper found itself on their desk.
“Your profession?” he asked gruffly, still looking at the papers.
“Physician,” answered Rashad, his hands clammy. Wasn’t that obvious?
“This is your mistress?” He looked up, nodded at Yasmina.
Rashad’s face flushed with fire, but he restrained himself. “This is my wife.”
The guard turned the paper over. “She’s not on your papers.”
“We’ve been married less than a week.”
“And him?” He pointed a sausage at Abu. “Slave?”
Abu nodded, but Rashad placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“He is our household help.”
“Do you have any sexual relations with him?” said the wiry guard.
“Or does he have any with the mistress?” said the bulldog, and the two burst out laughing. The fire surged up Rashad’s windpipe and erupted from his mouth. “I beg your pardon! I ask to speak to your commander, right now!” He rose angrily.
“Rashad—” said Yasmina, pulling down at his hand.
Seeing him rise, the amusement drained from the guards’ faces. “Sit down!” barked the bulldog.
It was sudden and immediate. The wiry guard jumped into the wagon, striking Rashad square on the shoulder with the butt of his musket. Rashad fell backward onto Yasmina, causing her to shriek in pain. Abu jumped up. The guard spun around and struck him across the face, knocking him into a senseless heap at Rashad’s feet.
“Are you crazy?” Rashad crouched to cradle Abu, whose eyes floated dazedly in their sockets. On the opposite bench the four men didn’t move. The three guards who had been conversing by the shack must have heard the commotion, and after a scuffle of footsteps, they appeared in the van’s cargo area.
“What’s going on here?” one of them barked, a large man with a uniform slightly lighter in color than the others’. A rectangular patch of assorted colors laid out in straight lines was stitched above his shirt pocket. He looked like an officer.
“All is well, sir,” replied the wiry guard as he climbed out and adjusted his uniform. “We found a sick boy. We were checking him over.”
All eyes went to Abu, who lay limp in Rashad’s arms. The nerve—to lie like that, in front of a commanding officer at that!
“He lies! They hit the boy and insulted my wife!” exclaimed Rashad, pointing an accusatory finger at the guards.
“Habibi . . .” whispered Yasmina.
Rashad glanced over at her. His breath came steadier, but the fire in his veins caused him to shake and his hands to remain clenched. He leaned over and saw that Abu was unconscious. Rashad glared at the wiry guard who stared back with a sly smirk.
The officer grabbed the documents from the bulldog and examined them. Fear bubbled in the pit of Rashad’s gut. A minute later the officer looked up and asked, “Rashad Pharaon—that is your name?”
The officer nodded and handed the papers back to the guard. “You may all pass.”
The growling in Rashad’s stomach subsided, replaced with a sense of elation. Despite the troubles, freedom never felt so good.
“Except for the fugitives. Arrest them.” He nodded to Rashad, causing his insides to instantly cramp, dazing his vision with dancing colors as his body pulsed with fear. It took him a few second to digest the words. What did he say?
He didn’t ask for fear of hearing the words again.
“I don’t understand . . .” Rashad, still cradling Abu, slipped his arms out from around the boy and rose as two guards stepped in. “There must be a mistake!” he said, but the guards grabbed and dragged him and Yasmina outside.
“We were expecting you,” said the officer, pulling a slip of paper from his shirt pocket. “Rashad Pharaon, you are under arrest for political treason.”
Political treason. The words sounded unnatural, as if they belonged to another, desecrated species of human. But he, a doctor, being accused of such words? The impact reverberated through him as his pride was run over by a bus full of mockery.
“There—there must be something we can agree on,” pleaded Rashad. “Please, we just want to get across the border, we mean you no trouble. Look at us . . .”
The officer appraised him at length, then eyed Yasmina, his gaze lingering much too long. “Well. We could work something out,” he said with a lurid grin.
