Translator Vivian Fayez has been collecting short stories set in Egypt during January and February 2011. This story, by Khaled Zohni, is “For Whom the Lips Smile”:
By Khaled Zohni
Translated by Vivian Fayez Mina
The cold’s crushing me. It’s brutal. My joints and muscles are stiff. I’ve never known Cairo to have such weather before. It must be four of five degrees below zero.
I can barely see anything. Total darkness enfolds the place. I listen to the sound of silence around me. Guesses clash in my mind. Where and how and why am I here? Terrified, I almost break into tears. But the smile remains.
Suddenly the screech of an opening door interrupts the silence. I hear the sound of feet walking slowly, coughing and spitting as befits a smoker, followed by the friction of chairs against the rough floor. Moments pass. Then comes the sound of a radio playing foreign music quickly replaced by the voice of the news presenter announcing an explosion in Qandahar. Before the man can finish his statement, the voice of Mohamed Mounir can be heard singing “Love, how can you agree? Your name I adore, but you keep on confusing me. My kindness you don’t sense, my love you don’t move. My honest love isn’t pleading. Head up high, I am keeping. The only thing you make me do is kneeling.”
It seems like a new song was released by “the king” while I was away. The “king’s” voice calms me down. I am now self-possessed. My ears try to make out details of the space around me. No use. The song is over. Coughing again. Then, the sound of shuffling stations until it settles on the Holy Quran.
Time passes between readings, programs, and the cough of the unknown man. Now I hear the voice of Sheikh Abdel Basset calling to the noon prayers. Next comes a knock on the door and a loud voice: “Haj Mansour, noon prayers are beginning. Are we gonna pray here or up at the chapel?” The man, whose name I now know, coughs and says “Here, God willing. Call the men and spread the mats while I do my ablutions.”
Quickly I hear the commotion of feet, activity of tongues, and everything coming to life around me.
As soon as Haj Mansour has finished his prayers, I can hear him calling out: “Oh, God reform our country, guide its people, and help our leaders.” He then raises his voice and adds, “Oh God spare us strife and intrigues. Oh God, assist whosoever strives for the prosperity of this nation and whosoever intends evil return it upon him…..Amen, Amen.” “Amen,” say all the men after him.
I hear footsteps leave the room while they say their supplications and ask for forgiveness. Haj Mansour returns, coughing, to his chair and radio. Music plays to the voice of “The Lady” as she chants, “The heart adores everything beautiful”. What memories she arouses in me! Where have all my family and friends gone. They have all been laid to rest in the soil. Their happy smiles have melted in space. I’m pulled out of my cave of memories when the radio announces the broadcast of a statement by SCAF, which is now managing state affairs. It calls on citizens not to be led by rumors at this difficult time. It toughens penalties on thuggery and terror and asserts its intentions to put the former president and his family to trial. I am uplifted. At last the president is stepping down and handing over power to the Armed Forces. At last he is being put on trial for his crimes just as we’d demanded on the Day of Wrath.
I’m not sure how much time passes before I hear, once again, that loud voice saying, “Haj Mansour, some people are here to see you. Come in misters, come in. Haj Mansour will be with you in a minute”. I can hear some feet come in. Then I hear the sound of papers being folded, after which Haj Mansour leaves his seat. The footsteps come closer and I can hear the sound of a door opening. A warm breeze blows. I am elated. I smile. I feel my body shake. I am struck by bright light.
Darkness covers me again. Again the cold crushes my bones. A debate about me and who I am catches my attention. The row turns into yelling until Haj Mansour roars at everyone to leave as his day at work has ended and he has to go. Moments pass and silence reigns. I am worried. Why are these men arguing?
I don’t know how much time passes before I can see, at a distance, my friends Mahmoud Mawardy, Youssef Ibrahim, and George Sam’an. They are the dearest beings to me after my family perished at the bottom of the sea, at the roadsides, or in the depths of prisons. We hadn’t been in touch since the gas bombs and the torrents of bullets tore us apart. I am glad to see them and happy to know they’re safe. We spend the time laughing and joking. Mahmoud sings to us with his beautiful voice the lyrics written by Youssef to the music set by George. They stay a little before bidding me farewell and leave.
My companionship with Haj Mansour proves long and I become used to the man’s rituals: the radio, noon prayers, the screeching of chairs on the rough floor, and his cough accompanied by spitting. I even find out the name of his loud-voiced assistant, Labib, who is also his nephew. Every now and then, some feet visit me. That’s when I hear the sound of a door opening, feel a warm breeze, and smile. My body shakes and I’m covered with brilliant light. Seconds, and I go back to stark darkness. Arguments heighten among my visitors as to who I am. No sooner does Haj Mansour’s loud snub frighten those longing and anxious hearts as I’m saved and they leave in silence.
I also get used to statements made by the SCAF that end with the traditional “Allah is the conciliator,” as well as their assurances that they are the guard of the Revolution and its sponsor from its outset. They call to the people to regard SCAF as a true friend that neither lusts for power nor pursues it. My conviction is that our army was a blessing and that it is villainous vanity to deny it. Even if the trials of the corrupt and criminal are sluggish. Even if they set free some of the snakes and serpents. Even if millions of pounds escape from the safes full of money looted from the poor and the widowed. Even if lawlessness has reached a state that cost Labib, Haj Mansour’s nephew, his life; a thug, unopposed by anyone, had cut his throat in broad daylight in the middle of the street over a dispute of who was to get on the micro-bus first.
