LIKE NOWHERE ELSE

Later, Nooria took me to a woman to have my hands and feet decorated with naqsh. It was late when we got there, but Aisha and her children were up. Her mafraj was a long stretch from Theo’s: dirty orange walls, a bare cement floor, a few mats and a television. It was dim, with only a weak overhead bulb lighting the gloom. Before getting down to work, she served us cake, cucumbers and qishr.

Nooria fed me, and Aisha chatted about her fourteen birthday and eight surviving children, while she painted intricate lines, loops and curves from my wrists to my fingertips, my ankles to my toes. When she had finished, she patted my hands and feet with Vaseline, then wrapped them in strips of cotton to stop the night air provoking irritation. Her teenage daughter crouched in front of me and, because I could not use my hands, offered to fix my scarf. Her unquestioning assumption that I would not wish to step into the street unveiled was deeply affecting. Her face, inches from my own, she tied my headscarf tight beneath my chin and tucked away every suggestion of hair. Her concentration and my stillness welded us together like women in a still-life painting.

Bound in rags, I walked through the streets like the Straw Man in the The Wizard of Oz. Nooria giggled as I bobbled along. At the house, we put plastic bags on my hands and feet, as recommended, to make them sweat. This would secure the naqsh, but it also meant I couldn’t do my packing, so Nooria did it for me. Watching her and laughing with her was already becoming harder.

Later, in the kitchen, she scented my hair. She burnt charcoal in a burner, broke sticky blocks of incense over it and, when the charcoal began to glow, held the burner close to my neck and ran her fingers through my scrappy hair. ‘I must smell like the Queeen of Sheba,’ I said.

‘A pity Solomon is in Marib.’

‘I’m sure Solomon has his hands full.’

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