Holiday

zamalek street sign

Zamalek street sign, Cairo

I waited for Misha at the bar. He was only 15 minutes late, and when he came he was with his wife, his sister, and a friend we both knew when we were children. We all talked at the bar, but it was strained. I did not know Misha’s wife, and the sister was very distant, and the friend we both knew soon became as difficult as I remembered her. Misha only had one beer, and the rest of them had coffee and soda, and then we had a few hors d’oeuvres brought to our table. After an hour of forced conversation, they told Misha and I that they were leaving us alone to catch up. And so they left. Misha and I moved to the bar, and then we ordered some drinks. And then we began talking a little more, and had a few more beers, and soon Misha was much more outgoing and relaxed. But then he became serious. My memory is gone, he said. I’m starting to forget a lot things. And I can’t read Arabic anymore. I don’t remember a lot of what happened when we lived here. I don’t know why I’ve come back. Don’t worry about it, I said. Do you think there are a lot of people who do what we are doing. Who come back looking for something they lost. Oh yes, I said, you can spot them easily. They look like ghosts sometimes, and other times they look like old elephants. We paid for the drinks, left the bar and started walking back to his hotel. It was annoying trying to navigate the narrow streets and the unceasing traffic and motorcycles without their light turned off at night and cars double parked bumper to bumper and we strained our knees stepping on and off the unusually high sidewalks. The streets did not look as bad as they did in the daytime. It occurred to me as we walked that Misha and I had never walked on the streets of Zamalek together before, even though we had both grown up in the Gezira Club. How come we never did this as kids? I said. My mother never let us walk anywhere without supervision. She drove you to the club? That, or taxis. Everywhere. We passed by the Petit Lyçée on Ahmed Heshmat where I got into a lot of trouble as a boy. Did you remember Mademoiselle Jaja? Yes of course. Did you go to her wedding? I was there. I think. Yes, I’m pretty sure I was there. I was the train bearer. With your sister. Yes. She was very beautiful that day. I looked at him. Yes. I remember that very well. We kept walking on Maraashli street. Despite the hour, some workmen were demolishing what remained of a store adjoining an old villa whose once beautiful garden had been left untended and was now in ruins. But we could still see the faded lettering above door to the shop. Ce petit coin de rien. Neither of us said anything as we walked to Ahmed Mazhar street and I did not know if Misha remembered that this antique shop was one of places where all the families that were being kicked out by Nasser tried to sell their exquisite hand made furniture for pennies before leaving the country. Soon enough, we arrived at Firdaus. My street. Paradise Street. We stood on the corner in front of the gates of the residence of the Indian ambassador. I tilted my head slightly to a building behind me. The sisters lived here, I said. Second floor. Yes, said Misha. We all lived so close to one another. I paused and looked at him. I looked into his baby blue eyes, and for just for a moment I no longer saw the old man with the bald head and the hurt lost eyes looking back at me but instead the handsome teenager who once had all the hearts of the most beautiful girls at the Gezira Club in the palm of his hand. Well, it’s time for me to go, said Misha. Yes. It has been lovely seeing you, Keemo. You too, Misha. Till next time then. We shook hands and parted. I watched him walk the few steps to the Safir hotel. I was almost worried he would forget where it was. Taxis slowed down and beeped at me thinking I wanted a ride. I shook my head, to get them to move on, but kept standing there. The guard in front of the Indian Ambassador’s residence looked at me. Is everything okay, ya basha? he said. Yes. Koolou tama’am, all is well. I was going to walk back to the apartment but it was then that I remembered when I last saw Misha. I don’t know why I had forgotten this. Probably because it was so long ago, 45 years almost; a lifetime. I was 12 and walking with my mother to the club. We often did that in those days, she and I. It was nothing for a English woman to be walking in Western clothes in Zamalek and no one would bother us and the boabs watched over us just in case and all the villas were quite beautiful as we walked past them and we knew almost everyone who lived in them. On that day we were at the top of Firdaus and about to start walking to the club and then I noticed a car coming and it was Misha’s car his father was driving and his mother was in the passenger seat and his sister was in the back with him and there was luggage tied with ropes to the rack on top of the car. Misha’s father pulled over and stopped next to us. He looked worried. I had never seen him look this before. I had only seen him relax playing chess in the club on Fridays with his friends and sometimes he would play a game of chess with me and let me win even though he was a good player and would never have been beaten by a child. I haven’t seen you in ages! said my mother to Misha’s mother. Yes. I’m sorry about that. We’ve been quite busy lately. A lot of people are these days. Yes, said Misha’s mother. They looked at each other and I could tell something needed to be said but for some reason the grownups were not saying anything to one another. We’re going on holiday! said Misha, grinning at me. I looked at him smiling at me with his blue eyes and then I looked at his father and I did not think that my father ever looked so sad going off on a holiday. Well, goodbye, said Misha’s mother. Goodbye to all of you, said my mother. Don’t forget to write. My mother and I watched the car drive off down Ahmed Mazher, which in those days was a two-way street. When are we going on holiday? I asked my mother. But she didn’t answer. Years later, I learned that they had gone to Greece. They had not told any of there friends they were leaving because they were afraid that Nasser’s secret police would arrest them at the airport. Misha’s father could not find work at first, but then, after much trying, he was able to get a job in a bakery. This was a man who had founded his own business out of nothing and ending up owning a factory in Egypt that made wonderful things. But they took that away from him, as they took away a lot of things from a lot of people and most of those people were never again the same ever some got over it but some of them walked around for the rest of their lives like sleepwalkers but not one of them not one ever said anything bad about the country they once loved so much but which no longer loved them back.

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