“The thing you need to know about Cairo,” my taxi driver said, “is not the traffic. It’s not the pollution. It’s not the dust.” And here he extinguished his cigarette, grinding it into his ashtray. “It’s the bread.”
“The bread?” I said.
It was July 25, 2008. My driver kept glancing back at me in his rearview mirror as he drove. He’d make eye contact with me for five, ten, fifteen seconds — even as the traffic darted past us, taillights flaring in angry blossoms of red. I had never seen anything like the traffic on the road into Cairo. Even as we crossed the Sixth of October Bridge and entered the body of the city, cars swirled with an aggressive madness I’d only associated with a swarm of bees.
“You see, ya’ani,” the driver continued. “Every revolution in the history of our country happened because someone raised the price of bread. That’s why Mubarak is in trouble.”
And then his cell phone rang. He frowned and glanced down and answered it and instantly began an argument with a man who was, as far as I could tell, his mortal enemy. With one hand, he held the phone to his ear. With the other hand, he lit a cigarette. I assumed that he was driving with his knees. His seatbelt fluttered in the doorway, lonely and unused, bobbing to the left and right with each veer of the car. I searched for my own seatbelt. Either it had never been installed, or it had been removed by sadistic thieves.
After a few minutes of this, the driver abruptly snapped the phone shut and looked back at me again. He asked me why I’d come to Egypt.
“I’m here to find my father,” I said.
“And he’s Egyptian?”
“He’s Egyptian,” I said.
The man nodded but said nothing more. “And what part of America do you come from?” he asked.
“Montana,” I said.
“Ah, yes,” he said. “Montana. It is beautiful.” But he didn’t elaborate on how he’d come to this fact. Maybe this was his standard line. (“What part of America do you come from?” “Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania.” “Ah, yes. It is beautiful.”)
We’d driven down Al-Orouba Road and now we were on Salah Salem. Big white apartment buildings — architecture in a grand Modernist style — lined either side of the roadway. I thought about the density of the buildings, arranged row after row after row. And I imagined my father, looking at these same buildings, driving this cityscape, having it form the backdrop to his thoughts each day. I saw my father everywhere, strained to find him in each person walking along the side of the road, beneath the galabiya of every passing stranger. I imagined his face in every billboard, at the wheel of every oncoming car, in the windows of every lumbering, diesel-spewing bus.
“What else should I know about the city?” I said as we pulled up to the Kewayis Cairo Marriott. The driver thought about this for a moment.
“Well,” he said, his hand pausing on the door handle, “people have been living here for 7,000 years.”
* * *
Everyone knows that the Ancient Egyptians mummified their dead. But not everyone knows about the demon god Ammit—the demon god who guarded the Egyptian gateway to paradise. Ammit, the Eater of Hearts. Ammit, the Devourer of Souls. Part crocodile, part lion, part hippopotamus.
If an Egyptian priest mummified your body three thousand years ago, then he carved out your intestines and your lungs and your stomach and your liver. He put each organ in a limestone pot and stacked these pots beside your sarcophagus, beside a copy of your family’s Book of the Dead — the book of spells and stories and illustrations and recipes that was your inheritance. Then he painted your body with resin, inside and out, as a preservative. Then he wrapped you in linen. But he left your heart in place.
The Egyptians believed that your heart was the repository of your soul. It needed to be preserved intact, so that your soul and your body could transform into akh, the part of you that was eternal, that rose up and joined the stars in the night sky. But in order to rise, your heart had to be nearly weightless. And sin made your heart heavy. So when a person came to Ammit, she weighed your heart against a feather. If you’d lived a good life, then your heart would be light — light as a feather.
But if you’d sinned, then Ammit would eat your heart. She would devour it whole and you’d spend eternity there, with her, in torment. Which, of course, brings up the question: How would she season it? The answer, of course, is: Any way she wanted to. And so I have to wonder, what would my heart be like, on her scale? Would it float upwards? Or would it sink downwards and spend eternity in a burning darkness? This is a concern for me. Because, let’s face it, if Ammit’s eating raw human heart flesh — then the catering in her realm is probably subpar.
One fact. One instructive, inelegant fact: My mother’s husband, my father, my unknown and distant father, my mockery of that word father, of the term, as it’s understood by almost everyone—my satellite, my hidden galaxy, my empty suitcase, my vacant motel room — her husband, deserted us when I was three. He taught her how to cook his country’s food, the lamb and beef and chicken and pork dishes of his Coptic Christian parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. And then: Vanished, leaving her with his foods and traditions, 100,000 dollars in gambling debts, and a three-year-old boy as copper as a penny.
