Faithful Vagary

Photo: © Amy Dupcak. All rights reserved.

Dunya and Sa’eed drove down Connecticut Avenue on their weekly trip from Bethesda to the West End Cinema, their heads swaying to the singing strings of the charango. On most weeks, they’d stop off at a bakery where a woman with harsh blue eyes would sell them a coffee, a kolaczki, and a copy of the paper, Sa’eed reaching for the Opinion section and Dunya for the Arts. On this Saturday, though, they were fasting the first day of Ramadan and went straight to the theater, where they watched a film by François Truffaut that Dunya later described as an elaborate attempt to say everything and also nothing. It was nearly springtime and some clumps from the last snow of the season were clinging to one another like packs of soldiers retreating from a lost battle.

They went from the cinema to the mosque, where they added a pot of molokheyya to a table arrayed with fruits and finger foods: the Indians’ fried pakoras, the Arabs’ stuffed grape leaves, the Nigerians’ suyas. As delicious as it was, they were already looking forward to the point of the month in which a few bites of food would be enough to satiate them. Even when their lives as single twenty-somethings had been packed full of lounges and romances and wines with notes of this and notes of that, they had always loved this strange month in which they left it all behind.

The mosque was buzzing with children and conversation as a handful of beggars milled outside, drawing from the spirit of charity. Taxicabs lined the road for several blocks down, waiting for their drivers to complete the night prayers, the taraweeh. Behind the dusty white minaret was a Secret Service station taking its nightly vigil over Kalorama Triangle, the shadows of the Obamas’ house just visible in the distance. The sounds of the street were a fraction of what they had been when Dunya and Sa’eed, as children, had been shepherded from the dining tables to the mosques. Later, as teens, Dunya and her friends would divert to cafés, and Sa’eed and his friends to play soccer, as light would spill from thousands of apartments all the way through dawn.

After praying, they headed from the mosque to a party at a flat in Shaw, where the crowd was dressed in bombers and leather jackets and suede. This was a crowd that got their playlists from the Plastic People in London and Eighteenth Street Lounge there in Washington. Servers from Mezè walked around, carrying delicacies rivaling those that had been at the mosque. People from all disciplines—creative to analytical, aphorisms and apothegms to algorithms and analyses—living their urban dream; a cosmopolitan people united in camaraderie, and with the help of the drinks from the makeshift bar, feeling that there was no place they would rather be in the world that night, no feeling they would rather have than the one they were feeling right then, as Matthieu Faubourg played at eighty beats per minute and the glasses clinked. Dunya was dazzling, her eyes shining bright, her conversation even brighter. Sa’eed was embroiled in a friendly argument. Both of them had drinks in their hands and life in their eyes. L’existence active. He reached for Dunya, she reached for him. A bedroom was dark, its closet even darker. Life at its most absorbing: drink, dance, discussion, denouement.

On their way to a diner, the cab passed the mosque, where people were trickling in, having slept a few hours before returning to pray before sunrise. Dunya, noticing a man with a prayer mark on his forehead, remembered her father’s, and with it, a verse that he had often recited:

ولقد خلقني الانسان ونعلم ما توسوس به نفسه

We created man, and we know what his self whispers to him.

After eating, they sat on a ledge overlooking the river, the sides of their knees touching, their empty food containers next to them. A lone siren drifted in from the city as they took their final sips of water, just before the first rays of the sun struck the dark and still Potomac. Dunya sighed.

Mostafa El-Kalliny is an MD/PhD student at the University of Colorado Boulder. He was born in Cairo, Egypt, and lives in Denver, Colorado.

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Issue 18

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