I also get used to the radio programs that sing for the blessed Revolution, present its highlights, and promise the populace a bright future if they commit themselves to its path. But I sort of feel that the Revolution has lost its direction, or else how is it that every radio station defines its path in a different way? One defines it as giving in to the rule of SCAF, the true friend of the people, and rejecting traitors and feloul, or “leftovers” of the regime. Another sees it as obeying the parties of Allah and His chosen groups, for they alone were the life savers—and they also reject traitors and feloul. To another, it is the cloning of our enemies’ experiments and throwing ourselves in their arms—as well as rejecting traitors and feloul.
The radio then brings me news of the feuds between Muslims and Copts. I hear Haj Mansour hitting hand on hand and saying, repulsively, “The country’s being torn because of some women. People are dying, and churches are burning. Is this what pleases God, you Muslims and Christians? God have mercy on us”.
I am struck with pain. Has the edifice been fractured beyond restoration? Have our governors, Satan’s associates, succeeded in poisoning the wells of love and harmony?
Then, new feet visit me. The door opens and the warm breeze blows. I smile and my body shakes. No sooner has the light covered me than my visitor dashingly kisses my forehead and hands while thanking God gratefully. Ululations take off before Haj Mansour snubs the woman. Amidst the tears and ululations I can hear someone say “Thank God, we’ve found Ahmed. Thank God. Praise God. Look at his smile.”
My acquaintance with Mahmoud Mawardy, Youssef Ibrahim, and George Sam’an goes back to 2006. I was then a freshman at the school of national struggle against corruption and oppression in El-Mahalla El-Kobra. We were brought together by the desire to regain our trodden dignity and our stolen rights until we graduated in 2011 in Cairo, when batons and gas bombs united our hearts. Our blood mixed together in damp cells at the hands of executioners’ whips and handcuffs. Our hands clasped, our paths united. Mahmoud sang Youssef’s lyrics to the music set by George that I played on the oud.
Days pass as arrangements are incessantly made to return me to my family. More and more feet visit me. Again and again the door opens, the warm breezes blow, I smile, my body shakes, bright light covers me, my forehead and hands are kissed and I am called “Ahmed”.
Some men come by and lay me down in another room. Through its window, I enjoy the sight of Cairo’s spring sun. They gather around me, examining me to the minutest detail, and return me to my cold resting place. Days pass. “Tests? DNA? The guy’s been with us for more than two months and no one knows who he is. And when his picture is put in the papers, and his family finds him, we tell them he’s not their son? Can’t we see for ourselves? The guy’s a carbon copy of his mother. They even have the same smile. Praise be to God”, I hear the voice of Haj Mansour say.
Days pass and no feet visit me. Nothing relieves my loneliness except the sound of Haj Mansour’s radio and his prayers. I feel forgotten and forsaken by everybody. Sadness and depression overtake me. News from the radio only makes things worse; elongated trials of the corrupt and criminal; slow procedures for recovering stolen riches; the return of the corrupt feloul to power; conspiracies and crises being plotted, only making Egyptians stronger; warnings that the Revolution is being stolen and calls for more days of wrath; and more Egyptian blood being shed at the hands of platoons of thugs and scoundrels.
Then, one day I hear the footsteps of Haj Mansour. The door opens and the warm breeze blows. I smile at it. I feel my body shake and I am covered by dazzling light. To my surprise, I hearHaj Mansour saying, “It’s nearly over, you smiling guy. Some good people have decided to take you. I’ve got used to you, you know. Every time I feel sorry for the state Egypt’s in, I remember your smile and I tell myself that you must know something we don’t”.
Only a few days pass before some men carry me in a car away from the cold. The car drives me slowly through the streets. Behind us I can hear footsteps, so many that I feel all of Egypt is walking behind me silently, humbly, hopefully. We step down from the car and I am carried on shoulders to where people are praying over me without kneeling, led by a Sheikh. Then they pray over me a prayer that’s led by a priest. When they finish their prayers, they carry me over their shoulders once more while they’re chanting: “Goodbye you smile of the flower, goodbye you breeze of life, goodbye you shiver of Egypt. You are the martyr we died with. You sold life for death. Or did you buy life for death? You are going far away. But we have stubbornly drawn your face like a festive sun, like the laugh of a newborn, like the cries of a song, like a new homeland, a happy homeland whose name is Egypt.”
They carry me until they give me to a mourner. He removes the shroud. I see the bright sun of my country for the last time before I am covered by its warm dust.
From far away, I can see my friends Mahmoud El-Mawardy, Youssef Ibrahim, and George Sam’an. They are sitting enjoying the refreshing breeze of the Alexandria Sea. I silence them and hold the oud. Mahmoud starts singing:
“I cry … I bleed … I die,
For Egypt’s smile to stay alive,
For the Good Nile to stay alive,
For the afternoon breeze to stay alive,
For the sunset moon to stay alive,
For the berry trees to stay alive.
I cry … I bleed … I die,
For Egypt’s smile to stay alive,
For the schools, for the sleds threshing the grains,
For the soldier moving through obstacles for the sake of victory.
Hey you boats, masts, streets, and alleys,
Hey you farms, granaries, factories, and presses,
Hey you harbors, bridges, front rooms in village houses, village towns, houses, and homes.
I cry …. I bleed … I die,
For Egypt’s smile to stay alive.”
Mahmoud still sings the lyrics of Youssef to the music set by George that I play on the oud.
Khaled Zohni is an Egyptian writer and an MD/PhD at the University of Toronto. He tweets at @khaledzohni.
Vivian Fayez Mina is a translator, writer, and English language instructor. She is currently a MA candidate in Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo. She has published one short story and several articles in Arabic and English on a number of websites and newspapers. She blogs in Arabic at vivianfayezmina.blogspot.com. She is currently working on a memoir.