I first encountered the hidden world on a muggy summer night in Bahrain, near the still waters of the Arabian Gulf (or Persian Gulf, depending on who you wanted to avoid an argument with). Multiple witnesses denied what they saw after the fact, blaming alcohol, of which there was admittedly plenty, or tricks of light and shadow. The religiously-inclined claimed we saw one of the jinn, a being from the spirit world, which was more plausible than an excess of overpriced beer. No one ever hallucinated from Heineken.
My brother and his friends claimed an empty stretch of beach, one of the few left as expats and industry spread across the island like weeds over cracked pavement. The entire area was underwater two years ago, when an enterprising Sheik imported truckloads of sand to expand the coastline for a new housing development. The houses lined up in perfect rows nearby, each concrete structure walled away from its neighbors, the color of parched sand.
The only sources of light were the distant cars along the causeway to Saudi Arabia and the bonfire Mazen built for an impromptu gathering of his friends and hangers-on. An incurable pyromaniac, my older brother seized any opportunity to burn things. He ignited days-old garbage behind the house, created campfires on cool weekends in the desert, and burned through girlfriends like the hand-rolled cigarettes he passed around at the school gates. During times of unrest, villagers threw burning tires onto the road and Mazen would stare through the car window with longing while my mother sped away in panic.
Mazen hurled a drink into the center of the flames. The rush of heat and laughter drowned out the Arabic music pulsating from our Infiniti’s speakers. Sitting on the car hood, I kept my distance from the fire and Mazen’s friends. It was a school night and I had homework to do, but Mazen often made me an accomplice in his covert nights out. He lied, claiming he was teaching me to drive. I did drive on those nights when alcohol got the best of him, a minor compensation for hours of wasted time.
My brother used to be more like me, a gangly bookworm who peered under rocks and searched for constellations through my father’s telescope. Now, he liked fast cars and Jameson, staying out late to cruise for girls. At thirteen, I had an emerging interest in girls, one destined to be unreciprocated. I didn’t blame them. Peering into the car’s side mirror, with my awkward limbs and mop of unkempt dark hair (not to mention the glasses), I knew that I would never be a candidate for the boy bands the girls loved. Not even the ugly one who could sing.
Among the crowd of testosterone-fueled teenage boys stood two English girls, leaning against each other affectionately as only young women do. The bonfire framed their curved silhouettes, catching the tiny hairs on the back of their necks and the Anglican curve of their noses. I considered reaching for my digital camera in the dashboard, my most prized possession, but had learned the hard way that teenage girls don’t appreciate surprise candids.
The taller one, Gemma, ruffled my hair, the way one would greet an overeager shelter dog. Sophie, shorter with cinnamon-colored hair, salvaged my dignity.
“Alright there, Kamel?” she asked, as though we were old friends. I attempted a casual wave back and failed, my hand retreating into the shelter of my thick hair. She sauntered with swinging arms back toward the bonfire, her hand finding Mazen’s. His latest girlfriend, then. Mazen found a new one every month, like a jam subscription.
Sophie noticed the shape near the water first. She pointed over Mazen’s shoulder, her wide smile faltering. She opened her mouth to speak, but drunken shouts drowned out her words. The cacophony died down, however, as eyes turned in the direction of her pointed finger.
A figure stood at the point where the water met the shore. There were no footsteps nearby, no sign of its arrival – it simply appeared, as though forged from the surrounding air.
It resembled an old man but was oddly translucent, the ocean breeze appearing to pass through its ghostly silhouette. Its head rotated unnaturally, jerking from side to side as though scanning its surroundings.
I turned off the music. It wouldn’t help me see the shape in the dark any better, but it seemed like the right thing to do, to heighten the senses. In the quiet, my heart pounded, its beat irregular like the crackling fire nearby. The group was silent, unsure of whether to retreat or remain still.
The silence lasted several seconds, though it felt longer. The figure turned to face us, the whites of its hollow eyes shining under the moonlight. Its limbs jutted out unnaturally as no human body could, snapping out of place with each motion before appearing to mend again.
My camera. Keeping my eyes on the incredible scene in front of me, my hand reached sideways toward the glove compartment, fumbling for the latch.
