“Wake up, Mama. It’s your appointment today. Should I open the drapes?” Laila could see the luminescent figure of her son glide across the room as he reached for the curtains. She rolled in bed and rubbed her eyes, trying to cover them from the expected sunlight, but no sun came through the room. The drapes were still shut.
She struggled to sit up, slid her feet into her slippers, staggered to the bathroom and stood at the sink. She avoided her face in the mirror and focused on the water slithering through the protruding veins of her hands. In her mind, the older she got the more useless she felt. She longed for the time when she worked as a primary school teacher back in the seventies. At that time she felt invincible, a feeling that was fed with the trembling insides of her students. Each time she walked into the classroom she could almost hear their little heartbeats racing. It was like a farmer walking into the barn to pick out the next animal for slaughter. It always exhilarated her, but only until she had to look that particular little girl in the eye; a girl that used to sit at the back of the classroom.
That girl was the quietest of the students; she never tried to appeal to Laila with flowers or candy like the others. She was shy and frail and her hair was pulled back with a long braid that always seemed to have been done the night before. Her large features seemed to crowd each other on her small face, and on her left cheek was a black mole visible from a distance. Laila had no tolerance for her silence, it made her feel observed, watched. Each time she walked into the classroom she commanded the girl to come sit at the front, and the higher Laila’s voice became with the succession of commands to the girl the wider the girl’s black eyes opened and the longer she stared back. There was a terrified innocence in the little girl’s eyes that threw Laila’s brutality right back at her.
“I know what she is,” she had told Akram, her son, one day as they were having dinner, “she’s that demon that breathes in my neck every night. I know he takes possession of her whenever I walk into the classroom. He tries to defy me through her.” Akram had breathed a sigh of frustration and looked at his mother with a mixture of sympathy and disappointment. “That demon again, Mama? Why do you let your mind wander to those things?” He reached across the table and put his hand on hers. “It’s just bad thoughts and mind tricks.“ Laila became cross at her son’s words, but when she turned to reprimand him his gentle smile crushed all the negativity within her and she crumpled into a smile. At the age of seventeen he had already grown into a man, with a radiating confidence that made him assume a larger sense of responsibility than most young men his age. Encouraged by her ease, he presented his plea once more: “How about if I come with you to the psychiatrist? I promise you no one will have to know.”
As Syrians living in Riyadh, Laila felt constrained by the closely tied, conservative Levantine community even though she was far from home. What would they think? That she had gone mad?
On the day of her first appointment with the psychiatrist Laila went into Akram’s room to wake him up. The appointment was less than an hour away and she was surprised that he hadn’t woken up or prepared breakfast before her the way he always did. As she stepped into his room she was unsettled by its heavy stillness. He was lying on his side with his back to door, so she called his name twice as she walked towards him, but the cold touch of his stiff shoulder was the only answer she got.
Laila refused to accept the loss of her son; he became the only luminescence in her otherwise dark apartment. “You never believed me when I told you about those demons,” she told his figure one day as it slid past her while she was making her tea. “They didn’t kill me, Mama,” he repeated, “It was my time.” But she was never convinced. On the first day she went back to teaching after her son’s death she walked into the classroom and scanned the back row for the girl with the black mole. As usual she signaled for her to sit at the front, and for the rest of the class she was on a vengeful engagement with the demon who killed her son, firing questions at the little girl – a sly pretender in Laila’s eyes – tapping violently on her desk when she hesitated with an answer, until her golden moment came when the girl failed to present her homework. Her palm struck the girl’s cheek so violently she threw her off balance and dislocated her jaw.
Laila was very lucky to have just been laid off work, her colleagues later said. Had the girl been the daughter of some prince Laila’s residence permit would have been withdrawn and she would have been forced to leave the country.
For the decades that followed Laila turned to private tutoring for adults. She had grown accustomed to her life in Riyadh and bit by bit lost all connection to her family at home. Her dark apartment became her abode of familiar loneliness, lifted only by her son’s visits, except that not all the visits she got were from her son. Over the last two years she had exhausted all her efforts to get rid of the sinister presence she felt. She had recited the Quran numerous times and burned as much incense as she could. The sounds only became louder, the breathing in the night closer. Eventually she decided to fulfill her son’s wish and see a specialist. Perhaps it really was just her mind.
