There is none amongst you with whom is not an attache from amongst the jinn.—Hadith, Sahih Muslim 6757
Kara went to the window when she heard the car door slam; across the street Ibrahim cleared his throat. She pushed the curtains back and watched him walk around to the back of his tan Nissan Sentra and open the trunk. They knew each other from work, had sort of a coffee-break acquaintance at E.G. Systems, where she was a technical writer and he a second-shift systems analyst. “My people are tea drinkers,” he had said one day in the lunchroom, raising his Styrofoam cup to her, and since then they had chatted nearly every day. It had seemed a simple enough request at the time--would she take care of his cat?--but as she watched him standing in front of the trunk, fiddling with the laundry bag as if trying to snare a wild animal, the strangeness of it all sunk in. She still wasn’t sure why he needed to offload the cat. He had told her various stories: that he might have to leave for Lebanon on short notice, that his uncle was coming to visit from Texas and was allergic, and then the crazy part--that he’d noticed the Koreans in the apartment downstairs eyeing the cat hungrily. It was as if he had thrown out a bunch of excuses and hoped that one might stick. Ibrahim was suave, but the way he had asked her to take the cat wasn’t--and that was what she liked about it. The contradiction intrigued her.
Kara buzzed him in and when the knock on her door came, she could tell it was with his foot—a dull thud. She opened the door and saw Ibrahim holding the squirming bag. Kara backed away. “OK. Why don’t you just put him down? Put the bag down and he’ll run out.”
“It is a she,” said Ibrahim, smiling broadly. “We call her Yasmeen, sweetest flower of the desert.” He lowered the bag to the floor, and the cat crawled out immediately. She shook her front paws out then darted behind a chair.
Kara watched the animal. “She’s afraid of you.”
“No, no. She loves me very much. Watch this.” Ibrahim crouched to the floor. “Come here, Yasmeen. Yella.”
Kara crouched down too, peered beneath the chair. The cat was stout and compact, black with orange markings and huge green eyes. Tufts of hair shot out of ears that sat like perfect triangles on top of its wide head.
“Is that a Maine Coon?”
“Kara, I don’t know. Do you think I know about such things?” Ibrahim got up and took off his jacket, tossed it over the back of a chair. He was on the company soccer team, she remembered, and she could see it even in a small gesture like that. He had the supple, easy grace of an athlete.
“Looks like a Coon to me,” she said, turning back to the cat. “They can be pretty wild, you know. I think they’re bred with bobcats.”
“Wallah, I knew you’d be smart about animals. I feel good leaving her with you.” Ibrahim sat on the sofa, spread his arm across the back. Then he pointed to himself with a sort of theatrical formality.
“Of course. Make yourself comfortable. Would you like something to drink, some tea?”
“Tea, yes. That would be beautiful.”
Kara went into the kitchen to put the kettle on. While she was searching through her cupboards—she hardly ever drank tea—she heard Ibrahim begin to hum, then sing softly to himself, a slow, baleful tune. She didn’t know much about him. From their talks in the cafeteria she’d learned that he was Palestinian and had left his home in Lebanon to go to school in the United States, Ole Miss, of all places. And that up until recently he’d been engaged. The woman was Turkish, she thought, a Muslim, like him, and she seemed to remember that it was her parents who had objected. Something odd like that.
“Do you take milk?” she called into the living room.
“Three big spoons sugar, only.”
She brought the teacups into the living room with some cut-up lemon and sat in the chair across from Ibrahim. Kara squeezed some lemon into her tea and Ibrahim smiled as he added another teaspoon of sugar. His gestures were slow, methodical. When he was finished, he put his teaspoon upside-down on his saucer.
Kara settled back in her chair and took a sip of tea. “So how long would you like me to keep Yasmeen?”
Ibrahim gave her a long sideways glance. The question seemed to startle him. “Well, that all depends,” he said slowly. “For how long do you want her?”
Kara smiled. “No, I mean, how long do you need me to keep the cat? You said you were going away?”
She looked over at Yasmeen beneath the chair. She had a lazy eye, Kara noticed. One eyelid was always shutting, which gave her a strange winking look.
