Mai Serhan

       Tamima’s driver parked the SUV by the Civil Status Authority in Abasiyya and rushed to her side to open the door. She stepped out sheepishly, cursing him under her breath for drawing attention to her. Osama, the guy in charge of whisking her through all the red tape and ordinary people was waiting on the sidewalk, his face baring a huge obligatory smile. The sidewalk was already buzzing with activity. Street sellers sat cross-legged on the bare ground, picking lice out of children’s hair, chitchatting, and selling everything from vegetables and tissue boxes, to biscuits and Taiwanese toys. “Happy New Year!” they hurled, as the Madame came out of the fancy car. “LE 6 the tomatoes!” “May God make you pregnant!’ said one. “Pregnant!” shrieked her friend, “She’s an Anissa, you blind one! She means, may God find you a husband, Anissa!” Tamima stopped to take a good look at the women’s faces. She wanted to quip back, but didn’t know what to say. So she just smiled at them. “Let’s go,” urged Osama. She gave Osama a curt smile, and followed him into the government building.
       Scanning her surroundings, she made a quick mental note that she was the only unveiled woman inside; if not one of a handful in a sea of men. On the peeled, cracked gray walls above the plastic orange seats was a huge poster. ‘The Heroes of January 25. The Police Martyrs,’ it read. Underneath the header were around 50 thumbnails of sullen, sunken faces. “Priceless,” she thought. “They still insist and they still remember!” She inched closer to take a better look at the faces from a bygone era. “Small time crooks,” she first thought. But then something else emerged. The eyes and mouths were vacant and forlorn. Which led her to entertain another thought. These men were draftees from remote villages; Clueless public servants at the end of the command chain. They had no choice in killing. They were just obeying orders; which inadvertently put them in the line of fire. She wished she could take a photo, but thought better of it. The sense of paranoia and intimidation pervaded the air and permeated her skin. 
       “After you, Madame!” Osama’s voice snapped her out of her thoughts. He had the elevator door open for her. Hordes of people were stuffing themselves in before the ones inside could make an exit. Once everyone guaranteed a spot, all eyes turned to her.

       “Come in,” they urged unanimously. “There’s space!” 
       “Where?”  she thought. “Never mind, I don’t want to draw any more attention to myself.” She clinched her bag closer to her chest and took the plunge. Inside, she stood straight as an arrow with barely a twitch, her eyes fixed on the weight capacity sign. Do Not Exceed 640 Kilograms, it read. She made a swift head count without moving a muscle. There were 11 people in this elevator, with an estimated average weight of 80 Kilograms each. She could not breathe. Not just because of the sidewalk, the government building, the poster, or the elevator, but because of what they all signified to her. Tamima was not altogether comfortable with what she was about to do in this building.
She sat on one of the many plastic orange seats lining the peeled and cracked gray walls waiting, then she remembered: Everything happened in the heat of the moment.
       They met during the 18 days leading to the toppling of Mubarak. They were both members in the same youth movement, which met regularly at the CCC Club in Garden City. He worked in a corporate law firm, and she was a young and promising journalist. Armed with an infectious happy energy, a natural affinity with people, she believed she could change the world. He was calm, collected and aloof. When he spoke, which was rare, he commanded the respect and attention of the entire room; And when he was simply observing, he possessed the effortless gravitas of a man who knew a lot about the world. He observed her ardor with utter fascination. Tamima sparkled in front of him and she knew it. But what she did not expect was that her flattery would give way to intimidation, something that she had never experienced before. 
       “After you, Madame.” Osama led her through a corridor, where police guards sat sipping their tea and watching passers by. Rooms shrouded in cigarette smoke and a general feel of ennui flanked the passageway. Finally, she was ushered into one of them. It was threadbare, yet oddly enough laden with character. There were no pictures on the walls, not even of President Al Sissy. There were no plaques, no stationary and no files on the desks; just tea dregs and burnt cigarette butts in glass cups. The leather sofas were ripped and gutted with their sponge filling bulging out like the entrails of slaughtered lamb. She sat on one of them facing a young man in a white galabiyya. He was bearded without a mustache, which immediately indicated his Salafi leanings. Behind one of the desks sat a government employee, with jaundiced eyes inhaling the smoke that he’d just exhaled as he lazily spoke on his mobile phone. Both men did not look at her. But while the man with the white galabiyya was painfully aware of her, the government employee was completely unaware. 
       “What these bare walls must’ve witnessed,” she thought. “Faten Hamama and Omar al Sharif’s divorce, maybe? Nasser’s first ID as President?.. The death certificates of thousands and thousands of Egyptian youth? …. Maybe not...And what about these leather seats? How many bottoms must’ve sat here over time? Probably millions. All shapes and sizes, and from all walks of life… they probably haven’t changed these seats since that very first bottom.”
       Their first time alone together was on the CCC terrace. She stepped out to smoke a cigarette. He followed and asked her for a lighter. She found herself struggling to stand still. She put one hand on the rail and puffed away nervously with the other, but it felt awkward, especially with her bitten fingernails on display. So she started twirling a short strand of her cropped hair around her finger. He stood there observing, affectionately, with a grin that made her weak at the knees. He made no secret of gliding his eyes over her flawless rose-white face. She looked down at his shoes. Their immaculate black sheen revealed a man of fine tastes. She lifted the collar of her jeans jacket and hid half her face behind it as if to warm herself, then peered shyly at him. He was wearing a perfectly tailored designer suit. “Here I am, falling for a man in a designer suit.” He gently hooked his finger into hers and freed her short strand now curled around itself. She did not stop him. 

