In Other Words is a new series of translated excerpts from contemporary Arabic literary works, by emerging or established authors, published in English for the first time. For a long time, the process of selecting works written in Arabic for translation, which gives them the opportunity to reach a wider audience and to potentially join the ever-expanding canon of “world literature” (as problematic as that term is), has been largely confined to a designated community of “gatekeepers” — mostly made up of Western publishers and translators — who decide which narratives they deem most “representative” of the region and therefore worthy of traversing cultural borders and crossing over to other parts of the world.
They say that by the time you turn thirty, you’ve finally figured out what you want. So, I waited. I was still surprised, though, when I realized that today was my thirtieth birthday. However, I acted on the spot as befits the moment and that it coincided with me realizing I was broke with only a hundred pounds in my pocket.
‘My thirties will be wonderful,’ I said to myself, because within an hour I was on a microbus heading back to Cairo with a plan, feeling very certain that I would actually follow through with it. As soon as I get off at the microbus stop downtown, I’ll jump into the first taxi I find and give the driver however much money I’ve got when he drops me off at home. I’ll wait till he leaves, then climb the gate like I’ve done before and jump down into the garden and get in through the kitchen door, which I’ve left slightly ajar. Once I’m inside, I’ll open my laptop and I won’t give in to the foreseeable temptation to go on Facebook and see what I’ve missed over the last month. Instead, I’ll look for any credit card around the house, book the earliest flight to the States, and never come back to Cairo. And I will remind myself of this decision every day.
My thirties will be good. I don’t expect any undesirable dreams visiting me beyond my control and automatically becoming what I want. On the first day of my thirty-first year, sitting in the microbus, moving closer to Cairo, I put my new decade to the test and it passed. I fell asleep and dreamed of what I wanted. The only thing I missed in Cairo was the taste of the oil in Kentucky Fried Chicken breasts. I shut my eyes and found myself standing in front of KFC. This must be a dream, I said to myself, and I didn’t even freak out, even though Hadeer was standing beside me, which meant that it was probably a nightmare. I was relieved that all this would end when I landed in the US the next day and I wouldn’t be expected to live out anything from the dream. So I walked into KFC with Hadeer and ordered thirty pieces of chicken, only breasts. The smell of the burnt oil brought joy to my soul. Although I was aware that walking into KFC was her idea, Hadeer wasn’t eating. I was also aware that what I was devouring was my memory, which explained why the chicken breasts were warmer than usual and why they were tasteless as they went down my throat like water.
What I couldn’t figure out, however, was the waxy aftertaste in my mouth after my tenth piece of chicken. Tasting the wax at the same moment Hadeer was getting out a lighter and a cigarette from her bag, I panicked, thinking I had swallowed a wick that had been hidden among the chicken pieces. Paranoid and feeling certain that she had led us into KFC so she could stand beside me and light her cigarette in order to set my mouth on fire, I wanted to warn her not to flick the lighter. But even in my dream, I was afraid to confront her, so I managed to remind her that we weren’t allowed to smoke inside instead. Holding the cigarette between her lips, and before the smoke had even come out of her mouth, she said to me with very little concern: “Don’t worry, Ramy, this isn’t love. It’s heartburn.”
By then it had become clear that this was indeed a nightmare. Hadeer finished her cigarette as I reached for the last piece, and right before I bit into it, she snatched it from my hand and ran off with it, bursting into that crazy laugh of hers. I ran after her. The KFC clientele was applauding and I wasn’t entirely sure who they were cheering for. One of them tried to stall her using his chair and another put his foot out to block me, allowing her to get away and disappear into the street. There might’ve been a door but I didn’t see it because I was certain — as certain as I was when I walked into the dream — that I couldn’t leave KFC without finishing my food. I stood in line to buy one last chicken piece to replace the one Hadeer stole from my mouth, but before I got to the cashier, the woman behind me drew my attention to the fact that I didn’t have enough money to pay for my order. The only thing left to do was to manipulate her into giving me a piece of her chicken as a gift for my thirtieth birthday. Although she’d seemed sympathetic to me at first, she reminded me that there was nothing special about this moment because everyone in KFC had come here tonight to celebrate.
