by Dawn-Michelle Baude
Are you ready?
Put on the long, baggy skirt—black, of course—down to the ankles. Loose white shirt. Black-and-white striped socks and black boots. (Closed-in shoes are required.) Sun block? Check. Hat? Check. Black backpack? Check. Take the trash—wait! This is tricky.
Things you don’t mind your neighbors pawing through go in one bag. Foodstuffs you won’t eat but some starving person will, another bag. Finally, the beer bottles. This is the trickiest part of all. The clinking part. The best bet is to double-bag-tie and put them in the backpack for disposal a good distance from home.
Now yank open the door (it sticks). Sparrows? Pigeons? Doves? Third floor, second floor, first, past the broken window and vacant apartments—don’t touch the banister! Deadly bird-flu virus may lurk in the droppings. Ground floor: out into the beautiful Alexandrian day. Around the front porch, delicate jasmine and honeysuckle grow, while aloe plants, with strong tentacles, wave from stone planters. Down the porch stairs to the bawwab’s shack and the first trash bin where the innocuous stuff goes—try to sneak out the gate so as to escape conversation with the bawwab. He’ll ask, as usual, where you’re going.
Look both ways before you step off the curb—although it’s a one-way street, cars surge forth in both directions. Since the sidewalks are parked-up, it’s better to walk rapidly down the middle of the street so as to minimize conversation with the numerous soldiers guarding the backside of the British Consul’s property. The soldiers want to hear you speak poor Arabic while they pose questions in poor English. Some days you are in the mood for halting conversation; some days not, even though it is your job to build bridges between peoples, cultures, nations.
Watch out for the needles and syringes at the corner—it’s disagreeable to step on them. Turn right, and start down the hill, past the front of the consul’s house. The poor, poor consul. He has one of the best examples of 70’s architecture you can lay eyes on—a two-story ranch-style, brick with white-wood trim, banks of glass. You can almost imagine the stretch pants and bridge parties inside. But all the shutters are closed tight. There’s no way to look from the house onto the enormous garden brimming with roses and laden with fruit trees. The fence is wired, soldiers and cameras posted every few feet. You’ve never seen the consul, never seen anyone in the garden except the gardeners, never seen any shutter or door or frosted window open even a crack. But it is all perfect from the outside. Just perfect.
The trash in the street begins to thicken as you descend the hill to the main road. You’ll pass two gorgeous art-deco villas, both with long balconies and stained glass, and three or four Italianate villas with extravagant turrets. But it’s hard to admire the houses through the crowd of cheap, concrete buildings hemming them in on all sides—unpainted concrete, crumbling, sprouting rebar and complicated hosing. Drip. On the ground floor of one of them is a clothing store, and further along there’s a wooden bench in the shade of the sycamore tree where a bawwab in turban and gown often sits. You’ve seen him hundreds of times. You’ve never spoken. He knows that a respectable woman avoids speaking to strangers.
Keep your eyes open for the trash-pickers as you go. They will be happy with your leavings. They usually have a welcoming smile—they’re not wary of you, trying to get your money, or predisposed to thinking that you’re politically, socially, sexually or religiously disreputable. They simply seize upon the moment to exchange a few, pleasant sentences the way they might seize upon an unfinished falafel.
Remember the handsome boy with excellent English? The one who was licking a piece of technology before you talked together of the sandstorms? It looked like a circuit board—maybe it was covered with honey. Or the lovely young girl with slightly Asian, almond-shaped eyes, bone-structure to die for, and rich, caramel skin? The one who could grace the cover of Vogue? You had asked her name. “Trash,” she said. And you, embarrassed, had said, no, no—that’s not your name, that’s what you do, that’s your job. “Job?” she echoed. “Job? Sexy. Hot. Wet.” You had neither the English nor the Arabic to sort it out. “I have go,” she said. “I am working.” She shut the lid. “Enjoy Egypt!” And she left you there, standing by the bin.
As you are standing by the bin now. No one close by on the street, cars in the distance, but someone may be watching you from behind the curtains. Someone is always watching you. This is not idle fancy. The handful of other foreigners in Alexandria will all tell you the same thing. You are always being watched because most people who catch sight of you are intrigued, fascinated, repelled, perhaps dumbfounded, by your blond foreignness. When you lived in the tenements of Moustafa Kamel, you could not open the window and gaze outside because of the faces of the people in the other towers, the ones you could see. On the hill of Kafr Abdu where you live now it’s not so bad, but elsewhere in the city—depending, perhaps, on chance alignments of the stars—you can halt conversation in a store or a cafe with your presence. You cause people to open their mouths so that you can see the spittle gather between the tongue and lower teeth. Some children who look upon you run to their mothers, hiding in their skirts, just as they do in the movies. This is not an exaggeration. You are being watched.