“She is good cat, not another like her on earth,” Ibrahim said. “I think you will like her.”
Kara took another sip of tea.
Ibrahim sipped at his tea too and then repeated, “So, for how long do you want her?”
“I don’t want her. I’m, you know,” said Kara. “Doing you a favor.”
Ibrahim narrowed his eyes, gave Kara what seemed to be a reassessing look. “I see,” he said, smiling. “Let us not get into this kind of negotiation right now. Instead, we will see how things go. I will come next week, we will have tea once again, by then you will see how you like her and then,” he said. “We will talk.”
Ibrahim squeezed some lemon into his cup and methodically stirred it in. Then he stretched the rind flat between his fingers and tore the flesh off with his teeth. “Lemon is good for you,” he said. “It kills the bacteria in your stomach.” Kara watched him. It must be tough to have to live and work in a foreign country and not be in full command of the language, she thought. It must be hard to communicate.
“What kind of tea is this?” said Ibrahim.
“It’s just Salada. Regular black tea.”
Ibrahim nodded. “It is good. Next time I bring you Arabic tea and we will drink out of tall glasses, the way they do in my country.”
“Sure,” said Kara, thinking that maybe this is the way it goes in Arab culture—dating starts with little visits, you get to know the person before declaring your intentions. Or maybe not. But she was willing to wait it out and see. American men don’t court anymore, she thought. There’s no romance, no sense of mystery.
The cat had come out from behind the chair and was walking around the perimeter of the room now, hugging the walls with her back arched, her tail upright and stiff, like a flagpole.
“Ah, Yasmeen,” said Ibrahim.
He put his empty cup on the coffee table. “You are right about her, she is wild thing. But I think you will do good with her. Cats have a great wisdom, don’t you agree? If you can understand her you can understand a lot about life.”
Kara nodded. It was late October and the sun poured in through the west-facing window. The room smelled of lemon.
“Well, I’m looking forward to it,” she said. “I love animals, so you picked the right person for the job.”
Ibrahim smiled. “The right person for the job,” he said. “Yes.”
By evening the cat began venturing into plain view. She crouched on her haunches in the middle of the room as Kara sat on the couch reading. In that position, with her front paws locked together in front of her, the cat’s neck seem to disappear and her wide head looked like it sat right on her shoulders, like an owl. Two weeks at the outside, Kara decided. She would tell Ibrahim that tomorrow.
She'd had a dog once. Wilbur was its name, a chocolate Lab bought from the pound when she and her sister were girls. Somehow her father felt entitled to the dog when he moved out years later to be with another woman. “She lets him drink,” Kara’s mother had said at the time, and maybe she was right and that was why he left his family. A year later Wilbur lost his front right leg after getting hit by a car, and Kara blamed her father for that, for his carelessness. But Wilbur still got around pretty well. The dog was old now, seventeen, but he’d outlived her father. The last day Kara saw her father alive that dog was hobbling around his living room like some kind of harbinger of death, although it wasn’t really, it was just a three-legged dog. “He paid for all his sins,” her mother would say, but Kara had to wonder about that. Her father died from cancer at sixty after having had two families and a loyal dog, and in some ways, Kara thought he hadn’t deserved all that, especially the dog, the dog that still licked his hand long after they had all decided to hate him.
Kara went into the kitchen and made a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato. After that she ate two Oreos and drank some milk from the carton. At thirty-one she still had “the palette of a kid,” her ex-boyfriend Ted had told her, and she remembered how at the time she couldn’t tell whether he was touched by this or annoyed.
She sat down at the kitchen table and thought about her old pet; she’d never had a cat before. The dog had fit into their life as a family, become a part of it, but cats are different, she thought. More independent. Her friend Susan had a cat, and Kara remembered how she once said that although they may seem aloof, cats are very empathic, that a cat will absorb the energy of a house or apartment, and become the soul of the household.
“Yasmeen,” she said, the Arabic word strange on her tongue. “Sweetest flower.”