The insult struck Rashad, twisting his face into a renewed rage. His body reacted like a flame let too near a volatile substance. He wrenched himself free, but no sooner had he taken two steps than a musket crashed into the base of his skull. His glasses skittered onto the ground as all strength sapped from his legs, causing him to buckle face first into the dirt. The musk of earth filled his nostrils. Obscenities and insults leaked through the deafening buzz in his ears. A piercing scream cut the air, and he tried to look up. His eyes could make sense of almost nothing. Images were blurred, watered down, spinning. Forms struggled, warped. Between loud gasps venting from his mouth, a series of words registered in his mind:
“Take her inside . . .”
He heard depraved cackling, like the howling of hyenas. When his vision started to clear and his breathing came easier, he saw three of the five men dragging Yasmina to the shack; the officer and his bulldog remained.
More mumbled words, and then a heavy boot smashed into his lower back. He tried to move, to relieve the pain that exploded through his back, but the boot pinned him in place. He’d never felt so hopeless in his life. The language of despair filled his mind, replacing any other he’d known.
“Please—please—” he sobbed, then said the only thing that came to his mind: “I’m a doctor.”
“And I’m an engineer, but you don’t see me crying,” mocked the officer, while the bulldog sneered. “Hey! You men! Get out of here before you end up like him.” He must have been yelling at the driver and the four remaining passengers, still inside the wagon.
Rashad heard another scream. It was Yasmina’s. He looked up weakly. Three men were trying to push her into the shack. She fought back, grabbing the edges of the doorway. She must have known that once inside, she would never be the same again. She kicked and flailed her arms until one of the men struck her in the middle of the back. The blow caused her to go limp as she emitted a muffled cry. Then she was gone, dragged into the darkness of the doorway.
Evil. Pure, horrifying evil. Rashad screamed.
“Quiet, dog!” The foot on his back lifted before crashing down with another blow to his spine. He heard a crunching sound as the breath shot from his lungs. For a moment, he thought the boot had cracked his back as he wheezed for breath. The air eluded him at first, refusing his lungs, then slowly acceding. Despite the stamp of pain in his lower back, he managed to move his limbs, and because of his profession he knew his back wasn’t broken.
“As for the rest of you,” said the officer, “I warned—”
A violent thud stole his sentence. Rashad craned his neck to look. The lines on the officer’s face stiffened with shock. His mouth dropped open as a void devoured his eyes. The culprit―the driver—stooped over the officer, who held his arm with a look of disbelief as he slumped to the ground, a dagger in his gut.
The entire act took but a few seconds, not enough time for the bulldog to react. One of the four men in the caravan was already behind him. Just as the bulldog lifted his musket, a hand covered his mouth. A blade flashed across his neck, slicing deep. His attempt to scream sounded like a gurgle. His legs wobbled and, gently, he was laid down beside the officer. The three men in the caravan leaped out and scrambled toward the guards’ shack like crabs on tiptoe. They flanked the doorway. One peered in, then signaled to another, who chucked something inside.
A blinding flash lit up the shack and heavy smoke billowed out of the doorway. Had they just killed his wife? Rashad was about to scream, when he heard the coughs. He sighed in relief; it was only a smoke grenade. The four men rushed inside. Screams of death awakened the dusk. Birds perched in the nearby trees took flight, screeching in dissent as they rallied into the sky like dark angels.
Rashad got to his knees, but the stabbing pain in his lower back immobilized him. Taking a long breath, he tried to stand, but his legs failed him. He grimaced. Slowly, he bit the pain away and pulled himself up, glancing sideways at the bus. Abu had regained consciousness and was standing outside the vehicle, leaning on it; one side of his face looked completely swollen.
“Stay put,” he called out to the boy as he turned and trolled painfully toward the shack. He’d taken but three steps when he collapsed on his hands and knees. Another scream from Yasmina rang out, then silence.
“Yasmina!” he yelled. If it grew any worse, he thought the violent pounding in his chest would lead to a stroke. With enormous effort, he pushed against the wall of pain and rose. Just then, Yasmina burst out of the shack, coughing. Their eyes met, and she ran to him, stumbling into his arms and crying.
“Habibti . . . habibti . . . choukran, Allah—thank you, Allah,” he repeated while caressing her hair as she shuddered and sobbed.
