Rana Soliman


       The water hit the spoon’s surface and splashed all over her. Her blouse, pants and the floor got wet. Soraya blamed Umm-Kulthum’s beautiful voice for the distraction. She was keen on finishing the dishes while listening to the eight o’clock classical Arabic music radio program before the miss woke up. 
       The miss had commented before to her that those songs encouraged women to be obsessed about love. And then she rambled and said big words such as; independence, empowerment and the type of words you hear from politicians. Soraya found solace in Umm Kalthum’s songs, what mattered more than love anyway? If it wasn’t for Umm Kalthum’s voice, she wouldn’t have had a song that reminded her of her walks with her mother to the bakery for fresh bread straight out of the oven. They would then fill it with home made chips, shared a bottle of coke, sat on the street benches overlooking the Nile and devoured their feast. This must be her favorite memory of time spent with her mother. Neither would she have had a song that reminded her of the first time Mohsen held her hand when they were strolling in the Azhar park and he confessed his love to her. Those songs kept her company and at times her peace.
       This was Soraya’s first job in the city. After her mother became sick, her family moved to the city in hopes of finding better medical treatments, and Soraya had begun to work to help her family out. Soon her mother died. And her father health conditions quickly deteriorated and could no longer go to work regularly. That is what happens to someone when love is gone, Soraya believed. She quickly found herself barely seventeen and the main source of income in the household. She had to drop out of her last year in school to accommodate the new working hours. Back then she made a vow to herself, that once things began to settle she would go back to school. Now it had been two years already and nothing changed. 
       When she had first arrived at Amal’s house she was wearing one of her favorite mother’s long sleeve dresses; Amal then gave her a long inquisitive look, left her for few minutes without explanation, came in, handed her a couple of old pants and blouses and asked her to wear them instead. She told her that she would not tolerate looking at those ugly dresses. They reminded her of the poor women who worked in the field. She meant the peasants of course. It was not absolutely horrible to work for this bachelorette; at least during day-time she had to clean after one person only. 
       “Important people visit me. So you should look presentable,” Amal would say every time she gave her clothes.
        She was not used to wearing pants it made her feel conscious. Yet she politely accepted them from her and wrapped a jacket around her waist to cover her back. Her body looked slim in those tight clothes. She couldn’t begin to think what her mother would say had she seen her walk like this in the village. Maybe Mohsen would like it, or maybe not, she could not tell. But mother, she wouldn’t.
       She sized the mess she had caused, and quickly searched for a piece of cloth to dry the sink and the wet floor.
        “What was that?” Amal asked coming out of her room and yawning. 
        “Nothing,” Soraya replied as she dried the last wet spot on the floor, “Nothing to worry about Miss.” Amal came into the living room that was an extension to the open kitchen. She leaned on the kitchen’s counter for a minute. The next minute she stretched on the ground in awkward poses. She wore pink sweatpants and a white tank top. And her hair curled in rollers.  
       She looked past Soraya and gestured with her hands, pretending she had a cup she was about to sip from. Soraya’s stomach churned whenever Amal did that, why couldn’t she just ask. 
       “Right away,” she mumbled. 
       Soraya rushed to fix her some coffee. She could now finally perfect American coffee. Before Amal showed her how to, she could only make regular Turkish coffee. 
       Soraya memorized by heart how the scene played out every single day. It was a Friday morning, that meant that the miss woke up late and didn’t have to work. And like every weekend she woke up with what looked like a bad headache, and then asked for her coffee fix while staring at her cellphone. She’d then cover herself with the blanket she kept at the reception’s couch, cuddle her cat, Sonfera, and watch TV till noon. 
       By that time of the day; Soraya would have already finished cleaning the kitchen, swept the floors of the living room and the reception, and started off with the window cleaning. 
During the week the miss worked in one of the prestigious companies. Soraya looked at her while waiting for the coffee to boil. She had the perfect teeth. The perfect skin. Silky hair that was now rolled, golden at the ends and brown at the roots. She looked like a goddess. Probably that’s what money does to people. 
       “Tell me Soraya, do you love this Mohsen of yours?”
       Soraya bit her lower lips. She didn’t remember why she had ever mentioned Mohsen to her. 
       “When are you getting married then?”
       “When God makes a way.”
       “God? That must be a hard relationship.” Amal rolled her eyes and ate a piece of chocolate.
       “Is he one of those traditional men who don’t allow their wives to work?”
       Soraya sighed, “We haven’t talked about that yet.” 
       “Talked about it? This is not an option! Who will clean for me? You have to arrange for a substitute if that’ll be the case.”
       “Miss, not to worry.”
