Date Published: 9/17/2014
Publisher: America Star Books
America Star Books Presents The Orphan of Mecca, Book One by Harvey Havel
Frederick, MD October 16, 2014 – America Star Books is proud to present The Orphan of Mecca, Book One by Harvey Havel from Albany, NY.
A brief synopsis of the book: "Amina prepares for college on what is expected to be an exciting first day of higher learning. When she steps onto the university campus for the first time, however, she bumps into Raja Gupta, a young, persuasive, and hot-headed university intellectual who lures her into joining a student group whose cause is the liberation of East Pakistan from West Pakistan. What follows is a stormy and passionate romance detailing the lives of both Raja Gupta and Amina Mitra as they both attempt to survive from one of the worst genocides of historical record—a genocide that ultimately leads to the birth of the poor and crippled nation known today as Bangladesh. This novel is written with historical accuracy and is Book One of a trilogy that charts the rise and fall of these two characters, as well as the son that is orphaned after Amina Mitra is forced to abandon him in the Great Mosque of Mecca."
In Book Two of The Orphan of Mecca trilogy, Amina Mitra has no choice but to abandon her newborn child to the Great Mosque of Mecca, Islam's holiest place. The child is then taken to an orphanage by the religious police (mutawaffs) and stays there until he is of good enough age to live on his own. The orphan, Ekaja, finds work in a Meccan tourist bazaar that is well known for its wealthy international travelers and global corporate visitors. There, he meets an American who wants Ekaja to work for him. But this is not ordinary work. The American wants to turn him into a spy for the Central Intelligence agency. Ekaja then must choose between loyalty to the CIA and loyalty to his own people regardless of how perverted their view of Islam has become.
After being accused of raping the Commanders daughter, Ekaja is thrown out of the house and is forced to leave. He goes to New York where he discovers a Jewish painter who needs his help. Together, they make an important contribution to the New York artists' scene for those who have mental disabilities.
The infant lay in the front of the Mosque on some steps. He was wrapped in his mother’s precious scarf along with a soft blanket. His young mother, Amina, knew there was no other way. In his tiny beautiful face she saw Raja, the man she loved, the man she desperately believed to be his father. How different things were back then. How much confidence Raja had. It was a time of happiness and profound hope that this time Bangladesh would be its own sovereign nation. It should have been a time of prosperity. It could have been time to celebrate the heroes of the movement and throw out the kahki-clothed men with machine guns and bayonets. Instead, they received nothing other than streams of blood scalded away by the fires of chaos. How long ago that seemed. Bangladesh was nothing more than a tragedy now. Amina had no idea how to return home.
Amina leaned into her sleeping baby’s face. He was weak and had low birth weight. She nuzzled her nose into his neck and felt the warmth coming from him. She picked him up one last time. She whispered a prayer. Amina couldn‘t let go, but she knew she had to. She wrapped a scarf around his head. She placed him gently on the steps again. She put her hands to her mouth to muffle her wails and tiptoed unseen quickly into the daylight. Soon after, several women in the Mosque heard the abandoned infant’s cries, and ran outside to find this beautiful baby with hazel eyes and walnut skin.
Their immediate reaction was to pick up and cuddle the baby, but instead they called for the help of the mutawaffs, or religious police. The mutawaff agent, a woman, took the baby from the women who had found him and cradled him in her arms. She immediately made preparations to take him to the local orphanage.
There are no adoptions or foster care allowed in Saudi Arabia. To keep the racial lines pure and in step with what the kingdom wants out of its citizens, other family members than the natural parents may adopt a child, but taking orphaned children into one’s family is still discouraged if not prohibited outright. Children who are abandoned by their parent or parents, whether on the steps of a wealthy couple’s home or even at a mosque, must be sent to an orphanage until the child is of the appropriate age to leave the orphanage and live on his own.
The trip was a short, which was also good because the mutawaff decided that she had better hurry. She had noticed that the baby’s forehead was very warm and that the baby was sick, probably due to his low birth weight. When she arrived at the orphanage, a downtrodden building made of cinderblocks and the look and feel of bureaucracy, funded, of course, by the House of Saud, the religion officer immediately gave the child to one of the nurses who put his small body in an incubator. The child was deemed pre-mature by the head nurse.
