Shadow of the Sun
by Taleb Alrefai
ISBN: 9781913043360

Helmy has arrived in Kuwait City

 It was a hot and odious morning. 
    “You arrived in Kuwait at the hottest time, Mr Helmy,” Sebai commented. “The locals leave in the summer to escape the heat.”
    I stood at the doorway to the room, looking out. We were in a single-storey residence. Facing me was a large, dusty open courtyard, encircled by several rooms with their front doors shut. I was startled to see so many unfamiliar faces worn down by fatigue and misery, and by the clamour of a multitude of air-conditioning units, emitting sandy air that felt as though it was being released directly out of an oven.
    “What have you made of yourself?”
    I don’t remember where I came across that poem. I think it was by an Iraqi immigrant poet who kept mourning his bad luck and repeating this line as a refrain throughout the poem.
    I never thought things would be this bad. I’d arrived from Egypt with a hundred pounds in my pocket, thinking that there was big money in Kuwait and that people were rolling in it.
    I had read a belated rebuke in Dessouki’s eyes the night he met me at the airport. 
    “Didn’t you get my letter?” he asked as we sat together that night, sounding disappointed and hurt. 
    I hesitated for a while before I replied. 
    “I did.”
    “Then why did you rush to come over here?”
    I didn’t know what to say. My father’s phrase came to me: “You were possessed by a devil called Kuwait.”
    What would I say to my father and Saniya if I went back now? If I didn’t find work in Kuwait? No one would believe me. Their sceptical and disapproving looks would pursue me. Kuwait, with its oil and money and jobs, doesn’t have work for a teacher!       What a failure you are, Helmy – you’d be shot down in flames. My father would gloat and I’d fall in Saniya’s estimation. She had already sold her gold and got into debt with her family.
    Hajj Metwally, the dog, took one thousand five hundred dollars from me; five thousand Egyptian pounds. I understood from him that work was easy in Kuwait and that the streets were paved in gold.
    “Just wait till you get to Kuwait and you’ll see what I mean.”
    If it hadn’t been for Dessouki, I would’ve slept on the streets. He was starting to chase me for two hundred and twenty-five dinars. My failure was disgraceful. Last week, Mr Rajai was on one of his visits to Fathi when he agreed to let me work for him. 
    “Your daily rate will be four dinars,” he said.
    I didn’t know what awaited me with him. I was repulsed by him when I first saw him at the airport. Every time I looked at him and his jaundiced appearance, I remembered the piece of paper that Taleb Alrefai had written on.
    “If you take on more jobs, you’ll get paid more.”
    “Let’s call it five then, sir,” Dessouki suggested, intervening on my behalf.
    But Rajai’s decision was final. “Four dinars is the daily rate. That’s the standard pay.”
    As proof of how generous he was being for Dessouki’s sake, he added: “Helmy doesn’t have any experience in this line of work, or at the site.”
    “Do not be surprised by this, brother,” Sheikh Hassan had also said to me. “May God bless you. This is what companies offer.”
    The third day following my arrival, Dessouki took me to a sponsor: The Abu Ajjaj company. It was the first time I had left the room. We walked to the bus stop, myself, Dessouki, the heat, and my estrangement. Everything was new to me: The Khaitan area, the parched ground, with no trees, no canal, and no animals. Only the yellow smog prowling the streets, hot as a furnace. I was struck by a sense of foreboding; I felt like I’d misjudged the situation, erred in my calculations. I’d overstretched myself and travelled too far in my dreams. There was no big money here, and there weren’t jobs everywhere you turned. I saw young men whose eyes betrayed their poverty and need; weariness and grief imprinted in their footprints.
    On the bus, I was shocked by the sunburned faces of Afghans, Indians, and Pakistanis, their gaunt bodies, stolen glances, greasy hair, the smell of smoke on their clothes, and their cacophonous jabbering. It was my first time to see anyone from those countries. For a moment, I felt like I was in India and not Kuwait.
    Dessouki’s voice snatched me away from those images: “May God help us quickly to get what we need from this company.”
I glanced at him, not wishing to reveal how worried I felt.
    “God willing.”
    The day I received the travel visa, Hajj Metwally tried to reassure me: “The Abu Ajjaj General Trading and Construction Company is one of the biggest construction companies in Kuwait. We’ve been dealing with them for years.”