       “I worry Soraya. I worry a lot. I have so much on my plate and an unclean house is the last thing I need,” She said as she waved Sonfera away.  
       So many thoughts passed through Soraya’s mind, but nothing that she could say out loud. 
       “Tell me, is he good looking? Are you attracted to him?” 
       Soraya blushed for she was not accustomed to think in that way, let alone discuss such a private affair in an open manner. 
       “I’d like to think he is handsome.”
        “Poor girl, your face is red!” Amal laughed. “Anyways, I’m travelling tonight for two weeks. I ‘ll leave you the keys; make sure you come at the end of the second week, right before I arrive, to dust off the house.” 
       At around four’ o’clock Soraya was done cleaning the house, and headed home. 
       On her way back she stopped by Marefa public school to pick up her brothers; Omar, Ahmed, Wafik, and Hussein. She was older than the eldest, Omar, by nine years. She glimpsed Hussein first, the youngest, running towards her. She hugged him, then held his hand and waited for the rest of the boys. And then they walked back together to their house, a small flat on top of the roof overlooking the busy streets of Shubra. When they arrived home she could see from the window that her father didn’t change his position since she left him in the morning. She could hardly recognize him these days with his frail figure and large dark circles under his eyes. When her mother was alive, he used to be different but the years seemed to have smoothed his rough edges and soothed her grudges. There he was slouched on the couch, surrounded by half empty cups of tea, watching an Egyptian soap opera episode.
       “Hello father, how was your day?”
       “Good Soso, this was once Egypt. I wanted to be part of those times,” he said referring to the soap opera he watched over ten times this past year, featuring Abd el Halim’s life. 
       “Its seems like it was a good era. Are you hungry?”
       “Of course it was. Yes, and make something for the kids.”
       She let out a long sigh and went to prepare dinner. The kitchenette was made up of a small fridge, one that the miss got rid of last year as she was refurbishing her kitchen and wanted a new one that would blend in with the new design, a vintage stove, and a sink. She fetched the peas she had shelled out the night before. And made a meal of rice and peas in red sauce and served the men. Finally, after a long day she went to her room. The only private room in the house, everything else they shared.
       Other than Mondays she worked all week long, and on Mondays she helped her brothers in their school work. Back when she was at school, she spent her free time with one of her girlfriends or engulfed in a book of her choice. She could hardly grasp that the next day she had the whole day to herself. 
       She woke up as usual at five o’clock in the morning. She did not set up the alarm the night before. Her mother once explained to her, that our bodies have their own way of adapting to habits. It was one of those silly little things that people come to know alone, that her mother talked about the most. Her dad liked to tease her mother that if she had finished her education she would have had better things to talk about. But somehow those were the things she missed the most things like; “Don’t shower before you go to bed or you’ll catch a cold.” and “Eat some real food.”. Where would she have been if it weren’t for her? She missed her. 
       She kept trying to fall back to sleep but she couldn’t. She thought of the things she could do today for a change. She could prepare breakfast for her fiancé in the warehouse and spend time with him. Her stomach cramped. Perhaps she should rest for a while at home, but she wouldn’t really be alone. Her father would be there. 
       She decided that she would walk the boys to school first. So she left the bed and opened her cupboard, several beautiful dresses hanged next to each other. Today was a good day to wear one. But instead she grabbed one of the three outfits she had made out of the items Amal gave her. And headed to the bathroom. And mechanically undressed, took a shower and wore her uniform. 
       “Good morning boys, wake up! You are going to be late to school.”
       Shortly after she dropped them, she took the microbus to downtown. She did not think too much about it, her feet seemed to take the lead.  She arrived at building number nineteen like every morning at eight o’clock. Only this morning, she was not supposed to be there. 
       The apartment was one of the high ceilinged ones. Amal had explained to Soraya that unlike the new areas of Cairo, downtown buildings were built during the British occupation, and their architecture mimicked the European style. The apartment belonged to her grandfather, and now that her family lived in Dubai, it was hers. 
       She tried the keys to the apartment. It was as clean as she left it the day before. She was hesitant at first. But she entered anyway. A rush of excitement travelled all through her body. The house was empty. And she was alone. 
       She didn’t know what to do with herself so she moved to the kitchen and boiled water for coffee. She then went inside Amal’s room; and at the inviting sight of the king-size bed she threw her full weight onto it. She stayed silent for a while. A few minutes later, she went into the bathroom attached to the master bedroom. And undressed. Then she moved to the tub, and opened the tap. She started preparing a bubble bath the same way she did for the miss. Only she could not choose from the range of the liquid soap available. So she poured a bit of each flavor. It smelled like a garden of flowers she thought. Then she immersed in the water. It could have been an hour or more before she came out, she could not tell. 
