When Tonya was just a little girl, she didn’t ask her mother what she would be. It was her maternal grandmother whom she asked instead. As a matter of fact, Tonya posed all her curious, bright and even embarrassing questions at her favorite grandmother; Grandma Dodda, and Grandma Dodda never failed her; not even once.
Despite her slight tendency towards Nadia when she was younger, given that she was her first granddaughter ever and that she looked exactly like her mother, Ameena, as Tonya grew older, gentler and more attached to her, Grandma Dodda’s favorite granddaughter title was secretly taken away from Nadia and given to Tonya. She had been, in a way, named after her. Ameena first wanted to call her Donya – her mother’s name – then she decided to change the D into a T; so that it was only a derivative of the name, and not the name itself; it gave more variation that way.
Together they would enjoy the beautiful morning hours in the balcony of Grandma Dodda’s house in Manial; sipping tea with milk and dipping crunchy biscuits in it. No matter where she was, what she was doing, what extremely important business was keeping her busy, it was official; Tonya’s Friday mornings were exclusive to Grandma Dodda. Waking up early in the morning, she would let either of her parents drive her to the old house in Manial. With its ancient, large iron gates, Tonya always felt that even the blocks were welcoming her in.
The inside of the house was a different matter. Since it was placed in the downtown of Cairo, it had the characteristic all those old, downtown houses shared; its vast, spacious rooms with high ceilings and large, plentiful French windows. As she would walk through the wooden apartment door with the window-like shurra`a inside it, Tonya would be met with the enormous, usually breezy hall. The furniture was a combination of priceless sofas and chairs framed with fine, carved wood, coated with French, golden paint and new, modest couches which could have been more comfortable but were definitely less valuable than the steel furniture. Other antique ornaments covered the entire house, ranging from vintage vases to alabaster sculptures and even an ancient radio and a gramophone. One of the huge walls was entirely dedicated to a large collection of picture frames, it contained pictures of Grandma Dodda’s wedding, a portrait of Grandma Dodda when still a young lady, all fair and majestic with her long, wavy black hair, very white completion and blood-red lipstick shining magically through the black-and-white nature of the photograph, a picture of the late great Grandpa Hassan – Dodda’s father – shaking hands with His Majesty King Farouk before he was abdicated, a picture of all the four members of the family: Dodda, Gamal (Tonya’s grandfather), Ameena and Roukaia when Ameena and Roukaia were still in braids, Ameena’s wedding picture and finally, two colorful portraits; one for Nadia and the other for Tonya. Barely helping it, Tonya would spend at least five minutes in front of this breathtaking wall, trying to grasp between far and near memories.
Grandma Dodda took great pride in her house, just as she took great pride in her Turkish descent.
“My mother was a typical Turkish lady,” she would constantly tell them, even though they knew the story as well as they knew the back of their hands, “that’s how she inherited her greenish-grey eyes and her silky, thick dark hair. But I am a proud Egyptian, this which I take after my father; Hassan Pasha.”
She would spend hours on end talking about the glorious royal days when Egypt still had a king. As she described the numerous balls she had attended, the most popular dresses she wore and all the dance moves she could do, her eyes would glitter with excitement as if the grey hairs covering her head and the thick wrinkles lining her face had never been.
However, the most significant icon of her house was by far her strange taste in music. Unlike all other people of her age and of the recent ages that followed, she never liked the oriental music which captured all hearts, even once confessed that the miraculously strong voice of the legendary Om Qalthoum usually gave her a headache. Her heart fell for the western tunes and the powerful voices of Sinatra, Armstrong and Elvis Presley. She fed her unique taste of music to her daughters and granddaughters afterwards. Whenever you would step inside the Manial house, you were guaranteed to listen to some old, sixties song.
Perhaps that was the greatest reason why Lana became so fond of the Manial house and of Grandma Dodda herself, for ever since the day Tonya and Lana’s friendship began, Dodda’s influence was strong upon it. Both girls attended the same school: Alsun; presumably the reason behind their strong bond. In primary school, even though they were both in the same class, they weren’t very close. By middle school, new departments opened up, where Tonya joined the American division and Lana joined the British, more sophisticated division. Surprisingly, that was the time when they started to become closer, for it was around this time that they discovered they were neighbors in their North Coast summer getaway in Mara`ia. At that time, not only did the girls’ lives become entwined together, but their families’ as well. Despite the relative gap in financial status, Tonya’s family made up in origin what they had lost in wealth.
