Tea for Democracy
Sometimes there was a lull in the carnage. Three weeks ago, the government had shot down over fifty protestors in Mohammed Mahmoud Street, which led to wider protests and more deaths. But after that — nothing. Children went back to school, functionaries took bribes, and lovers kissed. We threw the dead into oblivion to row our revolution forward. Only at Nefertiti Publishing House did we recall why it had once mattered, and we drank to forget about that as well.
Ibrahim el-Sayed, the poet, had ten grams of Afghani hash. We sat around in a perfect circle in Nefertiti’s storeroom, and I spread the rolling paper out in my palm. Ahmed Hammam, the playwright, gently placed the filter with stained, beefy fingers.
I lit the thing in Mary’s lips. She looked away. “The Muslim Brotherhood are committing suicide,” she said.
“Yes,” I said, “but they’re smart too.”
“Not so smart,” Ahmed said, snatching the joint from Mary’s lips.
After a while, Ibrahim stood up. “Guys, have a good night.”
“What’s happened?” asked someone.
“She’s been calling nonstop.”
“I’ll walk you out, Ibrahim,” I said.
Ibrahim and I were doctors at the same hospital. We often had long, agitated conversations. The times were fraught with sentiment.
Nefertiti lay a few steps off Tahrir Square, half a kilometer away from Abdel Menem Riyadh Microbus Station, where we headed. “I wish I can take her away from this mess.” Ibrahim kicked a pebble on the sidewalk. “She’s in her seventh month already, and it doesn’t augur well in this country.”
“The army will take over soon,” I said. “We’ll get back to square one before we know it.”
“The army and the Brotherhood are two sides of the same coin. Do you remember my cousin Hussein?”
In the early nineties the Mubarak regime had shipped Hussein for jihad in Soviet-invaded Afghanistan, and when he’d later come back the same regime which had shipped him out there captured him, called him a terrorist. He had disappeared even as a record.
At the barricades of Tahrir, Ibrahim raised his arm to a gaunt soldier standing stiff by a tank all smeared by graffiti. The poor fellow gave us a yellow smile and nodded.
I paid Ibrahim’s fare and walked back alone.
Mohamed Moftah, Nefertiti’s owner, was pouring Red Label into a mug on his large desk. Oil paintings hung on three walls of his office, the fourth simply not being there. “You’re the only doctor around,” he said. “Something is up at the Ministry of Interior. Make yourself comfortable.”
“Is everybody there now? I can’t stay here all by myself, Moftah. I’d rather go and lend them a hand.”
“Ashraf is in the storeroom,” Moftah said, falling into his huge leatherette seat, the sky grey and dull in the open window behind him. “Go talk to him if you don’t like my company.”
But Ashraf said he needed to go interview some Nubian activist for his newspaper.
“I’ll tag along then,” I said.
Beside Nefertiti there was the traditional café we called “Al-Ghorza” — The Cubbyhole — and it was a meeting point for all kinds of wannabe revolutionaries and so on. We smoked shisha, shared news, had fights over girls and opinions, and drank tea.
“I don’t know about this revolution, Ashraf,” I said, sitting down on a wooden chair. “Everything is so haphazard.”
“There’s never been an organized revolution in history,” Ashraf said, rubbing his eyes, looking at his cellphone. “Hassan will be late.”
“The guy I’m interviewing.”
“Okay. The people are different, Ashraf.”
“They don’t want the same thing.”
“Let’s drink something other than tea, shall we?” He called to the waiter, “Hamoda, over here, habibi!”
Hamoda was a scrawny teenager with a goatee and a pointed nose. “Your orders?” he asked.
“Anise for me,” Ashraf said.
And I ordered tea, absentminded.
“We khod andak chai we yanson we salahoo!” cried Hamoda to his invisible associate in the kitchen.
“How’s your writing by the way?” Ashraf asked me.
“Are you joking, Ashraf? We’re writing history now. I’ll wait till this revolution is over.”
“History has been written long time ago,” he said. “Write something for Moftah.”
My eyes wandered to the girl sitting behind him, her bun an orange mesa under her garish hijab. Out of my dating zone to begin with.
“Jesus in Ramadan was a good start,” Ashraf carried on, “but that was three years ago. Write something new. You like this revolution, write about it. It’ll sell. People like to read about what they already know.”
“It’s not like that.” I rubbed my chin. “And hasn’t history been written already?”
Hamoda threaded his way through the tables with a copper tray swaying on his open hand. Very adroit. He set the cups in the wrong order on the table, but neither Ashraf nor I objected.