       She enjoyed the warmth of the water and the smell of vanilla and peach that surrounded her. After the bath she felt a little bit more comfortable. This feels right she thought. She then chose one of the fur pink pajamas-she’d always wondered how they must feel on one’s skin. To be covered by something so soft. Then she lounged on the sofa and watched the television for hours while snacking on nuts. 
       She sort of forgot the day’s hour, who she was or where she had been. Only that she wanted to stay like this for a good while. 
       A door slammed.
        She jerked from her seat. 
       She stood fixed in her place, with a startled look in her eyes. And before she could think, a man appeared. Tall, he occupied so much space. He was too big, and she was too small. He had dark brown hair and thick eyebrows. And hazel eyes that gazed at her.
       She could not make her mouth move. She attempted to say something, but something similar to a squeak came out. It occurred to her that he too looked like he was out of words. 
        “Hey..I’m Mourad, Amal’s brother,” He said in a plain calm voice.
       Something about his voice, calmed her down, more calming then vanilla and peach. 
       Still she did not know what to say. How would she explain why she was there? In his sister’s pajamas?
       He interrupted the silence “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to scare you. Amal said she was travelling and I could use the house during my visit.” “Sorry, I talk too fast! You must be Amal’s friend?” his voice cracked. Was that nervousness she heard in his voice? She suddenly realized he had no idea who she was. She breathed.
       Soraya nodded, “Yes, but I was just about to leave.” 
       “No please you don’t have to.”
       “No really, I was spending the night over and was going to leave anyway.”
       “I hope I didn’t intrude, care for some coffee before you leave?”
       She mechanically followed him to the kitchen.
       The idea of being in a closed space with a man alone, was perhaps a normal idea in Amal’s world, and probably in her brother’s world too. But for Soraya it was the most foreign. She thought of the other night with Mohsen though. She tried to refocus on the enormity of her immediate situation instead. But the memory of Mohsen and the staircase came to her mind. 
       She reached for the coffee jar. 
       “Let me take care of that,” he said as he took the coffee jar from her. “What is your name?”
       “Nesma.” She came up with that rather quickly, she thought.
       It had been a long day for both of them. They had had a fight about postponing their wedding, because Mohsen was not financially ready for all the preparations. And it was late so he walked her home.
       “Milk?” Amal’s brother asked with a charming smile.
       “Yes, please,” She said shyly.
       They had arrived and Soraya turned to tell him goodbye. But he insisted to walk her upstairs. She did not object. 
       “Sugar?” the brother’s voice interrupted her thoughts.
       But her mind wondered again to that night. As she took the stairs she felt Mohsen’s breath at the back of her ears. He was close. And he came closer from behind and tenderly pulled her towards him by her waist. Her heart pace quickened. She lost her breath, and gulped back the tears. She wanted to let go and give in. She wanted to feel the heaviness of his body against hers. Allow herself to feel defeated, penetrated. And for once embrace her femininity without fighting back.
       “Would you like sugar?” he repeated, “Are you okay?” 
       “No, I mean yes. I mean no about the sugar and yes I am okay.”
       “I am a firm believer, that the best coffee is Turkish coffee,” He said with a smile.
       “Me too,” she replied spontaneously.
       And she had loved him for a long time hadn’t she. But despite herself her legs tightened next to each other. And as if possessed by a foreign force, she pushed him away. And started to weep.
       “Are you always so brief in your replies or did I scare you?” he asked.
       He was gorgeous just like his sister. Irresistible, she thought. 
        “No, not at all. I am just shy at first.”
       He laughed, and swiped his dark hair backwards.
       “Do you live nearby?” he asked so gently.
       “Half an hour away,” she replied. She moved her long hair from one side to the other.
       “I can give you a ride.”
       “I prefer to walk.”
       “Me too, it always helps me calm down especially after an exhausting day. Helps me breathe some fresh air, and sort out my messy thoughts. Plus, it’s a good exercise nowadays in a city like Cairo, we don’t get to walk that often,” He said, “I am rambling. Sorry.” 
       She laughed, “No you are okay, you speak your mind.”
       “Is that a good thing?” 
       “Yes. I enjoy walking too; I sometimes get myself lost on purpose to discover new places.”
       “You are adventurous, I see.” He poured the coffee in a cup and handed it to her and said, “I do that in reading, I try to get lost in the books I read, and imagine what it would feel like to live in a different world-the story world.”
       “One can only imagine such things,” she said. 
       “Would you like to go for a walk Nesma?” he asked.
       “Yes. That would be lovely,” she answered. 

