Descending over Cairo, lights everywhere, in long rows, flashing on and off, indications of nighttime Ramadan festivities in the vast city below, where rows of tables, set out along streets, welcome any and all to sit and break the fast and eat. It’s the final weeks of 2003 and I have come to see a friend, the Armenian Egyptian painter Anna Boghiguian, whose mother recently died. She meets me at the airport, a large woman, dressed in loose, shabby clothes, and grabs my arm and leads me forcefully to a taxi, complaining already, asking why I hadn’t come sooner, why I waited so long.
Distressed, she talks about her mother, whose death is several months old. How do I explain I came as fast as I could, not every New Yorker, or American, has the resources to leave a job, jump on a plane at a moment’s notice and travel halfway around the world on a one-way ticket.
How do I explain I came as fast as I could, not every New Yorker, or American, has the resources to leave a job, jump on a plane at a moment’s notice and travel halfway around the world on a one-way ticket.
She was in Paris when her mother died, and when she returned, she found the body. Her mother was dead a week or more and decomposing in Cairo’s summer heat. After we arrive at her small rooftop apartment, she reads me one of her mother’s poems, translating from Armenian. The poem, published in a local Armenian paper, is about freedom, nobility, wanting to help people, yet feeling trapped. Anna keeps a scrapbook with her mother’s poems pasted inside, cut from the newspapers they were published in. She tells me she’s lost all meaning, has no idea what she’s doing, that she might die soon. Her hearing is going, her teeth just short blackened stubs, her gums diseased. She looks like she hasn’t bathed in weeks. That’s not all. She needs to raise $20,000 in the next six months to buy her apartment or face losing it. She says she wants to spend six months here, a few months in India and Canada every year. She travels a great deal now. She was in Spain last month, in a few days she’ll be in Canada, hoping to revive dormant interest in her paintings. It hardly seems possible but Anna, who I remember as an inveterate chain smoker, is smoking more than ever.
My room, the only bedroom, as Anna sleeps on the studio floor, is a disaster. The mattress, torn, covered in grease, sinks through a hole in the bed. Old clothes, paintings, photographs, cigarette butts, food cover almost every surface, including the floor, and leave nowhere to walk. The whole apartment is like this. Anna says she was going to clean, but lost heart before she started. We go out to buy fresh sheets and pillow cases and eat at Café Riche, an old school hangout for writers. There are two rooms, one with windows opening onto the street, and another, parallel but without windows and only the occasional break in the panels where it opens onto the first room. On the walls of the second room, the writers’ room, are photographs of many of Cairo’s great authors. At the far end, towering over all, is Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s Nobel laureate in literature, the only image in color. He has signed and inscribed it.
Anna is gone by the time I wake. There’s a note, sticking out of the box of Maxim’s chocolates I brought for her, saying she’s taken a plane south to Luxor, and invites me to join her on the night train. A twelve hour rail journey feels overwhelming, especially after the flight from New York. There’s no coffee, nothing in the kitchen, so I take a taxi to Groppi’s, as it’s the only landmark I know close to Café Riche. During Ramadan only restaurants that cater to foreigners serve food.
I sit in the main room, without the writers’ photographs looking down on me, at a table that opens to another through a partition to the writers’ room where a woman’s bag rests, but with no one sitting there. I order, then when I look back there’s a young Spanish-looking woman in the seat. She’s crying. The waiters appear solicitous, worried—for her sake, not the restaurant’s.
I roll a cigarette and ignore her, assuming it’s about a man, and probably the last person she wants to talk to is a stranger from abroad. After twenty minutes, with her intermittent crying, I can’t help myself. I ask what the problem is, and she turns and says matter-of-factly that she’s been poisoned.
We talk for a few minutes across the divider, mutually incomprehensibly, until I learn she’s hearing voices, and they’re telling her to kill herself. She says, “This morning when I woke up I knew I only had one choice left. I’m going to kill myself today. I’m going to throw myself from a building.”
We talk for a few minutes across the divider, mutually incomprehensibly, until I learn she’s hearing voices, and they’re telling her to kill herself.
She chain smokes, Cleopatra’s, the same brand as Anna, and drinks cup after cup of strong Turkish coffee. Soon I learn she’s Egyptian, 37 years old, and has been hearing voices for six years. The last four have been the worst. Before, she says, they were sweeter.
“It’s a man’s voice, always a man’s voice. Sometimes he says he’s a devil, sometimes an angel, sometimes just a man. Do you believe in devils? Do devils exist? I’m losing my faith in God. I’m a good Muslim, I’ve always been a good Muslim, but this voice tells me I’m worthless, that I have to do more, much more.”
