Read time: 7 mins

In the Cities of Central Cairo

by Mohamed Matbouly
26 August 2020

Translated from Arabic by Katharine Halls

At seven in the morning I sit down at a cheap café close to Talaat Harb square in downtown Cairo, where I work. I order my usual—an espresso—from the waiter, who I recently found out is Algerian. A few minutes later, Hélène comes in. She’s in her twenties, French of African origin. We meet every day around this time and she drinks a coffee with me before hurrying to work in one of the perfume stores near Galeries Lafayette at Opéra, in the heart of Paris. I remember the first time I saw her. The café was crammed with customers and there were only two empty seats, one next to me and one next to a young blonde French woman, which was the seat I expected Hélène would take; instead she chose to sit next to me, presumably drawn to my Egyptian features, and although I speak no language other than Arabic, I chatted to her fluently and found out, amongst other things, that she studies at university alongside her work.

At seven-thirty in the morning Hélène gets up to leave and I walk her to the door of the café, through which you can see the Galeries Lafayette buildings and the bridge that connects them. I’ve never dared to step through and walk around in Paris, because what if I got lost and couldn’t find the café or return through its Cairene door to my office near Talaat Harb Square?

The café has two doors, a fact which seems to be perfectly visible to passersby; they can easily see who’s sitting inside. I go back to my seat to find that Hammouda’s brought me a shisha pipe and is stacking the coals. Hamdi, Hammouda to those who know him, is another industrious young man who works at the café and studies at the Open University.

At eight I pay the Algerian waiter for my coffee and Hammouda for my shisha, then make my way to work, mulling over the usual question I ask myself at that time of day: are there other cafés in downtown with doors to other cities? I decide to ask at a couple of cafés on my way, but in the end I think better of it. They’ll probably think there’s something wrong with me.

At four in the afternoon, I sometimes go back to the café and wait for a few friends to show up, so we can hang out for a while before going home, and this often coincides with Hélène returning, in the mood to sit with me for a while and listen to me talk before she heads home. So I sit on the line that divides the two places, like I’m sitting at a glass doorway, the only one who can see and hear what happens on either side, and talk with my friends into the evening. I tell them about Hélène my French friend, and Hélène about them and Hammouda the affable young man who works at the café. She likes these conversations. Once she said to me with a smile:

—Tell them I’m blonde with blue eyes.

—You’re prettier than the prettiest blonde I’ve ever seen, Hélène, I replied with a smile.

—I know that, she said decisively, angrily even. You don’t need to remind me. Then she smiled again. I just want to get them excited, I know how Middle Eastern men think.

We laughed. There’s no way I could tell Hélène the sorts of things they say about her, especially their questions about her various attractive attributes, but she often surprises me with a conversation like this, as if some of their words have trickled through the doorway to her ears. Whiling away the time talking to Hélène has become an addiction, if I’m honest. She’s like a third doorway, one of flesh and blood, that leads me to her own magical world, and between the stories of her African forefathers passed down to her by her grandmother, and her own tales of life as a young European woman who belongs completely to Western society, my imagination and feelings run wild. But most important of all, for me, is when she laughs, and her white teeth are obliged to show themselves. Her brilliant smile pierces my heart. I can feel it pounding, a strange feeling I’ve never known and can’t explain—or rather, I’m afraid to look for an explanation in case I find myself faced with difficult choices, because what if I really do love Hélène? Can a love story like this breathe when it’s suspended in a café? And what if I’m just a friend to her? If that’s the case then I’ll lose her by making her feel I’m trying to push our relationship in a different direction. These thoughts and misgivings go round and round.

One question I ask myself very often is whether Hélène really believes I’m sitting in two places at once. Do my friends even believe it? I’m not sure at all. But I do know that they enjoy my stories, that they want to listen to them; they’ve become a great source of entertainment. The one who always looks visibly doubtful is Hammouda, especially when I rhapsodise about how blonde Hélène is, and how blue her eyes. I glance at him and see a stifled snigger. I tried to find out what was going on inside his head once.

—Oi, Hammouda, I said derisively. Are you saying you don’t believe I go to Paris to meet up with a girl?

Hammouda smiled mischievously.

—Believe me, boss, I believe you the most out of everyone. I know what it’s all about.

I didn’t understand what that was supposed to mean, or why he was smiling. I swallowed it, thinking maybe it would become clear at some point.

At eight in the evening, I pat my pockets after leaving the café and can’t find my keys. I decide to go back and look for them, and I find Hammouda preparing shisha for a customer who’s taken my seat next to the glass doorway. I can’t really make out the customer’s features, but I notice very distinctly that Hélène and Hammouda are exchanging glances through the doorway. At first I think I must be seeing things. But then, as soon as Hammouda’s finished stacking the coals, he steps through the doorway to Hélène. I hurl myself towards them but I’m too late, because they’ve walked out of the café’s Parisian door, hand in hand, and are running through the streets of Paris, and soon disappear from my sight amid the crowds. I don’t follow them, definitely not, afraid I won’t make it back.

I stand in the café, disoriented. How long has Hammouda known about the doorway, and where has he found the nerve that I’ve never had to go with Hélène out of the Parisian door, seemingly not worried at all about being gobbled up by that great city and finding himself lost and unable to return? My conscience pricks me then, because what if it’s my stories that have given him the encouragement he needs? I feel frustrated, oppressed. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a smile fills my face as I remember Hélène’s happy gaze when she placed her hand in Hammouda’s and they left the café in step with one another.

To my surprise, Hammouda comes back to change the coal on the shisha pipe standing next to the customer, whose features I can see better now. The man is in his fifties, and he’s engrossed in the obituary pages of the newspaper. He looks like an office worker, a low-level functionary; in fact he looks like an archivist, the kind you see in old films. He resembles me quite a lot—even this interest in the obituaries is something I share—and I start to wonder if I’m looking in the mirror. I call Hammouda. He doesn’t hear me, so I try to get his attention by various other means and it still doesn’t work. I go to talk to some other customers but it’s like they can’t see or hear me, and when I’ve tried a few more times I get it. There’s a new glass doorway separating me from the café in its two cities, and I’ve passed through it without realising. But by now I’m used to crossing over like this, and I’m not taken by surprise.

By midnight, cities roam around downtown Cairo like pedestrians. Since passing through that doorway I’ve met many cities, those I’ve wanted to visit but never dared to, and explored their sights up close. Paris, Johannesburg, Berlin, Rome, New York, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, and many others have all come to me recently, and now time too goes walkabout, on occasion. The other day, for example, I attended the funerary procession of a pharaoh in Thebes then afterwards stopped for a drink at one of the floating hotels in Luxor, watching up close as the solar barge sailed up the Nile carrying the departed pharaoh, who must have been gripped by terror and worry as he tried to remember the name of the snake who guarded the gateway to other world, which he would need in order to pass through.

It all happens very close to Talaat Harb Square, which means I can always go back to the glass doorway at the end of the day and wave to Hélène and Hammouda as they sit in the café. They wave back. I steal a glance at the fifty-something man, who’s still reading his newspaper, and as the days go by I see grey slowly creeping across his head, as he hunches more and more over the obituaries.

Illustration by Karen Keyrouz 

About the Author

Mohamed Matbouly

Mohamed Matbouly, an Egyptian writer living in Cairo, was born in 1982 and holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He has published the short story collection Gamophobia, and was awarded second place in the Cairo Short Story Competition organized by Goethe Institute in 2019 for ‘In the Cities of Central Cairo’, and his short […]