The Fragrance of Egypt Through Five Stories by George Loukas - HTML preview

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“Leila,” she corrected me.

“Okay, Leila, then,” I said. “Goodbye, Leila.”

She called again a few weeks later. She sounded very gay and said she was tired of waiting to hear from me and decided to call me herself.

“Aren't you going to ask me for a game,” she asked? “I am ready.”


“Yes,” she answered. “I have been training every day at the squash courts and have even been jogging. You won't find me a pushover. I shall give you good value for your money or, to put it more appropriately, a good game for your time.” I laughed and a date was fixed.

I went a little early at our afternoon appointment in front of the squash courts and just stood there, waiting. I saw her drive past in a small Fiat heading for the parking lot and my heart skipped a beat. What, already, you silly boy? I thought to myself. But she looked so lovely! Ten minutes later she emerged from the women's changing rooms. She was wearing a blue tracksuit and held her racquet and seemed a little shorter than she did in my office, perhaps due to the flat gym shoes. She smiled and broke into a run when she saw me and said,

“Sorry if I'm late.”

We shook hands. I was tongue-tied. I did not know how to behave. She sensed it and as we were walking to the courts she put out her hand and held my arm lightly above the elbow. Such a small a gesture, yet familiar and friendly. It put me at ease and set the tone to a more relaxed interaction. We entered the court, closed the door and started banging the small black rubber ball on the wall to warm up. I could see she was an athlete. There was none of the awkwardness of an untrained female. Her swings were 18

powerful and well placed. After a while she suggested we play a game and told me with a smile, “I want you to be fair with me.”

I was startled.

“Do I look like a bad sport?” I asked.

“No, I mean, I don't want you to make allowances for me or to let me deliberately win a game.”

She took off her tracksuit and stacked it compactly in the front wall corner where it would not obstruct the game. She was wearing short blue shorts underneath and a white t-shirt and her body was delicious, slim, shapely and well trained.

“Although many people would disagree,” I said to her, “I subscribe to the view that it is the game that matters and not who wins. In any case, you are none too fair yourself.”

“Why?” She was puzzled.

“I shall have a problem looking at the ball with a pair of legs like yours in my range of vision.”

She laughed and said,

“Young man cut the bullshit and start playing.”

She said it in English. It was the first sentence we exchanged in that language and it marked our abrupt and almost total switch from colloquial Arabic to English.

The game was fast and good and fair in the sense that Leila desired. I was not an exceptional player but I had been playing regularly for some months and I had reached a respectable standard. I did not give it my best effort but neither did I give the game away.

We played for nearly an hour. I won all three games of the set but not without some difficulty. As we were leaving the court she smiled and said,

“Young Alex, don't rejoice, you have not had my last word yet.”

“Little Lulu,” I replied, “don't be sad. You played very well.” She pretended to be annoyed.

“Don't try to appease me with half-hearted praises and comic book pet names. I shall not rest until I soundly thrash you.” Then she ruffled my hair and said, “No, really, thank you Alex for a lovely game and for taking me seriously.”

“I did not have a choice,” I replied, “you were truly very good.” We rested for a while and then went round the club's three-mile horseracing track in a slow jog. Before going to our respective changing rooms, I asked her if she would join me for a drink or a cup of tea and she said, no. There were too many acquaintances in this club and it would not do to be seen with a handsome young man, without Talaat.

“So,” she said, “that's it until we meet again. Will you call me up or do I despair and call you?”

“I shall call you before you despair,” I said. “You know, you look quite lovely with your disheveled hair and flushed, exhausted look.” She smiled and extended her hand.

“Good-bye young Alex.”

“Good-bye Little Lulu.”

So that's how I fell in love. That's all it took. One game of squash and a three-mile slow jog. In addition, of course, to a gorgeous female. There is an aberrant gene in my brain cells whose only function seems to be to throw me in a state of agitation every time I see a beautiful woman. I could not take my mind off her. I called her up next morning 19

from the office. I knew Talaat bey would be away at work. I could not possibly call knowing he was at home. Leila answered the phone directly.

