You win: okay? One year of silence is enough. Write.
Sorry — ‘asfa khalis, very sorry even, if I offended; but the truth is all our endless soul-searching conversations, our hesitations and repetitions, whatever you want to call them, went around in circles. It wore thin. Apart from the fact that this broken estouwana, this record of yours, and mine too, I suppose, by implication, since you are, after all, married, was seriously starting to bore me. I never thought that would ever happen. You were always so alive and fresh when I longed for you as a girl. Yes; I was a little girl once. And you were such a handsome boy de bonne famille. Look at us today! So good luck in… I don’t know anymore… wherever you finally end up.
You never mention where you are, as if you are some fugitive. And I hope you’re going or have gone already without that albatross wife of yours. Some place along the Riviera, no doubt, maybe. If you can afford it, at this point. I guess it doesn’t much matter to you where, ultimately, since you always stay in place no matter where you go. You won’t find Alex anywhere else, though, no matter how hard you look. You said it yourself: in Europe, the sun rises on the wrong side of the sea. It sounded so charmingly pretentious when you said it, when we met in Nice that time, but I wanted you anyway.
I enjoy alcohol much more now that I’ve stopped smoking. I probably should cut back on that, too. You’ve said it make me aggressive. It just makes forget how fat and ugly and middle-aged the men are who I let fuck me. Unless I pay for it on one of those shameful mini vacation trips. When are you going to write back?
I never thought I would hear from you again. Are you in New York?
It must be a time for men in their eighties to die. If your father was suffering, I am glad he’s gone; it is for the best. I know this sounds harsh. Lots of people think of me that way nowadays. I speak my mind, but I never lie, and I don’t use truth as a weapon. You seem upset, although I thought you hadn’t spoken to him in years. Did you make your peace with him in the end? Regardless of whether you did or not, the true impact will hit you in about three months, it happens to all of us. Don’t ask me how I know this. That’s when I really started crying, 20 years ago. I’m crying now, thinking about it. Not really, ya habibi. One gets over anything. Some day you will learn this.
Okay, again about your father? Well, all I can say is, Allah yerhamou, God have mercy on him. I am so glad you made up with him in the end, which I hope you really did, that this too is not one of your half true stories, and I for one believe 100% in voices from the grave or from the Universe beyond, there are too many hints and signs to ignore them. People laugh at me for believing these things, especially since I appear to be such a technocrat, with enough income at my disposal that I do not have to give in to primitive superstitions.
Isma’, listen, my father died in July 1987, it was so weird to realize this year that it was already 20 years ago. I was so sorry he missed the fall of the Berlin Wall, since he was one of those left wing, privileged, sons of rich landed gentry, a naive idealist when Nasser came to power. He was 80 when he died. I know, past 30 when I was born, but younger than I am today. Every year for this birthday and also for his death-day I hire someone — unless of course I can be there myself — to throw flowers anywhere along the Mediterranean, especially, if I can find someone to do it, where his ashes were scattered.
I’m glad you’ve gotten over your father’s passing. The important thing is to always remember the departed. They live on with those who knew them. I guess that’s the gist of the Egyptian saying, el ba’iya fi hayatak, may the rest of their lives be added to your life. Don’t worry that none of your relatives bothered to call you when your papa died. You did leave Egypt in the 60s after all. What the hell did you expect? That is one of the things that has surprised me about you. Don’t expect so much from other people. They have their own lives to worry about. Your family left. Period. Un point, c’est tout. No one forced your father to leave. He could have been Minister of Industry under Nasser or Sadat. You could have had friends at the AUC and a good life and been successful in whatever you did. It was all in the palm of your hand. It was so good to live in Egypt in the 70s and 80s. You would have still had your father’s cabina on Aïda Beach in Montazah Palace to summer in. But you left, or your father did, always your father, and you never returned on your own. You could have. But you didn’t. Why can’t you live with that?