       “Toota,” he said with a big smile. 

       “Sorry?” she muttered. 

       “Toota.”  

       Her fate was sealed. She had been known by a few nicknames amongst family and friends, Tammy, Mima, Mimi, but Toota was odd. It just didn’t fit her. She belonged to a family of strong an independent individuals. In raising her and her brother, her parents always stressed on individuality, curiosity, and independence with gender roles playing no part. Her father was a diplomat and an avid reader of history. His posts took the family to some of the most interesting destinations; From Chile to Greece to Mozambique. Her mother, a flamboyant character, was a jewelry designer with a husky voice and a penchant for cigars. As for her older brother, he was a computer scientist who had founded his own IT start-up. Their parents taught them to depend on themselves and work for what they wanted from an early age. When Tamima decided to pursue a higher degree in journalism at the age of 25, it was her decision, and responsibility. She built a strong portfolio, got a full scholarship, and took off on her own.

       “Where is your husband’s ID?” The voice interrupted. 

It was the man with jaundiced eyes. Tamima rummaged through her bag 

       “Oh no, I forgot it… no, no wait, here it is.” 

She pulled a card out. 

       “Oh. Wait. This is my driving license. Would this work?”  

Osama looked at her in disbelief then turned to the man to try and salvage the situation. Tamima watched as Osama’s whole demeanor transformed. With his body arched forward and his voice reduced to a whimper, he said:

       “Forgive us, Sir. She got her driving license by mistake, but look! Look! The information is identical. We are sorry.”  

The salafi man was getting even more uncomfortable now that all attention was on her. Osama then whispered something in the man’s ear.  

       “Go to Lieutenant Mustafa on the ground floor. See what he could do for you,” said the man. 

Osama’s face swelled with gratitude. He gave the man an exaggerated salute, stomped one foot, and marched off. 
Tamima followed. 

       “Do I really want to do this..” she wondered “Change the status on my national ID to ‘married?’ For God’s sake, do I even know if this is going to last? … When did my limbs become so limp? and how did he become my crutch?”