She is dressed in the western style, wearing a red tee-shirt with a bold sporty number six printed on its front. She breaks down into tears intermittently as she asks me about myself. When I tell her I’m staying with Anna her face perks up. She knows her work and thinks her brilliant. I ask her if Anna is well known in Cairo, and she says no, but that she’s admired in artistic circles.
After I eat, I join her on the other side of the partition. Her name is M—, her father is a famous poet, al-S—, one of the pioneers, I learn later, of Egypt’s free-verse movement. She points out his portrait, which hangs in the room. He is dead, as is her mother. They both died young. Her sister is a well-known actress, and often the voice asks why she isn’t more like her sister, beautiful, successful, known to everyone. The voice is in love with her sister, and sometimes, she says, it feels like he’s making love to her sister, right there, inside her own body. She’s had electro-shock therapy. It didn’t help. She saw a psychiatrist who was convinced she had unresolved issues with her dead father. That was all. It didn’t help. An imam told her to pray every day and read the Koran. It didn’t help.
Next she plans to go to a Christian church, ask a priest. All she wants is to rest her soul, and if she kills herself, the voices will stop. She wanted to be a writer, was getting published, had friends. Now she can’t do a thing. She can’t keep a job because she’s always bursting into tears. She can’t see friends for the same reason. It makes them uncomfortable. I say she should see a doctor in the States or Europe. There they understand these diseases better, they might have newer drugs. She’s taken anti-psychotics already but they didn’t help, and her family doesn’t have the money to send her abroad.
She asks about my religion, Sikhism, or my parents’ religion as I explain it to her, my belief in God, what the Sikhs say about reincarnation. I don’t know what to say except that if she kills herself, it won’t change anything, in the next life everything will be the same or worse. I tell her about my girlfriend and her brother who killed himself and how the suicide affected the family, about her nightmares, how she still wakes next to me in the middle of the night, screaming.
The voice talks to her as we speak, telling her I’m ugly, asking why she’s talking to me, some foreigner, just another ugly brown man. It says when she does the right thing and dies she’ll go to the heaven for the deformed and retarded. It says her life is worthless, that she’d be doing everyone a favor by killing herself. She asks me, “Do you think it’s possible I could have been completely worthless, that it was an accident I was born?” and later, “Could someone be so worthless that the world is better off without them, that they should die?”
This episode, with the demons, started a few days ago when she moved out of her aunt’s house where she has been living since her mother died and back into her parent’s house, next door to her sister. The voices grew louder, more violent, demanding to know why’d she dare live next to her beautiful, successful sister. Who does she think she is?
She sees visions too, of women, beautiful naked women, visions of her sister naked, her sister having sex, wild, erotic waking dreams, right there, in front of her eyes, as if they’re painted onto her eyeballs. Even when she shuts her eyes she can’t stop seeing them. Voices quote the Koran to condemn her, to damn her, speaking spotless English, like herself, sometimes Arabic, sometimes French. She speaks no French.
“Always the voice of authority,” she says several times, “The authority of men.” I can’t tell if she accepts such authority or not.
It’s late and we get the bill and go out and each buy cigarettes. She demolished a pack while we talked. She still wants to visit a priest and hear what he has to say and I offer to join her if she does. I leave her Anna’s number and tell her to call, shaken by the encounter, not at all sure what to think, as I flag down a taxi. Once back at Anna’s, I clean the bedroom, pick up and organize clothes on the floor and straighten the mattress as best I can. Some supporting slats are cracked so I rearrange the others until it offers basic stability and succeeds, barely, in holding the mattress up. Later, hungry, I wander nearby streets looking for food and smoke a shisha at a sidewalk café. It’s not what I remember. Maybe my smoking habit’s taken the fun out of it, nullified the high. Still on New York time, I stay up late, reading Henry James and thinking about M—.
Me and melancholy go way back, depression, the dolors, ennui, pick your word, we’re old buddies, same with circling thoughts of suicide or self-loathing. I know the feeling well, as M— describes, of being ambushed by demons. Kids who grow up in unstable immigrant households in racist societies seldom become Ms Uber Well Adjusted. I don’t hear voices, see visions, not the way she says it, but much of what she describes feels real, and what her demons say outright I’ve said many times to myself. The kicker is gender. I grew up a boy, in an immigrant culture that far out-valued boys over girls, and though my childhood London was a racist fever dream of a city, I can’t compare it to a woman’s life in a country tipping into the twin terrors of authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism. Women, the weak, the poor, are throwaways in such tectonic shifts, easily crushed and disposed of. And sensitive souls, and M— is certainly a sensitive soul, are apt to be shattered. I can’t help but worry that night, wondering how she is, sensing how little hope there is, that without proper care her path is marked, that we live in an age where the frail are expendable, that not only is she staring at a cliff, but that she has long since jumped and we are all waiting, watching powerless, until she hits the ground.
