An Excerpt from Yasmin Zaher’s “The Coin”

LARB presents an excerpt from Yasmin Zaher’s new book “The Coin.”

By Yasmin ZaherJune 23, 2024

An Excerpt from Yasmin Zaher’s “The Coin”

The Coin by Yasmin Zaher. Catapult. 240 pages.

WHEN I WAS little, we took vacations in the South. One year, we were driving down the desert highway, myself, my mother, father, and brother in the car. It was a long ride, five hours or so, and I was playing with one shekel and 20 agoras, throwing them in the air and laughing. The shekel was a cute little silver, the agoras a pair of dumb golds. At some point, the shekel dropped from my hand, into my mouth, and disappeared. There was only the movement of the coin, and then nothing. I was a magician, but I had no training, just a scientist mother and a scientist father and a brother who was too old to bathe with me. You swallowed it, they all insisted. But the coin never again manifested, not as discomfort in my esophagus, nor as constipation, the little coin did not block my little anus, and there was no shine to my poop after the full day at the pool. There was no metallic burping at the breakfast buffet, nor the flavor of a beggar’s finger in my mouth. Why is it that the poor are dirty and the rich are clean?


As I said, it’s strange where we start stories. I could have started here instead. On our drive back from the South, on the desert highway again, my father fell asleep at the wheel. My parents both died, and my brother and I survived.

It was a tragedy, but somehow I got lucky, I was redeemed by a good inheritance. If anyone can understand this, I know it’s you.

I wrote to my brother and explained to him that in New York I needed extra money each month, that I needed a cleaner, a cook, a masseur, an acupuncturist, a reiki healer, and a psychoanalyst. Maybe two or three cleaners, or one who is as serious as I am, although she would never have become a cleaner, there are not enough hours in the day to clean two homes with such rigor and commitment.

It was paper mail, but the answer came quickly, in a yellow envelope. I read it just once, walking up the stairs to my apartment. There is nothing I can do, he wrote, I intend to respect the will of our father. The will stipulated that I would get a strict allowance each month, and I would have no access to the estate beyond that. I could go get the will right now and read it word by word, but the thing always makes me sick to my stomach.

I had no choice but to obey my father’s wishes. I owned the rights to half of his estate. At the time of his death, about 28,755,000 US dollars. Control of the estate was strictly in the hands of the lawyer, then my brother. I had so much money, and no access to it. Sasha said I was simultaneously rich and poor.

My mother’s wish was different. She wanted me to go to America. Many people have been able to make lives for themselves there, like Sasha, and even prosper. But my family’s case was different. We kept trying and failing to emigrate, some said that we were cursed. It started with my grandmother’s eldest sister, who was shipped to New York from Haifa and returned just three years later. Next was my grandmother, who was happy there, she said, but had to return to marry my grandfather. Then there was my mother, who doesn’t know why she left America, she just did, life happened. And with me, it was the knowledge of all those women who had tried before me, of this momentum for failure, and it was also the political moment, the times had changed. America looked gloomier to me than in the pictures. There were crackheads in the streets and cokeheads in the high-rises. And there was what America had done abroad, in Vietnam, in Guatemala, and especially to my people. That makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean, how could the devil be the dream?


The next weekend, I woke up, I ate my breakfast, I emptied my bowels, I did my skin-care regimen, and, for the first time that season, I wore my Cucinelli cashmere sweater. I had slept nine restful hours and woke up determined to act, to get clean.

It was a cold morning, I walked to the CVS on DeKalb and picked up everything I was missing. By now, cleaning was a science complete with a taxonomy. I bought soaps, sponges, brushes, and wipes of all kinds. I swerved through the aisles, focused, I got the feeling of being the only woman in the world, like for a moment I had become one with the store. When I got to the cashier I counted all of my coins, including the pennies, and paid with exact change.

Outside, I gave the rest of the coins to a homeless man. I don’t remember what he said, but they were freezing cold, and there were so many of them that he had to bring his palms together.

The bags were too heavy to carry so I dragged the blue shopping basket out of the store and back to my building, up the three flights of stairs, a gallon of Clorox threatening to fall out. By the time I got inside my apartment, my movements were no longer steady, they were frantic. I filled the bathtub and transplanted myself into the boiling water, the CVS basket by my side.

I spent the rest of the morning immersed. I did it all, very methodically. There was the problem of dirt, as well as the problem of hair. Both were undefeatable. There was hair on my legs, on my arms, my underarms, from my belly button to my sex, which until then I had only trimmed when I absolutely had to, when it began to itch or smell whenever I crossed or uncrossed my legs at work.

