The drive home

Cairo's streets, the way a crying driver would see them, on February 9th, 2015. Rana Taha

Cairo’s streets, the way a crying driver would see them, on February 9th, 2015. Rana Taha

It hits you when the engine starts running, as soon as you exit the street where you’ve been parked, where you’re likely to run into familiar faces. As soon as you get on the road, the crying fit hits you.

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I remember Rabaa

An Egyptian riot policeman points his gun towards at stone-throwers during clashes that broke out as Egyptian security forces moved in to disperse supporters of Egypt's ousted president Mohamed Morsi by force in a huge protest camp near Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in eastern Cairo on August 14, 2013. MOHAMMED ABDEL MONEIM/AFP/Getty Images)

An Egyptian riot policeman points his gun towards at stone-throwers during clashes that broke out as Egyptian security forces moved in to disperse supporters of Egypt’s ousted president Mohamed Morsi by force in a huge protest camp near Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in eastern Cairo on August 14, 2013. MOHAMMED ABDEL MONEIM/AFP/Getty Images)

I remember 14 August, 2013, more than I remember most days of my life. I was planning on wearing my new black shirt to work that day; the one with a semi-transparent back.

I remember drowsily getting out of bed, considering which stories I would cover for the paper that day, before being updated by my mum about the latest news.

“They’re dispersing the sit-ins,” she said, shaking, while anchored in front of the television airing live footage of the dispersals.

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Teenager arrested in Cairo for taking photos of his birthday party

The view from the Nile didn't only cost Tohamy fortunes to organise his birthday party; it also cost him his freedom

The view from the Nile didn’t only cost Tohamy fortunes to organise his birthday party; it also cost him his freedom

An Eighteen year-old student was arrested during his birthday party while taking photos with his friends as a form of celebration. Police forces accused him of “unlawfully shooting public institutions” which was visible in the background of his friends’ photo. Continue reading

Amid the violence and the curfew; Surviving Egypt

"I've watched all the new, AND old, movies, several times" ... "And I think I don't need to count the floor's tiles for the 69th time"

“I’ve watched all the new, AND old, movies, several times” … “And I think I don’t need to count the floor’s tiles for the 69th time”

The number-one question that bombarded me from every foreigner who contacted me since the violence which followed the dispersal of the pro-Mohamed Morsi sit-ins was always:

“What’s happening on the streets of Egypt now?” or “How is it like living in Egypt now?” or “How is it like to be on Egypt’s streets now?”

Some even have gone as far as ask me; “How is your family taking all that’s happening in Egypt now?”

Obviously, other than the death toll, the assailants and the calls for reconciliation, everybody, outside Egypt, is mostly curious about Egyptian’s day-to-day activities in light of what’s happening.

And I don’t blame them. Continue reading

Chapter 18: Give me some love

Lana’s first summer as a married woman was the summer of her wedding. And since Mark had already taken nearly three weeks off from work for their honeymoon in Prague, he couldn’t travel again throughout the entire summer. Therefore, whenever Lana felt chocked up by the heat of Cairo, her mother would send her a car with a chauffeur to drive them to their villa in Sidi Abdel Rahman in the NorthCoast, where she would spend at least a week with them. So basically, the following summer was the first summer for Lana to experience the holiday invitations and trips.

The first week was spent at Leila’s chalet in Marina. It was a cozy apartment with four bedrooms overlooking the lagoon; probably the only nice thing they had inherited from Mr. Ahmad Hassanein. Even though Lana had her own room to sleep in with Mark, she didn’t enjoy any form of privacy due to the family’s bizarre way of life. They spent all their times together, from the moment they deserted their beds till the moment they were reunited with those chunky mattresses. They all ate breakfast together, took off to the sea together, returned home together and had to wait their turns to take a shower in the only bathroom available in the chalet. And the most tiring aspect was that of the absence of the maid, which meant that Lana too had to help in cleaning the sand that got in with their shoes. Being already three months pregnant made Leila pardon her of almost all the house chores. Nevertheless, Leila had a way about her, a way that would make her guilt the person in front of her to do whatever pleased her. Mark had inherited this characteristic from his mother, but he seldom used it.

Despite the fits of madness and the times of extreme distress, Lana loved this week as it brought her even closer to Maya. Spending all their time together and sleeping in the same house meant being able to share a game of cards, watch a late movie, prepare some extravagant supper at 3 a.m, and paint the enticing view. Lana wasn’t much of a painter herself, but Maya was the real deal. For hours, Lana would watch her mix the spiciest of colors and lay them gracefully on the large canvas to come up with the most creative images of the existent vista. Mark would usually come by from behind, and photograph the painting before Maya would take it away and declare that it’s for her eyes only. The day they left, Maya gave Lana one of the paintings as a souvenir to remind her of their pleasant week in the NorthCoast. Lana gladly accepted the gift, though she saw no reason why she shall ever forget a week that was likely to repeat itself for years to come.

 

 

 

THE NEXT WEEK, they took off to visit Lana’s parents in Sidi Abdel Rahman. Now, this was a vacation Lana would be looking forward to. If not for being around her parents in one of the most beautiful spots in Egypt, then at least for the luxury of the Villa. With her own bedroom with the bathroom en suite, and the small balcony that overlooked the beautiful blue beach, Lana considered herself in heaven. And she had longed to share this heaven with Mark ever since the day they fell in love.

Her mother welcomed them in with a careful smile; one that doesn’t reflect neither hatred nor hypocrisy. Her father, on the other hand seemed much more relaxed. On one hand, he was actually fond of Mark. On the other hand, Sidi Abdel Rahman was a place were he could drink more and be blamed less. Sara remained her old self; never too intimate, but close enough to leave an impression, though she appeared rather distant on that specific trip.

Yet, that wasn’t all, for Mr. Masry usually invited his only sister to spend the summer vacation with them, especially now that Tonya’s family stopped coming over; Tonya now invited them to Mohammad’s villa in Sidi Kreir. Tante Shaheera, Lana’s aunt, was the sweetest person, truly. She had been widowed at thirty-five, and the rest of her life she dedicated to raising her only child, Tareq. Tareq, who was now twenty-two, constantly proved to be much of a challenge. He was never smart in school, barely made it through college after a miracle of praying and hoping for the best, and took at least four semesters to pass each academic year that by now, when he was supposed to have graduated, he was still in his third year of college. Many times he dropped out unaccountably, then he would return to take his exams, where he seldom managed to get through. The last time, he took some time off to join a rehab which Lana’s father had paid for; this was only three months prior to that trip. Even though Dalia hated him, or more accurately: feared him, the girls never held a grudge against their disturbed cousin. Perhaps they never got along quite well, but they never fought either, and that evened things up. Besides, inviting him to the villa was something nobody dared talk over with Mr. Sayeed, so they all learnt to acquiesce in silence.

 

 

 

“WHICH ONE OF them do you think I should wear?” asked Lana holding two different sets of Bikinis in her hands; one was brown with two sunflowers at the upper piece, and the other was pink with yellow linings along the edges. She was already unpacking in their bedroom, while Mark lay on the bed with the cell phone in his hand.

“What? You still wanna wear a bikini?” he asked as he looked disgustedly at the two sets of swimsuits. “I thought we already had that conversation back in Marina.”

“I thought your objection was because Omar was around and you didn’t think it appropriate for me to wear a bikini around him. Here, I’m only with my parents.”

“And Tareq.” Added Mark.

“He doesn’t swim with us. We’re not like you, Mark. Our trips to the sea aren’t synchronized. We go there when we feel like it, and we never go in groups.”

“I don’t care. I just don’t want you in a bikini.”

“You don’t get to decide. It’s my body; I shall wear what I see fit.”

“And you’re my wife. I shall have a say in what you wear.” Mark said, crossed. “Plus, a bikini would show off your already plump stomach. It won’t even look good on you with a growing baby inside.”

“C’mon, Mark. That’s how we do it here. They’re all gonna make fun of me if I go down there in a one-piece. And I paid an awful lot of money for this one,” she said indicating the brown bikini, “I would really love to see myself in it.” Mark remained silent. “Besides, you let me wear bikinis on our honeymoon.”