She does call, in the morning, and says after our meeting the voices are worse, uglier, more threatening, and wants to know from me, directly, “Should I kill myself?” How do you answer a question like that? From someone you met the night before. I’ve heard it enough from friends over the years, the depressive misfits that for so much of my life were my circle, friends in the depth of one crisis after another and who saw no other way out. One in particular I remember repeated that question so frequently I began to wish he would just do it, put him and us, his friends, out of our collective miseries. He didn’t thankfully, and equally thankfully I never said something so crass and destructive, but listening to M— I can’t help but think back to all the times that question was posed to me. For the first time, the very first, I believe the person asking the question is serious. She wants to die, there are plans, she wants to carry them out, and I have no idea how to handle that or even what it means. Thinking about it makes the ground crumble beneath my feet.
Later she calls again, has made decisions, asks to meet at Café Riche to discuss them. I decide to play the fool, the visiting American, and will ask her to teach me some Arabic. I spent a year taking classes in Arizona, and remember little more than the alphabet, and hope that using her as a teacher might get her out of her head, out of herself, briefly away from her obsessions and demons. It’s a naïve idea, but I’m lost for ideas, and something seems better than nothing.
I arrive early, sit on the writer’s side, until after a quarter hour I realize I am the only one sitting there and getting no service. A waiter instructs me there is only service on the main side. I’ve made a faux pas. This side is reserved for serious writers and their kin, not for unknown foreigners like me. I move across without complaint, order a beer, read Henry James, and soon M— appears, looking better, wearing a dark top though there are bags under her eyes. She’s not crying, though it’s clear that earlier she was, and I’m surprised by something different in her face, it’s stronger, more resolute. She really has made decisions. I start with my playacting, asking dumb questions about the language, about numbers, etc. and soon I’m re-learning my digits. How easy the language really is, despite looking so difficult on the page. Why is everyone afraid of Arabic, I think, it’s no more difficult than Greek, and as beautiful. The voices are still there, she tells me finally, all the time, angry, insistent, vicious, bullying, pornographic in their endless, ugly detail, but despite that she’s come to a decision. She’s going to change her life, pray daily, eat properly, wake and sleep at regular hours, live as simple a life as she can. She will fight the voices with normality, she will bore them to death, she will be a dull, upright Cairene, like all the dull, upright Cairene women she knows, the women who live without demons and walk about dressed modestly, with modest thoughts and modest lives.
I ask if she was serious yesterday when she said she was planning to kill herself, and she says, yes, absolutely. She tells me the story of Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, a novel I haven’t read. In the book, a man decides to commit suicide, but at the last moment, just before he’s going to do it, a beautiful woman comes along and saves him. She goes through the whole novel as we sit there, and I wonder if I’m supposed to be the character of the beautiful woman. I have no faith in myself as someone’s savior, I have little faith in saviors period, and if anyone is saving M—, can save her, it’s herself, I think, or the will and money to get herself to the right doctors and help. Maybe this conversation is her way of persuading herself she can do it, or maybe when we look to others to save us, it’s just mental sleight of hand, projecting onto them what we ourselves can’t tell ourselves we’re doing.
We debate for a while whether to go to a church or mosque that evening, to look for a priest or imam, and M— decides on a mosque, the glorious El Hussein, in the heart of Khan-e-Khalili, Cairo’s ancient market. We take a taxi through jammed streets, and once there, while M— prays, I walk through crowded alleys and settle at a café near the mosque’s entrance, where I order a coke and shisha. In front of me, in that suffocating Cairo night air, thousands push and throng, the legless, the one armed, children begging, the blind, the deaf, the physically mutilated in ways almost impossible to describe. A Fellini Cairo on steroids, a fraternity of misfits and the lost, brought together by the common crime of poverty and being born in the wrong country at the wrong time.