There were several other incubators in the orphanage, as they were filled with infants, mostly from Northern and Central Africa, judging by their skin color which varied from dark brown to black. Their mothers had immigrated to Saudi Arabia as illegal aliens to give birth to their child and thereby offer their children a chance at better lives, even though they knew their children would be sent to such an orphanage before anything could take place.
After Amina’s child had been placed in his incubator, an imam from the local city mosque stopped by to name him. Hearing the child had been found in the Great Mosque, the imam decided to name him Ekaja-Quddus, which in translation means, ‘Servant of the Holy.’ He and the nurses all hoped that his name would be the trajectory of his life on earth. The nurses came to change him and feed the pre-mature tot every few hours, but then returned him to the incubator where the temperature was warm and the ventilated air was pure.
Ekaja, as the nurses called him, remained in his incubator for almost a full month until he gained enough weight to be transferred to a crib. The nurses surrounded him with love and care. They stroked his soft skin, let him grip their fingers, and held and cuddled him often. They let him hold onto the scarf his mother gave him. Many of the nurses fell in love with Ekaja, just as his mother had. They commented on how different he looked from the other infants. They could not believe that the mother had left such a beautiful creature behind. He would always be an infant searching for his mother, they said to each other.
Ekaja remained in the maternity ward quite a while longer than usual, until he had caught up to a proper weight. The nurses could no longer keep him after a year of living in the bigger hospital. Eventually, they had to transfer him to a larger ward where the children were bigger than he. The nurses all knew of this, and many of them wanted him to remain a child in their protected care, but alas, the head nurse had decided that it was time for Ekaja to move on in the hope that he would cope living amongst the other children.
On the night before Ekaja was to leave the larger ward, he couldn’t stop his helpless cries. Usually on weekend nights only one nurse was on duty and cared for the children. This particular nurse recently had a child of her own. To stop Ekaja from crying, the nurse tried holding him most of the night and rocking him in her arms. But the child couldn’t be silenced no matter what she did. When she grew tired of holding him and caressing him, she opened up her nurse’s blouse, and let Ekaja suckle her own breast. She knew that this was highly unorthodox, but after a time, she knew that that’s what Ekaja truly wanted. He must have missed his natural mother’s milk.
Miraculously, Ekaja stopped crying and soon fell asleep with his head resting peacefully on her bare breast. He slept through the night. The next morning, he moved to the toddler’s ward, and there the nurses treated the children differently and played more of a supervisory role. They allowed him to keep the scarf his mother gave him. The children were young, but they had to be made into men at some point, and so the nurses didn’t give Ekaja too much motherly affection, or at least no more than they gave the other children. During most of the day the children were left to play with each other. Although the rooms where the kids were kept were sparsely appointed, wealthy Arabs in Mecca donated toys to the orphanage for the kids to play with, and Ekaja seemed quite happy with his circumstances. They still clothed him in diapers until one of the nurses taught him how to go to the bathroom on his own. The nurses taught all of the kids to do that at a certain set age. Ekaja found it difficult to crouch down over a hole in floor, but after a few months he learned how to do it on his own. He began to rely on his mother’s cotton scarf. The fabric smelled like her. He wouldn’t let go of it. It provided security but also was the only reminder of where he came from. He held on to the scarf with his small, delicate fingers.
At this particular stage of their care, the children were basically well fed on baby food and clothed well in Arab garb, but from that point forward the resources for the children dwindled dramatically. The orphanage only provided one set of Arab garb for the children, and the food changed over from baby’s mush to pita bread and hummus. They ate a strictly Arab diet without too much deviation. Also their portions of hummus, taboleh, pita bread, and couscous were getting smaller. Ekaja didn’t cry or complain, though. He became aware that the nurses were much bigger and taller than he was and could be rather strict, so he went out of his way to please them. For an odd reason, though, he couldn’t let go of his mother’s scarf.
Ekaja remained in the toddler’s area for a full year. They then transferred him to a ward where the children were older, as that was how the system worked. When he had reached the tender age of six, he had grown too comfortable under the care of the nurses, the good food, the many toys, and his fellow African orphans. Just when he thought that nothing would ever change and that he would stay comfortably with the nurses forever, Ekaja reached the next rung in the ladder.