The four strangers, their robes disheveled, emerged from the shack and approached them. They stopped and stood, watching silently. Questions stormed his mind, fighting to pour out of his mouth, but all that emerged was, “Allah bless you, Allah bless you. You saved her life. How can I ever thank you?”
The driver, crouching besides the bodies nearby, stood and removed his turban. Nothing about his scarred face alluded to any kind of sympathy. And his eyes looked empty, as if a soul had vacated them and never returned. Wrapping and adjusting the turban, the driver once again concealed his face, then leaned down and picked up Rashad’s glasses. He walked over and handed them to him.
“We must go,” he said, then turned and walked to the front of the bus, where he quickly settled.
“The men, they’re—dead?” Rashad looked around, aghast.
Without a word, the four strangers walked past him, filed into the back of the bus and seated themselves on one bench. Wrenching his eyes from the two corpses at his feet, he stumbled to the bus and helped Yasmina in, not knowing why they were even following these men who’d just murdererd patrols. Surely their company would only invite more trouble? Or was it the other way around? Setting all questions aside, Rashad lifted himself inside. Though his body was shrieking with pain, he sat and pulled Abu up on the bench beside him, laying him lengthwise with his head in his lap and Yasmina on his other side. She rubbed her lower back as he looked at her with concern.
“Take care of him first.” She nodded at Abu. Hesitantly, his gaze left hers. He reached for the glasses in his pocket and put them on. Placing a hand on the boy’s forehead, he stretched open one of his eyelids and examined the pupil. No dilation, no sign of concussion. Good. He turned Abu’s head to the side. The red welt ran the entire length of his jaw from ear to chin.
“Abu . . .” Rashad said under his breath. “Laich? Why?”
The boy’s lids flicked intermittently, but didn’t fully open. Rashad removed his shirt. A frigid draft cloaked his shoulders as he placed the shirt beneath the boy’s head.
“Will he be all right?” asked Yasmina. Her face looked laden with guilt, as if everything had been her fault.
“He should be.” Rashad put an arm around her and drew her closer. Exposure to the cold caused the sore spot in his back to throb even more.
He’d been so preoccupied tending to Abu that he didn’t notice his vision was poor until Yasmina said, “Oh, Rashad. One of your lenses is cracked.”
He smiled, his vision distorted through the broken lens. “It hasn’t fallen out. I can still see.”
The bus rocked violently as it negotiated an incline, reached a peak, then sped down the decline as the shadowy countryside blurred past the windows. The smell of cedar bark and the cold outdoors wafted in, and the moon looked on with a soft glow. A light drizzle started outside. Rashad looked out one of the windows at the heavens. Oddly, despite the rain, he saw no clouds. The caravan rose then leveled abruptly, and he grabbed onto the bench for support. When the temperamental road calmed, he rubbed his sore shoulder and stared at the four silhouettes. Minutes passed. The hundred questions on his mind narrowed to a dozen, then, finally, to one:
“Why did you save us?”
In the dimly lit bus, he couldn’t tell whether the men were awake or asleep. He glanced at Yasmina, then back at the men. He was about to repeat the question when one of them leaned in. Through the slit in his turban, his eyes glowed like lakes in the moonlight. “Where we’re going, ten men like you are needed. But if Allah chooses to give us one—then one we accept.”
He leaned back into the consuming night.
The next morning, a sparkling Mediterranean opened up before them as their little party reached the peak of Mount Brumana. The sea’s satin sheen captured a tranquil poem on Yasmina’s face as she admired the million glittering diamonds dancing on its restive surface. It whispered hope, it whispered beauty. Around them to the north and south, olive and cedar trees held nature’s line to perfection, brushing the rolling hills with a rich green that stretched out as far as the eye could see. And in the distance, clasped against lush coast, there appeared the gray sprawl of civilization.
The bus rattled down the interminable, winding road. There seemed to exist no rules to the mayhem on its narrow lane. The jabber and yells of roadside vendors mingled with the call of sparrows as merchants hurriedly carted their goods toward the city. Up ahead, a cow lay across the road, forcing traffic to circle around it while it stared disinterestedly at the commotion it was causing.
