I had often dreamt of going back to Egypt, to the house where I
grew up, in Heliopolis, and of taking a long trip along the Nile to Upper Egypt. The vivid image of a felucca gliding over
dark mirroring waters was always present in my mind, a flowing backdrop to the final act Amin and I might once have played.
But that was a long time ago—before Paris, before Pierre—Parisian life, an escape at first, began to weigh on
me, tying me with invisible strings.
After more than twenty years in Paris, I was finally able to break
away from the routine, my job at the Cité Universitaire, and above all from my tenants whose vacations finally coincided
with mine for the first time in ages. Ever since Pierre had died from a heart attack, seven years ago, I had been renting
rooms so I wouldn’t come back to an empty house at the end of the day, but I could not have found a better way to lose
my freedom. I felt more responsible for the young girls who lived with me than I would have if they had been my own children.
I landed at the Heliopolis' airport and went straight to the Palace
hotel. As soon as the car stopped at the Palace's arched door, tall clerks gathered
around the taxi in their elegant gallabiyyas and fought ceremoniously over my few pieces of luggage, inviting me
with gestures to follow them. I felt I was the lead in an old black-and-white movie that could have taken place in Cairo or
in New Delhi—anywhere the British had left their imprint. The discreet wallpaper, the dark paneling and even the portly
leather furniture resting on Persian carpets reflected their presence.
Throughout the vast, crowded lobby the waiters revolved from one
end to another, their long gallabiyyas fastened with thick embroidered belts the same color as the tarbushes
covering their heads, swerved as in a folkloric ballet, balancing trays filled with plates covered with shining silver lids.
I followed a porter up the coral-red carpeted stairs to my room and ordered a light snack that I took in the semi-circular
balcony overlooking a patio framed with purple bougainvillea. Later, I took a short nap, from which I suddenly awoke, perplexed
by a dream in which all the streets' names in Heliopolis were French.
I decided to take the tramway to rediscover the city, since I had
been familiar with the tram and bus routes when I was a child. I had no specific destination in mind. The frequent stops that
shook the compartments allowed me to study everything around me and to recall the stations’ names. As we passed the
Palace theatre, then the Normandy theatre, I imagined familiar silhouettes pressing themselves in line for the tram. I glanced
at the half-empty terrace of the Palmyra café, famous for its Viennese coffee--Amin's favorite.
So many people had fled Egypt and Nasser's regime during the past
years that there was hardly any one left I might have known. I felt that the city had been invaded by alien faces, overcrowding
the streets that suddenly seemed, foreign, exotic. I recognized Midan Ismailia, then Midan Saphir where I stepped out from
my compartment. The streets and sidewalks of Heliopolis appeared so much dustier as if no one had swept or washed them for
decades. Even the central avenues were neglected. The lawn and trees were parched, begging to be watered. I had forgotten
it never rained in Heliopolis.
Midan Saphir must have drastically changed, or my memory of the
place had been completely erased. I walked Rushdy Street nervously, my heart pounding, afraid my old house wouldn’t
be there anymore. The house--number twelve—stood as always, at an angle to Rushdy Street. I faced the three-story house
that had haunted me all my life. The more I looked at it, the more familiar the
house became, in the same way that we rediscover the youthful features of an old friend after a long absence, through a smile
or an expression. The house had the imposing grace of certain old people who have aged well. The first floor's main verandah
led to the garden through wide, white marble stairs, but the elegant mental image I had of this stairway was marred by a wooden
fence around the verandah.
A few steps ahead, just beyond the wrought-iron front gate, two
henna trees still stood behind the tall stone pillars, exactly as I remembered them, perhaps a little shorter. When we were
out at night, my old cat, Soumass always awaited us like a Sphinx on top of one of those pillars. I imagined Soumass in broad
daylight, stern, phlegmatic, staring at me from both sides with the majesty of the bronze lions flanking the Kasr el Nil Bridge
in Cairo. I began to recognize the house as my own, although the facade had not been painted for ages, and the plaster was
falling off in places like heavy makeup drying on a wrinkled face.
