These stories are part of a special online collection available through the end of the month:
By Muhammad al-Hajj
Translated by Muhammad al-Hajj, with Yasmine Zohdi
“Spare me your feminist shit,” Ahmad said, holding one hand up to interrupt me, the other one resting on the steering wheel: “If it weren’t for sex, women would be just about as useful as empty shoe boxes or old newspapers.”
I knew exactly what I was in for the next two hours. Another night cruise in the sleeping capital, a detailed account of Ahmad’s latest fight with Mona.
I had been about to go to bed with Huda when Ahmad called, asking if I’d like to go for a drive. It didn’t look like Huda and I were about to have sex, and I hadn’t seen Ahmed in a month or so, so I told him to pick me up and started to change out of my pajamas, despite Huda’s disapproving glare.
“I’m telling you, man, she’s nuts! She’s absolutely nuts,” Ahmed went on, swerving to avoid an open sewer on the road. “She goes through my phone, my laptop, everything!”
“Ahmad, you’re cheating on her,” I said in a low voice, careful not to provoke him.
“Yeah, so?” Ahmad said lightly, “She doesn’t know that.”
Ahmad and Mona had been the first to get married among our class in college. I’d always thought they were too young, but I pretended to be thrilled the day they took me to the theatre then broke the news to me as we munched on beef shawarma sandwiches at Abu Haidar later.
My pretense didn’t have to last long, however, because one year into the marriage problems began to arise, and both of them started coming to me as some sort of unofficial marriage counselor, a role I’d never sought but never firmly refused either.
“God, you’re unbelievable,” I said, shaking my head.
A few months ago, Mona came to my office complaining that she’d found out Ahmad was secretly masturbating. I knew, I told her; we all secretly masturbate — I mean, who the fuck masturbates in public? That wasn’t the point, she fumed: why was he masturbating at all? I tried to come up with excuses for my friend, but for a woman who’d been shielded and treated like a princess by her father since the day she was born, none of them were valid. She told me that she got a fatwa through an Islamic website: the Sheikh, who she had never met, told her in his reply to her email that she should reproach her husband, and that if he were to go back to that filthy habit she should tie his hand to the bed while he was asleep. I artlessly advised her to ignore the sheikh and his fatwa if she wanted the decline of her marriage to stop at the point where her husband secretly masturbated, but she seemed desperate, almost hysterical. I held her consolingly as she sobbed, and was gently patting her back when she looked up and kissed me on the cheek, then slowly moved her lips to my mouth. Startled, I pulled back abruptly, and she slapped me on the face and stormed out of the office. Ever since that day I’d consistently avoided poker nights at Ahmad’s, and so we only had our cruises left.
“She’s unbelievable,” Ahmad countered, “I don’t know why she can’t just let it go. I mean do we really have to fight every single day? It’s exhausting.”
Despite his and Mona’s obvious problems, Ahmad was insistent on not getting a divorce. He kept saying it wasn’t good for the family; it would destroy his father, her mother, and the kids! What about the kids? Who was going to take them?
But I knew it wasn’t just that. I’d always had a feeling that Ahmad held himself accountable to the very same notion of family itself. The golden couple of the English Section of the Faculty of Economics and Political Science, Cairo University, class of 2004: How would it look if they admitted their marriage was a failure? What would it say about them?
“Well, you know, Ahmad,” I began slowly, “a divorce wouldn’t really be the worst thing in the world—”
“Divorce is for fags,” he said, interrupting me again, “and you know I’m no fag, fag.”
I decided I wouldn’t finish my sentence; it was hopeless anyway. Perhaps I should speak to him about Huda instead, about our ongoing dry spell. Although he would probably end up calling me a fag again.
“Let’s get some sugarcane juice,” I said instead, “that place near the cinema will probably be open.”
The first time I met Huda I asked her about Herman Hesse. She said she didn’t like him and started to explain why. I interrupted her with an embarrassed smile saying I’d never really read anything by him, but that it had just seemed like an appropriate way to start a conversation with a German girl. She smiled and I suggested I show her around the city. She ended up taking me to Cap D’or the following night for a couple of beers. I wondered how she’d come to know the place, and I found out soon enough.
Although she had inherited her mother’s European features, Huda was the daughter of an Egyptian painter originally from Shubra. Raouf As-Sayyad had fled Cairo to East Berlin in the mid-seventies, after Sadat made sure all the Leftists and Nasserites were sacked from every governmental institution in the country. He met Hilde, Huda’s mother, in a hospital after he got himself into a fight with a bunch of drunkards who didn’t exactly like his Coptic features, and ended up marrying her four months later. Although Raouf and Hilde were happy together, he soon left her and flew back to Cairo after Sadat’s assassination to see whether he could get his job in the Ministry of Culture back. He did, and with the well-learned lessons of the seventies he advanced throughout the eighties, until his death in the early nineties in a random terrorist bombing in Tahrir Square.
After her mother’s death, Huda came to Cairo in search of her father, whose face she’d only seen in old photographs. She found out about his death, and grieved for a while until — after she met a couple of his friends and relatives — she came to the conclusion that it was probably for the best that she’d never gotten to know him.
Huda had lost her father, but there was something about Cairo that she loved, and so she stayed. I liked to think that something was me.
“Maybe we’re just getting old and bored,” Ahmad said half-seriously as he paid the kid who brought our big, chilled glasses of juice to the car. “Maybe I got married too early.”
Maybe I’ll get divorced too early, I almost said.
Had it been two years or three? Perhaps it didn’t matter. It had been a great relationship, then it became a good one, then it stopped being anything but a relationship; no adjectives.
