Opening Chapter: The Distance from Home

Seattle Elliott Bay

Nawar Abboud Renfro collected the last of the audio receivers that participants used when she interpreted. In the back of the conference room, Americans in tailored suits and Saudis in checkered keffiyehs used gestures more than words to exchange business cards and invitations to dinner. One of them, the CEO of Strategic Liaisons, broke away and stepped close to her. In his mid-thirties, Roger Ferguson wore a cream-colored suit, beefy at the shoulders.

“The meeting was a success,” he said. “You deserve a lot of credit.”

“Thank you.” She could not hold back a smile.

“I’d like you to work for me. There are a lot of deals to be made in the Middle East. You’ll travel with me, stay at the finest hotels, and make a lot of money, starting at one thousand dollars a day.”

Her legs wobbled. Two years ago, she’d been living in a tent, having fled Syria for the Za’atari Refugee Camp in northern Jordan, a widow at age twenty-five.

“It will be a contractual services arrangement. But I guarantee you’ll be working at least a hundred eighty days a year, probably more. It won’t all be overseas. Most of the trips last only a week or so.” He leaned forward and murmured. “I’ll treat you like gold, because you are.”

Heat rose to her face. What would Douglas, her new American husband, think if she were on the road so frequently? What would he think of her bringing home a hundred eighty thousand dollars a year?

She scooped up the receivers and dumped them into the case.

Mr. Ferguson leaned closer. “I’d love to learn some Arabic. Perhaps you can give me private lessons?”

“What are you saying, Mr. Ferguson?” She kept her gaze toward the case.

He glanced around the room, then leaned close again. “After I meet with my team, let’s say in half an hour, I shall be in Unit 908. I’m told it’s a charming condominium with a view of the bay. There will be another young lady who speaks Arabic only. She will be there for an hour. Join us.”

“For what purpose?”

His eyes bored into her. “Good times.”

Like a plate dropped to the floor, her enthusiasm shattered. With her left hand, she took a receiver from the case and then put it back. Surely, he would notice the wedding band. She could deck him in a hundred ways, all before he knew what happened. Right hand, left hand, her feet, her knees. If he touched her…

“I should think you would rather have Nooria with you,” she said.

He took half a step back. “Ah. My wife.”

“My friend.”

“How do you know Nooria?”

“We go to the same mosque. I never said anything because that is personal, and this is a professional setting.” She snapped the case shut and yanked it off the table.

He revived his smile. “Then you know her English is quite basic. My offer is genuine. Think about it. I really do need someone to accompany me and I really do wish to learn some Arabic. And why not do so with a lovely woman?”

“Then the solution is clear. Nooria is a lovely woman.”

She marched around Mr. Ferguson to the front corner, where she retrieved her burgundy ski jacket and her blue daypack before abandoning him with the others.

In the lobby she felt herself shaking. Poor Nooria. Should she tell her?

Breathe, she reminded herself, pausing a moment to survey the lobby.

Picture windows six meters high provided a view of the bay. Walls of polished, dark-grained wood emphasized the Pacific Northwest setting, and a gas fireplace three meters wide sheltered well-mannered flames. Smartly-dressed individuals chatted while seated on sofas and black leather armchairs around glass coffee tables. As though to call forth the melodious water spilling from a marble fountain near the check-in counter, a piano concerto played softly from the ceiling. A faint waft of sandalwood daubed the air.

Swank. Posh. Elegant. Americans had many words for these kinds of places—and many places for those kinds of words.

An Anglo-looking woman walked by and gave what the Americans called a “double-take.” Nawar’s hijab, a dark forest green with gold trim, was eye-catching not just in its otherness.

It occurred to her that Mr. Ferguson would be writing an evaluation of her performance and submitting it to her employers. She needed the work. Interpreting sharpened her skills and gave her something to do until she arranged to teach English to Arab immigrants in the area.

Perhaps she could write Mr. Ferguson a note. She wouldn’t feed his juvenile fantasies, but she could say something positive to sweeten the sourness of their parting. How she enjoyed working with him, how impressed she was with his own preparedness. Ya allah, she shouldn’t have to make such an obsequious gesture just because some creepy man had power over her.

