Dark Light

Beneath the Sidewalk

by Mireille el-Magrissy

Peering out from beneath her tinted shades, Sarah squinted into the blinding sunlight reflected by the screen of her phone. The last number dialed was still lingering on her fingertips. Erasing it would rid her of the queasy feeling; it would allow her to rest her heart on the shoulders of temporary denial. But that didn’t mean she would be able to let go of the conversation playing back in her mind.

“May you get married to the most handsome groom in the world; may you buy the new Mercedes car; may you win a thousand dollars one day; insha’allah, God grants you all you hope for.”

The voice of a little girl seeped through the windows of her isolation. Blackened fingernails tapped at the glass, programmed to irritate until someone decided to give her a few coins to get her off of their car. Nobody would dare touch the loose tissues hanging out of the cardboard box she was carrying or take a whiff of the fly-infested mint she was attempting to sell.

Sarah typed compulsively on the keypad, forcing her thumbs onto each letter. A sentence. Delete, delete, delete. Another few sentences. Delete, delete. One word. Delete. Anything, even one letter. Just write something, she begged, but her inner voice resisted her pleas. The continuous knocking interrupted the trail of her thoughts. She rolled down the window and rummaged through her bag for something to give the girl, who in turn was leaning into the window, waving a packet of tissues in Sarah’s face.

“No thank you, I don’t want anything…one second, hold on. Wait, wait…” Sarah hollered to the driver.

The car moved forward a couple of inches; the little girl trotted behind them, grabbing onto a ray of hope. Sarah pushed a ten-pound note through the crack. Picking at the chipped blue nail polish on her nails, she avoided looking at the ugly speckles of white appearing around the edges. She crouched back into her seat, hovering over the send button, stuck in between the hands of motionless time.

“Just do it, don’t think about it. End it.” She repeated an all-too-familiar mantra to herself, squeezing her eyes shut, dreading the next second.

There is a certain inviolable truth, stamped and sealed, strained, digested, and dissolved into every Egyptian girl’s youth. Never think of ending up with a boy that is not of your religion. Sure, we all make mistakes, we all have our history and our fair share of adventures that we sugarcoat, sweep under the rug, choose to forget. But when it comes down to it, that is where the line is drawn. Shared customs and culture are not enough. Depending on where one might come from exactly, what sort of upbringing one may have had, the degrees of the rule’s implementation differ. But in any case, the ancestors’ voices prevail. Roaming the intricate structure of womanhood, their words echo through selective walls of fertility. “Have as many friends as you want, indulge in an amalgam of experiences, question, it’s good to nourish your intellect. But watch out. Step away from the red line.” Or, it may be, “don’t tempt your eyes, your heart, and your ears. Keep yourself within your own religious community. Encircle yourself with those that follow the right path from the start. There is no need to put yourself in the position where you even come close to the borders of the line.”

Sarah had decided that she would always lead a life apart from the conformities of her community. Its restrictions never settled well with her. She was still young, finishing her final year of school. From a young age, walking into segregated illusions of space made her uncomfortable. She never quite understood it. Her thoughts were exhausting; attempting to find a distraction, she peeled herself away from her phone.

“Hey, do you go to school?” Sarah turned to the little girl, who was now sitting on the side of the pavement beneath the car window. “Why don’t you go buy yourself a book with those ten pounds I just gave you?”

“Of course, and I will buy a new school bag. Can you give me money for a pencil case as well and new school shoes?” The little girl’s voice blended into the polluted symphony of honking and yelling. The traffic was a nauseous killer.

I need to get out, Sarah thought, flinging the car door open. Spewing out her orders in a rush, she informed the driver that he could head home and that she’d find her own way back.

The little girl caught up with Sarah, reciting further affirmations and wishes that God would reward her, provided that the girl was given more money. The girl hopped around her, poking incessantly, tugging at Sarah’s clothes. As Sarah moved in zigzags, trying to shrug her off, her phone slipped out of her hand, slamming onto the side of the pavement, shattering the screen.

 “Look what you did!” she screamed, picking up her phone.

“Ufff, I can’t stand this country. What are you still doing? I gave you money!”

Sarah threw another ten-pound note from her pocket.

