Of the Subalternate Universe
The desert smelled salty. It may have been the stench of the sweating people in the unusually humid part of Saudi Arabia where I lived. You will be surprised by how far the stench of sweat travels.
When I was five, I would sit on the balcony of the fourth-floor apartment my parents had chosen for us in the suburbs of Jeddah or I would lean against the railings, daring the heat of the afternoon sun.
Across the street was what I assumed was a middle school because the students there were almost twice my height. Not a bit of noise escaped its tall concrete walls that went around the compound. Where one of the buildings inside was taller than the wall, I could see the upper half of the windows grilled and covered. I was always suspicious that someone in there could see me, even though I could not see them. A green board on the wall had something written on it in Arabic, which I could not read.
At 3 o’clock, a bell would ring that reverberated across the blocks around the school. A tall metallic door facing my apartment would open, releasing a throng of excited children clad in dark green, chattering and shouting in unfamiliar tongues. Minutes after they were outside, their faces glistened in the sun with perspiration. They huddled under the shadow of the wall or the lone tree on the block, waiting for their turn to buy French fries from the carts that appear by the road around the time of the school bell, pushed by skinny men in kurtas.
I waited on the balcony until the last one of them had disappeared, on foot, confabulating with their friends until they reached their homes.
They looked the colour of the people who, for some reason, I had always imagined living in the desert, the ones who kept their heads uncovered under the sun. The dark outsiders. I would ask my mother why I did not go to the same school as them, why I had to travel an hour on a bus packed tight with children, with the desert air blowing on my face. “We do not associate with those people,” she would say. “You go to a school with better, more well-behaved children.”
The children I went to school with were also children of immigrants, but the colours of their skin were fairer on average than the children I saw from the balcony. That was the only difference I saw.
But one afternoon, when my school bus left me at the steps of my apartment, my mother, who had not returned home, did not come to let me in. I stood there perplexed for what felt like many hours. The gold embossed ornate entrance door was as tall as the ceiling. The heat outside was debilitating. I stood there weeping; my back turned against the children flooding into the street now that their bell dismissed them. Even with all the effort to hide my distress, two girls knew that I was crying. They skipped over to me, smiling. They probably asked me what was wrong, and as I somehow conveyed that I was locked out, they started kicking the door as if punishing it for stalling me. They shouted and slammed against the door until someone came to let me in and shooed them away for making a ruckus. Their smiles were forever etched in my head as they looked back at me while running away.