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Cairo Swan Song

Cairo Swan Song

Mekkawi Said
Translated by Adam Talib
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Cairo Swan Song
    Book Description:

    Cairo, Mother of the World, embraces millions—but some of her children make their home in the streets, junked up and living in the shadows of wealth and among the monuments that the tourists flock to see. Mustafa, a former student radical who never believed in the slogans, sets out to tell their story, but he has to rely on the help of his American girlfriend, Marcia, who he is not sure he can trust. Meanwhile, his former leftist friends are now all either capitalists or Islamists. Alienated from a corrupt and corrupting society, Mustafa watches as the Cairo he cherishes crumbles around him. The men and women of the city struggle to find lovers worthy of their love and causes worthy of their sacrifice in a country that no longer deserves their loyalty. The children of the streets wait for the adults to take notice. And the foreigners can always leave.

    eISBN: 978-1-61797-068-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. 1
    (pp. 1-5)

    It was a little past midnight and the coffeehouse was closing up; only two tables of customers remained, absorbed in their games. They didn’t seem to mind the biting cold. They were my only protection against the anxious waiter, who was looking at his watch every five minutes and shaking his head. I was desperate to sit there out of the cold for as long as I could. I was watching the waiter nervously, hoping he wouldn’t announce closing time. Every time he went to clear away my empty glass and wipe the table down with his wet rag, I’d...

  3. 2
    (pp. 6-13)

    I watched the sun set, entertained by the sight of a light-gray pigeon that was shuttling the food and straw she’d hidden in a corner of my balcony up to her nest on the roof of the building opposite, up to crannies in the crumbling concrete just below the eaves. I hadn’t seen Marcia for the past three days. My home phone had been cut off for a while and my mobile was busted and stolen. There was no Internet at home, either. Marcia was accustomed to my disappearances, and hiatuses were nothing new to us. I’d pull back when...

  4. 3
    (pp. 14-21)

    It was a boisterous party like all the rest. The foreign band was playing like a bunch of madmen and the noise from the speakers was shaking the chairs and the floor. I went out to the balcony and leaned against the wooden door. I stood there smoking, looking out over the beautiful Cairo night. The balcony stretched the length of the two rooms that the partygoers were congregated in and each opened out onto it. I wasn’t the only one out on the balcony; other guests were hanging out in corners smoking pot or hash, and couples stood in...

  5. 4
    (pp. 22-27)

    I’ve never done the right thing in my entire life, wasting every chance I’ve had to change my fate. I always cling, stubbornly and idiotically, to schemes that are guaranteed failures and wastes of time, and frivolous, and thoughtless, and crazy. I ignore disappointing beginnings and watch apathetically as the sails of fiasco draw nearer. I’ve always been determined to plunge into the bog of shit up to my head. I probably need a battalion of psychiatrists, or to be locked up in a ward of the wildest insane asylum; restraints, too. Some place where I’ll be unconnected, out of...

  6. 5
    (pp. 28-31)

    Every one of us knows a “Khalil” who’s ruined our lives and made them an unbearable hell. He’s belligerent, mischievous, possessed. He’s probably older than you by a few months or less. While you’re caught up in your new world, he pops in on you like a flea on a blue-black night. He gets you in trouble with the strict teachers and the spinster teachers during Salute the Flag. He’s the one who pushes the other kids out the door at the recess bell so they trample you. He stands behind you as you stretch your hand through the tiny...

  7. 6
    (pp. 32-37)

    I own a 9mm Beretta pistol. The nine rounds are still there in the magazine. I’ve had it for a long time. Many years pass that I never think about it. Other years, I take it out every couple of months. I feel the muzzle and I rub it down with a wool cloth dipped in alcohol. I trace the etching on the handle with my fingers. I daydream a lot about a bad guy; I aim the gun at him and put a bullet right between his eyes. I don’t lower my weapon until I see his skull crushed...

  8. 7
    (pp. 38-45)

    Essam al-Sharif is unique. I don’t say that because he’s been my close friend for years or because we went to work abroad together, but because when we got back to Egypt, I realized that he was more than extraordinary. He is widely adored and respected, and a great number of the young, old, and multi-cultured are fans of his art. He introduced me to the fine arts scene, even though I couldn’t decipher the symbols or appreciate the aesthetic. He also showed me around downtown Cairo where I’d lived for many years. He showed me its bars and notable...

