by J.P. Apruzzese
“What will you look like when you turn thirty?” baba says. He’s sitting at the table, his face turned toward a plate of ful medames and a steaming glass of black tea. A narrow white beard dips along his angular jawline toward a rigid under-bite. Determined to exit the apartment before he spots her lipstick, Rasha says nothing. But at the door she notices him shaking his head. “You’re lying to yourself, Rasha.”
Halfway down the stairs, she sits on a step and looks through the botched square window to the bare-brick building across the small dirt alley – the same view she’s had since she first began to walk. With a loose end of her veil she wipes her eyes. It stains black from her kohl eyeliner. Makeup is such a damn mess, she scoffs, and makes her way down the five flights of coarse concrete stairs to the exit of her family’s building.
Another sweltering day in the metropolis, thick with smog. Today, its color veers from the usual yellow to a light green, a tint Rasha associates with the anesthesia used at the hospital where she interns. Just how much the smog has submerged the city streets, just how much it has penetrated their apartments, she isn’t sure, but today, her nineteenth birthday, she can already feel the heaviness in her chest – made worse this morning by another barrage of her father’s hurtful remarks.
Outside, her mother is waiting. She pulls out a tattered kitchen napkin and gives it to Rasha.
“Your father upset you.”
She looks at her mother’s flaccid skin in the morning haze. “Why should that change?”
“He only wants what’s best for you. You know that.”
Rasha swallows hard enough to hurt her throat. “To stay here, in this place?”
Her mother takes her by the arm and they walk toward the metro station. Rasha can smell the honey-soaked kunafa her mother had for breakfast.
“You’re our only girl,” her mother says. “You surprise him.”
“And his three boys don’t surprise him?”
She grabs Rasha’s arm with a stern glance. “Do what you have to do. Just be respectful to him.”
Rasha raises her voice. “I’m always respectful.”
Their eyes lock a moment before her mother rubs her arm. “Tonight we’ll have Om Ali pudding for your birthday.” She speaks as if Rasha is a child, then turns and enters the mayhem of the morning market. Rasha watches her mother’s portly frame amble past sweetmeats floating in low plastic basins and skinned sheep’s heads dangling on wires amid the smolder of burned palm and grilled corncob. She loosens her jaw, sidesteps the trash cluttering the roadside, and walks a steady line amid the traffic toward the metro. Pain is latent in the body, she knows from medical school, and can emerge at any moment, given the right psychological and physical conditions. So she makes sure her footing is steady because here, in this place, no one cares.
She enters the women’s-only car, flips open the jump seat and plops down. It’s a half hour to Tahrir from her southern suburb of Helwan on a good day. On a bad one, the train stalls between stations in the morning heat for no good reason – because, well, that’s just how things are and always will be in her neighborhood – that infected appendix to the metropolis that needs to be cut. Just like her father will always believe she’ll amount to nothing if she continues on her current path. That’s why he’s been spending so much time at the mosque, she’s heard him jest with family and friends, because he sees no other way to save this strange daughter of his with her absurd idea of becoming a doctor.
She rummages through her bag and pulls out her secondhand iPod. This morning it’s Hani Shanker: Mesh hob we bess. It’s not love and that’s all. An old but perfect song for her birthday – because she can’t remember when anyone noticed her anyway. She sings along as the big brown river lined with dusty palms and makeshift homes comes into view. The train is cruising past one hazy congested neighborhood after another, nothing new really. But today something good’s going to happen. She taps her fingers in rhythm on her jeans and sways her head.
At Sayeda Zeinab, she hops off and follows the queue of pedestrians merging with others into the thick network of downtown streets until she reaches the Corniche el-Nil across from el-Qasr el-Aini hospital. A breeze picks up off the river as she waits roadside for the right moment to scurry between the swerving traffic when a screech and thud bring everything to a halt. She removes her earphones and the city’s corpulence engulfs her again. Shouts and screams and what appears to be the orchestrated movement of people to a place in the center of the street. It takes only seconds for her to realize what’s happened. A boy lies limp at the nose end of a Peugeot 500.
