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Off To Bazaar

By Andre I. Santillana
Published in ART TIMES June 2014

Ahmed sits up with a start, roused by the whistling wind. He squints, struggling to penetrate the fog of sleep that weighs down his faculties. He shivers, but it is not the cold concrete he slept on – with only a threadbare rug between him and the floor, a coarse blanket to ward off the winter cold – that makes him cringe. Phantom spiders scurry down his spine. He can’t put his finger on it but something does not feel right. He yawns, coughing as dust-speckled desert air fills his lungs.

His blurry eyes wander to the clock resting on the plastic table. Old and slow but an heirloom nonetheless, its luminous hands and numbers glow eerie green in the predawn darkness. A soldier friend, Sgt. Mitchell, taught him how to read time. But Ahmed needs practice. He falls into awkward pauses jogging his brain, counting in his head, before he can give the time.

If I have a wristwatch like Sgt. Mitchell, I can carry it with me everywhere for practice. His watch is nice: brown leather strap, digits instead of hands, lights up with the push of a button. No more awkward pauses. No more embarrassing silences. No more feeling stupid especially in front of foreigners.

Sgt. Mitchell also taught him numbers. “Acch-mhed,” the Amreekan once asked in a throaty accent, his sincere though comical effort to sound like a local, “Do you know who invented these numerals?” The soldier was pointing to a calendar.

Ahmed shook his head from side to side.

“These are Arabic numerals. Your ancestors invented them. Very important stuff; the world can’t do without them.”

Arabic numerals? We must be very intelligent, inventing important things like Arabic numerals. A warm tingling gripped every fiber in Ahmed’s body. Pride – he never felt anything like it before.

But, if we are so smart… how come we're poor?

Ahmed checks his wandering thoughts. His eyes reappraise the rusty timepiece, his brain processing the information on the luminous face. Four o’clock. Panic strikes the boy like a sledgehammer. He rubs his eyes, rechecks the clock. There is no mistake. It is late! The clock is slow!

He grabs a handful of his matted hair, slapping his forehead with the heel of his other hand. Youssef will be here at any moment. I’m not ready!

Maneuvering to stand up, his eyes fall on Mustafa, curled on the floor next to him. Things will be difficult if he wakes up. He will insist on going to the bazaar. But he is slow and will cause more delays.

He pulls the blanket over his brother’s shoulders. I can sell more stuff if I don’t have to worry about you. You will be angry. But I must leave you. You will forgive me when I give you my share of the baklava Sgt. Mitchell promised.

Ahmed’s lips curl into a smile as his eyes next fall on Fateema, her arms wrapped around Mustafa. I must be quiet. Don’t want to wake up Mother. Working hard every day – cleaning and washing for Amreekans, cleaning and cooking at home, taking care of Mustafa and me – she needs all the rest she can get. Oh! I better hurry. Must be ready before they wake up… or Youssef arrives.

Ahmed knows Youssef well. The shopkeeper has no equal in terms of impatience. He hates waiting. He blasts his truck’s horn like a madman at the slightest impulse – compelling reason for Ahmed to intercept his employer by the bend on the road, a good distance from the shack.

Youssef has a pet warning – disguised as fatherly rhetoric – which he routinely recites to Ahmed, laced with a thick Kurdish accent, accompanied by vigorous, menacing flourishes of his pudgy, heavily calloused hands. “Akkhh-m’d, you are like son to me. I give you advice. Do not sleep so much. Be up early to work early. If you work early, you work more hours. More hours work, more selling. More selling… makes more money. Inshallah – God willing – more money… make Youssef happy. If you sleep, money sleeps. Sleeping money makes Youssef unhappy… and Akkhh-m’d will lose job.”

Springing from the floor, not bothering to light the lamp next to the clock, the twelve-year-old gropes for his pants. The denim is as threadbare as his blanket – knees torn, seat worn so thin that Fateema routinely reinforces it with patches and stitches cleverly situated to keep the wearer modest and the garment from disintegrating.