Rana Soliman an Egyptian writer who believes in the power of words, and loves to experiment with different narrative modes. Being a hybrid of both the east and west, she writes stories from that culturally conflicted viewpoint. Rana is a financial analyst during the day and a part-time student in the Masters of Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh.

Belal Mobarak

Glass Windows


You’re a teacher tying knots on a sailboat, 
reluctant to let go 
and I mistake the fisherman’s uniform. 
I’m not here for the belly dancers, 
I’m here for another funeral,
to see kites wading in the clouds,  
children pulling at the sky to come closer, 
I need a sock, thread, and one balloon
because my uncle told me about this one trick. 


Borders are not like fences, they keep people in, 
you taught me to flash my passport 
like I belong everywhere, to be restless,
I don’t think land meant to hurt its people, 
all you did was grow tall buildings and 
place glass windows in every classroom.  


From where we stood, 
the women sang beautifully in unison to the duffs
the stars showed themselves after the wedding concluded 
where men held my hands, 
praised the groom and my tongue, 
and asked me to come from behind the camera. 


Someone told me you mean something in Arabic, 
tell me, if cliffs could stop the waves from crashing, 
would you ask them to? 


Your Guadua looks like Qasib grew to adulthood, 
thick, sweet, grounded. The trees need more than sun 
and water, and the three men you let me photograph,
one looked Arab, the other African, and the third 
could have been me. I spoke gringo
they spoke the language of the colonizers 
and the translator understood
it takes more than beauty to stay anchored. 


The citadels, cathedrals, mosques, 
you look older than film, but not antiquity. 
Everyone talks about you, even the enemy,
a silhouette of satellites occupy the rooftops
near stiffened flags above dazzling asphalt, 
you remind me of someone, maps are not printed memories  
the cab driver keeps asking me for directions, 
and I keep pointing towards a home that isn’t in sight. 