“Good morning. This is Alex,” I said and my heart was dancing the wildest of shakes.

“Young Alex!” She sounded surprised and pleased. “That was fast! You have not accustomed me to such promptness. I cannot play today. I am stiff and need a rest. You really made me run around, yesterday.”

“It's all right. I just wanted to tell you good morning.”

“Oh, isn't that nice! Our unsociable little introvert is mellowing! How come?”

“There is a key to everything.”

“Have you found it?”

“I see it but I don't know if I can reach it.”

“Success is for the daring, the audacious. The quick snatchers of opportunities.

Are you audacious, young Alex?”

“Frankly, I do not think so. I am a little cautious. A little uncertain of myself.”

“Perhaps, you will find the key to that too.”


“Talaat was pleased when I told him we had a nice game yesterday. He has started calling you Young Alex, too.”

“Please give him my regards. He is a real Prince but I suspect he is much more complicated a personality than his polished manners and aristocratic veneer disclose.”

“You can say that again!”

“Is he religious?”

“In a funny and very personal sort of way. Not in the five-a-day praying routine.

And he does drink.”

“Well, now that we are becoming friends we shall get to know one another. Sorry, am I presuming too much?”

“No. I hope we do become friends. But life is funny. When Talaat was offering you friendship you played hard-to-get.”

“No, Leila. Not hard-to-get. Playing hard-to-get is insincere. I was just a little selfish. I preferred my sports at the club to an inactive day at the farm. Anyway, I promise to come and see you, there, soon. May I phone you tomorrow?”

“Of course, if you wish. Good-bye young Alex.”

“Good-bye Leila.”

“I quite liked it when you called me Little Lulu. Made me feel young again.”

“Good-bye Little Lulu. Have a nice day.”

We started playing squash regularly. At least twice a week and usually we jogged around the racetrack after the game. It was late autumn and the weather was perfect for sports. Cool but not uncomfortably cold. We both looked forward to and enjoyed our games. Leila was improving rapidly and I told her I suspected she did extra training on the days we were not playing together.

“You are getting ever closer to keeping your vow of thrashing me,” I told her. But the truth is that I was improving as well. I was constantly one step ahead of her. Talaat bey called me up to thank me for taking our sporting activities with Leila so seriously.

She had become a new person, he said. She was no longer as nervous and irritable as she had been lately. Physical exertion had done her a world of good. I told him that for my 20

part, I was very lucky to have such a keen and enthusiastic partner. I could not say, such a beautiful partner. I could not tell him I was in love with her. That I could not wait for our squash appointments. That I called her up every morning. That I dreamt of her all day.

That I caressed her hair every time she put in a good shot. That she seemed to enjoy our increasing intimacies. That she used to smile when I looked at her and could not take my eyes away. That, Young Alex, sounded to me like, my love. That by Little Lulu I meant, my beloved.

One day, a couple of months after we had started our regular squash sessions, she asked me about swimming. I told her I usually did that very early in the morning on the days we did not have a squash appointment.

“What? You actually have been swimming all this time?”

“Yes. But it is far too early for you.”

“You little double-crosser! Why didn't you tell me?”

“I just did not think you would be able to join me. I wake up at five. I am on the street by five thirty. I do half an hour of jogging in the dark, deserted streets and by six, I am at the swimming pool. By that time daylight is just beginning to break. I have a freezing cold shower to get rid of my sweat and usually stay under the cold water as long as I can bear it. Then, I jump in the heated pool. The sensation of that dive in the warm water is unimaginable. It is almost as good as a sexual orgasm.”

“Aha, now I understand why you haven't got a girlfriend.”

“Oh, stop teasing me. I swim for nearly an hour in a very slow, very easy style after which I have a proper shower in the changing rooms and go home for breakfast before going to work. Let me tell you, the well being I feel after that swim is indescribable. On no other occasion have I ever felt quite that way.”

