Cairo Short Stories



They

What's that? That there. That thing. Don't like it. Don't want it near, it's too near. I have to walk near the ahwa now, past the 2nd door, then back. Then again, till it's 3 times. 3 times. Have to do it 3 times. Because I don't like that thing and because it's time. I know it's time. I know it's time because the sun left. The sun left and I had my cigarette, so it's time. There's that girl again. That girl. One with blue eyes. Eyes like stars. I see her eyes and fly. That girl is Aisha. She doesn't know yet. When it is the days of a big fire moon she will know. She will know and she will look at me and I will fly. I will fly and be with God all my days. I told Saad that but he said I was bad talking. He say it's bad talking to say Aisha is on the street. But I know that girl is Aisha. And soon she will know too. Then maybe Saad will know. I had my 5 cigarettes today and Saad gave me 2 cups of tea. I had 3 sugars. Sometimes I have 2 sugars. The Doctor Eslam he said sugar is no good and he says he's upset with me. His face went sad and small when he said it. Like a little apple. But a funny apple. He said things about my feet. Maybe I wont have feet soon. Some people stop having feet he said. I said I dont like my feet. My feet hurt like bad things in them. Maybe the sihr is in my feet. I tried painting the eye there but I couldnt paint it. Saad said it was cos my brother put the sihr inside me and it wont let the eye there. Maybe I can put a big eye on my djellaba. But then people will look. I dont like them looking. I wear my hood. Saad says some people think I'm a man. I dont know what I am. He said men have pee pee thing and women don't. He says your mum and dad tell you when you are young. He says I'm a woman. He can see by my face too he says. I said I don't remember anyone telling me. He says women do different things than men. He says women's life is hard but men's life is harder. He says women and men always fighting like wasps at the end of hot time. I stand by the cars all day. Some people give me things. Madame Amal brings me water in morning time. She says I have to wash for God. She wants me to go inside. I say I wont go inside. Cos the sihr is stronger inside. I didnt go inside for long time. Maybe seven Ramadan times already. She wants to take my djellaba. She says I can wear new abaya but I told her I cant do that. I cant do that. There's that other cream girl. The one with hair like shams. She got shining bright hair. She stops near the cars and feeds cats. She carries plastic bags with food. She talks to them so soft like I remember my sister talking. But my sister had hair like night. This girl liked the dog too. But the dog got hurt. I saw Mustafa with that dog and he had a gun. I told Saad but Saad said I was sleep looking. I said I know what I saw. That dog was good. Now that girl looks for that dog. I try to tell her in the thinking way I do. I do the thinking way long time. Saad says it's better to talk. But when you talk people get angry and do bad things I said. It's better to do thinking way. It's time for walking now. My feet angry with the sihr inside. Madame Amal say she wants me to go inside again. She says she wants me to sleep in bed. I said it's not time. I have to stay outside for more time. Outside till Aisha knows she's Aisha. Then I will fly to God.
 
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The Accident Man

Things were different when I first came here. I had hopes. The kind of hopes that desperate people have; when all other hopes have been used up. The new hope becomes an obsession and my obsession was to be free and to rest. So I came to Cairo. Ha! Seems like a such a ridiculous thing now! I coulda stayed where I was, kept eating my Twinkie bars and doing this, doing that– but then, I couldn't – I couldn't rest there, knowing what I knew, so I went somewhere I knew nothing. I didn't have much money, but then I didn't think I needed much and anyways, I didn't have a choice about getting more. I thought I could piss my money up the wall a bit, hole up for a while in some seedy hotel, get some grade dope and disappear. I guess I was pretty far into a Midnight Express kind of scenario, minus the jail, I didn't have jail in the plan. Anyways, I got here and of course things were different. The hostels were mainly a mix of 'Visa card kids' and hustlers, with a few outsiders like myself down a musty corridor. On the streets I was seen as some kind of dollar sign; they took one look at my white face and assumed I had money. I guess the average street Joe, who has never stepped foot outside his country, doesn't realise that people like me are pretty low down the food chain ourselves. He doesn't see that I am a persona non gratis to the good ole American system. He doesn't know that I've played people myself for years and can spot his game from a long way away. But OK, a man has to make his way, just I don't wanna be hassled when I'm strolling down the corniche smoking my cigarette. A cigarette is kinda holy to a man. It buys him time. So anyways, one day I was sat minding my own in a bar downtown when this guy pops a little advice to me, he said I could make money teaching English. Well, I have to say I had never considered myself the kinda person that would teach but I liked the idea, it made me laugh, and the money sounded good. Turns out a lot of these private schools here they don't care about certificates or any of that business, in fact all they want is someone to make sure the kids are in one place and give 'em good marks so the parents keep paying the ching ching. But the place made me feel too contained, I couldn't do the do and the nights were eating me up. Some kind of twisted fate that a man earns enough to buy whiskey and then doesn't have the time to drink it. Anyhow purely on the basis of being from outside of this country people started asking me to teach them privately; parents seemed to think I could raise their kids' marks in subjects I knew nothing about, but who was I to say different? All it took was some good smoke and I would fly to my lessons and come up with any number of brilliant theories and false information. Sometimes I swear it was like I was channelling it and my pot boiled stories and faux facts would hit a truth wall. Problem was - the girls. These tricky 14 year olds, in their new hijabs, pouting with lipgloss. It made me feel wrong. That's all I can say. So by the 3rd lesson I was usually quitting and back to zero guineas. How I wish now I'd stuck it out – cos then I would never have met Sherif Ahmed.

