The Snows of Cairo by Lana Abdel Rahman

lana-abdulrahman
Lebanese writer Lana Abdel Rahman

 

Chapter Two, from the novel
Translated by Gretchen McCullough
Reviewed by Mohamed Metwalli

 

Intersections

Night is penetrated by sounds sneaking through the window, like confused waves, moving up and down, depending on the strength of the source. Here, the source seems like energy without a safety valve: it comes in the shape of fights, clamor, and the honking of cars.
Nagi feels a longing to stroll close to the lake.
If he were in Ismailia now, he would be strolling along the waterfront, instead of returning home.
It is 2 am. He directs the arrow of the computer to a song by Fairuz: “Yes, there is hope.” The night helps him to feel free, unlike daytime where his freedom shrinks, and then, expands with the beginning of the evening hours. He repeats the words of the song: “Yes, there is hope.”
If Bushra were with him here, she would sing with him, “Yes, there is hope,” but her distance from him went back and forth and they were now at a standstill: there was no start, no retreat. This is the way their relationship had gone since he had met her the first time when he was in the company of Ola, his niece, at the film screening, The Mulan, “The Master,” at the Opera House. He couldn’t make up his mind about her and so much time had passed since the coincidental meeting at the screening when they were close that now the time apart made him doubt whether they should be really together. He couldn’t face her, nor could he leave her.
He opened the CD which Mohi had given him and started to transfer its contents to his desktop. Then he opened his blog and began writing a new entry. He was placing the contents of his CD on his blog, like a time bomb. Comments would follow on the scenes of violence and torture.
After an hour, he felt hungry and went to the kitchen and opened the small refrigerator, which was dripping drops of water from the accumulated ice. He grabbed two eggs, a piece of tomato, and a carton of white cheese, and heated a piece of dark bread. He whisked the eggs and poured them into small frying pan. He cut the tomato into slices and placed them on top of the eggs before they were done. Then, he took a little white cheese, crumbled it between his hands, and dropped it on his dish, the last step, before moving to the salon.
Adel’s presence in the flat lightens the details of daily life because Adel cares about food as much as performing religious rituals. He is keen on having something to eat at any time—let alone the evenings of kebab, ground meat fingers covered in lamb fat, stuffed intestines, which are repeated every week. Adel guffaws, nibbling on pieces of stuffed intestines dripping oil, repeating an excerpt of a Quranic verse that says, “Eat of the goods God has bestowed upon you,” whenever Nagi advises him to have mercy on his stomach.
Nagi saw his suit draped over the sofa. He had picked it up at noon from the “mukwagi,” the clothes presser, but he never got around to putting it in the closet; he left the house quickly after Mohi’s call. Nagi slept little before facing an early morning at an engineering company in order to apply for a new job. He didn’t have much hope, but he believed he should make the effort. He loved his studies in construction engineering and he loved to be called Pash Mohandis, Senior Engineer, but that disappeared after his first job experience following graduation when he discovered that, after a few months, he would be responsible for making ten thousand citizens homeless. He was creating a number of engineering drawings, precisely planned; in reality, the building would exile hundreds of families in this area close to the Nile. Luxurious malls would be built on this land, surrounded by gated communities, instead of tin shacks and the adjoining slums. On the day he went to survey the site he discovered the extent of misery of the people living there, and he was surprised by their indifferent, resigned attitude in dealing with the matter. They accepted the situation since they were convinced there was no other solution. And from their point of view, they would get a few thousand pounds, as the company had promised. This was his first real experience with feeling crippled: he had an aversion to his profession, and the matchboxes he used to build houses, and the Lego game. It seemed to him that the outside world was in fact a big Lego game: there were people who could model and destroy it whenever they wanted. He quit his job after one of his discussions with his direct boss, the chief engineer. He hopped from one job to another in a number of engineering offices with varying degrees of corruption.

When he is unemployed, he carries a camera and films documentaries from the heart of life.

He was filming because it was the most enjoyable thing he could do. He loved filming the city in different moods at night and in the day, at dusk and dawn. He was charmed by the city—the old buildings, the decrepit palaces—and tempted to explore the underbelly of Cairo, fearlessly.

