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.”