After staying in the ward of the older kids, the nurses transferred him to the boarding school adjacent to the nursery. It was the first time he had come into contact with Arab girls and boys of the same age. The young girls were housed in a different complex entirely. Ekaja immediately noticed that in the boys department of the school, these strict but kind nurses had vanished from sight and had been replaced with the authority of middle-aged Arab men with cold, steely gazes. It was a good thing that the nurses in the nursery didn’t pamper him too much.
The boys now started their formal schooling which consisted of being taught basic concepts in mathematics and Arabic before moving into the maddrassa. Here, at the age of six, Ekaja also learned how to wear his clothes, and to take a mid-afternoon nap even though he was quite adamant that he didn’t need one. Naturally, though, the orphanage knew better as he always fell asleep during nap time no matter how stubborn he could be, and he was often the last one to awake. Sometimes Ekaja would be paired up with other boys to work on simple projects, like learning the Arabic alphabet and helping each other solve math problems. The child they paired him with the most often was a much taller African boy whom the city imam had named Nabil. In Arabic, this meant ‘a man who is good in archery along with being noble, intelligent, and dexterous.’ Nabil and Ekaja usually played together when the busy schedule at the school permitted them. Yet he still missed the women in the hospital and especially the mystery woman who left him the scarf.
At night, after a sparse dinner, all of the kids returned to their rooms furnished with a bunk bed, small cubby holes, and a couple of small desks. He shared this space with Nabil for a full year. A stern Arab housemaster supervised the dorm and carefully monitored each child’s activities, also to prevent the children to escape, which some did successfully. The housemaster made sure that every child had fallen asleep before closing the door of his own quarters.
“Let’s go outside tonight,” said Ekaja from the bottom bunk, one night.
“Where do you want to go,” asked Nabil, half asleep.
“I want to go home.”
“This is home. And besides, if you go out, the housemaster will catch you, and he will beat you.”
“You really think so?”
“Yes, I know so. I don’t want to get a beating from the housemaster.”
“I guess not,” said Ekaja resignedly.
Nevertheless, Ekaja secretly wanted to be free, and get out of the school. He pushed these ideas about escape aside, because he was afraid of the beating that would await him. So he behaved and attended to his lessons until something somewhat awkward kept recurring in the dorm at night.
Ekaja heard the creak of the dorm master’s door open after the children fell asleep. He heard the dorm master’s footsteps in the hallway. Ekaja slipped out of bed quietly and crawled on his hands and knees so that he wouldn’t be noticed when he stuck his head out to see what the dorm master was doing in the hallway.
Ekaja couldn’t hear what went on in those quarters, but he assumed that the dorm master had some special activity organized for the children almost every night of the week. Each night the dorm master followed the same routine until finally one night he entered Ekaja’s and Nabil’s room.
While Ekaja pretended to be soundly asleep in the bottom bunk, the dorm master shook Nabil awake on the top bunk and told him to follow him back to his quarters. Nabil, being the obedient soul that he was, rubbed his eyes of sleep and slipped down the length out of the bunk bed. Nabil was gone for roughly a half-hour before he returned and climbed up to the top bunk whimpering softly.
“Nabil, what happened?” whispered Ekaja.
Nabil didn’t want to answer him at first. He’d rather take the pain than tell Ekaja why he pained so much.
“Why are you crying, Nabil? Did the dorm master give you a beating?”
“You don’t want to go in there,” cried Nabil quietly, “but tomorrow night it’s your turn.”
The next morning, Ekaja went with the other children to the class room where their teacher continued with his lessons on the Arabic language and also how to add and subtract numbers. He noticed that some of the other students in his dorm walked with a limp to their seats, and it especially pained them to sit down for Islamic story time. Usually these stories came directly from the Qur’an, such as the Prophet Muhammad’s conquest of the pagans. Ekaja, however, didn’t pay much attention to these stories as he became increasingly worried about returning to the dorm that night.
“Nabil,” he kept asking, “what will happen to me tonight?”
“I’m not allowed to say,” he said, “and no matter how many times you ask, I’m not telling you. You can ask somebody else, but they won’t say anything either.”
