MECCA IN 2003 • by Fatima Alharthi

Approaching the courtyard, Al, my brother, hauled his leather sandals under his shaved armpits. I copied him and reached my left hand closer to his right, but he flinched.

“I will not hold her until she covers her face,” he said, addressing my parents, who uttered nothing. My mom’s face was covered with a transparent black veil. Her soft hand was cradled in Dad’s, and my two elder sisters were geared, their hands clasped, shoes in a backpack and faces were also all covered. I never found it logical to cover my face, let alone without any makeup on. Mecca has always been the only place that knows our exact number, but even in God’s house, we needed to pair.

“Stay together,” dad instructed, “and if anyone gets lost, that’s King Abdul Aziz’s gate, wait there.” He pointed at the only gate with luminous green neon light. The starless sky was our roof, and the Kaaba, the house of God, centered the courtyard. I regretted wearing the new sheer socks instead of the cotton polka dots. Had I been gullible in thinking that wearing elegant socks would make me closer to God?

Three circular floors overlooked the Kaaba. A crane protruded from a fledgling skyscraper that in years will dwarf the black shrine. The cacophony of drilling mixed with worshippers’ heterogeneous recitation of the Quran. Children skied on the smoothest marble floor my feet had ever touched. We started our ambulation of seven rounds. Around my wrist was a sandalwood rosary of a hundred beads, and from it, a tiny thread of seven beads dangled. I looked at God’s cubic shaped house — my right hand saluted it, and I moved one bead. Then two, then three. Al did not pull me closer to his side. I tried to pace as close to him as I could — shoving my way amidst sweaty pits and oil-smelling caftans fighting to be under his wing.  An African group with braided hands drove us apart. I did not see Al’s dark hair, dad’s bald head, or my sister’s burgundy backpack. Would someone abduct me and sell my kidney as grandma often warned? Would someone amputate my legs, and force me to walk on hands soliciting mercy?

Beside me, a group of Indonesians said prayers out loud. Their white outfits smelled of lavender soap and their skin glistened of Vaseline. I inhaled their cleanliness and recited after them, but found them slow; their accent artificial, and so I zigzagged among worshippers while counting the four remaining laps on my rosary. I wanted someone to call out my name, to direct the collective attention to a missing person so that I can appear all perfect and relieved. But the missing ones are never called out in Mecca; they disappear like stardust. The green gate was there. I did not see any familiar head yet.  I was just 16, all dressed in black. I wondered who first made the Kaaba’s brocade in black to add sacredness to our abayas? The circumnavigation seemed eternal, not like the penguin race toy that halts with the end of the battery, or like a whirling of a Sufi dervish. But eternally unstoppable.

One last round, I moved the bead. Near the end of the ritual, a man groped my bottom. I wanted to grab my phone and take a photo of him, but mine had no camera. Al thought that camera phones corrupt girls. I stared at my abuser: “Filthy coward,” I couldn’t say the words. I shivered. He turned his face away — his thobe dirty, and skin the color of yam. I could still spot him ducking his big head like a thief.

A schoolmate instructed me once to look at the ceiling whenever chocked up. Above me, flocks of greyscale pigeons navigated the Kaaba. I read the verse weaved in gold at the top of the cube-structure: My House is your refuge. Tears welled up in my eyes. Down the shrine, worshippers stretched their hands as if reaching for the ascending prayers, as if touching the closer-than-veins God.

Perhaps Al was at the green gate waiting anxiously for me. Perhaps dad was scolding him, and mom was whispering prayers for my safe return. Perhaps my sisters were lamenting calling me Fara (mouse) instead of Sara. I put them off for a while and retreated to the area of after-circumnavigation. Allah’s kingdom is my end. I breathed in liberty. Not steered by a guardian or under the stare of a big brother, I raised my hands near my ears starting the prayer, or the connection, as I prefer to call it. I stared at the Kaaba revolting against the religious teaching of looking at the ground, and I yearned for top of class grades, for health, and Divine love. In my prostration, I heard giggles behind me after a kid said:

“Look! Her socks!”

And then, while I was in a trance between earth and heaven unbothered by the cool breeze molesting my perforated socks, and my forehead caressing the marble — while secretly I was sobbing to reunite with my family, a tiny hand moved a finger in the wide, wide circles of my socks, and forced a chuckle out of me.

Fatima Alharthi is a PhD in Creative Writing student at Florida State University. Her work has been featured in Monte Carlo Radio, and a few literary journals such as Smokelong Quarterly, Apeiron Review, Flyleaf Journal, and Santa Ana River review, among others.

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