Forty stacks of disheveled newspapers, each one filtered by headline. Forty days of bleeding after birth. Forty days of travel in the underworld—one month and ten days. As a historian, Hoda should have felt more tethered to the fortieth day ritual, yet all she wanted was to be alone.
“I can’t tell people not to come.” Hassan whispered in her ear a fortieth day prayer to the dead about light, forgiveness, and paradise.
She let his arm lie there and watched how her fingers imprinted on her icy glass of water, as she erased the fog with her breath bit-by-bit.
Women clad in black, men in buttoned-up shirts filled every inch of the Heliopolis apartment. The winter sun streaked through the glass-paned windows; the air was stuffy, breathless. Ali’s friends, Hassan’s parents, and their extended family encased Hoda.
Mourners reeked of bitter Turkish coffee breath, their tear-stained faces muggy, and their condolences a looping track. The orotund voice of the Qur’anic verses screeched from a loudspeaker, filled the silences, and muted conversations. Everything was loud, too loud, even the chirping birds outside in the sycamore trees.
From the burgundy velvet chair, her eyes followed the activity as if she was watching a movie scene. Outstretched arms hovered mid-air then withdrew, unfulfilled in their need to proffer sympathy. Hassan was gracious, overcompensated. He walked each person out, shook hands, accepted hugs, folded paper bills to pay the waiters and the sheikh. Extra for the carriers who stacked the rented chairs, extra for the servers who clinked glass and clanked china.
“Come to bed,” Hassan said.
She shook her head.
“I’m exhausted,” he leaned in and kissed her cheek, “Bonne nuit, habibti.”
His silhouette receded down the corridor and disappeared into the bedroom.
Hassan had gone back to work after a month; she had taken an indefinite leave of absence from the high school. Teaching via email during curfew was pointless. Even if school were to resume, she couldn’t stomach her pupils’ animated pimpled faces.
In the bathroom, she rolled toilet paper around the drenched sanitary pad and sprayed jasmine air freshener to mask the metallic stench of blood.
Ten days ago, after throwing away the millionth pad she had visited the gynecologist. The one who had delivered Ali and treated her mother for ovarian cancer had abandoned Egypt last January when the foreigners were forcibly evacuated. She decided to be more progressive, to book a doctor online, something a millennial would do, something Ali would do.
“It’s been a month and I haven’t stopped bleeding.”
“It could be endometriosis,” he said.
His bald head reflected the white light.
“Are you stressed?” he asked, his tone dispassionate. “Other than the stress of the political situation, I mean.”
“Just please prescribe something to stop the blood, or better yet, stop it forever,” Hoda said.
“These naive kids have put the country in such an unstable situation.”
She walked out before he wrote the prescription and waddled to the car, blood gushing between her legs.
The open bathroom window hadn’t dissipated the smell; instead, it had blended with the jasmine deodorizer. The result was nauseous. Overwhelmed by her impotence at preventing the odor from seeping into the rest of the apartment, she listened to Hassan’s rhythmic sinusoidal snores audible from the bedroom. Near the front door, Ali’s car keys glinted where they hung from the Kaf Fatima.
* * *
It was 3:17 am. Cairo never sleeps, but it was deserted this night. An occasional car whizzed by. Hoda parked Ali’s silver-grey Hyundai Verna on Hoda Shaarawi street. As she passed Banque Misr, she remembered telling her class how she was named after Shaarawi, Egypt’s first feminist, and one of the pioneers who provided seed money for the establishment of the bank a hundred years ago. The students were always surprised when she told them that the board of directors of Egypt’s first bank had included Sephardic Jews, Coptic Christians, and Sunni Muslims. A national bank to counter European colonial institutions.
Eyes closed, she imagined Ali’s hands, his small pudgy fingers intertwined with her own. As a teenager, he had refused any sort of physical affection.
The Paris of the East was unrecognizable, a shadow of her former self. Tahrir, the square that was plastered across screens around the world during the Arab Spring had mutated from carnival war zone to an assemblage of boarded-up buildings and deserted hotels. The absence of noise was as distinct as the hole in her chest. No weddings, no bar crawls, no one shuffling in and out of the Sadat metro station, only a few guards asleep at their posts.
