Tomorrow at 7 p.m. at the Zamalek Diwan in central Cairo, Donia Kamal will be signing copies of her third novel ترتيبات عشوائية (Random Arrangements):
The novel is a collection of 48 letters written to four different recipients, arranged chronologically to form a portrait of the years 2004 to 2018. The four recipients are: a late father, a child who grows into a teenager, a best friend who lives abroad, and a love interest.
Through these semi-autobiographical, one-sided letters, Kamal weaves together a portrait of both personal and shared experiences in several Arab countries during an era of uncertainty. The novel explores themes of parenthood, love, loss, sickness, revolution, friendship, and compassion, and the narrator is not only buffeted by social expectations and geopolitical heavyweights, but also self-destructive impulses and deep sorrows.
The novel, published by Al Karma, is available in most Cairo bookshops, as well as on Jamalon.
The excerpt below is from a September, 2017 letter:
We thought ourselves wise when we looked into those people’s eyes. We thought we were clever enough to turn the rudder and steer back onto our safe path at just the right moment. We thought we were wise enough — even though we’d never heard of a sage who’d won the battle against foolishness, and perhaps the worst and most dangerous of the wise are those who don’t know what they are; those, essentially, are the fools. But if we knew it was impossible to change the course of time, then we also knew it was impossible to stop a moment in time, hoping with all our hearts it would not end.
We met today for the first time, after having agreed to meet a few days ago, during my time in Cairo. You told me you wanted to give me some time to spend with family; I told you I couldn’t wait, that I was afraid there would be even more delays, and that we’d miss even more of life. I got up in the morning and put on a dress I think is beautiful, and that I thought might match the green of your eyes. I put on a little makeup, because I didn’t want the wrinkles on my forehead to be so obvious; I tried to hide them with some makeup, dabbing them with light touches as my heart nearly jumped out of its place. I wasn’t afraid to meet so much as I was afraid of disappointment, since half of the beautiful fairy tales take place only in our imaginations and not in reality. But I put on my black dress with its green stripes and went to you.
I climbed the many stairs until I saw you waiting there, standing and smiling. I offered you my hand and you laughed and gave me the warmest hug, as if we were having our tenth meeting, or as if we’d known each other for years. I was shaking and clearly confused. Tens of fears spun through my head, but, in the first moments of our meeting, you were able to melt them, gently, with a wit that I envied. You know what happened between us: all the conversations, the laughter, and the way our hands brushed against each other as we took up our coffee cups — I won’t waste your time talking about what you already know, but I’m writing today to tell you about first dates, and how, wherever the date is, those first moments never lose their magic.
That train — when her hand falls on the shoulder of a person paying no attention, smoking his cigarette between the wagons, indifferent to how the movement shakes him right and left, looking at his shoes, imagining himself alone in this vast universe, so that he doesn’t notice the faint perfume except when a poke jerks him out of his private world into her wide one, to know that this moment might’ve happened just to stay in his memory forever. That café — full of diners, loud voices, and laughter that can’t be avoided, but that fades and subsides only when he sends her a smile that’s encouraging but not attentive, because this smile will signal the start of dreams and ambitions and breaks to come. That noisy concert — where the music crescendos and the dancers stumble around each other awkwardly, with a total lack of dancing ability as cups and bottles circulate with the buzz, and groups of people move around in a closed circuit, imagining they’re safe from all the evils of the world outside, and, in all this madness, she finds herself swaying to the dance moves of the person in front of her, never knowing that this music will bring her much more than a song she likes to sing to, and to dance to as lightly as a butterfly.
