Patron Saints


Part One

It was winter by the time Mina and I met. I was on my usual afternoon stroll in Garden City when I saw him coming toward me by the United States embassy. He went slowly along the compound’s perimeter wall, his hands in the pockets of his brown leather jacket. I’d just purchased some oranges from a fruit seller on the street, and I took one and began to peel it. Mina didn’t look happy, and I was unsure if I should say hello to him or not.

For the last few months, I’d seen him almost every day at the downtown café where I went to do my Arabic homework. He was young, probably still a teenager, but quiet and composed. He sat by himself, writing in a notebook for some time, then reading a little. Mostly, though, he looked out of the café’s open shutters at the people and traffic going by outside, the great clang of downtown Cairo in the late afternoon. All around him, the conversations swelled. It was a time of much talking—about last year’s revolution, which had ousted a longtime dictator, and about the new president elected that summer. Mina stood out to me as often the only one there who wasn’t speaking. Looking over at him across the tables, I wondered what he had to say, if only because he didn’t seem intent on sharing it with everyone else.

Now, by the embassy, he stopped to light a cigarette before a security checkpoint at the end of the block, and I decided I had no choice. I was tired of standing on the edges of the city like this. I wanted more from my life here. I stuffed the orange into my hoodie pocket and waved. He saw me and walked over.

“Alex,” I said, shaking his hand. “From the café.”

“Yes,” he said, nodding. Then, seeing the bag of fruit, he smiled a little and said, “You’re always eating oranges.”

Was that true? The oranges were smaller and sweeter than those I was used to in my home state of Florida, and I did eat a lot of them at the café while I studied, the peels piling up in the dented tin ashtray on the table. What mattered right then, however, was that he knew who I was.

He was heading to the café now, he said, and so we set off together at his unhurried pace, not saying much. We took turns climbing over a wall of heavy stones behind the embassy, one of many erected by the security forces in recent months as a deterrent against protesters. He held the ladder for me—a pair of packing crates laid end to end—and then, on the other side, seemed to be guiding me through the traffic of Tahrir Square. We walked along the wall of the American University’s downtown campus, where street artists had painted portraits of those who had died in the violence of the last two years. Most of them were young, some with their eyes shot out by police bullets or their faces disfigured by fatal injuries. It was a grim history, and it was still ongoing. Only days ago, there’d been protests at the same site, and the wall was blackened and broken in places where Molotov cocktails had burst against it. From a distance, I’d watched as a crowd of young men surged up the street, hurling rocks and paving stones at a line of police conscripts. Tear gas was fired and they retreated, their heads thrown back and their arms pumping.

As we picked our way among the rubble of the ruined sidewalk, I wondered where Mina fit in here, among the revolutionaries and the martyrs. It was hard to imagine him at the same protest. He was too well-dressed, in his leather jacket, plus a neat button-down shirt and dark jeans. Most of all, though, it was his shoes, shiny wingtips that, no doubt, he’d paid someone at a café to polish for him. You couldn’t run in shoes like those.

He took the lead as we turned off the street toward Falaki Square, putting out an arm and stalling a microbus so we could cross to the café on the other side. All the café’s shutters were open, and chairs were being dragged outside, under the groomed trees, for the evening crowds. We took a table facing the square, where the last of the light fell on the apartment balconies and rooftops. The day’s hard edges were softening. I accepted a cigarette from Mina, and we sat there quietly smoking, letting the sediment of our coffees fall to the bottoms of the short glasses. A man came around the tables selling newspapers, and I bought two, as I always did, one state-owned and one independent, and put them on the table between us.

“Can you read the newspaper?” Mina asked.

“No,” I said. “But I’d like to be able to. It’s one of my goals.”

“You came to Cairo to read the news?” he asked.

“I don’t care about the news itself,” I said. “I just want to be able to sit at a café, like this one, and read the paper casually.”

I thought he’d understand, given that he seemed like a café daydreamer himself, but he dug deeper.

“So you want to live here, then?” he asked.

“I think so,” I said. “At least for a year.”

“And then what?”

“I haven’t gotten that far.”

Before coming to Cairo, I’d taught English in Saudi Arabia, and I’d saved enough money to last me a year of studying Arabic here. I told myself that I’d figure out what to do next once the summer arrived.

“Do you love it here?” he asked.

I looked over at him, hoping for a clue as to his intent. He was handsome, with the smooth jaw of a leading man, and I knew that I wanted him to like me.

“Yes,” I said, a little unsteady. “I love it here.”

“Most foreigners only love Cairo because they can leave when they want to,” he said.

He was right, but I felt set up by his line of questioning. I thought of my afternoon walks along the curved streets of Garden City, admiring the dusty villas and the old-growth trees, the street dogs napping in the sun, the Nile just right there. Could you love the small moments without needing to love the place itself? I decided to pivot.

“How about you, then?” I asked.

He gestured at the square. “I don’t love it here, if that’s what you mean,” he said. “But I can’t leave, either.”

He’d been to the U.S. embassy that afternoon, as a matter of fact, to support his cousin, whose green-card lottery application had recently been accepted. Mina wanted to apply as well, but he’d dropped out of high school the previous year, which would most likely guarantee a rejection. School had been a waste of time, he said. The classrooms were too crowded. He wasn’t learning anything. He spent all his time in the back, writing in notebooks—just like he did here, in the café. I saw my chance and went for it: “What are you writing about?” I asked him.

