In partnership with DISQUIET, Granta publishes the fiction winner of the DISQUIET Literary Prize. Noor Naga’s ‘American Girl and Boy from Shobrakheit’ is the 2019 winner.

 

 

Question: if you don’t have anything nice to say, should your mother be punished?

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And then mother placed a single peach on a saucer at the center of the table. With a carving knife, divided it in four. Dinner, she said. My grandmother, whose perfect teeth were singly stolen by a dentist working from his one-room across the river and sitting patients on the bed he slept in, took all the peach quarters and squished them into her ears. Such greed, said mother, sucking the hollow seed. Father breathed. Swinging her elbows like a racewalker, grandmother busied into the kitchen and climbed into the stove. Three days later, her collection of miniature paper cranes they placed into the ground with her, so I left. The distance from Shobrakheit to Cairo is 140km. I took a microbus, then the train.

 

 

Question: if the men make animal sounds in your direction, which of you should get the bone?

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Why did you come here? It is the first question they ask when they meet me, and it is more indignant than inquisitive. You live in America? Have American passport? Do you know what people here would give for an American passport? Do you know we are all trying to leave and you, you have the option to be there and instead youwhy are you here? Why am I here? When I first told my father I was going to Cairo, he changed the subject, pretended not to have heard me. A few days later I called him at the office in Tribeca because he so rarely came home anymore. He swallowed as though fatherhood were a worm being brandished in a sweaty, furry fist at his moustache. Venus is in retrograde, he said, I can’t make that decision for you. My mother was no more helpful. I’ve decided to go to Cairo after graduation, I told her from the other end of the tuxedo couch in our living room. You really don’t know what you’re saying, she snapped. The next morning at breakfast she began to cry. You’re leaving me? My youngest daughter, how could you leave me? A week later she became cruel. Let me guess, let me guess, she began to say every few hours, apropos of nothing, You want to connect with your roots. Two-finger air quotes around the word roots. Of course not. What roots? My parents left Cairo in the eighties and never looked back. When I arrived, I realized my mother had gone through my suitcase and removed all my sweatpants and hoodies and slides, added a few dragging dresses still minty with the tag, and many shawls. She’d arranged everything: a car to pick me up from the airport, an apartment rented in my name downtown. It should have been easy, but it has not been. Cairo is taking everything from me. Since I arrived from New York two months ago, the city has simultaneously reverted me to my sad, striving girlhood, and also aged me irreversibly. There are some cities that give you air – most cities give you at least air – and space for your body to move. They host you. Cairo doesn’t. Dirty woman, wife of the doorman you never see. Leaves a pan of butter on the stove for your breakfast and steals your bras, breaks all the zippers of your suitcase while you’re sleeping. Why did I come here? What masochistic impulse causes me to leave a place the moment I am needed and go where I am stared at, cheated by every fruit-seller? My mother is sobbing in all her spinning classes halfway across the world, while my father, a holistic dentist – how to say this in Arabic? – divorces her from our summer home in the Poconos. Meanwhile, I am here buying chicken for the street dog nosing through cucumber peel in the trash, all the men laughing at me.

 

 

Question: is the distance between the left and right eye greater than one third umbilicus?

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After my grandmother’s death by oven, I knew I would leave Shobrakheit forever. During the last conversation I had with mother, I said, I’m going to Cairo. She sat tenderly supergluing the sole of her shoe back onto the heel. From behind her focus, she mumbled, Cairo . . . is that beyond the pigeon tower? I said, Yes. Her eyes watered from the chemical smell. Son, is it beyond the hospital across the river? I said, Yes, and then added, It’s even beyond Damanhour. What? she gasped. And there are people beyond Damanhour? I hoisted a corn bag of clothes over my shoulder, the camera swinging around my neck. She lifted a hand to smooth back her hair, and the shoe, now glued to her thumb, went too. Bloodied her eye. I took a microbus from Shobrakheit to Damanhour and the milk in my eyes saw with my eyes. I milkened the road and the sky with my eyes. If I imagined a truck, it would blare out of the fog to nightmare us. We could not see even the dashed road lines. The microbus driver steered with his whole head out the window. There was no one in the white air but us. I cried into my corn bag. For days after my grandmother cooked herself to death, mother didn’t say it, but we knew anyway she was sour from thinking: Shame to waste the gas and not eat. We knew she was thinking how best to divide a peach into thirds. At Damanhour, I took the train to Cairo and inside it the air was very brown, like closet air. I fell asleep and woke up with a man feeling my thigh through my torn pocket. People think anyone with a camera will have coin instead of skin in his pocket. When I arrived at Ramsis Station in Cairo, the air was people. Nowhere you looked wasn’t people. They thickened the streets and muddied and metaled them. They swirled and tangled about, the whole city a key-jangling drawer of humans, hairball-gagging the gummy drain. You could turn into an alley and find fifty Sudanese men, bluer than black with cheeks like shoulder blades and ankles like knives or else women as tall as I am, women so pale, you could see their rivered blood at the wrists and neck. I heard twenty Arabics in my first week and wherever I went people asked me – sometimes in English because of the hair – Where you from? A man on a motorcycle stole a cigarette right out of my hand. I saw a twelve-year old girl in dirty pajamas pull down her pants then squat and shit fire, facing a wall. Children in school uniform drowned kittens in barrels of tar. A waitress my mother’s age came up to me, clicking gum with an open mouth: I like tall boys like youdon’t you want to kiss me? My first year in Cairo, I still spoke country, referring to myself in plural. We do, I answered. She laughed in my face. Led me by the hand to a garage where she ran her tongue along my teeth and rubbed my knees. I was nineteen. This was almost ten years ago and since then I have only been home once. Somewhere in Shobrakheit, my mother is dividing all the dinner fruits in half.

