A shapeless smog had descended on Cairo, veiling the city as though it were afraid to show its face to the world. Perhaps it was for the best, Mahmoud reflected, surreptitiously glancing toward the plate glass window. Perhaps there was something to be said for keeping it all under wraps. Beside him on the consulting room sofa, Saira was answering the therapist’s questions with luxurious honesty. Coming here had been her idea.
“Last night? Oh, it was the same,” she said. “I can’t sleep a wink, what with all the kicking and leg spasms going on beside me. When I do, I wake up with bruises. Shall I show you?”
“No need,” came Dr. Asfour’s tranquilizing reply. “Restless legs syndrome has been known to negatively impact upon the health of a relationship. Even so, we have to ask why your husband should feel edgy in the comfort of his own marriage bed. Did you try what I suggested last time? Remember, it’s important to do things together outside the bedroom as well as within it.”
“The very idea!” laughed Saira. “Why, we haven’t been intimate for as long as—”
“Here, wait a minute,” Mahmoud heard himself say. “Is it really necessary to go into details?”
“Mahmoud,” the therapist interjected, full of honey-toned remonstrance. “We agreed your wife should speak on this occasion. Saira, I wasn’t referring to reproductive matters. I suggested you and Mahmoud try those couple bonding techniques we discussed: games, hobbies… that karaoke place out on Katameya Heights, perhaps? There’s no substitute for quality time, but you need a solid foundation. Did you find one?”
“Maybe. I don’t know,” she said, with a practiced moue. “There’s this new diet I read about in Hawaa, does that count? Jamila Awad was interviewed about it. Honestly, we could both stand to lose a little weight and—”
“Sorry, excuse me a moment.” Dr. Asfour rose from his chair, retreated to a corner and, as the call to prayer began, performed salah. Averting their eyes, Saira and Mahmoud remained where they were and quietly counted off the intonations. By mutual agreement, each of them prayed when it was convenient to do so, forgoing the duty when it wasn’t. This time belonged to the second category. Mahmoud, in particular, was annoyed. It wasn’t that he was opposed to the azaan, but, well, really. In his profession as archaeologist, thoughtful moments were valued above all others. Squandering such opportunities felt far more offensive than a few forsaken prostrations.
As the therapist reseated himself, Mahmoud sensed the slow burn of Saira’s own irritation beginning to pick up speed and, on some primal level, knew that it would be directed at him as the easier target.
“If you want my opinion,” she said, looking Dr. Asfour right in the eye, “Mahmoud hasn’t been the same since the revolution. It emasculated him.”
“Ya maraary!” Mahmoud exploded. “Are you kidding me? You honestly think saying things like that is going to improve our marriage? Look, I’m not spending three hundred pounds an hour to have my manhood ridiculed. If I’m emasculated, so is half of Egypt. You want to fornicate, Saira? Is that what all this is about? Well, when I’m in the mood, you’ll know it. But I’m not an animal. What I am,” he said, hand on the door, “is late for work.”
Saira flinched as the door slammed, adjusted the cushion behind her, sighed delicately, and turned back to the therapist. “You see?”
Let the loud-mouthed hussy take a taxi back home, Mahmoud thought, as he drove. Talking about the revolution violated their tacit agreement to avoid the subject and was also unfair on Dr. Asfour, whose own politics, if the spineless jaban had any at all, couldn’t be known. Saira’s comment was indiscrete, insensitive, altogether insufferable. It was also entirely correct.
Once more the memories visited themselves upon him. Ten years ago, Mahmoud’s excavation team had unearthed a minor tomb on the hill of Sheikh Abdel Kurneh in a breakthrough that was seized upon by the media, mainly because it revealed, of all things, a mummified horse. For a while, he was the toast of the Ministry of Culture. Life on the lecture circuit became almost frolicsome.
