The following excerpt is from an unpublished novel of mine, set in Egypt in the late ’80s, at the height of the Mubarak regime. Unlike most novels written about the Arab world, there are no terrorists, no James Bond action figures, no belly-dancers (well, only one, and by accident), no snake-charmers, and above all NO FUCKING ORIENTALISM. The last aspect was the most difficult one to achieve since the book was largely modeled on Durrell’s Quartet, with which I have a strange sort of love/hatred for: I enjoy the language and descriptions, but the rest–in my assessment–is just fluffy shit.
My car was practically deserted when the train rolled up into Alexandria Main Station. I hadn’t run into any inquisitive folk who wanted to know why I was in Egypt, which was strange in its own right. I was apprehensive; I didn’t know what to do. Should I see Leila or play it safe and find a hotel?
Alexandria was not as chilly as Cairo; I gladly took my overcoat off and bundled it under my arm. I had forgotten that Alexandria had an entirely different ambience. Meaning, of course, that in this city, there still existed an appreciable level of human decency. On Rue Nebi Daniel I looked around at the little restaurants and clothing stores, and at the people in them; I looked at their faces. They were good people, I thought–they didn’t look like my killers. The ambience looked like it would treat me well: the tall, fluted palm trees, the old crumbling tenements, the crowds ambling at Ramleh Square where popcorn popped in the big kiosk and where dated yellow trams roared in opposite directions; the excited cries of children in a nearby park, the newspaper stands, the explosion of cheap hotels, and above all, the horse-driven taxis, whose jangling din entered my mind for the months to come.
I felt extremely nervous. Leila could have been anywhere, I reasoned—perhaps just at this corner, on Sidi el Awal, in that dingy little tenement. But I dared not dwell on it. The further I walked down along Sidi el Awal—among the pastry shops and candy stores—the more I was seized with an urge to just cast it aside, forget all about it. But I had to do this thing; without it, my chances of escaping Egypt were exceedingly slim.
The last thing on my mind was sex. Beautiful though the women were, sashaying around in their long, tight skirts, I was disinterested. I couldn’t fathom what was wrong with me other than shell-shock from months of living in Cairo flophouses. Only now do I see that it was just that little boy in me, rearing his nappy little head. He had always kept the world at arms’ length, because people were too concerned about the color of his skin, or his nationality, or his religion, or the way he walked, or the way he talked, dressed, or the music he listened to. And to be truthful, he wasn’t entirely wrong.
The address–36, Route du 26th Julie, number 24, if it really was her address–was just another one of those slummy Venetian villas that infested the beachfront. It must have been the height of fashion not too long ago–maybe during the last world war–but now the mezzanine bore a disturbing similarity to that of the IFLI: impossible grime, corners heaped with filth, the elevator long since broken. I quietly struggled up the cracked marble to the third floor, which looked a lot more appetizing; no cleaning ladies were there asking questions, no spies, no cops, no boabs. Door number 24 was directly opposite another apartment which had a plaque on its door reading, “Dr. Jeanne Faures, pneumatique,” or something like that. I rang the doorbell to number 24, and was half-electrocuted.
“Eys eh!” I heard from inside, sounding very distressed, and my initial impulse was to cut the crap and leave. But she was fast. The door flew open and Leila’s wasted, nervous, phlegmatic face burst into sudden surprise and delight. She extended her arms and drew me to her.
“Louees!” she whispered, nervously, beside herself somewhat. She drew back and looked at me funny. She wagged her head. “Whot? Why you here?”
“You said you wanted English lessons,” I said, rather awkwardly, “so….”
She frowned, then gave me a look of reassurance. “Ohhhh–yes, come in, come in.”
I was puzzled at her sudden standoffishness. What the hell was she doing now, teasing me? Leading me on? Dammit, Louis, can’t you see she was just drunk that time?
“You know,” she said, as I entered her apartment, “you don’t look berry well, Louees.”
“Really? I don’t feel bad at all. Especially since I’ve escaped Cairo!” I laughed, self-consciously. “The city is disgusting. Oh, yeah, here’s your book. You left it behind on the bench the last time I was with you,” I said, giving her Lolita. She took it.
“Thank you, Louees. Say, why you call me Mrs. Aswad?”
She lay down in a chair, kicked off her slippers, and brushed her ankle-length dress down. I sucked in my breath. “I am your friend, am I not? Are you my friend? Let us be friends.”
I sat in the softest and silkiest chair I had ever sat in. It amazed me how plush her apartment was, smelling sweetly of jasmine incense, with walls dotted with pictures of relatives, flowers on a beautiful pine coffee table, slender-necked lamps, maroon silk curtains, Venetian blinds that, thankfully, weren’t all tangled and twisted up. Enormous Persian rugs lay atop a polished oak floor; American-style Victorian chairs with real leather, some with velvet. Every table, large and small, was covered with an intricately laced tablecloth. Peeping past all this luxury, I found the bedroom holding even more wonders for my comfort-starved eyes. Not even in America had I seen anything remotely resembling this.
“I know,” Leila said, smiling softly, nodding. “All this time you stay in shit hotel, while you save money to go
someplace else.” She nodded cynically. “Am I not right?”
“I–yes, you are. How’d you guess?”
“Becauze they are evreywhere–people like you, from the States, from Europe, from Australia, from South America, Canada–all over. But they are not as intelligent or thoughtful or kind as you. I know–you have not eaten. I get you some food.”
She got up and as she went towards the kitchen I noticed an old, antique phone side by side with a brand new one, of a make I hadn’t even seen in America. Right by it was a picture of her mother, an ebony-skinned Nubian beauty with the same knowing grin. I couldn’t find her father among any of the pictures on the wall. I saw what might have been grandparents and great-grandparents of all complexions, but they were mostly mulatto or white. Then I found the father, the one in the black and white picture wearing a kuffiyeh. He had the same eyes and nose Leila did. For a moment they all looked like they were coming to life, these folks in their quaint military epaulets and wingtips and tarbushes and beards and high-top shoes and fat bows, the women big, stately, voluptuous cows with congested, frozen faces and those jutting breasts and hips that must have run in the family. “Oh, that is Yussuf’s fameleey,” she suddenly blurted out, in the kitchen, “my family was poor, we did not wear sach clothes. Oh, but he has nice family. Good people. Shure! I write them, I lie, of course. I just do not have any bictures of HIM on my wall, you undastand. Except,” she paused, and gestured to a picture on the far end of the wall of herself–with Yussuf.
