Al-Azhar park, a bucolic landscape of lawns and lanes, of fountains and trees, of families together on blankets on the grass, seemed to Nick wholly incongruous with the dusty povertous Cairo he’d come to know in the past few days. This green patch seemed someone else’s, of a more civilized country, even like, he remembered, the little park with natural springs back in Jacksonville, Alabama, a park that was at some point between his mother’s house and his grandmother’s house, at least as he remembered it—yes, this seemed like the grass there where he and his brother and his sisters and his mother and grandmother would picnic. Where his mother had said, “Sit next to your grandmother, Nick,” and he’d scooted across the blanket and leaned against his grandmother and, after a while, pretended to be asleep. And then his grandmother had said, “Look at how he looks like his grandfather,” and she was crying when she’d said that.
He strolled with Rasha through this park, overlooking Islamic Cairo, toward the restaurant on the hill, and there they took a terrace table with a hazy distant view of the Citadel and the domes and minarets of its Mohammed Ali mosque.
“I’ll have some shai,” Rasha said.
This Arabic word for tea, shai, was one of the few words he’d ever bothered to learn from her in their three years together. He asked her, “Wouldn’t you rather have tea after lunch? It’s what they do here, it seems, all these Egyptians, having tea in glass teacups after the meal.”
“It’s cold here,” she said, wrapping her scarf tighter and tugging her sweater’s sleeves over her hands. It was windy, especially at this table on the edge of the terrace, and the sky was overcast but bright. She was squinting behind her sunglasses, and locks of black hair were tossing in front of her face.
“The view is really something,” Nick said. “Did they have to put us at such a big table? There are only tables for whole families here.” He waved one of the uniformed servers over and asked him to remove the four extra place settings. “Look at that table over there,” Nick said, looking back over his shoulder. “There must be ten children. Maybe an even dozen. I wonder if it’s some sort of school field trip.”
“It’s very cold here,” Rasha said, her arms crossed.
“Warm enough, though, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Rasha said. She pulled out a second scarf, one they’d picked up at the Khan el-Khalili market, and she wrapped it around her shoulders. While wrapping the scarf, she passed the gauzy fabric again and again in front of her eyes, while looking at him, and she said, “Aren’t you going to tell me about it?”
Nick said, “Just look at those domes of the Mohammed Ali. And those spires. It seems so far away now. Isn’t it. Far away.” He thought if he didn’t talk about what had happened at the mosque, it might be forgotten. What he’d done. What he’d shouted at those Japanese tourists. He said, “The guide told me those Arabic letters high up on the wall were a sentence, the first pillar of Islam.”
“In all that confusion, did you remember to give him baksheesh?”
Nick looked down at his hands. “Yes, somehow, in all the confusion, I remembered to put two coins in his hand. After he pulled me away.”
“In all the confusion,” she repeated. “I was so surprised. I couldn’t make out what was happening.”
Nick said, “The first pillar, he’d told us.”
“And what is the first pillar?”
The guide had told him that, too, but Nick couldn’t remember. “Those domes,” he said, gazing at the mosque on the skyline. “I’ve never seen anything quite like them.”
She took his hand on the table and then said, “Your hands are freezing.” She pulled the second scarf from around her shoulders and put it over his head. “Wrap that around you,” she said, and he did.
She said, “Darling.”
“You’re not talking about it, and didn’t we agree to put everything out on the table?”
“Yes, you’re right. Well, it’s overwhelming, isn’t it. The whole thing. What do you see when you look up there?”
“Up into those domes.”
She said, “Let’s talk about the Japanese tourists.”
“Yes, the Japanese. They weren’t wearing headscarves. They don’t understand. They’re too foreign.”
“Of course. They don’t speak English.”
“How are you any less foreign than they are?”
“I’m very foreign.”
“Yes, you can’t speak a word of Arabic.”
“I say thank you in Arabic very well—shokran,” he said. “And I can order tea.”
She said something in Arabic, without looking at him.
After a moment, he asked, “What was that all about?”
She said, “You know very well what I said.”
“I haven’t a clue.”
“When are you going to tell me about it?”
“You’re right, of course,” Nick said as the waiter brought hot tea for Rasha with mint sprigs and slender sugar packets. “I’m completely out of my element. Let’s go more often to Provence where I can read some of the street signs, ask how much a thing costs, and attempt to chat with the natives.”
“I suppose you should’ve married some French woman, some Marie Claire.”
“I wouldn’t trade for anything,” he said, and squeezed her arm. It tipped her cup and splashed a little bit of tea over the edge.
She smiled at him and said, “Wouldn’t you like some tea before we order?”
No, he said, and they ordered fattoush, hommos, and baba ghannoug. The server brought a basket of baladi, hot puffed balls of bread.
Nick sat back in his chair, hands behind his head and his elbows stuck out in the air.
She said, “Are you feeling better?”
“I’ll be okay. You’d never guess, from the view here, all that’s under those domes.”
