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Authors: Denise Roig

Brilliant

BRILLIANT

SHORT STORIES

DENISE ROIG

 

 

© 2014, Denise Roig

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, for any reason, by any means, without the permission of the publisher.

Cover design by Doowah Design.

Cover photos by Ariel Tarr.

Photo of Denise Roig by Ariel Tarr.

Acknowledgements

We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Manitoba Arts Council for our publishing program.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Roig, Denise, author

      Brilliant / Denise Roig.

Short stories.

Issued in print and electronic formats.

ISBN 978-1-927426-42-5 (pbk.).

--ISBN 978-1-927426-43-2 (epub)

      I. Title.

PS8585.O3955B75 2014    C813'.54    C2014-905379-7    C2014-905380-0

Signature Editions

P.O. Box 206, RPO Corydon, Winnipeg, Manitoba, R3M 3S7

www.signature-editions.com

for Beauch,

who took me there

&

in memory of my father,

Raphael Roig

“Those who come to the Arab world today can scarcely know what stood there or what was true when that world was intact and whole.”

—Fouad Ajami,
The Dream Palace of the Arabs

“A man is what? His genitals? His wives? His mind? His money? A man is what? The city pulsates under the din of cranes, drills and motor cars. The wayside is a shock of sand, white, merciless, unpretty. There is no romance here, how could there be? The air murmurs with money. A bright glaze hovers and shimmers across the city. A bird of passage, I wait, I wait.”

— Edna O'Brien,
Arabian Days

Rice Dreams

“Of your Highness everybody on this universe feels proud.

Wherever you go you'll find your supporters and lovely crowd.”

— Inscription in Heritage Village, Abu Dhabi, 1987

 

The palace called at midnight. They'd run out of both
maamoul
and
aish el bol bel
, the little nests stuffed with whole pistachios, and, of course,
baklawa
. Twenty kilos, Bashir wrote down next to
maamoul
, thirty beside
baklawa
. The sheikh couldn't live without his
baklawa
, especially the tiny logs layered with crushed hazelnuts. That every one of his palaces around the city employed a staff of pastry chefs who could be woken at any hour never seemed to occur to Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the
UAE
Armed Forces. No, Bashir had come to realize, Sheikh Mohammed wanted
his
sweets.

Hard to believe the sheikh was no longer the slick-haired, boyish leader whose faded twenty-year-old photo looked down from every wall of every shop in the Emirate. He was still a slim man. Not that you could tell with a
khandoura
. A man could gain five, ten, twenty pounds and there would be no waistband to betray him. A
khandoura
hid a man's shape, it hid…and Bashir made his mind go someplace clean and safe. He should not be thinking about what was under a man's
khandoura
.

He indulged a yawn as he slid his mobile phone closed and hauled himself from the depths of the 100-kilo bag of flour where he'd been napping. Though the sheikh himself hadn't made the call, though they had, in fact, never met, Sheikh Mo seemed to know it was him, Bashir el-Masri from Alexandria, who answered these eleventh-hour emergencies. How they ran out of sweets at midnight wasn't his business. Why they needed them by 4:00 a.m. wasn't his business either.

“Karim!
Yallah
!” A head poked up from another flour bag. Karim was on tryout this week, a kid from Jordan who'd worked in the pastry kitchen at Mövenpick in Petra. He had some things to learn, like how to keep his mouth shut, but he was quick and eager and knew his way with mixers and ovens.

“Another order?” Karim's dark, poorly cut hair was standing up in front, making Bashir want to laugh. But he kept it in check, not wanting to get too familiar.

“Of course, another order. When Sheikh Mohammed calls, it is always with an order. You think he calls to chitchat?”

The boy — though he was taller than a boy, taller than Bashir — got to his feet, came to stand next to him at the metal counter, where Bashir thumbed through the recipe binder. The pages had ripped long ago where the punched holes were; none looped through the rings. A few greasy sheets flew to the floor and Karim scrambled to catch them. They looked at the recipe for
baklawa
together, Bashir nodding to himself. The order of ghee was due in by 8:00 a.m.; they'd have enough for tonight. The boy was fidgeting with the front of his loose pants, eyes down. Why could he not stand still? And then Bashir saw. He used to wake like that when he was that age. An embarrassment, but also a pleasure.
Haram
to think about this now, though, with the boy so close.

They got started on the dough. Flour, water, more flour. What else was phyllo? Karim had worked under a French chef in Jordan. “I like the
millefeuilles
,” he'd said in his interview.

“You won't be making
millefeuilles
here,” Big Ali, the supervisor, had told him. “Strictly Arabic sweets at Al Zaabi Finest Bakery.”

