Hassan poured Asmahan a brandy, himself a scotch. His man Phillipe kept them stocked. Above their heads hung their wedding photograph with the future President Mubarak. His arms pressed down on Hassan and Asmahan’s shoulders. They slumped while he stood tall.
Asmahan and Hassan raised their glasses for their nightly toast. “Fe sahetek.” Good luck.
“For Meritamen, our bride,” Asmahan added, a nudge. She had booked the Kempinski Nile Hotel and its grand ballroom, paid the manager baksheesh to ensure her future son-in-law and his parents had the best hotel suites, and convinced Meritamen and Fritz, her Swiss fiancé, to do the Blessing of the Crowns. All that was left was Hassan’s part: buying the alcohol.
“Why celebrate, habibti? Now that she’s marrying that kawagaat, she’ll never come home.” Hassan raised his glass. “To our Western daughter.” As if it wasn’t his fault. After Meritamen’s graduation from secondary school, Hassan announced, to Asmahan and Meritamen at the same time, that Meritamen would not attend American University in Cairo as planned, but would instead attend university abroad in Switzerland, one of the few countries where Asmahan and Meritamen didn’t know the language.
“She’s marrying in Egypt; she’ll stay here. If the wedding goes the right way.” Switzerland was beautiful and orderly, but it had no soul. Asmahan would take Meritamen, Fritz, and his parents to their club on the Nile; to a weekend at their vacation home on the Red Sea; and to the Giza, Saqqara, and Red pyramids. She would inundate them with Egypt’s grand history until even they would be impressed and Meritamen would realize she could live nowhere else.
“She’s marrying here to honor her mother and father. She’s letting us down easy. Our grandchildren will speak German, not Arabic. You should prepare yourself,” Hassan said.
“They will speak both, of course, and I will teach them Italian and French, too,” Asmahan said. Before their own marriage, Hassan said he supported her work as a translator. He playfully tested how many languages she could switch through for one word and nicknamed her the “language rolodex.” After marriage, he said it was an insult for a man of his level to have a wife who worked. She had to keep her time free to teach their future sons.
Asmahan tapped her diamond-encrusted Hermès watch, Hassan’s gift to her when she was pregnant with their boy. “The wedding is two weeks away. Please order the alcohol. You can’t leave it till the last minute. Not even Phillipe can get that much.”
“They’re traveling to Cairo. Let them drink what Egypt sells.” Hassan sat tall on his mother-of-pearl inlaid chair from Damascus, Asmahan’s wedding present to him. His throne, he had called it, and she had laughed, not knowing he meant it.
“You can’t be serious.” At the engagement party in Switzerland, their future in-laws poured rounds of schnapps—the liquors burned Asmahan’s throat and tasted of cherries, peaches, and pears. The drinking evolved to rich wines and heavy beers. Each part of the meal had its own round. Asmahan refused to bring out Stella, Old Stang, and Egypt’s cheap wines that left the throat dried out, as if something bad had passed through. “We’ll have Egyptian drinks for novelty, but it’s our obligation to have a full bar, like my father did,” she said. After their wedding, Asmahan swore she had been drunk for two days and didn’t sober up until she and Hassan were in Paris.
“Why don’t we come to an agreement then? I’ll buy the alcohol if you finally stop working.” Hassan said as he sipped his Scotch and watched her with his psychologist’s stare. She had the uneasy feeling she was a frog in his pot, and he was slowly turning up the heat.
“But habibi, I volunteer for the church.” Asmahan called her teaching English at the Coptic Catholic seminary “charity” and she donated her paycheck to the head abuna to make that true.
“You spend all your time there. How are you not sick of those young men?” Hassan’s face darkened.
Was he jealous? “The seminarians are men of God. Thanks to me, they are learning English and Italian. They will be able to help more people.” She glowed in the moments when the seminarians could speak, sometimes think, in another language. She had the power to open worlds. In the mornings before classes, Asmahan closed herself in the teacher’s lounge with a mini-recorder. She enunciated and defined words in Arabic, then English, Italian, Spanish, and French. She finished 530. Her goal was 1,000. If the seminarians became abunas and had a chance to travel, her words would connect them to the world but also protect them.
Hassan stroked her thigh. “They don’t need you there, habibti. You’ll make those young men burst. Leave the work to the fat old women. Our friends miss you. My mother misses you. You so rarely see her.”
