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The interrogator recites a love song.

I first met Francois at Taoufiq's apartment in Newark, one year before we took him to the Canadian border. Taoufiq and I had just settled in the living room with tea and shisha when the doorbell rang. He wasn't expecting anyone.

"Look at you," Francois said to Taoufiq as he walked through the apartment, taking in the high ceilings, glossy wood floors, and rugs from Izmir that had taken Taoufiq months to acquire--blue-black vines and arabesques circling crimson rosettes.

Before I knew him, Taoufiq had bought the two-family building and rented the lower apartment, keeping the top for himself. He'd gutted the insides, added arches to doorways, and installed metal light fixtures from Cairo. A Koran lay open on a stand, spine pointed toward the eastern horizon. By furnishing a home, Taoufiq was making himself marriageable by Egyptian custom though I didn't understand that then. Francois probably did.

"This is Natalia," Taoufiq said when Francois saw me.

"Look at you," Francois said again to Taoufiq. "Hiding things."

When Taoufiq offered to prepare him a shisha pipe, Francois refused and made fun of the music playing on the stereo--Fairuz singing with the Rahabani Brothers. He said only his father and his father's friends sat around smoking pipes and listening to that old-time junk. All Taoufiq needed was those black-and-white posters of Nasser or Farid or Abdel Halim Hafez, and his souked-up place could be an old-time shisha cafe.

"Don't think we're all about this Ali Baba crap," he said to me. In Ramallah, everyone listened to hip-hop and trip-hop. He'd played electric bass in a band. Outlining an hourglass shape with his hands, he said, "It about killed me. Leaving that white Gibson behind."

Taoufiq laughed, insisting he only started listening to Fairuz and Farid after he got to Jersey. After he'd left Cairo for Dubai. Then, Dubai for Monaco. Then Paris and London before a Wisconsin winter that even made poor Jersey look good. "It took leaving places too many times," Taoufiq said, "to realize I lived in these songs."

"I'm not in these songs," Francois said. "But your father is," Taoufiq said. He told Francois that when the time he'd been away from his country stretched into years, songs by Fairuz and Farid would seem more real than anything around him.

"Real?" Francois started. I didn't know if it was the mention of years or his father that upset him, but he swept his arm toward the rugs, the wide-screen TV, and the leather couch we sat on. He said didn't Taoufiq realize his Jersey life had no relation to the love and war in Fairuz's songs?

"Look at you," Francois said to Taoufiq. That time his words had an edge in them.

The coals on the pipe bowl had burned to ash. I carried it to the kitchen, so they could talk. Before that night, Taoufiq always went to Patterson to see Francois. Aside from working at a fried chicken restaurant, Francois never left his apartment. He believed he was being watched, and he probably was. There was a reason why Francois had driven to Taoufiq's apartment in Newark without calling first. Likely, that reason meant trouble, and Taoufiq was waiting for him to give it.

EVEN BEFORE THAT NIGHT, Taoufiq had told me so much about Francois, which of course wasn't, nor could be, his real name, I teased him about being obsessed with him. Years before, one of Taoufiq's childhood friends in Cairo had married Francois's older sister and moved to Bonn. When Francois was thrown out of flight school in Fairfield after 9/11 with the other Arab students, Taoufiq promised he'd look out for Francois, a seventeen-year-old kid so accustomed to bad luck, he'd given it a woman's name: Ma'ab, the place to which one always returns.

The story of Francois's Ma'ab was the story Taoufiq told me first. Francois was eight years old when his bad luck angel chose him all because a Bedouin farmer's camel had fallen inside a large, dried-up well--a siyyah--in the center of their neighborhood square. After local security officers devised a contraption to raise the terrified camel to safety, the farmer commissioned his relative, a woodworker, to build a ladder to make future rescue attempts easier. The adults, Francois's outspoken mother among them, argued an aluminum cover would have been more practical, even if meant sealing off that ancient artery that tied them to their land. But as the old carpenter knelt in the square assembling and arranging the wood with such care, no one had the heart to question his offering.

After it had been blessed and lowered into the ground, the ladder obsessed Francois and his friends. The darkness swallowing its base promised access to underground caverns and pathways rumored to run beneath their town. By summer's end, the boys' curiosity peaked. A coin toss, a shekel thrown onto the stone plaza surrounding the well, fate--or was it already Ma'ab?--elected Francois to crawl down the ladder.