Then the Arab Spring flared up and anyone who wasn’t marching in the streets was a limp-wristed good-for-nothing. Feeling cornered, Mahmoud took a gamble and came out in full support. Down with Mubarak! Leave, O Pharaoh! For her part, Saira had skittishly shied from involvement, arguing that the rewards, if any, would be meagre, whereas the penalty might involve Mahmoud’s head in a noose. Why stick it out so far, my darling? He’d laughed away such warnings, chiding her for being above it all.
But the new autocrat’s calling card didn’t take long to arrive, though it wasn’t in the form of a noose. Possibly Mahmoud had been too unimportant for such measures. Possibly the opposite. He’d never been told. Either way, the day came—a day like any other—when he received a phone call informing him that the newly-formed Ministry of Antiquities had impounded his archaeological findings to ensure their security. There were thieves about, hadn’t he heard? One couldn’t be too careful.
That was all it took. The delay was indefinite, though apparently it didn’t affect everyone because other scholars were soon publishing on the findings—his findings—until there was little left to say. Parking his car, Mahmoud tried to shrug off the memory of having his career annihilated in slow-motion by men who weren’t fit to lick the dirt off his shoes. But it was difficult to reign in his feelings. He wished their fathers would be cursed, sons of donkeys that they were, and that they’d never enjoy any luck for the rest of their lives. What would they have done if they’d discovered the tomb? Would they have upheld the principles of stratigraphic excavation, exhuming the mummy in careful stages and mapping the tomb using 3D software? Not likely. He cleared his throat outside the museum, spit on the ground, squared his shoulders, and said hello to another day of budget meetings and catalog updates. That too was important work. Truly. Indubitably.
He’d just sat down when there was a soft knock at the door. By now, Mahmoud was familiar with everyone’s style of knocking. Straightening his tie, he prepared himself for the brown-nosing he was about to perform. “Come in, Abdul Mannan, come in my friend!”
The door opened and, to his surprise, a trolley with storage boxes on it came through, Abdul Mannan bringing up the rear. “Recognize these?”
“From site P1A.” Mine, at long last. But how?
“All present and accounted for!” Abdul Mannan was pleased with himself. “Don’t worry, I’ve cleared your schedule for the rest of the day. They’re all yours! Of course, the mummy itself is still in the vault, but I can confirm it hasn’t been unwrapped.” And I can confirm that you’re a liar. Still, this is something.
“The paperwork is sorted. I know, I know, I know, I should have told you in advance. But I wanted to spring this on you as a surprise! I had to twist some arms, believe me.”
“I can only imagine. How kind of you to go to such lengths on my behalf. Really, you needn’t have.”
He’d overdone it, using up his payload of prefabricated gratitude and leaving nothing in reserve. Abdul Mannan positioned the trolley next to Mahmoud’s desk and the two of them stood side-by-side, each aware of the emotional theatrics the other was being forced to keep up. In Abdul Mannan’s case, the presence of a colleague who possessed all the qualities of a world-class scholar, save one, was troubling (but not enough to keep him, Abdul Mannan, from saying what was really on his mind). In Mahmoud’s case, a sudden urge to express genuine gratitude wrestled inside him with the certainty that Abdul Mannan, as his superior, could undoubtedly have ‘twisted those arms’ years ago. Next to the boxes, he noticed, lay a sizeable pile of trade publications authored by scholars who’d rifled through the findings. In the full certainty that this was a coded message of some sort, his ambiguous feelings were ambiguous no longer.
“I really don’t know what to say.”
“I have a few ideas!” laughed Abdul Mannan, giving him a clap on the shoulder. “Joking aside, there is one thing you could do for me. You remember when I double-checked your cartography for that journal article, the one that hasn’t been published yet?”
Mahmoud’s heart sank. He knew what was coming. “The one accepted by Antiquity.”
“The very same! To tell the truth, it took quite a lot of work and you’ll remember that I put in a few suggestions of my own. So…”
“Oh, of course, Abdul Mannan, let’s make it a coauthored piece. By all means. I’d be honored to see our names side-by-side.” Why not ask me to sign over half my property as well?
“Say no more. I won’t hear another word about it.”
With a roguish wink, Abdul Mannan strutted off.