Through the years, both families would spend their entire summer together in the NorthCoast, especially the month of August which was known to be the hottest and most humid month in the whole year in Egypt. So it became a habit that the Masrys (Lana’s family) and the Shareefs (Tonya’s family) would flee to Mara`ia first, then later on to Marina – when Mara`ia became rather local – then Sidi Kreir (all small cities across the North Coast), where they would enjoy their summer vacation between extravagant beaches in the morning and lively nightclubs in the evening. All those trips strengthened the bonds between the families more and more, that even when the Shareefs couldn’t afford buying their own chalet in Marina or Sidi Kreir, the Masrys always invited them at their grand villas.
After all this cordiality and amicability, Tonya’s parents decided to take a huge step and give the Masrys a generous invitation to one of their most sacred events. It was a habit in Egypt that the Holy month of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, was usually the month of Iftar invitations where all families would compliment each other through inviting each other to luxurious and generous Iftars. Nevertheless, the very first day of Ramadan was a day most families used to keep for themselves, so that they would dine in the family. Tonya’s family was in the habit of having Iftar at the Manial house with Grandma Dodda. This tradition was as official as Tonya’s Friday mornings. Every year, Ameena, Roukaia and even Tonya and Nadia would prepare delicious gourmets to participate in Grandma Dodda’s royal Iftar banquet. Anyways, after spending the entire summer at the Masrys’ villa in Marina, Ameera decided to return the very generous hospitality by inviting Lana’s family to their cherished Iftar.
To be perfectly honest, Ameena felt like she had gotten herself into a total mess the moment she hung up the phone with Lana’s mother after inviting her to the Iftar. For starters, she wasn’t sure that the Manial house was fit for showing off in with the Masrys, after the bamboo reception and sea view garden she had seen at their Marina Villa. She knew that Dalia, Lana’s mum, was of a very saucy nature, and that she didn’t mind openly criticizing anything she didn’t find classy enough. And Ameera simply couldn’t listen to any negative opinions about her precious Manial house. Besides, the first of Ramadan Iftar was something extremely intimate that she began to doubt whether she had made a huge mistake by inviting total strangers to share it with them.
Unexpectedly, though, the Iftar turned out to be a colossal success, for the Masrys, and particularly Dalia, were bewitched with the originality of the Manial house. As they took a tour around the beautiful rooms and historical corners, Grandma Dodda along with Ameena proudly explained and narrated all the exotic stories that both the house and the family have lived through. In fact, the Iftar was so successful that it was decided to be a yearly tradition. And from that day on, whenever the Masrys were invited for Iftar on the first of Ramadan, they had to politely decline saying that they “have other plans”.
AS TONYA WAS stuffing the Sambousak sheets – something resembling the dough used in making French pâté; but this one was crunchier since it was deep-fried in oil not baked in the oven – with delicious white cheese, carefully folding the leaves around the soft chunks of cheese to form triangular shapes, Lana slowly crept out of the kitchen and made her way to the large balcony in the hall. Grabbing Grandma Dodda’s shawl on her way, she now placed it on her shoulders as she opened the balcony and stepped inside. This was by far her favorite part of the visit; standing in the balcony watching the old streets crowding up with new cars and observing the neighbors next-door as they hanged their laundry on worn out clotheslines with old, broken, wooden pegs, always with some song from the previous century playing in the background. No matter how much Lana had often tried to explain it, she couldn’t possibly describe how much she adored this scene. She would simply justify it by saying that this was the closest she had ever got to experiencing the true Egyptian spirit. And with the Ramadan lanterns hanging in the balconies, the vista seemed even more spiritual, since the Egyptians celebrate Ramadan the same hearty way Americans celebrate Christmas; both being Lara’s favorite religious seasons.
“If you love this balcony so much now when it’s all noisy and dirty, what would you have thought about it when it still had a view to the Nile?” Dodda surprised Lana from behind. She quickly turned around, met her with an embarrassed smile. This was another thing Dodda loved to brag about, for when they first moved into the block, there were no other buildings before them that they saw the Nile loud and clear from every single window of the house.
“I just love it Dodda, I really can’t help it.” Replied Lana with a sigh as she adjusted the edge of the shawl around her white, long neck.
“So you’re not just escaping the kitchen chores?” asked Dodda with a cunning smile.
“Well, that too.” Confessed Lana, almost proudly. “C’mon, we both know that the kitchen is Tonya’s department. I never do anything decent in there anyway.” This was a fact, as Lana wouldn’t come early with Tonya to the Manial house to prepare Iftar, but rather not to miss any valuable moment of the long day’s sacred traditions.
