Left

By Lena Zaghmouri

What struck me most about Mom’s family was how their pictures looked so different from what Mom told me they were actually like. They looked so put together and all-American, untouched by any troubles. Just two white married parents and one cute kid that always stood in front of them in pictures with a big smile and her arms open, embracing the world and the photo that would capture that emotion forever.
In reality, though, Mom’s parents were divorced, and Mom said Grandma’s main concern was finding her next boyfriend or husband, Grandpa’s the new family he inherited from marrying his second wife, which was soon after he divorced Grandma.
Grandma looked sweet and virginal with blond hair and light brown eyes, but she had countless affairs since Mom could remember.

Grandpa looked kind with dark blue eyes, thin brown hair, a soft manly smile, but Mom told me he would become irritable and beat her for the smallest mistake when he was angry with Grandma. Mom had a collection of bruises on her arms and back that she showed me to prove it. He would let plenty of things slide if things were going well with her Grandma, but that was rare. He was easier to be around once her parents divorced during Mom’s early teens, but then he never wanted to be around her anymore either. Mom was part of his past life, the one he claimed was driven by anger. He needed to minimize contact with that as much as possible.
But Mom having a child out of wedlock with a Palestinian reawakened Grandpa’s latent anger. He called her a shameful slut and washed his hands of her and was unwilling to meet me, his olive-skinned granddaughter with a weird name like Isra, one he probably couldn’t even pronounce right.

♦♦
Grandma came to visit on rare occasions; the first time I remember was when I was five. She was upset that Mom had a child out of wedlock, but she was more forgiving. She was between marriages, and Mom had just kicked Baba out for good. Mom would complain about what a deadbeat Baba was to Grandma sometimes.
“Honestly, Carol, I’ve always told you if you just lost fifteen or twenty pounds, you could get yourself a decent man,” Grandma told Mom.
She visited once or twice a year, usually during the holidays; she would bring me a new Barbie or something as a Christmas gift. Grandma ignored me and vented her frustrations with the world and the men in her life to Mom.
But now, three years later, Mom had cancer, and Grandma went back and forth on whether or not she would take me after Mom passed away. Sometimes she said it would be nice to have someone to live with, someone to help out and spend time with her, but then Grandma would say the last thing she wanted to do was take in an eight-year-old at her age, especially one with a father like mine.
Mom didn’t trust her, though. “She’ll want you when she’s alone, and as soon as she gets a man, Grandma’ll find a way to get rid of you.”

♦♦

Mom told more positive stories about her family when she put together the photo album for me, her hands newly thin and lined with pale blue veins. She didn’t have energy to put it together before, and once in a while she said there was no point in it because what did all those pictures mean? Most of the people in them I had never met and probably never would.
Still, we sat in the full size bed we slept on at Baba’s place while she put it together. Mom explained who and what was in each picture before she pressed it down on the sticky surface. “Well, hopefully, Isra, your grandma will visit when you live only with Baba,” she said. “Maybe this will make her turn around.”

♦♦

Mom went into the hospice the next day, and Baba picked me up after school every day so we could go there and see Mom. Sometimes Baba would be in the room alone with her, but usually they kept me there to alleviate the tension between them. We had been living at Baba’s, but I was sure my parents weren’t together, and they wouldn’t have even spoken to each other if Mom wasn’t dying.

Every time Mom said she was tired and needed to rest in the hospice, I was sure that she was going to die then, and I would cry inconsolably, even though Mom assured me she wasn’t leaving yet. Baba would take me out of the room and try to comfort me for a little bit, but he would soon become angry and tell me to be strong. Plenty of people had gone through much worse back home in Palestine, so my pain now didn’t matter.

♦♦

Grandma came soon after Mom went into the hospice. She would take me to see Mom for the week or so that she was still awake and not drugged beyond comprehension.
And suddenly I wasn’t invisible to Grandma anymore.
Grandma now picked me to vent her frustrations about the man she was in the process of divorcing and Grandpa as well. “I talked to Carol’s father, and you know what he told me? He can’t get the time off work! Can you believe that?” She sighed and clenched her teeth together. “‘This is your child,’ I said to him. ‘Can you just pull your dick out of your wife’s pussy for two seconds and remember you have a daughter?’ You know those kids his wife has aren’t his. She had them with the guy before. I don’t see what’s so great about her. She’s as plain as wood.”

♦♦

Grandma took me out for ice cream once Mom slipped from consciousness, and she said she couldn’t stand to see her daughter suffering to death and that her granddaughter didn’t need to see it either, so Baba let her.
Though I loved ice cream, I wasn’t excited about getting some that day. Most of it melted on the back of my hand and dripped on the table, and Grandma had to take me to the bathroom to clean up. I could tell she was irritated I saw her roll her eyes in the mirror, and she told me that I had to eat like a civilized girl.
We went to the hotel she was staying in—she would spend the night at Mom’s apartment whenever she came before, but she hated Baba and his apartment—and she put cartoons on for me while she criticized all the men she had had in her life, reserving the worst for Grandpa. “I swear once I married that guy he became such a drag,” she said. “We were so young, and all he wanted to do was stay in and drink beer. Even convincing him to go out to the movies was like asking him to drink cyanide.” Grandma cringed at the thought of him. She moved on to her three other husbands: the second was too mean; the third had affairs; the fourth, the one she was in the middle of divorcing, was a drag like Grandpa, but it was more understandable because he was almost a senior citizen.
I didn’t say anything. My lack of response must have been made her sad; Mom always had some kind of commentary for Grandma, even if it was negative like telling her she should grow up or learn what monogamy was all about. “I’m not even sixty years old, and my daughter is dying. You’re not supposed to bury your child; it’s the other way around. Of course, it’s no picnic to lose your mother at your age.” She wiped a couple of tears that came from her overfilled brown eyes. “You know things are going to be different, right?”
Everyone used that phrase—“things are going to be different”—though they already were different. I hated spending time with Baba, having him prepare my food or ask him questions. He never knew the answers, and he would get irritated by them. “Don’t ask dumb questions,” he always said to me.
Baba was scary, too. Most nights I could hear him crying out in his sleep. When Mom was there she told that it was just because Baba had been through some terrible things since he was even younger than me, and he remembered them in his dreams, but I was sure that he was possessed. It was worse without having Mom there to tell me to go back to sleep.
I had to live without my mother.
At school everyone had a mother that I knew of. A few lived with their grandmothers or someone else, but they at least visited their mothers sometimes. And their grandmothers liked them a lot more than Grandma liked me. They didn’t talk about men all the time, and they didn’t tell their daughters that if they lost weight, they could find a decent man.
But I had a feeling that Grandma was feeling sorrier for herself. She was losing her daughter, the one she could turn to between men. She also started to put on a little bit of weight, especially in the middle. She probably would never be able to find another husband, at least not a decent one.

♦♦

Though it was almost my bedtime, Grandma had no plans to take me back to Baba’s or call him to ask if I could spend the night with her. “Who cares what he thinks?” she told me when I asked if I was allowed to stay. “He isn’t worth a shit anyway.” She took me to the store and bought me some pajamas and a night light, though I stopped using one over a year before. “What about a toy or something?”
“No, I don’t want to play.”
“You sure are a mellow child.”
After I took a bath and changed into the new pajamas, Grandma talked more about how the man she was currently divorcing was trying to hide his assets and get out of paying her as much alimony. “It’s not like I’ll be getting much. We were only married for a year and a half,” she said. “Couldn’t stand him any longer than that.”

♦♦

Baba pounded on the Grandma’s hotel door so hard I thought he must have bruised his knuckles, shouting at Grandma to open the door or he’d call the police.
Grandma didn’t hold out for long, but she wouldn’t let me go without letting Baba know that she thought he was a worthless Arab.
“You don’t deserve a say in the matter!” Grandma said. “You haven’t been there for most of her life, and all you’ll do is lock her in the house until she gets married!”
Baba told her at least I wouldn’t learn to be a whore like she was and charged past her and pulled me by the hand. “My daughter comes home with me!” he yelled as he brushed her aside to leave.
He left me in the pajamas Grandma got me, and he talked to me for over an hour, which he never did before. “She is a sharmoota, a slut. Do not act as she does, Isra. You do not want to live as her.” He told me that he couldn’t believe that a woman could act that way. His mother, my sitti, he said, would have never spoken to a son-in-law the way she had. Well, he wasn’t really a son-in-law. He never married Mom, but it should be the same thing to these Americans because they didn’t believe in marriage the way Palestinians did, so Grandma should think of him as her son-in-law. And Sitti definitely wouldn’t have carried on that way, marrying all kinds of men for money or whatever the hell she believed she would get.

♦♦

Baba woke me up in the middle of the night and told me to put my shoes on. Mom had died, and we were going to see her one last time before she went to the crematory. I was still tired, but my heart was thundering in my chest, so it was easy for me to stay awake.
Grandma was at the hospice before we were, her face red and streaked with tears. Mom lied on the bed, no oxygen tube connected to her, pale and gaunt, her hair a darker brown than what it was before, her lips still red. I cried, and my chest felt so light that I wondered if the center of my body was still there. For over a week now, Mom had been unconscious, and the only way I could tell she was still alive was that she sometimes made a soft grunt when she was in pain. Then a nurse came in and gave her some more drugs to keep her quiet and comfortable.
Baba picked me up and carried me out of the room. People hadn’t picked me up for years on a regular basis, and by then, I was only five or six inches shorter than him, but I guess he still thought I was four. He said we should go back home and let them take Mom away.

♦♦

Grandma held the memorial service at a small banquet hall. I spent most of the time sitting at one of the middle tables next to my father, chewing on one of the black cloth napkins, my dripping saliva warming the back of my hand. I watched my mother’s relatives, trying to see if I could remember them from the photos, and if I could recall their names or if Mom had ever spoken of them. But I couldn’t place most of them, and they were just as distant from me in real life as they were in the pictures. They seemed uncomfortable around me and my father and gave us short, awkward condolences. They spoke amongst themselves, telling their stories about Mom, what she was like as a child and a teenager.

That day they all had had a close relationship with her when she was alive.

I slipped out and sat under a tree in the picnic area, crushing some of the dried leaves, mildly enjoying the slight pricks in my palm. Grandma found me out there and kneeled down as far as she could to speak to me. She was reconciling with her husband. “I might as well,” she said, tearing up. She always wiped her tears daintily. “Who else will have me at my age? And I can’t live off alimony. I should just pack it in and face reality.” She wished me luck with my father, though she doubted he would be a good one. “I hope he doesn’t send you back to his country, but what can you do?”

On Becoming a Part of Leslie Jamison’s Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain

By Dana Dawud

I dreamed that I wanted to write about my life with my brother, that he hit me and instead of feeling pain I exclaimed “Ah, I need to write about this!” and my sister told me that I should stop exploiting other people’s stories for my own writing. But it’s my story and mine alone, and it’s my writing, my reading of my story. Does that mean that the story has been already “written” and I’m simply reading it? does that mean that I am after all, exploiting the stories of “others”? I’ve actually dreamed that my brother fell from his room’s window and that I saw him sitting on the window sill with his face towards mine, he closed his eyes and then dropped back. I couldn’t save him, I went to the window and he was down, I told him to move his legs and he did. I realized I was still dreaming, nothing really happened. In my dream I exclaimed “Ah, I need to write about this!” and my sister told me that I should stop exploiting other people’s stories for my own writing. But I need to tell this story and I don’t care about it’s origin. I’ve always thought that writing about (my) life and (my) pain would entail exploiting the people I live with and around, and that it would turn me into someone who keeps dwelling over her own suffering, that it would turn me into a show. But pain is not mine alone, I feel it because I am a part of a large mesh of criss-crossing pain, and because I can give my pain over to others, like a gift, even if they can’t “see” it.
Yesterday, I’ve written for the first time in Arabic. Arabic is my (mother) tongue, this is how “native language” is translated to in Arabic. They have told me that I have a mother tongue and I’ve laughed in their faces, a menacing laugh and walked away. I had no idea that going back to it, getting closer to it, would be so painful. The distance language entails is painful, and I gasp for words, The reader would sense the heaviness that drenched every word I tried to conjure up. It was hard but I had to feel pain in order to write.

I fell in love for the first time when I was fifteen years old, he broke my heart. I stopped eating, I cried for weeks and I remember telling the story of this breakup to everyone I’ve talked to. Over and over again, I repeated how much hurt I feel and how much pain he had caused me. I think I’ve done that not as a mechanism of healing, but more to tell people that I am a person with deep feelings who has the ability to suffer, I did it to feel better about who I am. I had no idea back then that this repetitive showcasing of pain, might have repulsed everyone around me, that it had been a cliche. I just knew, and still think that I had a right to my pain and that everyone should listen to me, LISTEN TO ME. My pain is grand and it’s real and it deserves the attention of the world.

