The men didn’t ask God for anything, not openly, except for health and His protection. But God wasn’t fooled, not in the midseventies. He kept an eye on their hopes, which stirred as they sipped their tea.
He watched the men leaving their homes, hands tucked behind their backs, clutching the hopes that were never spoken aloud, not even during evening prayer: let brick walls replace the earthen walls, let there be electricity instead of gas, may the first color TV be no less than twenty inches.
They may not have meant to deceive God, but He was not pleased.
When one built an addition, it smelled like burning gasoline—like rooms made for nightmares, with no angels climbing down the ladders, with a roof always under construction. One of them went to Iraq, where he died in a war others watched in full color.
Then one day the electricity arrived, just as they had hoped, and those who remained in the village strung up lanterns to guide the mourners to the place of mourning.
A woman and a little girl, both faded by developer. The woman doesn’t smile (though she doesn’t know she will die exactly forty-seven days later) and the girl doesn’t smile (though she doesn’t yet know what death is). The woman has the girl’s lips and forehead (the girl has the nose of a man who never made it into the photos). The woman’s hand is on the girl’s shoulder and the girl’s hand is in a fist (she’s not angry, she’s holding half a caramel). The girl’s dress is not made from Egyptian cotton (Abdel Nasser, who made everything, died long ago), and her shoes are imported from Gaza (which was, of course, a free-trade zone). The woman’s watch doesn’t work, and she wears a wide belt. (Was this in style in 1974?)
They put the little boy in front of the camera and slip ten crisp guineas into his hand—although I should say, for precision’s sake, that it was sometimes five. Click. The little boy cries out and the bills flutter from his hand. In the photo, he is still holding on. In the real world, the man who had given him the money quickly took it back.
The hands of family newborns were always clutching money, all except Hosam, who wasn’t afraid of the dark, nor the camera flash. He surprised everyone by swallowing the guineas he was given and he became a family legend—not for this, but because he drowned while fishing at the age of ten. Hosam, my friend! The way he sat at the back of class and chewed on his pencils embarrassed me. They took his picture out of the National Bank envelope, which had been in the Bata shoe box in the living-room trunk, and put it in a silver frame. His death surprised no one. His nickname was ibn mawt, “son of death.”