The Camphor Harem

First published in The Raven Chronicles journal of fiction (June 2016)

Six East lay at the southern edge of the hospital. A high concrete wall set it apart from the always-congested road, and a gate of rusted steel stood between it and Six West, the psychiatric jail.


There was a camphor tree at the gate, its bark wizened and scaly, home to kingdoms of brown ants and a nomad scorpion or two. The leafs smelled perfect, and in winter Six East’s nurses boiled them on an old rocket stove to perfume the ward; hence the ward’s sassy nickname, the Camphor Harem.


Dr Ahmed Biomy clanged the bell at the gate and waited. He’d finished his overnight shift at the jail over an hour ago, but had put off this visit till he’d smoked four cigarettes and guzzled two mugs of tea. Of all his morning rounds, this was the most painful. He’d rather have bribed a colleague to come in his stead, but unfortunately that no longer was possible.


Soon a nurse came lurching toward him, wrapping a white scarf round her head. “I’ll let you in in a sec, Doctor,” she said softly, unlocking the gate.


“Is Miss Fatima in yet?” he asked. “I haven’t seen you before.”


“Her daughter’s henna is tonight,” the nurse said. “She’s off for a week.” The nurse allowed him in then relocked the gate, gurgling deeply in her throat and spatting on the dust.


She’s sick, the young doctor realized morosely. I thought she was being friendly.


They walked together past the camphor tree, to the sunbleached green building of the ward. “The patients were unbelievable,” the nurse said. “They kept me up all night. Doctors go to bed, and we nurses don’t have a moment of rest.”


“I was right next to you at the jail all night,” Ahmed said. “Why didn’t you call for me or the resident on duty?”


“I can’t talk now, Doctor. My voice is gone.” She mounted the four concrete steps leading up to a chipped white door. “You know your way around. Call for me if you need me.” And she vanished into the ward.


Ahmed stood there for a moment, the winter sun feeling harsher than usual on his fair skin, and he replayed their brief conversation in his head, befuddled by a mix of lack of sleep and nicotine and caffeine. Did she mention her name? he thought. He soon gave up and pushed himself up the steps and into the belly of the ward.


The ward had a simple structure. Two eight-bed rooms, one washroom, a large hall for eating and other daily activities, and a small office near the door. All Ahmed had to do was to take two wide side steps to the right, and he’d lock himself up in his office all morning. There, he would renew the treatment plans of all the patients without seeing a single one of them, which he’d been doing for weeks anyway.


In fact, Miss Fatima, the absent chief nurse, was herself his biggest ally in maintaining this ignoble routine. It seemed farfetched now, but when he’d recently been assigned to the ward, the pretty chief nurse had been very nice to him. She smiled, told him she had a single daughter six years younger than himself (who’d finished an accounting degree and had turned down dozens of offers from merchants, tradesmen, and even lawyers, because she wanted a doctor); she patted him on the elbow, and giggled with her grand bosom bouncing up and down; she told him all his jokes were very funny.


But their honeymoon rapidly slipped into a bog of disenchantment, and then it was all over. It had started when Dr Ahmed had mixed up the treatment plans of two chronic patients, a schizophrenic called Zeinab with a manic-depressive called Hanaa. That could have passed, had it not been followed by Miss Fatima’s pharyngitis, which the great Dr Ahmed failed to prescribe an effective antibiotic to and was later laughed at by the real doctor the chief nurse went to see.


Ahmed’s image crumbled for all the right reasons. A wrong dose here, missed diagnosis there, absurd sheet-taking in-between. Soon he was out of grace, a laughing stock. The Camphor Harem, not without sympathy, had come to the sad conclusion Dr Ahmed Biomy was no real doctor. His mind, and heart, lay elsewhere. He, therefore, needed not see too much of the patients.


Emboldened by the chief nurse’s absence, though, Ahmed Biomy briskly broke into the restricted territory; he went to the hall. Astonishingly, no one was there. A table was missing, but the other — oblong, covered with blue damask — carried the remnants of today’s breakfast: fino bread, strawberry jam, La Vache Qui Ri triangles, and white plastic cups to receive tea from a giant teapot perched over a copper tray on a chair. The rocket stove was actively boiling with the camphor leafs sending off the heady aroma, but it made it difficult for him to discern the cacophony of sounds echoing around.


He walked about, cocked his ears, and it was unmistakable. Giggles bursted out off the far room, interspersed by chatter.


“Miss! Miss!” he cried. “Where are you? Miss!”


In a moment Miss Lubna, one of the nurses he knew by name, came out of the room. “Yes, Doctor.”


“Where’s everybody?” he asked. “The patients should be taking their showers by now.”


“They’ve already taken their showers, Doctor,” Miss Lubna said, smiling. “Go to your office, Doctor. I’ll be there in five.”


“What’s going on, Miss?”


“Nothing is going on, Doctor.”


“How come nothing is going on? I hear laughs and noise from that room. What’re you up to?”


“Oh, you’re asking about that?” The nurse said carefully, drawling her words and nodding with her whole body. “It’s the Christmas.”


“The Christmas?”


“The Christmas, Doctor. The New Year thing? We’re decorating the rooms for the patients.”


“Get me a patient in my office right now, Miss,” Ahmed snapped. “I’ll be writing a memo in five minutes. Understood?”


“Yes, Doctor.”


“Five minutes, no more.”


He returned to his office, and in less than a minute he’d got his coveted patient. A schizophrenic called Manal, one of the hospital’s most loyal clients: been there over twenty times before.


“Olives are many,” Manal said, sitting down. The fuchsia scarf she pulled tightly down to her brows lent her cheeks a palish hue. Her hirsute jowls looked tumorous, and her green eyes were restless: two knobs of gum spat onto an engine rocking constantly inside her head. She attempted a futile bite at her trembling fingernails.


“I’m the doctor, Manal,” Ahmed said with a forced smile. “Do you remember me?”


“The cow. Here? Darwish and his wife … hmm.”


“Darwish and his wife,” Ahmed echoed her. “What did they say, Manal? Are they your new imaginary friends?” He jerked her file open. Gradually his face turned the color of her scarf.


My fingerprints are all over this crime.


It was he who’d admitted her two months ago; he who’d filled out her scandalous family and past history sheets; and he who’d prescribed her medication: ludicrously cumbersome doses of clozapine, Valium, and a depot Modecate ampoule twice a month. No Cogentin there for the extrapyramidal tremors. No follow-ups since admission.


What had taken possession of me?


He knew her well and knew her family too. He’d seen her off himself to her brother-in-law’s car eight months ago, last time she’d been here, back when he was a new resident at the hospital and more invested in his job.


Acting had been but a fantasy then. He’d aspired to be an actor since a very early age, but life simply hadn’t taken him in that direction. Then it suddenly came true, and with it all his pretexts for self-deceit dissipated. He saw into himself and knew his heart beat on, and only on, stage. No matter how small his part was, at the National Theater of Attaba, he was real. Everywhere else, he acted, and very badly at that.


Poor Manal. How could he ever forget Haldol was her famous elixir, the only antipsychotic she’d responded to of all the fancy replacements the hospital’s top psychiatrists had tried to fit on her? That’s ABC psychiatry in this place, he chastised himself. Oh, God. Oh, God.


“The cheese rotted … ekhkhkhkh,” Manal said.


He closed her file and drummed his fingers on the desk. Through the barred window up behind him sunlight reached down onto his irritable hand. He reached forward and pivoted his chin on his fist, smiling at his victim.


“How’s Christmas and sunshine for a match?” he said. “Papa Noelle on the beach. Or a camphor Christmas tree. Hey, how about A Christmas Carol? I can’t imagine a ghost in sunlight, can you, Manal? I’ve been the Ghost of Christmas Past myself. You know what, I’ll show you.”


In a surge of energy, the actor sprang off his seat and frolicked forward. He stooped over her and placed his forefinger on her lips. “Your lip is trembling,” he said. “And what is that upon your cheek?”


He drew his lips closer to her face, taking in her dancing pupils and blushing face, the scent of soap and the stench of her teeth. The moment he laid his lips on the corner of her mouth, a gong rang out. Then another. And another.


“I thought I’d save you, Manal,” he whispered to her. “But it turns out I’m not your hero.”


He hurried off to the hall.


“Zeinab, you fat-assed cow, you’ve made it worse!”


“Step away!”


“You leave it to me, Miss Alyaa. I’ve done it before.”


“Done what, Hanaa? It’s you who got it stuck to begin with.”




Boom. Boom. Boom.


What a beautiful scene!


The patients and the three nurses were all huddled up in one knot. They locked legs, arms, and necks in a strained effort to deliver the steel table missing from the hall through the door.


“Abeer and Hanaa,” the nurse who’d let him in said, “you push it on your side, and we’ll push from here.”


“It won’t do, Miss Alyaa,” Hanaa, the bipolar whose treatment Ahmed had switched before, said. “The legs’ll get stuck.”


“Do as I say! Abeer, over here with me, for God’s sake.”


