The evening of the second Friday in July was an evening of departures. It was 1989 and Jeddah was about to be abandoned by all of those who could afford a holiday. I had left my window open to let the humid breeze into my room. I breathed in the spicy kebsa meat mixed with the spice of men’s cologne; the smells of the day turning into night.
The phone was ringing. After six rings I picked up. It was Jasim. He wanted me to come to the café to say goodbye. He was off to Paris the following day. He regularly traveled abroad and always came back from his trips with presents; he claimed they would encourage sensuality in those he loved.
He also said that I needed to collect the latest of my letters to my mother. I had tried many times to send letters home but they were always returned to sender. I had used Jasim’s café as my return address ever since I had known him.
at that time I lived in a tiny apartment in a small two-story building. It was all I could afford, given that I was earning just four hundred rials a month at the car wash. The apartment was at the poor end of a long street that swelled at the middle, like a man with a big belly and long thin legs. At the rotary it was surrounded by shops and restaurants, before it stretched thin again all the way to Kharentina.
By day, its rows of white-painted buildings glistened under the sun and men in white thobes outnumbered women in black abayas. The scene made you feel like you were in an old black-and-white movie.
I walked past the villas, where the breeze had turned the garden trees into slow-moving ballerinas. Peering down Al-Nuzla Street, I could see the tallest building of our neighborhood. It stood out because of its nine floors and was well-known for the rich people who lived in it.
In front of me, on the pavement, two young men were strolling, holding each other’s hands. They made their way into the Yemeni shop. A few moments later I stopped to let a man pass, dressed in jallabiyah and tagiyah and carrying a box full of plastic Pepsi bottles. I tucked my T-shirt into my tracksuit and continued.
The fragrance of musk filled my nostrils. It meant I was getting close to the biggest mosque in the neighborhood. At one time I had been living with my uncle right next to the mosque; my new home was a few blocks away on the same street, but this mosque was still the closest.
I saw a group of six bearded men standing outside. They stood so close to one another that they looked like they were joined at the hips and shoulders.
They stepped aside to give way to the blind imam who was leaving the mosque. It was because of him that I no longer attended prayers. He was clutching the arm of a tall man who was holding a black leather bag. Their long beards quivered softly in the wind.
I quickly crossed the road and bowed my head as I started to walk in the opposite direction to where they were heading.
Then suddenly, a familiar Jeep with shaded windows swerved toward me and screeched to a halt. I froze. Religious police. I wanted to run but my legs felt heavy. Three bearded men jumped out and came toward me. I couldn’t move an inch. But they passed and entered the building behind me.
Seconds later, they came out of the building with Muhssin. Although I had never spoken to him, I recognized him from school. Muhssin was unmistakable—he modeled his look on the romantic style of Omar Sharif, the Egyptian actor from the sixties. I pulled myself back to the wall. Muhssin’s mother followed them, weeping, begging them to spare her son for the sake of Allah.
“Please forgive him, he is my only son, my only breadwinner. Allah is merciful. Allah is love.” The religious policemen shoved Muhssin into their Jeep and turned to his mother.
One of them brandished a stick and ran toward her, yelling, “Go inside and cover your face, may Allah curse you.” He hit her on the back and buttocks as he herded her inside the building.
A moment later the Jeep sped off toward Mecca Street. I hurried into the building to find Um Muhssin. Through the small windowpane, I could see that she was sitting on the staircase weeping. Her hand was shaking when she tried to get up. I knocked on the door but she didn’t look up.
When i reached the junction of Al-Nuzla and Mecca streets I paused to consider my route. I didn’t want to pass Abu Faisal’s villa and face the possibility of a chance meeting with Jeddah’s most prominent executioner. He was the father of Faisal, my school friend; but when I looked down the road and saw the white Cadillac parked outside his house, I immediately went the other way.
Jasim greeted me, a smile decorating his face. His trimmed goatee curled upward, accentuating his grin. He was wearing Saudi dress, with the sleeves rolled up, his hairy forearms resting on the counter.
Some of the customers craned their necks to look at me. The smell of shisha—smoky, sweet—was gradually overlaid with the smell of hot coffee prepared with plenty of cardamom. Jasim was busy, so I sat down and waited.
I scanned the room and got a glimpse of the new waiter. He was young and agile and he glided through the tight spaces between tables as if his lower half were made of jelly. He squeezed past me and I watched as other customers reached out to touch him. He brushed aside their hands as though they were soft curtains.
The tables were deliberately close together: Jasim wanted men to rub against one another and produce a fire. “There is nothing sweeter than seeing two men caressing each other with their bodies,” he once told me. “It makes me imagine that flames of love might be created.”
Back then, I hadn’t understood. “But if the men think for a second that they are touching each other for any other reason than lack of space, then surely they will burn down the café?”
Jasim shrugged his shoulders and laughed.
Jasim’s café was full of color. And his obsession with color coordination extended from the walls to the tablecloths, to what the boy was wearing.
The walls were painted in two sections. The top half was a misty rose, and the bottom half, with sporadic wildflowers sketched by Jasim, was a warm gray.
At the table always reserved for Fawwaz and his cronies—their whispers muffled by their thick mustaches—the boy stretched across to clear the small coffee cups. He put the cups on a tray and sped to the farthest corner of the room to seek the shelter of an air conditioner. He stood facing the wall and he slowly circled his head as he lifted the hem of his thobe to wipe his face. I could see his tight beige velvet trousers contrasting perfectly with the blue tablecloth next to him.
The men were setting up a game of dominoes. Fawwaz placed his chin on his hand and peered at the boy. His stern expression could not hide the lust in his eyes. He leapt to his feet and went toward the boy.
