We drove downtown, and Cairo’s entire population seemed to be promenading in the open air. Soraya blamed it all—the smog, the traffic, and the crowd—on President Sisi. She blamed many things on him, including her ugly days.
Soraya is my older and only sister, my only sibling. Five years ago, she fulfilled a lifelong dream and launched Asmahan, a women’s magazine, named after the singer whose records we played in our parents’ absence when we were twelve. The mononymous Asmahan, who was Lebanese and Egyptian, had died in a mysterious car crash near the end of WWII. People liked to say she was a spy. Like Asmahan’s voice, the apartment building we grew up in was a relic from the ‘30s: a trellised, checkered, pillared affair. We’d wheel the ancient gramophone out to the common marbled hallway, which was almost fifteen feet wide and gleamed even in the dark, and unleash Asmahan’s voice from the flat black disc; it echoed through the building, and Soraya and I ran up and down the wide, glossy steps, shaking our hips and giggling.
Soraya was driving us to Asmahan’s fifth anniversary soiree at a river-front restaurant in Zamalek. I turned and looked at Soraya’s higab-framed face then scanned her glamorous outfit: she wore expensive Céline sunglasses, a chic blouse, tight black pants, and leather boots. As always, I felt frumpy at her side, my cheap, polyester dress covering my knees. Our teenage daughters bickered in the backseat. Though only two and a half years older, Marwa behaved toward her cousin as a babysitter to a toddler. Soraya’s daughter Reema hated fashion magazines and considered herself a socialist, which amused us. (Our father’s socialism found expression in his chess-playing and refusal to throw away outdated electronic equipment. His apartment looked exactly as it had when we were children: it was a museum, in which he served as both its curator and its art.)
“The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains,” Reema said now, and Soraya retorted, “Are we talking about necklaces, or those tacky belt chains that are suddenly so en vogue right now?”
As for me, I am a freelance journalist who sympathizes with no single political ideology. Looking at the jumble of cars, donkey carts, people, and motorcycles around me, I am thinking of a paragraph for an article I owe to a French-language travel magazine:
A driver in Cairo or in Mexico City, Casablanca, or Istanbul is expected to maneuver through the streets instinctively, her left arm forming obscene gestures and her right arm leaning onto the horn. Her feet perform a sort of tango with the brakes and gas. Pedestrians in such cities are expected to do nothing but walk: being mindful of traffic and cars is not their responsibility.
I once saw a group of Turks howl with laughter in London at the “Look Left” sign that had been stenciled in white paint onto a corner of black asphalt. The practice of looking was obsolete in Egypt as well; perhaps it had gone to flames along with our library all those centuries ago.
Perhaps that is why the little girl did not look, why she ran across the street as she always did.
The girl appeared like a great streak of light. Soraya slammed on the brakes, and our daughters screamed in terror. The girl fell under the wheels, and Soraya said she could feel her small body against the tires. Almost instantly, a crowd formed around our fancy Lexus: dozens of men shouting into the car’s windshield, against my open window, their hands forming fists. One reached into the car and struck my shoulder as I struggled to roll up the window. The back door opened; Reema jumped out and disappeared into the mob. Soraya shouted, “Get back in the car,” and I twisted around in my seat and reached out for my daughter. Reema’s slight body was framed by the rear window.
“Let us take her to the hospital,” Reema said, her voice creating a rift in the crowd until she found the little girl. “Please, get out of our way. We want to help.” I was terrified they would attack her. Reema assured them that we would take the girl to a hospital and eventually she and another young woman climbed into the car, the little girl in their arms.
Reema and Marwa talked to the little girl and wiped blood from her legs, which had been struck by the wheels and were mangled. Marwa asked what her name was, and the girl said it was Shireen. The young woman, her sister, was weeping. Her hair was covered, like Soraya’s. The entire car smelled like blood‐soaked bread. I turned to look at Soraya: her eyes were focused on the road, seeking out a hospital. Soon, we arrived, and pushed the car doors open.
I followed my sister through gleaming hallways and heavy black doors. Our daughters were pleading with Shireen, Shireen was screaming at her sister, the sister was shouting at my sister, and my sister was shouting at a doctor. The doctor had formed a wall in front of us all, and was shouting at two nurses. I walked directly to him and looked into his eyes: “We ran this girl over. We’re sorry. I’m taking everyone out of the room so you can operate on her.” The wall receded and he calmed down. I gathered up all the girls and took them out to the hallway, where we sat under the bright lights and waited.
