Friday 20 September 2013

Write....Edit....Publish - Moving On - (and Staying Put) - in Cairo

It's  time to head back to Write...Edit....Publish for this month's prompt, which is Moving On.  My flash is based in Cairo, where life has been harder than usual for ordinary Egyptian people for a couple of years now.  This is the story of Doa, and her struggle to keep going. Sometimes a step backwards is the only way to move on.

One Step Backwards

It is a glorious day and the trees on Sharia Moustafa Kemal are still ablaze with flowers.  A sprinkling of petals lines the pavement under Doa’s feet as she walks.  It is early still, the sun is soft and warm, with a fluorescent quality to the light.  She turns off into Road 84, and a few steps later reaches her destination; unlocks the back door of her workplace, gets in and puts the kettle on.  Her employer, Leila, will be here in half an hour.  Doa has come in especially early for some private time.

She is no longer young, but she still brings a fierce passion to work, a sense of integrity beyond just dry duty, trained to a level of skill and single-minded diligence no longer common.  Her Great-aunt Hayat was once part of the Ma’adi household of Princess Fawzia, and Doa was brought up to those strict benchmarks.  She is no ordinary worker.

She works now for a boutique confectionery in the upmarket neighbourhood of Ma’adi.  For years she was in service at a waterfront restaurant on the Nile Corniche.  But then the revolution came, the world withdrew, the tourists stopped coming, and the restaurant trimmed down its staff.  Doa lost her steady job.  But alhamdulillah, she has found this one not too long after, many of her co-workers still haven’t.  Her nephew, Karim remains unemployed too.

She mentally rifles through her to-do list while the tea brews.  A profusely blossoming branch of cassia taps against the facing window, a hoopoe pecks at the lawn in the early sunshine.  Doa hums a little and then stops abruptly.  Too many problems, the old order upended, the changes so fast that she doesn’t know what to make of them.  The revolution came like a sandstorm out of the Sahara and blew away everything.  The whole nation drunk on its promise, heady with optimism - things would get better after the dust settles.  But all she knows is that it hasn’t settled yet. 

And she knows that Karim has not worked for months now, he used to give camel rides at the Giza Pyramids, but the tourists don’t come anymore.  One of his friend’s animal died because he couldn’t afford to treat the strange illness she had picked up.  Many camel owners have had to just let their animals go, leave them to wander bewildered and forage for food, because the men couldn’t feed them indefinitely.  They died in the desert, unused to fending for themselves.    

She had advised Karim to sell, and he took Abu’l Hawl, named after the Sphinx, dragged him off to the Friday market at Birqash but then brought him back again.  The trade in camels fares no better than tourism, Karim had mumbled.  Whereas sellers used to come from as far away as Somalia and Sudan, now they are only a handful, their animals starved and lean, the bargaining desultory, the prices, and the traders themselves, depressed. 

Doa doesn’t know about that, she hasn’t ever been to Birqash.  Probably some butcher from Imbaba had bid for the animal, and Karim didn’t have the heart to sell.  Abu’l Hawl might have shed a canny tear in the way of camels, and Karim had turned back home.  Depressed prices indeed!  Is the price of anything else down?  Ya Rabb! Carrots at ten guinays the other day, she has never seen that before!

She has suggested Karim set up a roadside stall, but then, stiff competition there too.  The refugees keep pouring in from Syria, their men set up impromptu shops and sell incredibly cheap, their women marry local men with some paltry guinays for mahr.  That country is in far worse quandary.  Doa doesn’t grudge them whatever shelter they find here, poor souls, but does every catastrophe have to happen all at once? Life has been uncommonly hard lately, no reason to sing. 

Doa plans on asking Leila for a favour, and though she feels embarrassed, she hopes it won’t be refused.  They will pool their resources together, she and Karim, and set up a small shop.  They have already scouted out the place, and paid a deposit.  There is no-one but Karim she can call family.  Her brother and sister-in-law, Karim’s parents, died years ago. Her sister Huda migrated to Canada soon after.  In fact, lately Huda has been pestering her to leave too, but Doa can’t take on the added hardship of an alien land.  No, aunt and nephew must stick together, and insha’allah, Karim’s new shop will keep the camel in fodder, and the humans too, till the times change back again. 

The tea is ready, and she pours out a dainty china cup for Leila, a teaglass for herself.  Her timing is perfect.  The door swivels open, Leila enters as Doa sets the cup down.

“Good morning!”

“Good morning. You’re early! How’re things?”

Doa hesitates, then bravely plunges in, “Everything’s good, alhamdulillah.  You remember Karim Madame? He needs a small loan, to set up a shop –” 

Doa has never before asked for a loan in all her life, why has fate chosen this particularly craven humiliation for her? She keeps her eyes firmly on the teaglass as she explains the details, and finally looks up to find Leila singularly grave.