I happen to ruthlessly defend the poetry of Sylvia Plath, and every time I do that I feel that I’m doing something as rebellious as starting a revolution. The other day, a friend of mine posted that Sylvia Plath is a “Tragedy of a woman who committed suicide, nothing more.” I was so enraged and I honestly felt like crying. He hadn’t even read her. “Would Sylvia Plath be as famous today if she hadn’t committed suicide?” Sylvia Plath’s suicide has taken the status of being almost a part of her oeuvre. She has indeed written many poems on and about her suicide attempts, she has written Ariel shortly before her death. We can’t reduce anyone to their suicide, but why view her suicide as a reduction? It is a “tragedy” in one sense, but in another it’s a culmination point of pain. It’s a protest of a writer who has been locked inside a repetitive day-to-day routine: between writing poetry, taking care of her kids and doing her chores. Her suicide is a part of her ongoing story, it’s not her reduction point, it’s a point opening to infinity. “I have done it again/ One year in every ten/ I manage it–” One year in every ten.

In Ariel, she had already turned her I into grains of wheat, an infinite landscape. “And now I/ Foam to wheat” The devotedness with which Van Gogh had repeatedly kept painting fields of wheat, populating them with dream worlds, reapers, sunflowers with the “unheard of power of the sunflower seeds” as Deleuze describes the becomings in Van Gogh paintings, houses, a rising moon, and crows. He painted from the Asylum window, framing these wheat fields when he was losing his ability to utter “I.” “And now I/ Foam to wheat” Deleuze had written that “A sunflower seed lost in a wall is capable of shattering that wall.” Van Gogh broke the walls of the asylum with his wheat fields. In Ariel Sylvia writes “The child’s cry/Melts in the wall/ And I/ Am the arrow” Her “I” is an arrow which goes beyond the wall, beyond, and reaches the red of the sun. Pain ad infinitum, pain as liberation.

An excerpt from “Mona, a Camera, and Me”

By Christine Stoddard

The trolls thought I stopped modeling because I finally realized I am not “conventionally attractive.” I have the hips of an Amazon, the breasts of Peter Pan, and a face that is strange but charming. They wanted me to hate myself, to hang myself like my grandmother did when her husband left her for a woman shaped like an old-fashioned Coke bottle. But when I look in the mirror, the only thing I loathe is the hoard of trolls clacking away at their computers.

Kate Moss is no conventional beauty, either. She’s short with a broken nose and crooked teeth. Yet in those early Instagram days, I never saw Moss as my defense, only my inspiration. I never had this epiphany that I wasn’t Pretty Princess pretty. I always knew. I was beautifully odd and oddly beautiful and I had a talent for seeing into the soul of any camera. My loyal followers saw that. Mona, my only true friend and photographer, saw that.

I was one of two daughters born to two medical school professors originally from Egypt. They relocated to Richmond when my sister, Mayada, was three and shortly before I was born at the mammoth Medical College of Virginia downtown. There, my parents lectured amongst the buzz of waspish politicians and state government worker bees.

We lived in Jackson Ward, a historically black neighborhood within walking distance of the hospital and medical school. It was an imperfect fit, but where else were we supposed to live? Richmond had no ideal zip code for people like us because we had no place in the Capital of the Confederacy’s narrative of black and white. Yet as Arab atheists with olive complexions, we had to make our own home in the Bible Belt somehow. That was how we ended up in the nicest house on the block in a less-than-nice neighborhood. At least it seemed that way to uptight white suburbanites. But I can’t say the neighborhood made me any more nervous than I felt anywhere else. I had a female body and, even as a little girl, I knew that made me vulnerable no matter where I went.

We were gentrifies who lived in a renovated row house among abandoned buildings, dilapidated apartments that saw constant turnover, and once pristine addresses destroyed by partying college students. Though my family and I saw our share of small-time street corner drug deals, we never witnessed any violence. Since we had a car, we didn’t mind that the grocery store was in the next neighborhood over, either. We said hello to our neighbors and never told them to change a thing. We didn’t see why an upscale coffee shop or yoga studio should replace the barbershop or soul food café. There were enough people in town doing that already.

My parents did take issue with one aspect of where we lived, however, and that was the local public school system. Horrified by accounts of textbook shortages and gaping holes in hallway ceilings, my parents sent Mayada and me to the all-girls’ Catholic school across town. From kindergarten onward, it was a nightmare. Mayada and I were magnets for insults, invasive questions, and culturally clueless remarks. It only worsened as we got older. “I thought Egyptians worshipped cats like Cleopatra. What are you doing at a Catholic school? Are you trying to convert so you don’t burn in hell?”/“Aren’t your parents doctors? Why do you live in the ghetto?”/“Your English is really good. Do you still speak Egyptian at home?”

If you think a fifteen-year-old girl with a pleated skirt and ribbons in her hair can’t be intimidating or offensive, you are wrong. So very wrong. College prep only made everyone hungrier and more aggressive than teenage hormones alone ever could. On top of grappling with typical puberty woes, we had to grapple with the college admissions race. All but the most religiously observant girls fought for thick acceptance packets from Tier 1 colleges their senior year. That’s why our high school counselors funneled us into as many honors and Advanced Placement courses as we could handle. Most of the girls we knew considered bulldozing a few classmates’ self-esteem levels part of the process. They weren’t interested in becoming nuns or missionaries. They lusted after Smith College and Harvard Law.

That was the motivation for stunts like this one:

My freshman year, I found the word “Muslim” scrawled on my locker in glittery blood red nail polish. It did not matter that I wasn’t actually Muslim. It was the intent. I whipped out my phone and took a photo to text my sister, whose locker was on the other side of the building. She texted me a nearly identical photo of her similarly defaced property. We agreed to meet at the principal’s office in five minutes.

“How can I help you girls?” asked Mrs. Parkhurst, the principal’s secretary, as we stepped up to her desk.

“We’d like to report a hate crime,” said Mayada, without hesitation. I nodded, grateful to have such a confident older sister in moments like these.

Mrs. Parkhurst was a petite middle-aged woman with thin, naked lips and mousy brown hair. Her cardigan sweaters were all black or beige and she always wore flat, circular Mother of Pearl earrings with a matching Mother of Pearl cross necklace. Her Spartan desk contained her computer, a black Moleskine notebook, and a Virgin Mary statue that was about six inches tall. Mrs. Parkhurst’s fashion sense and desk had not changed since I was five years old. Even her pen—a gold ballpoint with the engraving “John 3:16”—was the same. She liked consistency and order and that was that.

So I should not have been surprised when Mrs. Parkhurst pursed her wormy little lips, cleared her throat, and said, “That’s not possible.” But I was.

“You haven’t even heard our story,” I snapped.

Mayada glared at me and apologized on my behalf. “You’ll have to excuse my sister, Mrs. Parkhurst. She’s upset. We’re both upset, and we need to talk to Sister Branch for that reason. Could we please see her now?”

“She is busy with the bishop,” said Mrs. Parkhurst after she cleared her throat again.

Mayada and I glanced at Sister Branch’s closed door. Before Mayada could issue her next diplomatic phase, I darted for the office and opened the door. Sister Branch was seated with the Catholic newspaper and a bowl of oatmeal.

“Good morning, Abra,” she said, raising an eyebrow for a beat before returning to her paper.

Mayada and Mrs. Parkhurst were behind me in the next split second, but neither one said anything. All of three of us stared at Sister Branch, who looked up again.

“Well, come in.”

“I tried to stop them, Sister Branch, but—”

“It’s fine. I wasn’t busy.”

Had I not been in a rush to tell Sister Branch what happened, I might’ve sneered at Mrs. Parkhurst. Instead, I took out my phone to pull up the photo as Mayada and I talked over each other.

“Oh, this is not good,” said Sister Branch.

My sister and I shook our heads.

“I’m very sorry this happened, girls. Could you email the photos to me? We’ll get to the bottom of this.”

That was the last we heard on the matter. The janitor scrubbed our lockers clean by the end of the day. When Mayada and I followed up in a week, Sister Branch said the school administration had not found a culprit.

“Besides,” said Sister Branch over her usual bowl of oatmeal, “the vandal did not employ a slur. It’s simply a descriptor.”

“Yes, but we aren’t Muslim,” said Mayada. “We’re Egyptian, but not all Egyptians are Muslim.”

“I see,” said Sister Branch. “What then is your family’s religion? Your parents did not identify as Catholic when they enrolled you.”

My normally articulate sister was at a loss.

“We’re in the process of converting,” I piped up. “Our hearts have been touched by Christ.”

Mayada looked down at her Mary Janes.

Sister Branch beamed. “I’m so pleased to hear that. You’ll have to let me know when your confirmation takes place.”

“Of course!” I said, a little too enthusiastically.

“Your parents are converting, too?”

“Yep!”

My sister remained silent even as we walked down the hallway back to our classrooms. I knew she was reeling, so I didn’t bother further provoking her with my questions. When we got home later that day, all she could muster was, “I can’t believe you did that. Now Sister Branch will care even less about finding out who wrote on our lockers.”

I shrugged and opened up my English textbook. I read for a minute or two and then complained about having to diagram sentences in an honors class. Mayada simply left the room.

Our frazzled parents didn’t have time to take action about the vandalism. Nor did they seem too concerned.

“It’s just a word, Abra,” my mother said one morning two weeks after the incident. I had complained about it again while she packed her briefcase. “It’s not even the right word,” she muttered. “Ignore those brats and focus on your studies.”

Whichever “brat” had done it was trying to distract Mayada and me from our studies. I was in the top ten in my class and Mayada was tied for valedictorian in hers. We had to turn the other cheek if we were going to keep our rank. We weren’t vying for spots at the Ivies, but we still sought a certain level of comfort and prestige. Or, should I say, our parents did.

Our parents expected us to go to Virginia Commonwealth University, which housed the medical school where they taught. To them, an American university was an American university. The nationality alone afforded prestige. They didn’t care that apart from a select number of programs, VCU’s undergraduate admissions were not particularly competitive. All the better, they reasoned. Mayada and I would be that much more likely to earn full-rides. Naturally, we would live at home while studying pre-med and steer clear of dating. During those four years, we would earn every fellowship and research grant possible. Then we would get accepted into the far more competitive Medical College of Virginia, also with scholarships. Once we completed our residencies, we would return to Egypt to marry accomplished Egyptian men—most likely fellow doctors. Religiously, we were not Muslim, but culturally, certain things were just ingrained. That included obtaining both higher degrees and parent-approved husbands.

Though my report cards matched my parents’ expectations, my own dreams did not. Hence the living within my mind. I daydreamed and doodled and wrote stories. Too often, I filled up my sketchbook while bored in class. In this way, I figured I could avoid as much of the snake-tongued gossip that tried to constrict my adolescence as possible. Muslim or not, I would not let my vicious classmates win. They could deface my locker however they wanted. I would continue drawing caricatures of them and writing poems about the merits of Egyptian coffee versus Starbucks.

Shortly after the locker incident occurred, I began modeling with Mona.

Mona was many things, including one of the most faithful Catholics I have ever met, but most people only ever saw her hemifacial microsomia. The syndrome is second only to cleft lips and palates in terms of common congenital deformities. Her face was warped, with a small, bent jaw and asymmetrical ears. I didn’t care. Mona was loyal and kind and a truly gifted photographer. Despite being friends since second grade, I wouldn’t discover that last bit until high school.

The modeling started freshman year when took our first elective. I chose Arabic because I thought it would be an easy A for me. Although, it turns out that occasionally speaking a language with your mom and dad doesn’t necessarily make you ace at conjugations or writing a whole other alphabet. Mona chose darkroom photography. She liked that it was an art form that was on its way out. “I better learn it before it goes extinct,” she said as we filled out our course forms during the last week of eighth grade. “Plus, missionary organizations are always looking for photographers.” When Mona grinned, she bared her snaggletooth, a feature that had endeared me for as long as I could remember.

Days before Mona was shipped off to summer camp in North Carolina, we submitted our forms to Mrs. Parkhurst, who pinned them under her Virgin Mary statue. Then we waited. I went to a day camp at the Science Museum of Virginia and wrote letters to Mona in the evening. In five consecutive letters, I mentioned my fear of getting placed in a second period of gym. Mona’s fear was getting placed in home economics. (“I’m pretty sure I don’t have to be Martha Stewart to live at a convent,” she wrote.) In the last week of July, we received our course schedules, which confirmed that our choices had been approved. I came home to the letter after spending all day dissecting owl pellets and reconstructing tiny rodents on cardboard. Mona, who had just returned from North Carolina, was able to read the letter herself.

“I’m so happy I won’t spend two semesters baking muffins,” she said when we met up for ice cream.

“Don’t worry—I’m pretty sure another nun at your convent will know how to do that.”

“Exactly. We’ll pool our God-given talents together. Mine will not involve cooking appliances.”

We took a break from talking to finish our ice cream cones.

“Do you think high school will be different?” I asked as the last of my chocolate ice cream dribbled down my chin.

Mona shook her head. “No, I mean, it’s the same school, the same girls,” she said. “We’ll probably get five new girls, ten at most. Otherwise, same gang.”

“I guess I just hoped they’d be nicer this year.”

“They won’t be. If anything, they’ll be meaner. Our class rank means a lot more now.”

“It doesn’t matter where I go to college. As long as I graduate with decent grades, a convent will want me. My faith counts for far more.”