“That’s because it was our HONEYMOON, and it was just the two of us. Sorry Lana, but the parts of your body that a bikini exposes are so private that I believe they’re for my eyes only. Even religiously, I’ve got all the right to give you some dress code to follow.” With that he left the room.

For a moment, Lana decided she was going to wear it anyway. But after a second of reconsideration, she came to the conclusion that it was only going to cause a new fight, and she couldn’t think of anything uglier than fighting around her parents. Moreover, she wanted to be the one with the advantage, the one whom he owed. And most importantly, even though it was still relatively small – in comparison with Tonya’s large bump – Lana’s stomach was truly beginning to look inappropriate in a bikini. The baby was already starting to show. To the eyes of a stranger, she didn’t exactly look pregnant yet; she still looked like she had recently gained some weight on her one very flat stomach. Perhaps they would have made fun of her had she showed up with a bare stomach. Still, she decided to give Mark a hard time about it.

In her one-piece swimsuit, with a light chiffon summer-dress on, Lana departed her bedroom with the most unpleasant frown drawn upon her face. She knew it was time for her parents’ nap, so the frown was solely meant for Mark. As she walked down the hall, passing by the large veranda that led to the greenery, Lana overheard some voices. At first, she reckoned it was Mark and Sara. Moving closer in an attempt to surprise them, Lana noticed that the male voice was somehow softer and lower than her husband’s. When she was close enough to see the tip of his head and catch a glimpse of his curly, brown hair, Lana finally recognized him as Tareq. But the girl was Sara; she wasn’t mistaken about that one. She couldn’t exactly hear what they were saying, yet they seemed to be getting along quite well. Just when there was one step separating her from hearing them clearly, it occurred to Lana that she was not an eavesdropper, and that they deserved the privacy that she never had in the Marina chalet. That was when she took a different turn and headed for the beach.

 

 

 

SOMETHING HAD CHANGED. Lana guessed it had something to do with the show Dalia was constantly trying to play on whenever Mark was around. But Lana saw it as extremely preposterous. For some anonymous reason, only that summer, Dalia announced that dinner would be served at nine, and that this was the only time for eating. The twenty-four-seven open buffet that Lana had long been used to, where everybody could eat whenever and wherever they pleased, was no longer an option. From now on, they would all gather around the dining table at nine p.m to eat their dinner. Whether by making fun of Leila, Dalia had come to imitate her, Lana didn’t know. But what she did know was that Dalia was being absolutely ridiculous.

As they all sat around the large, rounded table, it was noticed that one person was missing.

“Where’s Sara?” Tante Shaheera asked.

“Taking a nap. She’s not feeling very well.” Was Dalia’s simple reply.

Those were about the only words exchanged around that table. It felt like no one could stand the rest, like all were suffocating with the absurdity of the new rule; not being even able to taste their food properly. Lana could tell that Dalia had an idea about her fight with Mark, yet she didn’t have a mind for gloating; it seemed she had her own arguments to think about. For a very short while, Lana felt that she missed Marina, with all its chaos and insanity.

Right after dinner, all got straight to bed. Jumping into her pajamas and slipping under her bed sheets, Lana immediately fell asleep. Vexation always got her drowsy, figuring she had nothing to look forward to. She had a few dreams about Maya’s paintings, Leila’s criticism and Mai looking behind her book to sneak a peek at her sister’s work of art.

“Lana?” Maya was calling her to see the painting. She was being gently rocked; a hand was patting her on the shoulder. “Lana?” Maya’s hands were at her paining, and the voice sounded too harsh to be hers. As she slowly opened her eyes, Lana realized that it was Mark who was calling on her. The room was dark; with only the lamp’s dim light on, she could barely see him.

“What?” she asked as she lazily opened her eyes.

“Get dressed.” He held her brown bikini in his hand.

“Is it morning already?” she was bulkily rubbing her eyes.

“No, it’s still night. C’mon.”

“Why on earth would I wanna wear a swimsuit at night?” she closed her eyes again.

“Don’t you wanna swim in your precious bikini? C’mon, now; get up. It’s your only chance; we’d be all alone at the beach.”

“Are you out of your mind?” Lana finally began to take him seriously. She got up in bed, resting upon her elbows.

“Ain’t no better time to go for a dive than in the middle of the night.”

“That’s only for mad people.”

“And you’re not mad? Sorry, if I’ve mistaken you for a wild tigress. Perhaps I just married the wrong kind of woman.” This he said while moving away from bed. Lana reached out to the switch, turned on the lights. It was only then that she could see him already in his swimsuit. It didn’t need any more resolving. Mark was trying to do a nice, romantic thing in his own kind of way; and Lana had learnt to appreciate all his little efforts.

In no time they were sneaking out of the dark villa, Mark  shirtless, in his swimsuit and Lana  with a transparent dress that allowed her bikini to shine through. Both were barefoot.

The beach was only a walking distance ahead of them, and the moment their feet got buried under the smooth, white sand, they began to run to the beach. Just when they were wetted with the splashes of the waves, Lana took off her dress and Mark drew her into the water.

“No, wait!” she cried in a whisper, still worried that someone might see them. “I know the perfect place for a calm swim.”

She led the way to a part of the shore about ten meters ahead of them. When they finally made it there, Mark could see through the faint flashlight hanging over the giant sunshade made of thick straws that Lana’s selected beach was one that fell between two large piles of rocks. The rocks decreased the blows of the strong waves, acted like the soothing shore around a bay.

Lana recklessly threw her dress into the sand and began pulling him into the water. But just as the water reached her bellybutton, she went rushing back to him.

“Oh, it’s cold.” She uttered with clenching teeth and a trembling body.

“It’s not.” He drew her closer with a quiet giggle. “You’re just scared. See, the water’s delicious. I can see your body through it.” It was true, for in this strategic place, there were hardly any waves to cloud the water. He placed his hand on her bare belly, gently rubbing it. “Is it moving yet?” He was referring to the baby. Lana silently shook her head. “Look over here,” his hand came across an old cut down her breast, “that’s the scar from your accident.”

“You only noticed it now?”

“I kinda lost track of its size and shape.” He tried to check it out through the weak lighting. “I’m surprised you didn’t have it removed by a plastic surgery.”

“I could if it’s bothering you.”

“Would I be bothered by a souvenir from the day you fell in love with me?”

“Who told you that was the day I fell in love with you?” Lana asked with a smile. “I was too busy struggling with death that I didn’t have any time to fall in love.”

Mark paused for a minute. “It must’ve been the day we kissed, then.” He added after some thought.

“Which kiss?” Asked Lana cunningly. “The one in London or the one in New York?”

Even though it was meant to be a joke, Mark never took it lightly.

“That’s not when I fell in love with you, though. I guess it all started the moment Tonya introduced us. You reminded me of someone; an old boyfriend who was a champion at swimming. See,” she ran her hands across his wet shoulders, “he had broad shoulders just like yours.”

“Great, so the first time you noticed me it was only because I reminded you of an old boyfriend.” Lana laughed loudly enough for her voice to echo through the sea.

“My jealous little Mark.” She said happily.

“I ain’t jealous. Just curious.” She continued laughing. “Forget about that.” He said in a desperate attempt to change the subject. “Tell me, how did you find this amazing spot?”

“Why, I swim here almost every summer. It’s only natural that I know the beach as the back of my hand.” She blocked her nose with her fingers and took a quick dive in the sea, coming out soaked up in salty drops of water and slightly shaking her hair. “God, I love this place.”

Mark cupped her head in his hands, gently stroking her hair. If he adored her hair when it was warm and fluffy, he liked it ten times better when wet. “You just love any place that’s far away from Cairo.”

“Except for the Zamalek duplex … and Grandma Dodda’s Manial house.”

“What about our house?”

“Eh-eh, not so much.” She said lightly.

“You know I should take that as an insult?”