She imagined describing the square to her high schoolers, her tone loud and vulgar like a game show host. “Tahrir true to its Arabic name ‘Liberation’ is home to two hundred and fifty years of resistance. Every street name, every statue and structure, is a window into our identity, our culture, and heritage.”
At the gate of the American University in Cairo, her thoughts stalled; her imaginary high-schoolers were replaced by Ali stepping onto the stage to receive his diploma. She and Hassan had cheered like fervent football fans, Mariam beside them, her waist-length curls bounced-up and down. Hoda had thought Ali and Mariam would marry, that she would gain a daughter, that she would babysit their kids, take them to swim practice, feed them falafel sandwiches.
Ali’s backpack dropped to the ground with a thud. The corner wall of the university where most of tomorrow’s traffic would pass, seemed like the perfect spot. The Egyptian and American flags conjoined at the base were barely visible above the wall. Hoda clutched the azure blue canister and the bra stencil. She remembered the headline, “An outrage to every woman: Soldiers drag a protester by the arms from Tahrir, exposing her blue bra.” Hand snug in a cream latex glove, she held the stencil in place, and sprayed. Hoda stepped back, examined her achievement, her first ever graffiti. She spray-painted “Long Live #Jan25,” and signed “FM.”
* * *
Driving home, she remembered how Leila, Hassan’s maternal cousin, had introduced her to him twenty-five years ago. Leila was flunking out of university, and Hoda was giving her private lessons while finishing her PhD.
“Without history you’re just a balloon that drifts in the clouds,” Hoda had said. They were in Leila’s bedroom, Hoda in a navy pantsuit and glasses, Leila in a flowery bubble dress with shoulder pads, push-up bra and hair-sprayed bangs. She held up a pocket cosmetic mirror and showed Hoda how to apply make-up.
“Fuchsia lipstick suits you best,” Leila said. “Press your lips together.”
Hoda pursed her lips, looked in the mirror. “It’s too daring. I don’t like it.”
She wiped it off with a tissue and smudged her cheeks with it.
“Are you listening to me? Learning history is how we help our country.”
Leila yawned, “You sound like my stuffy cousin Hassan; he thinks Engineering will turn Egypt into Amreeka.” She dabbed a cotton with makeup remover and cleaned Hoda’s cheeks.
These past forty days had felt like an additional forty years. Her cheeks had drooped, her eyes had sunk, and she was the only woman her age whose hair was peppered with white. Leila had been by their side throughout the years; she had aged well, toujours à la pointe, even when grief struck.
Hoda turned the key to their Heliopolis apartment. Silence. Hassan was still asleep. She made her way to Ali’s room, undressed, disposed of another blood-filled pad, left the stained clothes in a rumple on the floor, and shoved Ali’s graffiti bag under the bed. His oversized black cotton t-shirt was tender and familiar on her skin.
In Ali’s bed she felt small, embryonic. She curled beneath his thick tentmakers’ patchwork quilt, seeking warmth. She let his unwashed sheets hold her tears until sleep overcame her, as the call to dawn prayer filtered through the closed windows, and Hassan’s footsteps shuffled towards the bathroom. He had not missed a prayer since the funeral.
* * *
“Morning, or should I say, good afternoon.” Hassan said. “You should eat.”
Acid filled her throat like a rusted bullet lodged in her esophagus.
“Should?” The kitchen chair screeched as she got up. “Shouldn’t you be at work?”
“It’s Saturday,” he said.
She avoided Hassan’s cheerless face with its hazel eyes, a copy of Ali’s.
The day Sadat awarded Hassan’s engineering project the innovation prize, Hoda was in the stands, next to Hassan’s parents. He had waved at them, and those hazel eyes had sparkled and convinced her that their love, their relationship would be like the Bee Gees sappy love songs she adored.
“Wait.” Hassan said. “I need to talk about Ali.”
His name out loud seared her like when she burned her index finger ironing Hassan’s shirts. She didn’t have curly hair, nor did Ali. But Hassan did. She could see him from the corner of her eye, anxiously twirling the locks around his index fingers.
“Activists… Ali… memorial…”
Echoes of Hassan’s words resonated in the air.
“Our wedding was at the Gezirah palace,” Hoda said.