Eventually, the bus slowed. Barefooted young boys caught up to them, running alongside their windows as they waved their fruits and vegetables. They shouted again and again over fitful breaths, focusing on the female of the caravan. After the first refusal, the boys tried even harder, asking what self-respecting men didn’t spoil such a beautiful maiden with the best fruits of Lebanon. Yasmina laughed.
One of the four passengers knocked on the driver’s slat. The volume of the children’s yelps rose as the bus shuddered to a stop, and the passenger reached his hand through the window. Seeing the glimmer of coins pass from the passenger’s hand to the boys’, even more boys joined the fray until it became an auditory deluge. The man waved them off as he tapped the slat again. The bus yanked forward as the man sat back down, holding three apples that he offered to Rashad and Yasmina. They glanced at each other and accepted the gifts with surprise. Before any more could be said, the man retreated into his world of stone.
Finding Abu still asleep, Rashad saved him an apple and took a bite of his. The refreshing nectar lifted his spirit, making him feel that good things must be coming after all the turmoil they had been through. He looked over at Yasmina, who was eating hers with a voracious appetite. She noticed Rashad’s soft gaze and blushed as she covered her mouth and chuckled. When she had finished her apple, she turned around and kneeled up on the bench. Holding onto the sill, she stuck her head out and gawked at the splendid scenery crowned by the blue of heaven.
“It’s so beautiful . . .” she said, sighing.
“Yes it is, habibti,” said Rashad, still gazing only at her.
As the city of Beirut drew nearer, the foreign architecture injected them with a mental opiate. It looked like a city that had broken off from a European coast and beached ashore here, commanding the best location on this side of the Mediterranean. A mark of artistry, an expression of freedom, it seemed to shun the warring that afflicted the neighboring kingdoms. Beauty in the background, his wife in the foreground—there was no painting more splendid to Rashad. He held Yasmina’s hand and forgot all about their fellow passengers. Sparrows darted overhead and landed on the cedars dotting the side of the road, singing their morning sonatas. The scent of civilization permeated the wind that combed the countryside and tousled Yasmina’s hair as it dashed past her. The lightheartedness of people without worry pollinated the air. So gay was she, kneeling on the bench, waving back at the children playing by the roadside, that it seemed even the four strangers had lost their hard edge. Their shoulders stooped. Their backs relaxed. Their heads bobbed lazily with the sway of the bus.
Yasmina pulled her head back in, the blue of her eyes bright as the sky above. “Will we be passing through the city?” she asked, her attention divided between Rashad and the men.
“Going back through Syria isn’t safe,” answered one.
We can’t be headed north, thought Rashad. It would be suicide. That was where the Ottoman Turks were rallying, threatening the Arab world with their massive armies.
“Then—we are going south through Lebanon?” asked Rashad.
The man nodded.
Abu awakened just as they reached the city’s outskirts. Ignoring the stabbing pain in his lower back, Rashad helped him up to a window and offered him the apple. The welt still looked sizable, so Rashad warned, “Bite gently.” Abu bit softly into it while gazing at the wondrous city that so sharply contrasted with the dusty landscape of Damascus, while Rashad looked over his shoulder. The roads here were paved with brown stones, and the ornamented lampposts suffused a romance into the city’s soul that conquered eyes and sneaked into gaping mouths. Patrons, some evidently tourists of faraway origins, sat at European-style bistros, enjoying meals in the company of the sea-flavored wind. Occasionally, wafting through the air came myriad aromas, the most noticeable emanating from the nearby bakeries that assaulted the senses with a delicious promise.
But the delight lasted only an hour. Suddenly, Yasmina turned pale. The onset was rapid. She began rubbing her stomach and quieted. Her eyes dwelled on the fringes of happiness, betrayed by wavering flickers of pain. Soon it seemed to overcome her, and a groan escaped her lips.
“Do you think it was the apple?” she said, resting her head on Rashad’s shoulder.
“We all had some,” said Rashad. “Maybe it’s the anxiety, habibti. Why don’t you nap for a bit?”
