A Face Like the Moon is the debut short story collection from Coptic Canadian writer Mina Athanassious. The eight stories in this book revolve around the world of young Coptic children living in urban and rural areas of Egypt. "All Good Things Thrown Away" delves into Egypt's notorious "Garbage City" and the lives of Cairo's garbage collectors. The title story moves to a small remote village in southern Egypt where a young ten-year-old boy struggles with a family tragedy. All together, Athanassious's debut collection of short stories offers a truly remarkable and moving look at the lives of Coptic children coming of age in Egypt and marks a bold and original new voice in Canadian fiction.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.40(d)|
About the Author
Mina Athanassious is a Coptic Canadian writer who was born in al-Abbasiya, a Cairene neighbourhood in central Egypt, before his family emigrated to Toronto, Canada when he was a small child. Mina received his MFA from Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts and currently works as an Intervention Support Worker, assisting persons with mental and physical handicaps with their academic endeavors.
Read an Excerpt
A GIRL AND A DOVE
Nijma rode on her father's donkey, Shusho, in the dry heat of the early morning. Her father walked beside her holding a long stick he used to whip Shusho towards Mr. Shokry's farm.
Women in long cotton dresses and headscarves hung down to their waists balancing baskets of bread or produce on their heads and young light skinned and dark skinned girls holding on to their mother's thighs with small buckets in their hands, half full with fish or eggs or water, walked past Nijma and her father and his donkey to and from the old well up ahead. A young boy, maybe fifteen years old, drove a dirty white pickup full of watermelon and red and blue and green jerry cans with scratched silver patches down the dusty path. His mother sat in the passenger seat nursing a fat baby.
"Baba, how far is Mr. Shokry's farm?" Nijma asked. Today would be her first day at her new job.
"Another five minutes," her father said.
"Is Mr. Shokry a nice man?"
Her father licked his lips searching for an answer.
"He can be," he said and nodded, though he seemed unsteady. He'd been jittery all morning. "I think, maybe, I think you need to be honest with him. And he'll be honest with you."
Nijma didn't know what her father was talking about. She didn't ask if he was honest.
Nijma looked down at Shusho. He took his master's whips with a simple neigh and obeyed. She leaned down towards Shusho's fur and hugged his neck. The line of hair that ran from his head to his back brushed her cheeks.
A warm breeze kissed the back of her neck. She pushed herself up from Shusho. She wondered where the world ended and where the wind blew and if the wind itself knew. Wherever it went, she wished she could be. Anywhere but here.
She looked to the sky, blue and huge and everywhere in every corner of empty space. It was almost too big for her. But back down, just a few metres away on the crest of a pointed straw roof, a copper-winged dove sat and watched the streets move, cocking its head back and forth between the people and places below it. It pecked at its breast for a moment and chirped a quiet song. Only Nijma heard it. Perched above everyone, it stretched its wings to the clouds and flew off with the wind. Something in Nijma's soul melted. She smiled like she'd moved into a dream.
"I want a dove," she said.
Her father turned his head towards her and laughed.
"My simple little girl," he smiled and sighed and patted her back. "You don't know the world," he said.
A group of young boys kicked a rolled up ball of socks around a cluster of palm trees on the side of the road a few metres away. Nijma recognized the one with the big square head and glasses. He ran after the other boys like a drunk. The boy looked much older than the rest, twenty or so. The other boys were in their early teens. They yelled keep away from the idiot as they kicked to each other.
Nijma remembered the day her mother took her to the souq to buy fish, about a month earlier. She gave Nijma a few piasters and told her to buy a basket from the other side of the open air market while she haggled with the fish lady. "If she doesn't take what you give her, we don't need a new basket," her mother said.
Nijma nodded and walked away. It didn't take long before she realized she was lost. She could have turned around and told her mother she couldn't find anyone selling baskets, but Nijma needed to show her mother she could be trusted. She was almost seven.
She stood beside a papyrus plant at the edge of her village and examined the scattered tables. She saw merchants selling bundles of arugula, taro, herbs and spices, tomatoes and cabbage and lettuce and parsley, galabeyas and head scarves and bags made of straw and even underwear. But she couldn't find any baskets.
