ISSUE #3 FICTION: CONTEMPORARY ARABIC AND RUSSIAN PURSUITS, AUTUMN 2013
CREATIVE WRITING
Al Siqilli Dream
I kept staring at the streets out the window to confirm they were as they appeared, all the while replaying in my head the last thing Adam Khalifa had said to me: “This is not a city, but a patient suffering from vertigo!”
 As I left the Wehbeh building, I found myself on a dark street that bore no resemblance to Qasr Al Nil, which I knew by heart. It was winding rather than straight as I knew it to be. I walked, and as I did I saw the street was blocked at its far end, but when I reached what I thought was a wall, I was surprised to find an opening luring me onward. The light was dim on the other side; the buildings had transformed into fortresses that hugged the curves of the road as if they had shape-shifted to fit their surroundings. A dark veil enveloped everything, and I felt I was looking at a film negative.
I continued walking as if in a dream, or some filtered reality. The world around me had become a quivering mirage bathed in silence. My very thoughts seemed to turn to smoke, and I was no more than the shadow of a lost being.
I felt like I had stumbled upon a hidden, mythical corner of this city. Just when I start to feel I belong here, I am reminded of my estrangement. I felt not fear but merely desire to understand, accompanied by a feeling of unease. I was certain this was not a dream. My anxiety strengthened this conviction. Cairo was whispering in my ear, taunting me that I would never know it, that I would live within as a transient, an eternal drunk who never sobers.
People had disappeared from the street as if a storm had blown them away. As if they never were.
“In the beginning, there were stones, and they will remain when all else has ended. The stones alone are the city’s past and its future!”
I almost said this aloud, but I didn’t. In that moment, there was neither sound nor echo, only silence. For a second, I thought even I didn’t exist, that I was merely an idea that had occurred to the road about a woman walking down it as if in a dream. But just then a question popped into my head, and I was solid and real once more: where am I, and how can I find my way back?
I quickened my pace, looking straight ahead until I got to Mostafa Kamel Square, and the city returned to normal, with its nocturnal crowds and noise and all the contradictory feelings it evokes in me. I embraced its image as a tipsy city happy to drink itself to the dregs, indifferent to the transients that tread its streets, their lives fleeting moments in a history that spans thousands of years, lording over them every ancient stone and even the dust that gathers on the aging buildings and the exhaust fumes that poison the air.
I dared not look back until I reached the Abdel Moneim Riad station. There, I sat on the dirty pavement, protected by the din of commuters running to catch the microbuses, which filled with passengers as soon as they pulled in. I distracted myself by staring at the Ramses Hilton and counting the number of lit rooms. An agitated guest was throwing burning papers from the window of his room and watching them go out as they fell.
The tumult reassured me as reality regained solidity and cohesion. I left my spot on the curb and stopped the first cab to cross my path. Throughout the ride, I kept staring at the streets out the window to confirm they were as they appeared, all the while replaying in my head the last thing Adam Khalifa had said to me: “This is not a city, but a patient suffering from vertigo!”
Of all the neighborhoods in Cairo, he chose Faisal, where I lived for five years, as an example of the chaos and discord of the city’s architecture. 
I was supposed to interview him for one hour, but the meeting – which started at seven o’clock at night – went on for three, during which time Adam did not stop speaking even for a second. I would ask him a question, but the words that rolled nonstop from his tongue had nothing to do with what I had asked. I would try to reformulate the question, and he would tell a story whose significance I could not divine although I was overcome by his proficiency, stemming from his absolute faith in his own words. After a couple of hours, he was more at ease and began speaking of “his own private Cairo,” as he put it. This was closer to what I wanted: the magazine was publishing a series of interviews under a section entitled “Their City.” In each issue, a public figure would share his or her vision of Cairo, draw their own map as they had lived it since childhood. I did not put much effort into these interviews. It was just question and answer, according to my editor’s wishes. After publication, I would rewrite each one, again and again, as stories, and store them away in a secret drawer, overflowing with papers that at once resembled and contradicted the city.