The couple looked happy enough in their wedding photo. I could tell Yussuf was happy: he proudly stood beside Leila with side swept hair and sideburns, like a fisherman who’d just bagged an enormous tuna. And how they smiled….Leila was slightly thinner and considerably less well-endowed, I noticed; she looked like a 15-year old girl. Yussuf was clean-shaven and painfully thin. The photo was black and white, and clearly doctored in such a way that the newlyweds looked like caricatures of themselves…
Leila came back with a whole tray full of pita bread, several oranges, dates, bananas, some fresh Turkish coffee which she urged me to drink, and the most beautiful set of grapes I had seen, fine, ripe, nearly black in color. Leila always did believe in class.
“This was one advantage I get from Yussuf,” she says now, extending both hands around the room. “But, also, I model. I make my money. I pose for magazine. Hah, American, French, British photographer see me, they never leave me alone. But–that was five, six, sevan years ago. I was marry, but….” She smiles half-lasciviously. “I have my own way!”
“Say,” she says again, “what about your job? You still fire?”
“No–I had trouble with Joe. He–”
“So!–he mess with you now?”
“He did more than that,” I snorted. “The bastard crashed a whisky bottle on my head. I needed thirteen stitches to close the wound.” I pointed to the stitches in my forehead, which hurt when I pressed it.
Leila opened her mouth and eyes wide in indignation and balled up her fists and threw one hand up; she looked furious. “Hah! Bastard–tha next time I see him, I fuck him good. I mean—excuse me, I beat him up. Motherfucker.”
She sat in a chair opposite me, and took up the book. I took up another copy of the same novel. “Okay,” she said. “Please correct me when I am wrong on this, Louees,–okay?”
“ ‘Loleeta, light of my life….’”
“Right, keep going, that’s fine.”
“My loins,” I said, with a half-smile, trying to restrain an impulse to giggle. But I knew I was looking at Leila’s own heaving hefty loins, thinking they could squash me to death. “Ha— ‘my loins,’” she repeated, smiling and starting to laugh. “Hah—what kind of a book is this, anyway? About this weird white man who love little girls?
“Well, it was your book. Didn’t you read it in French?”
“No, I not see in Fransh language. Boht—now, when I read, hey….anyway, les go, again. Okay–”
“Okay, say the whole thing.”
“But I havant!”
“I know, I read to myself, then, I find the word I not pronounce correctly.”
“How about with what you just told me?”
“The sentence you just spoke.”
I did such a perfect imitation of her accent that she blushed and broke into flabbergasted laughter. “Oh, Louees, why you wanna make fun of me?”
“Leila, I’m sorry, but that’s what I hear,” I said. “I can’t be nice to you. I gotta be honest. Say, instead– ‘I will find the word I cannot pronounce correctly.’ Of course,” I then added, “to tell the truth, nobody really speaks English like that in the real world anyway—”
“I know!” she shouted. “I went to UCLA. I spoke very good English many years before, I forgot. So….why do I need to pronounce?”
“I thought you knew why.”
“What are you planning on doing with your English lessons, anyway?”
“Well, I wannad to read novels, both–”
“Couldn’t you read them in French? They’ve translated Baldwin’s works for years.”
“They stink!” she exclaimed. “I know that for a fack ‘cause I read them years ago in English. Ohhh!” In haste, she slapped her palm on the front cover. “Now I forget, I don’t care.”
“But you’ll pay me for my time, won’t you?”
“Sure, sure,” she nodded, “I will pay you.” Then there was a pause, as she pulled a strand of her hair. “Gee, Louees, you really must be desparate to leave Egypt, are you not?”
“I’ve been living like a dog over here, Leila. My friends are nutcases, the people are rude, and I don’t get paid shit on my job. All I can afford is flophouses!”
“You go back to Amreeka?”
“I doubt it,” I said, my nose twisted up. “I can’t breathe in that goddamn place.”
She nodded again, slowly, her nose twisting upward. “You, too, hah? I am not surprised. Nobody can breathe in Amreeka. It’s a jungle. I know—I was in Amreeka too, many years ago.”
“I know—Joe told me.”
Leila sucked her teeth. “He did not tell you anything, Louees. He tell you what he wanted to tell you. I know he say, oh, yes, Leila Aswad go to UCLA and have a nice education and had such a lovely time! Yes, sure, sure, I had a lovely time there. Just ask me. It was fucking paradise!”
“So it sucked shit, I take it.”
“It what?” Leila laughed. “I’m sorry—I forgot all my Amreekan slang, habibi.”
“I mean, it was horrible.”
“It was worse than horrible,” Leila cried, suddenly, frowning. “I don’t even want to think about it. I know how fucking racist it is. You don’t have to tell me anything about Amreeka, Louees. How old are you? Twenty-five? Twenty-six? Haah—you don’t remember the Amreeka I saw, since you was just a baby when it all happened. California? Bwuhhh! Horrible, horrible. I know white Americans hate the black—I am black, too, for your information. Sixteen years ago, when I go there, it was not nice. Nixon was fucking president, and there was so much fucking problems with the police and everything. Even at the school the people are always making fun of me, making fun of my accent, my clothes—I try to dress nice like Amreekans do at that time with the shoes and pants and mini-skirts, but still they making fun of me, all the time. The men just think of one thing—I am some foreigner who wants to fuck them. They don’t see me, they see a whore. It was not like this with the Black people I meet in Amreeka, Louees. I feel more kinship, is that right, with the Black American people and the Black freedom movement. I could not deal with the white people there. I could not! Other foreigners, Arabs, Africans there, they not have this problem so much because they—well, look at me. I am beautiful. The white girls are jealous of me because I was so good looking then—much more better, is that right, then I am now. And the police! Hah—they always bother me in the street, when I come home from something to tha dormitory, and they not bother the white girls. NOT the white girls, but—always!—the black, ‘hey, nigger!’ ‘fuck you, nigger!’–Hah!—I hated it, every single goddamn bit of it. When I leave that fucking ‘You See El Eye’ I burn everything, burn my clothes, burn my hat, burn my long white boots, my shoes. I went to London which was unfortunately, not much bettar. Because now they think I’m from India, and buhhh!—they did not like me at all. But at least,” she then said, with a far-away look in her eyes, which she turned to the carpet, “at least, they did not try to take my life.”