 

 

Question: if one day all the other carpenters start calling you a queen, how many hammers will you need?

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I first met the boy from Shobrakheit at Café Riche in Downtown Cairo. I was there because I was always there because I had nowhere yet to go. Two days after I arrived from New York, I met Sami, whose father owns the cafe and whose uncle runs the British Council where I teach English. He introduced me to Reem (gay, clearly smitten), and the two of them cheerfully adopted me. Because I wore black-on-black athleisure sometimes and at other times silk, the classic baseball cap and hoodie combo, sharkskin bodycons with Yeezys, they were impressed. I carried a living alkaline water bottle, tote bags but also Fendi, so they competed for my attention like spaniels. They tossed rubber dicks to each other above my head and clucked appreciatively at how clean I was. Clean being code for more than just money; a coveted un-Egyptianness, a combination of first world contact and old-world etiquette. Reem herself was clean because she was French-educated, lived in Garden City; Sami was clean because half-British by blood. Café Riche was clean because it had air-conditioning, a menu in English and French, exorbitant prices, waiters dressed in the jester-like costumes of Nubians; Om Kalthoum herself used to perform on their small outdoor stage. You can order a glass of wine with your meal but not shisha. All the tablecloths have the original Stella star on them and on the walls, there are photographs of the celebrities who used to frequent the place. Café Riche is over a hundred years old and it is clean. The three of us were sitting around in its fluorescent lighting. They were teaching me how to play backgammon when the boy from Shobrakheit entered: freakishly tall, ducking to avoid a concussion on the doorframe. He was dressed in suspenders, a frayed polka-dotted bowtie, and – most touchingly – black socks inside black schoolboy sandals. Sat beside me and twitched for the entire hour, jiggling his rounded knees, stretching his neck, cracking his knuckles in quick, unnatural succession. I’ve never seen such restlessness. Even his quiet voice was quickly quiet the way flies and roaches are: atwitch. He scrunched a cigarette butt into his plate and immediately lit another, scrunched that, lit another. I watched his automatic fingers and saw with my bedroom eye the cigarette sizzling out, head first, against a nipple. I borrowed his spoon to eat the coffee grounds at the bottom of my Turkish cup. Is it not bitter? he asked in a cool pattering Arabic I could barely catch. Is bitter bad? I answered shyly. He asked me what I played, meaning what I did, then lifted the grimy analog camera hanging around his neck to indicate what he meant. In the months I knew him, I never saw evidence of his photography, and believed him solely because he didn’t try to shoot me as they all do, didn’t say the line they all say, preying on the conceit of women: Your bones were made for a lens. It was because he never asked that I eventually scattered my bones on the kitchen tiles of the L-shaped apartment and commanded in my lilting infantile Arabic: Take me kindly from above.

 

 

Question: if a female misremembers the first time she saw you, can you ever fill (one or both) her eyes?

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I saw the American girl’s ankles first. Telepathically I recognized the foreignness in their brown angularity. Before I could arrange my body in response to this realization, the rest of her had descended from the ceiling, down the steps into the basement stationary shop. Petite, expensive-looking clothes, and hair shaved close to the scalp like a sniper. I was sitting blocking most of the narrow space but she swept past (over) me, her flying silk dress wetting my knees. She had me trapped, nowhere to go, on the ground. Right behind her were the kids from Café Riche: Reem, the lesbian with the starch-ironed polo shirt, and Sami sweating fatly, his rimless eyeglasses sliding down his nose. She stood looking at the leather notebooks, throwing words over her shoulder at them in a horrific English, while I sat, poor boy low on the tiles near her ankles, in the shop that was also underground. Vain, obviously vain. Left without buying anything. The same cool, sweeping wetness on my feet and knees. She lifted into the sky. This is the dress you were wearing that day in the shop, I said the first time I peeled it off her body. She said, What shop? Had not seen me at all. Until this day, she thinks we met for the first time a week later in Café Riche, when she borrowed my spoon.

 

 

Question: if a man’s anger is lovelier than his loveliness, what kind of ending do you expect?

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In Café Riche, Reem follows my edges with her serious eye. Reem irons her underwear. She drives her vespa in the straightest lines, stops at potholes to roll it gently over, will not bite into food that is multicolored or multi-textured. When I first came from New York, her entire right arm was in a cast that she scrubbed with a kitchen sponge twice a day to keep gleaming. When we met the second time she did not remember me and was turned on all over again by my breasts, my lips, the bones in my fingers (to Sami she whispered: Picture them fisting). Sami giggled like he’d won something, Tell her how you broke your arm, go on. And then he did it himself: She slipped on her own pajama pants. Since the ‘injury’ – the doctors wouldn’t even believe her – Reem repeats herself and eats with her left hand like an infidel. But you’re left anyway, aren’t you, Reemo? Sami teased; left meaning loose, meaning sexed and liberal. Reem lowered her eyes as if in prayer, I do the Lord’s work. She turned to me and flicked her tongue like snake-talk. Who else do you know that eats so someone else can get full? The boy from Shobrakheit smiled into a cigarette and Sami tooted, Madame, this is a respectable establishment! That day in Riche the four of us were sitting at the front where the metal tabletop sign said reserved on it when a crowd of girls with bad makeup and tight hijabs giggled in. They were dressed in the leggings and rhinestone typographic shirts that I was only beginning to realize were indicative of no money, and therefore no mobility, a hereness no one will forgive. The kind of clothes that the kind of people wore who would not be called clean by either Sami or Reem. Sami, who I had never seen actually address a customer before, rounded both chins on the girls and asked them without rising from his seat, Cafe or restaurant? The girl at the front froze mid-step and the others clashed into her, the whole group swaying forward and snapping back like a tinsel-covered bush in a shock of wind. The hijabi at the front said, Sorry? I saw her glance at the backgammon on our table, unsure who we were supposed to be, what authority we had. Sami repeated loudly, Are you looking for a cafe or a restaurant? Beside me the boy from Shobrakheit stopped twitching for the first time all night, the better to listen it seemed, the better to hard-boil his rage. He picked his camera up off the table and his knuckles whitened around it. I pictured him bringing it down like a dumbbell on Sami’s snub nose. Cafe, one of the other girls said finally. This is a restaurant, Sami answered loudly and then he eyed them above the dimes of his spectacles until they left.