Every visit with that woman somehow turned into an insult. Asmahan wasn’t fat and happy with a bevy of sons. Her hips didn’t get too wide. Her feet didn’t become too big. She retained herself, and Hassan and his mother acted like that was a betrayal.
“Are you really not going to buy the alcohol?” she asked.
He shrugged. “You know my terms.”
“But this is your only child’s wedding. You must do it, as her father. For Meritamen.”
“Once you quit your job, habibti.” Hassan gave her a leveling smile.
When Meritamen talked to Hassan on the phone, she had no problems, but with Asmahan, Meritamen told her how hard it was to learn Swiss German and about the other students making fun of her accent, her clothes, her bright eye makeup. She began dressing in dark, closed-up clothing—turtlenecks, long sleeves, pants. The blacks and browns made her rich skin pale. Meritamen graduated top of her class and began working at UBS. Asmahan encouraged her to go to clubs, have fun. “Remember Albi, you have no family there monitoring your every move. You can do as you like.” Asmahan would not have sent her daughter halfway across the world, but if Meritamen must be in Europe, she should make the most of it. What good was freedom if you didn’t use it? Meritamen told Asmahan about Fritz’s proposal, asked if she would mind her marrying a non-Egyptian, as if she would change her “yes” to a “no.” Meritamen’s voice became smaller when she asked, “Will you help me convince Baba?” Asmahan took pride in knowing first, in convincing Hassan this engagement was an honor and a blessing.
She would not let her daughter down, no matter how much Hassan turned up the heat.
If Asmahan’s son had lived, he would have handled the alcohol for her. Instead, she had her lumbering driver, Mahmud.
He took her to a black-market store a cousin’s uncle recommended. She told the head abuna she had a family matter and had to keep her paycheck, this one time.
Mahmud rolled the driver partition down. “I’ll park away from the store. We don’t want him to get ideas.” Hassan had given her the Mercedes and Mahmud’s services for their wedding. Hassan upgraded the car every eight years. Mahmud stayed consistent.
He opened her door. “A lady should not enter a place like this,” he said. “Please let me buy it for you.” But he was a proper Muslim man. She wouldn’t let him risk his name and family’s reputation.
He walked with her to keep men from harassing her then waited in the shop’s entrance, hunched in the small opening. There were black bags filled with flour. Jerrycans of petrol. Children’s scooters. New York Yankees’ baseball hats. X-rated magazines where women’s breasts hid behind paper bags. All dirty and dusty.
“Allah shines down to bring such a fine lady to my store,” the owner said in his dingy galabeya said. He bent his head over her hand in an exaggerated bow.
“I would like to buy alcohol for my daughter’s wedding,” Asmahan said.
“Why isn’t your husband here?”
“He’s in the Gulf. For work. I cannot wait. The wedding is approaching quickly.”
He spied her Hermès watch. She should have left it in the car. “Lovely piece. You didn’t get that here,” he said. He cornered Asmahan in the cramped space by the cigars, cigarettes, and a bottle of Amaretto. He saw her for what she was: upper class, Christian.
Asmahan handed him her list and stood tall. She would not let him intimidate her.
He scanned it. “Each bottle will cost 300 pounds. The diamond-level drinks,” he pointed at the Patróntequila and Armand de Brignac champagne, “will be 5,000 pounds each.”
“That’s quite a mark-up.”
“Only the finest for a woman like you.” He motioned to the backroom. “Please stay and drink tea with me. It would be my honor to have you as a friend. We could sample my product.”
Mahmud barreled over. “My lady, it’s time for your appointment.”
Embarrassed, she bought what she could with her cash: two bottles. The man put her alcohol in a black plastic trash bag. She led the way out. Mahmud followed. At the car she said, “I don’t need you to save me. I am not your child.”
Mahmud lowered his head. “Forgive me, but he thought you were a different type of woman.”
Asmahan set the bag next to her on the car’s backseat. Mahmud glanced at it and tsked. “You cannot trust a man like that. The prophet said: He who cheats is not of us. Deceitfulness and fraud are things that lead one to Hell.”
At home, she stared at the bottle of Scotch. The liquid looked light and murky, not caramelized and clear. Then she dared taste it—dirty socks and soap. She spent the next few minutes brushing her teeth. Hassan spotted the bottle and laughed. “Black-market special not good enough for my Sitt? Ready to make the deal?”
Asmahan wiped her mouth. “No thank you, habibi.” Hassan wasn’t smarter or better than she was. She knew five languages. He knew two. Her father had more money than his, and had installed Hassan at his important job with the military. Hassan should not dismiss her so easily.
