The View from Garden City: A Novel336
The View from Garden City: A Novel336
Author Carolyn Baugh tells the moving story of a young American student living in the Garden City district of Cairo. Having come to study Arabic, she learns far more from the Egyptian women, young and old, she meets within the swirl and tumult of Garden City. Living, loving, and flourishing amid the fierce inflexibility of tradition, these women reveal a fascinating world of arranged marriages, secret romances, and the often turbulent bonds between four generations of Arab mothers and daughters.
Meet the women of Garden City:
Huda, who waited desperately for the man she loved until she could wait no longer
Karima, who found her husband in a collapsing post-war world
Afkar, who paid a dreadful price for her freedom
Selwa, who suffered through the deaths of her children
Yusriyya, who left her native village for a new life in the city
Samira, who loved a man who was not hers
Rich with the sights and sounds of modern Egypt, The View from Garden City lifts the veil of privacy to explore the stunning inner strength of women torn between their dreams for the future and the sacrifices women must make in a world of harsh realities.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
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About the Author
Carolyn Baugh, a native of Indiana, studied Arabic and Arab Literature at Duke University, graduating summa cum laude. She spent her junior year abroad studying at the American University in Cairo. She rowed crew for AUC on the Nile, where she met her husband, a member of the Egyptian National Crew team. Ms. Baugh and her husband live in Philadelphia with their two daughters.
Ms. Baugh is now in her fourth year of the Ph.D. program in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania, where her focus is gender issues in Islamic law. She is a frequent public speaker on the subject Islam and women, and is a contributor to The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World.
Dr. Carolyn Baugh holds both a Master's (2008) and a Doctorate (2011) from the University of Pennsylvania in Arabic and Islamic Studies. She is an Assistant Professor of History at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania, where she teaches courses in Middle East and world history and also directs the Women's Studies Program. Her graduate research focused on minor marriage in early Islamic law, while her translation work includes the Sufi treatise of the celebrated 14th century jurist and scholar Ibn Khaldun.
Dr. Baugh co-directs the Erie Voices refugee oral history project geared at collecting the stories of Erie's diverse refugee community for purposes of increasing tolerance and understanding between cultures. She is faculty advisor for Students United against Human Trafficking and the Muslim Students Association.
She is a failed concert pianist, a psychotic soccer mom to two indomitable girls, and the only one in the house who feeds Oreo the Cat. In addition to various scholarly articles, she is the author of The View from Garden City.
Read an Excerpt
Sharif was nothing to look at. He was far too thin and too tall for his frame. His wire-rimmed glasses were always crooked, the lenses so filthy that he was constantly pulling them off in order to see better. Tight curls crowned his head, and in order to subdue them, he cut his own hair. Tiny barbs of hair stuck out every which way, and he was given to patting at his head in order to smooth them down. Dark half-moons underscored black, restless eyes.
She watched him ambling across the campus and toward their bench. He stood shyly before the trio of girls. "Good afternoon," he said.
"Good afternoon," they replied in chorus. Huda saw Larinne and Nuha exchanging glances, but she pretended not to notice.
Sharif looked to Huda expectantly.
"I have your notes right here," she said, pulling the sheaf of papers out of her notebook.
He smiled gratefully. "Bless you," he said. "Did he cover a lot of material?"
Huda shook her head. "Not so much, but it's all going to be on the test. And there are some difficult equations midway through."
Sharif nodded. "I don't know how to thank you," he said, his black eyes smiling even if his lips did not.
She blushed despite herself. "No thanks are necessary," she mumbled.
He excused himself then, saying he was late for work. She watched as he walked away clutching the stack of papers she had photocopied from her own notebook.
Larinne waved a hand in front of her line of vision. "Hello?"
Huda looked at her. "What?"
The two girls laughed, imitating her. "
What?" "What are you daydreaming about?" Nuha demanded.
Huda sighed. "Nothing."
Larinne pressed the backs of her long fingers against Huda's forehead. "Nothing is right. Are you crazy or just sick? They don't get any poorer than that one."
"I hear he has six sisters," said Nuha.
Larinne was nodding. "And his father is dead."
Huda was silent, realizing that she didn't like having him discussed by her friends. She pulled her lips into a casual smile. "He's nice, that's all."
Larinne grinned. "You had better hope that's all, because it will never happen. He has to work two jobs just to take care of his family. By the time he gets all his sisters married off and can start saving for himself, he'll be sixty."
Huda shrugged. "I have nothing against older men."
"Darling, you'll be dead by then," said Nuha, tightening the pin at her chin and standing up. "How long has he been taking your notes, anyway?"
"About three weeks," said Huda, also rising from the bench. "He doesn't have time to actually sit through the lecture."