“But does the club open so early?”

“Yes. You'd be surprised at the amount of activities that are going on so early in the morning. Bunches of old people striding away at their daily heart-enhancing exercise, young people jogging and lots of people at the swimming pool. There are the regulars like myself and there are the young athletes who are training for competitions. There are some children between ten and fifteen who astound you with their energy and endurance.

Their trainers are pitiless with them. They drive them to the very edge. Sometimes, you see them crying from the punishing effort and the verbal pressure and abuse of the trainers and yet they persist. Is that sane? I do not know but I suppose that is how champions are made.”

“Five-thirty you said? I shall be under your house.”

“Are you serious?”

“Wait and see.”

With the swimming a new page opened in our lives. In a sense we were working up to it. It was unavoidable but there were constraints every inch of the way. The frequent meetings and games and common exertions inevitably bound us in an intimacy and sense of comradeship. But more than that, I felt that a mutual physical attraction was palpable.

And that was not necessarily inevitable. On my part, perhaps, it was. She was a beautiful, spirited, intelligent woman. I had not yet found my bearings in my new life in Egypt. I had not met any girls or women that moved me, that made me feel the need to attach myself to them. Leila seemed an ideal. Apart of her beauty she had many qualities I admired. A sense of humor, an independence that was unexpected in a married Egyptian 21

woman, an unpredictability and youthfulness in her way of thinking and outlook on life.

How could I ever fail to fall in love with her? But what about her? How did a married woman feel about a man ten years younger than herself? Would she let herself go? Even given the predicament of Talaat's impotence? Did she like me? Yes, that much I was sure of. But did she love me? She gave no overt indication. Sometimes, I caught her out staring at me and she would look away and smile.

We were both playing a waiting game. Both wary of a false move that would ruin everything. And then was not what we had better than nothing? Seeing each other almost daily, expending our energies in friendly competition, in companionable exercising, laughing, joking, exchanging thoughts and ideas, opinions on books? Yes, certainly, even in its semi-secrecy and prudent discretion this relationship was better than nothing but could it possibly remain there? I still had not worked out Talaat's obscure motives in encouraging our sporting partnership. If he had any beyond the letting off steam through physical exercise for his frustrated wife.

She was as good as her word. I had rented a flat in a building right next to the club, on the banks of the Nile and for my jogging I usually just descended on the street and started to run. At five-thirty sharp, I went down. She was parked a little further on and she saw me approaching in the mirror of her car and got out. Like me, she was wearing her tracksuit over a bathing costume, shorts and a t-shirt and we were both feeling the chill of the early morning before dawn. It was mid December and the weather was turning bitter. I hugged her and kissed her on the cheek. She was startled and after hesitating, kissed me back. It was the first time we ever exchanged a kiss. Even a social kiss on the cheek. I held her and caressed her hair but she said, “No, not here,” even though there was not a soul in sight. We started on a slow jog parallel to the Nile up to the square off Kasr-El-Nil Bridge and then turned right in a street where the Opera house is situated on one side and the rear wall of one or two sporting clubs on the other. The street was totally deserted and dark and suddenly Leila stopped. I stopped as well and looked at her. I wondered if she was tired. She looked fit as a fiddle. She looked at her watch.

“It's twenty to six in the morning,” she said with a smile. “It is still pitch black. I don't know what this street is called. Probably, Shara'a El Opera, and though it is draughty and cold, fortunately, it is empty and badly lit. We are out of breath and sweaty and there are a couple of stray dogs eyeing us suspiciously. But, young Alex, you must snap up your opportunities as you find them.”

I looked at her. I did not understand what she was getting at. She was smiling. Her hair was disheveled. She seemed so utterly beautiful. Was Sherif effendi right, after all?

Was she the most beautiful woman we had ever seen?

“Don't you see, you silly boy, that Shara'a El Opera is offering just now the only privacy we have available? And not much of it at that.” She moved slowly into my arms. A ship entering the harbor after a long voyage.