I got an email a few weeks after my last paid job and a few minutes before becoming stony broke; 'Good day, I require Business English for my work and a friend said you could help', it began. So, knowing nothing about the subject at hand I emailed the guy back and set up the first lesson; with him willing to pay for ten classes in advance and all at a handsome price. I couldn't do much to celebrate since I was down to 20 LE but I got some kushari and had a few beers in the bar; one paid for by me and the other three courtesy of some happy drunks I got chatting with; gay boys in pink t-shirts and fake diamante watches. Oh the beautiful unsaid situations of this country; where boys hold hands and fawn over each other, even 'practise' for their wedding night, but no, no, no my friend – they are not gay!

The next day I went to Sherif Ahmed's home in Mohandeseen to start tutoring the course. I felt like shit and couldn't even conjugate my own verbs never mind help anyone else with theirs. The maid let me in and I was ushered into the hallway and then into a small room – a bedroom – and asked to wait. I looked around and felt a mix of puzzlement and dismay; there was a queen size bed with a non descript cover and upon it a horrifying cushion heart with 'armwings'. Other than this the room housed a dark wooden wardrobe, several cupboards and one small formica table. Three chairs were around it. The door opened and in came a burly man and a younger, slight woman - unveiled. The man greeted me with a firm handshake and an intent look. Sherif Ahmed, as it was him, looked ridiculously oversized for such a constrained bedroom and the stripes on his t-shirt were making me feel sick. He introduced me to his sister, Amina, saying that she also wanted a course and offering double the money for her to attend the same lessons. This was apparantly Amina's bedroom. We all seemed to feel uncomfortable. Due to my inherent twisted nature and the (perhaps not so ancient) Egyptian propensity for sibling incest I found myself thinking about sex. I began to wonder what type of pants Amina had on, I fancied they were big pants, flesh coloured – beige. I must have been absent for a few moments as I heard Sherif coughing in a false way and I realised that I had better 'get on it'. I brought my flashdrive out of my pocket, the magic wand holding a 'professional' assessment tool that I had had the foresight to download for free the night before. OK.. we had 75 minutes to get through; I made a quick mental breakdown of the lesson; introductions x 2 could take up 15 minutes, some nauseating 'warm up' games could lose another 15, then asking for a coffee and arranging a laptop for the flashdrive upload would nicely take up 10 and then the assessment itself. Perfect.

Or so I thought.

Everything started to shatter right after the introductions.. Sherif Ahmed informed me that he had held a senior position in the police force for 15 years and then with those sixth sense eyes set upon me he said he needed this Business English course for his new job; as chief fraud investigator with Bank of America; a name I had hoped I was never going to hear again. I don't think I need to elaborate here; I didn't kill anyone, no-one got hurt in the making of my escape and no, it wasn't a heist. Simply I had taken a lot of money on credit cards, overdrafts and the like and I had skipped town. Of course I had googled the situation thoroughly before doing so and all roads seemed to lead to the one fact that what I had done, although not seen as 'socially correct behaviour for a world citizen' was nevertheless not a crime. However, sitting opposite a person with questionable ethics (ie a person who feels that they ought to uphold bank policies) such as Sherif Ahmed made me feel anxious and I began to feel a headache pressing upon my temples. 'OK,' I thought, 'I'll make a hash of this lesson and they won't ask me back.' But then I began to fret about the payment; what if Sherif insisted on a receipt? What if he asked me awkward questions such as my legal status in Egypt? What if he wanted to see a work visa? I made a conscious shift to let go of these gripping fears for the moment and 'just get through'. I glanced at my mobile. Time was up. The lesson was over.

