Aphelion Issue 255, Volume 24
October 2020
 
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A Frog Pond In Time

by Emad El-Din Aysha




Your way begins at the other side.
Become the sky.
Take an axe to the prison wall.
Escape.
Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.
Do it now.


--- Rumi

 

 

 

“But you hate Japanese food,” Nour said to her uncomfortably seated husband.

“Nothing of the sort,” her Arabic husband, Mansi, replied with some difficulty. He was squating on the ground in the blossom position, leaving him pondering if his trousers were tearing at the centre. “I just don’t like raw fish.”

As per custom, he was dressed in whites, his ‘Made in China’ Panama hat lying by his side, along with his shoes. His little lady, very little indeed, was dressed in a delightful Kimono, her legs tightly pressed together. She’d been shopping for the past few days before he’d braved the prospect of actually eating something Japanese, here, in LA’s Little Tokyo, of all places. (It cost less than delivery, thanks to the fossil fuel taxes).

“But that’s Jap…” she pleaded.

“… until you dump them in the hot sauce,” he said wisely as he pocked at what looked, to his eyes, like a cube of Liquorice allsorts. That was the easy part. Consuming the tiny mound of rice in front of him would be the real test of his acumen. Did Asiatics eat the rice, grain by grain, he wondered?

It would explain their attention to detail. Sushi was such an aesthetic meal. The food was colour-coordinated with the surroundings. Blacks and whites, juxtaposed against each other, just as the light-hearted squares of paper in the doors contrasted to the jet-black wood panelling. Even the tray was an example of austere perfection, as was the flooring beneath them.

His last experience with Sushi, back in the coffin hotel on the outskirts of the Arab capital on Mars, had not been so good. That was during their first honeymoon. Now they were on their second. Mansi was safely retired, so he simply had to heed his wife’s pleading for some vacation time to themselves. If he went back to the Near East, where he’d been born and bred, he’d encounter one of his former loves around every corner. If he went to the Far East, he’d be on safer feminine ground but unable to comprehend anything. So this was that last refuge to head to, on his meagre budget.

Strangely, he felt at home. Taking your shoes off when you went into a place was common custom in some parts of the Arab world, certainly in dusty Jordan. Even the Lebanese had a knack for it. Not to mention sitting on the ground to break bread and eating out of a communal tray. (The Persians still did that). And thanks to his machinations, the Arabs were taking up Oriental customs once more. First on Mars, and now back on Terra Firma.

There’d be plenty of time to reminisce afterwards. In the meantime, they were here to have fun, one chomp at a time.

 

***

 

They exited the establishment to a grainy horizon, a world bisected by globes. Not the paper-Chinese type with the badly hidden wire-skeleton beneath but the latest Japanese model. Hovering in mid-air with gyroscopes to stabilise their anti-grav drives as the candle lights flickered on the inside, illuminating up the porous coloured shells made of biodegradable goo. Actual cockleshells melted down for the spherical purpose at hand.

It was quite a sight. That and the vertical flags that adorned the walls of every building, ever shop front window, street sign, lamp post and phone booth in the bustlingly silent metropolis within a metropolis that was Little Tokyo. (It was as Little as ‘Little’ John in the Robin Hood epics). The neighbourhood was fast surpassing old Tokyo as far as population was concerned, and it now sported its own stock exchange that made the one back on the home islands pale by comparison. It was the one place where you could be Japanese and yell your lungs out, aside from Karaoke.

But that was in the sound-sealed premises of the stock exchange in the maze of neon holograms that was down town. They were a safely distance away from that technological hellhole. Here, the streets were made of clay, etched out of a hilly green expanse that looked like an out of place golf course. It was like the grasshoppers were on a diet, only munching away till the blades of grass reached the regulation height. Out here you mostly saw old couples keeping physically fit with their biodegradable robotic pets or schoolgirls busily scribbling down notes for a rainy day in the exam room. Them and their dark, dark hair matching their dark skirts, neckties and leather shoes.

The only conspicuous sound to be heard was the clink, clink, clink of Nour’s badly concealed clever clogs. She’d so wanted to fit in she insisted on buying a pair to go with her restrictive silken outfit. Arab on wore clogs in the bathroom. They were as hard to get used to as Earth’s gravity, after all these years on Mars.

Her hair was in a blonde-brown bungle, held together by a pair of (unused) chopsticks. Her circular features fit the surroundings well, although her Iberian skin had its own distinctive hue, little granules of colour pulled out of her skin by the floating streetlights that decorated the air like a felled Christmas tree that clung onto the air, defiant as ever.