I opened my eyes as the microbus stopped, annoyed that my subconscious continued to be so blatant, dreaming of Hadeer stealing my memories of the past year. What annoyed me even more was that I dreamt of something that wouldn’t be resolved as I grew older: my birthday would always be on New Year’s Eve. My being there will never really matter because everyone would be celebrating anyway.
I was the first to get off at the microbus stop and the last to leave it. I stood there, watching the taxi drivers wait for a potential ride and hailing none of them. I took the money out of my pocket and stared at it, reminding myself of my thirtieth birthday resolutions. My feet, which had taken off without me, were moving towards downtown, specifically toward the closest KFC. I didn’t resist, not only because my stomach hurt from hunger but also because I knew how I messed everything up whenever I resisted going where my feet wanted to take me. I said to myself that I would give in, but that I’d be firm and only buy what would leave me enough money to take a taxi home, and as I walked I reminded myself to slowly take in my surroundings, the way someone saying their last goodbyes to the city should.
The problem was that there wasn’t anything to say goodbye to. It was dawn and the streets were empty. I heard the mosque loudspeakers calling the people for prayer and I knew it was just a matter of time before some would answer it. I liked the idea of spending the next few minutes walking alone, with nothing to look at but whirlwinds of cold air blowing dust and plastic bags around. The idea of walking through the streets alone pleased me so much that I almost imagined myself as a king who reigned over downtown, except for the fact that I couldn’t walk with my head held high like a king because I was afraid of the stray dogs, which I was certain were hiding under one of the parked cars. Those dogs I remembered well, but I couldn’t remember anything else about downtown, not what used to bring me here or what made me leave. Nevertheless, I was afraid of the nostalgia I might feel as I walked into Tahrir Square. I saw the remains of the New Year celebrations: plastic cups and plates, cigarette butts, an abandoned stage. I saw KFC at the top of Mohamed Mahmoud Street; I didn’t go in but the fact that it was open gave me comfort.
The only piece of advice I remembered, which I had kept repeating to myself all year, was that KFC knows more than any of us. Mohamed Mahmoud isn’t safe if KFC is closed. You can never be too sure, though, so I walked slowly into the street. I remembered how scary it was when the street was bustling with life and how beautiful it was to walk down it when it fell asleep, a little like peeping at an old man who had lived a wild youth. Ten steps in and it was like the street had suddenly woken up without even yawning. It was as busy as it had been when I’d left it, on that day when KFC was closed and Hadeer was standing near the pet shop that I was always apprehensive about walking past. How many steps did I take that day to get to her, and how many steps do I need to take now to get to the same place? Then and today, only twenty-one steps. The number disappointed me. Everything seems so much greater when it’s happening. But, wait, who was that I saw before me now? Why did he have so much anger in his eyes? Why did his hand take up more space than the faces of the rest of his painted peers on the wall? It can’t be. I tried to convince myself that what I was seeing was just someone who looked exactly like me, but with broader shoulders and different clothes. The dogs in the pet shop started barking so I walked off and tried not to look back.
A few steps ahead, I found him in front of me again, as if I were standing before a mirror left in the middle of the street. I felt my body leave me and scatter before me, pieces flung in every direction, but my feet were still there. I fell to the ground. When I got up and moved closer to this stranger, I saw myself painted on a yellow wall, the letters beneath me asking: “Where is Ramy?”
I picked myself up and started running away from my doppelganger toward downtown, thinking I was ahead of him. Whenever I tried to dodge him by darting down another street, he would move smoothly along the walls and surprise me. It seemed pointless to try to escape. I gathered my courage and went up to him. He seemed younger than I was. When did my face look so angry? I was alone with him, with no one to save me if he had reached out an arm from the wall to swallow me. With every step I took towards him, I could see how gentle he seemed and how young his face looked. There was no doubt that he was more beautiful than me. When I touched him, I no longer felt scared. On the contrary, I found comfort and familiarity in his touch, as if he were asking me to stay and look after him. I sat down beside him, waiting to meet anyone who’d tell me that I was crazy. I refrained from smoking out of respect for my painted friend on the wall. A young man carrying a black backpack spotted with white paint passed by me. The way he walked showed him to be alert, about to start his day. I said hello and he answered back without stopping, the banal smile on his face like a glue that plastered my back to the wall.