“I still have to stay in the top ten if I want that scholarship.”

“You’ll do it. You’re very smart, Abra.”

“Thanks,” I said and wiped my chin with a napkin.

When Mona smiled at me, I felt her warmth envelop me. It was her spell and I didn’t mind falling under it.

Evil Spirits

By Haya Anis

I need to pee, Fatima thought as she nestled deeper into her fortress of cotton blankets. She ignored the gnawing at her bladder and stayed put. She felt something watching her. Evil spirits, she rationalized. She sensed their stealthy onslaught. Their presence was tangible and ominous, their aura dark and murky, like the waters of a voidless swamp. Her blanket was her only protective shield. She made sure everything was safe and covered, save for her nose and mouth; she needed to breath, after all. It was still dark outside; the call for Fajr prayer sounded an hour earlier.
I should have prayed earlier, she lamented. Prayer required ritual ablution. Ritual ablution required access to running water. Access to running water required a trip down the eerie, unlit hallway to the bathroom. The bathroom. The bathroom, where the evil spirits congregate and revel in their deviance. Or that’s what her mother tells her, anyway. For all she cared, the congregation of evil spirits hovered above her head tonight, waiting, waiting for her to reveal the slightest bit of flesh to feast on her festering soul. Never, she thought, and sunk deeper into her fortress of cotton blankets.

The air conditioning unit murmured softly. Outside, it was hot and humid. The morning dew stifled the air, offering conveyance to insects, the bloodthirsty and otherwise. It was 4 A.M now. Or was it 4:30? Fatima was too afraid to check her phone on the nightstand beside her bed. She knew light attracted mosquitoes. She knew because she once witnessed a mosquito haplessly fly into a light trap set up by her aunt in the heat of a summer night. Poor mosquito, flew to its own demise. It died noiselessly, save for a frazzle, like the one emitted by a frayed wire twisted and turned too much. A noise so small, proportional to the magnitude of a mosquito’s life. Fatima felt bad for the mosquito, but it was better that way; she didn’t want to spend her night itching swollen bites. So Fatima didn’t check her phone. She didn’t want to attract leftover mosquitos that may have entered earlier in the day, when the windows were open. The windows are shut now.

Rays of light seeped through opaque clouds, rendering them in hues of indigo. It must be 5 now. Fatima brushed her tongue against the inside of her mouth. The back of her two front teeth felt gritty. She no longer needed to pee, but she was thirsty now. The blanket’s comforting embrace now turned into a suffocating hold. She loosened the blanket’s grip and bared some of her arms and feet. Her soul felt less susceptible to espionage now; the heavy load of the spirits lightened. I might as well pray now. In a bout of courage, Fatima kicked off her blanket, grabbed her prayer gown and threw it on her shoulders and made her way to the bedroom door. Her brother slept soundly on a second bed in the room. His legs were splayed in odd directions and his blanket lay strewn at the corner of his bed. Fatima rearranged her brother’s limbs and tucked him back under his blanket. She worried about him. He was 10 years old. He was smart and quick but awfully lonely. His eyes twitched in an odd way and when he sniffed, he contorted his face in manner so ugly, it was impossible to watch. She worried about him.

Fatima opened the door and looked down the long, narrow hallway separating her from the bathroom. The bathroom looked menacing. Its door gaped like the mouth of Goliath, the shadow within breeding fear in Fatima’s heart now. Fatima quickly shut the door. She threw down her prayer gown and scuttled back to her bed.

I’ll pray when I wake up.
But she never did.

The Test

By Craig Loomis

The government is planning to study a project that will identify homosexuality through a clinical test, which will be added to the list of medical tests one has to undergo to obtain a visa. If an individual is tested as a homosexual that person will have an unfit stamped on his medical report and will automatically be disqualified from the visa application.

“That’s it? We’ve done all the blood tests?”

“Afraid so.”

“An urine?”

“Same.”

“Feces? Don’t forget feces. Nobody wants to look at the feces.”

“Lah, lah, we’ve looked at everything. There’s nothing there.”

He drums his fingers on the tabletop, until, “There must be something we missed. All that drips or oozes, or . . .? Something, Sah?”

It is late, and except for a small desk lamp that pools a weak yellow light across the desk, leaking ever so softly onto their legs and arms, the rest is grayblack lab. It is a bedroom-size government lab with a gang of steely machines neatly arranged around them. A Bunsen burner bubbles over there, a gassy blue flame flickers here. The many computers are at rest, ghostly gray and eyeless. A twinkle of tiny blue lights means one of the machines is thinking. And although the signs are clear, no smoking, the one wearing three gold rings is smoking a cigarette, flicking ash into a paper coffee cup. They wear white lab coats with nametags: Dr. Mohammad and Dr. Abdullah. Reams of paper full of charts and graphs and long columns of numbers cover the table. And so, the one continues to smoke while the other drums his fingers along the tabletop.

“Now what?”

“Yes, indeed, now what?”

“They want something reliable, something accurate. A test that can be applied at the airport if need be, in some back room, something with instant results. Sah?”
The smoker nods to this. Somebody, somewhere is talking too loud. Both of them look around to see how that is possible if they are on the eighth floor and they are the only ones in the building, and it’s late, and . . .

“How about an X-ray?”

“X-ray?”

“Sure, of the pelvic region. That might turn up something.”

“X-ray?”

He picks up a chart, reads it, turns one, two pages before dropping it back on the table. The sound of someone, somewhere talking too loud grows weaker, then louder, then disappears. Blue lights twinkling.

“How about a lie detector test?”

“They’d lie.”

“Of course, but the test would catch them, Sah?”

“It would have to be a yes or no question. Lah, lah, we need something more solid, more medical, something like a pregnancy test. Something we can see, something that does not take a specialist, a doctor, a PhD, something that says red for positive, blue for negative. Something like that, like a pregnancy test, Sah? Either you are or you aren’t, there’s no in between. You see?”

He gently lifts the vial of blood from its gleaming steel holder, asking, “And when do they need this test?”

“It’s top priority. The director even used the words ‘national security priority’–just like the movies.”

He fingers the vial of blood, and there is a police siren and then another, and then, back to the hush of a late night lab.

“My grandmother swears that a person’s face tells all.”

“Face?”

“Tells all. Actually, it’s the eyes.”

“The eye color?”

“Lah, lah, of course not.” Taking a long puff from the cigarette, filling the lamplight with a newer, brighter fog. “The space between the eyes is what she’s talking about. She says the greater the space between a person’s eyes, the more, . . . the more suspect that person is. You see? She says everybody knows this.”

“The more suspect? Your grandmother says this?”

“Nam, 82 years old this month,” he says proudly.

“And you believe her?”

He shrugs, saying, “All we would need is a tape measure.”

He holds the vial of blood up to the lamp light, peering to get a better look. “Again, what did he say about this blood?”

“The director says it’s the real deal. Says this is a sample we can use. He says it’s genuine, authentic. Those are his very words, ‘authentic blood’ from, he said, a most reliable source.”

Turning the red vial this way and that, until the two of them are looking at it together, squinting into the soft light.

“Where did he say he got it?”

Done looking, he quickly slides the vial back into its metal holder. While the one lights another cigarette, making a new smoke, a new fog, the other begins to stack the many papers into one neat pile in the center of the table.

“I didn’t ask.”

Tuya’s River

Prelude to the Great Tsunami of July 21, 365 A.D.

By Lukman Clark

Papa taught me to count in the Roman ways and told us to always speak Latin, in or out of the home, though it was Momma who gave us our Egyptian names.
True, day to day, it’s Roman things that get you by. Measures of weight, distance, money. Numbers of things possessed or wanted. Then there is time, with divisions of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and so on. Each of these has a name; the name fixing it and making it more real somehow. And everyone knows the Latin words for such things.
Papa was always telling my sister and me that knowing numbers and the names of things is more valuable than anything else, especially if one day he could not be here with us. I did not, could not, know what he meant by that, but I think he was right about this. I mean, mostly Papa was right but other things are good to know, too. I’m pretty sure that even what is Roman has to be part of something bigger.
Besides numbers, Papa taught me a little how to read. Then I learned some more on my own. People in the marketplace have come to know I am good in this way. They ask for my help with reading and writing, despite my age.

My name is Tuya. My sister’s is Tem. Our Momma named us this way because she never wanted us to forget that we were Egyptians – that we are Egypt. The land. That’s what she told us when we got older.
Tem and I were born in the Year 70 A.D., anno Diocletiani∗.
Diocletian is dead now, along with a couple of other imperators that came after him. This is what Papa said around the time me and Tem turned eleven just a while ago. I remember he looked at each of us then with sad eyes below his short haircut and, with his voice breaking a little, said the world was changing too fast, but for me it seems time moves too slowly and I will never grow up and I will always be in this place where I remember having lived my whole life with my twin sister.
Oh, yes, my sister and I are twins. She came out of our Momma just a short time after me. Momma says Tem almost didn’t make it because she didn’t start breathing right away. Tem has that extra finger on her left hand though and the midwife told Momma maybe that’s what finally helped her, but that she should try to not let people know about it.
As though the midwife herself wouldn’t talk. I know she did because people stare and whisper. Even about me. Twins, you know. Or maybe it’s something else, but I don’t mind.
I’m glad I have my twin sister. Funny, even though we are twins, we have always been opposites of each other. I am lighter. She is darker. My hair is reddish brown. Hers is brownish black. I talk a lot. Tem is the quiet one. Those who know both of us say I am the more practical, too.
Over a month ago, like I said, we passed our first decem anni by one year more. Ten years plus one together. Me first. Then Tem. But together.
Many children do not get as far as us, I know. Women are always losing their babies here and it must be the same everywhere. Papa told me how he was the third baby his momma had had. One came out blue and dead; the other came out with too many arms and legs, so was taken at night to be left on a hilltop. That really made Papa the first, like me; the oldest brother, like I’m the older sister. But he had four more after him. Three sisters and one brother. I just have my sister Tem. I love her and am glad she was not left out on a hilltop – but I think she’s enough.

Papa says he is more than four tens old. Quadraguinta. That seems a really long time to me, but somehow I can’t think of Papa as old. I mean, he doesn’t seem old to me at all. I just wonder where he is though.

“Back before your mother and I met, I was just a foot soldier. The army came through our village in my father’s land of Macedonia – the birthplace of the Great Alexander – looking for conscripts. You remember where Macedonia is, right?”
“Across the big sea!”
“Yes, Tuya-miau, across the big, big sea. Mare Nostrum. Good girl. Well, then they shipped myself and another hundred or so conscripts off to serve under the Dux Aegypti. Tem-Tem, it’s your turn to tell me what that is.”
Tem only stared at the floor and didn’t say anything, so Papa continued his story. I don’t know how many times he had told it to us, but I never tired of hearing it.
“Well, Dux Aegypti is the Egypt Command. So, having never been at sea before, I got terribly ill –“
“And you barfed your guts out over the side but it was OK because it fed the hungry fishes, right?”
“Exactly right. Unfortunately, our sea passage was not without incident. A few men fell overboard but the ship’s pilot would not change course to find them. Then after the third sunset–”
“You all tried to take the ship and turn it back!”
“My Tuya, you know your Papa would never do something like that! Nor would most others. Nevertheless, the few experienced soldiers on board quickly got matters under control and the leaders of the rebellion were dealt with severely.”
“They were dragged behind the ship in the water so the sharks could eat them up! Right, Papa?”
By now, Tem was faking being asleep. She woke up soon enough though when Papa paused to drink from his cup, then jumped off his lap and ran to the kitchen where Momma was making preparations for tomorrow’s breakfast.
Papa continued.
“Things went smoothly after that trouble. No one dared try anything again. Once back on land in the port of Alexandria, I quickly recovered from my sea-sickness. Then, as luck would have it, I was marched here to Heliopolis with a detachment of other soldiers. All of us part of the 5th Macedonian Legion, mostly patrolling the streets and alleyways of the city. Just our being around usually keeps the peace during the day.
“Night patrol though always has been the worst. Drunken men and women in and out of the taverns brawling and screaming. People killing each other in the streets and on rooftops. Spouses who normally did not have to face each other by day, quarreled once both at home after dark – too often with evil effects for one or the other and too often for any children they might have.”
In anticipation, I stayed quiet. The best part was about to come.
“Thieves did what thieves always do, too; especially the bands of roving youths, brigands who as often as not would taunt and attack us soldiers. It was while dispatching one infamous gang cornered in a dead-end alley – something we had well thought out and planned as part of a night round-up – it was then that I found your mother.”