Nijma stepped away to keep searching but something dragged on her dress from the back and pulled her towards the papyrus, lifting her dress. Whatever had her let her go a second later. She heard something ruffle its feathers and squawk underneath her dress. The thing she didn't know flapped its wings against her legs and pecked at her ankle in frustration.
Nijma screamed and ran and tripped to the ground over her own feet. The thing formed a small tent under her dress and flapped its wings trying to find its way out from underneath, all the while shrieking and pecking at any skin that got in its way. Nijma pushed the creature out with her hands and cried. A small chicken popped its head from underneath her dress, squealed, raised its wings, and hopped away. From far, she looked like she gave birth to a chicken.
A boy with a big head and thick square glasses walked out from behind Nijma, laughing.
"You are, you are s-s-so retarded," he said, as he reached down for his hysterical chicken. "You are so, you are s-, retarded."
She wiped at her tears and reached for the end of her dress. A clump of crimson sand grew drop by drop beneath her bleeding ankle. She looked up at the old boy, his eyes narrow and slanted beneath his glasses. Skinny and short and dark with a neck almost as thick as his fat head.
"You are, I can't believe, you are so-"
A moustached man in a white skullcap slapped the boy down with his open palm, forcing the chicken out of his hands. The boy's cheek turned red and his eyes misted. He held his red cheek with one hand and reached for the chicken with the other.
"You retard!" the man yelled. "You put a chicken under a five year old's dress you retard?"
The old boy stood up quickly.
"I-I'm not ree-, reet, she's retarded! She, she can't handle a chicken la-like a retard!"
The man shook his head and reached for Nijma's hand. She stuck it out reluctantly, though she hated that man for being the father of the idiot that attacked her. She wanted to hit him. She wanted to throw sand in his face, the stupid man and his stupid son, and spit on them. Instead, she gave him her hand.
"I'm sorry for my boy," the old man said as he pulled her up. "He's just retarded. He can't help it."
"I'm not retarded!" the boy cried. He dug his face into the feathers of his clucking chicken.
Nijma pushed the man off her and limped away as fast as she could. She had no basket, no chicken, and no piasters left in her palm. She must've dropped them during the chicken attack. What she did get that night was a beating by her father from the heel of his sandals. She deserved it for losing his money.
* * *
Nijma grew scared after seeing the big headed boy again.
"Go faster," she whispered into Shusho's ear.
A minute after they passed the well and walked out of the village, Nijma noticed a large mudbrick home two stories tall. Its walls were plastered and coloured blue, and a map of the Hajj, the owner's pilgrimage to Mecca, was drawn out on his door. A skinny man in a grey galabeya stood on a wooden burden behind two yoked water buffalo. He whipped them to work while he spoke on his cellphone.
"Is that Mr. Shokry's house?"
"Is that Mr. Shokry on that plough?"
"No. That's one of his workers. You'll meet Shokry eventually."
Nijma's father whipped Shusho to a small wooden stable. He carried his daughter off the donkey and walked out of the stable with her hand in his, and closed the wooden gate.
He led her through a wide grass field cut through by lines of mud and dust towards two mudbrick houses a few kilometres away. Both were similar in size and shape. Their doors were made of long planks of scratched, worn wood. Each had a small rectangular window eight feet above their door, though one was covered in tinted glass and the other had no glass. They stood a few metres apart.
As they approached, a skinny man in jeans and a pompadour walked out of the house with the glass window and towards the other house. He looked well rested, relaxed, and his Western clothes and greased hair made him look rich to Nijma.
"Is that Mr. Shokry?" she asked.
"No," he said. "Shokry is in the other home. The one the man's walking towards."
"What did that guy do in there?"
Her father kept quiet for a moment. He released her hand and raised his own above her head and patted her. She looked up at him. His dark eyes completely lifeless, tired, as if he'd worn out his answer to that question so many times before. Whatever was in that house, he couldn't justify.