“My father will kill me,” the young woman finally said. “I wasn’t supposed to leave the village. He thinks we’re with relatives working the fields. He thinks I’ll be back in the morning. How am I supposed to explain our absence and on top of it, my sister’s legs?” She began to slap her cheeks and cry, and Soraya’s daughter intervened to calm her down.
“She’s alive. You will bring her home safe, and your absence you can explain away with a lie.” This idea somewhat soothed the young woman. Soraya’s daughter said, “My name is Reema. This is Marwa, my cousin.” The young woman said nothing. “What’s your name?”
“Fatma,” the young woman shouted. “Leave me alone.”
Soraya slumped in her chair. I reached out and clasped her hand in mine. She acknowledged it with a slight tug. “It’s all right,” I whispered. “Anyone could have done it.” She nodded and let go of my hand, then reached her own into a large purse. She brought out a cell phone and began dialing, then got up and walked down the hallway. I could hear her canceling her appearance at the anniversary, her voice tinged with worry.
I stared at the tiles in the hallway, the nurses’ feet shuffling past mine, the ugly wooden chairs we sat in, the cracked paint on the walls, the small Koranic verses framed and nailed to them. This may have been the very same hospital where Soraya gave birth. I wondered if Marwa remembered. She was just out of diapers when we came to visit Soraya and check on Reema, who was born almost nine weeks prematurely. Marwa began to call Reema “Preemy Reemy,” a name we loved. Soraya was miserable then; she hadn’t recovered easily from her C-section birth, and Reema was having trouble breathing. Soraya was sure Reema would perish. Out of desperation, she struck a deal with God: she would do anything if he’d just let Reema live. For some women, taking the higab—that permanent oath, that fabric tattoo—can be seen as a form of sacrifice but, for my sister Soraya, one of the most fashionable women of Cairo, if not Egypt, even the world, this would be the ultimate sacrifice. That was it. The veil: if Reema lived, she would wear it. Three days later, Reema was breathing without difficulty.
Now my sister was punctuating the silence in the hospital hallways with the sound of her designer boots clicking against sterile tiles. Reema and Marwa were outside sneaking cigarettes and pretending they were not, and I was pretending I didn’t know because in my experience, a sneaked cigarette tastes ultimately better than one smoked openly. There was another thing being smoked: deception itself. I wondered who carried the pack around. Reema was the more rebellious one. She had recently been suspended from school for staging a demonstration in protest of the school administration’s treatment of its cleaning staff, peasants who lived in squalid quarters on the grounds and were paid measly wages.
The older girl still refused to tell us anything about herself, most likely afraid we would tell her father what had happened. A nurse appeared, and told Fatma she could go in to see her sister. I attacked the nurse with questions, but she told me she knew nothing. Reema and Marwa returned smelling of smoke and chewing gum. They asked if there was any word about Shireen yet, and I shook my head. “Are you all right?” Marwa said, and before I could answer, “I can’t believe how calm Reema was in that mob.”
“That mob delayed us,” Reema said. “We would have been here at least half an hour sooner if they’d helped us put the girl in the car instead of acting like animals.”
“Animals?” Marwa shot back in a sarcastic tone. “Some socialist you are. They were exercising their populist right to demonstrate against our moral deficiency.” Reema blew a bubble and gave Marwa the arm. “Fine. Sorry. Preemy Reemy saved the day.”
When the doctor finally emerged from the room, we expected the worst.
“One leg,” he finally spoke, “didn’t sustain very much damage beyond scrapes and burns. We bandaged it up. But the other leg swelled immediately after being placed in a cast, and filled it. After we made two incisions on each side of the cast, her leg ballooned and filled the space the incisions had made.”
“What does that mean?” we all said, our voices quivering.
“It could just be swelling,” he said, “but it’s possible that because of the impact of the car, the bone was completely shattered. When a bone shatters that badly, those smaller pieces become like switchblades and tear up the tendons, veins, and the muscle tissues, even arteries in the leg itself.”
The girls and I cursed. Soraya bit the inside of her cheek and stared at the doctor.
“When will you know if this happened?”
“She’ll need serious physical therapy, and there’s a chance there’ll be other complications.”
Reema said, “Do you really think her family will take her for physical therapy?”
The doctor turned to Soraya and me as if to ask us to control Reema, but she went on. “She’ll end up in a dark room for the rest of her life.”
“Let’s hope to God not,” the doctor said. “It’s too early to panic.” The doctor’s black hair was thinning and disheveled, his eyes dull. “You should all go home. I won’t know until I can X-ray her in a few hours. There’s a long wait.”
