Bothayna Al-Essa Lost in Mecca excerpt from a Novel translated by Nancy Roberts


Bothayna Al-Ess, photo by Youssef Al-Abdallah

Kharai’t al-teeH
(Maps of the Labyrinth)
Translated by Nancy Roberts


Day One

Day One: Mecca, the Great Mosque
7 Dhu al-Hijjah, 1431 AH (2010 CE)
12:16 pm

Up till that moment, everything had been just fine. Awash in perspiration, Sumayya had been about to finish the fourth round of her tawaf.1 Taken by the sublimity of the moment, she circled the Kaaba together with hundreds of thousands of other pilgrims, her lips uttering words of praise and adoration.
She looked around at the multitude of heads that filled the place. The world was a circle in orbit. “Labbayk, labbayk – Here I am, Lord, here I am,” she whispered. Glancing to the right, she glimpsed the back of his neck. Faisal was a few steps ahead of her. Even in the sea of sweaty heads – bare, shaven, bald, scarved, black, grey and white – she could see him. She looked to the left. The Kaaba was in a state of ritual consecration: its curtains drawn, its stones tightly arranged at its base, and its lower portion clothed in white fabric that came up to meet its gilt black kiswah.2 She could feel the little boy’s hand sweating into her own. She looked down at him as he hurried to keep up: “You tired, Mashari?” He shook his head, no.
They slowed down as they approached the Yamani corner. The place was growing increasingly congested. She raised her right hand toward the Kaaba seated in the centre of the world. Allahu akbar – God is greater. She was holding onto Mashari with her left hand when suddenly, an Asian delegation walking hand in hand ran into them. The little boy’s hand came loose from hers. She felt her shoulder nearly come out of its socket, and her body was thrust a couple of steps forward. She tripped on the hem of her abaya, and when she regained her balance and managed to stand up again, she didn’t see him. She looked around. He’d disappeared.
She looked around again. The human deluge was raging, its waves sweeping her away. “Mashari!” she shouted. “Don’t move! Don’t move! Stay where you are!”
Then, realizing that he could be trampled to death, she started repeating over and over: “Mashari! Keep walking! Keep walking! Keep walking!”
She searched with her gaze in the gaps among the bodies. A petite boy like him might be anywhere. Her legs went stiff, her heart pounding like mad. She collided with a bare shoulder and felt a dampness on her cheek. Amid the crush of thousands of bodies garbed in white ihrams3 and black abayas, her foot was run over by a wheelchair. “Faisal! Faisal!” she cried. She could still see him amid the thousands of heads.
Faisal turned and looked at Sumayya. He saw her shouting, her face wan and her eyes red. He rushed toward her, pressing his way through the crowd like someone swimming against the current, and receiving blows and slaps to his face and shoulders as he went. When he reached her at last, she grabbed him by his ihram. She looked at him with crazed eyes, as though they had opened onto all the terror in the universe. She couldn’t put together a single comprehensible statement, but he understood everything: Mashari was gone.
Just then, a cluster of Africans surged between them, forcing them apart and thrusting Sumayya out of the tawaf circle. Raising his hand in the air like a mast, Faisal shouted at the top of his lungs: “Sumayya! Sumayya!” They paddled their way toward each other. Their hands met. He grasped her wrist and drew her toward him, and together they left the area.
“Don’t worry, we’ll find him,” he reassured her. “You look for him in the courtyard, and I’ll look outside.”
Faisal decided to follow the flow of the crowd. Skinny, fragile little Mashari – how easily he could be swept away by a human torrent like this one! He took off through the crowds, running and shouting. Sumayya did the same. In the process they bumped into countless backs and arms, meeting with blows and slaps to the face. But they kept running. They ran from their hearts, their shouts stricken with terror as though they were plummeting into hell.

