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Birds of Amber

Birds of Amber

Ibrahim Abdel Meguid
Translated by Farouk Abdel Wahab
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 432
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  • Book Info
    Birds of Amber
    Book Description:

    During the 1956 Suez War—or the Tripartite Aggression, as it is known in Egypt—life in Alexandria goes on. The railroad workers and their families live in the low-income housing of el-Masakin, along the Mahmudiya Canal, but some of them take us on forays into the other, cosmopolitan Alexandria, whose European denizens, mainly Greeks, Italians, and Jews are departing in droves. This spellbinding novel teems with memorable characters, not a few of whom are themselves storytellers: a budding novelist writing about el-Masakin and its eccentric denizens and about his own improbable love affair with a 12-year-old girl; a spice merchant dreaming of the bygone glory of his ancestors and their trade along the spice road, beginning on the Malabar Coast; a train guard who is a teller of very tall tales; and a would-be filmmaker trying to make a film showing what happened in Port Said during the war. Then there is the cinema aficionado who plays Tarzan in real life along the Mahmudiya Canal; the young boy who leads a group of assorted crazies every afternoon to see ‘God’ at sunset; the singing nurse whose only dream is to perform on the radio; and Arabi, the young man who is in love with all things European, but especially with his employer, Katina the widowed Greek dressmaker. As in his earlier novel, No One Sleeps in Alexandria, Ibrahim Abdel Meguid here combines historical fact with fiction, and the mundane with the fantastical, to weave an engrossing, multilayered story of stories.

    eISBN: 978-1-61797-142-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Translator’s Acknowledgments
    (pp. [v]-[x])
  3. Part One

    • 1
      (pp. 3-10)

      No one as far as his eyes can see. No boats, large or small, on the Mahmudiya Canal. Not a single tram moving on the opposite bank. To his right, nothing but bricks and cement to build a new school on a portion of the expansive lot that is part of Constantine Salvago’s warehouses. Quite a celebrity in Alexandria, this Salvago the Greek! His warehouses occupy the rest of the wide open space extending from the Mahmudiya Canal to the railroad fence and are filled with barrels of oil and grease, bales of thread, bundles of wire and old leather...

    • 2
      (pp. 11-20)

      Between the rows of camphor, pine and lotus trees surrounding the fence of the Chest Diseases Hospital, Ibrahim Mursi was taking a stroll with Nadia Sallam. Before them stretched an asphalt-paved clearing on which faint rays of sunlight that had managed to get through holes in the black and gray clouds poured, creating dancing shadows out of those small leaves on the trees that had withstood the autumn.

      The municipal employees’ houses with their red and yellow roof tiles appear solid and clean. To the left is the small garden where they will sit in a little while.

      Nadia is...

    • 3
      (pp. 21-29)

      What was it with Eid’s staring at women’s faces? No one could figure it out. Seeing him following women and girls on the street made people smile. Upon seeing a woman coming from a distance, going toward al-Mallaha to buy fish or coming out of the dark tunnel connecting al-Mallaha and the Mahmudiya road after buying the fish, Eid would head directly for her, unconcerned about anything but her eyes, seeing nothing but them. He doesn’t care if the woman has come out of the tunnel with her body wrap half undone or her arms or shoulders bare, or the...

    • 4
      (pp. 30-38)

      Last take, Mahmud.

      Where is that car full of soldiers taking him? He had forgotten the army and the arms, so who turned him in? It’s the war and law and order, Mahmud. The government has records that it reviews to call up the reservists when necessary. And all the reserves all over the country have been called up, so why would they leave you out? The officer laughed when Mahmud asked to serve in the media corps. “Why, Private?” “Because I have good ideas about directing movies and I’d like to shoot the war, sir.” “But according to the...

    • 5
      (pp. 39-51)

      Sulayman placed all the newspapers and magazines that he had bought yesterday from Raml Station on the old table in front of him and sat on the old wooden chair on the roof in the morning reading through them. He had paid a princely sum for them, his entire week’s earnings from selling frogs to students. He catches frogs from the lake in the evening and sells them to science students to dissect. He had gottenal-Ahram,al-Akhbar,al-Musawwar,Rose al-Youssef, andThe Egyptian Gazette, almost all of which covered the developing military attack on Egypt in the same style....

