By Noha Al-Badry
It must seem odd to you that I would unexpectedly send you a notebook filled with my words. Perhaps even offensive, that I would choose to make a gift of my narrative rather than give you a space to put yours. I have been told often in my life that I was self-centered to an extreme. I don’t deny it. And yet, I am not giving you my words to boast or even impose. I am giving you this because I feel, even now, that it is you I can speak to. And because, later—amidst the endless cacophony of our chattering aunts and their colorful gossip doled out with portions of badly prepared exotic food at the annual gathering in grandma’s house—you will no doubt hear a modified, highly subjective versions of who I was, am, did, said, disgraced, dishonored, demeaned…
I don’t know why it is important to me that you know. We have exchanged little more than greetings the past decade. You have gone your way and I have gone mine. Do I wish we’d tried to maintain our friendship? I don’t know. Part of me thinks I can only speak to you frankly because you witnessed none of the occurrences of which I intend to speak. But that is not all. I guess part of it has to do with your recent marriage and although it’s six months too late, although I hadn’t shown up at the ceremony, I send the best of wishes your way. What does your wedding have to do with any of this? Well, I suppose it was then that it struck me how far our paths have diverged. You have left your peculiarities with your teenage years. You have veiled your hair and quit smoking. You have gone to an engineering school like your parents wanted. I guess you have found a sort of peace; a comfort zone. I remember your face during your engagement party—pleased and serene. I once would have scoffed at your apparent yielding to what I perceived (and still perceive) as a misogynistic, puritanical culture. I don’t anymore. It doesn’t matter which route carries you to contentment, it only matters that it does and in that sense, you have succeeded where I have failed. So who am I to judge? But, I digress.
In my mind, I see the both of us before the crossroads to a time when we were six or seven years old. All the family was gathered at uncle Maher’s house that year. The smell of lamb cooking and garlic tomato sauce for fatta rice boiling permeated as thick as the blood of sacrificial cattle ran in the streets of Egypt. Our mothers had dressed us both in full little skirts which we twirled ’round and ’round till we grew dizzy. All around cousins ran, aunts labored and uncles sat sipping strong red tea and reminiscing about their bachelor days. Then uncle Fareed, who was still kind and married to only one wife then, took us younglings down to the street where he bought us little rockets which—when lit—went shooting up into the air with a mighty clang.
It had been summer that year, with many men pushing carts heaped with roasted corn or baked sweet potatoes to which kids flocked—dragging along an exasperated parent or older sibling—to gorge on more snacks. It’s amazing the amounts of street food you can fit into your stomach as a child, isn’t it? Lobna had been born two weeks earlier and as we sat on our little patch of grass at the park—legs crossed, mouths lipsticked, chins upturned like, we though, young women— that evening, I told you that your mother must have “done sex” with your father to get little Lo. Then I told you what Reem, from school, told me about how adults made babies. You were mortified and denied wholeheartedly that your parents would ever do such a thing. I shrugged. Later you told your eldest sister Nourhan what I said, and she screamed at us so hard, her face turning laceration-red. I hope she’s kinder now that she’s got kids of her own. I hope she isn’t using religion to traumatize them into obedience…
This story comes to mind now, as I think what it must have been like for you, marriage. For a year, you are engaged to this man, you go out with him most days, you shop for your future home together, you go to the movies. You hold hands. And then, one ceremony later, you’re officially his in the eyes of God and the state, and he is peeling off your clothes, your skin. He is waiting for the blood: a proof that he hadn’t been scammed, that you are as new as a recently acquired cell phone, not second-hand, not a slut, not…me. I wanted to ask you how you felt about it, during the henna the night before your wedding. I wanted to tell you not to be anxious. I wanted to tell you to speak to him. Your body isn’t his by a lease, you should share each other. I wanted to, but I never came to your henna.