Ekaja now became really scared. He felt it would be dangerous to be sleeping in the dorm that night. That evening, instead of going to his cubicle, he put on his Arab clothing, found the exit to the building in the darkness and fled to the nursery and to the nurses and the safety he had experienced there. The nurses let him into the building and kindly received him, but he dared not to tell them what he had seen was happening in the dorm at night, only that he worried about being beaten by the dorm master.
“Oh, sweetie, that’s what they’re supposed to do. You’ll get used to it.”
“But I want to stay here,” cried Ekaja. “I want to stay with you.”
“Ekaja, you are much too grown-up to be staying here. You’ll have to return to your dorm.”
One of the nurses held his hand and walked him back to the dorm in the late evening. She kissed his cheek and tucked him into bed. In the meantime, the dorm master heard all of this commotion and ventured out of his quarters to find the nurse comforting Ekaja on the bottom bunk.
“Go to sleep now,” said the dorm master from the doorway.
“He’s very scared,” said the nurse.
“It’s natural,” said the dorm master. “This won’t happen again, will it Ekaja?”
“No sir,” he said.
The dorm master showed the nurse out and then returned to his quarters. He did not wake Ekaja in the middle of the night, but on the next morning, as the dorm master went around to each room to wake the kids up for breakfast, he stayed an extra few minutes in Ekaja’s room.
“The next time you go outside in the middle of the night, you’ll be catching a real beating from me.”
Ekaja sensed, however, that the dorm master knew what Ekaja knew, and so the dorm master stopped calling in the children to his quarters for a week or two until he started the practice all over again. Still, he didn’t touch Ekaja, even though his roommate, Nabil, kept doing what the dorm master wanted from him. Ekaja, however, was still struck by the mystery of what went on behind the dorm master’s door. He just assumed that he should leave it alone to avoid a spanking. The dorm master ignored him from that point forward until it was time for both Ekaja and Nabil to move into the dormitory with the bigger kids. Ekaja stayed with the big kids in the orphanage until he turned eight.
One thing that Ekaja liked about this move, aside from getting rid of the dorm master, was how the new dorm master set up a chair in the hallway after lights out and read them several inspiring Muslim stories. One of the stories, called “Hachiko the Faithful Dog,” showed how a dog’s unending loyalty to his master should be like a Muslim’s unending loyalty and love for Allah. “The Sight of the Ka’bah” was another popular story. It discussed how a Jewish woman and a Christian man who lived outside of Mecca sneaked into the Ka’bah, as they had heard so much about it but never wanted to risk getting caught. Once they entered the Great Mosque, they couldn’t stop staring at the Ka’bah without being hypnotized by it. During their visit, the sight of it so floored them that they both converted to Islam right on the spot.
The dorm master in the bigger dormitory read these tales to the kids just after lights out. By the end of the reading most of the children had already fallen asleep. These stories mostly focused on what a man had to do to remain good and loyal to his religion. Over the years the orphanage’s only textbook had been narrowed down to one - a thick hardcover book, The Qur’an. All of those advancing from dormitory to dormitory had to memorize every chapter contained in this book. They also learned how to say their prayers properly just as a refresher. Only then could he move onto other fields of study, such as Sharia Law, the meaning of The Hadith, and perhaps even learn how to be an engineer if the faculty of the orphanage thought him bright enough.
He wouldn’t advance, however, unless he moved to yet another dormitory. The conditions of this particular dormitory, considering that the young boys had hit a milestone at eight years of age, were the worst out of every dormitory he had lived in thus far. This last dormitory was also the most crowded. Large rooms that housed twenty-five to thirty people took up most of the space in the dilapidated building. The hot temperature inside reminded him of how nice it had been in the other dormitories. There weren’t any fans or air conditioners – just a jumble of clamoring and anxious teenagers, most of them from the African continent with a few native Arab children as well. At this juncture, his good friend Nabil did not follow him there. Nabil found himself alone in another dormitory and having to make new friends again. This also became difficult for Ekaja, because he had lost his best friend and most of the kids he now lived with were older than he. Despite this, Ekaja learned how to live among the older kids.