As I made my way to Adam Khalifa’s office in the Wehbeh building where I was to interview him, I found myself hoping for an extraordinary journalistic encounter with an architect who had contributed to the planning of several cities. I expected him to present a different vision of Cairo, but he surprised me with a city of hallucinations and doubts. He went on at length about Cairo’s fragile relationship with reality and its solid grounding in superstition. He spoke of what he termed “Holy Muqqatam,” the wisdom of Jawhar Al Siqilli compared to the folly of Khedive Ismail, and the need to restore the city to its original design if we are to correct the mistakes of the North African astrologers who oversaw its construction. 
He told me Cairo was an enchanted city, that almost no one realized its focal points or the hidden stashes of magical amulets buried at different sites. As he went on, I realized he was only speaking about the city built by Jawhar Al Siqilli, commander of the armies of Moaz Deenallah the Fatimid, and later expanded by Emir Bader Al Jamali. He strictly avoided mention of anything built after the fall of the Fatimids by the Ayyubids, Mamluks, or Ottomans, or the Cairo of Khedive Ismail and the neighborhoods of Masr Al Gadida or Maadi. He insisted that everything built after the Fatimids was a cancerous growth and everything before the Islamic conquest just “castles made of sand.” He said this last part in English, turning away from me.
Sitting behind his desk, he would mix vodka with orange juice and then empty the glass in one swig, only to fill it again. When he remembered I was still there, he would turn to me and speak, his voice gravelly, as if he hadn’t spoken in years, of the city of secrets and hypocrisy, of the Khalifa’s palace which, from outside the walled city, resembles a mountain for the cluster of tall buildings and from inside is all but hidden by the high ramparts. Practically no one from Cairo had ever seen all twelve of the buildings that make up the palace compound, the ten doors above ground or the ones below, one of which opens into a passage through a crypt with a reinforced ceiling and intricately carved stone walls leading to another palace some distance away.  He said that when it was first built, Cairo was less of a capital than it was a fortress from which the ruling class put down revolts by the local Egyptians and tried to stop them from reverting back to their own religion. 
When I announced my intention to leave, he handed me a handwritten booklet explaining that it was a compilation of popular sayings his late brother had collected and asked me to help him, seeing as I was a journalist, to publish them in a book in commemoration of his brother. I didn’t open the book until the next day. The proverbs had been arranged according to subject, and of those I read I did not see anything that might tempt a publisher – they were all fairly well known. On the last two pages, I found three paragraphs written in a more elegant script, in what I guessed to be the hand of Adam Khalifa himself. I read it, all the while thinking of what I had experienced after I left his office:
1
The city is a message in a bottle thrown into the sea of time.
The city is a record carved in stone to be plumbed for secrets by future generations.
Here stands Jawhar Al Siqilli, gazing into his own past at the boy he once was, tracing his own footsteps from one country to the next. He turns his back to the Muqqatam as if leaning on it, drawing strength from it as he gazes toward a horizon stained with sunset hues. He smiles ambiguously and cleaves the air with his hand in an imaginary line parallel to his chest.
In that distant moment, Al Maaz Street, or Qasbat Al Qahira, emerged in Al Siqilli’s imagination. The rest of the plan, including the two palaces, large and small, the military inspection square, and the wall with its famous gates were merely details.
2
Cairo is a mistake.
The North African astrologers stopped to consult amongst themselves so that they might choose the most appropriate time in the celestial calendar to lay the founding stone. The builders stood at the ready, waiting for the astrologers to ring the bells strung on ropes between the wooden supports as a sign to start when Jupiter passed. A raven landed suddenly on one of the ropes, ringing the bells. The workers sprang into action thinking that the astrologers had given the order. At the time, Mars was rising.
The astrologers knew this error was destiny and could not be undone. They knew also that the new state would not last long, that this mistake would cast a shadow over the place and rule its fate for centuries to come.
