Her desert knight

By: Jennifer Lewis

Going to her favorite bookshop in Salalah was like stepping back into a chapter of Arabian Nights. To get there, Dani had to walk through the local souk, past the piles of carrots and cabbages, the crates of dates and figs, winding her way through knots of old men wearing their long dishdashas and turbans just as they must have done a thousand years ago.

Then there was the store itself. The double doorway of time-scarred wood was studded with big metal rivets, like the entrance to a castle. Only a small section opened, and she had to step over the bottom part of the door into the smoky darkness of the shop. The smoke was incense, eternally smoldering away in an antique brass burner that hung in one corner, mingled with pipe smoke from the elderly store owner’s long, carved pipe. He sat in the corner, poring over the pages of a thick, leather-bound tome, as if he maintained the shop purely for his own reading pleasure. It was entirely possible that the store was a front of some kind, since there rarely seemed to be any customers, but that didn’t diminish Dani’s enjoyment of its calming atmosphere.

The books were piled on the floor like the oranges in the stalls outside. Fiction, poetry, treatises on maritime navigation, advice on the training of the camel: all were in Arabic and nearly all were at least fifty years old and bound in leather, darkened by the passage of many greasy fingers over their smooth, welcoming surfaces. She’d found several gems here, and always entered the shop with a prickle of anticipation, like someone setting out on a journey where anything could happen.

Today, as she stepped over the threshold and filled her lungs with the fragrant air, she noticed an unfamiliar visitor in the picturesque gloom of the interior. The light from one tiny, high window cast its diffuse glow over the tall, broad-shouldered figure of a young man.

Dani stiffened. She didn’t like the idea of a man in her djinn-enchanted realm of magic books. She didn’t like men anywhere at all, lately, but she gave the shop owner a pass as he was quiet and kind and gave her big discounts.

She resolved to slip past the stranger on her way to the stack she’d started to investigate yesterday: a new pile of well-thumbed poetry books the shop owner had purchased at a bazaar in Muscat. She’d almost bought one yesterday, and she’d resolved overnight that today she wasn’t leaving without it.

The interloper was incongruously dressed in Western clothing—jeans and a white shirt, to be exact—with expensive-looking leather loafers on his feet. She eyed him suspiciously as she walked past, then regretted it when he glanced up. Dark blue eyes ringed by jet-black lashes peered right into hers. He surveyed her down the length of an aristocratic nose, and the hint of a smile tugged at his wide, arrogant-looking mouth. A younger, stupider Dani might have thought he was “cute,” but she was not so foolish now. She braced herself in case he had the nerve to speak to her.

But he didn’t. Slightly deflated, and kicking herself for thinking that anyone would want to speak to her at all, she headed for her familiar pile of books. Only to discover that the one she wanted was missing. She checked the stack twice. Then the piles on either side of it. In the dim, smoky atmosphere, it wasn’t easy to read the faded spines, the gold-leaf embossing worn off by countless eager hands. Maybe she’d missed it.

Or maybe he was reading it.

She glanced over her shoulder, then jerked her head back when she discovered that the strange man was staring right at her. Alarm shot through her. Had he been watching her the whole time? Or had he just turned around at the exact same moment she had? She was annoyed to find her heart pounding beneath the navy fabric of her traditional garb.

“Are you looking for this book?” His low, velvety male voice made her jump, and she cursed herself for being so on edge.

He held out the book she’d been searching for. A 1930s edition of Majnun Layla by Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi, with a faded green leather binding and elaborate gold tooling.

“You speak English.” The first words out of her mouth took her by surprise. She’d intended to say yes, but her brain short-circuited. She hadn’t heard anyone speak English since she’d come back here from New Jersey three months ago. She’d begun to wonder if she’d ever use her hard-won language skills again.

He frowned and smiled at the same time. “Yes. I didn’t even realize I was speaking English. I guess I’ve spent too much time in the States lately. Or maybe my gut instinct told me you speak it, too.”

“I lived in the U.S. for a few years myself.” She felt flustered. His movie-star looks were disconcerting, but she tried not to judge a book by its cover. She cleared her throat. “And yes, I mean, that is the book I was looking for.”