Things We Lost in the Revolution: A Short Story

corniche

CARY BASS/FLICKR@BASTIQUE

I should have known that Adam was too good to be true – that our relationship was too perfect to be real.   His honey brown eyes smile at me sometimes when I am sleeping but the dreams are coming less frequently despite how desperately I want to hold onto them.  The dreams are all I have left to prove that I didn’t just dream him up in the first place.

“I’ll take lots of pictures on your cell phone,” he had said and smiled at me like a mother smiles at her child in the middle of a public grocery store tantrum.  It was a “no, you can’t have that chocolate bar but if you start behaving now, there will be a treat after you eat your supper,” type of smile.  Except that I wasn’t a child and he wasn’t my mother.  And his smile melted me, melted any protests I had.  “I won’t place you in danger, Iman.”

“What about you?” I think I remember asking that but for the life of me, I can’t remember how or even if he answered.

He held up the falafel sandwich, the breakfast he’d picked up on his way from a street vendor.  “Here, eat. This will be the best one.”

*****

We first met at Moody’s, an upscale deli just a few blocks away from campus.  I was there because it seemed like it was a clean place to get a meal.  Canadians students traveling abroad are given practical advice about what and where to eat so as not to contract some deadly virus or something along those lines and I was only too happy to oblige.  He walked in with a group of friends and I swear that I felt his presence because it seemed like he sucked up all the air when he entered.  Our eyes met (so cliché a way to describe it, yes, but so apt too) and I watched as he took a seat with his friends, laughed with them, ordered his meal, held up a chemistry textbook and explained something  to one of them.  It was wrong to stare; of course, women who do so in places like Egypt are practically inviting the sexual harassment that plagues almost all females, even the ones who don’t ask for it.

God, he was just so beautiful.

I ate my fancy falafel sandwich slowly and ordered a cappuccino when the waiter asked if I wanted anything else (even though I usually only drink black coffee).  I resisted the urge to fish out my compact mirror and check on my reflection; instead, felt relieved that I’d decided to put on my favourite light green hijab and a bit of mascara that morning.  If he looked my way, it’d be fine, I thought, and then the thought that something might be stuck in my teeth loomed large.  A piece of parsley from the falafel or a single grain that hadn’t been filtered well from the coffee.  Just don’t smile, if he does happen to look your way, I told myself.  A compromise.

But he didn’t look my way the entire time.  He’d cast his eyes downward after that first moment and wouldn’t meet my gaze again. At one point, I think a friend nudged him and pointed towards me, as if to indicate that he had an admirer in the room.  He shrugged his shoulders but still didn’t turn to face me.  When the group got up to leave, my anger came.  I swore at him for being so beautiful, for likely being so accustomed to women staring at him so that he was oblivious to me.  I swore at myself for acting like a stupid school girl and making a fool of myself.  It’s not like you haven’t seen good-looking people before, idiot! 

They’d been gone for at least a few minutes before I rose to pay for the meal.  I looked down at my half eaten sandwich and the cappuccino that I’d finished without remembering sipping at it.  The time I’d spent staring at him had been lost.  I looked around searching for evidence that I might have unwittingly spilled the hot drink on myself or the floor. That’s when the melody that was his voice touched me.

“If you want to eat good falafel, you can’t get it from a place like this.”

The friends were gone; the waiter who’d hovered over me was gone; indeed, the air was gone. It was only him.  Adam, in a white shirt and shining in the sunlight like some sort of angel.

He told me later that he too had felt the connection immediately.  We were sitting together on the corniche, the Mediterranean sparkling in our horizon, the salt water scent strong around us. He frowned with the memory and it is the only memory I have of him in which he is not smiling.  He closed his eyes and said: “Greediness is what I felt, like the friends that were with me were an impediment somehow.  Brothers I have known and loved since elementary school become strangers and I couldn’t wait to get rid of them.. I waited so that I could come back for you, alone. I was being greedy.”  He shook his head like he was shaking away the feeling and promising himself that he’d never be greedy again.  Then he opened his eyes and allowed the smile to return.  It was always on the tip of his lips. I let out the breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding.

He quoted lines of poetry then but it was classical Arabic and I didn’t really understand it.  For someone who’d spent the better part of her schooling in Canada, my Arabic was not bad – but it wasn’t of the literary heights his was.

