This story was recently published in the final edition of Danforth Review. Helmed by Michael Bryson for the past 20 years or so, it was a source of really great short fiction and interviews, including five of mine. It's a special relationship when someone likes your stories.
Winters in a hot country are deceiving. The gentle morning sky entices a Canadian family out of their hotel and onto the busy streets. All around them the locals are wrapped in sweaters and scarves. Are they crazy, the tourists wonder, it’s so hot!
It is Friday and the family visits the Egyptian Museum, Coptic Cairo, and Khan el Khalili market. They are careful to never pay more than the “average Egyptian,” haggling and bargaining at every turn. The leather bag from Luxor cost 10 pounds and the shawl from Siwi only four. Emboldened, they take it up with the taxi driver. No native Egyptian would pay more than ten pounds for a cross-city trip, they tell each other. No six-day-a-week-wearing-the-same-shoes-for-years-and-five-children-he-can-hardly-feed Egyptian would pay more, so why should they? Watch and learn, says the father. But the daughter and son catch the expression on the taxi driver’s face and see that value and price are two different things. No matter.
The family eats their dinner at the Ramses Hilton. Waiters in polyester tuxedos serve peasant food on porcelain plates. French fries extra. The sky darkens, a muezzin chants the Quran, the tourists write their postcards. So noisy! they scribble.
They ask about the Nile boats that serve drinks and promise a belly dancer or two. Now wouldn’t that be a hoot. The waiter gives directions; advises that they bring their coats before heading out after sunset. His English is impeccable they generously tell him. Please, he insists, it will get cold, especially on the water. The waiter’s voice carries both authority and resignation. Looking up, the girl is surprised to see a boy her age. “Don’t be silly,” her mother says. “Do you know it’s snowing where we come from!”
Her father motions for the bill. Nudging his daughter, he clears his throat and addresses the waiter.
“What you say we knock off a few pounds from this bill, eh? Drinks on the house?”
“Nick,” murmurs his wife. “This is a hotel restaurant, they don’t do that here.”
“Oh come on, of course they do.” He stares brightly at the young man.
The waiter shifts awkwardly. “You can pay me or pay at the desk,” he says.
“Dad, let’s just go,” says the girl. At this point she is not sure what is more mortifying: appearing poor or being impolite.
“No, no. This is what they do here, watch.” He looks up at the waiter and fabricates a challenge. “We ate a lot here, yallah. Good food, good food. So what do you say we fold in the desserts. Delicious, yes? Do we need to speak to the manager?”
“Dad,” says the girl, hitting her father in the ribs. Now she wants to give the boy all their money.
The exchange upsets the waiter. He catches the girl’s eye and, for a brief second or two, they share the universal language of adolescent embarrassment.
The mother gets up and opens her wallet. Credit card in hand, she walks over to the desk. The waiter follows, relief visible in the quickness of his steps.
Blue patio lanterns dangle along the riverbank and the father wonders what holiday the Egyptians are celebrating now. Traditionally-dressed men escort them onto a boat deck where the vinyl seats shock their unsuspecting skin. They huddle together as close as is comfortable, which is not very close. A quartet of musicians wearing thick scarves and acrylic sweaters remind them of their warmer clothes back at the hotel.
“But we’re practically at the equator,” complains the father.
“Not really,” says the son. “We’re thousands of miles away.”
Somewhere on the deck a tabla player begins with a dum-da-da-dum-da, then a violinist and clarinettist pick up the rhythm followed by an oud.
“Let’s dance!” says the mother. She’s going to enjoy this evening, it’s decided. “To keep warm, come on!”
“Are you kidding me?” asks the daughter. Whatever excitement the trip held is now gone. She drinks a hot sahlab, grimaces with every sip. “This is disgusting.”
The waiter notices, motions to the busboy to bring a mint tea instead. She passes back the sweet starchy drink without looking up. “Well that was horrible.”
Winters in a hot country means the waiter can eat meat on Fridays. Fresh lamb carcasses hang in the overleaf of a butcher’s shop. Carved directly off the animal, wrapped in newsprint, the meat is warm and comforting, bought with his Thursday wages. The Nile flows softly beside him almost the entire way home. On his left, vehicles of every sort assault the senses with a chemical distraction. He crosses the Corniche at Imbaba, the old camel market and poorest neighbourhood in the city.
He sinks the meat in yogourt, cumin and salt then goes to sleep. The next morning, he arranges himself on his bed, sits up straight with a pad of paper on his lap, and writes. He doesn’t work on Friday afternoons but he cooks the mid-day meal and his mother ensures he is not bothered. Her son writes and the Quran is written; she recognizes the sacred even if she can’t read it. The meat simmers as he mixes his words. Then he spreads newspaper on the floor and lays out the stew and rice. He calls his mother, his three sisters, and his brother. There is much chatter but he eats quickly. He has shaped a delicate contour with his pen, filled in flesh with consonants, groaned with the shuddering of vowels. It waits for him.
In the evening, like all evenings, he returns to the centre of the city, passing packs of dogs and barefoot children as he walks back along the river. The surface of the water undulates, a heave from a boat, a ripple from a fish. The furrows remind him of the ever-changing shape of letters and he wonders if the Arabic language was born from this shape-shifting river. The way an adrift baby became Moses, Arabic letters change their form depending on their place in the word. In the world.
He arrives at the boat, lights glowing in the early night, and pulls on the crimson galabaya and the Turkish fez, a costume for tourists. Tray in hand, he approaches a table. He has been doing this for a year and still he is surprised by their smiles. They are never happy, even when they are happy. Still, at the end of the evening, Adil will roll some bills into his hand. Happiness is beside the point.
