Excerpt from Hookah Nights by Anne-Marie Drosso
Posted by Darf Publishers, January 23rd 2018
We Can Only Do So Much Dreaming
They hugged and kissed several times then looked at each other, holding hands and shouting, ‘mush ma’ul, mush ma’ul’ – ‘unbelievable, unbelievable’ – and hugging and kissing again; and now, in French, Arabic and English, interrupting each other, they shouted how happy they were to finally spend some time together. Nevine even had to wipe a teardrop for which Mona admonished her, saying, ‘Now don’t you start crying. It’ll make me want to cry. We should be laughing, not crying!’ Thereupon, the tears really began pouring out of Nevine’s eyes. While wiping them with the back of one hand, she adjusted her hijab with the other.
Only then did it hit Mona that her friend was wearing a full hijab covering all her hair, not just a loosely tied scarf – Nevine! – who as a young woman had advocated the need for women to work and their right to love a man of their choosing, or to live without one, if that was what the woman wanted. The question, ‘You’re wearing a hijab! You too! Since when?’ that Mona wanted to suppress burst out of her mouth. She immediately felt the need to offer some explanation, if not an outright apology, for what must have come across as condemnation. But Nevine pre-empted her, good-humouredly admitting, ‘Yes, here I am wearing a hijab like scores and scores of other women,’ and hugging each other again, they both tacitly agreed to drop the subject, at least for the time being.
Nevine’s hijab made Mona self-conscious of her own hair, slightly plum since her most recent visit to the hairdresser. She would have gladly hidden it under a beret, except that hats, including berets, looked ridiculous on her.
‘Let’s grab a taxi, go home and drop off your suitcase – you travel very light, I’m impressed. I’m still hopeless when it comes to packing – then let’s go out for lunch, just the two of us so we can really talk. You’ll get to see the children and Hassan this evening,’ Nevine said. ‘I keep on referring to them as “the children” but they’re men now – two big men. I feel so tiny standing next to them. They even dwarf Hassan, if you can imagine that!’
‘I can’t wait to see them. They were tiny when you all came to New York, and such great fun,’ laughed Mona. ‘How long has it been since we last saw each other?’
‘No, it cannot be!’
‘Yes, seventeen years!’
‘Why so long? Why didn’t we make an effort?’
‘You tell me!’
‘Remember how much we disliked each other when we first met? Who’d have thought at the time we would end up best friends, you and I?’ Mona said. ‘I could tell from your body language that you took an instant dislike to me. What was it about me that rubbed you up the wrong way?’
‘I have been meaning to ask you the same question, it was obvious that you weren’t keen on me either,’ Nevine replied.
‘I asked first.’
‘You had the reputation of being prodigiously intelligent, so I assumed you were arrogant, perhaps in part because you were reserved. Even aloof,’ Nevine said. ‘Your turn now.’
‘I was jealous. You were so attractive. That’s the simple truth,’ Mona answered.
‘But you too were good looking.’
‘Not in the same way,’ Mona said.
‘A sexy way’, Mona said. ‘You know you were sexy!’
Smiling, Nevine asked, ‘Me, sexy? Really? Sexy?’ She seemed to enjoy saying that word.
‘Yes, sexy,’ Mona insisted.
‘Well, you were attractive as well as brilliant. You were a genius at maths.’
‘A genius? You forget that I flunked my PhD program? And look at you, you’re a lawyer,’ Mona said.
‘And no longer sexy,’ Nevine stated in a neutral tone.
‘Always sexy, despite the hijab,’ Mona quipped, before hurrying to add, ‘I’m just teasing.’
‘You haven’t changed, Mona. Same spirit, same smile, and, I’m sure, as brilliant as ever, even if you did not finish your PhD. And anyway, you didn’t need that degree. You have had one good job after the next.’
‘And one husband after the next. I’m as free as a bird. A divorcee again, third time around. I should draw the proper conclusion: marriage is not for me.’