An agitated crowd assembles. Rasha spots red stains on the asphalt and, before she can think, hears herself say she’s a doctor. She kneels down over the boy amid a verbal volley of cries and accusations, and the mob’s swarming effort to seize the car’s driver. The boy’s head is bruised, his right leg twisted and caved in at the knee. His eyelids flicker when she speaks and asks him to squeeze her hand, but only a slight ripple moves through his fingers.
She stares at the bystanders, feels them feeding off the spectacle. A thought seizes her – these are your people – when a group of agitated men scramble to pick up the boy and carry him to the hospital across the street. No, she panics, never move an accident victim. Textbook. “Away!” she screams, waving her arms. She digs into her bag for a water bottle, drenches her mother’s tattered napkin, and applies it to the boy’s forehead. To stifle the noise she whispers a melody in his ear until she notices his hand is cold. Her limbs gel, her knees digging into the asphalt hurt but she can’t move. A tall, bearded man with charcoal eyes approaches from the corner of her eye, and behind him a group of paramedics dodging the traffic to get to them.
“He’s conscious,” she tells him, “But you need to check for a concussion.”
“And you are?”
“I am…Dr. Rasha.”
His eyebrow arches upward, before he turns to help the crew stabilize the boy, strap him onto a spinal board, position his contorted knee. She admires how they move at a studied pace – until commotion erupts. They rush to apply a defibrillator to the boy’s chest and in seconds release a jolt into his body. A woman’s computerized voice in English emerges: “Stand clear. Do not touch patient. Checking rhythm.” Thirty seconds to a minute pass before a second instruction: “Check the body for a pulse.” The charcoal-eyed paramedic slaps two fingers on the boy’s neck. He waits. Beads of sweat emerge on his temples, dark spots on his shirt. He cups his hands and pumps rhythmically into the boy’s chest, counting to ten. They shock him again. They wait. The paramedic slaps his fingers on the boy’s neck. They wait. He pumps. The circularity of the process is more dizzying than Rasha has ever imagined. She moves back for air. A third time. She joins to the onlookers.
The bearded paramedic steps away. His eyes transfix her.
She doesn’t ask. He shakes his head.
The crew carries the stretcher and the boy across the street through the mayhem to the hospital. The crowd disperses and Rasha turns to the river, her feet burning through her soles on the melting asphalt. Her mother’s abandoned napkin catches her eye on the sidewalk. She picks it up and wrings out the water. It’s filthy and already dry. She puts on her earphones and steps onto the bridge. Halfway across, the cold of the boy’s body resurfaces on her palms. She ignores it, stops to hold the bridge’s hot iron railing to thaw her hands. Useless, the cold has already seeped inward. Death, she counters, is as natural as birth. Life leaves the body, the blood flows toward a central point in the torso and allows other life forms to take over. It was a chapter in her textbook listing the hypothetical stages of death, written by an American. Enough of the old wisdoms, she thinks, the lady in the black dress; there’s no proof she exists anyway. Life continues in and through death. Every soul shall taste death, the holy book says, and you will only be given your compensation on the day of resurrection. If science and religion agree, then, who is she to say? She releases her hand, her palms are pink, the color of intestines and things better hidden from light.
At the gates of Cairo University, unsettled and absent, she meets Amal, not her favorite person in the world but her friend nonetheless. She wants to tell her what’s just happened, but Amal preempts her: “You look terrible, Rasha.” She’s insincere but so stunning that Rasha, though she hates to admit it, can’t take her eyes off her. She pads the wound. Besides, she reasons, admiring the seamless contour of her lipliner, Amal wouldn’t appreciate it anyway. Because she’s the kind of girl, she thinks – but then can’t seem to find the right word to describe what kind of girl Amal is, or at least doesn’t want to speculate too much, no, not this morning. Amal takes her by the arm as they walk toward the faculty of medicine.
