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 Journal, When 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.