“Take. Now leave me, please…I’m sorry…I’m really sorry…”

Disapproving stares followed Sarah as she pushed past the busy streets like a gypsy pulled from her roots; a wandering infidel let loose into the averted glances inside a grand house of worship. She hated herself for losing her temper, for being so inconsiderate. Her watery eyes resisted the tears that she had trained diligently not to creep up on her at the wrong time. She turned into the first narrow side street. A ginger-haired boy was hosing the ceramic floor outside a shop. Drowning the dust in water was only making the street dirtier, wasting tons of valuable water. But he was fulfilling his duties and purpose, although it attracted few customers. She spotted a sign, Hamada’s Telephone and Electronics Shop, on the corner of the street. A dodgy hole in the wall with dangling accessories, flashing neon lights, and a flaking picture of el-Sisi, the head of the armed forces, plastered on the door. Well, at least it’s a place that can fix my phone, she thought. It was actually a lot more spacious inside than it appeared to be.

“Hello, can anyone fix my phone here?”

“We do everything and anything you want my dear,” a raspy voice answered, turning around to face her, screening her in the process.

“For a small price of course,” he added.

“Yes, sure. Just please fix it quickly. I need my phone urgently.”

The man wandered past a curtain into the back of the shop. Absorbed in the broken sound of the Qur’an blaring out of the radio, Sarah watched the fan on the ceiling swinging back and forth. Waiting under the dim, barely existing light, she pulled up her tank top and fixed the side of her shirt, covering the exposed bra strap she hadn’t noticed. A different, plump-looking man walked out from the back room towards the counter.

“I can surely fix your phone darling. How much do you want to pay?” He grinned, strutting closer to her. “For you,” he said, “I can do it for free.”

A row of rotting, shimmering gold teeth glared at her. Sarah started to feel uneasy, sensing a sickening energy in his presence. She avoided making eye contact with him, looking down at the torn socks protruding from his sandals.

 “You are a very beautiful young lady,” he whispered, caressing the side of her arm, moving his hand up towards her shoulder.

She remained facing the ground, her knees sinking toward the faded flowery carpet. For some reason, she couldn’t move. She stood transfixed, now focused on the shoelaces of her untied sneakers.

“It’s okay, you know what, I just remembered…my friend…she has an extra phone. I can use hers. Uh, thank you…” She managed to utter a few broken words, backing away towards the door.

Disregarding her words, the man put his arm around her waist, tugging her towards him, moving his hand lower down her back.

“It might take a while to fix a phone like this one, so why don’t you come inside and wait. Don’t be afraid.” The man chuckled.

Panicking, Sarah pushed herself away from his grip, frantically trying to reach for the door handle. Circling around her, he positioned himself between her and the door, blocking the way out. Sitting on the ledge of the side window of the shop, the little girl plastered her nose to the glass, watching him. Banging with both her fists, she began screaming at the top of her voice:

“Hamada is a rapist! Hamada ibn weskha!”

 A series of swear words bulleted out of her mouth, butchering his name. Sarah was taken aback by the girl’s vulgarity. Then, all she could hear was a lump of coal throbbing in her caving throat.

“Come see, people of the streets, come help! Come see what Hamada is doing!” the little girl raged on.

Flustered, Hamada threw open the door, checking right and left in a frenzy to make sure no one was watching.

“Shut up, you little rascal,” he snapped, shoving Sarah out of his shop.

 “Just a crazy beggar, nothing to see here. Are you trying to embarrass me, fool? Be quiet, the both of you, and I told you before, little girl, don’t ever come back here again.”

Blank numbness carried Sarah’s jelly legs back onto the main street. The little girl’s shadow floated behind her. Breathing in the sounds of the distant crowds, Sarah was reunited with the traffic, embracing the chaos. Regaining her senses, her surroundings sharpened, shaking her out of a blurred haze. She bought a packet of cigarettes and a lighter from a kiosk, finding the first empty spot on the pavement to collapse on.

“Give me a cigarette,” the little girl demanded, slouching next to her.

“No, you’re a child.”

“I’m not a child. I smoke all the time. Not only cigarettes; all kinds of things. I sniff glue as well. It’s fun.”

Sarah continued puffing on the cigarette, scanning the outline of the girl’s face. There was a remarkably pretty innocence in her deep green eyes, tarnished by a cruel existence. Images of hairy toes and a patterned carpet flashed in and out of Sarah’s head. She could still feel that man rubbing himself against her. Disgusted, she tossed the uncomfortable cigarette resting between her fingers onto the street.