Rasha is certain Amal’s keen to gain her insights into the chemical makeup of one disease or other they’ve been studying. She’s spent so many hours helping Amal with the most basic concepts so she could get through final exams last June. And what about when Amal shrunk at the sight of the corpse at their first autopsy? How this girl would ever become a doctor was beyond Rasha, though she’s never found the courage to tell her that maybe, just maybe, she should consider another field. Why not acting, she speculates with a certain disdain. “Don’t worry,” Rasha says, “I’ll help you with the exam.” But Amal is already talking about her subject of delectation: boys. The subject Rasha has been avoiding because she knows where it always leads – Amal’s ranting about her flirtatious interaction with the male student body.
“I saw Ahmed and Hamdi yesterday at City Stars,” she says, “We hung out for two hours in Costa Café. They’re so hilarious.”
“What did you talk about for two hours?”
Amal squints at her. “That’s not the point, Rasha.”
Rasha has to admit she knows exactly what kind of girl Amal is – the kind that drives boys crazy. And as Amal elaborates on her latest infatuation – Ahmed – Rasha falls prey to her self-loathing, secretly fed by her father’s embarrassment at having her as a daughter. “She’s not pretty,” went his refrain, “she’s too tall, too lanky, and far too strong headed. She’ll never find a husband.”
The draw of the cards, Rasha always concludes. But despite her efforts to take pride in her excellent grades, she always circles her way into the same conundrum. In the end, she wants to be like Amal. She wants her jawline, her pulpy lips, her seductive eyes, her serpentine figure inside those tight blue jeans, and her silky black, verging-on-blue hair, which she never – ever! – conceals. No matter how many times she washes, Rasha finds her own hair is too dry or too oily, her skin blemished, her lips chapped and her eyes and complexion much like the color of the smog in her family’s apartment. Rasha knows she’s just like the neighborhood she comes from: dull and blighted. Something to be concealed. Amal has no reason to wear the veil, she thinks, as she listens to her blabber away; or actually, she has every reason, she thinks again, when something Amal says catches her attention.
“It was just his knee,” Amal says. “That’s all. What’s the big deal?”
It was hard to say if Amal was just stupid or provocative. Rasha lets her mouth drop. “And what did he do?”
“He told me, calmly, to take my hand off his knee because a girl shouldn’t do that to a man that’s not her husband.”
“Of course. Are you crazy, Amal?”
She smiles at Rasha. “I wasn’t thinking, habebti, it just felt natural when I did it.”
“You mean automatic,” Rasha retorts. “Natural is what the body does when it’s eating or digesting or walking or speaking or even thinking, which you weren’t doing obviously. But putting your hand on a boy’s knee? A boy who’s not your husband, or not even your fiancé? And in public? Even with your husband you don’t do that in public.”
“Really, Rasha? Better lighten up before it’s too late.”
Rasha stares at Amal’s excruciatingly beautiful face, unable to believe what she’s hearing. A phrase is perched on the tip of her tongue, but she holds it in a tight breath. The words fill her mouth in bloated silence: All those summers in Europe are making you a whore. But that would be too much, no, too much, to say, though it’s right there tickling her tongue. She wouldn’t even be saying it because she believes it but because she knows it would get under Amal’s skin. Everyone knows what foreign girls are like, or at least Rasha knows what everyone thinks foreign girls are like. Amal is becoming a foreign girl. The bikinied ones poolside at the big hotels, the ones on camelback at the pyramids their naked legs spread and dangling.
They enter chemistry II, Amal drifting toward the more attractive lot of students, and Rasha, standing behind her, hears her tell them she’ll be helping Amal with her class project. The others turn to Rasha with their white teeth – she notices every time – when it occurs to her that Amal did not even wish her a happy birthday. Amal knows it’s her birthday; she insisted the week before that they throw her a party. “But where?” Rasha said. “And with what money?” she didn’t say, but only looked at Amal. Later she felt foolish and, worse, envious, salivating at the idea they would hold a birthday bash for her in a swanky downtown hotel. She would come early and watch a rich couples’ wedding reception at the Semiramis or the Four Seasons. She’d get dressed up, go alone, gaze from a distance in the lobby. Why are the rich always so beautiful?