A boy begs for my half-full can of coke and I relent and give it to him. and soon M— appears and as we look for a taxi, I’m stopped by another beggar, or someone I think is a beggar, who pushes his face violently into mine. There’s something horribly wrong about his features, his whole face is askew, and I as I stare at them, from an inch away, one eye gone, nose blasted, flesh dripping onto his upper lip, features looking as if they’ve been burned, he talks at me wildly, seeming to ask questions, none of which I understand. M— pulls him away and interrogates him. He saw me, the foreigner, and thought maybe I could answer his question, no one else has. A small crowd gathers, everyone chattering, while watching me. I ask what he wants, and he says he wants to know if he’s a leper, if this is what leprosy is, indicating his devastated face. I take another look, more seriously, as if I’m evaluating him from some sort of undefined foreign expertise. Finally I tell M— to tell him I think yes, probably he is a leper. He thanks me, genuinely, no one has definitively told him that before, and he walks away satisfied, knowing now what he is. A general buzz of agreement passes through the crowd before it disperses. In the taxi heading downtown I’m overcome by a sense of hopelessness for beautiful Cairo and its people.
When I leave M—, I see from her expression the voices are talking, no doubt whispering about me, threatening her, abusing her, and I worry how long her newfound strength and resolution can last. I find my way to the Corniche and walk along the Nile’s edge, past brightly lit party boats blasting music, another Cairo, another city curled like a sleeping child inside this city, the men dancing with the men while only rarely, a woman dances with a man.
Anna arrives late from Luxor, says she had a good time and immediately starts telephoning around. She’s looking for a lawyer to help her with her real estate problem. She tells me M— is being hexed by someone jealous, says it’s common, something about touching with the hands, that it’s probably best I stay away from her. She warns me if I’m not careful I’ll catch her demons and bring them here. She talks on, obsessed about money and fame, asks about what she thinks must be all my famous New York friends. I buy eggs and bread and cook an omelette for dinner. Anna says Mubarak may soon die or fall from power. She asks what I think and I think yes, then the Islamists will take power. It will be terrible then, she says, it’s why she’s unsure about buying the apartment. It will be worthless if the Islamists take hold, which I tell her I think they will, if not in the next year, then in ten at most.
I half listen as she talks on the phone, about plots, a family history, an uncle who defrauded her mother out of a plastics factory, two French paintings worth half a million francs, a Greek woman who took all that and more after an affair which her uncle claimed lasted “three minutes” and she insists “five minutes,” but a child was born. Anna believes there should be a DNA test. The woman has a fortune now, the first person in Cairo to have color TV, a grand house in Athens, etc. And something about a pearl necklace found in a dead relative’s pocket. All this somehow relates to her current real estate crisis, which is equally byzantine.
There’s no phone call from M— and I worry when I’m out that she calls, and that Anna destroys the message. When I ask if M— has called, Anna looks at me like a guilty child, and I wonder what she’s hiding. Maybe it’s jealousy, or fear of M—’s demons finding her. Or her own paranoias, much more pronounced on this trip. Has she decided I’m not as famous as she thought I was and so questions the worth of our friendship? Does that justify hiding M—’s messages? I don’t push it, knowing Anna is on the edge of breakdown almost as much as M— is, and if she is hiding messages, it’s not out of spite. She has her own demons aplenty.
At an art gallery in upscale Zamelek, Anna introduces me to the elegantly dressed Madame Sherwood, the owner, and we talk in hushed tones about New York, President Bush, Mubarak. Everything here seems hushed, controlled, perfectly in its place. Madame Sherwood believes there will be a stable transition after Mubarak, despite all that’s happening. Things are changing rapidly, she says, the Islamists are growing bolder. Even a dignified woman like her is called a whore because she’s only wearing a shawl over her hair and not a full face covering. The transformation is unmistakable on the streets, where far more women are wearing a full niqab along with the flowing black abaya this time than on my previous visit, three years earlier.
A thin, balding man in his fifties enters accompanied by a young man and insists on showing Anna tiny paintings of tickets with even tinier paintings on them. They are awful, he wants 30 pounds a piece, but then Anna asks me what I think and I’m about to say something polite but dismissive, but the man, to a question from Madame Sherwood, introduces his son, the young man with him. Suddenly the situation overturns, becomes tragic, he is desperate, clearly, he needs the sale, and his son is watching, a father reduced to flogging the one thing important in his life, yet to the son, from the apathetic look on his face, he must see how dull they are. Anna and I buy two.
We take a half-hour taxi drive to Heliopolis to clean Anna’s mother’s house. As we leave the congested heart of Cairo the streets widen, the air becomes clearer, and the blue sky, which is gray at best in the center, offers for the first time I’ve been back in this city a sense of relief and openness.