 

***

 

The Japanese gave public bath a whole new meaning.

Men, women and children, all soaking away in a cauldron of water as frothy as a Heineken, and in the nude. (Mansi had to book a special cubicle for himself and you-know-who. He wasn’t the bashful type but his jealousy got the better of him). You wondered why they did it, since they were just as clean as they were before they entered this soup bowl of a pool as after. Mansi found out the hard way when he insisted on going in first, only to find himself being smothered by a team of white towels flung at him by the robot orderlies. (Plastic on the outside, wood and organic silicon on the inside, to withstand the choking humidity of the place).

Nour needed the healing caress of the hot water just to relax her calves and feet, and toes. Mansi, he just needed a bath, period. The place in his hotel room just wouldn’t suffice. The phone booths out in the street gave you more elbow room.

Then afterwards came the massage session, the agony of it, with karate chops to your uptight muscles and tendons, breaking you down into a pulpy mass of nerves to be reshaped into whatever they desired. And, once again, all at the hands of the tin men they employed, paid for by the renewable electricity bill.

Not solar power, mind you. The Japanese district collected potato shavings from the surrounding cityscape – all those greasy fast-food joints – and burnt then in a smokeless incinerator they used both to boil the waters here and power the silent workforce.

 

***

 

“Want to check out a Kendo joint,” Mansi asked innocently.

“What ever for,” Nour replied, in slow motion.

“Well, we could…”

“We have enough of these at home,” she spat out venomously.

Nour was right on that count, Mansi sniggered to himself. They’d instated it early on in the Arab quadrant, to keep the civil servants on their toes. In the good old days of the Arabs the only time civil servants had done their jobs right, serving the public and stopping paperwork clogging the wheels of progress, was when they had public floggings.

Since then standards had slipped, till you found a Kendo stick bashing you in the front teeth because you weren’t paying attention in between tea breaks.

 

***

 

“I don’t believe it,” Mansi said, aghast.

“What?” Nour said, startled.

He was standing outside a ‘Attar’, a scent and spices shop. An Arabic one, here in Little Tokyo, in Greater Los Angeles in the United States of North America. How out of place could you get?!

Racks of dried herbs, cloth sacks on the tiled, dusty floor, incense stalks on fire, polluting the once clean air of the district around them. It was a home away from home, precisely the home Mansi had been trying to do away with for all these years.

Even the concrete goo that the shop was built on was cracked and dented, like the roads in most Arabic cities. What an offense to the senses. He would have a word with the proprietor at once.

Another shock to the system. “Ali, it’s you,” Mansi said in disbelief. An old friend, from the Arab quadrant back on Mars. He’d saved Nour’s life during the Martian wars, a lifetime ago.

“Do I…,” the young man’s voice trailed off. Face dark, eyes as aggressive as ever, tall and broad shouldered. He was dressed in Arab garb but his gun belts and Bedouin dagger were hanging on the wall behind him, instead of decked around his chest. “Yes, I do know you. It is you, the secret operative…”

“Hush,” Mansi hissed.

“Oh,” Ali replied, embarrassed as ever. He hadn’t changed one bit. He shook Mansi’s hand and invited them in for tea.

Persian teas, to be more precise. He’d married a Farsi girl back on Mars – Mansi had introduced them – and now he was on Earth, catering to the exotic tastes of peoples who lived so far East they considered Arabs to be honorary Westerners.

“So, do you like it here?” Mansi felt compelled to ask. He took another sip of tea, making sure to run the delicate fluid over the plant sugar crystal he had under his tongue. (It was a Persian custom, the Kurds emulated and now increasingly the Arabs. Helped you lose weight while keeping your blood sugar up).

“Apart from the raw fish, yes,” Ali said, scratching his scalp with a finger. The only kind of city life he could abide was the kind he’d seen in the Manga and Animie he’d grown up on.

“It’s very healthy,” Nour said melodiously, holding up her glass-metal Russian teacup. (The coffee cups Arabs normally drank out of were actually porcelain; the same East Asians drank tea out of. Arabs preferred to scorch their fingers drinking drink tea out of glasses).

“The ancient Greeks ate fish raw,” Mansi chipped in, for no apparent reason.