More Sweets

With a dated voice he asked
       Are you Ikhwani or Salafi?
He continued his tea, 
       You know what we need?
       America to drop one bomb on all of us.

I smiled awkwardly, looked at his wife then him.
He placed his cup in the tray
rested into his chair. 
His wife turned towards me
       Would you like more sweets? 

Fourth Grade

The General told me to guard the armory and handed me a broomstick
so what if I told you this before              مافيش حاجة اسمة  allowance
here, take four quarters          buy a two liter on your way home
يابني  did I tell you about the neighbor’s dog on the roof  
it barked as if it hated me       and every time it barked it came closer
to the ledge and one day        listen, so what       hear it again  
when your grandfather spoke          I kept my mouth shut.

Belal Mobarak was born in Alexandria, Egypt. Raised in Queens. He is a poet, artist, and the son of a great storyteller. Writing is how he learned to finish his stories and poetry is how he learned to tell them with the least amount of words possible. Belal recently traveled across the United States sharing his stories for The Moth Mainstage. A finalist in Brutal Nation’s 2017 Competition for Writers of Color. You can find his work published in Columbia Poetry ReviewNewtown LiteraryBlueshift JournalFlockApogeeHEart, and others. He currently works for Higher Education in New York City. You may find more of his work at Belalmobarak.com/poetry.

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. 


       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 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.

Aya Telmissany

Grandpa lies

 in the emergency room.
       He is sliding
       on a rolling bed
       from one room 
       to the next.
       We follow him, 
       a broken up herd.
       He’s sleeping 
       with his mouth 
       slightly open
       and if it weren’t 
       for the white walls and acid smell
       I would think he’s just fallen 
       asleep watching Shadia 
       and Abdel Halim’s movie
       But Abdel Halim’s long gone
       And Shadia followed a few days ago.

Grandpa’s lying
        in the emergency room.
       He opens 
       his eyes 
       when I call 
       his name,
       then goes back to sleep. 
       For what seems like an hour,
       I stare at the paleness of his face
       barely visible on the white
       sanitized hospital sheets.
       I watch 
       the rise and fall 
       of his chest,
       a disappointing spectacle.
       I keep watching 
       his chest 
       like one does 
       when trying to catch 
       an actor breathing 
       while playing dead.

There is hardly any sign of life
       but the machines
       attached to him are beeping;
       it must mean that we are still 
       in the same room.

Grandpa’s lying 
        in the emergency room.
       And I’ve never seen my aunts 
       cry before.
       My grandma, I have
       but not tonight;
       she seems more 
       detached than grandpa is;
       and no amount of cliché 
       words of consolation
       can bring her back. 

Grandpa’s back
       From the emergency room.
       He’s fallen asleep
       in his new wheelchair
       watching Shadia
       and Abdel Halim’s movie

Grandpa’s out 
       of the emergency room.
       but I am still there.
       I always will be. 

Aya Telmissany is a 22-year-old student at The American University in Cairo. She is majoring in English and Comparative Literature and minoring in both Creative Writing and Arabic Literature. She won in the French international poetry contest “Poésie en Liberté” in 2014 and was also awarded the first prize in the Madalyn Lamont Award For Creative Writing in English by the Department of English and Comparative Literature at AUC in 2018 for a collection of ten short poems. She also writes and edits poetry for the Egyptian online magazine CairoContra

Fatima El-Kalay


       She parks her car and walks down the broken pavement, afraid her heels will catch in the cracks. The restaurant is round the next corner, a small, nondescript place on a side road in Mohandisseen.  At the lamppost outside the entrance an old peasant man hums to himself, beside his warm batata cart, the waft of his roasted sweet potato fills the void of the chill night. 

       There’s a clock on the wall: 8:15; on time. The waiter smiles apologetically and asks her if she has a booking. None? There are no tables inside; there is a nice one here on the patio. Fine. It is cold though; could the waiter get a portable heater? Certainly. Would she like to order? Not now. She will wait. She is good at waiting. 