The next day I got up later than usual and with a hunger in my belly went out for kushari. I was feeling fairly relaxed, King of the World with the 3000 LE that had been passed the day before into my wanting hand, no questions asked. I'd just finished my post food coffee when an sms came through; it was Sherif and he wanted to meet; he said he needed some guidance about a report. I paid my tab and hit the street to get a taxi over there; quite relieved in fact that the 2nd pre-paid lesson was happening so soon; at this rate it would all just be a memory quicker than I had expected. However, life is a bittersweet affair and Sherif Ahmed was about to grab my balls and twist them into oblivion; or at least try to. I arrived at the family house and was shown into a small study room this time, wondering why the hell we had had to go through the overage teenage d├ęcor hell of the sister's bedroom the day before. The table had numerous files and folders upon it and several silver pens lined up in a holder. Sherif gestured for me to sit down and then he also took a seat. He looked at me for a disconcerting 'over minute' and then coughed as he opened a folder. 'I did some homework,' he said. I knew he didn't mean anything to do with the subject/verb agreements work I'd left him and his sister with. I knew things were about to get tricky. In some ways, in that moment right before it all happened, I felt a certain relief to receive such assurance that my paranoias were rightly placed – that I had been tuned in to the big fuck up. In some ways the whole stinking pile of crap made me feel insanely alive. I took a deep breath, inhaled the moment and listened with ever increasing coldness as he went on, “It turns out that quite a few people are keen to know your whereabouts. There's money on your head”. He paused and fixed me with those corporate eyes and gave an odd, imitation of a smile. I didn't say anything, in fact I let my face remain passive throughout. I was on my toes inside but I wasn't gonna let this guy see that. He lit a cigarette, fastening himself further into what was fast becoming a trite pastiche, and sat back in his chair; 'a dominant move by the assuming alpha male' I thought. “I can help you,” he said. There was a definitive pause. It was match serve or swerve; I made my aim, “How?”.

I guess looking at me now, you might wonder indeed at Sherif Ahmed's understanding of the verb 'to help'. I would say he had a paradoxical or one could say 'dark' take on it. Or maybe it was in the object pronoun; he meant to say “I can help myself”. Whatever, as you can see I am quite literally a broken man now. One thing that gives me some sorry comfort is knowing again that the bad things that are said about the world are said for solid reasons – Sherif Ahmed's law enforcement had an invisible join with criminality; the circle completed itself; he was one and the same and fell into the Big Blur. In other words he was a corrupted asshole.

“50,000 LE”

“What?”

“And your cover is safe”

“Cover? I'm not an assassin! I, I...”

“I know what you are, and I can keep that knowledge to myself, if you want..”

“Are you....”

“Yes. I'm offering to help you”


The thing was I didn't have 50,000. I didn't have more than the 3000 and actually that was down by about 100. We went through a bit of talk tennis about my family's means, I think it was hard for Sherif to understand such familial dysfunction and to put together a picture of a man that could travel and live independently with that of a penniless person; or at least a person who truly only had 2,900 LE. Or, hmmm, let's be brutal.. he didn't give a stuffed monkey's ass.. he just wanted his money.. end of.

Like they say a conman can only con you if you want to believe in the first place, a blackmail situation is similar; in that there has to be something the blackmailee is concerned about. I don't know why I felt so bothered, I actually don't know anymore, but at the time I was freaked and all I wanted was to be able to stay in Egypt. Sherif said for the 50,000 he'd also throw in some benefits; like a residency visa and stuff.

I've paid him about half of it now, but I really don't think I can continue. My right arm has totally got mashed and I've got pins in my legs. Even if I could get it together to throw myself in front of some more cars they'd see the existing damage and might cotton on. Or the doctors might ask questions. It's getting hard to go to different hospitals all the time and besides; it hurts. I'm hurting. And I think the smashes to my head are like affecting me, I mean like.. oh.. yeh.. I haven't even explained have I? Well, I usually do it in front of the Sheraton, but sometimes The Four Seasons too. The first one I did straight, but nowadays I take some meds first. The drivers usually don't have any insurance and I size them up quick to come up with a figure that I guess they can pay. I'm generally right. They pay. I've done about seven or eight now, but like I said I'm getting tired. I stil don't have any residency papers and I have to pay the hospital bills on my own. Maybe I should go back to America and do this, I mean we are the country of sueing right? I mean if we take this as a career option then basing myself in Egypt sucks. Anyways, they call me The Accident Man, the bawabs and the street people. They know my game, they bring me tea when I'm lying in front of a car. One of them even has a First Aid Kit now.

Yeh, strange life, isn't it.

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The Watcher

I'd been watching her and her friend for a while.

I first saw them when a guy I know asked me to advise about a repair job on the roof of their building. I work as a porter at a hotel but I know about building because, I don't know why, I was just always good at it naturally it seemed and I got a reputation in my neighborhood for being 'handy'.