“And what will you do when you get married and your husband’s stomach burns with hunger? Would you call for Tonya, then?”
“No, I’d call for a cook, actually.” Even though it was said humorously, it was not a joke.
“But this is not right. A real lady should always know her way around her kitchen. This is like her own kingdom, the one place where man is not allowed to share her seat and boss her around. Besides, no cook would ever make your favorite vine-leaves as deliciously as you would make them with your own hands.”
“God, the vine leaves! Do you know Dodda that I actually never taste those yummy vine leaves except here in your house? You do have them on the menu today, don’t you?”
“Of course.” Replied Dodda confidently. “Ameena’s rolling them around the rice right now.” The vine leaves were actually served with some tender white rice mixed with tomato paste and parsley.
“You know what I just discovered?” began Lana, interestingly looking at her. “All my favorite Egyptian food isn’t actually Egyptian, but Turkish. Even the vine-leaves. It’s such a shame.”
“Why? Don’t you love fool; beans?” asked Dodda astonished. “That’s a traditional, Egyptian dish.”
“Hate it.” declared Lana disgustedly. “I can’t even stand its smell.”
“Heavens!” exclaimed Dodda, forgetting to breathe for a moment. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Egyptian who didn’t love fool.”
“Now you have.”
Just when Grandma Dodda was about to give Lana a lecture on the importance of eating beans and how nutrient and useful it is to Lana’s health, Tonya walked into the balcony and interrupted them saying:
“Dodda, mum has finished making the béchamel, but she’s asking you whether she should add it to the boiled macaroni yet or if she should wait until it’s three o’clock?”
Standing there in the doorway of the balcony, with a bowl containing a mixture of eggs and flours she was quickly beating as she spoke, all in slippers and an old apron, Tonya looked like a typical housewife. The hideous ponytail hid the long, dark hair she had inherited from her grandmother, and her wide, brown eyes drowned in the dark circles accumulating around her eye sockets. Even her tanned skin looked as though it was dark with dirt and not naturally. As Lana eyed her in that condition, she secretly felt grateful for her anti-cooking tendencies.
In a few moments, they all followed Grandma Dodda to the old, airy kitchen where Ameena was busily installing trays into the oven and Roukaia was soaking in water Kamaredeen leaves; thin, jelly-like sheets of apricot paste which are used in making a very popular Ramadan beverage usually drunk at Iftar and Sohour. Nadia wasn’t with them; she was still at home with her dad in the 6th of October city. That was the only thing she and Lana had in common, their strong inability to fall in love with cooking.
ONE FINAL LOOK at the clock ticking resonantly in the hall: five thirteen. Ameena’s domineering voice announced that she’s done with frying the Sambousak. Quickly, Tonya rushed to the kitchen to take it to the dining table. She had now changed into a black, short-sleeved top with a large collar and a short line of buttons on the chest. She wore her long wavy hair loose while tying a long scarf of colorfully quilted cloth around her head, letting its edges fall loosely down and mingle with the dark ringlets of her hair. Her blue denims were very regular, except that she wore another similar scarf around her waist in the form of a belt. As the shiny silver-platter landed safely on the table, Tonya grabbed a Sambousak and took a chunky bite which produced a crispy sound that echoed in the entire room.
“Tonya!” exclaimed Lana, disgraced. “Aren’t you fasting?”
“Relax,” said Tonya with difficulty, as the chewed up dough was still in her mouth, “I’m on my period, I’m absolved.”
“But still, you can’t just proclaim it so shamelessly.” Tonya answered with a careless wave of her hand as she moved back to the kitchen to bring the rest of the food.
Perhaps Lana felt that Tonya’s action was rather rude, but actually, it wasn’t because she was proud of being on a break from fasting, but more because of the savage attack of hunger she had detonated in Lana’s stomach by nibbling on this golden beauty so temptingly. As if it wasn’t hard enough for Lana, having to fast from dawn till dusk – something she couldn’t bring herself to do until she was fourteen – that she had to see someone else eat with such pleasure when she would have given anything to have one tiny lick of water.
Her envious thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of the bell.
“I’ll get it.” said Tonya as she ran quickly towards the door.
Lana followed behind. Before she could see the door clearly, she heard her mother’s loud laugh resound throughout the hall, and smelt her strong Burberry fragrance spread around. Even though fasting women weren’t allowed to wear a strong perfume, Dalia couldn’t help it. She was a lady, and she meant to look, dress, behave and even smell like one, even in Ramadan.
