Palo Alto Weekly 20th Annual Short Story
Flight from Egypt
by Kathleen Jalapour
"Banu," he whispered, kneeling on the fringed cushion by his daughter's bedside. The lids flickered, opened. For a moment, the dark eyes flashed pain and anger, then recognition. The lips moved, managing a weak smile and a single word.
Amal's stomach clenched, and he felt an angry poison spread outward through his body. He closed his eyes, inhaled slowly, trying to regain his self-control, unclench his fists. It had been three days now since they had brought Banu home. One eye was still black and swollen, her right arm lay in a splint, and the bruises on her arms and back were fading to sickening shades of purple and yellow.
"Her body will heal, but her soul is dead," Amal's wife, Farida, had hissed at him that first day. "This is your fault. You wanted her to marry Kamal. I was against it from the beginning. This is on your head, Amal Taher."
Farida had not spoken to him since then. Padding through the rooms of their apartment as she nursed her daughter, Farida seemed half-dead herself. She appeared and disappeared like an apparition. Amal would sense her presence in a room, turn to look, and find the room empty. He missed their evening talks, the closeness they'd had through their years together raising Banu.
Amal opened his eyes, leaned forward and kissed Banu on the forehead, touching her black hair gently. He heard the phone ring in another room, and rose to answer it, knowing Farida would not.
"Masa'a al-khair, Dr. Taher," the voice came - obsequious and wheedling. "I hope you are well, Allah protect you, sir. I hope you are not too tired this evening, sir...it is only...we have a foreign guest here at the hotel, doctor. She is very sick - Allah forbid she should die in my hotel. I know it is late, Dr. Taher, but for a good doctor, dedicated and generous as you are, sir, I thought I can phone and beg this favor."
It was Samir Lakhair from the Hotel Luxor. Amal hated making calls at the Luxor. It was one of the cheaper hotels in Cairo, catering to young Europeans in dirty jeans and unwashed hair. Had they no honor, these parents? How could they let their sons - and especially their daughters - run around in shorts and dirty t-shirts in another man's country, laughing and kissing each other in public, doing God knows what in private, disgracing not only themselves but the minds of his young countrymen as well?
He sighed, told Samir that he was on his way. Perhaps it was preferable to an evening at home with Farida, he mused, and immediately felt a stab of remorse at the thought. She was right - it had been his idea to marry their daughter to Kamal Bakhshi. The Bakhshis had made a fortune in land speculation, it is true, but they were newly rich, with none of the breeding and character that he should have looked for in a son-in-law. Farida had accused him of being blinded by their money, but he had insisted that he was doing what was best for Banu. She deserved a good life - he had always thought her beauty and gentleness would destine her to a life of comfort. Amal sighed again as he got in his car. Who could understand Allah's will in this life?
When he arrived at the hotel, it seemed even shabbier than usual. Peeling paint, dirty windows, spider webs in dark corners. Amal steeled himself to the squalidness. When he entered the patient's small room, he immediately knew what was wrong with the young foreign woman. The smell of streptococcal pharyngitis filled the room - a sore throat infection with swollen glands and high fever that was somewhat common among the young tourists, and always gave off the same fetid smell. Untreated, it could easily abscess and turn deadly, but with penicillin, it was completely curable. Approaching the bed, Amal wondered briefly at the patient's looks - she was pretty, but not like most of the young tourists. She had thick black hair and dark lashes, with very pale skin which, flushed with fever, made her look like a Persian miniature. He looked in her mouth and felt the glands in her neck to confirm his initial diagnosis, and opened his bag to get out the penicillin.
There were two other young hotel guests in the room - a short, chunky redheaded girl with bare feet, hanging on to a tall young man with blond hair that hung in ratty, rope-like coils. When she saw the hypodermic, the girl began waving her arms at Amal like a windmill, emitting a string of incomprehensible syllables. He stared at the girl, searching for meaning, and realizing finally that the torrent of words was English. The girl was protesting the cleanliness of his hypodermic. What arrogance! Did they think he, an experienced doctor, graduate of the best university in Egypt and older than both of them put together, would use a dirty needle on a foreign tourist? If they had kept cleaner habits themselves, they wouldn't be in this fix.
Samir and the young man took the girl's arms and talked to her gently, and she finally sniffed and turned her back on Amal in a last vain protest. Amal administered the penicillin carefully, checking the patient for a reaction, but she seemed unconscious. Her breathing was shallow, and he felt for her pulse. It was light and fluttery, and her skin was hot to the touch.
Amal stood up again, crossed his arms, and tried to look down his nose at the tall young man. "Why you not call doctor sooner?" he asked haltingly in English.
"Umm.. money...?" mumbled the young man. "Sorry, old chap. Is she going to be all right?"
"Inshallah, yes. But I come again. Tomorrow. More penicillin."
"Yes, well, that'll be fine." He made a flipping motion toward the bed. "Rosanna's parents wired money to us today, so we can pay whatever it costs now."