“Aaah, the wonders of the Egyptian health system,” Reema yelled after the doctor was gone. “A line for X-rays.”
We knocked gently at Shireen’s door, and her sister answered.
“She doesn’t want to see you,” the young woman said, her head poking out of the door.
“No,” I pleaded, “let us say hello. We also want to buy her a present. Please, let us in so we can ask her what kind of present she wants.”
The door swung open; I’d said the magic phrase. Shireen was tiny in the hospital bed, her black hair in a ponytail. Her lips turned up at the edges, so that she appeared to be constantly smiling. She had a few stitches on her forehead, and she still wore her dress, which was red and pink and plain. Her swollen, broken leg was propped up, small and slim, resembling a floating baguette.
She was quiet: she was on morphine, but she was also shy. Soraya apologized to her and patted her hair. Reema and Marwa fanned her like maidens in waiting. Just then, they suggested, “We want to be your lady servants, until you get better!”
“What would you like me to bring you?” Soraya said.
“I don’t know,” said Shireen.
Shireen squinted her eyes.
“Would you like some crayons?”
She shook her head slowly.
She made shapes with her mouth, and tilted her head to the side. She exhaled, then said, “A doll…A big doll.” Her words were slightly slurred, and she spoke them slowly.
“A big doll,” her ladies-in-waiting gasped.
“My sister is getting a doll, as part of her dowry. If she marries the boy in Cairo.” All eyes wandered to the older sister, who blushed and hid her face in her head shawl. Marwa and Reema whistled; they had a newfound respect for her.
“If she gets it, I can go to her house and play with it. Right, sister?”
The sister nodded, “Of course, my heart.”
“I don’t want to wait,” the little girl said.
“You don’t want to wait until you get married before you have a doll?” my sister said. She always expected little girls to be more sophisticated that they were.
“I don’t want to wait until my sister gets the doll.”
I reached out and touched Shireen’s little hand. “No, you won’t have to wait. We’ll buy you one first thing in the morning and bring it to you.” By then, I thought, we’ll know what the X-ray says about your leg, about whether it will live or die. I felt disgusting thinking these things, selfish and spoiled.
We stayed a few minutes longer, until the older sister asked us to leave.
“We’ll be waiting in the hallway,” Soraya said. “Please don’t hesitate to ask for anything.”
We kissed Shireen’s cheeks—they smelled of salt, and her tears, clean as two streams, had left light lines in her brown, street-dusty face—and we said good night.
In the hallway, we sat and waited. Soraya and I held hands and the girls agitated the nurses with their questions. Just past midnight, I begged Soraya to take the girls home and get some rest.
“No, I feel awful. You go,” she said. But I insisted on staying; I could tell she was worn out and depressed and needed a good night’s sleep. Marwa and Reema said they would research Shireen’s condition, anything to help. I kissed my daughter’s cheek, and she hugged me tight.
After the girls left, I decided I didn’t want to wait until morning to buy the big doll. I left the hospital through the wooden door, walking through littered alleyways and heading for the large wooden toy-stand by the mosque. I passed an older man wearing a traditional robe and green earphones; the combination of the ancient and modern in him startled and amused me.
The plastic toys were strung up according to size, with the biggest ones on the highest white rope. It was unsettling to see them that way; because of my state of mind, they resembled lynched girls. I shivered, which attracted the peddler’s attention. He immediately pointed out the largest doll, and brought it down to show me. I wondered if Shireen would like it. The peddler set the doll on the ground and turned a knob in its back, and the doll began to march awkwardly down the market. He followed it the way men follow my daughter, the way they used to follow me, except the doll was spared his poor attempts at sweet talk. The peddler carried it back and told me to touch its hair. It was soft and smelled like plastic bags. When I asked how much it cost, he quoted a high price, and I instantly brought out my wallet to pay him. He was confused by my disinterest in bargaining, and I pushed the fifty pounds into his palm, and took the doll’s hand.
I made my way back to the hospital and thought about the time Marwa told me about a game she and Reema had been playing. She was ashamed that she’d played it. One of them would lie on her back or side or would stand completely still and pretend to be a mannequin, and the other would turn her over and sometimes peek into her skirt and undershirt, the way all girls peek in to see the cloth skin, the naked skin of their dolls. Soraya and I had played a similar game as children, and our mother—god rest her prudish, religious, superstitious soul—had told us that the devil had whispered into our ears and made us curious about each other’s flesh. I told Marwa that what they had done was normal, that they were curious, and that curiosity was natural.