But her condition gradually worsened as the city grew smaller behind them. Rashad’s aches started to throb more under the weight of his worry. The seaside road turned bland and once more invited rock and dirt. It erased his hour of happiness in Beirout and returned to him the reality of his predicament. Yasmina’s cheeks soon flushed and became feverish. Despite the straightforward symptoms of anxiety he had diagnosed, which he had treated a thousand times before, panic nevertheless gripped him. His rib cage felt constricted, pins pricked his neck and temples as he laid his palm on her forehead. It was burning hot. He tried his best to conceal his fear, but Abu must have sensed it. The boy’s eyes looked like shining orbs floating on a sea of worry. Yasmina’s head slid from Rashad’s shoulder—he caught it just in time and laid it gently in his lap. She mumbled something unintelligible. His insides started melting, sinking.
One of the men offered Rashad a water satchel, which he accepted with a grateful nod. He gave her a sip. A moment later, she said, “More.” The same behavior went on for a good hour before Rashad came to a single conclusion.
“She’s dehydrating. We need to stop at an infirmary.”
“We can’t stop,” responded the man.
“You don’t understand, she may . . .” he stopped short of pronouncing the dreadful word.
The figures consulted privately for a moment. One of them vehemently shook his head.
Finally, another of them slid up to the front and knocked on the slat. It opened, and muted words were exchanged. Rashad didn’t ask where they were headed or how long it would take to get to there; he was just glad they had acknowledged him.
“Rashad . . .” moaned Yasmina.
He caressed her cheek. “Aiwa, habibti?”
“Rashad . . .” Her face looked waxen.
“Shhh, habibti. We’re going to an infirmary.” He glanced up at the men. Outside, the late afternoon sun sank along with his spirit. Tonight he would be alone with his thoughts while Yasmina suffered. She was barely conscious now. How could this have happened so quickly?
“Rashad . . .”
He reached inside his medicine bag and pulled out a cloth, moistening it with water and dabbing her forehead. Her tongue slid across her parched lips. He gave her another sip from the water satchel. It streaked over her lips, ran down her cheek, and wet his lap. He looked up at the men with frustration, then back at Yasmina, rubbing her arm. She barely stirred. He blew softly on her face while Abu grabbed the cloth and wiped her neck.
They stopped once at an outpost to refuel as a rich splay of warm tones receded from the sky. Soon, darkness fell and a pearlescent moon rose. The hand of Allah sprinkled glitter that twinkled on the dark canvas above, and only the residual joy of the day lent any consolation to Rashad’s vast sense of abandonment. It was the world and just him and the boy. Families everywhere, gathering for dinner, and just them—alone. He tasted the bitterness of sorrow at the back of his throat, but fought the sensation as best as he could, pacing back and forth as the men ordered food from a stall within the outpost.
Ten minutes later they were once more on the road. He had meant to ask when they would arrive, but exhaustion took its toll. Half awakening in the night, he faintly remembered dreaming of a city in the middle of the desert, a city without people. The image lingered on a little while longer before he once more fell into the precipice of sleep.
When his eyes opened, a new morning greeted him. He jerked up in alarm. Looking around dazedly, he saw Yasmina’s head still in his lap. He cursed himself for falling asleep and immediately gauged her pupils, then her pulse. The buzzing in his ears grew to a loud crescendo. Could this really be? He checked again. She was definitely unconscious.
He looked up. “Where is the infirmary?” he nearly yelled.
“Close,” said one of them.
“Close? Close? She’s dying, by Allah, do you not see my wife is dying?” He slid his body to the side and laid her head carefully on the bench, then looked up. “Stop this thing, stop it now!” Their impassiveness inflated his anger. He reached for one, intending to shake some emotion from him, but quickly found himself pinned in his seat. He pushed but the man seemed possessed with inhuman strength.
“Sit still,” said the man.