A two-month journey of longing. Silent and unexpressed. I kissed the lips that were offered and my tongue felt both the passion and desolation of life. Of a vital young woman in a trap. Of despair and liberation. The gasp for air of a drowning woman and the elation of survival. I kissed her again and again. I held her body with my hands and touched her soul with my tongue. I felt her strong arms straining to fuse our bodies. I could not let her go.


“Is it possible, Leila? Is my dream coming true?”

She looked at me tenderly and wiped the sweat from my forehead with her hand.

She searched my face with her eyes and touched my cheek. She was silent for a while. I thought she was not going to answer.

“Yes,” she said after some hesitation.

“Are you not sure?”

She nodded looking at the emblem my tracksuit had on the chest.

“I am,” she said. “It is just so difficult to acknowledge it.”

“Because of Talaat?”

“Yes. Even though things are quite clear-cut. He was a wonderful husband. I married him at eighteen and I was in love with him, actually in love, for many, many years. Now, he calls me his daughter. He has become an equally wonderful father to me and because his love is so vast and so selfless, I cannot help feeling I am betraying him.

Of course, you know our story. He asked Sherif to tell you.”

“Little Lulu, forgive me. I cannot feel sad. I have grown wings, I think I can fly. I cannot get bogged down on dilemmas and analyses just now. It is enough I kissed your lips. It is enough I felt your passion and your love.”

“My little Alex,” she said smiling, caressing my face, “I suggest we don't get bogged down on love either, nor that you fly too high. Things will, inevitably, take their course. They are a little more complicated emotionally on my side of the fence so let's resume our jogging.”

“Trust a woman first to incite you, then to restrain you.”

“Trust a man to take two months for a first kiss and then expect an instant flight to Paradise.”

“Oh, how unfair that was.”

“Not much more than your statement.”

“I adore you Leila.”

“I have become attached to you, too, Alex. A little guiltily, perhaps, but I do love you.”

We started running again, our hearts thumping from the exertion, the vast happiness of our confession and the immense, tender, secret contentment that we now belonged to one another and reached the club in another twenty minutes. We went directly to the swimming pool, took off our clothes and in our bathing costumes ran to the poolside showers where the icy water froze our bodies and seemed to shrink our heads.

After a minute of unbearable torture, I grabbed her hand and pulled her to the pool and we dived into the steaming water. Only superlatives can do justice to the first few seconds in the water. Leila surfaced with a smile.

“Wow,” she said, “you were right Alex; it is almost as overwhelming a sensation as an orgasm.”

I swam up to her and held her by her waist. I tried to kiss her and she said,

“Are you mad? Let's swim.”

We started on our laps in an easy, unhurried style. We had a lane to ourselves and ignored the frantic activity around us. A lane for a single swimmer that just barely fitted the two of us, where we could touch and smile and feel each other's ripples. Now and then she would advance and we would swim one behind the other, then I would pull on her leg and bring her alongside me. She would do the same with me and we had many 23

gay giggles and hoped no one was watching. We swam for an hour and stopped now and then to sit at the side of the pool to cool off when the heat of the water and the exercise warmed us up too much. I devoured Leila with my eyes when we were out of the water. I wanted to hold and caress her arms and legs and breasts. She was simply perfect.

Later, we had a shower in the changing rooms and met outside. Leila was glowing. Her short hair had been washed and received a vigorous toweling but it was still slightly humid. Despite that it was curly and shining. She said she felt she was treading on air. Never felt that way before. I told her that, at least with me, it didn't last very long.

As soon as I was back at work I forgot all these lovely sensations and got immersed in the humdrum responsibilities and annoyances of life. Why, oh why did Eve have to give the apple to Adam and push us into this struggle for survival?

She laughed.

“Eve was not so stupid, little Alex. The snake had whispered to her that there were some pretty wonderful things outside the gates of Paradise as well. Oh, most of the things were not so good but there was something called Falling-in-Love and Sex, which made biting the apple worthwhile. Did you find the apple I gave you today at five-forty a.m. at Shara'a El Opera to be very bitter?”