So, because of my smart soldier Papa – now optio, not just munifex — that’s how I know a lot of what I know. The rest I find out for myself.
I can keep track of how more than ten tens or so kinds of different birds live around our river parts. For each kind though, they number too many to count. I mean, if you could even count them when they all fly up so beautifully together. Their wings glint in the day sky like the stars do in the night sky. I think sometimes the way they group or cry must have some hidden meaning. Really, I think they do talk to us in their way. Some people say they are messengers and that we just need to learn how to listen or read their signs.
I try.
Tem says that birds are just birds.
Still, despite her crankiness, I try to follow what kinds of birds come and go with the seasons, wondering where they go and why they return. I watch for the long-legged ones like the diver birds, the Great Cormorants, the pink-backed pelicans and cranes that come in winter. Usually they don’t lay eggs here, but they come back with young birds, so they must make babies in the other places they go off to. Some kinds of geese and ducks, quail, kingfishers, shrikes and kestrels do all nest with us though. Some stay here all the time; others take their surviving children away across water or desert when seasons turn.
One bird, a dusky-shaded brown and green ibis, flies in to visit its cousin called Pharaoh’s Ibis with its striking, black-fringed wings. I like pretending that our stay-at-home ibis invites its distant relative in for lotos and beer in exchange for stories of far-away lands.
Like I said, many other birds stay here all the time, just like we do. The benu, egrets and bitterns; doves and pigeons; cuckoos, owls, crows and bats; black kites, Horus falcons, vulturinum – all seem to like it here well enough. But, like the ibis, they have winged cousins calling on them year-round, while no one ever comes by to see our family.
The way I remember the different kinds is like this. I might make one kind of nest for one kind – in my mind, of course – and another sort of nest for a different bird. Or I see them moving in a particular way in the sky in my mind’s eye, individually for some and in flocks for some others. Certain birds I remember by seeing them doing a showy mating dance, or challenging one another with puffed out chests and ruffled feathers, or fluting a few sad notes of a song, or swallowing a frog.
This is all useful because along with what Papa gets from the army, birds provide part of the livelihood of our family. Me and Tem have been coming out with throw sticks, hoop nets and small ground nets to catch them since we were old enough to sit quietly in boat or blind – first with Papa; later with Momma when Papa started getting called away more and more. Because Momma has other things to do, later it was just me and Tem going out on our own.
Other birders, either singly or in groups, hunt with arrows, javelins, slings, clap-nets and long net fences. Some use tethered bitterns with their eyelids sewn shut to trick curious apedu with the decoys’ pitiful cries.
I do well enough without such deceits.
I say this because in recent months, Tem has come out less and less. When I ask if she will accompany me in the reed boat that Papa made for us to cover more of the river bank, she stiffens her back and shoulders, saying she needs to stay home to help Momma. She says seeing that I am the one who likes sitting out under the hot sun with the flies, gnats and crocodiles, why don’t I just go by myself? Then she turns and walks away. I don’t know what has gotten into her, but if all she’s going to do is complain and scare the birds off, she can stay home sweeping the dust from the floor and washing down the walls with that nasty natron.
Speaking of crocodiles, I don’t know what Tem is so afraid of. They never have bothered me. It’s like they don’t even hear or smell me. I am less than a shadow to them, I think. Besides, there are a pair of hawks who always seem to fly low overhead as a kind of warning for me to get off the river and, sure enough, then something you don’t want ‘round comes around. One time, one of the hawks dove right down to the back of my skiff and took off again. It happened fast but when I turned to look all I could see was the hawk flying off with a cobra in its talons.
Another time I thought I heard something coming from the papyrus thickets and though both hawks tried to warn me away, I went in to have a look. What I found was dead bodies of people. I didn’t think animals had killed them, because no animal I know of puts heads on stakes. After this, I always listened to my hawk friends.

One day, as usual, I had been out since before dawn. That’s the very best time of day. I was on the alert and gliding downstream in the reed boat along the thick stands of papyrus growing down to the river’s bank and into its shallows. The boat is like a second home to me. Though small and narrow, I feel safe in it. Protected. So much so that I sometimes nap in it under the shade of the tall reeds. At such times I might dream that the river is a path snaking warmly through a shadowy forest like those Papa speaks of. I am very familiar with this path. Just as I am with the river that dreams along with me.
But, as much as I like to daydream, I do have things to do. Things like checking the simple traps I have learned to make and set from watching birds’ habits; putting up nets; trying to locate nests by the hungry cries of young birds.
Like I said, sunrise is the best of times to be out and about on the river. Life there is stretching, shaking the night off and getting ready for the new day. The birds are waking to sing praises to the sun. They are hungry from their night fast and tend not to pay much attention to a little inops-girl, quietly drifting with the current.
So, as the sun stretches its arms out, its hopeful rays warming the air and chasing away the river mists, I unwrap a piece of bread to chew on to quash my belly rumblings. From around a weedy sand bank, a coot family – the mother bird and seven grey, not fully fledged young – come up to my boat, curious, I think, about my breakfast. I break off a corner of bread and toss it on the water, whereupon the adult snatches it up. I throw several more pieces a little forward of my skiff, while slowly taking up the handle of my hoop net. By now the chicks have joined the fray for my bread, which gives me the chance to bring my net quickly over the lot.
I’m not fast enough due to nearly losing my balance. I succeed in catching only four of the young. The mother and the rest of her brood run across the water’s surface in a flash, beyond my reach, splashing and squawking noisily along the way. All that commotion puts an end to any sneakiness I may have enjoyed, so I quiet the little birds, stow them and turn about to pole back upriver toward home.
On the way, I think it’s too bad that I didn’t get the mother. Besides being plump, her black feathers seemed especially shiny and healthy. I could sell them to the clothiers to dress up their wares.
Or use them myself.
I collect feathers of different birds and have used these to make a cap that is formed tightly to my head. By gradually bending the longer feathers from falcons and the like, I can shape them to my head without breaking the spines. The way I wear the cap is with the notches to the front and the quills in the back. I use the smaller fluffy feathers to fill in and cover the quills like a fringe. Tem wants me to make her one, but says she wants one where the feathers stand up – not laying flat like mine.
The day is warming up quickly, so I need to unload my morning’s catch, which has grown with the addition of a huge, sharp-jawed turtle, a clutch of dozens of round, white turtle eggs, and three quail from my set traps. The heat will spoil both birds and turtle eggs, already attracting an army of flies to the basket where I have stored them – the seven birds with their necks wrung. Also, though the turtle hides in its shell when I rap it sharply with my pole, it keeps coming out to try to escape over the side of the boat, making it all the more necessary to hurry back.
Quayside at the town market, I climb the embankment and am happy to immediately sell the turtle for its meat and shell to a fish broiler my Papa knows by the name of Felix. As two of his helpers carry the creature from my boat and away to slaughter, he laughs with his hands on his hips, saying, “You must be a child of Anukis to be able to subdue such a beast without losing all your toes and fingers to its rapacious jaws!” I smile up at him, sweat dripping down along my nose, and reply, “My Momma prays to Dedwen to accompany me at market, so that I may be paid well for my work.”
I cock my head a little to one side and give Felix the Eye, just to see if this has any affect on him.
With that, he bursts out with a guffaw and puts a generous sum into my outstretched palm.

I slip the coins unobtrusively into the leather wallet held at my side by a rawhide string across my bare chest, just as Felix scrunches up his nose while looking down at my other hand holding the covered basket with the dead fowl. He raises his eyebrows as though to ask about the odor insinuating itself over that of the fish, cooking oil and offal in his sector of the market. I advise him that my luck did not stop with turtles, so I had better move on to where people eat real food. I’m not quick enough to dodge a light slap to the back of my head that knocks my cap askew.
Our market, like most run by the Romans, is laid out in a grid fashion with different numbered sectors, each with its assigned products. Papa had explained that this made it easier to control what was sold by whom. Because the Prefecture also set the prices for every type of commodity, it makes it easier to locate and fine cheats, largely because sellers keep their eyes on other sellers in their sector. The aisle ways crisscrossing and joining the sectors are wide and vendors are supposed to keep them clear of their goods. Papa also told us this is so that soldiers can move with speed through the market when there is any trouble.
As many vendors, not just fishermen, bring their wares by boat, quayside is Sector One. It is from here that I then walk east, away from the river, through the vegetable sector. Onions, radishes, leeks, cucumbers, figs, grapes, cabbages, turnips, melons all reach out with their fresh scents to grab at my growling stomach as I pass. I walk fast to get through to the fowl and poultry sector to finish my business.
Farmers and market workers I have known for years call out their greetings to me. Customers haggle, despite the administration’s price controls. Small groups of squatting men drink tea, play with their 20-sided dice and natter. Women laugh and scold their children.
Drool slips from one corner of my mouth as my stomach rumbles and I wipe it away with the back of my hand. The dank, gamey smell of the river on my hands puts my hunger down.

My straw basket is lighter; my purse heavier. The leavened barley bread smeared with olive oil, bean paste and garlic sits well in my belly. A small belch serves as a flavorful reminder of my well-deserved meal.
Just as I am heading for one of the latrine areas outside the market perimeter, a commotion starts up in the poultry and fowl sector behind and to my left. Although the spice sector and prepared foods sector are between me and it, I see shoppers and shopkeepers alike drifting that way and crowding around what is beginning to turn into something more than a scrap. I know this will quickly draw soldiers to keep the order, which means people are going to get hurt.
Later, I found that Timothy the live goose monger had gotten into an argument with a customer over something. The customer at one point pushed Timothy hard, saying that Christians like him were just brainless goose shit and ought to be thrown into the river for the hippos and crocodiles. Timothy then slashed out with a short-bladed butchering knife, cutting the man’s arm, while calling him a pagan son of a temple whore. At this point, others in the crowd began taking sides. Christians against pagans. Pagans against Christians. Jews in it just for a good argument, like so many others looking to have a little sport to spice up their dull lives so they might brag in the taverns.
Papa says it doesn’t pay to stick around to watch brawls like this because you never know how big they will get or how violent.
“Movete! Movete!”
That would be soldiers coming at double-time, telling people to get out of their way. There are just two of them, each strong and grim-faced; each carrying his light, round catra shield and short sword, with a puglio on his belt. The crowd will be no match for them and I know that this promises to be yet another of what Papa calls “bone-breaker containments.” Although necessary, in the end it will give fuel to rabble-rousers to stir up more hatred against the Prefect and his soldiers.
The pair jogs along the aisle where I am, so I jump off to my right side. A baker’s apprentice – an older boy I have seen before called Peter – trips me and follows that with a shove while calling me “bird brain.”
I try to keep to my feet but can’t. Falling, I want to yell something at him but my first angry flash gets instantly crushed when my head hits the edge of the baker’s wagon.
Hard.

The ceiling I see is the one I see every night before falling asleep and every morning when I wake up. The bed feels like my own and that I’m under my favorite linen coverlet with animal pictures on it. Cooking smells tease my nose and stomach, drawing me from muddled dreams.
Tem’s voice. “Momma! Her eyes are open!” Then quieter to me. “You’re going to get it now!”
“Daughter! What you done? People say you fight again in market! What me tell about wrestling market boys? Letting them put hands on you! Just wait! I tell you Papa!”
“Papa?”
I’m confused.
Momma says that I snuck into the house while she and Tem had gone out to do the laundry. She says I was asleep when they returned; that I didn’t wake up all the rest of that day and slept the night through, as well. She found me in my bed and says nothing she did would stir me. Tem says she even sat on me and pinched me, but that I didn’t notice that either.
Because of all the scrapes on my face, chest, arms and legs, not to mention a huge red knot on the side of my head, Momma says it’s proof I’d been fighting. And most likely met my match this time. While I do fight when I have to, most boys know to leave me alone. But I remember that I hadn’t fought with anyone, just that I’d been pushed down.
I try telling this to Momma – Tem is standing behind her and looking around at me like I’m some kind of fool – but she is having none of it.
“All time you on river make your brains cook. You lie to me all you want but me not your fool. So! Get dressed and eat something. Least you show some good sense putting wallet under big bed. Looks like good day you had from what you bring home. Just lucky no one steal all.”
Money always has a way of softening Momma’s anger.
She brings me a thick, hot porridge and a handful of berries to eat. I sit on the edge of the bed trying to collect myself, with the bowl in my lap and my feet on the floor. I stir the berries in with the porridge and start eating. With the first taste of warm food in what I guess is a couple of days at least, I close my eyes and take a deep breath. Momma sits with me and gently rubs some of her calendula ointment onto my chest. I yelp when she touches my left nipple and looking down it looks like it has been practically scraped off.
I should be fighting mad about this. But instead of thinking of how to get back at Peter, I’m feeling suddenly that life is really good. I tear up and clasp Momma’s forearm.
Sitting with Momma beside me on the bed, I think of how Tem and I each have a bed of our own, which is more than most kids we know have. The beds are just plain wood frames with short, squared legs, but they get us off the ground. Leather straps interlace and fasten to the side rails and a double layer of rush mats helps make the beds more comfortable. We use wood blocks with a cushion to pillow our heads.
Momma and Papa have a bigger bed because, of course, there are two of them. The legs are much heavier and turned by lathe. They are higher than mine and Tem’s, too. It also has a pluteus or headboard with horses’ heads carved on each corner. Papa loves horses. They have a down-filled mattress and a long down-filled bolster as their shared pillow. It’s nice to lie on their bed when they let us.
I think it is safe to change the subject now.
“Momma? Is Papa back?”
“No. Soldiers at garrison hear nothing yet. Eat. And stop you worry about him. None of that make him get home any sooner. And Tuya – just so if there speck of truth in lies you tell, me tell you stay away from boy who hit you. Momma forbid you go back to hit him. Next you know, you kill someone. Then what? You understand me?
“Tem! That two times as much for you, so stop eye-rolling! One day eyes go fall out of oh so pretty head. Then roll right out door. Bye!”
Momma pulls Tem to her.
“You both sweet desert foxes of mine. I love you. Tell Momma you going stay clear of market boy.”
Momma gets up and leaves me alone on the bed. Tem follows her out like a young coot.

