The boy wanted to see the sheik levitate. He knew the sheik could do it because everyone in the village said he could. Sitting on the chair that they had placed for him by the window, the boy could see across the narrow dirt-paved road that separated the town’s clinic from the house where the sheik was staying for the day, and the boy thought he was lucky he had such a good view. He had only been in the clinic a few times before and he had never liked it, so now he was glad they had let him sit in the office with his back to the corridor that led to the patients’ rooms. He just wished the women sitting in the room with him would stop talking because, from where he was sitting, he could see the sheik’s lips move but he could not hear him over their loud whispers.
The sheik was sitting on the front porch of a small house with pale-green, rough stucco finish, and the porch stood in the shade of a roof made out of dried-out palm leaves woven together and tied with tan string. Covering the long and narrow porch, the leaves, tied to the flat roof of the one-story house, sloped down until they rested on four disproportionately large columns that flanked the steps leading to the porch. The boy thought maybe the people living in that house would later replace the light and airy leaves with a sturdier roof, like he had once seen his father do for a neighbor.
The sheik was sitting in the right corner of the porch. Beside him sat a man in a dark brown galabeyya that the boy knew was probably too warm and would make the man sweat. Across from them sat a couple of other men, and, in the doorway to the house, two women stood. All were listening to the sheik as he spoke. He was wearing a white cotton galabeyya, long and extending to his feet. The boy knew how the dress-like shirt looked even though he could only see the upper half of the sheik’s torso behind the masonry parapet. He had taken a good look at the sheik when he, moments earlier, had walked across the porch to take a sip of water out of the earthenware jug that the family had placed in the shady corner on top of the parapet, where the breeze would cool the water. The boy thought the sheik looked really healthy for his age. His stride was long and his back straight, and the boy would have thought that he was a young man were it not for his hair and beard that were as white as the cotton blossoms the boy picked from the fields during the harvest days.
“Are they here yet?” a doctor asked. He had stopped in the doorway of the small office and leaned into the room as he spoke to the two nurses. The nurses, one sitting at a desk and the other standing by a cabinet, looked up to him as he spoke.
“No, not yet,” the nurse at the desk said. An older woman with large hips and bad knees, she had gotten up with some difficulty when the doctor spoke to her.
“Well, call them again, will you? It’s been long enough,” the doctor said before stepping back into the hallway.
The doctor was young and not from the village; he lived in Cairo and came to the clinic only on Tuesdays and Thursdays as part of his social service obligation. The old nurse, who was born in the village and had lived there all her life, felt it was her duty to do all she could to help the young doctors assigned to the clinic on rotations that changed every few months. When the doctor told her to call and see why the ambulance was not here yet to get the woman, the nurse picked up the receiver and started to dial right away. The phone was an old black one with a rotary dial, and the boy heard the dial tick whenever the woman pulled it and then tick again as she let it go, and the sound reminded him of a stick being pulled against the bars of a wrought-iron fence.
“Are they coming for her?” whispered the nurse at the cabinet. She was short and had been standing on an upturned wooden crate in order to reach the upper shelves of the white cabinet with its twin glass doors. She stepped down and walked up to the other nurse, leaning and resting her elbows on the desk as she watched the older nurse dial. She had just come in and had missed the commotion, but the news had run so fast through the village that she had known about it before she made it to work.
“Yes,” the older nurse said, tapping her fingernails on the desk as she waited for the other side to pick up. “The doctor called for them a good hour ago, so I’d say they should be here soon. Nothing more we can do for her here. Doubt there’s anything they can do in Cairo, either, but we can’t keep her here now, can we?”
Outside it was so hot the boy wondered how the sheik could stand the turban he wore on his head. He could feel beads of sweat form on his forehead then glide down the sides of his face, even though the short nurse had turned on a fan that rotated to blow air his way every couple of seconds. She had then stepped outside and splashed water on the unpaved ground to cool the air down and to keep the dirt from swirling upwards whenever a hot gust of wind blew through the street. But the water had started evaporating, causing the boy’s vision to get misty. The figures of the sheik and the people seated and standing around him seemed to shiver slightly to and fro, just like the image of the boy’s mother did whenever he looked at her from behind the outdoor brick oven where she baked bread, the heat of the fire causing the air between them to dance and making his face flush red and hot.