On the morning of her appointment she arrived at the building a few minutes early, and just as the elevator was closing another woman rushed in. The woman’s face was almost hidden behind the burqa she was wearing, but Laila could see the woman’s eyes. Wide, black, compassionate. She could tell through the eyes that the woman was smiling at her. Laila didn’t return the smile and quickly turned her gaze to where Akram had been standing, but he had vanished. She kept the stiff expression on her face as she stepped into the clinic. “Have a seat, madam, the doctor will see you in a minute,” said the receptionist.
When it was finally her turn to go in she wiped her sweaty palms on her abaya and walked towards the consulting room door. Akram was standing ahead of her, smiling reassuringly.
“Madam Laila, pleased to meet you,” the psychiatrist greeted her as she was closing the door behind her. Laila could see that the psychiatrist’s eyes were the same eyes that had greeted her in the elevator. And without the burqa, she saw the black mole on her left cheek.
Carla loves Frank, but Frank loves his wife. Although she had been aware of her limitations, she had thought that when the final barrier was lifted he would turn around and realize that she was his only true love.
One day when he was taking a shower, she slipped into the bathroom and wrote him a love note through the steam on the mirror. When he saw the note he smiled warmly and walked to his wife while she was chopping cucumbers and hugged her from behind. “You tread so softly, my love,” he whispered in her ear, “I can barely feel you walk into a room.” Carla watched everything, and when a gush of agony ran through her the knife cut through his wife’s finger and they both gasped in one breath. She was aghast. They had united even in pain and responded as one.
And for six years it continued like this. No mirror notes, no soft breeze ruffling his hair in a room of closed windows, no broken china and no midnight footsteps in the attic could transmit Carla’s emotions to Frank. It was only his wife who could hear the footsteps. It was she who was certain that the teacup was too far from the edge to have just slipped over it the way it did.
Frank didn’t notice any of this. His wife lived in fear, but he lived in love.
Within the last year Carla began to think that if she accepted his wife’s presence she could use it to her advantage. Perhaps his wife could be the means to deliver Carla’s love; she could be the vessel.
The first time she tried his wife’s body jerked on the bed. Frank woke up startled and looked at her. She was staring at him with a glassy look in her eyes, so he reached and took her in his arms to comfort her. Carla was elated. This was the first time for him to look at her directly, so she wrapped the arms around him and buried the head into his chest.
On those nights it seemed they would never part. Gasps and moans and sighs and sweat… The days became calmer, the china ceased to break, and there was no more footsteps in the attic. Carla gave the wife back the days and took away her nights, hoping that on those nights, at least on those nights, she could be united with Frank.
But on that last night Frank had called out his wife’s name, snapping her back to reality. His wife’s arms then pushed him away and her body got out of the bed, ignoring Frank’s calls from behind. Carla’s happiness had switched to pain. She could no longer bear the jealousy nor could she bear the lie. If Frank was to ever become her own, his wife had to go, even if it meant that she could no longer feel his touch.
The wife’s steps continued to the kitchen. Now they became faster, steadier. There was the knife lying on the counter, waiting to break the spell and bring on honesty and salvation. By the time Frank reached the kitchen the knife had penetrated his wife’s throat. His scream of anguish expelled Carla to the corner of the room. She was standing in dismay, watching him pull his wife to his arms, when he suddenly raised his head, his eyes shot at hers, and bellowed “WHY?”
‘Stop looking at your face in the mirror. It’s unsettling,’ Laila murmured to herself as she tried to ignore her unruly eyebrows, the grey roots of her hair and her puffy eyes. But it wasn’t unsettling because of the unease it made her feel at her appearance at this time of day, it was unsettling because of a lingering feeling she always had that there was another being of some form that followed her everywhere around the house. Looking at the mirror almost brought her face to face with that mysterious being. It shook her. In fact, it wasn’t only about her face, it was also about her eyes. When her eyes met her own on that specific moment she shuddered, like a faint wave of fear rushing quickly right through her. She recalled one time years before when she had been washing her face and the minute she had looked up she had thought she had seen in the mirror a black shadow rush right behind her. She hadn’t been sure if it was what she thought it was or if it was merely a strand of her hair. The only thing she was certain of, averting her own gaze in the mirror, was that if her son was still with her none of those beings would have dared to harass her.
When she was a little girl and had her night terrors her mother would bring her a small mirror and put it in front of her face, tracing her perfectly round cheeks and small, pointed chin with the tip of her fingers and pointing to the freckles on her face. “See how beautiful you are?” She would speak to her softly, “No ghost can prey on a beautiful smart girl like you. Ghosts are for lonely old women to worry about.” But she never relented to Laila’s pleads to stay with her in bed. She would insist that Laila had to put herself back to sleep, and if Laila persisted, she would lose her temper and slam the door, leaving her alone in the room with only the faint light of her small night lamp.