He took a cheap school notebook from his jacket pocket and put it on the table before me. It was a generous, vulnerable thing, to let me read his writing—even though I couldn’t understand any of it. I turned the pages slowly, nearly all of them full of blue ballpoint. I’d always thought Arabic to be an especially beautiful language when written by hand, and his was no different.

“Is it a story?” I asked.

“Maybe,” he said. “I just write about the people I meet and the things I see.”

“That sounds like a novel to me,” I said, and just as he’d forced me to admit that I loved Cairo, I felt I was now pushing him to define what was in the pages of this notebook.

“Yes,” he said, “it’s a novel,” and his voice sounded as unsure as mine had only moments ago.

Soon after, a Syrian woman and her two small children came to our table, asking for money. She held her blue passport out in front of her, to differentiate herself, I suppose, from the poor Egyptians who came around the café tables as well, looking for charity or selling small things like handfuls of peanuts or tissue packets. Mina touched his heart and said something quietly in Arabic, and the woman and her children walked to the next table. I asked him what he’d said, and he repeated it and then translated it for me. It was both a request and a gentle dismissal, asking God to make life easier for her, and he wrote it down for me in my own notebook. The pages were full of other phrases and idioms, all of which I was supposed to use in real life, but always the moment passed me by and I ended up saying nothing at all.

Each evening, I rode the train from downtown to the southern neighborhood of Maadi, where I’d rented an apartment. I took out my newspapers and tried to read, but I couldn’t do much more than look at the photos. At that time, most of them featured the current president, a rounded man with a cropped beard named Mohamed Morsi. Tired and bouncing with the train, I looked at his face in a loose way that caused my thoughts to run. I knew he was an engineer by training, and that as a young man he’d earned his doctorate from a top university in Los Angeles. The year he graduated was 1982, the year I was born. He would have been thirty years old, I determined, the same age I was then in Cairo, and often in that winter I would find myself trying to picture him, President Morsi, in Los Angeles. The weather in that part of California wasn’t too different from the weather in Cairo, which in turn wasn’t far off from the climate in the small Florida panhandle town where I was raised, with the exception of the humidity. You could stand under a palm tree in all three places and eat an orange.

Looking out the train windows, I wondered if he’d ever had these moments of projection when he was my age and living somewhere else, a place that was different but also similar in a way. Ronald Reagan was in the second year of his presidency. Meanwhile, Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, had been assassinated during a military parade the previous autumn. The man who took his place right after, Hosni Mubarak, remained in charge for the next thirty years, before he was toppled in the 2011 revolution. Could Morsi ever have thought, on a pleasant Los Angeles evening, that the next president to come after Mubarak would be himself?

At the language institute in Garden City where I studied, most of the teachers supported Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the powerful Islamist group with which he was allied. My first teacher was a former journalist named Karim, who gave long, tiring lectures about Morsi’s plans for the country and the turbulent history of the Brotherhood, its suppression, and its rise to power. It was the same kind of speech I heard in the downtown cafés, but from the other side. I asked to be transferred to another teacher—and then another, and another.

Finally, I got Basma, a tall, thin woman in her late twenties who never discussed politics with me. I didn’t know who she supported: the secular revolutionaries or the Brotherhood; the army or the police; Morsi or his predecessor, Mubarak. I did know, however, that she was allergic to strawberries, which I bought for her once from the man who sold me my oranges. Basma was unmarried and lived with her parents and her younger brother in the family’s apartment in Nasr City, a large district of office blocks, military installations, and shopping malls to the east of downtown. Originally, she had wanted to teach literature at the high school level, but she found she could make better money teaching Arabic to foreigners. Each morning, she traveled to the institute by microbus, speeding along an east-west axis that became knotted with traffic as it funneled into downtown from the north. On her commute, she streamed classic Egyptian movies on her phone, all of which were available for free online. It was her great passion, or her great escape, the cinema of the so-called golden era.

For our classes, she typed out transcripts of scenes from her favorite movies, and we looped the black-and-white clips on the desktop computer in the small classroom where I took my private lessons with her. The acting style was different back then, in the 1950s and ’60s. The actors spoke more clearly and it was easier for me to understand, or at least in theory. Mostly, I got lost in the images and forgot to listen.

Here came Omar Sharif, a little grainy from the low-res video, running across a marble foyer and up a set of stairs. A door opened on the second floor, a woman appeared and said something. Basma paused the video.

“What did she say?” Basma asked.

I opened and closed my mouth.

We looped the video again. I tried to listen, but the building entrance looked like the one downstairs here, in the language institute. Could it be the same building, the one we were in now, the cream-colored one on the corner, beside the Italian embassy? Omar Sharif opened the doors, floated up the stairs, his shoes clicking on the marble. They were the same kind of shoes that Mina wore, or was it the other way around? The building in the movie wasn’t faded or crumbling. Also, the grand apartments upstairs hadn’t yet been divided into offices and doctors’ clinics and language institutes. It was my introduction to Egypt’s nostalgic past, in all its charm and power.

Around this time, deep in our Omar Sharif phase, President Morsi issued a decree placing himself above the constitution. The news wasn’t well received by a skeptical public who had only recently overthrown one dictator. Protesters began streaming into downtown from points across the city, heading to Tahrir Square, the main site of the previous year’s uprising.

After class that day, I made the rounds of the cafés in Falaki Square, looking for Mina. We’d sat together a few more times since meeting that day by the embassy, and I hoped he would go to Tahrir with me. I wanted to see the crowds in the square in person. I didn’t feel confident enough to go by myself, though. I was afraid of not understanding what I saw, of being unaware as history passed me by.

