Reader’s Choice Winner for January

Alhamdulillah

by Alex Sinclair-Lack

Breathe deeply, people are looking at you. Keep that foot still. Riyadh is 11 kilometres away. You’ve come this far, you’re not turning around. What if he isn’t who he says he is? It happens, you know? It happens all the time. Zealots are waiting around every corner in this city. In the rooms of these ungodly towers. In the markets and the mosques. In the opulence and the dust. In these pristine train carriages and lavish stations. No. Quiet this voice of doubt. It is the cry of a lesser man, a man content with loneliness and shadows. Live, live while life is yours. Nobody here knows who you are. How could they?

What if someone followed him? What if he is with the Mutaween? The self-declared Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. What if he has been made cruel by hatred of his nature? Why does god make men unfit to live? Stay alert Hamzeh. Look around. A man and his covered wife or daughter. A young student reading a foreign novel. Sand from someone’s shoe spread on the carriage floor. A stray packet of tissues on the seat opposite. The city streets rippling in the midday heat. Two bearded men boarding the train, their eyes red and callous.

The larger of the two men wiped his broad nose on his thawb. His wiry companion’s nostrils flared as they spoke in hushed tones.

They’re coming this way. They’re coming for you.

The broad man’s eyes widened as he darted towards the seat. ‘Alhamdulillah!’ they bellowed, as they pounced on the pack of tissues, ‘all thanks be to God’. Both sickly men fell into an uncontrollable laughter.

Al-Zadd Market. Brown waistcoat, white shirt. Gold glasses. What will be the colour of his soul? This is your stop.

This can’t be right. Why meet in a place of endless eyes? So many stalls, so many windows. This can’t be right. Brown waistcoat, white shirt. Gold glasses. I can’t do this. This is wrong. Leave. Hide. A coffee shop. Sit, be calm. Think.

Black coffee, scented with cardamom and citrus, just like home. Some things resist the winds of wealth and time. Have you really given up? All those nights when sleep was nowhere close, all to surrender your will at the final hour. He’s not here. Maybe he didn’t come. Maybe you avoided a trap. It’s for the best.

‘Hamzah.’

A warm hand fell upon Hamzah’s back. A gentle pair of eyes looked down at him through thin gold frames. He rose to shake the man’s hand, ‘Khaled?’, Khaled smiled and nodded, but did not release his grip. He cannot be ignorant of the danger that faces us. Khaled’s eyes followed Hamzeh’s to their enjoined hands. He let go and sat down at the table. An almost imperceptible nod signalled the ordering of a coffee. Once again, Khaled took Hamzeh’s hand.

‘In a country such as ours, it is easier to hide in the light than in the shadows.’

The lines around his eyes paint a life of trouble and laughter. His back is straight, his demeanour composed, thoughtful.

Alhamdulillah.

Alex Sinclair-Lack is a travel-writer from the dark depths of Cornwall. He’s working his way through more exotic lands. 

Our Reader said:

I love the way this piece is written, exposing the anxiety and paranoia of the protagonist as they face the introduction and resolution of threat. The setting and surroundings are intricately but concisely described in a way that places the reader with the character on their journey. The story is neatly finished in a way that means it could work well as part of a larger piece or stand alone as a short story.

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