Miss Abeer, the youngest of the three nurses, hunkered down and joined Miss Alyaa and Miss Lubna on their side of the doorjamb, where the table slanted down. The thing stuck fast high on the other side of the jamb on its flank, and it did have wide flanks between the legs welded under the edges, a solid mass of steel weighing — much like the one in the hall — over two hundred kilograms. Two thirds of it were in, and one out.


An elderly patient whose name Ahmed forgot crawled underneath the table, emerged on the other side, and pulled in the hall’s direction. The women inside pushed in the same direction. The table tore against the jamb and rushed to the hall, punching the elderly woman to the floor. She fell on her back. Then the two hind legs of the table hit the jamb and balked and one of the front legs banged on the floor near the woman’s head.


Ahmed finally walked over. He saw the blue, red, and yellow balloons and the garish decorations on the ceiling inside the room. The three nurses had abandoned the impossible task, snagged as it was, and were checking for injuries. Some patients were clambering under the table to get out.


“This is dangerous,” Ahmed said. “I’ve been in my office all along. I don’t bite.”


Miss Alyaa flicked her wrist in his direction dismissively. “Thank you.”


“Go back to your office, Doctor,” Miss Abeer said, examining a gnash in Miss Lubna’s hand.


“I told you it’d get stuck,” Hanaa said to the nurses, standing by his side, picking her panties.


“We need to get this thing out of the way, Hanaa,” Ahmed said. He clutched the high legs with his hands. “Everyone, lend me a hand. How did you get it in in the first place?”


“No, no, Doctor,” Miss Alyaa cried.


“It should be easier if we flipped it on one side,” Ahmed said. He tried to raise it up, but the flank wouldn’t budge. “Ladies, here with me.”


“The doctor has gone mad.” Miss Abeer laughed.


“I’ve been working in this madhouse for too long, it seems,” Ahmed said.


Miss Abeer laughed, and so did some of the patients helping him out. Miss Alyaa smiled and said, “Dr Ahmed,” and slapped the back of her wrist.


He was now motivated and he shoved again, without success. “All of you,” he yelled to the nurses inside. “I’m big but no Hercules. Come on over.”


“All right!” Miss Abeer said.


“My mother-in-law once lifted a whole wagon all by herself,” Miss Alyaa said, pounding on the side slanting down. “But her son would’ve been under the wheels hadn’t she; that’s why.”


“People in the good old days used to eat well,” Miss Abeer said, carefully lowering herself under the high side. When she’d come on his side her hand brushed against his on the steel flank.


“We’re not working together,” he groaned. “On my word, one, two, three, and we push up and you push down. Understood?”


“Zeinab! Pull away your leg; it’ll fall on your toes.”


“Go ahead, Doctor. I can feel it giving way.”


“Ahem. One, two, three!”


Their hands in sync, their elbows locked and their bodies pushed on and away from the table. The high flank inched up at last, then the whole thing dislodged and fell sideways on the floor with a loud thud.


Hanaa said, “Sweet!”


And the others shrieked and leapt, celebrating their victory.


Miss Alyaa ululated and got them in stitches. “I haven’t ululated since I gave birth to Mazin.”


“Ha ha. It sure felt like labor. How old is Mazin now?”


“My heart drops into my feet when I hear about labor,” Miss Lubna said.


“Ladies,” Ahmed said, panting and hunching over the thing lying on its side, “this isn’t over yet.”


They dragged the table around to get the hind legs out. Then they cheered, “Ally-oop!” and strained until they’d heaved it back up on its straight legs.


They whooped, and Miss Alyaa patted him on the back. “By the Prophet you’re a hero!”


“I’ve got to go back to my office, Miss Alyaa,” he said.




*      *      *




When he came back the next morning, the hall’s walls were festooned with all colors of tapestry, a plastic Christmas tree with cotton spun around it stood where the stove used to be, and Miss Lubna was sitting on a chair knitting pink baby socks with her bandaged hand.


“Good morning, Miss Lubna,” he said. “How’s everything?”


“All is good, Doctor,” she said. “We have two new patients. I’ll bring them over once they’ve eaten their breakfast.”


“Was someone discharged yesterday? We already have fifteen beds occupied, Miss Lubna.”


“Only fourteen, Doctor.”


“What’s happened to the fifteenth?”


“Manal, she’s no longer with us.”


“Why, did her sister come to take her home?”


“No, Doctor,” the nurse said. “Poor soul. She choke on her dinner last night. We cried our eyes out over her. It’s bad for the baby, I know, is it not, Doctor? Would you mind passing me the scissors? Tut. It’s scary what an olive pit could do. Relax in your office, Doctor. It’s going to take a while; breakfast has just been served.”