I passed the fragrant henna trees and pushed open the heavy double-paned
glass and wrought iron door that led to the stairwell. The first thing I noticed was the janitor's room at the bottom of the
staircase, facing the entrance. I’d always wondered how our janitor could stand living in this windowless, low-ceilinged
room that forced him to bend every time he entered through the square wooden door. I pictured him always out at night, sitting
on a pillow on the floor by the main door, in the lotus position, delaying the moment he'd have to shut himself inside the
room as if he were entombed in the center of a pyramid.
I rang the doorbell. When no one answered, I tried the side door
and waited a while, but behind the closed doors there was silence. Three sisters
had lived here, years ago. The youngest, Sherine, and I had been very good friends.
I decided to go to the second floor, where my family and I used
to live. When my father bought this house, it was a hôtel particulier,
designed for a single family with several servants and a number of guestrooms. My father preferred to divide the house into
three individual apartments. He had the staircase rebuilt, added a few bathrooms and expanded the kitchens on each floor.
We lived on the second floor and rented the first and third floors. Everyone shared the terrace for laundry and storage.
At my first ring, a young girl of about eighteen, in her school
uniform, opened the door. I recognized on her pocket the intertwined initials "MD" of the high school I had attended. I introduced
myself: "My family owned this house a long time ago. I lived in this apartment until my marriage and have been living in Paris
"Paris? Come in," she said. "My parents will be back soon."
I refused her invitation and asked about the first floor neighbors,
not at all surprised to learn that the three girls were married and that the oldest still lived here with her grandchildren—which
explained the intrusive wooden fence.
"They are in the country at the moment," the girl said.
"And who lives on the third floor?"
"We do," she replied. "When my father bought this house seven years
ago, he converted the second and third floors into a duplex. We added an interior staircase."
"Can I go up to the terrace? I'd like to take a look at the neighborhood.
Or is someone living there?"
"No," she said. "The door is open."
Left alone, I paused and thought of the evenings when Amin and
I watched the city lights from the terrace. The Riviera Theater’s neon sign glittered as if pinned over one of the brilliant
stars. I remembered how I climbed these stairs, two or three at a time, every single day. As I climbed now the white-veined
marble stairs, the darkness increased as I went up; the steps became narrower, the walls seeming to close in on me. I didn’t
remember the terrace being so far up. I kept climbing, increasingly oppressed. But now, it was more arduous with each step,
and I could almost feel the walls rubbing against my right arm and shoulder. Then, somehow, the concrete receded, seemed insubstantial.
I tried to move faster. I saw faces smiling, pulling me through the misty, white washed walls, transporting me to a scene
from my youth: the milkman chases me on his bike one Sunday morning. I am
only thirteen and on my way to an early mass. I start running fast, breathless, my uncomfortable first high heels slowing
me down. I stumble like a duck with glued wings. I run faster, horrified at the sight of the milkman's long gown pulled up,
uncovering a huge erection. I finally reach the door of a friend's house.
I longed for the fresh air beyond the terrace's door. I had to
escape, avoid the uninvited, unwanted faces, deceiving me with their smiles and whispers, slowing me down. The staircase narrowed
and twisted into a spiral. I could not see its end in the dark. It was like rushing to the top of a lighthouse. I made a final
effort. I could see the door now. I was a few steps away from breathing freely again. I tried to open the door with all my
strength, but it was locked. I had to get out, out of the staircase, the house, the darkness. I ran down the stairs faster
than I’d ever run before, already imagining myself outside, running down the middle of the street and not looking back.
But there was no way out at the bottom of the stairwell, only a gaping opening beneath a steep, narrow step, like the bottomless
entrance to an underground.