The cops are chasing us—a carload of them. They are chasing us with their shiny black guns, aimed at us like a parody of arms-where-I-can-see-’em. Ramy and Hamada pass me all the heroin we’ve purchased a mere half hour ago; about ten grams. Cause if we get caught, the fact that I’m a girl is going to stop the cops from searching me. Yea, right! Then my panties are bulging with the plastic-paper wrapped drugs and Hamada—cursing fit to impress the meanest thug—is soaring down Ring Road and into Road 90. We don’t look behind to see if they’re still following. We just keep running because we can do nothing else. High, wryly amused and barely aware of the gravity of the situation, all I’m thinking is what funny timing this is, happening just six hours before my graduation ceremony…
But that part comes much later.
I cannot sleep. I cannot eat. I cannot sit still. I feel my blood sing in its veins. There’s a hum in my ears, quivering in my bones. A bee’s buzz rising like a sun or a lighthouse or a conflagration. In my mind a thousand voices bark wishes, demands and ideas. No two want the same thing. I want to do everything. Be everything. Become infinity. The one the earth quakes for. I want to move to a new country. I want to pack my car with bread and cheese and wine and music records before driving to the country-side to finally see the village our fathers grew in and told us stories about since we were kids. I want to write a book. I want to bake my mother a cake cause she’s such a lovely woman. I want to grow my own fruits and roll my own tobacco. I want to cultivate a taste for caviar, because it sounds so fancy! I brim with ceaseless, source-less excitement. I roam the house all night, like a watchful sentinel. I have conversations with the cat. I call my boyfriend, Ramy, a hundred times promising it’s the last time to tell him some small tidbit I just thought up. He is often cranky because he has work in the morning but it just feels so damn important for me to tell him this or that now now now.
But that, too, comes later.
Why do I think of us in terms of the saint and the whore, Ekleel? Why do I ascribe virtue to your image, expect it like wedding attendants in Egypt’s countryside anticipate a white kerchief stained with the bride’s virgin blood as the ceremony’s culmination? Perhaps it’s the imprint my rearing left on me—a stain, a birthmark—which puts a depraved face on all forms of indulgent desire. I and so many of our generation try to convince ourselves we have been inoculated against the biases of our culture through our education. We stand before mirrors, painting on faces like “objective” and “liberal” so painstakingly so as to deceive even ourselves. And yet, a shadow or a variation of that which we despise, endlessly criticize and assign as the flaw in society’s intellect always lurks. In its most apparent form, you can catch it in our idea of “mother”: sacrificing, nurturing, kind and morally incorruptible. How many of us acknowledge lust and longing in our mothers? How many see it and accept it as the equivalent of that of our fathers’?
You can see the glaring discrepancy now, can’t you? For even as I prance around from bed to bed, relishing my sexuality, I fail to regard it as a pure expression of instinct. It is the same as the hunger we took part in as teenage girls, Ekleel, desperately wishing to minimize the space we occupy, to shape it into a delicate form like petit-fours. Is there anything we fear more than formlessness? You have succeeded in mastering asceticism while I—ever the bulimic—remain buckled-in on the Ferris Wheel of binging and purging, shame producing self-loathing producing abstinence producing gluttony on loop. It may be that I set you up on a pedestal only comparatively, because I see myself as the toxic or it may be that I still look, yearn to see someone who found the road to their light. Any success at all, Ekleel, whether holy or demonic. At my core, a need to hold on to even a hint of Utopian principles like selfless friendship and unconditional love struggles to survive. You are the one in whom I hope to find them. The log, the lifeboat, the lowered rope.
Because I cannot even contemplate the effort required to rise. Day turns to night to day. Mother comes in and begs me to get up, places her hand on the top of my head while reciting Quran verses: Muslim exorcism. Father tells me to stop self-indulgently sulking. He says I ought to pour my “dramatic flair” into something productive. I am conscious of nothing outside my being.
How can I describe to you the immensity of such suffering? How it creeps in while you’re asleep and when you wake up, the world is devoid of all color and meaning.
I become fond of carrying water bottles filled with terribly cheap local Ouzo which tastes like a mixture of anise and liquorish tempered with floor detergent. Time moves quicker. The world glows brighter. I race through lectures, assignments, friends and paintings faster than tear gas spreads among protesters. I am the life of the party. I make more friends an hour than Bill Gates made money. Everything I touch blossoms masterpiece. I’m convinced I’m improving. I glug my antidote. La dolce vita.