Ten minutes later she stepped out the elevator on the ninth floor with a greeting card purchased from the gift shop. On one side of the corridor high windows looked east toward skyscrapers on steep city hills. Gray clouds drooped low, default Seattle weather, especially in November.

Again, she hesitated. What if he left the meeting early, the elevator doors pinged open behind her, and he saw her approaching the condo?

Breathe. She focused on the spot two inches below her navel. Dan-jun–five seconds inhale, hold, five seconds exhale, the way the volunteer Korean taekwondo master at Za’atari had taught her. She sensed her inward power, her ki. If he did show up, she’d hand him the card. She wouldn’t say a word and she’d get out and never come back.

She walked down the corridor, the city view on her left and to her right a wall constructed of the same grainy wood as in the lobby, the widely-spaced doors spotlessly white. At Unit 908 she slid the card under the door, made a U-turn, retreated to the elevator and hit the down button. When the doors opened she felt her jaw drop.

Two females in the elevator each blinked their eyes, equally surprised to see one garbed as they. But in their attire they could have strolled through a fashion show in Beirut or Damascus before the war. One, a teenager fifteen years of age at most, wore an azure blue abaya from her shoulders to black high heels, with rose-hued floral designs on the bodice. She had wrapped her lemon-yellow hijab loosely to show gold-hoop earrings inside of which on white resin someone had hand-painted a black Syrian eagle, like the figure embossed on coins. Her eyebrows were plucked to narrow points and colored deep black, and her lips gleamed pink like begonias or flamingoes. The other one, a woman perhaps in her late twenties, wore a dark blue hijab and a black abaya with a silver neckline shimmer, and she had also taken pains with her makeup. On her right jaw she had a rose-colored birthmark shaped like the tip of a thumb.

“Salam,” Nawar managed to greet them.

The woman grabbed the girl by her hand, pulled her out the elevator, and turned them the direction from which Nawar had come. The girl whirled to look back at Nawar, her eyes wide with fear. Nawar knew that look, had worn it herself.

The woman yanked the girl’s arm, and they strode down the corridor.

Something felt wrong. A padded black bench set against the windows offered a chance to collect her nerve and a vantage point from which to watch the women. At Unit 908 the woman unpocketed a key card and the two of them disappeared.

Nooria’s husband now had his young lady in the condominium. Two of them—but Nawar sensed the older one, the one close to her own age, didn’t count. Her demeanor had been like a parent hauling a misbehaving child to her room. For what purpose?

Certainly not for lessons in Arabic.

Nawar decided to leave.

By the time the elevator reached the lobby, she had reconsidered. If she had a friend who knew Douglas was cheating on her, would she want her friend to tell her?

Absolutely she would. But did she have proof? Mr. Ferguson said the “young lady” would be with him for an hour. She’d exit the same elevator, and if Nawar positioned herself strategically, she could take a picture without anyone knowing. She could give the photo to Nooria, who could then do whatever she wanted. If the girl and the woman happened to be family friends, so be it. But if not, let Mr. Ferguson try to explain.

After purchasing green tea and a chocolate chip cookie, she situated herself on a plush armchair next to a window, giving her an angle of sight directly toward the elevator foyer. A shiver shimmied up her back when she realized she sat beneath what would be approximately the other end of Unit 908, with the view of the bay Mr. Ferguson had mentioned.

What was taking place nine floors above her?

Using her phone, she occupied her time researching teaching possibilities. She was navigating the website of an organization called Refugees Self-Help when she spotted the woman with the birthmark stepping away from the elevators—without the girl. She switched the phone to camera mode and positioned it next to her ear, tilting it the way she had practiced when she first sat down, so that the photo would capture the elevator foyer while she pretended to speak to an imaginary caller. She took two photos.

After the woman disappeared toward the hotel restaurant, Nawar looked at the photos. One of them cut off the woman’s legs, but they both would work.