I sighed. “It wasn’t much better for me at Coon College in Washington, D.C.,” I said. “It was a class thing over there. If you didn’t have the right kind of car, the right kind of watch—“
“I know,” she said, looking bitter. “I know. But it is not the same. Amreeka has gotten better since that time. You are luckier than me.”
“No,” I insisted. “America will get better and better, or so it thinks. But it will never get well. They can put some black guy in the White House for all I care. Hell, they could even put ME in the White House. But America will still be America.”
“Of course.” Leila sighed; I noticed that her eyes had begun to water. “But then you wonder, why Josaph.”
“Yeah–I–why him, anyway.”
“I will say, since you are friend. I hate Josaph, worse than anybodey else in this world. He is a fool!! Boy, was I an idiot for being taken in by his lies, his bullshit for me. As for Yussuf—well, is crazy, because it was Yussuf who drive me into the arms of Joe in the first place!” Then she laughed mirthlessly, disgustedly. “And Yussuf, who go crazy, telling me, ‘I am sorry, I am sorry’–hah, I feel cold. I never want him. Never. But–my fameeley say, you take him because he is best for you, he has money, we have not so much. So I say, ‘yes, I obey, I will take.’ But I was only 16 years old! Very young! Too young! And even then, I knew bettar. I could see it in his eyes, how he really did not care. He knew I look good for him when we walk down the street together. But I knew he was going to be cold, that he would lay all night in bed aftar five, six minats of sex, and roll over on his fucking fat stomach and sleep….So what I do? I escape. I go to California. Then, as I tell you, I have enough of Amreeka, go to Europe, do dancing, modeling, have enough–then, I am back in Egypt. And look who is there to take me in his arms! Yussuf Aswad!! He tell me, he is not going to be like the other Egypshan men. He tell me, he know about my ‘checkered’ past. But, I was right! He was completely shit!….”
“Yussuf told me he made it possible for you to escape,” I said, watching her. Leila’s eyes narrowed in disgust. “Hah!–he say that always, complaining, bullshitting. He not a friend, he’s idiot. Do not lissen–of course, he is your boss, so you have no choice. Yes, I know, he make it possible for me to get out of that old village in Aswan; he make me get the education, when my fameeley say I should not have education. Oh, yes. They did not want me to learn how to read…..But with Yussuf,–I knew it was going to fail….Yussuf has buried three wives….Where, I cannot say at all. Maybe in the fucking Pyramids.”
“Three wives? That quickly?”
“You have no idea, my friend.”
“It can’t be,” I said, quizzically. “How old is Yussuf, really? He told me–”
“Twenty-eight? Twenty-nine?” she interrupted. “Yes! I know him like a book,” she continued, thumping on Loilta. She threw it to the ground. “Engleesh,” she sneered, derisively. “I know, Louees. Lemme teach you French and Italian. Or Arabic. If you not speak Arabic what is the reason….oh, yes, I know. You want to go. Well….so do I.” She paused, and got a dreamy look in her eyes as she adjusted her bra inside her blouse. “Oh, yes, Yussuf is forty-two years old, for your information. Me? Heyyy…..I want to go to Singapore. The Far East. You not been, have you? Imagine!….”
“Shit, you’d stand out with all those yellow faces. And you’re so robust, too, you know. Big-boned.”
“And wouldant they love me??” she beamed, as she kicked the Lolita book on the floor.
I lay on the bed in her spare bedroom. It was Yussuf’s old room, I noticed, with that marriage picture on the desk and the cute alarm clock beside it. Leila’s smile looked forced. The two must have gotten so itchy being next to each other that the one moved into the next room. Here I was, I thought, looking at all the pieces of a ruined relationship. But did they have any children? I wondered….
“Ya-Louees!” she exclaimed, from the living room; she entered. “But–now you are free. So why you worry, then?” Leila laughed, and sat down next to me. “You need new clothes, these bad looking. Hah—you living rough life, I see. In these horrible hotels with strange people!” She slapped me on my thigh, playfully. “Ah—Louees!” she laughed, “no good!”
“You must stay,” she says now, propping the pillows up under my head, “and do not go back out into all that mess.” The pillows were soft and willowy, like the bed. Everything was fine and of amazingly good quality. But why was she being so kind? Egyptian hospitality, of course. I forgot that aspect of them ages ago. Not all Egyptians were like Ali, or El-Ahwany. “Hah—what is wrong, you are not sleeping in good things for a long time, I see.”
I was puzzled at her frankness towards me. Did she want me, as a lover? No, I thought—she’s just an Egyptian woman, not afraid of touching another person like an American woman is. I must be dreaming my pornographic dreams. Who would want me, I thought? No woman had ever loved me: I was only a failed writer, a black man living in a world that thought all black men were either clowns or murderers—not writers. Maybe I wasn’t as trapped as Guy Sellers, whom even his mother had despised—but I was still desperate for companionship.
Leila was determined that I never rent another Cairo hotel. She even swore to secure me a flat for a small monthly charge. She cared nothing about the friends I had in the Hotel Baiser; according to her, they were worthless. I’d be better off in a place like Berlin, she said; anyplace, actually, even Los Angeles, than plain old Cairo. There was nothing here for me, me being the free spirit that I was. “I ought to know best,” she snorted, “I, myself, am a free-spirit. But look at me now! All I have is this apartment. I live inside my mind, only. I live in a world of dreams inside this place. But, when I leave here an’ walk out into tha hall, what do I see? Filth, trash, flies….is like living in a fucking garbage can. While I walk, I try to imagine I am not in this horrible place. I go to Sidi Gaber, even if it is not far; at least I can dream I am in Paris!”