The Life and Times of Akram Saqr and Amy Clark, My One and Only Parents, as Told by Me, Khosi Saqr, My Mother’s One and Only Son, Fruit of Her Womb, 100% Maculate Conception. I was three years old when my father left. But there’s an image I can’t shake, an image from the end of my parents’ marriage. Of course it’s not possible that I actually remember it. Except I do: He stands above my bed in the dim light of morning, his hand reaching down to brush the hair back from my forehead.
His face, though, in my memory, is missing. It’s a blur, a smear, an indistinct set of features above me. It is, more than anything else, a feeling. His face is a feeling. But in my version of that memory, I tell him not to leave. I stand on the mattress, unsteady, stubby-legged, wearing pajamas. I tell him not to leave but he straightens and kisses my forehead, where he’s brushed off the hair. And so I tell him, “Please don’t leave.” And he says, “I have to leave.” And I tell him again, “Please don’t leave us.” And he says, “I’m leaving.” And I can’t tell if he’s angry or sad or if he even hears me.
My mom once told me something about the night of their wedding: After the ceremony in the Las Vegas wedding chapel, my mother joined my father at the blackjack table and together they won five hundred dollars. Then they went to the bar attached to the casino and bought everyone a round of drinks. And there, at three am in Caesar’s Palace, my father leapt up on the bar in his bright white tuxedo and white leather shoes. “For my beautiful new wife,” he called — and a discordant cheer rose up from the drunks all around them. Everyone drank a toast. And then, when my father tried to climb down off the bar, he spilled a shrimp cocktail on her Christian Dior.
* * *
I had an address: 2 Omar Ibn El Khattab. It was a set of letters, nothing more. The address was, the private investigator told me, my father’s last known place of residence.
I would not be the first person to compare walking through Cairo to the video game Frogger. Of course, if I were flattened by a truck (or a taxi or a private sedan or a military HUM-V or a pedicab or a motorcycle or a rickshaw or a donkey pulling a wooden cart full of melons, all of which sped by with a certain wild grandeur), I would not regenerate a new life at the bottom of the screen.
One hundred and twenty degrees. A dusty hot wind. I’m a sucker for cities but Cairo wasn’t easy. It didn’t open itself to me immediately. I wasn’t prepared for it, not really. I mean, I knew a lot about the Middle East from textbooks, from hours and hours in the little Saturday school at home in Butte, Montana. My instructor had also supplemented my studies with a series of videos, videos with names like Yemen Today! and Oh My, Oman! But these promotional films were created by Ministries of Tourism for wealthy foreigners. They ignored the things that were now immediately evident to me in Cairo, the poverty, the pollution, the rows of informal settlement houses that sagged into each other, that seemed to be reaching for the street, leaning towards it and opening their hands in supplication.
I found myself avoiding the asphalt, where possible, because it was melting. The asphalt was melting and I saw children playing with it, scooping handfuls of it from the margins of the roadway, scooping it up and flinging it at each other like mud. I sweated through my new shirt, the fabric sticking to my chest and my back. Blisters bloomed on both of my ankles, big wet blisters that sent tendrils of pain up the backs of my calves with each step.
Two Omar Ibn El Khattab. Big apartment building, ground floor apartment, two pigs in the courtyard in a jolly-looking, trash-filled sty. Some of the zabaleen lived there, the Copts who functioned, free of charge, as the world’s largest trash-recycling force. The pigs sniffed me as I walked past, raising their snouts, in unison, and smelling the air.
I found Apartment 2 and knocked on the door, using the sizable brass knocker — its metal hot in the palm of my hand. I knocked three times, long ponderous knocks, knocks that could certainly be heard in the interior of the house. I heard shuffling in the apartment. Someone was opening a series of locks. My heart clattered in my chest. The door swung open, revealing a wiry little man in a powder-blue Adidas track suit.
“Sabaah el-kheir,” he said. Good afternoon.
“Good afternoon,” I repeated. So: This wasn’t my father. Not that I’d expected to find him immediately — but it would have been nice, I have to admit. Standing there in the doorway, I panicked. My words blurred together, my accent was all wrong. I was using my stiffest classical Arabic.
