by Alexia Underwood
When the junk collector paused to adjust the hitch to his donkey last week, scattering old papers and dusty bits of plumbing among the potholes, he told Abd el-Majid that snow was on the way.
Rami, the Sa’idi who sold fruit from a wooden cart at the corner of Saad Zaghloul street, denied that it could ever happen.
“It’s a conspiracy, like everything else,” he said.
But then, it did.
Abd el-Majid was standing in the doorway to the Noor Mosque, waiting for the landlady to let down her blue plastic basket from the balcony. As he scraped the coins from the bottom to fetch her the daily papers, he felt something wet slide onto his cheek.
Snow. Gray. Not white. Fragile, dandruff-like particles. The flakes flickered silently in and out of the flame tree branches overhead.
Abd el-Majid settled down on his haunches in the doorway. All around him, others were staring at the mercurial substance. Women ducked and laughed, adjusting their hijabs in wonder. Children and grown men stuck their tongues out, trying to catch an aging snowflake, but they were always a little too late.
He wondered what his brother would have thought of it. Ahmed would have likely been just as confounded as everyone else, but a slow smile would have crept across his face. He loved change of all kinds.
As the flakes continued to fall, cars lined up on Abd el-Majid’s usually quiet side street to avoid the ongoing protests in Maydan el-Gelaa. A taxi driver hailed him and asked what his news was.
“Thanks be to God, everything’s well,” he replied, looking at the line of vehicles, their engines steaming in the cold. They discussed the snow a little. The unexpected bite in the air.
“This weather is hard, very hard,” the driver said, his eyes sympathetic. “God be with you.”
For a few days, Abd el-Majid observed that people drifted away from their incessant arguments about politics and turned instead to the topic of the weather.
Construction workers restoring the old Mauritanian embassy down the street smiled more, even as they adjusted their scarves and pulled the folds of their gallabiyas around their bodies to protect against the wind. A group of boisterous young men showed Abd el-Majid pictures of a snow-covered Sphinx and pyramids on their Blackberries, while he was taking his nightly tea at the ahuwa, or coffee shop, up the street.
It was too cold to play checkers, so the few men who came to the ahuwa every night to escape their homes contented themselves with talking and flicking cigarettes. Most tried not to move much, and stayed nestled in their black coats.
“This is the first time we’ve seen snow in over a hundred years,” the owner roared, pacing in and out of the plastic chairs and slapping some of the clientele on the back. Abd el-Majid cringed.
“I always said the president would leave when hell froze over,” the large man shouted again, laughing. “Maybe we’ll see some real change now.”
Abd el-Majid carefully put down his cup. Again, he thought of his brother. With one finger, he slowly wiped the black specks of tea leaf, like a hundred tiny insects, off the rim of the glass cup.
The change in weather actually changed very little, he discovered, but it did make his job more difficult. Abd el-Majid worked for an old, widowed Christian lady who rarely left her apartment. Madame was tiny and fragile-looking, and constantly complained of chill. She collected fabrics, and chiming clocks, and long curved kitchen knives with wooden handles. Though she was in her eighties, Madame often flirted shamelessly with her younger tenants.
After the first snow, Madame summoned Abd el-Majid to her apartment.
“The stairs want a good washing, and you’re three days late,” she said. The snow had created more mud, and the stairs were indeed covered in small twigs and clumps of dirt. “What will the foreigners think?”
Madame rented only to foreigners; she thought Egyptians too messy and too demanding. Abd el-Majid sighed and retreated to his living quarters to find his mop and bucket.
Abd el-Majid inhabited a sparse room in the inner sanctum of the building next to the first-floor mosque. The cement-block walls were painted a mint green, and a solitary light bulb hung overhead. When Abd el-Majid lay down and gingerly removed his plastic sandals he could almost fit, lying lengthwise. He and his brother had shared this space once. Now that Ahmed was gone, Abd el-Majid kept his belongings scattered around the closet-room—a plate, a few clothes, a tea kettle. They kept him company in the dark.
As the snow continued, the wind picked up and blew some of the browning leaves from the flame trees into the mosque. Abd el-Majid was slowly picking them up, one by one, when Hussein, the doorman from next door, hailed him from the street.
“Want some?” He asked Abd el-Majid, holding out a silver aluminum take-out container. Hussein’s residents had thrown a party and had given him the left over food – mahshi, some pieces of baladi bread, a few greasy slabs of chicken and rice.
Abd el-Majid abandoned his task and took the container, which was bent in half from the weight of the food, and settled down on a chair in the dirt. He tore the chicken off the bone—it was still hot—and slowly stuffed it in his mouth with a handful of rice. He savored the taste—a pleasing, salty mash.
Hussein was a good man, but too political. He always wanted to talk about the failed revolution. Abd el-Majid tried to avoid these discussions, as they left him feeling torn and used-up inside. He mentioned the snow, in an attempt to head him off.