I opened the door to the hospital, and the smell of illness, bleach, and urine floated against my face. At Shireen’s door, no one answered my persistent knocks. In a corner of the waiting room, I propped the doll up and hoped it wouldn’t frighten anyone in the morning. A copy of Asmahan was splayed open on a cracked wooden table; it was the first magazine in the region to put veiled models in haute couture. Reaching down for it, I admired its sleek, sweet-smelling pages. I used to consider myself a serious reporter and had contempt for Soraya’s brand of journalism. Before I was a mother, I was feisty and indignant and wrote pieces that once landed me in jail for three weeks, courtesy of Sadat. The women writers there maintained their journals with eyeliner pencil on fabric or toilet paper. I couldn’t wait to tell Soraya, a freelance journalist then, focusing on women’s wear. Hers was the first face I saw when I left prison; she was waiting on the corner in an impossibly beautiful skirt of black georgette. She held her tape recorder up to my mouth in mock-inquisition. We went straight home and sat on my balcony for hours, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. I still remember her smile when I told her about the eye pencils.
The night before Soraya got married, we sat up in her bed and gossiped about sex. She was a virgin and I was already married, so she asked me if I had any tricks. We filched cucumbers from our parents’ fridge and I showed her how to give head. Or at least I tried to; she laughed every time I licked the thick, green skin. “It’s a cucumber,” she said. “You’re my sister. I can’t take it seriously.”
When I first saw her in the head scarf, I had a cucumber moment myself. It was a higab. She was my sister. I couldn’t take it seriously. She told me to shut up, but laughed anyway. Eventually, she told me about her deal with God. Her similarity to my superstitious mother was too pronounced, then, so I looked away, then back. I’d never let an accessory I hated get in the way of how much I loved her. I told her this and she laughed.
“Wait, what accessories do you hate? Which ones?”
I listed them off: “The door knob necklace. The gold bracelets—I hate gold—they lined your arm for a year once.”
“Those were hideous,” she conceded, as she fed Reema from a bottle.
“The red, bubbly, plastic earrings?”
“You’re right,” she said. “They looked like hemorrhoids.”
Unlike Soraya, who had prayed for her daughter’s health, I once hoped my daughter would die. When I bathed her, I felt like I was bathing something with no life, something that didn’t really exist. When she cried I couldn’t hear her, my husband had to shake me awake. When I nursed her, I felt as though her mouth was taking up a thread, whose source was my soul, and was un-spooling it. The thread kept exiting me through my breast, and the spool was a circle getting thinner and thinner. When the spool was bare, I packed a small bag and left in the middle of the night. I didn’t know where to go: if I tried to explain this to my parents, my mother would have cited the devil, and Soraya was still living at home. So I checked into a hotel in Doqqi: the room had a balcony which overlooked the Nile, a long green thread I watched until I felt my spool had been refilled. When I came home, my breasts, heavy as small oxygen tanks, dripped with milk, and Marwa was on the bottle. My husband forgave me quickly and was happy I had returned to relieve him from caring for her alone. I couldn’t explain the spool to him, because I knew he’d think I was crazy, so kept it to myself until our divorce, when I finally told Soraya and she explained the deep melancholy that sometimes strikes new mothers.
I woke up to a number of sick children staring longingly at the doll in the pediatric ward. I wanted to buy one for each and remembered the long line of dolls attached to the white rope. Shireen’s door was ajar, and Soraya sat nearby. The little girl’s leg bobbed above the bed and she held a blonde doll just like the one I’d bought, but more smartly dressed. She wore a velvet hat, a matching green gown with emerald ribbons, and a white-lace scalloped collar. Her eyes were green too, and her face alabaster. Soraya had upstaged me. I tried to hide my gift behind my back.
“Mama,” Marwa said, “How pretty. When did you get it?” She whisked the doll out of my arms and brought it to Shireen, who gasped, dumbfounded at her second gift. I scanned Soraya for a sign that the doctor had brought bad news, but found none, and finally, asked if she had seen him. She shook her head.
“But the swelling doesn’t seem as bad. Look.” I winced at the sight of Shireen’s leg puffing against the cast, terrified of what the doctor would have to say and so sat in a rickety wooden chair, fidgeting with the hem of my dress. Shireen seemed happy with her double prize, mouthing words for them to say to each other. Fatma was asleep on the cold floor of the room, knuckles serving as a pillow, her hair uncovered and the higab stretched across her arms like a blanket. Reema seemed to be taking in the scene as I was, because I saw her bite her nails and pace the room.
“Where is he?” She suddenly said.
“Shut up and sit down; you’re giving me a headache,” Soraya said.
