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For All Nails #298: Love Story
by Jonathan Edelstein
(Note by JE on 7 February 2005: This vignette was sitting around half-finished on my hard drive for the past six months, until a recent discussion on the FANTL inspired me to finish it. It was originally planned as the second in a rough triptych centered around immigration and social change in Numidia (the first was The Packer), with the first two looking at the edges of society and the last at the center. As things are, this piece will likely stand alone.)
The job was brutal, but it was the best he'd ever had.
In the three years Idris Djaibe had been in Numidia, he'd had more jobs than he could count - working the olive harvest down by Sabha, collecting trash in Benghazi, mucking out the kitchen at an oil- field canteen. Jobs never lasted long for birds like Djaibe; a few months and it was on to the next one, hopefully with enough saved to last through the times when there was no work at all.
He'd heard about the pipe-laying crew during one of the dry spells; a Bedouin he'd worked with in Sabha told him they were hiring laborers down south. It wasn't the type of job birds normally got - it might be grunt work, but it paid well enough for Numidians to want it. The pipeline was big, though - some people said the biggest in the world - and the work crews needed every hand they could get.
There was pure, sweet water under the ground, enough to keep Numidia from thirsting for a thousand years or more, but it was in the howling desert six hundred miles from anywhere. Getting it to the coast would require nothing short of a man-made river. For the next decade, there would be work enough for anyone who wanted it. And it paid five hundred a week, which was beyond Idris' wildest dreams - most of the time he was lucky to get two hundred, and fifty of that went to the packer who'd brought him in.
Idris had been on the work crews two months. He'd expected to be put to work laying the pipe or digging the seven-meter trenches in which it would lie, but those jobs were for the skilled workers who knew how to operate heavy machines. There were other things that needed doing around the construction site - unloading trucks, building ramps and access roads, fetching and carrying, the hottest and dirtiest jobs in the place. He did them all.
Other than that, things were no worse than could be expected for a new man. Idris had expected ethnic slurs and received them, but such language was part of the work crews' banter; he'd learned that the proper response to "what's up, abdi?" was "not much, Jew bastard," accompanied by a smile. He did the same work, earned the same pay and was as likely as anyone else to get bought a drink at the end of the day.
But still, there was an uneasy edge to the banter, a sense that real prejudice was lurking somewhere under the veneer of phony prejudice. He didn't quite fit and he knew it, which was why, when someone invited him for a drink, he was as likely as not to decline. And it was why, when Anastasia came to the job site, he stayed away.
Anastasia was seventeen, a subcontractor's daughter who helped keep her father's books and run errands around the site. One of her errands was bringing lunch to the crews, which was always an occasion for good-natured chaffing and flirtation. She was a Numidian girl and she'd been working around construction crews since she was twelve, so she gave as good as she got and slapped down anyone who went too far. For most of them, it was a game, played by Anastasia's rules.
To Idris, anything like that was too dangerous to be a game. It was one thing for members of a work crew to banter with a young woman they'd known since she was a child, and quite another for a foreigner to do so. He didn't want to take the chance on that being what made him an "abdi" for real, so he waited until everyone else got his lunch, and ate alone.
In the ordinary course of things, it would have gone on that way until one or the other of them moved on. But this isn't that kind of story.
She came to him, of course. It was sometime in November, and he'd found a shady space to sit and read. He'd put most of his lunch aside; the daily ration for heavy laborers was 3500 calories, and he was used to working harder on much less, and a full meal made him sleepy through the afternoon. He used the time instead to catch up on his reading. He wasn't likely ever again to need to know what was in the textbooks he had brought from home, but they absorbed him; so much so that he didn't know she was there until he heard her voice. A voice speaking in Arabic, the language of the work crews. A woman's voice.
"I'm sorry," she said when she realized she had startled him. "Do you have a minute?"
"Do you need something?" he asked. Sometimes, Anastasia needed information for the payroll, although Idris couldn't imagine what she needed to know about him.
"No, I just came to visit. I see you in the crew, but you never talk to me."
What answer could he give to that? Women in Ouadai weren't so direct. After a moment, he said so.
"You're not in Ouadai now," she answered. No, he wasn't, and now that the revolution had happened, he probably never would be again. He had been born in the last year of a war, grown up in a peaceful country, but now it was at war with itself.
He saw Anastasia nodding her head and realized he had spoken out loud. She was saying something about her father, and a war, and a journey. "But he became a contractor, and I'll be an engineer." And that, finally, was what made him smile. "You too?" he said, holding up the textbook. "I went to college for a year, back before."
"My father isn't thrilled, but he knows it's the only way to keep me from being a mechanic." Idris had seen her working on the trucks sometimes, and it surprised him less than it did most of the Numidians; mechanics were hard to come by in Ouadai, and anyone who owned a car had better know how to fix it.
"Of course. I've grown up on the project, and I want to come back and work on it..."
Somehow, that led to a conversation, which wandered like all conversations do. And that conversation led to others, twice a week at first and then every day.
Under other circumstances, it might also have led to an invitation to bed; Anastasia wasn't a virgin, and Numidian Jews were relatively free about such things. This time, though, she knew the invitation would have to come from him. And she also knew, with a wisdom beyond her years, that his hesitation about making the invitation didn't mean he didn't want her desperately. It would happen in his own time.