       The batata vendor is audible from the patio. He begins to sing an unfamiliar song. It sounds made up. 

Oh, the ship in the storm yearns the port, 
       but the port is not what it seems 
       when the ship returns, 
       It will not be safe 
       For it will drown in its dreams 

       His voice is like scratchy plastic. Why doesn’t the restaurant manager tell him to clear off? He can’t be good for business.  She wonders if she did the right thing coming. And why this vague place, an empty vessel, void of memories for them? 

       Finally he arrives, fifteen minutes later, a great chocolate trench coat carrying a man of purpose. He sweeps onto the patio with ease. He is not late, his footsteps say; he is never late. 

       He smiles and swoops down as if to kiss her, but instead only clutches her shoulder. He casts off his enormous coat and sits across from her, placing his many blinking, beeping phones on the table. He asks her if she has ordered. No, she was waiting for him. Ah, but she knows what he always ever eats, he reminds her. Well she thought he might like something different. He grimaces, like someone who has just tasted castor oil. Does he ever change his order? 

       The waiter comes. The man orders briskly for both of them: soup and crackers, salads and main course. Beverages later? They will only fill us up, won’t they, dear? 

       He links his fingers together and glances across at her. She looks lovely, he says. She gazes down at her reflection in a spoon. She did look very good, so ripe in beauty, the warmth of roast chestnuts on an open fire, stirring in her oval face.

       The peasant with the batata cart leans against the patio railings. “Akhenaten! Akhenaten!” he yells. “What was he thinking? He must be insane to imagine he could bring change!”  

       The man grits his teeth. What, did she not find a table inside? This peasant will give them no peace. Waiter, can you tell him to move? I’m sorry sir, he doesn’t listen, but he never stays long. Then tell him to keep it down. Certainly, sir. 

       What were they talking about? She tells him nothing yet, so he asks her how she is. It is such a vast question. An ocean. She feels helpless before it. El-hamdulilla she decides to say. And the children? Growing used to their new neighborhood? Making friends? She nods. He jabs at his meat and edges closer. He is proud of her for coming today. He is proud she is willing to start afresh. So this is a new beginning? Yes, yes. It is never too late, is it? No, she says, never too late, as long as people are ready to make it work. Was he prepared for lasting changes? He chews. Well he came here, didn’t he? That proves something. And the other women? Nothing worth mentioning, he assures her; they weren’t even real. So was she real? Of course she was, she was real and she was permanent. A safety net. A safety net? Is that all? To catch him when he fell? 

       The batata man begins to rant. “Thought he had created a new empire! Tel el-Amarna. Homage to the God Aten, but no! But no!” 

       He frowns. To be a safety net is a great thing. He would be her safety net, too. So, would he move to their neighborhood, for the children’s sake? Ah but work—she knows how it is! It’s hard in this sprawling city to commute, not convenient for the breadwinner. She ought to move back, she and the children must return to their haven. But how? The children— 

       —They must sacrifice for the bigger picture. 

       His phones blink red, and he picks one up to read a message. There’s a meeting in a hotel nearby. It was unexpectedly confirmed, so he needs to get going soon. He would have to sacrifice dessert, but he would pay the cheque before he left. It’s a good thing he chose a restaurant so close or he would be late for his appointment. 

        “Akhenaton! Dead! A great heritage gone, all disappeared, as if it never happened. The House of Aten torn down. The more things change, the more they stay the same!” 

       The man rises. He is sorry, he says; it is so important he doesn’t miss this meeting. She looks up at the clock again: 9:15 exactly; hands outstretched, straining across the clock face, like an embrace between parting lovers. 

       They would meet again soon, he smiled, swiveling away. 

       “It’s a lie, a lie! Short-lived rebellion! Back to old ways, Aten forgotten!” 

       She sees him through the railings, flashing an exasperated look at the batata man. What a strange, babbling fool. He presses a five-pound note into the peasant’s palm. The peasant recoils, indignant. “No charity! My sweet potatoes cost money, but I give you my wisdom for free!” 