I like what you wrote back. “The realization came to me that I had simply settled for a showy and empty and uninteresting life and lost my way because I was always in avoidance or too scared to face myself.” This is the most self-honest thing you’ve written to me, although it makes you sound like you’re in some closet. After that time in Frankfurt in ’99, I know better. Even if you actually turned me down in the end. Was it the framed picture of myself that I keep in the spare bedroom that caused it? If you really want to know the truth, your father was a sadistic monster, as was his father before him. You probably don’t remember telling me about your grandfather after I gave you that boring book from my grandpère’s library. Merde you were so dashing that weekend. I was completely entranced by you, again, after all those years.
But when one night you told me — wait, was it in Frankfurt or, later, Antibes? — those horrible stories of your grandfather tying up your own father on the banisters at the family villa in Fayoum and beating him with a whip because he did not come in first on the national exam? What kind of hideousness was that? Or when that baladi scum who had no business ever being in the Bab el Louk Lyçée in the first place stole from you the Rolex your parents had given you on your 13th birthday and your father beat you almost senseless in the dining room of the Cairo apartment? You really want to go back there? For what? I apologize for being so harsh. But not one word of this should be shocking to you. Or don’t your remember any more?
Wow, I hope everything you just emailed me is true, i.e. will happen, and that it is not simply wishful thinking, yet another thwarted dream plan. That place I mentioned is ideal. It’s not the same as living in a chalet in Montazah, but it has a view of the Mediterranean. Plus it’s a real break, not like those half-hearted attempts to get away that you’ve tried in the past, those temporary, nostalgic escapes from the mill that was always around your neck. It’s clear to everyone who knows you that you cannot breathe where you are with that woman — and I’m not just saying that for selfish motives. You and I could never be a couple; I’m not willing to compromise my life for any man, if you want to know the plain truth of it. And let me tell you something, because you have to know this. Appolonia didn’t remember you or recognize you from the days when you went steady that summer in Aïda Beach. She told me that she had completely forgotten about you, and was in fact mildly surprised to run into you after all this time. You really should have told me your father was so sick when you came to Cairo. I can understand a bit better now your behavior.
Of course everything is waiting for you at La Bocca. It’s all squared away with the people who own the place. No-one is renting it at the moment, and since I’ve sent many good referrals their way over the years, you can stay there for free for a short time, while it’s empty. They only use it August, you know, so you will have some leeway to find your own place. The way I see it, now with your father dead almost a year, and your mother returning to England, you have run out of excuses… you had no children with that woman, nothing else to keep you, since you still have no job, or stopped working, or retired so ridiculously early, or whatever it is you want to call what you did at age 49. If you get the hell out of there for good, you have a chance at finally being happy in your own skin for once, and end this prolonged, almost masochistic American experiment. That’s all it ever was. So, mon grand, don’t forget to call as soon as you arrive! You can thank me later for that magnificent view from balcony of the Estérel mountains in the distance. By the time you arrive, the lavender should be in full bloom.
(A year earlier)
I’m going to scream. Why don’t you choose a place once and for all, make the decision and for God’s sake stick to it. The Mediterranean you know by heart. You can live anywhere there with your EU passport. It is one thing to always have a contingency plan in case that evil bitch calls the police again, but constantly changing plans is utterly destructive à tous les niveaux. I simply cannot believe you spent a night in jail. I don’t care if you were drinking or not. Irhal, now. You must immediately decide on a place and never relent. Ask the Djins for signs, and they’ll tell you whether it is a good decision. But stop dispersing into thousands of directions all the time. Find somewhere where you believe you will be able to live like a normal human being. If you must, before terminating once and for all this nightmare marriage of yours, secure your papers and books and anything else you cannot do without, then by all means stay in a nearby hotel for a few days, and leave after you have collected and put everything safely away in storage where she can’t get to them. This is not going to be easy, and it could be dangerous. She might call the police again. So have a friend with you at all times. I can’t even believe I am writing such things. Chid helak, and Allah ma’ak.
I have nothing to say to you. It’s as if you have cement blocks instead of shoes, even after all that bahdala. What is wrong with you? Pauvre con. Pauvre, pauvre petit con. This is not the person I knew in Frankfurt. What’s happened to you?
