Talismans

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

IMG_6811The sun burnishes the walls every day for just over three quarters of an hour out of the fourteen I spend at my shop; the mannequin assumes a buttery glow then, her organza scarf liquefies in the golden light. The CD skips at mi amour every time but this hiccup is also golden and otherworldly. The sun lifts my surroundings, the merchandise, the credit card machine, the shelves, during this portion of time in a grandiose gesture; it’s our secret— the book I’ve been writing for years has a life somewhere and this is a furtive daily reminder. I’d rather not have customers at a moment so personal in a public place; I’m at a shopping mall, selling jewelry and shawls.

I’ve named my business “Moriama”— a variant of “Moraima” (or Mariam), the last empress of Al Andalus; my manuscript is a series of poems set in Al Andalus. No one knows or cares about this but I’m advised by friends to do away with the “World Gem Bazaar” part of the sign— too “middle-eastern” in 2003. The spectrum of emotions in response to the pressure to hide my identity for fear of hostility will permeate the poems describing the atmosphere of the inquisition as my book on Al Andalus progresses. Across from me is a mattress store. As I polish and arrange African garnets and checkerboard-cut citrines, nomad jewelry from Afghanistan and London Blue Topaz pendants, someone rolls and rolls dough next door, breathing in cinnamon powder and sugar I imagine, or mops spill after spill of coffee. We’re connected to each other by repetition, as if we were phrases of the same poem.

I catch sight of mall employees and passersby in my many mirrors. There is a surge in mall traffic when the military boats arrive. People walk into Moriama for all kinds of reasons; some, just to announce that Baltic amber or opal is from their old country, or that they are looking for a talisman as they are awaiting MRI results, being deployed to Iraq, or that they plan to get their teeth whitened, get body piercings or travel abroad. Some ask me if I give military discounts, where my accent is from, or if I believe in Jesus.

I begin to see myself as they see me, which is useful for a recluse, and good preparation for impending xenophobia. The ornaments bring out a peculiar innocence in most shoppers; they engage in genuine conversations. I relish the chance to expand my knowledge about the handpicked items I buy from dozens of suppliers, talking about Indonesian weaves and Brazilian mines, Italian and Thai silver, Pakistani mirror-work and applique, wool from the Himalayas, cloisonné, precious and semi-precious birthstones and their lore. When I’m alone, I’m my secret writer self wondering how Sappho is related to sapphire, and turquoise to Turkey; I read about amethyst goblets used to ward off intoxication, the history of Pashmina and the valley of Kashmir, Native American jewelry, the use of lapis lazuli pigment (known as “a fragment of heaven”) in the work of Botticelli and other painters.

Being handed stories and passing them on as I buy and sell, I become a small link in the age-old chain of tradition and trade. There are some moments that will not be retold to customers and suppliers, only take root in future writing, such as my encounter with the marine who weeps at the sight of fringed scarves and silver jewelry. He tells me he is reminded of the souks of Baghdad. Another marine, a woman, asks for “something with a meaning” to wear around her neck for protection. She is going to war, leaving behind a four month old and a two year old. I have never seen a face more frozen, heard a voice more distant. She is already at war. I think of my own children who are three and five years old. I also think of the Iraqi children about to be killed or orphaned when the next boat leaves. I am at a loss to find her “something with a meaning.”

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