The figure’s eyes met mine and my racing heart slowed to a complete stop, suspended in the dark space between the seconds, until they moved past me to Mazen and Sophie.
Then the figure made a motion unlike any I had seen before – it somehow collapsed under its own shattering bones and dissolved into the ground. A strange sensation struck me as it lost shape, an energy that pulsed and flickered like a melting candle.
The thick tension in the air dissolved with the figure, replaced with nervous excitement. Everyone spoke at once. Mazen gestured wildly with his hands, his laughter loud but shaky. Others, Sophie among them, remained silent, staring at the now empty stretch of sand.
At first, everyone pretended that nothing out of the ordinary happened that night. But the island changed after the apparition on the beach, in ways remarkable even for a country in constant flux, pulled like chewing gum in every direction.
First, there were the sandstorms. Normally a summer occurrence, clouds of sand settled over the northern city of Saar in October and spread across the island. It stung my eyes when I boarded the bus for school each morning. I took pictures through the bus window, every image framed in a dusky orange glow. It grew cold after days with little sunlight, sending my parents into a frenzy as they scoured the island for a heater. Only two stores carried them, and both sold out in three days.
Rumors followed the storms, strange sightings shared in coffee shops and family gatherings of shadows in dark alleyways, ghostlike figures that vanished into clouds of dust. My father and I dropped off the car at the local mechanic, a seasonal visit after Mazen’s latest accident, to find a row of burning trash cans behind the service shop.
“To scare away the cats,” the mechanic explained, running his fingers along the car’s front bumper with a disapproving tut. “My wife found a talking one yesterday.”
“Come on now!” my father said with a laugh. “Sounds like your wife got into your shisha supply.”
The mechanic scowled.
“We don’t smoke or drink in my house,” he said with a nod in my direction, and I bristled at the implied connection between myself and the wrecked car. “The baker across the street saw it as well. A white cat with pale eyes. His head turned all the way around like an owl, and then it spoke. Disappeared before he could kill it. A shapeshifter – the jinn can take the form of animals or people to cause mischief. A sign of bad times, if these hidden creatures are bold enough to come out in daylight, into our world.”
Before I could ask what the cat had said, my father redirected the conversation back to the car, eager to move on.
Imam Salman became a fixture on local television, attributing the sandstorms and the more figurative shadow cast over the island to divine retribution. He had been a senior student at my private British school several years ago. Students had nicknamed him “Saltman” for adding salt to every snack, whether sweet or savory, and licking the remnants off his uniform tie.
“What a weedy little clown,” my father sneered at the television, before switching to his Arabic game shows. “People will follow anyone with a beard who can string two sentences together.”
Days later, Mazen discovered religion.
It happened abruptly, as these things do. Mazen renounced his sinful ways over dinner, announcing his intent to pray five times a day and attend mosque on Fridays, urging us to follow suit. He wanted to be a better person, he said. My parents exchanged cryptic looks and chewed silently on their ma’lubeh, perhaps considering whether this could be a positive development, or at least an improvement. At least he would stop drinking and jeopardizing the car.
I knew what this meant, however. Mazen smiled placidly at me from across the table, while I stared back with pure venom. Like any person prone to extremes, he had flipped the coin to the other end, but it remained the same, rotten, damaged coin. The impulsive pyromaniac, the thrill-seeker, the destroyer of things, still lingered behind those calm eyes. He had just channeled his destruction into a new outlet. Could my parents not see this?
Over the weekend, I worked up the courage to return to the beach. I rode my bike past the housing development until I reached the water, surprised to find Sophie sitting cross-legged in the sand. My heart skipped. I approached with caution, the way the neighborhood street cats accepted food offerings, but she beckoned me over with a smile.
“You couldn’t stay away either,” she asked. In her soft lyrical accent, it became both a question and a statement of fact. “No one wants to talk about it, but I can’t stop thinking about what happened.”
“Same here,” I said, eager to have something in common with Sophie, a shared fascination we could bond over. A large notebook rested over her legs.