Mecca, the Great Mosque
7 Dhu al-Hijjah, 1431 AH (2010 CE)
1:36 pm

An hour had gone by, and Faisal felt he had to do more than just run around in a panic. The world was surging with bodies the– white bodies, black bodies – in successive waves, in a circle, the Kaaba at its centre, and at its periphery, Faisal’s fear. The circle revolved without ceasing, a human vortex dancing around itself. If only everyone would stop for just five minutes! But the circle never stopped gyrating, and he himself, at its outer reaches, was being swept away by terror.
He roamed the place with his eyes. For all he knew, the child was just metres away from him, yet impossible for him to see. Cupping his hands around his mouth, he shouted: “Mashari! Mashari!” He rushed toward the press of human beings that surrounded Maqam Ibrahim.4 What if Mashari had fallen? What if he had been trampled underfoot, his bones crushed by the massive crowd? Why hadn’t he called when he knew their numbers by heart?
Faisal turned his back to the Kaaba and, as well as one could in such a crowd, ran toward the nearest exit, where men in military uniforms, their chests sporting badges with the words “Special Emergency Forces” stood at attention. “Mashari is lost! He’s lost!” he burst out as he approached. He was out of breath, his forehead dripping with sweat and his eyes filled with angst. Not understanding a word he had said, they looked at him with furrowed brows.
“What’s the matter, Hajj?” they asked.
He pulled his iPhone out of the leather belt that held his ihram in place. He showed his son’s picture to each of the officers in turn. “He’s lost!” he said again. He seemed to be recounting the tragedy to himself as he stood among thousands of pairs of shoes, colliding with thousands of others coming his way, his telephone raised high as if in resignation to an invincible reality.
The telephone’s rectangular screen showed a picture of Mashari wearing black pyjamas with a Batman logo on the front. Faisal began describing his son to the officer as though the photo wasn’t enough: “He’s got a head full of black hair, and a thick fringe. He’s fair-skinned and super skinny. He looks five even though he’s seven. He’s wearing an orange shirt and beige trousers. He’s got a dark mole on his neck, and a missing front tooth.”
“When did he go missing?”
“An hour ago.”
“Where had he been?”
“In the main courtyard.”
The officer grabbed his wireless device and issued an announcement of Mashari’s disappearance. Faisal felt the announcement reverberating in his chest and echoing without end: “A seven-year-old Kuwaiti boy is missing. He’s wearing an orange shirt, and he has a mole on his neck.”
He hadn’t mentioned the dimple, or the colour of his trousers, or the missing front tooth. More important still, he hadn’t mentioned the fact that his son was so tiny, whoever saw him would take him to be only five years old rather than seven. He’d left out a lot of details that made Mashari Mashari.
“He’s wearing beige trousers,” Faisal repeated.
“It’ll work out for the best, God willing.”
“The best?”
“Hold on. Allah yu‘in – God’s help is on the way. Our men are at all the exits. If any of them spots him, we’ll let you know. Give me your number, and then go back to where you lost track of him. Don’t waste your time here. Keep on looking.”
After a pause, Faisal asked: “Aren’t you going to organize search parties?”
The officer looked at him, suppressing a smile: “Search parties?”
“My son is lost!” Faisal pressed.
The man shrugged his shoulders: “Listen, Hajj, we’ve got more than three million pilgrims . . .”
He didn’t finish what he was saying. How can you ask the ocean about a drop? Three million pilgrims, and a lost child. They get lost all the time: children, elderly, women. What would make this one any different? What does this man want? For the flood of pilgrims to stop circling the Kaaba?
Faisal froze in place. His eyes glazed over. He could hardly believe his ears: “And my boy?”
The officer shook his head regretfully: “Look for him. Don’t waste any more time. If any of our men sees him, we’ll inform you right away.”
Faisal gave the officer his telephone number. Then he turned and ran. He ran in disbelief, incredulous that he had to face this hell all on his own.