“I’m from America,” I said, in a rush. “And my father deserted me when I was three, and I lived with my mother for my entire life, and now I’ve tracked him down here, to Cairo — he’s Egyptian — and I really think he might be living here, his name is Akram Saqr and he is kind of short, like, like, like a circus bear.”
Despite my speech, the man in the track suit smiled at me.
“America?” he said. “Will you be voting for Barack Obama?”
“Of course,” I said. “Who else?”
The man grinned. “My name is Ahmes. Please come in.”
Inside the house, I met a half-dozen of Ahmes’s relatives. But no one had ever heard of my father.
“You would like perhaps some rice with chicken livers?” Ahmes’s mother asked me. She was a tiny, wrinkled postage stamp of a woman. I knew the drill, in part from years of living with my own mother. The answer was yes — even if the answer was no. I ate the livers, scooping them up with my fingers. They were tender and greasy and salty and delicious.
Ahmes made a phone call to an elderly relative in Alexandria who’d lived in the house as a child. She’d heard of a Saqr in the neighborhood but he’d been a translator of old French novels. She hadn’t heard his name in nearly fifty years. Then, Ahmes’s son, Gabir, pulled out his Toshiba laptop. He connected to their cousin in Dubai via Skype. Gabir introduced me to this stranger and prompted me to tell my entire story — from the beginning. This stranger then called his mother, in Damascus, whom he thought knew of a Saqr. She did, it turned out — one named Akram. Google was searched, a phone number was — with shocking alacrity — obtained. And all the while, my image spanned the Middle East, beamed around the globe by satellite, living however briefly in the air, in a language as brief as a single breath.
My father’s home, it turned out, was close to the center of Cairo, a nice neighborhood not far from the Nile. Though it wasn’t stately and elegant as the Zemalek District — it wasn’t the informal settlement district, either, with its courtyard pigs and decrepit overcrowding. And it certainly was nothing like the medina. The building itself was constructed in the regal French style. An ornamented beauty. Broad mouths of windows one floor above the street, rising out towards decorated cornices. None of the apartments were accessible from the main street. So I had to loop around to a long trash-strewn alley, and go through a wrought-iron gate that had rusted permanently ajar. The space between the gate and the crumbling stucco of the wall wasn’t big. Flakes of rust stained the fabric of my new white shirt.
Halfway down the alley, I heard the sound of running water. By the time I got to the courtyard that housed the entry staircase, I could no longer hear the sounds of the city; there was only the gentle bubbling of the little fountain, in the center of which was a beautiful, single stone leaf, a curved stone leaf that had been overrun by moss and had disintegrated slightly around the edges. The water came from a single tarnished copper pipe. Despite the fact that it was just a trickle, the sound of it somehow expanded to fill the entire alcove. It rose up along the four stories of the apartment building, the four stories with their inward-facing balconies.
These are the adjectives that come to mind when I think about that building: Velvety, threadbare, sooty, eroded, cracked, expansive, lush, mango-colored, lacquered, formal. At some point, one of the inhabitants had, apparently, painted the walls of the courtyard a bright mango color. But that had faded over the years, and now it was a blanched and chipping paintjob, irregular in its concealment of the stucco walls.
I rang the bell. After a few moments, I heard a commotion in the hallway behind the door.
“Akram!” a female voice called. “He’s here.”
There had been two phone calls. One short, one long. The first one had been combative, incredulous, antagonistic, confrontational. It had ended with a sudden dial tone. The second one had been more subdued, pragmatic, matter-of-fact, vaguely reconciliatory. It had ended with an invitation. And so I heard my father’s already familiar baritone voice saying, in English: “Coming! Coming! One moment.” And then I heard a female voice responding, in Arabic:
“You let him sleep at a hotel? What kind of man are you? I knew you were rotten, but this, this is terrible, even by your standards.”
The door opened and I saw him — my father — standing there in the flesh and the sinew and the ligament and the bone and the blood and the soul, yes, perhaps even the soul, hovering in front of me, too shocked to do anything but stare. There is no figurative language to describe that moment. It was stripped, bleached of color and content and bare of secondary life. I thought: What if I sneeze? Will that ruin the moment? I thought: I wonder if it’s a hundred and twenty degrees outside? I thought: Evel Knievel has nothing on this. I thought: Alfred Nobel’s recipe for dynamite: Three parts nitroglycerin, one part diatomaceous earth, one small admixture of sodium carbonate.