“Oh this,” she said, tapping the notebook with her finger. Her nails were painted a glittery blue. “My drawing book. Not much around here to sketch, but we just moved into one of the new houses the sheik built over there. I figured I’d check out the beach before going out tonight.”
“Guess my brother isn’t joining you this weekend?” I asked with as much innocence as I could muster. She nodded with a dark look.
“He called me a whore,” she said in a hushed voice. “Said he’s changed, and done with English sluts like me.”
My fists clenched. Noting my anger, she smiled with appreciation, as though a gangly kid’s indignation was all the justice she needed.
I returned home to find a police car parked in the driveway. I took a photo, catching the lights spinning like disco balls. Inside the house, my father stood in the living room, shaking an officer’s hand. My mother sat in the recliner, limp as the tissue she dabbed her eyes with.
“What happened?” I asked after the police left.
“Your brother was arrested on Budaiya Road,” my father said. Underneath his pepper-colored mustache, his face looked drained of color. “Demonstrating with Imam Salman. Those idiots were protesting the new development near the causeway, and they rounded up the key troublemakers.”
Thanks to my family’s connections, Mazen returned home the next day, shaken but unrepentant. Tearful fights and slammed doors echoed across the house, threats and pleas and demands to end this nonsense, and go back to how things were. Faced with this bearded stranger, my parents spoke of a son who had never existed in a time that had never been. They looked through old family photographs, the four of us on vacations in Egypt and trips to the beach, recalling simpler times.
I knew better. Cameras were liars at heart, revealing more about the photographer than the photographed. A picture showed smiles, not happiness, a Pavlov’s response to a command. Look at me. Say cheese. But like a lie, it changed slightly every time you told it, and I enjoyed that power in pictures, the ability to see something new every time you revisited it.
I found nightly refuge in an abandoned water tower. The rusty structure overlooked an equally derelict playground behind our street, where Mazen used to burn our neighbors’ garbage. When the fights escalated, I would sneak out and climb the ladder.
From my lonely vantage point above the palm trees, the shifting landscape of Bahrain surrounded me. Across the highway, the smiling lights of the McDonald’s sign blinked through a mosque’s minarets. Through the polluted air, half-built skyscrapers and cranes lined the distant coast – hotels to support the new mega-mall under construction. On the other side of the tower, helicopters circled a nearby village, known for its rebellious clerics. I pulled out my camera, finding the perfect angles to capture the distant neon signs, the glint of moonlight against the mosque’s crescent peak.
Alone, I could see the shifting figure clearly in my mind. I remembered the way its bones crumbled and regenerated, unmaking and making itself into something new. Could it really be a jinni, one of the beings that lurked in the hidden corners of the world? Why had it appeared, and why had it looked directly at me?
At school, I skipped Islamic Studies (mandatory for Muslim students, while the lucky infidels took general Religious Studies), and wandered down the hallway to the Art rooms. Through the window, Sixth Form art class dismantled, the students returning brushes and paints to their rightful resting places.
I found Sophie near the window, preparing for the Winter Exhibit. She needed an “A” to compensate for her poor Geography exams, she explained. I wondered how one graded something as intangible, as personal, as art.
I glanced at Sophie’s canvas and the paintings drying around her desk. All depicted classic Middle Eastern scenes – palm trees, men drinking coffee in front of a bakery, a single camel traversing a horizon of stretching dunes. The mundane had become charming, even beautiful, under her skillful strokes of paint.
Sophie looked at me, raising an eyebrow.
“Not what I expected,” I admitted.
“I draw what I see,” she said. “There’s a lot of beauty to be found here. It’s not a horrible place, Kamel.”
“It’s a crazy place,” I said, noting how much I sounded like my father. “Demonstrations and closed highways. I don’t recognize it anymore.”
“How’s your brother?” Sophie asked.
My face flushed. Whether it was jealousy or general annoyance at being reminded of him, I didn’t know.
“Don’t really care,” I muttered. Mazen missed the bus to school that morning. In the past, that usually meant spending a day chasing girls at the mall, or smoking shisha in some dropout’s house, but now, his absence took a more ominous note.