Alone, Mahmoud took a breath, counted to five, and exhaled in a voiceless bilabial trill. By rights, he ought to feel at least a measure of excitement, surely he ought, and yet, looking inside himself, he found only relief that Abdul Mannan was out of his hair. The man was an intestinal worm of disgusting appetite, a bloated tick who burrowed and sucked until there was barely a pulse left to tempt him. Not for the first time, Mahmoud wondered whether Egypt had always harbored such types or whether the Arab Spring had incubated an entirely new species of parasite.
This speculative musing steadied his mind, for if the national situation wasn’t optimistic at least it wasn’t personal. Going through the boxes, he began checking off the items on a clipboard and, surprise, surprise, found that the most promising artefacts were marked absent. He even recognized a few of the luminaries who’d signed-off on them. This wasn’t a box of archaeological finds, it was an inventory of moral corruption. Casting the clipboard aside, he took the smallest box over to the desk, collapsed in his chair, and upended it in fatalistic disdain.
Poking around a bit, Mahmoud picked up a hollow-shaped object, stood up, turned off the light and headed out the door. It was too early to knock off, but he was leaving anyway and he was taking this one artefact, whatever it was, with him. After putting in the years, he’d earned a few privileges, one of which, as he saw it, involved working from home when it suited him. Besides, this particular artefact had somehow escaped a serial number, so nobody would notice. It pleased him to turn his back on his life’s work.
As she lay in bed, Saira decided to break the silence with which she’d been punishing Mahmoud. Enough time had passed and, besides, his behavior was sure to come up during their next therapy session. Dr. Asfour was such a patient man, a bit pious, admittedly, but patient, yes, and so ready to listen. Saira liked men who listened. Mahmoud, she saw, had trouble in this area, but he was a work in progress. She hoped the return of his artefacts might restart their relationship or at least remind him of more carefree days. Right now, he was entirely self-absorbed.
“Did Abdul Mannan say why they’d been released?” she gently asked.
“No, he didn’t,” Mahmoud replied, squinting at the object through a loupe.
“Perhaps it’s just one of those things,” she said, searchingly. “Better late than never, right?”
He grunted a reply.
“Shall I buy some halva? You could have it with your lunch tomorrow.”
This brought no reply at all. Saira rolled her eyes and went back to her book, then put it down with a duck-faced pout. “Mahmoud? Dr. Asfour suggested I keep a marital diary. He thinks it will help me recognize my value.” She paused, trying to see whether any of this was registering. “You could do the same, if you like. Dr. Asfour says that low self-esteem is destructive to a relationship. I thought it could be fun for both of us. What do you think?”
Mahmoud lowered the loupe, glanced at his wife and searched for something to say. What was she talking about? The woman jumped from topic to topic like a jerboa. It was irksome. Asking his lips to produce a response and then finding they wouldn’t, he gave a decisive nod and then turned back to the artefact. Interesting! In the palm of his hand was egg-shaped quartzite, smooth to the touch, and with a hollowed-out artisanal feature carved in the shape of a forward-facing equine head. This alone was astonishing, but when he contemplated its purpose he was nonplussed. At first, it reminded him of the molds in lost-wax casting methods, but quartzite wasn’t used for that. It was exquisite, Mahmoud thought, but aesthetics didn’t answer his question. After a few moments, he heard Saira’s breathing change and saw that she was nodding off, which meant that it was safe for him to turn in also. He laid the artefact on the bedside table.