He takes some shots, and from this, he thinks he will discover the true face of the city, but he keeps repeating to himself that Cairo is a multifaceted city that no one would ever discover completely: Cairo is a place where anything could happen.

When Nagi left the house in the morning, he smelled a horrible odor, which sneaked from a punctured garbage can, overflowing with trash. After crossing in front of it, he spat and held his nose. The smell of trash rarely prompted him to do that, but the stench this time was that of a decomposing carcass, which made him want to vomit. He was sure that there must be dead animals or rotten meat which had probably leaked into the trash.

Nagi took a taxi in to Tahrir Street in Dokki. It was autumn weather, the temperature was leaning towards the cool. Mohamed Monir was singing on the radio of the taxi: “Mint of the Garden,” and mumbled “Mint of the Garden” a number of times in a low voice. Meanwhile the taxi driver gestured with his hand and cursed a microbus driver, who swerved toward his car.

When Nagi got out of the taxi he easily found the address he was looking for, the well-known headquarters of the company on the main road. The atmosphere during the interview was not tense, and it was conducted in a very routine way. The company where he would work consisted of a number of different Arab nationalities. The interviewer, an engineer, asked him a number of questions, about his previous jobs and his experience. He was so pleasant that Nagi became suspicious, but in the end, he joined the team and learned in the first few weeks that the company was managing huge tourist projects on the coast of the Red Sea, as if they were building cities in New Cairo. One of the essential conditions of the job was travelling and living outside of Cairo: he was granted ten days’ vacation every two months. The salary was tempting, but the idea of moving from Cairo to any area far away disturbed him. He had lived in this way before, dividing his vacations between Cairo, where he was studying at the university, and Ismailia, visiting his father and mother and his sister, Nagla. Then his sister, Rania was married and settled with her husband in Cairo and had given birth to a daughter. Then another sister, Nahed, moved to Alexandria after she married. He never stayed with his mother until his younger sister, Nagla, refused to move back to Cairo after finishing her university studies, after his father’s illness and deteriorating health. Nagi felt he had fallen short in his duty towards his father, this man who had bestowed so much upon him, but he would never be able to repay him now. His memory became faint and his body old; however, in Nagi’s opinion, his father still continued to be the most influential person in his life. His relationship with his mother was emotional only, maternal affection. Maybe he had never had a deep, serious conversation with his mother until after his father’s illness, when she started talking to him about details and events which he had heard from one angle: his father’s point of view. There was not a huge discrepancy between his mother’s and his father’s stories, but a different vision played an important role in her maternal memory—on her stance about events and people. His mother told him about his father’s return from the 1973 War; he talked for months about crossing “The Bar Lev Line.” She was surprised by what he said: “Don’t believe it, ya Fatma, that we were victorious. We didn’t win. Not a thing.” And when his father told the truth, he was speaking—from the point of view of a former officer—about the question of Egyptian soldiers and their heroism. And from his father’s point of view what had happened? And was what had he told his mother merely emotional, or was this, really his true vision?
After he left the company, he called Bushra and told her the news about his new job—he would travel soon to the North Coast and then, he suggested that they meet in the evening.