“Snow, revolution. It comes, it goes. What trace does it leave behind?” Hussein replied, stuffing another handful of bread and rice in his mouth.
Mostly, however, Hussein talked about his feelings, which he expressed with a terrifying force. He was in love with one of his tenants, the daughter of the owners of the villa. “Love is like drowning,” Hussein told Abd el-Majid solemnly as they sat in their plastic chairs between the buildings. “It’s nothing more than a slow death.”
“And what if she loves you back?”
“It doesn’t matter. It won’t work. But I can’t breathe sometimes,” he said, shifting his chair until the legs twisted and almost broke underneath him. “She has beautiful hands, you know. Beautiful brown hands.”
Hussein stared at the pile of trash across the street, near the old, broken-down Uzbekhistan embassy. A stray dog was picking its way through the trash.
“Love is a sickness. I’m tired of it,” Hussein concluded, wryly pulling on his cigarette.
Abd el-Majid thought him stupid, but didn’t say much. To fall in love with someone because of their hands! He finished his chicken, wiped the bottom of the aluminum container clean with a bit of bread, and returned to the mosque, where he resumed picking up the fallen leaves, one by one.
As the snow continued, he felt himself growing thinner, losing substance. With all of the talk of the snow, he had thought of it as an achievement in itself, or as sustenance of a sort. But it was nothing but dreams and a few particles of ice.
To pass the time, Abd el-Majid thought of Luxor where it was still warm. After Ahmed and the incident at the protests, he had gone home to upper Egypt, where his older sister lived with her three children. He found, as he always did, that he missed the country: the long expanses of green, the sound of the Nile kissing the muddy banks at night. Sometimes, crouched over his teakettle in his small room off the side of the mosque, Abd el-Majid closed his eyes and pictured the palm branches against the white winter sky. The air was better there. It was not like the air in Cairo, which tasted like it had lingered in the lungs of a hundred thousand other people before it reached yours.
Abd el-Majid and his brother had left the fertile, green swathes of earth to come to Cairo for work years ago, like so many others. They had found jobs as boabs, or doormen, for a time. Then, in the summer, the coup happened. Later, the catastrophe in the squares.
Madame was giddy with excitement over the change in government. The news anchors on every channel had taken to lauding the military and calling all protesters terrorists. “I wish they had killed all of them. All of them,” she told him, from the folds of her soft sofa chair, underneath her layers of blankets. He recalled with shame how he said nothing, and handed her the morning papers—Al-Ahram, Al-Watan, Al-Masry Al-Youm. She wanted nothing to do with the more left-leaning El-Shurouk but he bought it anyway sometimes and slipped it into the pile. He didn’t really know why.
Neither he nor Ahmed had wanted to get involved, at least in the beginning. Abd el-Majid’s brother hadn’t been in the squares on that day when the catastrophe happened, but he had known people—friends from the mosque. One had died, from bullet wounds to the neck and head.
One day, when the weather was sweltering in August and the mosquitoes were relentless in their spawning, Ahmed gathered his clothes and went to protest at Mohamed Mahmoud. Abd el-Majid watched him go.
He had no reason to do this, Abd el-Majid remembered saying in an attempt to dissuade him. They hadn’t come from the village for this. They had come to work and save money. They had come so that they could live on the surface of the city for a while, and find the resources to return, buy some land, and begin to really live.
Abd el-Majid had a very strong sense that wherever he might be, life continued as it always had inside his village. This place was the only place where the real events of life were shaken out. Reality was there, etched into the palm bark and the slabs of wood his family had used to build their home, and the hoof marks of the water buffalos in the sooty Nile mud, which took on the consistency and color of tar in fall and winter.
Cairo in winter was only a cold dream, an alternate world where nothing really mattered. One’s dreams were played out as if on a checkerboard, or a soccer field. It wasn’t real, far away from the eyes of his village. None of it mattered.
He remembered how Ahmed had looked at him.
“They killed our brothers. What would you have me do?” Ahmed asked him. It wasn’t really a question. Angry, he left for the protest.
That was the same day that new tenants arrived, and Abd el-Majid stayed behind. The foreigners finally arrived in the afternoon, two tiny women from somewhere far away, with silver-plated baubles on their wrists and in their ears. One’s hair was short and yellow and bright like plastic.
“Welcome,” Abd el-Majid said, holding the door open as they climbed out of the taxi. He helped them with their leather bags, trudging up the newly-washed stairs of the building. Madame watched approvingly from behind her black door gate.
At the fourth floor, the one with yellow hair smiled and took her bag back. He waited, beaming, willing himself to exude warmth and hospitality. Eventually, without a recognizable word of thanks, she shut the door. The sound echoed throughout the cold building.
