Beneath the Same Heaven: A Novel by Anne Marie Ruff is about Kathryn, an American woman, and Rashid, a Pakistani-born Muslim man, who seem to have bridged the divide between Western and Islamic world views with their marriage and two American-born children. But everything changes when Rashid’s father is suddenly killed by a US drone attack near the Afghan border, and their cross-cultural family descends into conflicting ideas of loyalty, justice, identity, revenge, and terrorism. Here is an exclusive excerpt from the novel:
Los Angeles, California. The day of the bombing
“So you don’t know where he is?” the man asks, with some urgency.
“What do you mean?” Kathryn answers into the phone, soap bubbles dripping off her hand into the kitchen sink. “You scheduled his offshore job. He told me he’d be gone for a week or so.”
“You better call him, and find out where he’s at,” the man abruptly hangs up.
Kathryn dries her hands and calls her husband’s phone number. She had just spoken to him yesterday. Without ringing, the phone immediately transfers to her husband’s voicemail. “Hello, this is Rashid Siddique, please leave me a message.”
She does not.
Irritated, she dials again. These oil platforms too far offshore for good phone reception always frustrate her. As her husband’s voice again tells her to leave a message, she hears a knock at the door. He must be home already. “Did you forget your keys?” she shouts through the door. She smoothes an errant blonde hair, smells her wrists, clicks her tongue at her unperfumed skin.
She opens the door wide, only to find a man dressed in a suit, his expression humorless.
“Hello?” She closes the door back down to a few inches.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” he checks the number on the outside of the door. “I’m looking for Mrs. Siddique.”
“I am Mrs. Siddique.”
He scans her face. “Yes. Mrs. Siddique, I’d like to ask you a few questions.” He flashes her a badge. “Agent Roberts, FBI.”
“Why are you here?” she closes the door a little more.
“Rashid Siddique is your husband?”
“You seem to know that already.”
“Where is he right now?”
When she fails to elaborate, he raises his hand, opening his fingers to reveal a ring, a yellow band of gold resting on his palm. She can just make out an inscription on the inside of the ring.
“I think you recognize this ring, Mrs. Siddique?”
The blood drains from her face. “Where did you get that?”
“At the site of the freeway bombing,” he says.
“The freeway bombing?”
“I think you’d better let me come in.”
Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Eight years before the bombing
“Zombie…zombie…zo..om..be..ee..ee,” the lead singer belted out into the nightclub.
In the middle of the crowded dance floor a man locked eyes with a woman, her arms raised above her head, as they shouted out the refrain in unison; their voices drowned out by the band’s percussion. Her blonde hair stood out to him, but their differing skin colors were unremarkable amidst the polyglot mix of revelers around them. “What are your plans?” he spoke directly into her ear. She smiled and shook her head.
As the band closed the last song of their set, Latvian cocktail waitresses hustled to settle all the open tabs. The lights came up and the still pulsating mass of bodies on the dance floor let out a collective groan of disappointment. The man repeated his question. “What are your plans?”
She paused, smiled flirtatiously and replied. “Same as yours.” Perhaps the vodka fuelled her boldness.
He smiled, the answer easier than he expected. “What’s your name?”
“Robert?” she asked. Could he possibly have a name as common as her father’s?
“Rashid” he said, emphasizing the first syllable.
“Rashid,” she confirmed. “Arab?”
“No. Pakistani. Punjabi. We’re from Lahore. You’re…” he picked up her hand, provocatively brushed his fingers across her palm, “British?” For a split second he imagined how his father would react to a British girl, a descendent of the people who had caused the bloody partition of Pakistan from India.
She smiled, shook her head. “You’ll figure it out,” she laughed, allowed him to keep her hand in his as he led her out of the nightclub. Rashid nodded at the bouncers, burly Ethiopians who preserved the dividing line between the rigid local Muslim world outside and the permissive international bubble within.
Rashid stood behind her in the crowded elevator so he could press against her back even as he protectively stared down another man who tried to look at her. In the hotel lobby he held out his mobile phone. “Trade me,” he said. With a curious expression, she offered her phone. He slid his phone into her back pocket. “Wait here. Only answer my phone if you see your number.” And he walked to the hotel reception desk.
Kathryn walked past a security guard to sit on an ornately upholstered couch in the middle of the lobby. In her alcohol haze she watched the regular crowd spill out of the elevator and into the humid, still balmy air on the sidewalk. She did not recognize any as colleagues from her job at the American Chamber of Commerce.
Rashid negotiated with the South African hotel receptionist, exchanged cash for a room. Key in hand, Rashid walked past Kathryn, willing himself not to look at her, and went back up in the elevator.
After a few minutes, Rashid’s phone vibrated in Kathryn’s back pocket. She recognized the incoming number as her own and answered.
“Wait five minutes,” Rashid said. “Then take the elevator up to the 7th floor and then take the stairs down to the 5th. I’m in room 505.”
Kathryn followed his instructions, small acts of discretion in deference to the local sensibilities.
He could hear her footsteps. He stood behind the door and held it open for her. She came to him and he smiled. He loved Western women, how easily they submitted. How easily he had learned to act like a Western man in the nightclubs.
