January 18, 2019

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  • Welcome to Egypt: Down memory lane

    A return to the Zamalek building 15 years later triggered unexpected sentiments.

    BY MARIE-JEANNE BERGER

    When I was a child I lived on one of those sepia-coloured roads off of Brazil street in Zamalek. The ones with the big leafy trees. People ask me if I remember this part of my life, and sometimes I think that maybe I construct these memories. I see the images that I have seen many times since — the ones of me in Alexandria at the Cecil, or in front of the train station, clutching my toy rifle and rabbit, wearing the mary-janes and smocked dresses and boater hats that made me look just like Madeline. Other memories were certainly not recorded in our photo albums; they were inexplicable and imperfect. Some of these were of our neighbours that lived next door. These very elderly sisters who tipped the cigarette ash into the pockets of their greyed and mildewed housecoats, drank too much, and kissed Omar Sherif in their younger days (they said) had me over for fish soup every day around one.

    I will remember this kitchen forever: small and Cairo-beige, with a red gingham plastic tablecloth on the humble table backed into the corner. I can remember grabbing the floppy earlobe elbow skin of their thin, ancient elephant arms, and I can remember the smell of the many fish that died to make me the fat girl that I was.

    At 20 I decided to return to Cairo for the first time in fifteen years. Part of this desire was to experience something that had at once been familiar and had since become unknown and exotic. But I didn’t really seek out this childhood. Difficult memories that I wouldn’t even know how to approach were tied with this place, and I didn’t know how to relate myself to them.  I didn’t even look for my nanny, Hanan, the woman who spent every day with me.

    Her mother came to stay with us when my mother would go to Syria or Iraq or Alexandria to write about hostage releases or whatever else. They would pull the mattresses off of the beds and stay up late, grasping the handles of saucepans and shovelling spoonfuls of food into their mouths against the glare of the television. I could not tell you what this woman even looked like from the neck up, but I remember a marvellous cleavage that I once saw when she took me to have her body waxed. Flesh, copious and enveloping. I didn’t know where she had gone, if she had married or if she had a family.

    A friend and I were walking around this neighborhood one day when the sun was about to set and the light was very bright in the way that it is before it disappears. Then everything became overwhelmingly familiar.
    There is a feeling one gets when they feel like they’re living something over for a second time. It’s like déjà vu, but it’s bodily and it makes you forget how to breathe. This is what happened to me when I realized that I was standing in front of my childhood home.

    In these moments maybe other people are sure of themselves, but the last thing I expected was to be right. I sauntered up to the bowab and asked casually if these sisters, Luli and Dani, still lived there. This was a test. The bowab was supposed to say that he “doesn’t know who you are talking about,” or that “these sisters are long gone,” and then you walk away and you still feel fulfilled for trying, even though you missed it, but maybe nothing upsetting happened and this is satisfying.

    “Luli is dead, but Dani’s inside. Would you like to see her?”

    What followed was less of a decision and more of the playing out of an inevitable story, where all of the supporting characters were aligned in this moment. I went and saw Dani. She was very, very old and her hair had turned into a fine halo of white light. She was supported by women as old as she was, nearly, hunched over the edge of her bed. I was told they had been with her for many years. I told them that I used to live in the building.

    “Ha! Ha! I can’t believe it — the fat, blonde girl — Mary-geana.” (I don’t know how to spell this, and only my mother, and the people that lived on this street, would ever know this cruel butchering of my name.) They remembered my mother, they remembered my father and they remembered when my parents separated dramatically when I was very young. They remembered it all.

    I looked around this small bedroom and I realized that nothing had changed. Dani had lost a son. He had loved Jackie Chan movies. Two twin beds for two sisters and a wardrobe covered in Jackie Chan photographs from 20 years ago.

    On the bed next to Dani was a Greek hairdresser, busting out of his purple velvet suit, gaudy gold rings covering his nubby fingers. This man was a caricature of a human being, surreal, evil, a large white streak in his peppery hair, watching this moment unfold. The women told him about my appetite and about how I would come for fish soup every day. He asked if I would like to see the kitchen? “Dani would of course, be staying in the bed,” he said. “I will take you.”

    You will expect that the kitchen had not changed. It hadn’t. I had even tried to prepare myself before turning into the room because I knew it would be the same. But I was winded, doubled over. And I cried in front of this embarrassing figure while he sucked his teeth and watched me suspiciously.

    Dani and I spoke and held hands. I’m not even sure what language she was speaking, but the women told me that she said that she remembered me. Maybe she said this, maybe she didn’t. But because of her age, or my presence, she started breathing heavily — panting, gasping — and they told me that I should leave and that I was upsetting her.

    On this day as we were leaving I made a private decision. I was so frightened by the absolute strength and rawness of my feelings — these feelings from a very obscure pit or well somewhere that I rarely went, ever — that I resolved, secretly, not to do this again for a very long time.

    Marie-Jeanne Berger is a Cairo-based cultural journalist and commentator.

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