“I have never tasted anything so sweet in my life.”

“I enjoyed feeding it to your mouth.” She looked at me in the eyes.

“I think, more than anything else, you enjoy driving me mad.” I walked her to her car, we shook hands and she left. Next day we played squash in the afternoon. My heart was beating hard as I was waiting for her to appear. When I saw her, I felt she was mine, my lover, my mistress, my wife. As if Talaat never existed. I had put him out of my mind. I had this affinity for peculiar self-delusions. This ability to erase the setting, the reality. And the day after that it was again pre-dawn jogging, kissing and swimming. We were now seeing each other practically every day except for Fridays when she would go to the farm with Talaat.

We kissed more and more passionately and hungrily, with increasing intimacy, in the cold and draughty darkness of Shara'a El Opera. Keeping an open eye for stray dogs that might startle us and stray humans that would embarrass us. I was becoming familiar with her perfect body, with her perfect curves, her perfect kisses and perfect moans. I was losing my mind. I was becoming voracious. I could not get enough of her. Jogging and swimming with her did not appease my passion. Struggling to subdue her in the squash court hardly amounted to tender courtship. Hurried lovewords on the go were no substitute for sensual lovemaking. Not long after we started our early morning sporting forays, I asked her if she would join me for a drive at night.

“I thought you would never ask,” she said.

“My God, Leila, you really are a confusing mixture of reticence and boldness.

Why didn't you ask me?”

“Am I, forever, to be doing the asking? Can you not spare me the role of a seductress of young men?”

“My, my, I said smiling, you really don't give that impression but now that you mentioned it, I cannot pretend I am not shaken.”

“Oh cut it out, you silly boy.”

“Seriously, Leila, you know I worship you but you must understand my problem.

I don't know where I stand. There's always Talaat bey looming in the background and I 24

don't know how far I can go. How was I supposed to know that you would be able to leave the house at night to go out with me?”

“All you had to do was ask. Just like you did. Without taking an eternity over it.

As for Talaat, he is my problem, not yours. He is no longer my husband. He is my father and we have an understanding.”

“Which is?”

“Which is… well, in any case, that's not for now. You shall know soon enough.” We met in the evening at nine-thirty. Just like our pre-dawn rendezvous, she parked further down the road of my house and slipped into my car when I drew alongside. I looked at her and drove off in a daze. Her perfume filled the car. Years and years later, it would break my heart every time I smelled it on another woman. She was so beautiful I wondered what it was that could possibly attract her to me. She was lightly made up and her short hair seemed not to have been combed. It seemed to know its place on that perfect head. It seemed to know where to part and where to curl and where to fall out of place to induce a charming flick of her hand. She was wearing a dress and an overcoat. She was not holding a bag. Was the dress meant to convey a message?

“Why are you so silent, young Alex?”

“Because I am overwhelmed. You are so beautiful.”

“Shouldn‟t that make you happy?”

“I am losing my mind. I can think of nothing else. You have Talaat to anchor you to reality. I have nothing to distract me from your beauty.”

“Even the greatest love eventually wears out.”

“Yes? After, what, twenty years?”

“Oh, cheer up, Alex. Forget love. Think passion. They are the same and they are different. One is noble but morbid and enslaving. The other is a thirst that can be slaked.

At least temporarily. But it provides relief and fulfillment. It helps to make love cheerful.

Just like our morning swim soothes the arousal of our kisses.”

“Your startling audacity really shocks at times. You really are the eternal Eve.

Have you been talking to the snake?”

“Yes. In my dreams.”

“And what does it say?”

“I have had a recurring dream lately. I am Eve in Paradise, naked and shameless.

Adam is busy picking flowers and I go searching for the only other interesting, insidious being that God had created, apart from me. The snake. I find him up his favorite tree and I call to him. He already possesses some of the wiles of our world. He pretends not to hear, not to be interested, just like you did, some time ago, dear boy.” I smiled.