“I had an idea after I saw your sketches,” I said, pulling my camera from my backpack. “A project. I’ll take pictures of Bahrain. All of it – the good, the bad, the parts no one talks about.”
“I like it.”
“If I share them with you, will you paint them?” I asked.
“I need at least five more good ones for my Exhibit,” she said. “I’ll take your best.”
As I left for my next class, pangs of doubt struck me, settling in a deep corner beneath my ribs. I had no idea if my pictures were any good, the way Sophie’s art was good. I knew nothing about technique or style, lacking the resources to learn. My future lay in engineering or geology, something my parents had enforced from an early age. I could keep my hobby, as long as I understood it was a hobby.
And so, I took pictures. I lived and observed, and if an observation grabbed me, I immortalized it with my camera. Except for that night on the beach. I wasn’t quick enough – or perhaps the figure had been too quick, too practiced at remaining hidden.
The nightly demonstrations grew after the government pulled Imam Salman’s program from the air, citing subversive material. Mazen joined the protests each night, and I snuck out with him to photograph them. It felt like old times – the two of us sneaking out together, only the punishment stakes had escalated to a night of torture in an overcrowded prison. Mazen did what he did best, hurling Molotov cocktails into the cool night air, while I hovered behind dumpsters and overturned cars, capturing the dancing flames with my camera.
In the villages, people told me about a ghost that left bloody handprints on front doors. Some interpreted it as warnings from the jinn, marking sinful households or police informants, while others felt that mischievous spirits would only come for the most pious. I stalked rows of houses at night for evidence, but only found doors marred by dirty shoeprints, where police had broken in for their nightly arrests.
I had learned to drive, and my parents let me go where I pleased outside of school. A unique perk of boyhood – as a girl, I would have required a chaperone for my excursions, rendering them impossible.
I found other, less dangerous places. Glittering shopping malls, where Saudi women traversed rows of shops with grim purpose – designer clothes to wear under their black abayas, makeup to highlight their eyes through their veils. The men sat in coffee shops, talking politics and people-watching. Occasionally, men sat alone, eyeing other men who sat alone, until they walked away in pairs. Families ate oversized burgers and took their kids to the cinema, to watch Harry Potter cast spells and Jean Claude Van-Damme walk away from explosions. Decadence and Western corruption, Imam Salman pronounced, and I photographed it all.
On quiet nights, I returned to the beach. Mazen and his friends never came back after that night. Occasionally, I found a lonely fisherman in the distance, but the area was otherwise abandoned. My camera pressed against my forehead like armor. I pointed it along the shoreline, hoping for a flicker of movement, a shift in the darkness. Nothing came. Night after night, the visitor failed to materialize.
Walls grew around the nearby housing development in response to the protests. Lights shone from second floor windows, one of which belonged to Sophie. I could have asked her to meet me on the beach; she was no stranger to sneaking out at night. Instead, I snapped a quick picture of the new homes, rising like hills along the artificial coast. A bad picture that felt like a stolen kiss, but I kept it anyway.
On the way home, I passed the local mosque as evening prayers began. It drew a steady crowd despite its unassuming exterior, figures in white robes streaming into the arched, wooden doors.
A car horn bleated behind me and I jumped in place. Behind me, my brother waved at me from the driver’s side of a parked Corolla with battered sides. A far cry from my father’s Infiniti.
“Come over here and meet my Brother Salman,” Mazen said, gesturing at me. His face lit up like a small child sharing a new toy and to my surprise, I felt pity rather than contempt for my lost brother.
In the passenger’s side, Imam Salman leaned forward, greeting me with a polite bow of his head. Feigned humility, a core competency of all holy men. I imagined his tongue darting out through his beard, searching for salt on his white sleeves.
“We haven’t seen you attend mosque, brother,” the Imam said to me. I flinched at the word ‘brother’ – one was enough.
“I’ve been busy,” I said.
“We’ve noticed,” Saltman said, nodding at the camera around my neck. “I’ve seen you taking pictures when we congregate in the streets. Why?”
“I’m capturing the struggles that true Muslims endure here, for the world to see some day,” I said with a straight face, almost convincing myself. The Imam smiled but Mazen glanced in the direction I had come from, his eyes flickering with new understanding.