Hassan stopped mid-sentence, baffled.
“Although it’s now the Marriott, its history goes back over a hundred and forty years when it was called the Gezirah Palace—”
“I know and I don’t care. What’s wrong with you?”
“My historical facts used to amuse you.”
He stared at her, exhaled, murmured a prayer about patience, and said: “I was trying to tell you about the memorial, at the arts cultural center. They want us to attend. To say a few words.”
“I don’t want to see anyone,” she wanted her tone to be like the angry voice of a colonel, instead it was barely a whisper.
“Hoda, let’s sit down.”
She stopped him from entering Ali’s room, her arm extended across the door frame like a check point officer. His orange polo shirt. Too bright. Too soon.
Hassan continued, his voice irritated, “Ali’s friends are all going to be there, Mariam too of course.” He stressed on the words “Ali’s friends” and “Mariam.”
The newness of Hassan’s camaraderie with Ali and his friends was like a skin-tight shirt that showed his middle-aged belly. She had been the one feeding Ali, chauffeuring him, and pushing for his artistic dreams, while Hassan wanted Ali to follow in his footsteps and become an engineer.
In a softer tone, Hassan continued, “Please reconsider, the movie—a short documentary of Ali’s life. It’s beautiful, you’ll love it. I made a copy for you.”
Hoda curled a tight fist around the metallic memory stick; the way a baby holds on tight to a pinkie, the edge dug into her palm, marked it.
* * *
It was 3:22 am. Hoda parked near Cinema Radio on the only street unobstructed by large concrete slabs. Bright lights from Bassem Youssef’s billboard stung her eyes: Our very own John Stewart. A group of three men walked on the opposite sidewalk, one with an unkempt beard. They were half a block away. “Umm Kulthum was the voice of the 1952 revolution; Bassem is the voice of this one,” she told her imaginary class. This could be the title of a contemporary lecture on the revolution.
“What are you doing up so late, honey?” one of the men called out. The one with the unkempt beard was blowing bubble-gum balloons, each pop like a mosquito electrocuted by a bug zapper.
Hoda’s pace quickened. She replayed her lecture on Umm Kulthum, how the singer helped transform Nasser’s coup d’état into a populist revolution. “In the fifties and sixties, Cairene streets were deserted during Umm Kulthum’s monthly Thursday night concerts. Her voice filled every home, fans were mesmerized by her tantric voice and poetic lyrics. Give me my freedom, set free my hands. Over eighty million records sold worldwide.”
The distance between Hoda and the men grew, her white breath a small cloud in the dark. Ali would have blended his paints and sketched Umm Kulthum with Bassem Youssef, reflecting how they both united Egyptians and Arabs around the world—one through song, the other through humor. It is the sort of connection he would draw, reinvent, epitomize. A visual storyteller. The first time Hoda christened him that, he had said, “Stop it, Ma.”
She reached the salmon-coloured walls of the Egyptian Museum. A must-see for any tourist, not that Egypt entertained any visitors nowadays. Even the international correspondents who were once enamored with the uprising and Mubarak’s ensuing abdication were long gone. The wind sliced through her clothes, cut through her bones; she zipped up Ali’s hoodie.
Two tanks and many armed soldiers surrounded the main entrance. At least six guards. She rubbed her arms. Seven-year-old Ali said, “Here’s a kiss to warm you, Mama.” He squatted on the sidewalk, eating his favorite falafel sandwiches, the ones they used to buy together after swim practice.
She moved around the building to the back wall of the museum where no guards could be seen. Her hand trembled as she spray-painted the blue bra on the museum wall.
“Who’s there? What are you doing?”
Hoda’s legs buckled and cramped at the same time. She bent down to rub her calves numbed stiff. The drumbeat in her throat louder upside down. As she ran, the footsteps behind her drew closer. She didn’t look back.
“Stop,” she heard, followed by the sound of rubber bullets piercing the air.
“I’m not shot, I’m not caught, I’m not dead. I’m not shot, I’m not caught, I’m not dead…”
Over and over her lips repeated the words. Her hands gripped the steering wheel, slick with sweat, the empty rear-view mirror not enough to quieten the thumps in her chest. The apartment door slammed shut behind her; car keys, backpack clattered to the floor. She stumbled into Ali’s bed and cowered, fetus-like. Hassan called out.