Only once did I go into Mohamed Mahmoud Street when KFC was closed. My intention was clear: that Hadeer — or anyone else — would see me, just to document my presence there. Although this incident was a little over a month ago, I sometimes remember it as something that happened against my will, as if I just found myself at the corner of the street. Other times I tell myself that I went in willingly because it wasn’t okay that I was about to turn thirty without going through that experience. That was when I saw the crowds that filled the dark street part to the left and to the right as quickly as two colonies of ants to make a path for a motorcycle coming from afar, where the battle raged between their bullets and our stones. It carried a slender young man who reclined his head on the driver’s back, resting. Contrary to how I had imagined I should act, and to what everyone else did, I didn’t avert my eyes from him to avoid the blood that dampened his shirt. Instead, I moved so close to him that I started to imagine there was some sort of message for me in his peaceful smile: a prophecy of a better ending to that day, in which I would get killed instead of Boudi.
I took my time walking as the street ants returned once more to their chaos. An argument was about to break out between a buyer and a seller. I ended it before it had even started: “Two martyrs fighting over 50 piasters?”
I gave the seller an extra pound, handed the buyer his face mask and lingered as he stepped away and watched him put it on to finally know how to wear one. After gathering up the courage to move forward, I lost control. Was that the most terrifying scene in my life? No, it wasn’t, but my nightmares of it are.
Some sort of ecstasy urged me to jump as the momentum around me picked up. One jump and I gave myself away. A guy walking beside me reassured me only to suddenly disappear, then everything else disappeared and all I could see was the suffocating cloud of white tear gas. I thought I was passing out but realized that I was still standing. I saw a hand stretched out before it rested on my face and I felt revived by the smell of vinegar and saw another hand throwing sand on the tear gas canister, then everything was visible again. Another flock of motorcycles was returning from the front lines.
Trying to convince myself to back off, I thought that maybe the square’s field hospital needed medical face masks and that I should go buy them. I told myself that I’d return tomorrow and find the street as it is. Mohamed Mahmoud Street will play this tune forever and my retreat will not break its rhythm. The street will surely not mind if I stand and take a selfie with it; it’s dark anyhow, and the street won’t give anyone away.
But the phrase “You can’t depend on a revolutionary who tweets” echoed in my mind, so I didn’t take the picture. Who had written that? I imagined Boudi saying it, although the diction didn’t match his appearance. My hands were secreting a sea of sweat and I couldn’t push the camera button on my phone to take the selfie. Before I could take a step back, it was as if the street had turned upside down. The sky was as black as asphalt and the ground was white; the clouds of tear gas had landed on the street to stay. The ants ran in all directions, each in their trajectory, each in their own rhythm. The slow ones fall, and the fast ones fall on top of them, and the clever ones learn how to jump. I returned to Tahrir Square with the first surge of people who left the street. We were followed by other groups who were scrambling out. Seconds passed and we couldn’t see anyone else exiting the whiteness of the tear gas, so we made room for those advancing from behind us, carrying rugs filled with nails which they laid down at the corner of the street.
The cloud dispersed and everything was visible once more. Hadeer was alone in the street, corpse-like on the ground, a defeated mare. Boudi rushed past me, jumping over the nail-filled carpet with ease, and before he had even started towards her, I found my feet running. He reached her a second before I did; I carried her head and left her feet for him to carry. Before he could take hold of them, a hand — a large hand — landed on him, and a second hand grabbed his belt, then a third lifted him off the street from the waist. It turned out there was a riot detention car right next to us Boudi was thrown inside.
“C’mon, take her and go home, sweet pea,” the largest of the men told me as they walked off.
I was still holding Hadeer’s head in my hands, but I put her back down on the ground before she regained consciousness. They were busy with a new prey, so I took advantage of that and leapt into the transportation car: a leap that, back then, seemed capable of fixing all that had come before it and all that would come after. It was fit to turn thirty after such a leap.
It was a while before the car moved, and a large hand landed on my shoulder. It was Boudi’s. “Don’t be scared, Ramy,” he was telling me.
I shook his hand and smiled and looked around the crowded car looking for a spot where I could sit. I realized that there was no one else there whom I knew and that Boudi was wiping the sweat of my wet handshake on his shirt.