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Miriam glanced up. I suggest you keep your wits about you. When she marries me and bears a son, we will create an inseparable bond between Sunni royalty and the Shia. There are far more appropriate punishments than death. Miriam looked at Musa. His name is Phil. Or giving testimony in a dispute.
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Add to Wants. Previous 6 months Previous 1 month: Previous 3 months: Previous 12 months: Close Window. She didn't recognize him, but judging by his business suit he meant just that—business.
Miriam glanced at Samir, who was watching the man. The man in sunglasses stepped back and motioned to the back of the car. Sita, the wife of Hatam, has demanded to see you. Please, get in. She opened the rear left door and slid in next to the man, who'd seated himself without turning toward her.
Good news, then. Her husband would never allow his new bride to call for her friends if she was in trouble. They passed a large white mosque, and she watched the men walking through its gates. Islam was supported by five pillars, simple and beautiful, and, contrary to the more restrictive sharia laws, they did nothing to shackle women.
Five pillars: The Creed: The annual Ramadan fast. The hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Almsgiving to the poor. And a sixth to some, the jihad, as the situation warranted, to "spread Islam or defend against infidels. Not unlike the Jews, who'd entered their so-called promised land by virtue of the sword. The Mercedes pulled up to an expansive villa covered in bougainvillea. They were at Sita's childhood home, which surprised her. Sita did not live here any longer.
A dread seeped into her bones. The man faced her for the first time. She could see the reflection of her veil in his mirrored glasses. She didn't know the extreme Islamic sect still existed. Rumors of their activity made the Taliban of Afghanistan look reasonable by comparison.
Remember what you see today. Consider it a message from Omar bin Khalid. Get out. Who was Omar bin Khalid? She followed him, surrounded by silence, through an archway that opened to the green grounds she and Sita had walked so many times. An old swing set built of oak sat unused beneath several tall trees to their right. Palms swayed in a light morning breeze. Still no sound. If anyone from the family was here, there was no sign.
The man led her around the side of the house instead of to the front door. They walked around the corner, toward the pool. Miriam saw them then. Four people standing on the pool's deck. Sita, her father, and her veiled mother. And another man. Sita, too, was veiled in black, standing with her arms at her sides. What could this possibly— Miriam stopped, frozen to the concrete. The person standing next to Sita's father was no relation to Sita, she saw that now. The tall thin man wore the white tunic of the religious police of Saudi Arabia, the mutawa, but a red cloth encircled his ghutra.
Images of public beatings and humiliations recounted from days not so old flashed through Miriam's mind. The sharia was a difficult law, but the ways of the extremist sects like the Nizari made even the most devout fundamentalists blanch. In that instant, Miriam knew her friend had kept her vow. Sita had refused her husband and would now pay a price. Oh, dear Sita! For a fleeting moment Miriam thought about running to her friend, taking her hand, and fleeing toward the fence.
But Sita's father, Musa, was a good man. Surely he was reasonable as well. The punishment would be his decision, not the mutawas, Nizari or not. Surely it would be merciful. Miriam forced her feet forward. Those gathered watched her in silence. Although Miriam couldn't see Sita's eyes, she could feel Sita's gaze like razors on her skin. They came to the edge of the pool, across the span of water from Sita and her father, and stopped.
For a moment no one spoke. Miriam looked at Musa. Deep lines carved the stone of his hard face. It wasn't yet hot, but sweat glistened on his brow. The religious man shifted on his feet, and his sandals scraped the concrete. Miriam wanted to scream at his bony and dark face, wake him from his terrifying apathy.
But she stood still next to the suited man, who nodded once. A soft whimper floated across the pool. Sita or her mother, Miriam could not tell. She ached to say something, to beg for leniency on behalf of her friend. It will be all right. If they beat her, her wounds will heal. If they cut off her hand for refusing to touch her husband, she will still live free of him. Surely the man had divorced her already. He would never live with this stain on his name. Neither would Sita's father.
