First off, here is Farah Yousef, a young Syrian singer, a runner up at the Arab Idol 2013. Read more about her here.
Today I am posting an old, old short story I wrote for a guest post the same year Farah here bagged the runner up's place. Wrote it a few months before I left Cairo. The blog where this was published first, transitioned to a different platform, and then my computer broke when I moved from Cairo in 2014, and not all my files were recovered from it, so this story was lost to me. I know, I am bad at housekeeping both real and virtual! But today something clicked in my brain (talk about tubelights!) and I recovered this from a place I hadn't bothered to sift through before - the sent folder. So, here it is, for the final installment of MwM ~
Trishna came through the crowd into a part of the street that was covered and darkened. Two-storied shops extended their roofs into a canopy overhead, perforated in central slits, allowing strips of sunlight to lie on the middle like road markings. Charia Khayameya, a sign announced. It was cool in the shade and a sudden shiver went down her spine. A little disturbing, this abrupt change in the light, the switch from smiling sunshine to shadows.
A few steps more and an ancient gate came into view; she stopped, vaguely uneasy. Two tiered minarets rose many feet into the sky on either side. The ancient wooden shutters caught her eye, the metal studs jutting out, the wood discoloured from many centuries of exposure. She shivered again, momentarily wished she hadn’t come out without Sagar. He’d suggested the hotel spa for her while he dealt with business, but she had dismissed the idea. It was her first time here, maybe also the last; she wanted to see as much as possible.
She shrugged off the strange mood and plunged through the medieval gate. Just ahead was a rounded building where another road forked off to the right. The signs explained that it was a sabil-kuttab, a two-storied building with drinking water fountains at the lower level and a Koranic school above. As she drew closer, her heart sank a little in a strange foreboding and swelled out at the same time with a light breath of pleasure. She was finding it impossible to make sense of her own mood. The curve of the bronze grille felt so familiar, as though she had thumbed it many times. The gild-work seemed intimately known; she also knew that the edge of the marble basin would be broken before she peered over the rim, and sure enough it was. Chipped exactly the same way as it had flashed into her inner eye just moments before.
She stood there oddly pleased at the confirmation yet wholly unnerved; lingered around the curved façade trying to shake off the surreal fog. Must have read something in the guides, must have seen pictures somewhere, the words hummed in her head keeping time with her steps, calm down, no call to get so hyper.
Outside, a man was selling a pile of oranges. “India? Namaste! Bahut achaa! Burtuqali fery kood, fery frush, try?”
The heavy Arab accent and the attempt at Hindi were endearing somehow; and though she hadn’t encountered it before, she could make out his meaning. Burtuqali. That word sounded familiar too, it echoed around the vaults of her mind, fitting into the shapes of her thoughts, as if it had always been a part of her lexicon. She smiled an uncertain no-thanks to the fruit vendor, wondered how he knew where she came from; her features or outfit were not particularly characteristic, nothing to identify her origins. A man in a jacket noticed the exchange, detached himself from the steps of the old gate; fell into step beside her.
“Hello! Welcome to Egypt! You wan’ guide? Many good houses here. Old mosques. I can show all. You like?”
She didn’t want anybody chattering away her peace, she shook her head firmly but he persisted.
“I am history brofessor, my Sister, can tell you many sings. Not ekk-sbensiff. Bay only what you want. C‘mon, my Sister. Okay, don’ bay anysing. Free for you yaani. Yes?”
The intrusion was irritating, she lengthened her stride but he too matched hers without a single misstep. There was no getting rid of him.
“No, I don’t want anybody, thanks.” She clinched the refusal with a lie. “Not tourist. I live here.”
“O-kay! Welcome to Egypt! Where you liff? How lowng?”
A split second passed before she realised what she had said. Her unease bloomed into fear. Mushroomed from the pit of her stomach, smashed against her heart and squeezed out the air from her lungs. She had no idea where the rejoinder had come from, what language she had spoken.
“Oh no,” her voice sounded unnecessarily loud, “No, no, NO.” Shoppers and tourists turned and stared. She came to and addressed the bemused guide, “Thank you, but no.”
“Okay, okay. No need for get angry!”
He did look like a cross professor, she thought and sighed. Perhaps she had better go back. The next instant her spirit rebelled at the notion, and she went on. The street was a mixture of mundane and exotic. A boy balanced a wooden pallet containing piles of flatbread on his head and casually walked into a side lane; a shopkeeper heaped clothes in a basket impaled by placards with profuse red exclamation marks, clearly a discount sale; a bunch of plastic baskets hung like inverted balloons.