Constant, irrational scrutiny makes disposing of the beer bottles all the more challenging. You stand there, posed at the intersection of cliché. Drunken Westerners, sexually depraved Westerners, morally corrupt Westerners, spiritually bankrupt Westerners all converge in your person. You want to explain that it’s just one bottle of beer, if that, a night. But they wouldn’t understand. And besides, only you are listening. You take a step back, on the sidewalk, squeeze in between the parked car and wall while you unzip the backpack and remove the bottles. Quick! Slip them into the bin along with the rest, and hurry on your way.
The residential feel of the neighborhood now starts to change. The exclusivity that somehow still clings to the streets fades after you pass Nour’s villa. Ah, sweet Nour—she is from Libya, Palestinian in origin, you suspect. In fact, her eldest son, the one doing his graduate degree in math at Cambridge, had almost mentioned it. Perhaps he did mention it. Like many of the Palestinians you know, the ones whose families could get out, Nour is discreet. She is small, perfectly proportioned, and beautiful, one of those buoyant women who are always genuinely cheerful in spite of themselves. She has decorated her home with objects from estate sales from all over Egypt—Ottoman rugs, Nouvel Empire sideboards, Japanese silk. You have to restrain yourself from oo-ing and ah-ing even when you stand in the vestibule, waiting to collect your son.
Recently, you had lunch in her kitchen, and you relaxed, and you thought, this is so good, so right, to have lunch with a friend. You could have been in Geneva, Chicago, New York, Rome, Paris, San Francisco. You drank in the modern cleanliness of the room, the glistening porcelain tea cups on the table, and smiling Nour herself in a lacy décolleté (you’ve forgotten that women wear décolleté). Her phone kept ringing—she chatted in three or four languages while making fresh orange juice for the boys. Yes, you drank in the home—a home you might dream of. If you were going to live forever in Alexandria, Nour would become a dear friend—you laugh easily together, your observations interest her and your children are already close. But the die has been cast. You are not going to live in Alexandria much longer. You will say good-bye to the man who has touched your heart. You will never be able to deepen the love that you’ve found. Some questions will remain unanswered. Others you’ve learned to stop asking.
The door to Nour’s villa is tightly shut when you pass. Like other private homes on the hill where you live, it has a high, opaque wall around it with broken glass and barbed wire at the top—too high even for the sick and desperate cats to scale. There darts one now, under a car. You try not to look at the cats under the cars because sometimes they are sleeping and sometimes they are dead. The trash men dispose of their bodies, you suppose. The trash men! With their toothy brooms. The work of Sisyphus.
Now you have to really watch where and how you walk. The street narrows so that you can’t simply lean against a parked car to avoid the one speeding up the hill—you have to take to the sidewalk when they roar past. Sidewalks always pose a challenge. You tell yourself that sidewalks are a Zen exercise in awareness, balance, coordination. Deep holes appear from nowhere, strange rusty rods protrude from the broken concrete, and live electrical wires dangle from above (just the other day, a driver from Alex’s school was hospitalized from electrocution). If there is hosing protruding from an adjacent building, you may be doused with a disagreeable liquid, as you already have been, twice. If there’s construction, tools or materials may fall. You have seen death, in the form of aluminum siding, land just in front of you. An odd cable may catch at your ankles. The fact that the obstacles are intermittent makes navigation all the more challenging. It keeps you alert. A sprig of bougainvillea, a blue-glass vase, a brass bell—some small trinket may catch your eye when you should be avoiding the box of rusty metal in your path. The big cartons sometimes serve as beds. Once you thought you were looking at a carton full of trash and it moved.
Now you are almost at the main street. You will stop and buy a paper, as you always do, from the newsman at the corner who repairs his portion of the sidewalk, sweeps the concrete clean. He is old enough to have lived through Nasser, Sadat and thirty years of Mubarak. He remembers when Egypt was a cosmopolitan center, when foreigners bought out his international press, when women showed their faces, legs, arms, and the city streets were tidy and clean, the buildings kept up, the roads and sidewalks freshly paved. You represent, in your own humble way, hope—you can see it in the pleasure he takes in handing you a perfectly folded paper. For him, the odd foreigner is a sign that perhaps Egypt can emerge from decades of oppression, that perhaps the extremists will be mollified, that the rot could be incised from the infrastructure and wounds heal. You feel sorry for the newsman because week after week the same costly National Geographic is stubbornly on display. Occasionally he has a Newsweek or a Decouvert, and occasionally you buy it, although it costs fifteen dollars. Most of the time you give him one Egyptian pound for the Egyptian Gazette, thank him kindly, and continue on your way.
As you do today. You are always, it seems, continuing on your way. No matter what happens, you keep moving. It’s something that’s hard to understand about yourself. You look at yourself and wonder. Sometimes it’s even hard to think of yourself in the first person, the one who has experience instead of the one watching.
As you are now.
DAWN-MICHELLE BAUDE is the author of several poetry volumes, including Finally: A Calendar (MindMade 2009) and The Flying House (Parlor Press 2008), among others. Her prose has appeared in Exquisite Corpse, Newsweek International and Vogue.