No man shall escape his wrath. It is for our love of God and his Prophet and all that is written that we have gathered, lest we become a people who defile God. Nausea spread through her stomach. She had heard that those who administered severe punishment drugged the accused on occasion, to prevent a struggle. If they were going to beat her.
She has made a mockery of God and of Islam and must be punished in accordance with the laws of the Nizari, servants of God. So be it. Still no one moved.
Miriam had seen a beating once, a horrid occasion. But it was filled with anger and yelling, not this silence. The whimper came again—Sita's mother—and this time it lingered, then grew to a soft, quivering wail. The religious man lifted his chin and muttered something Miriam couldn't understand. He closed his eyes. Do what you must do. The wail turned guttural and shredded the air. Sita's mother grabbed her daughter's other arm. Sita's mother pulled at her daughter and dropped to her knees.
Sita looked like a rag doll about to be pulled apart. Her head lolled on her shoulders. Miriam cried out involuntarily. She felt pain spread down to her elbow. Sita turned her head toward Miriam. What are they doing to you! Sita's father was trembling from head to foot now. The religious man gave him a nudge toward the steps. Musa blinked, then stiffly led his daughter to the steps and into the water. Sita followed like a lamb, veiled and submissive, waiting for her fatal baptism.
The clear blue water soaked Sita's abaaya pitch black. It occurred to Miriam that she had stopped breathing. The unearthly silence returned, punctuated only by the blood pounding through her ears. Long fingers of horror snaked over her nose and mouth, smothering her. What happened next unfolded without fanfare, like a dream, distant and disconnected from reason. Musa placed his large hand on the docile child's head and shoved her under the water.
Miriam flinched and her guardian's grip tightened. No no no no. Miriam was screaming, but the screams refused to reach past her throat. Sita's abaaya floated around her like a black cloud. Musa's face trembled red. His eyes, still fixed on some unseen horizon, swam in tears.
Miriam's mind tilted. What she was seeing wasn't real. This father was not holding his fifteen-year-old daughter under the water in this pool she'd splashed in as a small child. This was just a horrible vision from hell that would end at— Sita began to struggle.
Her legs kicked from her white underdress. Her veil floated up, and for the first time since her friend's wedding, Miriam saw Sita's face.
Brown eyes, wide and round.
Straining mouth, covered by a wide band of silver tape. Musa's eyes bulged; his arm trembled. His mouth parted and he began to scream. But he held his daughter down. Musa had chosen the drowning. Miriam's tilting mind fell and crashed. She spun to her right, breaking free of the man's grip.
She had to save Sita. She had to get help! She had to dive in and pull her to safety! Her cheek exploded under the guardian's fist, and the pool tipped to one side. A groan, low and unearthly, broke from her throat.
She began to fall. She hit the concrete hard, inches from the water. Under the surface, Sita stopped struggling. Her father still screamed, long, terrifying wails past twisted lips. The religious man's emotionless face betrayed the truth: It was not the first time he'd overseen a father drowning a wayward daughter; it would not be the last.
Sita's lifeless eyes stared up through shimmering water. Miriam's world went black. That was his name—Khalid, son of Mishal, who was son of the first king, Abdul Aziz. Prophetic, Khalid had always thought, a name that begged him to make his bid for the throne.
Technically he was a royal nephew; his father's brother had been King Fahd before the reigning king, Abdullah, took the throne. Although the first king, Abdul Aziz, had sired forty-two sons, the kingdom required only so many kings. Four to be precise, all of them Abdul Aziz's sons. That left thirty-eight less fortunate.
Time was not merciful; the king's sons now grew too old for a crack at the throne—Khalid's father was seventy-eight to his fifty-eight. Those who weren't too old were undeniably far too liberal. It was time for Saudi Arabia to be returned to her great calling as the world's protector of Islam. It was time for a new king, Khalid thought.
He'd planned for this day long ago. Khalid sat on red pillows with his son, Omar bin Khalid, and Ahmed, the director of transportation. Like the others, Khalid wore the traditional ghutra headdress but topped it with a red circular igaal. The three reclined in a room that looked like a Bedouin tent but was actually a room in Khalid's palace. Omar picked up a glass of scotch and sipped the amber liquor. Alcohol was illegal in Saudi Arabia, of course, but most of the royal homes were well stocked.