Nuha winked at Larinne. "Sharif never asked me to write notes for him," she said. "
I have better handwriting," said Huda, ending the conversation, even though her friends continued smirking as they gathered their notebooks.
The last lectures of the day were letting out, and the campus of Cairo University was thick with students. The three threaded their way through the crowds, out of the main entrance to the Faculty of Commerce, and onto _Abd al- Salam _Arif Street.
Larinne vanished into the crammed minibus that would deliver her to Hada_iq al-Quba, and Huda and Nuha were left to walk arm in arm down to Dokki Street toward home. They greeted the Dokki Street beggar woman who occupied the busy corner. Her shabby gelabiyya was stained and torn, and she leaned heavily on a grimy little girl. The child would run between her grandmother and the cars paused at the stoplight. She would motion at the crippled old lady, whose left leg ended in a rag-swathed stump that dangled just below her uneven hem. Drivers would hand the girl a half-pound note, or wave her on to the next car. The pair had been at this corner only a few weeks; Huda had seen them, a fixture at the Gelaa Bridge, only two months ago.
They had given the beggar money at the beginning of her Dokki Street sojourn. Now the stooped woman would always give them blessings for free, shaking her gnarled hands at them as they passed. May God make you beautiful brides! May He give you long lives!
"Do you love him?" Nuha asked when they'd passed the beggars.
Huda laughed. "Can we talk about something else, please?"
Nuha nodded, and fell silent a moment before saying, "Okay. A suitor is coming tonight."
Huda stared at her friend, wide-eyed. "You didn't tell me before."
"I was hoping I could forget it."
"Is it someone you know?"
Nuha shifted her satchel from one shoulder to the other, then took Huda's arm again. "No. An engineer," she said. "A friend of my cousin Anwar's." "And the apartment?" asked Huda.
"In Maadi," Nuha answered.
Huda considered this. "Maadi's good," she said.
Nuha shook her head. "Not the good part of Maadi."
"Oh," said Huda. They walked on, letting the rush of traffic fill their silence. Nuha said at last, "I hear he's handsome."
Huda smiled at her, taking in her smooth olive skin and warm chestnut eyes. The lavender headscarf did nothing to conceal Nuha's quiet radiance. "He'd be lucky to have you," she said, squeezing her friend's arm. "What are you going to wear?"
They talked awhile of skirts and blouses and shades of lipstick, until they came to the corner where Nuha departed for home.
"What time?" asked Huda.
"You'll call me and let me know?"
"You call me," Nuha said. "If I'm stuck talking to him and I want an excuse to leave the room, you'll be it."
Huda continued her walk past the underpass florist and across the teeming Dokki Square, past the grocer and the row of jewelry shops. She hesitated a moment before a window jammed with gold bangles and slinking chains of varying thickness. She stared a moment at the shebka that caught her eye-a large red velvet box displaying a necklace of thick gold braid studded with pearls, dangling pearl earrings, a matching bracelet, and a large pearl ring. In the center of the box sat the thin gold band.
"So when are you coming back with the groom?" Hatim Wassouf, the jeweler, appeared, leaning on the peeling door frame, wiping his hands on a smooth cloth. A bushy mustache topped a wide smile.
Huda jumped, startled and mortified with embarrassment. "I was . . ."
Hatim arched his eyebrows. "Yes?"
"The bracelets, I . . . My mother's birthday . . ."
Hatim laughed loudly as Huda hurriedly continued her path toward home. "We'll be waiting!" he called after her.
"Just bring over the lucky man. We'll find you a shebka to meet his budget, big or small! A shebka to make a mother proud!"
Huda shrunk in on herself, cheeks blazing. She felt that all eyes on the street were riveted on her. She passed through the open-air market on Sulayman Gohar Street, and practically ran the remaining few paces to her house.
Her chest was heaving as she closed the door behind her. The apartment was dark, caught suspended between afternoon and evening, and she knew her father must be sleeping in the shuttered living room. A pool of light spilled out of the kitchen onto the curling linoleum of the hallway. She found her mother standing over the small stove, browning rice in clarified butter as a chicken simmered in the deep pot.
Karima looked up and, still holding the wooden spoon, accepted Huda's kisses. "What's the news from the university?"
Huda opened the refrigerator and leaned in, searching for the rice pudding she'd made last night. "Nuha has a suitor coming tonight."
Karima turned to look at her daughter. "Someone she knows?"
Huda shook her head, sinking onto the foam-leaking vinyl covered chair at the kitchen table.
Karima nodded and turned back to her cooking. As though reminded, she said suddenly, "Your aunt Amar knows a young man at work. She says he's a great catch." "Mama-"
"I said to her, when Huda's friends start getting engaged, she'll be ready. But they all just want to play now. Playing at university."