His old clothes do not bother Ahmed. Aside from soldiers in uniform, there are also Amreekan civilians in his village. Some wear pants that, although new, are fashionably faded, frayed, scuffed, and torn – on the knees, backsides, thighs, hems.

I do not understand Amreekans. Why should new trousers be abused, made to look like rags? Maybe, they do not care. They have plenty of money for clothes. If I have money, Inshallah, I want my clothes to always look new so people think they are new. If God wills it – I will have money. Maybe, if I sell enough stuff? If… Amreekans buy my stuff. Until then, I only have this old pair. No need to make a rag of it. It is one.

Ahmed’s ears pick up the faint, almost inaudible whine of an engine. His mind screams: Oh no! YOUSSEEEEEF!

The boy peels off his t-shirt but stops in the middle of undressing. He decides there is no time. He sniffs his armpits then pulls the grey shirt – off-white when freshly washed – back on. Judging himself not smelly nor looking too shabby, he tucks the loose shirt he slept in, into his time worn, time-tested, can-be-mistaken-for fashionably Amreekan, raggedy pants.

Ahmed's hair stands on end upon hearing the distant yet familiar blast of a notorious horn. So early and Youssef is already in a rotten mood! He imagines the shopkeeper tearing down the road in his big, black, dust covered truck.

Grabbing the jacket hanging from a chair, he gives it a big sniff. It smells fine… he thinks. Squirming into the faded frock, he dashes out the door... only to dash back in.

Half-diving to the floor, snatching his shoes from under the clock table, he hops back to the doorway, clumsily putting a shoe on, then the other. He kneels to tie his laces, fingers fumbling to find them.

There is no time for shoelaces. The roaring engine sounds much closer, the infernal horn louder. Youssef is almost here!

Ahmed tears out the door. In a flash, he tears back in.

What is he thinking? He can't go to the bazaar without his stuff – his merchandise – nothing more than bric-a-bracs – that nonetheless, mean all the world to him: demonetized paper money bearing the face of a departed dictator, defunct coins with the same dead man’s mustachioed likeness, ornamented lighters more trinket than tinder starter, brass bracelets, garish scarves, stringed glass beads, used stamps no philatelist worth his salt would want, and postcards of splendid palaces before these were ravaged by war.

Stuff is a big word. Amreekans call many things stuff. They call anything and everything stuff. There is nothing that cannot be called stuff. Ahmed does not understand why Amreekans, instead of using the right word, prefer to substitute… stuff.

“What are you doing?”

“Stuff.”

“What are you packing?”

“Stuff.”

“What are you eating?”

“Old stuff.”

“Good stuff?”

“Oh… so-so!”

If a small English word with only five letters like stuff has so many meanings, then English must be a powerful language. British… Amreekans… they speak English. They are powerful. Hmmm… I must improve my English!

Enough! The boy warns himself. There is no time to think of other stuff! I must meet Youssef’s truck before it gets here!

He fumbles in the dark for the wooden box – almost as wide as his torso – that contains his stuff. He finds it on the same chair his dirty jacket had hung. Grabbing it, he flies out the shack, this time for good…

…Almost.

Craning back his neck, peeping through the crack in the doorway, he takes a parting glance at the slumbering shapes huddled on the floor. Mother, I am going to the bazaar. I will sell all of my stuff so we can buy stuff we need. Sorry, little brother. I promise, next time, I will take you with me.”

Ahmed pulls shut the creaky excuse for a door, leans into the wind, heads for the bend on the road, striding as fast as his feet can carry him, his untied shoelaces whipping about, his box of precious stuff tucked tightly under an arm. He reaches the spot just as blinding headlights flood the road.

The old Ford’s horn blares, tires skid, brakes squeal, before clattering to a very dusty stop. Ahmed, though shaken, beams at the scowling driver scratching scraggly stubbles on a double chin.

Youssef grunts.

Ahmed bounces into the passenger seat. “Salaam, Youssef. Let’s be off to the bazaar!”

(Andre Santillana lives in Lawrenceville, GA)