A week passed before she saw Ibrahim again. Kara looked for him at the times when they usually ran into each other in the company cafeteria but to no avail, and she began to think he really had gone away to Lebanon. But the following Friday he came up to her office, peered sheepishly around her door and whispered, “Leave a little early today and have tea with me in Harvard Square. ”
In the one-room cafe they sat side by side at the narrow counter against the window, watching people pass by in a light rain. They were already adopting the posture they would have until April, Kara thought. Shoulders hunched, clutching dark trench coats, faces down-turned. But inside, the copper counters and steaming espresso machines made everything seem warm. People sat at small round tables and drank out of oversized porcelain cups, but Ibrahim had asked for glasses. He held his daintily between the tips of his long fingers, while Kara wrapped a napkin around hers. She liked the way you could see through it. Sprigs of mint wilted in the hot liquid.
When she asked him about Yasmeen, Ibrahim took a breath, as if remembering a long story. “You see, in my culture, animals do not belong in the house. We don’t have what you call ‘pet.’ I found her on the street, actually. One day I went to my car and she crawled out from underneath. Kara, she was pitiful.”
“Oh,” said Kara. “A stray. I figured that, by the looks of her.”
“Truthfully, she scared me. Her chest was all…” he clicked his tongue. “She had been crouched over a fan belt, and it had left huge scar. There was pus. She looked like dead thing: one eye was sealed completely, one ear was torn. There was no fur on her tail. But she came out from under my car and she looked right at me. She looked me in the eye.”
“So you took her in and nursed her back to health?”
“No,” said Ibrahim, raising an index finger. “I put her in a room with some cans of corned beef and a blanket and she healed herself. I was not going to take care of animal, like you crazy Americans. It was up to her to decide whether she wanted to live or die and, alhamdullah, she lived. After three days she emerged from that room, one eye half open, one still closed, but she could see,” said Ibrahim, taking a sip of tea. “She showed me she is survivor.”
Kara stirred the sediment around in her glass. Outside, the rain had stopped.
There was a pause, and then he said:
“You know of One Thousand and One Nights? Alf Layla wa Layla we call it.”
“Oh, Sheherazade and Sinbad? I’ve read some of them.”
"Wallah, you are smart," said Ibrahim. "Most Westerners know just what they see in movies—men in bed sheets, or crazy terrorist. Movie Arabs.”
“Well, I was a history major. I love that stuff, actually.”
"Then you know of the jinn. The story of Aladdin. He rubbed a golden lamp and a spirit came out and granted him three wishes—"
"Jinn. The word is jinn. They are spirits. They can be good,” said Ibrahim, smiling. “Or they can be bad. Aladdin’s jinn was a beneficent one, but they can cause trouble. Believe me.”
He talked about how in Ain El-Helweh camp in Lebanon, where he grew up, there were many of them. Mostly, they caused mischief. They made the plumbing go bad, the milk sour, the dogs howl. But sometimes they did serious harm.
Ibrahim raised two fingers to indicate more tea. With all the talk of jinn and refugee camps, it was something else entirely that struck her...she remembered the red Hormel can from childhood. It was the one thing her father cooked; he had grown used to it in the army. He would fry it up in a skillet and serve it with a poached egg on top. She touched Ibrahim’s elbow.
“I’m surprised you like corned beef,” she said. “It seems so…American.”
Ibrahim shrugged. “I grew up with it. Corned beef, c-rations. That’s what the UN brought to the Palestinian camps in Lebanon. I like it,” he said. “I can eat it. Wallah, I can eat anything to survive, as long as it is not pork.”
“You’re the first Palestinian I ever met, you know.”
Ibrahim smiled at that. “Aana...Philestin-y-y—y...min...Libnan,” he sang in a deep, tremulous voice, raising his hand up at the end and twisting his wrist in a sort of self-conscious flourish—an awareness of himself as an Arab acting like an Arab. It made her wonder about everything he’d just told her—how much was said for effect, how much was true. People at the two tables next to them looked up and tittered, and Ibrahim caught their eyes, winked. Fascinating guy, she thought, thinking at the same time—a little sadly—that she would never be able to trust him. She would never know what was real.