Omar had more than his share. Women, for one. Not even Khalid approved of Omar's lack of respect for the young women. He'd bailed his son out of more than one situation involving dead females. One day the gender would be his downfall. But today he would use Omar to attain his own ends. Both father and son embraced the teachings of the Nizari, a fact that very few knew.
As such, they were uniquely qualified to overthrow the current monarchy and restore the days of glory, as God willed. He was exiled to England with his band of dissidents. Osama bin Laden and his Reformation Committee—we all know what happened to him. The government won't just welcome change for the sake of—" "I'm not asking them to change," Khalid said. You cut it out. That was both Al-Massari's and Bin Laden's problem.
Neither had the resources to cut it out. Khalid had waited until now to bring the director into full confidence. Khalid smiled. If a man in my position was to have the full support of the ulema and twenty of the topranking princes, and the undeterred ambition to overthrow the king, could he do it? They all knew that talk like this could earn death. He studied Khalid's face. I'll remember that when this is over. But what if a man in my position also had the full support of the Shia minority in the eastern provinces?
We are Sunni. You should know that. Indulge me for a moment. He picked up a piece of nangka, a sweet yellow fruit imported from Indonesia. If there was a leader among the four million Shia living in the eastern parts of Saudi Arabia, it was Al-Asamm, and to call him the sheik was enough.
And he's not a friend to the House of Saud. What do you hope—" "Actually, he hasn't flexed his muscles in nearly twenty years. Have you thought about that? He offers a token demonstration now and then, but not like he was once known to. Look at Iran—they know how to overthrow. We wouldn't give them too much power, of course, but they do constitute 15 percent of Saudi citizens.
We will give them a voice. They both looked at Omar. He'd sat through numerous meetings like this one, plotting and gathering support for his father's plan.
Now, less than a week away from the actual coup attempt, it was becoming his plan. Not because he had conceived it, but because without him, the plan would fail.
Then he would become king himself, after Father was killed. The reign of the kingdom would be built on blood, he thought. Blood and marriage. Both at his hand. His father faced Ahmed. It will work because my son will marry Sheik Al-Asamm's daughter. And how will that help? Her name is Miriam. When she marries me and bears a son, we will create an inseparable bond between Sunni royalty and the Shia.
The sheik insisted that she not be married until she reached twenty-one. Evidently he wasn't in a rush to weaken the bloodline. She is now a week from that birthday. Abu AH al-Asamm? They are Shia; we are Sunni. This was planned twenty years ago, when Omar was just a boy. The man died within the hour— a tragic accident.
Omar stood and picked up an apple. He bit deeply into its crisp flesh. Your position is critical to our plans. We need the airports. You're plotting your own death. Ahmed glanced at Khalid and then back. I will take his daughter Miriam as my wife in four days. We will unseat Abdullah the day after the wedding.
I will be king in one week. We will be a fundamentalist state within the month. Just like that, the man had switched his loyalties from the reigning king to Khalid.
Of course, if he refused, he would pay dearly. A bell rang near the tent door. A thin man dressed in a business suit entered and dipped his head. His servant approached the table and looked at them without speaking. Stonings were a slow, drawnout nuisance. Better to drown and be done with it. You may leave. His corduroys bunched slightly over worn sandals as he stepped through the grass. To his right, a dance squad performed flips in short skirts.
The Faculty Club building stood beyond them, bordered by a manicured glade. He'd been inside on four occasions, each time for an event that required his attendance.
Receptions in honor of his awards, mostly. Like the one scheduled for Thursday evening. The American Physical Society and the American Institute of Physics had named him something or other of the year, and, like it or not, the graduate dean was obligated to acknowledge the award. Thinking about it now, Seth wondered what would happen if he didn't show. He wasn't feeling too social after yesterday's fiasco with Baaron. He envisioned two hundred faculty dressed to the nines with champagne glasses raised and no one to toast.