There were two people standing in the hallway: my father and woman with a black muslin scarf wrapped loosely around her head. They walked together but apart; my father was grimacing and his posture seemed harried and harassed. And so I had to pretend, now, that I wasn’t entirely undone — that I was capable of simply walking over this threshold.
“I told you to wait in the kitchen,” he said. Then he turned to me and said, “This is my sister, Fatima.”
“Eldest sister,” Fatima said, bowing at the waist as soon as my father made the introduction. “You will certainly stay in our suite of rooms,” she said, looking directly into my eyes.
“Nonsense!” another female voice boomed. “He can stay with us! There’s room in our part of the house.” And then there were four of us in the hallway, which was starting to feel a little crowded.
“My younger sister, Banafrit,” my father said, rubbing his forehead as if he had a headache.
“Youngest sister,” my Aunt Banafrit said. She was not wearing a head scarf of any kind. “Enchanté,” she said, extending the back of her hand for me to kiss.
And they stood next to each other, then, my two aunts. Fatima looked so much like a crow that I almost expected her to have feathery wings tucked somewhere, perhaps beneath her hijab. Her nose had glossy, clean, scrubbed skin — skin like the coating of a beak — and her eyes had a mischievous avian glimmer. Would she shake your hand? Or would she peck it?
Banafrit, however, didn’t look like a bird. She was large and exuberant and perfumed and lathered with every kind of buttery makeup imaginable. She wore cords of gold jewelry. They draped around her neck by the dozens. My two aunts were opposites in nearly every physical characteristic. And yet both of them had the same nose, the nose that also graced my father’s countenance — and my own. And we all had the same pointed jaw. When I looked at them, I saw myself. Did they see themselves in me?
The hotel issue was not settled but suddenly my father was waving me deeper into the house and the big double doors were clicking shut behind me and he was saying: “Welcome, welcome! Ahlan wa sahlan.”
And then somehow my father was holding a lit cigarette. I didn’t even see him light it. It just appeared in his hand, trailing a plume of smoke like the tail of a rooster.
“Nervous?” I said.
My aunts swept ahead of us and into the main living room.
“God has guided you here,” my father whispered, “and now we will pick up the pieces.”
As I progressed through the house, I named the things I passed — silently ticking off their Arabic designations in my head as if they were my college dorm room flashcards: Bab, doorway. Kitabi, books. My father flicked on the light switch. Noor, I thought, and stepped into the illuminated living room. It had a parquet floor. The inlaid woods were chipped and cracked and, in some cases, entirely missing. I could see the bare stonework beneath the thin layer of the parquet. It looked like the kind of thing I’d imagine in one of the art districts of East Berlin, the home of an ideologically successful East German playwright, perhaps — room after room overflowing with shabby antique furniture and books. There appeared to be two levels to the apartment. The main floor had a big empty ballroom that we presently walked through, my dad smoking a Dunhill and narrating a tour in Arabic.
If my aunts thought it was strange for my father to narrate a tour of the family home on the way to the kitchen, neither of them said a thing. “Here is the rosary of my great uncle Michael,” he said, in Arabic, but retaining the French word for uncle, oncle, with its deep o, and resounding flourish at the end. The rosary was a massive set of beads, with a silvery replica of the crucifix at its end. Each bead was the size of a chickpea.
“Coptic Archbishop,” my father said. “The higher the rank, the bigger the beads.”
“Is that true?” I said.
“I don’t really know,” he said.
We continued walking in silence. Finally, he stopped in front of a large framed black-and-white photograph of a cheerful-looking old man. “And here, here is my father,” he said softly to me. “God rest his soul.”
“My grandfather,” I said.
“Yes,” he said.
I stared at the photograph. It was black and white and most remarkable for my grandfather’s soft eyes. He had gentle eyes — eyes that looked slightly amused, like they were in on a secret joke.
Every doorway seemed to be framed with flaking paint. The panels of wallpaper, once opulent and floral, were now stained and patchy. In several places, they’d peeled off and drooped to the floor. Beyond the ballroom were a living room and a kitchen. And off to one side of the living room was a balcony big enough for roller skating. This was not an idle comparison. Presently, a twelve-year-old boy skated in off the veranda, an iPod tucked under his belt. He waved. Then he disappeared down a hallway into the recesses of the apartment.