Even so, she saw no reason not to move the time closer. Lately, she had taken to bringing him along on her explorations of the southern desert, leading him up the wadis and showing him the cave paintings that had been made when the Sahara was green. It was on one of these occasions that they encountered a bedouin tribe that seemed to know Anastasia; she had gifts, and the tribe welcomed them with feasting and music.
It was long past midnight when the celebration ended, and with the smell of kif still in their nostrils, it was far too late to go home. They made their way uphill to their cave and made ready to spend the night. That was when Anastasia discovered that she'd brought only one bedroll. She apologized, laid it down and offered it to him.
After some thought, he found he was willing to share.
He met her parents. He hadn't wanted to, but she pressed him until he agreed to come to dinner at their small house in the married workers' compound. He greeted them awkwardly, he'd picked up some German in the time he'd been in Numidia, but he wasn't yet fluent.
Her father Vadim liked him at once. Vadim was a russi, as Numidians measured such things - a Russian Jew who'd washed up on the Tripolis docks during the Global War. He'd come to Numidia with the clothes on his back, and he recognized Idris as a kindred spirit. He was hard to understand when he spoke the Arabic-laced Yiddish of Numidia, and almost as hard when he used his accented Arabic, but there was nothing difficult about the conversation.
Greta, her mother, was another story. She also had Russian ancestry, but that was back a hundred years, and most of her background was pure German Jew. She spoke precise, schoolbook German, she was quite convinced she'd married down, and she didn't want Anastasia to follow suit.
Anastasia thought the dinner was a success; by midnight, Vadim had taken down his violin and suggested that Idris come every week for Shabbat dinner. Idris wasn't so sure. Greta had been upstairs in her room since eight o'clock.
He met her friends. He hadn't wanted to do that either, and the first meeting was quite unplanned on his part. A long time ago, he'd worried that the Jews on the work crew might not like him seeing Anastasia, but it turned out it was the Arabs he should have worried about. They thought of Anastasia as a sister, and treated Idris as they would any foreigner who made advances on one of their family.
He needed two days to recover, but, like Greta, the attackers failed in their purpose. Anastasia was at his side the whole time, and the foreman, who was an Arab himself, figured things out and took measures. "I've told them they're out on their asses if anything happens again," he said, "but I think it's best to put you on another crew. Mustafa needs a trainee crane operator; you'll have to take a pay cut to four hundred for a month, but after that they'll raise you to eight."
So Idris changed his job and barracks, and met Anastasia after work, and learned to live with her mother's silence. With overtime, he sometimes took home eleven hundred a week, which was what an Ouadaian made in two years. He had long since paid off his packer and had twenty-three thousand in the foreman's strongbox. He had what he'd come to Numidia for - enough to start a life with, if he had a country to live it in.
That was the problem. With twenty-three thousand, he could buy an Egyptian passport and have enough left over to live well, or he could jump to the head of the waiting list to get his Sierra Leone papers processed. But with a year in one job behind him, mates who greeted him by name and Anastasia to meet him at the end of the day, he had begun to put down roots. He felt like he was becoming a Numidian - a stray, illegal one who could be deported at any minute, but one who had something keeping him from Sierra Leone.
And that, of course, was the worst part, because he knew all things must end. In the spring, Anastasia would go to the university in Tripolis, and he could never follow her there; it was one thing for a stray to live in a work-crew barracks in the south, and quite another to go to a Tripolis college where everything was registered. He knew what would happen then - she would find someone else, some student she could bring home and marry. And he would be left behind, with nothing to keep him in Numidia but too Numidian to go back to what he was.
Neither of them talked about what would happen; neither knew what to say. They spoke of everything together, things Idris would never have talked about with a woman in Ouadai, but he was afraid to speak of this, afraid that mentioning it would break the spell. So he went on, and wondered what he would do when the day came.
Eventually, the day did come.
They were working out of Tazirbu then, almost at the point where the pipeline would split into the Benghazi and Tripolis branches, when Anastasia got the letter from the university. She brought it to him, of course, and he forced himself to congratulate her and wish her well. The school year started in August, so they would have three more months.
She put both hands on his head and made him look at her. "I've been thinking about this," she said. "Come with me. It's too late to apply this year, but you can take classes, and next year you can start on your degree again..."
"You know I can't do that. Not without Numidian papers, and I can't get those."
"You could if you married me."
He looked at her again, unable to speak. For a moment, he saw it laid out before him, all the things he'd thought he'd put aside forever - finishing his education, coming back to work as an engineer at the wellhead, raising a family, living like a person instead of a fugitive. But how could he ask her...
"...to make that kind of sacrifice?"
She put her hands on his cheeks again. "If it were that, I wouldn't ask."
"What about your parents?" he said, wondering absently why he was still trying to push away the thing he wanted.
"I've talked to my father already. And he'll take care of my mother."
He thought again about Tripolis and the university, and realized that he had crossed the line into acceptance. He would marry her, and their desert conversations would continue in a city apartment, and someday he would disapprove of the men their daughters brought home. He wondered if Greta would still disapprove of him, and how long it would take her to reconcile with her daughter.
The thought of separating mother from daughter almost made him change his mind again. But if he was a Numidian now, maybe there was a sacrifice he could make, and maybe it would also turn out not to be one after all...
"Would it be easier for your mother," he said, "if I became a Jew?"
(Proceed to #299 (Africa): Patience.)
(Proceed to 1 August 1979: Handover.)
(Return to For All Nails.)