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.
Nabil stood by the French windows and gazed out onto the beach. “We’ll stay put for now,” he said. “We’re safe here. Who knows what it will be like in Alexandria.” He imagined the airport shut down, the pressing crowds at the terminals.
“I don’t know,” said Joanne. “We’ve come all this way. We can still travel around like we’d planned. The whole country can’t be shut down.” She paused. “Besides, who knows when we will have this time alone together again? Just the two of us.”
Nabil said nothing.
“Nabil. You know we’ll need to decide soon,” she added hesitantly. “By the time we get back to the States.”
Nabil nodded. His eyes tracked the turbulent wake of a police motor boat, flag fluttering furiously in the head wind, as it cut through the waters off the hotel, then disappeared behind a swathe of massive sand dunes along the coastline.
They were at Neena’s every evening, something to occupy the long nights. They had come to recognize the few remaining tourists from the resort. Abu-Bakr would always swagger in late, perch on his barstool and survey the scene. He never touched alcohol, just ordered a steady stream of coffee, tea, and water. Neena made her grand entrance, the same every night, stopping by each table, lingering with Nabil and Joanne. At the end of one evening, struggling to sustain the mood amid her dwindling clientele, she set up a microphone at the far end of the bar, and sang along with Edith Piaf, Frehel, Jacqueline François, Gilbert Bécaud. She had a nice voice, swayed to the music as she sang, and seemed to lose herself for a while. By closing time she was clearly drunk, steadying herself against a chair, propping her wispy frame against the bar, pouring another glass of her favorite red wine.
But both Nabil and Joanne looked forward to the nightly stroll to Neena’s, the sun low on the horizon, the searing white bleakness of the desert in midday now transmogrified by the setting sun into a tumultuous blaze of red and orange, and a turquoise hue coalescing in the distance. And once there, his first drink ordered, Nabil would feel the weight of the day’s anxieties lift slowly. He was secure in the cool depth of the bar. Even Abu-Bakr – his way of imposing himself into their midst – ebbed into the shadowy recesses of the bar.
“This is what happens when you stay and stay and stay, so long that you can’t imagine leaving,” Neena confided to Nabil and Joanne. She was tearful, her face distorted in the dim light. “I am going bankrupt. Soon I will have nothing! Nothing!” She said this holding her arms out to them, a moment later clasping her hands to her chest, a broken sob escaping her lips, her head hung despondently.
“My dear Neena! What’s all this?’ said Abu-Bakr, dislodging himself from the bar stool and pulling a seat up to their table. “Why the tears. Always tears. Then too much laughter. Then tears. It is always one or the other with you, no?”
“The country is on fire,” she snapped at him. “And what are you doing? You the big police chief. You and your friends who got us to this point.”
“We each do what we can. Why I am here every night, no?” replied Abu-Bakr curtly. “Keeping a close eye on everything. Everything! Keeping chaos from swallowing us up. Making sure no trouble-makers hiding here or there. Provocateurs. Destroyers of our country.”
Joanne laughed out loud. “Really?” she said. “That’s your job? That’s what you’ve been doing?”
Nabil glared at her and shook his head sharply.
Abu-Bakr smiled. “We adapt with the times, no? Just like our friends in America. They dance with us when the times are good, waltz away when the times are bad. Proclaim their innocence. Always their innocence.”
Neena shrugged, stood up abruptly, and said to Abu -Bakr “Vous m’ennuyez!” Then she brushed past him. She changed the CD. Tempo now fast and furious.
“The Gypsy Kings.” Joanne exclaimed happily. “Bamboleo. I love that song,”
Abu-Bakr rose, held a fat paw out to her. “So a dance?” he asked. “Nothing cheers old Neena up like the sight of good friends dancing.”
“I think we are all too tired for dancing,” Nabil interjected.
Joanne didn’t respond; she kept her arms folded in front of her.
Abu-Bakr ignored Nabil and persisted, “Or are you afraid? Will you run away?”
Joanne stared at him.
“Maybe another time,” said Nabil.
Joanne laughed, rolled her eyes. “Alright,” she said. “Why not?”
She swung past Abu-Bakr, and he turned on his heels after her, caught up to her and pulled her close He tried to spin her around the small open area in front of the bar, moved jerkily with her across the floor, his glistening face almost touching hers. She rested her hands gingerly on his shoulders, avoiding the two large stains soaking his shirt. Like a songbird on the back of a lunging rhinoceros, Nabil thought. He started to get up, but Neena waved him down, took it upon herself: “Let her go you buffoon! Dégoûtant! She’s drowning in your sweat.”
Abu-Bakr pulled up short, let his hands fall off Joanne’s waist and stepped back. He turned to Joanne, palms up, and offered an exaggerated bow.
But Joanne glared at him, turned on her high heels, and strode straight to Nabil. “Air,” she said.
“Perhaps I am not a good enough dancer,” said Abu-Bakr as he followed Joanne back to the table. “I am, as they say, self-taught.”