3
Despite its inauspicious birthday, the planning of the city was consistent in all other ways with the movement of the cosmos, the nature of the place and its geography, and, more importantly, with the timing of light and shadows. Al Maaz Street followed the Nile, winding in unison with the river around obstacles, dividing the nascent civilization into two parts. The curvature of the great street colluded with the pedestrian to make him believe he was about to reach the end, only to open up onto another stretch. Those bends also helped offset the fluctuations in temperature according to season, trapping the shadows in their places during the heat of summer and softening the sharp edge of cold winter winds. As for Muqqatam, it did its part by protecting the city that lay at its foot near the Gharass Ahl Al Janna, or Seedlings of the People of Paradise: the tombs of saints and mystics.
***
When I began writing up the interview, I discovered it was a mess. My editor would never publish his words as they were. “Bullshit,” she would say, testing me with that sarcastic smile that never left her lips. Neither would she accept, even if I were to delete the problematic parts, such a dull subject, and she would blame me for failing to earn a scoop from the “treasure on two legs,” as she had described Adam Khalifa when she asked me to do the interview. I had never heard of him before, so I read up on him in the magazine archives, went through a number of his research papers, and compared what I had found with her stereotypical description of him. I decided that her fascination with him was based entirely on his international reputation and the fact that he spent most of the year in Zurich and Frankfurt and spoke four languages other than Arabic.I told her I had not met him yet in an effort to buy time while I set up another interview. I had to extract more logical answers to my questions. The temperature outside had cooled, so I left the office. In summer, I prefer to spend all day at work because my studio apartment doesn’t have an air conditioner and the heat nearly kills me every time I open the door. As a result, I spend most of my time either in the office, which is air-conditioned, or out among the people on the sidewalks and cafes downtown.
***
Adam Khalifa was sitting at a table tucked away in the corner of Groppi Garden on Adli Street when I met him. He sipped his coffee with conspicuous relish, then fixed his eyes on a nearby tree as if he could see something there no one else could. I called to him, but he did not answer, so I sat across from him, waiting for his wandering mind to return.
By the light of day, I found he was smaller than I had thought, his hair completely grey, but his face retained some youthful vigor for a man in his sixties. When he finally turned to face me, it was to ask if I had found a publisher for his brother’s book. I had forgotten about the whole thing and was unsure where I had even put the thing amidst the chaos of my office. I told him that I had given it to a friend who works in a well-known publishing house and would inform me of their decision soon. He pressed his lips into an expression of annoyance as if he had been expecting me to open my bag and pull out a freshly printed copy swaddled in gift wrap.
The whimsy he displayed during our first encounter encouraged me to tell him about what had happened to me after I left his office two days ago. He listened, his face betraying no expression, then asked: “A winding street and buildings like fortresses?!”
I nodded, and he went back to gazing into the tree. Then, he told me he had never heard such a thing. It did not really matter to me either way, having convinced myself that the whole thing was a product of an overworked mind. I had spent two hours on Qasr Al Nil the day before, and with every step, the shadows of the dim, winding road retreated until they faded.
To my surprise, his answers to my questions about Cairo and its architecture were very different from our first meeting. He spoke at length about the Cairo of Khedive Ismail, a city “yearning to catch up to the rest of the civilized world,” about the neighborhood of Heliopolis where he spent his childhood and youth and about his project to double the number of green spaces in greater Cairo. For a moment, I doubted whether he was the same person I’d spoken with before. He was more grounded. He made no mention of the capital of the Fatimids, but when I asked him about his future plans, he said he dreamed of building another version of Jawhar Al Siqilli’s Cairo using the same building materials and design, insisting that such an adventure would attract global attention.
