‘Welcome in Egypt,’ a large man said.
Egypt, that first brass afternoon in spring, may have been the most stylish place I ever saw on the earth. Nobody had ever told me about the cars. The cars were old German and American models from the fifties and sixties, black and rounded. They honked and shined everywhere, and I found a driver to Alexandria with my guidebook propped between two pronged fingers like a piece of music. Alexandria was a long way – two guys turned me down before this one. He was handsome and young, with many teeth, and he had a dry grassy smell the closer I stood to him. We bargained a price in dollars. I still had to get pounds. He knew almost no English. He had a book. I sat in the back of the old Mercedes on deep leather seats made soft with time and watched out of the rolled-down windows as we left Cairo in a circle like a maze and drove north into the horizon of cypresses, eucalyptus and olive trees. It was good.
There was so much sky. The ground and trees, people and even buildings rose about an inch and the rest was sky. It was 24 February. I wanted to remember the day. I lay my head back on the seat and the smell of earth rolled over me. This wasn’t desert as I’d expected. It was dirt, not light sand; the vegetation was scarce and sombre. Ragged trees moved slightly in the soft wind, and they seemed to whine and creak. Date palm and sycamore. Closer in, there were acacia, juniper, jacaranda and grass.
I felt looser in my clothes when I couldn’t see Cairo behind us any more. We were on an old road. The structures you saw in the distance looked small, made of concrete and mud. A rich weedy taste came through the air. I thought of my father and how, even though he was a boy who grew up here in this old slow country, he’d moved in suits and silk ties all over the world. I’d travelled too. I’d driven cross-country, had my college summer in Europe; even my grandmother, in Wisconsin, had been around the world. But do we, any of us, love more?
If this was Egypt, maybe that explained Wisconsin. His existence there. On the road ahead of us I saw a small lake and then a mountain, which disappeared when we came close. I’d been told about mirages in school, when I learned the word, but I’d never seen one. Maybe it took a desert to produce them. Once in a while the driver turned to me and we’d try to talk but it was too hard, so he’d fall back to driving, which he did with an evenness and a happy hum that seemed as odd and discordant as sitar music. He had a vague smile which seemed to move through a sort of plot sequence. I rested back on the seat, thinking how I’d like to sleep with this boy just once, tonight, in my hotel room and wondering if I could, how this worked and whether I should give him money. This was so foreign no one would know. No one ever. For the rest of my life no one would know.
I stared at the back of his neck. His hair was cut short but it still curled. Below the line of hair were two lines of sweat, tiny drops balanced on the dark taut skin. At that moment I thought how hard it was to be a man. The distance between imagining and placing a hand in the world on to someone’s skin – I didn’t know how that happened. That seemed enormous. Even when there were two cultures and no language and you had the money. But no. That wasn’t good. Being bought with money could harm anyone.
I tapped his shoulder – his skin through the cotton was warm – and pointed for him to stop at a market, a bazaar of some kind by the side of the road. It looked like a farm food stand anywhere in America, except the trees were high date palms. I was hungry. He pulled over the Mercedes, its bulk calming smoothly on the dirt gravel pass. We got out. The canvas and tin-roofed tents shaded jars of oil, dates still on the branch, almonds, pine nuts, diamond-cut pastries in tin pans that ran with honey, hazed by close thick black flies, pomegranates, olives, figs open and red, dusty purple on the outside. A thin man, dark skinned with almost no hair on his legs and arms and head, sat cross-legged on a striped rug on the uneven ground. His eyes were nearly closed. A clear glass jar, like one you would buy jam in, sat full by his knee. I tried to get close. I browsed by a table with nothing recognizable on it, some kind of cheese in water, I thought. I saw then in his jar: a coiled snake; I couldn’t tell dead or alive.
I wanted figs, dates and almonds and started to gather them in a brown paper bag, but my driver came up and with elaborate arm motions pointed to his chest, establishing, I’ll do this, without words. The thin man’s flat sunken mouth smiled a big smile. He tried to take her and was caught. She’s an American, it’s all game.