“You’re upset. Are you still angry about the phone? You can just buy a new one.”

Sarah took the phone out of her pocket, tracing the cracks with her finger. Annoyed that she still hadn’t sent the text, she prodded at the screen, causing further destruction. How ridiculous she felt to still be preoccupied by that damn phone. The little girl tugged at Sarah’s bracelets. She crouched down in front of her, twisting her head beneath her chin, resting her hands on her knees.

“Why are you wearing elastic bands and threads on your hand? How much did you pay for this? It’s ugly. Give me one bracelet, give me one.”

Sarah’s usual response was to retreat and pull away, but this time, her instincts surrendered to the girl’s desperate touch. The previously aggressive physical contact was gradually being torn down, turning into a gentle exchange of wounded words. Sarah questioned the girl about her life. Shrouded conversation unraveled rhythmically. Words breaking free, intertwining with one another; clasping onto each other like two lovers at the crux of separation.

“…so I left my father for the third time and ended up living in an orphanage for street children for eight months,” the little girl rambled on, “but then I ran away to go back to my friends. I haven’t seen them in a while. We had an argument. Maybe the police caught them, maybe they’re dead. Who knows?”

“Why did you run away?”

“Trapping us in these houses, in cubicles. So many rules. Telling us when to wake up, when to study, when to eat. Why? I don’t belong there. All this stuff they’re trying to teach us. It’s not for us. What do they think? We’re going to become doctors, lawyers?”

“Why not?” Sarah asserted, desperately holding onto her ideals that the world could be changed, one child at a time.

“You don’t understand…you don’t look Egyptian.”

“I am.”

“Are you Muslim or Christian?”

“What does it matter?”

“Maybe that man wouldn’t have bothered you like that if you covered yourself better. I don’t know why, but it matters, everyone seems to care about that a lot. They fight over it. I don’t care. You know, I would kill a man if he touched another girl. I can do it.”

Sarah shuddered at what the girl must have gone through to make such a statement with complete unfazed sincerity. She was convinced the girl could, and would do it, if she hadn’t already.

“You shouldn’t ever think of killing anyone, it’s not right; you’re only killing an infected part of yourself that needs to be cured,” Sarah said, hoping that she could stir some sense into the girl. Hoping that her advice might trail behind her, patiently waiting for a right time, rescuing the girl somewhere along the way.

“Whatever you want to think…but many people deserve it.”

These words weighed heavily on her. A detached chant repeated by society on a regular basis in politically turbulent times. Unmoving. It disturbed her coming out of a little girl’s mouth. Blood is cheap. Fear is ruthless.

“Thanks for saving me from that horrible man,” Sarah said.

The little girl nodded, looking away, abruptly changing the subject.

“Why don’t you want to give me the bracelet? Is it from your dear lover?” She sneered, attempting to cover up her blushing giggle.

“Why do you want it? Are you going to give it to someone?” Sarah teased, handing one to her.

“You’re silly, bracelets are for girls, not boys.” She snatched it from her, twirling it around her jaded limbs, scrunching it into the palm of her hand.

They both sat in silence on the pavement next to the kiosk, watching the cars fighting like puzzle pieces, trying to find their place in the picture. Eager to move on. Sarah got lost in the shelter of the strangers’ stories crossing her path. Kids trailing behind hurried mothers, a family of five on one motorcycle whizzing by. The garbage men, sweeping up the infinite piles of trash that never wanted to disappear. The suited-up employees heading home, or to another meeting, empty briefcases and unfinished coffee cups holding up their fragile ambitions.

“I’m not going to buy things for school like I told you,” the little girl shyly confessed.

“I know you’re not.”

The next minute, Sarah looked by her side and the girl was gone. In the midst of trivial noise, Sarah was stung by harsh realizations. The first of a few, rare raindrops of the season drizzled down, surprising the Cairo desert. The clouds were opening up, shedding their soft offerings of condolence, their cleansing hope of renewal. It seemed that the most trifling matters consumed even those with the heaviest load. Throughout the hardest battles, the raw, most basic human quandaries persisted, binding us all, protecting us from the scorching light.


All artwork is courtesy of Eman Osama.

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