Nevertheless, Ramadan had its own styles and fashions. For instance, Dalia couldn’t just wear any normal outfit when attending an Iftar. She preferred wearing oriental Abayas, something similar to a loose, colorful cloak but with an Arabian touch. On that day, she wore her brand new floral Abaya; it was a chiffon cloak with all shades of blue and green, tightening up a bit around the waist, with fine frills lining the loosely worn sleeves. Her high-heeled blue shoes and bluish-green Prada bag matched perfectly with the Abaya, and her straight, long, blonde hair covered her slightly bare shoulders.
Following her into the place were Mr. Sayeed Masry, Lana’s father, and Sara, Lana’s younger sister. All of their faces had the same enthusiastic expression of wild expectations when being seated on the antique furniture. Dalia immediately made herself at home, and began helping with setting the table, while Sara rushed to the kitchen to help in transferring the food. Despite all of the women being used to having full-time maids around their houses, none of them dared bring any of those maids to the Manial house to help them out with preparing for Iftar. The reason behind that was Dodda’s blunt refusal to having any careless maid touch her precious china, silverware or crystal glasses.
Before the cannon fired and the Maghrib azan went off, Tonya’s father and sister had arrived. They all broke their fast with a single date-fruit each and, before sitting on the table and diving into the exotic collection of lovingly prepared food, they all had to wash for ablution and pray the Maghrib prayer first. To be perfectly honest, none of them had the thought of praying even cross their minds before their stomachs were full, and I mean entirely full. Sometimes they would even get caught up in dessert that they would hear the Isha azan and realize that the food has made them miss their Maghrib prayer. But in the Manial house the rules were different, for nobody was allowed to lay hands on the food before praying first.
Anyway, after praying and putting the religious ritual behind them, they all hungrily set towards the dining table, everyone taking his position and binging into the hot banquet.
“The strangest thing happened as we were leaving the car downstairs.” Began Dalia as she sipped through the chicken and cream soup. “Some young man came to us with unsealed dates in his hands and insisted we take some. We had to drive him away by loudly screaming in his face: ‘No, we won’t take any of your contaminated food.’”
“Oh, Dalia.” Spoke Roukaia, Tonya’s aunt, sympathetically. “You really shouldn’t have. The poor man was just trying to collect thawab by being the one to break your fast.”
“Well, I wouldn’t certainly break my fast with those – God knows where they come from – old, wrinkled dates.” Said Dalia disgustedly.
“You didn’t have to eat them. You could have at least taken them from him, as a thank-you gesture.”
“I don’t know, but I believe that the Egyptians would never be able to do anything right. Despite their best intentions, they would always keep sending the wrong messages.”
“Just like what happened with the latest presidential elections.” Said Mr. Sayeed Masry, trying to change the subject which was constantly revealing his wife’s sickly proud nature. “I mean they wanted to take a positive step towards achieving full democracy, but all they did was play out a silly act.”
“Why?” asked Mr. Mahmoud Al Shareef, Tonya’s father, as he cut through a piece of tender lamb. Mr. Al Shareef was a professor of political sciences. He lectured in CairoUniversity and he had just taken a new post in the AUC. So typically, whenever politics came to the table, he had something to say. “You don’t believe that President Mubarak got this eighty something percentage of votes?”
“Well, even if he did, you can’t say it was completely decent. We all know that most of the votes come from the poor laborers and peasants who hardly even know who they’re voting for. They just vote out of fear or sometimes to earn a few extra pounds.”
“Still,” resumed Mr. Al Shareef, now taking a bite of the Sambousak, “I believe it is a huge step towards democracy. At least now we have multi-candidate presidential elections.”
Lana’s attentive following of this relatively interesting conversation was interrupted by the ringing of her cell phone. She quickly excused herself from the table and reached out to the cell in the next room, where she took the call. After a few minutes, she returned lightly with a glorious smile set upon her face.
“Who was that?” asked Mr. Masry, rather crossed.
“Nader.” Replied Lana shortly, getting back to her seat.
“And what is he calling for at that time? Doesn’t he know it’s Iftar time already?”
“He was just wishing me a happy Ramadan, pappy.” Answered Lana, defensively.
He was quiet for a while, then he rejoined. “I don’t know, Lana, but I’m really not fond of that boy.”
“Pappy,” interrupted Lana with a polite smile, “can we please save this for some other time? We’re eating here.”