       They fell fast for each other. The heady times played a decisive role in their romance. Their days in the Square saw them form a formidable team. They became the best versions of themselves, heroes on a heroic bend. They thought anything was possible. They thought they could change the world. 
       She expressed herself to him in bits and pieces. At first he listened to her stories with a kind of rapture, but then one story led to another, and one question led to another. The more he knew about her, the more he became reserved. After all, at 28, Tamima was not exactly a debutante. Besides, her home environment was quite liberal. There were no secrets in her house. Growing up, her parents did not differentiate between her and her brother on any count. They had the same freedoms, restrictions and opportunities. As his love grew, he also became critical of the very qualities that had attracted him to her in the first place. He became critical of her strengths, of her freedom, and particularly of her past relationships. 
       Egypt’s 18 days at the Square saw women abandon the home, lead men in demonstrations, stand in front of police tanks, take over the megaphones, guard the gates, and even guard the night. All of which had led to the, momentarily, dissolution of sexual barriers, and a celebration of women as equals. They were in that Square together, side by side. He did not need a revolution. He was already an enlightened and confidant man. She thought he could handle all that she is, that he could respect her past, even though it might make him jealous. At 28, she had lived alone, earned her own money, travelled the world, and fell in love more than once. He probed and she had nothing to hide. She told him who was her first, who broke her heart, and whose heart was broken. He listened, stone-faced. That night she went to bed and woke up to the sound of sobbing coming from the balcony. She got up in a panic and found him on his knees. Rocking himself on the cold tiles and sobbing. 
       The problem became so severe in the months that followed that to her shock, he demanded that she sees a psychiatrist. He loved her, he said, and expressed his wish to marry her, but in order to take this step he had to feel secure and stable in their union. He told her only men had no qualms about casual sex. She tried to explain to him that it was not casual, but that made him probe more. Did she have any regrets, he asked. “No,” came her answer. Then something must be fundamentally wrong with her. He started yelling. She needed rehabilitation. He argued that she would not be able to exist within Egyptian society the way she is, let alone instill the values that he wanted in their children. She was crushed, but at the same time, she found it impossible to walk away. It was too late. She was irrevocably, dangerously in love. Something inside her told her that he did not mean what he said and that there must be another reason for saying it. Instead of taking offense to his words, she convinced herself that this was the purest form of flattery. He loved her, and love drives one mad. If anything, his behavior indicated that he could not bear sharing her with someone else, not even in his imagination. He is a strong man, she told herself, and she, only she, could bring him to his knees. So she stayed, and promised herself never to give him a reason to be insecure. To hell with her past! She tore old photos, poems, notes, and un-friended everyone on social media with the potential to unsettle their relationship.
 
       “Madame?” it was Osama. 

She had unwittingly stopped in her tracks in front of the Men’s restroom. The door was like a palimpsest of scribbles, reiterating the same thing over and over again in different colors: ‘Manhood,’ in red spray paint, ‘Men,’ in ink, and ‘Manly,’ in a thick black felt pen. There was even a tiny doodle of a man’s penis next to the knob. The door was closed, but it might as well have been open. The stench of the disinfectant mixed with the stink of urine permeated through the door and parched papyrus-colored paint. 

       “Madame!” it was Osama again. 

​Tamima suddenly realized how bizarre this sight must’ve looked. 

       “I need the woman’s restroom,” she told him, “just go to the Lieutenant’s office and I will catch up with you in a minute,” she said. 

       She waited until he took a left at the end of the corridor then pulled out her mobile phone. She looked around quickly, before snapping a picture of the battered door. Strangely enough, she was feeling a reconnection with herself here; at a government building of all places; Maybe because that poster had touched a buried part of her, had transported her to another time and place. She felt free to think for herself here, with a kind of clarity that she hadn’t experienced in years. Osama was walking really fast, but there was a lot that Tamima wanted to stop at and absorb, like that board plastered on several walls. “The Fundamentals of Police Behavioral Conduct,” it read. She looked around before quickly taking a picture with her mobile phone and hurrying to catch up with Osama. As she sat waiting by the Lieutenant’s office, she looked at the picture she’d just taken. Words and broken meanings faded in and out: Power to the people.. Respect for human rights.. Freedom of expression… Honesty .. Transparency ..Plurality.. Democracy.
       She looked inside the Lieutenant’s office and found a swarm of veiled government employees fluttering around him. He stood in their midst like a knight in shining armor, tall, broad, and tyrannical. He made eyes with this one and leaned against that one, while they blushed and flushed and ran out of breath. They all fell for the uniform. They were all seeking a way out of the home at any cost. She found herself wondering what a night with this man would be like. Would he mount her like a prisoner of war? Would he be kind to her the morning after? Did they really think this man was their salvation from the father, the brother, the mother, the neighborhood, the country?  
       He shot a look her way. It was fast, but had the will of a bullet. A sudden confidence took command of her body, as she sat there in one piece, one leg gracefully draped over the other. Then his coffee was served and the women dispersed. 