“It’s not personal. It’s just that Cairo’s become so crammed up with cars, chocked up on smoke and dirt that it feels like a struggle to survive there. I just like to take some time off, somewhere with clean fresh air and brightly shining sun. Like here, and in El-Gouna.”

“What about Ein El-Sokhna?” asked Mark with a different tone; a tone which smelt of surprise.

“Why?” Lana, who was relaxing in the delicate water, suddenly turned upright, trying to make up anything of his mysterious facial expression. “What’s in El-Sokhna?”

“Nothing.” He replied casually. Bells started ringing in Lana’s mind; she soon remembered the Sokhna compound he had been working on lately.

“Oh my God!” she exclaimed. “It’s gotta do with your work, hasn’t it? Don’t tell me we’re moving there!” She said hopefully.

“Not exactly.” Mark was still trying to play it cool. “But there is this little plan.”

“What?” Lana’s thriving curiosity was eating her up.

“I might, and I mean might, be able to buy a place over there some time soon.” He finally came clean.

“No way!” she gave out a shrill cry, covering her wide open mouth with both hands.

“Don’t get too excited yet. It’s still a ‘might’; nothing for sure. Besides, it’s only a little studio, no bigger than sixty meters large.”

“How did you pull it off?” she asked in disbelief.

“Uncle Ali’s business’s kinda’ asleep for the time being. You know, the financial crisis’s got everybody’s money tucked carefully in their pockets. Most people are afraid of buying, especially real estate. There’s a theory that the prices are gonna drastically decrease in the next few years, and nobody wants to take a shot. So I,” he referred to himself with extreme pride, “proposed we be the first to lower the prices a bit. And raise the bar with the extra services instead of the incredible costs. I also thought it wise to offer certain appealing discounts that would act as some sort of incentive for people to buy and spread the word about their new properties. There’s when I realized that I could actually make use of my own proposal.”

“You conniving genius.” Commented Lana, impressed with her husband’s marketing skills.

“What? I didn’t plan it on purpose. It just worked itself up. Besides, Uncle Ali was the one who offered me the discount.”

“So what’s missing? Why is it a ‘might’?”

“I still haven’t signed the papers yet. I’m still sorting out the money. I’m short for the girls’ college tuition.” He still believed it part of his duty to pay for his sisters’ tuitions. It wasn’t a very large sum, but there were times when he desperately needed it. “It’s nothing, really. I have some money coming up very soon. You know that money Omar’s been investing for me? It’s about time I start using it. But I would still prefer that we don’t tell anybody. Not a single soul. Even Mohammad doesn’t know yet; Uncle Ali still hasn’t told him.”

“God,” Lana kicked the water with her small, white foot, “if this happens, I’d be the happiest person on earth.” She looked at him with dancing eyes, gently allowing him to wrap his fingers around her waist, carrying her up and down the water slowly. “We could go there almost every weekend. You wouldn’t have to take any time off, since the trip there takes less than two hours.”

“I can even work over there.”

“Really? Oh, just promise me you’re gonna do your best to let this thing happen, so we could have our own getaway all year long.”

Mark paused for a while; no promises uttered. “But it is just a studio.”

“I don’t care.” She declared thoughtlessly.

“Really?” he obviously doubted her words, but not crossly, though. “You won’t tell me ‘this is too small, I want a villa like Baher’s.’ Or ‘we need to have a bamboo set just like my father’s’ or ‘we can’t survive there without’ … I don’t know, ‘a Busch fridge’?”

Lana gave out an embarrassed smile. “You make it sound like I’m an annoying whiner.”

“Sometimes you are.”

“I won’t say anything of that kind.” That was meant as a promise. After another short dive, she said: “C’mon, aren’t we gonna swim for a while?”

 

 

 

THEY SNEAKED BACK as noiselessly as they had gone out; Lana putting on again her dress which, due to her wet skin, stuck onto her body to make it even more transparent than it already was. For a moment, they thought it was a blessing they were barefoot, for it would definitely produce less sound. Then they remembered how sandy their feet were, and it meant that they were going leave a trail on that white, clean marble floor. Just as they opened the front door slowly, they noticed some lights on.

“We probably forgot to turn them off on our way out.” Guessed Lana, dubiously. Still, they decided to creep in slowly. Just when their backs were facing the hall and they were on their way up the stairs, they heard a sound behind them;

“Sara, is that you?” asked Mr. Sayeed in a rather relieved tone. Lana slowly turned around, her father was coming out of the veranda, followed by her mother and aunt.

“Pappy?” she muttered.

“Damn it, I thought you were Sara. Your mother went to check on her before going to bed, realized she had gone out. Her cell’s out of service and she didn’t even say she was going out or where to.” The words poured down his mouth so quickly that he didn’t even take a breath in between. Lana knew that it meant he was extremely anxious; talking like that. “Did she by any chance happen to tell you where she was going?” he finally asked.

“Sorry, pappy. No.” She looked down. It was humiliating enough for her parents to catch her sneaking into the house like a teenager who had messed up, but being in those garments, that was ignominious. Right at that moment, she could have strangled Mark. But then again, he was in the same mess.

Even though her father didn’t really seem to care, her mother eyed her with a shaming look. She then decided to shift her anger to a more appropriate corner. “For God’s sake, it’s almost 1 a.m. We gotta do something.”

“Call her friends, ask them …”

“I already called all of her friends; the ones here aren’t that much anyway. You know everybody’s still in Cairo.”

Lana looked around, trying to be of any help. “Where’s Tareq?” she eventually noticed his absence.

“Probably out.” Replied Tante Shaheera in an unsure voice.

“Where?” Mr. Sayeed asked.

“I don’t know.” She admitted, shrugging her shoulders helplessly. “He usually doesn’t tell me.”

“I thought the problem was with Sara’s disappearance.” Said Dalia loudly, voicing her displeasure.

“Maybe they went out together.” Clarified Lana.

“Why? They never get along. I can’t recall a time when they were doing anything together.” Said Dalia, doing her best to trivialize Lana’s thoughts.

“I can.” Said Lana. She shortly mentioned seeing them earlier chatting in noticeable harmony.

“My God,” wailed Dalia, “he must’ve gotten her on drugs.”

“What?” Lana was in disbelief. It was clearly an insult to her aunt.

“That’s the only thing that boy’s capable of doing. And now that he could actually be around my daughter, what else could possibly occupy them?”

“Mum, he just got out of rehab!”

“Yeah, c’mon Dalia. Stop your venomous words.” said Mr. Sayeed bitterly. Then he rolled his eyes towards his sister’s fragile existence. Instead of being grateful for being stood up for, she seemed worried.

“What is it, Shaheera?” asked Mr. Sayeed, noticing her change of face.

She remained silent for a moment. “I hate to admit it, but I think Dalia may be right. He just took two hundred pounds from me yesterday. When he asked for more this morning I said ‘no’. Then a few hours ago, I noticed that some of my money’s missing. He’d always get like that when he’s on crack.” Her voice was breaking down, yet she remained quite still. “I know my son very well. It sounds like something he would do.”

Struck by the shocking discoveries, Mr. Sayeed slowly took a seat on the off-white bamboo couch behind him.

“Just to give him the shadow of a doubt, I’ll look for the drugs in his room.” Resumed Shaheera, hesitantly. “If we find it there, then it’s for sure.”

As she made her way to the bedroom, Mr. Sayeed stopped her saying. “Forget it, Shaheera. He’s not stupid enough to leave it right in front of us.”

“Stupid, no. But reckless enough not to even care about hiding it.” Said Shaheera with a broken smile.

In less than a minute, she returned with a nylon sack full of dope.

“I told you this boy’s dangerous but you just had to …” blurted out Dalia.

“Dalia!” shouted Mr. Sayeed, shutting her up entirely.

“Well, someone do something; get me my daughter back.”

“We don’t even know they’re together.” Said Mr. Sayeed, annoyed. “It’s just a wild guess.”

“Are we gonna wait till this wild guess is proven correct?”

“Perhaps,” began Mark, after clearing his throat, speaking for the first time since the unexpected entrance, “Mohammad should know. I’m gonna give him a call, see if he has anything valuable.”