Through many nights alone in that dark room Laila taught herself strength and grew up a proud, upright woman, happy with her accomplishment. She taught Arabic at a mediocre primary school. Her stiff posture and sharp voice intimidated her students, and she often surprised herself by losing her temper with many of them. Laila was convinced that the ghosts never left her, that they showed up in her life in different ways to defy her. And whenever a little girl from her students talked back to her, she would think her ghosts hid in the little girl’s challenging look, until one day she slapped one girl so hard she dislocated her jaw. The girl’s parents saw to it that Laila never went back to teaching.
After that her only solace became her son, whenever she was with him her ghosts seemed to disappear. But one morning, on his sixteenth birthday, she woke up and found a note on his bed; he had gone off to fight in Syria. One week later she received news of his death.
She stood at the sink and focused on the water as it slithered through the protruding veins of her hands, filled her palms and splashed her face. She was unsure if the distant ticking she could hear outside was only of the wall clock in the hallway, and as she raised her head she wasn’t sure if the soft brush on the back of her neck was a stray strand of hair. She turned from the sink and reached for the towel. As she patted her face she could hear her own murmur repeated to her from the direction of the mirror. She resisted the urge to look back and carefully walked to the door and stepped out of the bathroom.
Lisa never thought the day would come when she would be stripped of all of her tricks to beat depression. It had always been a lingering enemy eavesdropping on her as she spoke with confidence to motivate her peers, or an overarching cloud hovering above her even on her happiest days. It was an unwelcome guest that always invited itself into her life, popping unexpectedly at mid sentence or rushing to her chest the minute she opened her eyes in the morning.
Time counted in Lisa’s life. How she managed it and how she used it defined her success. When she first began to feel doubts and unease she couldn’t understand what was wrong. Things seemed to be going well for her, she was warmly welcomed into people’s lives and her friends enjoyed her company. There wasn’t much room for negative perceptions of events because there was little time for her to ponder on things. She was hardly ever alone. She decided at first that this was an unknown force trying to pull her back, so she constructed a backfire system of words that she placed on autopilot and she let it run. Invasive thoughts like “What’s the use?” were met by “This is important!” “You’re no good” was hammered by “Keep trying because that’s what ultimately counts,” and “Forget it” was often crushed with “Let’s do this.”
With time, however, she discovered that this tactic was no more than a temporary painkiller. Each backfire silenced a single word, and instead of it tiring that dark force, it grew tired, and so did she. She decided that the mere act of firing back was an acknowledgment, attention given to an undesired force that only resulted in feeding that force and making it stronger. So she ignored it. Background self-talk of doubt, fear, frustration, and despair continued to roll in her head as she continued to ignore it and move on with her life. She redirected her immediate urge to backfire with more positive words in her talks, she turned it into a gush of energy that almost visibly invigorated her listeners. But there was no ignoring the sense of despair that began creeping in each night as she turned out the lights and went to bed.
Lisa began to feel that she was running out of ways to protect herself from depression. Everything she tried helped her only get on with her life, but it never permanently crushed the darkness.
Darkness! She said to herself one morning like she’d just made a groundbreaking discovery. This thing has a color. Lisa realized that even her recent attempts at ignoring that force weren’t working because they played on what it said, what thoughts it put in her head. Getting back at it or ignoring it, she was still listening. She realized that she had never looked at it. She had never seen what shape or color it had. She’d been afraid that if she did she wouldn’t recover, until that revelation of its darkness came through to her like a beam of light. She jumped from bed and looked around the room. The bed sheets were grey. The wood of the bed was a burned brown, and the walls were an ailing dark beige. She ran to her closet, burned wood, and looked inside. Her clothes were all shades of grey, dark blue, black, and an occasional white, yet at the far end of the rack she found the red coat and umbrella her mother had given her as a gift two years before. She’d thanked her dutifully and accepted the gift, had placed it in her closet and had never thought of it again.
She was unsure if what she’d discovered would help her, but as the rain began to trickle at the window she felt an urge to go out for a walk and have it wash away the noise in her head. She pulled on her new red coat, grabbed her red umbrella and went out, penetrating the grayness around her with a bright red color. It was her final act of defiance. She had initiated a silent war of colors.