The first year of my marriage was successful, in many respects. I had just finished my Ph.D. and received a couple of offers to publish my thesis. I got a teaching position at a prestigious educational institution in Cairo with a decent salary, and I was invited to give lectures abroad on different occasions, not to mention my weekly column in one of the country’s most popular independent newspapers. A very tiny fan-base started to form around me, and it gave me a certain sense of importance that I couldn’t always resist.
Once, a girl approached me after a lecture saying she didn’t fully understand a certain point in one of the arguments I had presented. I was late for an appointment so I gave her my number and told her to call me if she wanted to discuss it further. She gave me a coy smile and for the rest of the afternoon I obsessed over that smile, wondering what it meant. Why had she smiled at me that way? And then I realized what I’d done: I’d given her my number! Why would I do that? Why didn’t I just give her my email address? It was probably a male ego sort of thing, I reasoned; I wanted to see if she would call. She did call the next day, which was satisfying, but I didn’t pick up and she never called back.
“Tell me, bro,” I said, in spite of myself: “How do you refresh your marriage? I mean, I know your marriage is always fresh and all, but what do you do when you feel that your, uh, sex life kind of needs a – a push?”
“Easy. I sleep with someone else.”
“Dude, I asked how I could refresh my marriage, not destroy it.”
“You idiot, when are you ever going to learn?” Ahmad shot back, “Haven’t I told you about Gouna?”
There we go again, I thought, exasperated. For the thousandth time he told me about his week with Mona in Gouna last winter. One night she hadn’t been feeling well, so she stayed in their room to rest while he went out to meet a school friend who he’d found out owned a pub in the resort where they were staying. As Ahmad and his friend sat catching up, he noticed an attractive woman at the far end of the bar making eyes at him. When his friend left for the bathroom, the woman wrote something down on a napkin, left it on the bar and walked out. He reached for the napkin before the bartender could pick it up. It said Captain’s Inn, Room 505. As soon as his friend was back he told him that Mona had called and he had to go. He headed straight to the Captain’s Inn, tipped the receptionist LE 50 and took the elevator up to room 505. He didn’t even know the woman’s name, but she was Lebanese and it was magical, he kept saying. “That ass, man! Those thighs!” When he was finished with the woman — who I was pretty sure turned out to be a prostitute (but he would never admit it and I would never bother to argue) — he went back to his and Mona’s room. She was asleep, dots of perspiration covering her forehead, and he sat crying next to her in bed for the next hour.
But the aftermath was worth it, Ahmad would always say. “We had the best two months after that: I got her presents, I took her to Bali – you know Bali? Very expensive shit – countless nights of good sex, beautiful lingerie… it was even better than our honeymoon.”
“Ahmad, let me put it this way,” I said: “Mona has the IQ of a table lamp. Huda is a woman who actually has a literary opinion about Hermann Hesse’s novels; Mona wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between Hermann Hesse and her elbow.”
“Who’s that guy? Is he important?”
“Okay, listen. I have a better idea,” Ahmad said, “make her feel as if there is someone else.”
“How the hell is this a better idea?”
“Well, she won’t be able to prove it, but at the same time she’s going to feel like she needs to do something to save her marriage.”
I couldn’t help feeling there was some sense to what Ahmad proposed, but I had one logistical problem. My imagination was far smaller than an ant’s egg. To come up with something that would make Huda jealous, that would take more original ideas than phone pranks and fake love letters. I didn’t dare ask Ahmad for suggestions, but I knew it was going to take a lot of creativity on my part.
I glanced at my watch; it was 3 a.m. and Ahmad was still weaving the car through the alleys and small streets of As-Sayeda.
Huda didn’t mind my night cruises with Ahmad. Neither did Mona, although for entirely different reasons. Mona was wise enough to relax her grip on Ahmad’s leash until she finally found the opportunity to hang him with it. Huda, on the other hand, was utterly confident in my lack of ability to engage in any kind of sexual activity outside of our marriage. She actually said it once: “There are two types of men; men women fantasize about in bed, and men women fantasize about at the dish sink — you’re the second type.” It was a silent castration; This was the single thought that wandered through my mind ruthlessly after I got home and changed back into my pajamas, gazing at Huda’s unconcerned sleeping face, until I gave in to sleep myself.
The next morning I woke up as soon as I felt Huda stirring next to me, then her slight movements as she left the bed. Five minutes later she came back to the room and I pretended to go on sleeping. As she gently touched my shoulder, whispering in my ears to wake up, the words came out of my mouth as if they were somebody else’s: “Stop it, Laila,” I groaned before pretending to once again be overtaken by sleep. I felt her hand freeze on my shoulder, then she pulled it away and I heard her storm out of the room. I sat up in bed, wondering what the hell had just happened. I was probably as confused as she was — I couldn’t believe I’d just done it that easily.
In the kitchen Huda was preparing breakfast without any apparent disruption in her countenance. As steady as the ticking of the clock, she cut wholegrain toast into slices and neatly arranged it in a basket along with fresh loaves of baladi bread. I walked to the bathroom and stepped into the shower, listening for any changes in the rhythm of her movements. A long silence separated the sound of the refrigerator door closing and the plates settling on the hard marble of the table. I counted all the extra beats it took my semi-automatic German to finish her morning tasks. She seemed troubled, and it gave me a small sense of satisfaction.
At the kitchen table I felt her eyes on me, trying to crack open my forehead as I wolfed down my eggs. I waited in near-breathless anticipation that I tried hard to hide for her to ask me about what had happened. She didn’t. Was I disappointed? Not really, I just felt awkward. How was I supposed to take it from there? Maybe she hadn’t even noticed. Or maybe she had, but had decided she wasn’t going to address it. Perhaps I should let the whole thing go. The thoughts rushed and clashed through my head while one clear sentence repeated itself endlessly in the background: “God damn you, Ahmad Badr.”