 

 

Question: can a man and a woman fetishize each other in equal measure, or must one necessarily be defeated by the other?

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I tell the American girl with the shaved head that you either sniff, snort, or inject. Strict matter of preference, no more shame in one than in another, but there is a natural progression. Sniffing is stupid slow. Also less economical. There is the frustration all the time over the fumes you do not catch in the lungs, the expensive drug diffusing visibly in the air. It is sentimental for most of us. Reminiscent of innocent, thrilled beginnings: protest, conspiracy, army tank graffiti, murders and tent-sex, downtown house parties full of sweating journalists and mahraganat, the Italian orgies in Agouza. All the foreigners were here to fuck. I would step into rooms like a drop of oil in a glass of milk, like an open drain. The women immediately began to circle me and touch. When they realized I spoke no English, no French, no German – when they realized I spoke Arabic alone – it seemed to answer a question they had been asking since arrival. They wanted one of us that was unpolluted, a brown man – Arab straight from the farmlands with night hair and pretty mourning eyes, hang-ups inherited with animal customs. They paid for everything. They laughed when I would not take off my shirt or pants, but it pleased them even more to be naked while I was dressed, shyly, highly, inexhaustibly pounding between their white legs. These older women, who had not learned how to say Thank you or Bless your hands for this meal in Arabic, would beg me in monstrous accents, Neekni, neekni. Not once did I crawl down their bodies to pleasure them. Not once did I even let them see me naked. I took everything I could from them and moved on. For many of us, once the sit-ins were over and the foreigners fled and the sex became infrequent, unglamorous, it became impossible to sniff. Snorting cocaine, you taste it through your nose and the bitters convince you more than anyone ever will that this budra is poison. The naked tongue shrivels in its bed, but snorting remains most practical in public. Any time, any place, little attention needed. I once snorted off my wrist in the middle of the street in Zamalek; by the time passersby had swallowed their shock, I was powerfully gone. A needle in the neck though . . . I take a needle in the neck or sometimes the back of the hand or occasionally – but not for many years now – the classic forearm. The vein knows before the skin is broken what is coming. I swear the vein begins to swell and thump like a cock, the heart already heroic before the tip enters. Once in, the force is immediate. I could jump off the Sixth of October Bridge. I could wrestle an airplane to the ground. The first day I spoke to the American girl was also the first day I deprived myself of a needle in the neck, coincidentally, no relation. Having made my decision the night before, I was terrified of being left alone in my shack with the peeling walls and roaches, the pain – a mushroom cloud of electronic invasion – in slow motion behind my eyes. I went to Riche to see Sami but the American from the stationary shop was there too. She was the only one not smoking, sitting with her royal back straighter than a door while Sami and the lesbian blew smoke in every direction but at her. They were playing backgammon. She borrowed my spoon to eat the coffee grounds at the bottom of her cup, and everyone could see from the lined and shining of her lips (peeling like fish scales or the dry film on a clove of garlic crushed beneath the heel) how the skin of her other (lower) lips would look. When she spoke, it was in Arabic fit for a child. I could hear her searching through the language. A word can send me up to heaven, I said by way of reassuring her, and another can bring me down. When she handed me back the spoon she held it from the middle as though it were a dragonfly or a costume moustache, the metal head sucked as clean as the tail. She was hairless, I believed, all over.

 

 

Question: if an addict is really two people, and the first hell-bent on suicide but the second swears the first will fail, whose bed do you crawl into?

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At closing time, when Sami gets up to count the money in the cash register, the boy from Shobrakheit waits for Reem to leave Café Riche. Then, when she’s gone, he invites me for a walk. You can tell a photographer’s skill by his grip, he informs me. But his grip is unorthodox. He wraps his right hand around the front of the camera, fingers curling over the top as though it were an iron bar he might lift his feet off the ground with. Practices shooting with the camera but doesn’t actually click. He lunges, crouches, kneels, stands, holding positions for whole minutes with his eye on the plus sign, his pinky on the shutter he has not released in years. He says nothing steadies the hand like cocaine. During the revolution, everyone was itching and scratching anyway, the lice being unavoidable. He says the lice lived even in their moustaches and pubes. You could travel with your own tent on your back, but you could not control who came and slept once it was unfolded. He himself hardly slept. Back in 2011, a single line could keep him awake for three days. The drugs were passed out with the sandwiches and water and vinegar and yeast. Boys as young as twelve were emptying cigarettes only to stuff them with warmed hashish, loose tobacco. Or else begging to lick the wrist someone else had snorted off. He says nothing makes for revolution like cocaine. He has been clean now for seventeen days. Every sneeze joggles the brain inside his skull, so he has learned to stop sneezing. Closes his nostrils with one hand and flutters his lips like a horse when he feels a sneeze coming. He has nerves growing straight out of his scalp. He cannot rub fingers through his own hair, it hurts. His eyelashes hurt. He blinks violently. His bones hurt. His left leg, he complains, is full and wet with sand. Says he will click again one day and he needs to be ready. Carries the camera around his neck wherever he goes. Says he will never click again, laughing switches to English and shrugs out the words I translated for him myself just hours ago when he found out I was a teacher: Whatzza boint?