Phil was among half a dozen down-and-outers that Seth felt truly at home with. Phil slapped an open crossword magazine in his hand. Seth made quick mental notes of the puzzle's pattern—black squares, white squares, numbers.
Okay, ready? Seventeen across, ten letters, clue— expropriate. Phil flipped a page, checked the answer, and continued. Twenty-four across, seven letters, clue—horse back in the pack. It has to be tames.
The M intersects with commandeer and the S intersects with also-ran" Seth said. Phil slapped the magazine closed. Seth decided long ago that women had an inexplicable effect on his mind, minimizing its ability to process thought in logical constructs.
Without fail, females turned Seth into someone he really didn't think he was, someone lost for clear thoughts and words. Any girl. He aggressively denied the desire, of course. Phil saw Seth had noticed and ducked his head. They had named the philosophy building Moses—ironic but appropriate considering its current occupant. Seth had always thought that the chair of philosophy, Samuel Harland, PhD, was the spitting image of Charlton Heston with his dirty blond hair and soft blue eyes.
He was the only man in the place worthy of the building's name. He knocked on the department head's office door, heard a muffled "Enter," and stepped in. Seth sat. Baaron is seething. If there was one person in his life he could confide in, it was this man. You could have been a little more selective, don't you think? Seth shook his head. You're a blatant challenge to his theories of order. To doggedly pursue the truth?
This is becoming a habit for you. But put him in a room with Seth, and half his chips seemed to go on the blink. He was an easy target, one that Seth couldn't resist shooting at now and then. It didn't help that Baaron reminded Seth of his father.
The tension had set in a year earlier, when Seth wrote a paper on the Strong Force that questioned prevailing thought. The paper was picked up by several scientific journals and published to some acclaim.
It was hardly Seth's fault that the prevailing theory, which Seth trashed, was authored by none other than Gregory Baaron, PhD. The world of physics was a small one.
You have to learn how to blend in a little. If Seth's formal education had taught him anything, it was that celebrated intelligence had nothing to do with intellectual honesty, with being genuine.
People who appreciated both brilliance and frank honesty were in short supply. The system preferred the kind of brilliance that lined up with the flavor of the day. Samuel Harland was anything but the flavor of the day. He had no interest in kissing the elitists' beliefs so he could smoke his pipe in the Faculty Club.
He simply and methodically pursued every thought to its logical conclusion and put his faith there, in what he saw at the end of the trail. The smile faded from Seth's face. I can't seem to fit in. They're talking about official reprimands. Heading back down to San Diego. I talked to my mom last night. She lost her job.
What are you going to do for a living—pump gas? But I came up with an equation that limits possible futures to one. You've decided to swing that way, is that it? I'll remain comfortably blank on the subject for now, despite my proof to the contrary. You're going to show me the equation? I'm going to translate it into a hypothetical syllogism of sorts. He knows whether I'm going to cough in ten seconds. I WILL cough in ten seconds. C Because God cannot be mistaken, there is NO possibility that any other future, other than the one future that God knows, will happen.
There's NO possibility I won't cough in ten seconds. I cough in ten seconds. Seth set the pencil down. And vice versa. To believe God exists also requires you to believe that the future is unalterable.
By definition. There can only be one future, and no amount of willing can change it. They'd argued the subject on several occasions, and he didn't seem eager to dive in again.
Seth looked out the window. Seth blinked. You'd think that would break the window. You didn't just see that? I didn't hear—" A pigeon slammed into the window with a loud thunk. It fell away in a flurry of feathers. Seth stared at the clear pane of glass. Yes, exactly like that. I could've sworn I just saw that ten seconds ago. Like a deja vu.
Very odd. Smile, be nice. Try to keep your foot out of your mouth. Maybe even offer some kind of apology to Baaron—" "Suck up. His fingers slipped into his pocket and toyed with the Super Ball. The pigeon was hobbling along the grass, dazed. The tragedy was too large in her mind to discuss at first—they rode in silence. Miriam had awakened in the car and wept for her friend. At home, her father, Salman, refused to hear anything of it, insisting that if it had happened as she said, the matter was beyond his influence.
