Your Way Begins on the Other Side
Inside this new love, die.
Your way begins on the other side.
Become the sky.
(Rumi, from Quietness)
It was time to get a second job. Hameed was saving to bring his brother over, and he needed cash. No matter that he could recite chapter and verse the qualities of Clark versus Ecco, Birkenstock versus Mephisto - his commissions were contingent on sales, and the bottom line was that people were not lining up to buy comfort shoes on a Monday afternoon, or a Wednesday morning. The manager at the store refused to put him on the Saturday shift.
The rent at his cousin Faisal’s basement flat was reasonable and he didn’t mind that he was responsible for keeping the driveway clear of snow. He enjoyed the rhythm of shoveling, back and forth across the pavement. He liked trying to get the edge of the shovel as close to the asphalt as possible. He enjoyed smoothing out the long narrow piles that formed between each width that he’d already shoveled. It was satisfying to watch the snow bank grow by the sides of the driveway, and to finish the job off by neatening up the edges along the perimeter.
The flat was in a kind of townhouse complex, clad in cheap brick and vinyl siding, that was common all over the city. Separated from the four-lane road by a narrow boulevard bounded by weedy grass and immature staked trees that never seemed to grow, there was not enough vegetation to buffer the relentless drone from the six-lane highway a few blocks away.
Still, the place was decent enough, and it was walking distance to one of the city’s public libraries. Hameed spent his Saturdays there. It was filled mostly with young children and their parents, and gangs of teenagers hanging around under the atrium. When he walked past the carrels, the students who had made it past the actual social scene all had their laptops open to their virtual social world on Facebook, their schoolbooks tossed to the side.
Hameed wasn’t just hanging around the library, and he wasn’t a creep – far from it. He loved the library – the orderly rows of books, their smell, the sense of possibility they held. He dressed up Saturdays – always a clean shirt with buttons, pressed trousers. He felt a sense of occasion being in the presence of all that knowledge – of all that greatness, really. Hameed never borrowed the books to bring home to his basement flat. He wanted to savour them at the library, at an uncluttered table, wearing his nice clothing, surrounded by other books.
Hameed’s favourite section was the fine art book collection. He had started with Botticelli. The Birth of Venus was a shock - it was like nothing he had seen before, but when he took a closer look, he was captivated by the figures that seemed to almost float in a dreamy haze on the page. He moved from there to Rembrandt and the Dutch masters, but found their work gloomy and dull, and was relieved to turn to the lightness and brightness of the Impressionists. By the time he reached Picasso, he felt like he was standing on his head, trying to decipher images upon images, fragments of images, blocks of color.
On Rothko day, Hameed thought perhaps he was trying too hard to figure out what the paintings meant. He decided to take a break, then come back and just look at them and enjoy the colors and see how they made him feel. He wandered over to the community bulletin board. There were the usual ads for babysitters, tutoring services, computer geeks – and something new. The Islamic museum was advertising for a ticket agent to work weekends.
Hameed turned up at the interview an hour early, so that he could tour the collection. He wandered through looking at the miniatures in the painted pages of the Persian Book of Kings, tiles in turquoise, blue and white with patterns of vines, geometric interlace and stars, more tiles with lotus-like flowers and cobalt blue floral sprays, with images of fish, rabbits and ducks, ceramics depicting mythical creatures like elephant-birds, and human figures, acrobats, vegetal elements like tulips, rosettes, carnations, grapes. Hameed’s heart raced. This was the art that was seeped into his soul, as much a part of him as the blood that runs through his veins.
He was given a smart uniform – a white shirt, and a blue jacket and trousers - and was asked to start the following Saturday.
Barbara Frances liked to set small goals for herself. She had just finished reading the complete works of Graham Greene, and for a change of pace was starting in on Updike’s Rabbit novels. She intended to read all four, but was still on the first one in the first volume, and it wasn’t going well. So far, she just couldn’t bring herself to care about Rabbit and his basketball and driving around Pennsylvania.
Barbara Frances’s job at the city registry office left her with the time to pursue her little projects. At first, after her fiancée called off the wedding, her few friends wondered if she would leave the job, which involved maintaining the marriage registry. But the hours were steady, the salary and benefits good, and she just never gave any serious thought to leaving. The fact is that there was something Barbara Frances enjoyed about the optimism symbolized in registering a new union, even as she placed a mental asterix beside each new record, marked with the question “will it last?”