That night when she got home, Kara found Yasmeen sitting on the couch, the beige Ethan Allen couch Ted had convinced her to buy, as if waiting for her. Yasmeen’s green eyes followed her as she hung up her coat in the closet. Kara closed the door, then opened it and looked inside. She looked behind the clothes, some of which were Ted’s, things he had forgotten or left behind, then closed it again. She felt a strange unease. Kara sat back on the couch and looked at Yasmeen. She was sitting on her haunches, showing her pink scarred chest. Her black fur was all over the couch and other things too, little pieces of whisker and nail. Kara sighed. She looked strange sitting there, too exotic for the couch somehow, and it reminded Kara how she had been meaning to get rid of it and buy a new one.
They had made a date to have a “special welcome drink” the following Saturday, she and Ibrahim. He even set a time, seven o’clock, but when Saturday rolled around Kara got a call at 7:15 from Ibrahim saying he was running a little late. His engine was leaking oil and someone in back of him on the highway had seen the blue smoke emanating from his exhaust and signaled him. He was using that person’s cell phone to make the call. He was stuck on the New Hampshire border, he said, near Nashua. Kara could hear the roar of cars on 93.
“Oh, then you’re going to be a lot late,” she said. She let a second elapse. “Do you want to just make it for another time?”
“No. I will be there in one hour,” said Ibrahim, and then, in a softer voice, “Will you wait for me, Kara?”
Kara hung up the phone and turned on the TV. The national news was showing footage of Bosnia: mass graves, body parts, women wailing. Kara watched Yasmeen walk into the room. Her bad eye seemed especially lazy today, and she gave Kara a slow wink. Kara stared at her. At one point she had heard Ibrahim lower the phone and say something to one of the Good Samaritans—a joke, an aside—then laugh. They laughed too, faint against the sounds of the highway, but she could tell, just in that one muffled exchange, he had totally captivated them. Kara imagined him cursing his luck to the other motorists, shaking his head over his stupidity at not checking the oil and at the same time grinning, humble enough to gain sympathy but self-assured enough to command respect. “Yasmeen,” she said, and the cat sauntered across the living room, her green eyes fixed on Kara’s. She came to within a foot of the sofa then sat down slowly on her haunches, revealing the place where the fan belt had taken a swath of skin and fur that had not grown back. She sat there like that for an hour.
At nine o’clock, just when she was ready to give up on Ibrahim and change into her sweats, Kara heard a faint series of whistling sounds coming from outside. At first she thought it was someone calling a dog but it went on too long. Kara tossed the newspaper onto the floor and went to the window.
“Yah, Kara. I knew you would come. You know something of my culture, don’t you?”
Ibrahim had a brown paper bag in one hand and, even though it was cool, he wore no jacket and his shirt was unbuttoned down to his chest.
Kara threw open the window. “Are you drunk?”
“I am drunk with love,” he said, throwing up his arms. “I am a vagrant, an idler, I know not where I am.”
Kara looked at him in the soft lamplight, muted by the turning leaves of a maple tree. She leaned out the window. “What’s that in your hand—the special welcome drink? Come on up.”
When she opened the door he was standing in front of it with his hands clasped together and his chin tilted towards his chest. “Oh, come in,” she said, letting him close the door himself. She went into the kitchen and got two short glasses and set them on the coffee table.
“So what are we drinking here? Although I’d say you’ve already been drinking.”
“I had to stop for drink with the people who helped me, yes. Kara, it was the least I could do. They had cup in their car and we passed it around, real Arabic style,” he said, smiling.
Ibrahim produced the bottle from the bag and held it up for her to see. It was clear, like water, and had Arabic writing on the label.
“Arak,” he said. “It is like Ouzo. You know Ouzo?”
Kara shook her head.
“Absinthe. You’ve had absinthe?”
“Absinthe?” she said. “I think that’s illegal.”
Ibrahim smiled. “This is not absinthe. I’m going to add little bit of water. You will like it,” he said. “Trust me.” He took the glasses into the kitchen and when he returned the clear liquid was cloudy. He handed Kara a glass.
“I shouldn’t be drinking this.”
Kara shrugged. “I really shouldn’t drink at all.”