Huda said nothing. "
I was already married at your age, you know," Karima said, adding the rest of the rice to the browned portion and dumping a few cups of water on top of that.
"I know, Mama."
Karima lowered the gas flame beneath the rice pot and covered it. She came to sit opposite Huda, wiping her face with the rolled-up sleeve of her thin cotton gelabiyya. Huda looked at her mother, swallowed hard, then said, "
There's a boy I like at school."
Karima narrowed her eyes. "What kind of boy?"
Huda shrugged. "A good boy."
"From a respectable family?"
"You've talked with him?"
"He copies from my lecture notes."
Karima narrowed her eyes. "You've met him away from school?"
Huda glared at her mother. "Of course not."
Karima sighed in relief, and Huda looked away, furious at the suggestion.
"Has he talked to you of marriage?" Karima asked finally.
"No. And he won't."
Her mother watched her carefully, sipping at her water glass. "Why?" "Because he doesn't have a millime."
Karima harrumphed. "That story?"
"He works two jobs to support his mother and sisters. His father's dead." Karima regarded her daughter steadily. "Exactly what do you want me to do, Huda?"
"I want you not to talk about suitors for a while."
Her mother rubbed her hands across her eyes. "Until when? When you're old and wrinkled?"
Huda placed a spoonful of the pudding in her mouth, thinking. "Until I know his intentions," she said at last. "That's fair, isn't it?"
Karima sighed again, staring unseeingly at the seeping cracks that skated along the length and width of the weary kitchen walls. "For now," she answered.
Nuha's voice was choked with rage as she whispered into the telephone, "He's handsome, all right. A beautiful fat man."
Huda pressed the receiver closer to her ear. "Tell me."
"Fat. Fat. Fat like someone who eats whole jars of samna. Even Mama was surprised."
"But is he nice?"
Nuha practically spat into the phone, "Fat people have to be nice."
Huda sucked in her stomach reflexively. "Maybe he's fat from loneliness. He'll lose weight once he wins your heart."
"No, I already told Mama no."
"She won't mind?"
Nuha was silent a moment, considering. "She really liked his qualifications. His family has money, even if he's just starting out. And his car is brand-new. It's parked downstairs. A Hyundai. Red."
Huda pictured Nuha riding in a red Hyundai next to an oozingly fat man.
"What's next?" she asked.
"We'll wait and see who shows up the next time. It has to get better, right?"
The next morning, Huda sat before her vanity table, staring at herself. Her face was round; her lips were full and precisely shaped and sat under a nose that took up more space on her face than she would have liked. She had just finished taming her eyebrows into two high arches. They floated now over cocoa-colored eyes that, properly lined, could catch someone's attention.
She rubbed her hand thoughtfully across her cheeks and chin, then fluffed at her hair. Her hair was long and coarse, but she had curled it with the curling iron so that it framed her face in gentle waves. She tilted her head slightly, left then right.
She stood surveying her wide curves, resolving again to go with Larinne to the gym. Adjusting her vertical-striped blouse-it made her appear thinner-she decided she looked full-figured and sensuous rather than all-out plump.
Her mother paused at Huda's door on her way out to work.
"Dressing up for school today?" she asked.
Huda smiled at her mother, caught.
"Marriage is a matter of Fate, you know," Karima said.
Huda nodded. "I know. I'm trying to encourage Fate."
Nuha was waiting, as she waited each morning, a few steps beyond Radwan's Shawerma Shop. She noticed the extra measures immediately.
"The eye makeup looks good," she observed, reaching a hand to adjust a lock of Huda's hair. "The hair looks beautiful. I always wondered why you wear it braided instead of loose like this. It frames your face nicely."
"I hate my hair," said Huda, starting toward school.
"Every female hates her hair," said Nuha.
If Sharif noticed the difference, he did not give any indication. Nor did he give Huda extra attention on the next day, or the next.
"He's shy," said Nuha.
"He's broke," insisted Larinne.
"He doesn't know you like him. If he knew, he'd have the courage to speak up."
Huda laughed. "So now I'm supposed to go and tell him how I feel? That's too much."
But something of a plan was hatched. Sharif had gotten into the habit of approaching Huda when the other two were present. One day, as soon as he appeared, Larinne and Nuha suddenly remembered a vital and pressing meeting with their section leader.
Sharif stood awkwardly in front of the bench, his eyes following the girls' retreating figures.
Nervousness nearly silenced Huda completely, but she fought for the words. "Would you like to sit?" she asked finally.
He stared at the ground for a moment, then his head bobbed up and down. He sat as far from her on the bench as possible without being on the ground.
Huda shifted uncomfortably, imagining the eyes of passersby drawing conclusions from such a scene.
"How is your work?" she began, her voice uncertain.