My Momma comes from far up the river, from a place called Kush. I like when she tells me and Tem about what it was like for her growing up and how different river life is from so far away. She says she was much poorer there, so I’m sure that’s why Momma likes the extra coin I bring in. It helps the family, along with what she makes as a medicine woman, especially when Papa is away on patrol like he has been now for half a season. When he is away like this, we have to wait for what the soldiers call their salary.
Momma first came to Heliopolis when she was “fourteen floodings old,” as she says. Her father brought her along on a trading expedition that was supposed to make his fortune but he took ill with vomiting and diarrhea. A river sickness that killed him within just a few days. His partners said nothing when grandfather first complained of fever and tremors. They installed him at a cheap inn and bade Momma stay to put cool compresses on his forehead. A day later, grandfather’s cousin and their new leader – for grandfather had been the master on the journey downriver – told Momma they would carry out the trading and once finished come back for her. That was the last she saw of them.
Momma was kicked out of the inn the same day her father died. She had no money and no idea what had happened to her father’s body.
She would never say what she did to get by after that, except that some time later she met Papa.

It’s the third week of May, what some of Momma’s friends call Opet. She went out with them to visit their dead relatives’ sepulchri. Though Momma doesn’t know what happened to her father’s body, she says she honors his spirit at one of the cemetery shrines. She brought lots of perfumy flowers home.
Tem started her menses. Not so very sweet smelling. She had been complaining for some time about how her nipples hurt and I thought for sure she was just looking to take attention from me because of the way I had gotten grazed up. Now that she has started bleeding, I do notice that she also has a pair of walnuts beginning to pop up.
I always thought I’d be the first, like I have been in just about everything else. But, no, Tem is getting hit with the titty stick before me and is really letting me know about it. All she has been doing is marching around the house as though she is leading a procession down the temple avenue, flaunting her greening womanhood.
The scent of her blood at first made it hard for me to fall asleep at night. That and her moaning from cramps.
Momma gives her a borage tonic for the cramps and has shown her how to make cloth pads for catching the blood. I will make sure I am out on the river on laundry day.

Eight days after Tem’s menstrual blood has stopped flowing, several of Momma’s friends come by to visit. Momma explains to Tem that the women want to give a special Moon Ceremony for Tem to help her crossover to being a woman. They say it is a kind of celebration just for young girls like her and that it is very, very secret.
Why hadn’t we heard of this before? I mean me and Tem? We know all about cunni and tits and how to make ourselves feel good, and how could we not know about bleeding when every woman around us has had her monthlies while we were growing up. We had watched Momma wash out her rags and put them up to dry, while telling us all about the pestis. So it was like something you never wanted to happen to you, but still you looked forward to it just to know what it was like and be able to tell your own stories about it.
Poor Tem. Now she knows. But she is getting something special now, too, and I am not going to be a part of it. We’ve always done everything together, so this is hardly fair. I go back to my bed and when I am sure I am alone, I lift my linen and try to see myself down there and talk to whatever spirit might live there to tell it that it is time for me to join my sister, so we can do this Moon thing together.
Instead, I have to watch as the women come for Tem and Momma in the dead of night. All of them, including Momma and Tem, are painted with strange markings on their faces and everywhere else that I can see. I wish now I had made that feathered hat for my sister. She tries to keep a solemn look on her face, but I can tell she is very excited. I am told I have to stay behind and that I had better not try to follow. My time will come, they say.
After dawn, when Tem returns, she’s crying and groaning in pain, while holding her lower abdomen. Maybe this is not such a good thing after all.
Momma gives Tem something to drink that puts her to sleep, but she still moans and pumps her legs slowly, like she’s trying to get a foothold on to something solid. Meanwhile, Momma busies herself in the kitchen. I go up to her quietly. Tears are running down her cheeks, so I cough a little to let her know I am there. She turns and when she sees me, she opens her arms so we can hug.
Now I’m crying and I ask Momma what happened? What did they do to my sister?
Momma takes a few moments to compose herself, then takes me to a bench where we sit side by side. After a few deep breaths, she starts talking, not looking at me just yet.
“Thing start so beautiful! Tem your sister excited so. Me, too. All walk for hour to place of trees. Secret place where women already make safe circle. Circle have special magic showing earth, air, water, fire. Tem told stand in center then all we women stand around holding branches of fire. We sing for gods to bless Tem, we all, we families and world. Was such celebration just like we say.”
“It sounds nice, Momma.”
“Was nice – but then all changed. One woman from me home, upriver, go by name of Saka’aye, after olden times queen. Everyone call her Saka and have much respect for all know she able speak direct with gods. So. Saka drink magic water from Look-Ahead Gourd, she fall to ground, no hear, no see no one. All we think Saka must be talking with spirit and we pray she come back, bring good news and bless our Tem.”
Momma is breathing in fast, little breaths by this time, so she stops to get herself together again. I already know that things could not have gone well or Tem would not be in the state she is in, still fretful in sleep.
“What did Mother Saka say, Momma?”
“Such bad luck for our Tem! When Saka come back, she say because of Tem’s number six finger on left hand, she must do special work as kahin –“
“What’s that, Momma?”
“Oh, me think it what some around here call manti. Someone like Saka herself.”
“But that doesn’t sound so bad. Aren’t they healers, too? Like you are with all that you know about herbs and medicines?”
“Yes, dear Tuya, like that. This not the bad news though. Saka go on and say spirits no want our Tem bear any children. Ever. So, it then Saka tell us hold Tem down and she reach inside one hand, pushing down outside with other – and she break Tem’s womb neck. Bend it so no man’s seed find place.”
I can’t speak. I’m nearly exploding inside. Things are moving too quickly. I want to run away. Instead, I cry.

Although her menses had ended before her dedication, Tem bled for several days after her “celebration” but it has stopped now. I have been helping Momma nurse Tem along. Actually, once she could talk, she yelled hoarsely at Momma and told her to go away. Tem is better today but is still shaky, so I hold her up sitting to give her broth and medicines to drink. I wash her and keep her clean in other ways. She lets me brush her hair and asks me to sing to her, which I do in a low voice while stroking her head.
I think Tem is going to be all right. Some things are going to take longer to heal though. Momma says she has known of women who had this done to them, but they had asked a midwife to do it after already having a baby. Tem did not ask for this but now it’s done and that’s that. After a while, I’ll talk with her to get her to talk to Momma. It sounded to me like Momma could not have done anything to stop what Saka did and I see that she feels really bad about it. Tem’s tears have dried up but Momma’s haven’t.
Because we’re well into the month of June, I tell Momma that I need to get back out on the river. Caring for Tem has kept me away from my work and, besides, I need to be by myself to think about all that has happened. I don’t remember anything every being this bad in our family before and don’t see how they can get any worse.

Usually we do not see vultures this far north. Papa says they stick to the deserts east and west of Heliopolis, or farther upriver where it is dryer; though I have seen them on the ground a couple times before, making dinner of dead animals. Mostly crows take care of such things. That’s why I was surprised to see a pair of them making wide circles over this area. They stayed pretty high up in the sky, going around and ‘round, shaping an invisible snare over the city. Because they did not come down, they must not have spotted any remains. It was more like they were waiting for something to happen, for something to die.
This is on my mind as I make my way home from the river and the market. I only made a little money today as a result of my mind not paying attention to bird sounds and what they mean. There were some dead birds in my traps, but those that had not been mostly eaten by other animals were too far gone to even think of selling. I did reset my traps and I will go out tomorrow to check them.
Coming up to our house, my shoulders slump down and I am feeling tired. I don’t feel like seeing anyone, not even Tem or Momma – but there are people standing outside our gate. One of them is holding the bridle of a horse.
Papa has always talked about finally being able to buy a horse of his own. He says this would make him an eques, so that when he retires in a little while he could become someone important in the city, letting him make more money than his military pension will give us.
Did Papa finally get a horse when he was on this last patrol? And is he home now?
I go through the gate, with a quick look over my shoulder at the beautiful horse; then through the main entryway. Momma is sitting with a strange man, while two other men stand close by. These two glance my way briefly, but go back to the conversation between Momma and the stranger. He is military and from what Papa has told me about insignia and uniforms, he looks to be high ranking. Probably a centurion. That means the horse belongs to him, not Papa.
Though I have to pee, I hold it in and listen to what the man is saying to Momma.
“…so, you see, you are not really a Roman citizen. The one you call your husband was and your two daughters are citizens by birth, but Kush is not a part of the Imperium. I am sorry to have to be the one to tell you this.”
“But I tell you, I married to citizen. To soldier like you and two men here.”
“Yes, that is all well and good, but you see the laws say that soldiers cannot officially marry. Of course, we realize that they take up with local women all the time, and in your case, a foreign woman.”
One of the standing soldiers smirks and makes a knowing nod to the other at this. I want to kick him.
The centurion continues, “That is why I have to tell you that you may no longer live in this house. Legally this property belongs to the army. It was requisitioned for use for our officers when the 5th Macedonian Legion first came to this province. ”

That was nearly a month ago. Everything has changed since.
Papa is missing and the army says that if he did not desert, he must be dead. The centurion told Momma that he had ordered Papa and a few other soldiers to go to the army fort at Dionysias to oversee equipment distribution as a result of some irregularities. As this fort is at an oasis in the Western Desert, it is known that there are bandits and Bedouin in the area. At the time, there also had been rain storms and at least one big dust storm. Only one man from the group Papa led made it to the fort. He reported that he thought the others had drowned when water suddenly washed down a wadi to their night encampment. It missed him because he was squatting behind a bush and some distance from the others in order to relieve himself.
When word had gotten back to the centurion, he gave the surviving soldier a field promotion, directing him to take Papa’s place.
We spent the next several days sleeping in friends’ homes, usually on the floor because we had to leave our nice beds behind. When I think about those… those novi sleeping in our beds, it makes me feel hot and broken inside.
It was strange the way we left. The new soldier’s family just barged in and took over, bossing us around and telling us to get out. As we went out the gate like beggars, Tem turned around and stared at the house for some time. As though called, the family all came to the front doorway and seemed to be waiting for Tem to say something. And she did have something to say – but I have no idea what she said or in what language but it sounded like a curse. More than that, she said it so loud that passersby made a wide arc around us, a couple of Christians crossing themselves as they did so.
I have a new respect for my sister and told her so.
Momma had saved some money, so she found us a small, single room to the north of our old home. She said she did not want to live near our old place for fear that she would burn it down in the night and the army would know who to come looking for. She also said this is just temporary, until she can arrange for us to go upriver back to where she came from. Despite the betrayal by her uncle years ago, she is sure that there are cousins who will take us in until we can get back on our feet.
Meanwhile, we are making do here in this tiny room. The man she rents from says she can use the courtyard to cook in, as long as she keeps it clean. Fortunately, he is not around much but there is a woman he keeps that looks in on us every now and again. She seemed sympathetic when Momma told her our story but has not offered any real help.
I keep hoping that Papa will show up and take us away from all of this. It won’t matter if he is still in the army or not. I don’t give a cockroach’s ass for the army at this point.
What with Papa missing, losing our nice house and Tem’s agonies – these are just part of our troubles, it turns out. Though Momma has money saved up that she keeps well protected, I still need to help out with supporting the family. The walk to my skiff is now longer, given where we have relocated. All of my traps and snares had been damaged or taken, so I have had to redo all of them. The worst thing though is when I bring my day’s catch to market, people act like they hardly know me. Even Felix.
I always thought that we were good friends because of the way we joked with each other. When I saw him for the first time after everything bad started happening, he said he had heard about Papa and that he was really sorry. The thing is, he said all this in Greek. We always spoke before in Latin. Papa encouraged us to use the Roman tongue and learn Roman ways. Of course, there are a lot of people here from around where Papa came from and they use mostly the language from there – as do most others for that matter. So it’s not like I grew up not being able to understand Greek. But now everyone in the market, including Felix, only speaks to me in Greek.
Not only that, they don’t pay as much as they used to for what I bring in to sell. I’m still trying to figure all this out. Meanwhile, I speak Greek. Even at the place we now call home.
Momma sighs and shakes her head, but her gaze is hard and determined when she thinks I’m not looking. All in all, I wonder how she can stay as calm as she does. A lot calmer than me, for certain.