Ibrahim sat next to her on the couch. “Sahar,” he said, and clinked her glass.
“Salud.” Kara took a long swallow.
Ibrahim moved her dark hair back behind her shoulder. “You can think about things too much, Kara, about the past. It can imprison you.”
Kara took another sip. “It smells like liquorice,” she said. “I like it.”
“Ah, you drink like real Arab,” Ibrahim said. “You must have Arabic name. From now on, we call you Layla.”
“Layla. I like that.”
Ibrahim moved towards her on the couch. Then he sprang up and disappeared into the hallway.
Two minutes later Ibrahim reappeared in the doorway, his kuffiah wrapped around his head and face. Only his dark eyes showed from within the black and white checked scarf.
“Beware, young lady. I am Ibrahim of the Night, come to kidnap you and take you to the casbah.” He began walking slowly toward her.
Kara laughed into her hand. She saw that he wasn’t above being a movie Arab when it suited him.
“Well, Ibrahim of the Night.” She stood up, a little wobbly. She was drunk now. “How do you plan to do that?”
His dark eyes flashed. “Like this!”
In one quick motion she was looking at the floor, her legs dangling over his torso, as he swept her over his shoulder. She felt the blood rush to her head. “Ibrahim!” With the blood in her ears his laugh was thick and watery. Then he started spinning.
“There is no escape. You are mine now, all mine. HaHaHaHaHaHaHa!”
“Put me down,” she said, laughing. “Put me down!”
But Ibrahim whirled even faster. She could feel his arms wrapped tight around the backs of her thighs.
“Put me down! Come on.”
Ibrahim stopped laughing momentarily, and the spinning slowed. “Don’t tell me what to do,” he said, and gave her a hard whack on the bottom.
He laughed and lowered her slowly, threading her legs through his hands. She backed away a few steps into the arm of the sofa, where she rested her hand for balance. They looked at one another then from across the room, panting.
“You’re crazy,” she said.
“No. You are the crazy. Majnuuni, we will call you. Majnuuni bil Majaneen. Crazy of the crazies, that’s you. You come from long line of lunatic.”
Kara shook her head. “Oh God.” She fell into the sofa and Ibrahim sat on a chair across from her.
“Yah Allah, I am dizzy.” Ibrahim slumped in his seat, gazing at the ceiling. “The dervishes dance like this,” he said. But then, they are mystics, true men of God. Me, I am not like that. I am nothing.”
Kara took in a breath. She leaned towards him.
“Do you know Rumi? He is great Persian poet. I could recite him all night...” Ibrahim fell onto his knees and began inching towards her across the carpet, his pants making slow shooshing sounds. “‘Nothing can help me now. Rain has washed away my intellect. I have lost my profession, but what good is my work now, anyway? Like the way a garden burns in a hundred shades of orange in the fall, a lover’s heart shrivels for a sense of the Beloved’s touch...Oh, Beloved—bathe me in the essence of a hundred resurrections...now the face of that charred garden is my field of flowers...the garden of the world is burned, I revel in your sweet dust.’”
Kara leaned forward and reached out to touch his hair, and then he kissed her.
Later that night, Yasmeen came into the living room and sat in front of the sofa. Her paws were together in front of her again, her shoulders upright. She sat there, looking at them, winking. “Look at her,” said Ibrahim, in a thick whisper. “I tell you—she is weird!”
Kara propped herself up on her arms and looked up.
“She’s a cat, Ibrahim.”
“But have you ever seen cat like that before, with such wise look on their face? Sometimes, swear to God, I think she is possessed.”
“Possessed?” she said sleepily. “By what—the jinn?”
Ibrahim sat up a little. “Yes,” he said. “By the jinn. Exactly.” He laughed then. “Yah Allah, you are learning, Layla. You are learning fast.”
Kara looked at the battered creature by the foot of the bed. “Yasmeen and Layla,” she said.
Ibrahim lived just across town from Kara, in a section of Cambridge filled with ethnic eateries and sneaker stores, food cooperatives and one-room diners. The next Saturday afternoon she went to his apartment to type the visa application for the trip he was finally going to take to Lebanon. When he buzzed her in she smelled cooked onions and disinfectant.