She shrugged, smiling. "Both?"
He nodded briefly, staunchly. "Work is all right. Al-hamdu lillah." He did not say anything at all for a while, then began,
"Yes?" She looked at him directly for the first time that morning.
He blinked and looked away. "I don't know how to thank you for the notes. I wouldn't be able to pass without them."
She smiled, and took to staring at the fingernails of her tightly clasped hands.
Silence engulfed them, and Huda was about to stand and make her excuses before they became the object of gossip.
Sharif noticed that she had begun fidgeting. "Huda, I need you to know that I-" She froze, the fingernails of her left hand digging deeply into her right. "
I would ask for your hand in a second, if only I had some- thing to offer you." The words came out in a soft rush, and he exhaled audibly after completing the sentence. His eyes were still focused on the patch of cement in front of his shoes.
"I would accept." She gazed at him, willing him to look at her.
He turned his face to hers, and their eyes met. His eyes were black pearls, and she felt something within herself slacken, a ridge of tension swept away by a warm wave.
But too soon Huda saw a frown work its way from his mind onto his skin, knitting itself above his uneven eyebrows.
He tore his eyes from hers. "But I don't even bother hoping for this. I have nothing. I just needed you to know it. I just-I just wanted you to know."
She nodded slowly, and watched helplessly as he stood up, gathering his notebooks and the pen that had fallen to the ground. She was desperate to say something, anything to keep him from walking away.
His gait was quick and crooked as he made for the crowded street.
Her mother was in tears when Huda entered the flat; the sobs had echoed out into the hallway as she turned her key in the lock. She rushed to her mother's chair and knelt beside it, looking to her father for an explanation.
Baba sat smoking a long Cleopatra cigarette, despite the doctor's specific orders. At last he said softly, stiffly, still staring at the telephone, "Wagdy isn't coming for Ramadan."
Huda kissed her mother's wet cheeks. "Mama, you knew he wasn't coming. How can he come? If he comes he can't go back; he'll never get the right papers again now that he's broken the first visa. And then what will he do?"
Her mother practically shouted at her, "You mean he's going to just stay there forever?"
Huda swallowed, fighting her own tears. "And what if he does? At least he'll have a future there. . . ."
Karima's sobs increased. Huda tried to wipe her mother's tears with her fingertips, but Karima caught her hands in hers, fiercely, as though furious at her. Her grip remained strong, but her features softened as tears continued to slide along the fullness of her face. "I miss my son," she whispered hoarsely.
Huda nodded, biting her lips hard to keep from crying. "So do I."
The two fell silent, clutching each other. The only sounds in the room became Karima's subsiding sobs, and the soft crackle of the diminishing cigarette.
Huda walked into her room slowly and opened the creaking wardrobe door. The blouse hung separately from her others, and she fingered the rayon gingerly. It was a pale peach color, with gold buttons in the shape of roses.
Huda pressed the cloth to her face, trying to detect a trace of Wagdy's scent. He had sent other things from America, tied up in plastic bags and delivered by friends of his who'd come to see their families. Perfumes for Mama. Thick leather slippers with warm padding for Baba's woeful feet. A pair of Clarks Shoes for Omar, the eldest, and durable white socks that could withstand the long, upright hours at the grocery. He had sent Huda makeup and cassette tapes and T-shirts.
But this blouse was the most beautiful gift yet. The tags still dangled from the left sleeve's seam.
She could not wear it. She could only touch it, imagining his hands as they'd folded it into the bag.
Ever since Huda could remember, it was Mama Selwa's habit to come for the weekend, leaving her son _Adil's home and the three grandchildren she cared for while her daughter-inlaw taught school. Huda's cousins were much younger than she and her brothers were, for Uncle _Adil was ten years Karima's junior. On weekends, Huda and Mama Selwa shared Huda's large bed, just as they had when Huda was little.
When nightmares had yanked frightened tears from Huda's small eyes, Mama Selwa used to rub her back and whisper, There's nothing to worry about. Just go into the bathroom, open the faucet, and tell the dream to the water. As it goes down the drain, it will take the nightmare with it, and nothing bad will ever come true.
Sometimes, even when she was not there, Mama Selwa's soft snores and midnight murmurs would lace themselves into Huda's dreams. Huda would awaken and stare confusedly about her in the dark, imagining her grandmother's nearness.
Friday was when Mama Selwa would preside over the family gathering for late-afternoon lunch.
On this day, Karima was still at market when Huda set aside her notebooks, stretched, and navigated the parlor's shifting tiles to cross into the kitchen.
Mama Selwa sat at the kitchen table, peeling cloves of garlic for mashing into the okra stew's spice mixture. Huda studied her for a long time before her grandmother looked up. "Are you going to help me or are you just going to stand there like a monkey?" Huda laughed and crossed to the table.