 

 

Question: if it is dark because I am squatting in a closet, and I am squatting in a closet because it is dark, is the darkness, then, forever?

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I text the American with the shaved head. She does not answer. I text for days and she does not answer, the vanity of this woman. Meanwhile my body avenges itself. Six years of budra in the blood and now all the pain I have not been feeling is slamming into me like strobe lights, deck of a thousand razors shuffling into my palm, like, Remember me? You dog, what is yours will always come for you. In the rooftop shack where I have been living since I moved from Shobrakheit, I stand naked for hours. Every stitch of fabric shifting on my back cuts me individually: dental floss, fishing line. I dream of Magdy though I have never seen him. No one sees Magdy. He doesn’t answer unknown numbers. A dealer’s phone is worth its weight in heroin. I once saw a different dealer sell his sim card for 200,000 pounds, back when 200,000 pounds was a filthy number. But Magdy will never sell his phone. He’ll live on a few loyals for the rest of his life. I dream of Magdy’s voice, his effeminate cream-white allo, fuller than a question. In the dream I ask for more budra than I could ever afford. I hear myself say, Five, no ten, I mean twelve. Twelve grams. And Magdy breathes on the line, like my own breathing father in Shobrakheit, breathing things he’ll never say. He breathes for minutes while I plead, Magdy? Magdy, I’m good for it, Magdy. I’m good for it. I need twelve grams tonight. I pull fists of leaves out of both pockets. I pull hairs from my head for payment, a dirty clown-ribbon ten kilometers long comes out of my throat, and I’m gagging, I’m good for it! When I wake up, I’m drowning in my own clothes, the shirt sweating into my lungs. I kick until I fall off my mattress and the concrete greets me like a concrete shore. I roll on the floor until the pain subsides then I text the American: Photography is a gorgeous corpse turning on the first night in its bed of soil. Photography is a shawl caught on the finger of a gnarled, eternal olive tree. Photography is not about victory; victory is viler, baser than the loll of a child’s head on that child’s own chest.

 

 

Question: is romance just a father who never carried you to bed carrying you, at last, to bed?

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The boy from Shobrakheit began to text me relentlessly. Although his spoken language was slangy, sweaty, full of nails and scrap iron and orgasm in the throat of a whore, he texted in an Arabic that was classical, even princely. I said to Reem, who was always smoking somewhere nearby when I got these text messages, that I couldn’t tell if I was being courted by a twelfth-century scribe or my own father (a holistic dentist who fixes teeth by asking patients about their first childhood memory, their heartaches, their horoscopes, how vivid the colors are in their latest dreams). Reem tried to ask what I meant, looking hurt and longingly in that way she did when we were alone. She was in love with me. Her own texts consisted almost entirely of memes. I ruffled her hair. She flattened it again. Arabic: this language that only ever existed for me in kitchens and bedrooms, baby-talk, breakfast clatter, Eid mornings at gym-cum-mosques, communal grieving, goodnight kisses after Kalila wa-Dimna, or fever-talk when I was feverish at age five. Now, twenty years later, I realize I have never been loved by a man the way my father once loved me. This man hot-wires intimacy just by sounding like my own pajama-ed prepubescent self in the memories I have of my memories. He wishes me not a good morning, but a childlike morning or a morning of flowers. He texts I hope your day will be like the birds. I hope your night will be like the childhood of trees. Don’t be sad, pomegranate. I have a remembering of the lives I didn’t live. His texts also consist of theoretical food offerings, and in their voice I hear how the women in his family have loved him. Here, have peanuts and goat’s milk, he texts. Here, have gateaux, black tea with fresh mint. Come, eat pickled lemons from my hand. Have tomatoes with cumin. Are you happy? I am trying to please you with the little I have. Here, have grapes. Have a chocolate croissant.

 

 

Question: what if arousal is only a horror-gasp misplaced in the body?

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When we met again, the sky was black over Cairo. Every November the rice farmers burn their grasses on the outskirts of the city and for weeks the sky is black under the sun. I had twenty pounds in my pocket, so we sat at my ahwa under the bridge, where they charge me humane prices. The American wore a lace dress this time, earrings made of honey and bees’ wax dripping off her lobes, and her head gleaming as if freshly sheared. I’ve never seen such long eyes or such primeval bones. She looked like she had walked right out of the museum and I told her so. You are pharaonic. Every single eye at the ahwa was on us. A woman who exposes her hair in a city where most women cover their hair is already considered bold, attractive – in the neutral sense of the word, meaning that she will attract attention. But a woman who neither covers her hair nor exposes her hair because the hair itself is not there . . . A woman who, of her own volition, shows the skin of her brain to the public . . . The children of the bridge began to call each other until a small group of them had gathered, talking loudly about the man who was a princess and wasn’t his a pretty dress and whether he would give them a pound. The beggar women selling tissues and peanuts did not come near us, probably thinking she was diseased – a young thing with her head shaved – but the men . . . They peeled back the lace, they parted the skin, cupped her scalp in their palms and breathed sex, pure sex in the hollows between the tendons in her neck. They sweated into their coffees. Every shisha hose was a coiled and translucent, hard-tipped penis, and they sucked and puffed in every direction but at her. She began to tell me of her life. Her Arabic was cute, barely there. She told me her father fancied himself a dental prophet and her mother was across the ocean exercising herself to death. They were going through a divorce. She was alone in this city, which explained some things. She was Egyptian enough to wax her arms, but American enough to shave her head. She was Egyptian enough to sit at the ahwa under the bridge but American enough to think a lace dress was appropriate at the ahwa under the bridge. She uncrossed her legs when she heard the athan, but then kept them wide at the knees like a truck driver. When we got up to leave, the children pushed their bravest forward who exclaimed in his cheap for-tourist English, How are yewww? She smiled in her own wannabe-baladi Arabic, Tamam yakhouya, handed over a twenty-pound note for him and his friends. I cringed. They ran away before anyone could stop them, but I’m glad they did and I wish she’d given them even more of her money.

