A cold heart
Shortlisted in the Himal Short Story Competition 2019.
Aisha was glad they were visiting Morocco in March. Temperatures would be much milder than New York, where it was snowing even as the plane took off. During the day, the intestinal streets of the medina would provide cover from the sun. She wouldn’t have to hound shaded corners or worry about her mother’s reaction when she sent her photos on Whatsapp – her mother, who would undoubtedly scrunch up her nose if she saw any sign of Aisha’s skin darkening.
“Have you been eating well, dear?” she would ask, because back home, darker skin signaled indigence, a body wasting away.
It had been more than a year since Aisha met James at a house party in New York. Her friends thought theirs was an odd pairing – James grew up in Long Island with middle-class Catholic parents who were high-school teachers, while Aisha had spent most of her childhood in Karachi, where her father worked in real estate and her mother, well, her mother read Western books and entertained. She knew they would never be together if they were from the same country – their circles would be disparate, even disdainful of one another. When Aisha described her childhood to James, he said she sounded like a Pakistani WASP.
But here they were, on their first trip alone. She had been looking forward to Morocco ever since they booked their flights in January. Before this, they had taken a trip to Vermont, where his college friends went on a yearly retreat to a lake house. In January, they travelled with James’s parents to the Caribbean for a long weekend. Aisha spent most of her time there sitting under umbrellas and tugging at the edges of her one-piece swimsuit, self-conscious even on a beach full of bikinis. She had grown up near the sea, had even gone to private beaches with friends in high school. But they always wore T-shirts and skirts that reached their knees. They would wade in the water, running their fingertips on the grey surface and flicking them upwards to sprinkle saltwater over one another. Once, a classmate showed up wearing shorts and Aisha felt everyone, including herself, glance at her from the corners of their eyes, trying and failing to ignore the small shift in social order that had occurred.
As the plane taxied to the terminal in Tangier, Aisha flipped through James’s passport. The light blue pages were spotless, each recto-verso showing a background of American landscape scenes, quotes by Eisenhower and Martin Luther King lining the top. Only Americans, Aisha thought, would put valourising words about liberty and democracy on each monotonous page of a travel document.
“Such a clean passport,” she said, handing it back to James. “It must be nice to just show up.” He shook his head.
“It’s ridiculous that you have to worry about visas all the time,” he said.
Aisha shrugged. Part of her liked all the stamps her passport carried – battle scars from embassy visits in Karachi and New York, fruit borne of long lines and curt answers.
“It’s clean because I haven’t traveled that much,” James continued. “I went to Paris once as a kid. My mother complained about how dirty the streets were.”
Aisha laughed. James’s mother was a well-meaning woman, prototype for the feminine lynchpin of the American suburb. She hugged her bag close to herself every time she walked around Manhattan, despite James’ insistence that the island was too gentrified to be dangerous.
“My first time in a Muslim country,” James said, looking out the window at the airport lights.
“With your first Muslim girlfriend.”
“Lots of firsts,” he replied, looking back, his mouth slightly upturned, about to break into the smile she loved.
As they stood in line at Immigration, she looked up at the signs, written in Arabic, French and English.
“You don’t speak Arabic, right?”
She shook her head.
“No, but it’s the same script as Urdu. Also, if you want to impress the officer, you can say Salam-o-alaikum.”
“Salaam-layee-kum,” he repeated, whispering under his breath until they reached the desk.
James went first and the officer gave him a polite smile, though Aisha could not hear their conversation. A few seconds later, the officer handed back a stamped passport, and beckoned Aisha. He stared at her visa for a while, talking to his colleague at the next desk. She could not make anything of it. He said Pakistan three times. He asked her how long she would be in the country and where she was staying. After she had shown him the address of the Airbnb as well as the return leg of her flight, he stamped the passport and waved her on.