"Your mother invents work for me every time I come," she said. "I should just stay at your uncle's, where I belong. What is it you do all day, anyway, that you don't help her enough?"
"Studies," answered Huda automatically, breaking a clove away from the bunch. "Pray for my success."
Mama Selwa cast a dubious glance over the rim of her glasses. "Studies. Have you heard she's looking for your groom?"
Huda frowned, flaring her nostrils, and crushing the clove against the table's surface to loosen its peel.
"You're not interested?"
"You're interested, but in one boy in particular?"
Huda could not meet her grandmother's eyes.
With her paring knife, Mama Selwa tapped the space of tabletop that lay in Huda's line of vision. "It doesn't matter, you know," she said.
Huda looked up, her eyes a question.
"He doesn't matter. You matter. You've got everything you need right in here." She gestured to Huda's chest.
Huda blinked, watching Mama Selwa's face for any further clues.
She offered none, but lowered her voice conspiratorially.
"You'll see. You're not waiting for anything from anyone," she said.
"It will be all right. Despite him."
Huda rose, hesitance weaving itself into the uncurling of her body as she stood. "
I have to study," she murmured, wiping her fingertips on a damp rag.
"With success," responded Mama Selwa, her wide jade eyes swimming with meanings that Huda could not divine.
Lunch that day was just as it had always been. Karima spread newspapers across the surface of the dining room table, hiding the masking tape that sealed the splintered surface. She piled its center with the warm, circular loaves of cracked wheat bread. Dish by dish, the table crowded in on itself with golden fried rice, tidy stacks of stuffed cabbage leaves, and a deep bowl of the okra stew. Two chickens lay spread-eagled in their baking pans, framing a casserole of zucchini in béchamel sauce.
As Karima distributed massive portions to each expectant plate, Omar recounted the latest gossip of all of the grocery's customers, those who were marrying, working, giving birth, and arguing publicly. Alia coaxed and cajoled her eldest, five year- old Rami, begging him to eat something in addition to the rice.
Mama Selwa regaled them all with stories of her daughter in- law's latest crimes. Mama Selwa was constantly fielding telephone calls from her son's mistresses, although once in a while she left his wife to answer, relishing her blushing furies as punishment for her sharp tongue.
As Mama Selwa's laughter brought on their own, tears streaked her cheeks. Huda observed the scene in sated silence, loving the sound of her family's laughter, wishing that she could bottle the sound and sip it like sweet sahlab each time she thirsted.
One evening, Nuha refused to take Huda's call.
Huda stared at the receiver for a long time after placing it on the base. She sat on the edge of the bed, paralyzed, imagining the scene at Nuha's house. There had been a steady stream of suitors, at least one a week for the past three months. Nuha had complained and groaned, sometimes not even bothering to lower her voice as she gave Huda assessments while the young man stewed in the parlor.
But never once had she not come to the phone.
Huda waited for almost an hour, busying herself with outlining a chapter on auditing. When the phone finally rang, she pounced on it.
Nuha's laughter billowed through the line. "This one isn't so bad."
"What does he do?"
"Not yet. But he said his brother is going to sell him his Peugeot when he gets his new car. He's older, so he's had longer to save. He offered a shebka of five thousand and either two rooms of furniture for the flat or a mahr of ten thousand." Huda digested this, then asked, "How old?" "Thirty."
Nuha laughed again. "That's nothing. Larinne just had her mother accompany her to dinner with a man who is thirty- five. And she's serious about him-she thinks he'll come to make a formal proposal next week."
Huda shook her head. "What did you talk about?"
"What do you know about politics?"
"I can learn," Nuha answered, indignant. Then, changing her tone, she said, "He's so handsome, Huda. He has the kindest eyes and the sweetest smile." "How did it end?" "
I told Mama to tell him he can telephone me anytime."
Huda laughed. "Progress. You told her to hit the rest of them with shoes." "This one isn't like the rest of them."
Huda smiled, envisioning her friend's beaming face. "I'm glad. May God work it out for the best."
When Nuha's engagement was announced three weeks later, Karima began to lose patience.
Huda avoided her gaze all evening, but Karima cornered her as they washed dishes. "How long are you going to wait for the pauper?" she demanded. "
As long as I need to," said Huda, placing a dripping plate on the rusting wire rack over the sink.
"Did he even express an interest?"
Huda rubbed the bar of soap against the rag, then resumed scrubbing the baking pan. "He knows he can't ask for my hand yet, Mama. His life is hard enough. He doesn't deserve to have Baba throw him out for the crime of not having an apartment to marry into or a millime to call his own."