She went to her room and fell asleep on a pillow soaked with tears. She'd heard of stonings and even drownings before, of course, but only in stories of mad men in remote desert regions.
Never could she have imagined seeing her best friend drowned by Musa. Wicked, wicked Musa. The Nizari sect lived and they were an insane lot! Haya awakened her before noon. Samir was waiting to take her to her appointment, she said. Miriam had almost forgotten.
The sheik Al-Asamm wanted to see her. Did he have a son for her to marry? Then he would approach Salman, not her. She didn't care. Sita was all she could think of. She washed away her tears and readied herself. Samir drove her through the streets of Riyadh, seeming to understand her need for silence, past new structures designed by Western architects. Nearly a quarter of Saudi Arabia's population was expatriate, imported labor and expertise to build the city and serve the House of Saud.
To many fundamental Muslims, the slow Westernization of this, Islam's birthplace, was a blasphemous tragedy. Today, for the first time, Miriam thought it symbolized the hope of freedom. They wound through the suburbs, sandstone brick-and-mortar construction. Everything square. And then they were in the desert, which stretched endlessly to Dhahran on the Persian Gulf. The Americans had used Dhahran as a base during the Gulf War.
The tires droned under them. Not among the respectable. Some men can be beasts to their women. It's not—" "A beating? What gives a man that right? It's inhumane to drown your daughter, and it's inhumane to beat your wife! He mumbled his agreement, but her words obviously stung his ears.
She sat next to him, as she frequently did when they were alone, for the rest of the trip. But today she sat dazed and numb. Two Mercedes rather than camels formed a kind of gate in front of the main canvas flap. Samir stopped the car. Dust drifted by. A Bedouin woman dressed in a traditional black abaaya, but without the full-face veil, exited the tent and watched her. Bedouin veils rode on the bridge of the nose, allowing the world free access to the eyes. Miriam reached the tent and gazed into the smiling eyes of the strange woman.
Perhaps the sheik was not so concerned with tradition. Not wanting to be rude, Miriam removed her veil and entered. Abu Ali al-Asamm, a white-bearded holy man, sat on a large silk pillow and talked in hushed tones to a woman on his right. A maroon carpet with gold weaving covered most of the floor, and on this carpet was a single low table. Otherwise there was only a stand for tea and a large bowl of fruit—hardly the furnishings of a typical tent. Apparently, they had come on short notice with only what would fit into the cars outside.
Talk stilled as the tent flap fell behind her. The sheik was on the heavy side, and getting to his feet was not an easy task.
He stood and stared at her with eyes that betrayed as much wonder as curiosity. He knew her name, obviously, but he spoke it as if some mystery were contained between the syllables. What was this all about? Did he know about Sita's drowning?
The sheik walked toward her, eyes beaming. She was my wife; I would think I knew her quite well. I've never met you. Or your wife. She isn't my mother. I'm afraid you're mistaken. Salman adopted you, yes? It's a shock. How insensitive of me. I've been watching you for all of these years and you're learning for the first time that I'm your real father.
In fact, she couldn't. Why hadn't she been told? There was no resemblance, no logic, nothing to tie her to this man. It had been a mistake to come! But looking at them both, she knew that they spoke the truth. Such a powerful man would never fabricate such a preposterous story unless it was entirely true. Abu Ali al-Asamm was her father. God help her. A beautiful woman. Privileged in every way. Please, come and sit. Nadia offered her fruit, and she took an apple. Miriam bit into it absently, trying to think through the ramifications of this news.
Wrinkles spread from his eyes, crow's-feet formed by a perpetual smile. Miriam felt a knot rise in her throat. Could she trust this man the way she'd always wanted to trust Salman? Could such a strange man be a real father to her?