Because the river waters have been rising, Momma says we must leave for the south soon. Her plan is that we will travel by boat as far as Thebes; from there joining a caravan to Meroe. She says we have to be ready to leave quickly, so we find a cheap inn close to the water where the river people stay, for once a boat has its cargo loaded the craft master does not wait around.
It has been several days since we came to the inn. I go every morning to talk with the boat owners, craft masters and crews because I want to know what the river is like to the south. It’s hard to say who’s telling the truth and who’s stretching it just to scare me or impress me, but I’m getting an idea of what we can expect. It will be different.
Momma comes down to the docks later in the day to check with the progress of a certain boat and its cargo. She has made a small advance to its master, who is dark like Momma, and has agreed to take on cooking and cleaning chores once underway. He assures her that the material he is waiting for is likely to arrive any day.
Momma says this man’s word is good.
It is the twenty-first of July when Sirius the Dog Star joins the Sun at dawn during these hottest days. Before we go, I feel the urge to visit my old river haunts one last time.
I run towards the market quayside in hopes of finding the old reed boat Papa had made for us. It is there, hidden still in the papyrus reeds, so I climb in and catch the current to float downriver.
On the water, I begin to relax. By the time I catch my breath the eastern sky begins to brighten and a few birds are making their morning songs. This day I feel like they are singing not just to make the sun rise but also for me. I am as much a part of this place as are the birds. They are letting me know that just as they nest here, drop their still supple eggs to warm them beneath soft-feathered breasts, then greet the blind hatchlings into the world of the river, that this place has been my nest in a way, too. Though I may be curled inside a shell of my own and my eyes may yet be closed, light begins to penetrate my lids.
I think: It must be time for me to hatch, to learn to fly, to soar on my own. Things will be different now. They have to be.

Nothing But Alexandria

By Marina Chamma

Ten minutes were left for the express train to make its final stop into Alexandria’s Misr Station. For most of the two-and-a-half hour ride from Cairo, Rania’s head rested on her spotless, single-paned first class seat window. While she didn’t care for the luxuries of cleanliness and comfort on this trip, she had not been given much of a choice.
“A lovely lady like you travelling second class? Impossible!” the jovial middle-aged ticketing clerk at Cairo’s Ramses Station had told her the day before, as she tried to buy a regular one-way ticket to Alexandria.
“Thank you, that’s very kind of you,” she smiled, trying to keep her cool, “but I don’t want first class.” The clerk reached out for the booklet of first class tickets regardless.
“This is a first class ticket that will get you there in less than three hours!” he proudly exclaimed, as if the standard travel time to Alexandria couldn’t even escape Egypt’s obsession with haggling. Rania frowned, unconvinced.
“Besides, second class is only for Egyptians,” he triumphantly noted, ending the need for any further discussion. All the Egyptian movies Rania had watched as a teenager in Beirut had not been enough to keep even a short conversation going in the Egyptian dialect. Her colloquial Lebanese crept in soon enough, making it impossible to fool the natives. But being Egyptian or not wasn’t only about language. Luckily for the ticketing clerk, however, Rania had neither the time nor patience to argue about the definitions of a foreigner and whether she could even be considered one.
Rania had looked aimlessly out of the window throughout the ride. She took in as much of the hustle and bustle, the slums and crowds of the Cairo suburbs as her eyes could handle. Once out of the city, the vastness of the Egyptian hinterland was much simpler for her eyes to absorb. But the landscape was anything but monotonous, both arid and dusty, fertile and green, depending on how close the fields were to the bounties of the Nile.
Only after the train made its second to last stop at Tanta Station on the Upper Nile Delta, halfway through the trip, did the vast panoramas suddenly disappear. Rania could see nothing but Alexandria in front of her, without even closing her eyes. Its wide boulevards, chaotic narrow side streets and corniche – whose view into the city was blocked by endless rows of shiny new buildings, suffocating the remaining arabesque-styled villas that had yet to be brought to the ground. The way she saw Alexandria was drawn from the history books she read, the random documentaries she had watched and occasional dreams that were frighteningly lucid. No matter how different the city turned out to be from that of her imagination, she knew that once she arrived to Misr Station for the very first time, took a taxi heading northeast towards Al Ibrahimiyyah district and walked up Qena Street, she would find her grandmother’s house, just as it had been left and just as she had imagined it, waiting for her to bring it back to life.
As the train left Tanta Station, Rania suddenly felt a frantic urge to go through the neatly stacked contents of her brown leather messenger bag, most of which had been gathered during the past month. Handwritten notes scribbled around an improvised family tree going back to the 1860s. A list of family friends of her maternal grandmother with Levantine, Greek and Italian-sounding surnames with what would have once been their phone numbers and addresses in Alexandria. Rania knew she would be lucky if any of their descendants still lived there, let alone if anybody in the neighborhood recognized their names. The names of friends and relatives of her maternal grandparents who once lived in Cairo, whose numbers and addresses were also decades old. It was impossible that everyone had left without a trace and she would knock on their doors on her way back if she had to. Copies of the obituaries of her grandparents taken from three local newspapers, with nothing more than dates and standardized shallow epitaphs with post-mortem reverence for the dead. Photocopies of land deeds and a random collection of black and white passport pictures and colored family pictures delicately arranged in a rice paper notebook, every picture on a separate page. Delicately folded and placed at the front of the stack was a copy of the letter that had made the trip inevitable.

Barely one month had gone by since she had found the letter. Wandering at home on a lazy Monday evening, Rania stumbled upon a cardboard box everybody has in that ubiquitous dusty little corner of their attic. Mom must have thought it was filled with my faded teenage mementos and sent it here with the movers, she thought. The box was bursting at the seams and most of its contents came tumbling down as Rania removed the lid. There was everything from her baby pictures, souvenirs from family vacations, birthday cards from aunts and uncles, cassettes sent by her cousins as recorded letters and a small plastic box with two of her intact milk teeth. She found one of her favorite pictures of her mother as a fashionable, single 20 something year old, posing on a balcony overlooking an endless sparkling harbor she didn’t recognize. As she kept going through the box, five pages of elegant cursive handwriting suddenly fell into her lap from an envelope that was placed upside down. It was a letter to her mother and aunt Mona from her grandmother, written shortly before she had died. Coincidentally, Mona, the keeper of the family history and only one who would help her decipher what she had just found, would be visiting her in Beirut in a couple of days. Rania didn’t believe in signs, but if she did, she knew this is exactly what one would look like. It was a sign that she was ready to get her answers, to start uncovering the truth.

Rania’s maternal grandmother Rose and grandfather Hani were third generation Lebanese living in Egypt, their own grandparents having escaped Mount Lebanon’s simmering sectarian warfare of the mid-1800s in what was then part of the Ottoman Empire. They formed part of the community of Levantines, Greeks, Italians and other Mediterraneans, who settled primarily in Cairo and Alexandria, and made these metropoles so cosmopolitan. Each of these communities preserved some of the features of their countries of origin and never let go of their attachment to it. Together they forged a unique identity, a blend of Egyptian and the best and worst of their own cultures brought together in Egypt, their ultimate home.
Rose was born and raised in Alexandria and Hani in Cairo. They had met in Beirut, both back in the motherland for a month-long summer vacation with their respective families in the late 1950s. Hani couldn’t take his eyes off the charming brunette who had walked past him in one of downtown Beirut’s most popular confectionaries, while Rose was immediately captivated by the young man’s mischievous smile and captivating stare, more than compensating for his unassuming physique. The fact that they were both from Egypt and their families knew of each other only facilitated their relationship. After a six-month courtship, involving crowded afternoon gatherings in Beirut, lunches in Cairo and long strolls on Alexandria’s harbor, they got married and Rose moved to Cairo. Their two daughters were born and raised in Cairo, Rania’s mom married early and moved to Beirut, while Mona stayed until her father died.
Rania was ten years old when her grandfather passed away in 1982. How she and her mother had hastily flown into Cairo from Beirut on a stormy winter night, and rushed to see Hani for the very last time, was one of those memories that remained intact in her mind. For the next two days, Rania was confined to her grandparents’ apartment in Cairo’s Heliopolis district, left under the supervision of relatives she had never met. She realized something was wrong when strangers started flocking to the house, all dressed in black, paying their respects in an eerie silence and heading out the door quickly thereafter. Only hours after the condolences were over, Rania and her mother took the first plane back to Beirut and Mona was sent to Boston under the care of a distant relative. Rose sold the family’s Cairo apartment and moved back to her native Alexandria into her parent’s house with an unmarried sister and cousin. Mona had begged Rose to settle in the safety of America instead, but she had adamantly refused. It appeared as if Rose couldn’t stay in Cairo after her husband’s death nor could she live too far away from it either.
For Rania and her mother to go to Alexandria to visit Rose was never an option. They would go to Athens, Paris or Limassol to meet instead, or Rose would come to Beirut whenever a lull in the always precarious security situation allowed for it. The bond between grandmother and granddaughter was kept alive and strong through phone calls and letters, sometimes accompanied by pictures other times with checks, a grandmother’s gift to her one and only niece at the time. Back then, Rania was too young to ask why couldn’t her grandmother send less checks and let her go visit her in Alexandria instead. Even if someone was willing to explain, Rania wouldn’t have understood the answers anyway.
During one of many visits she had taken to visit Mona and her family in Boston throughout the years, Rose died of a sudden heart failure days before going back to Alexandria. Her wishes were granted and her body laid to rest in Alexandria, far from her daughters but as close as she could to her husband in Cairo. Rania had just turned 20 and had been two weeks since she last talked to her grandmother. Rose’s unexpected death was a blow to Rania that took years for her to recover from. The fact that she couldn’t lay a flower on her grandmother’s grave in Alexandria to bring some closure made the healing process longer and as an adult, made the mystery of her grandmother’s life, and subsequently that of her grandfather’s, even more intriguing. With nobody willing to answer her questions, Rania sometimes resigned herself to the idea of never knowing and living with her self-adapted version of the truth instead.
But it wasn’t always easy. The physical similarities she and Rose shared, her mother’s occasional slip of tongues of “you look so much like your grandmother” or “Rose would’ve said the same thing” only increased her frustration about not knowing. Her desire for the truth was intensified by what she felt was a conscious attempt to keep the truth away from her. “I don’t know” or “ask Mona,” Rania’s mom always used to say to avoid her questions. Rania knew there was more to her grandmother than her never-ending pool of family anecdotes, and more to her grandfather than her austere memories of when she last saw him. As she grew older, Rania also realized that this thirst for the truth was becoming a quest for something very personal, for discovering part of her own roots, to better define who she really was. While most Lebanese, especially those whose families had emigrated to faraway lands, went back to Lebanon to uncover their roots and with it some of their identity, Rania knew she had to take the opposite route and walk out of that little nation to get what she wanted.
Suddenly, the letter appeared. It was a treasure buried right beneath Rania’s eyes, one she had never in her wildest dreams believed even existed. The letter read like an abridged family history and will of sorts, as if Rose knew that whatever took her far from her home and late husband, even a trip to see her daughters and grandchildren, would one day suck life right out of her. Attached to the main envelope was an unmarked envelope filled with black and white and colored pictures, individual and group pictures of what looked like better and happier times. Based on the date handwritten on the back of them, the last one taken was a colored picture of Rose before her last trip to America. Her allure exuded a faded yet pure and simple elegance, but not enough to erase the melancholy radiating from her stare. Yet she stood tall and proud, resting on an ornate black iron railing of a balcony, overlooking a harbor that Rania also didn’t recognize.

Rania was absorbed in her thoughts, but could have sworn to have heard the first of several bilingual announcements that their final stop into Alexandria’s Misr Station was approaching. She pushed her mental rewind button one last time, wanting to make sure everything was intact in her mind before getting off the train.