I stopped talking and just listened to her ramble on.
Leila was a lovely girl, I thought to myself; I could not take my eyes off the way her hips jutted through her dress, and the way she brushed back her hair, the deep blackness of her eyes and, of course, this breathy quality to her voice, which was the one thing which made me forgive her endless talking. I liked the woman, but I began to feel as if my personality—what little I felt I had—was being smothered between her tits. The little boy in me began to get the upper hand; I decided that it would be best if I just slipped away, back to Cairo. I decided to give Leila an excuse, tell her that I just wanted to go out for “some fresh air”—and not return, not even for my things. But Leila insisted upon coming with me. “You won’t be safe,” she said, looking agitated all of a sudden, “you are Amreekan, there will be problem if you just leave.”
“But it would be even more dangerous if we went together,” I said. “No!” she suddenly insisted, getting up and wobbling towards her bedroom, “they already know, in this building, I am sure. Nobody cares. Some silly French bitch owns the building here. But if you come with me, they will think you are relative of mine from Amreeka.”
“Suppose they ask questions?”
Leila popped her head in the spare bedroom and said, brushing her hair back, “Louees, I will do the talking. You just keep quiet. For your own good.” She smiled, and winked. “Okay?”
“Okay,” I sighed.
At dusk, the Corniche was alive with middle-class people out for a stroll, the women clad in their ankle-length skirts and the men, tall, reedy, bony-faced, hung in clusters along the stone walls. The crowds of Ramleh Station, Sidi el Awal, Safiya Zaghloul and Saad Zaghloul thickened by the minute and Alexandria, having appeared so romantic by day, now looked like an insurrection. The rotting apartments—dirty, peeling, ochre-colored, their numerous windows stained with must—provided a sullen backdrop. Conical street lamps splashed their facades with mellow pink. Battered yellow trams cleaved down these streets, packed to the brim with passengers—men in one car, women in another. Greasy water crashed against the rocks, while black barouches clip-clomped past, their pimpish drivers cracking whips across their horses’ asses. Phony Santas perched upon barrels by frayed storefronts, ringing bells amid the post-Christmas cheerlessness. We walked by the waterfront; further out we saw the old ships rotting in the harbor. We looked idly in the shop windows, stopping at coffee shops and pastry joints, completely unnoticed by the people surrounding us.
I had done these night time strolls through the city every so often—but with her, the absurdity of the scenes seemed still more ludicrous: it was at once tempered by Leila’s presence and heightened by the knowledge that I was an impostor, a Creole who merely resembled one of the natives. I wore my best blue teacher’s suit, and Leila wore an ankle-length, dark blue skirt with a red wool sweater, her face haloed by a white brocaded veil. It amused me how well she concealed from the world her true face, which was belied only by the provocative swivel of her hips. We didn’t talk to each other—that would have been both rash and stupid; Alexandria was not that open-minded a city—but between our casual socializing we stole glances, back and forth, at each other.
My worst fears were confirmed when we turned casually onto the Corniche again, and saw some lively, buxom, chattering women along our pathway. They spotted us—or, rather, Leila—and instantly recognized her, broke out into a flurry of effusive welcomes, affectionate murmurings and salutations, putting their hands to each other’s chests. Leila kissed them all on both sides of their cheeks. I did nothing, said nothing, put on my best poker face while these peacocks fluttered all around me. But Alexandria isn’t New York; when you are out with a friend, and you meet your friend’s friends, something is expected of you. Leila glanced at me, and said something in Arabic; my blood froze. I saw the women looking at me appraisingly, nodding, two with mouths half-open. Good, I thought; Leila did very well. I shook the girl’s hands and put my hand to my chest.
“Saidii?” one of the women said, when the five of us were seated in the Brazilian Coffee Shop. “Le-uh,” Leila said, in Arabic, “mafeesh. He’s deaf and dumb.”
A look of pity crossed these women’s faces—pity mixed with undeniable prurience, at least in my mind. All three of them were dressed in those same face veils and all had flawless, slight café-au-lait complexions, with almond eyes, soft cushiony lips, large breasts and larger behinds. I realized that Leila, while talking, was gesturing towards my arm and talking rather animatedly. Were they mocking me? My twenty-five year old mind was awhirl in speculation. The strong aroma of coffee beans, ground cocoa and boiled milk tickled my nose. At the counter the bartender, whom I’d recognized, nodded, smiled and mercifully said not a word as he blasted his boiling water into a metal container, filled his cups, spooned the sugar in. He knew that I wasn’t Egyptian.
The bartender passed me my usual drink—an ice-cold chocolate drink mixed with sugar—and gave me a salutation.
The four of them kept babbling for what seemed like hours. Since I had some knowledge of Egyptian sexual politics, I gently nudged Leila and tapped on my watch. Leila looked at me. She understood. She bade the women goodbye, abruptly, and off we went, out of the coffee shop and into the crowds.
Leila looked tense; a weird, strained expression crossed her face that I could not read then but certainly recognize now. When we were out of their reach—we walked, didn’t dare run—I whispered fiercely to her, “You should have pretended to be Creole—then we wouldn’t have to fake it!” Leila looked at me; I was trying to be as quiet as possible, there were still people around us on Rue Averoff—the worst possible place. “Hell, don’t we both speak French?”
Leila suddenly shushed me. “You cannot say anytheeng,” she whispered back, in English, hastily. “Undarstand where you are.”
We walked towards Mohammed Ali Square. The breeze was chillier than before; it carried a slightly putrid stench. Light speckles of sand swept up from the cobbles in the streets. Far away we heard the tankers bellowing in the harbor, calling the polyglot Soviet crews back to their ships. A few merchants began pulling their shutters down with thick iron bars. Whole conversations were raging in my head—conversations between myself and an imaginary Leila, of course.