When Mina didn’t show, I walked over to Talaat Harb Square, a few blocks above Tahrir, and lingered until nightfall, looking at the display in a bookstore window and eating a chicken shawarma as the streetlamps came on. All the while I could hear the roar of a crowd building down the street. Soon, it was time to go. On my way to Tahrir, I cut through a back alley where several popular cafés were located. It was a last chance to find a friend, and Cairo delivered, as it almost always did. Seated in a plastic chair under a dangling string of lights was Tarek. He gave a cry of surprise and we did the double kiss, one per cheek. Then he drained the last of his coffee and we walked to Tahrir together.

If Mina was a listener, then Tarek was a talker, one of the regulars at the café where I went each afternoon. He was older than me, in his forties, and he worked as a satellite engineer for an Emirati telecom firm, which meant traveling around the city and making repairs. Almost every night he came straight downtown after work, where he made the rounds of the cafés and bars, usually in Falaki Square. He talked of nothing but politics. But he’d helped me in my early days in the city, including negotiating the contract for my apartment, and I was grateful to him.

That night, we entered Tahrir from Talaat Harb Street and were almost immediately separated in the crush. I’d hoped to just watch the crowd without joining, but a mass of protesters marched into the square behind us and I was swept away. There was nothing to do but give myself over to it, and soon I was carried to the top of the square, by the Egyptian Museum, pressed close within the crowd. I was surprised at how good it felt, being shoulder to shoulder with strangers, moving at the whim of something larger than myself. It was like jumping to the head of the line, past all the small moments I clung to throughout the day, right into something like a life. Then the crowd turned and pushed me all the way to the bottom of the square, and I found myself suddenly spat out into a clearing by the Mugamma, the hulking building that housed most of the country’s bureaucracy.

It felt like a small miracle when I saw Tarek again, standing by Omar Makram Mosque, on the same side of the square. We bought sweet potatoes from a man who roasted them in an iron stove on a wooden cart, a winter staple in public spaces. The wind blew into the square from off the river, flattening the smoke, and Tarek tightened the scarf he always wore to protests, which was striped in the colors of the Egyptian flag—black, white, and red. We ate our potatoes, looking out at the crowd. By now, the demonstration had breached the square, spilling over the Nile bridges to the left and pushing deeper into the streets of downtown on the right. Columns of protesters arrived every few minutes, holding high the banners of their political party or the stenciled faces of young martyrs. It was only going to keep growing through the night. My thoughts turned to the future, what was going to happen next, Tarek’s favorite subject. Was this crowd big enough to make Morsi reverse his decree?

Tarek said that wasn’t the goal. He wanted Morsi gone. When I said that Morsi had only been in office for a couple of months, Tarek clicked his tongue at me.

“They’ll never change,” he said. “You’ll see.”

Chants went up in front of us, and Tarek joined in, stepping back into the crowd. He waved at me to follow him, but I hung back this time, and I felt a distance between us as he merged into the flow of people. Maybe I was jealous of how he fit in here. I’d experienced it only briefly that night, the thrill of belonging, and it unsettled me. I didn’t think I had a right to it, because I wasn’t from here.

The protests culminated in a weekend march to the presidential palace, in the neighborhood of Heliopolis. Tarek and I had planned to attend together. Since I didn’t have Arabic class on Fridays, I took the train into the city early and arranged to meet Mina at the corner café where we usually sat. The midday Friday prayers began, and we ate felafel sandwiches in the café as the nearby mosques broadcast their sermons on crackly speakers.

It was then that Mina told me he was living with an American, in an apartment not far from the café. I remember because I’d brought a book with me that day to give him, a worn copy of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye that I thought he might like.

“I’ve read it,” Mina said, tapping the cover lightly with a finger.

I was taken back by how disappointed I felt. It was a book to read when you’re very young, and I realized I wanted to be the one to give it to him. I began to dig through my backpack, looking to see if I had any other books.

“It’s okay,” he said. “The guy I live with, Francis, he has lots of books. I’ll never finish them all.”

Prayers ended, and Mina said he wanted to get a haircut. The barber he used operated out of a small shop behind the café, in an alcove beside a modest pharmacy. I said I’d wait for him in the café, and so he left his things on the table, his notebook and the book he was reading at the time, along with a pen or two. He’d only been gone a minute when Tarek texted me, telling me to meet him by the Egyptian Museum. The march to the palace was underway. I took Mina’s things off the table, to bring them to him, and on an impulse, I opened his notebook and flipped through the pages. I didn’t know what I was looking for. Maybe I was just surprised by the knowledge that he lived with an American. Then I saw my name, Alex, written in Arabic. There it was, the only word I could pick out on the page. I flipped through the notebook and saw my name in other places, too, in paragraphs and also in dialogue, with enough frequency to suggest that I was a recurring character in his story. I sat there very still, with the open notebook in my hands, wondering what Mina could have written about me. But it felt wrong, to be reading his work, even in a language I couldn’t fully understand, and I closed the notebook and carried it out of the café.

Mina was leaning in the doorjamb of the barbershop, smoking a cigarette. A fair-haired man was in the chair inside, getting a shave. I handed Mina his things and said I was going on the march with Tarek.

“Want to come?” I asked.

“I need to get a haircut,” he said, nodding into the barbershop. “I’m next.”