The drumming in Rashad’s ears beat to a dirge of despair. Hours—she has hours at most! Does this idiot not see? His lower back was on fire, and his breathing, raspy and interrupted by coughs, gradually slowed until at last he gathered his emotional bearings. Abu sat still, glancing back and forth at Rashad and the men with uncertainty and occasionally touching the wound on his face. The slat at the front slid open, revealing a pair of curious eyes. The hands around Rashad’s collar loosened. Slowly, the man sat down. Rashad straightened himself and turned to the narrow slat with an accusing glare. “Why aren’t we there? Where are we?”
The groaning of wheels answered. A moment later, the driver said, “Border of Transjordan and Palestine.”
“Transjordan?” The veins in his neck felt like cables strained beyond their limits. “We need to stop! We’ve nearly crossed all of Lebanon—this is madness. She does not have much time!”
“No choice but to detour through Lebanon into Palestine, then go east through the Palestine-Transjordan border.” It was the most he had said in their three-day journey.
“But she needs a hospital now!”
“The police would no doubt be posted at the local hospitals—Lebanon and Syria share a common police. They expect us to seek medicine. A good thing you’re a doctor—now do your job.”
The driver’s eyes peered emotionlessly through the slat. A moment later, it shut.
All wind was stilled in Rashad’s lungs as a moment of disbelief froze his thoughts. Steadily, a sense of helplessness overpowered him. His anger soon yielded to fear. Much as he barked, he was powerless to do anything but sit and boil in his ocean of emotions. He laid a hand on Yasmina’s forehead, touched her wrist, opened her eyelids. The ominous signs were there: unsteady pulse, strong fever, pin-drop pupils.
After a minute, he glanced at the men. “You murderers,” he said under his breath. Disgust sweated from his pores.
“Would you rather we go back and meet death?” said one, finally.
Gazing at him, Rashad made no reply. What in Transjordan is so important that these men would risk her life just to get there? Questions burned on his tongue, questions that were interrupted by thoughts of Yasmina, which pulled his attention to her feverish cheeks. He could not recall ever feeling so helpless.
The morning slowly yielded to a midday heat and a sense that all would soon be lost. Yasmina was the reason for his escape, yet what cruel joke—to go into exile, only to have your very reason for it die on your lap. And the agonizing irony was—he was a doctor. One of the men passed him a canteen of water. As if this is enough! Rashad didn’t thank him. He uncorked the canteen and tried feeding Yasmina water but most of it snaked down her cheek. Resigned, he looked out the window as if to blame Allah. It cannot end this way. Not like this. Allah, why would you allow this? What have I done to deserve this punishment? Moments like these are the ones that define a man. Like tremors, they come and alter his emotional landscape. Where once bloomed a flower of hope, there remains only a withered weed. Where once flowed a river of joy, there remain only puddles of memories. No, it cannot be. Rashad shunned the idea of this possible new reality, a reality without her.
He brushed her hair aside. Memories came, flitting across the abject landscape and into the caravan. He remembered how Yasmina had intimidated even the most beautiful of women. He loved that about her. Whereas these beauties could flaunt their looks, Yasmina’s gifted mind tangled them in the fathoms of its intellect.
More hours passed. The journey was a haze. They briefly stopped to refuel at an outpost with tents, outside of which grazed horses and camels. A couple of children playing with pebbles peered at them as they rolled in, but, unlike the children of Beirut, these remained as distant as their stares. Rashad contemplated getting out and asking for help, but when his eyes roamed the endless world of sand and rock around them, he resigned himself to silence. Worse yet, the outpost was manned by a man wearing similar garb as the passengers. They exchanged greetings by kissing each other’s cheeks and talking so quietly it was impossible to hear them. Occasionally, one would turn his head in Rashad’s direction and nod. They were talking about him. The man’s wife, veiled from head to toe in a black abaya with only a slit to reveal the eyes, kept her distance. An old Bedouin tradition—Rashad had heard of it. But seeing it up close was fascinating. What was more, she was dressed like this in the stifling heat of the rocky plateau—the very thought of it made him perspire.
The man brought a plastic container with a long spout that he inserted into the bus’s gas tank. Fifteen minutes later, they were back on the road, when one of the men said, “One more hour.” The hour seemed to stretch interminably. Rashad was tending to Yasmina and on the verge of raising objections when a sound caught his attention. Had he heard noises outside? His eyes opened wide as he glanced around, looking out the window behind him. Abu, who’d been lying down, rose and steadied himself as he looked out.