Moving onto side streets away from the Square, the people began to thin out. But above us, many of the weathered shutters were still open. We talked with the lowest of voices. Leila said, in English, “I wanted to tell those girls the truth, but something told me not to.” She raised her brows, still looking down at the ground. “I am glad I did not tell them anytheeng. Those bitches talk too much.”
“I don’t think they’re gonna buy that story about me being your cousin,” I said. “Even though I am redbone.”
Leila looked at me and winced. “What is redbone?”
“Light brown-skinned. It’s a black American term.” Leila nodded, and smiled. “Yes, like me.” Leila then frowned, and looked at me curiously.
“I forget they have that problem in Amreeka, too.”
“The light-skinned black not like the dark.”
“Of course,” I said. “It’s everywhere. Even in my family.”
“Whar your fameley from, Louees?” she said, softly, looking behind her to see if someone had seen us; we saw nothing. “Louisiana,” I said. “But I was born in Richmond, Virginia.”
We moved deeper into the city’s bowels, down narrower, darker, drearier streets. Nosy folk were few and far between, and after a while, almost non-existent. The agitation I felt earlier had dissipated. Leila quietly sashayed alongside me, her buttocks forever rising here, falling there, hips rolling languidly from side to side and left hand clutching her red purse and right arm somewhat stretched out, gracefully waving her hand forward, then backward. We passed up a souk lit by little strings of lights, and then cut onto a deserted side street. We found the beach almost by intuition and clamored over its dusty stone wall. Leila went first. I did not need much help in climbing the little wall but she held out her hand and pulled me over.
Being the young fool that I was, I wished to read something intimate in this little gesture, as well as the others that followed. In the deserted spot where we lay, I glanced ahead into the water, the breeze carrying its usual stench of salt and rotting fish. I saw Leila glance back at me a couple times with looks I took to be welcoming. I began to feel uncomfortably aroused, though Leila sat and said nothing. Impulsively, I forgot myself and touched her breasts.
A wild crackle of lightning ripped across the dark red skyline. The sound of the thunder that followed broke my concentration. Leila flashed me a disapproving look; I immediately felt deflated. No, Louis, my brain told me, no, you aren’t free. She doesn’t want you. This is a wounded woman; you are merely keeping her company. While Leila idly glanced out towards the ships at sea, I got up and headed towards the beach, my mind in a whirl. I saw a few flat rocks half-embedded in the sand and began chucking them into the sea, thinking, in a few minutes, dipshit, you will cut out, back to your hotel, back to Guy, Nourredin, Mustafa, Sterling, LaVigne….
“Khalas,” Leila suddenly cried aloud to me from behind. At least I knew enough Arabic to know what that meant. I turned around and walked back. The rain began to trickle down, hitting the sand with tiny plops. I noticed little resentment in her face. She patted the ground next to me and whispered, rather fiercely, “sit.”
I felt like I’d been an unruly child. I took a deep breath and Leila nudged close to me and said, in a strangely breathy, heavy voice, “Louees.” She repeated my name one more time, and then sighed. “I think you are tired. We going back to the flat. Of course, we did not think to bring the umbrella, did we?”
“No,” I mumbled.
For some reason her halting English began to remind me of Cairo—or, more specifically, Nasri Said of the fucking IFLI. The very memory of his arrogantly incorrect speech left me irritated.
My heart pounded furiously when we trudged back up the stairs. I didn’t know why; I already knew not to expect any miracles from her or anybody in Egypt. It would be business as usual, I thought, with sarcasm, noting how Leila had begun to pant rather feverishly. She fished in her purse at the doorway and handed me the key to the apartment. I noted her hand was trembling. “This one, Louees,” she breathed, in an uncomfortable whisper.
I unlocked the door, and stepped into the foyer of the apartment. It looked strangely threadbare, though in my state I could barely notice anything. I knew where my designated room was but I was too apprehensive to move much further into the apartment, so I found the same couch I sat on that afternoon and lay on it.
Leila was seated nearby, still in her street clothes, looking at me casually. She picked up a newspaper and read it. I gathered up enough energy to go to my room and click on the light, taking my jacket off. It felt warm and toasty inside. I lay down. Then I heard Leila put the newspaper down and move into her bedroom, where I heard the squeaking of her bedsprings. I got ready to bundle up my victrola and head out when she suddenly called out to me from her room. Uh oh….suppose I go in there and see her lain across the bed naked? The thought of it tried to arouse me but my nervousness fought against my thoughts. I fumbled idly with the tassel on my pillow. The bed felt somewhat wet and moist from sweat. One side of my head told me to fetch a glass of water. The other told me, “Go to the toilet”—but I didn’t want to do either.
I noticed Leila’s door was open. I peered in. My heart started pounding wildly. I saw her puffy, krimpy hair reflected in the blinds. For my own good, I decided to leave.
“Louees,” she said, when she saw me in the dark.
I did not respond.“Louees, come,” she repeated, “Come to me. Sssssssh, please, not so much noise….”
“In the bed?”
I didn’t know whether or not I should have asked that question, for she clicked the lights on. She was casually lain atop it, with a nervous half-smile, breathing gently but so repetitiously I wondered…. “Sit, with me, Louees,” she said. “You want chai? Or café?”
“I’ll have coffee.”
Leila turned on the lights in the kitchen and looked around, then glanced back at me. “Ya-Louees,” she shouted, opening up the fridge, “I am too tired to cook, but I have some food left over from last night. Is that okay?”
“Yes,” I said.
Within ten minutes Leila brought me my coffee on a silver tray, along with some left-over chicken she warmed up in the gas stove. “Life is very expensive here for me,” she said. “I have little money Yussuf gives me every month to pay for little food, and electricity, gas, transportation—hah. This is not a life.” She looked at me wearily, then immediately changed her expression to one of askance. “You are so quiet,” she said. “The quietest man I have ever known in my life. Are you okay?”
“Leila,” I said, “I’m a writer. I talk in my head.”
“How many books you write?”
“Just one,” I said. “It flopped.”