I looked again into the shop. The man being shaved lay back in the chair at a tilt, as the barber slowly scraped the razor blade along his throat. He had straight blond hair, swept back from the forehead and thinning around the crown. His eyes were closed and his hands were folded on his stomach, over a necktie that had been partially tucked into the buttons of his dress shirt. He looked perfectly at ease, almost asleep. Was this Francis?

I said goodbye and walked to the museum. Tarek was already there, the Egyptian flag scarf wrapped around his neck. We caught a bus from an open-air depot behind the museum and rode east until we had headed off the march a few miles from the palace. As we joined with the crowd, I thought the people seemed better dressed than those who hung out downtown. I had never been to this part of Cairo, I realized, and my life in the city suddenly seemed small—the afternoon walks, buying fruit on the street, sitting in cafés.

We walked for a while. At one point, someone ahead of us began to unfurl a giant Egyptian flag. There was a lot of cloth. A pair of young men came running up from behind us and went to help untangle it, then they came trotting back, each holding a corner, and the flag began to stretch out through the march.

Tarek stepped in and grabbed an edge of the flag. “Come on, Alex,” he said, motioning for me to join him. “Yella.

I hesitated, he asked again, and so I filed behind him and gripped the fabric. The flag seemed to stretch for a whole city block. When it was finally opened, cheers went up from the crowd and from those watching on the balconies above the street. Some women seated on the pavement off to the side of the march, who were selling drinks and snacks and small flags, ululated all together. Cars coming the opposite direction on a parallel street honked their horns.

A chant began—a simple one that I knew by now, calling for the downfall of the Brotherhood—and Tarek cupped his free hand by his mouth and began to shout it as loud as he could. Holding onto the flag behind him, I wondered what it would feel like to join the chant with the others. Would it be like flowing with the crowd in Tahrir earlier that week? The voices rose around me. I kept silent as we marched, longing for a clearer understanding of what my role was in all of this. I thought of Mina’s notebooks, my name on the page. It seemed that if I could read what he’d written about me, then I’d be able to see myself from the outside and know. I’d become a part of someone else’s story, and wasn’t that the same as joining the chant, as being here now? It was what I wanted, after all, to be confronted by an ongoing moment that was big enough to entirely sweep me away. Well, here it was. At the same time, though, I wasn’t sure I was ready to let go of my small life, and so I clung to the flag in silence for the rest of the way to the palace.

Clashes broke out after the march and continued for several days, with Morsi supporters and opponents squaring off by the palace. News teams had filmed the running street battles, and I saw the video montages on the TV in the reception area at the Arabic school in Garden City. In one clip, a burly man rolled out from behind a column and fired off a few rounds from a shotgun, then staggered back and fell out of sight. Moments later, two men came running over and looped their arms through his and pulled him back into an alley. Was the wounded man a Morsi supporter?

Mahmoud, the school’s young receptionist, thought so. He was furious. Recently, he had begun to grow his beard in the conservative manner, with the mustache shaved off and the rest left unattended.

“They shot him,” he said, in Arabic, or at least that was what I heard. I tried to make a note of the verb he used. The clip of the man being dragged away played again. “Look: they shot him.”

It was break time between classes, and a few other students gathered under the TV set, drinking cups of tea that we’d prepared in a nearby storage closet. In those days, I was both drawn to and intimidated by a young woman named Penelope, a redheaded American who was studying the origins of terrorist groups for her coursework. She was in her mid-twenties and had already finished a master’s degree. Like most of the other students, she was well on her way to fluency in Arabic and aimed to use it in her future career, as a diplomat or journalist, some sort of global expert.

On the TV above us, the video clip began once more, and I stole a glance at Penelope’s face. She seemed to be suffering through it, and I wondered if it was because of the graphic imagery. People had died, after all. But, no, she was simply bored. She’d seen the clip countless times already.

“This is the part where they drag him to safety,” she said.

She blew on her tea. Particles floated in her glass cup. The kettle badly needed to be descaled, but who had time for that? We all went back to class, leaving Mahmoud staring up at the TV by himself.

We were entering a period where it would be all politics, all the time, everywhere. Meanwhile, I dug deeper into my language classes. Arabic grammar was not easy, but at least there was a sense of structure, and I clung to it. All the while I hoped that I would suddenly find myself on the other side of knowledge. The day would come—I believed it. Somebody would say something to me—on the street, in a café or a taxi—and I would understand. At the same moment, I would truly be someplace for the first time.

Occasionally, during our lessons, Basma would stick a dry-erase marker into the inner fold of her headscarf and then forget it was there. Enough time would have passed for me to have forgotten as well and then to laugh with her when she looked for the marker and then realized where it was.

“Presto!” she would say, opening her hands wide. She knew she was being funny. She was taking language lessons of her own, in Italian, not at the embassy next door but downtown. Everyone was a student in those days, it seemed, even the teachers.

Yes, presto, I would say, in my moment of understanding, when it came. It would be just like that.


Part Two

Mina turned eighteen early in the new year, and now that he could drink alcohol legally, he seemed intent on making up for lost time. By nightfall, we put our books away and made the short walk from our regular café to el-Horreya, a dingy place on the same square with high ceilings, mirrors on the walls, and unruly waiters who served beer. Our conversations deepened now that we were drinking. He told me about his past, growing up in a working-class neighborhood to the south, where he’d shared a small, one-bedroom apartment with his parents and his older sister. His family didn’t have much—they all lived solely off the meager salary of his father, who worked as a machinist at a government-run cement plant. But the stories he told gave the impression of a happy childhood: fishing with his uncles on the Nile, playing soccer in the neighborhood streets, the occasional summer trips to Alexandria or other towns on the Mediterranean coast.