‘Marriage is oversold,’ Nevine said as she put her hand under Mona’s arm, guiding her towards the exit.
The two women, both short and round, walked out of Heathrow Airport arm in arm.
‘It’s not raining, it’s not cold, and it’s the end of January,’ Mona exclaimed. ‘I’m very lucky.’
‘You brought us the sun. I don’t mind the weather in London. It’s not that bad. And it rarely gets hot. I can’t stand the heat anymore. Remember how we used to bake in the sun for hours on end at the club and in Alex? We were foolish young girls,’ Nevine said.
‘You’ve grown to like living here,’ Mona observed.
‘It’s home now,’ Nevine said. ‘It’s not a matter of liking or disliking. Here’s our taxi. We’ve not had to wait, what a pleasant surprise! Please, don’t strain your back. The driver will handle your suitcase.’
In the taxi, they decided to have lunch at a restaurant on Edgware Road, they both had their heart set on eating ful medames and tamiya cooked the Egyptian way.
While waiting for their waiter to bring some appetisers, Mona and Nevine looked at each other with affection. For a moment, they were quiet. It was a good, friendly silence which Mona broke by suggesting, ‘Let’s go to Egypt while the scent of the revolution is still in the air. Who knows how much longer it will last. It feels funny – actually wrong – not to be there right now.’
‘What revolution?’ Nevine said dismissively.
‘Still a sceptic?’
‘Increasingly so,’ Nevine said. ‘How could I not be, with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists controlling Parliament? These people are no believers in democracy.’
‘It’s curious that you’re so down on them.’
‘Why? Because I pray five times a day, fast and wear the hijab? Mona, I don’t want religion to be shoved down my throat. I don’t need the Muslim Brotherhood, or worse, the Salafists to tell me how I should be conducting my life.’
‘But religion is not all they’re about. They talk a lot about social justice.’
‘So you, a secular Egyptian, a divorced Copt, are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt! I can hardly believe it.’
‘I’m trying to think positively about what has happened. And I’m trying to understand. Despite our regular visits to Egypt, we and the likes of us have been so out of touch with what’s really going on in our country. We’ve been blind. And deaf too! How else would you explain the election results, such a huge number of Egyptians voting for Islamists, Salafists included?’
‘I’m not about to consider it a positive thing that so many Egyptians voted for the Islamists.’
‘I didn’t say it was, but it’s better than what we had.’
‘What makes you so sure, Mona? What?’ There was irritation in Nevine’s voice.
‘Nevine, the country had reached rock bottom. You know this as well as I do. Just look at what happened to that young woman who was dragged down the square, half-stripped and beaten up and she’s only one of many. Do we want these army men or the security forces to keep doing this?’
‘We talk and talk and talk. We talk without really knowing what’s happening. What I do know is that if I were to return and live under a regime of self-righteous, two-faced Islamists, I would be tempted to remove my hijab. I really would!’
‘Still a revolutionary at heart,’ Mona smiled, ‘always contesting. You haven’t changed at all.’ She paused. ‘It’s far too early for us to tell what the Islamists will do with power in their hands. But we know what our generals are doing. And what they’re doing is ugly.’
‘I really don’t feel I’m in a position to assess the facts, Mona. And many, many questions go through my mind.’
‘But Nevine, just think of that terrible episode involving that young woman! Everybody saw what was taking place.’
‘Everybody, everybody… who’s everybody?’
‘Come on, Nevine! Don’t tell me that you doubt it ever took place.’
Just then, the waiter appeared with many more appetisers than Mona and Nevine had ordered. ‘On the house,’ he said. ‘In honour of the revolution.’
Knowing that the waiter was a Copt, born and raised in Shubrah, Nevine questioned, in Arabic, ‘Are you really celebrating?’
‘Change is good,’ he said.
‘From a distance,’ she said and went on, her tone softer, ‘But honestly, why would a Copt be celebrating when it seems more and more likely that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists will be controlling the lives of Copts in Egypt? Are you planning to go back?’
With his eyes on Nevine’s hijab, the waiter looked surprised. ‘At least with them, the Copts will know where they stand, whereas with Mubarak and his people, they were used and abused, while at the same time being told that the government was their only salvation.’
Mona chipped in, ‘The Copts themselves can be very intolerant – forgive me for saying so. I myself am a Copt.’
‘Yes, however—’ the waiter began explaining, but he had to hurry away in response to his boss’s signal from the kitchen.
‘The Americans are probably helping the Brotherhood and are behind much of what is happening,’ Nevine was now asserting.
Tempted as she was not to engage in the discussion, Mona could not help but remark, ‘I was under the impression that the Americans were supporting the generals. Mind you, one day, the Egyptian newspapers tell us that the Americans are supporting the young revolutionaries; the next, the pro-Mubarak forces and now you tell me they are helping the Islamists. Can they be so undecided?’
‘They’re trying to keep all of their options open,’ Nevine said. ‘They’ve no coherent strategy.’
‘We know that they’re incompetent. Still, you would expect some minimum consistency on their part. They’re going to get burnt, no matter what they do and maybe they deserve it. If you take the long view, they’ve behaved pretty badly over the years.’
‘It must be hard to live in America,’ Nevine said.’ I don’t know whether I could manage it. You used to complain a lot about it being a tough place.’
‘The people are tough, both in good and in unpleasant ways.’
Mona did not have a chance to elaborate for Nevine interjected, ‘The parliamentary elections shouldn’t have been held before a constitution is in place. The army made a big mistake by allowing the elections to go ahead. Now the Muslim Brotherhood will want one of their men as president. They’ll end up with both the presidency and parliament under their thumb. What a disaster that’ll be!’
‘The Muslim Brotherhood insist that they won’t have a presidential candidate,’ Mona said. Talking about Egypt with Nevine was deepening her desire to go there, yet she was beginning to feel that it would be best for her to go without Nevine.
‘Mona, I’m scared. I’m really scared, and you should be too!’ Nevine suddenly confessed in a loud voice. Then in a quieter voice, as though talking to herself, she continued, ‘But perhaps all this was inevitable, perhaps we have got to go through it once and for all so that we can put it behind us. Like a nightmare you must have in order to be freed from it.’
Taken aback by the intensity of Nevine’s feelings, Mona did not know how to respond. Before she knew it though, she was asking her old friend, ‘Why the hijab, Nevine?’
‘Hassan has asked me that question many times. He still does, every now and then,’ Nevine said in response.
Mona decided not to press her, saying instead, ‘You and Hassan were our models when we were young and forever thinking of love. You seemed made for each other: free thinkers, free actors, free everything. You, Nevine, were so far ahead of your time – to have gone with him to Paris – before you were even engaged and not to have done it in secret. You two were barely twenty and it was your idea!’
Nevine said nothing. She did not even smile.
Mona went on to say, ‘Everybody’s parents were scandalised as well as terrified that their daughters might do the same. We cheered when you got married a year later. Not only because we were happy for you, but also because it proved our parents to have been dead wrong to assume that you would come to regret that trip. Did I ever tell you that my mother was sure Hassan would leave you? She once said to my father, in my presence, “Why would that boy bother marrying a girl with whom he is clearly having an affair? They didn’t go to Paris to hold hands! They could have just strolled along the Corniche”. She was obviously trying to send me a message. As if she hadn’t already filled my ears with her moralizing. And here you are, still together almost forty years later. Could the secret be that you postponed having children? Whatever you did, it worked.’
Suddenly Nevine looked tired and much older. It shocked Mona to see her so transformed. ‘Are things alright… I mean between you and Hassan?’ Mona said.
‘Oh, things are alright.’
‘Yes, if you put aside the affairs we had.’
‘You… affairs…’ Mona softly said.
‘Yes, we both had affairs. Mine was a while ago and Hassan’s was more recent. You see, we’re no different from most couples,’ Nevine stated, not looking at Mona.
‘Does Hassan know about the affair you had?’
‘Yes, he does, he does.’ Now Nevine was speaking fast, ‘I was thinking of leaving him, it was more than an affair. I couldn’t hide it. I didn’t want to hide it – I was in love, Mona, madly in love, and love does not care how old you are, it can make you crazy at any time.’
‘And how did Hassan take it?’
‘He was very upset. Still, he behaved impeccably, as you would expect him to. He told me I had to decide what it was I wanted – that he wouldn’t stand in my way.’
‘I’m not surprised. That’s Hassan, totally Hassan. Was it before or after the two of you and the boys came to New York?’
‘After,’ Nevine said, looking sideways. ‘The boys were still very young though. It’s as if someone else lived this love story. I cannot connect the person I have become to the feelings I had then, and to how much I wanted to leave and start all over again.’
‘Life – it seemed to me – at the time.’
‘You never wrote to me about any of this, not a word! How come?’
‘I was too wrapped up in the whole thing. Asking myself every day, several times a day, ‘What do I do now?’ Feeling ecstatic one minute, then miserable, sometimes both at the same time. Yes, you can feel both happy and miserable. I didn’t mean to fall in love. Things had been alright between Hassan and me. Love happened out of the blue and when it was all over, what would have been the point of writing to you about it? I buried it, as deeply as I lived it.’
‘How did it end?’ Mona asked hesitantly.
‘It did Mona, it did… How do these things ever end? Never well.’
‘I mean, who ended it? I hope you don’t mind my asking.’
‘We both did. Nabil – his name was Nabil – didn’t want Hassan to get hurt, and I wasn’t really prepared to leave Hassan.’
‘Nabil? Do I know him?’
‘No, no you don’t. He lives in Egypt now. The irony is that Hassan thought highly of him, even after I told him what was going on. And Nabil thought highly of Hassan.’
‘Was he unattached?’
‘As free as can be, divorced and without children. He remarried a couple of years after our affair ended.’ She continued a moment later, ‘It’s strange how I find it difficult to call it an affair, even though that’s what it was.’ After another pause, Nevine added, ‘His wife died not too long after they got married, from cancer, as far as I know. He’s on his own now.’
‘So you’re not in touch with him.’
‘No. I’m not in touch.’
‘And what about Hassan’s affair?’
‘It was Hassan’s way of getting back at me. I don’t mean consciously, but I think that, for a very long time, he was angry with me for having fallen in love with someone else, so he went ahead and decided to do the same.’
Mona thought it best not to question this interpretation. Nevine would not take well to the suggestion that, like her, Hassan might have simply fallen in love. ‘How did you react?’ she asked.
‘With honesty. I was hurt, and I was bitter. I didn’t hide it. Look, I had made the choice to stay with him. I had made a big sacrifice. And what did I get in return? Him having an affair and justifying it by telling me that this woman was his “soul mate”. Nevine looked Mona in the face, ‘You seem surprised, but that’s exactly how he put it. “She’s my soul mate,” he said. I’m not making this up.’
‘I find that so difficult to believe,’ Mona exclaimed. ‘To us all, you two were soul mates. What more was he looking for?’
‘When I calmed down, it occurred to me that he must have wanted not only his love story, but also the experience of being with a woman who would make him feel in charge, who would make him feel that he was his own man. He needed that. I had exerted too much influence over him. When we got together we were so young, and though we were the same age, I quickly became his guide, whether we were talking books, movies, politics, relationships between men and women, you name it. I will sound conceited but it’s undeniable that, to a large extent, Hassan is who he is because of who I am. He told me that himself. I moulded him far more than he moulded me. His affair was also a kind of rebellion against the role I have played in his life.’
This explanation made more sense to Mona than his falling in love as an act of retaliation.
The waiter was finally back with enough ful medames and tamiya for at least four diners. This time, however, he did not linger at their table; the restaurant had filled up. He smiled apologetically before running to welcome new customers.