A surge of shame chokes her. She plops down in a chair and has the sudden urge to throw on her earphones and block them all out. They’ll never be doctors or at least not good doctors – not even one of them. She begins imagining summers in Switzerland, where she’s been told there’s no sand, not even near the water, when Ahmed, the knee-man, appears at her side.
“Sana helwa, ya Rasha,” she hears him say. The birthday wish she’s hoped for lightens her spirits; she sits up, doesn’t want to appear sullen, doesn’t want to attract anyone’s pity, which she can feel in their every glance and gesture. It’s not their fault, just the draw of the cards, or rather, the configuration of the genes.
“Thanks!” she manages. Of course Ahmed would remember it’s her birthday because he’s a good person with good morals – that’s why he told Amal what he thought about her provocative hand gesture.
“Have you planned anything for your birthday?” Ahmed says.
But the desire to look at Ahmed’s knee grips her. She glances down at his legs in two or three eye-blinks when she feels her temples and neck begin to steam scarlet. She lowers her head and tucks a tuft of derelict hair beneath her veil. The position gives her a prime view of Ahmed’s knee, in which she can feel herself gloat for a good long second.
“Are you okay, Rasha?”
“No, nothing,” she says, as she stares at him, his unusually light skin, green eyes, and aquiline nose. He must be from el-Mansoura, a descendent of French invaders. “No, nothing,” she repeats, “Nothing planned for my birthday. Just studying and listening to Hani Shaker!”
He grins. “Mesh hob we bess!”
She swallows his reply, wanting him to say something more, anything. But the professor arrives and Ahmed takes a seat in the front of the class.
Ya Allah, ahmini! she thinks, because divine help is what she needs right now. Avoiding Amal’s gaze, Rasha starts scribbling in her notebook. Like the rest of the human body, the knee has a unique and complex set of functions, without which the movements of daily life would be almost impossible. It’s one of the largest and most complex joints in the body! The knee joins the thighbone, the femur, to the shinbone, the tibia, but it also includes the fibula, the patella or the kneecap, as well as important ligaments such as the anterior cruciate, the posterior cruciate, not to mention the lateral meniscus and the medial meniscus and the lateral collateral, none of which would be able to function without the tendons and muscles and cartilage and blood flow and nerves, so on and so forth. The knee is God’s perfect creation. PERFECT! she etches in capitals.
When class finally ends, Rasha goes to Amal and Ahmed. “I have something to tell you. Today, I saved someone’s life.” They look at her astounded as she embellishes the events of the car accident, amends her exchange with the paramedic, and describes how under stress she put to use everything they’ve learned. Pride fills her cheeks, despite the lie, and a dampness forms along the back of her neck and behind her ears. The unabashed smile her father always chides her for rises to her face.
“Ya salam, ya Rasha!” Amal says, “Why didn’t you say anything before?”
Because your beautiful face always trumps my ability to speak, Rasha shrugs, and turns to Ahmed’s strangely spellbound eyes staring on her.
“The accident on el-Corniche,” he says, “just near the bridge?”
Unsure whether she should nod, Rasha looks directly him. His green eyes and light skin suddenly remind her of Amr Waked, whom she remembers from the movie Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, and she has a glimpse of her future, somewhere in the Scottish Highlands, surrounded by mountains and woods and crisp air, where a kind, intelligent doctor with Ahmed’s face is next to her preparing a fire in a wainscoted living room. Somehow Amal’s pretty face, she concludes, would be more at home in this scene.
“That was you, Rasha,” he says with excitement, “that was you leaning over that poor boy. I was wondering who it was. But your face was turned when I passed in the taxi. So you saved him! Now we really have to celebrate that birthday.”
Rasha swallows an inaudible “yes.” She feels a robotic smile immobilize her lips until she breaks into nervous, coughing laughter. She excuses herself and heads for the exit.
