Excerpt

Caroline Fields is still adjusting to life in Egypt when Salama Abba Azziza, the Bedouin who stables her mare, invites her to a "dancing horse party" near the pyramids. Lights strung from village roofs tinge the dirt street gold. Men in galabeahs and turbans watch as riders "dance" one stallion after another. Caroline is the only foreigner, the only woman, save those looking down from upstairs windows. A handsome man in white shirt, slacks and soft leather boots approaches. He is Hassan Bin Ab El-Azziz Al Kasani, and despite the language barrier, their attraction is unmistakeable. Later Hassan drives her home to her apartment in Maadi.

From Chapter Twenty-one

On the drive home, we spoke bits and pieces only. There seemed an understanding that transcended language and culture, the way little children are at play, no need for words.

"Maadi, yes?" Hassan said as we turned past the deserted square.

I nodded. A thousand questions I might ask, but there was time. If I felt a qualm in the mountain of differences that might loom ahead, I had only to remember my life before. What I'd had in common with the all-American boy I married, was illusion. I ended up sleeping with a stranger, if not the enemy. To deny what I felt now for problems that might be was unthinkable.

We rode in silence, dim light from the dashboard, neon glow of Pyramid Road's famous nightclubs, snippets of belly dance music reaching us now and then. I could hardly look at Hassan without picturing him in my bed, balcony doors open, moonlight and Nile breezes.

Tonight? The thought pulsed through me, and I turned toward my window. In California I would have invited him in despite the fact we'd just met. Egyptian women almost never lived alone. But I was American. I could do as I pleased. Yet, what if I ruined it? It was 1978, for Christ sake. But there had been no Sexual Revolution here. I wasn't sure couples here even dated, at least not without a chaperone. What if Hassan had never had sex? The implications sank in. If that's all he wanted, would I care? Yes. Enough to stop? I glanced across at him. No.

"Kwise, Caroline? Good?"

I met his eyes. "Kolo kwise." His smile. We could dance now. To be in his arms... "I want to dance with you," I said. "I haven't danced in so long."

"Sorry, I..."

"Dance, you know." I held up my arms, moved my shoulders.

He laughed. "Yes, dance. Baden we... dance." He nodded to the clock on the dashboard. Almost midnight. School tomorrow. I didn't care. We were passing the last nightclub. Baden. Later. I would ask him up, a kiss only, by the front door. But my mind wouldn't stop there, unbuttoning his shirt, breathing his skin, no need for words...

I blushed, remembering the Arab belief: Put a man and woman alone in a room, she will tear off his clothes and have her way with him.

He glanced at me. "Ey da, Caroline? What?"

How to answer? Then I noticed books nestled on the dashboard. I held one up. "You read?" then corrected myself. "Is it good?" Of course he read.

He nodded. "Naguib Mahfouz." He turned the book over so I was looking at the front instead of the back. I forgot Arabic reads left to right. The cover image was a narrow crowded street like in the Khan el khalili. I'd never heard of Naguib Mahfouz, wasn't sure if it was the author or the title, but if there was an English translation, I'd find it.

Hassan leaned across. I breathed his cologne and the slight musk of his skin as he handed me another book. "This you know?"

I held it the right way. Arabic seemed all squiggles, hardly a language, but I recognized the cover immediately, eyes staring from a blue background, single strand of pearls.

"I like this man... Gatsby," Hassan said. "He is too American."

I looked at him. Traffic converged as we neared the bridge crossing the Nile to Garden City, and Hassan kept his eyes on the road. He meant so American. At home my Hispanic students made the same mistake, I like this too much, but I had never heard a more succinct analysis of The Great Gatsby. Too American.

At the middle of the bridge, he pulled to the side, got out and came around. He opened my door, took my hand. We stepped up onto the walkway, stood at the rail looking out at the wide river, lights sparkling along both banks. The air smelled of sweet decay and the lush green of tall reeds. I shivered, and he went and brought a sports jacket from the back seat, draped it around me. He stood behind, hands on my shoulders. How good it felt, just that. I wanted to lean against his chest, but this was enough. Lights reflecting on the water, Cairo behind us, the Nile stretching into the night, fed by rain forests and glacial runoff from the Mountains of the Moon, flowing four thousand miles to meet us here.

I felt a calm. No hurry. What was time to the great river? Steady, flowing north. Mediterranean breezes blew south. Water and wind, so reliable that the hieroglyphs for traveling south and north are simply a boat with its sail full or furled.

"You know what I'd like?" I said. "I'd like to sail on a felucca. All the way to Aswan." I spoke slowly. We'd had faculty felucca parties, food set out on the wide platform in the middle, beer on ice in the bait box. Once Eric and I went out for a sunset, but it felt awkward, sitting on opposite sides, both wishing we were with someone else.

"Aswan." Hassan said, laughing.

I turned. "Well, maybe not Aswan, but it is mumkin. Possible. Will you take me on a felucca sometime?"

His eyes flickered, and he glanced away, almost a worried look. For a moment I thought I had said something wrong.

Then he smiled. "Mumkin, bokra fil mish mish,"* he said, laughing.

"What does that mean?" I tried to dissect the phrase in my mind. Mish meant not, as in mish mumkin, impossible, and bokra was tomorrow, but I couldn't make sense of it.

He shook his head. "I have not words. We ask Salama. You will ride with me Friday?"

"Of course."

He touched my cheek, and I felt it all the way to my toes. I thought he would kiss me, willed him to kiss me. It was in his eyes, or I thought so, but he didn't, and again I told myself, enough. There is time.

At my apartment he walked me to the courtyard gate, shook my hand. I could see the white of Achmed's* galabeah in the shadows. He had waited up for me. Even from here I sensed his disapproval.

"Friday," Hassan said and was gone.

 

*English translation: Maybe, tomorrow in the time of apricots.
*Achmed is the boab or gate keeper who guards her apartment building.