“It didn’t sell,” I said. “Actually, it was something I published myself in college. The book I’m writing now is my first. But I just can’t figure out how to finish the goddamn thing.”
“You will finish,” she said, and held her hand out towards my plate of food. “Eat,” she said. “Now you are out of that shit city maybe you can think and get some inspiration. You like the food?”
“Yes,” I said.
I tried to remember as many of the good manners I’d been taught back home at Baltimore—manners that, needless to say, I’d ignored for some years. I didn’t even know how to use a fork and knife properly, for one thing. Leila, predictably, took note of it. “Louees, you have the fork and knife in the wrong hand,” she snorted, not unpleasantly. “Switch around, okay?”
I continued eating with my head turned down towards my plate, my fears and desires waging pitched battles inside of it.
“Louees,” Leila continued; I jerked my head up at her, almost like some wild animal. Her eyes were lowered at half-mast, her chin resting on her raised right arm. “You are afraid.”
“I can tell, Louees.”
“No, not really,” I sighed. “It’s just that I worry about Joe or Yussuf showing up.” Leila indifferently raised her brows. “Do not be afraid,” she countered, “they not show. Yussuf is not here, he in Italey, parhaps. Besides, I change lock on the door. And Joe dosan’t know where I live in Iskandriyah. So! Cheer up, Louees, is no problam.”
She took my empty plate from me and gave me a full, open, ambiguous look. “You are all alone here, no? No wife, like Joe?”
“None,” I said, my stomach quaking. “I don’t have anyone.”
“Yussuf tell me that,” she added, matter-of-factly. I looked at her. “Oh, he did? Did he sound jealous in any way?”
“A little,” she said, giving a strange grimace with lips turned down. “But I feel he trust you—somewhat. Not entirely, though. Hah—he trust nobody, so you have not to worry. Calm down.”
She put a teakettle on the stove.
Leila gently placed her hand on my shoulder gently as I stood up. She extended her hand outside, showing me the bathroom in her slip-shod yet sensual English. I could still hear her panting all the while. I found the bathroom and saw a grey bathrobe on the door’s hook. Good, I thought. It had certainly seen better times but it would save me a lot of embarrassment in going back to the bedroom.
When I finished I strode into the room and turned the lights back on. Now that I was less agitated, I got a better look at the high-ceilinged room with its huge, light-green painted armoire and heavily-varnished art deco double-bed with fat, fluffy pillows and bedspreads I knew I needed more than anything. It had been years since I had seen a bed this welcoming, though I noted for the first time a little picture of Joseph Rivera placed beside it on the night-stand. I smirked, and sat down on the bed.
I felt the apprehensions of the whole day forcing their way back inside my head. Of course, I didn’t have the slightest hard-on: somehow, safely secure in a luxurious apartment with a breathtakingly beautiful woman, I was as cold as a dead fish. The smells of her apartment—incense, perfumes and lilacs and roses on the tables, seemed too cloying, too overwhelming. I eased into the infantile safety of the bedspreads when I heard her approach from the kitchen. I was surprised to note she had changed into a long, sheer white robe and had a white kerchief wrapped around her hair. The robe was flimsy enough to show her large hips and bouncing breasts. She was carrying an oval silver tray with two porcelain cups of steaming tea, and blowing apprehensively on them.
“Take, take,” she panted, “It’s hot. Very hot.”
What kindness and hospitality, I thought—and how completely suffocating. I needed a breath of air.
I got out of the bed and, just to be nice, took a cup and sipped it. It was surprisingly good. “Sage tea,” she said. “Better for you than other tea.”
Leila laid the other glass of tea on the small bed-table beside her. She looked at me curiously, and affectionately put her hand on my shoulder. She hadn’t stopped panting. Naively I thought she was having an asthmatic attack, or something. But she didn’t look in the least bit sick.
Leila took the cup away from me—I had expected to finish it, but without another word, she laid it on the table by the bed. Leila sashayed closer to me. She put her hand back on my shoulder and then ran it down my arm, then inserted her hand inside my robe and stroked my left breast. I could hardly imagine this was happening, and the apprehension I had felt just five minutes ago was forgotten in my violent arousal. She began stroking down from my bare chest to my belly. I began to breathe hard, and made no effort to contain my stiffening erection. Leila moved closer to my face; I moved closer to hers. And then I closed my eyes, and did what I’d never dreamed I’d do when she was sober: I kissed her on the mouth.
There, I told myself: I did it.
I opened my eyes fearfully, to see if there was any look of outrage on her face. Her expression hadn’t changed. I kissed her again.
“Good night, Louees,” she giggled, abruptly turning away from me and wiggling her sexy behind out the door, lifting her galabeiyah half-way up her thighs as she did so.
I stayed awake staring at the ceiling, feeling somehow unconvinced at the reality of what had happened. But it was real; it had to have been. I felt my lips and put my fingers to my nose to catch the scent of her mouth. Instinctively, I thought of all the guys back in Cairo and stifled an urge to laugh aloud…
I drifted to sleep. I don’t remember the dream; only that I felt this warm, wet, dripping, smacking sensation in my mouth, kissing me once, twice, three times, four, five, six, and then something kissing and licking my body. I woke up, expecting to be in the Hotel Baiser and found, of all people, Leila Aswad next to me in the nude and kissing me all over. What the fuck….?
I looked at the clock and saw it was barely five in the morning. I stood up on my elbows; now I was even more unbelieving—and even more aroused—than I had been the previous night. I felt myself and then felt Leila just to make sure. Yeah, I thought—it was real, no doubt about it; and even if it was all a dream I didn’t give two damns. Leila passionately sucked my balls. She licked up and down the length of my dick and giggled, then enclosed her lovely lips on it and began sucking it like her life depended on it…I watched the whole thing with delighted disbelief… “Ya-Louees,” she breathed, looking up at me, taking a gentle bite out of my cock… “You are tired. Go to sleep, Louees. Tomorrow morning, you fuck me, okay? Neeki-neek tomorrow.”
“No,” I said, “now.”