Mecca, the Great Mosque
7 Dhu al-Hijjah, 1431 AH (2010 CE)
5:02 pm

As he ran, his ihram slipped off his shoulder, but he left it trailing on the ground and kept on going, bare-chested, his inner thighs burning with every step, and his forehead and palms dripping with sweat. Clutching his iPhone with its background picture showing Mashari in his Batman outfit, he came up to every pilgrim he saw, saying: “My boy’s lost! Have you seen my boy?”
In the meantime, Sumayya had completed seventeen rounds of her tawaf, and she’d started to feel as though her legs were about to detach from her body and go on orbiting the Kaaba forever. She was walking in circles with no beginning and no end, in search of a Mashari who had melted into the crowd. She hoped against hope that she would find him in the spot where she had lost him, loyally circling around the same point that she was. Her face drenched in tears and perspiration, she lifted her hands heavenward and cried: “Lord, I take back all the prayers I’ve ever prayed. Just bring my son back to me!” Health, wealth, the promotion she’d hoped for, for Faisal, a second child after four miscarriages. She didn’t want any of it any more. Every few seconds she would check the phone in her hand, hoping it would ring, hoping to hear his voice saying “Mama?” and telling her where he was waiting for her so that all this terror could come to an end.
Five hours had gone by, and the fear was more brutal than ever. Why hasn’t he called? Mashari knows our numbers! What’s happened to my boy? She collapsed onto her knees, and was nearly trampled by the crowds – by the hundreds of thousands of worshippers reverently orbiting the Kaaba on an ethereal voyage, dazed and dazzled by the divine glory. Crouching on the floor and covering her head with her forearms, she felt the cool marble tile touch her forehead. Allahumma anakhna matayana bi babika, fa la taruddana ‘an janabika – O Lord, We have brought our mounts to kneel at Thy gate. Turn us not away from Thy presence! A heavy foot landed on her thigh, and another came down on her right shoulder. She shut tear-filled eyes: O Lord! Then she felt a pair of hands lift her from beneath her armpits and draw her out of the crowd.
Sumayya found herself kneeling on the cool marble steps as a heavily built Egyptian woman shook her by the shoulders and patted her on the cheeks. She burst into sobs. He still hadn’t called. What had happened to him that he wouldn’t have called?
“What’s wrong, Hajja?” asked the woman, an urgency in her voice.
“Mashari, Lord! My son!” Sumayya murmured inaudibly.
As the woman continued shaking Sumayya by the shoulders, she sunk further to the pavement in a series of successive collapses.
“Did you come with somebody?”
“With my husband.”
She couldn’t bear to add “and my son”. Sumayya bit her lips, and her face was contorted by a fit of weeping.
“Where’s your husband?”
Sumayya made no reply.
“Where’s your husband?!” the woman asked again, more loudly this time.
Sumayya rested her forehead on the marble step and sobbed. Is my boy going to be lost in Your house, God? She buried her head in her hand bag and sobbed some more.
The Egyptian woman was perplexed. It was obvious by now that the woman she was trying to help was so delirious that she couldn’t hear or see her. She rushed over to a nearby cooler that dispensed zamzam water and brought some back in a plastic cup. She used it to wash Sumayya’s face, repeating the phrase, bismillah al-rahman al-rahim, bismillah al-rahman al-rahim – in the name of God, Most Merciful, Most Compassionate, in the name of God, Most Merciful, Most Compassionate.
By this time, Sumayya had gone from sobbing to howling. When Faisal approached his wife, he found several men encircling her. One of them, with a hennaed beard and a cane, waved the cane, saying “God curse the wailing woman! God curse the wailing woman!” as Sumayya jerked her feet like a slaughtered animal.
At last Faisal’s features protruded from among the myriad faces that had crowded around to gawk at the wailing woman. Seeing from his facial expression that there was still no sign of the boy more than five hours after his disappearance, Sumayya began striking her face in despair, biting her hand, and beating herself on the thighs, saying over and over: “Mashari’s gone! He’s gone! My boy is gone!”
Faisal pressed his way through the bodies and grasped his wife by the arm to help her up: “Come on, Sumayya. Calm down. It’s not time to be crying.”
The tears poured down her plump, sweaty cheeks. Looking up at him with wide, bloodshot eyes, she asked: “Why hasn’t he called, Faisal? Mashari knows our numbers.”
“Maybe he forgot them,” he suggested, trying to give himself hope.
“Mashari, forget? Don’t you know your son?”
“Maybe he went back to the hotel.”
“Maybe he fainted and was picked up by an ambulance.”
Nodding, she held back her tears. That made sense! She got up straight away to carry on with the search, her heart filled suddenly with new hope. She was amazed that it hadn’t occurred to her before that the little one might be lying unconscious at some first-aid station. He couldn’t possibly be inside the mosque. If he were, he would have borrowed a telephone from someone and called. So then, Mashari was lying unconscious in a hospital somewhere, and as soon as he woke up, he would ask the medics to call his father.
Mashari knew the number by heart.
Mashari was a good boy.