I was late for the 1 p.m. bus so I took a taxi to the University, which was located in one of the new suburbs to the east of the city.
A graduate class today. A couple of passionate professionals, some kids from rich families. I paced the lecture hall, scanning their lifeless eyes as I spoke about the question of the renaissance among the Arab political elite in the 20th century. I imagined the words floating out of my mouth, hitting their heads then dropping dead on the floor, unabsorbed. I ended the lecture early and collected their research papers, most of which I knew would probably be worthless. I headed to my office, made tea, and started flitting through the pages of the first one. It was mostly ripped off Wikipedia and two previously published studies the student had found online. I wrote his name down on a post-it, to remind myself that I needed to speak to him next week, then gathered my stuff and took the bus back home.
Huda wasn’t there when I returned. I assumed she was still in her office downtown. She had been working hard for a while now on the agenda for a conference on Sudanese refugees her organization would be holding later that month in cooperation with other NGOs. I called her to ask if I should wait for her for dinner, she told me that she was going to be late and I should do whatever I felt like. I couldn’t tell if it was her everyday indifference towards such gestures, or a feigned indifference specially invoked by the little incident that morning. In an effort to distract myself, I carried my bag to the study and took the student papers out, intending to start grading them, but it wasn’t long before I felt sleepy and stumbled to the bedroom and into bed.
In my two-hour nap I had a dream. I was running away from something and I was afraid. Classic, except no one was actually chasing me, it was just me running around frantically all over the strange landscape of the dream. Then it came to me, maybe that was precisely what scared me: that nobody was chasing me. Maybe I should wait for my pursuer to appear. Or maybe I should do something to get me pursued in the first place — that way it would at least be for something I did; it would somehow be worth it.
I woke up on that note and the thought seemed awfully smart to me, like some sort of revelation. I wrote it down so I could tell it to Huda later. In the kitchen I made tea that tasted so bad I spat my first mouthful back into the cup, then poured its entire contents into the sink. I returned to the study to continue working on the papers. They seemed as if they had been moved, and beside them were a few of Huda’s work files. I sat down and tried to focus on the research I was reading, but my mood was off. I called Ahmad to see what he was doing, he suggested we go to the movies. I called Huda to tell her that I was going to be late, she said she had come back home and found me asleep, and that she had gone to Cairo Jazz Club with some friends. It wasn’t like her but I didn’t say anything, yet it ruined my mood even more. I called Ahmad and told him I wasn’t going out then went back to bed.
I was in my office grading papers the next day when the door knocked. It was Ahmad. He told me that he’d had a meeting nearby and thought he’d pass by to check on me.
“Why don’t you make us some tea?” He said, settling into one of the chairs by my desk.
“I wouldn’t recommend it, I’ve been making some really shitty tea lately.”
“Come on, how dumb do you have to be to screw up a cup of tea?”
I handed him the tea after I made it. He took a sip and spat it back into the mug, coughing heavily.
“Man, that’s some real shit!”
“Didn’t I tell you?”
“I should’ve believed you’re that dumb,” Ahmad said, “you married Huda As-Sayyad after all.”
It was no secret that Ahmad didn’t like Huda. Unlike my secret opposition to his marriage, Ahmad was as vocal as he could be about mine. “She’s too skinny, man,” he’d said the day I told him we were going out, “you’re better off fucking a broom!” I would tell him off angrily each time he said things like that, but in the deepest recesses of my heart I feared the moment when the winds would rise, changing my temperament. The thought that I could ever love someone else, someone who wasn’t like her, truly scared me. Oh, Huda. My sapiosexual valentine.
I started telling him about the day before, how I’d called her ‘Laila’ and how she’d acted afterwards. He listened carefully then looked over his shoulder and leaned in towards me, lowering his voice.
“Huda called me yesterday.”
“Why are you whispering?”
“Well, you never know,” he said, relaxing back into his seat.
He told me she had asked him if I was okay, if he’d noticed anything strange about me lately. I was stunned. I would’ve never guessed Huda would call Ahmad with such questions — unless she wanted me to know that she had. It seemed to me like she was having a minor breakdown.
We were sitting there, still trying to make sense of Huda’s behavior, when the door knocked and a girl from the graduate class I was teaching came in. She asked if I had a minute, but when she noticed I had a visitor turned around to leave and said she could pass by again later. That’s when Ahmad got up and told her to come back in, that he was about to leave anyway. He turned to me and winked, and I thought she probably saw him because her eyes widened. I motioned for her to sit down as Ahmad closed the door.
“I’m sorry, he’s a bit — you know, crazy.”
The girl smiled and remained silent. I didn’t want to rush her, but there was something very unsettling about her presence.
“So, how can I help you?” I said, trying to remember her name.
“I don’t know how to start, it’s kind of weird.”
“Well, I’m listening.”
“Is your wife’s name Huda As-Sayyad?”
“She added me on Facebook.”
I was baffled. “How did you know she’s my wife?” I asked.
“Her profile picture is a photo of your wedding,” she replied.
I hadn’t checked Facebook in two days, but last I remembered she’d had a photo of her mother in her twenties as her profile picture. She must have changed it yesterday, then. Suddenly, the girl’s name came back to me. Laila. Her name was Laila.
“Well, I don’t really see what the problem is, Laila,” I said, “maybe she read something you posted and liked it, maybe—”
“Well, there’s no problem per se, it’s just…”
“She sent me a message saying she had heard about me and that she would like for us to be friends,” Laila answered, “and frankly I thought the whole thing was very weird.”