 

 

Question: if you are competing to lose, what do you win if you win?

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He told me he was from a village, Shobrakheit. He told me a New Yorker and a Cairene have more in common than a Cairene and a man from Shobrakheit, but he would not tell me what the commonalities were. Instead he asked if I have ever ridden a microbus, to which I was forced to say no, wishing I could say yes. And then I remembered that when we stopped at the kiosk for cigarettes, he bought singles. I looked and saw him for the first time: the hem of his pants was frayed and strings dangled from his vest like lines of saliva or tea bags, and yet he wore a perky bowtie. He wore black, lipping leather sandals with socks. I did not know then but now I do: every night before bed he washes his feet and socks in the sink, wrings the blackness out of both. Hangs the socks on the bathroom door handle to dry for morning. Only pair he has. He washes his socks every night but he has never brushed his teeth with toothpaste or shampooed his hair. Does not own deodorant. What is a hipster without the contradictions? Old-fashioned and proud and poor. Also . . . Egyptian. I am learning slowly that having money and the option to leave frays any claim I have to this place. This is what it is meant to be clean: to be free of this nation’s clutches, to have the choice to love it or go elsewhere. Meanwhile, the boy from Shobrakheit will die having never crossed a border. He is so tall that when we walk downtown, his hair catches on the butchers’ hooks. At night these hooks are black-tipped fingers that yank him back, and the blood beneath them is never dry. He took me to get liver sandwiches from a cart on the street, but not the popular cart – The popular cart is a pound more expensive per sandwich, which is robbery, he said. We sat on the sidewalk to eat and I knew he chose the ground because I had chosen the lacy white skirt which would catch the dust like a wet finger. But I take the metro all the time, I said, remembering that I had ridden it once and that it had cost as little as a pound, as little as 6 cents American. We test each other.

 

 

Question: is a country boy trading country stories for city stories from a city girl getting ripped off?

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I was born and raised in Shobrakheit, Beheira, a small farming village of mulberry trees and bicycles, kite wars, stacks of rice-grass piled three stories high, ninety kilometers from Alexandria. It is known only for its Napoleonic relevance and black magic. Apart from the rare pilgrim historian, the only other visitors to Shobrakheit are Arabs, who come from as far as Yemen and Morocco. Depending on how much money they are willing to spend, one of two sheikhs in Shobrakheit will lift works off their loved ones, or else rid them of Jinn-riders. My own cousin had a work on her from age six to age eight. When it was removed, she vomited a mango she had eaten two years earlier. The work may be hidden in a piece of food that is consumed or in the womb of a tree or in the belly of a fish in the Sea of Galilee. A woman once came to a sheikh in Shobrakheit crying, I went all the way on foot from Riyadh to Mecca and when I got to the Kaaba I couldn’t see it. To which the sheikh replied, woman, you put a work in the mouth of a corpse and buried it twenty kilometers from the nearest village. Of course, you went to the Kaaba and couldn’t see it. In Shobrakheit, no one leaves the village and few people come. Before the internet, our only contact with the larger world was through newspapers and television. As children, after watching Titanic in the village cinema, we built a boat from enormous blocks of Styrofoam that we had stolen from the only store that sold imported household appliances like microwaves and washing machines. We tied them together with rope – also stolen – and floated the whole pathetic contraption in the Nile. After watching Mel Gibson revolt against the execution of his lover, we built forts out of stacks of rice-grass and inside them played war with sling-shots or else fucked the poor girls from the other side of the river. In 2011, when I returned from Cairo for the first and only time, my father came to meet me out by the pigeon tower, so that he could enter the village with his arm around me – his son, the revolutionary with the city hair that stuck up on all sides like a sunflower. I stayed one week and, that whole week, dizzied around the house that never homed me, like a confusion of moths. People from all over the village came to me for news of Cairo and my father did not leave my side, so proud was his breathing. My father plays with rubber tires for a living and disappoints everyone around him. He’s a mechanic. When I was seven, he tried to marry the neighbor’s fifteen-year-old daughter. Did not succeed, but mother left the house for three years in protest. I was deposited in the care of my grandmother, a dough-bodied woman, infatuated by paper. She had learned from a book, before YouTube made it easy, how to fold paper the Japanese way, and had a whole room in her two-room house by the river for her collection of paper cranes and lotuses. When I came to her at the age of seven, she made space for me in her narrow bed, and that was how we lived. It was more generosity than I had ever known. We made like royalty, eating when we wanted whatever we wanted – I grew four inches in my first year, breakfasting on cake from flour she had ground herself – sleeping rarely, swimming often in moonlit rivers. We danced American in the room of cranes, my arm around her waist. When I turned nine, she sold her wedding gold to buy me my first camera and wove me a leather band to hang it with around my neck. After three years of this pleasure, word reached my mother that I wanted to eat peas. My grandmother was on her way to the market to buy them. It was summer and mother, who was not affected by three years of separation, was moved to illness that her son wanted to eat peas. She came back to the house my father still lived in and cooked so many pots of peas – she who used to count peas, she who still splits tangerines – my father called a sheikh to dispossess her, and still I would not return to her.