“You are, as they say, a fool,” said Neena sharply. “Take her out to the terrace Nabil. A nice breeze. Away from all this.”
“Let’s go,” said Nabil. He tried to put his arms around Joanne’s shoulders, but she shrugged him off.
On the terrace, in the moonlight, Nabil turned his back to the sea and leaned against the wooden railing. He said, “That fat fuck.”
“Oh please,” Joanne said. “I could give a damn. Just with all of you sitting around it felt like a spectacle.”
She turned away from him and clicked to the end of the terrace. Nabil followed, stood behind her, neither close nor far.
She peered out over the Mediterranean, white caps out there. Finally, she said, “I don’t mind staying here.” She held herself tight. “I don’t mind one bit. I don’t need to go anywhere else.”
“Let’s see how things go,” Nabil said.
“It’s okay,” she said.
“Maybe there will be trains out of Alexandria and we can get to Cairo. Figure things out from there.” He put a hand on her waist.
She shook her head, brushed windswept hair from her eyes. “It’s just fine with me to stay for now. Can’t imagine that it’s any better anywhere else.” She took a deep breath and peered out at the water that was dappled in the moonlight. “Let’s go back in.”
In the bar the German couple was sitting at a table in the back and talking with worried intensity. The Australian hiker had dozed off in a corner, his sunburned legs and scruffy boots stretched out in front of him, his chin on his chest. A small contingent of Chinese tourists had stood up from their table to leave. Neena was nowhere in sight.
Abu-Bakr was sitting on his stool at the bar and waved them over. He looked at Nabil and then Joanne, a contrite expression on his face. “I’m very sorry. Very sorry. I did not mean to upset. Truly. Please sit a while” The television was broadcasting images from Cairo, where traffic was moving smoothly across the Kasr El Nil Bridge. At the bar, Nabil placed himself between Abu-Bakr and Joanne. “Nothing about the protests?” Nabil said. “Never a word.”
Abu-Bakr laughed. “This orchestrated coup against the government will never work,” he said. “They like to bark; they like the sound of their own barking. When did you say you were last in Egypt?”
“I left when I was ten. A long time ago,” said Nabil.
“Yes, you have been gone too long. You don’t understand Egyptians anymore. I, sir, have lived here my whole life. I have been in this town for more than two decades! I know police work and I know people. These people you see demonstrating on television, it means nothing. Anyway, believe me, people are fundamentally cowards, even here in Egypt. They say a lot of things. Yes, sometimes they even do things. Sometimes terrible things. Then they run away. They pack up, they take their daughter, their son, whomever, and they run away. Sometimes to America, no?”
“I’m not sure I understand what you’re getting at,” replied Nabil.
Abu-Bakr adjusted his rear in the stool, which groaned, and he gazed past Nabil at Joanne, who was sitting stony faced. “My dear Joanne, my dear, All-American Joanne. I am not the enemy. Please understand, I speak the truth. We here are complacent. Of course we are. We have been tamed by the whip, by poverty, by the centuries, by the cattle prod in the rectum. We are a hollow shell of a people, the detritus of history. There is nothing we won’t accept. Beat us and we will crawl. Yell and we will scuttle away.”
Joanne waited a few beats and said, “I think that’s pretty pathetic.”
He yawned and stretched his arms out in front of him. He seemed pleased with his monologue.
“Well,” Nabil said. “It’s getting late.”
Abu-Bakr looked at Joanne and a sleepy smile crept over his face. “You are a believer, no? You believe in human energy, in the transformative ability of the human spirit, in the capacity of man to alter his fate and the course of human events. A can-do spirit! Manifest Destiny! The western frontier! How precious. How American. Here we have been slogging the same slice of narrow terrain for thousands of years. That is our frontier.”
The cleaning lady came out from the kitchen carrying a large rubber container for the dirty dishes. Abu-Bakr waved her over. “An example,” he said to Joanne.
“No,” Nabil said. “That’s enough.”
“But please,” Abu-Bakr said. “It is important I make things clear. Mounira—come over here.”
Mounira approached hesitantly, a wavering smile on her face. “What! You think I am going to bite?” Abu-Bakr said to her. “You speak a little English, yes. I just have a question for you.”
“My friends here are visiting from America. You know USA! USA! USA!”
Mounira nodded again. “They want to know the way to the Statue of Liberty. You know the famous one I’m talking about. Where is it exactly? Down the highway somewhere?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Before Marsa Matrouh?”
“A few miles before. A couple of towns before.”
“Thanks Mounira,” said Abu-Bakr. “Now that wasn’t so bad!”
After she left he turned to Joanne and said, “See what I mean. Statue of Liberty. She has no clue. Just, yes sir. Absolutely sir. Anything you say sir.”
“That’s absurd,” said Joanne. “She’s probably thinking you are an idiot. She’s humoring your stupidity.”
In the shadows by the kitchen entrance, Nabil saw Mounira staring back at them.
Abu-Bakr wagged a finger at Joanne. Under his breath he chanted: “USA! USA!”
“That’s enough,” Nabil said.
To be continued…