Mecca, the Great Mosque
7 Dhu al-Hijjah, 1431 AH (2010 CE)
6:11 pm

“May God bring you into Heaven. May God bring you through Heaven’s gates!”
A little girl with one arm reached out to Sumayya with a white plastic cup. Faisal felt his chest tighten. The sight of the pointed stub, half a frail black arm, went through him like a blade. She looked around six years old, and had countless tiny braids protruding from her head. She was wearing a pair of blue rubber shoes and a dull pink blouse.
The girl gazed at him with big, kohl-lined eyes with pitch-black pupils: “May God bring you through Heaven’s gates!”
Her voice was thin, and her insistence pained him. “Give me a riyal, Auntie,” her eyes glued to the handbag hanging from Sumayya’s shoulder.
Sumayya opened her handbag and took out her green prayer rug, her Qur’an wrapped in purple velvet, a plastic bag containing her and Mashari’s shoes, and a pair of black crocs with the yellow and black Batman logo on them. Her chin quivering and her lips pursed, she plunged her hand into the bottom of the bag and extracted ten riyals, which she placed in the cup with a trembling hand.
Grasping his wife’s forearm, Faisal drew her away from the black child’s importunate sway, her stump, and her coal-black eyes, as though he were attempting to extricate her from all the fears and apprehensions that crept into his head as he saw the ten riyals settling in the bottom of the cup. They walked in silence toward the King Fahd Gate. Darkness had begun settling over the place. Faisal lifted his gaze and watched as the last threads of light made their departure. The sun had disappeared, and so had Mashari. Stopping in front of a group of officers, he took his telephone out of his leather belt and, once again, displayed Mashari’s picture.
“Hasn’t there been any news about my son?” Faisal asked pleadingly.
The officer gave him an uncomprehending look: “You still haven’t found him?”
Faisal felt his strength giving out on him. “No, we haven’t,” he said, choking up. Turning away momentarily, the officer spoke into his wireless device. Turning back to Faisal, his face expressionless, he said: “No, we haven’t heard anything, Abu Mashari.”
Faces blurred as the world withdrew into an oppressive twilight. Faisal looked dejectedly into the officer’s eyes. “So, then, what’s to be done?” he asked, his knees barely holding him up.
“Form search groups,” the officer offered. “Post his photo on the internet. Check at hospitals. Inform your embassy.” After a pause, he asked: “Did you come with an organized group?”
“I’m registered with one, but I came on my own.”
The officer knit his brow pityingly: “You need people to help you, Abu Mashari.”
Faisal turned to Sumayya, whose gaze had been darting back and forth between him and the officer.
“Umm Mashari,” he announced, “I’m going to inform our families in Kuwait.”
Tears welled up in her eyes: “I’m scared, Faisal.”
“Me too.”
They exchanged a glance. They knew for certain that what had happened to them – what was happening to them – was of too great a magnitude for them to overcome it alone. They were drowning in the deluge of humanity with which Mecca swirled. They needed to be rescued. Faisal took his phone out of his pocket, and his fingers began contacting the one person who came to mind, the only person possible. No sooner had he heard his brother’s voice than he lost it completely. Falling on his knees, he sobbed: “Saud! Come to your brother, Saud. Come to your brother!”





Translated from the author’s novel Kharai’t al-Teeh (Maps of the Labyrinth), Published by Arab Sientific Publishing, Nashiroon, 10th print, March 2018. First published May 2015


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First published in Banipal 65 – Summer 2019

Republished here with agreement