Excerpt from The Fayum Portraits

Kate Moses

I’m a reference librarian, she says after a pause. At home in California, she adds.

Hollywood, the driver says, sticking his thumb in the air. Arnold Terminator.

So he speaks English, too, Eve says.

Only a little, Ahmad laughs, pinching two fingers together.

I don’t live in Hollywood, Eve tells them, I live in San Francisco. Arnold is the governor of California now. They call him the ‘governator.’

Arnold Governator, very good, the driver laughs.

I don’t know about that, Eve says, feeling the instantaneous heat of saying too much. Or too little: she doesn’t want to sound condescending. He supports the war in Iraq, she adds, no one I know supports the war.

John Kerry! the driver and Ahmad exclaim in unison, high-fiving each other over the gear shift. He will win, Ahmad says, turning to look earnestly at Eve. All of our American friends, all of our clients at the agency, they all vote for John Kerry. Let me tell you something about Egyptians, Ahmad continues, his expression unreserved. We are a Muslim country, but we like Americans. President Bush thinks we are all the same. No one in Egypt understands why he hates us.

The American people don’t hate you, Eve says, feeling ashamed.

John Kerry! the driver shouts out his open window, pounding a fist on his horn. Quick, staccato bursts.

My wife, she reads all the time, Ahmad says to Eve. She studies literature at the university. Tourism, too, but what she wants is to read, read, all the time. She goes to the library for more and more books. Here, I’ll show you—

This boy is married? Acne rash on his neck – he can’t be more than twenty-two, twenty-three. But he has pulled out his wallet to show Eve a picture of his wife. He holds the tiny photograph out to her and she leans forward to see, extending her hand to help hold it steady, her thumb and fingers lightly touching the photograph’s edges. 

She’s lovely, Eve tells him, peering at the fresh young face of Ahmad’s wife: a formal studio portrait with a mottled blue backdrop, her dark hair long and loose at her shoulders, hands pressed together against one cheek, smiling into the camera.

We are still saving for everything we need, Ahmad says, absorbed by his wife’s photograph, tipping his face to the side for a better view. And my wife is finishing her school . . .

So you’re just starting out, Eve says.

Yes, but we have our apartment, Ahmad says, his voice tinged with pride. Soon I will have enough money saved to buy furniture, and my wife will leave her parents’ house and join me, insha’allah.  

You are living in the apartment by yourself, then? Eve imagines him in one of the Cairo high rises they’ve passed: faded plastic tarps snapping, empty cinderblock rooms. Ahmad, alone with his photograph.

Ahmad shrugs again. It is very expensive to get married, and I must provide for my wife . . .

He glances briefly at the driver, who is drumming his fingers on the steering wheel in rhythm to the low-volume beat of Egyptian pop on the radio.

This is just for me, Ahmad says, reddening a little as he slowly, politely repossesses his wife’s picture from Eve’s fingers. She watches as he returns the photo to his wallet, tucks his wallet with care into the inside pocket of his suit jacket.

He’s shared something private with me, Eve realizes, he doesn’t want the driver to see his wife’s hair uncovered. She does it without thinking – she retracts her hand and reaches her fingers to the back of her neck, feeling the heat rise from her bare skin. Not the curls that fell to her shoulders, soft curls framing her face all her life. The shock of it still, her fingers searching for her absent hair. Now the scarf is gone too, an inch-long thatch covering the bony planes of her skull. The color, even the texture different, coarse and threaded with gray. She was only forty-one. She would never feel like herself again, she would never get over it, what made her think anything, coming here, would help – to see a picture of a woman dead two thousand years --

Ahmad has glanced up from his wallet, his expression registering what he’s seen in the moment before he turns away. He speaks to the driver in Arabic and the travel agency van exits the elevated highway, the driver again honking the horn, now at the many cars that appear as they descend to street level and slow to a stop. The city’s ageless breath, a febrile scent of incense and decay, pours in through the idling van’s open windows.  

We have reached Cairo, Ahmad announces, his face again sobered and businesslike. Don’t worry, he says. The time will go by very fast.

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