The house they were staying in was built on three narrow floors, with a terrace that overlooked the Mediterranean. Cool air rustled through the bougainvillea that framed the doorway. The street smelled of frying onions and a distant heap of compost. Aisha shivered a little as they got out of the cab. She was reminded of childhood trips to northern Pakistan each summer, where the sun shone all day but the nights grew frigid, nudging her family under colourful shawls and thin sweaters.
The Airbnb belonged to a Frenchman with excellent guest reviews, but it was a middle-aged Moroccan woman who greeted them at the door. She was the housekeeper and knew little English. Upon seeing Aisha, she began to talk in rapid Arabic. Aisha stopped her to say sheepishly two of the handful of Arabic words she knew.
“La Arabiya,” she said.
“Español?” the housekeeper tried, with hope.
“Si, hablo Español,” James called from the bedroom, where he was putting away the suitcases. He came over, smiling, and they began to talk. Aisha could tell they were discussing logistics – what time they wanted breakfast, where the closest mercado was. She lingered for a few seconds, then walked to the bedroom to start unpacking.
In the past year, whenever Aisha talked to James about Pakistan, it felt like she was describing a museum, strange and timeless. She didn’t know when they would visit Pakistan. It wasn’t the safest place for a white man, as James’s mother loved to point out. Morocco had felt like a chance to show him a culture that felt closer to hers, home to traditions that she could lay claim to. And yet, even here, he was carrying on with that natural ease he always had. She had thought she would be the translator, the in-betweener.
“I didn’t realise your Spanish was that good,” she said to him, after the housekeeper left.
“It’s terrible,” he laughed. “I had to take it in high school. I almost failed once.”
Over the next three days, they walked around the old town, dipping into museums and taking pictures by the sea. She was excited to show James his first mosque, but when they got there she was told to go through the women’s entrance, which led only to a boxy room with a pedestal fan. He came back gushing about the patterned carpets and wide courtyard. She told him about the purpose of the mehrab, the minars, and the fountain used for ablutions, conjuring up a distant memory of accompanying her father to Friday prayer when she was very young.
“We’re so original,” she said to James, nodding at a German couple they had seen at Tangier airport. They were sitting at the same café, sipping sugary mint tea. The man was tall, with brown hair, a bit like James. The woman had dyed blonde hair, in which she wore a bright yellow headband. Aisha had lost track of how many white girls she had seen so far with whimsical headbands and flowery printed skirts. These tourists had perfected a certain look –
the women bohemian chic, the men unshaven with threadbare T-shirts. She silently judged how similar they all looked, while at the same wishing she had gotten a memo on the aesthetic.
Overall, she thought they were having a good time. The food had been delicious, the tagines and couscous steaming hot at every restaurant. She loved the pervasiveness of coffee, the old men lined up on restaurant patios with cafés au lait and cigarettes. She loved hearing the azan perforate the air as she and James walked to a bar – this was, in her mind, a beautiful contradiction that could not exist back home, where her father had to hide his nightly whiskey even from the maids.
Sometimes, however, she felt exhausted by walking aimlessly, disinterested in things to which she knew she was expected to pay attention: how old a mosque was, how many gates the medina had, how long it took to make a Berber carpet. At other times, odd things held her attention, small but fascinating aberrations from what she was used to. On the bus from Tangier to Fez, she opened up her phone’s Wi-Fi page and noted how many people were carrying around personal Wi-Fi devices, names such as “Maroc Telecom 2414” and “Glocalme 2018” showing up by the dozen. The azan felt much shorter than in Pakistan. Buses charged extra for each piece of luggage.
She wearied of travel in a way that James did not. On their second day in Fez, they hired a full-day guide to walk them through the medina. Aisha stopped taking pictures after the first hour, even as James continued to take shot after shot of the food stalls, the intricate woodwork in the madrasa they visited, the tanneries. Many shopkeepers called out to him, telling him they had the finest carpets and the most beautiful lamps. She wondered if this would happen to her if she walked around alone, or if she would meld in, indistinguishable from the Moroccans as long as she didn’t talk. In some ways, she felt more like the young girls of the medina, wearing headscarves like the one she had briefly worn in high school. But she knew that she had something much more potent in common with the gawkers and photographers, the tourists who walked around snapping up photos of antique locks. Like them, she was flying in and out of Morocco, staying in beautiful 18th century houses owned by Frenchmen, houses that were renovated just enough to provide air-conditioning.