He even learned how to deal with conflict more appropriately, as there was a gang of bullies who controlled a lot of the younger orphans. The bullies always took a part of his meal for themselves as some strange tax for not beating him up. They threatened to hit him if he looked the wrong way at them. The smarter kids often did their lesson plans for them. Ekaja learned to keep far away from them – to avoid them at all costs.
The only relief that came from this particular section of the boarding house arrived in the form of a small allowance of two rials every month that the kids could use to buy sodas and candy bars at a room filled with vending machines. Of course the choices weren’t too extravagant, but it did provide the kids with plenty of food for at least one day out of the month. It was usually the case that after they received the allowance on one day, the same allowance would already be spent on the British-made candy and American sodas the next. But by the time they received the two rials, the same bullies that pecked at their food on a regular basis, took command of the other kids, and snatched up their money before many of them could even visit the vending area.
One day, at the beginning of his stay, young Ekaja, after he had finished his school work for the day, and when most of the kids who had just received two rials headed straight for the vending machines, he was sitting on his bed in one of the crowded dormitories, when he was confronted by the four bullies.
“What have we here?” said one of the Arabs in the gang. “You thought we missed you. Things can get pretty ugly in here without someone protecting you.”
The leader of the gang was stocky and well-built. He had unusually long facial hair on his chin for a kid his age, as he had never thought of shaving them off. The leader, along with the three others, smiled to themselves as they were certain they could squeeze another two rials out of another young and frightened kid. They surrounded him, clutching the two rials in his hand. Ekaja had never been in a situation like this before, and the last thing he wanted to happen was to forsake the chocolate bar and the cola the two rials would provide. Ekaja’s eyes darted from left to right in a frenzy, as he didn’t know how to quite handle the situation, except to say, “thanks for the offer, but I really don’t need to be protected in here.”
The bullies had never heard a child so young rebuke their offer, and they could only stare at one another a bit nervously, seeing that they may have to take swift action to get at his two rials. Ekaja, however, simply got up from his bunk and with a quiet “excuse me,” walked through them towards the vending machines. There he bought a Pepsi and a Cadbury bar and returned to his bunk for a short after-school nap. The bullies, he discovered, had gone away, most likely to harass another kid.
Just an hour before dinner that same night, all of the children in their wing lined up for their daily cleaning session. It couldn’t be called a bath exactly, as the cleaning involved the naked children being doused with a tin bucket filled with Saudi tap water and then being given a small towel to wipe themselves dry. Ekaja stood on line as naked as on the day he was born waiting to be doused with cold water. After he went through the line and dried himself with a towel that was thrown at him by the dorm master, he walked back to his bunk with the towel still around him. It was here that the bullies confronted him.
“So we meet again,” said the leader of the gang. “You want to know what it’s like without our protection, eh?”
The gang members had already been through the line and were fully dressed for dinner. They held damp towels that were twirled up to form what was known to the kids as a ‘rat’s tail.’ The towels were tapered down to a thin end that stung sharply when hit with it.
The African struck first with a sharp whip to the chest, followed by the other members of the gang who whipped at his arms and legs. They stung Ekaja pretty badly, but he thought quickly to unwrap his own towel, twirl it up, and stand naked for all to see that he formed his own rat’s tail. He then started hitting the bullies in return, stunning them with his precision of aim and power. The other kids in the dorm gathered around them and cheered Ekaja on as he successfully defended himself from their blows.
The dorm master who had been administering their baths now noted the fighting and stepped in and broke up. The bullies immediately stopped, which gave Ekaja the opportunity to rat-tail the lead member of the gang right in the head.
“That’s enough!” yelled the dorm master.
And when the fighting cooled down, the dorm master ordered Ekaja to see him in his quarters right away.
Ekaja dressed quickly and made his way through a crowd of awe-stricken faces to the dorm master’s office. The dorm master sat behind a small rusting metal desk, and he ordered Ekaja to have a seat in front of him.
“What was that all about?” asked the dorm master.
“They wanted money from me,” said Ekaja with tears in his eyes.
“So then why didn’t you give it to them?”
“Yes. They are obviously much bigger than you. They are much older than you as well. Why didn’t you just give it to them like the rest of the kids do?”