***

Bushra wore a long autumn dress, made of crepe in a number of earth tones, and fastened a decorative belt around her waist, adding more accessories to make herself more attractive. From the jewelry box, she took her mother’s necklace made of colored precious gems which matched the dress and placed it around her neck. Bushra had a certain taste in choosing her clothes, paying attention to the kind of cloth and shades of color; maybe her desire to play with colors brought into her practical life from the work with cartoons, which required visual bedazzlement. Bushra merged colors which, at first glance, did not seem to match, and then afterwards, appeared beautiful when placed next to each other. She put the blue shawl around her shoulders and left.
Before she left the entrance of the building, she met Asmaa’ and told her about when she would return this evening, because she envisioned that she might be late returning from Heliopolis to the Pyramids Road.
“Don’t be late! I’m making grilled chicken for dinner,” Asmaa’ said.
As she left the entrance of the building, she heard the maghrib call to prayer, rising from a nearby minaret and interfering with one of Amr Diab’s songs, playing from a nearby café. She took a taxi to Adly Street downtown.
He was waiting for Bushra in the outside garden at Groppi. He sat beside the shade of a poinciana tree–his eyes locked on the entrance. When Bushra was close to him, she greeted him warmly: they were happy to see each other.
“You’ll travel, then?” she asked him.
She put sugar into her cup of tea.
He nodded. “I’ll try it. It’s a new experience. I have nothing to lose. If I don’t like it, I’ll come back.” He followed this with something totally different: “I’ll be thinking about you.”
She answered after she gave him a quick glance. “Me, too.” Then she spoke seriously: “I’m thinking of going to Damascus.”
“Why? And, when?”
“There’s no real reason. Except I feel the urge to travel. I’ll try to get time off in December or a few months from now because I miss the rain.”
As if he were filled with a secret hope, he said: “But we will continue to be in touch.”
“Of course.”
Before leaving Groppi, Bushra bought candied chestnuts. She opened the box and presented Nagi with a piece and then, took another one with obvious delight, telling him that these were the loveliest thing he could have now—nothing tastier than the blend of chestnuts and honey. As they left together, she was telling Nagi about the winter nights in Damascus when they used to grill chestnuts in the luminous fireplace, and the sound of the wind in the house, shaking the branches of the apricot tree and the flowering jasmine vines.
As they walked together, the shades of the night were reflected on old buildings and locked shops. They walked in front of the Jewish synagogue, which for Bushra, was full of secrets. The street continued to be crowded with passersby. Bushra loved the streets downtown at night. Since she was in the company of Nagi she thought how she was benefiting from the advantage of his presence, walking less cautiously, not like she did if she were alone or with Asmaa’. They walked until they reached Emad Ed-Deen, which was not crowded, but still old with a distinct feel.
She tells him about her feelings for the place and her strolls here at other times, also in the company of a man. She speaks and then is silent. Nagi listens with interest without interrupting her stories.
They were like strangers in the night, forfeiting their necessary masks and unburdening their spirits so they would feel lighter, matching the autumn breezes and the pale light from the lamps. Nagi talked about preparations for travelling, about his anxieties and his need for new beginnings.
Nagi took her home in a taxi—he always insisted on keeping her company until the last moment. When she got out of the car, he stayed inside silently and didn’t wave to her. She waved goodbye while she was walking away, as if there were no farewell between them.

***

The wonderful, secret smell of spices that Asmaa’ used in her dishes, wafted under Bushra’s nose when she opened the door. It was apparent that several things had made Asmaa’ cheerful—when she was angry, she was very angry, and when she was happy, she was very happy. Her cooking ability disappeared when she was depressed. Asmaa’ was swarthy, with wide eyes and thick eyelashes. She had a soft, voluptuous figure: bones almost non-existent behind powerful feminine curves.
Asmaa’ speaks about her work at the newspaper, about the reptilian editor, who cancels the reports she prepares at the last minute after delegating them to her. And then says decisively, “We have to cool it. The newspaper can’t take the pressure.”
Shahd sits in the living room, gazing at the television, doing her nails with a wooden file. She wears a short white cotton nightgown with red butterflies. She is simply the Egyptian version of the Colombian Shakira with a pair of merry, restless eyes, soft baby-like skin: gorgeous.
Her beauty, was so enchanting that she realized its impact on others and tried to make the most out of it. She aspired to be an actress. Yet this ambition, boosted by her beauty, lacked both talent and persistence. Apparently, Shahd didn’t possess either of these, but claimed that all she needed was one good opportunity.
Asmaa’ headed toward the kitchen while Bushra was talking with Shahd on a variety of topics—all focused on the latest events in her artistic aspirations and dreams.
Bushra listened with affection, perceiving that most of what Shahd said consisted of illusion, which was obvious to everyone but Shahd, which Shahd would realize sooner or later.
Asmaa’ returned, carrying a plate of steaming, grilled chicken, and placed it on the long dining room table. She then made a sarcastic comment about Shahd’s talk, and requested Shahd’s help in bringing in the other plates. Shahd entered the kitchen and returned with a deep white dish full of green salad; the other dish was baked scalloped potatoes. The three young women sat around the table—except Asmaa’, who stood, distributing the plates and silverware and cutting the bread.