Rashad’s face lit up. The sound became distinct—that of voices. It was melody to his ears. His heart pumped hope into every extremity as he pushed himself up beside Abu and sighed in relief. Outside, dozens of old buses and trucks sat in the shade of a hillock. Men stood beside them, waving at the newcomers. Most intriguing was the mountain beside the hillock, which looked like a massive lump of pinkish rock melted over a Roman temple with only the temple’s front pillars standing out from the rock’s surface. They marveled at the strange architecture, and as they gazed around, they saw several more of these structures in the nearby escarpment.
“Beautiful,” said Rashad.
“What this?” asked Abu with an equal measure of awe.
“This must be Petra.”
“Why in rock?”
“This city was built into the very cliffs hundreds of years ago. It used to be the seat of Arab power, but then it fell into Roman rule. One day, a great earthquake struck and it was left like this, abandoned,” said Rashad. The boy nodded, gazing at the temple’s tall entryway flanked by the thick, crenelated pillars that rose a good thirty feet and supported the buried ceiling. Rashad turned to the men. “Is there an infirmary here?”
One of them nodded.
Rashad frowned. He felt the creases in his forehead were becoming permanent. “Who—who are these people?”
“They live here?”
Suddenly, the words sunk in—an infirmary! He realized that the bearers of his wrath could become his saviors. He could have hugged them, but he was sure the gesture wouldn’t be reciprocated.
He grabbed Yasmina’s hand and kissed it. “We’re here, habibti, we’re here. Hang on.”
The bus came to an abrupt halt in the shade of the temple. The door unlatched and swung open, and several men in traditional thobes—the Arabian garment for men—and turbans greeted them. The four men stood up and disembarked. Outside, they stretched and looked back at Rashad one last time and, without further ado, walked away. Rashad studied Yasmina; her breathing was shallow. He and Abu exchanged uncertain glances. Had anyone gone looking for aid? The four certainly hadn’t—he saw them head over to a group of men by another bus. He was about to get up and ask for help when he noticed a tall man who looked a decade his senior, fairer than the rest, approaching the caravan. Behind him were two men carrying a wooden gurney. They stopped and laid the gurney down, climbed inside the caravan, and with Rashad’s help carefully lifted Yasmina. Gently, they eased her outside and lowered her onto the gurney. Despite her being in the shade, a third man brought a parasol, which he opened above her. Rashad appreciated the gesture with a nod. A sense of comfort washed over him.
“Easy now, easy. Take her into the temple. We’ll be right there,” said the fair man in a dialect that drew Rashad’s curiosity. A deep scar was etched on the left side of his face, running from cheek to chin. Above it, a colorless eye stared impassively at the world from the depths of its blindness. As the other men lifted the gurney and trundled off toward the rock temple, the fair man turned to Rashad and said, “Doctor Pharaon?”
“Pleased to finally meet you.” The man extended his hand.
Rashad shook it, puzzled. “How do you know my name?”
“I am Doctor Alireza,” he said, ignoring the question. He pulled some papers from his shirt pocket and handed them to Rashad. “Your travel documents,” he said with a smile. Rashad accepted them. Alireza then approached Abu and turned his cheek to the side, appraising the large welt with a hiss. “What happened?”
“A small incident.”
“And your glasses—a small incident too?”
“I’ll get them fixed.”
“Would you like me to send them for repair?”
“Can we go see my wife?” said Rashad.
Alireza paused, then nodded diplomatically. “Of course.”
Without further delay, he led them to the temple. Meanwhile, Rashad’s curiosity gnawed at him, “You’re a doctor, you said?”
“You don’t look like the rest here.”
Alireza smiled, but didn’t look over at him. “Syrian mother.”
“I’m from Damascus.”
“I know. Your father was quite the physician.”
“What is this place?” Rashad surveyed the people’s comings and goings. Some returned his scrutiny with equal curiosity.