Then the pendulum begins to swing. I become either very cheerful or very morbid. Alive or living dead. I kiss boys whose names I can never remember; almost delighting in ruining my reputation enough so as to be unmarriageable.
Then, I meet him.
His name is Omar and he’s an installation artist. We meet at a party and chat drunkenly. I steal his glass of wine. In support of local brands, we smoke Cleopatras which have more wood than tobacco. He likes an impromptu painting I sketch on the wall with my eyeliner and invites me to come to his place and show him more of my work. I go and show him my talent in giving blowjobs. We drink beer afterwards and he makes a point of telling me to please not kill myself in his house.
Fast-forward a few weeks. His apartment again. He’s on his second bottle of wine. I’m on my sixth beer. He talks about his work, about how pretentious the downtown art scene currently is. I refrain from pointing out he embodies it. He talks about his Russian girlfriend who he wants to have a baby with just as soon as he divorces the wife he still loves. I smoke. I say nothing, too busy carving his image into my mind. He’s remarkably ugly: round belly, sagging flesh, missing frontal teeth and dirty nails. It gets me off, knowing how repulsive I find him even as I lie on his mattress. And I hate him well enough that when I manage to tolerate him, it feels like winning.
Another afternoon he’s in one of his bad moods. He slaps me around. I do nothing. Calls me names and shouts. I get up to roll a joint from his stash of hash. Smoke while he kicks a chair over, breaks a couple of plates, howls. I watch him—archiving every second—to make sure I can recollect every detail when he becomes nothing more than a memory. His face in my mind and a caption: this is rock bottom.
Another day. I am shivering when he lets me in. He is naked and it disgusts me almost unbearably when he hugs me, rubbing up against my stomach. He makes me a sandwich I don’t eat and we drink beer and snort coke. I tell him he’s old enough to be my father. I tell him his age is more than double mine. He gets irritated and mean. Asks me why the fuck I hang out with him. I’ve nothing to say so I give him a hand job. Afterwards, he’s on the phone making plans with his girlfriend. I smoke cigarettes. I forget how to cry. I convince myself he’s the trauma that is a perquisite of becoming a “real” artist.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. History repeats itself. There are no new songs, just a single one on loop.
Just as our gullible nation thought it had discovered freedom that bleak winter, I—too—naively thought I had discovered the Cure. In the form of a red pill of very questionable composition smuggled out of China and sold at half the price of a can of beer.
How can I describe that first taste of opioids? How it feels as your consciousness seeps out of your body to levitate above it like a halo and all struggling comes to a halt. Peace in a pill. What more could I ask for?
A year later I am having bouts of suicidal compulsions and frequent panic attacks both of which I decide occur because I take my antidepressants with the opioids. So of course I give up the happy pills. Because obviously being high is so much better and more effective. My five accidental overdoses? Totally my fault, but they were an essential lesson for me to discover my limits. This is really completely logical in my head.
It’s when the seizures start that I decide maybe I was being a wee bit reckless. By that I don’t mean—God forbid—I was worried about my own life; rather I was worried about my parents discovering the hidden half of my life.
How can I do justice to the magic of heroin? It’s free of that edge of detachment opioids had. No severe nausea. No days of forgetting to eat till you’re turning blue. No bad highs. No panic. Just a pure shot of animating life into my decomposing soul. Fairy dust. Ravishing daze. Sublime trance. Mundane turns magical. Euphoria sprouts like cancer, extends its flagella through every axon, courses through dendrites. My protoplasm quivers in anticipation of life’s forthcoming grandeur. My chrysalis lies in a torn heap on my bedroom floor. I am Prometheus unbound…
I love the heroin. No, I worship it. I adore it with the blind passion Apollo must have felt for Cassandra or Hades for Persephone. It should come as no surprise, then, that I fail to realize it was slowly making me stark-raving mad. More than even alcohol did. As in a bat-shit, mad hatter, mental institution type of nuttiness.
But I’m getting ahead of myself again.