Anyway these girls, they'd left the shutters of their back window open and when I came down the stairs out the back, the ones the trash collectors use, it was some luring energy that came through.

I went back there before dawn, climbed up those steps full of litter and bones, found a seat and sat waiting. I felt an energy that troubled, yet excited me. I knew I shouldn't be there but at the same time these were not Muslim girls; they were foreigners with all that openness I heard foreigners have. They had their shutters open for a reason, it was an invitation and I was just waiting for the time to accept.

The first time I sat there for an hour before morning prayer; I was wearing my uniform for the porter job, so I brought along a newspaper to sit on. I'd told my mum that I was going to start trying to go into pray at the mosque; it was Ramadan – so she accepted what I said and didn't think it was suspicious; in fact she praised me.

I didn't like it on those stairs, I'm not fussy, but I don't think many people like all that type of rubbish around them and the smells and the cats. Some of those cats are djinns and you have to work out which ones they are; they're the ones that come up on you real fast and you don't even see their eyes, bright with ferral hunger.

I sat there but nothing happened, at least nothing that I saw, but I could feel them; feel their bodies inside their flat, in their beds, stirring as they sensed me waiting. I knew then they wanted me. It was just a matter of time and they would create the perfect moment.

And they did.

The dark haired one was on the sofa, kissing like in those films, kissing some guy with hair like one who has strayed from the path. He hadn't come there much and he never brought anything with him so far as I could see; he visited empty handed; wanting her to fill his hold. I knew he would leave, take whatever it was he decided was enough and then go and then I would be there, the one who could really be depended upon.

The blonde one was going to and fro to the bathroom, wrapped in a towel, her white moon skin asking to be bitten. She was a moon fruit, but I had to know when to taste her, sense when she was ripe.

He left. And the dark haired one went over to her computer and started writing something, staring sometimes out of the other windows, the ones that didn't have me in their view, but instead the city and its night.

I took my calling, for I knew they needed me then, to bring some shape to their lives, their lives that were just too open and bringing in the dead leaves. They needed my strength, my focus, my lead. I would have to divide them though, for together they would continue to remember the other way, yes I would have to ensure that they were kept apart. I would be the one to teach them.

It was surprisingly easy to get in, the railings held my weight and then I was over onto the balcony and into the kitchen. I decided to first go to the blonde, she was taking a shower, so I would have to wait until she came out as bathrooms are haram for any type of activity. I went into a bedroom and waited, reciting prayers to give me clarity. I worried that the other one would come and I checked around the room to confirm it wasn't in use. But then suddenly a mobile phone began to ring loudly somewhere in the flat and the blonde came out of the bathroom and took the call. She was speaking for a long time out down the hallway, probably in her bedroom and I finally heard her saying 'tayb, khalas', when the dark haired one came suddenly near to the bathroom. I panicked at this change of movement and tried to gather some inward strength.

And then, then I don't know what happened.

I believe one of them was a witch, the dark one I think, and she had summoned some sihr. All I know is that three women, such as Saidi, dressed in black malaya, were from nowhere upon me. They has no nails but talons, that scarred my face until now and their faces were screams or nightmares visited upon this earth, The worst were their words, or what I understood of them – pushed into my being with fire and all this as was earth pushed into my mouth so that I was unable to make one sound to save myself.

My mother still asks where I got these marks upon my face. I still say I don't know.

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Bird Girl

I like it like this. This is where I want to be. It's the only place.

On floor level my body isn't helpful, it bangs into things like other people's. It's heavy. It lets me down.

Here, suspended from this bar, I am alive.

He's around somewhere, maybe half awake on the mattress, maybe watching me from a corner – huddled around his bottle. He prefers to stay like that, than go out. He says being outside is pointless. His body let him down too, and will probably never recover, that's why he drinks and watches me – I'm his memory and his flight.

We don't have much; just the necessities; just what we must have. This trapeze is all I insisted on. He built it for me, his ruined hand barely able to work.

I don't want him. I don't want anything. Just this. This muscle pain driving orgasms into my head, pushing them blue into my eyes. This twisting, the sinews of my arms on the precipice of snapping, this shape, my shape, within the upper space; this tense freedom.

He and I, we are some kind of outsiders, not belonging or wanting to belong. We know people look at us suspiciously and we don't try to cultivate good opinion.

He hung my trapeze near the huge front wall windows; I fly into the night, into the neon insanity. These concrete gods cannot demand me to stop – I am in the hand of the mightier one – of the true Divine. I am beheld by cosmic mania, by the jewel of non being. I arch my body and meet with sky. There is nobody. Nobody can find me now. I am a high diver, an astronaut, a nothing. My god, let me stay in this boundless, placeless, traceless climax.

Devoured and devouring, I rise.

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