The midday heat blankets her. She makes her way across the river to the Persian gardens of Manyal Palace and sits on the ground in the shade of a massive ficus tree. But the lie about saving the boy is watching her from the grass, the leaves, the empty bench, the silent bougainvillea. She pulls out her biology textbook to check if she’s gotten the names right for all the parts of the knee. Reading about the various nerve-endings, she caresses her right knee, palpating what’s inside, and finds herself relishing in the sensation. She slaps her leg. Enti ghabia! Nothing but stupid, stupid, stupid. She lies on her back and looks up through the tree branches into the flickering light on the leaves. No room for fantasies. No room for lies. Either she’s a doctor or – let’s face it, Rasha, you’ll never swoon them like Nancy Agram. It wasn’t even a choice; life chose for you. She inserts her earphones and on comes her favorite song: Ahwak. She sings along with Abdel-Halim Hafez. The raindrop piano intro tickles her lips and each word, like a rose blossom, forms in her mouth until she feels her eyes well with tears, and before she can wipe them, a voice breaks into Abdel-Halim’s, shattering her reverie.
“Hello? Sorry to bother you,” the voice says.
She squints into the sunlight. The voice comes again: “Hello?” It’s foreign, and she dips into her medical English – “Yes?” – speaking as fast as she can to feign mastery, then thinks she would do better to feign ignorance: “I do not speak English.”
“Mine is not very good either,” the voice replies.
She gets her first glimpse: a thin young man, as thin as she is, with a wild crop of blond hair on his head, gold wireframe glasses, and skin so white it resembles the polished ivory she’s seen in the museum. He’s clutching a sturdy, expensive-looking bicycle at his side. His grin is gigantic and, to Rasha, American, in the glaring midday sun and lush vegetation. Not sure how to have a conversation in English, she repeats what she’s already said, flustered but with a certain linguistic authority on her second attempt. He laughs and with his index finger pushes his glasses well onto his nose. “Well, is the museum open today?” The meaning clicks in her head. She notices a film of sweat on the curve of his lower neck, along the sternal and clavicular heads, and thinks he dislikes the heat as much as she does. She points to the museum building. “Maybe you ask.” His beaming face overwhelms her. She watches as he limps away, her curiosity piqued, and only then notices his colorful clothing: a bright pink shirt and loose white cotton pants. Bizarre, she thinks, and finds she’s already walking toward him before she stops to check her clothes and veil. He’s observing her when she looks up.
“The museum is closed,” he says.
“Of course,” she chides. “Today is Monday.”
He gives her a perplexed look.
“Everyone knows this.” She’s stretching her vocabulary but it feels good. “It’s very hot. Why do you take this bike? It’s too hot. No one in Cairo wants to ride bike. Streets too crazy. People too crazy. You must take very, very care.” She holds up her hands in a prayer-like formation to illustrate “very, very care.”
His sudden raucous laughter startles her. “Yes, I noticed!”
She’s unsure she should say what she’s thinking, but she does, her question more like a statement. “You, American.”
A silly grin forms a web of spider wrinkles around his eyes. “God no! I’m Swiss.” He extends his hand to her – “my name is Luca” – but quickly retracts. “Sorry,” he says, embarrassed. Puzzled as to why he pulled back, she sticks out her hand and they shake clumsily. “I am Rasha,” she announces before noticing his palm and fingers are cool and clammy. He may be suffering from heat exhaustion. She mentally flips through the pages of her seminar notes, thinks it might be best to get him under the shade of the ficus tree and bring him some water. Observing his muscular forearms, moist lips, and rosy cheeks, however, she checks her instinct to be the doctor. “I am studying medical,” she declares. But before she can correct her word choice, he says, “So you’re a doctor!” and to Rasha’s astonishment, he pulls up his right pant leg to expose his pale skin and a badly bruised knee. “This morning, along Pyramids Road,” he says, “my bike hit oil and I fell.”