Wonderful news, isn’t it?!! I am so excited about this Cairo reunion for Violetta’s 60th birthday party or whatever. You know Violetta, no? Very political, and very well read; you’ll enjoy meeting her, if you haven’t already. An Italian intellectual who lived in Egypt for years. Just remember to bring comme if faut flowers from the corner shop in front of Simmonds before going to see her for the first time. Lots of people from the old days will be there. I don’t quite know if you’re going to enjoy seeing them again, and in fact I’m a little apprehensive. I know how ill at ease you cam be in large groups. No matter. Just take the plunge and do it. It’s not like you’ll be moving back to Egypt. This gives you finally a legitimate excuse to escape from the clutches of that woman. Stay as long as possible. Three weeks is most definitely not enough after being away for so long. Stay as long as you want, even after I leave. I give you full permission! So how did the unmentionable one taking the news? Dis-moi tout.
I’m almost in shock that you made all the necessary travel reservations, ya Habibi, including booking our rooms at the hotel. I arrive at Cairo International on Friday 27 at 18:30, should be at the Longchamps by 20:00 at the latest, and don’t forget to leave me a message at the front desk. And don’t forget, above all, to buy two bottles of whisky at the airport. It has to be Johnny Walker Black. That’s all Egyptians drink. I promised to give Violetta four bottles. I will reimburse you the cost for your two, and I don’t want to hear you say no. We have to join the Italians that evening; they want to go to some bar in Zamalek, maybe Pub 28 or some place close by like that. You can see some of your old friends, there, maybe. Then of course the next night it’ll be time for the Big Nile Boat Party. Wooohoooo!!!! Then, 15 days later, on Saturday 11 Feb, I have my flight back at 16:30. Let’s discuss when we meet our plans for after this fantastic reunion. Forget your family, all those mummified uncles and aunts who have not spoken to you in years. Sorry for being so blunt, but I hope to have more interesting people to meet in Cairo. If not, we hit the road!
One thing I have to ask you: I hope it is well understood that we are not going there to criticize their way of life. We can save any of that for when we’re alone. One thing that always amazed me, for instance, is how such a large number of people can survive splendidly without working, but that’s something you’ve done too. So things won’t happen exactly the way you and I want them to, while there, but only according to what they propose, what they offer. Neither of us would ever be able to live there again, at least I know I couldn’t; I’ve become too European. But I would never ever make anyone feel that. Whatever they are, whatever they’ve become, they are always generous, sometimes to a fault, and rarely forget. Maybe we can rent a taxi and go to Alex after the party.
Where are you? Where did you go! I presume you have gone to hide in your old bedroom at your father’s old apartment to sleep this one off… no one responded after I banged on the door of your hotel room at dawn after it was all over… where on earth are you… I am completely mortified as I type this… my God… the scene you caused. I told you not to criticize how any of these people lived. Yes in some ways they are ridiculous and pathetic. But they’ve have come from all over the world for this, some at great expense, an expense if you really need to know some of them could not really afford. This was their moment. And you ruined it. I am so embarrassed. I cannot face seeing them at all. It was okay in the beginning… before you switched from Stella to Scotch… I had such expectations for the evening… I thought we would dance together under the stars like an elegant couple on a romantic paddle-steamer heading toward Upper Egypt… I’m sure you don’t remember a thing that happened… well… I’m going to shame you by telling you… it started off well enough with you behaving yourself… except you kept sidling up to the open bar… and then when Appolonia came in and just like that your face visibly changed… and I introduced you to her and she introduced you to her husband… and I even took him away for a moment so you could talk privately with Appolonia because she was my best friend and I know all about how you had a thing for her once… and you two were talking… don’t think I didn’t notice her delight… I mean… you have not seen this woman in 40 years and suddenly you are both immediately speaking with such easy intimacy yes intimacy in public and in front of her husband… so I bring him right back to put a stop to this nonsense… and meanwhile the waiters are milling about with free drinks on silver trays… and you immediately start up with