It took a moment for his words to unravel their meaning. The edges of Rashad’s lips dropped and he felt astonishment pump blood to his face. He’d heard of them. Most in Syria referred to them as murderers, terrorists. And here he stood among them—his saviors.
“You seem surprised.” Alireza stopped and glanced at him.
“Freedom fighters, Doctor.”
Rashad averted his eyes, swallowed hard.
Alireza smiled, then proceeded up the temple steps. At the top, he turned and stared at Rashad still standing there, dazed. Was it right to allow terrorists to help him, despite his predicament? Would Allah frown down on this day, possibly punish him for it in the future? Rashad shook the haze from his mind and hastily followed the doctor, Abu behind him. He’d always been taught to fear Allah, to follow the right path so as to guarantee his passage to heaven. But faced with such a difficult situation—appeasing Allah or saving the woman he loved—he suddenly found himself on the edge of rebellion. He wasn’t willing to let her die. He was willing to take the chance and upset a god. And if Allah truly was kind and generous, surely he would understand? If humans were built in his image, surely he could see into Rashad’s heart and read the language written upon it today?
At the entrance, Alireza gestured invitingly, then led him through the dark archway into a narrow stone corridor that forked into a T-junction. He turned left, walking down a passageway lit by torches mounted in wall sconces. The place smelled of dank, burning musk. They walked past several doors until they reached the last—a small room arranged with what looked like only scant essentials. Against the far wall, Yasmina lay upon a shabby mattress. A pang of sadness shot through Rashad; never in a hundred years would he have pictured her like this. Is this the good life I promised her? He was afraid that if she woke up, she would look around in shock at her meager surroundings, then storm off, never looking back at him again.
Alireza kneeled down beside her and laid a hand on her forehead. He opened a medicine bag that lay beside her bed and removed a stethoscope and blood pressure gauge. He looked up at Rashad, who didn’t understand at first. Then a spark of comprehension lit in his eyes, and he bowed his head apologetically and kneeled beside Alireza, accepting the stethoscope. Rashad opened Yasmina’s collar and placed the stethoscope on her bare chest. Meanwhile, Alireza wrapped the pressure gauge around her arm and began to pump.
“Sounds clear,” said Rashad.
Alireza frowned. He opened her mouth with a wooden depressor, checked her tongue, then appraised her pupils. “It’s what I feared,” he said after a moment.
The last word pinched Rashad’s heart. He looked at Alireza. “Heat stroke?”
“Mm-hmm. Quite serious. Compounded with a lack of fluids and, probably, much anxiety. I’ll administer some sodium chloride.”
“Will she get better soon, you think?”
“We can only wait and see,” said Alireza.
Rashad had heard those words many times before. As a matter of fact, he’d been the one saying them, but never had he imagined how little hope they provided his patients. Not until now.
“I’m terribly sorry for the inconvenience we’ve caused you. If there was only some way I could repay you . . . we have very little money.”
There was a brief pause. Alireza’s dead eye seemed to brighten. “There is a way,” he said.
“Yes?” What did he possibly think Rashad was capable of providing?
At first, he didn’t understand. Then, his expression slackened as he shook his head. “No—no. I can’t join you—it’s not for us. Not for me and my wife . . .”
“Specialty in trauma and surgery, top of your class. A physician of renowned caliber.”
Rashad cocked his head. How did this man know so much about him?
“The Brothers have eyes, have ears,” said Alireza, as if reading his mind. He stood up and walked to the doorway. “You will forgive me for acting on an opportunity when it presents itself.”
Rashad pushed his glasses up. “I don’t think I understand . . .”
“The news of your secret marriage to the governor’s fiancée is no secret to the Brothers,” said Alireza. “Had your informant not reached us in time, you’d be in prison by now. Perhaps even tortured or, worse yet, dead.”
“You’ve mistaken me for someone else, sir. I know no informant.”
Alireza smiled. “But yes, doctor—yes, you do.”
Rashad’s brows furrowed as he searched the confused gaps of his memory. He shook his head, at a loss, then glanced sideways to follow the pharmacist’s gaze.
Abu stepped forward.
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