Barely ten hours after landing in Beirut and Mona was already resting on Rania’s cough, getting ready to be interrogated. She knew this was bound to happen one day but just as Rania, didn’t quite know where to start. Before opening their first bottle of white wine, Rania had already put their second to chill in the fridge. It was going to be a long night.
“I told you I found the letter,” Rania announced, “the one nobody ever told me about and pretended didn’t exist.” Rania untangled her feet and walked up to a small drawer at the far end of the living room. Mona watched as Rania brought back two envelopes attached to each other. She was surprised they had remained almost intact, with their clear blue tint, bright red and navy diagonal borders and “Air Mail” and “Par Avion” emblazoned on the bottom left corner in bold.
Mona closed her eyes for a moment. She clearly remembered how she had hand delivered the letter to Rania’s mother two months after their mother passed away. They had opened the letter together and spent the rest of the day laughing and crying, wondering how things went so wrong and how their lives would have been if they hadn’t.
“We don’t pretend it doesn’t exist,” Mona said calmly, “but what do you expect your mom and I to do with it after all these years?” Rania stared at Mona in silence. “The letter is what’s left of our history. Look at it as you would any other history book, you read it, learn from it and try to never forget it.”
“But what about justice or at least telling people the truth? Why did I have to know by mistake? Don’t I have the right to know too?” Rania said, frustrated that she had to even justify her right to know.
“Well, now you do,” Mona drily replied.
“Oh goddammit Mona, they’re my grandparents too. I never really knew how grandpa died, nor why we could never go to Cairo, nor why Rose had to move to Alexandria. She died and it was all completely over, as if they only existed as your parents and my grandparents, not as human beings on the face of the earth in their own right.”
Mona nodded in silent approval.
“So there’s nothing left in Cairo, right?” Rania asked.
“Yes” Mona replied, trying hard to stay calm. “Mom sold the house right after Dad died. Hani had no siblings, so nothing is left.” Rania knew Mona didn’t like to talk neither about Cairo nor her father too much, they were two wounds that had still not healed after all these years. It was because of how Hani died so unexpectedly, and the way she was snatched out of college in Cairo and siphoned off to Boston without with no choice but to comply. The wound remained so deep, exacerbated by stories of how much Cairo had changed since she left, that Mona had refused to go back since.
“What about Alexandria?” Rania continued, “is there anybody left there, a relative or neighbor of Rose, do we know if there is a house or at least know where it was?”
“Addresses and names of relatives and friends are in the letter,” Mona said, “but they haven’t been verified in decades. Everything else I know Rose told me during the last years of her life.”
Rania stared at Mona with her eyes wide open. She was waiting for Mona to corroborate in her own words what she had read about in the letter. Mona took a deep breath and went on.
“I think about it more often that you think, so does your mom, but then we forget. The same happens after the questions I get from my own kids or from your mother, because of your own questions. Sometimes it hits me, the need to know the truth, for someone to account and to bring closure to us all. But then I think it much better for time to heal and take care of it for us.”
It was hard for Rania to fully comprehend her mother and aunt’s ability to remain so passive in the face of their father’s death and Rose’s struggle to live a relatively normal life afterwards.
“But what about Cairo? It’s part of who we are as a family. Don’t you feel like you want to go back? Don’t you feel part of you belongs there?” Rania asked, voicing her own questions on her identity and belonging more than a concern for those of her aunt’s.
“When it comes to the bond with the place we grew up in,” Mona explained, “you do suddenly discover this desperate need for a sense of belonging. The need to belong not only to a place, but to a certain space, culture and time, no matter how far that place is or how detached that culture may be from the one you now consider your own. Still, it has to exist and be protected in a safe place in your mind. Without it, there’s a part of your soul that is missing and constantly restless, wondering around with no place to feel at ease. I may never go back nor see it again but know that the Egypt to which I belong remains in a safe place in my mind and that’s all that matter to me now.”
Rania already knew the answer to her next question, but decided to ask anyway.
“Would you come with me if I went?” Mona looked away, her nostalgic stare quickly turning into something bordering on anger. Without looking back at her niece, Mona’s initial answer was simply silence.
“Shou?” what, Rania asked, “What do you say?”
“Rania, do you think this is a game? There is nothing to see there,” Mona’s tone clearly irritated, turning back toward Rania, looking intensely into her eyes, hoping to make herself clear. “I know I will barely recognize Cairo if I ever go back, let alone Alexandria.” Mona reached out for her glass of wine, took a slip and went on.
“You asked if there was anybody left, a relative, a neighbor or a house. I don’t really know and I’m not sure I want to find out. Relatives would have surely passed and their sons and daughters probably don’t care about the past. Old neighbors may have already forgotten or still saddened to even think about it. If Rose’s house it still standing in Alexandria, it probably no longer belongs to us, just another lovely old house, like they don’t build them anymore, with a breathtaking view of the Alexandria harbor. So it’s probably best to keep things as your grandmother left them, in that letter and in our minds.”
“But what if…”
“What if what!” Mona shouted, starting to regret having allowed the conversation to go this far. “Neither Alexandria nor Cairo are anything like the romanticized image you must have of them,” Mona continued, angrily. “I’ve come to terms with that and with fate itself, that my dad is gone, however that happened, and the way that mom dealt with it, no matter how much I agree or disagree with it. I’ve kept the family memories instead, the happy and sad ones and will leave my kids with those same memories and nothing else.”
“I want to go,” Rania whispered, partly to avoid another furious reaction from Mona and also because she wasn’t quite sure what she would do there herself. But there was something she felt she had to see or try to find. A road she had to walk up, someone recognizable she would bump into and talk to, who would tell her stories that belonged to her family that were still missing from that history book Mona mentioned. She believed and somehow knew that her grandmother had left the letter for a reason. It wasn’t for them to reclaim any material goods, but to start uncovering the truth and part of her own past with it.
Her aunt looked at her, then turned away so that Rania couldn’t see her and smiled. Mona knew that no matter what she said, she wouldn’t be able to change Rania’s mind. Her stubbornness is truly like Rose’s, Mona thought, and maybe that letter was meant for nobody else but her.

My Beloved Girls,
Something tells me I should write this letter once and for all before it’s too late. I’ve always felt that every day that passes since the day your father left is a luxury I have done nothing to deserve. You and your families are the only thing that has kept me going, but that will all come to an end soon. I hope it will.
There are things I was able to tell you and others I was never able to gather the strength to say. I hope this will be the first step for you to get to the truth, to fight the system that caused us so much misery, but without fighting the country or its people that we are also a part of. By the time you are ready for this, Egypt would have changed so much from the one we knew, that you would need to have to come to terms with that too.
They killed him, I know they did. The results of the autopsy became a state secret only a handful of officials knew the details of. Ghassan told me Hani was killed and I believe him. I never dared called him again to ask for details, after the last time I saw him at the hospital, for fear of putting him in greater danger than he already was in. Your father wasn’t alone. They all had something big planned, as big as the damage and corruption they saw unfolding in front of their eyes every single day they went to their public offices for the past ten years. Hani seemed to be the weakest link and so he was eliminated. They had set their eyes on us too, in case we got anywhere near wherever they buried him or if we tried to make some noise about what happened. Part of me died the day he did, the rest slowly melted away at my powerlessness to bring him justice or from knowing that I wouldn’t be able to lay next to him the day I died. The safest would have been for me to leave Egypt, you both had already been taken care of, but Alexandria was the farthest I could stay from him, even if it meant that they could come after me and silence me one day. I am sorry for not having done more to keep his memory alive or for not letting his death go in vain. I hope you will, I guess it’s never too late.
Know that everything you ever wanted to have, know, read and see is at home in Alexandria, 59 Qena Street. You’ll know where to find it if you ever decide to go back, to open the wounds of the past, even after all these years, to bring justice, closure or whatever you believe is right, you are his daughters after all. And if you’re asking whether it’s safe, I would say that by the time you see this letter again and are ready to go back, so much time would have passed that it would be more than safe to go back. Go back for him. Even if it means you will not recognize your country nor your city, not find the spirit that made us who we are, or its soul, part of which meant it was the entire world in one place…just go to see me, to go to find him, go back for him…

Rania could no longer remember how many times she had read the letter. All she knew was that it had only taken these four paragraphs to convince her that she was going “back for him” and Rose, no matter what it took.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we will be soon arriving to Alexandria’s Misr Station. Please make sure to take all your belongings…”
Rania’s nerves began to take hold of her senses and she couldn’t stand still. She stood up to get her carry-on luggage from the overheard compartment and didn’t sit back down. She opened her messenger bag one last time, making sure she had not left anything on board. She doubled-checked on her unbound notes neatly stacked in her bag’s outer compartment. Mona had finally agreed to cooperate and gave her everything she either had on paper or could unearth from memory. She was staying at a small bed and breakfast, close to where her grandmother’s house once was, initially booked for a week, though she already felt she would need more than that.
Rania slipped her hand into a smaller compartment of her bag and without looking took out a medium-sized black and white picture. It was the earliest picture she had of Rose, wearing a dark v-neck dress slightly above the knee, sculpted by a wide leather belt and brightened by an imposing pearl necklace. She looked straight into the camera, with a look of refreshing beauty and witty charm. Standing next to her was a shorter and darker man, with the most mischievous of smiles and captivating of stares, soon to be her husband. There were no guarantees that anybody would recognize the couple in the picture, but there was no way Rania would ever go to Alexandria without it, without them.
Before the train took a sharp turn left, as it prepared to make its final stop, Rania got a fleeting glimpse of the sea. It was a different kind of Mediterranean to which she was accustomed to see in Beirut, but it was somehow familiar. She was already hit by a feeling of deja-vu, of having been to or at least seen this wide stretch of Alexandria’s harbor somewhere before.
“Ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to Alexandria, Misr Station.”

Book Review of Saleem Haddad’s Guapa

By Eman El Shaikh

Shame, Revolution, and Identity: a Review of Saleem Haddad’s Guapa

The story and the novel both begin with shame. Rasa, a twenty-something queer man living in an unnamed Arab country, awakens to the vague but uncomfortable awareness of a shameful encounter the night before, when his grandmother caught him and his lover, Taymour, in the middle of a furtive passionate encounter. Rasa, the narrator and protagonist, begins his narration wondering about shame, or eib, an idea which reverberates powerfully throughout the novel.

But eib is not quite so simply collapsed into notions of shame, and as the novel unfolds—its frenetic and potent energy taking place within the span of a single day—Rasa interrogates the idea of eib and its tyranny over his life. “Taymour’s name is embargoed under a cloak of eib,” Rasa thinks. “The closest word for eib in English is perhaps “shame.” But eib is so much more than that.”

Eib confines and nurtures Rasa, at once concealing him and revealing him, and throughout the novel, many distinct but overlapping tyrannies converge in Rasa’s life, begging overthrow. As the events progress, Rasa circles elliptically around questions of revolution, identity, shame, and narrative.

Saleem Haddad’s debut novel is a text which brilliantly complicates the many oppositions we have inherited, unsettling them and interrogating their salience: public versus private, east versus west, gay versus straight, revolution versus apathy. The various threads are split apart and reconstituted adeptly and seamlessly, converging into a rich and moving story of a young man confronting the numerous iterations of his own power and powerlessness.

Guapa the bar, like the novel, is a nexus of optimism and frustration, a place of trauma and healing, confinement and freedom, climax and anticlimax. It in this bar where Rasa first meets Taymour, where he watches his friends dance in drag in the basement, where he plans revolutions with his friends, and where they collectively lament its abortion. It is in this and through this that Haddad vividly inscribes a microcosm of our modern life and all of the promiscuous possibilities and oppositions that populate it.

We enter into Rasa’s whirling, precipitous subjectivity, which hurriedly flits between urgent political disasters and unfurling love affairs and long leisurely excursions into the reservoirs of his memory. Yet this narration is neither cloyingly well-arranged nor laboriously jumbled, and so Rasa’s reality comes alive effortlessly, revealing all of the traumas and joys which inhabit Rasa’s world. We fall floridly into the sweet and fragile intimacies between Taymour and Rasa and endure Rasa’s harrowing encounter with the police. The tenor of the narrative is at turns buoyed by the exuberance of an incipient revolution and dampened by its anticlimax.

Yet through the disorienting present, the turbulence of past events is also palpable. Through these jarring moments, Rasa relives his estrangements: from his secretive, domineering grandmother, who presides over his small, diminished family with tight lips and tight fists; from his late father, who had cautioned him against fighting for change; from his absent mother, who chopped an endless supply of onions at the kitchen table to subsume her tears and ultimately left him behind. Haddad weaves these instances together with skillful and sincere prose.

It is the specter of the failed revolution that haunts the story, and Rasa vacillates between resignation and anger. It is unclear whether the failed revolution belongs to Syria, Egypt, Tunisia or to another country—or perhaps to no country at all—and it is this lack of specificity that imbues the revolution—and the novel—with a plausible deniability. Is the revolution real or imagined? Was it on the right or wrong side of history? Without the tapestry of history as a backdrop, one does not know if the revolution warrants condemnation or mourning, which both frees the revolution from scrutiny and demands it be subjected to it.

The novel is permeated with urgent political questions, though they are not met with incontrovertible answers. Haddad smoothly floats these considerations in the air but provides no explicit resolution for them. Nevertheless, the reader is nudged along to certain conclusions which eventually collapse in on themselves, leaving the reader in a sustained state of precarity.

If the personal is political, in Guapa, the political often recedes into the personal, with tense and calamitous political situations often punctuated—and superseded—by Rasa’s personal turmoil: his obsession with his withdrawn lover, his worry about his grandmother’s perception of him, his latent anxieties about his absent parents. Rasa wonders if his private life is realer than his public one, since his public self elides so much about himself and the true nature of things. And yet he wonders if shame and lost love are ancillary bourgeois concerns, imagined prisons as opposed to non-metaphorical ones. Tied up in this are questions of narrative, and Rasa does not grapple with narrative inertly. Rather, he is strategic in the very way he translates (and mistranslates) between languages and worlds, misinterpreting and omitting as a way of relating a politics.

As these tensions animate Rasa’s world, he questions the various identities through which he experiences the world, the oppressive force they exert upon them, and how to adjudicate between then. Rasa feels his homosexuality marks him in his home country, trying out different idioms to encompass his queer identity, experimenting with the words gay, shaath, louti, and khawal. And though his queer identification is at the forefront of most of his life, he becomes primarily an Arab when he goes to America. It is there that he begins to understand that the social contract of eib, the decorum and collective sensitivity that it entails, could sometimes become a refuge from the lonely individualism and the sharp, discrete personal spaces of the western world.