“Hoda, is that you? Hoda?”
His footsteps approached.
“Hoda, you’re pale as chalk, what’s wrong? Where were you?”
He sat on the bed, his hand was gentle on her hair, her shoulders, and all along her back.
Her shivers continued, she wanted to say I’m not shot, I’m not caught, I’m not dead. Instead, she said, “I’m cold, I’m so cold.”
“I’m here. It will pass,” he said. “God grant us your patience. O mighty God. We are only struck with what you have written for us.”
His soothing tone and his words wrapped around Hoda’s heart and weakened its thud. She tucked his hand under her wet cheek. The steady beat of his heart under her hand steadying her own, until the morning light filtered through the room.
* * *
For a couple of nights, Hoda remained at home. She waited for seven-year-old Ali to re-emerge, to take her hand. Had he abandoned her like teenage Ali had? The acidic taste in her mouth worsened. Her bleeding was unrelenting. To distract herself, she returned to sorting the newspapers.
“Aren’t you going to throw all this out?”
Hoda too engrossed, didn’t even notice Hassan hovering.
“The salon looks like the National Archives, it’s unlivable.”
He moved one of the stacks. It left an outline in the dust on the parquet.
She decided not to remind him how he had acquiesced to a similar disruption seven years ago for Ali’s mural. He had even brought out his tools and moved Ali’s closet into the dining room to make room for the artwork in Ali’s bedroom. In return, Ali had agreed to study Engineering and keep art as a side labor of love. A hobby he could be enamored with, but not a “practical pursuit,” and “financials are important.” Hassan’s words out of Ali’s mouth, felt like a betrayal.
“It’s not proper, clothes in the dining room!” Hoda had said. “Why can’t the mural be here where family and guests can enjoy it? Why does it have to be in his room, he’s already in there all the time.”
“Let him enjoy his privacy, I was like that at his age too,” Hassan said.
“Who cares about guests?” Ali said. “Baba, you’re the best.”
* * *
It was 4:05 pm, day forty-five, still bleeding. Hassan was at work. Hoda’s brain throbbed, she rubbed her temples and walked into Ali’s bedroom; When had she and Ali drifted apart? Hoda’s mother Nabila used to say that she took on her father’s rigidity after he died.
Hoda remembered the spacious, high-ceilinged carpeted room of the Mère Supérieure’s office. Only girls who had broken the rules were summoned; she had never entered before, it was unlike all of the other nun’s rooms that were drab and run-down. Hoda held the large black plastic handset of the rotary phone, unable to decipher the words on the other end of her maternal Aunt Sarah.
“A heart attack, where? How? But he’s a doctor?”
She had run home from school in her navy-blue pleated skirt and white shirt and arrived sweaty and dusty to the echoing sound of Qur’anic verses and a locked door. Groups of men in fine tailored suits told her she couldn’t go in.
“It’s not proper. Your papa is being washed and prepared for burial,” a clean-shaven perfumed Uncle Sayed had said.
Hoda screamed, “Let me see him, he’s not dead, he’s not dead. He would never leave me.”
Mama’s sister, Aunt Sarah had brought the nurse with a tranquilizer.
She slept and dreamt of rescuing her Papa from a trapped tomb like Indiana Jones.
In her dream, Papa had chuckled and said, “Hod-hod you found me.”
Hoda never thought she would let anyone else call her by that nickname. She squatted in front of Ali’s mural; each glance a newborn detail emerged like eyesight regained. He had called it “Art and Liberty,” a tribute to the Egyptian painters of the early twentieth-century. A mishmash of every artform imaginable.
At the edge of the mural were the famous historian Milad Hanna’s seven pillars of Egyptian identity—Ancient Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Coptic, Islamic, African, Mediterranean, and Arab. Historical stories clustered throughout the mural as if to prop it up.
She remembered Hassan resisting.
“You’re too in love with relics,” Hassan had said. “Come join the land of the living.” He had pulled her away from lecture preparation and made her watch a melodramatic Ramadan soap opera. She had watched him giggle and was entertained by his boisterous contagious laughter.