These two women, he concluded, understood nothing. Certainly not the concept of baksheesh, or tips. From that moment on he disdained the foreigners, not because they didn’t understand him, but because they didn’t try.
Later in the day, Ahmed returned, his eyes wide and glassy. That night, the ahuwa was full of angry words and people ranting about the protesters. Ahmed ignored them and drank steel cup after steel cup of tap water in between sips of tea. He interrupted the waiter only once to ask for more mint, so that he could mix it in with the black flakes at the bottom of the cup. The green, fragile roots folded into the black liquid and disappeared beneath the surface.
“I’m going back tomorrow,” Ahmed told him in a low voice. “I’m going back every day until I die.”
Abd el-Majid didn’t believe him, but he decided to go as well, the next day—after fetching the morning papers, after washing the stairs again, and after sweeping the leaves from the mosque entrance. He was bored, more than anything else. He wanted to see something.
In the square, the crowd gathered its strength slowly like a storm. When it reached its peak, the voices around him were impossible to separate or understand. Hundreds of people, all chanting bits of poetry and familiar protest songs and hurling insults at the military. Rumors flew, half whispered or screamed, that the circling planes were going to drop poison gas. Others said that they would be bound and burned. Abd el-Majid stood his ground with Ahmed, believing in his brother, who was riveted to his spot, despite the swaying layers of limbs around them.
And then someone threw a Molotov at the advancing phalynx of police. Deep inside him somewhere, Abd el-Majid understood that that black mess was made up of individuals, but it resembled nothing more than a moving wall. The dark, faceless nature of the wall sparked panic in his heart. The protesters surged forward, and a foaming silver missile – a tear gas canister—launched itself from the wall and struck Ahmed in the forehead.
Abd el-Majid’s brother immediately fell backwards, but his descent was slow, as if the air itself was resisting fate. There was nowhere for his body to go, really, with so many people pressing up against each other. Abd el-Majid watched him fall as if he were under water, as if they were young and diving into the muddy Nile again before the canal was built. His brother’s body fell so slowly.
Don’t leave, Ahmed told him without words, with his bloodied, still eyes, as some men Abd el-Majid didn’t know hoisted his brother up on their shoulders. Don’t leave it like this.
But it was all for nothing, Abd el-Majid screamed in his head. What was it for? He remembered grabbing the tear gas canister that lay, forlorn, in a pothole on the street. He tried to break it but could do nothing; it sustained only a small dent from contact with his brother’s skull.
That night, Abd el-Majid was crazy. He jumped up on a table at the ahuwa, while the fat owner stared at him stupidly. He shouted openly and publicly to all of the clientele— the wealthy businessmen, the vegetable sellers, the felucca operators with their wan, flat faces—that he would go back to the square and stay there all day, every day, just as Ahmed would have done. He would stay there till he died, he swore.
Most of the patrons listened quietly. Angry rants were hardly uncommon in those days. He noticed Hussein, the other boab, staring at him from one of the tables on the street.
“Come down, habibi,” Hussein urged, with a shocked look on his face. Abd el-Majid ignored him.
Abd el-Majid returned the next day, but the square was blocked off. There was no gathering storm of protesters, only the police. The army. Ponderous tanks and smug, vacant stares. Disdainful glances from passers-by.
For a time, he attended secret political meetings and tried to feel something, but his grief dominated his thoughts. They weren’t bad men, these protesters, he remembered thinking. They had wives and children and jobs behind pharmacy counters and in banks. But they disappeared, one by one, taken away in night raids by the armed forces, and finally, there was nowhere to put his memories, or his anger. It stayed inside of him for a time. Then, with the tiny, gray flakes of snow that clung to the leaves of the flame tree, it dissipated. All that was left was air.
The day after the first snow in a hundred years was Friday, and Friday always meant prayers, then tea and the rustling of papers at the ahuwa. Abd el-Majid didn’t know how to read, but he liked to watch the people scanning their newspapers in between quiet, small sips of tea.
“What’s the news?” He asked a fellow who was sitting by himself.
The man replied without taking his eyes off the papers in front of him that Ahmed Fouad Negm, the revolutionary poet, had died. “Everyone is talking about it,” the man said, waving the long, elephant-like trunk of his shisha pipe.
Abd el-Majid settled back into his plastic chair and thought for a moment. He didn’t care much for the old poet, in fact. He was only an old, lewd man with many wives. He had produced a few good lines, though. But his timing was impeccable, he thought. The old man had died just in time to miss the cold.
Alexia Underwood was born in Kuwait and grew up between the U.S. and the Middle East. She holds two Masters from the University of California, Berkeley in journalism and international and area studies with a focus on Arabic literature. Her chapter on Egyptian literature after the 2011 revolution is forthcoming in an anthology from AUC press, and her nonfiction writing has been published in VICE, Bloomberg Businessweek, and various other publications.
Image Credit: Andrew A. Shenouda on Flickr