“Don’t you study Shakespeare there?” he asked.

“Just Romeo and Juliet in grade 9.  My English teachers mostly preferred modern classics.  Besides, we are science students, remember,” I said, feeling that I had to excuse myself for my lack of high culture.

He nodded and sighed. “Sometimes I wish I could throw out the biology and chemistry textbooks and  just read and write poetry.”  He was talking to me but it was almost like he’d forgotten that I was there.

“You’re young.  The young have ridiculous dreams.”  I sounded like my father and I immediately regretted it.

A young boy cradling roasted corn in a charcoal stained apron came upon us then, hoping to make a sale.

“For your lady,” he spoke to Adam but I answered instead.

“The lady doesn’t want any.”

We watched the boy move on to another couple a few feet away and I hated that I’d been so coarse with Adam, hated the sound of beeping car horns and water lapping on the sea shore.  I hated any noise except for the sound of his voice that had been silent for moments.  The tone that was so soft, so … poetic.

“The young have ridiculous dreams,” I repeated, deepening my voice, “is what my father always said to me.  I say, so what? We are young and I would love to hear your poetry.”

“Really?” The tone his voice took then was full of hope and that made my interest real.

“W’Allahi,” I promised. “You’ll have to teach me some classical Arabic for me to appreciate it.”  Then to prove that I’d be a good student, I pulled up the Juliet soliloquy from deep in my memory of a grade 9 project memorized years ago.

“Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,

Take him and cut him out in little stars,

And he will make the face of heaven so fine

That all the world will be in love with night

And pay no worship to the garish sun.

O, I have bought the mansion of a love,

But not possess’d it, and, though I am sold,

Not yet enjoy’d: so tedious is this day

As is the night before some festival

To an impatient child that hath new robes

And may not wear them.”

 

“Bravo!” he clapped when I’d finished.  His classical English knowledge was limited just like mine in Arabic but I could tell that he had enjoyed my impromptu performance. “Poetry is universal.  It doesn’t matter what native tongue it’s spoken in because if you listen with the heart, the language is understood.”

He inhaled, and wove his fingers through mine. In and out and in again. We looked at our hands as if they were strange, with minds of their own, ideas of their own.  Generally, I am not shy but for all his gorgeousness, Adam was and it was his bashfulness that made me rein my boldness back.  I took out my phone, snapped a picture of our hands together.

“We still need to get wedding rings!” I realized it in that moment.  We never did.

I took another picture of him, looking at me, one eyebrow cocked, a slight smirk on his face.  It was Adam being silly, being beautiful.  It was Adam, posing for me.

“He’s… exquisite,” my mother had said after she’d first met him.  I straightened my back, proud to have won over such a man – that he’d just come to seek my hand in marriage.  “Girls aren’t supposed to marry men who are prettier than they are.”

“Thanks for the compliment,” I rolled my eyes.  “It’s not like I’m an ogre!”

“No need to yell,” she’d chided me but placed one hand on my shoulder, stroked my cheek with the other.  “You’re my beautiful girl.  That’s just it, though, Iman. You are a girl.  How do I agree to let my baby girl get married?”

“Please be on my side.   If you are, baba might be.” I fondled with her pearl necklace, put on my biggest pout. “Adam is my forever, mama.  Please.”

She nodded eventually.  “Just know that forever won’t be starting just yet.”

My parents had visited during the Christmas break, never suspecting that their only daughter would be ready to get engaged.

“Adam,” I’d spoken to him before they arrived, “they sent me to study here because university in Canada is harder to get into, specifically stressing that I had to work hard to do well.”  They would only be in Egypt for two weeks and the conflicts we’d had during my less-than-stellar high school years were bitter in my mind so that I had no interest in repeating them.  The months spent away, the weeks spent with Adam had calmed me and I wanted to keep him to myself until I had no other choice.  “They won’t agree to our…relationship.”

“And they would be right,” Adam was unbending. “We can’t keep talking to each other, seeing each other without a formal arrangement.  It’s wrong and unless they agree to our marriage, we won’t be together like this anymore.”

My dad laughed when Adam’s dad called on him in traditional Egyptian proposal style.  “She’s 20 years old,” he declared, “it’s not going to happen.”