Had Huda gone absolutely mad? She’d probably found the name on one of the research papers yesterday, made the connection and decided to play detective. God, I never understood her. Why would she do something like that? She could’ve talked to me – for God’s sake she could’ve just put on a cheap red baby doll and fucked my brains out, and it would’ve all come to an end! But then again, this was probably why I’d fallen in love with her in the first place; I never got her. I never got why she liked me despite my apparent clumsiness, or how she could keep such a steady, efficient routine inside an insane metropolis like Cairo.
“It’s probably a misunderstanding, I think she has you mistaken for someone else,” I said, trying to sound as authoritative and in control as I could. “I’ll see to it that this is straightened out.”
That evening, Huda was calm in a way that I found exceptionally alarming, almost threatening. There was nothing different in how she moved around the house, but I could tell something was simmering beneath the surface. It was Tuesday, her turn in the kitchen, and because she had worked late she brought take out from a Lebanese restaurant nearby. I stood with her in the kitchen, ladling out hummus and fattoush into little bowls and watching the back of her head, trying to figure out what was on her mind.
We sat quietly at the dining table. I searched my mind feverishly for something to say that wouldn’t sound guilty or arouse suspicion, but couldn’t find any. I wondered if it were wise to ask her why she had added Laila on Facebook. I tried to plan out a course for the conversation that wouldn’t end with me spilling out the truth, but I failed. I looked up at her, her eyes had been glued to my face for a while it seemed. She looked down at her plate, started cutting her grilled chicken breasts into little cubes, and without raising her head she started, “Look, I want to tell you something.”
I could feel my heartbeats pick up speed.
“I don’t care if you’re cheating on me. By all means, go for it — it might be your last chance before finding out that you’re not suited for such a life,” her voice was flat and dry. “Just remember that you still have to pay the bills, so fucking a student of yours and getting fired isn’t really the wisest of ideas, okay?”
Had she not made that little speech, I would’ve probably come clean and told her everything. Now it was out of the question. I had never felt the need to compete with Huda, but the truth remained, she had the upper hand when it came to this relationship. In perfect subtlety, under claims of logic and reason, Huda always succeeded in repressing any animalistic tendencies I had. She would undermine my eccentricities using sharp, well thought-out analysis. She would make me feel ashamed at my loud voice and inappropriate jokes when I got drunk. We had stopped going to parties after the first year of our marriage, we had stopped going anywhere halfway through our second one. And unlike Ahmad, who defended his own inconsistencies with great conviction against Mona’s constant criticism, I settled for burying my differences with Huda under our shared bed. Now, however, I was really pissed.
“You’re right, of course. Don’t worry, I have everything under control,” I said coldly. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go to bed. You know, early classes and one must make sure he pays the bills.”
With that I left the table, my head buzzing with anger. I went to bed, but couldn’t sleep. I could hear the sound of the television coming from the living room. I scrambled out of bed, got dressed, and went outside to put my shoes on deliberately in front of her so she’d have a chance to ask where I was going. She didn’t, and I slammed the door on my way out.
Out on the street I stood naked before the fact that I had nowhere to go. I scrolled through the list of contacts on my phone, looking for something I didn’t exactly know. I came across the number of the private driver I would sometimes call when I had to run an errand outside of Cairo. I called him and asked if he was available for a midnight drive to Alexandria. He said he would do it for an extra 150 pounds. I checked my wallet, made sure that I had my ATM card on me, gave him my location and hung up.
On the road to Alexandria I fell asleep in the backseat and had the most bizarre dream. I was in the university, giving a lecture in one of the spacious halls. In the middle of the room sat Huda, with bright blonde hair and no glasses, her grey eyes glowing with excitement. I asked a question and nobody raised their hand except for her. She stood up and gave the wrong answer. I asked her to approach the podium, flipped her on my knee and started spanking her in front of the entire class. Then the moment grew more intimate and we started kissing. I threw her on the floor and took off her shirt, her bra. When my hand reached for her panties she stopped me and looked straight into my eyes, shaking her index finger warningly. I carried on and slipped it off. The room fell silent and everyone stared in horror at the spot my hand was touching. I looked down and there it was: an unusually large, hard, throbbing penis.
I woke up mortified to find that we were approaching the Master rest stop. I told the driver to pull over. He wasn’t quite thrilled with the idea since it was already 1:30 a.m. and he was going to have to drive back to Cairo all by himself, but he pulled over nonetheless. In the restroom I washed my face several times, then went out to the cafeteria and bought a cappuccino and two bags of potato chips. I found the driver outside, drinking Turkish coffee and nibbling on some salt crackers. I stood next to him as car lights flashed past us and disappeared on the dark highway like shooting stars. I secretly wished that he would start a conversation, but he didn’t. I started thinking about Alex and what I was going to do once I got there, alone on a cold November night. I thought of the boardwalk drowned in furious waves and the wind blowing against the window of my hotel room, making that hollow, eerie noise. By the time I finished my coffee, I knew what I wanted, at least for now.
“Ali, we’re going back to Cairo,” I said.
A crushing longing to be in bed, next to Huda, filled my chest. I watched the succession of road lights through the window as we approached Cairo, wondering what I could say to defend myself without sounding too apologetic. I dozed off and woke up to the driver’s voice asking which building mine was. I looked up to see if there was any light in the living room window. There was none. I gave the driver his money minus 50 pounds, which I thought was reasonable since we ended up driving only half the distance and he was going to be home much earlier than he’d thought. The look on his face told me he wasn’t quite satisfied but he didn’t object, not verbally at least.