“Sit here,” she orders and opens a small square pack of alcohol-drenched gauze pads she carries in her bag. And before she can stop herself, she tells him she saved a life today. “A car hits a boy on el-Corniche and I save him.” She talks about the crowd, the car, the blood stains, the boy’s wounded head, and how she made sure he was conscious when she notices him gazing at her, observing her every gesture. Sidetracked, she feels her mask falling; if this were Arabic she’d be done for, she knows. So she doubles up on her textbook English. “Everyone has a purpose,” she pursues “The knee has unique and complex functions, without which the movements of daily life would be impossible.”
Her sudden voice change seems to amuse him and a smirk crosses his lips. “So, how do you say ‘knee’ in Arabic?”
“El-rokba,” she says, rolling heavily on the ‘r.’ Whatever her baba tells her, it’s all beginning to feel natural, just talking away in the garden, cleaning the foreigner’s bruised knee – unforgiveable! – as she starts saying everything she knows about the palace. “It is built by Amir Mohammed Ali Tawfik, uncle of King Farouk, king of Egypt and Sudan. It is mix style, Ottoman, European, because Amir Mohammed Ali Tawfik, uncle of King Farouk, gives very close attention to everything he puts in building. Gardens too, very beautiful, Persian, English.” She throws a furtive glance at the exit – No, baba’s not there watching. “Do you know something, yes?” she says, “Amir Mohammed Ali Tawfik dies in Lausanne, Switzerland.” This will surprise him, she’s sure, but he only stares at her with the dumbest look on his face, grinning like the chimpanzees she’s seen in the zoo. She’s always believed Europeans were intelligent, masters of science and medicine. The ficus leaves rustle in the breeze as she cleans the dried blood from his knee and waits for a sign, anything, from him. But he only holds her in his gaze for longer than feels comfortable.
“In Cairo, there is also a zoo,” she says, turning away.
Her invitation seems to awaken him. “Will you come with me?”
She perches on the back edges of her heels and floats above herself a moment. She sees them talking in the shade of the garden, light and airy, when a rush of heat and blood floods her throat. Her mouth is suddenly dry and pasty, a colossal blockage is forming in her carotid arteries, she’s certain, and the shortage of blood is about to make her faint. Maybe die. Treating a blocked carotid artery is simple, really, just open the vein, visible from the skin, and clean the plaque away. Biology is that simple, just open it up and clean out the bad part. Motion is that simple – just put one foot in front of the other and soon…. His laughter brings her back. Applying a clean bandage to his knee, she notices her hand is shaking and wets her lips to see if the same isn’t happening there.
She stands up abruptly. “Yes, let’s go to the zoo.”
They walk together along el-Saraya boulevard, past the KFC and Café Chino where Rasha often stops for coffee and a bite, and make their way across the bridge over the river. The clicking of his gyrating bicycle wheels is spellbinding; losing herself in its cadence, she has the keen sensation she’s already leaving home. She doesn’t even notice how people are watching them. By the time they reach the zoo’s gates, she knows every nuance and gradation of his voice, a music like Abdel-Halim’s in her ear. The blond khawaga can really talk, even more than she can. He’s from a small town near a city called Locarno. His parents are artisans, she didn’t get exactly what kind, and have never left home. She wonders whether any of this is true. And when he says he rode his bicycle all the way from Switzerland to Egypt, passing through so many faraway places, most she’s never heard of, she stares at him in disbelief.
“I have no idea what I want to do with my life,” he says. “I’m happy just riding my bike around the world.”
The thought of it, true or not, excites Rasha. She opens her mouth to respond but the idea, like Luca, seems too foreign, too irrational to entertain, when she hears him say, “Maybe I’ll even stay in Egypt for a while if someone is willing to take me in.”
“And your family in Switzerland?”
“My family knows me.”
The idea puzzles her, the layers of his story too disjointed to lock into their right sockets. She wants to speak but he’s talking so much and she is listening so attentively to the sound of his voice that before she realizes it they are sitting on a worn-out bench in front of the tiger’s den watching an emaciated female pace back and forth staring right at them. Luca places his hand on the bench next to her leg, and Rasha thinks, my God, if he touches me I’ll collapse!