“No. I’m tired of waiting. Do you think if I were the one sitting there, with my rich parents, I’d have to wait this long for an X-ray? No, I wouldn’t.” She left the room and Soraya sighed loudly.
“I don’t know what to do with her,” she said, and “Be proud?” was all I could suggest. She gave me a dirty look, as though to say, I thought you were on my side.
Reema returned with a nurse. Together they wheeled Shireen out of the room, and she cried, saying she didn’t want to part with her dolls, and that she didn’t want to leave her sister there on the floor. We reassured her that all would be the same when she got back. When the elevator’s doors closed, I turned to Soraya. She was watching a bald kid, perhaps a cancer patient, in a wheelchair on the balcony, which seemed to be open especially for him. The weather was beautiful now that the sun was out, and a delicious breeze was wafting in and mixing with the stagnant hospital air.
When the doctor appeared, we stood solemnly as if to shake hands at a funeral. His hair, greasier than it had been the night before, was now close to his head and combed. This gave him an air of propriety and when he spoke, he seemed to be in command of his words: “It’s a bit of what I suspected,” he said. “She has some cuts in her muscle tissue, but her veins and all else are fine.”
“Thank God.” Soraya said. “How long for it to heal?”
“She’ll need the cast for two months, during which time she’ll have physical therapy at least four times a week. I can refer you to a doctor near her village who can help,” Reema inhaled and seemed about to say something, so he raised his voice, “and if you’re worried about her family’s lack of funding, I suggest you send her home with lots of cash. I’m releasing her tomorrow morning. Peace be upon you.” When we followed him down the hallway with questions, he shooed us as though we were flies at a café and said he’d told us everything he knew.
We woke Shireen and relayed the news, and she smiled. Her sister hugged her and we all ululated, just for fun. Our noise brought in nurses who also shared the good news with us. They were fascinated with Shireen’s dolls, and asked her if they could turn them on, and the little dolls walked all around the room, and when they walked close to each other, they almost looked like they could hold hands.
We bought cold soft drinks and wheeled Shireen out to the balcony. The sun was out and the weather was fair. Smog had not yet appeared on the horizon. It was Friday morning and men were walking to prayer. Cars honked and donkey carts carrying fruit drove by. We clapped for Shireen and sang out for the whole street below us to hear.
Shireen and her sister looked at our family as though they’d finally had the chance to watch some theater. They stifled laughter, and the older sister wheeled Shireen back inside. I gave her our phone numbers, addresses, and told her to contact us if they needed help. “If your father wants to verify anything, tell him to call or visit me,” I said, and that seemed to put the older girl at ease.
Soraya came in and clasped Shireen’s hand. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I wish it were me instead of you. I am sorry.” Shireen looked at Fatma. The four of us sat silently in the room for a long time.
On the drive home, I flinched at every corner. Just after the call to Friday prayer, the streets filled with poor women and their children. The Friday sermon began, the imam’s voice booming through the streets and the seats of our car, and I began to imagine Shireen taking the dolls home, back to her village. I saw her holding them by the hand, flaunting them in faces of her neighbors, her cousins. As I daydreamed, Soraya leaned in and asked me, “Do you remember ‘There’s no such thing as’?”
“What’s ‘There’s no such thing as’?” Marwa said, curious.
“When we were five and seven,” I said, “we each forced our dolls to whisper the thing we didn’t believe in, in case that thing did exist.”
“My doll said, ‘There’s no such thing as a ghoul.'”
“And my doll said, ‘There’s no such thing as a fairy.'”
“We kept going like that,” said Soraya, “No such thing as, no such thing as….”
Marwa and Reema smiled, and Reema said, “You were so cute.”
I thought back to the last time we ever played that game, sitting on the balcony, holding our toys up.
“There’s no such thing as ghosts,” Soraya had said.
Then, it was my turn: “There’s no such thing as jinnis.”
She said, “There’s no such thing as unicorns.”
I said, “There’s no such thing as God.”
Her eyes widened. I gave my doll an incredulous look and covered her mouth with my palm, but the damage was done. I flinched and worried I’d be punished. That night, my entire body quivered with fear over my foolish words, and I crawled in next to Soraya and grabbed the tail of her nightgown. I waited for something to burn my skin and crush my bones, something bigger and stronger than I’d ever be; waited for a great streak of light to reach down and strike me, for a fiery wheel to roll over me. But it never arrived. Only dawn, and with it, a new call to prayer.
Him, Me, Muhammad Ali © Sarabande Books 2016. All rights reserved.