It was daytime and he was not around. She sat on her bed, pushed the dusty shutters open and looked out the window, watching passersby and filling her senses with the spice-filled air. Haj Ali, the owner of the spice shop across the alley sat sipping his tea and counting the notes from his impatient customer for the third time, ignoring his protests. Lady Samira walked past his shop heading to the train station to meet her husband with elaborate make-up and a large wig to replace her old hair-do. She had been going to the train station every Tuesday for fifteen years. A few feet to the right of the shop Mabrook the butcher hammered at the ribs that lay on his table as three cats gathered subtly under his feet waiting for accidental droppings to feast on. A parked Mercedes honked protectively at every donkey cart that tried to pass through the little space it left, its driver impatiently eyeing the window two floors above her and looking at his watch. Her eyes traveled up and across the rooftops to a tiny square of sky she could see through the branches of a lonesome tree that stood outside her small window. She was now ready to leave it all and fly up the sky. Her mind had almost drifted when she suddenly heard the clang of his keys outside. He was back. Her heart began to race and she began to shiver.
At night the scent of the spices subsided as she lay on her bed staring at the darkened tree branches. She breathed the clean air as she relished the stillness of the night outside. The black leaves danced against the small sky that struggled to appear among the clustered shabby buildings. She rubbed her bruised shoulder as her tearful eyes stared at that single spot of sky with focus. Nothing else got into her vision. Nothing else existed. She let her mind wander beyond the leaves and the sky, taking her to another reality. Out there the world was at her feet. She had silk dresses and drove a car like the ladies she liked to watch in traffic lights as she stood crammed in buses. The longer she gazed beyond the leaves the more she was able to travel to another reality. Out there she was someone else. She was free.
Look at me right now. Wow! Talk about fear of writing. Fear of consequences. Fear of this thing I keep flying around in my head and thinking of as a final destination (like I was going to wake up one day and find that I magically landed on it) turning into something serious. I already feel anxious. Like a load was just placed on my chest, like something really bad is going to happen, like I need to get the hell out of here right now and get some air. This thing I have is really serious. It’s not just procrastination in its smooth, common almost romantic sense associated with artists and great creators. No. This thing has claws and is apparently ready to put up a fight for survival, or a fight to keep its grip over my throat. But I think that the mere awareness of it is a good sign for me. I’ve come a long way now after some 24 years of suffering from it and not knowing exactly what it was. I first sensed it when I was seventeen and had to study to get myself into college and it stayed with me ever since. I attributed it to everything from depression to the evil eye and black magic (Yes my mind goes in those directions at times). I felt alone, I felt sick, I thought I was cursed with a horrible affliction. I continued to think that way until I began to read more about it and discover that it is a very, very common occurrence, especially for those who have a problem with discipline in their lives, who can’t seem to get their stuff in an orderly fashion, and if those kinds of people had a guild I’d be its mistress.
I have listened to interviews* and read articles** about this very subject and I can now say with confidence that no, it’s not cancer, and it’s not a curse an evil old woman cast on me when I was a child. It’s more like a flu, but it takes all shapes and forms and it is entrenched in self-confidence and esteem. It plays on your own image of yourself, what you think you are and what you aspire to be. It makes you doubt yourself. It falsely has you believing that acceptance, acknowledgment and praise are the litmus test to how good you are. It gets in the way of you realizing that success only comes when you earn it, and you don’t just earn it with hard work, you earn it by learning how to handle failure, by expecting it as part of the natural course of things, accepting it when it comes, and embracing it as a learning experience and as the first open door to a growth opportunity. Now that I have realized this and am preparing myself for failure, I think I’m finally posing a serious threat to my saboteur; this obnoxious man standing over my shoulder and snickering at everything I write, sometimes even snickering at my thoughts and my dreams. I’m going to snicker along with him and say “you know what? I know I might fail, but I know that there’s only one route to my dream and that route is a one way road. I can’t go back even if I wanted to. I wouldn’t be myself if I did, and if I stopped it would be the end of me. So come and join me on the ride because I know that you’re not going anywhere. I might as well accept you, I just won’t pay that much attention to you anymore.”
It sounds easier said than done, but in itself this too comes gradually, and always begins with a compromise. So sometimes I find myself procrastinating within procrastination, or trying to get out of a procrastination situation by accepting a modified version of it. In other words, instead of actually forcing myself to write about this thing that I want to write the most about, I start writing about something else, like about this very fear. This is precisely what I did with this post today. The upside of it is that I stayed put and wrote. I didn’t get up and I didn’t leave the room and I didn’t get out for fresh air (I wouldn’t get much of it anyway as I live in central Cairo).
So that was one of my fears. The Oh-my-God-this-is-serious-and-I-might-suck fear.