***

The women in the palace did not like me—the mother worked on isolating me and excluding me from social life. My husband’s oldest sister was very supportive, but his younger sister met me more, maybe because she was my age, but still she never could sympathize with me. I withdrew to my suite alone for days in an extremely luxurious, yet very cold place. They alienated my husband from me, distracting him with many things—to make him believe that he must travel for certain reasons and that I should not accompany him because I was stubborn or acting strangely. The prince spoke little and was confused about whether he should believe them or me.
The fever keeps me company. I continue to sleep in my bed, unable to do anything, with many faces, like ghosts, hovering over me.
Faces–I didn’t know whether they were real or a figment of my imagination.
It was not long before I heard the joyful ululations and laughter. Another blooming, young girl who lived in a neighboring partition.
She sleeps in a bed, like mine. She places her bridal clothes in a bigger wardrobe than mine. She is the new bride of the youngest prince. And what about me, how much longer would I keep lying in my bed? Until when will I continue to be absent, listening to the weeping of my nanny, glancing at her white handkerchief, with which she wiped my tears and forehead?
In the spring I woke to the color of a dawn sky: mother-of-pearl. I was not cold. I was ravenous. I drank two glasses of milk and ate honey and fresh, thick bread. I viewed myself in the mirror—my face was pure and my body was strong.
When I left the sickbed, I ordered the servants to bring it to the main hall of the palace and requested that they burn it. I burned the bed of sickness in this strange place. I burned the sick cells, which had fallen from my body. Sick cells ate health. I was forced to do this: those sick cells would not drag me back to illness. A part of me was still burning. I was saving the other part—before I went towards my original roots. My roots were not here. And they never would be.
As much as water is the secret of life, a heavenly gift, oozing from bodies, to grant ecstasy and fertility, fire will also devour ailment and pain and turns ache into ashes. Fire has burned the bed of my ailment, and in my eyes were the spark of its coals, when I insisted on travelling: I said I wanted to visit my parents. My husband, the younger prince, was distracted with his bride whose belly has inflated; I felt sympathy for her when she passed shyly beside me.

