Read Butterfly Wings: An Egyptian Novel (Modern Arabic Literature) Online
Authors: Mohamed Salmawy
The American University in Cairo Press
Cairo New York
This electronic edition published in 2014 by
The American University in Cairo Press
113 Sharia Kasr el Aini, Cairo, Egypt
420 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10018
Copyright © 2011 by Mohamed Salmawy
First published in Arabic in 2011 by al-Dar al-Misriya al-Libnaniya as
Protected under the Berne Convention
English translation copyright © 2014 by Raphael Cohen
First published in paperback in 2014
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
ISBN 978 977 416 642 6
eISBN 978 161 797 568 4
raffic in Tahrir Square was at a standstill; the heart of Cairo totally paralyzed. All routes from the square to the city’s neighborhoods were clogged: all routes leading in were jammed with cars and buses, as if all of them had suddenly broken down.
Doha had to pass by the luxury hotel on the edge of the square to collect the jacket she was taking to Rome. She had called the hotel dry cleaners in the morning, and they told her the jacket was ready for collection. At that point there had still been time, but now she was stuck in her car and might as well have been in a prison cell.
She stared out of the window at others imprisoned in their cars. Their faces all reflected a sad resignation. She looked at the back of her driver’s head with its thick neck. Here was her jailer, she felt. “I told you to drive to the hotel via the entrance on the Corniche,” she said. “Not via the square.” He did not answer, which only made her more annoyed. In fact, she knew that driving to the hotel in Tahrir from her house in Giza meant going via Qasr al-Aini Street. But she was
looking for someone to blame for a mess that might make her miss her plane.
Doha called her husband on the car phone. She got a recorded message: “The number you have requested is unavailable or out of service.” She called his office and his secretary answered. She told Doha that her husband was meeting with the minister and must have turned off his phone. Doha asked her to have him call her as soon as possible.
Contingents of Central Security formed a barrier, as impenetrable as the old Berlin Wall or the new steel wall between Egypt and Gaza. The massed police were trying to prevent cars and pedestrians from entering the square. In the distance, she could hear the demonstrators’ chants rising and falling. Some seemed nearby and others far off. There must have been a large number of people, but, from her confinement inside the car, she could not tell how many. What did they want anyway? If everyone concentrated on their work, the country would not be in the state it was, and she would be able to get to the airport on time.
Some of the chants coming from behind the silent security cordon grew distinct:
“Change the constitution now, before the people work out how!”
“Voting, what a waste of time: we’re all in the jobless line!”
The car phone rang. It was her husband. “Is everything okay? Has something happened?”
She answered him in a fluster: “Something terrible has happened, and your phone’s off or out of service.”
“What’s happened?” he gasped.
“I’m stuck in the middle of demonstrations in Tahrir Square and I’m going to miss my plane.”
“What do you mean? Why are you stuck?”
“Because of the stupid security cordon that is blocking cars, pedestrians, and even the breeze.”
His tone a little calmer, he said, “Just wait a minute. They’re bound to open the road soon.” Her husband’s response made her furious and she ended the call.
Her friend Effat was really to blame. She had told Doha that the only place that could clean suede was that hotel. But what did it matter now? She did not want to take the damned jacket with her on the trip any more. She did not even want the jacket. She could buy a dozen like it in Rome. All she wanted was to break out of her jail and get to the airport in time.
She called her husband again. He answered calmly, “What news?”
“There is no news. Nothing’s changed and, like I said, I’m going to miss my plane.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“I don’t know. But I do know, and I think you do too, that this trip is very important to me. It’s my whole future. I’ve worked years for it and I won’t let it all go to waste because of some stupid police blocking the road in front of me like a herd of cattle.”
After a moment’s silence he said, “Let me speak to the officer in charge.”
“And how do I get to the officer in charge?”
“Ask the driver to get the police to put him on the phone to me.”
The driver got out of the car and spoke to the police. They allowed him through the cordon and she lost sight of him. She said to her husband on the phone, “Now the driver’s left. If they open the road before he comes back, I won’t be able to move the car.” He did not reply. Silence, their familiar domestic silence,
hung between them. Then the driver returned with a hulking police officer. He saluted her; she merely handed him the phone. Sticking his head through the open window, the officer put the phone to his ear. As he listened to her husband’s instructions, he repeated nothing more than “Of course, sir,” until the call ended. The officer handed back the phone. He barked at the policemen, the cordon eased, and he waved the driver through. With another bark at his men, they rebuilt the impenetrable wall that had opened and closed at his command as if by magic.
“Should we go by the hotel now?” asked the driver.
Doha very nearly threw the phone at him. “Is this the time for it? Head straight to the airport.”
The driver left Tahrir Square and went up the 6th October overpass in the direction of the airport. As they were going over Ramsis Square, Doha saw another crowd of police in the square below. Were there demonstrations here too? How ugly they looked, large black police wagons ranked together like sad elephants removed from their native habitat and awaiting the orders of the ringmaster. The car sped on over the bridge, and a succession of tall buildings blocked the view of the street. Doha opened the window and inhaled deeply as the air rushed into the car. The driver turned off the AC.
She arrived at the airport to find a reception committee from her husband’s office. The most senior of them escorted her directly to the first-class lounge; the others unloaded her luggage from the car. “Your ticket and passport are with us,” said the senior official. “We’ll take care of everything.” Doha made no reply.