  9. 8
    (pp. 46-55)

    I’d been calling Yusuf Hilmi for three days straight. The nurse would keep me up-to-date about his health in a worried voice until, on the third day, she told me that his son and daughter-in-law were with him and asked me whether I wanted to speak to them. I begged her not to mention my name in front of them and to pretend that the person calling was just some old acquaintance. After that, I got busy preparing for mid-year exams and the private tutoring I was doing so I didn’t have time to stop by the bakery.

    One day...

  10. 9
    (pp. 56-66)

    The news was unsurprising; it didn’t really upset me. Karim was actually in jail for slashing his wife Warda’s face with a razor blade. Warda came by the coffeehouse that night as part of her usual nightly rounds. The gallabiya she was wearing was thin and you could see her tattered underwear. Her face was completely covered with gauze and bandages except for her big, black eyes, her thick eyelashes, and her wide mouth. The way she was staggering it was obvious she’d huffed three bottles of glue and drunk a whole thing of Codiphan. She could barely stand up...

  11. 10
    (pp. 67-76)

    I love many parts of this city, but the neighborhood dearest to my heart is al-Talabiya off Haram Street. Not because I lived out my childhood, my adolescence, and my dreams there, as the romantic poets say, but because of the hidden links that bind me to it even when I can’t grasp what they are. I just know that I fill up with the feeling of it, so that whenever I pass through it, or find myself there—even when I pass by it on my way to some other place—I can feel the grass, dry straw, and...

  12. 11
    (pp. 77-86)

    It’s as if you’re looking at your life through a keyhole: you see nothing but cold walls and furniture covered in dust and insects crawling about everywhere. No sign of people and not one indication that air was ever breathed in or out. And no fragrance, no stench, just emptiness.

    Essam went to Singapore. He left without telling me, but he called me after he got back to tell me about his trip. He told me breathlessly about everything he saw while he was there: how clean and safe it was, how polite the people were, the gripping beauty of...

  13. 12
    (pp. 87-92)

    The doctor charged me with having “variations on a condition of schizophrenia.” It was something I constantly thought about; I was always trying to determine the reasons for it. Once the Wahhabi invasion of Egypt—waged by teachers, doctors, white collars, and even some blue collars who’d worked for long stretches in Saudi Arabia—was complete, a lot of things about Egyptian life changed. We pretty much abandoned the beautiful Qur’an recitations of Abd al-Baset, Muhammad Rifaat, Muhammad Sadiq al-Menshawy, and others, and instead people have generally started favoring the nasal voices of al-Huzaifi, al-Sudaisi, al-Thumayni, and the like. Nowadays,...

  14. 13
    (pp. 93-108)

    I nodded off for a bit, floating on the wings of a mythical flying creature through layers of clouds so magical you couldn’t even remember them. As if you’d smoked a ton of raw hashish, or bathed in a rainbow at the top of the Andes. I’d fallen asleep after the Friday prayers. I’d forgotten I was in al-Talabiya waiting to see Hagg Hamid al-Helu until I heard him calling for me loudly. He was standing outside, leaning on a young man in his twenties. He refused to come upstairs and told me to hurry up and come down.


  15. 14
    (pp. 109-112)

    The driver was knocking persistently, but Hagg Hamid told him to give it a rest because they needed time to make themselves presentable. After a little while, the door opened and a giant dressed in a white gallabiya, with a bushy beard but no mustache, appeared before us. He hugged his father and kissed him on the shoulders as he usually did. He put his hand out and tried to get a good look at me. It took him a moment to recognize me, but then suddenly he was hugging me and kissing the air by my cheeks and over...

  16. 15
    (pp. 113-129)

    I loved that coffeehouse where I was sitting then in Bayn al-Sarayat. I had fond memories of the chairs and tables, the corners, and the pillars, which appeared taller than they were because of the sooty cloud that buffeted the ceiling. I used to go there as a student. It wasn’t as spacious or as polished back then; but some of the old character still remained. It was located in a bank of buildings in the Bayn al-Sarayat district, directly across from the university. From the university gate I’d go past the Department of Economics and Political Science, and then...