I was curious as to when he realized that his life needed to change. It was something I’d puzzled over myself. After all, my own childhood had also been happy, and yet here I was, spending the holiday season in Cairo’s cafés rather than with my family back home.

“Were you given a choice?” I asked him.

“I think so,” he said. “Although it didn’t feel that way at the time.”

His story began in the early days of the 2011 revolution, when protesters first began to gather in Tahrir Square that January. Mina was taking English classes at an academy in Dokki, on the other side of the Nile from downtown, and each afternoon he rode the train into the city and got off at Sadat station, beneath Tahrir, and walked over the bridges. He was sixteen years old and bought his own cigarettes now, rather than stealing his father’s. When he saw the demonstrations in the square, he looked on from the edges and then kept walking to the academy. The lessons were expensive and no doubt a burden for his family. On the third day, though, he found the square entirely full and decided to skip his classes. Merging into the crowd, he felt free. Nobody knew him. At the same time, it felt like everyone did. Chants went up, calling for the president, Hosni Mubarak, to step down.

Later that night, police arrived and opened fire on the protesters, and Mina found himself running with a crowd out of the square and into the nearby streets, not stopping until he reached Mounira, two neighborhoods over. There, he smoked a cigarette and walked along the high metal fence that encircled a square land plot, in the middle of which was the tomb of the famed Egyptian nationalist Saad Zaghloul, who had led a series of protests of his own, almost one hundred years ago, against British colonial rule. The tomb itself was an imposing block of sand-colored granite, with a pair of columns at its entrance, bigger and more striking than his family’s brick apartment building. Suddenly, he realized he was far from home as a curfew was beginning. Then he remembered: Francis, one of his teachers from the academy, lived just opposite the tomb. They’d gone for a coffee a few times after class and had exchanged phone numbers. Mina called him and asked if he could stay over, which he did, and the two of them stayed up late that night, smoking on the balcony and listening to the pop of sporadic gunfire or tear gas canisters being fired blocks away to the north, near Tahrir Square.

A few days passed, with the police retreating and the army arriving, and by now Mina’s family had begun to worry about him. The two of them decided to decamp together to Mina’s home to wait out the remainder of the uprising. Riding in a taxi south along the corniche, it seemed like they were going to arrive without incident, until they approached the maximum-security Tora Prison, which was right then in the middle of a prison break. Hundreds of men in prison garb came running into the lanes of traffic, with guards in pursuit, on foot and in pickup trucks with machine guns mounted in the rear beds. The taxi driver made a screeching U-turn and ordered Francis and Mina out of the car before speeding off.

They took off at a hard sprint, merging with the fleeing prisoners, then turning off the corniche and entering the narrow backstreets that led to Mina’s neighborhood. As he was growing up, these neighborhoods had been the northern boundary of how far he and his friends would go on foot—up to the neighborhood of Maadi, with its tree-lined streets laid out by the British and its elegant villas, then catching the metro back home. Now he was making the same journey but on foot, and with an American teacher by his side. It was the last time either of them ran in the city, alone or together.

For most of the next month, Francis stayed with Mina’s family, and the experience cemented their friendship. The president, Mubarak, stepped down, and Francis joined Mina’s family on the roof of their building, watching the cascading fireworks over the roofs of that district and beyond. The country slipped into a post-revolution euphoria. When Francis prepared to return to his apartment in Mounira, Mina told his parents that he was going with him. The two of them had talked about it together, and Mina was surprised when his parents agreed. They walked through the unpaved streets of his neighborhood toward the corniche, where they flagged down a taxi and made the journey together back into the city.

Since then, Francis had gone from a teacher to a student, enrolling in the graduate program at the American University. After the revolution, the university mostly relocated from its downtown campus to a sprawling facility in a new desert community on the far eastern edge of the city. Francis took the bus to the campus and stayed there all day. Meanwhile, Mina sat in the café in Falaki Square, always with his notebook.

Some evenings, after returning downtown, Francis would join the two of us at el-Horreya. He usually ordered a bottle of soda, because he had reading to do afterward. His thesis was on how the American Civil War impacted the Egyptian cotton industry. He dressed up for school, in a blazer and tasseled loafers, and in those first meetings I wondered if he was playing a part, the foreign academic in an ancient land. But he’d done something I hadn’t been able to, which was to commit to his life here. He’d found his future, in a way, studying Egypt’s nearly infinite past. It almost didn’t matter what happened in the present, in terms of politics or upheaval, another revolution or not. The past—history—would always be there, waiting.

The more Francis spoke about his thesis, the more Mina seemed to drink. He was always getting up to pee. It seemed to happen right when his mother called, as she did nightly, to check on him. The phone buzzed on the table, and Francis picked it up and made pleasant small talk in Arabic with Mina’s mother. At the same time, Francis seemed to resent Mina for passing off his own responsibilities onto him. They fought about it once, like brothers, arguing by the flower kiosk outside of the café. I looked on from the distance of our table, on the verge of hiccups. Always I tried to keep pace with Mina’s drinking. It seemed like he’d led Francis to the center of his own life, and I hoped he could do the same for me.