But it did. Somehow Adam’s charm and my tearful begging and lots of divine intervention led to an engagement.  The party was planned and executed in two days.  A sheikh was found, a dress was borrowed from my cousin who’d gotten married the year before, cake was ordered from the bakery down the block, and friends were invited by word-of-mouth.

“I’m glad we didn’t find a professional photographer,” my father whispered in my ear when he bid me farewell at the airport the next day, “there will be no proof of it when you wake up and realize that it was all a big mistake.”

“Never underestimate the quality of my iPhone camera.  There are some nice pictures there.”  I kissed his cheek and forced my facial muscles into a conciliatory smile. “Besides, the official wedding can be next year, like you promised.”

“Only if you get all A’s, like you promised.”  He adjusted his spectacles, and pointed with his chin to the direction he wanted my mother to follow.  “And only if you still want to go through with it.  I suspect that by then you’ll know it was a stupid idea.”

I was only too glad to see my parents off, to turn around and find Adam waiting for me.  He wrapped my arm in his and led me back to the small apartment I rented.  I invited him in but he hesitated at the door.

“We’re engaged now,” I urged.

“Actually, we’re married,” he corrected, “the sheikh was there.  In Allah’s eyes, we are husband and wife.”

I stepped back, my father’s voice echoing in my head.  “There’s no marriage certificate, yet.”

“No.   But the bond before God is more important.” He stroked my cheek with his index finger and my heart skipped a beat.  Maybe more than one.  “Iman,” he said, “you’ll be my wife in paradise.”

Over the next few months, we settled into our roles and wore them gingerly like new clothing that you know is lovely and fits perfectly but that you don’t want to damage by over wearing.  School was tough because I knew that I had to do well and though Adam tried to tutor me, the lessons were rarely productive.  He’d read me poetry or take me to the mosque when prayer time came.  Sometimes he bought me flowers and sometimes it was sandwiches.

“You’re fattening me up like a lamb to the slaughterhouse,” I’d say, chomping happily.

“I just want you to appreciate what authentic falafel tastes like!”

“Well, if I wasn’t at Moody’s that day, we’d never would have met.”

“Yes, we would have.” He brought my hand to his lips and kissed it. “It was destiny, Iman.  Everything is written.”

All around us was unhappiness.  Peer, professors, and people on the street were on edge – a growing number could only agree on the fact that the revolution of January 25, 2011, was fallacious. Some argued that nothing had gotten better in the country; others felt like the elected president was going to take Egypt back to the Middle Ages.  Everybody was split on everything but when Adam and I were together, everything and everyone else didn’t matter.  When we were together, it was like we were in an alternate reality, we could close out the world and its bleak realities and time could stand still.

But it doesn’t and everything ends.

*****

I went to the balcony on that fateful Friday, watched Adam still eating his half of the breakfast sandwich we’d split and I took the last bite of mine.

“It is the best, most authentic!” I yelled to get his attention him, waving the now empty foil wrapper.  He looked up, smiled wide, and held up two fingers in a victory sign.  He put the sign to his lips and with it, blew me a kiss.  I tried to follow the whiteness of his clothing but it was Friday and many were dressed the same. He was lost to me.  He had disappeared into the crowd, thousands marching in protest against the violence, against the coup.  They moved like the sea along the sea’s coastal line and for all the chaos that usually characterizes Alexandria, Egypt, these people marched in an organized fashion.

They’d become professional protestors.

Maybe because he’d spent months in our world, Adam wasn’t.

The sounds of gun fire stabbed the air.  Smoke fire blackened it.  The screams came next. Mine joined them. Then it all stopped and there was only silence.  The silence was so deep that if a pin were dropped into the sea, you could hear it drown.

Adam. Adam. Adam. Adam. Adam.

Later, there was frantic knocking at my door.  My cousin was checking up on me because my parents had received a call made from my cell phone.  It was someone telling them that they’d found it in a martyr’s pocket.  My parents had gone crazy thinking that it might have been me.

“Adam took my phone. He was supposed to take pictures because he didn’t want me to go with him.”

She said nothing, hugged me until my tears had dried up and then left me. Alone.

When I think about how pure Adam was and how polluted his murders are, it doesn’t surprise me that they didn’t deserve to have him walk the same earth as them.  He was too good.