  17. 16
    (pp. 130-143)

    I waited for Karim while he went to the paint shop. The owner was sitting behind the wooden counter, which ran the length of his small storefront; a boy inside the shop handed him whatever the customers asked for. As soon as the owner spotted Karim standing in front of the store with the other customers, he frowned and shooed him away. I stepped off to the side so that Karim wouldn’t come over to me because I didn’t want the owner to think we were together. But Karim didn’t go very far. He just leaned against a parked car,...

  18. 17
    (pp. 144-155)

    I watched scene after scene of repulsive violence against children, trying as hard as I could to hide my discomfort. Marcia’s face was flushed and excited, even when she pretended to be moved, as she played certain scenes in slow motion and went zooming past others. She was taking notes with her right hand and controlling the remote on her thigh with the fingertips of her left, and at the same time she was giving me some background on what had happened there. I’d never seen footage of it before. The kids looked just like Karim, Warda, Maryam, and their...

  19. 18
    (pp. 156-162)

    After Hind, I was selfish in all my relationships. As relieved as I was to be rid of Zaynab—if my behavior was an accurate reflection of my state of mind—I was equally distraught and jealous and irate and I wished she were here so I could abuse her, verbally and physically. Deep down, I already knew for certain that she’d been with that foreigner she’d met and that it was perfectly ordinary; it was something she did almost every day. But what really made me mad was that she’d told me about it. That it became undeniable fact,...

  20. 19
    (pp. 163-173)

    “Don’t get attached to anything. You’ll just lose it in the end.” That was one of my psychiatrist’s favorite lines and he was always saying it to me. Everything I’d ever done ran counter to that advice. I always got attached to whatever I was bound to lose. There was a picture of Hind under the glass on my desk. Some of my poems and a few quotations covered it up, but I’d often take it out and sit admiring her and talking to her. Then I’d stick it back under my clippings. Zaynab sat at the desk once or...

  21. 20
    (pp. 174-181)

    I’d essentially cut myself off from the world in order to prepare for filming and to make Marcia happy. Fortunately, after a lot of work, I’d convinced her to shoot the script for “The Danger Ahead” in two stages: the first stage during the dog days of July and August and the second in December and January when it’s bitterly cold. Before each stage, I’d pretty much move in with Karim and his crew so I could monitor them up close. I told Marcia that I’d be able to watch them open up like little flower buds, leave their chrysalises...

  22. 21
    (pp. 182-190)

    A record worthy of theGuinness Book of World Recordshad just been set: Zaynab had been over at my apartment for two hours and was still wearing the clothes she’d come in with. I asked her to make something for dinner; she told me to call a restaurant. She used to run to the kitchen—without asking first—and whip up whatever she could find and then she’d insist on feeding me her inexpert cooking. I miss it. I can still taste how delicious it was. Now she was just sitting there, statue-like, with half a smile on her...

  23. 22
    (pp. 191-199)

    I read an amusing story on my way to Minya about a nine-article decree on government publications from around the end of the reign of Sultan Abd al-Hamid II. The most important rule forbade discussion of the protests and revolutions that were taking place abroad because it wasn’t considered good politics for the loyal flock to hear about what was going on.

    Perhaps the strangest application of this rule resulted when an Ottoman newspaper gave the censor a long piece of reporting on the Russian Revolution, which ended with the coming to power of the communists under Lenin’s leadership in...

  24. 23
    (pp. 200-203)

    Essam opened his briefcase. He wrote down the combination and stuck little handwritten labels on the keys for his apartment, the cabinets, his office, and his studio. He told me to shut off the gas and the water and close up the windows. Then he wrote it all down for me because he didn’t trust my poor memory and he told me to pay the rent if he chose to stay in Singapore for good. I’d gone by his place to take him over to the al-Talabiya house to pick up the paintings he was going to use in his...

  25. 24
    (pp. 204-209)

    Marcia was sitting between her friends, resting her head against Diana’s chest, as they watched one of the satellite news channels. She gave me a kiss and hugged me and sat me down next to her. Diana was holding the remote and Marcia was trying to act like she wasn’t worried that one of them was going to say something that would upset me. She let me watch for a little while and then she squeezed my hand, meaning we should go off together. When we were alone, she asked if I’d made any progress with the project. I gave...