Asmahan spent the next three days trying to figure out a solution and then realized the answer was, as usual, at St. Leo the Great Coptic Catholic Seminary. The teachers for the English summer program had arrived. The Americans, Susan and Patty, were her newest fellow instructors. As women, they should be helpful. Asmahan wouldn’t disrespect the seminarian from Atlanta by asking him to buy her alcohol, even though she knew American clergy drank. Egyptian clergy did too; they just hid it.
After the orientation in the concrete teachers’ lounge, Asmahan leaned forward and said, “I know we’ve just met, but I wonder if I may ask a favor.” She tightened her cardigan and asked if they would be so kind as to buy liquor at the duty-free shop for her daughter’s wedding.
“How about in a couple of days?” Patty asked. “When we’re not jetlagged.” Gray speckled Patty’s hair, cut too short to be stylish. She was probably mid-forties like Asmahan, but if one strand of Asmahan’s hair turned gray or white, she returned it to jet-black.
Asmahan folded her hands. “I wish we could, but you only have forty-eight hours after arrival to shop at the duty-free store.” The closest shop was five kilometers away. Foreigners could buy three liters. It wouldn’t be enough for the whole wedding, but plenty for Asmahan’s future in-laws and daughter. She could supplement with Drinkies’ limited beer and wine selection.
“Is alcohol illegal here?” Susan asked. She was young and blonde with bright blue eyes, a beacon for Cairene men.
“It isn’t haram, but it is difficult to acquire a liquor license and the selection is very limited. I would be indebted to you. I will pay, of course,” Asmahan said.
Susan smiled. “We’d be happy to help.”
“To thank you and welcome you to Egypt, I invite you to my club tonight. It’s on the Nile. My driver and I will pick you up in three hours. You will have time to refresh. It will be a good chance to get away from these humble surroundings,” Asmahan nodded at the white cement of the seminary, “and see a bit of the real Egypt.” She would show the Americans that she needed their assistance, not their money.
At the seminary’s gates, Asmahan waited in her Mercedes while Mahmud greeted the Americans. She imagined her seminarians—moving in groups to eat, study, play football. Their easy laughter and banter. She loved their bright boyish energy. They were like children role-playing their way into being men of God. After her daughter left for Switzerland, Asmahan tired of lunches and teas with friends, and their endless chatter about children’s accomplishments and weddings. Instead, she had Mahmud drive her to the seminary’s church. After Mass, children played football on the dusty field with the seminarians. They sang songs, told jokes. She pretended they were her grandchildren, part of her bountiful family. She started teaching them English and French words. Before long, the seminarians began asking her how to define and pronounce English words. They dubbed her umm, “mother,” and she called them ibn, “son,” to show their great affection. The head abuna said, “You should teach here, Miss Habib.” He used her last name since she didn’t have a son to be named by.
Susan poked her head inside the Mercedes and said, “Wow.”
Patty whistled and touched the leather seats. “Fancy. I would be scared to own something so nice.”
Patty and Susan questioned Mahmud about sightseeing in Cairo. He gave a quick reply and then put the partition up.
“How long has he been your driver?” Patty asked.
Asmahan calculated. “Twenty-seven years.”
“That’s longer than most marriages. You must be very close, then,” Patty said.
“He deals with traffic, not with me.”
Mahmud was married, had five children—three boys and two girls. He was a grandfather, seven times over. His family had lived in Cairo for at least 500 years. While Arab and dark-skinned, he had an Egyptian’s almond-shaped eyes. He had driven Asmahan to the hospital when she went into labor for the first time and had waited eight hours until she gave birth to a stillborn boy. Her baby’s mouth was open as if crying—her noble Egyptian god—his eyes with long lashes that never opened. She cradled her baby’s body in the backseat with Hassan while Mahmud drove. Mahmud arrived at the funeral with two dozen lotus flowers, worth a week’s pay.
A year later, when she was pregnant with her daughter and went into early labor, her husband was in Alexandria for a conference. In Cairo’s intense traffic, Mahmud drove like the furies were pushing him, allahs peppered his animated speech; how thankful Asmahan was Mahmud invoked God when she couldn’t do it anymore. After Meritamen’s birth, he kissed his lips and spread his fingers, saying, “Praise Allah for all that is given and all that is withheld.” He drove Meritamen to ballet, piano, and fencing lessons, even to the airport the day she left for Switzerland, just seventeen- years- old. He briefly touched her shoulder and said, Jazaka Allahu khairan. “May Allah reward you with all good.”