“I will not be pushed around like that. Other kids may give, but I will not.”
“That’s pretty tough-talk for a kid your age”
“I have to be tough. Otherwise, they’d keep doing it.”
“These are my strongest boys,” said the dorm master, smiling. “Usually they do quite well. But I could use someone like you.”
“I don’t understand,” said Ekaja, bewildered.
“We run a small and tight operation here in the dorms,” he said. “I can use you on the other kids, and you’d make some good money too, if you’re willing to work with my boys.”
“Providing protection, of course.”
“You mean you’re the one who runs the gang? You’re the one who gets the money?”
“Something like that, yes.”
“Oh, I see.”
“And I could use someone like you for the other smaller kids.”
“With all due respect, I just want to be left alone. I don’t want to get involved. I’m only here for a year more anyway. It would be helpful if I didn’t bother your operation if you wouldn’t bother me for the two rials every week.”
“If that’s how you want it,” said the dorm master, “then I think we have a good arrangement here. Please, go to dinner now, and I’ll be sure that you are not bothered by them again during your time here.”
“Thank you,” said Ekaja, drying his eyes.
To his surprise, and relief, the dorm master kept his word, and Ekaja was never bothered again by the bullies, or anyone else.
About a year later, Ekaja was considered ready for his Mishaq, the Islamic ceremony that officially made him a man in Allah’s eyes, and the orphanage set him free to become a full-functioning adult ready to work somewhere in the Kingdom. He took his mother’s scarf with him. He believed that it brought him good luck. The staff had plans to take the scarf away, but the nurses insisted that he deserved his mother’s scarf. As the orphanage housed too many children already, it didn’t invite him to continue his education. His marks were too low.
They did, however, give him a room in a half-way house for kids nine to nineteen years of age. The rooms in the half-way house were just as crowded, but there were more privileges that went along with staying there. Ekaja was free to come and go as he pleased except for a strict evening curfew, when everyone had to be back in the house. He began scouring the Meccan streets looking for simple jobs that he could do.
Unfortunately, after asking what he thought was every merchant in Mecca for some work to do, they all turned him down. One merchant, who was at least a bit more helpful than the others, advised Ekaja to go higher upon the hillsides where he could try to find work with people of the lower classes who would love to have an additional hand to help them out. In the Western world, they called this an apprenticeship or even an internship of sorts, until they could start paying him for it. Ekaja did what this kindly merchant suggested, and leaving behind the busiest sections of Mecca, he walked up to the rough mountainside surrounding the holy city.
There he found many of the poorest city dwellers, most of them panhandling and selling cheap trinkets that glorified Islam and the Great Mosque nearby. He saw poor washerwomen and scavengers who picked through garbage cans and junk piles to find anything valuable that they thought they could resell. The people on the hillsides were mostly illegal aliens from other territories of the Arab world – Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Libyans, Tunisians, Sudanese, Somalis, and the like. They slept under make-shift tents or in cardboard shelters. It certainly smelled awful, but at least these hovels had spaces between them. Ekaja simply went from hovel to hovel each day looking to find someone he could work with.
At first he tried to join a group of younger adults who foraged for junk in the Meccan streets. He met a Pakistani youth combing the rocky and rubble-strewn hillside, and asked if he could work alongside him.
“Don’t you dare work these hills,” said the Pakistani. “Don’t cross my territory, or I’ll hurt you badly.”
He found this to be the same response every youth would give him no matter how hard he tried. Luckily, he still had the half-way house to return to every night, and once there, the boys shared their stories about how successful or unsuccessful they had been at finding work. It turned out that the most jobs were found by the eighteen or nineteen year-olds who were moving out of the orphanage’s care.
“Find some older people on the hill,” suggested one of the more adult kids. “They’ll let you work with them, because they are either too tired to work or believe that employing you will curry them favor with the heavens.”
The young Ekaja followed this advice, and within a couple of days of searching, he found a sturdy wooden hovel with an old man taking inventory of his trinkets and wares inside. He sold them at the Great Mosque to the many Islamic tourists who came for either umrah or Hajj.
“Hello? Is anyone here?” called Ekaja when he entered.
