Zvezdana Rashkovich

How to Love a Man in Cairo

 

Never love a man more than he loves you,” moth­er told her numer­ous times, always shak­ing her man­i­cured fin­ger in front of Zainab’s nose. Her pol­ish was Red Velvet.

Never let him know how much you care… under­stand?” Mother’s grey hair dis­ap­peared under a styl­ish veil, her gold ear­rings dan­gling like lit­tle spi­ders, high cheek­bones inher­it­ed from a Turkish ances­tor.

That evening, when her hus­band Gamil nes­tled his face next to hers, Zainab clung to mother’s words. But the warmth of her husband’s skin, his strong hands that nev­er stopped mov­ing made it hard to do so. Gamil smelled of a musky per­fume and cig­a­rettes and she trem­bled. Zainab didn’t under­stand. Mother said it would be easy. Zainab cursed her treach­er­ous body for repeat­ed­ly fail­ing her and moth­er.

The muezzin broke into a melan­choly song. It was time for Morning Prayer.

 

***

 

The baby whim­pered, his doll-size foot nudg­ing Zainab’s soft bel­ly. She tucked her swollen breast into the loose folds of her white night­gown. A part of her wed­ding trousseau, once fairy-like and silky, now it crin­kled like crêpe paper when she moved. Soap had eat­en through the mate­r­i­al and fre­quent wash­ing had frayed the sleeves into loose threads that now drooped deject­ed­ly. Nevertheless, Zainab wore it almost every night. Even with a baby in her arms and milk stains form­ing cir­cles that looked some­what dis­gust­ing, Gamil said.

However, she still took great care with her evening show­er rit­u­al, metic­u­lous­ly wax­ing her body and face of any unwant­ed hairs, out­lin­ing her wide black eyes in even dark­er eye­lin­er and slather­ing her body in the same oil she used for the baby. Then she doused her­self in per­fume. Cheap, but still. Often she thought of her room in her par­ents’ com­fort­able apart­ment fac­ing the Nile. The thrill as she unwrapped the selec­tion of expen­sive per­fume bot­tles her father brought in Duty Free bags after his trips to cities with elu­sive sound­ing names. Paris, Barcelona… Moscow. All the bot­tles were emp­ty now. Lining the sur­face of her dress­er like those Pharaohs’ stat­ues in the Cairo muse­um. Appealing, dusty and use­less. Father stopped bring­ing them because he was dead now. Probably already trans­formed into sus­te­nance for the insa­tiable, over­grown gar­dens lin­ing both sides of the Nile.

Ah, of course, you are the daugh­ter of a Pasha.” Gamil said when she men­tioned she had run out of per­fume. His yel­low-flecked eyes bore into her with the same look he had when she served salt­ed fish for lunch. He hat­ed salt­ed fish. “Born with a gold spoon in your plump mouth right?” He flicked the ash from his cig­a­rette in her direc­tion.

Zainab twist­ed her long black hair into a bun and said noth­ing. She avoid­ed his yel­low eyes and poured hot black tea into small cups. “Have some tea.” She hand­ed her hus­band the glass and hid her smile when he yelped as it touched his tongue.

Zainab hat­ed this apart­ment that clawed at the eighth floor of a smog-stained build­ing. Grime and dust reached upwards and extend­ed their dirty hands inside. She hat­ed how the city invad­ed her labo­ri­ous clean­ing each day, streak­ing her feet black when she for­got to wear her plas­tic slip­pers and turn­ing her hand-washed laun­dry grey as it hung on the bal­cony. The city always won.

Gamil will be home soon from the mosque. In this month of fast­ing and sup­pli­ca­tion Zainab had hoped her hus­band would extend the gen­tle­ness pre­scribed by his faith towards his wife and son. Instead, the long fast, the crowds out­side and his crav­ing for a cig­a­rette made Gamil slight­ly crazy. He snapped at her, the yel­low in his nar­rowed eyes whirling in their depths like a sus­pend­ed dust storm over the desert. At dusk when they broke their fast around a small kitchen table cov­ered in plas­tic, Gamil chewed his fava beans and baked chick­en and grilled egg­plant and rice pud­ding in silence. Later, he chain-smoked in front of the TV.

Zainab always accom­pa­nied him on the sofa with the baby in her arms or latched onto her breast. She kept the lit­tle boy qui­et in his father’s pres­ence. Every night Gamil switched off the TV past mid­night and went into their bed­room where he pulled the heavy cur­tains tight­ly togeth­er. Still, the city reached Zainab’s ears like rum­ble from a hun­dred-foot swell. Eighteen mil­lion inhab­i­tants enjoyed the post-fast hours deep into the night in eigh­teen mil­lion ways- eat­ing sweets and drink­ing cof­fee, shop­ping and toss­ing Frisbees in the parks. They walked by the Nile or watched the twin­kling lights cast by float­ing restau­rants, puffed on a mint scent­ed water pipe… laugh­ing. Her peo­ple loved life. She laid the baby down in his crib and stroked his head for a few min­utes.

Everyone lived, except us. Zainab com­plained to her moth­er over the phone dur­ing their dai­ly calls. Mother had stopped wear­ing her tin­kling ear­rings and didn’t instruct her any­more. She just repeat­ed, as if she had for­got­ten she had said it a thou­sand times already, “Inhsallah, it will be bet­ter.”

Zainab shook her head in con­fu­sion as she slipped the paper-thin night­gown from her shoul­ders and let it fall to the floor. Gamil watched her, yel­low eyes wide and gold­en now, like on their wed­ding night. She slid into bed next to him. He opened his arms and word­less­ly she moved into his embrace. The world out­side turned around on its axis and peo­ple spat mas­ti­cat­ed pump­kin seeds onto the pave­ment and lit­tle orphan girls sold jas­mine neck­laces on the streets. They had a few hours before dawn arrived and fast­ing start­ed again.

~

Zvezdana Rashkovich is an American writer born in the for­mer Yugoslavia and raised in the Sudan. Her pub­li­ca­tions include among oth­ers, The Missing Slate, Inkapture, The Huffington Post, Gone Lawn JournalWhen Women Waken Anthologies, New World Literature and a forth­com­ing col­lec­tive mem­oir, I am Subject. Currently, she lives in Dubai via Oregon and Qatar and is a moth­er of four.