Karima was silent, stacking dried plates in the cabinet. When she could restrain her tongue no longer, she said, "So how is it that you imagine he'll ever be able to take care of you?"
"I can work, can't I? I am going to university, after all."
Karima scoffed. "I haven't noticed university degrees doing anyone any good these days."
"Sharif is a good boy. And he wants me. That's the important thing. No one told him about me, no one said what a nice family I have, or how well-mannered I am and what a good mother I'll make. He wants me for me. And that's why I want him."
"Did he promise you anything?"
"He wouldn't ask me to wait for him."
Her mother was exasperated. "So what is your solution to all this?"
After a squeaking turn of the handle, the faucet fell silent. Huda faced her mother, her eyes brimming, her hands sopping. "I don't know what to do. If I had something to sell, I'd sell it and give it to him. If I had a home, I'd write his name on the deed." Karima sighed. "Tell him to do what he can. But tell him to do it soon."
Huda started for her room, but her mother held up a hand.
"I won't let you throw away your life. You're not getting any younger, do you understand?"
There was no reply to that. Huda walked through the semidarkness of the .at to her bedroom, wishing for once that the door closed all the way. She huddled on the floor beneath the window, grasping her knees, relying on the sounds of the restless souq to obscure her sobbing.
Her puffy eyelids were the first things Nuha saw.
"What happened?" They fell in step together.
"You tell me where you went last night with your fiancé," Huda said. "No. Later. What's wrong? Tell me now."
Huda sighed. "Sharif. Mama has lost patience already."
Nuha curled her arm into Huda's, choosing her words carefully. "Maybe she's not that wrong."
Huda looked up. "What do you mean?"
"Maybe . . . maybe he just isn't right for you. How can he ever afford to set up a house, to care for a wife and children? Do you really want to live your whole life worrying if you'll make it through the week?"
"It can't just be hopeless, just because of money. It just . . . it just can't work that way."
Nuha shook her head sympathetically. "If I had some, I'd give it to you both. But I don't even know what money looks like. That's life, you know? There has to be a reason. And maybe your mother will .nd someone nice for you. A good man. A good catch."
They passed the beggar woman and her granddaughter in silence. The old woman was seated on the sidewalk, her bent back propped up against the wrought iron fence. The scant child was draped across her grandmother's lap, her rib cage swelling and deflating as she snored. The beggar called after them toothlessly, May you soon be beautiful brides! May God grant you long lives!
Huda moaned softly. "I have to talk to him. Maybe if he knew how much I want him to come propose . . ."
"Do you think he's waiting for encouragement?" asked Nuha. "Don't you think if there were any way, he would have done something at the start of the semester?"
She considered this pensively, but she could not prevent herself from lying in wait for him after business administration.
"Sharif," she called, as he was descending the marble steps of the lecture hall. "One minute."
"I'll catch up," he called to his three friends. "Huda. How are you?" His eyes locked with hers, and the words she'd prepared crumbled in her mouth. He had seemed so weary just moments before, so heavy of limb and gray of face. But when he saw her, a light pulsated deep in the pupils of his eyes, and a smile found its way to his lips. They stood thus for an interminable moment, Huda watching the effect she had on him, and Sharif basking in her cocoa-colored eyes.
A passing shoulder knocked him slightly off balance, and remembering where he was, he pulled his gaze away reluctantly.
"How are you?" he repeated, pushing his glasses up on his nose.
"I-" She paused. "How is your mother? Your sisters, are they well?" He nodded. "Al-hamdu lillah."
She swallowed hard, crossing her arms so that he couldn't see the shaking of her hands. "I-I don't know what to say. I . . ." She faltered, then decided just to launch into it. "Well, do you remember what you said about wanting to marry me?" He flushed and toed the cement with his already worn shoe.
She continued hurriedly, "Please, I don't . . . I'm not trying to put you in a bad position. It's just . . . Well, my mother is starting to pressure me, and I've told her all about you, and if you thought there was any way, any way at all that you could speak with Baba . . ."
She saw the tendons of his neck stiffen as he raised his eyes to meet hers.
Her voice faded as she looked at him. "Any way at all . . ."
Regret simmered in his eyes. "I'm sorry. I . . . I wish I had something to offer. But . . . I have nothing. I have nothing to give you."
"I don't want much," she offered weakly. "
You know what I mean, Huda." His eyes took in the great dome of the campus, and the mighty high-rises beyond it that lined Giza Street. "I go for days eating only foule. I don't even remember what meat tastes like. Do you understand? I've fixed these shoes seven times. Every piaster I make goes straight to the house, my sisters, clothes, food . . . Some days I don’t have half a pound for the bus and I walk all the way from Shubra to school. I only stay in school so I’ll be qualified for that someday
when one of the businessmen whose cars I service will offer me a nice office job. But even then. You know how long it takes to save up enough."