    • 6
      (pp. 52-64)

      What made the world so vast all of a sudden? It was the war and nothing else which made it like a coarse, loose gallabiya, the kind which made one stumble . . . a really stupid and ugly world!

      They were sitting around Abla Nargis, the kind, round-faced, round-bodied woman whose smiling face spoke volumes of goodness and whose words, when she spoke, transported you to a place where you felt at home right away. Abla Nargis, the short, plump wife of a tall, muscular man was from Alexandria, whereas he was an untypical Saidi, from Upper Egypt. He...

    • 7
      (pp. 65-71)

      Business during the daytime at the atelier today was hectic. Many women came to ask Katina to finish their clothes quickly. There were no new clients. Georgette the Copt spent the day moving around, working, and laughing for no reason while Asmahan the Italian spent the day in silence. Shortly before she left, Arabi went over to her, “Mademoiselle Asmahan, you have been sad all day long.”

      “War broke out, Arabi.”

      “I know, Asmahan. The war is with the Egyptians and it is far away in Port Said. The air raids here are not so bad, not like the Italian...

    • 8
      (pp. 72-81)

      On the bank of Mahmudiya Canal, near the water, inside the tin shack, Habashi and Badra sat drinking tea and smoking the narghile. Around them the boys and girls slept in no particular order on the mat in various degrees of undress. Some were white, some dark, and some in between. The smell of the Mahmudiya mist, reminiscent of boiling water despite the cold air, filled the place. Habashi gave himself over to smoking the narghile as he thought that soon he would need to enlarge the shack, since there were now many children. The smell of the Antabli tobacco...

    • 9
      (pp. 82-89)

      “I remember in the war at the time of Hitler that Abu al-Dardaa used to stop the bombs in midair. In this war Abu al-Dardaa is not happy.” Eid said this to the surprise of the boys and young men—Karawan, Pitch, Mustafa, Abdu, and others—who had gathered outside the Project in the middle of the night to watch anti-aircraft artillery fire chasing the planes attacking the city.

      They were especially surprised because Eid, like most of them, was born after the Second World War, or after the battle of Alamein at the earliest. They were sitting on the...

    • 10
      (pp. 90-102)

      The spice merchant, Ground Pepper, addressed the men sitting on the stairs leading to the tunnel. “I am the grandson of the biggest Karimi merchant in history, Hagg Umar ibn Muhammad ibn Sulayman Najm al-Din al-Qadi al-Damamini from Damamin in southern Egypt, who died in the Hijra year 707—that’s almost seven centuries ago. He had a qaysariya, which means caravansary, which occupied half of Faransa Street long before there was a Faransa Street. It was filled with ambergris, safflower, and all kinds of spice. It had six doors, four of which faced the cardinal points and two of which...

  4. Part Two

    • 1
      (pp. 105-118)

      The war ended. There were decorations everywhere celebrating the withdrawal of the English and French from Port Said and of the Israeli forces from Sinai.

      The war ended but Mahmud al-Mallah did not come back. He didn’t die, though, but kept sending letters to his family telling them that his discharge from the army would be delayed for some unknown reason. Kamil, Mushira’s fiancé, did not come back; he didn’t die and he was not found alive. It was said that he was missing in action.

      The war ended but Rashad did not come back; he didn’t die and was...

    • 2
      (pp. 119-128)

      Wedding celebrations in the Project. Today is the wedding of Rashad and Fatima. It took a long time for Rashad’s gunshot wound to heal. He escaped certain death and spent a long time convalescing. Kamil, Mushira’s fiancé hasn’t come back yet; he is still missing. Mahmud al-Mallah, who was discharged after a long tour of duty with the army, has not come back, but went to Cairo looking for someone to finance a major film that he said he wanted to make about Port Said.

      Today, Rashad, the inspector’s handsome son, will marry Fatima, who is as graceful as a...

    • 3
      (pp. 129-141)

      Wedding celebrations. The world seemed bigger. The radio had been talking about victory for more than a year. Union with Syria had been declared and Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Syrian president Shukri al-Quwatli had prayed together at Azhar mosque. On the whole, people stood tall.