“Were you at the beach?” he asked. “Taking pictures where we – ”
His voice trailed away, suspending his question in the air between us.
“Don’t go looking for jinn,” Imam Salman said. “Yes, I know about it,” he added, noticing my surprise. “You saw one of them, an ifrit from the sounds of it. If you attended mosque, you would know these things. Some of them are harmless, it is true, neither good nor evil. But not this one. It came with the foreigners, the kuffar and their cranes, to create trouble for us. It will trick you if it can.”
I tightened my grip on my camera. Mazen glared as I took several steps back, into the streetlight.
“You’re being noticed,” Mazen said. “The way you act, the company you keep. Why are you taking all those pictures?”
“It’s a free country,” I retorted, a statement we all knew was untrue. A line from a movie, set somewhere far away.
“Give me the camera!”
I ran into the dissipating crowd, knocking an old man to one side. When I reached home, I marched to my bedroom, ignoring my parents’ bewildered faces, and locked the door.
“Where have you been?” my mother asked in a small voice through the door.
“Ask Mazen where he is!” I bellowed. My hands shook as I slid a USB drive into my camera, making backups to my backup copies. The drive went into my bag, the latest batch for Sophie. An exchange of soft voices, full of concern, filtered through the door. I remained silent, fighting back tears, until my parents’ footsteps trailed back to the living room, where the evening news continued without interruption.
Sophie loved the photographs. I knew by the way her smile stretched across her cheeks. Her eyes darted to her blank canvas, perhaps planning the first outline.
“Look at the moon in that one,” she said, gesturing to a picture of the causeway.
“Don’t just paint coffee shops and old souks,” I said.
“Does this look like a souk?” she asked, before lowering her voice. “Have you seen it again? The… thing on the beach?”
“No,” I said. “I’m ready to give up. Maybe it really was nothing – somebody blew some strong shisha smoke in the air and we all imagined it.”
“You don’t believe that,” Sophie said, for once not lifting her voice into a question.
“Well, what’s the alternative? My brother and his new crazy friends think it’s a spirit from another dimension, cursing the island.”
“Maybe they’re right,” she mused. Although her expat family had been here for ten years, they felt the changes as much as anyone else. Her mother started driving her into school after the demonstrators directed their ire at their new neighborhood, a symbol of unwanted growth. Sophie no longer snuck out to the capital’s bar district on the weekends. It relieved me, this new sense of safety, although it left a sadness in her pensive, hazel eyes.
“They’re not right,” I said, but right no longer seemed to matter on an island where everyone was wrong about something.
As the Winter Exhibit neared, Sophie barred me from the art room on pain of being reported to the headmaster, for fabricated crimes against the art supplies. I obeyed, doodling my own images in Islamic Studies class, where our instructor had grown bolder in recent weeks. Our British school asserted fierce ambivalence in local politics, but current events creeped into our teacher’s lessons, warning of strange sightings across the island and a galvanized army of the faithful, tired of a government that placed Western money over local custom.
I drew a thin man with dislocated joints, the head twisted backwards.
“Satanic imagery!” The teacher barked, swiping my notebook away with skillful vehemence.
My parents continued to struggle with Mazen. He left in the middle of dinner to prepare for his prayers, a repeated act of disobedience that my father ignored with equal consistency. I spooned an extra serving of hummus on my plate.
“My chemistry mid-exam went well,” I said through the silence. My mother smiled appreciatively, welcoming my peace offering. I had become an afterthought in the wake of Mazen’s reincarnation as a holy warrior, but they were still my parents and I felt their suffering every time I walked through the door.
“There’s an art exhibit at school next week,” I continued, getting to the real point. “A friend of mine is one of the artists, it’s for her final exams. I’m not in it, but I helped with some of her paintings. Will you come?”
To my shock, they agreed. In the wake of Mazen’s fanaticism, my interest in the arts was benign in comparison.
A siren interrupted morning gym glass. We gathered in the main courtyard, where students filed out from the classroom buildings. Several lines away, Sophie stood with her clique of friends, their breath rising into the cold air when they talked. My skinny legs shivered as I stood in my red uniform gym shorts, bouncing from side to side with other unlucky athletes.