“Yes, yes, do come in, my boy. Does anything here interest you? Today I have a sale on postcards and key chains. Tomorrow I have a sale on auto parts.”
“I’ve actually come here for a different reason. Do you have any work that needs to be done?”
“Work? You mean for money?”
“Yes. I am new to the area, and so I’m hoping to find some work here.”
“A very difficult challenge indeed,” said the old man. “You can come back tomorrow. I may have something then.”
“Thank you so much,” said Ekaja enthusiastically.
“No need to thank me,” said the salesman. “It is Allah’s will that you found me. Drop by tomorrow.”
He returned to the half-way house with joy in his heart. He told everyone he could about how the strategy of asking the older people had worked wonders. Unfortunately for him, though, he only attracted the jealousies of the other boys. Some said it was because he didn’t look like a native Arab. Others said that he lied to everyone and really hadn’t found a job yet. These stray comments hurt him a little bit. It stamped out his joy. No one talked to him thereafter. He even imagined while in bed at night that the residents would beat him up after curfew. Nothing of the sort happened, but he made sure not to talk so much about his success anymore to residents who hadn’t found any work yet. For some reason Ekaja could only feel proud if the others around him also felt proud. After all, he considered his roommates like his family, and over the next few days he tried very hard to please them by remaining silent about what he was doing.
Ekaja returned to the old man’s hovel the very next day. He could make out the old man’s looks, now that they both stepped into the broad sunlight on the hillside. He had a muscular build and his gray hair was closely cropped. A few of his teeth were missing from an otherwise wide and welcoming smile. He skin had a reddish tan to it as though the Meccan sunshine had been pounded into him too long. He did not wear a Keiyyfah or any sort of Arab garb. He had abandoned the Arab streets for the slower and more peaceful work of the Meccan hillside where he wore any type of clothing he wanted. He seemed satisfied and happy with his place in society. Ekaja learned that the old man came from a big city called Karachi, in Pakistan, where he had learned to load cargo on the commercial ships that docked there in the city’s port.
“I once had a high paying job with the government,” he explained, “but I came to Mecca to be closer to God. What would you say about that?”
Ekaja thought it over.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” said Ekaja. “I mean, why would you leave that all behind?”
“As I said, I wanted to be closer to God. I found a new way to live that makes me happy.”
“It’s unusual, but if it makes you happy, then I guess you made the right move.”
The Pakistani laughed deeply over this and said, “you are much too young to understand these things as of yet. One day you will, though.”
The old man led him on a tour through his wide hovel. He had sorted his wares on the dirt floor. Not only did he keep postcards and key chains, but he also kept hubcaps, auto parts, broken pieces of marble, a few insect-eaten rugs, stray bits of metal, a pile of abandoned shoes, broken watches and clocks, antiquated radios and television sets. It amazed Ekaja as the old man must have been collecting these items for several years. He even collected a shoeshine box that interested Ekaja a great deal. It was a box made of bronze-colored, lacquered wood with an assortment of shoe polishes and cleaning cloths stored inside.
“You like that one, eh?” said the old man. “It isn’t too heavy for you?”
Ekaja lifted the box and declared that it wasn’t very heavy at all.
“I think I have an idea that will benefit the both of us. You do like the shoeshine box, yes?”
“Absolutely,” said Ekaja. “It’s a very nice box.”
“Then I tell you what – you must know beforehand that not too many Saudis where shoes very often. They usually wear sandals, as you and I are wearing. So in order to get the most out of this equipment, you’ll have to go mostly to the International Bazaar where most tourists visit. Only then will you be able to shine shoes. The tourists and the foreigners are not that difficult to find. The King has given them the special privilege of being in the Meccan area without any confirmation that they’re Muslim. Just look at their feet, and if they are Western-styled shoes, ask them if they want a shine. Sounds good?”
“Thank you, sir. Thank you for this opportunity.”
“Don’t go thanking me yet. We haven’t discussed the terms of our agreement. The terms are these: for every pair of shoes that you shine, I will take half of what you take in, simply because I am the one loaning the shine box to you. You can take the other half. So we are partners in this enterprise, in other words. How do you feel about that?”
“It’s fine with me.”