There is another, more profound fear that I read no answers to anywhere. The fear of not having much to write. I could write a story in half a page and not know what on earth to add to it. I could deliver my point in a paragraph and then stare blandly at the screen in bewilderment. How do writers get all those things to say? It’s the fear of not having enough to say.
On a creative writing course I wrote once a short story in one paragraph. It was about a woman who suffered from domestic violence. The story ended with a shudder she felt as she heard her husband turn the key at the door. My teacher was very pleased with the story but asked me why I stopped so abruptly? Why didn’t I describe the man and what he might have said to the woman? That was a part of the “showing” approach, where the reader could see the characters with you and could see the profundity of what was happening to them without you overusing your adverbs. I don’t know why something in me couldn’t go much further. I could imagine the man but I couldn’t quite put him in words (I suck at descriptions anyway). I tilted more towards allowing for a reader’s imagination to wander. I would like the reader to imagine rather than show him myself (a fancy way of saying I don’t know if I can do that). That is not very satisfactory, I know. It needs to be fixed, or at least I need to learn how to draw the line between saying just enough without rambling on and stopping too short.
But I think I partially arrived at the problem. Relying on too much imagination is likely to alienate the reader. It takes on a more detached, holier than thou approach that I myself wouldn’t want to be subjected to. My problem is that I forget that the reader doesn’t necessarily have the same background information I have. Perhaps they need to be familiarized with the things I took for granted. And it’s in this background bit that all the leg work begins. Here’s where I face the fear of not having done my homework so well and ending up being thrashed by a real life snickering saboteur who is more than willing to tell the world what kind of a loser I am.
I’m thinking way too much ahead anyway. Again, I’m giving my fears a voice when what I really, really need to be doing at this very early point is write. Just write.
**A particularly eye opening article published on The Atlantic that has stayed with me is Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators by Megan Mcardle.
This beautiful city
Finally fights to save her love
She awakens from the long sleep
and uncounts the river jewels taken from her bed
the sapphires he tried to use as eyes
the emeralds of envy
and the blood diamond she’d had as her heart
She uncurls each sacred story
and flies those ribbons beginning to sing again
She turns and turns
in the spinning top of hope
in the spinning top of hope
— Linda Cleary (January 2011)*
This beautiful city haunts me. She holds me by the scruff of my neck in a dead, weary grip. I know that it would let go if I did but I never try. I see other worlds but something tells me I’d fall through a bottomless abyss if I let go. And so I stay. I don’t know what kind of magic Cairo works through people with her veined, callous hands, but she draws them in with a permanent enchantment and lives within them forever. There are those who manage to escape the spell but they never stop thinking of her. It haunts them everyday.
This city has shown me a thousand extreme faces in one lifetime. Sometimes those extremities race each other towards me within a second. I see vice and virtue walk hand in hand in the street and I see no child in the middle. One of them breeds the other and the other the same. They can’t exist without each other.
This beautiful city is back where it started. It has turned and it has turned in the spinning top of hope until it could turn no longer. The tyrant has hammered the final nail to her coffin as she dizzily fell into eternal despair.
This beautiful city has put on her ugly face. She lies in the arms of vice and sets out a trap for those who, by taking their brisk lively strides, by inhaling fresh, young breaths, by holding on to their books, by existing, are threatening her with hope once more.
The blood diamond heart has stopped beating and turned to stone. The river jewels are scattered everywhere, crushed by the judge’s hammer. The sapphires and emeralds taken away for good. The ribbons have been undone, pulled away and torn with delicate strands of hair and ripped to shreds.
This beautiful city has lost the fight. Her children have bathed themselves in blood, their kin tossed and turned in mud to put out the fire ignited in their souls.
What more can a young man give to this greedy witch other than his own life? And she still won’t stop killing him a thousand times over. How further unjust can injustice go? How can a man ever stop this atrocity of humiliation from continuing except by ceasing to continue himself? Should an Egyptian take a conscious decision to stop having children so that whoever is alive today would be the last? Let the young beating hearts grow old with her until they are no more. Let her take pride alone in the tyrants she has lain with over thousands of years. None of us care. Let her have her history. All we need is justice and, if it’s not too much to ask, life.
*The above poem was written by English poet and writer Linda Cleary who lived in Cairo for 5 years and was present at the time of the uprising in January 2011. I revisit her words today, three years later, after Mubarak and his police aids have been cleared of all charges in the murder of protesters. Below is a video shot of the families of the victims after learning about the verdict.