She was no gardener, but Barbara Frances did consider herself a student of plants, and loved to sit surrounded by them, with her book. On Saturdays she often visited the conservatory downtown, and brought along whatever she was reading. She might be in the mood one day for orchids, another day for lily pads by the fountain. Sometimes it felt perfect to be surrounded by the enormous shiny green leaves in the humidity of the palm court, where her short curly brown hair would frizz up around her face, and her cheeks would burn up. For a break from her book, she examined the plants, and read the faded plaques beside them. This little lesson in logic always put a smile on her face: “ ‘Succulent’ is the name given to plants that store water in their leaves, stems or roots. ‘Cactus’ is the name of a large family of plants, all of which are succulent and leafless. So while all cacti are succulent, not all succulents are cacti.”
One Saturday, Barbara Frances read in the paper about the garden at the new Islamic museum, and taking the bus, carted Updike along. Even though she could still hear the roar of the highway nearby, as she sat there she was mesmerized by the five reflecting pools divided by trees. Rabbit was relegated to her bag.
Barbara Frances wasn’t planning to visit inside the Museum, but was drawn in by its white gleaming form, and crystalline domes; it was like a box unfolding and folding the people around it back up inside it.
Inside the entrance, a central courtyard, open to the sky, soared two stories up, surrounded on all sides by glazed walls etched with a pattern she did not recognize. The sun shone through the ceiling and through the etchings, casting geometric patterns of light and shadow on the white walls inside the building. Standing in the light, outside the courtyard, Barbara Frances felt tiny, and at the same time, she was acutely aware of her heart knocking against her ribcage - like it was too big for her frame, and wanted to push itself out against the walls of her chest.
When she reached the door to the permanent collection, there was a short man in uniform, with an expectant face smiling broadly, reaching for her ticket. His black lace-up shoes gleamed, like they were brand new, or maybe freshly polished.
“Hello Madam – your ticket please. Now, before you go in, Madam, have you looked up? Madam, please step this way and look above you.” He directed her to a spot a few feet away from the door she wanted to enter. As he pointed up, arm outstretched, index finger wagging back and forth, she caught a whiff of aftershave. It was something botanical – cedar, with a citrus undertone.
Barbara Frances found this man’s manner strangely insistent, almost off-putting. But at the same time, mostly out of politeness, she looked up. A large carpet was suspended from the ceiling above her.
“Look at both sides of the carpet, Madam. They are different. This carpet is a work of art, Madam. It was made for the museum, by an artist from Pakistan named Aisha Khalid. She placed 1.2 million gold-plated steel pins by hand to make the decoration. You can see a pond in the middle where four rivers intersect, and four gardens with animals and vines. Look at the other side too, Madam, where the pins protrude to form a silky carpet.”
The tapestry was so beautiful. Barbara Frances imagined being able to run her hands on the shimmering pins; maybe they would feel like the tips of golden wheat just before it is harvested, or like the hair at the end of a horse’s tail.
“Madam, the carpet has a name. It is called Your Way Begins on the Other Side. And now, you may please enter the permanent collection through this door.”
There was a lot to take in. Barbara Frances didn’t know anything about Islamic art. She spent time looking at the 15th century pharmacy jars, with their intricate patterns of foliage painted in cobalt blue, and was delighted by the floral depictions, in blues, greens, reds and white, on the 16th century Ottoman ceramics.
When she left the permanent collection gallery, the ticket man was at the exit door. “Madam, have you visited the courtyard? I have a short break, and it would be my pleasure to show you the courtyard.”
They sat together at a table. Silence and light filled the space. Inside the courtyard, Barbara Frances felt cocooned, safe, enclosed.
“Madam, do you know what-“.
She interrupted him. “My name is Barbara Frances. You can call me by my name.” Why did I tell him my name? I don’t know this curious little man. I don’t know his name.
He took a sharp deep breath, like he was about to dive into the deep end. “Why do you have two names?”
“Well, my mother loved the work of a writer called Barbara Cartland. My father was a Catholic; Francis was his saint name. My father kept a copy of Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi on his bedside table. They couldn’t agree on my name, so they gave me two. What is your name?” What am I doing?