“Excellent. Each shine should cost around four rials. This is a fair price.”
“When do I start?”
“You can start today,” said the old man, “and don’t worry, because you don’t have any competition. Through many years of trading things in the International Bazaar, I’ve never witnessed anyone else shining shoes. You have the Bazaar all to yourself.”
“Great. I’ll return at the end of the day then.”
He picked up the shoeshine box and headed directly for the International Bazaar in the hollow of the urban valley below. The International Bazaar in Mecca was very well-known as a hot-spot for tourists and the Arab merchants. This beehive of activity covered a square a mile of downtown real estate. Luxury restaurants where the tourists went for their meals, tea, and coffee, and the merchant shops that sold everything from books and magazines to rugs and antiques were all crammed together into one frenzied network of bargaining.
Ekaja had never been seen such a diverse tapestry of people before, and he found the way the Arab merchants negotiated with their customers quite fantastic, simply because these traders put all of their emotions into their bargaining and haggling. The merchants lived for the haggling and not necessarily for the profit itself. To not haggle with them would be considered an insult. For the most part, they were all gifted traders who learned how to keep a good shop by their parents who had run the business before them. Each generation just became better and better at it than the previous ones.
Into this furnace of trading stepped young Ekaja, carrying his new shoeshine box. Just as the old man said on the hill, many of the people wore open-toed sandals, and for a while he scanned people’s feet for regular shoes. He did find a man willing to pay for a shine. He dressed in a Western, soft white cotton suit and a straw hat. Ekaja assumed he was a tourist judging by the pale color of his skin. He wiped his forehead with a handkerchief every so often. Luckily, the tourist spoke Arabic. He said to follow him into the nearest coffee shop so that Ekaja could complete the task.
After his first customer, Ekaja found others. At first, Ekaja had trouble polishing his shoes.
“Don’t you think that’s more than enough polish,” said one tourist.
Or better yet:
“Have you ever shined someone’s shoes before?”
To this question, Ekaja lied and answered that he had been a shoeshine boy for some time. He thought that if he couldn’t be an expert yet, he could at least fake it. He polished the shoes of several tourists’ with a complete dedication to his job, and at the end of the day he earned twelve rials for his work.
He came back every day to the same spot in the Bazaar, and he made sure that the tourists returned to him weekly for custom shines by tugging on their pant-legs when they visited again. Ekaja was proud of himself, because he had never earned money before in his life.
After a short period of time he already developed a keen intelligence about how to nab the most customers. It became obvious to him that most of the tourists walking the narrow, cobblestone streets hung around the coffee shops and the restaurants of the Bazaar. He made deals with a few of the coffee shop managers for him to shine shoes at their establishments. The managers permitted this, because they saw it as an additional service that appealed to the wealthy tourists.
Every night, when he returned to the old man’s hovel on the hillside, Ekaja carried more and more cash with him, and he carefully paid the old man the half on which they had agreed, and the old man was pleased by his honesty as well as the money itself. Ekaja had found a certain degree of contentment with his new station in life. He believed that God led him to the old man’s hovel in order to make a humble living for himself. He didn’t take a single day of shining shoes for granted. The International Bazaar appeared every morning as an oasis. He considered it to be the most exciting and diverse place to be in all of Mecca.
Harvey Havel is a short-story writer and novelist. His first novel, Noble McCloud, A Novel, was published in November of 1999. His second novel, The Imam, A Novel, was published in 2000.
In 2006, Havel published his third novel, Freedom of Association. He has published his eighth novel, Charlie Zero’s Last-Ditch Attempt, and his ninth, The Orphan of Mecca, Book One, which was released last year. His new novel, The Thruway Killers is his latest work. The Orphan of Mecca, Books Two and Three, will be released next year as well as a book, An Adjunct Down, which he just completed. His work in progress is called In the Trenches, about a Black American football player.
He is formerly a writing instructor at Bergen Community College in Paramus, New Jersey. He also taught writing and literature at the College of St. Rose in Albany as well as SUNY Albany.
Copies of his books and short stories, both new and used, may be purchased at www.barnesandnoble.com, www.amazon.com, and by special order at other fine bookstores.
Barnes and Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/Harvey%20Havel/_/N-0