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.



“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.


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.


“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?”




Chapter 3: Que Sera Sera

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.