Yasser El-Sayed has recently published fiction in Natural Bridge, The New Orphic Review, The Marlboro Review, Red Truck Review, and elsewhere. His short stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2014 and in 2008. Yasser’s prose focuses upon the intersections of Arab and American experience both in the Middle East and the United States, including the contemporary American South. He is at work on a short story collection, Casket and Other Stories. Yasser is a physician and professor at Stanford University where he specializes in high-risk obstetrics. He lives and writes in Northern California.
That evening, they had dinner on the veranda of Neena’s house overlooking the beach. They drove through the narrow, dirt streets to a small villa a few blocks from the restaurant.
The front of Neena’s house was hidden behind high limestone walls; the back opened to the sea. A stray dog poked around near a rubbish pile on the edge of the road, chased the car, barking furiously as they passed. A sulfurous odor of sewer wafted their way and dissipated. Neena unlocked the gate, then her front door, and showed them in. The small living room was crowded with overstuffed furniture, spilling over with a haphazard array of trinkets, figurines, ornaments, and the air of something bygone. The carpet was threadbare and the curtains frayed at the edges. Neena sighed, straightened her shoulders, suddenly relaxed.
“Come,” she said and led them out onto the veranda to a table already set for dinner. “A traditional Egyptian meal!” she declared. “Even if Maman was French, I am as Egyptian as they come! And I have prepared the meal myself! Green peppers and zucchini stuffed with rice, ground beef. And even moulokhiyah!” The traditional Egyptian soup, Nabil knew, in a colorful ceramic bowel, and of course other smaller bowls of steaming rice on which to pour it, fresh pita bread cut in quarters, a rack of lamb, a bottle of wine, then another, this one red, and yet another, white.
“Local wine,” said Neena. “Not especially memorable, but at least our very own.”
She poured Joanne mineral water, didn’t stop talking, directing her words mostly to Joanne, who remained attentive.
“So quiet?” Neena said to Nabil finally.
“He’s often quiet,” Joanne said.
He said, “I’m still thinking about my reaction at the cemetery. I’m embarrassed about it. Everything here is so alien to me.”
Neena laughed and threw up her hands. “A man you don’t know holding a gun – even if he is just the night watchman and the gun a toy. Très compréhensible.”
Nabil shrugged and said, “The driver mentioned to me there’s word the president will step down tonight. Rumor is, he’s already left Cairo.”
“Maybe he’s in his beautiful palace in Alexandria,” suggested Neena. “Or the other one in Sharm el Sheikh. Never enough, darlings. Same goes for all his cronies and lackeys—palaces, cars, fancy clothes. A gang of thieves.” Abruptly, she rushed to the railing, peered out onto the darkened beachfront. “Well, speak of the devil!” she said with a laugh. “Out for a stroll are you?”
Abu-Bakr emerged out of the shadows. “Beautiful evening, no?” He said, leaning his bulk forward against the railing, smiling broadly.
“It certainly was,” said Joanne.
Nabil caught Joanne’s eye, an admonishing glance. Joanne leaned back in her seat, looked over her shoulder at the stretch of beach behind her and the few darkened homes that lined it.
“Such a coincidence,” said Nabil. He wondered how long Abu-Bakr had been lurking in the shadows. He pushed his seat closer to Joanne, threw an arm around her shoulders.
“Please. I do not mean to intrude. Just an evening stroll.”
“A beautiful evening!” declared Neena. “We spent the afternoon at the mausoleum.”
Abu-Bakr nodded and followed Joanne’s gaze across the beach front. “A beautiful country,” said Abu-Bakr wistfully to no one in particular. “I imagine you will be leaving us soon.”
“Too soon!” said Neena. “I don’t know what I will do without my new friends.”
“Zerouni kul-i-sana mara,” said Abu-Bakr.
Neena laughed. “It is a famous song,” she said by way of explanation to Nabil and Joanne. “She is begging her dear friends to visit her even if just once a year.”
“I know the song,” said Nabil.
“Abu-Bakr, I would invite you to join us, but I’m afraid my friends might object.”
Joanne said, “No objection here. It is the very least we should accommodate for all this security.”
Abu-Bakr smiled again. “How considerate of you. Well, only if you insist.”
“Of course we insist,” said Joanne coolly.
Abu-Bakr gave a half bow before settling himself in an open chair across the table. He reached to accept a bowl of the moulikhaya from Neena, tore off half a loaf of the pita bread, dipped it into the soup and bit off a large chunk.
“Bil hana wa el shifa,” said Nabil.
“Thank you,” said Abu-Bakr. He smacked his lips and wiped them vigorously on a napkin. “You know more Arabic than I would have thought, for one gone so long. And the song, how did you know that?”
“My father used to play it,” said Nabil.
Abu-Bakr shook his head. Smiling almost to himself, he looked up at Neena. “Amazing, no? The way the world works. The father leaves only to have the son return, speaking the language, knowing the songs. Hah!”
“What’s so strange about that?’ said Nabil.
“Not strange. Not strange. Just fate. Fate. You try to get away. You get away. You move half way across the world, maybe you never return. Then years later, there is a return. The circle complete.” He spooned up the moulikhaya rapidly, inhaling it.
“My father immigrated to America,” said Nabil. “Not so unusual an occurrence.”
“Yes. Yes. I understand. It is a figure of speech only. Get away from Egypt, one’s past, a fresh start. It is an old story.”