After their tour, they took a long nap and woke up groggy and starving. James suggested they go for dinner at a nearby restaurant he had read about. Aisha was beginning to tire of tagines but places inside the old walls seemed to serve only Moroccan food, and it felt daunting, especially at night, to venture outside into the new city. When they reached the place Google Maps pointed them to, they found nothing but a tiny alleyway, closed at the end.
“Hello, what are you looking for?”
A young man approached them. He seemed no older than eighteen, his hair slick with product. James held up his phone.
“There should be a restaurant here,” he said.
“Those maps don’t work here,” the guy said, shaking his head. “Come, I’ll take you.”
He started walking ahead of them, beckoning them to follow. James looked at Aisha, shrugged, and began to walk.
“Where are we going?” Aisha said, as they tried to catch up with him.
“Very nice restaurant. Authentic Moroccan food.”
“Thank you so much,” said James.
Aisha felt annoyed. The kid was obviously going to expect payment. He was also likely taking them to a restaurant that commissioned him to grab tourists from the street.
“Where are you from? Let me guess. America?”
“I’m from Pakistan,” Aisha clarified.
“Salam-a-eleikum, madame. Are you Muslim?”
“Yes,” she replied.
She stayed silent. James squeezed her hand, and she knew he thought she was being rude. They were starving and the guy was walking them to a restaurant. Why did it matter if he also got a few dirhams in the process? Yet, she couldn’t help being irritated by James’ unquestioning openness towards someone he didn’t know. Had he not been taught all his life to be suspicious of strangers, like she had?
“Don’t worry, madame, the restaurant is nearby,” the guy said after a while, looking back. “Be open to Moroccan hospitality.”
Her mistrust felt like a pungent odour, recognisable to those around her. She remained quiet as they walked for the next five minutes. At the door of the restaurant, the guy turned to James and asked, “Do you have a gift for me, my friend?” James dug out a fifty-dirham bill from his wallet, the same amount they had paid for a taxi from the bus station. The guy shook his head.
James looked at Aisha for help, but she remained impassive. He could deal with this. As he opened up his wallet again, she walked into the restaurant and asked the waiter for a table for two.
At dinner, she took a few bites of the goat tagine and then played around with the salad.
“What’s up?” James asked.
“I’m tired of having tagine all the time,” she said.
“You said you loved it, just yesterday.”
“Well, that was yesterday,” she snapped. He looked at her warily.
“Sorry,” she said. “I feel weird about that guy.”
“Oh, come on. What’s wrong with a kid trying to make money off of a white American?”
“But I’m not a white American,” she blurted.
“I’m white enough for the two of us,” James said, grinning. “Also, you were kind of rude. And he clearly noticed.”
“Why do I have to be nice to any random person who approaches me on the street? I don’t owe him anything.”
“Because that’s what being a decent person’s about, A-ee-sha.”
He was mispronouncing her name, as he frequently did.
“It was obviously from the start that we were going to pay him,” she snapped back. “It was a transaction, like purchasing something at the store.”
James shook his head.
“You’re such a snob,” he said with finality. She widened her eyes, then put her fork down and picked her phone up, angling her body away from him.
He had used that word for her once before, months ago when she told him she missed the food her maid cooked in Karachi. She had been livid, mocking him for his daily food deliveries and Ubers and all the other structural comforts that made America seem so much more egalitarian to him. Now, she flipped through her Instagram, silently hating him. He asked for the bill as soon as he finished.
They were twenty feet from the restaurant when he appeared again.
Aisha’s heart jumped.
“Yes, very good,” James said, as the guy fell in step with them.
“Where are you going now?”
“Home,” Aisha replied, quickening her pace.
“Nice bar nearby,” he said. “You want to drink, my friend?”