Ancient mosques and merchant-inns punctuated the street, complexes of bygone madrassas and hospitals and mausoleums; at each monument, art students clustered around easels, painting the slender minarets and the street scene. By the time she hit the main street crossing, her breathing was normal and her equable common sense had taken over. Maybe Sagar had a phrasebook somewhere. Maybe she had picked it up sometime.
The crossing had a pedestrian bridge, but people were weaving insanely in and out of the thick traffic. She crossed over and continued, the street now flanked by shops selling gold and silver, then copper, metals of different kinds. The sun reflected off the polished surfaces of large round tray tables, metalwork lamps, kettles. Bounced from metal finials as high as a man, the stylized version of crescent moons used on the domes of mosques.
She came upon more sabil-kuttabs, a massive wooden door of an old mosque, and another mausoleum opposite. Down a side alley she spotted an arched stone gate, and on an impulse turned into it. This was quieter, less shoppers, no tourists. A smartly dressed middle-aged man leaned against the doorway to a shop selling pseudo-antiques, brass carafes and ceramics, old gramophones and stained glass. Maybe some real antiques mixed in as well. The window showcased a large glazed dish.
She drew closer, and the man immediately straightened up, but she waved a non-committal hand, “Only looking.”
“Of course, madame. No charge for that.”
The dish was decorated around the rim with exquisite Arabic calligraphy. She slowly mumbled to herself, deciphering the words with difficulty, “Blessed is he who purifies his hand from wrongdoing. Ablution upon ablution is light upon light. Blessed are -”
She stopped short, shocked and completely panicked. A narrow, bottomless chasm of blind black terror opened up, its walls clawed at her as she fell, tumbled and spun like a ragdoll. The street swam before her eyes, the shop hazed over; she blinked and pushed out a palm in front to regain her balance.
“Madame has an understanding of antiques?” The man’s voice sounded thin, faraway, “That is supposed to ward off evil spirits. Made by a courtier for his daughter possessed by a djinn. I have more things inside – plates, beads, marbles. Would madame like to come in?”
Marbles? Lapis lazuli? Something snapped inside her brain. She felt breathless, petrified; could barely speak.
What was happening to her? She looked fearfully back to the window again, the letters had meshed back into the scrolled vine arabesques, beautiful but unintelligible now. The man was talking about some lapis lazuli charm. She had to get away this minute, get a grip. Was she going insane? Had some evil spirit sneaked into her? How ridiculous that sounded!
“Later,” she forced the word out feebly, turned and practically ran off. It took ages to find the road again; narrow needle-thin alleys doubled back on themselves and petered out blind more than once. She walked fast, as if to outwalk her panic, but it kept lolloping alongside, a shadow made huge by the nearness of an imaginary, frightening light. Finally the minarets of Azhar mosque came into view, and she ran out into the main street, hailed the first empty cab and collapsed in the back seat. She was starting a headache, her pulse was a quickened tattoo, her throat parched. She lay back; closed her eyes. The driver looked back once, and kept driving.
When she opened them again they were cruising along a broad riverside road. There were boats out on the water with their triangular sails unfurled - feluccas, she knew that word too. A boat would do her good, clear up the headachy feeling. She asked the driver to drop her by simply pointing at the sailboats. He nodded and stopped near a large hotel and showed her the steps opposite, leading down to the riverbank.
One of the cluster of feluccas there readily took her on. The river lay in sharp blues and silver in the sunlight, the breeze was cool against her face, it calmed her back to normal. The tall buildings fell away as they passed under bridges, the riverside less built up now; traffic thinner on the road. They came suddenly upon a bend in the bank, a patch of thick greenery just there, grasses with spidery leaves. Her breath came faster; but not in panic. No more panic. She knew now, the knowledge come to her here finally, on a foreign river, with a stranger at the helm of her boat. Her vision swam again as though she was weaving in and out of consciousness, in and out of this present day and one long past.
Everything around receded, blurred. The riverbank coalesced back completely changed, no buildings, no road, just fields of grown crops waving in the breeze, and that thicket of strange spidery grass. Some boys playing at marbles on the sandbank appeared like a misty apparition, the afternoon sun on the river waters lay like a scythe. And then it all dissolved away again and she was back in the boat, the river and the road in their allotted places.
She asked to be taken to the thicket urgently, unaware of the language she used; the surprised boatman turned and made the landing. She vaulted over the side even before they had stopped, squelched through the mud bank, knelt and dug down with her hands and kept digging till finally her fingers closed over a pair of marbles the colour of lapis lazuli, smeared black now in places with many centuries’ worth of silt.
*Min zamaan – can mean “a long time ago” or “for a long time” in Arabic, depending on context.