Her mother’s apartment, Anna warns, is a catastrophe, mostly Anna’s doing after her mother’s death. We walk inside to find the dining table buried under great piles of trash, and where the tablecloth is visible it is stained with oil paint. There are bowls filled with cigarette butts. She shows me the chair where she found her mother’s body. It still shows a stain in outline where she sat after she died.
We open Anna’s childhood room, a room she hasn’t been inside in ten years, and can squeeze the door maybe a third of the way to inspect the interior. I push myself through and find there is nowhere to step, not just piles, but piles upon piles, clothes, books, drawings, toys, bottles, knick-knacks, even chairs and tables dropped somehow lopsided into the middle of it all, everything and anything, hiding the floor in several feet thick of detritus. It looks like a bomb has gone off. We prepare a strategy, her room first, the most difficult, and work like a small army, attacking from what position we have. After several hours we have cleared enough space for both us to stand inside the room, though it is barely a short alley, two feet wide and jutting four feet into the room.
A neighbor comes over, Akban, with his daughter. He’s a childhood friend of Anna’s, and the two talk, mostly in English. Amina, a mutual friend died ten days ago, he says, and Anna is shocked, she saw her 12 days ago. Akban recounts Amina’s story. She was a prostitute in the war, serving British soldiers, and after, a street walker for some years, until her father approached her one day and begged her to stop, told her he’d find her a husband. He did, and Amina married, and the couple opened a coffee shop. Anna remembers when it opened. Amina went through three husbands, two died on her. One was a jockey who hit his head in a fall and could no longer race. He was rich and famous, but brain damaged. Amina left him and took his money, their children, vanished into Cairo. She’s still known around Cairo, one of Cairo’s famous whores. The police know this part of Heliopolis, or Horus, as Amina’s area. She paid them off regularly, because it is still illegal, after 50 years of having a coffee shop on this block, to have a coffee shop on this block.
Akban leaves and we return to Anna’s room and soon make better progress. So many old paintings, drawings, memories. Some children’s clothes of Anna’s, her first drawings, things her mother kept. I come across an old photo of a young, stylish-looking man. Anna says they were engaged, he was British, his name is Bertram, but says it was impossible, but doesn’t explain why. When I ask her if she was in love, she says yes and no. Later, we find a large black and white photo of Anna, on a bed fully clothed, wrapped around the body of another woman. I ask her if she ever thought of herself as having a particular sexuality, and she says, forcefully, “Never. I refused to allow other people to categorize me.” All this past is having a toll on her, and on me. At one point she says, “My life hasn’t been totally worthless.” When I protest, she says, “I didn’t have any children. Children are the only important thing in life.” Suddenly, here is Anna before me, looking death in the face, at her own mortality, a life mostly cut off from people, not by choice, or not entirely so, and she is alone, and it is heartbreaking. I can see myself like this, I’m being given a snapshot of a possible future, Anna is a cautionary tale, that if I’m not careful, I could be here. Though I’d like to think otherwise, to romanticize it, it isn’t pretty, it isn’t happy, despite the work, there’s nothing noble in it, it’s just lonely and painful.
We find a bottle of 50 year old Johnnie Walker Red, unopened, and of course, I open it. It tastes better, I tell myself, than the same whiskey today, but maybe that’s nothing more than a distortion born of the thick Cairo air. Akban returns, and they talk more, but the stress is showing on Anna and soon we take a taxi back through the crowded nighttime streets, and enter once again the car horn blaring fog of the city.
I never see or hear from M— again, and fear it was Anna who kept her away and hid her messages. I continue to think of M— over the years and wonder, against hope, if she found the help she desperately needed. In a country that treats women as not fully human, and the mentally ill as outcasts or worthless, I worry how she fared. In the years since, Egypt has been convulsed by a revolution marked by violence against women, briefly ruled by an Islamic regime, and suffered a military coup and come under the thumb of one more autocratic ruler, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, another Mubarak by a different name. I think of people like M—, women especially, and the powerless—for autocrats, collateral damage or disposable objects whose value, if they have any, is for fleeting moments of political expediency. As autocrats once more seize power across the world, forming alliances and hardening their grip, categories of those of us who are disposable only multiply.
At her apartment that night, Anna curls into bed to rest while I prepare pasta for dinner. When it’s ready, I go to wake her, but she looks up startled, turns over again, and returns to sleep, scrabbling with her hands at the sheets and pulls them tight over herself. As I eat, I listen to the nighttime city, and think of the voices, and the ghosts, whose stories will never be told, that mad Fellini city out there with its misfits and its hurt and its lost, a city without solace, a city of broken saints. In the chaos and noise seeping through cracked wooden window frames, I tell myself I almost hear them.