“Is he still on drugs?” asked Lana in a whisper just as he was making his way to his cell phone.

“Not exactly, but some of his friends are.” He vanished for a while, probably making the call, meanwhile Lana took a seat beside her mother.

“Where were you?” Dalia asked the question that had been long dawning on her.

“At the beach.” A silent nod. Lana could feel the tension. Still, she decided to play dumb.

Mark returned only a moment later.

“Any news?” asked Dalia impatiently, speaking to him kindly, maybe for the first time.

“He tells me Omar would know best. I’ll call him right away.” He was gone again.

This time, Dalia leant over Lana’s shoulder saying, “Omar knows best? Perfect! You married the brother of a drug dealer.”

“He doesn’t do drugs, mum! He’s just got a lot of connections.” Protested Lana, loudly. “Besides, I’m the one with the junkie sister. If anything, I should be ashamed of myself.”

“Could the two of you please shut up?” interrupted Mr. Sayeed. They complied.

This time Mark stayed in a little bit more. Nevertheless, he returned with more efficient news.

“Omar tells me if they’re on a trip for the dope, he has a pretty good idea of where to find them. Luckily, he’s here in the resort. He’s picking me up in ten minutes.”

“I’m coming with you.” Announced Lana, immediately standing up.

“Hell, no. This ain’t the place for you. Not when you’re pregnant in particular.” He put his hands on her shoulders as he spoke to her sincerely. “You just stay here and we’ll all be back as soon as possible.”

“He’s right sweetie.” Said Mr. Sayeed. “We won’t be long.”

“What? You’re going?” asked Dalia, astonished.

“I really don’t think it’s a good idea, uncle.” Intervened Mark, politely. “You’d better stay with the ladies. We can’t leave them all alone at such an hour.”

Mr. Sayeed reasoned and figured that it was true. Then Mark excused himself to go get dressed, with Lana right behind him. When they both left, Dalia started again.

“Don’t you think this excursion of theirs is rather inappropriate? I mean, what were they doing at the sea at such a time? And they came back wet, too. Why, it’s there all day long. Can’t they just take a dive when the sun is shining? Did you notice the way they sneaked in? I’m sure they were doing something wrong.”

“He’s her husband, Dalia. What could they possibly be doing wrong?”

“I don’t know; a number of things. Making out …”

“Even that they’re allowed to do. In case you haven’t noticed, she’s already pregnant.”

“Well, then why creep in?”

“Hasn’t it occurred to you that maybe they didn’t wanna annoy us? Wake us up?” Dalia looked at him with contempt. “And don’t you think we have other things to worry about? For instance, our missing daughter?”

With those words, they heard footsteps down the stairs. Soon, Mark appeared in his denims and white t-shirt, with Lana in his arms. Just as they had made their way downstairs, Mark’s cell phone began ringing.

“It’s Omar. He’s here.” He turned to Lana and kissed her. “I gotta go.”

“Be careful.” She yelled back at him as he reached for the door.

“I will. And please, take a bath and wear something thick. We don’t want you catching a cold.”

As he closed the door behind him, Lana excused herself to go upstairs, leaving her parents and aunt behind. Dalia was still enraged, but she finally decided to be silent about it, while Shaheera, who had so far remained as still as the chair she was seated on, suddenly burst into tears.

“Hey, hey, hey.” Said Sayeed, moving gently towards her. Even Dalia felt her need for compassion, to which she replied with a soft pat on the back.

“I’m just so tired.” She began, with sobs interrupting her words. “I can’t take this anymore. I’ve tried everything with him. He just doesn’t respect me enough to obey me.” She turned to face her brother, “he’s really good on the inside, Sayeed. I know it’s hard to believe, but you don’t see the way he takes perfect care of me when I’m sick. It’s just,” she broke down. “… I think he needs a father figure. Someone to fear enough to obey.” She paused for a moment, trying to resolve something in her mind. “If you could just … treat him like he was your own son. Punish him, scold him, beat him, even; do anything you see fit to mend his crooked behavior, ‘cause I’m all out of ideas, here.”

“Of course, Shaheera.” Asserted Dalia, pleased. “I’ve been telling Sayeed to intervene for a long time now, but he felt it wasn’t his place. He didn’t wanna hurt you.”

“I’m not asking, Sayeed. I’m begging. If he were your son, what would you have done to him? You were a wild boy once, you know how he thinks. Just … get me my sweet son back, please.”

 

 
OMAR’S SECOND-HAND FABIA was small, but fast enough to get them flying through the Matrouh road. Mark rode in the front seat, while a third guy, whom Mark couldn’t recognize, was in the back seat.

“Mark, I’d like to introduce you to Kareem who’s about to be our guide on this unusual trip.” Said Omar as he carelessly held the steering wheel with one hand, and adjusted the temperature of the A/C with the other.

“Kareem, if you’re getting my little brother on crack, I’m not sure it would be very nice to meet you.” Said Mark half jokingly.

“Don’t worry.” Kareem replied with a short laugh. “He’s already there; doesn’t need me for anything.”

Mark gave Omar an angry look.

“Relax, I only use it on vacation, and not that much anyway. Just like to know how far they’ve come with the new stuff every now and then.” It didn’t ease Mark’s mind off, but at least it got him to drop that poker face. “Whatever. Kareem over here’s familiar with the guy we’re after.”

“We’re after a guy?” asked Mark, confused.

“From what Omar has told me,” began Kareem, “your sister-in-law’s suspected to be at a drug dealer’s. Now usually, in the NorthCoast, we get our drugs from the nomads on the highway. You know those Bedouins you spot by the side of the road as you’re driving by? Most of them are in fact drug dealers. Today in particular, there’s this guy, Mass`oud, who’s selling new stuff for very fair prices. Almost every junky I know has paid him a visit in the morning. The problem is, after sunset, it gets really dangerous. When darkness prevails, the chance of muggers intervening gets higher. Usually, people won’t go to such places unless they’re really desperate.”

“And where’s this guy we’re looking for, exactly?” asked Mark, uncertain.

“We’re expecting him probably ten kilometers ahead of us. If we don’t find him there, we’ll keep going forward till we get suspicious enough to pull over.”

“And how would we know it’s him? Would you be able to identify him from inside the car?”

“Now that’s the trick. Not just because Omar’s driving on 150 km/h – seriously, Omar; slow down – but also because there are a hell lot of nomads on the road. Some are drug dealers; others are muggers, while there just a few people simply selling their fruits. So we’re gonna need to be very careful with choosing when to get out of the car.”

Mark remained silent for a while, overwhelmed by the bizarre world he had never realized had existed before that night. “But we don’t even know that Sara’s over there. Aren’t we taking a very long shot?”

“Actually, we are. But the thing is: there’s this off-chance that some mugger’s got her. In that case, he could take anything she possesses.” A pause. “Maybe even rape her.”
Mark’s face lit up with fear. “See, that’s what makes this ‘unusual’ trip worth the shot, even if there’s only a one percent chance they’ve got her.”

They remained silent for the next 10 kilometers. Afterwards, Omar was obliged to slow down to 80 km/h so that they’d be able to carefully look for the face they were after. In between the fig trees that covered the desert, they would spot a thin, lifeless Bedouin every now and then. They would almost pull over, trying to take a closer look at him, when Kareem would announce that it’s not the guy they’re looking for. After a while of that, Mark began to suspect Sara had gone to a different guy, possibly one of the numerous they’ve come across. By the kilometer 15, he was beginning to get really hopeless, when all of a sudden; the flashlights fell upon two humans squatting on the side of the road. It didn’t take Mark a long time to recognize Sara as one of them.

“Pull over,” he yelled passionately at Omar, “right away!”

In less than ten seconds, the three of them were running like maniacs out of the car. The moment Sara recognized him, she threw herself in Mark’s arms and began sobbing viciously.