Walking back to the car with my bag of fruit, I heard a familiar monotonous sound. I walked across the sand and looked behind the tent. A rickety ping-pong table was set up on the ground and two dark boys were playing. Then we were driving again, and he conducted a long speech to me in Arabic, probably about how much money he’d saved me, and I murmured something to make it seem I understood. ‘Is no good for you, is better for you,’ was all I made out from his speech. His one arm sometimes lifted off the wheel, articulate and graceful, but I wished I could settle it back to driving and I ate the fresh dates, the skins crumbling like sugar and the fruit inside melting like honey. I could eat like this for a hundred years. In the back seat there was a long soft breeze and sun on the left side, so I took off my shoes and my long shirt and just lay down in my tank top and skirt, legs bare, feet on the leather, feeling it almost like another skin. I was sort of asleep but not really. The breeze played on my belly, my upper arms, the bones of my neck. It was good. The smell of the fruit in the foot space swelled up in shells of air.
Before I left, I’d wanted to find some Arabs to write things down for me. I stopped at the place across from the school that sold hummus and tabouli and shish kebab in pitta. But the guys there turned out to be Israelis. Nice guys. They gave me a felafel and suggested that I check the university. It would have to have some kind of Arab Studies department.
I asked directions and went upstairs. On a third-floor corner, I found Near Eastern Studies. A woman in black jeans and a black turtleneck stood near a floor-to-ceiling wire cage which held a parrot. Inside the cage, which looked home-made, was a large driftwood branch where the parrot perched. The woman held a finger to the bird. From the glint of jewel, I saw she was married. She was dark skinned, wide-eyed, with an extremely full, flower-shaped mouth. She sounded younger than she looked.
‘I’m Mayan Atassi.’ That was the first time I’d said it since Ted Stevenson broke our names and then returned to randomness. ‘I’m looking for someone Egyptian.’
The parrot flapped its long wings and squawked. She laughed. ‘Egyptian. Let’s see. Professor Kamal is,’ she said, ‘but he’s on leave in Paris this year.’
‘You’re not Egyptian?’ I said.
‘No, I’m from Lebanon,’ she said. My whole life I’d heard of Beirut and how it was the Switzerland of the Middle East. I knew that I had been conceived there.
‘Do you know Arabic?’
I began to explain. My mother never wanted me to be alone with my dad. ‘He could have you on a plane to Egypt in ten minutes,’ she’d snap her fingers, ‘and they’d have you married off and swelled up pregnant at fourteen. That’s what they do to girls over there. Girls are nothing.’
‘What about going to college?’ I’d said.
‘College, in Egypt?’ she said. She burst out with a bitter-rinded laugh. ‘Forget it.’
I was grown up now and being pregnant didn’t seem only shame. It appeared even beautiful, a common thing. It was strange having outlived the life with my mother: I was forever rediscovering little things that I had believed and assumed and were not true. Anyway, I might never be able to get pregnant and that was because of me. I’d dieted too much when I was in high school.
On three sheets of paper, the woman with the parrot wrote in Arabic the Station Street address, my address in America, and a little paragraph that I dictated saying who I was and that I was looking for my father whom I hadn’t seen in years, and his name. I looked at her ring while she wrote. It was dark gold, the diamond capped on either side by bright blue-green gems cut in squares.
I opened my wallet and slipped the three papers in the deepest part. They became treasures. She asked me if I would come back when I returned and tell her what happened.
I was halfway down the hall, a clean echoing hall of black tiles, and then I ran back. ‘Do you know what the weather is like there?’
She stepped out from behind the desk. She was a plump-cheeked woman, big breasted, wonderful looking. ‘Nice. Perfect. Like your San Francisco.’
Some time later he made a punctuating noise in the front and I sat up. I saw Alexandria in the distance, like a series of half staircases on a hill. This was the place my father grew up. It was early evening, seven o’clock and not much light. The roads (some of them) looked older than the Ottoman Empire but were still used, not kept for antique. There were geraniums in the windows, like Paris. The stone and plaster were crumbling and dirty. A lot of the houses had clay pots on the roofs. I wondered why. Some of the buildings had a white sheen, with mosaic. The streets were quieter than Cairo, the neighbourhoods lower, the old sun like a bucket full of water spilled on the bricks. This was a smaller city, I guessed, and was supposed to be holy. I knew that. Not only for me.
‘Mumkin ahgiz ohda ghur-fa min hi-na?’
I read to him from the guidebook but he didn’t understand. Then I gave up and moved behind his shoulder and showed him where it was printed in Arabic calligraphy, pointing with my fingernail while the car moved unevenly over the bricks. I wanted a hotel. He put his hand to his forehead, and then exploded in head-nodding. He was so young. His shirt was striped, yellow and green. Just then I noticed a Band-Aid on his right arm, near the elbow, a Band-Aid printed with circus animals, the kind we always wanted as children. Is that what became of circus Band-Aids? The surplus shipped to the Third World?