Stealing a moment when no adult watched, Francois' friends steadied the frame as he stepped onto the first rung. Halfway down, he heard shouts from above, first the familiar voices of friends and then older men. The skirmish could have been anything: Israeli soldiers enforcing a restriction, a concerned parent demanding the boys leave the well, one boy calling another's mother a charmouta. But in Ramallah, even the smallest misunderstanding could change in an instant to brutality.

Francois leaned against the wall, trying to listen, but the ladder shifted with his weight. "AllahuAkbar!" the Francois in Taoufiq's story shouted as he fell, though I suspect the cry was Taoufiq's addition because Francois never invoked religion when I knew him. However, as if some divine force indeed listened, Francois landed on a soft heap instead of the clay ground that would have broken his bones. Stunned--he was alive!--he investigated a lump beneath his hips. His fingers recognized the folds and ornate stitching of a traditional gallabiyya. Horrified, his nose registered a human smell.

Sliding his hands along the wall, he steadied the ladder as best he could, and crawled up halfway, waiting for the light above to fade. Finally, he heaved himself over the edge of the well and began to run home. Just as he saw the lights of his house, an Israeli soldier demanded his identification. Taking pity, she hurried him home before another soldier saw him.

Though he said nothing about the body that saved him, Francois confessed his dirty clothes and the scrapes on his arms came from his fall into the forbidden well. Instead of getting angry, his mother, who'd developed a necessary knack for divining signs of good in the worst circumstances, insisted her son recognize his fortune. That ridiculous ladder had held up. A more heartless soldier could have come along. Good luck, she said, would always find him.

Less than one month later, a stray mutt with a sensitive nose barked ceaselessly beside the well, prompting an investigation. For the second time that year a crowd gathered around the well, but this time watched the men raise a human form instead of a braying camel. Initials inscribed on a cross found inside one of the robe's pockets revealed the identity of a senile spinster who, after a lifetime singing Byzantine chants in the Christian section of Tarshiha, had spirited her way through security checkpoints and bus station interchanges to Ramallah, where she'd been rumored to have loved a martyr killed in '67. No one knew if she even meant to seek out the well, but her devotion to that man, his enduring cause, and the mystery that pulled her into the ground, allowed tellers to make her story into one of loyalty, soul, and country, instead of that of a disoriented old woman searching for a long-deceased lover, a woman who died alone at the bottom of a dried-up well.

When Taoufiq told me the story, I said I hoped the walls closing around her felt like her lover's arms, and that the echo of her own breathing made her believe she found him in the end.

Taoufiq laughed and wanted to know, if we got separated one day, would I hold out for him for the rest of my life? In 2040, would I walk to Newark listening for echoes of him?

"Khalas," I said--enough--but my Arabic only made Taoufiq laugh even harder.

Ma'ab was the woman's name, an old-fashioned Arabic name. Francois's mother didn't even ask if he'd encountered the body during his fall. She only said, "Ma'ab. Now your good luck has a name." But Francois was certain Ma'ab signaled bad luck to come, and, throughout his childhood, Ma'ab became a joke between them. When a girl spurned him or when he failed a class in school, Francois insisted Ma'ab had doomed him as his mother countered: Ma'ab protected him from charmoutas and blindfolded teachers who gave him passing grades.

At sixteen, while walking home with the others in his hip-hop band, singing and burning with post-gig adrenaline, Francois insisted Ma'ab had infiltrated the minds of those Israeli soldiers who chose him from the others to haul off for his first prison stint. But his mother insisted Ma'ab's good luck infiltrated the Israeli information systems and showed them his father had worked as a medical doctor for the UN. It was obvious, she said, that Ma'ab sang her old chants in the guards' ears, and convinced them to unlock the prison door and hand back that white Gibson.

Good luck or bad, Francois noticed his mother didn't embrace him or offer a prayer for his quick release. Instead, she asked him a question: was he or wasn't he ready to learn how to fly? A friend of his father who owed the family a favor had a son who worked for a flight school in New Jersey. Hadn't he always loved cars? She said, weren't cars and planes almost the same thing, engines designed to carry your children away? Broken still from his prison stay, Francois heard what his mother couldn't say: he had no choice but to leave her.

Francois thought his bad luck indeed turned for the better after his mother drew on family savings for an English tutor, a twenty-year-old charmouta from Liverpool dismissed from a relief work project in Jerusalem due to unnameable circumstances. Inspired by glimpses of the tutor's liberal white cleavage, Francois tackled English that spring with uncharacteristic discipline. They spent hours in a cafe that played old Egyptian songs, the tutor swooning whenever Farid Al Atrache's voice sounded on the stereo.