“Oh my God, Mark. Thank God you’re here.” Her face was stained with dirt, her beautiful, straight hair was a mess and her expensive sleeveless top and mini skirt were torn to pieces. A black, loose male’s shirt – which didn’t fit her quite right – was the only decent thing covering her up. Behind her, came Tareq, in a white undershirt and with a face as dirty as Sara’s, yet his was decorated with a few fresh scars. “How did you find us?” she asked looking up at Mark’s face. She was almost as short as her sister; she had to stand on tiptoes to be able to face him.

“Long story. Are you ok?”

“They took away our money, our phones, the jewellery, even the car, and …” she broke down into tears, Tareq stroked her hair from behind, “… they were gonna rape me.”

“What? Did they …?” The words died out at the tip of his mouth.

“No, no. Tareq arrived in time, thank God.” Mark sighed with relief.

“It’s ok.” He said as she buried her face in his chest to nurse her tears again. “You’re safe now, it’s alright. We just have to get you home as soon as possible. Your parents are scared to death back there.”

 

 

 

THEY CAME IN slowly; Mark first, followed by Sara, and then Tareq at the tail. Sara flew immediately to her mother’s arms, with Lana trying to calm her down, while Tareq was surprised to find his uncle approaching him in a very vindictive way. Shaheera’s heart was pounding with fear, she didn’t know neither what had happened nor what was about to befall them.

“Would you mind explaining to me what the hell happened with you two?” Sayeed bellowed at Tareq.

“Uncle, we were …” his voice was almost inaudible, and his words came slowly.

“Speak up, God damn it!” No words. “Are you or are you not back on drugs?”

“Yes, sir.” Tareq bowed down submissively.

“Did you or didn’t you take my daughter to a drug dealer?”

No words again.

“What kind of a question is that Sayeed?” asked Dalia infuriated as she rocked her daughter on her chest. “Are you gonna waste your time stating the facts?”

“Dalia, could you please stay out of this?” Sara’s head moved up her mother’s breast; she looked up for the first time, yet she didn’t speak. In the middle, Lana stood like an idiot, knowing nothing and looking deep into her husband’s worried face trying to get her answers. “Now, listen to me,” Sayeed turned again to his nephew. “We’re all tired of your childish games. You’re a grown man, for God’s sake. Mark’s only a few years older than you and look at him; he’s got a house, a wife and a baby on the way! The way I see it, nothing’s gonna fix you up except for the army.” It fell on Tareq’s ears like lightening falling on a broken tree. He was exempted from the army, being an only child with no brothers. People go to extreme levels to secure an exemption. Could he be so stupid as to throw away his own and join the army? “That’s right. I’m getting you out of college and putting you in the army. And since you don’t have a college certificate, you’ll spend at least three years over there. That should toughen up the brat you’ve become.”

“You can’t do that!” Tareq screamed at his face. “Who do you think you are? You’re not my father! Where were you all those years? You suddenly remembered now that you have a nephew? Just because I have crossed paths with your daughter?”

“Pappy,” Sara called in a weak voice.

“I only stayed away because I thought your mother still had it under control. But after what I’ve seen tonight, there’s no way I’m letting you hurt my sister so. If I don’t do something, you’re gonna end up killing her with your selfish acts. Tell me why I should keep on paying your L.E. 30,000 college tuitions just because you couldn’t get yourself into a state-owned college? And if that’s not enough, you have to keep failing every year, too.” Lana couldn’t remember a time when her father had been more maddened; he was even steamier than the time he found out Nader had broken up with her. “That’s it young man; you’re going to join the army and that’s final.”

“Pappy, just listen to me.” Tried Sara again. This time she was more successful, for he looked her way for the first time. “What happened today’s not Tareq’s fault, I swear. It’s more like … my fault.”

“How come?”

She slowly and hesitantly stood up. “I was out of drugs.” That was the first shock. Even though it was pretty obvious, they all just hoped Sara had gone to the drug dealer just for the experience, not for the dope. “We should’ve gone in the morning, but you were all so anxious expecting Lana and Mark’s arrival. Tareq said we would draw your attention if we leave unaccountably. So, Tareq asked me to be patient; said he would figure something out. Yet, I just couldn’t wait. I sneaked out when you were having dinner. I’ve gone with him to this guy last week; it didn’t seem so bad. I disregarded his warnings of how different it’s like to go at night, especially for a girl.” She paused, trying to grasp the whole situation in. “I was wrong. The man took all the money and said he was gonna go fetch the stuff, he asked me to wait. All of a sudden, another stranger approached me, he started attacking me and … and …” she melted into tears again, this time only Lana sympathized with her. “He began tearing apart my clothes. That was when I realized it was all a set up, they’d conspired against me. I tried to run but couldn’t. Hadn’t Tareq realized what I had done, hadn’t he followed me, I could’ve possibly even died out there. They had a violent fight, out of which the guy came with our cells, our wallets, my diamond earrings and the car keys. We were stranded there. None of the passing cars would take us. That’s why we couldn’t come home.”

“How long have you been on drugs?” Mr. Sayeed asked calmly, looking down on the floor as he spoke, seeing her dim reflection on the white, shiny marble.

“A couple of months.” She finally dared look him in the eye; a moment that didn’t last very long, as it was cut by the vicious slap that befell her already swollen face.

“You and I are leaving for Cairo tomorrow.” He announced with a fearful tone as he pointed at her. “You’re going to a rehab.”

“What? No, I’m not an addict! I can still kick it off on my own.”

“Sure, that’s why you took that THOUGHTLESS,” he screamed the last word out loud, “trip all on your own; because you’re not an addict. You weren’t dying for a fix.”

“Sayeed,” said Dalia, “she deserves to be punished, but not like that. That way you’re punishing us all. What shall people say when they find out our daughter’s at rehab?”

“Silence!” he exclaimed. “We’re leaving first thing in the morning and that’s final. And you,” he now turned around to face Tareq, “are coming with us. Just ‘cause you probably saved my daughter tonight, I’ll only leave it to an ultimatum. But I swear to God, Tareq, if I hear you came just close to a smoke ever again, or if you fail just as little as one subject from now on, I’ll send you to the army. You know I mean it.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And don’t ever dream that your mother’s gonna cover up for you the way she used to do in the past. This is all over now.”

“Yes, sir.”

He took one final glance at his wreck of a daughter, then he left for his room.

“I’m very disappointed in you Sara.” Said Dalia looking at her disgustedly.

“Mum, please, I can’t go to rehab.” She knelt down at her mother’s feet, almost kissed her hand.

“I’m gonna do everything I can to make him change his mind, but don’t ever think I’m doing it for you.” She heartlessly disentangled her hand from her daughter’s and followed her husband upstairs.

This left Sara crying loudly on the floor. Tareq reluctantly approached her, with Lana right behind him.

“Are you ok?” she was the first to speak.

Sara shook her head.

“Did he – the mugger –do something to you? I’d understand if you were too scared to say it in front of mum and dad.” Whispered Lana.

“No, he just kissed me; that was all.”

“Then let’s go to your room. You need to get some sleep, and don’t think about anything that’s happened today. Alright?” she slowly nodded, as Lana and Tareq helped her up. They slowly led her to her room.

Later, Lana went downstairs to find Mark; he wasn’t there. She had to climb those tiring steps for the second time simultaneously, doubting if it’s any good for her pregnancy. She opened the door of her room to find him in front of the opened closet, picking up something to wear.

“What are you doing?” she asked with her hand around her stomach, as she closed the door behind her.

“Looking for my pajamas. The salt’s eating up my skin, I feel on fire already.”

“Oh, I totally forgot that you hadn’t taken a shower, yet.” Said Lana approaching him till her arms where wrapped around his neck. “I’m sorry we gave you this headache. If it makes you feel any better, I think mum looked lovingly at you, probably for the first time.”

“Oh, you mean when she spotted us sneaking into the house? Or when I was calling Omar?” Lana smiled, embarrassed. “Yes, I heard what she told you about my drug-dealer-brother. And it’s ok, I know she doesn’t love me and I’ve come to accept it. At least uncle Sayeed does.”

“Well, your mother doesn’t love me either, so we’re even.”

