Thursday, December 31, 2009


It was already past midnight. She was feeling so tired and worn out. She had been working for days on end, from morning till night. Another important report had to be finished and delivered before the end of the year. It was a critical moment in her career. It would open so many doors for her, so many possibilities and opportunities. There was still a lot to do and she knew she had a long night ahead of her. But she was feeling so tired. Fatigue was setting in, seeping deep in every part of her body. Her back was aching, her shoulders feeling numb. She looked into the screen of her computer feeling her eyes heavy from the strain of long hours of work. She would take a few minutes rest then go back to work. She opened the radio and lied down on the sofa. They were playing Bach's Sleepers, Awake! one of her favorite pieces. It was, calm, soothing, uplifting. She closed her eyes as the soft sound of the oboe floated through the air. How long had it been since she had heard it last? She couldn't even remember. When had she last gone to a concert? In fact, when had she had time to do anything truly meaningful? Her days were all the same, a string of duties and monotony…a rush to do everything…and nothing. She thought of him for a moment as the music permeated her mind and soul…filling in the empty spaces…but she quickly brushed the thought aside.

She stood up and opened the balcony, stepping out into the cold winter night. She was amazed as she saw a full moon shining like a sliver ball in the heart of the dark sky. She stared at it with her weary eyes as the music followed her out into the crisp night air. Thoughts of him came back again. She couldn't resist this time and for a moment she sensed that he was there with her…that his arms held her tight as they both looked up at the bright shining jewel decking the midnight sky...was that him whispering in her ears…was it the heat of his body that was keeping her warm…?

Tears rolled down her face as she stood there, in a magical trance. As the last note of Bach's Sleepers, Awake! was played she re-entered the room and shut the balcony. She looked for a moment at her desk and at the pile of work waiting for her.

She calmly shut her computer, turned off the lights and went to sleep.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


He couldn’t get his eyes off the gorgeous beauty lying in front of him. He tried turning round and walking away, but he just couldn’t resist the temptation of looking. He knew it was forbidden, that he should brush away the thoughts that were coming to his mind…but the temptation was too strong, he just couldn’t help himself. He looked again, feeling a formidable desire swelling inside of him. No…he must be strong…he wasn’t a child anymore…he’d better leave right now…he knew better than this. If he dared do what he was thinking of doing, and his wife found out, she would really be upset. He turned to go again but hesitated at the door. Why be so hard on himself…why not break the rules once in a while… what was wrong in a little moment of pleasure …even if it was forbidden?? He was human after all for crying out loud! He looked again. No, no, he must act like a responsible adult and control himself. He could end up paying a high price and hurting himself and those he cared for if things went wrong. He’d better leave right now! He took one last look. But he knew he shouldn’t have because all of a sudden his defenses broke down. He felt his heart pounding faster …he was perspiring heavily…an aching desire gripped him mercilessly. Oh he just couldn’t resist this!! To hell with all the rules!!


He plunged forward, grabbed the knife and cut two big slices from the chocolate cake. He put them on a plate and began eating like a madman….God it was delicious!! He groaned with pleasure as he savored the juicy cake and felt the chocolate icing slowly melting in his was pure ecstasy! He knew his wife would be mad at him. He was overweight, diabetic, with a history of heart problems. Sweets like this delicious beauty were strictly forbidden. But there were times when he couldn’t bear this deprivation. He loved chocolates and sweets, let alone this magnificent cake baked by his wife for their guests.


As he finished the last bits of cake on his plate he began feeling guilty that he had weakened and succumbed to his desires. But on second thoughts...what kind of life would it be if we couldn't enjoy some sweet little pleasures every now and then...even if they were forbidden.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Café

He tried walking at a faster pace, but it wasn’t that easy with his bad leg and walking stick. He remembered when it used to take him just ten minutes to walk to the Café, now it would take him over twenty minutes. But today was a beautiful winter morning, a bit chilly but fresh and clear and he would enjoy the walk. He was excited to see the Café. For several months now it had been closed for renovations. They had been long boring months. The Café was more like a second home to him and had been so for many years. There he met friends, discussed everything from politics to sports, read the papers, sipped his Turkish coffee and watched the hustle and bustle of life in the main square in front of the Café.

It was a simple Café, like many others, but it had its own very special character and charm that had captured his heart and made it one of his most favorite places. He remembered the first time he went there as a young boy with his father. It was his first venture into the adult world and he had been completely fascinated by the place. He loved its beautifully colored tiled floors with intricate floral designs; the mirrors that stretched throughout the upper portion of the walls giving it a more spacious feeling and a sense of infinity; the now faded pictures of its proud owners hanging over the wood paneled counter welcoming all those who walked into their world; its large terrace with its enormous green canopy stretching like an endless green sky overlooking the square. But most of all he was enchanted by its mystical aroma…its almost ethereal scent…a mixture of coffee, cardamom, and tobacco, …of tea, mint, and cologne….of laughter, whispers and sighs.

After his wife died, he had made it a habit to go to the Café everyday. He found solace there among friends and its clientele, as well as the waiters who knew him so well. Even when he was alone he enjoyed its warm atmosphere and the sounds and smells of life that vibrated within its walls. And now, in his twilight years, the Café was a refuge from an ever changing world, a little haven where things still seemed familiar and real.

He was now entering the street where the Café was located and was full of excitement and anticipation as he got nearer. Most of the regular crowd would already be there by now he thought to himself as he tried to quicken his pace, almost feeling the taste of their exquisite Turkish coffee on his lips.

The moment he entered the Café he was struck by the complete change that met his eyes. Gone were the beautifully colored tiles, the mirrors, the faded pictures, the wood paneled counter…even its beloved aroma had disappeared leaving in its stead a dull and artificial scent. The spacious terrace had been enclosed within the Café itself and the outside world was only visible through a barrier of glass and steel. Even the clientele was different…he couldn’t see any familiar faces.

He stood there for some moments trying to absorb the change that had so abruptly struck his eyes and senses. A waiter approached him inviting him to take a seat. He didn’t recognize him either nor any of the other waiters.

“What would you wish to order sir,” he asked.

“Can I have a Turkish Coffee?” he replied in a semi-dazed voice.

“I’m sorry sir, but we don’t serve it.”

“How come?” he asked in bewilderment” “You always did.”

“I’m sorry sir, but we’re a different establishment now. We’re an international chain…we serve coffee with over 20 different flavours,” he replied in a proud tone as he handed him the menu.

He took a quick glance at the brightly colored menu. It had dozens of items, many with exotic names. He gasped at the prices…they were way above what his meager pension could afford.

“Eh…I forgot I have an errand to do…I may be back later on…thank you”, he told the waiter in a weak voice as he handed him back the menu.

He awkwardly made his way out of the Café, feeling a growing chill creeping all over his body. For the first time since his wife died he felt tears come to his eyes. As he slowly crossed the street his body began to shake. He didn’t know if it was from the cold or from the deep sense of loss that had so intensely gripped him. He just stood there in the middle of the street, feeling the entire weight of his seventy eight years pressing down on his shoulders…almost crushing his walking stick. In the distance he could see cars speeding in his direction….but all he could do was just stand there…shaking…in front of the Café…

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Out of Africa

"I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills..."

With these simple words begins "Out of Africa", the memoirs written by Isak Dinesen, the pen name used by the Danish author Baroness Karen Blixen (1886-1962). The book, published in 1937, recounts the 17 years of her life from 1914 to 1931 that she spent in British East Africa (modern day Kenya) on her coffee plantation and gives a vivid picture of Colonial Africa during the closing decades of the British Empire.

Her life in Kenya begins when she moved there to marry a distant cousin, Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke. Together they established a coffee plantation on their farm located in the highlands, six thousand feet in altitude. "The geographical position and the height of the land combined to create a landscape that had not its like in all the world….it was Africa distilled up through six thousand feet, like the strong and refined essence of the continent." However, differences between them and her husband's infidelity led to their separation in 1921 and ultimate divorce in 1925. Maybe for this reason, it is no surprise that he is not mentioned in her 389 page book, except for a passing reference to "my husband" in one of the pages. Karen Blixen, an independent, courageous and capable woman, continued to manage the farm until poor crop yields and falling coffee prices during the Great depression pushed her more into debt and having to sell out in 1931.

One of the most moving things about this book is how the author conveys her strong feelings and love for Africa , its land, animals, nature and most of all, its people. Although she uses language that today may be judged as having racist or colonial undertones, she viewed the Africans with respect and affection, and unlike her colonial and European contemporaries who perceived them as savages or simpletons, she saw them as a people who, although different in culture and traditions, had dignity, nobility and beauty. She was a colonial settler, owning 6000 acres of land, but in certain parts of the book you can sense her awareness that this land truly belonged to the Kikuyu tribespeople who lived and worked on her land and who were termed "squatters" by the colonial establishment. "My squatters…were born on the farm and their fathers before them and they very likely regarded me as a sort of superior squatter on their estates". Near the end of the book, she sadly reflects on the fate of the Kikuyu after her farm is being sold off and they are forced to move elsewhere by the new owners: "It is more than their land that you take away from the people, whose Native land you take. It is their past as well, their roots and their identity. If you take away the things they have been used to see and will be expecting to see, you may as well take their eyes."

Isak Dinesen or Karen Blixen was a story teller and maybe for this reason her book is written like a combination of stories about the many people who touched her life and the many events that marked her stay in Africa. She tells of the culture and customs of the Kikuyu who worked on her farm and their big Chief Kinanjui “a crafty old man, with a fine manner, and much real greatness to him.” She talks of the Masai, a proud semi-nomadic cattle-owning nation with a warrior culture, who lived across the river from her farm on a tribal reservation after having been forced to leave their lands to make way for white settlers. She laments their fate: "They were fighters who had been stopped fighting, a dying lion with his claws clipped, a castrated nation". She speaks of the Somali Muslims who worked in Kenya, such as Farah Aden, her close and loyal assistant who helped her on the farm and remained faithfully at her side till the end. She contrasts the differences in perception about death, fate, time, justice and other issues between the African and the European: "A white man who wanted to say a pretty thing to you would write: I can never forget you. The African says: We do not think of you, that you can ever forget us."

She also writes about the Europeans who were near to her heart and who were regular visitors to her farm. They were mostly people who were close friends with the Africans, who were one with nature and who were non-conformists like herself. Foremost of these was Denys Finch Hatton, a hunter and the man she loved for many years. Although she never explicitly mentions in her book the nature of their relationship, her affection and adoration of him show through her words: "“When he came back to the farm, it gave out what was in it – it spoke… When I heard his car coming up the drive, I heard, at the same time, all the things of the farm telling what they really were." She flew with him over Africa in his airplane, in what she described as one of the greatest "and most transporting pleasure of my life on the farm." But it is while flying his plane that he crashed and lost his life in 1931. It is very moving to read her account of his death and burial on a ridge in the Ngong Hills according to his wishes. Just as he had taken in Africa through his eyes and mind and made it part of himself, "now Africa would receive him…and make him one with herself."

The last part of the book is heart wrenching as she describes the failure of the farm and its sale and her state of denial and inability to grasp the fact that she had lost everything and would have to leave the land and way of life she had come to love so dearly. "It was not I who was going away, I did not have it in my power to leave Africa , but it was the country that was slowly and gravely withdrawing from me, like the sea in ebb-tide."

Karen Blixen returned to her family's estate in Denmark at the age of 46. She dedicated her time to writing and was nominated twice for the Nobel prize but never won it. Some of her other works include Seven Gothic Tales, The Angelic Avengers, Babett's Feast, and Shadows on the Grass. Out of Africa was her most widely known work and inspired the Academy Award winning 1985 film of the same name. She died in 1962, never having returned to her beloved Africa again.

"If I know a song of Africa, of the Giraffe, and the African new moon lying on her back, of the ploughs in the fields, and the sweaty faces of the coffee-pickers, does Africa know a song of me?"

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Little Moments

She lay beside him on the bed, watching him as he slept. His breathing was soft and gentle as he lay on his back, his right hand on his chest and his head turned towards her. She loved these quiet little moments when they were all alone, when she could simply rest for a while as they lay side by side, and watch him sleeping peacefully. She looked at him with loving eyes. Her hands softly touched his forehead, moved down to his nose, then to his lips. He was gorgeous!

Six months ago she would have never believed she would be so consumed by a love like this…a love she had never known before and never imagined to exist. It's true it had brought her restless nights and days of anxiety …but it was at moments like this one that she could sense the depth of an emotion that sometimes overwhelmed her and brought tears to her eyes.

An afternoon breeze floated softly into the room from the window behind them, gliding gently over the two bodies stretched out on the bed. She caressed his light brown hair, feeling it’s softness on her fingers. “I love you my sweetest”, she whispered as she slowly bent over him and placed a small kiss on his forehead. She smiled as his scent filled her nostrils…a delicate perfume that made her heart flutter with emotion.

She gave a deep sigh as she gazed at him. Would she ever be strong enough to watch him walk away one day…it was bound to happen wasn’t it? She knew that. But she quickly brushed the thought aside…it was silly to think of that now when life offered them plenty of time to share and so many things still to come.

He began to move. He never napped more than an hour. He opened his eyes, rubbing them with both his hands.
“Hi there tiger”, she said giving him a big smile. He glanced back, his face showing the familiar signs she knew all too well. His hands reached out for her…she knew what he wanted…she took him in her arms….

She looked at him tenderly as he suckled at her breast. Her little angel was always hungry when he woke up. He had such an appetite! He paused for a moment, milk on his mouth, looking upwards at his mother. She gazed down into his soft brown eyes…and for a brief little moment…she saw the world.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

On Alexandria: Capital of Memory...Land of Saffron

What is it in Alexandria that grasps the soul and the imagination? What is it about this city that triggers so much passion and emotions? Is it the scent of its glorious past? Its cosmopolitan history etched in its buildings and streets? The whisper of its sea? The warmth of its cafés?

"Capital of Memory"..."City of the Soul"... “Land of Saffron”... these are some of the words with which Alexandria has been described by some of its native sons and by some of those who have lived in it for short periods of time, only to have the memory of their stay in this ancient city deeply carved in their minds.

It is interesting to compare and contrast how Alexandria was seen and perceived by two different authors and how both expressed their distinct thoughts, feelings and impressions on this city in their literary works. Lawrence Durell (1912-1990) and Edward Al-Kharrat (1926- ) are two prominent literary figures who were deeply touched by Alexandria. For both of them, this city was the main setting and central character for some of their major works of fiction. However, Alexandria signified very different things to each of them.

Durell spent 4 years in Alexandria during WWII. That stay inspired his foremost literary achievement and magnum opus, The Alexandria Quartet, first published in 1957 with Justin, which was soon followed by Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea, the last to appear in early 1960. The first three novels are three versions of the same story set in Alexandria on the eve of World War II, and the fourth is a look back at events of the first three. Durell was more infatuated with Alexandria’s “Hellenic” past , the roots of Western civilization, more than he was with the Alexandria he saw with his eye and which he described as “ a big sordid city haunted by its past”. Thus in the Alexandria Quartet he evokes the city’s wonderful past , describing it as: “Alexandria, princess and whore. The royal city and the anus mundi.” Alexandria: “the Capital of Memory.” Moreover, Durrell focused in his novel on the city’s cosmopolitan upper class community and the many foreigners that crowded wartime Alexandria but largely left out Egyptians and their culture and society, only depicting them in a mystical and exotic form. For this reason Edward Said saw the Alexandria Quartet as an Orientalist text in that it portrays a mystical Muslim/Arab world that exists primarily in the Western mind.

On the other hand, Edward Al-Kharrat, an Egyptian novelist born in Alexandria to a Coptic Christian family, depicts his native city in a much more poetic and intimate manner, labeling it “City of Saffron” (“Turabuha Za’faran”) the title of one of his three novels on Alexandria, the other two being Girls of Alexandria (“Banat Iskendereya”) and My Alexandria (“Isanderiyati”) which were largely semi-autobiographic al novels. Al-Kharrat was active in the Egyptian national movement and was imprisoned for two years in 1948 for his nationalist and revolutionary activities. He was deeply influenced by the Arab literary heritage such as The Thousand and One Nights and other classical texts, and by Coptic and Christian readings as well as by Russian novelsists and English Romantic poets. All these influences combined to produce Al-Kharrat’s unique poetic language that was rich with symbols, metaphors and myth. And it is with this language that he described his beloved Alexandria, a city which he saw, unlike Durrell, in it’s entirety: in its ancient past and modern present, in its diverse cultural heritage, in its richness and beauty, in its Egyptian heart and soul as well as in the multitude of its diverse ethnic and faith communities. I leave you with some of his beautiful words on his Alexandria…Land of Saffron:
إسكندريتي...مدينتي التي أعرفها و أصونها في عمق قلبي، و أعشقها حتى التدله، و التي ترابها زعفران، حلم و تراث عميق و ساحة حب، و الكد، و مساءلة للمجهول وفي وقت معا. الأسكندرية شط يقع على حافة بحر الأبد، حافة المطلق. الأسكندرية هي هذا المحيط السحري اليانع النضرة على حافة كون ملحي شاسع بل غير محدود. الأسكندرية عالم ساطع و نقي و نظيف و حي، متقلب بروائح خصوبة جديدة دائمة التجدد، و لكنه هش- - يقع على حرف هوة لا قرار لها، متلاطمة، خادعة في لحظات هدوئها ، فيها سحر جذاب لا يقاوم، و جمال لا يمكن أبدا الإحاطة به و الانتهاء من تملي مفاتنه، قوية الأذرع ممدودة الي تدعوني دعاء لا أكاد أعرف كيف أصده، دعاء في الاستجابة له وقوع القضاء الذي لا مرد منه على هذه الحافة الهشة القلقة. بين الحياة و العدم ، بيتي و وطني. إسكندريتي هي الست وهيبة و حسنية و تلميذات مدرسة نبوية موسى و حسين افندي مراقب الكبري بين غيط العنب و راغب باشا و فتاة باب الكراستة التي أنقذتني من الشرطة العسكرية، و المعلم عوض صاحب سيرجة الزيت. إسكندرية رفلة أفندي و أخوالي ناتان و يونان و سوريال، أسكندرية شارع 12 و وابور الدقيق و أصطبل عربات الحنطور جنب ترعة المحمودية، أسكندرية أصدقائي من جابر إلى المردني، و البنات اللتي أحببتهن: مصريات و شاميات و يونانيات ، كلهن من بنات أسكندرية حقا و لسن أجنبيات أو غربيات أو غرائبيات. أسكندرية الريس نونو و بيوت الفراهدة وعمال مخازن من عم على و الأسطى مرسي النجار إلى أبو شنب العجوز و حميدو شورتي. و أسنكندرية سيدى المرسي أبو العباس و الكنيسة المرقسية، لها أبعادها الأسطورية حقا و لكن لها صخرها الواقعي و تراب أرضها في أن معا.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Side by Side

I watch them as they lie side by side, four beautiful little children. The eldest is surely not older than six years of age, the youngest…maybe six months or a little more. Three girls and a boy. Their little faces carry similar features: small pointed noses, hazel shaped eyes, and a freckled complexion. The eldest girl has long beautiful chestnut hair tied in a pony tail…how attractive she would be as a young woman. The second girl has a cute dimple on her chin, and the boy has heavy dark brown hair with curls covering his forehead. As for the little one…the youngest of the four, she has an angelic smile that no madness in the world could ever erase.

They lie there side by side, three sisters and a brother, so quiet and peaceful. I stare at the small red flowers on the little ones pink pajamas. She must have stared and wondered at them as she raised her arms in the air like she does every night before dozing off to sleep. I smile at the funny cartoon figures on the boy’s green pajamas… and remember the similar ones I bought for my own son not that long ago. I can imagine how much commotion these four little children could create, how much they could fill the world with laughter and shouting, with childish pranks and teasing, with wonder and questions, with life and love.

But now they lie quietly, side by side…on a thin blanket on the hospital floor. I worry that the bitter winter cold will seep into their frail little bodies from the dampness beneath them. But then I remember that they don’t feel anything anymore…neither cold nor warmth, pain nor relief, love nor hatred. They lie silent and lifeless. The fires of hatred have reaped their lives and that of many others, descending upon them with a vicious wrath in the early hours of the morning.

I watch as they lie on the floor, their pale faces covered with dust from the debris of their demolished home. Stains of blood deck their pajamas matching the color of the small red flowers. I watch in silence, numbed by sadness and helplessness. What barbaric mind could have wrought such destruction? What monstrous hand could rain showers of death on these innocent ones? In what deep dark pit of hatred and injustice has humanity sunk to?

I stand there motionless and speechless as silent tears of anger and despair stream down my face. I wonder if their little hearts pounded with fear as they heard the screaming fighter jets and missiles over their heads…or did it all happen while they were sound asleep…dreaming of an innocent world filled with red flowers and funny cartoons?

I stare at the floor of the Gaza hospital and watch the four of them as they lie in silence…while behind them stretch rows…and rows....and rows.... of lifeless little children…lying quietly… side by side.