Cafe H

Previous Chapter | Contents | Next Chapter

           Sophia stood at the entrance to the railway tunnel watching the flares fall. It was the most beautiful sight she had ever seen, the buildings, reflecting sea, all enveloped in a shimmering silvery glow. She could not help feeling that it was a show being put on especially for her benefit, though perhaps someone else was watching too. God? Perhaps that was who this show was really for, not her, she was just part of the entertainment.

           "Sophia! Come away from there this instant!"

           It was her mother, hysterical and in tears. "But Mama, it's so pretty."

           "Foolish child." Her mother slapped her face, grabbed her by the hand and led her back inside. Sophia wailed, not because of the sting of the slap but because the spell of the pretty light had been broken, leaving only the darkness of the tunnel.

           "Be quiet, Sophia," her mother chided, leading her back to where her sister sat huddled with some others, her mother who in her youth had won a Greta Garbo look-alike contest and a ticket to Hollywood but hadn't been able to accept it because of her parents' fear that she would somehow become a victim of the Black Hand if she went to America. Bombs started falling, making the ground shake and dirt fall from the roof.

           "Close one," the widow Lucha commented unnecessarily. "Sometimes I wonder if it would be better to take our chances outside, rather than risk being buried in here."

           "Better for you, perhaps," said Mario, a deserter hiding from German conscription like all the other young Italian men. "No bomb would dare land on you. Go ahead, try your luck."

           "It is the end of the world," said an old priest who Sophia did not know. "God is punishing us for our sins."

           "Pah," said Sophia's mother. "This war will end and we will get on with our lives. I know this because my daughter Sophia is going to become a movie star."

           Everyone laughed. "Movies," Mario spat. "We're in danger of getting blown to hell, and she's talking about the movies. Perhaps this is just a movie we're in now, eh? Makes as much sense as anything."

           Sophia listened to a couple making love in the darkness, oblivious in their passion. Sound was the predominant factor in this environment, along with smells, such as the smell of cigarettes, rotting food, unwashed bodies. It all seemed like a mad dream that couldn't possibly be true but also could hardly be otherwise, and Sophia couldn't escape it.

           "Miss Loren? Miss Loren?"

           Sophia woke up. It was Muammar. She had dozed off in a chair in the hotel's lobby after finding the card game Rossano had spoke of, but not their director or Mr. Wayne. She hadn't told the card players, a half-dozen members of the cast and crew, why she was looking for Mr. Hathaway and the Duke because she hadn't wanted to cause a panic just yet. She had decided to wait for Rossano and had dozed off, once more to dreams of her war-torn childhood. Would they never leave her alone?

           "Muammar, have you seen Mr. Wayne anywhere since I left you? I lost him."

           "Yes. In the desert outside of Ghadames. He was talking to someone."


           "I don't know. I could not see anyone."

           "You mean---he seemed to be talking to himself?"


           Sophia's heart sank, remembering what Rake\Drinkwine had told her about Mr. Wayne being dosed, or drugged. "Is he still there, in the desert?"

           "No. I don't know where he is now."

           Sophia tried to think. What should she do? This was not a situation she had ever expected to have to deal with as a movie star. "Do you know of any other place in town like your uncle's where Mr. Wayne could have gone?"

           Muammar's frown returned. "There is another place that is even worse. It is a place of the devil."

           "Will you take me there? Mr. Wayne has been given a dangerous drug without his knowledge. That's why he's acting strangely."

           Muammar sighed. "I will take you. But only because Allah instructs us to help those in distress."

           They started to go when Sophia remembered Rossano. "I have to leave a note for someone. Do you have a pencil and paper?"

           Muammar went to the front desk and returned with a pad and pencil. Sophia started her note, then realized that she didn't know where she and Muammar were going. "What's the name of this place?"

           "I don't know. I'm not sure it has a name."

           "Can you tell me where it is?"

           "It is past where Rashid the one-eyed beggar lives, if that is of any help to you."

           "Not really."

           "Are you leaving this note for a foreigner?"

           "Yes, Rossano Brazzi. He's in the movie that Mr. Wayne and I are making too."

           "Just tell him that you are going to the place of evil besides Abdullah's and he'll know what you mean."

           "Are you sure?"

           "It would not surprise me if he was already there. It has become a favorite spot for the unbelievers, like from the oil companies."

           "Oil companies?"

           "They have sent men looking for the oil they believe is hidden underneath our desert. They want to exploit our wealth, which under our corrupt rulers they will be allowed to do freely. Right now you westerners have the upper hand in such matters, but I swear by Allah that that will change."

           Sophia smiled.

           "Why are you smiling?" asked Muammar.

           "You are such a serious young man. Hasn't anyone ever told you that before?"

           "No. Is there something wrong with that?"

           "No, it's just funny for someone as young as you to be so serious all the time."


           "It just is. What do you do for fun?"

           "Study the Koran and the writings of Gamel Abdul Nasser."


           Sophia wrote a note for Rossano which she hoped made sense, and taped it to the outside of the hotel's front door, Muammar providing the tape. Then they left the hotel, Sophia quickly losing her bearings again in the unlit, winding pathways. "Have you ever been to this place?" she asked Muammar.