Amal gave the young man his most disapproving scowl, and turned to the patient again. "Rosanna," he said softly. And then in Arabic, he repeated the prayer he always spoke over his patients. "Merciful Allah, there is no cure but from You, a cure which leaves no illness behind."
He got a call the following day at the clinic. It was Samir again, in a fluster. "They left, Doctor Taher, sir. They all left! What shall I do, in the name of Allah?"
"Who left, Samir?"
"The young people with her - with the sick girl - they just left. They left an envelope with money on her bed - how could they just leave her in my hotel? In the name of the prophet, what shall I do?"
Later Amal would never be able to say why he did it. "Take her to my place, Samir. Tell Farida she is to care for her like a daughter." He did not tell Samir that Farida already had a daughter to care for at home. He knew well that Farida would not tell him, either. The shame was too great. He also knew Farida would follow his directive. Whether she would do so willingly or not, however, he could not say. God willing, this too will pass, he said, and lowered his head to rest on his folded hands.
A week passed, ten days, and his home began to come to life again. Farida blossomed in her role as caretaker, and began speaking to Amal again. The air in the house became lighter, freer, full of hope. The young women recovered, and a quiet friendship began to develop. Rosanna was soon able to tell them about herself - she was American, but had Lebanese grandparents on her father's side, and spoke some Arabic. Her grandmother, a widow who had taken such joy in her American granddaughter, had died when Rosanna was four, and then Rosanna had quickly forgotten her Arabic, as children do. But the language was still there, in the recesses of her mind, and came out in bits and pieces - new phrases every day. It made everyone laugh when Rosanna spoke, for she spoke like the child she had been when she began to learn Arabic. "Me can do it!" was the first thing she said to Farida, who was trying to feed her some soup with a big spoon on Rosanna's second day in the house. Farida dropped the spoon in surprise, and then broke out into a big smile - her first in weeks - and a flood of fluent Arabic: "God bless you, child, you bring joy into this house again. May the love of Allah fall kindly on you."
Rosanna understood not a word, but she smiled herself, infected by Farida's sudden pleasure. She spoke more every day, and even began giving Banu English lessons in the afternoons. Banu proved an equally good student. The two young women sat together at the dining room table, alternately poring over their dictionaries and laughing over the latest fashion and movie magazine that Farida had brought home for them.
They were soon well enough to help Farida with the household chores, and to care for the doves the family had always kept on the roof. They took each bird out of the large coop, cupping their hands around its wings and speaking softly to it. Amal came up to the roof to call them for dinner one evening, and was touched deeply to see them huddled there - the two dark heads bent together, giggling like sisters while they whispered to the doves.
One evening Farida was waiting for him at the door when he came home from work. "I must speak with you, Amal Taher," she said, pulling him into the kitchen. "Rosanna has invited Banu to come with her to America. Banu must accept, Amal."
"What? America? No!" Amal's mind reeled at the thought of his only child so far away.
"Don't fight me again, Amal, I know I am right. Banu has no future here. She can divorce Kamal, but no one else will marry her now - you know that a divorced woman has poor prospects. What are we supposed to do, Amal Taher? The police will do nothing to help us punish Kamal. His family is too powerful, and we can't find him by ourselves - they have hidden him somewhere. It would be too hard for her to get into university here, she has not even taken the entrance exam. In America, she can study, make a new future for herself. It is what she must do, Amal. It is the only way she can forget."
"You don't know what you're saying, Farida," pleaded Amal. "It's not as easy as you think. She doesn't speak much English, we don't have relatives there. It's expensive. And she'd be alone, Farida. It's not like here. She would be completely alone, for God's sake."
"No, Rosanna has said she can live with her. Banu can be her ... what did she call it.... 'roommate'. It is not so expensive. We can send money, and Rosanna says Banu can find work while she learns English."
"Work?" sputtered Amal. "Work? Like a brat from some hamal family with no education, no class? Young girls do not work! It is not the way, Farida."
But it was the only way. Banu wanted desperately to go. Amal was convinced that she would suffer all the trials of the immigrant - the homesickness, the horror at cultural habits strange and illogical, the weariness of always having to adapt, change and accept. Worst of all, in the end she would assimilate. She would lose her identity, and he would lose his daughter. But Banu was full of hope, and in truth, happier than he had seen her in all the months since her wedding. Finally he gave her his blessing, holding her close, his tears falling into her hair.
The day before they were to leave, Banu went up to the roof, opened the coop and freed all the doves. The white birds circled upwards, disappearing into the great expanse of Egyptian sky. "I needed them to be free, Abu," she confessed. "Like me."
Amal and Farida returned from the airport in silence, nursing but not sharing their emptiness, resentment, pain. Amal wondered if their marriage would ever be the same. How do you give up a child? What else will be sacrificed? What demanded? Life was too heavy to be carried, too bitter to be borne.
He was parking the car in the street when he saw it. He turned off the motor and ran. Kneeling on the pavement, he picked it up. It was one of the doves Banu had freed. It was dead. Killed - apparently by a hawk. Amal curved his body around it in pain, and wept.