The girl slouches over the railing while the rest are dancing. Her mother pulls at her but is slapped back. The waiter waits for the mother’s reaction, but there is none. The girl finishes her tea and throws the gold-encrusted glass into the water.
The waiter and the busboy exchange glances. Someone is going to have to pay for that glass. The busboy decides it won’t be him and turns on his heels back into the kitchen. The waiter leans over the side but the glass is gone. The girl frowns at him for a minute.
“It wasn’t a person, just a glass,” she scoffs. Then she realizes he’s the same boy from the hotel.
He is uncomfortable when foreigners look at him; he knows what they see. Native Egyptian with fez! But he recognizes her familiar eyes from earlier in the day. He is happy to see her. She mutters something that he doesn’t quite catch. She extends her hand. A shy flutter stirs inside his chest.
“Can I try on your hat?”
She speaks up. “That’s really a crazy hat. Can I try it on?”
He steps back, reaches up to his head. “No, no, sorry. No.” If Adil sees this he will send him to the kitchen, away from the tourists – and the tips. He is disheartened, maybe she’s drunk. That’s what tourists do. How else to explain the raised voices, the hard slaps on the back, the laughter that exits their throats like torpedoes.
The girl sees she has come on too strong, said the wrong thing, pushed him away. But aside from English the only other language she speaks is bravado, learned from her father, and guile, learned from her mother. This is the best she can do with her limited skills.
“Do you always wear it or is it just for work because sometimes I see people wearing them and sometimes I don’t. Like, it’s hard to tell what’s put on for tourists and what’s real. How’re you supposed to know what’s fake, eh? Have you ever been to Canada? Ha, well if you come make sure it isn’t January that’s for sure.” She exhales noisily and rolls her eyes.
The waiter doesn’t know if he understood everything. What does she want with his fez? He searches through his English vocabulary, but not one word for what he wants to say. Adil is suddenly behind him, “yalla ya homar.” As if calling him a donkey is not enough, he slaps the boy on the back of the neck. The girl is startled by the casual cruelty of the gesture. She watches the boy’s eyes liquefy. Adil yells again. The waiter jumps and runs to the other end of the boat where a quiet group from Italy are watching a passing felucca off the stern. Inside it, a small propane light flickers in the darkness as a fisherman and his wife cook the day’s catch. The waiter hovers over the tables, picks up empty glasses, replaces napkins, wipes spills, calms down.
But a sudden yelp bursts through the air and even the music stops. The busboy and Adil are screaming at each other. Adil looks strange, different, though the waiter can’t quite figure out why. The girl’s father is yelling to everyone, the mother is yelling at the father.
But where is she? Alarmed, the waiter runs to the railing and leans over it. Something floats in the darkness and in one stroke he pulls the galabaya up over his head. He puts his right foot on the railing and is about to heave himself over when he is yanked back. Adil kicks him for good measure.
“Son of a dog! Do you want to increase my humiliation?”
“But the girl!”
Just then, a husk of laughter pierces the commotion. He can’t quite figure out where she is but she is clearly not overboard.
“I didn’t do it on purpose!” she protests. “It just flew away, there was a gust of wind.” The mother snatches her away from the rails and slaps her arm. The father stands with a hand hiding his forehead, muttering to himself. Her brother smirks.
The waiter looks out on the water. A fez floats jauntily on the surface and he realizes why Adil looked odd. In a collective collapse, the family escapes to their table. The girl catches the waiter’s eye and shrugs conspiratorially. She leans over her brother and onto the railing. “It looked stupid on him anyways, not like on our waiter.” Her father reaches across the boy and yanks her back into her seat.
“No more dancing,” Adil says. He calls to the waiter. “You. In the kitchen. Enough out here.”
Adil tsks in the universal Arabic signal for don’t bother me anymore.
“Please. I need my tips.”
He hates to beg, but the injustice is too much. He knows how the night will end. Her parents will tuck a generous wad of dollars into Adil’s hand and say something about sunstroke, and that money will go right into Adil’s pocket. The busboy snickers and throws the waiter a towel. He spends the rest of the trip drying glasses.
The boat docks with a bump. The waiter puts his galabaya back on, replaces his fez and leaves the kitchen to stand with the rest of the staff. Her family are the last to disembark, hands gingerly holding the velvet rope that leads to shore. He imagines the parents have already given Adil enough money to not only replace his fez but pay for his son’s education. Bitterness grips him. But just before the girl is off the boat she runs back and, smirking – kindly? unkindly? he cannot tell – presses something into his hands. Then she tears off down the gangplank and is lost in the commotion of the busy Corniche. It is money, he thinks. Suppressing a smile, he puts it directly in his pocket.
The walk home is long and the waiter is more tired than usual. He keeps one hand in his pocket around the dollar bills. He thinks ahead to his mother’s reaction, to his siblings clamouring for gifts, to the fountain pen he saw on Talat Harb street. The bowab is asleep at the entrance of his building. He climbs the stairs and, before entering the small apartment, decides to fish it out of his pocket before showing his mother. He unfolds it slowly so that when he sees it is only the boat’s menu, his heart stops with disbelief. But just before he tears it to pieces he notices the handwriting.
“the night is too big for –” it begins. He is astonished: it is a poem.
small things: a glass, a fez, your face
long rivers, the waiter, my tea
this stupid girl acting drunkenly
when all I drank was the night
but it was too big for me
He rereads the poem a dozen times before folding the paper up slowly and putting it back in his pocket. He goes back downstairs and sits on the front step of his building, quietly so the bowab doesn’t wake. He watches the moon fill up the sky and the clouds shredding it into small pieces. He fishes for a pen in his pocket, turns the menu around to find a blank spot, and writes.
PHOTO: Flickr user, Dan [twiga_swala]