“My name is Hameed. It means ‘praiseworthy’. My father and grandfather and great-grandfather were all called Hameed. I want to tell you about the lines etched in the glass walls. They are patterns inspired by the mashrabiya. Do you know what mashrabiya is?”
“No, I don’t, uh - Hameed.”
“Mashrabiya is the latticework screen, usually in geometric shapes, that traditionally has been used in Arabic architecture, often to cover windows. Do you see the patterns of the mashrabiya reflected on the floor in the courtyard? The floor is made of limestone, lapis and white Brazilian granite.”
“It is very beautiful.”
This man is a ticket taker. How does he know all this?
“Barbara Frances, you must come back here for a concert. We have music and dance performances here in the courtyard – the acoustics are perfect - brilliant.”
He knows about acoustics, too? Barbara Frances felt her cheeks blaze. Why do they always betray me? Everything about me is so silly. Like being named after the patron saint of animals, and a best-selling romance author who wore bright green eye shadow, for Pete’s sake. She drew her bag close in.
“Uh, Hameed,” she stammered, “I am going to visit the special exhibition gallery and then go home. I might come back some time for a concert. Uh, thank you for all the information you gave me.”
“Before you leave, don’t forget to visit the tunnel – it goes down to the parking lot. I promise you that you must visit this tunnel.”
After she left, Hameed could not help himself – he had the image of this small, self-contained woman in his head, her fair skin, her ruby cheeks, her dark curls, clutching that big red bag like protection. The Girl with the Pearl Earring. That was what her pale pink lips reminded him of, the slight parting as she listened to him speaking. Thatwas the only Dutch master’s painting he liked. Hameed imagined kissing this woman’s lips. They would be soft. He would kiss her gently, with his eyes closed, his arms around her waist. She would smell like rose petals, or maybe like the jasmine that climbed up the walls in the gardens back home. He imagined her kissing him back, harder than he had kissed her. He imagined the horrified look on his supervisor’s face, if he knew what Hameed was thinking.
Barbara Frances was too tired to spend much time at the special exhibition. Rabbit was weighing her down. Also, she was distracted by Hameed’s insistence that she visit the tunnel. A tunnel to the parking lot did not sound all that attractive to her. In fact, it sounded dreadful. And it was late – the museum was due to close in twenty minutes.
She trudged out of the exhibition. Barbara Frances found herself picturing Hameed’s face. The intent, hopeful expression. The direct gaze from his brown eyes. She followed the sign for the parking lot. She came to a door, which she opened. It clicked shut behind her. The door gave way to a tunnel, which sloped down to another door, marked with a large letter “P”.
Barbara Frances gasped. All around her, images were projected onto the walls and ceiling, like in an Imax cinema. Above, thousands of stars twinkled against an indigo sky.
Below the stars, and on the walls all the way to the floor, flashed images of minarets and mashrabiya, sultans in glorious headdresses, gold calligraphy, strange animals she didn’t recognize, human figures dancing, and wielding swords, lotus leaves, wave patterns, interweaving vines, red and blue blossoms, geometric forms.
Barbara Frances lay down. She put her stuffed bag under her head, like a pillow, and gazed up and around her as the images came and went, and melded together, before they both vanished, only to be replaced by more light, more colour, more shapes.
Above the sounds that filled the tunnel, she heard the door open, and then gently close. With parted lips, Barbara Frances took a breath. The fragrance of cedar filled the tunnel. Her heart was pounding. She could feel the heat rising from her cheeks. She didn’t move. She closed her eyes, then felt a faint breeze, as Hameed lay down beside her. She smelled a clean, citrus scent now, too. She let him take her hand. His skin felt smooth, cool.
They lay there together, watching and listening to the universe unfold, in images, and in sounds, of birds chirping, a woman singing, the call to prayer, children laughing, the plucking of an oud, rain falling, a baby crying, the clicking of cicadas, the wind in the trees.
Soraya Farha is a lawyer and writer in Toronto, Canada. A recent empty nester with two sons and a daughter in university, she enjoys walking the city’s ravines with Ziggy, the family pooch, and taking photos along the way. Her current writing project is a memoir, on sisterhood, loss and discovery.
The Ekphrastic Review
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