I sat up, lifted up her head with my fingers and looked at her, and then planted my open mouth on hers. She let out a passionate groan, laughed aloud, and clutched me by the waist and rolled me on top of her; I felt those bountiful, massive breasts quivering in my hands. Beside the peering eyes of Joe Rivera—of all people—I lifted her legs above my head and felt myself sink inside her with a warm squish. Leila cried aloud. I began to thrust it in and her cries grew louder. It was almost frightening. And not before long, when we were really into it, the bedside phone rang.
“Oh, God,” Leila gasped, “Oh, God!!”
The phone stopped ringing. Leila reached over towards the radio next to the phone and turned it on. To my luck they were playing the right kind of music: frenetic, loud, full of congas and shouts and hand-claps; the strong erotic undercurrent fed my lust. I was about to come, but then the fucking phone rang again, throwing off my concentration. Leila sucked her teeth. “Nom de Dieu!” Leila shouted. “It’s one of them. I just know who it is. Ibn-sharmuta.”
Leila lay down on the bed and clumsily snatched the phone off the hook. It was Yussuf, as it turned out. Talk about an awkward position to be in—I was trying to take her from the rear while she dropped the phone from her hand; the receiver rolled on the bed. Everything seemed so absurd, and became even more so as Yussuf began screaming over the receiver just as Leila flew into another round of long, drawn-out, hallucinating screams. Embarrassed, I pulled it out and whispered for her to cool it. But Leila didn’t give a fuck. “Leila!” spouted the man over the receiver lying on the bed. “Ya-Leila! Ya-LEILA!! LAAAAYYYILA!!”
Leila sucked her teeth. “Wait,” she snorted, panting, sweating, her hair every which way; she snatched the phone off the bed. “Aiwa?”
“….Aiwa, shit!” Yussuf exploded, in English. “You know buggering well who this is, you stupid bitch! You know goddamn well who it is!! And just as I expected calling up at this ungodly hour—you and some fucking dago’s prick up your arse, as usual! You fucking greasy old whore!….”
“Yussuf,” Leila chirped, as she lay on her ass and began to fondle my cock, “if you do not like me, why you call?”
“….You know, Leila,” Yussuf began…. “You are very, very lucky. Very lucky to have an open-minded husband like me….One who tolerates your dissolute behavior…if it had been another, younger, older man, he would have killed you. KILLED, Leila! KILLED you! What do you think your family thinks about all this shit? Hah? What do you think my family thinks? Hah?…Everywhere I go everybody is talking about you and your bullshit! I’m a fucking laughingstock because of you! Because of you! You—and your stupid, stupid, filthy shit! Where do you think you’re living, hah? You forget you’re in fucking Egypt like the rest of us? Hah? You think you’re some fucking white, Italian, French woman? You think you are still in Paris, or New York or fucking Barcelona with all this rubbish? You know why? Because you’re evil. That’s right—fucking evil. Evil! You are, yes, yes, you are dissolute, a whore to the core. Men, women, orgies–yes, I hear it all! I hear it all through the grapevine! Don’t tell me I am not keeping tabs on you and your crazy fucking behavior—”
“You are drinking again,” Leila sighed, stroking my dick. “You have not slept the whole night, thinking about me, no?”
“…I have my eye on you, you cheap slut. Every little thing you do, every eensy weensy thing you do, I can just see—“
Leila had my dick back in her mouth when she murmured, to my shock, “Mmmff–Yussuf, I’m eating now, sorry. Could you wait one moment, please? God, you have no patience!–”
Yussuf: “….Oh, eating now, are you?…At this hour?…”
“Yes,” she laughed, pulling her lips off my dick with a wet smack.
“…Allah…What’s it, then? Pussy and dumplings?…”
“Oh, no, Yussuf, I eat hot dog.” I could feel myself getting ready to shoot off. Yussuf snorted and giggled on the other end…“…Of course, of course, you nasty bitch, you never eat anything else. And no rolls to go with them, I suppose!…” My cock jerked…. “Yussuuuuf, there is always a roll for the hot dog. Always….”
Yussuf continued…. “….Hah…You must think I’m bloody-fucking stupid, don’t you? You must think I’m a real motherfucking idiot not to believe the absolute shit you are up to at my expense! No more! I swear it! I have tolerated it long enough! I-I-I-I-….”
“Apologise,” she giggled, while I suddenly came on the receiver of the telephone, as Yussuf was still talking. I wanted to laugh out loud but restrained myself. Leila didn’t, however. The laughing naturally raised the ire of Yussuf on the other line, who started screaming angrily as Leila licked my come off the telephone and kissed the end she spoke on. “…Don’t mock me, you aswani cow—who the bloody fuck do you think you are?…” Leila continued to laugh; suddenly I felt I had to laugh myself. “…You black bitch!…”
Leila rolled her eyes over at me, crossed herself and went back to the receiver. “Ya-Yussuf,” she cooed, patronizingly, “Ya-Yussuf, you know that’s not very nice to be such a, should you say, bloody racist? You know how much you love me, don’t you?”
I heard Yussuf sigh on the other end. I did not have much time to be shocked, for Leila continued with her antics; she put the palm of her left hand on the top of my head and began pushing me downward, between her thighs, where my tongue found her clitoris. I studiously avoided it. Leila tapped me on my shoulder each time I did not lick her clitoris, and then pointed to where she really wanted me to lick. I licked it …
“…. What is it now? You hurt yourself?….”
“—CHOO!” she shouted, making a passable imitation of a sneeze. “…You’ve got a cold, don’t you? Serves you right for not paying your fucking heating bills!….”
“Yussuf, please, you don’t know what you are talking about. I don’t need to be sick to have a sneeze!–”
“….Yes, yes, I know, I know you have that fucking spic sitting in your bed and you’re giving him a blowjob, right? Well, then. Do as you like. I’m coming up to the flat tomorrow. Yes, don’t be frightened, I’m going to pay you a little visit, my dear. I will see you again. I will. Tomorrow. I cannot wait. I, I—“
Leila looked up at me, and playfully held her hand to her mouth and stifled a laugh. “…I want you,” Yussuf then blurted out, strangely enough. He then sighed, and chuckled. “…You know, I don’t know what the hell is wrong with me…I must be the biggest fucking fool in the world…Hell, I guess if you can give every other Gyppo a piece of twat I, well…I know you are nasty…I know it…I know you must be dying of fucking AIDS by now, but I don’t care, I can’t help it–I don’t care about your promis-promis-pro-….”