Together, they learned every nuance of the cafe owner's favorite song: "Inayya Bi Tidhak." "My eyes are smiling, but my heart weeps," the tutor made Francois write in English. "My eyes are smiling, but my heart weeps," Francois repeated aloud as she listened, eyes closed, eating plates of olives, and sucking the juice from her fingernails.

When Francois's mother paid the girl to write his entrance essay, she took to the task with a flourish, reading the composition aloud at their table with such trembling passion, Francois was reduced to nodding, absorbing nothing of the story she'd concocted. Finally, his acceptance letter and student visa arrived. He'd study aeromechanics until his English improved.

"Fairfield, New Jersey. Just the same as New York City," Francois bragged to his friends even after he'd gone to the internet cafe and found pictures of parks and "family friendly" events instead of the big city scenes he expected. "My luckiest child," his mother insisted, speaking joyfully of his future though what she wished for him would leave her alone. "In just a few years--Inshallah--her son would become a pilot."

And so, at seventeen, Francois packed his father's old white suitcase and crossed two oceans on his first plane ride. But his faithful Ma'ab must have sat in the empty seat beside him, for that was the end of August 2001. Less than a month after he landed in Newark, Francois was "rounded up" by INS agents with the other Arab students in Fairfield--sirens, handcuffs, hours of confusion--all were taken in for questioning.

Francois knew immediately how his mother would see it: Ma'ab's good luck transformed his lousy English into his saving grace. Authorities released him because he'd enrolled in a degree in aeromechanics instead of training for a pilot's license. But he would have countered that good-luck theory by insisting Ma'ab put in the interrogators' hands the entrance essay his tutor had written. In a tiny, white-walled room, two interrogators dressed in black watched him read the embellishments the tutor had naively added to attract the admissions counselors' attention: a bulldozer poised for destruction, a family tree studded with martyrs, a charmouta's intimate knowledge of discreet hiding places in an olive grove stolen from a family friend.

As he sat in that room so far from home, he longed to hear the lilt of her voice, to stare at the comforting cleft between her breasts, and to sit "killing time" in that run-down cafe as Farid sang. My eyes are smiling, but my heart weeps, his essay ended, the stolen lyrics wrapping up a past he'd never had and lost all at once.

"Your eyes should be smiling, kid," one of the interrogators said, disfiguring further the poor love song. They weren't going to send him into detention, but he couldn't return to school and his student visa wouldn't be renewed again. With a smirk, he finished, "And keep your weeping heart to yourself."

Alone in Jersey without student housing, Francois found a room in a rundown Arab section of Paterson, but when a new batch of authorities banged on his door the next week, he learned he hadn't asked enough questions. The tenant he'd replaced was a hijacking suspect. It didn't matter that Francois was six inches shorter than the man they searched for or that he was born in Ramallah instead of Riyadh. Black hair. Brown eyes. Olive skin. Cuffed again, Francois fit the vague description, as would many of his friends.

That was when Taoufiq received the call from Francois's brother-in-law. The family was frantic with worry. Though he and Francois's sister both worked for the UN, they could do little from Bonn.

Taoufiq promised he'd help. I watched from the start as he did.

First, Taoufiq found Francois that job in the takeout chicken place owned by a Lebanese man from his mosque who'd given work to other Muslim men hassled by authorities who couldn't or didn't want to go home. With money wired from Bonn, Taoufiq found Francois a used car and helped him get a driver's license before his student visa expired in December.

Through the rest of fall and into winter 2001, Taoufiq even did what he could for Francois's colleagues from flight school, paying for lawyers and visiting them, even when helping put him in danger. One night at the end of October as Taoufiq left the prison, a carload of Jersey boys followed Taoufiq's BMW. At a traffic light, they circled the car and lifted it off the ground. Suspended in air, he waited, unable to decipher what the men below him were shouting before they let the car fall.

Taoufiq drove home and slept for three days. On the fourth day, he got out of bed, taped an enormous sticker of the American flag onto his back bumper, and took the car to a garage, claiming he'd fallen into a pothole, unsure why he lied except that it was October 2001, and everyone lived differently then.