 

 

Question: is a queen allowed to express disgust at anything she sees outside the palace?

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Four days a week I Uber to the British Council in Agouza where I spend all day conjugating verbs on a whiteboard, enunciating the names of colors and the months of the year, as clearly as I can, in English. None of the students want to be there. In the morning, I teach adults: men in suits, who try very hard to get my phone number. I am the only Egyptian teacher at the center, so I alone can recognize their full glib and restore their manhood to its height. After hours of struggling to pronounce foreign triple-consonants, tripping childishly over words like February and Present Progressive, they can switch to Arabic when our class is done and have their egos instantly restored. They flirt with me and horse around with each other, competing for my benefit. And I let them. Language acquisition is humbling work. I tell my students as much when I first meet them, and I make it a point to speak in Arabic so they can hear my own slurring accent. Though I only joined the center a few months ago, my classes are the most popular and I am bombarded daily by students in the hall, begging to be let in from the waitlist. Miss, they say in English, though some are old enough to have birthed me. Then they whisper conspiratorially in Arabic, Look we both know the IELTS is a scam, and none of the Brits are qualified to teach– but I really need to pass Level Three. Please! You can’t squeeze me into your class? The other teachers dislike me; they sense that I am conspiring with the students against them. Sometimes I go out for drinks with the teachers and then the dislike is palpable. They feel threatened. Only one or two of them – men, obviously – make an effort to be nice to me. When I come home at the end of the day, I am filthy and exhausted. This city’s dust is industrial. It catches in the hair of my eyebrows and upper lip. It lines the inside of my bra. I sweat a blackness. When I blow my nose, blackness appears in the porcelain bowl of the sink. Nothing and no one is safe from the dust. The same muscle-men with shoulders like doorways and quads too thick to walk, those same hulks can be seen sitting, princess-like, slitting the grime from beneath their nails with tiny instruments. There is no other way to keep clean. The ice that melts at the bottom of my drink is speckled, as though with the eyelashes of insects. All the fruit sellers hang feather dusters from the nails of their carts and all day can be seen fussing and fluffing to keep the shine on their dear apples. At the ahwa under the bridge, I complain to the boy from Shobrakheit about the dust and he smiles a slow, humming thing and tells me a moth wing is in fact only dust petrified to a fine sheet. As a child he used to lick them. He used to catch dragonflies and leash them to a half-pound coin with hair he plucked off his mother’s scalp. He used to shoot birds off the telephone wires at dawn and leave them on his mother’s pillow, inches from her cheek. He used to suck on his grandmother’s breasts, long after his mother weaned him off her own with the bitter cactus meat she rubbed on them. I am careful not to react to this information. But surely there was no milk, I say. There was no milk, he confirms, but it was a gesture of nurture. I say, And you remember this? You were old enough to remember? He says, How could I forget?

 

 

Question: if your first love does not live forever, how do you punish her?

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Then when I turned sixteen, mother sold the house by the river that my grandmother and I were living in. No one in Shobrakheit knows how she did it. The house was in my name. Grandmother put it in my name to keep it safe from my mother’s greed but she still found a way to sell it to an upholsterer, a piece of a dog’s religion, this criminal known to lend his wife to his own brothers when he was drunk. She sold it and didn’t tell us. One morning we were evicted like drug rats by a line of sniggering policemen, my grandmother wailing in her flowered house-galabeyya while they carried out our refrigerator, our bed, our table with the food still on it, while they stepped on her collection of paper cranes with their field-boots. She had been married for only a year before her husband died. She was a proud and loyal wife, and afterwards lived independently for forty years, refusing the family’s pressure for her to remarry. She needed no one. She lived with my grandfather’s memory alone and it was enough. Then at age fifty-eight, she was forced to move in with her daughter and the humiliation killed her long before the dinners could, long before the oven. She and I took the downstairs and shared a bed as we had always done, but it was not the same. We ate bread and beans, no cake, and these weasel-portions of fruit. My grandmother stopped dancing, she stopped folding paper the Japanese way. When she killed herself, I washed her body with my hands as she had washed mine for half my life. I remember her body as though it were my own. She was almost boneless, her meat so soft, almost edible, then the long sagging breasts. Because of the burns, her skin was rippled like river water, like the light-fingers beneath an orchard of date palms. Her mouth was empty, full of dark red holes, the remaining teeth having been pried out by someone. When she crawled into the oven – when she. And lay there cooking without a sound. The rest of us sat sitting at the table, father breathing, mother fanning an even number of arugula leaves on each of our plates. We almost started eating but the smell caught us in time. I was the one to find her. At the funeral, I carried my grandmother on my shoulders through the streets of Shobrakheit and within six months had lost a third of my body weight.

 

 

Question: if your father once put his penis in your mother, when do you forgive yourself?