  26. 25
    (pp. 210-216)

    We went to the protest Karim had warned us against going to and Marcia photographed as much as she could before the police broke up the crowd. I saw Karim and his friends, hovering around the protesters, but as soon as he saw me, he ducked his head in shame and I lost sight of him. When the police started getting rough with the protesters, I pulled Marcia away so she’d stop provoking them with the lens she was pointing at them. She obeyed grudgingly and followed me, taking a step backward for every two she took forward, as I...

  27. 26
    (pp. 217-221)

    Karim was still in jail and Marcia had started to worry that production was falling behind. I had to tell her about it so that she’d see there was nothing I could do. She did all she could to convince me to go back and stay with the kids without Karim, bribing them with money and clothes so that they’d let me do my work in peace, but I shouted at her. I reminded her about things she seemed to have forgotten: the jugs full of acid, the alcohol and kerosene Molotov cocktails they were ready to use if anyone,...

  28. 27
    (pp. 222-229)

    I finished moving my things out of the al-Talabiya house around the time of the most recent Israeli aggression against Lebanon. I switched the television to a news station, letting the sound fill the room as I packed my bags and sifted through my papers—drowning in the details of each sheet, as the stream of news only stirred my blood up more. I packed up Essam’s stuff and gathered up my old poems, with Hind’s beautifully handwritten comments. And other things of hers: a broken earring I hadn’t been able to repair at the time, leftover pins that she’d...

  29. 28
    (pp. 230-234)

    So many doors shutting in my face one after the other. Essam shut his door and was carried away. Zaynab tore her door out and flew away. Marcia’s door was still open a crack. Yasmeen, now that she’d been stripped of her halo and become human again, was standing in the short distance between her door and emptiness. I didn’t need to see my psychiatrist as much as I needed to be alone. But with the way things were, would that wish ever come true? There were a lot of calls from numbers I didn’t know on my mobile, but...

  30. 29
    (pp. 235-244)

    I woke up to find myself in a fancy room in a luxury hospital where I’d been for two days. From the first moment on, everything frightened me. And though the IVs hanging above my head were attached to my arm and the monitor was graphically tracking the movement of my living organs, I still felt that the only thing connecting me to this earthly life were a few thin strings. I wished they’d be cut and I’d be sent floating out into space. I wasn’t exactly sure what’d happened. My memory sent no visions to point me toward a...

  31. 30
    (pp. 245-256)

    In spite of all the reasons I gave Marcia for why I had to cut myself off from the rest of the world, and though she seemed convinced, she made sure to keep me in the loop just like before. She insisted I take what I’d written of the script so that if I got bored while I was away, as she expected I would, I could entertain myself by working on the film. That way, I’d be ready to give the signal to start as soon as I got back from Mersa Matruh. I complied, especially since she’d agreed...

  32. 31
    (pp. 257-266)

    I never got over what had happened to Essam. I avoided the places where our friends went because I didn’t want anyone to ask me about him; I wouldn’t have known what to say. I didn’t want to call him or visit him because I didn’t want to be faced with any unexpected news. I didn’t want to be the first person to find his body. I didn’t want to be the one to identify his corpse. His obliteration was imminent; he was moored to the earth by only a few unraveling threads. I didn’t listen to Marcia, or Awad,...

  33. 32
    (pp. 267-276)

    Marcia pulled me back inside and pounded on my chest until I came to my senses. She was talking frantically, and though I heard the various languages, I couldn’t understand her as the words had lost any meaning to me. I can remember her opening the front door, as steady as a professional killer, and telling me to go hide in Diana’s apartment downstairs. Terrified, I scurried down eleven flights of stairs to Diana’s apartment on the third floor. Diana was standing behind her half-open door and she quickly pulled me inside. I felt like I was in a science...

  34. 33
    (pp. 277-284)

    In her complaint, the old woman maintained that I’d broken into the apartment and attempted to rape her granddaughter. She also enlisted the help of some of the other tenants and the people from the street who’d roughed me up. They claimed that they’d seen me assaulting the girl and were using the opportunity of my standing in front of the investigating officer to smack me as if the injuries they’d inflicted over every inch of my body hadn’t been enough. They weren’t satisfied with the damage they’d already caused. I didn’t feel like defending myself; I’d seen what I...

  35. Glossary
    (pp. 285-288)