"Doctor, but a special kind of doctor," he said. "Only for men. Not little girls."
"What kind of doctor is that?"
"A man's doctor. Girls go to girl's doctors, boys go to boy's doctors."
They arrived at the home with the open window and knocked on the door. Nijma heard a man stagger and thump towards her. He swung the door open. Nijma looked up. Six feet from the floor, the man was the tallest Egyptian she'd ever seen. And fat, his stomach poking through his galabeya like a pregnant woman, with bright brown eyes and a moustache that stretched from one cheek to the other, curled at its ends.
"Oh sweet sweet day," the fat man roared with a smile. "We have an angel at the door."
The little girl smiled a shy smile and moved her eyes between his face and the doorpost, she was so shy.
"Hi," she said rubbing her arm. "It's nice to meet you."
"It's my pleasure," he said and extended his arm inside the little home.
"Leave the money on the table and get out," he hollered at the man with the pompadour staring at a papyrus print of Isis. The man cursed under his breath and threw his money on an orange table and marched out. He stared at the little girl as if surprised. Nijma stepped to the side as he left, then walked into the fat man's house.
"Remember," her father whispered to the fat man, "she cleans, she polishes, she scrubs, she wipes, she picks corn and cotton. She can make simple food. That's it."
The fat man shook his head and smiled. "I remember."
"No visits to the doctor," he said motioning his head towards the other house. "You promised me she wouldn't become a doctor herself." Nijma watched her father's eyes open wide as he spoke. She knew he was scared. She was scared too. This job was important to her, her father and mother. They needed the money.
"Doctors, is that what you call them?" the fat man laughed. "A promise is a promise sir." He shook his head and smiled. He looked honest.
Her father nodded, patted his chest, and walked away to the fat man's field where he worked.
The fat man slammed the door shut and walked towards the girl.
"Don't worry," he winked, "you can be whatever you want someday. Even a doctor."
She examined his little house. Pages and pages of papers were scattered on a small desk at the far corner of the room.
A large wooden hutch stood across from it filled with bowls and sifters, cups, grinders, bags of flour and wheat and knives. The orange table in the middle of the room carried the pompadour man's money, a nail clipper, a cabbage and a raw slab of beef beside a mallet. A gas oven faced the table.
"I was gonna ask you to bake me some bread, but I already started on the meat. You ever make meat before?"
Nijma shook her head. She'd rarely seen meat at her own home, except for the occasional engagement or wedding.
"I just need you to bang that hammer looking thing on the piece of meat as hard as you can until it becomes nice and soft. Then I'll do the rest and you can make the bread. I'd do it myself but I have some work to do."
"What are you gonna do?"
"I'll show you after," he said, and walked to his desk. Nijma walked over to the little table, it only stood a foot and a half from the ground. She sat on the floor in front of it, picked up the mallet with both hands, and beat the piece of meat with all the little strength she could muster. She grew tired within a few minutes.
Nijma picked up the piece of meat and waved it in her hand. It seemed pretty soft, but she didn't know if it was actually ready or not. She had no memory of making meat she could compare it to.
"Mr. Shokry," she said, "I think it's done."
"Good," he said, keeping his eyes on the paper in front of him. "See that brown tray on the stove?"
"Put the meat in the tray and put the tray in the oven. It's already hot. Then come here. I wanna show you some of my work."
She did what the man asked her. She squirmed from the heat as she placed the tray in the oven. Nijma walked over to his desk. He looked back at her and smiled. From close, he smelled like sweat and grass.
He put down the pencil and organized the papers in his hand, making sure they were in order, then placed them back on the desk. He reached for the little girl and pulled her up to his lap. She'd never sat on the lap of a man she wasn't related to before. She felt something dirty grow in her stomach. Her shoulders rolled into her body and her muscles tensed. She tried to wriggle off his lap, quietly.
"Whoa!" he smiled and gently pulled her stomach towards him.
"I'm your uncle," he said. "You don't love your own uncle?"
"Sure I am! Your baba didn't tell you?"
"No." She stared at him wide-eyed.