“Why’d you think she did it?” the short nurse started as soon as the older one hung up.
“I’d say it’s her husband,” the old nurse answered. Her voice was sharp and it quivered a little when she said “husband.” “The son-of-a-bitch beat her black and blue every other week. I must have seen her here a dozen times, before. Once I even got her to report him to the police, but she withdrew her complaint the next day. Probably too scared of him to carry it through.”
The short nurse nodded. “Why didn’t her family report him?”
“She has no one.”
The sheik had not been to the village in over a year. The boy knew that because it had been cotton-picking season the last time he saw him, and it was a good month past that season now. Last time the sheik came the boy had watched him as he slowly walked down the road that led from the highway towards the center of the village. Little kids ran ahead of him, hurrying in and out of houses on both sides of the road, announcing his arrival. Women came out of their houses in such a hurry they were still putting on their thin black headscarves as they walked out on their porches, and men walked slowly away from their fields and towards the road to greet him from afar with a few words of welcome. No one invited him in, because everyone knew the sheik never accepted invitations. He had to choose which house to spend the night in before he went back on his way. The house he chose would see prosperity and good fortune for a full year after his short stay. The previous year he had stayed in the small, broken-down house of a farmer on the outskirts of the village, and the farmer had his chickens lay more eggs than anyone else’s and had his cow give birth to a healthy calf. After the last harvest he made enough money to install ceramic tile on the floor of his house, and, just a few weeks earlier, his wife had given birth to twin boys.
Everyone knew the farmer had the sheik to thank for his good fortune. The man was known to perform miracles. Stories about him glided from house to house and cotton field to cotton field the whole time he visited and sometimes for months after his departure. Visitors arriving to the village were shocked to see him there and swore they had just that day left him behind a hundred miles away, refusing to believe everyone’s assertion that the sheik had not left his seat for at least twenty-four hours. The son of the town’s Omda, a respected man not just because of his father’s position as village chief but because he was educated and worked in the department of agriculture in Cairo, once recounted how he had watched him walk by the side of the highway in a spot of shade that followed him around even though the sky was cloudless and the heat of the day had sent every living soul indoors. People listened to the Omda’s son and nodded, knowing full well that the sheik did travel on foot everywhere—no one had ever seen him board a car or a bus, and people who had tried to offer him rides knew of his customary reply that he did not go anywhere his feet could not take him. The boy knew that too and knew how some people believed the sheik could spontaneously disappear and reappear anytime, anywhere he chose. The boy believed it because he had heard the sheik tell his stories. He knew the sheik had been to every single corner of Egypt, even to places where cars and trains did not go and where feet would not be able to carry a man, places like Bedouin camps struck in the middle of the blazing desert and like the top of Mount Sinai where Moses once spoke to God.
“What’s going to happen to him?” the short nurse whispered, nodding towards the boy. She had pulled a chair up and was sitting across from the other nurse.
“Someone went to fetch his grandmother. They should have made him stay with the neighbors like they did with the younger kids, but they said he was kicking and screaming and would not let them leave him behind. Foolish, if you ask me, to let a kid come on a trip like this.”
“At least he’s not screaming now, poor kid.”
“You should’ve seen him this morning.”
The old nurse looked at the boy then looked away. Because she didn’t want to be saying all of that in front of the boy, she was getting angry with the other nurse for asking so many questions. Still, she did not want to ignore her questions for fear she might offend her. They had to work together every day, and the old nurse liked to keep the peace with everyone as much as she could.
The boy was still sitting motionless and looking out the window. Next to him stood the plate the old nurse had brought him earlier, the small cheese sandwich covered up and untouched. The woman slowly got up and headed towards the boy. Her knees made a rough grinding sound with every step and she wondered whether other people could hear them as she did. When she came up from behind the boy and gently touched his shoulder, he turned around and looked at her.
“Don’t you want to eat your sandwich?”
The boy shook his head and turned to look out the window again. He was not hungry. His nostrils still stung with the smell of kerosene and burnt flesh. He could not imagine eating anything until the smell dissipated. He wished the woman would walk away and leave him because she had been here when they came in this morning and the smell had clung to her clothes and intensified whenever she approached him.