       “You will need to sweet talk the Lieutenant since you forgot your ID. Also, excuse me for saying this, but you also should thank him for receiving you in his office,” Osama said, “Don’t worry.”


       “Protocol!” Dr. Aziz said. 

He was annoyed he could not get through to her. 

       “You need to learn how to conduct yourself in this society. Tamima, you are a lady!” 

She laughed. 

       “What is so funny!” 

Dr. Aziz was the psychiatrist he had chosen for her. 

       “Look at how you’re sitting. Don’t slouch!” he shrieked. “What is so funny!” 

       She obeyed and sat up straight. Everything about him was large, his physique, his demeanor and his tastes. Although she received most of his advice with cynicism, there was always an element of amusement. Dr. Aziz was a society man who appreciated the finer things in life. Whole sessions were spent on talking about how to tell the difference between an original Limoges dining set and a fake one, or on the difference between real Czech crystals and artificial ones. She did not know nor care about such topics, but he derived so much pleasure out of them that she let him talk all he wanted.  
       With time, however, the sessions did eventually bring about change. Dr. Aziz’s approach was quite effective. In their first meeting, he told her there is no such thing as “fixing’ a patient. He asked her what she expected out of their sessions and she simply told him she wanted to be with this man. He told her that would be the goal they would work towards. He told her that her past was hers alone, and that only she reserved the right to disclose her secrets. He taught her discretion. He showed her how to turn a situation to her favor, how to think before speaking, and when not to speak at all. He taught her how to tell her man what he wanted to hear so that she could get what she wanted. He taught her how to act in public who to allow from her past, and how to behave when someone from that past reappeared. Dr. Aziz also paid a lot of attention to her image. He despised her cropped hair and urged her to grow it out. At the start of every session, he would inspect her nails and skin and reprimand her for not grooming herself. 

       “What is this!” he would say. “Your hands are dryer than mine! Stop biting your nails.” 

All that went against Tamima’s very nature. Reserve was not one of her qualities either, but she was so determined to make it work between them, that she was prepared to do anything.
       Eventually, Toota became more than a nickname, it became a way of life. In bed, she was too scared to show her experience or express any wild desires. She became caged in and gave him the lead. He derived pleasure out of dominating her, as if that would heal his bruised pride or dispossess her of her past. When the big day came, she found herself letting go of one wish after another and succumbing to his will. Initially he had agreed with her that an intimate celebration by the beach is what he wanted too. But then there were his colleagues at the firm, his high profile clients, and his parents’ society friends. When it came to their home, she had assumed that he would give her space to be creative and to let her home reflect her tastes as well, but that wasn’t the case either. He argued that he needed to entertain his clients, and dictated every choice. He wanted something sober, more somber; Leather couches, cherry wood, plush fabrics and subdued shades all around. He told her where to go and asked her to come back to him with samples to choose from. When she was finally done, she did not recognize herself in any corner. The living space looked more like a cigar lounge than a home. 

       “Toota, I need you to keep your distance from the help.” 

She was too friendly, he complained. 

       “Toota, why don’t you straighten your hair? How could anyone take you seriously like this?” 

       “Toota, I think it’s better if you stop coming to my office. I’m not comfortable with my colleagues ogling my wife. I’m set to become a partner soon, you know.”