***

No one has all the answers.
The true questions would burn like Clorox, which she drank as a child. The after-taste still lingered, burning her mouth. That day she thought it was water. Once it reached the roof of her mouth, it set her on fire before she could spit it out and start rinsing her mouth out with pure water.
But the taste of the burning liquid is still imprinted in the memory of senses, all its cruelty included.
These questions still ate at Bushra’s mind now, resembling in their blistering effect, the moment her mouth was burnt by Clorox, but she was never able to distance herself from them in her mind even now. Images came in parallel order to become a story, and then, the story enlarged and widened to become a mysterious life of a woman she barely knew, whose existence and life she could feel, as if she had lived it with her.
The face of Nur Jihan captures her imagination, inhabits her days; in fact, things get worse when she starts envisioning parts of her distant past, her cracked childhood. She sees her, stretching on a strange bed on the ground, and this place where she sees her napping is not the palace next to the bank of the Nile; instead, this woman, whom she knows well by now, reclines in a place where there are many faces and anonymous characters in a wide room.
She saw her clearly for the first time when she was sitting on the terrace of her palace smoking a cigarette nervously while writing in a small notebook, with her maid coming and going nearby.
Now, in her new scene, there was not just one servant, but she was surrounded by many. A woman in her fifties or slightly older was taking care of her, encouraging her to get out of bed and resist illness.
A woman collects the dew of plants at dawn for her and mixes it with a strange powder before she puts it in her mouth, but she cannot move. A red liquid stains her dress—she keeps bleeding for forty days. As soon as she gets to her feet, a liquid gushes from her body and enfeebles her, leaving her without any ability or desire to live.
Suddenly, Bushra feels heat between her legs: she sees drops of blood, staining her bed. She pulls off the dirty sheet and walks quickly toward the bathroom, putting it into water, and then, strips and stands in the bathtub. Was this premature menstrual blood? Or has she become both physically and psychologically disturbed?
Questions. Blistering questions that lead to nowhere, but excessive torment. She lets the shower water run over her body. She moistens the loofah with hot water and rubs it with fragrant soap; the foam envelops the bathroom.
She remembered the laurel soap which her mother preferred to bathe with, especially when they went together to the women’s hammam in Bab Tooma—the smell of laurel soap emanated from her mother’s body, blended with the smell of Arabian jasmine oil which her mother rubbed on her body for years. On the day her mother’s corpse was washed, her plump body exuded the fragrance of jasmine, her pores oozing once again this smell she had stored for years.
Her mother would find great pleasure in “the day of lethargy and hot water,” as Bushra would describe it.
In the women’s hammam, the mother speaks about her alienation, her yearning for her country, revealing her secrets to her Iraqi neighbor, Sajda, Om Shouky, who usually accompanied her to the hammam. It was separated from the outside world by a little, arched gate resembling the gates from folk tales about genies, with a huge copper handle, a statuette of a lion showing its fangs. Once she enters with her mother, inside she sees the women have finished bathing, almost naked in the spacious lounge, drinking tea, smoking hookah, wrapping their bodies with big towels. The other women, who are preparing for the bathing ritual, are busy taking off their clothes, collecting their belongings in a convenient place, and handing over their valuables and money to the woman who runs the hammam, to be placed later in a safe.
Bushra rubs her body until it becomes pink; she keeps scrubbing as if she wants to make sure that it is real. A cold shiver hits her limbs; she keeps the hot water on herself until she has had enough.
She dried off her body and put on clean clothes. She noticed that the hot water had distanced her questions a little to another place and that the memories of the women’s hammam had changed her mood. She was flooded by a desire to take a long stroll.