Back on the internet, she studied the teaching arrangements Refugees Self-Help provided. If she could get ten students enrolled, each of them paying five dollars per class, the organization would match the funding. She’d earn a hundred dollars per class. But would this organization let her do it? Her only license was Syrian, and it was buried in the rubble of her childhood home.

She looked up from her phone and took another sip of tea. A half dozen other men and women occupied the lobby, quieter than it had been earlier. A soft voice crooned from the ceiling—was it Nat King Cole?

From the top of the window beside her, an object plunged into view, followed by an explosion of glass. Nawar bolted from her chair, the tablet clutched in her right hand. Outside, a woman screamed. Shouts and groans erupted from the lobby. Nawar’s body recoiled, but an urge to look countered. Something had struck the awning outside the hotel, smashed right through it—ya Alla—was it a person? She forced her nearly petrified body a step closer to look.

The girl from unit 908 lay flat on her back on the unyielding bed of pavement and glass, her eyes and her mouth open without life, blood dribbling down the side of her mouth and pooling out from beneath her head.

She was naked.

As a man and woman dashed to the girl’s side and people around Nawar hurried to the window or away from it, she reeled backward, as though her own head had been struck. A memory took hold of her body.

#

Men burst into the lobby, blood on their heads, legs, arms, hands. Some dragging themselves. Some dragging others. Rage and torment.

Why! Why! It was peaceful! Oh, Assad, you son of a dog!

At her feet a thin man lay on his back, panting shallow breaths, a bloody open gash where the side of his head should be.

“There is no God but God!” he moaned.

Two men knelt beside him, one rubbing his hand across the man’s bloody hair, the other lamenting.

“Oh, Assad, you animal!”

“No God but God! No God but God!”

Amid the pandemonium of shouts, of the shatters of bullets outside, the man’s voice faded, eyes rolled back, breathing ceased. His friend stroked his hair a final time, stood with tears streaming down his face, and he and Nawar and the men holding her back from dashing outside cried from a horrible black space deep inside their souls:

“Why! Why! Assad, you dog! Oh God!”

In the lobby around this man, other wounded men and dead men and unwounded men and women clumped in huddles, staring catatonically or shouting—oh, so much shouting as the bullet storm outside abated and blood grew ever-widening puddles.

“An ambulance! Call an ambulance!”

“Why? Why! It was peaceful!”

But none of the men inside was her husband. Where was Ziad? Where was Ziad?

#

“Ziad! Ziad!”

“Can I help you? Are you all right?” A woman’s voice leaned close. A stench of rancid tea besieged Nawar’s nose while the remnants of vomit dribbled from her mouth, inches off the floor. She was on her hands and knees.

Ya rabbih dakhilak. She’d made a spectacle of herself.

“I’m sorry,” she gasped, pushing her weakened body upright. She reached for a napkin and would have fallen again had she not caught herself with her other arm on the side table where her cup had been.

“Don’t worry about it,” said the woman—neat dark hair, a hotel pin on her dress, kindness in her tone. “You need to sit for a moment.”

“No!” She flung her daypack over her left shoulder and picked up the equipment case.

She took a step, tottered, then rushed toward the exit. Outside, the marine clouds had lowered a misty curtain and within the chill she stopped and gaped toward the girl. A single policeman as well as men and women with hotel and security uniforms stood as a shield, looking out in a semi-circle to keep a thickening crowd of gawkers away. In the gaps between these sentries, other responders hunched toward where the girl had fallen. It was as though they had formed a tarp to protect the girl’s dignity, even in death. Especially in death.

Some fifty individuals had collected outside, and yet it was oddly quiet, except for the sound of sirens and the ruffling of jackets. She scanned the assembled onlookers—no hijabs among them. The woman was gone, and of course Mr. Ferguson did not make an appearance.

From behind her and across the street, five additional police officers on foot hurried to the scene. One of them, a woman, barked orders.

“Back up! Keep going! Up the street to the end of the block. If you’re a guest at the hotel, you’d better get inside right now. Otherwise, back off! We need room for the aid car and medical personnel. Move it, people.” All five officers walked outward in an expanding semi-circle to sweep away the back-pedaling horde.

But Nawar was not a mere bystander.

            She was a witness. 

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