“Still, I don’t think he’s good enough for you.” Tonya, who totally agreed with Sayeed’s words, silently smiled at the back of her mind. “He lacks a great deal of respect. And the whole living-in-Beirut thing isn’t getting to my head. Mahmoud, have you seen the way he grabbed her at the graduation party?”
“Grabbed me, pappy! It was barely a hug.”
“Well, I won’t allow my daughter to be groped around by misbehaving boys.” This was spoken out loud with a stronger tone.
“He rarely even touches me, pappy.” Explained Lana, hurt. “That stupid hug at the graduation; it was merely out of sheer excitement.”
“Truly, Sayeed.” Intervened Dalia, now trying to cover up for her husband’s annoyingly swinging moods. “The boy is very well brought up. I have seen his mother in Lebanon; quite a Lady.”
“And there’s that other Lebanon affair. My daughter missing college just to be with some boy in Lebanon!” Blurted out Sayeed. “Something I totally disapproved of. Just so you know, I won’t allow it to happen again” he said that menacingly pointing his fork at her as he spoke.
“Can we please change the subject?” pleaded Lana, almost in tears with embarrassment.
“The Sambousak is delicious.” Exclaimed Sara as some sort of salvation.
“Oh, that’s all Tonya’s doing.” Announced Dodda, proudly. Tonya just looked down with a happy smile.
“I always say it; Tonya’s gonna turn out to be one perfect housewife, while Lana’s gonna beg her to give her a hand every time she’s having a party when she’s (Lana) too busy with her career.” Said Dalia festively.
“Well, housekeeping is definitely going to be one of Tonya’s various activities.” Replied Ameena back, who always saw that her daughter being regarded only as a perfect housewife was slightly an insult, and that she had a shot of having a career just as successful as Lana’s. “You are aware that Tonya, too, had entered the dating world?” Uttered Ameena with apparent delight. As much as men hated for their daughters to date, woman usually took pride in the fact, since it meant for them that they had marvelously succeeded in bringing up desirable women who had a huge chance of getting married very soon; always a triumph no matter how civilized and modernized they were. This was the hidden reason behind suddenly deciding that the Maadi apartment was too small for the Shareefs and that they had to move to a larger, semi detached villa in one of the decent compounds of 6th of October, currently the hottest suburb in the country. Even though Ameena claimed that the reason behind this move was that both her daughters were now in college: Nadia in Cairo University and Tonya in the AUC, both campuses in the middle of Cairo, and certainly 6th of October is slightly closer to middle Cairo than Maadi is. However, everyone knew that she pushed her husband to buy this expensive place so that when her daughters’ suitors start showing up at their doorstep, they would have a large, luxurious house to welcome them in; all the reasons to expect a better class of suitors.
“Lana told me something about a boy with them in college.” Asserted Dalia referring to Mark.
“Barely a boy, my dear.” Clarified Ameena, raising her glass of Kamaredeen as she spoke. “He’s already twenty-one, now; fourth year in college.”
“With a major in architecture.” Added Tonya from behind a smile. Finally, they had brought up the subject she had been long yearning to talk about.
“Quite a nice person.” Said Lana, grateful the talk was no more about her. “The other day, he offered to help me with one of the core subjects I scored low in.”
“Really?” asked Tonya, with a tiny spark of jealousy. Lana was the last person she could possibly be jealous of; she had to stop her absurd thoughts right away. “He was of much help to you?”
“No, actually, I had to pass on that one. Mohammad is already explaining to me all the humanity lectures.”
“Now that’s one sweet boy!” exclaimed Dalia as soon as hearing Mohammad’s name being uttered. “Just two days ago, when Lana’s car was at the mechanic’s for a check up he drove her all the way to Qautameya at our house even though his house is in Maryouteya. And he’s a real gentleman, too.”
“Mum’s only saying that because he told her she almost looked like my elder sister.” Said Lana, jokingly.
“Such a cliché.” Complained Mr. Masry. “And she always falls for it.”
Dalia didn’t mind their words, she just kept babbling on and on about all the great qualities she had spotted in Mohammad from a single interview.
After the Iftar, there came the dessert time; the highlight of the dessert session was the konafa Dalia had brought over. And dessert was always taken in the living room in front of the television where both families would enjoy all the exclusive shows and series which were produced annually only for the Holy month of Ramadan.
By the end of the night, when Tonya had already said her goodbyes to Lana and her family, and as she was riding back home to their 6th of October house, all the day’s events had evaporated and only one thing remained solid in her mind; they all approved of Mark. And that meant the world to her.