Fatima El-Kalay is a short fiction and poetry writer who was born in Birmingham, UK, to Egyptian parents, but grew up north of the border in idyllic Scotland. She has a Master’s degree in creative writing, and has had short fiction published in Passionfruit (US) and Rowayat (Egypt).  Her flash piece Snakepit was recently longlisted for the London Independent Story Prize (LISP).  A story anthology The Stains on Her Lips, her collaborative project with two other Egyptian authors, Mariam Shouman, and the late Aida Nasr, is due for publication in summer 2018. She is currently working on her first poetry collection. In the past Fatima wrote healthcare articles for a major parenting magazine in Cairo, over a span of 10 years. Fatima is also a self-taught artist and a self-help coach. She lives in Cairo, Egypt with her husband and children. 

Nashwa Gowanlock

The Egyptian

You poor tamed cat, what did
the Egyptians do to you,
castrating you and your hunting
impulse. So much so, that you,
our beloved pet, are scared of birds,
too afraid to go out into the garden.
We made you an object of our own,
brought you plastic toys
to mimic the life you were made for,
so we can cuddle up at night,
stroke your furry neck
as you stretch it out as far as it will go,
until it’s not fun anymore
and I’m tensing up and shifting my body
and you, annoyed, start biting me
in quick, sharp bursts before you leap off,
ears twitching, shaking off the humiliation.
My cousin once asked me why
we adopted a common tabby, an Egyptian
as they call it, instead
of a longhaired Persian. It’s good
to know where we come from, I said. 


                                                 It is surreal being here with a husband and a baby.
                                   Coming back to the country I’ve returned to over the
                                   years, gazing into the mirrored Damietta dresser, the
                                   one that distorts the reflection so much it prompts
                                   my husband to ask if his head is too big for his body.
                                   Without even needing to look, I say no, of course not,
                                   because I immediately visualise my elongated, spotty
                                   teenage face staring back at me, from when I used to
                                   contemplate my own distorted shape in the miraya.  

       I line my eyes with kohl,
clearing the smudge on one lid as usual
and wonder how many minutes
of my life I’ve spent on these
corrections. I glance at myself
and decide I look pretty. 


                     From the Egyptian Book Of The Dead 

Bake me a loaf
and since bread makes me thirsty,
pour me some wine
even though the smell is rancid.

I’ll open a window
as wide as it will go, watch
the man with a hoe
hacking at his front lawn.

Save me a slice
of your rye concoction.
I’ll butter it
when I come home. 

Nashwa Gowanlock is a writer, journalist and literary translator. She has translated numerous works of Arabic literature, including a co-translation with Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp of Samar Yazbek’s memoir, The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria. Nashwa holds an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Matthew Shenoda


Chained to an ancient idea
she took the tool into her hand 
and began her meticulous labor. 

To shape a thing
according to the colors
in one’s head.

We give without asking 
for return.

The way a mother might
braid her child’s hair
thinking of vines,
of her childhood home,
the plant she can no longer name.

And like plow to earth
a mouth-full of singing
and the bird floating in the tree
eyes fixed on the pistil of the bloom.

She can see the way the bird
looks sharply
the way her own body
sinks into the earth 
with a certain kind of pain
as if the soil were made
from fragments of home.

To say that this is timeless
is not to understand
the way time is both fixed
and ever-present.

She is a mirror of herself
hunched in a furrow of forgetfulness
traded on the land by sweat and burn.

Forget me, she says,
forget that my body ever rose on this earth.
But the bird in the tree keeps peering,
keeps seeing,
keeps tipping its wings in a distant direction

As if there and here
were always the same,
as if one blanket could cover
the beds of millions.

Matthew Shenoda is a writer and professor whose poems and essays have appeared in a variety of newspapers, journals, radio programs and anthologies. He has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize and his work has been supported by the California Arts Council and the Lannan Foundation among others.