I rushed to the second floor frantically and pushed the doorbell,
afraid that no one would answer. The girl appeared and looked at me with surprise and concern.
"Don't you feel well?"
I could not utter a word. I was certain that she could hear my
heartbeat, or see my heart leaping in my chest. I made a tremendous effort to stay calm, anchoring my legs to the ground to
stop them from shaking.
"Come in," she said. "I'll bring you a cup of coffee. Please sit
I sat obediently in the corner of the white damask sofa. She left
for a minute, then came back with a glass of lemonade.
"How do you prefer your coffee?" she asked with a smile.
"Mazbout," I said.
The room was permeated by a soothing atmosphere, comparable to
the one an exhausted desert traveler experiences when he finally rests in the shade of tall palms in a long-sought oasis.
As she left, I noticed the black and white checkered marble floor: small black
diamonds surrounded with large white squares, the same pattern I’d kept in my mind all this time. I contemplated the
room's four pillars and ornate ceiling. The furniture and the Persian rugs were unfamiliar, as was the spiraling staircase,
with its bronze railings. The staircase blocked the area where our bedrooms had once been. I felt an urge to go to my parent's
bedroom, lay on their king size bed, and see once more the pink satin bedspread and the lace curtains with frolicking cupids.
I had always lain in my parents' bed when I was sick, imagining myself a part of the curtains' pastoral scenes.
The lemonade was cool and refreshing. I felt much better and even
managed to smile at the young girl as she reentered the room carrying a copper coffee tray.
"Do you live alone in Paris?" she said, as she handed me the coffee
"Yes, in a way. My husband died a few years ago and we never had
children. But I rent rooms to students. I work at the Cité Universitaire."
"My boyfriend studies in Paris," she said. "He’s a civil
engineer. I wanted to study literature at the Sorbonne, but my parents won't let me because Nadim is there."
Nadim. Amin. Paris. It all came back as if it were happening again. Amin and I. Our destiny had
also been connected to Paris. I had always had an impossible dream—to study art at the Beaux-Arts in Paris--but in those
days it was unthinkable for a girl to travel or live alone abroad. Then Amin came along and I forgot all about Paris for years,
until he spent a long summer there, training in Ponts et Chaussées, after which he decided to end our relationship.
"It won't work,” he said, “but it's not because I don't love you anymore.” I never learned his reasons and
never saw him again. I worked at an attorney's office where I met Pierre. We ended up living in Paris. Years later, I heard
that Amin was in Paris married to a French girl.
And now, this girl, wanting to go to Paris. Like me at her age.
I offered to send her information about student life in the Cité and to save her a room in my house in case she decided
to come. Maybe her parents would feel more comfortable knowing someone would guide her over there. She would really like the
other girls, I thought.
She could not stop asking me about Paris, the plays, the museums,
everything. "I can't wait to be there," she sighed.
"If it were not for Nadim, my parents would let me go. They are
worried about what people would say."
"I will still be at the Palace a few more days. I would gladly
talk to your parents any time," I assured her. "Although this Saturday I’m going to Upper Egypt from Cairo. By boat."
"Can you believe I have never been to Luxor and Assuan!" she exclaimed,
opening her eyes in wonder.
"Yes. I can,” I nodded as I grabbed my purse and stood.
"Could you accompany me down the stairs?" I asked. "You wouldn't
mind, would you?”
"Not at all."
"High blood pressure," I felt obliged to explain. "It runs in my
She walked me out as if I were an old friend or a relative.
"I am so glad to have met you," she repeated. "Paris... I can't
believe it will happen.” I smiled at her enthusiasm.
"I'll call you at the Palace. You don't mind? There's so much I'd
like to know!” Her words were enveloping me like the softly perfumed breeze flowing through the door. She talked incessantly
as she led me to the sweet-scented henna trees.