Enter Mohamed, though everyone calls him Hamada. Picture a disturbingly skinny, short 40-something-year-old man with a squeaky voice, bug eyes and yellow teeth. He works as a school driver for kids of varying ages and has twelve years of work experience as a taxi driver. Hamada’s personality—much like his life—is an intense avalanche of kinetic energy heading nowhere. He has a high manic laugh which erupts as suddenly as his temper tantrums, carries numerous almost-empty packs of cigarettes, has seemingly endless anecdotes of dealings with prostitutes and often tunes in to English music stations on his radio, fervently singing along in a horrible accent which fails to distinguish between the letters B and P.
To explain to you the use of Hamada in my life, Ekleel, you have to first know that I’ve never encountered a dealer who worked in a reputable area. They either operate out of dumps at the hearts of the ghetto or on desert roads just outside the circumference of Cairo; basically, spots where the occasional corpse of a junkie can be easily disposed of. Originally, the greater majority of dealers in Cairo hail from the Sinai desert, where “woman” can be roughly defined as: a) housewife, b) obedient, c) creature in a tent-like black cloak and a black headscarf, d) property of father, then property of husband. For those reasons, any city girl in tight jeans out on deserted highways to buy heroin essentially amounts to rape-worthy whore, in their opinions.
So Hamada, in his beat-up blue car, and I drove all over the city, him blowing what’s left of his inheritance and I spending the ridiculous sums of money I made. For a while, everything seemed too good to be true. Morning—around 7 am—Hamada would pick me up and we’d drive out to some hovel or spot on the road which leads from Cairo to Fayoum where dealers dressed little better than the homeless sit in giant black jeeps, surrounded by their minions who kept their guns pointed at Hamada, at the car window behind which I sat, during the entire transaction. We’d leave quickly and find some secluded spot to park and take that first heavenly hit of the day. He’d then drop me off to work. I’d spend my entire seven-hour shift writing, editing, translating articles at an inhuman speed, taking only small breaks to smoke and text Ramy. He’d come ’round to pick me up from work and we’d spend the evenings high as kites, cruising down dark streets where we’d make out or he’d listen to me chat endlessly.
Then I quit my job. I spend all my money on heroin and it isn’t even nearly enough to keep up with my gradually increasing dose. I sell an old laptop, two phones, and an mp3 player. I blow through half of Ramy’s bank account.
The problem was—broke as often as not—I would have to spend a day or two sometimes with no heroin. Hell isn’t eternal burning. It’s the suffocating, intolerable panic and pitch black depression of withdrawal. I’d lie in bed unmoving, not speaking, just crying while rocking back and forth. I would beg and pray to God for anything, any way at all to end the suffering. Mother would come in, sit next to me, brushing my hair back, feeding me cubes of chocolate and reading Quran for me. I would hold on to her like a baby, asking her to not leave me alone with the darkness, the ghosts and the unbearable flatness, colorlessness of the world. She’d sit with me for hours, as I drifted in and out of sleep, holding my hand, telling me it would be fine. She would plead with me to tell her what was wrong. Promise to not get mad, to not tell a soul, to deal with anything I had to say. She knew something was wrong, she’d tell me. I was like two completely different people, she’d say, and neither of them was particularly normal. I would only cry harder. Ask her to pray for me over and over. Ask her whether she thought I would ever be okay, if my head will ever quiet down.
Then again racing down the stairs and into Ramy’s or Hamada’s cars, barely able to prop myself up, visibly malnourished and underweight, eyes tearing, nose running, shivering at the cold no one else could feel, pale as cadaver, not puking only because I hadn’t eaten since my last line. Prompt them to drive faster, come on, are we there yet? Was the line you just gave me the last of what you had? Why’s it taking so long?
I came home one night to find father and mother sitting absurdly upright on the living room couch, waiting for me. In front of father, sitting on the coffee table as though it was a mundane item was a translucent plastic cup with a white lid, looking smug and menacing. High a smidgen short of an overdose, I broke into a grin as though this was perfectly normal, asking casually, “have you been waiting for me?”