“Of course I’ll give what I can,” Leila speaks slowly, “you’ve worked hard I know.  Take it as a gift, habibti, no need to repay.”

“Oh no, I can’t do that, it’s a large sum! We’ll pay back as soon as we can, as the shop starts paying.”

“No, that won’t be possible. You see, we’re going.  Things have been –rather difficult.  You know how it is. The uncertainty, all this street violence.” The younger woman sighs, “So we’re moving –.  Back to Beirut.”

Doa finishes her tea in silence and gets to work. Other employees trickle in. The cassia branch still tap-taps loudly against the glass, but the sun looks harsher now, the lawn empty.  The hoopoe has flown.
WC - 1000.  All feedback welcome.



  1. Nilanjana, wonderful account of life in the midst/aftermath of revolution and unrest. I loved it and can understand the hardship the unrest and resultant lack of tourists must mean to everyday Egyptians. Those poor camels too! But of course most tourists don't want to get caught up in revolution, so stay away.

    You've told the story with panache. Loved the descriptions such as - 'The revolution came like a sandstorm out of the Sahara and blew away everything.' Also, loved the way Doa arrives and makes the tea, then drinks the tea as she ponders the future.

    A great entry for MOVING ON. Thank you for participating Nilanjana.


    1. Thank you, Denise. The tourist trade has taken the hardest hit, and unless stability returns tourists won't be back. It is a key part of this economy, practically every Egyptian is affected in one way or another.

  2. Lovely and heartbreaking. Doa has managed to survive the what seems like the worst, and now even more, but with the gift maybe new hope?

    Beautifully told, and well described. I was there during the reading - love that!

  3. You transported me to another country and the hardships that they are encoutering. I hope it all works out for them in the new shop.

  4. great descriptions...a very poignant story told beautifully...great read

  5. Heartbreaking - so beautifully written!


    1. woh aaye humare ghar mein khuda ki kudrat hai
      kabhee hum unko, kabhee apne ghar ko dekhte hain ;)

  6. Well written. Heartbreaking to read though of life like this. Great example of moving on.

  7. beautiful words ...keep up your writing !!

  8. The local colour and context is spot on, Nilanjana. Nice take on the prompt.

  9. Hi, Nilanjana,

    Such a sad time. Here in America we have hardships, but depression such as this is slight. WE have famine, homeless, and inner city issues. But having to let beloved pets die in the desert is a hardship I hope we never experience.

    This is portrayed with such sensitivity .... But hope is still there. Human nature will always carry a glimmer of hope.

  10. I like the branch tapping on the window - draws me into the setting.

  11. Thank you all for your inputs. Much appreciated.

  12. Hi Nilanjana
    You've captured this sad situation so well. The starving camels, the uncertainty, the wish that she didn't need to ask for a loan. What amazes me is her friend is willing to give the loan even though they are moving. We all know how difficult a move is and expensive. I would love to see your heroine go to Canada but it would be difficult and certainly a huge change. I thought you did a great job on this story.

    My story is posted.

    1. Thank you. Not sure if Doa will accept the sum as a gift, now that she knows she can't pay it back. She is a proud woman. Canada would be difficult for her, easier for the nephew though to make a fresh start.

  13. This was a beautiful portrayal of a life of hardship, and hope. So hard to loose everything, have to start all over.

    Well written Nila.


    1. Thanks, Donna. So many such real life stories here. The Egyptians are an amazingly resilient people though, they shall overcome :)

      Will be over to both of you shortly.

  14. You took the prompt "moving on" and me to such a different world yet ultimately similar to our own aspirations of hope, faith and courage. Loved your poetic style of writing too!

  15. Well done, Nalinjana,
    I like the fact that Doa is determined and does what she has to do even though it's difficult. Both she and her employer are moving on in a sense. One to where things will be better for then and Doa, hopefully to a better economic situation.I like this taste of somewhere far away. Did I mention that I like all things to do with Egypt.

  16. I've wondered about the life for Egyptians every since the trials started and you have painted this picture very clearly. Not everyone wants to leave their homeland, even in the midst of such turmoil. With your words you have painted a picture that is all too real I fear. Thank you giving us a glimpse into these lives.

  17. I loved your story which drew me in from the get go, so that I was there in the moment, witnessing the blossoming cassia and hoopoe, and listening to Doa's humming, the tea as it's brewing, while she prepares for the day. It is early morning, and there is a sense of hope... of promise...
    I like the two different ways in which you've presented the theme and yet they are intertwined. We read of Leila's physical move... she plans to move on, to up and leave for Beirut; and Doa's move is a plan to improve their lot in life, by borrowing some money from Leila, to set up a small shop.
    Wonderful writing!
    Writer In Transit

  18. Thank you! @ Anne, JL Campbell, Lisa n Michelle