The trip to Luxor and Assuan appeared to me in retrospect as a
succession of extended sunsets, or a series of paintings in which the horizon is only broken at times by silhouettes of fellahins,
palm trees or temple pillars. Back in Paris, I kept within me a feeling of weightlessness, as if the openness of Egypt's forever-blue
sky had filled my veins. I gradually sank into my daily routine. To each young face, I would juxtapose the Egyptian girl's
face, as if I expected to see her everywhere. I made all the necessary arrangements for her to stay with me and began compiling
a file with all the information that I thought might interest her and, most of all, convince her parents to let her come.
I wanted to give her the best welcome.
Somehow my life had a new purpose: the happiness of this young
Egyptian girl whom I had only seen twice. I remembered her last, drinking tea on the Palace's patio, admiring the bougainvillea,
and talking, talking. I kept a list of all her questions and concerns. I explored the registration offices, campus life, the
students' meals and activities, as if I were about to become part of it all. I enjoyed spending my lunch hour in the cafeterias,
mimicking the students’ attitudes, and smiling to myself for no reason. The eternal drizzle of Paris, its grayness—to
which I had never grown accustomed—now ceased to affect me.
During that period, I had recurrent dreams about my spell in the
staircase, but I tried to avoid thinking about them. I’d wake up anguished, imagining myself struggling against different
sized doors with strangely shaped locks. It took a while before I could convince myself it was only a dream. I became more
claustrophobic than I’d ever been and I—who had always hated elevators—chose to take the elevator instead
of the stairs whenever possible.
Still, there was no way that I could completely avoid stairs, not
in Paris at any rate. I had to take the metro daily and many buildings had no elevators. Most of the time I was able to control
my fear, but not always. One day in the metro's corridor, I was surrounded by people hurrying home with their usual blank
expressions. I suddenly felt separated from the crowd, who didn’t notice that the walls were shaking, sliding towards
the middle of the corridor as if both sides were about to meet. I ran forward in a frenzy, pushing and elbowing people. I
wanted to shout, yet was unable to emit a single sound. Only one image filled my mind: I saw myself emerging from the darkness
toward the sweet-scented henna trees.
The henna trees. The girl. I realized that my feelings of entrapment
in the staircase that day in Rushdy Street had created in me a constant tension that was only alleviated by the girl's image.
I was anxious to see her again. I pictured her making plans, excited, yet I couldn't help worrying. My dreams began to take
another shape: I found myself circling amidst gigantic temple pillars, unable
to find a way out, whirling and spinning like a dervish at the point of exhaustion. Just before I’d collapse, she'd
take me by the hand and gently lead me towards the open.
One evening, as I was coming home, tired, I mechanically took my
mail, and noticed an Egyptian stamp on one of the envelopes. I hurried to my apartment, took off my gloves, shoes, and coat.
I lay comfortably on my bed as I opened the letter.
I slowed down at "...thank you for caring so much. You do not need
to send me more details. I am not coming to Paris. Nadim has written to me saying that he is marrying his professor's daughter..."
The beginning and the end of the letter seemed blurry—only
these sentences appeared clearly, as if they were three-dimensional. They seemed to jump out from the page, and then to recede
into a thick fog just as the visions of my past had in the staircase. Trapped within the letter, within the walls, within
my memories, I silently began to cry.
Hedy Habra received her MFA and a PhD in Spanish Literature from Western Michigan University. Her poetry and fiction in French, Spanish
and English appear in many journals including Parting Gifts, California Quarterly, Letras Femeninas, Puerto del Sol, The
New York Quarterly, Cider Press Review, Nimrod, Cutthroat & Poet Lore and anthologies such as Inclined to Speak;
Come Together: Imagine Peace; Poetic Voices Without Borders Vol 2 & Dinarzad’s Children 2nd ed. Her critical
work appears in reviews such as Explicación de Textos Literarios, Hispanófila, Hispanic Review, Alba de América, Revista
de Estudios Hispánicos, Confluencia, Latin American Literary Review, Chasqui and Inti.