“No, not the tourists.”
“The Japanese tourists,” she said.
“Do you think people here in your country ever get sick of them?”
“It’s not my country.”
“You’re Egyptian,” he said. “No doubt about it.”
“My grandmother is Egyptian and I was born in South Carolina.”
“What’s the bother of denying it? You speak Arabic.”
“You know very well that I hardly speak passable Arabic. I have an American passport and that’s enough, so stop calling it my country here, my people, my Arabic, my mosques.”
He sighed: “Ah, the mosques.”
“Do you want to be Muslim?”
“Not so interested.”
“All right,” she said, setting down her tea, “if I have to be the one to talk about it, let me recount the day’s events.”
“I was getting to it.”
She clasped her hands on the table. “We arrived at the Citadel and you said you’d like to see the Mohammed Ali mosque.”
“Yes,” he said, “why not start at the beginning.”
“You said it was the crown jewel of the Citadel. You closed the guidebook. The mosque was the only thing worth seeing, you said. It was the only thing you wanted to see. You’re the one carrying the guidebook. I have no idea what else is at the Citadel, though it seemed to me there were lots of signs for tourists pointing to other sights there. I noticed there was a military museum.”
He unrolled his napkin and placed the fork on the left, knife and spoon on the right. He knew she was going to go right at it.
“When we climbed those stone stairs up from the street to the mosque, I was covering my head and there was the old man catcalling me from above us. Did he bother you?”
“Not so much.” Nick remembered the black man’s wizened face peering down at them.
Rasha said, “I was talking to him in Arabic, and told him we were Egyptians but born in America. I thought he would leave us alone then. I thought he would go after other tourists, but we were the only ones coming up the stairs. When we got to the top, he was trying to get you to buy a book of postcards, and you said shokran to him several times, waving him away. And then he left us alone.”
Nick remembered the man’s thin arms, and long slender fingers coming around the edge of the postcard book. Nick said, “The poor old bastard. He’s just trying to feed family. Wife, kids, grand-kids. What’s a goddamn Egyptian pound to me. Nothing. It’s nothing. I should’ve given him one. I could’ve given him everything.”
“And then you said you wanted pictures of me in a headscarf in front of the mosque.”
“Have you noticed that every woman in this park is wearing a headscarf?”
“Yes, I noticed that. I don’t know why. It must be a conservative area.”
“Would you feel more comfortable here wearing a headscarf?”
“So then we went into the courtyard of the mosque. You took more pictures of me.”
“And the clock. I took pictures of the clock. The clock from the French that doesn’t work. It’s awful irony.”
The waiter brought their mezze. Nick tore the baladi bread and smeared it into hommos. He said, “You don’t have to go through the details.”
“And then we went inside,” she said.
“You don’t have to go through it.”
“And you began to raise your voice.”
“Yes,” he said, “at the Japanese tourists.”
“You shouted at them.”
Rasha, with her arms crossed, was staring at him. He tore another piece of bread and smeared it in the baba ghannoug. She said, “I had no idea you were becoming emotional. You hide it very well. You always have.”
“Yes,” she said.
“My grandfather was like that.”
“That’s what I understand. I was young when he died, as you know. He died in Vietnam. His plane was shot down.”
“Yes, I know these things.”
Nick took another piece of baladi, chewed, and swallowed while she watched him. He said, “They weren’t wearing headscarves. Yes, I’m very foreign, but what I mean when I say that they’re more foreign is that they don’t seem capable of distinguishing local customs. Some of the signs, after all, are in English. Nothing’s written in Japanese here. It’s all Arabic and if your people are considerate enough to put something in tourist lingo, they put it up in English. The word toilet, for example.”
“French, sometimes,” she said.
“So the Japanese tourists are more foreign here. They can’t read the signs about what’s respectful to wear in the mosque. But that’s no excuse. They have guidebooks. I saw a guidebook in their hands, with all those wonderful swooshing Japanese letters scrawled across the cover with a shot of the Giza pyramids.” He lifted his glass of water and set it back down. “They failed,” he said. “They failed to read up on local customs. They failed to be informed, and that’s why I raised my voice.” He tore another piece of baladi and smeared it in hommos, but then set it down and said, “I refuse to eat another bite until you dig in.”
“Oh, I’m digging in,” she said.
She carefully spooned some fattoush on a wedge of baladi, and a dollop of hommos. He waited until she popped it into her mouth before he smeared his next piece again in the hommos.
“Your grandfather,” she said, chewing, and then he knew she was going to go right at it. He sat back, chewing, too, and he suggested that they order more hommos because he was hungry enough to eat a barrel of hommos. He said this but he wasn’t hungry in the least. There was a nauseous ache in his gut, and he was forcing himself to chew, to swallow, to tear off another wedge of baladi. She didn’t agree to order more. She didn’t seem to have heard him.