I alternated scrubbing and shaving. I scrubbed my legs, then shaved them. I scrubbed my arms, then shaved them. I scrubbed my genitals, then shaved them, then scrubbed again. All the dead skin and hair floated around me in the water, my pubic hair sticking to my shoulders and chest. Then I began to specialize. I removed the nail polish from my toes and dumped the red cotton buds in the water. I clipped my nails, then used a thin wooden stick to clean underneath them, fishing miniature balls of wool from the sides. I pushed back my cuticles and clipped them. I scrubbed my feet, for a long time, tapping the pumice stone to the bathtub floor so nothing remained in its pores. Then, when I judged my feet to be soft and clean enough, I scrubbed them with the Turkish hammam loofah. I climbed up from my feet, to my calves, to my thighs, to my labia, to my asshole, to my belly button, poking soaped fingers and makeshift tools wherever I could.

After cleaning, I paused. I paused to feel this new body, a transformed body. You and I pause too sometimes, but ours are the uneasy pauses of two strangers. With time, we are getting to know each other.

That day, I had created something. I called it the CVS Retreat, because it always started at the drugstore, and spending money was a prerequisite.

No, nothing changed, nothing helped. But I was doing something, I was working hard. I unstopped the plug and let the water drain out. While it drained, I washed my hair and soaped every slope of my head and body, keeping my eyes on the bathwater, on the emerging tundra underneath.

It was the most magnificent sight. A light-brown speckle, the color of my skin, which is also the color of dirt. Then thin long hairs like supple grass, clusters of pubic hair like spindly bushes. A film of slimy soap, the primordial matter pooling around the dead bodies, the red nail polish on cotton balls. Snakes and cuticles in rows like limestone terraces. It was beautiful like summer in Palestine, uneven and seared. I bent down and collected all of it in my palms, a dry wind pushed the bathroom door open.


I walked out and stood in the center of the living room. The skylight brought in the sun, and at noon it projected a perfect square in front of the full-length mirror. I stood in its spotlight, the sun was bright, casting almost no shadow behind me. I looked at my complexion in the mirror, I was pale, all this scrubbing was brightening my skin.

I lay down at the center of the sunny square. The hardwood floor was warm, it relaxed the muscles in my back, and I felt my shoulders softening into the hard surface.

I took deep breaths, like I was at the beach. I look white, I thought. And I didn’t like looking white, because I’m not, I’m Arab, with a deceiving complexion. I then briefly felt sorry for myself for being Arab, although luckily, as I said, it wasn’t so obvious with me. I could look like anything, I blended in wherever I went.

My neighbor then started playing the clarinet again, and I turned over to tan my back. At first I just heard random notes, here and there, but slowly something came together. I lay there, in the warm sunshine, listening to my neighbor’s music. It took me a few seconds to understand what was playing. It was nothing classical, of course, if it were I wouldn’t have known it. It was “Bella ciao.”

Now I’m going to tell you something, and I want you to be open-minded. I promised to be honest with you.

The clarinet moved something inside of me. It was nothing scary, just a gentle vibration with certain notes. It was in the center of my back, on my spine, in the place I could not get to, not with the Cattier Method nor with the Turkish hammam loofah. While the chorus of “Bella ciao” played over and over again, the movement became rhythmic. At first it just wobbled, heating, until it got much hotter than the rest of me, until finally it was blazing and spinning inside my body. And then I understood at once. It was the coin. I had no doubt about it, I just knew. I had put it there when I was little, in the car ride down south. For more than two decades the coin was gone, I didn’t know where it was. And then, for some reason, in New York, it was resurrected.

It was a strange feeling but not unpleasant. I can even say that it was satisfying, because I came back the next weekend and did it again. By the time I finished tanning, the sunny square had shifted to a parallelogram, one of its sides climbing the wall and the mirror, and the coin slowed down to a halt. I turned around and gave my face just five hot minutes, hoping for a slight bronze on my cheeks and forehead. I stood up to look in the mirror. My neighbor finished practicing, and it had worked, I was darker.

From then on, my neighbor, the coin, and I did this every Sunday, starting at half past noon. Once I got properly dark I allowed myself a certain degree of freedom. Instead of timed intervals of belly to back, I curled into the fetal position inside the sunny square, flipping the coin, taking short, restless naps, sometimes singing along.


This passage is excerpted from Yasmin Zaher’s forthcoming novel The Coin, which is available for preorder from Barnes & Noble,, etc.

LARB Contributor

Yasmin Zaher is a Palestinian journalist and writer born in 1991 in Jerusalem. The Coin (2024) is her first novel.


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