Fawwaz stood in front of the boy and held his hand. I stared through them. Memories were starting to come back to me from my time as a waiter.
Jasim was sitting at the table with Omar, one of his closest friends. I loved those early smoke-free hours of the morning, when the café was quiet and the warm colors of the walls wrapped you like a silk robe.
I was polishing the counter while listening to an interview that my kafeel—the Blessed Bader Ibn Abd-Allah—was giving on the radio. He was a police chief in the Jeddah region and he was talking about young people and morality. He suddenly broke off from the calm one-to-one chat with the interviewer and steered into a sermon, quoting from the Qur’an and the Prophet’s sayings to warn youth against malevolent behavior. “But,” the kafeel said, “we are working together with the religious police to combat immoral behavior. InshaAllah, Allah will bless our important work.”
I shut off the radio, went to the kitchen, and lit a piece of charcoal. Holding it with the clamps, I brought it over to Jasim’s table and placed the burning coal on the edge of the clay bowl. I pulled up a chair and sat down. Jasim passed me the pipe. I put the mouthpiece on my lips and as I inhaled I moved the charcoal around using the clamps. Omar was talking about a local controversy: A teenage boy had been arrested by the religious police for receiving a note from a girl while walking to school one morning.
“To my knowledge,” said Omar, pinching his left cheek as he talked, “it is mostly princesses and rich girls who go around and toss notes at boys’ feet. They do it for fun and to ease their boredom. Then when they have had enough these girls disappear back to their hidden world as quickly as they came, leaving behind heartbroken boys.”
“So how come I never had notes dropped at my feet?” asked Jasim.
“Well,” said Omar, “I am telling you that these are rich girls and princesses, and they have a fine taste.”
Jasim stood up, surrounded by smoke, and shouted, pretending to be offended, “Are you saying I am not a handsome man?”
Omar laughed and pulled Jasim down. “Just sit. You know you’re not. Plus, you’re smart, and smart people don’t risk the consequences.”
I was woken from my reverie when Jasim called my name. I looked up. He indicated that I should join him at the counter.
“I am going to miss you but you will get a great present from Paris,” he announced as he kissed me on both cheeks. His eyes were bloodshot, streaks of red crossing the whites of his eyes.
“Don’t you ever get tired of traveling?”
He thought for a moment and shook his head, giggling.
“How long are you going for?”
“Shush,” he said, “you are like a fire-breather. You burn me with what you say.”
It was as if every word he spoke were saturated with an expensive fragrance. I brought my face closer to his and inhaled deeply.
“Have you been drinking perfume?”
“An exclusive one from France,” he responded.
His eyes lingered on mine. Sweat started dripping from his face as if I were truly breathing fire on him. But I was only watching him silently.
He turned to the small stereo behind him, slipped in a tape and adjusted the volume. Um Kalthoum began singing one of her melancholy songs. A customer yelled at Jasim, begging him to turn the sound up. Some men were up on their feet, their eyes shut and their heads swaying.
I looked at Jasim, surprised. He was shorter than me but his shoulders were broader. As he softly swung his neck and head to the music of Um Kalthoum, his ogal fell slightly out of shape.
“Since when do you listen to Um Kalthoum?”
He didn’t answer.
Instead he looked at the reflection in the mirror behind the bar. Our faces met. His deep voice was bouncing off the mirror. “What a beauty you are, my dear Naser. I have watched you grow taller, your eyes swell into the size of oceans, your cheekbones rise, and ah, your neck ascend to the height of the sky.”
I followed jasim into the kitchen and through the crowded corridor to his private room.
The room was full of the dreams and fantasies of the kind of life Jasim was after. Painted red, it had enough space for a single bed, a chair, a TV, a VCR, and video cassettes piled on top of one another. The walls were lined with posters, photos, and handwritten poetry.
He closed the door, then grabbed my hand and rested his head on my chest.
“Not a single beat,” he muttered. “Maybe one day. Maybe?”
I didn’t answer.
For a while we ?didn’t say anything to each other. Then he gently directed my hand to his chest and placed it on top of his heart, and asked me, “Can you feel?”
His voice trembled. “If I were to put the whole earth on top of my chest, Naser, I would cause the greatest of earthquakes.”
He threw himself on his bed and rolled over to face the wall. He then rolled back and with his chin facing up, he looked into the cracked mirror on the ceiling. He sighed deep and long and said, “Oh Naser, you looked beautiful when you lived in that mirror. You were free, sexy, and sensual. It was your world. And what a world it was.”
He closed his eyes and said, “Your mother’s envelope is on top of the TV. Please leave and switch off the light.”
Outside the kitchen, I bumped into the new boy.
“Can you get me some mint tea?” I asked. I glanced down and saw the boxes full of perfume bottles. I helped myself to a few and went to find a table outside.
The cars were gliding down the hill and speeding along Al-Nuzla Street. I lit a cigarette and watched them.
The boy came out of the café.
“Here is your tea,” he said. He put the little tulip shaped glass on the table next to me and poured the tea from the large pot.
“I’ve got something to tell you.”
I leaned closer and he whispered rapidly, “I spent last night over at Fawwaz’s house. His parents are not here. He told me the usual thing: ‘What we are doing is haram. But in this country it is like we are in the biggest prison in the world, and people in prison do things to each other they wouldn’t otherwise do.’ He asked me to be his boy until he gets married. Anyway, the café will shut soon for prayer time and so he will take me on a date to the shopping mall.”
Not waiting for a response, the boy went inside. Not long after, he and Fawwaz came out of the café and walked down the street hand in hand.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Consequences of Love by Sulaiman S.M.Y. Addonia. Copyright © 2009 by Sulaiman S.M.Y. Addonia. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.