      The stories of the Jews and their great exodus no longer reached the Project. Those who left had left and those who made a killing had made a killing and one man’s meat was another man’s poison. Besides, what good would the fortunes made by Tom or Dick, or the disappearance of Harry, do...

    • 4
      (pp. 142-155)

      It’s no use, Mahmud. Last take in Alexandria, in Cairo, in the whole United Arab Republic, Mahmud! The movie people, every God damn son of a serpent among them, laughed at you every time you talked to them about your project. They told you “Write it down.” You did and they said, “Your prose is pedestrian.” What has prose got to do with it, respected movie people? Movies are all about action, producers. They rejected you and made their own film about Port Said. The movie is now a blockbuster in Lebanon and will soon be a blockbuster in Egypt....

    • 5
      (pp. 156-167)

      Sulayman could not believe, as he held the letter in his hand, that the world could be so small, so good, and so merciful.

      What’s the distance between Egypt and Australia? Other than that it is the same between Australia and Egypt, he had no clue. Memory was rising from the well of forgetfulness. She had said that mail service between Egypt and Europe would be interrupted, or at least censored. No one thought of Australia. Egyptian bureaucracy can sometimes be a boon or perhaps there was some mistake, some sloppiness.

      Dear Sulayman:

      It has been a year but you...

    • 6
      (pp. 168-178)

      Since the beginning of the school year, whenever Karawan got one piaster, he had bought the newspaper of the day. He was now a student in Tahir Bey Preparatory School in Wardian and took a short cut through the railroad yards to al-Qabbari and then the tram to school. He walks alone these days coming and going to school. Eid dropped out of school for good; Mustafa, who is two years ahead of him, joined Kom al-Shuqafa Preparatory School; Abdu quit school and got a job as a textile worker at the Stia Company in Hadra; Ibrahim Pitch, who like...

    • 7
      (pp. 179-189)

      Once again Ibrahim Mursi and Nadia Sallam started meeting in front of the Chest Diseases Hospital. Ibrahim told her of his new job as an accountant at the Oil and Soap Company in Kafr al-Zayyat. She knew already; the news had spread in the Project, but her face was pale and yellow. He said he couldn’t find a job in Alexandria but he might in the future, that he was not the only one who couldn’t find a job in Alexandria. Khayr al-Din also could only find a job in Helwan. The Oil Company, he said, had a branch in...

    • 8
      (pp. 190-202)

      Nawal took Tram Number 5, not believing that she was doing that on her own. But it was she and not somebody else who was sitting in the tram heading for Manshiya.

      “I’ve never done that before, Dr. Ahmad.”

      “I know and you wouldn’t be doing anything wrong.”

      “I don’t sing at weddings or parties.”

      “This is not a wedding or a party.”

      “New Year’s celebration, what do you call that, Dr. Ahmad?”

      “It’s a very private celebration with a group of friends that you’ll like very much. They don’t believe me when I tell them how beautiful your voice...

    • 9
      (pp. 203-213)

      Katina and Arabi sat alone together tonight. That hadn’t happened any year before.

      “Arabi, I am not happy this year.”

      “Why, Katina? The atelier is still in business and you are getting prettier. Why didn’t you have a party like last year’s?”

      “You wanted a party, Arabi?”

      “For myself? No. It is better like this. You and I are drinking this fine Metaxa. A party for you.”

      “The whole Greek community is unhappy, Arabi. In any gathering now, all talk is about politics.”

      “But New Year’s Eve is a beautiful occasion on which people can forget politics.”

      “No, Arabi. Politics...

    • 9
      (pp. 214-226)

      It wasn’t the sound of the thunder that roared over Alexandria at dawn that awakened Sulayman this long last night of the year. Rather it was a strange dream in which he saw Alexandria turn upside down as people came tumbling down from its windows, doors, and roofs. There was a tall, huge person standing on the back of the city, which looked like an overturned turtle, and he was holding a long broom like those used by city sweepers and working in silence. When he came to, he heard his father’s low voice as he performed dawn prayers in...