“He’s in a fix,” Ashraf said, sipping the tea. “They’re foreclosing next month.”
“Ashraf, I’ll head back there.” I rose. “He told me to stay.”
“I get ten manuscripts a day,” Ashraf said, unable to raise his eyes to mine, my cup of tea frozen in his hand. “Ten manuscripts a day. How hard can it be?”
“Goodbye Ashraf. Enjoy your tea.”
In my absence the protesters had retreated from the Ministry of Interior, and the first one I ran into, a bearded musician whose name eluded me, cried, “Egypt is having an intifada!”
“No, no, I’m against all kinds of protesting outside the Square,” Moftah said. “As long as Tahrir is barricaded, there’s no Revolution in Egypt.”
“Moftah is right,” Mary shouted. “We’re clearing Tahrir out!”
Ahmed made a bow with his right arm and shepherded her away. Samir Radwan, the judge, lay on the couch, thumbing through a fresh paperback Moftah had published this month. He waved his hand to me and said, “Hey, how are you?”
I nodded and went back down to Al-Ghorza.
Ashraf was gone. I sat there and ordered shisha and tea and smoked for many hours. Dizziness overtook me. I paid and tipped Hamoda then staggered back to Moftah’s paradise.
Nefertiti’s door was wide open. Only Moftah was there, smoking silently, his legs on his desk. I poured a shot of Tanqueray and two of Red Label into a stained white mug. I knocked the whole thing back in one gulp, but the rotten shisha aftertaste wouldn’t go away. In the kitchen I found a tuna sandwich and a tomato in a china plate. I washed them down with a bottle of Stella. Then I went back to the office. Moftah was snoring in his seat.
Around two a.m. many feet shuffled on the stairs and the door was kicked open. I got up from the couch and saw Mary’s shirt soaked in crimson, her face sweaty and contorting. Ahmed was carrying her in his arms, a stunned look on his face.
“She’s … been shot,” Ahmed stammered, laying her gently on the warm couch.
I knelt to the floor and examined her. Her breaths were shallow and rapid, and her pulse was weak. Her skin was clammy. The bullet had entered through the upper right hypochondrium, through the liver, and exited from the back lumbar region. She bled massively.
“The dogs,” Moftah growled behind me, slapping his hands.
“The bastards opened fire,” confirmed the bearded musician. “Ashraf is also down.”
Moftah smashed a bottle on the floor and pounded his fists on his desk.
“She needs to go to hospital right now,” I said, standing up. “She’s lost too much blood.”
“Yes,” Ahmed said, his huge chest heaving, his eyes staring at me.
“The streets are painted in blood,” the musician said. “An ambulance would take forever to get here.”
“There isn’t service in hospitals anyway,” a girl added.
“This is not a good time for argument,” I said angrily. “She’s going to die here. Do you want her to die?”
“You’re saying that because you’re a bad doctor,” Ahmed bawled. “A real doctor would take the bullet out!”
“The bullet is already out, you stupid.”
He shoved me against the wall and collard my neck with his fingers. I kicked his legs and tore the skin off his knuckles, but he was mightier than me. Only when the musician and two other men pulled him back was I able to breathe again. Samir Radwan hugged my shoulders, and I pushed him away. I threw up on the floor.
Moftah stood with a Red Label bottle half empty in his hand. “Out of my apartment, both of you, you animals.”
“Fuck you,” Ahmed said, lighting a cigarette with his bleeding hand.
“See if she’s still alive,” Moftah said, pointing the bottle toward the silent body on the couch.
After a brief reexamination, it was confirmed: Mary had passed away.
A girl took off her jacket and spread it over Mary’s face, and two people sobbed.
“Make sure you return all her stuff with her,” Moftah said. “We don’t want any trouble with the Germans.”
The musician left with Ahmed then came back an hour later alone, carrying Mary’s bag and passport. I tucked the passport in her jeans. Then Samir Radwan sent out for a couple of his court clerics and instructed them to take the body and the bag and lay them in the vicinity of the German Embassy in Zamalek. “Don’t call me back,” he said.
In the morning I boiled tea in the kettle. Moftah returned from the washroom, the grey towel he seldom washed draped over one shoulder. He sat down and sweetened the tea while I shooed the flies way with the bloodstained jacket.
“I hate days,” he said, handing me my cup. “I wish the sun just explodes.”
“Yes, Moftah.” I sipped the sweet tea.
“Did you sleep at all? I know I didn’t.”
“I’m okay, Moftah.”
“It was a bloody night. Are you okay, though?”
“I’m okay, Moftah,” I said. “Please let me finish my tea.”