That winter, Mina threw himself a belated birthday party at Francis’s apartment. It was the same weekend as large demonstrations in Tahrir to mark the second anniversary of the uprising. I met up with Tarek in the late afternoon and stood with him near the Kentucky Fried Chicken in the square as he shouted until his voice grew hoarse. By nightfall, protesters began confronting the police on the fringes, and tear gas hung in the air. Walking to the party in Mounira, I got held up at a security checkpoint by the Ministry of Interior and missed the cake and the blowing out of candles.

Like many downtown apartments, Francis’s was both stately and decaying—high ceilings and a marble entrance downstairs, but broken doors and peeling wall plaster. I found him on the balcony, which directly faced Saad Zaghloul’s tomb, its columns lit up in the night. Beside him was Penelope, the budding terrorism expert, with a white shawl draped over her shoulders. She was saying how she’d recently met Noam Chomsky by accident, in the lobby of the InterContinental hotel on the Nile. Chomsky had been in town for a lecture that had been overbooked, and nobody was able to get tickets.

“What’s he like?” Francis asked.

“About as you’d expect,” Penelope said.

Meanwhile, Mina roamed the apartment’s rooms, opening beers and drinking the top half and then leaving the can behind in search of the next thrill. He slept on a couch squeezed between two overflowing bookcases, with a clear view of the tomb. Maybe this was why he spent so much time in the cafés: to not be continually reminded of his past.

At one point, Mina pulled me into the bathroom with him to shotgun a beer. Standing in the bathtub already was a tall Dane with an aggressive haircut and soft brown eyes who was studying journalism at the same university. Mina got in the tub beside him, and I didn’t ask why.

“On three,” Mina said.

“You’re the boss,” the Dane said.

The overhead light bulb in the bathroom was out, so the three of us shotgunned our beers in the near dark, using our apartment keys to stab holes in the bottoms of the cans. The beer ran in rivulets out the corner of my mouth and down my neck and onto the floor. Hence the tub, I thought. The Dane let out an incredible burp.

Later, Francis put on a wool gallabiya that he’d been given as a Christmas present from Mina’s uncle. Near midnight, some of Mina’s friends from his neighborhood showed up and they took over the stereo, blasting Egyptian hip-hop so loud that the doorman came up and complained, demanding for either the party to end or someone to give him a tip. Francis paid him off, switched the music to an Egyptian crooner from the 1950s, and danced with the blade of a butter knife between his teeth. Several times while he was dancing, Mina tried to pull the backside of the gallabiya over his head.

Bas ya Mina,” Francis said to him, the butter knife still in his teeth.

That’s enough, Mina.

That spring, a campaign was launched to gather the signatures of Egyptians who wanted Morsi to step down. The signatures would be delivered on June 30, to coincide with nationwide mass protests calling for his removal. The campaign’s volunteers fanned out across the city and the country. There were always one or two canvassing in front of the station in Maadi where I caught the train each morning. Regularly I was asked to sign the petition, but I never did. Morsi wasn’t my president, after all.

One morning, it was raining a little and a woman gathering signatures slipped on the steps by the ticket counter. Some men carried her to a barbershop next to the station. She sat in the barber chair with her foot up and slapped the wet pages of her clipboard, saying that the signatures were all ruined. A small crowd had gathered outside by the door, which in turn attracted a crowd in itself, and whenever someone new showed up and asked what had happened, eventually someone else would say, “She fell.”

It wasn’t until I was on the train that I realized I’d understood what everyone had said. But I was too preoccupied to celebrate a language milestone. I stood in the muddy aisle, worrying. The protests calling for Morsi’s removal were less than two months away, and I feared that the small life I’d built here would be toppled along with the president. At one stop, schoolchildren rushed into the car, jamming the doors open to let in more of their friends. The conductor’s voice came over the intercom, complaining. Small-time vendors took advantage of the lull, moving through the cars with their leather belts, headphones, and potato peelers for sale. Someone was listening to the Quran on their phone, and soon all the adults began to shout at the schoolkids. I thought about exiting the car, maybe taking a taxi. But then the kids stepped away and the doors closed, and I felt something turn over inside me as the train kicked into motion again. Now that I could see an end to my time here, I knew that I wanted to stay.

“Presto,” I said to myself.

At the language institute, Basma and I entered the 1970s with her movies, mostly comedies, some of which were in color. How long would it take for us to catch up to the present? One day, she appeared for our session wearing all black—loose cotton skirt, long-sleeve shirt, headscarf. Dark circles hung beneath her eyes.

“My brother died,” she said.

He’d been missing for weeks. The story she’d heard from his friends was that they’d gone on a Friday afternoon to hang out in Mokattam, a neighborhood on a rocky plateau on the city’s eastern flank. There, they’d stumbled into violent scenes by the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters, where rival groups fought for hours that day, until security forces arrived. Basma’s brother had disappeared, running in a fog of tear gas, and his body had finally turned up now, at a morgue in another neighborhood.

Basma was confused and heartbroken. Her brother wasn’t political, she insisted. She sat there and cried. I began to pack up my things and leave, but she insisted on having the lesson. She turned on the monitor, where the last movie we’d been watching appeared in a web browser.

“Can you give me a few minutes?” she asked.

I went into the foyer. Outside, a hard wind rattled the palms beside the Italian embassy and scuttled trash down the street. The front door opened, and in stepped Karim, my former teacher. As he came up the stairs of the landing, shaking the dust from his jacket, I thought of the scene with Omar Sharif that Basma and I had watched on repeat last year.