“Cut out the commentary, Little Lulu,” I told her.

She saw my smile and caressed my cheek.

“I called Ophis again,” she said.

“Ophis! I don't believe it! You really are a culture vulture. How many non-Greeks in Cairo would know the formal Greek name for a snake?”

“Oh, do let me go on. So I call again in a sugary tone, „My dear, sweet viper do come down, I am bored and lonely.‟ This time he slithers down the tree and when he reaches the ground, he stands up. In Paradise, before the Fall, before dim-witted Adam was tricked by snake-loving Eve and bit the bullet, I mean the apple, snakes could stand 25

up. „If you are bored and lonely, the snake tells me in his thick male voice, give me a kiss.‟ I did not quite remember how this was done although he had previously explained it to me. As I approached my face to his undulating head and unblinking eyes, suddenly the snake was you. You were naked and aroused. We kissed and made love and I experienced a terrible sexual excitement every time I dreamt that dream.” I burst out laughing. The dream was so transparently Freudian, it was funny.

“Perhaps, I really am a snake after all,” I told Leila.

The mood had changed. We both knew where we were heading. The dress was obviously more functional than a pair of trousers.

We crossed under the railway bridge at Giza and were on the road to the pyramids. We talked gaily of our lives and work, of Egypt and its people, of religion and morality. I kept forgetting that Leila was primarily a housewife. Her wide reading and interests, her considerable general knowledge and sophisticated opinions on most subjects kept me thinking of her as a college student or something similar, still living in her parent's house. So I kept on getting repeated shocks with her stories of household chores, grocer's bills, servants' problems and generally keeping house for Talaat. It would not penetrate my thick skull that she had been doing that for nearly two decades.

Before reaching the pyramids, I turned to the right on the Alexandria desert road.

It was late and there was very little traffic on it. Leila caressed my hair. I turned and smiled at her and she gave me a kiss on the mouth. I felt so utterly happy because I felt her love. It was almost like a magnetic field.

“I love you too, Leila,” I told her.

“Too? Who's talking about love? Passion is the mantra for tonight. Love will only make us suffer. Passion will liberate us. Passion is the word. Passion….passion….passion passion.”

“Don't delude yourself, Little Lulu. Love is the addiction, passion is the drug.”

“Oh, Alex, you do go on! You give me no respite. Love me if you wish. I have more love than I can cope with in my life and very little passion.”

“My darling Eve, please be patient. We shall try to make your dream of Ophis come true.”

She smiled at me tenderly. She caressed the back of my head and fondled my ear.

“So where are you taking me, Alex,” she asked. “To Paradise or just outside the gates?”

“To an abandoned limestone quarry. It is as close to Paradise as we can get. The rest depends on us. Sartre claimed: L'enfer c'est les autres. I am sure, in our case, Le Paradis c'est nous mêmes. Sometimes, I think for hours about our incredible story. What twists and turns life took to throw us together. What is wonderful is that our love is going strong and blossoming. That it was based on Talaat's misfortune is unfortunate and where it will end I do not know. All I know is that the journey will be passionate.” She looked at me, smiled and fondled my ear.

“Yes. Oh yes,” she said. “Paradise outside the gates.” After a fast drive of about ten minutes on the main road, I turned left on a dirt track. It had once been paved but was now mostly covered with sand and had potholes that jarred our bones. It took another five minutes' driving at a crawl for us to reach our Paradise, which was a sort of paved parking area and further on a luminous, white mini canyon plunging like a deep lake without water, with a path for trucks leading 26

somewhere below. There was a full moon and the landscape was lunar and eerie. I parked at the edge of the clearing, stopped the engine and smiled at Leila.

“How did you ever find this place,” she asked.

“My father did, many, many years ago. Oh, look at that full moon! Does it not fill you with longing? It is supposed to affect women in strange and wondrous way