He looked at her, and she saw in his eyes a hopelessness that was slate-gray and cold. She shrank from it but found the voice to say, "I would work too." "Where?"
"A bank. I'm interning this summer. It could lead to an appointment after graduation."
"How is that? Do you know someone with connections?" His voice was jagged with bitterness. "And even if you got lucky- two hundred pounds a month doesn't even buy bananas. How long would it take us together to save enough for a flat?" "I would wait," she said, meaning it.
He smiled his lopsided smile, then, pulling his glasses off his face, he gazed at her with a look that was so intimate she felt naked. "I know," he answered softly. Then he shook his head, quickly, as though to clear away a fog within. "But what's your crime that you should waste your youth on me?"
"How about that I have a feeling I could make you happy?"
He reached as if to take her hand, then caught himself and let his hand fall to his side. "You already have," he said, as he turned and walked away.
Sharif. She wanted to call his name aloud, so loudly as to drown out even the clanging from the bell tower.
But all she could do was stand paralyzed, and stare at the hand that he had wanted to touch.
She mentally constructed his touch, wrapping his strong, dark fingers around hers.
When she heard the doorbell that evening, she took refuge in her room, her sanctuary that overlooked Sulayman Gohar Square's swarming market. The parlor interrogations would be drowned out by the cry of the onion seller lauding his produce, the haggling of women and indignant vendors, and the shouts of a fierce street-soccer match.
The vanity mirror mocked her as she leaned on her elbows, studying her face.
Already, a creeping sadness began to infiltrate her eyes, seeping across her dark irises like spilled ink.
She rose from the tiny stool, turning this way and that, tugging her already long blouse down even farther in an attempt to disguise the bulge of her behind. Her ankle-length black skirt had picked up the usual lint and she brushed at it idly, caring and not caring. She shook her head, hating the taste of fear in her mouth. She smoothed her hands over her blouse, across her hips. Fat. Too fat. He'll think,"If she's this fat now, what will she be like after we're married? Like her mother, that's what."
As if on cue, Karima burst in, flushed and aflutter, a fine film of sweat shining on her forehead. "Quickly, quickly. I've prepared the tray. Now you take him the coffee, just as we discussed. Did you take down your hair? Hadn't I put it up in a barrette for you? Oh, well, there's no time for that now. He says his apartment is in Maadi. It would be perfect. Hurry, darling, your groom is waiting!" And with that Karima propelled her toward the kitchen.
The tray was indeed waiting; the cardamom cast silken raiments of scent over the dilapidated kitchen. So, he was a coffee drinker, then. The delicate demitasse with the tiny matching saucer occupied the center of the silver-plated tray Mama used only for special occasions. A glass of Nescafé in hot milk sat next to it, and she divined that this was for the suitor's mother, Aunt Amar's coworker. She regarded the beverage warily, feeling in its heat the heat of the woman's appraising gaze.
Baba, on the other hand, drank sugary tea. She touched his steaming glass with her fingertip, imagining his detached silence as Mama had gone from gossiping with the mother to flattering and questioning the young man.
She knew he had spent the whole time sliding his prayer beads swiftly between his fingers, his lips moving absently through the simple prayers. Subhan Allah. Al-hamdu lillah. Allahu Akbar. She sighed and picked up the tray, carrying it carefully into the sitting room. She did not look up, only watched the shuddering surfaces of the beverages, silently commanding them not to slop over. She set the tray on the coffee table and carefully handed over the drinks. As she served the suitor his coffee, she was flirting with the idea of dumping it in his lap; she suppressed the desire, hating her own cowardice. She backed slowly into the chair next to the high couch that Baba occupied, his swollen feet mashed into his dress shoes for the occasion, the laces limp and untied.
Only after sitting did she raise her eyes to look her suitor in the face.
He greeted her politely, and she summoned a weak smile in reply. His face was pockmarked with the eternal scars of picked pimples. His eyes were small and set widely apart, giving off the illusion that he was walleyed. His hair was thick and wiry, and she noticed with mild disgust that he had to shave his neck all the way to his collar. To keep all that hair at bay, she thought. To keep it from overtaking his face and suffocating him. His mother, slim and gray-faced, asked her about the university. As though expecting criticism, she related how her son had graduated from an accounting institute, a two-year degree, and he worked seasonally as a tax reviewer for a government contracting company. The rest of the time he looked for other work, and drove his cousin's taxi at night. He had an apartment, still only exposed brick inside, but his alone, thanks to some foresight by his father, who'd bought when the edge of Maadi was still desert and the apartments were cheap.
The suitor himself chimed in at this point, explaining how he could use the taxi almost any time, so it was as if he had his own car, too.