It was not the precise truth, but it was the correct answer. The sheik began to speak about his life. None of it really mattered to her, but she listened politely and asked a few questions to show interest. What she really wanted to know was why. Why had the sheik given her up for adoption to Salman? What advantage had it gained him?
He talked for ten minutes of the eastern province and Dhahran. Of the Shia and the American involvement in the region. About Miriam's mother and how she had always wanted a daughter. Miriam was her only child, but Jawahara had died happy. Yet the sheik had not brought her here to talk about her mother.
The talk stalled. She was fifteen and forced to marry an old man. She refused him, and this morning her father drowned her for shaming them. I was forced to watch.
There are far more appropriate punishments than death. I am sorry, child. I am very sorry. I'm sure you're wondering why I asked Salman to adopt you. For the sake of returning the country to the true teaching of Islam, and for the sake of bringing my people, the Shia, into their rightful place within society.
When you marry into the House of Saud and bear a son, my grandson will be filled with royal blood. He agreed to the general plan from the beginning, though it was not for him to say whom you would marry. And he probably had, having hatched the plan twenty years ago! Her biological father had forged an alliance with her adoptive family. She was just a pawn. I have made no preparations! To Omar bin Khalid. I don't even know him! He stared, mouth agape. For Samir's sake she had to recover.
She could not reveal the true depth of her love for him. I do not. But what if I did love someone? You would still force me to marry a man I don't love? I don't know a single person who speaks well of Khalid bin Mishal's family. They are animals! His anger snatched her back from the brink of foolishness.
In her mind, she heard a door slam, saw the bolt slide through. Several years ago, a friend who'd argued about marrying was locked up until the day of the wedding. But please, I beg you, don't do this to me!
Now you are telling me that you know better than I who is a good husband? Her posture told Miriam that the sheik's outburst was not a common thing.
He had traded her once for peace, and he would do it again, this time for power. She had to buy herself some time. Four days! She shivered and found her tongue. I was thinking irrationally. In one day my best friend has been killed and I learn that I have a wedding in four days.
I'm losing myself. This must be done. Samir will bring you to us tomorrow, and you will be pampered like a queen. And when we are successful in taking the throne, your wedding will be celebrated in the open. The practice had been instituted by Muhammad in the seventh century, when bathing was not common.
Miriam nodded, suppressing an urge to vomit. Samir dropped Miriam off at the souk and agreed to pick her up in one hour. He'd tried to find out what was bothering her and didn't have a clue about the wedding. To tell him would only crush him. She couldn't bring herself to do it, not yet. The market bustled with merchants peddling their wares. Women, floating around in black, inspected products through their veils.
She found Sultana at their favorite stall for fresh fruit. But the dread of Miriam's own troubles had blunted the horror of Sita's drowning. Sultana took Miriam by the arm.
The fruit vendor was staring their way. She grabbed Miriam's arm and pulled her to the end of the row. She kept her voice low. He has given me in marriage. My real father.
Sheik Abu al-Asamm. Sultana looked at her as if she were mad. What are you talking about?
I was adopted into King Abdullah's family in exchange for loyalty. The wedding is in four days. Oh dear, oh dear, this is terrible. Sultana, please. He's my first cousin! I could tell you things about this man that would make you vomit. Do you know who pressured her father to drown her? I'll tell you. It was Omar bin Khalid. But how. He said that the drowning was a message. From Omar! For taking a toy from one of his nephews! She was in the hospital for a week! Look at Sita!
She included Omar's message as well. We're still not thinking clearly. Omar is a beast who orchestrated Sita's drowning, don't you see? Dear God, have mercy on them both, Sultana was right. Miriam looked back at the shops. A woman draped in black faced them. You have to run. If you stay, you will either be beaten into submission or end up dead like Sita.
A long silence stretched between them. Two years earlier, on a girlish whim, they had drawn up a detailed plan to run away to the United States and convinced each other the idea would work. Not that they ever intended to use it. They would never work. I think so. What if I get caught? They need you, don't you see? They can't just kill you. Most women she knew had a hard enough time getting out of the house, much less getting out of the country.
Who was she to think she could run?