“That’s my youngest son, Victor,” Banafrit said. “He loves the American film Rollerball. Do you know it?”
I indicated that I did not in fact know the American film, Rollerball.
“It is terrible,” Banafrit said. “But he wants to be the main character, the one who is played by the actor James Caan.”
It was funny to hear the sentence in Arabic, and then the English name, James Caan. But then I lost track of Banafrit and Fatima and my father. I lost track of everyone else in the room, actually, because I was standing in front of a framed piece of art, a great branching tree that reached from near the floor to near the ceiling — at least two meters tall. Above the tree, which was drawn in slightly faded black ink, were two easily recognizable words: “Saqr family,” I read aloud. This was naskh calligraphy, a looping formal Arabic script.
I looked around. Everyone had left except my father, who was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, watching me. I looked at the short stems of the letters, at the deep curves, at the decorative flourishes near the tree’s margins. And the script coiled and arched and shaped itself into a series of bright black leaves. There was a sentence, written at eye level, in ink that was fresh and new.
“In the Name of Allah,” I read, translating hesitatingly, slowly, one word at a time. “The Most Benevolent, the Most Merciful. Not a leaf falls but He knows it.”
“Fatima added it,” my father said. “Since she converted, she’s been unstoppable.”
“I meant to ask,” I said, “about the headscarf.”
“The hijab?” my father said. “Almost all the women wear them, these days, even if they aren’t Muslim. Except Banafrit, of course. She’s not afraid of anything.”
I nodded and then read the rest of the text aloud.
“Saqr Family. The family tree of the late Saleem ibn Shahallah ibn Elias ibn Nasrallah ibn Nameh ibn Saqr. Born in Allepo around 1705, married 1740.” And then, on the branch that was cut off: “The older brother, Georges, became a monk and was titled Khouri Assayeh, the General Director of the Monastery of St. Michael, at Zunia.”
“A holy fool,” my father said.
I stood there now looking up at this artist’s rendering of my genealogy. The body buried in the soil, the roots rising from the ribcage, the generations of the past giving nourishment to the generations of the future. That’s when I noticed something.
“I’m not on the tree,” I said.
My father frowned. “You’re not? Really?” He paused. “Surprising,” he said.
A sick feeling rose out of my stomach and saturated my body.
“That boy, on roller skates, Banafrit’s son, Victor. He’s right here. The newest ink.”
My father walked away from me, then. He walked away and adjusted his spectacles and wiped the sweat out of his eyes. He shrugged.
“A tragic omission,” he said. “But really — your grandfather’s fault.”
I shook my head.
“You never told them a thing about us,” I said.
He put his glasses back on. He frowned.
“You’re just now coming to this realization? Habibi, calm down. Stop yelling.”
My head was pounding and sweat had broken out across my body. I needed to splash water on my face. I needed to find a momentary refuge so that I could take a few deep, calming breaths.
“I have to make a phone call,” I said. “I’ll just step outside for a moment.”
“Fine, fine,” my father said, looking at me closely. I ducked into a bathroom, shutting the door behind me. There was a mirror here, and I stared into it, stared at my wide-set eyes and my bony nose. I ran the water and daubed it on my forehead, almost hyperventilating.
Islam has its own version of a rosary. A misbaha has ninety-nine beads on it, one for each of God’s names. I’d seen them at the Islamic Center in Butte — but never in the world—never like this. With the misbaha, a mendicant will recite all ninety-nine names, repeating them again and again, looping through them with the fingers. The fourteenth name: Al-Mussawir, the Bestower of Form, the Shaper. The nineteenth name of God: Al-Fattah, the Opener. The thirty-eighth name of God: Al-Kabir, the Most Great. The sixty-first: Al-Muhyi, the Giver of Life. Bestowing form, opening, the most great, the giver of life. Cairo, Al-Qahira, the second oldest city on the planet, Mother of the World, an organic beast, a being made by this kind of a divinity, working through the hands of its believers.
When I made the decision to leave it was easy; it was quick; I turned in place and walked out through the hallway, retracing my path. I fled. “Khosi!” my father called from the space behind me, his voice somehow both insistent and hushed. “Khosi, wait! Where are you going?” “Khosi!” my aunts both called, in unison. But it was all too much. I’d traveled too far to explain myself, to illustrate to my father just what I was doing. In fact, having appeared, I was now disappearing. I was trying to hurt him like he’d hurt me.