“No, my mother doesn’t treat you the way she does because she doesn’t love you. She treats my sisters in the same way; she’s just a piece of work.”

“A very rare piece.” Lana commented, rather to herself. “But trust me, my mother doesn’t hate you. She treats me in the same way too, and Tante Shaheera, and everybody.”

“Alright, alright. I’ll try to buy that. Now give me a towel. I need to take a freaking bath.” He said giving her a slight spank.

“There.” She handed him the towel, with an extra kiss on the cheek.

“And don’t fall asleep; the Fajr prayer is less than half an hour away.”

“You know who taught me to pray the Fajr at dawn regularly?” she asked as she took a seat on bed, while he had already gone into the bathroom and opened the water.

“Who?”

“Mohammad.”

“Baher?” he came out of the bathroom, shirtless and with wet hands. She nodded laughingly. “Hell, if I had a pound every time I’d seen Baher drunk at dawn, I would’ve been able to buy that house from your father.” She giggled loudly, then rolled up in bed after he had closed the bathroom door behind him.

Expectedly, by the time he was out, she was already snoring. He had always loved the way she’d fall asleep so quickly like a child. She was still in her denims; he had to pull those off of her.

“Lana,” he called as he unbuttoned her shirt and rolled the pajama top through her head, “c’mon, wake up; it’s dawn.”

She tiredly moaned.

“Don’t you wanna pray? C’mon.” she didn’t open her eyes until he had her fully changed in her pajamas.

“What?”

He slipped an arm under her neck. “It’s time for the Fajr prayer. C’mon,” he gently dragged her to the sink in the bathroom, “let’s go wash for ablution.”

It wasn’t until she got out of the bathroom and wore her Isdal, which was like a long galabiya with a headscarf attached to it, that she became fully conscious. After praying, they both jumped on the bed, starving for as much sleep as they could get.

“Lana.” Uttered Mark, just when she began to believe he was asleep.

“Yeah?”

“Is your father really gonna put Sara in rehab?”

“If it’d been me, I would’ve told you ‘absolutely’. But Sara’s got her own special way of making him change his mind.” Answered Lana with closed eyes. “Bet we’re gonna wake up tomorrow morning to find them happily having breakfast together as if nothing’s happened; especially that mum’s on her side.”

When they woke up the following morning to have that exact scene meeting their eyes, Lana slowly stood on tiptoes and whispered in Mark’s ear:

“What did I tell you?”

 

 

 

On purse-mirrors, ice-creams and sweet-potatoes

Omar, shot dead

Omar, shot dead

The metro slowly came to a halt as we reached the ‘Opera’ station. The little girl gave out a loud, hysterical laugh as she tried to break free of her mother’s grip. The laughter intensified as her mother slapped her on the face. I was surprised to find the mother laughing too.

I remembered the time when I was a little girl, sobbing as my mother dragged me from my tiny hand around the club because she refused to buy me the helium balloon I fancied. All that this memory brings back to me is the intense feeling of humiliation I suffered as I pondered on the thought of being refused a wish; in front of the whole club.

How could this girl feel so at ease with her mother’s public slaps? I raged within at the question, soon to be interrupted by the entrance of some 12-year old boy into the ladies’ cart. Continue reading

Chapter 6: Words don’t come easy

Thursday night; the official play-day of all Egyptian youth since it precedes the Muslim Sabbath, Friday. Tonya, who had escorted Lana to her home, was getting ready in front of the mirror. The girls knew it was going to be a cold night, and they put that into account when choosing their outfits. Tonya brought over with her her hot-pink, woolly, turtleneck pullover and her plaid Technicolor miniskirt patterned with squares in black, blue, red and pink. Even though they made her thighs look even chubbier than they already were, she simply adored those little skirts and shorts. As she admiringly observed herself in the mirror, Tonya helped herself in putting on her long, golden earrings with a small flower protruding at the end, and she buckled the thin, golden necklace with a similar flower pendant. She had borrowed Lana’s golden Tissot watch and was now adding the final touches to her make-up. The heavy mascara, the pinkish eye shadow, the brown lipstick, the peach-colored foundation with the soft blusher spread on it; every single cosmetic was used to make Tonya as alluring as ever.

As Lana watched her adding little, simple details to finish off her appearance, she finally realized how this disorganized shape she always found Tonya in got built about. To her, Tonya always overdressed, over-accessorized and over-embellished in a somewhat vulgar way. She had been taught by Dalia that simplicity is the key to irresistible beauty. And Lana always took that to extreme levels, for she would rather under-dress than dress properly for the occasion. For instance, at that particular instance, Lana was in a short black and white dress, all tight from head to bottom, slightly showing the turns at her waist, sleeveless and with a neckline which covered her chest completely and only showed fragments of her bare shoulders. She wore her hair up high in the form of a long ponytail of certain volume. Both she and Tonya were wearing black, opaque tights and black, leather boots, but Tonya’s had fur along their edges.

Turning around from the mirror, Tonya eyed Lana judgingly.

“What?” asked Lana, sensing some comment on the way.

“You look great.” It didn’t look like she meant it. “But the thing is, the dress is a bit bulky. It might need something to spice it up a bit, let’s say a … a brooch!”

“No way!” refused Lana immediately. “I’m not wearing one of those in a million years.”

“What about some long necklace with a relatively large pendant?” suggested Tonya, already going through Lana’s accessory drawer. “I’m thinking white gold, since you’re in black and white and all. There,” she said pulling one end of a necklace out, “with this beautiful dolphin-shaped pendant, this piece’s definitely gonna give you the edge your looking for.”

Lana wasn’t so sure. After all, she never liked leaving herself in Tonya’s hands. But this time it was different, for the necklace really did suit her well that she actually considered going for it. She took one final look at the mirror, believed that the dress needed a simple touch to make it shine, then looked at the necklace; saw that it was simple enough.

“Ok, then. Buckle me up.” She said holding out her ponytail and turning her back towards Tonya.

AS THE CHAUFFEUR pulled over by the side walk, Tonya immediately noticed Mark waiting by.

“There, Bassiouni,” she said to the chauffer hastily, “that’s where we take off. Thanks.” With that she grabbed Lana’s hand and pulled her out of the car behind her.

“Hey, Mark.” She said stretching her hand to meet him.

“Hey.” He replied, with less excitement. “Hey there, Lana.”

“Hello.” Lana wasn’t looking at him as much as she was looking around. “Where’s Mohammad?”

“Inside, getting ready.”

“So this is the Sawy Culture Wheel.” Said Tonya looking at the large gate covering some tunnel which stretched under the May 15th bridge curiously.

“Yes it is.” Answered Mark. “Shall we?”

The girls nodded, and he led them inside to take their seats.

ONLY OPENING UP in 2003, the Sawy culture wheel had presented Cairo with a new type of entertainment. It was placed in a very awkward position, though in Zamalek, one of the classiest districts in Cairo, The Sawy wheel was actually built up underneath a bridge, in a place that used to be a garbage dumpster just a few years before. Now, it offered all different types of courses, ranging from photography to guitar and even self defense courses. Nevertheless, what it really added the most was a place where all underground bands could perform for recognition. In the Sawy wheel, any growing talent had a chance to have their own show without much hassle, and perhaps that was the brightest reason why people were so high on it.

“So Lana,” began Mark, as the three of them were now standing in front of their seats, anxiously waiting for Mohammad’s band, ‘Bangels’, to make their debut appearance, “is this your first visit to the Sawy wheel?”

“Actually yeah.”

“What? You never performed here before? Never participated in any of the dance activities here?”

Lana shook her head.

“This is not exactly the place for Lana’s performances.” Explained Tonya. “She had done over a dozen performances in the Cairo Opera house.”

“Good God!” exclaimed Mark, surprised. “No wonder you find this place disgraceful.”

“I don’t find it disgraceful.” Protested Lana, heatedly.

“Then what do you think of it?”

“Good enough, considering it’s actually under a bridge. We all know what those unfortunate places are destined to become here in Egypt.” That is: garages, shelters for the homeless and, as in our current case, huge garbage dumpsters.