At the Nile Club, Asmahan and the Americans sat outside on the patio, next to the river. Asmahan loved the Nile’s contradictions: beautiful and dangerous, life-sustaining and toxic. It flowed from south to north. Hippos and alligators had flourished there. For centuries Egypt had abundant harvests or droughts, all dependent on the Nile to give or take away. As a child, Asmahan played in the river and drank from it, but her daughter never did. The Aswan Dam controlled the water now. Illegal construction and sewage contaminated it. Fish and hippos disappeared. What had defined them was withering away, leaving behind brackish muck.
“Can we sit inside?” Patty asked. “I feel like the Wicked Witch. I’m melting!” Sweat coated her forehead.
Asmahan pointed to the balcony’s ceiling. “The fans are enough. It’s pleasant. This is where you can best see Cairo.” The heat soothed Asmahan and kept her belly trim. Overenthusiastic air conditioners chilled her.
“But I’m so hot.” Pink splotches dotted Patty’s pasty skin.
Asmahan glanced at Susan. She glistened with sweat, but looked comfortable. “Please be patient. The heat is easing,” Asmahan said. She pointed to people congregating on the Nile’s corniche. “This is when everyone comes out and enjoys the cool air.”
During Asmahan and Hassan’s engagement, her father had lingered behind their corniche walks with enough distance so they could discover each other through words but not hands.
Lanterns lit the feluccas on the Nile. “It’s so magical,” Susan said. “I feel like I’m in a fairy tale.” She leaned over the metal railing, reaching for the water.
“Careful, dear,” Asmahan said, not wanting to lose Susan before she bought her bottles.
Patty stared at the water. “The small boats look romantic. Like the gondolas in Venice.”
“Feluccas are older and better,” Asmahan said.
“Where do you get on? I’d like to ride one,” Patty said.
“I will show you later, but only go with an Egyptian and set the price beforehand. Pay on the boat so no one on shore can see and demand baksheesh.”
Asmahan ordered their best wine and small plates—grape leaves, hummus, lamb kofta, falafel, olives—so the Americans could taste everything. She had asked the manager about buying alcohol for her daughter’s wedding, but he had smiled too much and asked if her husband was away for work. He called Hassan “the good doctor,” like a joke, because he was a doctor of the mind, not the body.
“I didn’t realize how Mediterranean Cairo is. I thought it was more Middle Eastern,” Susan said, inspecting her grape leaf.
“Why did you decide to come?” Asmahan asked.
“My friend’s mother had a heart attack. She needed someone to fill in. I’ve always wanted to see the pyramids,” Susan said, as if it were a lark to teach in another country.
Patty pointed at the nearby lamppost with a Hosni Mubarak poster. “I would hate seeing Bush’s face plastered everywhere. And that picture is so out-of-date. Those lapels are 70s.”
Asmahan clutched her cardigan. “He keeps us safe.”
“Christians, you mean?” Patty arched her eyebrows.
“I know Westerners like to be open-minded, but things are different here. Misunderstandings can lead to tragedies. It’s not safe for Muslims and Christians to interact, at least not anymore.” When a seminarian tried to help a Muslim woman after her car broke down, an older man accused him of trying to steal a Muslim girl and hurled insults at him. Last summer, one of the female American teachers had worn wore a niqab and abaya to sightsee around Cairo without harassment but then kept it on as she walked inside the seminary gates. The security guard reminded the head abuna that converting Muslims was illegal, he would hate to see the seminary torched. At times the whole country felt poised to combust.
“That’s why Susan and I are going to visit Islamic Cairo. Get to understand the culture,” Patty said. “We have scarves. We’ll be respectful.”
“The head abuna will not like that. You should content yourself with Old Cairo. Even Muslims visit the churches there because it is so ancient and holy.”
“Oh we’ll go there too. Don’t worry,” Patty said.
Asmahan pushed the hummus closer to Patty. “You’re still jet-lagged and tired, my friend. Eat.”
In the distance, cruise ships went up and down the Nile while Egyptians sold trinkets from the riverbanks—exchanging T-shirts, pyramid beach towels, sandals, and money. Their dependence on tourists embarrassed Asmahan. Egyptians had created civilization, written language, and mathematics. They created two of the Seven Wonders of the World. How does it all crumble away?