As I walked into our apartment, I noticed there was something unusual in the silence that dominated the space. I reached out for the light switch but before I knew it the bulb sparked and abruptly exploded. “Fuck!” I shouted as I jumped back, startled.
I hobbled to the bedroom. It was empty. The bed was made and looked like it hadn’t been touched in ages. Where was she? I considered calling her but felt that it would be the quickest defeat in my entire life. I made my way to the kitchen to check if there were any leftovers from last night’s dinner. She had them all packed neatly in Tupperware containers in the fridge. I was about to take one out to heat it in the microwave when I thought: Fuck it. I ordered a double Big Tasty large meal and ate it in front of a cheap Hollywood action flick that I slept while watching afterwards.
I woke up to a horrible heartburn. I took an antacid and glanced at my watch. It was noon. I had originally intended to skip work today, but I despised the image of Huda coming home to find me waiting. I decided to take a shower and make up my mind later.
I gazed at my reflection in the mirror through the steam that filled the bathroom, lit by the warm autumn sun. I remembered the first time I asked Huda to come over to my place. We had arranged to go to a dance performance downtown, and I told her she should drop by before we went. I hadn’t even bought the tickets, I was sure we would end up staying in. I wanted to fuck her, plain and simple. I decided to take a shower right at the time she said she was arriving, so that when she rang the bell I would open the door all wet with a towel wrapped around my waist, claiming that I’d forgotten she was coming before the show. That had been my plan, to let the droplets of water trickling down my body inspire her to have sex with me. The sad thing was, my water heater had refused to work, and so I’d stayed in cold water for nearly an hour, waiting for the doorbell to ring. I was shivering when I finally got out, and I found a couple of missed calls and a text message from her saying that she wouldn’t be able to make it because something had come up at the office. I got the flu and stayed in bed for a week.
In the bedroom I stood in front of my open closet, wondering what I should be wearing when she saw me later that day. I picked her favorite shirt, dark green with tiny white dots, and a grey suit.
In class my mind again wandered to thoughts of her. I wondered where she could be, listed all the possibilities in my head. It occurred to me that it was actually humiliating that I had no idea whatsoever where my wife had spent her night. The thought spread through my brain cells until I could no longer go on with the lecture. I told my students I was exhausted and excused myself. I called Huda as soon as I was in my office. Her phone was still off, and my battery was about to die. I had some time to kill before taking the shuttle back into the city, so I thought I’d rest my body on the couch for a while. I didn’t realize I’d fallen asleep until I heard Laila’s voice.
I had managed to avoid eye contact with Laila throughout the entire lecture, so I was disconcerted at first to see her face so close to mine when I opened my eyes. I jumped up and tried to get myself together, wondering if she’d noticed my uneasiness. I took my phone off the charger and switched it on, waiting for my home screen to materialize.
“What can I do for you, Laila?”
“I’m sorry, doctor,” she said, “I knocked but there was no answer and the light was on so I just thought I’d come in and make sure you were alright.”
“It’s alright. Now, how can I help you?”
“It’s nothing, really—”
My phone was running by then, and I checked to see if there were any calls that I had missed while it was off. There was nothing and I noticed it was almost time for my bus. I started collecting my things from around the room as Laila spoke. She was complaining about her grade on the last paper she’d submitted. I told her we would talk about it later, locked the office after we both came out, and started running towards the parking lot.
I was nearing the parking lot when I saw the bus start to move. I tried to pick up speed but I was almost out of breath. I thought about heading directly to the gate so I could intercept it there, but suddenly it hit me that that would be an entirely useless effort. What was I dying to get back home to? I didn’t even know where my wife was. There was no one waiting for me in the city. I stood panting in the middle of the deserted parking lot, feeling hollow. I took out my phone and desperately tried Huda’s number again. Her phone was still out of service.
“Can I give you a ride, doctor?”
There was a strange, airy quality to Laila’s voice. She always sounded like she’d just woken up; she spoke steadily, huskily. She pressed a button on her keys and I could hear car doors unlock. I looked at the source of the sound: a Korean hatchback covered in scratches, with a large dent on one side.
“Thank you, Laila. I’ll wait for the next bus.”
“But doctor, you know the next bus won’t be leaving for another hour,” she said.
“I know,” I replied, “I’ll wait.”
Her question took me by surprise. I’d been in my twenties when I first started teaching, fully aware that the age difference between me and my students was much narrower than they thought, which was somehow unsettling. To maintain my image as a teacher, I took shelter in formalities, tough grades and thorough evaluations, and complete avoidance of any events that might lead to any relationships developing outside the confines of the classroom. I was obsessed with the idea that if my students knew me well, they would stop listening to what I had to offer as a teacher and would no longer take me seriously. I had kept that distance for years, and now Leila stood right at its center.
Yet I could think of nothing but lousy answers to her question, all of them with risky consequences. I had realized long ago that boundaries were effective as long as they were subtle, as long as people could sense them but not really see them. Once somebody started seriously testing them, you were between two bitter choices: either to violently defend them, which would expose how vulnerable you are, or to let them be crossed to a certain extent, which might encourage people to go further. I evaluated the current situation in my head and decided that maybe if I took the whole thing lightly it wouldn’t be such a big deal. I smiled at Laila, and we walked silently towards her car.
I hated how far the university was from the heart of the city. The Fifth Settlement – what kind of a name was that? It was the sort of name irrelevance would have if it were a man; very appropriate for a place that popped out of nowhere. I hated how far the university was, but I specifically hated it that day. Laila was probably thinking the same thing. I looked at her and she smiled at me, both of us searching for something to say. She gave up first and turned the radio on.