In the lounge, she ordered a cappuccino from the waiter and lit a cigarette. Before her coffee arrived, the PA called passengers for the EgyptAir flight to Rome. Her reception committee
appeared in full, and the senior official presented her with her ticket and passport. Everything was in order, he said. There was no need for her to make her way to the gate before the final call. She took her papers and wished they would get out of her face, which they did.
At the second call a few minutes later, Doha stubbed out her cigarette and started to collect her things in preparation to leave the lounge and head to Gate 7, as shown on her boarding pass. She folded up the fashion magazines she had been reading and took a final sip of her cappuccino. She was about to get up when the lounge hostess came over and said, “Where are you going, Madame Doha? It’s not time yet.”
She replied, “But they’ve announced the departure twice.”
The hostess smiled. “That call was for economy-class passengers. Give them a little while to go on board with all their junk. Then you can take your seat without inconvenience.” Before Doha could respond, the hostess continued: “When it’s time, I will accompany you to the plane myself. After all, you are no ordinary passenger.” Doha looked around to make sure no one else had heard. The hostess had even raised her voice, as if determined to let everybody else sitting in the lounge know that she was with a VIP.
Doha waited impatiently for the moment when she would find herself inside the plane. She had a strange feeling that this journey, which seemed as though it would never start, would be a turning point in her life, a total transformation. At least she hoped so. She was unhappy with life. She felt she was lacking something, not materially, for she had all she wanted, but emotionally. She felt unfulfilled despite her success as a fashion designer. From season to season her designs met with greater acclaim, and her name was now well known. Yet none of that
filled the emptiness she felt in her life. She was looking to find herself, but so far unsuccessfully.
Doha al-Kenani was on her way to Rome and then Milan, Italy’s city of fashion, to show her latest designs at the Spring Fashion Week, a big event for the world’s major fashion houses. This would be the first time she had participated in the Fashion Week, and she had high hopes, because big fashion houses signed up the best new designers there. Who knew, perhaps the designs she had worked on for a whole year would catch someone’s eye and mark a new departure toward the global recognition she sought. Would that be the point that transformed her life and fulfilled her?
She had spent the whole winter working on the designs she would show in Milan. Unlike other years, she had not held a show in Cairo that season. She was too busy with her designs for Milan. To help her, she studied all the fashion magazines she could get hold of and familiarized herself with the styles popular in Italy. She was determined to win their admiration. This had cost her a great deal of time, effort, and money. They would never believe that her designs were Egyptian.
Effat Alam al-Din and Mushira Abdel Rahman were her two closest childhood friends. Each had gone her own way in life. Effat’s life was limited to members-only clubs, social calls, the hairdresser, and weekly sessions at the health spa. She was happy with her life, and when Doha would ask her, “Doesn’t your life feel empty?” she would reply, laughing, “Empty? I wish I had a moment’s spare time.” Mushira, on the other hand, was a university professor of French. She was also a figure in the cultural and literary scene, writing books and attending round-tables. Lately, she had shown some interest in politics, though she did not talk about that with Doha.
But Doha felt that her own life lay somewhere other than clubs and academia. She just did not know where. She was consumed by the feeling that she had still to find herself; that her existence was fated to be different. Maybe this trip would prove a revelation.
The hostess, with her false smile and loud voice, came up and said, “This way please, Doha Hanem. All the passengers are on board and the plane is ready for you.” She accompanied Doha in a private car from the gate to the plane and introduced her to the cabin crew as if she was delivering something entrusted to her. “Doha Hanem has arrived,” she said. “Show me how well you can take care of her.”
“This way please, Madame. We’re delighted to see you,” said the chief stewardess. “We know your favorite place is the window seat in the front row.” Doha always requested that seat whenever she traveled. The seat next to her was empty and she hoped that, if possible, no one would sit next to her. The hostess appeared to have read her thoughts and said, “Unfortunately, the plane is quite full today. There really isn’t a single spare seat.” Doha smiled without replying and turned her head to the window.
She waited until the hostess left, then took out her magazines and started to flick through them. The captain’s voice came on to announce, “Welcome on board the flight heading, God willing, to Rome’s Fiumicino Airport. We are still waiting for one passenger who is just completing check-in, and we shall take off as soon as he’s on board. We wish you a pleasant flight.”
Why did this journey seem cursed? Why such delay? It had been a difficult day from the outset. Her situation was always like that; her whole life was like that. Nothing went easily; everything was a massive struggle. She reassured herself that at
least she had taken her seat onboard the plane and ensured her departure, whatever the delay in taking off.
The hostess came back with a broad smile and a tray full of steaming hot towels. Doha picked one up and buried her hands in it. She felt the warmth running through her whole body. The towel’s heat stung and she closed her eyes in submission. It was as if a secret exhilaration was rising inside her and almost making her lose consciousness.
The powerful smell of a man’s sweat brought her back to her senses. She opened her eyes: the late arrival was standing with his arms aloft stowing his things in the overhead compartment. The smell was overpowering. It enfolded her as though he had surreptitiously embraced her. How she hated someone sitting next to her on a plane. The man stretched out his hand to put his newspapers in the pocket in front of his seat. She was once again assailed by his smell. She took a small bottle out of her handbag, sprayed a mist of perfume on her palm, and breathed in deeply. Right away she slipped out of the embrace of the stranger’s body odor.