Ramadan

In Egypt to search for her father's past, a woman first discovers a young lover on a journey from Cairo to Alexandria.


Mona Simpson
June 5, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

"Welcome in Egypt," a large man said.

Egypt, that first brass afternoon in spring, may have been the most stylish place I ever saw on the earth. Nobody had ever told me about the cars. The cars were old German and American models from the fifties and sixties, black and rounded. They honked and shined everywhere, and I found a driver to Alexandria with my guidebook propped between two pronged fingers like a piece of music. Alexandria was a long way -- two guys turned me down before this one. He was handsome and young, with many teeth, and he had a dry grassy smell the closer I stood to him. We bargained a price in dollars. I still had to get pounds. He knew almost no English. He had a book. I sat in the back of the old Mercedes on deep leather seats made soft with time and watched out of the rolled-down windows as we left Cairo in a circle like a maze and drove north into the horizon of cypresses, eucalyptus and olive trees. It was good.

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There was so much sky. The ground and trees, people and even buildings rose about an inch and the rest was sky. It was 24 February. I wanted to remember the day. I lay my head back on the seat and the smell of earth rolled over me. This wasn't desert as I'd expected. It was dirt, not light sand; the vegetation was scarce and sombre. Ragged trees moved slightly in the soft wind, and they seemed to whine and creak. Date palm and sycamore. Closer in, there were acacia, juniper, jacaranda and grass.

I felt looser in my clothes when I couldn't see Cairo behind us any more. We were on an old road. The structures you saw in the distance looked small, made of concrete and mud. A rich weedy taste came through the air. I thought of my father and how, even though he was a boy who grew up here in this old slow country, he'd moved in suits and silk ties all over the world. I'd travelled too. I'd driven cross-country, had my college summer in Europe; even my grandmother, in Wisconsin, had been around the world. But do we, any of us, love more?

If this was Egypt, maybe that explained Wisconsin. His existence there. On the road ahead of us I saw a small lake and then a mountain, which disappeared when we came close. I'd been told about mirages in school, when I learned the word, but I'd never seen one. Maybe it took a desert to produce them. Once in a while the driver turned to me and we'd try to talk but it was too hard, so he'd fall back to driving, which he did with an evenness and a happy hum that seemed as odd and discordant as sitar music. He had a vague smile which seemed to move through a sort of plot sequence. I rested back on the seat, thinking how I'd like to sleep with this boy just once, tonight, in my hotel room and wondering if I could, how this worked and whether I should give him money. This was so foreign no one would know. No one ever. For the rest of my life no one would know.

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I stared at the back of his neck. His hair was cut short but it still curled. Below the line of hair were two lines of sweat, tiny drops balanced on the dark taut skin. At that moment I thought how hard it was to be a man. The distance between imagining and placing a hand in the world on to someone's skin -- I didn't know how that happened. That seemed enormous. Even when there were two cultures and no language and you had the money. But no. That wasn't good. Being bought with money could harm anyone.

I tapped his shoulder -- his skin through the cotton was warm -- and pointed for him to stop at a market, a bazaar of some kind by the side of the road. It looked like a farm food stand anywhere in America, except the trees were high date palms. I was hungry. He pulled over the Mercedes, its bulk calming smoothly on the dirt gravel pass. We got out. The canvas- and tin-roofed tents shaded jars of oil, dates still on the branch, almonds, pine nuts, diamond-cut pastries in tin pans that ran with honey, hazed by close thick black flies, pomegranates, olives, figs open and red, dusty purple on the outside. A thin man, dark-skinned with almost no hair on his legs and arms and head, sat cross-legged on a striped rug on the uneven ground. His eyes were nearly closed. A clear glass jar, like one you would buy jam in, sat full by his knee. I tried to get close. I browsed by a table with nothing recognisable on it, some kind of cheese in water, I thought. I saw then in his jar: a coiled snake; I couldn't tell dead or alive.

I wanted figs, dates and almonds and started to gather them in a brown paper bag, but my driver came up and with elaborate arm motions pointed to his chest, establishing, I'll do this, without words. The thin man's flat sunken mouth smiled a big smile. He tried to take her and was caught. She's an American, it's all game.

Walking back to the car with my bag of fruit, I heard a familiar monotonous sound. I walked across the sand and looked behind the tent. A rickety ping-pong table was set up on the ground and two dark boys were playing. Then we were driving again, and he conducted a long speech to me in Arabic, probably about how much money he'd saved me, and I murmured something to make it seem I understood. "Is no good for you, is better for you," was all I made out from his speech. His one arm sometimes lifted off the wheel, articulate and graceful, but I wished I could settle it back to driving and I ate the fresh dates, the skins crumbling like sugar and the fruit inside melting like honey. I could eat like this for a hundred years. In the back seat there was a long soft breeze and sun on the left side, so I took off my shoes and my long shirt and just lay down in my tank top and skirt, legs bare, feet on the leather, feeling it almost like another skin. I was sort of asleep but not really. The breeze played on my belly, my upper arms, the bones of my neck. It was good. The smell of the fruit on the foot-space swelled up in shells of air.