I fell asleep to the tunes of Schubert’s Ave Maria coming out of the radio. I dreamt that I was in a taxi, and that the meter was fixed at 50 pounds. I thought to myself, Why not? That seems like a reasonable price to pay for a trip in your subconscious. I didn’t know where I was going but I figured that I must have told the driver at an earlier point. We stopped in the middle of the Saqqara Road, right in front of a café. I got off and gave the driver 50 pounds, he asked for more, I pointed to the meter. He nodded in agreement then got out of the car, walked towards me, and punched me in the face. I was very angry and was about to retaliate, but people had already started to come between us in an effort to break the fight. I was still raging and decided to take it to another level; I started to strip down as street fight customs dictated in the poorer, tougher neighborhoods of Cairo, but was suddenly met with peals of hysterical laughter. Everyone had stopped doing what they’d been doing and stood there staring at my crotch, pointing and roaring with laughter. I looked down between my legs. I was wearing women’s underwear — lace panties, hot pink. I started running towards the Saqqara pyramid, horrified, but an open sewer ended my run and the dream itself.
I woke up shivering in Laila’s car. I looked around me, disoriented. The car was parked in a fluorescent-lit open space. Families walked around pushing shopping carts, and Laila was nowhere to be seen. I recognized the parking lot of Carrefour Maadi. Laila had probably thought it was okay to stop and grab some stuff on her way home, since I’d been asleep. I was irritated. I wondered whether I should wait for her, but my anger got the best of me. I decided I was going to look for her, yell in her face like the mad man I was at that moment, then spit on the ground and storm out to look for a taxi.
With Christmas and the Prophet’s Mouled coinciding, the huge store was packed with shoppers. It was clear that it wouldn’t be easy to find Laila, but I scanned the crowds for her face anyways. I was about to give up when I came across a pile of discounted Mouled candy boxes. I thought if I bought one, I wouldn’t be able to blame Laila. But Huda loved sugar-coated sesame bars, and it might be a nice touch to bring some for her. I weighed my options and made up my mind. But before I could move to reach out for a box of candy, a chubby kid hit me with a shopping cart he seemed to have been playing with for a while.
“Watch out, kid!” I exclaimed, rubbing my side, where the cart had poked me.
I was in a horrible mood, so horrible that I could’ve easily slapped the boy, kidnapped him, threw him off a roof. But I was ready to leave it at that and just get the hell out of that giant circus of a store. Except that the boy’s father appeared. He loomed up behind a pyramid of milk cartons, his wife and two daughters trailing behind him. A long, bushy beard, a black niqab, and two veiled twin girls who couldn’t be more than nine years old.
“Is there a problem, sir?” He asked with unmasked hostility.
“Is this your son?”
“He is.” The brief reply came out sounding like a challenge
“Well, he hit me with that shopping cart.”
“With all that yelling I thought he put a bullet in your kneecap,” he said sarcastically.
I looked at the man and his little family and tried to imagine what it must be like struggling to maintain your image as a man in four sets of eyes. I knew it was one hell of a weight.
“Put yourself in my shoes,” I said gently, “You’ve had a long, exhausting day at work, and then a kid slams a big shopping cart into your side, wouldn’t you be upset?”
“I would be careful whose kid it was I yelled at.”
That did it.
“I know whose kid it is — a shitty parent who can’t watch over his fucking spoiled brat of a son and lets him run around hitting people with things he shouldn’t be playing with in the first place, and then instead of setting an example to that asshole kid of his and apologizing, he acts like a fucking bully and threatens people he doesn’t know.”
The bearded man was shocked. He clearly hadn’t seen that coming. I could see the smug grin on his face disappear, and the outset of a frown creasing his wide forehead. Would he reply verbally first? Or would he shove me right away? The first punch always wins, but only if it lands – if you miss and your opponent scores using the surge of your body, you are finished. My hand was clenching into a fist when I felt a gentle touch on my arm.
“Akram, Ra’ed says he’s working late at the station tonight, but he sent us a police van with a couple of soldiers to help us with the stuff.”
It was Laila. For a moment there was complete silence. Everyone was taken aback, even me. I looked at the man and saw understanding dawn on his face — it all made sense to him now, I thought, the way I had exploded in his face, the source of my cockiness made clear by Laila’s words.
“How many times have I told Ra’ed I don’t want him sending us police cars for personal errands? That’s an abuse of power,” I found myself saying in pretend indignation. “Call him — or wait, I’ll call him in a minute, just as soon as I’m done with the gentleman here,” I turned back to the man. “Are we good, sir?”
He appeared to be at a loss for words, and before he could answer me his wife stepped forward, grabbed her son by the arm and slapped him hard across the face.
“Haven’t I told you a million times to leave that cart?” she hollered, “Now say you’re sorry.”
Needless to say, the kid did not apologize. Instead he glared at me, his eyes filled with contempt. The mother then took her husband’s hand and squeezed it, starting to lead him away.
“No harm done, sir,” she told me, her voice gentle now. “He’s sorry.”
“It’s fine ma’am, really,” I said. “Have a good day.”
I put my arm around Laila’s shoulder and we strolled away before the man and his wife could question the logic of the entire situation.
“Huge risk you took there,” I said.
She shrugged. “I knew it was going to work.”
“Because he’s salafi, right?”
“Mostly, yeah,” she replied. “You played along nicely, though.”
“I was in a theatre troupe when I was young.”
“Really? I wouldn’t have pictured you that way.”
We headed to the cashier where Laila had left the things she bought. She picked up her bags, tipped the bagging guy generously for looking out for them, and we started walking back to the parking lot.