We turned a corner and beyond us was the Mediterranean, blue and green and moving with unrest, a sea of barking dogs. He drove me to an ugly hotel, modern and run-down. I said no, crossed my arms, and found the word for old in the guidebook. This made him think a moment and then he got it, and the next place was right: white and Persian-looking, with small cracks snaking down the towers. He parked the Mercedes, pulled the keys out and came inside with me, carrying the pack. It seemed too hard to argue. He wanted to deal with the desk for me, so I stood next to him, holding out my credit card. The man behind the desk took it, produced a key and that was the end of it. An old cage elevator, with script I could not read, lyrical cursives strewn in fancy metal painted white, stopped at the ninth floor where the smell of old geraniums came profuse and dusty and breath-stopping almost: I followed and he opened the door of my room and it was good.
French doors opened to a small terrace and the sunset fired outside. I looked in the bathroom: it was completely tiled, even the ceiling. You could wash it out with a hose. The bed was plain and white; a small prayer rug waited in one corner. The carpet was a very faded red, and dirty.
My driver put my backpack down and stood there.
I pulled my wallet out of the pack and paid him the amount we agreed, plus ten dollars.
He counted slowly, with complication, twice, then his face cleared and he handed me back ten one-dollar bills.
I shook my head no, pointed – for you – then I grabbed the guidebook and tried to find the words that meant ‘for the children’. In the guidebook, it said you were supposed to say ‘for the children’. He looked pretty young to have children and I couldn’t find the damn phrase anyway, so I pushed the money back into his hand and he shook his head no, and I put my hands behind my back meaning I won’t take it and then he pushed my shoulders, gentle but a real push, the money held up in his hand between us, and for a minute we didn’t know what was happening and then we were falling back, first me on the bed and then him.
His skin stretched and spread taut wings from his neck to his top chest bones. I remembered that he was young, probably younger than twenty. I wanted to hear his name. I didn’t want it to be Atassi. He could have been. My father might have come back. Then I remembered my father telling me around the old kitchen table, ‘If I went back, I’d be running the country. I was the John F. Kennedy of Egypt.’ Well, he wasn’t running the country. I read the newspapers. I knew those people’s names. He said so little to us that I saved every sentence. I could lift one up like a bracelet or strand of pearls from a box. As if any young man could be held responsible for grandiose dreams whispered to an infant daughter, when he was new in a country and still thought everything was possible.
But he could have come back. It was more than twenty years ago he’d said that. He was a very young man then.
I rolled over on my belly, reached down for the guidebook. My shoes fell off the side of the bed. He pulled me back by my ankle. I felt his fingers like a bracelet. I riffled through the pages. There it was; My name is —. ‘Ismee Mayan Atassi,’ I said.
He pointed to his chest. ‘Ramazan el-Said. I was born during the Ramadan, so my mother called me that.’
OK. Fine. I lay back on the bed; the book dropped. This was good. We couldn’t say a word and I’d stopped trying, but maybe because of that something else worked. I always talked too much in bed anyway. I lay back and wished he would touch my neck for some reason, I don’t know why, and I don’t know if I’d ever wanted that or thought that before, my neck, but he did, first with his fingers, hard so I felt my pulse flutter. I didn’t know if it would be different or the same so far away with someone not in my language, a complete stranger, but I watched the fan in the ceiling slowly mark the room with carousel shadows and in a minute I was lifting my hips to shrug my skirt off and then we were both naked, he was dark and thin and not different really. I touched him and looked in his face, his cheeks seemed to spread wider apart and questions stood like cool statues in his eyes and I wanted him and started it and then it began. It went on a long time, well into first dark, it never really stopped. I’d turn over on my side and clutch some sheet around me and look out of the windows at the clear stars and he’d be on my back with his hands and mouth and then something would feel like a shot, absolute and four-pointed but blooming pleasure and we’d begin again and it went on so long sometimes I’d forget. I’d feel I was the man, entering him and he seemed that way too, opened, split, eyes shallowing up like hungry fish on the surface, as if in the night we traded who owned the outside and the inside, who could penetrate and who could enclose. The stranger was in me and I wanted that. I finally fell asleep. He woke me and I heard water rushing. It was still dark. I dragged the sheet behind me to the window, where there was one star that almost hurt to look at, a too-proud diamond, somebody else’s, and I wondered why he’d woken me so late or so early, and then he pushed me to the bathroom where he’d run a deep tub with a flower floating on the top. The whole thing smelled almond and he put me in it. I saw blood. It wavered in the water like a frilly ribbon. I stepped out and saw him kneeling by the bed. The sheet was soaked red. I was bleeding. He started kissing the inside of my thighs, which were bloodstained like some all-directional flower. I couldn’t tell him how happy I was with the guidebook; there was no way to explain. Before I lost my period, like a stitch in knitting, I’d minded blood in a prissy way, hated the bother of it, worried about spotting. Now I could have tasted it. I felt like shouting. That was over, the long punishment for what I’d done to myself. I had my choices again. He was looking up at me now with different eyes, submissive. He knelt by the bed and capped my knees with his hands. He said words I didn’t know.