Luca breaks into laughter. “I think that tiger wants to have us for lunch,” giggling his way through each word. Before she can reciprocate she senses the lady tiger is not the only one staring at them. So are the rest of the zoo’s visitors. The group of schoolchildren over there, the two women with the groceries near the leopard, and the three scruffy zookeepers sweeping at nothing. She lowers her head, sensing she’s coming dangerously close to zina – that adulterous fire her father never utters but alludes to in every word – and suggests they continue walking. “Are we leaving already?” Luca asks.
“There’s so much to see in Cairo,” she says, flustered. “We can’t spend the whole day looking at animals.”
“I don’t mind. I’m happy just spending time with you.”
His suggestion makes her limbs jitter. Maybe it’s time to get back to the university. Maybe it’s time to go home. She stumbles through possible sites of anonymity in the city – a place with only foreigners, the museum perhaps – but can find none. The guards would suspect she’s posing as a guide to make money off tourists. She suggests they visit the mosque of Ibn Toulon in the old city, about a half hour on foot. No one ever goes there. She trips over her words, “That’s very important to see!” But when Luca mounts his bike, she fears he’s leaving.
“Well?” he says. “Are you getting on?”
The meaning zips past her, before ricocheting back in her direction. She looks left and right, shifts her body. “What?”
“Get on, yes?”
She pictures her father praying, his body prostrate, his forehead to the floor, and wonders what Amal would do.
“Me, on this bike?” A thought comes to her: this may be the best way to get out of here without anyone seeing her walking around the city with this khawaga. She glances down at the sturdy looking bag rack at the bike’s rear end, and watches as Luca pats it with his hand.
“Have you ever crossed Cairo on a bike?” he says.
“But I don’t know how to ride.”
“You don’t have to!”
She abandons her thoughts and straddles the bag rack as Luca darts off.
“Hold on to me!”
She grips the bag rack with all her force instead, until his quick swerves through traffic force her to hug his waist. A surge of blood rushes up her neck and, without thinking, she burrows her head in his shoulder, doing her best to conceal her face while telling him which direction to follow. Left, right, straight. She makes sure he avoids places where someone like Ahmed or Amal might recognize her. She is certain everyone is watching. Certain this is the end of her. But when they break past the stagnant traffic and engage Cairo University Bridge, midway across Rasha looks out over the Nile and feels she’s gliding above the city in an airplane. She lifts her head and wonders if this is really her home. The wind in her face has never been so refreshing. The river’s waters have never been so inviting. She closes her eyes and all she feels are her hands holding Luca’s waist. And she grips harder.
When they get off the bike at the mosque of Ibn Toulon, Rasha struggles to regain her balance. She inserts loosened hair ends beneath her veil as the guilt of having done something haram overwhelms her. The word comes to her in verses from the holy book while they remove their shoes and enter the mosque. “Do not go there” is the phrase resonating in her head as they walk to the center of the main courtyard where, to break the refrain, she tells Luca, “The mosque is no longer for prayer, though you can pray, of course. It is now a museum for all visitors, Muslim and non-Muslim.” She points to the minbar and the ablutions fountain and the minaret and explains their purposes. In the dark, they climb the minaret’s spiral stone stairwell with some difficulty, Luca following her lead, until they reach the tight space at the top where the immensity and the squalor of the old city stretch out in all directions and the wind slaps at their faces and clothes. Luca says nothing but leans over the stone edge and seems to mumble words to himself. She watches as his lips move in the sunset’s soft glow. Is he praying?
“I want to tell you something,” she says. “I don’t save the boy today. He die.” Tears well up in her eyes and she turns away.
Luca shrugs. “You can tell me anything,” he says. “I’m not your brother or your father.”
His disappointment, more palpable than the touch she dreads and desires, siphons the blood from her heart. Deoxygenated and faint. Her eyes scan his face. “I know, I’m stupid.”
“No,” he says. “I know, you tried.”