“I’m sorry,” Laila said.
“Stopping here,” she answered, “You were asleep and I really needed to get a rod for my shower curtain.”
“I would’ve been really pissed if I’d had my ass kicked by that guy for a shower curtain.”
She laughed so hard she dropped the car keys. I thought it was a bit over the top, but she wouldn’t care what I thought anyway. Her laugh sounded familiar yet very unique, the kind of laugh you let out when you knew it was something stupid that cracked you up and yet you couldn’t help it. Very silly and utterly charming. It was the first time in ages that a woman had laughed so heartily at a joke of mine. Did Huda ever laugh at something I said? I had a vague image in my mind of Huda laughing in our wedding. But who wouldn’t laugh on their wedding day, anyway? Well, Huda maybe.
“So, how would you have pictured me?”
“You said you wouldn’t have pictured me that way. How would you have pictured me?”
“Well you’re not very friendly,” Laila said with a smile, “I mean, lots of professors aren’t, but there’s something about your fashion of formality that feels so contrived.”
“I just think it’s made up,” she said, “Most of the students don’t like you that much. They think you’re a good teacher, but they fall for that image you made of yourself as a professor. They’re stupid. I mean, they’re smart of course, but they lack something very important.”
“And what is that?
In the car, I stole a glance at her face as she drove. She had an oval face with big eyes, a sharp nose and full lips – features that were very precise yet mild at the same time. She caught my eyes and I smiled.
“Now you should tell me something,” she said.
“Cucumbers are always cold on the inside.”
That laugh again. It echoed through the car. It felt cozy in a way.
“Come on, seriously,” she said, still laughing.
“That’s a bad question to ask a professor,” I told her, “I mean you’re all kind of the same to me.”
Her phone started to ring and she picked up. It was a business call. Apparently she had taken a job as a freelance translator and there was a misunderstanding in regards to her fees. I watched her deliver a solid, passionate argument on the phone, and I found myself drawn into the whole situation. What had I been doing when I was her age? Living off my family’s money probably, taking random research jobs without accumulating any significant experience, hopelessly caught up in a cheap romantic melodrama. It had taken me a considerable amount of time before I could reinvent my life, and even when I had, it seemed I wasn’t creative enough.
Laila sped down the Ring Road, missing the exit that led to my place. She was still arguing on the phone, almost yelling now, so I didn’t say anything. I sighed. It was okay, really, I would just have to take a taxi back to my place. She took the Agouza Corniche, then the U-turn by the Islamic Hospital. She turned right beside Ne’ma, and I thought to myself it wasn’t so bad after all, at least I was going to enjoy a couple of crappy shawarma petit pains on my way home. She stopped the car at a garage entrance and stepped out — I assumed — to look for the doorman. When she came back she was still yelling on the phone, looking even more upset. She opened the trunk and I leaned in to pick up some of the bags. She shook her head, mouthing that I didn’t have to, I assured her it was okay and walked with her into the building.
She was still on the phone when we reached her door on the fourth floor. I dropped the bags at the doorstep as she rummaged through her big leather shoulder bag for her keys, before she finally found them and opened the door. I peeked into her apartment as I moved the bags from the hall into her foyer. When I had placed them all on the floor I extended my hand to say goodbye, but she took it and drew me inside, closing the door, all the while still fighting on the phone.
I had an urgent need to pee, so I didn’t argue much. Her apartment resembled her car, books and empty liquor bottles on the floor, an old poster of Un homme et une femme on the wall, a red couch and a cheap Chinese home theatre set. I asked her about the bathroom, she pointed me to a small door in the dimly-lit corridor.
My eyes scanned the pictures on the bathroom walls while I peed. One of them was Omar Sharif’s famous Playboy photo, where he stood in a tuxedo surrounded by a bunch of topless models in feather hats. It was provocatively casual, like nobody in the photo — neither Sharif nor the women around him — was aware of the fact that a dashingly handsome man was standing among a group of beautiful, half-naked women. That casualness felt heavy rather than light, as though it were a deliberate effort to condemn the viewer’s excitement, to stigmatize it as a “barbaric” reaction to a totally innocent picture.
As I pulled up my trousers, my eyes fell on the broken shower curtain. I figured it was probably a night of hot sex. I wondered who had enough confidence to fuck a woman under Omar Sharif’s searing gaze. Nobody less than Marlon Brando, I supposed.
I heard a sudden crash outside. Alarmed, I pressed the flush twice but it wouldn’t work. I was horrified at the thought of her coming in later to find the toilet unflushed, but then I remembered how her living room looked, and rushed out to see what had happened.
Laila was standing in the middle of the room, and the table lamp was on the floor, broken into pieces. Her phone was next to it, the screen shattered. I assumed she had thrown her phone at the lamp. I picked it up; to my surprise it was still working. I stepped towards her with the phone in my hand. “Here,” I said softly, “You’ll have to throw it harder.”
A sound came out of her chest, I thought it was a giggle, but it wasn’t. She started to cry. I placed a hand on her shoulder. Her sobs intensified and before I knew it I was holding her tightly and running my hand over her hair. I felt my shirt grow damp with her tears, and my soul grow languid. I thought about the past three days. I was miserable and irrelevant. Everything was tenuous, I thought, all that I’d built — my home, my marriage, my job — couldn’t stay intact in the face of a random fight in a store, or a true moment of desolation encountered in a flat I’d never before been to in Agouza. Laila slipped out of my arms and looked up into my face, and only then did I realize I was crying myself. She was the one holding me now, and I was aware of my body trembling but couldn’t help it. I just lay there on the floor, between the rigidity of the tiles and the heat of her breath on my hair. I started to calm down. She kissed my face, gently, in a way that almost felt maternal, all the while hugging me so that no part of my body remained un-hugged. “You’re fine,” she whispered, over and over, “everything is fine.”