A waiter scraped the bits of food from the table. Susan gave an apologetic smile. “It’s strange having so many people serve me. When I arrived at the seminary, two men appeared from nowhere and carried my luggage.”
“Egyptian men know how to treat women,” Asmahan said.
“We’re used to being self-reliant,” Patty said.
“I’m sure your husbands would be happy you’re being taken care of. What are they doing during your absence?” Asmahan asked.
Patty shrugged. “I’m not married.” Then she laughed and said, “The seminarians are calling me ‘the consecrated virgin.’ I didn’t want to correct them.”
Asmahan sat up straighter. “Of course. They’re from Upper Egypt. They cannot fathom an independent woman.” She turned to Susan. “When will your husband visit?”
Susan looked at her wine. “He isn’t coming.”
“But it’s not good for the seminarians to see you without your husband. They’ll get ideas. You’re so young, and pretty,” Asmahan said.
Susan shook her head. “We need some time apart.”
“Do you have children?”
“Having a child isn’t easy for me.” Susan had tired eyes.
“Children take over your life, but they are a blessing. Insha’allah, you will have one and see for yourself. Please do not give up.” Asmahan patted Susan’s hand.
“Marriage doesn’t have to mean children. Plenty of happy couples don’t have children,” Patty said. Susan gave her a grateful smile.
Asmahan tapped the table. “But who will take care of you when you’re old? You Americans don’t think about the future. Everyone is equal and everything is present tense.”
“How many children do you have?” Patty asked.
Asmahan gave a tight smile. “One. My daughter. She’s an investment banker. Very bright and successful. She lives in Switzerland. That’s why her wedding is so important.” Asmahan was not greedy. One living child was enough.
The minarets’ loudspeakers began blaring. “Forgive the nuisance,” Asmahan said and waved her hand.
“I think the call to prayer is beautiful,” Patty said.
“That’s not the call to prayer. That’s the warning call that the call to prayer is coming.”
“It sounds mournful,” Susan said.
“It’s oppressive. It used to be the simple call five times a day from a man in the minaret. Now it’s recorded, and they rattle on and on. Before it was pious, now it’s to show off.”
Susan nodded toward a Muslim couple two tables away, the woman ensconced in the full niqab and abaya. “I feel bad drinking. I don’t want to insult them.”
“She insults herself. She’s eating like a scared rabbit at an elegant restaurant.” Asmahan mimed sneaking food under a veil.
Susan looked down at her food.
“It’s probably freeing,” Patty said, loudly. “She doesn’t have to worry about what everyone thinks of her.”
“True freedom is wearing and doing whatever you want,” Asmahan said. “They act like they’re so pure, but they wear sexy dresses under their abayas. Haven’t you seen the dresses in shop windows?” Asmahan pointed to her black and red flowered dress that skimmed her knees. “But I wear this, and I’m harassed.”
“We try to be respectful. It might help if you dress differently,” Patty said. Patty’s sleeves and skirt were long.
“And what do you wear in your country? If a man harassed you in America for dressing like this you would be outraged. They call me tart. Whore. Lioness. They tell me how many camels my body is worth.”
“Isn’t the women’s car on the train better?” Susan asked.
“I don’t ride the train. I have a driver.” Asmahan folded her linen napkin. “I am a Copt. That translates to ‘Egyptian.’ We are the purest bloodline. You can tell by my round eyes. My people have always lived here.”
Patty smiled. “But doesn’t your daughter live in Switzerland? Isn’t that why we’re buying the alcohol?”
“Well yes, unfortunately, young women don’t have the opportunities that they used to in Egypt.”
“Young people,” Patty said. “There are a lot of young men who can’t find jobs. Muslims and Copts.”
“Sadly that’s true.”
Patty spoke faster. “Mubarak pits you against each other. You’re all Egyptians. You have the same God. You’re brothers and sisters.”
“We are brothers and sisters who kill each other,” Asmahan said.
“The revolution against the British worked because all Egyptians banded together. That’s what you have to do now,” Patty said.
“Our religion is listed on our identity cards. Many seminarians cannot find jobs because of their faith. Most are from villages in Upper Egypt. They are poor. Not all of them become priests because they are called by God. People joke that abunas have a big belly and a safe life.” Asmahan fixed Patty with her best please-shut-up stare.
“Often those outside of a situation can see it more clearly,” Patty said.
Why did older Western women take age as an invitation to finally speak up and fit in all the words they hadn’t said for years? Their bottled up opinions exploded everywhere.
Susan rubbed her temples.
“Are you all right, dear?” Asmahan asked.
“Just jet leg. It’s worse than I expected.” Susan gave an apologetic smile. “You clearly love your country. I just arrived, and I can tell Egypt is amazing. And yet you don’t have your daughter here. It must be difficult having her live so far away.”
Asmahan composed herself. “Where are my manners? You are my guests. New friends. This is a pleasant evening.” She ordered more food, more wine.
By the end of the night, Patty ran out of words, and Susan’s cheeks were pink from too much wine. She grabbed Asmahan’s arm and said, “I would love to have you visit me in the U.S., but we don’t have drivers or clubs. Just my husband and I, sharing a beat-up Toyota Corolla.”
Asmahan squeezed Susan’s hand. “That sounds perfect, dear.”
Unlike the large, brightly lit airport duty-free shops, the one in Ma’adi was smaller, darker, but clean. Rows of lipsticks, makeup, and perfumes gleamed in golden bottles. Plastic designed to look like glass, fake elegance. Asmahan stepped across the entrance, leaving Cairo behind and entering international, unoccupied space. She turned to look back for Mahmud. He hunkered in the entrance and gave a slight nod. She hated that it comforted her.
Susan looked around the store. “This place is great.”
Beckoned by the Bombay Sapphire’s Mediterranean blue, Asmahan walked to the liquor section. She touched the elegant gins, the Brookers with the distinguished men in sharp business suits. She caressed the Belle de Brillet, flavored cognac in the shape of a pear, rounded like a woman’s body. The different liquors sounded like poetry: grappa, schnapps, brandy. The flavors and colors were better than what was found in nature. Strawberry Cream. Tropical Pineapple. Watermelon Pucker. The margarita bottles looked like they’d drunk the sun. So much brighter and better than Drinkies’ cramped offerings.
Patty said, “We should buy some wine. We could drink it after dinner on the roof.”
Susan gave an enthusiastic yes, but Asmahan said, “Please just go to Drinkies. Their wine will suffice. We will have 300 guests.”
“Six bottles won’t be enough anyway,” Patty said as she compared wines.
“It’s better than five. Mahmud will take you to Drinkies after. You’ll want to know where it is anyway.”
Asmahan picked two Bombay Sapphires with the elegant queen, one grappa, one golden SLYRS Bavarian single malt whiskey, and two emerald-green Berentzen Doornkaat schnapps. Asmahan gave Susan three bottles and handed her the correct amount of money, with a little extra, just in case.
Susan walked to the register with the bottles, but Patty explored. “Susan, they have sunblock here! SPF 50!” Patty held up two lip glosses, different shades of red. “Which one do you like best?” she asked. Asmahan pointed to the darker one, although both colors would make Patty’s lips look too thin.
Asmahan set the Bombay Sapphires and whiskey by Patty’s feet. “Please just go to the cashier,” she said.
Patty glanced at Asmahan. “In just a minute.”
Susan paid and asked the cashier how far away the National Museum was. Asmahan looked for Patty, nowhere in view, probably deep in another aisle, still shopping. Asmahan grabbed Susan’s bag and walked away from Susan and her numerous questions about directions and sight-seeing. Patty would just have to follow.
Asmahan turned to exit when a security guard cornered her. He was a boy, really. Younger than her son would have been. The guard had hopeful stubble on his face and a semiautomatic slung across his chest.
He looked inside the bag at the bottles. “This is too much for such a little woman.”
“This is for a private party.” He was probably some low-level from Upper Egypt, not educated beyond primary, but his uncle knew someone so he got to act like a big man.
“Would you like to be my friend?” he asked.
Asmahan stood straighter. “Please, I’m a mother. I have three sons.”
He smiled, showing large dimples. “Why would they leave their mother unprotected, shopping alone?”
“They’re in Europe.”
“Good boys don’t leave their mothers.”
“How do you know what good sons do?”
The other guard smiled, nudged his chin at the guard blocking her way.
Asmahan looked back for Susan and Patty. The corner hid them. “My friends will be here any moment.”
“Westerners take their time.” The guard seized the bag. The bottles clanked.
“Those aren’t yours,” Asmahan said.
“This store isn’t for Egyptians, not even fancy ones who associate with kawagaat,” he said.
Asmahan reached for the bag. He shoved her against the wall. The bottles pressed into her ribs. He pushed his hand against her mouth as she started to scream.
He licked her ear and spoke into her neck. “I want to taste the alcohol sliding down your breasts.” Goosebumps rose on her arms. “I know you like that,” he said. She pushed back, but his semiautomatic pressed into her stomach.
“Oh habibti, don’t push me away,” he said.
How could someone so young and puny take up so much space?
Asmahan heard Susan say, “You can’t treat customers like this.”
He stepped back, tearing the bag. Asmahan gripped the bottles. The guard turned to Susan. “Are you enjoying your visit?” He grabbed her navy blue passport with the gold eagle from her hand. “Welcome to Egypt,” he said.
“I have a copy,” Susan said, glancing at his semiautomatic. “Patty!” she yelled.
Patty walked around the corner, still holding the glosses, her lips two different shades of red. “What’s going on?”
“Are you looking for an Egyptian husband?” He stroked Patty’s waist with Susan’s passport.
“Give her back her ID,” Patty said, but her voice was small. Her too-red lips looked cartoonish.
Mahmud thundered in. Asmahan’s normally slouched driver stood upright like a full-sized bear. He pushed the guard against the wall.
“Shame on you, you donkey’s ass,” Mahmoud spoke loudly and wagged his finger. “Disrespecting a lady and our guests. May God destroy your house and the house of those who gave birth to you. Your mind is as low and dirty as a shoe.”
Mahmud grabbed Susan’s passport and the bottles. He led Asmahan outside. Patty and Susan followed.
The sunlight stunned Asmahan. Mahmud set the bottles in the trunk and then helped Asmahan into the car. His skin was leathery with small pits, his eyes gray and kind.
Susan sat next to Asmahan in the back of the car, too close. She patted Asmahan’s knee. “Are you okay?” she asked.
Patty held up the lip glosses. “I didn’t pay for these. I’ll be right back.”
Mahmud kept the driver partition down and blasted air conditioning. Asmahan wrapped her arms around herself, trying to generate some heat. Susan asked him about visiting the pyramids, his favorite place for a camel ride. Asmahan looked out the window at the dusty, dirty street. Unlike Cairo’s steep sidewalks, Switzerland’s were low. Pedestrians didn’t fear drivers hitting them. In Switzerland, Asmahan’s lungs eased. Everything was so clean and orderly it made her nervous. Her daughter was probably walking to a café, maybe a theater. Meritamen blended in with the crowds in her dark clothing and minimal but attractive makeup. No one knew that her ancestors had temples built to honor them. They might not even know she was an immigrant, with her polished Swiss-German accent. Nothing about Meritamen was out of step, as if she followed instructions from a magazine.
Twenty minutes later, Patty returned with Bombay Sapphires and whiskey, but also sunblock, lip gloss, postcards, and movies. She held up a DVD with the cover of a horse running, dirt rising into the air. “The seminarians will love this,” she said.
Asmahan looked at Patty’s full bag. “Why did you still shop?”
Patty touched Asmahan’s shoulder. “I filled out a complaint with the cashier. The guard won’t be able to treat another woman like that again.”
These Americans with their silly ideas. He was a man. He could pretend she had provoked him, and he would never be fired.
Patty and Susan talked over and over as if it had happened to them. They praised Mahmud and his bravery. “You were amazing,” Patty said. “You walked in there and he crumpled, and he had the rifle!”
Mahmud’s hulking shoulders were straightened in the driver’s seat. He appeared as big as a mountain. The car could barely contain him. He told the Americans about pyramids and famous mosques and prophets’ tombs. Gave them his mobile number. He could lead them through Islamic Cairo, too. He could give them the true Egyptian experience. He turned on the radio. Tapped the steering wheel. He hummed along to one of Umm Kalthoum’s songs about unrequited love, that deep longing and nostalgia, hoping and waiting for something that would never come.
After Mahmud dropped off the Americans, he kept the driver partition down but turned off the air conditioning. He told Asmahan, “The Prophet Mohammed had great respect for women. He said: May Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him: Your Heaven lies under the feet of your mother. Mothers are revered and sacred. That man is a donkey.”
Asmahan almost gave a nod and turned away. She followed her father’s dictates: Keep the boundaries. Don’t give anyone anything to use against you. Those lower than you will try to take you down if you don’t take care of them. Unlike her friends, she didn’t turn servants into confidants. If she had turned away, everything would have been fine, but instead she said, “I was terrified.”
Mahmud’s kind eyes met hers in the rearview mirror.