“So,” said Lana after a while of silence, during which Mark and Tonya exchanged a few whispers, “have you listened to Mohammad’s band perform before? Are they good?”

“What? You never listened to Mohammad sing?” asked Tonya, sarcastically.

“Of course I’ve listened to Mohammad. I’m talking about the whole band. Are they as talented as Mohammad is?”

“They are actually.” Replied Mark. “They have this certain style in performing; I’m sure you’re gonna like them.”

“Well, she has met them before,” concluded Tonya, “haven’t you?”

“No, actually I haven’t.”

“Seriously?”

“He doesn’t ever talk about them, even.” Replied Lana innocently.

“What do you talk about then? You’re always murmuring to each other. What do you discuss?

“He’s always asking me questions that sometimes I feel I’m with a secret agent. Hardly ever speaks about himself. Even when I ask him about the guys in his band, he usually tends to change the subject.”

“And don’t expect him to lead an introduction.” Said Mark with certitude.

“Why not?” asked Tonya, a little upset.

“That’s just the way Mohammad is. The smoke of mystery that surrounds him; it’s not an act. He really doesn’t like to talk about himself. I know it’s spooky, especially for girls, but it’s just who he is.”

Lana listened with a doubtful ear, somewhat mystical. “But don’t worry though,” continued Mark, returning to her, “I’ll tell you all about them if you want to.”

She suddenly became extremely attentive; Mark could see she was starving for his briefing. “Now the band’s made up of five members: two guitarists; Baher, who’s also a vocalist, and Mustafa; long, curly, black hair, small body, pale skin and a pair of blue eyes you’ll hardly see from over here. Very talented, but a bit unstable. Then there’s Ashraf; that’s the main vocalist, he performs in almost ninety-nine percent of the songs, usually alongside Baher. And of course there’s Youssef; short, brown hair, confident smile and sweet words. He’s the bass guitar player. But, beware of him, big time. He’s a serious playboy. And not like my brother; this guy can bring about disasters. He’s on everything that’s not in the book; drugs, alcohol, fornication. If you ever get worried that music’s gonna have a bad influence on Baher, that’s the guy to fear. And if he comes to say hello after the party, when he’s shaking hands with you very heartily; he’s not being nice, he’s being dirty.” He said the last words with a certain air of menace. “I mean it; careful.” He now turned his eyes towards Tonya, made her see that the words were also for her ears. Despite Lana’s disapproval of having to hear something like that from him, feeling that he had no right to give her such advice, Tonya couldn’t have loved listening to anything more, for this meant that he was trying to protect her. And when Lana would believe that she doesn’t need protection, Tonya would be thrilled to find someone willing to do the job.

“Last but not least,” resumed Mark, “is Assal.”

“Assal?” The name was an Egyptian equivalent of the word: honey.

“That’s his family name.” explained Mark. “He’s first name’s also Mohammad – so now you see why we all call him Baher. He’s a bit chubby, not very attractive for a rock star. But when he gets around those drums, he just sets the stage on fire. Outside the stage, though, he’s a little too shy. But he’s a good guy, no need to fear him.” Throughout this long clarification, Lana looked at Mark like a student looking at her professor, always nodding and trying to digest the whole information. “Of course, when they all get on stage, I’ll be able to explain a bit more, since they’re gonna be right in front of you.”

“That is if she could see anything from where she’s standing.” Interrupted Tonya facetiously. “One thing you don’t know about Lana is her struggle with her height.”

Lana gave out an embarrassed smile.

“She’s not that short.” Said Mark amusedly, checking her out. He noticed that her boots were of high heels, but not too high.

“Oh, oh, oh,” babbled Tonya, “since you’re both here, please stand shoulder to shoulder, so that I could see the difference in height.” That ought to have been enjoyable, given Mark’s relatively tall nature and Lana’s relatively short one.

“If someone hears you say that, they’d think you’re a tower yourself.” Lana punched back with the same sense of humor. She had a point, for Tonya was only a few centimeters longer than Lana.

“Do you know that she once had a boyfriend who made her wear heels so that people wouldn’t make fun of them when they’re walking together?”

“He did not!” exclaimed Lana fitfully.

“He did too! He was almost as tall as you,” she was referring to Mark, “and some of his friends told him he should dump her because they looked ridiculous together. She came to me practically begging for me to teach her to walk in high heels.” Lana looked haughtily away, yet Mark seemed to be quite enjoying himself. “Up till now, if you watch closely, you’ll notice how she can hardly hold her grounds when walking in heels.”

“You make it sound like I had a million boyfriends who totally controlled me.”

“But you did!”

“No, I didn’t. I only started dating in the tenth grade. They must have been only three boyfriends.”

“Five.”

“What? No way, I would remember if …”

“Five.” Insisted Tonya. “Ahmad, Sameh, Shereef, Nader and Baher.”

“Mohammad’s not my boyfriend.”

“Yeah right.” Tonya was again speaking only to Mark. “Another thing you should know about Lana is that it takes her at least six months to confess that she’s actually in love with someone.”

“That’s not true.” Objected Lana.

“And once she does, she begins facing the problems and all the imperfections in the relationship, since, you know, it takes those almost six months to surface. So technically, she misses out on the best part in any relationship during the period of time she spends in denial.”

“Don’t listen to her.” Now Lana was the one only talking to Mark. “She’s just tryin’a tarnish my reputation; paint a hideous picture of me.”

“I’m just stating facts.” Said Tonya defensively.

“Anyways, even if that’s your way of loving,” intervened Mark, after a while of indulging in the show they had both been playing out, “you still gotta claim Baher all to yourself if you really like him. For who knows? If the crowds cheer for him tonight, I won’t be surprised if some chick ends up steeling him away from you by the end of the concert. After all, he is gonna be a rock star, and that’s like: girls’ magnet.”

Lana took that as a joke, but deep inside, she knew that it could be true, for Mohammad was known in college as a womanizer.

Soon afterwards, the concert began and the ‘Bangels’ hit the stage. The moment they all took position, Lana began to apply Mark’s words on the scene that was right in front of her eyes. And she had to give it to him; Mark had been very thorough in his description, since even though it was the first time to see them, Lana felt like she had already seen the band members before through his efficient sketch.

“Better take off your coats, girls. You won’t be needing them anymore, since the show’s getting started and the heat is already on.” Said Mark, excitedly applauding and cheering for his best friend.

Tonya immediately took his advice, and threw the coat back at her seat. But Lana; she thought twice before making such a – in her opinion – rash act, given it was a cold night in November and she was only wearing a sleeveless dress underneath.

They began playing, mostly rock songs but no metal included; a relief to Lana, who adored all genres of music, yet hated metal and hard rock with all her heart. After a few songs, Lana whispered to Tonya that it seemed they were a cover band for The Calling. They weren’t Lana’s favorite, but she certainly enjoyed their music. Like Mark had said, it was Ashraf who performed most of the songs; his voice was so similar to that of Alex Band, harsh, masculine yet tuneful. It shared a similarity with Mark’s strong voice; Lana wondered for a second why he too didn’t make up a band of his own, but she dared not ask him.

In the end, and after a lot of cheering from the audience, Mohammad announced that they would wrap it all up with a song by Mohammad’s own words and musical composition. This was about the only song in which Ashraf hadn’t participated, for it was sung entirely by Muhammad. Before playing out the solo, Mohammad said that he dedicated this song to a beautiful girl who was currently gaining on his heart. Mark and Tonya glanced at Lana playfully; she was already in tears.

When it was all over, the three of them rushed to Mohammad to congratulate him on his huge success. From Mark, Lana had learnt that Baher’ band had performed in school and in college a couple of times. Yet this was considered their first official performance, and since it was very pleasant, Mohammad suggested the four of them leave immediately for somewhere where they could “celebrate”. This was a relief to Lana, for it meant that she wouldn’t have to shake hands with Youssef.