Then he rampaged through the room. I found him squatting over the guidebook. He said in English, I love you. He kept looking up at me in this slave way. Then I understood. The blood. He thought that meant virgin, that I’d given that to him. ‘No,’ I tried to tell him. ‘No.’ He picked me up, an arm under the crook of my knees and one under my back. He took me to the tub again. He was carrying me like a fragile child. I had to clear this up. But there was no way. His brown eyes fixed. I slipped down into the water, and heard him in the other room pulling up his pants, the clink of keys and change. He stole out of the door. I figured I’d never see him again and that was fine, like a sealed perfect envelope. A tangerine peeled, every section intact. I got up out of the water to latch the door behind him. Then I went back to sleep, thrilling even in dream every time I felt the trickle of blood.
The next morning, I felt proud because with the guidebook I ordered room-service coffee and it came with a wet rose on the table-clothed tray. The petals fell off easily when I pulled because the flower was full and seedy. Outside, the hills were raw brown with a haze of purple on the surface. The ocean was a plain grey colour. I took a bath and remembered the night. I sat with the coffee on the tiled rim of the tub. A line of blood ran jagged like the thinnest twig. The blood was going to be a problem. I went to the guidebook but there was nothing under Tampax. I called the desk and sat with the guidebook and finally sputtered ‘Tampax’ in English. The man said, ‘Oh, Tampax,’ and a few minutes later the elevator creaked and a boy appeared with a blue unopened box on a cloth-covered tray with a new rose. I put on a white shirt, brushed on mascara and left.
His car was parked across the street. The sight hit me like a sling. I tiptoed up: he was asleep on the back seat. He looked pathetic. He was too big for the car, and he slept with one leg folded under him and his head bent against the window. I left him be and walked downhill to ask directions at a fruit stand. I waited my turn. The high citrus smell tickled my face and behind the server two towers of orange and lemon hulls hovered. I showed him my scrap of paper with the Station Street address that the woman with the parrot had written, and he pointed. I wanted to buy lemonade but I remembered I hadn’t changed my money. I started walking.
I passed a movie theatre with calligraphy on the marquee. The photographs by the ticket booth showed a huge Omar Sharif, older now, with salt-and-pepper hair. I had seen all his movies. I had wondered whether he was even still alive. He was never in anything any more. But his career hadn’t fallen to ruins. He was here.
I heard birds as I climbed the winding streets and I smelled myrtle and sage. There was also the distant hammer sound of construction. I hadn’t expected the whirring of bicycles everywhere. They were black and old, like the cars. After a few minutes outside I was used to camels. I’d stopped and touched the black lips of one, wet and soft, gumming my hand. Then I felt something nudge my hip. It was the Mercedes. At first I was mad. I twisted my skirt to see if it had made a mark. He sat at the wheel, grinning, motioning me to get in. I didn’t see what else I could do, so I got in the front seat, giving up my adventure but glad anyway. I showed him the Station Street address.
He put a hand, softly, on my lower belly. I wriggled away. But it was good he found me. He studied a map and it took us fifteen minutes of turns and curves, in opposite directions. Then we were at the house.
It still stood. A tall straggly eucalyptus waited in front. It was a wooden and concrete house, three floors with two balconies, brownish coloured with old rusty metal and stucco. The roof was red tile, Spanish looking. I saw a metal drainpipe like the one at home. The eucalyptus moved in the wind above me. I wanted to get rid of the driver. I didn’t know how long I would be. I didn’t want anyone waiting for me.