He tore another, a smaller, piece of baladi and felt her watching him. He coughed while chewing, and covered his mouth with his hand for a moment. And then he took the piece and smeared it in the baba ghannoug.
Rasha said, “You mentioned your grandfather in there.”
“Yes,” he said. “I was thinking about him, when I was looking up into those great domes. Those lines hung with glass bowl lamps, and those monstrous chandeliers. And all the colored glass with the light pouring through.” He coughed again at the rising in his throat, and wiped his mouth roughly with the cloth napkin. “He had a bug, you know, for travel, and I have that bug, too. He was restless. Liked to be on the move. It’s why he signed up for Vietnam. He didn’t have to. They weren’t asking him to fly again. He’d served in two wars already. But he chose to go.”
“And he didn’t make it back.”
There was baladi in his hands. “No, he didn’t make it back.”
“What were you shouting at them? The Japanese tourists.”
“It was about the headscarves.”
“No, it was something else. He should be here instead, you said. He should be here. Meaning the Japanese tourists shouldn’t. Are you under the impression that the Japanese shot down your grandfather?”
He frowned. “What are you talking about. No, not at all. That wouldn’t make any sense, would it.” He smeared into hommos and stared at the bowl for a long moment.
“Asians, you said. You shouted. And there were more words.”
“You don’t have to go through it.”
“Do you understand what happened? I’d like you to tell me about it.”
“I have been telling you about it. Ever since we sat down. Here with the view of it, the mosque, those great domes, right in front of us. I’m sorry that I made you uncomfortable.” And he thought that would be the end of it.
Rasha touched her teacup—it must’ve cooled now, in this wind. This wind that whipped her hair and the fringes of her scarf, and blew at his own scarf so an edge of it was knocking against his jaw. But she didn’t lift the teacup. Instead she withdrew into herself, crossing her arms, her gaze falling, and light falling out of her face as her eyes moved into the shadow of her brow. She said something quietly but he couldn’t make it out, and maybe it had been Arabic. She lifted her head then and looked away—looking at the mosque again, he thought—and then she stood up, pushing back her chair.
She walked to the edge of the terrace. The family, the children, behind them, were boisterous, erupting in laughter, and two men nearby were talking in Arabic that seemed to Nick to be very deep in the throat. Nick got to his feet. “Rasha,” he said, but she didn’t turn to him. He went to her side and she shrugged off his hand on her shoulder.
“You have a streak in you,” she said, “of something awful. And I’ve never seen it so clearly.”
He returned to his chair. He waved a server over and ordered two shai and said, “Shokran. Shokran.” He sat with his head low and he pinched his nose between his eyes—it was all he could do—he dared not touch his eyes or they would brim over. And when he looked up she was still there, remarkably, despite all of it.
Christopher X. Shade's stories have appeared in a number of online and print magazines. He was raised in the South and now lives in New York City's East Village with his wife, and is a graduate of The New School University's Bachelor of Arts Creative Writing Program. He is Executive Producer for Sports Illustrated Golf Group, and a regular contributor to Golf.com. He plans to complete a novel in early 2011.
Q: What was your inspiration for this piece?
A: After visiting Egypt in 2009, I became interested in themes of the American tourist responding to a foreign country’s dominant culture, and all that comes with crossing borders. These cultural intersections are ripe with interesting story possibilities, and one is racism. For this story, I was interested in writing about a man who aspires to be full of love, but has experienced a kind of terrible fit, a fit that manifested itself mysteriously out of loss, out of never having come to terms with the loss of his grandfather.
Q: Why are you a writer?
A: Recently my mother gave me something I wrote, when I was a child, a poem in which the sky is newspaper. I don't remember writing it. I guess I was very young, and we were living in Jacksonville, Alabama. We had an electric typewriter in the house. I remember that my sister Mary spent play time on the electric sewing machine, cutting and sewing little fabric pieces, in oranges, olive greens, coconut browns, and in stripes, plaids, and dizzying geometrics. I was fascinated with the concept of a sewing pattern, and all those steps to create something, though I didn't spend time on the sewing machine. That machine belonged to my two sisters. Instead, I spent a great deal of play time on the typewriter, in the same room where my sisters were pinning patterns onto fabric. There was a big window over the front yard, and out there my older brother Mark was working, raking leaves, washing the station wagon, or he was not working: he was out there learning things, growing up much faster than the rest of us.
Q: What musical instrument are you?
A: An upright piano. In a family's home. A piano that's in the room but doesn't overwhelm the room. It has, perhaps, been misplaced against an exterior wall and so it is very often falling out of tune. Though it doesn't languish in the corner, with photos standing across the top of it. Instead there's an open score: Czerny, The School of Velocity, Op. 299.
Q: What's your favorite part of the writing process?
A: The discovery part. On a winter's night, discovering that a simple recipe makes a delicious, nourishing meal.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm always writing new stories, and helping friends write their own stories as I can. These days I'm writing a novel concerned with a man coming to terms with the loss of a friend.