Excerpt from The Fayum Portraits

Kate Moses


Late June, 2004
Even at two in the morning the air is thick with sticky, lingering heat. It seems to seep out of everything: the van’s curtains with their brightly colored tassels, the stained, striped cotton blanket that covers Eve’s seat.  They are driving the empty elevated highway from the airport into Cairo, Eve seated behind the driver, the English-speaking tourist escort beside him, the two young men speaking quietly together in Arabic. Ahmad, a university graduate in tourism, formal and polite, had met Eve in the terminal, escorting her through customs, getting the stamps for her tourist visa and helping her to exchange the dollars in her wallet for Egyptian pounds. So far everything has gone just as the travel website promised.

Your hotel will not open for four or five hours, Ahmad says to Eve, turning around to face her. They are taking a wide curve onto another carless, elevated highway, tall cinderblock apartment buildings rearing up out of the darkness on either side, some floors finished and others empty and gaping, skeletons of crumbling masonry draped with tattered plastic sheeting.

Excuse me? Eve answers, not understanding.

You cannot check into your hotel so early, Ahmad says. But do not worry. I will take you to a place where you can have tea and wait.

Wait? For five hours? In the middle of the night?

Do not worry, Ahmad says, smiling.

Eve closes her eyes, turning away; trying not to see the stained, broken shards of what remains of his front teeth. Everything is so vivid to her now, hard-edged and indelible, as if some biochemical shift has made all of her senses sharper, everything touching her so much more keenly. She’s heard others tell of an opposite feeling, a quality of vague dreamscape to their lives afterward, of struggling but never quite coming awake. That would have been so much easier, she’s thought, so much more familiar. Her whole life, until recently, felt like that. 

Have you heard of the Khan al-Khalili? Ahmad continues.

No, Eve answers, worry going off inside her like an alarm.

Do not worry. It is a large public market, very old and famous. Everyone goes to the Khan al-Khalili. You will be safe there, Ahmad finishes, turning back around in his seat.

The curtains sway at Eve’s shoulder with the rocking of the van, revealing glimpses of Cairo’s lights in the distance. She has no idea where they are taking her. She knows almost nothing of this city, the whole country, but what she’s read in poetry and novels, guidebook lists of tourist highlights, ancient paintings she saw in a coffee-table art book -- a world imagined from a safe distance. She knows the name and address of her hotel and that it is a short walk to the Egyptian Museum, the only destination on her mental itinerary. To the museum, to see the portrait of the woman she saw in the book. She hadn’t planned anything beyond that. She reaches up for the curtain’s hem, pulling it back from the window for a better view. With a ripping sound, the curtain separates from its worn plastic track, collapsing, stiff with dust, over her arm. Ahmad turns once more to look at her, the driver gazing up into his rear-view mirror.

I’m so sorry, Eve blurts out.

It’s nothing, Ahmad replies, shrugging, watching as she tries to reattach the fallen curtain without success. They say coming to Cairo is like meeting your beloved in old age, Ahmad says.

Eve is sure it’s a quotation. Is that Naguib Mahfouz? she asks, tentative, unsure of her pronunciation of the name. She begins to tuck the curtain behind her armrest, brushing grit from her sleeve with the back of her hand.

Yes – you’ve read him? Ahmad says, brightening.

No . . . Eve hesitates to explain. How vulnerable to be: how much to reveal of oneself. No, but I probably should have, she thinks.

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