I’ve told you a lot about my boring world outside Cairo, and about the newsroom where I work with 25 people, most of whom I can’t stand for various reasons. I don’t want to list them all, so that I look like a person full of bitter hatreds, but — as I’m always telling you — I hate that place with all my heart. I work in a place that’s hateful and nasty, and my relationship with it is limited to the fact that it provides me the health-care coverage I so badly need, as you well know. I hate all the rules we have to follow here; they’re like the rules for Third World countries you see on TV, where reporters do nothing but support the regime and spread lies. This wasn’t my first year working here, but things have been changing, and day after day we just say what’s dictated to us without any room for debate, and I hate the unrelenting ringing of phones in the newsroom, and how the owners of those phones don’t ever think they should turn them down a bit, in consideration of the preservation of their colleagues’ nerves. I also hate the stench that slides out of the air-conditioning vent that’s above my desk, and the tiny insects that speckle the kitchen, which always smells of mold. I hate the 50-something man who entertains himself by filming the legs of all the girls in the office, imagining that we don’t see him — while we’re eating our lunches — pointing his phone camera under the table to take our pictures; this same man who accused a co-worker of atheism, when he saw some of the talented guy’s drawings on his desk, saying that drawing faces would inevitably mean he’d go to hell, since it’s forbidden in Islam according to his sick mind. I hate that nobody is ever accountable for anything, even if you complain repeatedly and send emails that nobody answers, and I hate emails in the first place, and I also hate the fact that most of my colleagues here are surrendering to the editorial agenda which they actually see as valid and balanced while it makes me cry every day in the bathroom.
I also fell into a severe depression when our branch manager refused to give me a private office for the three days after my regular radiation sessions, even though she got a letter from the hospital, asking her to provide one for me until the effects of the radiation wore off. The office manager forced me, instead, to ask for sick leave, in spite of my in-depth explanation about why I didn’t need leave on the day of the radiation session, since the effects appear only after a few days, and I needed to balance out my leaves and couldn’t recklessly waste days away. She responded coldly and robotically that she could not provide me a room, and that it would be better if I stayed at home so as not to negatively impact my colleagues in the office. That was a bad day — maybe one of those days when I realized my life would never be the same — and that there are people who would hurt me for no reason, just because they could, and that no matter how strong and capable I am — or so they say — maybe this time I wouldn’t be able to take it, and I’d have to accept what has happened and what will happen eventually.
Today I’m writing mainly to tell you about our first moments, but I find myself — as usual — elaborating on completely different things, ridiculous and painful things, totally unlike our first meeting, when we talked about my world and yours. You still haven’t told me about your previous girlfriends and about your close friends, and I barely know about your work, which also seems to be in a newsroom, although it seems to be a kinder one than mine.
How we love these first moments with such affection! We forget the pain we’ve experienced, even if it’s only a temporary forgetting, and we love them sincerely, rushing at them with all the courage and daring in the world. We love these first moments even when we know that the enthusiastic voice of the first day might fade after a few days, or weeks, or months — still, we bruise our vocal cords as we shout with enthusiasm and the desire for life. We hold the tiny hands of children as they emerge from their mothers’ bellies, and we keep their photos safe to show them, one day, how tiny and pretty they were; we tell them about the sweetness of that first meeting, and about the first time they opened their eyes so we could see them while they glared at us in wonderment and confusion, even if we knew that defeat was lying in wait for them in a cruel and terrifying world. This intimate dance, and the ululation that emerged from the throat until it hurts, and our rush to take photos when we knew they’d inevitably be lost among dozens of other ones that we’d been careful to keep in places that we had forgotten with time. The heart that missed a beat when it witnessed the birth of something that looked wonderful, bright, and that promised a better life, and all the people smiling naïve smiles when we met them the first time; all the demonstrations that we marched in for the first time with hope; all the songs that drove into our ears so that we marveled at their graceful beauty; all the cities that we wandered, looking around in wonder, afraid to exhaust all of the streets, afraid that we’d get lost there and no one would ever find us; all the strange foods we tasted cautiously and then wasted days looking for them again, the sweetness of that first taste, which we knew would never come again. For all this and more, we’re profoundly grateful, with the promise that, one day, we’ll stop trying to recover the first moments so that we don’t make them cheesy and repetitive, so that they still can compensate us the sharp pains of the newsroom, promising some happiness even if we know it’s fleeting like everything else.
In a few days, I’m meant to take another plane back to the unpleasant newsroom; in a few days, these moments I steal to see loved ones will be over, and I know I will try to postpone the trip back to Dubai. Life here in Cairo is much tougher, but also more capacious and tolerant since you became a part of it.
Greetings to you and to our first times together.
Zamalek – Cairo
Donia Kamal is an Egyptian novelist and producer; her second novel, Cigarette Number Seven, won the Sawiris Emerging Writers Prize and was translated to English by Norman Youssef. She has also produced more than fifty documentary films and numerous TV shows.
Translation by M Lynx Qualey.
Hoopoe Fiction: Read an Excerpt of ‘Cigarette Number Seven’
You can also find Donia on YouTube: