If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English

Noor Naga

April 20, 2022 
The following is excerpted from Noor Naga's new novel, If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English. Noor Naga is an Alexandrian writer and the author of a verse novel, Washes, Prays. She is winner of the Bronwen Wallace Award, the RBC/PEN Canada Award, and the Disquiet Fiction Prize. She teaches at the American University in Cairo.

Question: If you don’t have anything nice to say, should your mother be punished?


And then Mother placed a single peach on a saucer at the center of the table. With a carving knife, divided it in four. Dinner, she said. My grandmother, whose perfect teeth were singly stolen by a dentist working from his one-room across the river and seating patients on the bed he sleeps in, took all the peach quarters and squished them into her ears. Such greed, said Mother, sucking the hollow seed. Father breathed. Swinging her elbows like a race-walker, Grandmother busied into the kitchen and climbed inside the stove. The next day they placed her collection of paper cranes into the ground with her, so I left. This was ten years ago. The distance from Shobrakheit to Cairo is 140 kilometers. I took a micro-bus, then the train.


Question: Is it arrogant to return to a place you’ve never been?


If I was a white girl with a shaved head, they probably wouldn’t have cared. But because I was an Egyptian girl with a shaved head, they wouldn’t let me forget it. Everything was fine at JFK. Even when four hundred Egyptians funneled into a Boeing 777 destined for Cairo, no one noticed me. For twelve hours our heads nodded, lolled against one another as we dozed and dreamed, and there was no telling in the canned gloom who was who. Then the lights came on and we landed. These same four hundred passengers disembarking on the other side seemed to have forgottenten where we’d come from. They glared openly at me and muscled past in the aisle, suspicious all of a sudden. No one helped me get my backpack from the overhead bin. At passport control, the officer looked like a younger version of my father. Slender, brown, and long-faced, with silver glasses that gave him a pained, glittering look of sensitivity. Behind me the line was long and vocal, but he held my American passport leisurely in his hands, as if it were a book he had read before. He said my name, searched my face the way strangers study the daughters of a niqab-wearing woman, noting the texture of their hair, the pucker of their mouths, aging the children’s faces in their minds, searching for the mother’s beauty. It was clear that the officer was picturing me with hair. He was searching for the Egyptian in me, or possibly the illness. I wanted to say, Same. I had filled out the boxes on the declaration form in a child’s handwriting, articulating the tooth of every letter sin and dotting my diacritics individually. The effect was neat but painstaking. What brings you here? he asked in Arabic. Do you have an Egyptian passport? I shook my head. National ID card? I said, Pardon? He sent me out of the line and around the corner to another man, who was very large, with purple eye rings, smoking cigarettes in a glass cubicle. He looked trapped in it, as if on display in a museum.

This man finished his cigarette, brushing through my passport with his thumb before asking in English, How long you stay? I tried to tell him I was staying for good. Six months, okay? he asked and I nodded because his English was poor but my Arabic was poorer. He made a loop and a dash on a pink slip. Take this, go that office up the stair, you pay, you come again here. I went up the stairs to the second office and there was no one there. When I returned to the man in the glass case, he shouted over his shoulder in Arabic, Dina! Go tell that son of a shoe to sit at the cashier! and shooed me with the back of his hand before I could explain. The son of a shoe looked about fourteen, with matching purple eye rings, smiling. I paid him and returned to the smoking man, who sent me back to the passport control line with a paper visa in my hand. Hey, American! Come here! It was the officer from before, the one who looked like my father, calling me to the front. All the other Egyptians glared at me as I moved apologetically up the queue. I wanted to explain that I was one of them, that I had been in line earlier and paid my dues, but my Arabic . . . The officer stamped my passport, winked, and let me through.


Question: If your mother wanted to feed you forever, why would she cut the cord?


After my grandmother’s death by oven, I knew I would leave Shobrakheit for good. During the last conversation I had with mother, I said, I’m going to Cairo. She sat tenderly supergluing the sole of her shoe back onto the heel. From behind her focus she mumbled, Cairo, Cairo . . . is that beyond the pigeon tower? I said, Yes. Her eyes watered from the chemical smell. Son, is it beyond the hospital across the river? I said, Yes, and then added, It’s even beyond Damanhour. What? she gasped. And there are people beyond Damanhour? I hoisted a corn bag of clothes over my shoulder, the camera swinging around my neck. She lifted a hand to smooth back her hair, and the shoe, now glued to her thumb, went with it. Bloodied her eye. I took a microbus from Shobrakheit to Damanhour and the fog was so thick we could not see even the dashed road lines. The driver steered with his whole head out the window. There was no one in the white air but us. I cried into my corn bag. For days after my grandmother cooked herself to death, Mother didn’t say it, but we knew anyway that she was sour from thinking: Shame to waste the gas and not eat. The whole village knew she was wondering how best to divide a peach into thirds. From Damanhour, I took the train to Cairo and inside it the air was very brown, like closet air. I fell asleep and woke up with a man feeling my thigh through my torn pocket. People think anyone with a camera will have coins instead of skin in his pocket. When I arrived at Ramses Station in Cairo, the air was people. Nowhere you looked wasn’t people. They clogged every street and then piled on top of each other in buildings twenty stories high. Many were not even Egyptian. You could turn into an alley and find fifty Sudanese men, bluer than black, with cheeks like shoulder blades and ankles like knives, or else women as tall as I am, women so pale you could see rivered blood at their wrists and neck. I heard twenty Arabics in my first week and wherever I went people asked me—sometimes in English because of the hair—Where you from? While one man was asking me this, another whizzing by on motorcycle stole a cigarette right out of my hand. While waiting my turn to order a sandwich, I saw children in school uniforms drowning kittens in a barrel of tar. A waitress my mother’s age came up to me, clicking gum with an open mouth: I like tall boys like you—don’t you want to kiss me? My first year in Cairo, I still spoke country, referring to myself in the plural. We do, I answered. She laughed in my face. Led me by the hand to a garage, where she ran her tongue along my teeth and rubbed my knees. I was nineteen. This was ten years ago, 2007, and since then I have been home only once. Somewhere in Shobrakheit, my mother is dividing all the dinner fruits in half.


Excerpt from If An Egyptian Cannot Speak English. Copyright © 2022 by Noor Naga. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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