Taoufiq never reported the incident. He never even told Francois. But he never stopped visiting the prison. Helping Francois and those boys, I understood, was Taoufiq's way of confronting the conflict between his two realities that had long been brewing, his way of making sure he hadn't sold out, his way of reconciling with having become American.

TAOUFIQ AND FRANCOIS WERE TALKING when I returned to the living room carrying a tray with tea, fresh coals, and tobacco. Taoufiq replaced the bowl on his pipe. Francois reached for his tea, continuing the conversation until Taoufiq interrupted. "English," he said.

Francois stopped. "But what if Natalia isn't interested? Maybe she doesn't want to hear so much about me."

Francois didn't know how much I knew of his life or how much Taoufiq worried for him. But he was lonely and anxious to talk, so, watching me, he described, in English, how he'd been waking up every day and heading straight to work where he'd become the most reliable worker a boss could want, though frying chicken in a Paterson strip mall was hardly the life he dreamed for himself in America. Fie insisted he'd followed Taoufiq's advice, staying away from trouble. "Lying low," he said, proud of his American slang but watching me still.

I could see Francois was careful. I understood he needed to be.

"But something's come up," he said. He'd been expecting trouble because didn't his bad lady luck, his Ma'ab, always come? In Ramallah, Ma'ab had played kid games, messing with girls and grades and gigs, but she'd obviously learned some Yankee tricks during her ocean crossing. Since the moment he landed, Ma'ab preferred to break down his door, guns drawn.

Francois turned down the music on the stereo. "Who are you?" he asked me. "Besides the girlfriend, I mean." He tried to make a joke of it: "Why would a pretty girl like you fall for a loser who sits around listening to old songs?"

"I dance," I said.

"Ra'assah," Taoufiq added. "A belly dancer."

"Walla? You like this old music too?" Francois said maybe he'd have to respect Taoufiq a little. Maybe he wasn't such an old man. Francois raised his arms. He circled his hips. "Yalla. You're the professional. I want to see how you move."

Taoufiq laid his hand across my leg. "Not now," I said.

"I told you," Francois said. "This guy, he is an old man. Where did you find him?"

"A club," I said. "On Atlantic Avenue."

"That story comes later," Taoufiq said.

"Love stories?" Francois protested. "Aren't those the only stories worth telling?"

"All stories are love stories," Taoufiq said, and we were stuck considering that theory as he reached for a smoke. Francois stared into his cup. Fairuz played quietly on the stereo as I leaned against Taoufiq.

"Yalla," Taoufiq said to Francois. "Tell us why you came."

"A blonde," Francois began. Taoufiq sighed, but Francois insisted it wasn't what he was thinking. His Ma'ab didn't go for those everyday problems. This blonde was just a girl stuck frying chicken beside him. She was young, probably too young to be working, but his Lebanese boss took pity on her. No mother. No father. An American girl worse off than any of them.

"We knew she was crazy," Francois said. She had a chain of thorns tattooed around both wrists, but anyone who looked long enough could see scars underneath those thorns. Still, Francois flirted with her to keep his days of laying low from growing too long.

"Of course," Taoufiq said.

"I was comfortable with her," Francois said. At the end of their shifts, neither complained about leaving late because neither had a family or a place to get to called "home." But then, one night, after joking around for hours on their shift, the girl followed Francois to his apartment.

"I told her to leave," he said. "I told her she didn't know at all who I was. I even made terrorist jokes." But the girl sat on his front steps holding her enormous box of leftover chicken and swore she had nowhere to go.

"You refused!" Taoufiq said.

"Tears in her eyes?" Francois said. "Scars on her wrists?"

"You would have done the same for a girl like that," I said to Taoufiq.

"Nothing happened," Francois insisted. First, they ate leftover chicken, talking the whole time about how they hated fried chicken, about how their clothes and hair always smelled like fried chicken, about what losers their chicken-eating customers were. And when they got sick of talking about fried chicken, they watched a movie until she fell asleep in his La-Z-Boy chair. Francois went to bed. In the morning, the girl and her box of leftover chicken were gone. "End of story," Francois said. "Or should have been."

"And?" Taoufiq's pipe made a gurgling sound.

The next day, the girl didn't show up for work. It gave Francois a bad feeling. He imagined her walking through Paterson with her big box of chicken. Spooked, he covered the shift alone. The following day, the same thing happened. But at the end of the week, when a new investigation team banged on his door, and that blonde unveiled herself as his faithful Ma'ab in Jersey girl disguise all along. They informed him that he was a prime suspect in a case for a missing person. His boss had been forced to tell them Francois shared her last work shift. He was the last person known to have contact with a white female, a minor named Marybeth Lamb.

