It was the last box. Wrapped tightly in packing tape with “Saudi”
written on the side in black marker, it sat alone in the middle of the
living room floor. Everything else was gone. It was a time of moving on
and letting go. I’d sold the battered Victorian house and closed on
the new minimalist condo. I could have chosen to cart the box with me,
settled it into the far corner of the storage area, and left it
unopened. But the move would have made that a deliberate act. Not that
forgetting isn’t sometimes a deliberate act.
For the past eighteen years I’d known where the box was. On some level
I was always aware of it, shoved deep into the recesses of the hall
closet—lying in wait like a repressed memory. I couldn’t open it,
but I couldn’t throw it away. For the past few years, it had been
getting harder to ignore. I couldn’t turn on the news or open the
paper without a nudge, a reminder. Fleeting glimpses of a black shadow.
Dark eyes above a mask. The box lived on the periphery of my mind like
the forgotten words of a song, or the remnants of a disturbing dream.
And then the news coverage of the Girl of Qatif, a young Saudi rape
victim sentenced to jail and 200 lashes, made the memories too loud to
When I dragged the box out of the closet, I was surprised by how light
it was. I set it on the floor and walked around it for a week. It waited
in silent reproach. Now, all else was gone except an old boom-box that
kept me company while I cleaned. Finally, it was time. All other
distractions and demands had been silenced or met.
Even then, I circled, restless and reluctant. I poured myself a glass of
red wine. On bare feet I padded quietly into the living room, bringing
the bottle with me, just in case. The house was still and slightly
chilly. It was early evening and the windows held the diminishing glow
of daylight. I dimmed the overhead light and lit several candles.
I sat cross-legged on the ancient hardwood floor and took a sip of wine.
Using a serrated knife, I sawed through the tape and opened the box.
Immediately I was hit with the lingering smells of smoke and
desperation. Underneath, and more subtle, I caught the sweet scent of
henna, sandalwood, frankincense, and myrrh—the perfume of the Middle
East. Wadded pieces of newspaper, covered with Arabic calligraphy,
formed a protective layer. I tossed the paper into the empty fireplace.
Now, everything in the box was dark, swaddled in black cloth.
Reaching in, I pulled out the first thing I touched, immediately
recognizing the dense familiar weight. Wrapped in a scarf was my Nikon
EM. I examined the camera and took off the lens cap. Peering through the
viewfinder, I looked out the windows into the darkening night. After
setting the Nikon on the floor, I took a swallow of wine and picked up
The scarf was long and black, scalloped edges embroidered with red and
gold silk thread. Green and red sequins formed the shapes of flowers. I
smoothed the scarf across my lap and traced the flowers with my
fingertips. The gauzy fabric was ripped in several places. I wound the
scarf around my neck.
Digging deeper, my fingers closed on black silk. I gathered my abaya
into my arms and buried my face in the soft cloth, breathing in the
odors of incense, blood, freedom, and fear. Suddenly I saw blood
billowing through water—a maroon river swirling down a drain. In that
moment I felt the first sting of tears. Awash with emotions and
memories, I sat on the cold hard floor, rocking gently, keening. When I
finally lowered the cloth, the sky was black. I slipped my abaya over my
T-shirt and jeans, finding comfort in the warm damp silk. I finished my
glass of wine and poured another.
The only thing left in the box was a small, light blue backpack. I
lifted it onto my lap, unzipped it, and looked in. On top was an
audiotape labeled with one word handwritten in black ink: “Belly.” I
smiled and set the tape on the floor. Next up was a crumpled burgundy
and gold box of Dunhill cigarettes. As I lifted it to my nose, I smelled
the faint, sweet scent of tobacco. I set the cigarettes beside the tape.
Rummaging deep in the bag, I found a cowry shell with minute pink
speckles scattered across the rounded top. The opening on the flat white
bottom had tiny tooth-like edges. Touching it to the tip of my tongue, I
tasted the sea.
I pulled a blue airmail envelope out of the backpack. On the front,
SHUKRAN was printed in red ink. I took a swallow of wine and a deep
breath. As if tucked hastily into the envelope, a small photograph
crookedly faced away. I knew what it was without looking. I turned the
picture over and saw a woman’s face, bruises and torn skin barely
visible beneath a thick layer of makeup. Her solemn dark eyes stared
straight into the camera—straight into mine. I stared back for a long
With trembling fingers, I picked up the Dunhills and pulled out a
crumbling cigarette. Specks of tobacco scattered like confetti. I lifted
a candle and put the tip of the cigarette into the flame. The brittle
paper flared quickly. I inhaled, choked, and exhaled. Holding the
cigarette loosely between my fingers, I watched the curling smoke. I
took another drag, gagged, then threw the cigarette into the fireplace
and watched as it smoldered. The wads of newspaper caught, smoked, began
to burn. The flames quickly consumed the paper and the fire was out.
I put the picture back into the envelope and as I slid the envelope into
the backpack, I heard a faint jingle. Reaching in, I felt along the
bottom of the bag and pulled out an ankle-bracelet. Intricately hammered
from dull silver, it was lined with dozens of tiny bells. Khalakhil, I
heard her say. Holding both, ends I shook it. The bells made a sweet
soft music. Be brave. I fastened the bracelet on my ankle.
After putting the camera, shell, and cigarettes into the backpack, I
stood and stretched. I tossed the empty box into the corner and finished
the glass of wine. Then I put the tape into the stereo, pushed play, and
stood in the center of the room, waiting. Soon, Middle Eastern music
filled the air, the rhythm slow, faster, slow again. Eyes closed, I
stood in my abaya and scarf, swaying until muscle-memory took over—the
placement of a foot, the undulation of the belly, the shimmy of a hip.
As my body moved to the beat, I felt the weight of the khalakhil and
heard the chime of bells. I surrendered to the music and the memories.
When I smelled the sweet and bitter scent of Clementines, I opened my
eyes. The candles flickered and threw long shadows against the bare
walls. The windows cast back my reflection. And, as if she had been
conjured, we moved in unison—together again.
Excerpted from "East of Mecca" by Sheila Flaherty. Copyright © 2013 by Sheila Flaherty. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.