City of Dust

It was a time of dust. It was a time for decay.

The year was turning, slowly, from quiet winter to noisy spring – but Cairo doesn’t notice. The cars barricade the roads and buses blockade roundabouts. A woman sitting behind a cart of roasting chick peas, shoe shiners scrub, scrap metal merchants clatter from gutter to gutter and the dust settles around them.

He awoke with a choke. Thick mucus caught in his tonsils and he’s bolt upright hacking into his sheets. Scrambling for consciousness, scrabbling for a fight or flight response. This was the return to Cairo. The Hilton looked over into his room, across the Nile. The constant lazy motion of the Nile washing steadily to the sea, the constant frantic jerk of the cars beating their way to City Stars, to Talat Harb, to Agouza, the smiling swagger of loose limbed Cairenes swaying through the dust.

But he didn’t have time for metaphors, for adjectives vermilion; she was here. He could sense her in every speck of dust, even if she was only three parts per million, he could detect her in the air, on the pavements, in the dust thickened trees. They took on the appearance of a house plant that hasn’t been taken care of. Left in a corner, forgotten. No rain touches them, no cleaner dusts their waxy leaves. They lean over the roads in Zamalek, begging to be touched, begging to be shaken out of their torpor.

But he had no time for trees either. He hacked one last time into a tissue and got out of bed. He moved over to the bathroom and washed his hands. There was dust on the mirror and his face looked back through the haze. He looked older. Or younger. Or foreign. Happy. Sad. Tired. Excited. But he didn’t have time for making faces either.

Downstairs in the hotel he left the key with the manager and stepped into the evening. The dust rose to meet him carrying smells of gasoline, of searing meat, of crushed herbs, of sweat. He cleared his throat and set off towards her. He felt like a blood hound on the scent of a memory. He turned instinctively, feeling his way towards her. He could find her blind, he could stretch out his arms and his feet would carry him to her, borne like the dust on the loose wind of Cairo. Mohammad Mazhar, Mohammed al-Maraashly, Bahgat Ali: the names floated back from a year ago, binding memory to reality. The embassies and the days they walked these streets: there’s Iraq surrounded by tall palms, Myanmar isolated behind crumbling walls, Sweden with every brick in place like it was sent over flat-packed. As he walked, the Nile pleaded with him to drag his feet, but he bent his head and turned towards her scent.

Broken pavement, crushed Baraka bottle, branches with leaves resigning, dog shit smeared. The road passed below him, marking time, playing a show reel of human waste. The cafe was ahead. He could see its lights. He could remember its lights. His memory was racing to meet him. He was suspended in time and his memory was swelling every moment. Soon it would join his reality and he would be enveloped by the same words, the same touches, the same caresses that belonged a year ago.

The entrance swallowed him and the cafe was delivered to his senses. He must have looked lost because an immediate waiter bobbed into his vision, “Sir?” He looked down, his head beginning to throb and said automatically through mucus, “ayiz shay min fadhlak”. The man nodded curtly, “hagga tany?” What? He paused, then remembered his lines, “shay bas, binayanaya, shukran.” The man gestured to a chair nearby. He sat down heavily and became aware of the other patrons. Men. Mostly. Mostly smoking. Mostly staring at the new arrival. The tea arrived and he took it in his hands. Too soon. The glass burned, the skin of his palm shriveled in self-preservation.

She would come. He could feel her coming. Like he used to. He could feel her so strongly that he thought it idiotic that they were meeting in a cafe at 7, as if they needed to arrange a time and a place. He could have found her in a sandstorm. He started to relax and replaced his hands on the small glass cup. His hands, reluctant, grew bolder and soon sunk into its warmth. The glass was patterned in gold around the rim. Of course it wasn’t real gold, probably just an alloy. He turned his gaze on the cafe. Its high ceilings and carved decoration spoke of an elegance that it barely tried to maintain. Dust lay everywhere human hands did not care to reach. But the bar was clean enough and there was a man polishing a window. He had seen him doing that earlier in the day. Was it the same window? Was the man a memory? Was there a persistent stain, refusing to be polished, refusing to be scrubbed out of existence?

She would come. She was here. He took a first sip of the tea and the warm liquid left a breath of mint before sliding down his sore throat. He could feel, now, a warmth in his stomach. The tea had settled and was making itself at home. It was a shame, he thought, that in a short time the tea would cool and digest and he would be left with nothing but an urgent need to relieve himself. A short moment of warmth followed by a repulsion. He looked at the tea in disgust. He was just looking at his future. He was inevitably on the way to pissing out the contents of that glass, gold rimmed cup. In fact, looking at it closely, it was already a sepia yellow colour. It wouldn’t even look any different coming out as it did going in. Maybe his piss would even taste of mint. Why should he piss? Why couldn’t he enjoy his memories of mint tea without the hassle of pissing? After all, this particular cup of tea would add nothing to his memory. He could already classify, identify the taste and feeling of mint tea, the warmth, the slight clean taste, the roughness of the scorched tongue – so why should he bother with the drinking and the pissing? He knew he would though, eventually. Just like he knew she was going to come, eventually. And what else could he do whilst he waited? So he lifted the glass and put his lips to the gold rim and tilted his head back a little.

The liquid, predictably, slid over his lower lip and over his tongue, which he lifted so that the mint flavour slipped down onto his lower palate before gently swallowing through his thick throat. Thereafter the sensation was of warmth. He tried to follow the warmth down to his stomach but was disappointed to notice that only the first sip can be traced that far. Subsequent sips seem to get stuck somewhere higher up. He almost felt full. He should stop focusing on the tea. It was just tea. Just something to do while he waited. Time didn’t seem to be passing. The same cars droned past outside, the same combination of lights and horns, shouts and breaking screeches. The waiter in the cafe made the same movements, back and forth, sheesha, tofaah, shay, ahwa, sukkar. The patrons made the same gestures to one another and the speech was indecipherable. They seemed to be talking about the football. Or the weather. Or memories. Or the dust. One is pointing. One raises his glass. One pulls on a sheesha pipe. One just sits, still. An old man is sitting near a large plate mirror, staring. Time didn’t seem to be moving at all. Time didn’t seem to be moving at all. Time didn’t smee toby moo thing at all. Team dad int smeethabee moofin atorl. Moofin atorl. Orl.

He jerked up with a start. What had happened? The waiter looked over at him sharply, but continued his movements. He was choreographed and couldn’t miss a step. She was coming, wasn’t she? He could feel her coming, just like he used to. He could. The smoke in the cafe mingled with the dust, filling his lungs with a weight. That must have been what made him drift off. It had got so smoky that he wasn’t even sure if he could still see the old man across the room. He could see the mirror, or thought he could, it was hard to tell what was reflected and what was real. He could feel time receding now, the moment was reeling away from him. His memory was clouded in a haze of smoke and dust, he wasn’t sure anymore about anything. Was she coming? Was she still? He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate, but behind his eyes his memory was out of control, it was lurching about, making him feel nauseous. It wasn’t that he was forgetting, it was that the time was gone: an impenetrable haze of dust had settled between him and his past. She wasn’t coming. It was a time of dust. It was a time of decay.

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