That first day — no pay — Bashir had paired him up with Little Ali, Big Ali's nephew from Aleppo. At the end of an hour Bashir could see that Karim was faster and smarter than Little Ali, who ducked out every half hour for a smoke and to text his “cousin” back home. (Bashir suspected it was really a girlfriend.) There was no getting rid of Little Ali because of Big Ali, but Bashir had pushed to take on Karim. They needed another body in the kitchen, what with Sheikh Mohammed and his
maamoul
and National Day coming and Little Ali doing less and less. Big Ali relented, but no pay for the first two weeks, just room — even if this was a bag of flour — and board: a share of the food Annabelle cooked for them every noon.

The bosses still sometimes questioned the propriety of a woman in the kitchen. But then Big Ali would invite them down from the offices upstairs for a plate or send lunch up in a nice takeaway container. And that would be it for complaints until the next time someone would get a bee in his
ghutra
about “a girl down there” and remind them they were getting away with something not quite
halal
. Annabelle's lunch specials silenced them.

“Annabelle? She come in today?” From his second day, Karim had asked this every morning.

“Of course, she comes in. How many times do I have to tell you?” Bashir said. He was too tired for stupid questions. God love Sheikh Mohammed,
masha'allah
, but it was late and he'd been standing all day, all night, with just an hour on the flour bag. “Get me the scale. Go!”

 

Even after three years, Bashir knew only a little about Annabelle, and nothing about how she'd landed the unlikely job of cooking Filipino food every day for a bunch of Arab pastry guys. Annabelle was tiny with a long braid and a smile even Big Ali couldn't fight. She wore one outfit at all times: a pink T-shirt with rhinestones spelling “Crown Jewels” and tight jeans. It took six months for Big Ali to convince her she had to wear a chef's jacket and one of the white, elasticized caps if she wanted to work in the kitchen.

“You want me to look like a dork, Big Al?” Annabelle talked like an American teenager who spent her days reading fan magazines. How old she was, no one knew or dared ask, though it was discussed endlessly among the guys. Big Ali thought she must be around thirty; Bashir put her closer to forty. Karim, when they asked him — a rite of initiation on his first day — said, “Oh, no, Miss Annabelle is young! She is…twenty-two!”

By now they knew what she made every day of the week: Sundays, tofu and black beans; Mondays, chicken pie; Tuesdays,
mechado
; Wednesday, chop suey; Thursdays,
pansit
Canton with shrimp; and Saturdays, “surprise meal,” as Annabelle called everyone's favourite: a stew with small, perfect squares of supremely tender meat in a smoky barbecue sauce. Lamb, some thought. Veal, Little Ali once volunteered and everyone had laughed. Veal? Their tight bosses would spring for veal? Big Ali knew it was beef. “I see the packages!” he insisted. But Annabelle would never confirm what the meat was. “That's why it's called surprise,” she said with her blazing smile, though every now and then she'd say it was pork and watch their faces. “Such good Muslim boys,” she'd say with a sigh. “I'd never do that to you.”

 

It happened sometimes. Bashir would sift and dust and roll and then he'd be pulling trays out of the oven. It was like waking up in the morning from a sound sleep with images — his mother, a goat, a naked man — floating up from the night. How did he get here? Where had all the in-between steps gone? He had no memory of fitting the discs of phyllo
inside the giant round trays, patting down kilos of crushed walnuts, scoring the layers into diamonds, pouring the ghee. Who had done all that? But here were the trays of golden
baklawa
to prove he hadn't been curled on a bag of flour all night.

He sent Karim back to the other side of the room, nudging him toward a larger bag this time. “Rest,” he said, the closest he could come to saying “good job.” Karim went to sleep at once. Bashir stood at the work table — if he took his weight off his feet, he'd sleep too — and waited for the driver from the palace. It could have been ten minutes or half the night — time was elastic at this hour — but the knock came, the driver swept in with two helpers, and the trays of
maamoul
and
baklawa
were loaded onto special pastry racks in the refrigerated van.

The sheikhs thought of everything, marvelled Bashir, as he lowered himself onto a bag close to Karim. Such vision. And his sheikh, his Sheikh Mohammed, was the smartest, the best, the most supreme. Bashir liked looking at the old black and white photos of Sheikh Zayed, the father of all this prosperity, dead now five years. People whispered that his sons, the current rulers, didn't come close, that they were mercenary where he'd been generous, calculating where he'd been spontaneous. But they didn't know Sheikh Mohammed, Bashir figured, not the way he knew him, even if the currency of their relationship was a platter of
maamoul
. Food spoke worlds. And nothing spoke with greater love than sweets.