She wanted to stroll near the corniche of the Nile on the main street of Manial. Before she left the house, she entered Asmaa’s room and took a scarf, wrapping her hair in it, to protect her from cold. Maybe that was the reason she didn’t feel different, because the headscarf covered her hair and made her look similar to many fashionable head-scarfed girls in the street. They cannot be classified or categorized as either conservative or slaves of fashion. On the one hand, they cover their hair; on the other, they wear whatever appeals to them. Most of the time, whatever appeals to them, contradicts the headscarf. Therefore, when she wrapped her wet hair with a brown-striped blue bandana, she resembled them, since she also wore a pair of jeans and a blue wool jacket, not bothering with makeup. There was nothing to distinguish her from any other girl in the street. Later, she discovered that that she was the only unveiled girl in her building. The one time she decided to buy a Christmas tree, the seller who was playing a Quranic tape, handed it over without even looking at her, but when she entered her building and took a few steps toward the elevator carrying the tree, one of her neighbors said to her, “Merry Christmas,” and she answered, smiling, without revealing her religious identity. She used to buy a Christmas tree every year since she was a child, because her mother, who had had many miscarriages, before giving birth to her, made an offering on the advice of her Christian neighbor, Om Maron, at the Church of the Virgin Mary in Bab Tooma to request divine help for a healthy pregnancy. She had agreed to call the newborn “Nour” if it were a boy and “Bushra” if it were a girl.
She didn’t divulge this secret to anybody. The story is hers, she considers it her own little secret: how she came into the world. Her mother used to repeat that tale, emphasizing the fact that God listens to anybody’s prayers, regardless of their religion or ethnicity. The mother, while telling the story, would reminisce about the sacred moments when she headed to the Church of the Virgin Mary on a cold, winter day. No one was in the church; it was not a day of worship. She asked the custodian to open the door for her, and alone, in front of the image of the Virgin whispered her prayers in the empty sanctuary. She was overwhelmed with awe when she viewed the image of the crucified Jesus, beside his mother’s image; candles were lit by the altar. She picked a place nearby and sat, and then opened the Quran which she had put in her purse. She read the sura of Miriam from the Quran, tears running down the cheeks; she would stop reading, raising her voice a little with a chant of prayers once in a while, thinking she was alone. But when she finished reading, after the candle that she had lit had melted, the custodian, who was standing at the large wooden door, looked very touched. She was embarrassed and didn’t look at him; she placed some coins in the offering box and walked off. Before leaving the courtyard, she saw a medium-sized statue of a saint in black, her head, wrapped in a white scarf, and on the pedestal she read: “Saint Rita—the guardian saint of the impossible.” At that moment, Nabila realized she was also wearing black and white, like the saint. She murmured a short prayer, since she had run out of both phrases and tears at the altar, and then, walked away.
The mother, when telling Bushra that tale, used to end it by saying that she did not know
whether her prayers were accepted by the blessing of the Virgin Mary or those of Saint Rita—“the guardian saint of the impossible.”
Nabila will see the custodian another time when she returns to the church after she delivers, with a three-month-old baby girl. She will light two candles, keeping her promise of an offering, and the custodian smiles at her kindly and says: “The Virgin answers anybody.”
Bushra crossed Manial Street in front of the Faten Hamama movie theater and then turned right to walk on Malak Al-Salah Street. She contemplated the river Nile, whose level was higher these days—she felt awe while remembering the old tradition of the Nile bride, where a young girl used to be pushed toward the running water forcefully so the river would devour her, granting fertility and preventing harm. Had she ever been the “Bride of the Nile”? Why would this tradition scare her so much? Was there someone standing behind her now who would push her in to drown?
She saw to the left of the street an iron bridge, with the Nile running underneath, connecting the side street to the main road, leading to Maadi. In the middle of the bridge there was a pergola, bare of cloth.
Before climbing up the iron stairs to stand in the middle of the bridge she saw a woman, wearing a raggedy black cape, barbequing corn on coals; beside her was another young woman, carrying a baby in her arms. She climbed the steps covered in dust and cigarette butts, empty bags of chips and candy, sandwich leftovers and Kleenex.
She stopped in the middle of the bridge—the awe-inspiring Nile in its beauty and power. Along the banks, small nurseries stretched close to weeping willows, poinciana and silk-cotton trees and palm trees and wide banana trees with dangling leaves, almost touching the water. She kept standing there for a little while. The heavy chirping of sparrows kept her company on her way back. To her right, the surface of the Nile was slightly disturbed by a light wind—the curving branches of the poinciana and jacaranda trees made the street look pale. The scene was marred by a little heap of trash from one of the inhabitants of a nearby slum. She took a deep breath while standing on the wooden bridge. Nearby, stood a swarthy, young man trading romantic looks with his girl. Their suppressed laughter became louder.
Bushra took her cell phone out of her purse and decided to call Naguib Al-Qadi and visit him instantly. She wanted somebody who might care.