She almost said I have never been more scared in my life, but that wasn’t true; that was the day her daughter was born. Asmahan stared at that small chest rising and falling, afraid any moment it would stop.
“Insha’allah,” Asmahan said to Mahmud, “my daughter will never be disgraced like that.”
“The Swiss are too cold to harass each other. They have to paw each other with gloves,” Mahmud said. He paused, and then they laughed until Asmahan started crying. Once the tears began they continued until he took her home. She normally said goodbye at the curb.
Mahmud had not been inside their home since Asmahan and Hassan had returned with their dead baby boy. Mahmud had brought special herbs and prayers to help her have healthy children. In the living room, he led her husband in interfaith prayers to be strong enough to protect her and lead a bountiful family. While the men shared tea, Asmahan set her dead son in the crib he would have slept in. She held his cold tiny hand and named him. He couldn’t be sent to the next life without one. Bubu. “Gives Light. Glorious.” That night her husband said about Mahmud, “He is a man of faith and principle.”
While she rested, Mahmud and her housemaid talked in low voices. They said ya fendim “ma’am” this and ya fendim “ma’am” that. The housemaid served him dinner.
Before leaving, in front of the housemaid, Mahmud kissed the top of Asmahan’s head. A benediction. He pitied her. Maybe a low-level man had more worth than a wealthy woman. Maybe that’s what her husband and Mahmud had been trying to tell her all along. After all, even the American women had faltered in front of the men and their guns.
Her husband was present, of course. She wasn’t supposed to be alone in a room with a man. With a dismissal, it was even more important to follow the rules.
Before Mahmud arrived, Hassan looked at Asmahan and said, “Are you sure? He’s so loyal to you.”
“He’s loyal to our family.”
“How are we going to find another driver who is so good? He watches out for you. More than we both want to admit.”
“I don’t need a driver for much longer. Insha’allah, once Meritamen has children, I’ll move to Switzerland and help.” Better to pick a real daughter than pretend sons. Asmahan imagined herself bundled beneath layers of warm clothes in muted colors, blending in with the snow and mountains, and perfectly maintained streets and stores.
“You’re going to move? Miss Queen of the Pharaohs? Egypt is in your blood.”
“It’s in Meritamen’s too, but she manages it.”
“Are you leaving me,habibti?” Hassan looked small and wounded.
Asmahan kissed his cheek. “Be happy. You won. I’ll quit my job, and you will visit.”
The housemaid sent Mahmud upstairs. Her husband told Mahmud to take a seat, but he stood. He had seen her at her weakest two times. The first was grief, but the second was humiliation.
Asmahan stood as tall as she could but still felt dwarfed. “Dear Mahmud, you have been a loyal employee to our family for longer than I can remember. You have done me many kind services, but we cannot keep you any longer. It is time you find a more deserving family. We will help you, of course.”
Mahmud held her gaze. Their large penthouse felt airless.
Asmahan said, “I’m sorry, Sadiqi.” ‘My friend.’ A word her father and husband would have never approved. Hassan’s shoulders tensed. She kissed each of Mahmud’s cheeks. He smelled of mint and honey. When Hassan had first hired Mahmud, he already seemed old, like one of those men who spent his free time around mosques hunched over in prayer with modest wants. But time stayed for him, while it increased for Hassan and Asmahan.
“Thank you for your devoted service. May Allah watch over your kind soul. This is from us.” She handed Mahmud an envelope thick with Hassan’s money.
“May Allah give each of you what you deserve,” Mahmud said and bowed. She couldn’t tell if it was a blessing or a curse.
Paula Younger’s writing has appeared in many literary journals, including Harper Collins’ 52 Stories, The Rattling Wall, The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, Gay Mag, The Southeast Review, The Manifest Station, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Georgetown Review. She earned her MFA from the University of Virginia and received the Henry Hoyns and Bronx Writers Center fellowships. She teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop where she received the Beacon Award for teaching excellence. Her Egyptian stories are inspired by her time teaching English to Coptic Catholic seminarians in Cairo before the revolution in 2011.
Award-winning photographer Natalie Christensen focuses on ordinary settings, seeking the sublime. She deconstructs to color fields, geometry and shadow. Christensen has exhibited in U.S. and international venues. She was a UAE Embassy culture tour delegate, an Artist-in-Residence at Chateau d’Orquevaux, France, and Setanta Books, London, published 007 – Natalie Christensen. She has work in permanent collections and her photography has been featured in many noted fine art publications.