“We took that in comparative history class, I remember,” Ali said, referring to his desert days back on Mars, learning the Quran by heart through recitation while memorising Pythagorean theorems. Greece is peninsula, an ‘almost’ island in Arabic terminology, so it wasn’t surprising that they would take up similar habits to the Japanese islanders. Fish were in plentiful supply and didn’t have to be cooked like red meat, which wasn’t nearly as readily at hand.

“We taught you comparative religion too,” Mansi chided.

“I know, I know,” Ali replied glumly. “The female creation myth always precedes the male. A goddess stirs a pot of vinegar with a pearly spear, takes it out, and a single drop falls and congeals into an island. Japan was one island before the sea levels rose and divided it into four. So, it is the older myth.”

“And what else did we tell you,” Mansi went on. He was enjoying this, seeing his handiwork in motion.

“The Greeks have the same. The possett, an herbal drink, in vinegar. You stir it up, all the different herbs and spices mix, but once it slows down, they congeal into their separate parts. Like the universe, the granules of sand form the planets. Things going their different ways, governed by inalienable laws. God’s Sunnah [example] in His creation.”

“His, in English,” Nour corrected. In Arabic the very word Allah wasn’t masculine or feminine, practically the only word in Arabic that wasn’t one or the other. And most words in Arabic were actually feminine, traces of something that had existed in the past that no longer was.

“True enough,” Mansi added. “So, how are your sales going?”

“Very well, thank you. The unisex sales, especially,” Ali said, startling Mansi for the third time that day.

Nour guessed what he was getting at. She knew everything about the latest fashions coming out of the Arab quadrant. Khol, the black that ladies smeared round the eyes, was now being styled on the ancient Egyptian mould, with the Horus eye, for boys and girls.

The ancient Greeks, again, had decorated their eyes with khol, men included. And so had the Arabs. Mansi had the history beaten into his memory banks as well. “Good practical reason for it too.”

“And why is that,” Nour said seductively, winking at him with her own khol-laden brown eyes.

“It’s full of antibiotics,” Mansi answered. “Protects your eye from infections, the kinds you get in arid countries. But, for some blasted reason, the Arabs forgot, and got eye diseases. Except for the women.”

“It is the civilisation,” Ali said through his clenched teeth. “It is not being poor. A desert rascal like me was poor. But we knew what made sense. We smelled bad from sweat and had not water and soap, so we hid our scent with perfume, like the Prophet Peace Be Upon Him. It the city and the village people who lost touch, poor and rich alike, trying to be like the moderns and forgetting that they already were modern, in the days gone past. That is why we went to Mars, to recapture our lost heritage. Why I am here, in the most civilised part of this Western city. The only place I feel at home in.”

“It’s the only place I feel whole in,” Mansi mouthed to himself.

“Then perhaps you should use the deodorants I buy you more often,” Nour said to break the spell of the moment.

After the ordeal at the public bath, he wouldn’t need to. He was certain his sweat pores had deserted him.

 

***

 

“Just think, for once we can go somewhere, without incident,” Nour spat out.

Mansi gave her a sheepish grin.

They were at the Space Port, ready to go to sleep for a couple of frozen months till they got back on Mars.

In the distance, where the rest of LA began and the Japanese district ended, Mansi’s eye caught a glimpse of something. A whiff of bronze blonde hair.

An old flame of his. One he hadn’t told Nour about. Their holiday wasn’t over after all.

Not by a long shot.

 

Author’s Note:

The characters here recur in my stories. Nour means ‘Light’ in Arabic and Mansi means the forgotten.

THE END


2020 Emad El-Din Aysha

Bio: Emad El-Din Aysha "I have been publishing academic articles since my post-graduate studies in the UK and working in English-language journalism and translation in Egypt since 2003. As a writer, I believe what matters most is what you bring to your profession. Academia teaches you to focus on background and theorise. Journalism teaches you to clear your mind of high sounding concepts and terminology and focus on catchy facts and phrases. Teaching (politics, sociology, law, history, economics, science) and writing in multiple fields (current affairs, movie and book reviewing, petroleum and energy) helps you draw it all together. Fiction is the most liberating of all, allowing you to splice together different themes in the same scene or sentence – characterisation, dialogue, narrative – instead of spacing things out into neat little analytic categories. As a bilingual Muslim I want to familiarise the Western reader with Islamic precepts and Arabic mannerisms, in an engaging and (often) humorous fashion that the reader can relate to, drawing on the reader’s own culture and background. My ambition is to put Arabic science fiction on the global literary and commercial map, written directly into English – beginning with my first SF novel, and my translation of Arab SF and fantasy."

E-mail: Emad El-Din Aysha

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