She listened as he spoke, hating his thin voice. It was like a plastic bag stretched so hard that it was about to rip apart. She hated how his eyes periodically swept over her, swiftly, as though no one would notice. Evaluating her.
So I'm too fat, she thought, defending herself against those walleyes. But at least I have good skin. At least I got into college.
She cast a glance at her father, and caught him looking at her. His stern, disinterested look did not fluctuate, but he winked at her-so quickly she almost didn't catch it.
All her muscles and nerves seemed to detangle then, and she felt her breathing go back to normal. It was going to be all right. Baba was on her side. She rejected this one firmly, immediately after he left. She was surprised to see her mother crying. "He's such a good catch, that one. So what if he didn't go to university? No one went to university in my day. Did we die from it? No. Your aunt Amar wouldn't have sent him to us if he weren't from a good family. With good manners. And the apartment-are you forgetting the apartment? Could we hope for a better section of town than Maadi?"
For so long now, Karima's tears had been preserved for the subject of Wagdy. Wagdy hasn't called, Wagdy called and he's taken up with an American girl, Wagdy doesn't love me enough to come home, Wagdy won't be coming for a visit this Eid, maybe next Eid, maybe next year. Maybe.
Huda had never been a subject of pain for Karima. Huda had always been her comfort. She looked to Baba to say something, but he only patted her tenderly on the head, gathered up his cane and hobbled off to his ongoing backgammon game at Lutfy's Café. Her mother's tears brought on her own, and she fled to her room.
She lay for hours in her bed, clutching her pillow, listening to the street creaking and shifting beneath her closed shutters. The realization that things would get no better settled over her like the red dust of the khamasin over the restive city.
As she walked arm in arm with Nuha after the last test of the year, she noticed that the beggar woman and her granddaughter were nowhere in sight.
Nuha said, "The police finally sent them off to beg somewhere else."
Huda nodded sadly, feeling the sidewalk to be empty despite the constant stream of people.
Listlessly, she would once in a while evidence a little interest in a candidate. However, the obligatory period wherein her family would ask neighbors and coworkers to recommend or discredit him always brought up some .aw or other. One of them was famous for accepting bribes at work. Another had been engaged six times. Another turned out to be forty-two-too old even by Karima's lax standards. One was a known alcoholic, another had a problem with hashish. Another's apartment was in a horrible, run-down building in Safit al-Laban, a part of town that, in mentality and living standards, might as well have been a village in the depths of Upper Egypt.
The whole summer passed thus, and Huda welcomed the start of school in the fall.
But Sharif did not ask for her notes anymore. He greeted her from afar, never approaching the bench where she sat murmuring with Larinne and Nuha.
Huda would watch his thin, gangly form as it wended its way through the campus grounds.
If he felt her persistent gaze, he never acknowledged it by looking back.
When the second semester of the senior year began, he was not present among the ranks of students. Larinne admitted that she'd heard he was just too busy with work to attend. Huda knew he had failed three of five subjects the previous semester, and would have to repeat them.
All three girls graduated comfortably but unremarkably from the Faculty of Commerce. Although Huda couldn't get appointed anywhere, the Ahly Bank-where she had done her summer internship-welcomed her as a sort of perpetual intern. She was paid an eighth of what an employee made, although she did triple the work.
But Huda loved it. She loved the bank. She loved the smell of it and the way her shoes clicked against the smooth marble of the floors. She loved the soft hum of the central air-conditioning. She loved the responsibilities and the tasks. She loved it when she was the only one who could solve a problem on the computer, or when the supervisor said, Thank you, Huda. I don't know what we'd do without you, Huda.
The bank was where she felt reliable and competent. Precise. And finally, perfect. Her work was perfect. Nothing in her life had ever before breathed even a breath of perfection. And even if it was trivial, and even if she was grossly underpaid, Huda, for once, was proud of herself.
She sat with Larinne at Nuha's wedding.
Karima had refused to come because, she admitted, she had secretly chosen Nuha for Wagdy, and seeing her would be too painful. By this time, Wagdy had told them of his marriage to a yellow-haired girl. He did not spend a year's salary on a shebka, only produced, in increments, enough for a small diamond ring. She paid for half of a rented apartment. They slept on a mattress on the floor, and ate off a table purchased from a place that sold items other people had thrown away. They shared the loan on a used Mazda.
He was happy, he said.
He would send pictures, he said, with the next friend who traveled home.
Moreover, he promised, he would be able to come home, maybe within a year, depending on the paperwork and God's facilitations.
This point alone dried Karima's bereft tears, and allowed her to recover from the pain of a new, unknown daughter and a still-distant son.
Excerpted from The View From Garden City by Carolyn Baugh.
Copyright © 2003 by Carolyn Baugh.