He paused and regarded Nabil. “Please understand, the present is even more unsettled than the past, no? So many troubles.” He shook his head as if in distress. “Alas. The police can’t be everywhere.”
“From what I hear the police aren’t anywhere,” quipped Neena.
“Some would blame the police for anything, of course,” replied Abu-Bakr, unfazed. He took in Joanne and then Nabil. “Listen. You are the last remaining foreigners here.”
“We will be leaving soon,” said Nabil stiffly.
“Of course. That is expected. But all else, so unpredictable. As for your safety, I do what I can.”
“What does that mean, exactly?” said Joanne.
Abu-Bakr shrugged. “My dear, there is chaos in the cities. People shot dead in the street in Cairo. Even in Alexandria. Alexandria – just a short drive from here!”
He stood up abruptly and turned to Neena. “Your food is as delicious as ever, Madam Neena.”
Neena nodded an acknowledgement.
He trotted energetically down the steps. “Safe travels to both of you,” he said to Nabil and Joanne from the bottom of the veranda. “Maybe we will see you here again next year. A regular pilgrimage to one’s past, one’s home, I hope.”
They watched him as he moved past them down the beach.
“What a creep,” muttered Joanne.
Neena sighed and shook her head. “The poor fool. He’s been stationed here for years, keeping an eye on all of us and the tourists. Entirely forgotten by his paymasters. But still such a hopeless chien fidèle.”
“You sound deeply sympathetic, Neena,” said Joanne.
Neena smiled and shook her head. “How can I not be just a little? In the past he has proclaimed himself my protector. I think he is a small bit in love with poor old Neena.”
Joanne shook her head. “You deserve so much better than that.”
Neena looked at Joanne with mock deliberation. “Perhaps I could see it as my penance. A punishment of sorts. Tolerate his heaving and sweating and pawing in that way.” She threw her head back and laughed. “The dog image again!” She put her face in her hands, laughing even more, Nabil and Joanne with her.
After that, for a few minutes, they all sat quietly, a moment of tranquility settling in with the sound of the waves lapping the shore. Eventually, Neena stood and started to clear the dinner table. Nabil got to his feet to assist her, but she waved him down. “My guests don’t do my work,” she said, scolding. “Anyway, let’s go inside for coffee.
Neena emerged from the kitchen carrying a tray laden with tiny cups and a brass kanaka with the Turkish coffee. She set the tray down on the living room table by the couch and poured the coffee, thick, black, an aroma of cardamom.
“You are too alone here, Neena,” Joanne proclaimed, resting her head on Nabil’s shoulder.
“That is why you must not leave. Ever!”
“What about your friend. The woman who used to come by the restaurant. Someone you grew close to. Whatever happened to her?”
Neena started to hand Joanne her cup but paused for a moment. “Will this be too strong for you, darling?”
Joanne shook her head. “It’s fine.”
“It was such a long time ago. But I have never forgotten. She was killed. A tragic accident.”
“An accident?” said Nabil.
Neena passed Nabil his coffee. She paused a moment and then settled herself in a chair across from them.
“Her husband said he was teaching her to swim. He said they got caught in the undertow.” She sighed. “I never met her husband. She talked about him. She was unhappy. And of course I had grown to love her madly. It is my way, no. The desert always seemed like the safest place for secrets, but this town, this town…” Her voice drifted off. “And my love always too loud.” Neena stopped and shook her head. “I knew she wanted to get away. She told me and so we devised crazy, desperate plans. Impossible plans – we would leave together for Alexandria, disappear there for a while, and then catch a ship across the waters to France or Italy or Spain.”
“Did you?” said Joanne.
“We didn’t get very far. Not very far at all. Not even out of town. He stripped her, shackled her to the bed. Left her like that the whole night. She called me after that. She said she loved me.”
Joanne leaned forward towards Neena. “Did you ever see her again?”
Neena shook her head. “No. Never.” She stopped, gazed blankly at the space in front of her. “There was a young boy,” she said finally. “One time she brought him with her to the restaurant. We sat in the dining room talking and the boy slipped into the kitchen, made friends with the chef, stuffed himself full of desserts and sweets. She was so upset when she realized what had happened. Then she was furious at me when I couldn’t stop laughing.”
Nabil stood up. He was suddenly tired of Neena’s company, claustrophobic in her cramped living room.
Will I see you again?” Neena cried. There was something wild in her eyes. “Will I see you? I must see you before you go.”
Nabil dreamed of a head of thick, black hair gripped forcibly under water. A sudden frenzy, a burst of movement, in a choppy ocean on a sunny day. He woke gasping for breath, got out of bed and dressed hastily. The house was silent, in darkness. He called out for Joanne but got no response. Outside on the patio the beach stretched before him, a crescent of silver merging with the blackness of the sea. In the moonlight, he could see fleeting white caps in the distance, an illusion of still life rolling in the small waves that breached the shoreline. He peered again into the water, called her name as he rushed out onto the sand, searched for a shadow in the waves, and then scoured the moonlit dunes in the distance. Abu-Bakr’s words preyed on his mind.
“Joanne!” He was shouting now, his voice hollow, toneless, an echo.
“I’m here,” she called finally from somewhere on the stretch of dark shore.
“Here,” she called again. “Are you afraid? Don’t you recognize me? The faded cotton dress. Miles of nothing. I won’t move until you can see me.”