I returned to the car, knocked on the window and motioned to him wildly, to say it could be a long time. He pointed to his chest, then to the floor of the car. I guess he meant that he’d be there. I shrugged, tapping my watch. I spread out my hand wide. Eternity. He folded his arms and closed his eyes.
The sky was clear blue with no clouds and I heard the drift of a slight wind in the eucalyptus leaves, a tired and very old sound. Patience, they seemed to whisper, patience. Summer is long. My heart beat like something flung against a wall. There was no bell, and I knocked. A wind chime of crude glass and metal pipes hung from the eaves. Nobody answered. The porch was cool, clay tiled. I knocked again.
I checked my slip of paper against the number on the door. Yes, twenty-two was the number. Outside the door was an old orange plastic chair and on the ground, the dish for a plant, filled with what looked like rainwater. I heard a window shoved open in the house next door to the right, and a woman’s hot fast voice spilled through and I said, ‘Isam Atassi. American.’ There was a noise inside her building of feet on a staircase. A door whipped open and the woman stood there looking me over.
She crossed her arms firmly over her substantial chest and spoke to me, her head shaking. The only words I recognized were ‘no America, no America’. For a moment I thought she was trying to chase me away but then she was showing me into her house with her arms, almost bowing, big loops of arm hanging down like stretching dough from shoulder to elbow, from elbow to hand. She stood with her ample back to me, hands on hips, calling up the stairs; a little girl ran down, a round-limbed blue-eyed blonde. The woman said something to the child, and the child gathered her skirts in both fists and started running. ‘No America,’ the woman said again, this time bending in a near curtsy. I finally got it; she didn’t speak English. She motioned me to sit and I did. She sat across from me and folded her hands on her lap and her feet one behind the other. I couldn’t help noticing her legs. Her calves were enormous, over the dainty gesture of her feet, and patterns of black hair were trapped under her nylon stockings. Then she sprang up, graceful and light, and slowly lifted the lid off a green cut-glass bowl of candy. To be polite I took one. It was a date wrapped around nuts, and rolled in sugar and ground pistachio. It was good. She slowly pantomimed drinking from a glass, then lifted her eyebrows to ask if I wanted anything. I shook my head no, not wanting to get into a beverage charade.
We sat politely in the still living room on fancy maroon velvet couches with gold tassels, our hands folded, looking in different directions. She smiled at me every few moments. After a long while the girl skidded in with a boy who might have been her brother but didn’t look like it. They were calling back and forth in avid musical conversation. The boy stood before the woman, probably his grandmother, hands at his sides and chin down, awaiting an order. More fast Arabic. I rested with the ease of understanding absolutely nothing.
Then the boy turned to face me and said, ‘I know English.’
‘Oh, good,’ I said, loudly. ‘Are you learning in school?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘School.’
‘What is your name?’ I said.
‘My name is Nauras Awafti.’
I reached out my hand. ‘My name is Mayan Atassi.’
‘Yes. There are many here,’ the boy said.
The grandmother became impatient and pulled the boy to her by the back of his shirt. He turned and translated for her. She fired questions at him hard and fast. Then he swivelled back to me. She smiled, and showed her teeth, some of them not white, and lifted her old plump hand in a wave.
‘I am American,’ I said. ‘My mother is American, my father is from here. Egyptian. He grew up next door. My father is Mohammed Atassi and I came here to find him.’
‘Mohammed ah-yah,’ the old woman said, her head going up and down. The boy translated what I had said.
‘He left my mother years ago. I haven’t seen my father – Mohammed – since I was twelve years old.’ I marked the height with my hand. ‘Around your age. I wonder if you, or your grandmother, knows where he is.’
He grinned and said, ‘She’s not my grandmother,’ as if this were a hilarious mistake. I hoped to hell she was not his mother. ‘She’s my grandmother’s sister. My grandmother’s upstairs.’ He pointed to the ceiling.
The old woman grabbed his collar again sternly to get him back to business.
‘Does she know where my father is?’ I repeated.
She shook her head and I knew my answer even before he translated.
‘You come all the way from America to find him?’ the boy said.
‘Yes,’ I said. The woman closed her eyes and continued rocking her head.
She spoke and the boy translated. ‘He hasn’t been there for a long time. Not thirty years. She says he’s somewhere in America. When his father die, next door, he wasn’t at funeral. You have bad luck because they live there next door, Farhan’s wife and daughter. But they went for two months already to America.’