She loved Ali’s tribute to Mahmoud Saïd’s iconic whirling dervishes on the mural. It reminded her of when she took Ali to see them as a young boy. The two of them had twirled together at home to the rhythm of the tabla. Hoda twirled alone to the powerful beat in her head. Perhaps she could transcend this world like the dervishes and connect to Ali? Would he forgive her?
The apartment door clacked shut. Hassan was home. He came in and sat beside Hoda, and kissed her cheek as he always did when he returned from work.
On the left side of the mural, the turquoise eye of Horus shone like the sun, a symbol of loss and recovery-a charm amulet Ali always wore to ward off evil. Next to the eye, pigeons soared away from their clay rooftop coops into Cairo’s cluttered concrete skyline; the Citadel perched above majestic bulbous Mamluk minarets like the view from their apartment balcony.
Had she failed to protect him? Perhaps they should have left the country like many others had. They could have gone to Paris. Hoda remembered how she had insisted to deliver Ali in Cairo amongst family, rooted. They were the only Egyptian couple who hadn’t actively sought-after a second nationality. Because of her ideals. Rigid, so rigid like Mama Nabila said.
She leaned on Hassan’s shoulder; he put his arm around her.
“Remember Paris, when we were graduate students,” Hoda said.
“The best years,” Hassan said, “You were the most active, vibrant and beautiful pregnant woman.” He massaged circles on her lower back; it was the exact spot she complained from the most, from reading too much, writing too much.
“He barely bulged,” she said, her voice cracked.
“A sweet boy.”
Ali had integrated his own history into the mural: a collage of black and white photos of Hassan and Hoda, their engagement, their marriage, Ali’s welcome into the world. The photo taken seven days after his birth, where he was in a basket that would protect him from dark spirits, an ancient Egyptian tradition.
Hoda wanted to reach for Hassan’s embrace, but her eyes were drawn to the panoramic photo of the pyramids. Their grandiose splendor undaunted above red-brick ghettos that crept all the way to their basea testament to the men and women who had tried to move the Great Pyramid. It never budged. It trampled. Even its city’s Arabic name, al-Qahira, vanquisher of enemies, had metamorphosed, to that of a mother killing her progeny.
Hoda decided instead to take Hassan’s hand and guide it through the shimmering colors of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. The sketch that Ali reproduced from a mosaic in the Hanging Church, “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt.” She paused and took a deep breath, “A safe haven, once upon a time.” Her eyes welled up.
She couldn’t remember a life prior to Ali, nor did she want to breathe an after-Ali existence. How had the Virgin Mary endured? Mother of Light, explain it to me. She was a Female Mutilation. A Former Mother. FM.
* * *
It was 2:30 am. Day fifty. Hoda parked at the Four Seasons Hotel. It was about a thirty-minute walk to Tahrir Square but that wasn’t where she was going. She climbed the stairs of the underground garage and dove into Garden City. The curved narrow streets full of fig and mango trees were ingrained in her mind. She had grown up here. She remembered how twenty-five years ago, the tanks that had also been on the street when the Central Security Forces revolted. She was staying with her mother because she was close to her due date. Hassan worried that the imposed curfew would prevent them from reaching the hospital.
“Hod-hod, couldn’t we just have stayed in Paris for the delivery?” Hassan had said.
A voice in the distance brought Hoda back to Garden City. She heard footsteps, rustling leaves, a crackling branch. Not again. She started to run, but then she heard her name.
“Ali is that you?”
Ali never called Hoda by her first name, nor by the hoopoe nickname.
“Hod-hod. Stop.” Hassan’s familiar sturdy frame.
“What are—” Hoda said.
“Why are you in Garden City at 3 am?” he said.
Hoda turned and walked away.
“Where are you going?” Hassan said.
“The British and American embassies.”
“Have you lost your mind? What do you want? A visa?”
“Sarcasm. Really, Hassan?”
They walked side by side.
She zipped up her jacket, covered her hair with Ali’s hoodie.
“Hoda, stop, let’s go home.” He pulled her frail arm back, but she pulled away.
“Stop. Stop!” Hassan’s pitch higher with each syllable.
He stood in front of her, shorter and bulkier than Ali. She pushed past him.