For months now, he'd been trying to translate this love into something tangible. Not more
maamoul
. Sheikh Mohammed could have
maamoul
whenever he wanted. He, Chef Bashir el-Masri from Alexandria, needed to reach into his soul, use his Allah-blessed gift. He must make him something no one else ever had or ever could. Watching Little Ali shovelling vegetable biryani into his mouth one afternoon — grains of basmati in saffron shades of yellow, orange and red — it came to him. Rice was porous; it could take on any hue of the rainbow. It was as much an artist's medium as clay or paint or butter cream.

He wouldn't cook the rice; that would make it far too fragile, perishable too. But raw, uncooked rice — plump, white Egyptian grains — would last years. It would endure, like his devotion. Working from the head-and-shoulders portrait hanging on the pastry kitchen wall, Bashir spent a week drawing — and erasing — the design on a piece of baking parchment, then another week mixing the colours to perfectly match the photo. The sheikh's hair was easy — black as an oil spill — as was his
khandoura
, which nicely soaked up white acrylic. The ruler's skin tones were trickier. Flesh contained so many shades. It was only in the last week that he'd finished the face, grain after grain placed first for effect, then glued onto the wood backing.

He could only work after the kitchen shut down for the night, after Big and Little Ali had gone to their flat the next building over, after Annabelle was back in the rented room she shared with three other Filipinas. Everyone knew he was working on something — it was hard to keep secrets entirely secret in the kitchen — but every morning Bashir slipped the board and the bowls of dyed rice back in a cabinet behind the dough sheeter. As with the
maamoul
tonight, there was a deadline: National Day, December 2. Red, white, black and green flags would be flown and waved and stuck into
ghutras
, painted on cheeks, decaled on cars drag-racing down the Corniche. You had to be amazed. From a scattering of tribes on a wedge of oil-sodden desert to this, a real country. All in thirty-eight years.

Bashir planned to deliver the portrait himself, hitching a ride in the palace van, squeezed between the extra trays of sweets the royal family always ordered for the holiday. He'd imagined it so many times: his humble, but beautiful gift extended and accepted. There was still the
ghutra
, the sheikh's head scarf, to finish, then the spraying of the fixative, then a light varnish…

 

He woke to Big Ali nudging him with a foot. “Bashir.” He nudged harder, more like a kick. “The bosses are here.” In two seconds, Bashir was on his feet, smoothing hair and apron. “The bosses” could mean two things: the three Indian managers upstairs, Aziz, Armand and Ajmal (The Three As, Annabelle called them. “You number four,” joked Big Ali. “You our boss, Annabelle.”) Big Ali really did love her. Not that kind of love: the good kind, Bashir had tried to explain to Karim his first day, and Karim had nodded solemnly.

But “the bosses” could also mean the Emirati owners, the Al Zaabi brothers who'd taken over the bakery when their father died in an
SUV
dune-bashing crash three years before. They'd been fourteen and sixteen when the accident happened, too young to be involved in the business, though the younger one liked to drop in, snap his fingers and order a platter of a dozen different sweets to keep the counter staff on their toes. No one downstairs had given much thought to the boys until this year. Nizar, the oldest, was going to university to earn a degree in business. The youngest, Rashid, rumour went, was raising race horses and wanted to sell off the half-dozen bakeries his father had built.

By the look on Big Ali's face it was not the bosses upstairs who were gracing them with a visit. The Three As were official and officious and approached their jobs as sacred contract — especially keeping costs down and keeping the Brothers Al Zaabi happy, or at least not unhappy. But staff knew how to shimmy around the managers' useless, ever-more-complicated procedures, their edicts (“No more real butter? Are they nuts?” said Big Ali.). The more seriously the men upstairs took themselves, the less seriously they were taken by the pastry cooks at Al Zaabi Finest Bakery.

“Both boys,” Big Ali whispered. Big Ali whispering was enough to fully wake Bashir. Big Ali did not whisper.

The brothers had changed since they'd visited the pastry kitchen a year ago. Nizar was now shorter than his younger brother, though he was obviously the older, with a man's build and a neat goatee. Rashid wore a backward baseball cap. They both nodded at Bashir, then turned their attention back to Big Ali.

“I can get you anything you like,” said Big Ali, looking around for a place to seat the brothers. “Cappuccinos? Lattes?
Maamoul
?
Baklawa
?”

“We've eaten,” said Nizar.

Still, Big Ali cleared a space at the table where Annabelle served lunch every day. Little Ali went running to find a wet cloth to wipe it down. If Big Ali didn't whisper, Little Ali didn't run. Coffee was brought and small plates of
maamoul
and
baklawa
. Little Ali found a vase with a plastic rose that he placed next to the sugar bowl.

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