***

He used to sneak into my room every other day.
In pitch darkness, amidst the hallucinations of fever, I was alone.
His perplexed hand raises the cover over me, a flickering shadow from the lantern reflects upon his face. He is my husband, the prince, and his eyes reveal his yearning; the movement of his fingers, taking off my clothes carefully. My heart beats violently.
I was sweating. His palms had the aroma of rose water and tobacco. The sound of lightning echoed in the violence outside—his body, cold, seeking the warmth of mine. He unbuttoned my long wool robe, took off my cotton chemise, and pantaloons, and unfastened my brassiere.
I was utterly nude when he threw his cape on the floor next to my bed and slept next to me. He stayed with me until the crack of dawn. He lay naked next to my body—a slim body, the color of golden barley, a straight waist, his long legs surpassing mine in bed. He leaned on his right elbow, close to my face, passing his left forefinger along my dry lips, passing my hair through his hand, and pulled me towards him. I asked for a drink of water and he got it for me. He took the other half, pouring it on a handkerchief, and started wiping my hair and face with a handkerchief, wetted with rose water and saffron. I opened my eyes, our looks merged lustfully: he absorbed my fever and I absorbed his cold. He passed his delicate finger over my thigh and belly and probed my breasts, bit my ear, my chin, kissing my lips, eagerly, sucking my nipples and midriff before he entered me powerfully. When I am united with him, my frail body becomes strong, I wrap my legs around his waist, our arms entangled. He falls asleep on my chest, while we are clasped together, covered with blankets until we slumber. And then, he awakens, stunned, to uncover me, and rubs my body again with rose water and dresses me meticulously, before he puts on his cotton vest and the rest of his clothes, wrapping his body with the woolen cape, leaving to his own bed.
“The little prince sneaks at night to the bed of his ill wife and he will get infected when his sound water mixes with her ailing water,” the women of the cold castle whispered in secret.
“Look . . . look, the little prince has a yellow face and sunken eyes, his body is getting more frail, day after day.”
The whispering of the women grew louder and it was not long before the mother was informed so that she could find a way for his son to dispense with his beloved, sick wife. The mother brought a new bride for her son, a wealthy, Turkish girl from among his relatives. She was a fresh, young woman, healthy and beautiful, who would provide offspring out of her fertile womb to compensate him for the embryos that had died in my bleeding womb.
Soon afterwards, the prince was gone; he stopped sneaking to me in the darkness.
One time, I was awake a little before dawn; he was whispering my name, weeping, he wetted my cheeks with his tears, but I did not budge or open my eyes, nor did I look him in the eye. I knew I wouldn’t see anything, but suppressed regret. My body, muted, turned toward his. Whenever he tried to uncover me, I mumbled something in protest.
Did I love him? I don’t know. But after my return to the palace with a floating balcony on the Nile, I found a true love, a passionate one, unlike the love of the prince with his confused touches.

 

Lana Abdel Rahman is a Lebanese writer, living in Cairo. Chapter 2 is an excerpt from her novel, The Snows of Cairo, published by Afaq Publishers in Cairo, 2013. In her novel, Abdel Rahman not only explores Sufi ideas, but also reincarnation. Bushra, a young Syrian woman returns to Cairo from Syria with her Egyptian mother after the death of her father. Her mother wants to return to her Egyptian roots. Soon after their return, Bushra’s mother dies suddenly and Bushra must cope with her grief and alienation alone, except for a few Egyptian relatives. Bushra feels the visceral presence of another woman, Nur Jihan in her dreams and even in her body. Nur Jihan, an Egyptian princess, was married off to a Turkish prince, a woman from the past with a tragic story: someone Bushra could not possibly have known. However, in the novel, time is fluid and circular, like consciousness. We have mysterious synchronicity and connections with others, the living and the dead. In Chapter 2, the stories of several women mirror each other. Nur Jihan, the Egyptian princess is under pressure to conceive a child. When she does not, she is condemned by the harem and her husband’s mother brings him another bride. Bushra reflects upon her mother’s experience with barrenness; in Chapter 1, we learned how Bushra’s mother suffered from the criticism of her husband’s relatives. Bushra remembers her mother’s story about how she visited the church of the Virgin Mary in Bab Tooma to offer a prayer for divine help to cure her infertility. Bushra is puzzled by her mother’s uncanny, sudden death. But she is also puzzled by her strange visions of Nur Jihan. Eventually, Bushra learns the secret of Nur Jihan’s life, which has profound consequences for Bushra’s life in the present.

Gretchen McCullough was raised in Harlingen Texas. After graduating from Brown University in 1984, she taught in Egypt, Turkey and Japan. She earned her MFA from the University of Alabama and was awarded a teaching Fulbright to Syria from 1997-1999. Her stories and essays have appeared in the Texas Review, The Alaska Quarterly Review, The Barcelona Review, Archipelago, National Public Radio, Storysouth, Storyglossia, and Guernica. Translations in English and Arabic with Mohamed Metwalli include: Nizwa, Banipal, Brookly Rail inTranslation and Al-Mustaqbel. Her bi-lingual book of short stories in English and Arabic, Three Stories From Cairo, was published in July 2011 by AFAQ Publishing House, Cairo. A collection of short stories about expatriate life in Cairo, Shahrazad’s Tooth, was also published by AFAQ in 2013. Currently, she is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo.