Cairo, Egypt May 1970
She was bored and tired and way too hot.
She wanted a cold drink. She wanted fresh air, but the shutters were closed to keep out the sun and hot wind. There was no fresh air. She longed for a blast of cool breeze. All that came in was dust and heat as if a furnace was in front of the window. She needed something to drink and the only fan in the apartment was in the parlor. She wasn’t supposed to get up, and even if she could, she couldn’t move anyway. She was stuck to the sheets, feeling every particle of grit that had seeped into the room through the slats in the shutters. She called out to her mother in the other room to come to her and help straighten the bedclothes.
Either we move the fan closer or I move to the fan, she wailed at her mother. I can’t stand this anymore. I’m like a beached whale here and I won’t make it to evening like this, she whined.
Her mother,Umm Nabil, sighed. Her daughter, eight months pregnant and bleeding a little, was supposed to lay flat on her back, legs raised. The visiting nurse wasn’t coming for two more days. No money for the doctor to come and even if there was, for what? To tell her to lay with her feet elevated and drink plenty of water? Would he pray (I’m a man of science, madame, not a saint) or tell them to take her to the hospital if she thought she was having labor cramps? Everyday she could hang on, the baby was another day older and had a better chance of survival. If only this hamsin would break.
“What can we do?” she wondered half to herself out loud. The old apartment didn’t have an electrical outlet in the bedroom. She stood in front of the old metal room fan as it blew hot air at her. They had no sofa in the parlor; only easy chairs and ottomans pushed against the walls. Most of the beds were on the flat roof for the summer. There was no way to bring her daughter closer to the fan without having her on the floor.
“I could fan you with a damp towel, perhaps?” A question/statement to her daughter, Jamila.
“It’s too hot for you to exert yourself, Mother. Just bring me the wet towel.” She groaned and grimaced and closed her eyes. “And can you check the mail? We haven’t had a letter from Hani in over a week. Why has he stopped writing? How long does it take for a cut to heal?”
Her mother froze in place and clinched her hands into fists. A deep breath, a slow exhale to steady herself. Smile, she told herself, and be calm.
“I’m bringing you a glass of water with the towel. Then I’ll do that, check the mailbox. And while I’m down there, I’ll go to the neighbors and see if Abu Salim is home from work. He may have an extension cord for the fan.”
“That’s a good idea, Mother.”
Abu Salim was home. His wife Umm Salim let her in to their dark apartment.
“This hamsin is horrible. It said on the radio that there are going to be two more days like this before it breaks. How is Jamila coping in the heat?”
“Not so well. I came to ask a favor. Would your husband have an extension cord for my electric fan? I want to put it in her room.”
“Of course. Let’s ask him. He’s in the parlor.”
Abu Salim was laying on the sofa, and rose when the women came into the room.
“I’m so sorry to disturb you like this, please forgive me. I would be so grateful if you could help us.”
“It’s an honor to be a service to you, Umm Nabil,” he said.
His wife excused herself to bring something cold for them to drink.
“What did I hear you say about an electric fan?”
“Yes, but before your wife returns, Abu Salim, I have another problem. It’s about Hani. Jamila is asking about him, why he doesn’t write. Abu Salim, I don’t know what to do. She said his hand must be healed by now, why doesn’t he write? I cannot tell her. You must help me. What excuse I can give her?”
“Calm yourself, my friend. Sit down. How much longer does the doctor say she must wait before it is safe to have the baby?”
“At least three weeks. It will be early but it will be a better size and age.”
“And how is she now?”
“She is fine. There are no signs…” Umm Nabil waved her hands and looked at the floor, blushing. “She has no pains.”
“That’s good, very good. And we must see that she receives no shocks and everything will be well with her and the baby, insha’a allah.“ He sat next to her.
“So we will write her another note, from another friend and she will think that he is fine and she will calm down, and the time will pass, until it is her time to give birth.”
“She won’t accept that he isn’t writing with his own hand for so long. Or that he writes so infrequently. He wrote her at least twice a week, sometimes four. She will suspect something is wrong.” Umm Nabil began to cry.
“Why should she suspect anything? Her husband is in the army. They do not let them write and post letters all day long. A soldier is busy. And you must remind her of this.”
“She’ll want to see the note. She’ll want to write him back.”
“Let her see it. Not the envelope, though. There is no way to duplicate the censor’s marks. She doesn’t know my handwriting, so she won’t suspect anything. You, however mustn’t let her see you sad or worried. She mustn’t get a clue from you that anything has changed.”
“Yes, I know, you are right. You are wise, and I thank you. I don’t know how I would manage without you, Abu Salim. If my late husband were here, he would be able to do all these things and my son Nabil is never home to help, either. They would be able to distract Jamilla and get the landlord to put an outlet in the bedroom for the fan. They would know what to do, just like you do. I am so confused and tired. I think of poor Hani, and my mind is full of tears that I cannot cry because I have to stay strong for Jamilla and my grandchild. I am so grateful to you, I can never repay your kindness.”
The kitchen door closed and they heard Umm Salim shuffling slowly with the drinks tray down the hallway to the parlor.
“Yes, the heat is oppressive and I’m sure that I will be able to make a way for you to put that fan in your daughter’s room.” said Abu Salim. He handed Umm Nabil a paper serviette to wipe her tears. “I will have to go to a store in the morning. The place I want to go to is closed now but I can duck out of work tomorrow and get exactly what we need to make Jamilla more comfortable.”
“I am so grateful, I can never repay your kindness.” Umm Nabil blew her nose.
“It’s a pity you can’t convince that landlord to make some outlets in your other rooms, Umm Nabil. It wouldn’t cost that much.” said Umm Salim as she placed the tray of cold juice on the table.
“You know how landlords are, my dear,” said Abu Salim. “Excuse me, ladies, for a moment.”
Umm Salim handed her neighbor a glass and patted her lightly on the shoulder. “I am so glad you feel you can come to us for help. We would do anything for you. You have been like a sister to me all these years. I feel we are that close, you know?”
She gripped her glass with both hands and nodded. She hated this lying to everyone. Would Umm Salim still feel this way when she discovered that she and her husband had been keeping the death of her son-in-law a secret for over two weeks? And that they were conspiring to keep it from everyone until Jamilla gave birth? Would she understand?
She drank down all her cold juice. Abu Salim returned to the room with a plain envelope in his hand. She stood up. He handed her the envelope.
“I’ll stop in when I get home for lunch tomorrow and fix the cords for the fan. Give Jamilla my regards, and ask her to be patient a little longer. Help is on the way.”
She closed the door as softly as she could but the old heavy latch clicked loudly anyway.
“Mother, is that you?”
‘Yes, I’m back. Just a moment my darling.’
She struck a match and lit the stove. She removed the note from the envelope, then set the envelope on the burner. It was engulfed and she turned off the gas.
“I have good news!” she called out. “Abu Salim has received another note from Hani’s friend’s father at his office. He is well! And Abu Salim is going to fix the electricity so we can move this fan into the bedroom and Umm Salim tells me that we only have two more days of this heat. Isn’t that wonderful?” she said as she went into the darkened bedroom, waving the note around her head with a jaunty air.
“Things are only going to get better, my dear. Only better!”
© Michal Nancy Karni 2012