I pulled away from her chest, and my face had left an imprint in tears across her white cotton shirt. I giggled and sniffed, and she chuckled too, black lines of mascara streaming down her cheeks. She kissed me one more time on my left eye, then stood up and said, “I’m going to change.”
She left me on the floor and walked towards her bedroom. I followed her with my eyes as she disappeared inside and left the door ajar. An open door, a very short distance. A weakness spread through my limbs. My heart was overflowing with need — the need for company, the need for a moment of total liberation, the need for a story. I longed for Laila, I longed for a sweet free fall. I wanted to sleep, and Laila’s bed was much nearer than my own bed in Mounira. I stood up and took a few steps towards the bedroom. The bathroom light was still on and I stopped to turn it off. I saw Omar Sharif’s Playboy photo once again, and it hit me as though I was seeing it for the first time. I turned the light off, then walked out of the apartment and closed the door gently behind me.
I tried to call Huda on my way down the stairs. Her phone was still off. I was now calmer and more accepting of whatever was going to happen. I stopped by Ne’ma and bought a shawarma sandwich. It was horrible. It had been years since I’d last eaten there. Had it always been that bad or had I changed? I walked by the river, thinking about the meaning of all that had happened. It was chilly so I tucked my hand under my armpits and surrendered to the fact that actual answers needed way more time than it took to walk from Agouza to Mounira. My phone rang. It was Ahmad.
“Where have you been, you motherfucker? I’ve been trying to reach you all day!”
“Mona wants a divorce.” His voice was tired.
“What? When? How did that happen?”
“It’s a long story.”
“Give me the headlines,” I said, genuinely surprised.
“It seems that there is someone else. A guy from her yoga class.”
That, however, didn’t really surprise me, but I still had no idea what to say. I knew it was a huge blow for him.
“Do you need me to come over?”
“No, thanks. Not now.”
“Okay, just keep me posted.”
I thought about calling Mona, but I figured it wouldn’t really make a difference. It was too late already. I was in Mounira now, and I saw Huda’s car parked under our building. Now that was true irony; I’d spent the whole day anxious to know where she was, now I was terrified to know that she was upstairs. I hadn’t expected that, I’d prepared myself for a bucket of KFC and falling asleep in my suit. I sat on the front steps, wondering what I should say when I saw her, but then I felt like an idiot so I pulled myself up and trudged up the stairs.
Huda was sitting at the dining table. She was smoking. It was the first time in years that I’d seen a cigarette in her hands. Her glasses lay on the table in front of her, and her eyes looked tired. She looked beautiful, though, just as she had when we first met. She looked perfect, except for a ketchup stain on her shirt. I smiled to myself. One little thing like a ketchup stain was enough to make a dire situation like this one suddenly seem funny, a tiny crack in the utter seriousness of the moment, through which I could cross to the other side of my world; our world: mine and Huda’s. The side that I’d never before stepped onto.
“Where were you?” She asked in English in place of her wobbly Arabic, hiding beneath a mask of control.
I knew that this time I shouldn’t follow her to the battlefields she chose, where she could successfully and unnecessarily police our problems without treating them. I knew what I had to do – I had to improvise my way out of this.
“There’s ketchup on your shirt,” I said.
She looked down and a swift “Scheisse!” escaped her mouth. As she scrubbed the stain clean with a napkin I stepped towards her and held her head up. I could see that she had been crying. Was it the first time? No, she had cried in our wedding. But who wouldn’t cry on their wedding day, anyway? Well, Huda, maybe.
I kissed her on the mouth, she didn’t kiss me back. I kissed her again, and again, before I felt her lips tremble and part. I bit her lower lip, she bit mine harder. Something exploded inside me. I picked her up and laid her on the dining table. I took her leather boots off, unbuckled her belt, dragged down her blue jeans. I pulled her up so she sat straight, she wrapped her legs around me, moved her tongue in a circular motion inside my ear. I moaned as I undid my pants. And then I fucked her. I fucked her like there was nothing else in the world, like we were dying in a minute, like we were to live forever, like we were gods, like we were earthlings, like we had just met, like we had been together a thousand years. Her eyes caught mine and she smiled, and I was grateful; a weight was lifted off my shoulder. She smiled, and I came.
I stood still for a moment, my heart threatening to jump out of my mouth. I felt the glorious weakness that one only experiences after great sex spread out trough my body. When I felt steady enough I pulled my pants up and walked to the bedroom. I knew tomorrow wasn’t going to be easy, but I didn’t care at the moment. I plopped down on the bed in my suit and my Oxfords and I closed my eyes. I heard Huda step into the room. The clatter of her accessories as she took them off, the rustle of her shirt as she slipped out of it, the click of her bra being undone. She stood at the mirror, naked, wiping her face with a moist cotton pad. Then she slid in next to me, pushed her body against mine, and whispered in my ear:
“Do that again and I’ll kill you.”
She kissed me hard on the mouth, then we both drifted into sleep.
Born and raised in Cairo, Muhammad El-Hajj is a writer, translator, and digital content creator. His debut collection of short stories, Nobody Mourns the City’s Cats (2018), won the Sawiris Cultural Foundation’s Short Story Prize for emerging writers. He’s currently working on his next collection of short fiction.
Yasmine Zohdi is a writer, translator, and the English culture editor at Mada Masr. She holds an MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College in New York and is currently working on her first collection of short fiction.