No, this wasn’t the same building.

Basma took a leave of absence from the institute, which meant I did as well, and without any classes to anchor my days, I began looking for an apartment downtown. I went door to door of what seemed like all the buildings in Bab el-Louk, just below Falaki Square, talking to doormen, gauging the distance between minarets and bedrooms. The landlords were pushy, wanting me to sign a contract before the summer’s protests kicked off and I could change my mind about staying.

Near the end of my search, I met Madame Nagla, a widow in her sixties who seemed to dislike her own people. She never rented to Egyptians, she said. She didn’t trust them. At the same time, she praised her previous tenant, an Italian woman who’d gone back to Rome to get married, for speaking Arabic so well.

“Just like an Egyptian,” Madame Nagla said.

Her apartment wasn’t much, with lumpy mattresses, mismatched furniture, and a whiny electric water pump in the kitchen. What’s more, she expected me to sign a two-year contract. I tried to negotiate until the call to prayer began, and Madame Nagla excused herself to put down a rug in the living room, near a boxy television set. I went onto the balcony, which overlooked a quiet, one-way street feeding into the bottom of Falaki Square. The colors of the sky had deepened since she and I had ridden the rickety elevator up from the ground floor. A new church was being built in a lot across the street, and from the third-floor balcony, I could see over some of the rooftops of the neighborhood, almost to where the royal palace was, a relic from the days when Egypt had a king. The second part of the call to prayer began, with the voices of those gathered in the mosque heard like a whisper. I sat down on a wooden chair, beside a potted palm, and watched the pigeons turning in slow arcs through the dusk. A half moon was rising, low in the sky. Next door, a kebab shop on the ground floor sent up its smoke and the smell of grilling meat. The wind blew, the same breeze I could feel at the right table at the café in the square. Mina was right: I could leave anytime I wanted. But it was hard to imagine going anywhere else.

I went inside and signed the two-year contract. For the deposit, I used the rest of the money I’d set aside for Arabic classes. Madame Nagla paid the doorman, Hashim, a small broker’s fee for showing me the apartment, and I should have done the same, but didn’t, and therefore made an enemy out of him, a fatal mistake in Cairo. He slept on a wooden cot beneath the stairs, alongside the exposed elevator shaft, coughing all through the night. When I asked him if he was okay one morning, he held up the burning cigarette in his hand and shrugged. Hashim was broad in the shoulders but ashen in the face, a strapping man from Upper Egypt, felled by tobacco.

He never liked me having guests over, especially at night, and so I roamed the downtown cafés and bars. Now that it was getting hotter, Mina, Francis, and I spent our evenings on the rooftop of a dated hotel near Tahrir Square, whose barman made good use of a radio and a refrigerator full of beer. That seemed like enough to us. There was a sweetness on the wind, and the classic songs were one big swoon, and in the morning I’d wake with a start to the bells of the church banging across the street.

I still brought my notebook and newspapers to the cafés each afternoon, on the pretense of studying, but mostly I was waiting for friends to arrive. One Friday, I found Francis and Mina at our usual café in the square, waiting for the barber to open after the midday prayers and sermon. They were both wearing T-shirts, and I noticed the matching silver necklaces they had on. Francis removed his from his shirt and showed it to me. They bought them last year, he said, on a trip to a Coptic monastery with Mina’s family. The pendants featured Saint Anthony, the first monk of Christianity, who’d roamed Egypt’s deserts over two millennia ago, hoping to be tested through temptation.

“Is he your patron saint?” I asked.

“I’ll take whatever I can get,” he said.

“In terms of what?”


I sipped my lemon juice. “What about you?” I asked Mina.

He crossed his legs. “I’m an atheist,” he said.

“That’s not what he asked you,” Francis said.

Mina took his cigarettes from the table and lit one.

“What was the question, then?” he asked.

I reached for one of Mina’s cigarettes, too—something I’d never done before—and the moment passed. The barbershop opened, and I decided to get a haircut as well. Looking at myself in the mirror while the man worked the shears, I wondered if I was capable of being here alone. Always I had to follow someone. When I came back to the café, I found my old classmate Penelope sitting with Francis and Mina. She was leaving, she said, and for Washington, where she’d landed a think-tank job monitoring terrorism groups in the region. She only had a week left in Egypt, and she was trying to decide whether or not to go hike up Mount Sinai.

“I like hiking,” she said. “But not hiking plus history. I mean, pick a lane, right?”

She got up to go shortly after. That day, we’d received an email from the U.S. embassy, containing warnings about the looming unrest, and Penelope listed them off as a kind of farewell speech.

“Avoid protests or large gatherings,” she said. “Keep a low profile in public. Register with your local embassy. What else? Oh, and don’t forget your cell phone or ID when walking around.”

It almost felt motherly. The three of us waved to her from our line of chairs. Our haircuts were all too short, the barber unwilling to offer anything but a modified crewcut.

Not long after she left, the day was interrupted by a loud bang from across the square. The café emptied onto the sidewalk, everyone looking around. Mina saw them first: a group of about fifty men, dressed in black and with balaclavas over their faces, marching into the top of the square from the direction of Tahrir. Those in front carried rifles, while others held banners. It was Black Bloc, an anarchist group with unclear origins that had formed that year, intent on destroying the Muslim Brotherhood.