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Before I left, I'd wanted to find some Arabs to write things down for me. I stopped at the place across from the school that sold hummus and tabouli and shish kebab in pita. But the guys there turned out to be Israelis. Nice guys. They gave me a falafel and suggested that I check the university. It would have to have some kind of Arab Studies department.

I asked directions and went upstairs. On a third floor corner, I found Near Eastern Studies. A woman in black jeans and a black turtle-neck stood near a floor-to-ceiling wire cage which held a parrot. Inside the cage, which looked homemade, was a large, driftwood branch where the parrot perched. The woman held a finger to the bird. From the glint of jewel, I saw she was married. She was dark-skinned, wide-eyed, with an extremely full, flower-shaped mouth. She sounded younger than she looked.

"I'm Mayan Atassi. I'm looking for someone Egyptian."

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The parrot flapped its long wings and squawked. She laughed. "Egyptian. Let's see. Professor Kamal is," she said, "but he's on leave in Paris this year."

"You're not Egyptian?" I said.

"No, I'm from Lebanon," she said. My whole life I'd heard of Beirut and how it was the Switzerland of the Middle East. I knew that I had been conceived there.

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"Do you know Arabic?"

"Yes, mmhmm."

I began to explain. My mother never wanted me to be alone with my dad. "He could have you on a plane to Egypt in ten minutes," she'd snap her fingers, "and they'd have you married off and swelled up pregnant at fourteen. That's what they do to girls over there. Girls are nothing."

"What about going to college?" I'd said.

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"College, in Egypt?" she said. She burst out with a bitter-rinded laugh. "Forget it."

I was grown up now and being pregnant didn't seem only shame. It appeared even beautiful, a common thing. It was strange having outlived the life with my mother: I was forever rediscovering little things that I had believed and assumed and were not true. Anyway, I might never be able to get pregnant and that was because of me. I'd dieted too much when I was in high school.

On three sheets of paper, the woman with the parrot wrote in Arabic the Station Street address, my address in America, and a little paragraph that I dictated saying who I was and that I was looking for my father whom I hadn't seen in years, and his name. I looked at her ring while she wrote. It was dark gold, the diamond capped on either side by bright blue-green gems cut in squares.

I opened my wallet and slipped the three papers in the deepest part. They became treasures. She asked me if I would come back when I returned and tell her what happened.

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I was halfway down the hall, a clean echoing hall of black tiles, and then I ran back. "Do you know what the weather is like there?"

She stepped out from behind the desk. She was a plump-cheeked woman, big breasted, wonderful looking. "Nice. Perfect. Like your San Francisco."

Some time later he made a punctuating noise in the front and I sat up. I saw Alexandria in the distance, like a series of half staircases on a hill. This was the place my father grew up. It was early evening, seven o'clock and not much light. The roads (some of them) looked older than the Ottoman empire but were still used, not kept for antique. There were geraniums in the windows, like Paris. The stone and plaster were crumbling and dirty. A lot of the houses had clay pots on the roofs. I wondered why. Some of the buildings had a white sheen, with mosaic. The streets were quieter than Cairo, the neighbourhoods lower, the old sun like a bucket full of water spilled on the bricks. This was a smaller city, I guessed, and was supposed to be holy. I knew that. Not only for me.

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"Mumkin ahgiz ohda ghur-fa min hi-na?"

I read to him from the guidebook but he didn't understand. Then I gave up and moved behind his shoulder and showed him where it was printed in Arabic calligraphy, pointing with my fingernail while the car moved unevenly over the bricks. I wanted a hotel. He put his hand to his forehead, and then exploded in head-nodding. He was so young. His shirt was striped, yellow and green. Just then I noticed a band aid on his right arm, near the elbow, a band aid printed with circus animals, the kind we always wanted as children. Is that what became of circus band aids? The surplus shipped to the Third World?

We turned a corner and beyond us was the Mediterranean, blue and green and moving with unrest, a sea of barking dogs. He drove me to an ugly hotel, modern and rundown. I said no, crossed my arms, and found the word for old in the guidebook. This made him think a moment and then he got it, and the next place was right: white and Persian-looking, with small cracks snaking down the towers. He parked the Mercedes, pulled the keys out and came inside with me, carrying the pack. It seemed too hard to argue. He wanted to deal with the desk for me, so I stood next to him, holding out my credit card. The man behind the desk took it, produced a key and that was the end of it. An old cage elevator, with script I could not read, lyrical cursives strewn in fancy metal painted white, stopped at the ninth floor where the smell of old geraniums came profuse and dusty and breath-stopping almost: I followed and he opened the door of my room and it was good.

French doors opened to a small terrace and the sunset fired outside. I looked in the bathroom: it was completely tiled, even the ceiling. You could wash it out with a hose. The bed was plain and white; a small prayer rug waited in one corner. The carpet was a very faded red, and dirty.

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My driver put my backpack down and stood there.

I pulled my wallet out of the pack and paid him the amount we agreed plus ten dollars.