She smiled back as he leaned down to kiss her. Pressing into each other, just inside the door, she ran her fingers through his thick black hair, touched the exotically dark skin of his neck. He reached for the backs of her thighs to pick her up. Firm, strong, not like the soft flesh of educated Pakistani girls. She wrapped herself around his waist, allowing him to carry her to the bed. His ease and confidence surprised her, so unlike the deferential South Indian tea porters at her office. As he peeled his damp shirt up over his head, adrenaline surged through her system, her heart raced.
“Wait…this is not what I usually do,” she said, her forehead wrinkling with anxiety. “I mean, not so fast.”
“Don’t worry.” He sat back on his calves, bringing his hands to his lap. Maybe she was different form the British nurses who always drank too much in the clubs. “We don’t have to.” Maybe he would just talk with her. Maybe she would cry about her homesickness, the way Chechen prostitutes did. “I like you, but I won’t force you.” He closed his eyes, breathed deliberately, recalibrated, finding himself already seated as if for prayers.
She liked his sudden sincerity, how he dropped his dance floor swagger. She looked up at the ceiling and noticed the arrow pointing toward Mecca, the helpful hotel instruction directing guests to pray in the correct direction.
“Mafi mushkala,” he said in Arabic, no problem.
She smiled. “Yeah, mafi mushkala.” Slowly, she raised her legs, rewrapping them around his torso and pulled him toward her. “I’m not worried. I want to be here,” she whispered into his ear.
Lahore, Pakistan. Months before the bombing
Rashid emerged from the air conditioned chill of the flight, felt the warm air of Lahore envelope him. The world appeared to him as if through a scrim. The blazing afternoon light only revealed the ugly surfaces around him, the cracked asphalt of the runway, the crumbling concrete surrounding the airport. The light did not penetrate to reveal anything of the city he had loved. He urged the taxi driver to speed him to his mother. This was no longer his country. Without his father to bless him on his arrival, this was now barren land.
Rashid paid the driver with an American $20 bill. The driver raised his eyebrows in surprise, held the bill to his heart in gratitude. Rashid, oblivious to his overpayment, looked to the locked gate, the silent courtyard of his father’s house. As the taxi returned down the gravel road, Rashid banged the metal latch against the gate, called out for his mother.
After a few moments, his mother’s elder sister, his apa walked to him, wordlessly opened the gate. Instinctively, he reached down to touch her feet in respect, she set her hand on his head in blessing.
“Come, beta,” she said, “your mother’s waiting.”
He followed his aunt, the white salwar kameeze that marked her grief hung limp around her flesh. No breeze animated her tunic, nor the sheer cloth of the chunni covering her head. Rashid stepped out of his shoes on the steps before the door, left his single bag in the courtyard.
As his eyes adjusted to the shadows inside he did not recognize the woman hunched on the charpoy before him. Without the bustle of the family around her, in the absence of her husband, Rashid saw his mother for the first time as a little old woman.
Rashid’s apa said quietly, “Didi, Rashid puta is here.”
His mother lifted her head. Her steely gaze caught him off guard, he stood momentarily paralyzed. After a long moment she inhaled, lifting her shoulders, raising her chin until she appeared again as he had known her, her spine erect with pride and power.
She nodded her head, motioned with her hand for him to come to her. He obeyed quickly, touching her feet to seek her blessing. He then lifted his arms to embrace her, to offer her comfort. But before he could draw himself close, she reached out for his shoulders. She held him at arm’s length.
“It’s good you’ve come, you are the one we’re depending on.”
“Yes, Mummyji, I came as fast as I could. I’ll stay as long as you need me. Tell me, what do you need?”
She let her hands drop into her lap. “You are the one, you will take action to relieve our grief. We will be avenged.”
He had known she would remind him of his responsibility. But the smell of his American wife still lingered in his clothes, the image of his American sons hovered in his mind. They would discuss it later. There was much to know before he had to face it.
“Where are my brothers?” he asked to change the topic.
“Your brothers have gone to be with Shoukart’s father to bury the bodies.”
“Bodies?” Rashid held his hand to his breast. “How many were killed?”
“At least a dozen, more were injured. Even Shoukart is gone, and the younger son’s bride. Not even a day together as husband and wife.”
“Shoukart is gone?” Rashid raised himself to sit next to his mother. His apa came from the kitchen carrying a tray with tea cups. Distractedly, Rashid reached out for the hot tea, thinking over the years he has spent with Shoukart. The same age as Rashid’s eldest brother, Riaz, Shoukart had often restrained Rashid from mischief. They had shared tea and snacks on countless occasions.
The house was eerily calm. “Where is everyone else?” he asked.
“I sent them to the masjid, the mosque to pray,” his mother said.
“So only you and apa are here? It’s not safe for you two women to be alone here, especially when people learn that Daddyji’s…not here.”
“It’s fine, I knew you were coming.” She reached out and patted his hand, looked in his eyes for a long time, as if searching for something, perhaps some trace of her husband, perhaps some strength on which she could draw. He held her gaze.
“Well, let’s not waste our time here, we need to go. I was waiting for you to travel.”
“To the Lak-e-Gar, to the Northwest Territories. I need to see for myself where our family was attacked.”