She nods, a child seeking approval, and wants him desperately to hold her.
They sit together on the minaret’s stone seat and their proximity prompts her to lower her gaze, which falls on his knees. The impulse to place her hand right there where her gaze has fallen rivets her as she imagines him telling her he would convert, yes. All he needs is to find the right girl, she hears him say, when he turns and tells her, “I’ve never felt anything like this in my life,” and places his hand on her knee.
Her body freezes – that nasty word to describe Amal poised on her lips – before she smiles. “El-rokba,” she says. “The word is el-rokba.”
The sun’s rays paint the minaret’s stone walls an iridescent red before dipping beneath Moquattam hills. The wind picks up sending sand into her hair and face. They linger, looking not at each other but at the sun’s last rays. As they descend the dark spiral stairwell, Luca leading her by the hand, a mirthful laughter on his lips, she doesn’t protest but is feeling blinded and agile when she trips on her own step and what initially feels like euphoria – her gliding into his arms – is snubbed a second later when the side of her face meets the wall. There is no pain just a thump and a momentary loss of breath. She feels Luca seize her, his hand clasping her arm. Her body goes numb as if she’s not present anymore, or at least as present as she was moments ago. When she resurfaces, she is sitting on the step, her face in the half-light, half-shadow of the setting sun draping the opening in the minaret wall through which she can see the unused, dried out ablutions fountain. She moves her hand to her mouth and spits out blood and shattered pieces of a tooth.
She digs into her backpack, Luca helping her. He rips a strip of gauze he finds and applies it to her face. The blood on the cotton sickens her, for the first time. She pulls out the small vanity mirror Amal gave her and raises it to her face. She hears Luca say, “no.” He’s confusing as ever this khawaga, she thinks, until she sees her bruised face in the mirror as though it belongs to someone else.
Science is trustworthy. Rules govern everything. As her life is governed by the will of God. Now she must face the consequences, she thinks, of her unguided action. Look at my face now, habebti, a case study in pathology, cause and effect. What a bad idea it was, all of it. She feels her lips tremble. Her hands and legs as lifeless as the dead organs hanging from those hooks in the souk, waiting to be battered, fried. Luca chirps something in her ear and uses his shirt’s tail to wipe her bruised cheek.
“No,” she manages, “you must leave.” She pushes him away, overcome by shame and humiliation and a knowing for which science has no remedy: the knowing of sin.
“Let me take you to the hospital,” he says
To see Amal and Ahmed? She lets Luca lead her down the spiral staircase out of the minaret. The sun stings her wound as they cross the mosque’s central courtyard barefoot. At the main gate, as they clumsily slip on their shoes, the guard gestures, asking for a tip, but seeing Rasha’s face a shadow passes over him.
“Did he do this, miss?”
Rasha can taste the blood in her saliva, can with her tongue feel the broken tooth in her gum. She tries to conceal her swollen lip from the guard. He signals to the security van in the street – “It’s just a cheek,” she tells him, “that’s all.” But before she can finish her sentence, before she can rationalize the cheek’s role in the human body, police in lumbering riot gear grab and elbow Luca and her into the security van. She’s perplexed by Luca’s attempt to reason with them, then wonders how she has failed to see the adversary in the light of day. She covers her face. Tomorrow, she thinks, we’ll visit the Egyptian Museum, and after that, the Citadel, and the Pyramids, and in a week we’ll ride his bike all the way to Fayoum, even to Luxor. The sunset prayer rises above the city as the van carries them away, giving her just a few more minutes alone with him before the reckoning.
J.P. Apruzzese writes fiction, poetry, and book and art reviews. His work, which explores the intersection of cultures, ethics, perspectives and myths, has appeared in The Adirondack Review, Brooklyn Magazine, Burning House Press, Piwodoki (Polish), Public Seminar, PANK Magazine, and Volume 1 Brooklyn. He is the Translator Editor at The New School’s LIT literary and arts review.
Image source: Mikael Häggström, M.D./Public Domain