"Oh. Maybe he doesn't know then. But I know. And now you know." He smirked and squeezed her cheeks.
"Don't tell him though. It'll be our little secret," he winked. She realized no matter how much she squirmed, he wouldn't let her go. So she sat.
His lap was hot. Nijma felt him all around her, but she wouldn't look at him. She slowed her breathing – she didn't want to take in his stench all at once. And she needed to talk to him. She needed him to know that she liked him, even though she didn't. It could be the only way she could get off his lap.
Mr. Shokry turned towards his desk. He pointed to a sketch of a faceless girl in front of him. She wore a short sleeve t-shirt and pants.
How odd. Maybe it wasn't a girl, though the curves on the drawing suggested it was. It could've been a big breasted man.
"Is that a man or a woman?" Nijma asked.
"A woman. In America, the women wear pants, like men. But you can tell them apart by their body and their hair. And also the way they smell. They spend a lot of money to smell different."
"What is this on her t-shirt?"
"It says Fashion."
"It means something nice like a rose or watermelon. Something nice. What do you think? I think you like the drawing, don't you?"
"It's nice," she said. "But this fashu woman is confused. She feels like a man, with her pants."
Mr. Shokry pushed the girl off his lap. She landed on her feet and fell to the ground. She felt the tears well in her eyes, but she held her voice.
"You don't understand the future," he yelled. "It's coming and it'll pass you by, the way you think."
She wanted to walk away, but she was scared. So she rolled off her knees and onto her bottom. He sat in front of her. She looked at him for a moment. He sat facing his work. She turned her head to the ground and breathed. She wiped the tears from her eyes and sniffed. She hoped he didn't hear. But she heard him turn his chair. She saw him uncross his legs and lean forward. She felt him stare. He was hungry for something.
"I'm sorry," he said calmly. "I get angry sometimes."
Nijma nodded. He turned away towards his work. He picked up the picture of the woman in pants to the light and smiled.
"I'm thinking of one day sending this out to an American."
He turned towards Nijma.
"Yeah, maybe I'll try," he said flipping through his pages. He turned to her. "You have any dreams?"
"Well," he said. "What are they?"
She sighed. She knew she had to answer. She didn't want him to push her to the ground again. She knew she had to tell the truth. The fat man looked like he knew a lie too well.
"I wanna meet a nice dove," she said staring out the window.
"Why a dove?"
"They know where the wind goes. They fly where the wind flies."
Shokry laughed a heavy laugh. She knew he would, just like her father did. He patted the girl on her head.
"Oh the dreams of a princess," he bellowed with a smile. "I think they have their own village somewhere close to the Sinai. Maybe they need to get back to their families. Doves have families too you know?"
Nijma sighed and nodded her head. She heard a few footsteps approach from outside and turned around. The door swung open and an older boy with a patchy beard walked in with a chubby woman. She was dressed in an all black, except for her orange headscarf that only covered the back half of her head, her dark thick hair streaked with lines of copper. Her cheeks were so fat, so round, like a child, and she was short.
The man was paying for his treatment, so this woman must've been the doctor. Nijma was stunned. She'd never seen a female doctor in her village before. Mr. Shokry wasn't lying. Maybe she would be a doctor someday, just like the lady in the orange headscarf. But she wouldn't work for Mr. Shokry, even if he was her uncle.
"How much do I owe you?" he asked before he spotted Mr. Shokry.
"Fifty on the table."
The young man spotted Nijma on his way to the table. He cocked his head back as he reached under his galabeya for his wallet.
"They just keep getting younger and younger don't they?" he said.
"She's not ready yet you animal," Shokry said. "Put your money on the table and get out."
"This is the girl?" the doctor yelled. Her accent wasn't from around here. She smiled and walked towards her. "She looks like old pictures of me when I was young."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Face Like The Moon"
Copyright © 2018 Mina Athanassious.
Excerpted by permission of Mosaic Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
A Girl and a Dove 11
All Good Things Thrown Away 33
Her Name is Egypt 49
First Crusade 67
Moses the Black 87
Breathe Life 107
A Face Like the Moon 143