The headmaster appeared, armed with a megaphone. His grim expression warned us that something had happened, but the militaristic line of teachers behind him warned us that this was a British school, and order would be maintained at all costs.
“Please make your way into the auditorium,” he said in a calm, clear voice. “We have received reports of a riot in Isa Town, and demonstrators are advancing in our direction. Do not be alarmed. Buses and parents will be contacted once the coast is clear, and you will all be able to leave early.”
At the word “riot”, several students gasped or cried, but were soon drowned out by celebratory whoops at the news of early dismissal. A few sprinted into the auditorium, but the rest of us formed orderly lines under the headmaster’s watchful eye. Inside, I scanned the seated students for Mazen and his new cohort of bearded friends. A cold, heavy feeling settled in my stomach when I realized he wasn’t there.
Police managed to divert the protests to the highway, we soon learned. An hour later, the first parents arrived. The parking lot became a scene from a disaster movie, bodies and cars scurrying in every direction. Parents ambushed the headmaster and faculty with questions they could not answer, demanding solutions out of their control.
Several parking rows away, Sophie climbed into her father’s car. She looked back at the campus without catching my waving arms, and I felt a foreboding, sinking feeling in my chest, of a thread between us being severed.
Thin plumes of smoke rose from the dense, concrete buildings of Isa Town. Sophie’s car sped in the opposite direction and I knew with sudden clarity what I needed to do. Pulling my camera from my backpack, I passed through the school gates, heading for the highway.
Shouts and breaking glass greeted me as I approached the scene. A group of men had flipped a car over, setting it alight. The heat reached my face and I stood rooted to the ground, struck with sudden doubt and fear. I had been a spectator at many demonstrations in the past months, but this felt different. I knew it, and the crowd knew it as well, voices rising with fierce desperation. A final stand.
A helicopter hovered overhead. For a brief second, the spiral of smoke twisted into the air, and my heart skipped at the sight of a familiar shape. A long, lean frame with a face. It only lasted for a second, however, before it became smoke again. Just a burning tire on the road, a weapon in a fight without winners.
I lifted my camera. Mazen stood in the heart of the crowd, shouting and raising a flaming bottle overhead. The Imam stood on top of a car, shouting from a megaphone. Police cars had reached the far end of the demonstration, officers tumbling from their sides. Rocks flew in the air, bouncing off shields as the first arrests began.
Through the crowd, Mazen turned and his wild eyes met mine. He advanced, and I instinctively, stupidly held up my camera to shield my face. He swiped it aside, pushing me back. I fell, my head striking the pavement, the clouds above me tilting and swaying while I reeled from the blow.
Mazen pushed his knees into my chest, shouting something I couldn’t hear through the chaos. I lay still in the face of the assault, watching my brother’s mouth stretch across his face, his eyes shining with rage. I felt the same sense of parting that I had in the parking lot with Sophie, the knowledge of a moment I could never have back.
Hands appeared, pulling on Mazen’s shoulders and dragging him away from me. Other hands gripped my arms and legs, pulling me towards the police cars. I shouted something incoherent and reached for the ground, finding my camera. I held it to my chest as they questioned me.
My parents arrived at the police station several hours later. I waited for them in the front lobby, camera cradled in my lap. My pictures were intact, but the police had mined it for evidence, finding Mazen in frozen acts of civil disobedience over the last few months. Family connections would no longer save him.
Though my parents both broke down upon hearing of the charges against Mazen, carrying a minimum sentence of ten years, they never blamed me for the pictures. Mazen would have ended up here, my father explained, one way or another. Guilt followed me all the same, a kind of secondary grief for my parents. I knew his downward trajectory would destroy them, tinging my grief for my brother with anger.
We sat in silence on the way home, while my father navigated backroads. The radio newscaster announced road closures and protest movements, before a government minister joined the program, assuring listeners that the police had control of the situation, that everything was fine.