It would be a mistake to see all of Rasa’s struggles separately—nor can they be extricated from one another. Indeed they all flow together and sublimate into one another in the way human tensions often do.

Haddad’s debut novel is more than a captivating coming of age novel. It is a story which could easily lapse into stereotypes and cliché, but Haddad does not lose his brisk, bright, and perceptive voice. Guapa submerges the reader in the complexities and tangles of a liminal queer Arab subjectivity and all of its undulating contingencies. It does so while being not just politically attuned but politically revelatory. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Haddad’s novel is its unique allegory; it is unique in that it is an allegory that demands the reader observe the world around them but is not didactic about what they should see.

The Melancholy Oud

By Sahar Mustafa

As I come through the garage door, I hear the melancholy strings of the oud and I guess it’s coming from the soundtrack of an Arabian soap opera my mother’s watching on satellite. Quick, rhythmic clapping and another instrument I don’t recognize lends its sound, and its melody seamlessly weaves into the thrumming of the oud.

Allah, allah!” my mother croons, and I realize she’s the one clapping. “Ente a’yooni…”

She’s singing a ballad from Oum Kalthum—her favorite Egyptian artist. Every time my mother plays her CD she tells me that the entire world was present at Oum Kalthum’s funeral in the 1970’s, that she even surpassed Gamal Abdul Nasser—Egypt’s most beloved president—in attendance by dignitaries from all over the Arab world. I guess she was like the Elvis of her times, or something. To me, her songs all sound the same. The one my mother’s singing now is about a woman confessing her forbidden love. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an Arabic song that wasn’t about forbidden love, or unrequited love, or love that finally kills you.

From the kitchen, I see the back of a man’s head I don’t recognize sitting on a loveseat in our family room. His hair is slightly receding in the back so that the finely combed strands are visible lines like black thread against his pale scalp.

Khalo Ziyad is sitting opposite him on the big couch. His eyes are closed as he strums the oud. Seated beside him, my mother blissfully sings with her hand resting on her brother’s shoulder. She motions me over without halting and pats the cushion for me to sit down. She winks at me and I’m impressed that none of them has missed a beat with my intrusion.

I feel like I’ve stumbled onto a secret clan, chanting something mystical. They look hypnotized by the music they’re creating that lets them shut out the rest of the world. I suppose it’s like the way I feel when I listen to Black Veil Brides; everything around me just fades into the walls and seeps into the floor and I’m just, like, floating on a raft.

The stranger has a weird-looking instrument in the shape of a trapezoid propped across his thighs and two metal cases over his fingers that he uses to pluck the strings. It’s like a harp resting in his lap.

Almost five minutes pass, which feel like ten or more as I’m waiting for them to complete the ballad. After my mother belts out the final verse, they laugh and clap. Suddenly, they remember me and the stranger pounces with excitement.

Mashallah, mashallah! Who’s this?” the man asks me, setting his instrument on the loveseat before standing up with hand extended. “Where did this lovely lady come from?” It’s that funny way of asking like I’m five years old.

I extend my hand and he grips it tight while talking to my mother and uncle. “She’s a pretty one, mashallah! You better keep your eye on her,” he says. This is worse than the condescending tone—referring to me in the third person like I can’t hear. “She looks like just like you, Amina, thirty years ago, mish ah?”

His unkempt beard is speckled with white hairs, and he’s got deep grooves on his forehead like bike trails. His eyes are blue and I suddenly remember that he’s the one from Khalo Ziyad’s story. The rest of his face is dull except for those blue eyes glittering with tiny diamonds. He’s much shorter than Khalo and, like, only about an inch taller than me. His palm feels rough like he’s spent years scraping it against asphalt.

I try to politely pry my hand from his grip but he’s now going crazy over how much I resemble my mother, but declaring how much taller I am and definitely skinnier than her. She pretends not to hear the part about me being skinnier and keeps smiling.

He finally addresses me. “How are you, dear? I am Waleed.” It is Khalo’s best friend. I wonder if they can still see in each other’s faces—past the disfigurement and deep grooves of worry—how much of the children they used to be scaling the mountains and trekking across narrow valleys.

Elhamdulillah,” I say and tug again to get my hand back.

“Did you know that I grew up with your uncle and mother? We were neighbors. I could see their kitchen from my bedroom.” He laughs thunderously and turns to Khalo. “I’d see your father—Allah rest his soul—drinking yogurt right from the bottle.”

This prompts another story about my grandfather, and my mother and Waleed laugh so hard there are tears in their eyes. Khalo Ziyad just smiles and nods.

“What good times! Your uncle always led our expeditions, insisted he had a sharper eye for determining the horizon.” His head flits back and forth between Khalo Ziyad and me. “Did you tell her about the wadi?”

“Yes,” Khalo Ziyad says. I’m getting used to his monosyllabic responses. I wish I could get away with it when the idiots at school ask me questions, or when teachers demand I “elaborate, please” when I’ve already answered correctly.

“Are you hungry, habibti?” my mother asks. She never fails to ask me about food—with or without company present. Once again, I feel like a little kid.

“No, thanks. I ate at Panera,” I tell her.

“I didn’t know you played, Khalo,” I say, feeling ridiculous because I’ve only just met him so how would I know anything about him, really? His life is slowly unraveling like unwrapping a present in slow motion. Some parts are dull and expected, and other things are sort of cool surprises.

“Are you joking?” Waleed interjects. “The villagers made sure he was available to play at the wedding suhra before setting a date!” Waleed says. “Do you know what this is, dear?” He picks up his instrument and pulls me down to sit beside him. “We call this a qanoon,” he tells me. “It’s very del-ee-kate.”

I nod and then he slides the instrument, which is like an oversized board game, onto my lap. It has rows of strings attached to tuning pegs on one end. It’s actually pretty cool-looking, like an artifact from ancient Egyptian times. He places one of the metal clasps on my forefinger and urges me to pluck a string.

The sound is more twangy than the oud and softer. Waleed positions my finger on a particular string and he strums away on several at a time. We produce medium to high notes like a mother grieving over the loss of her child. It becomes too intense for me and I abruptly stop.

“That’s cool,” I say awkwardly and slide the qanoon back to Waleed.

My mother demands they play a song about Jerusalem and I can understand most of the words:

I passed through the streets

The streets of Old Jerusalem

In front of the shops

That remained of Palestine

 

My mother’s face is glistening with perspiration and she clutches a tissue paper and waves it in the air at certain intervals of the song. Waleed taps his shoe as he plays and his metal-protected fingers look like two miniature knights riding across a field.

I watch Khalo Ziyad as he strums his banjo-looking oud, and I’m impressed how effortlessly his fingers move over the strings. His face softens into a serene expression as though the tight fibers that make him smile or frown have gradually collapsed. His eyes are closed and the pulpy flesh temporarily disappears.

Towards the end of a verse, he opens his eyes in the middle of the song and catches me staring. He grins and winks like he’s just shared a secret he trusts I’ll always keep.

 

The Melancholy Oud

By Sahar Mustafa

As I come through the garage door, I hear the melancholy strings of the oud and I guess it’s coming from the soundtrack of an Arabian soap opera my mother’s watching on satellite. Quick, rhythmic clapping and another instrument I don’t recognize lends its sound, and its melody seamlessly weaves into the thrumming of the oud.
“Allah, allah!” my mother croons, and I realize she’s the one clapping. “Ente a’yooni…”

She’s singing a ballad from Oum Kalthum—her favorite Egyptian artist. Every time my mother plays her CD she tells me that the entire world was present at Oum Kalthum’s funeral in the 1970’s, that she even surpassed Gamal Abdul Nasser—Egypt’s most beloved president—in attendance by dignitaries from all over the Arab world. I guess she was like the Elvis of her times, or something. To me, her songs all sound the same. The one my mother’s singing now is about a woman confessing her forbidden love. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an Arabic song that wasn’t about forbidden love, or unrequited love, or love that finally kills you.

From the kitchen, I see the back of a man’s head I don’t recognize sitting on a loveseat in our family room. His hair is slightly receding in the back so that the finely combed strands are visible lines like black thread against his pale scalp.

Khalo Ziyad is sitting opposite him on the big couch. His eyes are closed as he strums the oud. Seated beside him, my mother blissfully sings with her hand resting on her brother’s shoulder. She motions me over without halting and pats the cushion for me to sit down. She winks at me and I’m impressed that none of them has missed a beat with my intrusion.

I feel like I’ve stumbled onto a secret clan, chanting something mystical. They look hypnotized by the music they’re creating that lets them shut out the rest of the world. I suppose it’s like the way I feel when I listen to Black Veil Brides; everything around me just fades into the walls and seeps into the floor and I’m just, like, floating on a raft.

The stranger has a weird-looking instrument in the shape of a trapezoid propped across his thighs and two metal cases over his fingers that he uses to pluck the strings. It’s like a harp resting in his lap.

Almost five minutes pass, which feel like ten or more as I’m waiting for them to complete the ballad. After my mother belts out the final verse, they laugh and clap. Suddenly, they remember me and the stranger pounces with excitement.

“Mashallah, mashallah! Who’s this?” the man asks me, setting his instrument on the loveseat before standing up with hand extended. “Where did this lovely lady come from?” It’s that funny way of asking like I’m five years old.

I extend my hand and he grips it tight while talking to my mother and uncle. “She’s a pretty one, mashallah! You better keep your eye on her,” he says. This is worse than the condescending tone—referring to me in the third person like I can’t hear. “She looks like just like you, Amina, thirty years ago, mish ah?”

His unkempt beard is speckled with white hairs, and he’s got deep grooves on his forehead like bike trails. His eyes are blue and I suddenly remember that he’s the one from Khalo Ziyad’s story. The rest of his face is dull except for those blue eyes glittering with tiny diamonds. He’s much shorter than Khalo and, like, only about an inch taller than me. His palm feels rough like he’s spent years scraping it against asphalt.

I try to politely pry my hand from his grip but he’s now going crazy over how much I resemble my mother, but declaring how much taller I am and definitely skinnier than her. She pretends not to hear the part about me being skinnier and keeps smiling.
He finally addresses me. “How are you, dear? I am Waleed.” It is Khalo’s best friend. I wonder if they can still see in each other’s faces—past the disfigurement and deep grooves of worry—how much of the children they used to be scaling the mountains and trekking across narrow valleys.

“Elhamdulillah,” I say and tug again to get my hand back.

“Did you know that I grew up with your uncle and mother? We were neighbors. I could see their kitchen from my bedroom.” He laughs thunderously and turns to Khalo. “I’d see your father—Allah rest his soul—drinking yogurt right from the bottle.”
This prompts another story about my grandfather, and my mother and Waleed laugh so hard there are tears in their eyes. Khalo Ziyad just smiles and nods.

“What good times! Your uncle always led our expeditions, insisted he had a sharper eye for determining the horizon.” His head flits back and forth between Khalo Ziyad and me. “Did you tell her about the wadi?”

“Yes,” Khalo Ziyad says. I’m getting used to his monosyllabic responses. I wish I could get away with it when the idiots at school ask me questions, or when teachers demand I “elaborate, please” when I’ve already answered correctly.

“Are you hungry, habibti?” my mother asks. She never fails to ask me about food—with or without company present. Once again, I feel like a little kid.

“No, thanks. I ate at Panera,” I tell her.

“I didn’t know you played, Khalo,” I say, feeling ridiculous because I’ve only just met him so how would I know anything about him, really? His life is slowly unraveling like unwrapping a present in slow motion. Some parts are dull and expected, and other things are sort of cool surprises.

“Are you joking?” Waleed interjects. “The villagers made sure he was available to play at the wedding suhra before setting a date!” Waleed says. “Do you know what this is, dear?” He picks up his instrument and pulls me down to sit beside him. “We call this a qanoon,” he tells me. “It’s very del-ee-kate.”

I nod and then he slides the instrument, which is like an oversized board game, onto my lap. It has rows of strings attached to tuning pegs on one end. It’s actually pretty cool-looking, like an artifact from ancient Egyptian times. He places one of the metal clasps on my forefinger and urges me to pluck a string.

The sound is more twangy than the oud and softer. Waleed positions my finger on a particular string and he strums away on several at a time. We produce medium to high notes like a mother grieving over the loss of her child. It becomes too intense for me and I abruptly stop.

“That’s cool,” I say awkwardly and slide the qanoon back to Waleed.
My mother demands they play a song about Jerusalem and I can understand most of the words:

I passed through the streets
The streets of Old Jerusalem
In front of the shops
That remained of Palestine

My mother’s face is glistening with perspiration and she clutches a tissue paper and waves it in the air at certain intervals of the song. Waleed taps his shoe as he plays and his metal-protected fingers look like two miniature knights riding across a field.

I watch Khalo Ziyad as he strums his banjo-looking oud, and I’m impressed how effortlessly his fingers move over the strings. His face softens into a serene expression as though the tight fibers that make him smile or frown have gradually collapsed. His eyes are closed and the pulpy flesh temporarily disappears.

Towards the end of a verse, he opens his eyes in the middle of the song and catches me staring. He grins and winks like he’s just shared a secret he trusts I’ll always keep.