“No. I need to finish this,” she said.
“Finish what? It’s dangerous, there’s a curfew; there’s state security everywhere.”
“You won’t understand.” Her tone was flat, authoritative.
“Try me,” he said.
A long silence filled the space between them.
“The last thing Ali said to me was that I’m a fraud.”
“He didn’t mean it.”
“I disappointed him.”
“He knew you loved him so much.”
“I was arrogant, every encounter between us since the revolution began was heated.”
“It’s been a tense time for everyone.”
“I lost him before I lost him.”
Hoda handed over the backpack. He dropped down and sat on the sidewalk.
“I’m spreading Ali’s symbols, his stencils, all around Cairo. I started with Tahrir.”
“Ten days ago.”
They sat there in stillness as the cold of the cement sidewalk seeped into their bones.
She remembered how animated Hassan and Ali were during the eighteen days of the revolution, how their bond had solidified further. Ali had introduced Hassan to his graffiti group, “Walls of Freedom.” He needed Hassan’s engineering firm assisted them with supplies like scaffolding. Hoda had prepared dinner and listened to them both discuss details of their meeting.
“Amr says you’re the compass of the group. His words not mine. The Mecca,” Hassan said.
“Dad kept bragging about you,” Ali said, “How you’re a historian with a doctorate from the Sorbonne but still teaches high school because you believe in the promise of youth.”
“So sweet, my Hassan, habibi,” Hoda said.
“It was embarrassing,” Ali said, “You never supported the revolution.”
The steam from the okra lessened the sting.
“Your Mom was worried about you,” Hassan said.
The three of them ate in silence around the oval dining table.
“You should gather information about their personal histories, their art, and their participation before and after Jan 25. The purpose of each location and art piece, like an archeologist of the present,” Hoda had said. “First person accounts are rare and precious.”
“That’s your thing Ma, not mine,” Ali had said, pushed his plate and stood.
“History taught us that revolutions fail; the French Revolution brought on Napoleon, the Bolshevik, Stalin. Ours, so far, it’s been despair, death, destruction. Eventually someone will surely emerge.”
“I don’t want to ever hear another lecture. You’re a pessimist. Your history is wrong!” he had stomped to his room and slammed the door.
Hassan rubbed his knuckles from the cold. Hoda’s intestines grumbled and she pulled his hand to stand. Garden city had changed, the familiarity had transformed into a menacing setting.
“A paintbrush is countered with a lethal bullet by the heinous Regime. That’s what the headlines all over the world should say.”
Hassan hugged Hoda for a long time, her head tucked under his chin, his arms tight around her.
But there’s nothing. Nothing. He died for nothing.”
“Let’s go home,” his voice faint, he kept repeating the words until Hoda moved with him.
They walked away from the embassies; but state security had blocked the roads, and more patrols were coming up ahead in the distance.
“There’s no way,” he said.
They switched direction. Down the street named after Saad Zaghloul, the 1919 revolutionary leader. The parliament building stood between them and the embassies. A dozen guards walked back and forth, the Ministry of Interior was like a decaying fortress in the background. Broken shutters, the stench of piss on the fence, piles of uncollected garbage, missing letters on the sign above the entrance misspelled its name.
Three guards walked towards them. They were trapped. Their backs up against one of the new concrete walls. Hassan stood in front of Hoda, but they broke them apart. They insulted Hassan, the worst words Hoda had ever heard. She remained silent; this was their language, their city.
They asked them for IDs. They asked if they were Brotherhood. They asked if they were terrorists, if they were ISIS. Spies? Traitors? Foreigners?
“We were walking, my wife and I, she used to live here, my in-laws’ apartment is down that road.” Hassan attempted to explain, his voice calm. “She was having a nightmare, that’s all; we forgot about the curfew.” His answers were fruitless; they searched the backpack and found the stencils.
Blood trickled down Hoda’s leg to her ankle. All she could think of was that she was FM and he was FF, and that this was inevitable.
Sherine Elbanhawy is pursuing an MA in Islamic Studies with a specialization in Women and Gender Studies at McGill University. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. Her writing has been published in The Malahat Review, Room Magazine, Arablit and others. Tweets @CaireneGirl