“Ahlan wa sahlan,” he said, opening the door. “Welcome to the casbah.”
Kara walked down the hall ahead of him. She passed his bedroom, and saw that an old-fashioned quilt covered the bed, in soft shades of pastel and gingham. Except for an elaborate black and chrome entertainment center in the corner of the room, there was no real furniture in the living room. Three futons sat on the floor at right angles to one another, their backs propped up against the walls. A dozen or so throw pillows covered them, and in lieu of a coffee table there was a large hammered brass tray on the floor. She looked around the living room, at the chrome and glass entertainment center, the airbrushed photos in cheap aluminum frames on the walls and the little containers of air freshener on every flat surface. Kara picked up the one closest to her, on a small end table. A shriveled piece of raspberry-colored wax rattled around in its plastic container.
Ibrahim went into the kitchen to make tea and Kara sat down and looked over the application. His middle name was Said; Ibrahim Said Faour. She went over the hand-written copy with a pen to flag any misspellings or mistakes. Next to “citizenship” he’d written N/A. Under “marital status” he’d checked off “married,” and Kara was going to jot an “x” next to it, but something stopped her.
When he came back into the room she held the application up. “Is all the information on this accurate?”
Ibrahim stopped with a steaming cup in each hand, and from the way his face went blank, she could tell it was a total oversight. She’d never seen him caught off-guard before. “If you are referring to the ‘marital status’ box, it is a technicality,” he said.
“I am not married,” said Ibrahim, with an upward thrust of his chin. “I divorced her two years ago.”
“Well, it says here that you’re married,” said Kara, still holding up the visa application. “I don’t understand.”
“Because the courts of your country don’t recognize the laws of Islam. In our custom, when a man says to a woman ‘I divorce you’ three times he is free man.”
Kara put the visa application on the brass tray and ran her hands through her hair. She imagined the woman, a woman from Mississippi, where he’d gone to school, looking up at him as he repeated, three times, that he was divorcing her. She tried to imagine the cool composure in which he had carried that out.
Ibrahim was still holding the tea and he shrugged extravagantly. “Why you are so upset, my dear—did you want to marry me?”
She looked up at him.
“No, Kara,” he said, smiling now. “No. You are a woman in your thirties, an American; I am only thirty-two. When I marry, it will be to young woman, of my culture…”
“Ibrahim,” she said, looking at the ground. “Are you trying to insult me?”
Before she could say anything more, Ibrahim’s hand shot out, like something mechanical rather than something human and attached to his body, and knocked a glass across the room. Black tea leaves clung to the wall.
“Who are you to question me?” he said. “Who are you, a silly American. We have saying in Arabic, it is: bet radda fiik abel ma tat’arshara fiini. I will eat you for lunch before you eat me for dinner. Why don’t you think about that? Hm? Give that some thought, if you are capable of doing that.”
Kara got up and kept her gaze to the ground as she edged over to where he stood then past him into the hall. She felt her heart pound as she turned briefly to unlatch the front door, and then ran until she reached her car a block away.
By the time she got home, it was dark. She opened the door to her apartment and switched on the light. There was her beige furniture, salvaged from her relationship with Ted, her books, her CDs. And there was Yasmeen. Lately she’d begun greeting Kara at the door, and she sat there now, paws together, one ragged ear bent at the corner, winking. Kara stared at the cat. She let her coat drop to the floor and felt she finally understood. No wonder he couldn’t bear the sight of Yasmeen. If Ibrahim had more spirit, he would have been able to overcome his fears of the jinn and the refugee camp and of love and be a survivor, like Yasmeen. He could have cared for her. Kara moved into the darkening room. After the street lamps came on, she heard a series of whistles, but when she went to the window and looked out, no one was there. The whistling would continue for over an hour, and she would stand by the window and listen, listen to the whistling and the rustle of dead leaves in the trees. “Yasmeen,” she said, and the cat came over and rubbed against her legs. She picked her up and saw that her winking eye was oozing pus. Kara wiped it with the tip of her finger. The cat wants to be petted, she thought. Or fed.