We watched as they crossed the square and set up in front of their target, a branch of a local fast-food chain known for its shrimp sandwich. Apparently, the owner was a prominent Brotherhood figure. They ordered the employees and customers out of the restaurant, then torched it with Molotov cocktails. The gas tanks in the kitchen exploded last, with a great boom echoing in the square. For good measure, the armed men fired off a few rounds into the burning restaurant, before all of them marched up the block toward us.

The shopkeepers and café owners raced to throw down their shutters. Our café was closing, too, and we only had a moment to gather our things. Francis threw some money onto the table, and Mina and I grabbed our notebooks. There was no time to run, so we stood outside the closed shutters as the men came trotting past. They turned the corner, and when we heard a boom a few minutes later, we learned that it was from another Brotherhood-owned restaurant, the shawarma place off of Talaat Harb Square.

It wasn’t until I got home later that I realized I’d grabbed Mina’s notebook by mistake from the café. I tossed it onto the folding table in the living room, beside my Arabic-to-English dictionary, and began pacing the floor. What was going to happen in the days ahead? I went to the balcony and had an awful vision of the city in flames. Then a junk dealer came up the street, calling out from his cart, and the spell was broken. Downstairs, the kebab place was in full swing on a weekend afternoon, and the air was heavy with smoke. I realized I was very hungry. I had an agreement with the guys who ran the grill where I could lower a basket on a rope from my balcony and then call out the order to them. As I lifted it back up, the basket was wobbly from the weight of chicken, almost to the point of tipping over. That day, it seemed like a good exercise. It was important to trust myself with the rope.

Summer began, and Mina never asked me for his notebook back. He walked the streets through the hot nights, restless and angry. His sister had been robbed while walking home one evening, dragged behind a motorcycle until the strap of her handbag finally broke. She was okay, but badly bruised and shaken. His family blamed the Brotherhood for the robbery and all the other things going wrong—the security breakdown, the thinning supermarket shelves, the power cuts. As Coptic Christians, they had long been wary of Islamists. But I was surprised when Mina began cursing Morsi when the electricity cut off at el-Horeyya. The waiters brought candles to the tables, and I remember how distant Mina looked in the warm light.

One evening, while walking by a gas station, Mina suddenly cut into the long line of cars backed up at the pumps and began taunting a bearded driver through the open passenger window.

“A few more days and you’re finished,” Mina said to him.

The driver stared out the windshield. He looked hot and miserable. Gas shortages were rampant, and the lines seemed longer all the time in the run-up to that weekend’s protests. Car horns blared, and up ahead two men were wrestling at the pump.

I stepped in and tried to pull Mina back. “Why give him a hard time?” I asked.

“You don’t have to live here,” Mina said. “Not like I do.”

Wounded, I looked at Francis, who kept quiet during the altercation. We reached the plaza in front of the old royal palace, where some kids were playing soccer. The ball bounded over to us, and Mina kicked it back, then joined in the game. He was wearing tennis shoes these days. Francis and I sat on a bench and watched.

“You’ll get used to it,” Francis said.

Army helicopters buzzed overhead, their underbellies lit up with green laser pointers, coming from the nearby buildings and those lounging in the grass behind us. It wasn’t late, but I said good night and walked home. All the cafés were broadcasting a long, defiant speech Morsi was giving to the nation. In the morning, I was woken by a fighter jet breaking the sound barrier over downtown.

I began spending more time in the kitchen of my new apartment, cooking. The previous tenant, the Italian woman who spoke Arabic like an Egyptian, had left behind cabinets of pans and even a hand-crank pasta maker, along with some recipes in a drawer, handwritten nicely in Italian. I thought of Mina’s handwriting, also beautiful, but I didn’t feel compelled to open his notebook. Each day, I went to the market in Falaki Square to begin stockpiling food—whatever looked good that day, plus tins of olive oil and bags of flour. The tomatoes were almost to bursting, good enough to be eaten on their own. On a last trip, the produce vendor I frequented sent his son to help me carry everything home on his bicycle. I tipped him on the landing, Hashim’s cough echoing in the elevator shaft, and closing the door after he left felt like the end of something.

I saw Tarek one last time in that final push before June 30, the date of the protests, seated at a back-alley café by the stock exchange. There was plenty to talk about. Tahrir was filling up. Meanwhile, Morsi supporters had set up huge camps at two squares, one by Cairo University, in Giza, and another in Nasr City, not far from where Basma lived. Was she still at home, watching movies?

Tarek was smoking shisha, and so I joined him and ordered a pipe of my own. This was, I realized, my last chance to look into the crystal ball.

“What’s going to happen?” I asked Tarek.

“The military will take over,” he said.

“And then?”

He waved his hand by his ear, and I couldn’t say whether he was wiping away the question or the many supporters of the president. I thought of Mahmoud, the receptionist, and Karim, my former teacher. Were they at the two camps? We pulled on our shishas.

At one point, a man appeared among the tables, a kind of street performer and beggar. He stood back against a wall and took a long swig of lighter fluid and then blew a fireball out over the top of the crowd. It was the first time I had seen him, and I sat there with my mouth open, watching the flame and the shadows it cast. After a few rounds, though, I realized nobody else was watching. Tarek was even texting on his phone. The fire-breather must have come by that café every night.

When he was done, he came around with a cup and collected a few coins. His face was badly scarred. Nobody clapped.


Kevin Dean is a writer based in Los Angeles. Previously, he lived in Cairo, Egypt, where he worked as an editor and studied Arabic. His other writing can be found in The Rumpus. He is working on his first novel.

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