He counted slowly, with complication, twice, then his face cleared and he handed me back ten one dollar bills.

I shook my head no, pointed -- for you -- then I grabbed the phrase book and tried to find the words that meant "for the children." In the guidebook, it said you were supposed to say "for the children." He looked pretty young to have children and I couldn't find the damn phrase anyway, so I pushed the money back into his hand and he shook his head no, and I put my hands behind my back meaning I won't take it and then he pushed my shoulders, gentle but a real push, the money held up in his hand between us, and for a minute we didn't know what was happening and then we were falling back, first me on the bed and then him.

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His skin stretched and spread taut wings from his neck to his top chest bones. I remembered that he was young, probably younger than twenty. I wanted to hear his name. I didn't want it to be Atassi. He could have been. My father might have come back. Then I remembered my father telling me around the old kitchen table, "If I went back, I'd be running the country. I was the John F. Kennedy of Egypt." Well, he wasn't running the country. I read the newspapers. I knew those people's names. He said so little to us that I saved every sentence. I could lift one up like a bracelet or strand of pearls from a box. As if any young man could be held responsible for grandiose dreams whispered to an infant daughter, when he was new in a country and still thought everything was possible.

But he could have come back. It was more than twenty years ago he'd said that. He was a very young man then.

I rolled over on my belly, reached down for the guidebook. My shoes fell off the side of the bed. He pulled me back by my ankle. I felt his fingers like a bracelet. I rifled through the pages. There it was: My name is ____ . "Ismee Mayan Atassi," I said.

He pointed to his chest. "Ramazan el-Said. I was born during the Ramadan, so my mother called me that."

OK. Fine. I lay back on the bed; the book dropped. This was good. We couldn't say a word and I'd stopped trying, but maybe because of that something else worked. I always talked too much in bed anyway. I lay back and wished he would touch my neck for some reason, I don't know why, and I don't know if I'd ever wanted that or thought that before, my neck, but he did, first with his fingers, hard so I felt my pulse flutter. I didn't know if it would be different or the same so far away with someone not in my language, a complete stranger, but I watched the fan in the ceiling slowly mark the room with carousel shadows and in a minute I was lifting my hips to shrug my skirt off and then we were both naked, he was dark and thin and not different really. I touched him and looked in his face, his cheeks seemed to spread wider apart and questions stood like cool statues in his eyes and I wanted him and started it and then it began. It went on a long time, well into first dark, it never really stopped. I'd turn over on my side and clutch some sheet around me and look out of the windows at the clear stars and he'd be on my back with his hands and mouth and then something would feel like a shot, absolute and four-pointed but blooming pleasure and we'd begin again and it went on so long sometimes I'd forget. I'd feel I was the man, entering him, and he seemed that way too, opened, split, eyes shallowing up like hungry fish on the surface, as if in the night we traded who owned the outside and the inside, who could penetrate and who could enclose. The stranger was in me and I wanted that. I finally fell asleep. He woke me and I heard water rushing. It was still dark. I dragged the sheet behind me to the window, where there was one star that almost hurt to look at, a too proud diamond, somebody else's, and I wondered why he'd woken me so late or so early, and then he pushed me to the bathroom where he'd run a deep tub with a flower floating on the top. The whole thing smelled almond and he put me in it. I saw blood. It wavered in the water like a frilly ribbon. I stepped out and saw him kneeling by the bed. The sheet was soaked red. I was bleeding. He started kissing the inside of my thighs, which were blood-stained like some all-directional flower. I couldn't tell him how happy I was with the guidebook; there was no way to explain. Before I lost my period, like a stitch in knitting, I'd minded blood in a prissy way, hated the bother of it, worried about spotting. Now I could have tasted it. I felt like shouting. That was over, the long punishment for what I'd done to myself. I had my choices again. He was looking up at me now with different eyes, submissive. He knelt by the bed and capped my knees with his hands. He said words I didn't know.

Then he rampaged through the room. I found him squatting over the guidebook. He said in English, I love you. He kept looking up at me in this slave way. Then I understood. The blood. He thought that meant virgin, that I'd given that to him. "No," I tried to tell him. "No." He picked me up, an arm under the crook of my knees and one under my back. He took me to the tub again. He was carrying me like a fragile child. I had to clear this up. But there was no way. His brown eyes fixed. I slipped down into the water, and heard him in the other room pulling up his pants, the clink of keys and change. He stole out of the door. I figured I'd never see him again and that was fine, like a sealed perfect envelope. A tangerine peeled, every section intact. I got up out of the water to latch the door behind him. Then I went back to sleep, thrilling even in dream every time I felt the trickle of blood.

Excerpted from "Brief Encounters: Stories of Love, Sex & Travel," published by Lonely Planet Publications, by permission of the author and of International Creative Management Inc. "Ramadan" originally appeared in "The Lost Father," ) 1991 by Mona Simpson. Simpson is also the author of "Anywhere But Here" and "A Regular Guy" and has written for Harper's, Granta and Paris Review.


Mona Simpson

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Egyptian Protests Love And Sex Middle East Sex Travel

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