‘Hassan is no longer with that woman,’ Nevine was saying now. ‘She was married, and she and her husband moved to Canada. She’s Egyptian, half Egyptian, younger than us but not so much younger. No, you don’t know her. She grew up in Beirut.’
‘Now tell me, why the hijab?’ Mona asked.
‘It’s not what you think,’ Nevine began defensively before falling silent. When she resumed speaking, her tone was less tense. ‘I didn’t look at myself in the mirror one morning and, seeing little beauty left, decided that it was time for a hijab the way an older woman chooses to hide behind big, dark glasses. I don’t believe that you ever fully see how much your good looks have gone, how you’re no longer the same person physically. You see it without seeing it; it doesn’t quite sink in. We talk a great deal about having aged, having put on weight, looking terrible, but do we really see ourselves as we have become? In any case, my reflection in the mirror is not the reason I’m wearing a hijab.’ Nevine stopped talking, picked up a slice of pitta bread, played with it, then put it back in the basket.
‘You’re keeping me in suspense…’ Mona said.
‘I’m wearing a hijab because of a vow I made,’ Nevine said.
‘You don’t believe me, I can tell.’
‘I believe you, I do,’ Mona replied, doubting now that Nevine would actually tell her the full story.
To her surprise, Nevine immediately went on to explain, ‘While Hassan was in the midst of his affair, he had a cancer scare – and I had very unpleasant thoughts. I was so confused and harboured so many negative feelings that I vowed to become a practicing Muslim – hijab and all – if Hassan came out of it alright. And he did. But you know, I was always a believer, even though I never talked about my faith and didn’t practice. The only change is that I have become a practicing Muslim. Hassan doesn’t know about my vow. I don’t want him to know.’
‘You could have become a practicing Muslim without adopting the hijab,’ Mona thought of saying, but she was losing interest in that subject, just as she was losing interest in hearing Nevine talk about her life. She was overcome by a wave of exhaustion which she attributed to jet lag and having eaten almost nonstop while listening to Nevine who had only nibbled. Something like resentfulness was creeping into Mona. As always, when she and Nevine got together, they rarely talked about her own life. She had never understood why that was the case, whether it was just a pattern which, once established, was not easy to break, whether it was due to reticence on her part or disinterest on Nevine’s. For no obvious reason, today it bothered her that Nevine had never once asked her how she felt about being childless.
‘Is the jet lag catching up with you?’ Nevine said with concern. ‘You look a bit tired.’
‘I’ve been eating too much, and you’ve eaten nothing,’ Mona said, finding it strange that Nevine had put on weight, if she always ate as little as she had over lunch.
‘If you’d like me to, I’ll go to Egypt with you,’ Nevine offered.
Mona briefly closed her eyes and rubbed them.
‘Are you alright?’ Nevine inquired, her voice anxious.
‘Yes. I’m fine,’ Mona said. ‘A bit of fresh air and sunshine would help, so let’s pay our waiter and go for a bit of a walk then go home. I’ll have a nap, if you don’t mind.’
‘Sure,’ Nevine said, after which she once again offered, ‘If it will make you happy, let’s go to Egypt.’
‘Let’s talk about it tomorrow. You’ve almost convinced me that going to Egypt might not be such a good idea,’ Mona answered. Trying to sound light-hearted, she continued, ‘Is it my turn to cry? Dreams of revolutions… of being part of something that has meaning… of belonging… we can’t stop dreaming, can we?’
‘I have,’ Nevine said. ‘Perhaps we can only do so much dreaming. I seem to have exhausted my quota.’
Hookah Nights is out in March 2018 – pre-order your copy here.
Anne-Marie Drosso was born in Cairo, Egypt, in 1951. She left in her early twenties for Vancouver, Canada, studying for her Ph.D in Economics, and later completed a Law degree. In 1999, Drosso began writing fiction after returning to Egypt. Her first release was the short story collection, Cairo Stories (Telegram Books, 2007), followed by her first novel, In Their Father’s Country (Telegram Books, 2009). Drosso now resides in Vancouver.