"KID," FRANCOIS LAUGHED, "that's what we called her. Until then, I never even knew her real name."

"Khalas!" Taoufiq stood up from the couch. "How can you laugh? You know how you look to them." He told Francois he had to be careful. He had to watch his back at all times.

Francois laughed again. "Isn't that what my life's always been?"

"What happened next?"

"I let them in," he said. "What else could I do?" But that time he understood his mother's gift. He could see how his bad luck was good luck because that time he lost his fear. When the investigators returned to verify his identity, he'd greet them like old friends and put on water for tea, remembering who took sugar and who didn't as they searched again through his rooms.

"Looking for what?" Taoufiq interrupted.

Francois shrugged. "Names. They took all the numbers stored on my phone. They searched papers I threw on the table." When they searched under his furniture, he wondered what they expected to find. Bomb materials? Hijacking suspects? The body of poor little Marybeth Lamb?

"There was a lady officer on that team," Francois said, making almost the same shape he'd made for that Gibson--voluptuous chest, waist, hip holster, gun. "I'll remember her forever," he said. "She apologized to me."

Two weeks later, Marybeth Lamb turned up in Boise with a trucker who was charged with the abduction of a minor though the girl admitted she begged him to take her. Still, Francois's record wasn't cleared until two investigators from Boise traveled to Jersey to interview him.

"For the experience," Francois said. "Not enough Arabs in Idaho to go around."

Again, he was led into the interrogation room: white walls, a red bench, silver handcuffs, and two interrogators dressed in black. They said Marybeth Lamb had identified his face in a series of mug shots. Though she reported he'd never done her harm, she said he made her nervous, always staring at the thorns around her wrists. She told them he made terrorist jokes in front of his house. On record, she'd said, he had a "terrorist's face."

"Khalas," Taoufiq said. "You haven't done anything."

Francois laughed, but it was clear her words still stung. "My face. That's all they have on me."

That night in Newark was the first time we talked about driving to Montreal. His friends, Mounif and Ahmed, had already crossed over the border, but Francois' situation was different. He had an expired student visa and a potential terrorist's address. He'd been a suspect in the case of a missing girl, a minor. He was an Arab with documented interest in the insides of planes. If he tried to cross the border, authorities might use his illegal entry and deport him (to who knew where?) or detain him (for who knew how long?). There was talk of places even then.

"It's bad luck if I go. Bad luck if I stay," Francois said. He was so used to running, he didn't even know what it was he might want. That night, it was only Jersey he couldn't take anymore. He was leaving the next morning with a guy from the chicken place with work connections in South Carolina. He'd packed his things. He'd gotten rid of his phone. He'd come to ask Taoufiq to call his sister in Bonn. "Call her in two weeks," Francois said. He needed at least that long. She'd go crazy looking for him when she found out. If she was on his trail, they might find him by watching her.

He pointed at Taoufiq's door. "Maybe they're outside right now. Listening."

"So what if they listen?" Taoufiq said.

"You don't know how it is," Francois said. "You think you're safe just because you're a citizen. But since I'm here, they'd have an excuse to search all of us."

"Let them search," Taoufiq said.

"You don't know how it is," Francois said. "Whenever they look, they find something." He pointed toward the Koran. "Like that," he said.

"You said you lost your fear," Taoufiq said.

"I said that," Francois said. He walked to the window. "Maybe it's even true." Then he turned and lunged at Taoufiq. "Are you a terrorist?" he shouted.

I started. Taoufiq stared at him.

Francois laughed. "That's what they ask. That's how you know an interrogation has begun."

"You're fine," Taoufiq said.

"And somewhere in the middle they ask, What would you do if you learned everything you believed was wrong? They ask, What if the people you think you know aren't who they say they are? They ask, How would you know if you started to lose your mind? Would I know if people aren't who they say are? If lost my mind would I know?"

"You're fine," Taoufiq said.

"Tell me how this story is a love story," Francois said.

Taoufiq didn't answer, but Fairuz was still singing from her heart to Beirut on the stereo, so Francois raised the volume and lifted his arms, dancing again to that old music that had nothing to do with him.

"Like this, Natalia?" he asked.

"You're fine," Taoufiq said again.
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Author:Sears, Jennifer
Article Type:Short story
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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