           "No. Never."

           "Then how do you know it is worse than your uncle's?"

           "I've heard things."

           "What things?"

           "That it is worse than my uncle's."

           "I didn't think your uncle's was all that terrible."

           "That is because you are not a Muslim."

           "You think drinking any kind of alcohol, even wine, is that bad?"

           "It is against the will of Allah as revealed to his Prophet. As foreign infidel, you wouldn't understand."

           "We believe in God. Most of us, anyway."

           "Do you believe that Muhammad is his Prophet?"

           Sophia wasn't going to be trapped that easily. "If I have wine with my meal, just one glass, that would offend you? I'm not going to get drunk on one glass of wine. Besides, it is the custom of my country. We are famous for our love and cultivation of the grape."

           "I know. You are Italian."

           "So? Can an entire country be wrong?"

           "If it is against the will of Allah."

           "Is everything the will of Allah?"

           Muammar offered Sophia a bemused look. "How could it not be?"

           Sophia was keeping an eye open for a dwelling that might be a suitable habitation for someone called Rashid the beggar when they turned the corner on a one room hut and came upon a building that looked completely out of place. It appeared recently constructed, with glass windows, a regular door, brick walls and a large red neon sign on the roof that said Cafe H. Several vehicles, mostly trucks, were parked out front, and loud music rumbled within.

           "Foreigners," Muammar sneered derisively, adding something further in Arabic.

           Sophia headed for the door, then stopped when she noticed Muammar wasn't following her. "Aren't you coming in?"

           "I would never enter such a place. It should be burned to the ground."

           "But it's a more suitable place than your uncle's for an unaccompanied woman?"

           "No, it is not," said Muammar, chastened. "But what are you going to do, even if John Wayne is inside? The last time you did nothing."

           "This time I will tell him that he's been---" a phrase came to Sophia that seemed to fit the situation "---slipped a mickey."

           "What's a mickey?"

           The image of a obscenely grinning cartoon rodent flashed into Sophia's mind. Mickey Mouse? That wasn't what the phrase meant, did it? Had she gotten it wrong? "It a drink that's been drugged without your knowledge," Sophia answered, hoping she was right.

           Muammar gave the Cafe H a look of disgust. "If I must, I will stay with you."

           They approached the building, and when Sophia opened the door the rumbling noise within became a raucous explosion of sound, wailing horns, guitars, and drums. In a dark interior people were shouting and dancing as if in some orgiastic celebration. Sophia looked to see if Muammar was still with her and found him staring at the scene in wide-eyed amazement.

           "Come on," she said, grabbing Muammar by the hand and leading him inside where things were even noisier. They went around the people dancing and found an empty table. Sophia couldn't see Mr. Wayne, but in this crowd he might be anywhere, if he was here. As she considered her options, which seemed few, Sophia looked over at Muammar. He was sitting rigidly with his arms folded, observing the celebrants sternly. "Are you all right?" she asked.

           "I am glad I came in with you."


           "It is good to know your enemy. To see evil, and resist its temptation."

           Sophia followed Muammar's eyes to the dancers as the band, five furiously playing black men, in suits and ties and all wearing sunglasses, tried to reach even greater heights of musical inspiration. Sophia was reminded of when her mother had set up a cafe in their house during the war when the Germans had gone and the Americans had come. There had been singing and dancing then too, her mother playing the piano and her sister singing, but nothing like this. Sophia felt envious of all the fun these people were having, she wanted to throw off her robe and join them. When she had been an impossibly skinny child, she had been too shy to dance with the American soldiers, but she wasn't too shy now. She looked at Muammar again. His expression and posture had not relaxed. "They're just having a good time," Sophia protested.

           "There is no such thing as a good time if it offends Allah."

           "How can such happiness and joy offend Allah?"

           "Because He is the only proper reason for such celebration, and this has nothing to do with him. These people are acting like they are drunk and most of them are. See the bottles they are holding."

           Sophia had noticed that. "Are all Muslims as strict as you?"

           "No, but they should be. The west has corrupted us, but we will be strong again, Allah be praised, and abominations like this place will no longer be permitted."

           The band wailed on, people dancing and hooting even more energetically until Sophia could resist no longer and jumped up and joined them. She had never danced like this before but it was easy, she just let the music take her and move her whatever way it wanted, sweat soon beading her forehead. Poor Muammar, he didn't know what he was missing. Sophia had more than half a mind to grab him and force him up on the dance floor, but didn't want to take the time. She waved at Muammar to come join her, but he either did not understand or pretended to ignore her. What a shame: Sophia went back to concentrating on her own dancing and wondered who all her fellow dancers were, since as far as she could tell none of them were local Arabs or anyone from the movie company, besides her. Could they be tourists from Tripoli off the beaten track? Oil company employees taking a night off from their search for black gold? It didn't matter, nothing mattered except to dance to the music because it was so full of life and hope and energy and Sophia let herself dance and forget everything else.

Previous Chapter | Contents | Next Chapter