***
That night, I dreamt of the burning papers falling from the Ramses Hilton. They glittered and blazed far more vividly than they had in reality. I stopped, amazed, and lifted my face to watch the fragments of fire against the dark. From afar, I saw Adam Khalifa looking out from one of the windows, throwing more papers that lit up like shooting stars before extinguishing as they hit the ground. A few moments later, I found myself in one of the hotel rooms, looking for him. All I remember was that the room was tidy and empty and looked like a room I had seen in an American movie. An open door next to a full-length mirror on the wall brought me into a narrow basement, its walls polished and glittering like jewels. From there, I moved into a street whose buildings resembled castles, walking confidently, as if I were in my own house. When I reached the end, I saw Al Attour Street where I lived for five years, and the familiar sensation of asphyxiation returned. Al Attour, or “perfume street,” was anything but.
As soon as I entered the street, the sky was all but lost from view. The stench from the poultry shop was overwhelming: I used to sprint by in order to escape the smell. Nearby, Faisal Street intersected with Attour Street, leading away only to turn back around and empty back into it. The two thoroughfares entwined and overlapped, more like coiled intestines than the founding streets of a quarter built for human habitation. For five years, I was haunted by the feeling that I was living underground, with neither sky nor wind nor light. I never felt that I was truly in the world of the living until I left the haphazardness of Faisal Street. I used to buy my dairy products from Al Khair wa Al Bakara (Goodness and Blessing), my groceries from Al Haramein Al Sharifein (Mecca and Medina), and my medicine from the Yathrib Pharmacy, as if I had travelled back in time to the seventh century.
In my dream, I was more generous towards Attour Street. In fact, it was not as hideous as I imagined, or rather, its ugliness was picturesque, the dream glossing over its flaws. Adam Khalifa was standing in front of Yathrib Pharmacy, explaining to an excited crowd his plan to build a “new Cairo.” With every word, a piece of his coveted city would materialize before my eyes. I saw a band of raucous musicians encircling a huge palace surrounded by a high wall next to a square. I awoke with the melody ringing in my head.
I found a text message from Adam Khalifa informing me that he had e-mailed me a short paragraph he wanted to include in the interview. I was still half asleep as I read what he had written:
My city is that whose map is imprinted on my mind and whose alleyways haunt my dreams. It is that which I carry with me wherever I go and the standard by which I judge all my temporary cities. Wherever I went, Fatimid Cairo remained a life-long obsession of mine. It is the reference for all the places I travelled as if it were the past of all these places, how the city thought of itself. Al Maaz Street is the nucleus of the world, as far as I am concerned, the locus from which all other streets branch out and every neighborhood and nation scattered accordingly.
I did not realize this until I left to study in Germany. There, in silent Munich, I sought out the bustle of Cairo. There, the soundtrack of my life had faded away. I nearly went mad, as if the noise were the only thing keeping me together, preventing me from turning dust to be carried away by the wind of my ancient city. I realized I had been cured of my dependence on chaos only when I found myself annoyed to be awakened by the sound of a speeding car, which was quickly swallowed by the silence of the night.
Just before I left Egypt, my teacher told me he had studied in the same university right after the war, when all of Germany was one giant construction site as they began to rebuild what had been destroyed. I was envious and wished I could go back thirty years and accompany him, see what he had seen. When I left, I took his stories with me. I began delving into the layers of architecture, tracing the fingerprints of historical shifts, which only increased my longing for “my Cairo.”
But cities are not just piles of stone.
When I think of Munich now, it appears as the beautiful blonde woman in the green silk dress who accompanied me on the train to Austria, or perhaps the dress itself. When we crossed the border between Bavaria and Tyrol, my companion was struck by a sudden bout of nostalgia. With childish abandon, she began singing a popular ditty mocking the people of Tyrol, then turned to me and explained that the song was tied to the history of bad blood between the two regions. Without meaning to, she had pointed me in towards my method for studying architecture: emotions and oral history in all its infinitesimal details. At that moment, the image of Al Maaz Street appeared in my mind, and I decided to start collecting everything I could find about it from the forgotten tales.
Translated by Meris Lutz
ABOUT AUTHOR
Mansoura Ez-Eldin was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2010 for her second novel, Beyond Paradise, and her third novel, Jabal Al Zamuroud (Emerald Mountain), will be published by Dar Al Tanweer Lil Nashr (Egypt).
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