For him, all resided in balance. Without balance, he could not be who he needed to be: Brother Leader, Guide of the Revolution, King of Kings.
The men around him -- wise sycophants, pampered sons, fat generals with medals over their hearts -- required this of him. They were sly and every moment relentless. They whispered slanders and bowed deeply. For each of his 42 years at the helm of liberty, it had been thus. And he had kept these forces aligned only by a scrupulous and continual application of his balance.
He stepped into a room and a great calm settled, like the veil a bride might wear, something to lure and disguise, and this was the sensation of balance, of knowing whom to embrace, whom to shun, whom to dismiss into the night with its perfume of balsam and gasoline.
How, then, to explain the feelings stirred in him by Leezza? The lurch beneath his ribs? The moist trembling of his tongue?
He had been married before: first to his soldiers, then to his wives, then to history. He had absorbed the roar of sand and bombs. This was not like that. It was something to do with his soul, a disturbance at the delicate border where his body joined his soul.
He had met her, the first and only time, in a room choked with myrrh. He stood in a corner and she walked toward him, smiling professionally. The cameramen shone their cruel light. She was thinner than she appeared on the television. Her eyes were lighter than expected. Her hair had been carefully straightened and smoothed, like a fine wool.
Much had been made of protocol. She reached to touch his hand and he demurred. This was the term used in the news reports. Demurred.
Later, he had taken her to his private kitchen for iftar, spiced goat and rice, a dish from his childhood. The two of them, and Tarek, who translated. They ate from a common bowl. In the fleeting moment before she applied a napkin, her lips shone.
For two hours and more he told her his ideas, made his little speeches, but neither of them listened. Something else was happening. She looked up at him and he felt like a boy again, wandering after the animals, dreaming of his father’s gun.
She smiled at him and he studied her teeth, the famous aperture that led to the interior of her mouth. He smelled the sour musk of her life on planes, her practical soap, toner. Then she exhaled and he breathed in more deeply and had to steady himself.
Tarek asked if he was feeling all right.
"Of course," he said.
He wanted to ask the young fool if he had ever seen fingers so graceful.
Afterward, Safia found him sitting before the very bowl, staring at the cushion where she had sat.
"What were you doing, mooning over this black harlot?"
He thought for a moment to strike her, then laughed.
It became a little joke between them.
"Will you make a ghazal for her? Or perhaps she is your djinn."
It was no joke. He had become unbalanced.
He thought about this now, with all the disruptions, the moving from one place to another. Had she willed this upon him from afar? Was she that powerful? His life was underground now, with the martyrs and the cowards. The young guards who clung to him like fierce daughters, his sad Green Nuns. They wept when he looked at them, and so he had to look away.
His advisors lied to him with the extravagance of poets, then choked on fumes of cordite. In a rash moment, while the others slept, he thought to send a diplomatic cable: Come to me, smooth child of Africa. Let us find a valley where the wicked will not enter, between the high dunes of Ubari where the stars riot at night.
But he lacked the courage to wake the necessary personnel.
Perhaps he should have been a poet, and died well under the boot of another man. At least then he would have had words to offer her, a tribute to her treasonous beauty.
There was so much to make him feel foolish now. He scurried about like a mole, his wife and sons fleeing in all directions, the soil of his homeland dank with blood.
Was there a place for love outside of history? A place where Leezza could show him the dark length of her body? He lay for a moment, listening to the missiles, the earth sneezing dust. He wondered about heaven.