America. I was astonished. ‘Where in America?’ I said.
‘She says she doesn’t know. But she thinks California.’
I looked at the little blonde girl. She was sitting in a big chair, her arms clutched to the armrests, her round legs ending in blunted sneakers. She stared up at me, the American.
The boy said that my father’s mother was very old but still in the house next door. He asked if I would like to meet her.
I thought I’d heard the translation wrong. ‘Yes!’ I said. ‘Yes!’ My other grandmother.
The old woman spoke and the boy said that she had invited me to eat a meal with them first. She stood up, with her huge knees facing out, bent them in a plié and lifted and spread her arms to encompass the room. The woman’s repertoire of gestures belonged to a clown. A fat clown. I liked her very much, I appreciated her exaggerated courtesies, but I wanted to go. I tapped my watch and pointed at the house next door. I was sick of people – even Egyptians, even neighbours – who saw my father once thirty years ago. I didn’t want strangers. I had a grandmother locked in the house next door.
The old woman rose, negotiated her weight around the furniture and motioned me with a plump fluid wrist to follow. The kids stood on either side of me, looking at me as if I were the strangest being they’d ever seen. We went through a mint-green kitchen, like an old-fashioned one at home, and out of the back door. The backyard went far. Three goats faced us. There was a chicken coop too, with loud dirty-white chickens. From a eucalyptus tree, an old tyre hung and the lawn was worn smooth and grassless. Past the yard and a shed was a field, just weeds, down the hill to a stand of olive trees. I knew my father must have run there.
I could have stayed. But the woman and the boy and girl were entering the next house’s back door and I followed. We walked into a cellar full of vegetables and fruit in clear jars, cans with faded labels, jars of honey and vats of olive oil and sacks of grain. I picked up a jar of olives that were still attached to their branch. The woman tapped at a jar that contained something like yellow peanut butter. Her lips opened on her teeth in a large expression that strained for meaning. ‘Mohammed,’ she said, and moved a hand on her ample belly.
The boy translated. ‘He liked that for his meal every day.’ I didn’t know what it was.
We entered a kitchen that looked as if it had been remodelled twenty years before, in matching black and white checks. The cupboards seemed safe and ample, the corners rounded, the surfaces used and worn. It was clean and plain. We passed into a large living room with plush emerald-green carpeting and fancy satin and velvet couches and chairs. Gold ropes marked off parts of the room. An old inlaid chess table and some brass trays looked Middle Eastern; the mahogany console stand holding an RCA colour television could have been anywhere. I stopped at some chrome-framed pictures on a shelf. The photographs showed a wedding. The bride was a full, young, curly-haired girl who looked nothing like me. There were eight pictures of her sitting in her flower-decked throne and in each one she was wearing a different dress. My father was not there. The old woman shook her head sadly, with raised eyebrows. ‘Mohammed, no,’ she said.
We climbed upstairs, the children ahead. The woman ascended slowly, holding the gold velvet rope that served as a banister. On the first landing, there was a family room, with another sofa and chairs, a book shelf, a standing globe, and corridors leading to more bedrooms. We started up the second stairs. Near the top, the woman called the children back. She explained something to the boy and he ran ahead, two steps at a time, arms scissoring with purpose.
We entered the top room. A young woman with her hair held back pressed by us out of the door. She stood on the landing, holding one elbow. She was wearing a nurse’s uniform with a long zipper. It was a wide, low-ceilinged room, pink and white in the eaves. Outside, eucalyptus leaves fingered the window panes. The room was full of roses, their petals falling from the night table on to tabletops, the floor, the lush satin bedspread. There she was, rising from a chair with great effort, collapsing down again, an old woman with a deeply lined dark face, a mouth large as a harmonica, with many teeth and a puff of white hair. Her eyes were clear blue. She was large and short.
‘Momo,’ she said, her whole face crumbling over the words. She hugged me and she smelled a way I hadn’t ever known an old woman to smell, warmly sweet like caramel. We sat in white, satin-cushioned chairs and the boy translated between us. She had a clear sad look when she shook her head after the boy asked if she knew where her youngest son was. She had not heard from him for ten years, she said. Her eyebrows lifted and her large mouth formed a beautiful shape. She told the boy she had not seen him for almost twenty. She lifted her hands and I went close and knelt down so she could hold my face.