him about the dentistry thing… I don’t understand this… I have often admired your erudition… but no one had any idea really what you were talking about… and then you started up with that whisky is good for toothaches business… and drinking more and more… you know most people in the room haven’t the slightest idea who Saint Appolonia is… well not exactly anyway… and you kept going to the bar… and telling all these people about your Uncle-in-Law Dr Magou who was a dentist and how he pulled all his wife’s teeth out… this I presume is your aunt Soheir… for touching your penis when you were 10 years old in Alexandria or something barbarically vulgar like that… I mean one does not mention such things and especially in a room full of ibtees even if these were aging half in the bag ibtees you kept making these unfunny tooth jokes like you’re mocking Copts and their passion for idolatry… lucky you weren’t thrown off the boat then and there or even worse… and then of course after 1 am… when the hashish came out… oh my God… I have never seen so much blue smoke… and the party was in full swing and you started dancing inappropriately with all the wives and girlfriends… saying mystifying things like… seriously, my dear, how are your teeth lately… and carrying on with all kinds of other annoyingly unfunny remarks and innuendos… not at all amusing… and in fact all rather tedious and sad… you should have seen how the husbands and boyfriends were looking at you… I explained to them you were not well… but then there was that moment… the one moment that was supposed to be the highlight we were all waiting for… when they brought out Violetta’s cake… and Ricky Zareef the lead vocalist from your own old band came on to sing Et J’Entends Siffler Le Train… but instead of playing guitar or something you had to make loud unpleasant asides about his “Jagger lips” and “bad teeth” and then jump on stage and yell into the microphone Et J’entends pisser le train… like some kind of schoolboy… you haven’t changed since you were five… élève bruyant et mal élevé… like they always said about you starting in the Jardin D’Enfants… and now ruining this moment for everybody especially Violetta… this crowning moment when everyone was a bit high and nostalgic and tears even were running down their cheeks… this the climactic denouement of their life at that particular moment… the confirmation that it had not all been for nothing… this the very moment everyone was waiting for… the moment that some people had traveled thousands of miles to participate in… the solitary exiles… all the half here half there émigrés… because now it was supposed to be like nothing had changed… it was the flush of youth again… even if only for the briefest of flickering moments on the embankments of the Nile in the chill of an ordinary Cairo winter night… and you had to ruin it and could not content yourself with the teeth business from earlier in the evening but had to also fall off the stage still clutching the microphone and shouting like a madman Where’s that Dentist?… I Want To See The Dentist… spitting out the word dentiste like some demented magnoon… I Want That Dentiste To Face Me Like A Man… you kept saying… LIKE A MAN… you kept shouting it… all this was absolutely too much you can never see any of these people again and I am ashamed I ever knew you and will never EVER speak to you as long as I live.
The tall, slightly balding man walked along a sandy path toward Aïda beach in Montazah Palace in Alexandria.
He had not been to this place in many years, although he had grown up there as a child. The man saw that much had changed. Where once there were open trails from the pine forest directly to the beach, there was now a fence and gates controlling access to the cabinas below.
He took a staircase roughly hewn into a rock formation, between two weathered stand-alone cabinas, perched above the beach.
A voice called from behind.
Ya ustaz! Ya ustaz! Mister! Mister!
The man stopped. He turned around to face the old bahar calling after him.
Ma’fool, said the man. Then when he saw he was talking a foreigner, he said clo-zid.
The man looked at the ancient bahar.
I once lived up this hill, in a chalet, he said to him in Arabic.
There are no chalets here any more, ya Bey. Khalass; finished. Min’ zaman. For a long time now.
The men stood in silence for a moment. Finally the bahar spoke.
Ah, yes, the top one, next to the gazelle pit.
The gazelles always hid in their caves.
They stood in silence for another minute.
Yes; aywa, ya Bey…?
What happened to the gazelles? said the tall man.
They shot them, said the bahar. And then one day some bulldozers came, and filled the pit with stones.
Picture on top: a view from the deck where the main protagonist talks to Apollonia after 40 years. Picture by Daniela Mastalli