  5. Part Three

    • 1
      (pp. 229-241)

      Why is it that the newspapers haven’t published anything about the arrest of the communists? A whole month has passed since the last night of last year and every day, on his way to school, Sulayman boughtal-Ahramand could find no news and the same was true ofal-Akhbarandal-Gumhuriya. In the evening he boughtal-Masa’.He also bought the weekly magazines but again, nothing. The radio station from which he learned the news did not continue: other stations interfered with the reception and all he could hear was irritating static and he couldn’t locate the station again,...

    • 2
      (pp. 242-254)

      Johnnie’s house came to life suddenly; she, her mother, and her older sister who lived in Muharram Bey worked hard, cleaning the house. They took the mattress and coverlets up to the roof and sprayed phenol in the corners and washed the doors and windows. An important visitor would be visiting the house today.

      The children had the day off; it was the first anniversary of the union between Egypt and Syria. Since the morning, Mahmudiya Street had been filled with children and some had gone fishing in al-Mallaha. The little girls had not gone out; they were getting ready...

    • 3
      (pp. 255-263)

      Tomorrow, yes, tomorrow, Arabi will be at Stanley Beach, the most beautiful beach in Alexandria. For several years now, Katina has been taking him there to the great spectacle of luscious European flesh, where there is an abundance of bikinis which no Egyptian woman would dare to wear.

      The figures here are as graceful as bent tree branches, or as green reeds in the lakes dancing with the wind. Here also are the distinctive rows of three story cabins in front of which sit the old ladies enjoying the unhindered view of an expansive horizon and the sky, always blue...

    • 4
      (pp. 264-277)

      This is a night that they all try not to miss, the night of Shamm al-Nisim. And even though they can’t all make it, the radio concert brings happiness and delight to those that do. Karawan is sitting nearby, reading a little book. Nawal asked him, “What’re you reading, Karawan? A story?”

      “It’s the famous story of Robinson Crusoe.”

      Husna laughed and said, “Who is Robinson Crusoe and how come he is famous if I don’t know him?”

      Nawal laughed and Karawan smiled and said, “This is an abridged story and not the original. When I am finished with it,...

    • 5
      (pp. 278-294)

      A while back, the story of the singer ceased to interest me, when I found out it would end quickly. It was then that I started writing this place, not realizing that I would become one of its protagonists. I will set aside the place now and devote the pages to myself. “You make plans but the fates laugh at them,” as Abu al-Alaa, the master, put it. “There is a lot of evil in this world, but there is also a glimmer of hope.” I don’t remember who said that. Perhaps Voltaire, inCandide, said something to that effect....

    • 6
      (pp. 295-305)

      Nadia and Ibrahim Mursi were the most concerned about Khayr al-Din’s illness. Their dates had become few and far between during the last few months. Sometimes they seemed on the verge of letting their feelings toward each other die down completely but neither Nadia nor Ibrahim could let that happen. He told her that by the end of his first year on the job in Kafr al-Zayyat, he could be transferred to Alexandria, whereupon he would ask for her hand and nothing could stop him. For her part she felt that something in his family was holding him back and...

    • 7
      (pp. 306-318)

      A tall man wearing a grey linen suit knocked on the door. He was about fifty years old, with calm features and a brown complexion. When Hamza went out to meet him he discovered that he was so much shorter that he had to look way up at him as he said, “I am Hamza and I am ready for anything.”

      The man smiled and said in a gentle tone, “Well, are you going to let me come in first, my friend?”

      Hamza invited him in disbelief: could this man really have come from the president’s office? Quickly the man...

    • 8
      (pp. 319-327)

      Abla Nargis found herself all alone. It so happened that neither Johnnie, nor Nadia Sallam, Husna, or Nawal came that evening. Was it because it was autumn in Alexandria and everyone had stuck to the warmth of her own home? The most beautiful evening gatherings had always been in autumn and winter, with their incomparable warmth of companionship and innocent conversations. It must be the bird of sadness that had settled among the girls.

      Karawan sat in a corner of the room studying, undisturbed by the sound of the sewing machine, which he had gotten used to. His father, who...

    • 9
      (pp. 328-340)

      One is quite lost, unable to understand anything, Arabi told himself as he sat listening to the old song on the radio.