“So who brought her in?” the other nurse asked as soon as the woman was seated at the desk again.
“Neighbors. The boy ran over to their house and called them in. Lucky one of them had a small truck and they put her in the back and drove her here. Faster than waiting for the ambulance.” Again the old nurse got up, slowly walked to the glass cabinet, opened it, and got a vile out before heading out of the room. She was getting sick to her stomach, talking like that in front of the boy, and she thought she’d check up on the woman and make sure the anesthetic had not worn off.
The short nurse turned in her seat and looked at the boy. She had kids of her own and the boy reminded her so much of her own son that she had to look away. He was skinnier than her son but probably the same age. Her son had just turned nine. She had bought him a new soccer outfit for his birthday. She wondered what size clothing the boy wore and thought that next time she came in to work she could bring some of her son’s older clothes and have someone take them to the boy’s grandmother’s house. The thought made her feel a little bit better.
Of all the stories the boy had heard of the sheik, he liked the ones about levitation the most. These were quite popular. The boy personally knew of five people who claimed to have seen it with their own eyes, though one of them was an old crazy woman who aimlessly wandered the streets all day, so the boy thought he probably should not believe her. The four others all swore to have seen the same thing: the sheik, they said, would be sitting on one of the wooden benches, talking to the men who came to visit him. After a while he would stop talking and pull both legs up, crossing them underneath him, Indian-style. Then he would close his eyes and start slowly reciting verses from the Quran. People around him would wait. He would do that for a long time, sometimes for hours, often into the night. Some people eventually got up and went to their homes. Others, however, waited, because they knew that, if they stayed long enough, they would see it happen.
Eventually, they said, it did happen. Slowly the man, still chanting under his breath, his hands calmly resting on his knees, his eyes closed, would start lifting off his seat. Someone would nudge his neighbor, and all the people who just moments ago had been weary with the long wait would suddenly feel as if it had only been seconds since they sat here as they watched him float gently up till he sat a good foot or two above the wooden bench, his long galabeyya trailing underneath him and gently fluttering in the breeze. No one knew how long it lasted because everyone said that time stood still, once his levitation started, as if past, present, and future all became compressed in the moment when the man gently floated up, and time simply ceased to exist.
“So where’s her husband now?” the short nurse asked as soon as the older one walked back in the room. The older woman looked at her, opened her mouth to say something, and then decided against it.
“Nobody knows,” she said instead as she sat in her chair at the desk again. “Neighbors say he was chasing her around the house and cursing at her when she did it. By the time the boy had run for help he was gone.”
“I hope they get him,” the short nurse said under her breath.
“I hope he burns in hell,” the older woman replied.
“I just can’t imagine,” whispered the nurse whose son was the boy’s age but slightly larger. “Setting yourself on fire? And in front of your own kids, too?”
The other nurse shook her head. “Guess she just had enough. Allah yerhamna gameean,” she whispered, asking God for mercy.
The boy slowly lifted his arms and put both hands to his ears. The pressure from his palms made his ears pop whenever he shifted his palms around. The popping made his ears hurt so he pushed his palms hard and then left them in place. His eyes were fixated on the sheik’s lips, which were still gently moving in a mutter that the boy had been straining to hear but could not. Now with all noise gone, the boy was certain the man had started reciting the Quran. He could see the sheik’s back straighten and his eyes close, and could tell by the relaxed way his arms were hanging by his sides that he was probably resting his hands on his knees. All around the sheik the men were silent, waiting and watching, and the boy knew that if he waited long enough he would be able to see the sheik gently lift off and hover, and then he, too, would be able to tell the story of the time he saw the sheik levitate, and he would swear, like the others did, that the moment he did time had stopped still.
Rajia Hassib was born and raised in Egypt and has been residing in the US since she was twenty-three. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Marshall University, where her work has been repeatedly recognized by the Maier Writing Awards. Her short fiction has appeared in Upstreet, Steam Ticket, and Border Crossing magazines. In her twenties, she worked as an architect before gravitating back toward writing, the profession that she had wisely chosen at age seven but then foolishly veered away from. She currently lives in West Virginia with her husband and two children.