It was clear he was addressing only James.
“How far?” James asked.
“Very close. I’ll take you.”
Aisha stopped and turned.
“I want to go home, James.”
He stared at her wordlessly. She remembered he had been talking yesterday about missing a cold beer, unavailable in all the restaurants they had eaten at. She couldn’t care less.
“Madame, open your heart,” said the guy. “Your heart is cold.”
She told herself not to scream.
“Let’s go,” she said to James.
“My friend, you go where your girlfriend wants to go. I don’t want to create trouble.”
James said goodbye to the guy, asking him what his name was as they shook hands.
“Hamza,” he replied.
As they began to walk again, Hamza called out, perhaps as a Hail Mary, “My friend, you are a nice American.”
“Thank you,” said James, laughing. “You’re a nice Moroccan, Ham-za.”
In his mouth, the name sounded bawdy, the first syllable drawn out like it was a pork product.
“American women, very nice too,” Hamza said, his voice rippling in the dark, empty street.
“Why did you go for a Pakistani? Better an American woman next time.”
They returned to their Airbnb, a renovated riad with an airy courtyard and cedar woodwork. Aisha rushed upstairs, past their room on the first floor, to the rooftop. James didn’t stop her, but as she stood by the railing, looking out at the darkened profiles of narrow houses, he came and stood by her.
“Sorry, that guy was a jerk,” he said, his voice soft and cautious, as if she were a wounded animal. She shook her head, her eyes filling up.
“It’s so weird,” she said. “I don’t want to be a bitch.”
“Maybe,” he offered hesitantly, and she felt explosive anger build up inside her even before he said another word. “Maybe you should be a little nicer. I’m sure he sensed that you disliked him and…”
“That’s not the point!” she shouted, jerking her hand away from his, causing him to flinch. A sudden memory came to her, of her parents fighting in their drawing room in Karachi, so loudly she had to go around shutting the windows so the neighbours didn’t hear.
“I’m not the problem, James. You are!”
“What did I do? I was trying to be a nice guy!”
“Do you think Hamza would have told an Arab man that the woman with him wasn’t good enough for him?”
“Wait,” said James, his eyebrows knitted together in frustration. “Was I supposed to be all macho and yell at him for that? Is that what this is about?”
“No, it’s not,” she replied, although she did feel deeply, strongly, that he could have at least turned to Hamza, eschewed his stupid, wide smile for a change, and told him to not insult his girlfriend. Yes, he could have done that. She thought of Karachi, where her mother insisted she take her brother along when she walked to the corner store—her brother who was ten years younger than her. She knew it was a terrible thing, that a man’s right over a woman meant more than her own right over herself. But it was that way, wasn’t it?
“It’s insane to me that you don’t see what’s going on here,” she said. “He would never have been that rude if I were a white woman, or if you were…”
His voice was sharp and forceful.
“You need to take your head out of your navel, Aisha. Sometimes people are just rude to other people.”
She opened and closed her mouth.
“So he didn’t treat me like a brown man,” James continued. “Yeah, no shit, I’m not.” He turned to leave.
“Maybe that’s the problem,” she said. Parthian shot.
He didn’t bite, and kept walking, swiftly, downstairs. By the time she returned to the room half an hour later, he had the lights off and was fast asleep.
In four days, they would return to New York, her Instagram rich with images of souks and camels. They would take back tiny ceramic tagines as souvenirs. Photos would circulate among both his family and hers.
Hamza would become a funny dinner table story, a tiny blip on their first vacation together. “It’s a wonderful country,” they’d tell friends who were considering a vacation there. “Just avoid the men on the streets,” James would say, shaking his head, setting Aisha up to jump into the story that always got their dinner crowds going. They would tell it so many times that each of them would have their own lines, practiced to perfection.
“So, this man comes up to us…”
“He wanted to take us to a ‘bar’, whatever that means.”
“And then, he says, “’Get an American woman next time!’”
Read our editorial reflections on the 2019 short story competition.