      “Are we going to spend New Year’s Eve alone again this year?” he asked Katina who looked more beautiful than ever tonight.

      “Asmahan and Georgette are coming. You’ll be sitting with three women tonight, Arabi.”

      “Like Harun al-Rashid,” he said loudly to himself. She heard him and asked, “Who’s Rashid?”

      “A friend of mine,” he said as he poured her a glass of wine, then added, “Katina, this perfume you have on tonight is killing me!”

      She smiled...

    • 10
      (pp. 341-355)

      This week I received two letters from Jane at the same time even though they were written and sent from Sydney, Australia, six months apart. How did they get together on the way? In the second letter she asked me why I hadn’t replied to her first letter that she had sent to me in reply to my letter wishing her happy New Year, meaning the year ending tonight! She said in the first letter that she had received my letter in April, which astonished me very much. In the second letter which she wrote in October she asked about...

    • 11
      (pp. 356-368)

      May God grant you a long life. Now then: with the beginning of the year I wish you continued good health and I hope the year will be a happy and good one for you, your family, and all our families in the Project. I’ve read about the heavy rains that have fallen on beautiful Alexandria. Rain is good anyway. We are used to it at the end and beginning of every year, the Christmas storm, even though that seems strange this year. Helwan is rainless and dry and even though it is totally suitable for my health, I miss...

    • 12
      (pp. 369-377)

      Arabi started crying in Katina’s bosom in a stifled voice. She said in pain, “It’s no use, Arabi. It’s all over.”

      Yes, it is all over and he has to realize that. This is the fact that he must face. Tomorrow Katina will depart and leave him alone in the wind. Since the beginning of the year she’s been getting ready to leave but he was denying what his eyes were seeing. Now the atelier is Georgette’s. As of tomorrow she will be the sole owner and as of tomorrow he will leave the atelier. Emptiness will swallow him but...

    • 13
      (pp. 378-386)

      Nawal took to chain smoking and listening to foreign broadcasts. Whenever she found herself at home she took the radio and began to look for the frequencies that the Egyptian government jammed: Israel Radio, the BBC, and the Voice of Free Egypt, whose country of origin she didn’t know. On rare occasions and only for a few minutes she managed to get Israel Radio. She was frequently able to listen to the BBC and sometimes the Voice of Free Egypt. Nawal couldn’t sleep last night even though today she was having a voice test at the local broadcasting service and...

    • 14
      (pp. 387-396)

      Cordial greetings. Now then:

      Your beautiful heartfelt letter in which you congratulate me for passing the exams made me happy. Your congratulation was better than passing itself. Unfortunately, I only got fifty percent of the passing grade. That means I will not go to university as you wished for me and as I actually had wished.

      But it’s okay. What matters is I have passed. Literature and philosophy do not need a degree from the university or elsewhere. What happened the last two years and this year confirms to me that there was a conspiracy against me. Once the exam...

    • 15
      (pp. 397-407)

      The neighbors were awakened by the screams and wailing. A car carrying Khayr al-Din’s body had arrived at dawn at the moment that a large sailboat with mast raised and white sail fully stretched sailed by the Mahmudiya Canal coming from the harbor. The morning wind was pushing the boat out of the city with strange determination.

      The men went out of their houses like rats, short, with stooping shoulders muttering Qur’anic verses and shaking their heads in disbelief. They were followed by the tearful women to Khayr al-Din’s house. Many boys and girls didn’t go to school today. In...

    • 16
      (pp. 408-417)

      “O girls! How I missed you! How I longed for an evening that would bring us together like the good old days! May God have mercy on you, Khayr al-Din, you’ve brought all the loved ones together.”

      A week had passed since Khayr al-Din’s death. Hikmat had come back again to make sure Johnnie was doing all right and to see Nawal, whom she hadn’t seen the day of the funeral. Badriya was still visiting her family and so was Shawqiya, who didn’t go back to her house in Kafr al-Dawwar. Since Khayr al-Din’s death they had gathered every evening...

  6. Glossary
    (pp. 418-420)
  7. Back Matter
    (pp. 421-422)