She told us that when my father was a boy he liked the animals. He was always out in the air with animals. I asked if he had been smart. She shrugged, frowning, then slowly nodded her head to say that she supposed so.
I moved to the small attic window. I could see the field and the goats. My father had run there, a boy like any boy. There was a muddy pen. A sandbox. The woman from next door tilted her head and made a gesture that we should let the old woman rest.
I knelt and kissed her goodbye. We walked out and she called us back in words I didn’t recognize. She’d lifted herself up and got to a bureau. From the top drawer, open now, I saw a thousand things – threads, thimbles, scissors, papers, cards, scarves, veils, stockings, lipsticks, jewellery. She extracted a tiny photograph of my father, about an inch square, black and white with a white ruffled edge.
She gave it to me and I closed my hand around it. I couldn’t look at it until later. In the cellar again, the woman from next door gave me the jar of what my father had liked. She pointed to the ceiling.
‘She wanted you to have,’ the boy said.
Before I left I gave them the scrap of paper where the woman with the parrot had written my address. ‘You can visit me in America someday,’ I said.
‘Inshallah,’ the boy said. He copied the address down and returned the paper to me.
I asked him what the word meant in Arabic. I’d heard it all around me.
‘God willing,’ the boy said. ‘In Egypt nothing for sure. Everything is inshallah.’
I asked him what my name meant.
‘It’s just a name like other names. A common name here.’
‘I thought it meant light,’ I said. That’s what my parents had told me.
‘No. Nora means light.’
‘What about Amneh?’ That was my middle name. I thought it meant to wish.
I hoped that Ramazan was still outside and we could drive back to Cairo. He would rub my back and I would fly home into the dawn. I wanted to leave. I felt like a person who had thrown a diamond ring down off a bridge and watched it disappear into the dark water. It was over, I’d lost the gamble, he’d eluded me this time for ever and now I wanted to go home. But I felt calm. I didn’t care any more. I’d had my Arab experience. As I looked around me, up at the tall slow trees, I knew I’d be back another time, for different reasons.
The car was there and they walked slowly with me to it. I opened the front passenger door and the old woman rapped her knuckles on the window of the back seat and pointed.
I shrugged. ‘It’s OK.’
Ramazan, who had just woken up, slumped over the steering wheel. He looked up from his dropped head like a yoked animal. The old woman kept rapping; she seemed upset. Ramazan pointed to the back seat. I got out and went in the back. I didn’t understand, but I wanted to go. I rolled down the back window and looked for a moment at the house and the yard beyond, the three goats, their black heads, the shimmering yellow-green weeds of the plain field. It was as shabby as my grandmother’s house in Wisconsin, the land as old. I was sad over how many different lives there were and we only got once.
Ramazan explained with the guidebook. ‘Rich,’ he said and he looked at me, nodding his head. He said the word again, repeating to memorize. I shook my head. He persisted. The wind tore through the open windows. My mother had always told me we were royalty over here. I laughed out loud. Twenty-two Station Street was a good house, but it wasn’t royal anywhere in the world. The car stopped: I didn’t know why. There was a small stand of dusty olive trees by the side of the road. Ramazan got out and I heard him pee on the dry leaves. Below him was an old stone amphitheatre. I came up behind him, toppled him, and we lay there on the cool stone, toying. I hurt my back once on a eucalyptus button.
‘Greco-Roman,’ he said, pointing to the stage below. It was a small, perfectly tiered circle. There was life there once.
‘Arabs have everything, huh?’
‘No, Egyptians.’ He tapped his chest. ‘We have got pyramids. Antiquities. History.’ He made a sound by letting air out of his mouth.
When I put my underwear on again, the good pair, drops of blood trickled to the cotton, staining like a watercolour. I found the last scrap of paper from my wallet, on which the woman with the parrot had written that I was looking for my father who might be in Alexandria and that I hadn’t seen him for seventeen years. I gave it to Ramazan. He spent a long time reading it.
In the car his face took on a new cast and he lost the plot of his smile. His hands stayed on the wheel, not playful any more. I showed him the word in the book that means airport. I made wing motions with my arms, pointed at myself – ‘Me, America.’ We drove a long time keeping the silence and arrived in Cairo. On the way to the airport, he drove through a district of mansions on the Nile. They had domed towers, minarets, columns and mosaics, like mosques. They looked a thousand years old, or older. This was the royalty of Egypt.