“Promeesscooooitey,” she cooed, while my left hand found its way between the folds of her ass. “….Yes! Absolutely!….And please tell me, how is it…how, other than your Spanish lover Joe—how you get to know such big words with your poor English pronunciation!….”
“Oh,” she said, coldly, looking down at me, briefly puckering her wet spermy lips and stroking the phone suggestively, “I take English lessons. But—not from Josaph.” There was a pause as she winked at me and licked the squirt of jism off the top of her lip. Goddamnit, do you have to push it so far?…. “Funny thing, Yussuf, you ahnd Joe really have the same name. Have you notice, stupid? Maybe,” she said, tapping the phone gently with her index finger, “you are all of a kind!”
“….Leila—oh God! Leila! Will you please just—khalas, khalas! I am sick—”
“Hah, tomorrow, Yussuf!–”
And with that, she hung up the phone.
I stood up, on my knees, my passion finally spent and looking at her with an incredible welter of emotions. Something like gratitude, satiety, tenderness, mixed in with a hell of a lot of suspicion and even more horror. On the bedside table the radio was going off, spewing all the world’s great disasters into the air: assassinations, strikes, impending insurgencies, terrorist attacks, bombings, failed peace plans, settlements, refugees, starvation, AIDS, and, last but not least, an update on the doings of Rashid, who’d ripped open two women in Damanhur. All I could do was laugh and reach for my clothes. “Oh, Louees,” she purred, giving me a knowing look, “I’m too loud when I do this! I’m sorrey! I cannot help but when I am with you I go crazy. Majnoon, majnoon!”
“No,” I panted, lying down on the bed. “It isn’t that. I’m just amazed at what happened.”
“Oh, you mean Yussuf? But now, you hear the trash that come out of his mouth, hah? Now, you see the real Yussuf!”
“Well, actually,” I then admitted, with some hesitancy, “it’s what we just did.”
Leila laughed, wiping her mouth on the bed sheet. “So,” she said, tenderly, “we fuck? You like? Why are you amazed? That I desire you, and you so obviously desire me? You must not pretend, Louees, that you do not want me.” She reached forward and kissed my ear. “Because I want you.” She kissed me again, three times—once on my cheek, the others fat, wet kisses directly on my mouth. “Ever since I see you working in that horrible place.”
She then gave me long, lingering kisses, but my senses had the upper hand this time. I had to get the hell out of there and back to Cairo. Yussuf was the guy who put food in my mouth. “I know you will be back, yes?”
“Yeah,” I said, hurrying into my clothes.
Leila had a sudden despondent look on her face. “You are afraid.”
“I’m not scared, I don’t want a run-in with Yussuf, that’s all.”
Leila sat up in bed, still nude, and looked at me; she rested her head on her hand, her fat-nippled breasts jiggling on her soft belly. “Louees, he won’t kill you. He always call like this when he’s drinking. He’s not some fucking baladi from Aswan. He’s an Englishman, Louees, not real Egyptian. You can stay. Nobody here will hurt you. You are not with these poor people in the slums. You fuck with them, they will kill you, sure. But we are the upper-middle-class. The people here is more open-minded than stupid Cairo. Look, Louees,” she then said, getting out of bed and walking towards me in the nude and, even without heels, almost towering over me, “I find a better place for you in Alexandria, no? Alexandria is nice—sometimes, only. But it is still bettar than Cairo. Cairo is this shittiest place in Egypt. I say, how many times, I can give you money for tutor! Ahhhhnnnnd,” she cooed, snuggling her ski-slope nose around the hairs on my chest, which she lapped, “if you just ask. Whatevar you ask for, from me, you have it. No problam.”
“Okay, Leila,” I said, and kissed her on the lips. “But I have some unfinished business to take care of back in Cairo.”
Later that day, she and I went quietly to the train station, where I boarded the third-class train for Cairo. Once again, I was a “native,” pretending to be an Arab. Passing me some sandwiches she made, she addressed me in Arabic, my affected attitude of indifference belied by the sly winks I gave her. The platform was filthy with sand, sawdust and goat-shit, but typically I noticed nothing. She was clad in that same lavender bell-bottomed outfit she wore the night I first saw her.
“Ya-Louees,” she whispered, very, very quietly, while I sat down in my seat, “why you taking third class? Why you not get bettar train?”
I stuck my head out the window towards her, and she leaned forward. “It’s cheap,” I whispered back in her ear, painfully conscious if anybody was watching me.
Leila sucked her teeth, and rolled her eyes to the top of the raggedy station. “Ya-Louees,” she whispered, digging in her purse and pulling out a roll of bills. She passed them to me and I shoved them down in my coat pocket. Tenderly, she kissed both sides of my face, and shoved it back inside the train.
Leila strode away from the station, looking back at me with a knowing nod. I nodded back. I patted the bills inside my jacket. I looked around inside the train and at the passengers and felt like I had been asleep for forty-eight hours; everything and everyone looked unreal.
Slowly, haltingly, the train began to roll along the tracks. Every now and then it lurched and sent me hurtling forward. My luggage and victrola dangled perilously over my head from the wooden rungs. Once she was gone I pulled out the roll and opened it up, looking suspiciously at everyone. I counted 250 Egyptian pounds. Opposite me, a fat wrinkled woman in her fifties sat, hunched up in a seat, with one of her pupils dead white. A faint hostility emanated from her. Everyone on that train, it seemed, emanated hostile vibes of varying intensity–in the way they talked, the way they looked at me and rolled their eyes, whether in bewilderment or just plain disgust; indeed, it quickly began to seem as if I had never left that God-forsaken city, Cairo.