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He told me news of pornographic film first reached the boys of Shobrakheit in ’97. Two villages over, in a garage surrounded by fields of sugarcane, a sheet was hung on a wall. A projector was duct-taped to the ceiling, and the only light for miles around was its light. There was a front door and, at the back, near the cook, a hole covered with a plastic tarp for customers to escape in case of police raid. The plastic chairs were set in rows. The cook had the sharp, veined, wicked arms of a widower with four sons and no daughters. He made watery rice pudding and mehallabiyya in tin bowls. Ten piasters a bowl, and this expensive. At midnight, the boys of Shobrakheit gathered at the pigeon tower. They were aged between eight and twelve, the older ones with coats over their night clothes, and the younger ones, hopping from foot to foot, without. They walked an hour along the bank and the frogs of the bank punctuated their steps, jumping as high as their waists, belching ego. When the first boy cut into the field, the others began to run. They skipped, and one of them began to sing If we stop dreaming, we die and another sang Come to me, boy, what’s it to me, boy, pockets chinking with a month’s saving and stealing. The entry fee was two pounds, given to the cook’s youngest son, a hilarious, slow-smiling boy with the hopeful name Elmohtady-Bellah. When the boys of Shobrakheit filed in they were ignored entirely. Sat on the floor at the front of the room with their necks snapped back like feeding chicks, mouths open. Stunned. Did not speak or swallow for two hours while women, tall white women had things done to them by men and then animals. They wore no clothes on their skin and had no fat on their muscle so they seemed doubly naked, all bone and breath, pleading with the freaky pleasure of mammals. By the end, two of the boys were crying. They walked back to Shobrakheit with the dawn just breaking behind the fields. When they entered the village they found every father from every household waiting by the pigeon tower to drag them by the hair.

 

 

Question: if a fly rubs its hands delightedly all over your excrement, is it a compliment or offense?

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She is kindest when sorrowful. Occasionally she comes to meet me at the ahwa under the bridge with a shining in her eyes. And then I can count on her to cry at the thinnest permission. I love when she cries, how the kohl streaks down like two braids on either side of her mouth. That genital mouth of hers. Other times she looks at me with an appetite that is romantic but wrong, curious, consumptive . . . anthropological? As though she were peering at a dust-moth pinned to a corkboard, shivering, still very much alive, as though she were laying it on her warm tongue, letting it dissolve there. It is her American showing, her American rolling in on my village with a military tank, tossing at my mother’s feet three-quarters of an apple she has only peeled with her teeth. Then I get so wicked I make up things just for her. I tell her that my grandmother used to cut my hair once a month with a knife she had licked to sweeten the blade. I tell her that my grandmother used to save the hair she cut. Tie it around a stone and toss it in the Nile so that birds would not build their nests with it; I tell her that if a bird builds a nest with even one of your hairs, you get a migraine, and anyway, Some things, I tell her my grandmother used to say, are holy.

 

 

Question: if a man and a woman call love-making by different names, can they still?

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Some things, he tells me, are holy. A man wants to know who will close his eyelids when he dies. Pray not a child, not a loveless woman. Who is a loveless woman? Years after the pornographic screening in the garage, after he had learned where his father hides the dirty VHS tapes (rolled in a blanket among the winter quilts) and how to watch and rewind them as though he had not watched or rewound them, his grandmother made him promise never to open a girl. That is the taking of virginity, opening the way a sealed envelope is slit laterally with a butter knife or a medieval city ravished, so the blood runs to the knees. By then, the boy from Shobrakheit had opened a girl already. His first sexual intercourse is with his cousin. He is nine. She is nine, and all the cousins squirted down with hoses in the field or playing hide and seek with the lights off. They touch each other for the years and years of their schooling, under his mother’s roof or hers, and no one suspecting. He opens her and when she marries the butcher down the road, she pushes a string of raw goat meat (that he himself had given her that morning) between her thighs so that her husband can open her again. Afterwards, when she tries to keep coming to her cousin for sex, the boy from Shobrakheit threatens to light her hair on fire. No love between them. He is not even jealous, only cannot stand to double-dip. He walks touching the heads of children, looking like a prophet, flat-footed cave man: Osama bin Laden. You can see the dream of water in his glassed black eyes. Black brows. Black hair so black it is closer to white than it is to brown, shoulder-length, curling wetly, smelling of biscuits. The jaw of a man women want to please. He referred to what we did together either in his heartbreaking English as sekess, or else in formal Arabic as a bodily engagement, or else in slang as making one. He is a selfish lover.

 

 

Question: if a girl freely admits she isn’t a virgin, can you believe her about the price of milk?

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We were arguing about balconies. The American paid two hundred times my rent and claimed it was worth it for the balconies. She said, From all four of my balconies you can see a canopy of bat-infested trees and at sunset they all get to screaming. I said, Show me. And she did. Ashamed of her body. When I took off her brassiere, she covered her nipples, when I took off her underwear, she covered her cunt, when I took her hands off her cunt she covered her eyes and lay there shaking her head like a little girl afraid of a ghost. I didn’t believe her for a second. The more fucking a girl has done, the shyer she pretends to be. It is a rule. It is classic, but I will extract their names from her in time. She has the slimmest calves I have ever seen, I know at least twenty men in America have circled them with their fingers and thumbs. She has the cleanest ears I have ever seen; I put my tongue in them. She has the deadliest sideburns. Men in Cairo do not have an appreciation for sideburns. It is a strictly country aesthetic to see them smudge against the cheek, so close to the mouth. We were naked in a soft light and my hunger climbed, it shouted through my shivering, like a bitch being drowned in the river. I pushed. I insisted because she wanted me to. She said no but she meant yes, wanted to be pushed over the lip of the glass but did not want to be seen wanting it. She said no again, my hair caught in her eyelashes, clung to the wet sides of her lips. This hideous pleasure at a woman’s softness after months of only roaches and needles. She touched me as though petting flowers, and I held her scalp in both hands. She said no. She said no, but she meant yes, so I gently pushed us both over the lip. We fell off and into each other. Somewhere in America, a match head burst into flame. Afterwards, I asked her what she was thinking of as she drifted off to sleep. She sighed dreamily with the whole of both lungs like a woman in the arms of a man she loves, and then she answered: pomegranate seeds.

