Basma switched off the tape recorder and fell into a deep sleep. But she soon awoke, terrified, and drew the curtains back from the window overlooking the prison courtyard. She could discern nothing in the pitch dark but the whistling of the winter winds and the trembling of her hands from the bitter cold. Without hesitation, she telephoned Mahasin, who had once told Basma that she was an expert in interpreting dreams, a talent she had inherited from her father.
Although Mahasin was now seventy, she was still strong and robust, and her familiar face inspired affection at first glance. She carried you off to other worlds with her endless tales of history, folk medicine, djinn, and men of religion such as Sufis and dervishes. Everyone adored Mahasin’s stories, parts of which were true and parts spun, perhaps, by her fertile imagination. Women often visited her to unburden their hearts of rancor, sadness, or even joy. They would depart happy, after sipping the coffee she presented with delightful ceremony in a rounded clay pot with a squat neck, encircled by tiny crimson cups on a circular metal tray. Overhead hung a smoky haze of the traditional incense that Mahasin specialized in making and selling in the neighborhood.
Mahasin had shadowed her father during his apprenticeship with a Sufi sage, during which, as she told the story, he developed a mastery of all the religious arts and sciences. She accompanied him to Sufi ceremonies for meditating upon God’s name and debating the finer points of doctrine until she became quite convinced of her gift for interpreting dreams and treating intractable diseases without resorting to modern medicines. Basma, however, continued to see Mahasin as the mother she’d lost at a young age, before her heart had had its fill of her boundless maternal love, her warm embrace, and the sage advice she imparted with a wisdom acquired early in her life. But Death, that killjoy, was waiting for her mother, with his scythe that never misses.
Basma told Mahasin about her recurring dream, the dream about a forest that she had been unable to shake off since she was ten. Although she had changed her sleeping position, her pillow, and even some of her bedtime rituals, the dream remained, filling her imagination whenever she fell into exhausted sleep.
She hovers overhead, aimless, surrendering herself to fate. She runs through the depths of a dense forest, her magenta dress sweeping like a peacock’s tail over the edges of the grass, the sound of pounding drums eclipsing her heartbeats, fearful of the savage wild beasts and the whining insects thirsting to bite anything succulent. She makes her way toward the source of the drumbeats; the mist parts to reveal the faces of men gathered around a pile of burning wood, practicing their strange rites, repeating their supplications with one voice in a steady rhythm. An old man with a long white beard leads her by the hand and seats her beside the fire, placing on her head a wreath of greenery decorated with rare flowers, before leaving. Everyone follows him, but she remains seated by the fire until the last piece of wood, and with it her dream, vanish, as morning breaks, increasing her confusion and astonishment at her strange visions.
As Mahasin fought off her drowsiness, Basma finished describing the dream. It came to her often, she said, and she had begun to fear its opaque meanings.
After a brief silence, Mahasin said: “Your dream portends good things, God willing, good things. The old man is your mother’s prayers for you; the wreath on your head represents a king, in name or in meaning; and the fire is something you’ve been hoping for, which will set you ablaze with happiness and joy; you will lie awake at night to guard it lest it disappear.”
As she listened to the interpretation of her persistent dream, Basma laughed sardonically. Although Mahasin was still earnestly deciphering the dream’s symbols, Basma interrupted her, saying: “I can believe the part about my mother’s prayers, since she spent most of her time praying for my happiness. How I’ve missed the sound of her entreaties to God in the dark of night, how I’ve missed hearing her speak my name, her voice full of love and life! If only I could fling myself into her arms as I used to; if only I could breathe in her scent—her special smell mingled with her perfume—and forget my father’s cruelty! He left me no choice but to wander through the path of despair and defeat; he deprived me of my appetite for life; he destroyed any sense of security I’d dreamed of, which might have let me build a relationship with a man.”
Just as her conversation with Mahasin ended, and before the screen of her phone faded, Basma cried out: “It’s Amir! Oh my God—Aunt Mahasin told me the wreath means a king, in name or in meaning, and his name is Amir—the prince!” She repeated the words over and over as she paced the room, so exhilarated that she nearly woke up Mariam.
Despite Mariam’s urging, Basma was the only workshop participant who had declined to stay in a hotel on the grounds that she did not wish to feel lonely. Her mother had given birth to her alone; she had grown up in the shadow of orphanhood after her death and during the subsequent years she’d spent abroad, immured in her home. She was weary of quiet and solitude and attracted by the hustle and bustle of the prison. That night, she felt her dream had become a reality, unobscured by mist, that not even violent winds could sweep away.
Basma threw herself on the bed and disappeared beneath the covers, murmuring over and over to herself—It’s Amir, Amir is the prince!—the smile on her lips anticipating the start of trysts by the sea.
From Ba’d alladhi dara baynana. © Amna Al Fadl. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Katherine Van de Vate. All rights reserved.