Sophie left with her family several days later. I heard that the British and American embassies posted a voluntary evacuation notice, urging but not requiring families to leave the country. An email from Sophie arrived in my inbox the next day, with the subject line, “goodbye.” Lower case letters, one word. It took me an hour to work up the courage to open it.
She told me that the paintings were ready for the Exhibit, the best she had ever done. Her exam results would come to her new address in Sheffield, and she kept her fingers crossed for an “A.” I imagined her voice as I read each line, raising the last word in each sentence into a question, as Sophie would have done.
She urged me not to be upset that she was gone, or angry at the direction the country had taken. My pictures had shown her something new, she said. Not new, but a side to the island that had always been there, of people without expensive private schools or future prospects, who saw the world changing while they remained in place. Don’t blame them, she said.
My face burned as I read her message several times over, until hot tears formed in my eyes. In the months after the night on the beach, I had spent considerable time watching Sophie, thinking about her, but I only now realized how much wisdom she carried, far kinder than I knew how to be.
The Winter Exhibit continued. The British sense of calm through adversity did not disappoint. Paintings, batik canvases, sketches and sculptures lined the walls of the art room, aligned under a diverse array of names. Students stood nervously by their work while parents and teachers shuffled by, giving polite attention to each exhibit.
I found Sophie’s exhibit in the far corner, where a decent crowd gathered underneath her name. My pulse drummed against my neck as I drew closer, noting the broad brushstrokes of black, violet and blue, bruised colors for a battered present.
Up close, I examined each painting one by one. The main mosque at night, underneath a smirking moon, behind a flurry of traffic. Figures in black and white shuffling under a cinema’s candy-colored lights, blurring together. Flaming bottles streaking across a dark crowd, while police lights waited at the far end of the street.
Mutterings rose as more spectators approached. Inappropriate, some whispered. Provocative, too political for a school project, one parent said to another.
Then I saw it. Sophie’s initials did not appear on any of her work, but a signature of another kind revealed itself upon close inspection. A dark shape in the shadow of the mosque, the faint outline of eyes. A lone figure in the stream of mall-goers, shoulders jutting out of place. A subtle face in the flames.
The apparition, the jinni, her muse, hidden in every painting. Always present but buried, blending into the fabric but leaving its mark on every scene. My mouth twitched in an involuntary smile, my first since Sophie had left.
A teacher moved forward, lifting a canvas off the wall.
“What are you doing?” I asked. “The Exhibit isn’t over.”
The man, an art instructor in his early fifties, raised his eyebrows slightly at my impertinence. He gave me a solid “C” last year, the final year I was required to take Art.
“All paintings have been graded, and Sophie’s family is sadly not here to collect it,” he said. “This one here has offended some of the local faculty, so there’s no need to keep it up.”
I opened my mouth to argue, but meeting his tired eyes, I sensed another futile battle. A potential compromise struck me.
“Can I take them?” I said. “I’m a friend of hers, I’ll keep them until she returns.”
A look of pity passed across his blotched face.
“I’ve already spoken to Sophie, and she indicated that she won’t be returning, and has no need for the paintings beyond the grading,” he said. “But I’m sure she’d have no issue with you taking them. She mentioned you, Kamel. Said you might want them.”
Her last painting on the wall did not come from my photographs. A simple, minimal painting of a bonfire on the beach. Dark water against dark skies, with streaks of orange flames in the center. What started with a fire would end with a fire. An offering. A recognition that the visitor had not been a visitor at all, but a part of the island we had chosen not to see. The island belonged to the hidden, no matter what we built or destroyed, who came or left – they would remain, seen when they wanted to be seen.
Sophie had left the jinni out of that last painting. No flicker of a shape near the water, no jutting limbs. There was no need to include it, I realized, in the place where it had marked us all. It had made Mazen look to the past, directing his rage against a current of change no one could contain. Sophie, part of the island’s future, understood the jinn as something constant, unchangeable. Though involuntarily exiled, I knew then that she would return, as much a part of the island as Mazen and I were.
Through my camera, I saw the present. Snapshots of time, small, fractured lies that together, told the story of an island I could never know in its entirety. I lifted the painting off the wall and left. I had seen all I needed to see.