 

 

Question: can home be transferred from one body to the next, like secrets?

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He tells me that in Shobrakheit they no longer call a woman by her name in the street, least of all a mother. He tells me it’s shameful. If I want to call out to my cousin, I use her husband’s name. If I want to call out to my mother, I use my own name and she looks up. I ask him how he used to call out to his grandmother and he says, I wouldn’t need to call, I’d be beside her. Is this why in Cairo he seats me facing walls as much as possible? Is this why he hides me from other men? Is he jealous or protective or ashamed? When we are walking on the street, he moves naturally between my body and the traffic. He plucks my purse off my outer shoulder and rehangs it on my inner shoulder, where motorcyclists whizzing past cannot reach it. Danger always threatens to whiten his doe-eyes. We are wizards: a bald woman and a long-haired man in fantastic dragging clothes. All we need is a leashed monkey and some sort of instrument. We walk the streets and everyone ogles us. If he disappears into a store for a minute, everyone is whistling, hollering, hissing, He tricked you, honey, and now he’s wearing your hair! Is your cunt as clean? I could like that. He comes back out and hasn’t heard any of this but he’s enraged as though he has. Expects it somehow. Stomps his sandaled socks and walks like a tantrum. Later he points out to me scenes from the revolution as though threading pearls around my neck. These are the treasures he collects and now offers me. Qazaz – that was the Brotherhood’s, everyone bearded in there, Qur’an playing day and night. The kids wiped it out with molotovs. Now look, no beards and they have music playing like a normal restaurant. This store sold gas masks, this one gunpowder. There is a woman on the third floor of that building who had all the vinegar and yeast in the world. When all the stores in the city were out, she would throw us bottles of vinegar and bags of yeast from her balcony, both being the best antidotes to tear gas. Pepsi also works really well. This is where Sobhy tried to hear a bullet with his ear, but it went in the left and out the right. That is the apartment Al-Jezeera used to film the protests from. Aren’t you lucky to be here with me? Who else could tell you these things? No one else will tell you these things. He was right. Who else could tell me the things I most wanted to know? After so many lifetimes of peaceful eating, a nation overturns the dinner table; there is the darling outrage, the excitement of a newfound entitlement, change, hope, and then the shyness, afterwards, at having been caught believing. For the next sixty years every Egyptian will be speaking back to that defining moment, and I missed it. My repatriation efforts are bunk. I am too late returning and he knows it. As long as we are outside, on the streets in this city that he owns, he leverages his knowledge against me. When we come home he is less powerful, less instructive. But why do I say home as though he lived here? Does he? He came up one night, slipped my dress up off my head and never left. Ever since then, we’ve been playing house. Except that I’m father and mother, bringing home the meat and also cooking it while he waits for me with his cheek in his hand. Do I mind? It’s nice to crash into his chest when he opens the front door, like a wave returning, dissolving, to its shore. He hears the elevator and comes to meet me before I can finish turning the key in the lock. I used to shower and go out after work, to Riche or the bars in Zamalek, but now we stay home together more and more often. It’s getting colder. We run hot water over our bodies and he soaps the day off my skin, kisses the top of my scalp, we make love everywhere. I have more than enough food to share. We eat in the light of a Siwan salt lamp. He asked once if there was a spare key and I said I would make him a copy, but I don’t.

 

 

Question: does furniture recognize – or does it make – a stranger in the house?

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So this is how she lives. The first night I went up to see her balconies, I didn’t see them. I couldn’t see anything but her small face and shiver-body. Only when she left the next day for work was I able to examine the place at leisure. Her apartment is in one of the older buildings in downtown Cairo, a corner unit on the seventh floor with high ceilings and classical trimmings on all the balustrades. But the inside is insane. It is furnished with what she refers to as pieces: kilims handwoven by Fayoumi Bedouins; bookshelves that smell of wintered linseed oil, hardbacks in English and Spanish which, when opened, reveal ribbons and leaves pressed into their hearts; an enormous steel water filter with a piece of coal inside it; an antique French canapé; orchids that she feeds with an eyedropper and hides in a room I am not allowed to smoke in; a stool with three red legs in a slab of unfinished concrete; a gurgling air-purifier; a phonograph; a seamstress’ bust draped in pearls . . . The tables and chairs are all arranged as though for a portrait, in their best angles, with haughty upturned chins and arched foot soles. The only mess she allows herself is littering the floor with her clothes (the silk dress she wore yesterday is still a puddle in the corner of the bedroom), but otherwise the space is intentional, sensorial. She tells me the apartment was rented furnished from a distant relative, an academic who lives most of the year in Berlin. But even if this is true, enough of it is her own. She belongs to this apartment as much as I don’t. It reminds me of the places the foreigners used to stay in, which were always equally strange and troubling. You’d walk in and be confronted immediately with the feeling that all the furniture was living in denial of its geographical reality, that the human who had done the arrangements was afraid of the city outside her windows. In the American girl’s apartment, she is perfectly comfortable and I am the one crawling the many rooms like a parasite: a tick in any number of blue felt boxes for jewelry. She comes and goes “to work,” and I stay in this apartment that could be anywhere in the world – if it weren’t for the balconies and me in it.

 
 
Image © visivanc

Rules for Visiting
Liz Berry and Mona Arshi In Conversation