When they had all crammed up in Mohammad’s Astra, Lana riding in the front seat, Mohammad drove to the nearest outlet to the Nile, where he parked in some secluded place, hidden away from the people’s eyes by large, branchy trees. Anyways, Zamalek wasn’t that crowded with pedestrians around the Nile, especially if compared with other parts of the corniche.

The moment the engine stopped, Lana opened the CD compartment and began searching for some decent CD to play.

“’Bomba 2003’,” she read out from an old tape, “what the hell is that?”

“Just some Arabic mix tape.” Replied Mohammad.

“God, I hate those.” Joined Tonya from behind. “They always remove repeated verses and overlap the songs that you can hardly tell where one song ends and the other begins.”

“They were ok before downloading songs from the internet.” Said Mohammad. “You see, each invention has its time of glory.”

“Yeah, then so long mix tapes.”

“There, ‘Old is Gold’,” Lana held the CD up in her hand, “that’s gotta be oldies and classics, right?”

Mohammad nodded.

“I think I’ve found us something to listen to.” Announced Lana, pressing the eject button, replacing the CD in the player with the one she had just found, then pressing play. “There; enjoy.” She said as she turned on the volume. The first song was j’ai quitte mon pays by Enrico Macias. The boys were surprised when Lana began singing along with the song.

“You know French?” asked Mohammad, a bit astonished.

“She speaks it fluently.” Assured Tonya.

“Why, you went to a British school, right?” Lana nodded. “They don’t teach fluent French there, as far as I know.”

“I didn’t learn French at school.” Explained Lana. “It’s practically my mother’s first language. I think I learnt to speak it even before I could speak Arabic. None of you guys have learnt any French in school?”

“We used to take it when we were in national school, up till preparatory or something. But we weren’t really learning it, you know. Just memorizing some empty words that would get us through to the next year.” Mohammad said. He once told her that he and Mark used to be in the same school, Manor House, till third Prep, that Mohammad even attended the funeral of Mark’s father. However, afterwards, Mohammad’s father decided to transfer him to an American high-school while Mark joined the IGSCE division in the Manor House. They didn’t become best friends, though, until they met again in college.

“Yeah, but Mark’s mum knows French,” intervened Tonya, again, “doesn’t she, Mark?”

“Sure. She actually was in the Mer de Dieu, since it was a nuns’ school and all. So her French’s pretty good. But mine is not as good, though. Never took it seriously.” Lana listened with great interest. From what she’d heard about Mark’s mum – for Tonya gave her a full description of all their meetings – she seemed like a nice person to know.

“Enough about the schools’ talk here, alright?” said Mohammad, irritated. “How about you talk about something else?”

“Like for example, your performance tonight?” suggested Lana with a wicked wink.

“Well,” began Mohammad, smilingly.

“It was awesome.” Blurted Tonya clapping her hands enthusiastically. “Everything was great; the choice of songs, the music playing, the singing. It was all synchronized perfectly.”

“Yeah, man; you totally rocked.”

“Yes, by the way, Mark, you know what I’ve been thinking all through the show?” Mark was silent, waited for Tonya to tell him. “Why on earth you never thought about starting up your own band. I mean, you’ve got the voice, the charisma.” Suddenly, Lana felt red with embarrassment. Realizing that nobody noticed her state, she waited anxiously for Mark’s reply to the question she had longed to ask.

“Actually, it’s not my thing.” answered Mark. “I take music as a hobby, unlike Mohammad. Besides, those bands are all about folks who sing western covers. I’m all about Eastern music, on the other hand. It suits my voice best.”

“Well,” started Lana, looking back at him from her front seat, “how about the Opera? That’s exactly the place for a voice like yours, especially if you’re gonna sing Tarab; classic oriental music. As a matter of fact, I can hook you up with a few guys who might secure you an audition.”

“Thanks, but I’d rather it remained a hobby.” Said Mark politely. “My greatest dream is to become an architect. The whole singing thing is just gonna stand in my way.”

Just as the song ended, and a new song: can’t help falling in love by Elvis Presley began, Tonya and Mark excused themselves, said they were going to have a walk by the Nile. That left Lana and Mohammad by themselves. The awkward moment of silence was broken by Mohammad.

“So you never told me what you thought of my performance tonight.”

“Loved it.” Said Lana, shrinking back in her seat for a while. “But,” she now looked up, as if she had mustered all the courage to get her speaking honestly, “there is one thing I wanted to ask you about.”

“What?”

“Haven’t you ever considered singing for James Blunt?”

“God, you’re just obsessed with that guy, aren’t you?” Said Mohammad with a humorous laugh.

“Not exactly. But he is really good. I mean, his songs are so simple, yet they carry a certain depth within them.”

“And if I shall sing for James Blunt, which of his songs would you want me to sing?” asked Mohammad meekly.

“Any song. I love all of his album.” She was referring to his debut album, Back to Bedlam, for it was the only one released back then.

“Yeah, but which of them do you like the most? You’re beautiful?” Mohammad took the wild guess given it was the song she had chosen for their talent show number.

“No, in fact, my favorite’s goodbye my lover.” Confessed Lana dreamingly, in her mild, sweet voice. “When I really feel like dancing, I just turn it on and all the best moves just keep flowing by.”

“Why didn’t you suggest we use it in our number then? Instead of you’re beautiful, I mean.”

“Two reasons,” Lana held out her index and middle fingers. “First; because its performance depends solely on the piano, and you only play the guitar, so I figured it would be better if we stick to what you know best. And second; for me to dance perfectly to a song, I have to really feel its words. And since I haven’t gone through that painful goodbye yet, I figured it was best to take one thing at a time. Besides, I’m not really looking forward to saying goodbye to someone I love like that.” Mohammad couldn’t find something to say that would come up to that, so he decided to keep his mouth shut. “Oh,” she screamed excitedly, turning on the volume, “there’s another of my favorites.” The song she called her “favorite” was Moon River by Frank Sinatra. “I used to listen to this song by the sea in Hurghada when I’d go there with my family during my midterm vacation. It would be night and the moon would shine through the dark, shimmering sea as the wind would gently blow my hair. As much as I enjoyed the view, I would always imagine I was in truth overlooking the river. Can’t believe I’m living through it tonight.” She said as she looked romantically out the window. “And a full moon, too.”

That night, Mohammad discovered a number of things about Lana; things that made him fall deeper for her. As the songs rolled on, her excitement reached its climax, until she jumped out of the car and began dancing by the riverside. To fully satisfy her, Mohammad opened his trunk and connected the bazooka speakers he had installed in there. The sound they produced was scary in its clarity, all the better for Lana, who had already taken off her coat and boots, and was dancing like a crazy person. What amazed Mohammad the most was her rare gift of knowing how to dance to every single tune, no matter how different it is from the one that precedes or follows it. Whether it was slow, jazz, Latin, pop, or even soft rock, it didn’t matter; Lana always found a way around it. It suddenly occurred to him that their love for music was almost equal, but they loved it each from a different prospective.

After almost an hour, Mark and Tonya returned holding hands.

“We come bearing gifts.” Said Tonya shaking a plastic bag she held in her hand.

“What is it?” Lana ran lightly towards them, trying to peep through the bag and see what it contained.

“Ice-cream.” Tonya started distributing the Mega ice-cream sticks.

“I can’t believe ice-cream could be so delicious in this freezing weather.” Said Mohammad as he broke through the thick chocolate crust.

“Me too.” Added Lana. “Oh,” she exclaimed running back to the car with the uneaten ice-cream still in her hand, “I love this song!”

“What is it?” asked Mark clueless.

Words don’t come easy by F.R. David.” Answered Mohammad, walking slowly towards Lana. “Words,” he began singing, pretending that the ice-cream stick was his microphone, “don’t come eeeeasy … to me. How can I find a was …  to make you see I love you? Words don’t come easy.”

Lana fluttered from side to side, as she joyously sucked on her ice-cream. Mohammad leisurely approached her, and when his mouth was at her right ear, he tenderly whispered:

“You know that the song I sang tonight at the concert was dedicated to you?” Lana blushed against her will to stay cool, as she looked up to his hazel eyes. “And so is this one.”