Your father died. We buried him yesterday in the new cemetery by the cliff. The priest spoke about him in Amharic and the imam spoke in Arabic and then we all prayed, each in our own language and religion. And in the evening Debrezeyt thronged with your father’s gypsy friends. They sang and danced until morning broke over them.
How can I console you when you’re so far away? But nor do I wish you to come home. Everything has changed. Debrezeyt is not as you left it. So much has happened, and in no time at all. The town exploded, became so crowded you cannot breathe, and we are no longer able to walk here in safety.
On every corner there’s a tourist grinning like an idiot and taking photographs of our lives, like our lives are something remarkable. The town’s lost the soul we loved.
In the not-so-early morning, the beach enjoyed a calm troubled only by the swishing of the waves and the murmur of the sea against a rocky spit that extended into the water. At the foot of the white bakery, the waves broke in a monotonous sequence. The Nile Valley café, next to the bakery, shared in the morning calm—Abdul Farraj was snoozing lazily, and the waiter was having a temporary rest from his labors. Everything was calm. The sun crept slowly up the sky and poured light onto the surface of the sea and the roofs of the wooden houses, while a kite squawked on the minaret of the Askala mosque. On the western side of the horizon, the mountains lay in their blue calm, and between the sea and the mountains lay the city.
It was early in the night, and the village was shrouded in darkness. The uneasy calm heightened the darkness, and he could hear the throbbing of the water pumps all the more clearly as they drew up the Nile water in concert with the moon, which kept out of sight on the grounds that the weather was poor. In this gloomy weather, which presaged an imminent storm, Humayda was battling the laws of nature all on his own.
He shook the reins and raised his whip to bring it down on his donkey’s back whenever he felt it wasn’t pulling the cart hard enough. The poor donkey looked as if it was pondering how it could ever pull the damned cart and where it would have to pull it to. Being away from home so long, beyond its usual working hours, also made the donkey somewhat confused. It began to twist and turn on itself. Its back leg held its body firm, like a stake stuck in the ground, while the donkey raised one front leg, anticipating digging it into the path to move forward.
The oldest boys in the neighborhood—“bullies,” as our Egyptian neighbors would say—chased that boy… chased me.
I’d long been obsessed with watching Egyptian TV shows and films, sneaking into the cinema to see them because in our house it was forbidden… “forbidden, boy, to go there.ˮ According to my mother, grandmother, and the other women in the neighborhood, screens are the devil’s handiwork: they corrupt good boys and girls. Of course, they’re poor women, without an ounce of luck.
Not many of us knew Sharif. He had been gone from the village for more than thirty years, and the few times his name came up, the person in question would glance around and lower their voice almost to a whisper. Men’s heads would cluster together in brief and hasty conference. And should his father, Sheikh Abdennabi Wadd Saleh, appear at the head of the alley and walk their way, or his mother, Hagga Amina Bint Suleiman, approach the store, they would fall silent or change the conversation.
Tamara says that I am constantly on edge; she says that for people like me, meditation can help. “Meditate on what?” “On yourself,” she replies. “Look inside yourself.” There’s nothing there, Tamara, nothing to see; everything that crosses my mind lies outside me: Goya’s caprichos, the appalling translation of Bertrand Russell’s essays on epistemology I was reading yesterday, the over-vinegared salad I ate today. Perhaps this is my self, Tamara: nothing worth contemplating.
I sprinted towards them as they battered away. Tried, but could not open the bolted door. I shouted out, called at the top of my voice for those around me to help, but to no avail. And when at last I despaired, and turned my back to come away, my head knocked against the wall of a water tank, greater still, shut fast against me.
She takes off her clothes and covers her chilly, naked body with a heavyweight green gown. She steps into the white plastic slippers and gets up onto the birthing chair. She leans back, gulping hungrily at the air and mumbling a plea for help in the form of the Quranic ayahs she’s been told will ease the pain of her contractions: “When the earth is leveled out, casts out its contents, and becomes empty… casts out its contents and becomes empty… casts out….” Her words are silenced by a new contraction slamming into her from behind, then bursting out from the middle of her back and wrapping its monstrous arms around her, engulfing her, linking its hands under her belly and squeezing, clamping down, pushing down, down, down. She bites her bottom lip and clasps her hands over her chest. She digs the nails of her right hand hard into her left palm, streaming sweat, a tear escaping the corner of her eye.
The uniformed conscript led the way, bearing aloft, on a small pink velvet cushion, a shabby-looking woman’s shoe. The leather was faded, stretched, and torn. Part of the sole had come off, and the heel had been roughly hammered back on with protruding nails. None of the repairs that had obviously been carried out in an attempt to restore the shoe’s former glory had succeeded. Behind the conscript came the cavalry, weaving their way through the houses of the city, searching for a woman’s foot to fit the shoe.