‘Heliopolis,’ he said. He stopped before one mansion and pointed. ‘Omar Sharif.’
At the airport, he came into the terminal with me. I studied the English television screen. There was a flight in the evening at eight o’clock. It was only three. He took my hand and I followed him to a phone booth. He was carrying my pack again and it felt easy to let him. It was a modern phone booth. He lifted a book, paged through, found a spot and showed me. I remembered from his hand that Arabic scans from right to left.
His hand brailled over the whole page. ‘Atassi,’ he said. ‘Atassi. Atassi. Atassi.’
I smiled and shook my head. It was too late for that. I wanted to go home. I sat on his lap. I didn’t want to close the book over a page of Atassis. He ripped the page out, folded it up, put it in my backpack, zipped the zipper. We had time to eat. He drove me to a neighbourhood of low two-storey tenement buildings. Children played in the bare street. The restaurant was small and underground, and we sat cross-legged on the floor. A short-stemmed pink rose leaned in a tin can on our table. Two of the petals, cleft in the centre, had fallen to the cloth. Light slanted into the room from back and front. Ramazan ordered in Arabic and I sat low against a pillow. We looked at each other and sometimes smiled, sometimes didn’t; we had stopped trying to use words. The food began to come and set our clock. Olives and new cheese, then kibbe, then my father’s layered pancake with a different butter and burnt sugar. He’d always talked about the Bedouin food, about sleeping outside with them as a boy, the open fires in the morning. The pancake tasted of honey and deep caramel and rose water. I handed Ramazan a pencil and paper for the name. He drew and whispered: ‘Fatir.’
Then we used the guidebook. He pointed to his chest and showed me the word ‘poor’. I smiled a little, embarrassed for him. He didn’t have to ask me. I’d already decided to give him all the money I had and save only twenty dollars for the bus home from the airport. He pointed to himself again, made wing motions and said, in an accent I’d never heard, ‘America.’ He pointed to me and I smiled. I gave him my address, and he put it in the little bag he had around his neck where he kept money, and clasped it shut. He took my left hand and banded a cleft rose petal over my third finger. I knew before looking in the book. ‘Marrying,’ he said. I got up to leave. He’s so young, I was thinking.
It was still light when we walked outside. I wanted to buy a souvenir. We had more than an hour. With the guidebook I showed him the word for bazaar and I shrugged. We walked into a district of close streets and corners, brown buildings and smells of burning meat. We came to a square filled with market stands and around the sides were the neon-lit fronts of casinos. He pulled me over to the edge of the square, where there was a tiled drinking fountain and a man standing with a camera draped in black cloth and a camel tied to a palm. He spoke and seemed to be asking if I wanted to have my picture taken with the camel.
We surveyed the stands of the bazaar. From a dusty market table, we picked out an everyday Turkish coffee pot, a little one. I wanted to open the jar of what my father had liked. When the woman had given it to me, I thought I’d save it for my father and give it to him as a present the first time I saw him, if I ever found him and we met again. But I didn’t want to wait. I’d waited and saved enough for him. The lid stuck. I gave it to Ramazan. He held it against his belly, straining, and again I thought, he’s young, and then it was open. It was a rich distilled paste that tasted of almonds and honey. We ate it with our fingers as we walked past fabric bolts and animals that licked our hands. We finished the whole jar. I turned my back for a moment and he bought me a dress. I had been staring at a painted wooden cut-out of a bride and groom propped outside a casino called The Monte Carlo. The heads were open circles for people to stand in and have their picture taken. be the bride, it said.
In the airport I bought a snowball paperweight that showed a scene with camels and tents in the desert. Ramazan paid for it. He’d paid for the coffee pot, for dinner, for the dress, and he’d tried to pay for the wedding photographs. We passed a bar called The Ramadan Room, where an orchestrated version of ‘Home of the Brave’ was playing. At the departure gate I tried to give him my money. I had two hundred and ten dollars in cash. I wanted to give him all of it. He wouldn’t take it. I pushed the crinkled bills into his pockets. His mouth got hard; his chin made a clean line; he took it all, balled it, jammed it down in my pack.
At the metal security bar we drank a long goodbye kiss. His articulate hands moved around my face as if fashioning an imaginary veil there.
‘Goodbye,’ I said. I knew absolutely that I would never see him again.
He said words I didn’t understand but I made out Allah. Everything in his language had to do with God.
Image © Leonard Freed