Some part of my intoxicated mind was aware the situation was bad. Danger, it alerted. Bolt for the door. Escape while you still can. Sirens and alarm bells rang in my ears. I could see Ramy standing in the corner next to the plastic rose bush, shaking his head. What was he even doing at my house? No one else seemed to hear or see anyone or anything unusual so I figured it was one of those times when life was occurring for me on a slightly different dimension than those around me. It happened sometimes. (Delusions? Psychosis? No, I had long decided, I was just an imaginative artistic spirit.)
Clipped tone, steely and calm, father hissed, “we’re going to need a urine sample from you.” Behind my ribs, the muscles of my heart contracted so fast I thought I was dying. My smile fell off my face, crashed on the ceramic floor. “Why?”
“Because you—you ungrateful, shameful curse of a child—are on drugs. Don’t even dream of denying it,” still measured and cool, but the contempt in his tired brown eyes lashed at me like a whip or a serpent.
Fight or flight.
“If you’re so sure I am, why do you want to test me?”
Mother began to cry.
“Because we don’t know what—exactly—you’re on or how much and because your mother wants to be 100% sure.”
“Oh, but you already are, aren’t you? It’s so easy for you to believe the worst about me, right? Not depressed, rather an attention-whoring child. Not self inflicted cuts, but a tumble down the stairs. Nothing ever wrong with me which isn’t my fault. Cause you can never admit your own superior genetics and magnificent parenting could ever produce such a monster. Oh, no, you’ve done everything perfectly right because you’re so fucking perfect, right?”
I guess he hit me, because suddenly mother was standing between us, weeping now and repeating enough, enough, enough. Father sat back down and lit a cigarette.
Two drags later, he informs me that back in his village, girls like me would be killed by their fathers, their bones thrown in a garbage dump. The honorable thing and all. Remember how we always had trouble imagining our fathers growing up in a small village at the heart of Mansura, Ekleel? How we could never reconcile their adult images to the mischievous boys who stole dates and grapes from their neighbors’ trees and spent their entire summers on the fertile farmlands of the northwest, picking bollworms out of cotton plants to help their widowed mother cope with the expenses of raising her eight children and two stepsons? How we could never fathom how they became so harsh? So cruel? Perhaps it’s these bizarre, inhumane practices—less like justice and more like rituals.
I looked at him and I understood he loved me in his own complex way. And I hated him so thoroughly I wished I could torture him for whatever was left of his worthless life. The luxury of his denial came at the price of my suffering. If he had set his ego aside just once, maybe things would have turned out differently.
“Well, good luck getting that urine sample from me because—unless you intend to force me to pee—I’m not giving you shit you ignorant, sexist bigot.”
He didn’t even bother getting up, settled instead for throwing the T.V. remote-control at me. I dodged.
Mother—now a complete wreck—tried to place her hands on my cheeks, begging me to be silent, telling my how afraid she was for me.
“No, don’t touch me, you pathetic bitch. You disgust me. All you do is pray and pray and pray and has it done any fucking good?” I was shouting now but everything still felt very distant and muddled, as though I was watching the scene and acting it out from two different angles.
As we drive, I think of Ramy. He’d probably just start fucking that blonde Lebanese smack-hound he’d been hanging out with lately whenever he wasn’t with me. Maybe he already was. Good riddance…
All has come apart. Or come together.
Hamada’s still got some inheritance money left and I have the ability to keep up with him. We’re heading east, into the desert. We plan on getting sober but I think we’ll die first. I write this to you, hoping for something, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the age-long need to leave a suicide note. Maybe I don’t want to only be remembered as this horrible, heartless bitch. I’ve suffered for so long and more than anyone else involved, doesn’t that count for something?
Hamada has gone to score us some heroin. Then he will drive me to the post office where I will drop this and with it anything still tying me to Cairo. You are in my thoughts, though, Ekleel, just as Cairo is in my blood, and I hope you, at least, will be able to forgive me my shortcomings and think of me somewhat fondly.
Noha Al-Badry was born in the heart of Cairo to parents who consider exploding gall bladders and terminal lung cancer good meal-time conversation. Her work has previously appeared in Otoliths and FailBetter, and is forthcoming in Prime Number.