I never got the camera back.  There isn’t any real evidence that we were ever together.

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Recently…

My Fairy Grandmother

by Heba Helmy

There’s only one picture of my grandmother with me as a bride.  In it, my mother and she are flanking either side of me and she is smiling shyly into the camera.  Her pose is unpretentious and hides the large part she played that day.  She’s wearing a royal blue dress suit and a shimmering scarf is draped around her silver hair.
 
Although years have passed since that picture was taken, I still enjoy looking at it on a regular basis.  And when I make new friends, sharing the picture with them is a favourite activity.
 
“This is my grandmother,” I point out.  “She actually made my dress.”
 
I am rewarded when they gasp and out comes the inevitable: “Wow!” 
 
She was an extraordinary seamstress, with an eye for good design and an uncanny attention to fine details.  During her long sewing career, her skills had transformed many women into glamorous princesses on their wedding days.  Her clientele had included women from all walks of life, and her pieces ranged from full skirt gowns to mermaid design dresses to flapper style minis.  By the time my engagement came along, she had retired, age was catching up to her, making her frail; her eyes were weak and arthritis was gaining the upper hand.
 
Still, she insisted on creating the wedding dress, said that it would be her gift.  Of course, I protested, said that I could find something readymade, but she knew that from the day I’d started dreaming about a fairytale wedding (as most young girls do) I’d dreamt of a fairytale dress that she would make.  I used to watch her with her customers, women who’d come in for fittings and sit spellbound as she fluttered around them, a pin cushion corsage on her wrist, a tape measure draped around her neck like a doctor’s stethoscope.  Her instincts were sharp, her taste unmatched.  She’d make adjustments to the hems, alterations to the bodice, take in a quarter of an inch in one place or let out a half inch in another.  Even as a little girl, I understood that what she did was pure magic.  I could see it in the eyes of the brides that wore her gowns.
 
And despite the fact that I would be getting married young, I worried that I’d waited too long to get my chance to wear one of her enchantments.
 
“We’ll do it together,” she said, knowing full well that my sewing aptitude was questionable at best.  I raised an eyebrow and she laughed.  “So, I’ll teach you a thing or two.”
 
Project Wedding Dress started with a trip to the library where we picked up back issues of all the best bridal magazines.  We poured over them for hours, bookmarking ones we liked in each.  It was a long process, elements of certain dresses appealed individually, but there wasn’t that one perfect one.  So, my grandmother combined the best parts from the best dresses into one sketch design.  We shopped for materials, beads, and lace – visiting boutique after boutique, trying on tiaras, draping veils like little girls playing dress up.  We shared pots of hibiscus tea (our favourite) between fittings and intricate beading sessions.  She talked about her own wedding, how rushed it was, how she’d been forced to make her own dress and how there had been no pleasure in that.  “It was a boring design,” she said, the memories taking her back to a time before me, “weddings weren’t a big production like they are now.”
 
She told me about her most ambitious project, creating an entire wardrobe for a bride who was moving to Russia after her wedding to a Soviet politician.  It was after World War 2 and times were tough, but the bride had a heightened sense of fashion and insisted on the best – which meant my grandmother.  “Even the over-coat,” she remembered, “was as beautiful as the most beautiful dress.”
 
“As beautiful as this dress?” I asked.
 
“No,” she smiled, “this will be the most beautiful one ever.”
 
I smiled back at her, as happy as any young girl might be with an unconditional gift from a grandparent.
 
I like to think that she wasn’t just saying that, that she did believe my wedding dress was the most beautiful she’d ever made.  So, even when I’m not showing her off to new friends, I look at the picture often because I want to go back to that time.  I want to relive the warmth and blessings of a spring season years ago when I got to be the close companion of a very talented seamstress.  I got to stand under her experienced eyes and have her flutter around me too.
 
As it turns out, it was the last wedding gown she ever made.  She was diagnosed with cancer soon after and before we had time to even process the news, she was gone.
 
Like young girls the world over, when I used to dream of a fairytale wedding, it would be the fairytale dress that would standout; and like Cinderella’s fairy godmother, my grandmother made that dream reality.
 
Looking at the picture now, I can almost see my grandmother with a twinkle in her eye, a wand in her hand, and the words to a magical spell song on her lips.

***

For:  Real Weddings Canada Magazine
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