Eventually, he even started putting limitations on her work. 

       “Listen, I don’t want you working around the Downtown area anymore. Who goes there anymore.” 

       “Tell you what, why don’t I hire you a driver? Do you see how people drive nowadays?” 

       “Why are your colleagues calling you at such an hour? Show some respect!” 

She was too naiive, he argued. She trusted people too much. He loved her. He wanted to protect her. She should trust him. He knew better. 


       The Lieutenant shot another look her way and signaled with his finger for her to come in. She entered with Osama tagging along, and sat down waiting while he pretended to be busy with files on his desk. 

       “Sir,” Osama started his groveling plea, “forgive us, the Madame here forgot her husband’s national ID. We would be so grateful if-“ 

​Tamima could not take another second of this bootlicking. 

       “Osama.” she finally said. “That will be it. Please wait outside.” 

Osama froze mid-monologue. 

       “But, but-“ he muttered. 

       “I said wait outside,” she demanded firmly. 

She waited for him to leave before turning to the Lieutenant and extending her arm across the desk. 

       “Tamima al-Sharif,” she said, introducing herself. 

It took him a few seconds to respond. She gave his hand a slight squeeze and watched him wriggle it out of her grip. She sat back in her seat, and began talking:

       “I initially came here to add my husband’s name to my ID,” she started. “It is not my idea, but you know, it makes it easier to do things together, like vote for the next president. Will you be voting, Lieutenant?” 

He did not respond. 

       “Oh, right. The police force is not allowed to vote. I would vote for Mona Prince,” she continued, “but there is no way she could collect a million signatures. Have you heard of her?” 

He shrugged. 

       “You wouldn’t. She is this crazy university professor who got suspended for teaching her student’s Milton’s Paradise Lost. Have you heard of Paradise Lost?” 

She could see him getting angry, but she continued:

       “I know there was no hope in her ever winning.. You know with all that nonsense she stands for.. ‘dreams, knowledge, art, literature, freedom’… but you know I would be voting for a principle.” 

She looked up at the big board plastered all over the building. There it was again, on his wall. 

       “You know, power to the people.. respect for human rights, civil society and all that nonsense.” 

       “How can I help you, Madame Kamel?” 

He used her marital name on purpose. She ignored the dig. 

       “Such a shame you can’t vote. It only makes sense that those who uphold those values the most are allowed to partake in their realization, don’t you think? Anyway, I know you’re a busy man. There are hundreds of people who come asking for favors everyday. They probably come from all over the country. They take trains, microbuses and wait for hours at your door. You probably send them off for a missing stamp or signature.” 

       “Madame Kamel, you are here because General Rafiq gave orders to receive you well and expedite your papers. How can I help you!” he scowled. 

She ignored his dig again. 

       “My point is, these people need your time more than me. If you do not help them, I’d imagine they will probably have nowhere to sleep in the big city, until they get their papers in order.” 

She stood up. 

       “I thank you for your time, and of course, please do thank General Rafiq. But as you know, I forgot my husband’s national ID at home today. And besides, it doesn’t really matter. The presidency is a pre-determined matter.” 

He stood up with rage searing his eyes. For a moment, she felt that he would hit her. 

       “Zakarriyya!” he shouted. 

The coffee boy appeared. 

       “Show her out!” 

She took a deep breath before extending her hand to him once again. He didn’t move.

       “It was a pleasure meeting you, Sir,” she said.




 

Mai Serhan

Mai Serhan is a Palestinian/Egyptian scholar and writer. She earned her BA in English & Comparative Literature and MA in Arabic Studies from The American University in Cairo, and has also studied Screenwriting at NYU. Mai's MA thesis has recently been awarded the Magda Al-Nowahi Award for Best Thesis in Gender Studies, 2018. She is currently working on her first collection of short stories, one of which has won The Madalyn Lamont Literary Award from The American University in Cairo. The story submitted here is part of this collection.

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