From the moment his head hit the pillow, a deep blanket of restfulness descended and lulled him into a doze. A great deal had happened in one day, too much all round. Utterly inert, he felt his eyelids drooping, his heartbeat slowing, thoughts fading. When it came, sleep was gentle, as were the dreams that followed. There was freedom, at last: wide open vistas, lush grassland, a watering hole, cloudless skies. Leafy scents filled his nostrils, promising good feeding grounds. He sauntered over to the water and gazed down. There was no sign of pollution and he could see right to the bottom. It would be pleasant, he thought, to go for a paddle. But as his eyes refocused and he leaned over further, he saw that he had no reflection. That was odd. Well, no matter, he could always come again later. Turning, he watched the wind sighing through the grass and heard a voice whisper in his ear: You like this world? He nodded wistfully. It was like this everywhere once, the voice continued. You should stay a little longer. See what you’ve lost. “I know what I’ve lost,” Mahmoud murmured. “Everything. But I didn’t lose it myself, it was taken from me.” Ah, that’s an old story, told many times. If we collected the tears from people such as you, the desert would bloom. “Go ahead,” he replied. “I’m good for nothing else.” Don’t be so sure. That all depends. Where do you go from here? Mahmoud felt his legs buckle under the weight of the question and he fell upon the soil. It was soft, inviting almost. He could lie in its embrace until his strength returned. Turning his head, he noticed the artefact beside him and, fumbling for it, held it up and gazed within. It’s been a long time, said the voice. But we’ve been patient long enough, wouldn’t you agree? Mahmoud nodded. Good. Then come just a little closer. Mahmoud adjusted himself and leaned in.
Horses were never draft animals, not in ancient Egypt. Coming to work, Mahmoud looked around for the storage boxes and, for a moment, wondered whether he’d only imagined their return. But the quartzite object was in his pocket, reassuring in its size and heft. He placed it on his desk and picked up the library books he’d withdrawn earlier.
Sitting at his desk, he rubbed the hand that Saira’s cat had scratched this morning. Never hostile before, it had lunged at him as he reached for the falafel. Apart from that, though, he was having a good day. In fact, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt such a burden lifted from his shoulders. Perhaps the revival of his interest in ancient horse cultures had something to do with it. At any rate, it had become necessary to write another article to replace the one that Abdul Mannan had imposed upon.
Of course horses weren’t draft animals, he reflected, taking notes as he went. For one thing, there probably weren’t enough of them 3,600 years ago. Slaves, on the other hand, had been plentiful. Why condemn a noble creature to drudgery when humans were on hand? Far better to ride them or, better yet, affix them to a chariot. The monarchs of the New Kingdom had been wise enough to know this and had risen in stature accordingly. True, the horses of that era had been somewhat smaller than those of today, but they still conferred a magnificent advantage in war (footnote: in the Poem of Kadesh, Ramses II had explicitly drawn attention to their part in his campaign). The one he’d unearthed on the hill of Sheikh Abdel Kurneh must have been especially beloved; a warrior among warriors, worthy of veneration and, eventually, full apotheosis. Mahmud’s heart swelled at the thought of it bestriding the battlefield, terrorizing the enemy with its speed and power. It took imagination to appreciate this sort of thing, something the slave-humans around him sorely lacked. Idly, he wondered whether other mummified horses might be awaiting discovery. There was no point in asking the Ministry of Antiquities to support another excavation, but he could always try crowdfunding.
These happy thoughts were cut short by an intercom call: the director wished to see him in his office and would he please go immediately. Leaning back, Mahmoud sucked in some air, grunted, and twisted his head as though an insect had buzzed past his ear. The turd was summoning its flies. Mahmoud couldn’t think why they had to talk, especially when they had done so only yesterday, but the inevitability of interruption felt almost prophetic, as though it were a final hurdle to clear before he could run free. His presentiments were confirmed when Abdul Mannan rounded on him as soon as he entered.
“Can you explain,” he said, leaning over his desk, “why you left those project findings unsecured? In an unlocked office, no less! Anyone could have come along and helped themselves. What were you thinking?”
Mahmoud couldn’t remember whether he’d locked the door or not. It struck him as irrelevant. “I’m sure there’s a good explanation.”
The slave-human seated opposite frowned quizzically. “All right, then. I’m waiting for it.”
“Well, they have a habit of doing the rounds, those artefacts. I thought they might enjoy going for a little trot, just like they did ten years ago. Far be it for me to stop them. If they’ve found greener pastures, that’s all right. You’ll let me know when they return, won’t you?”
A frigid silence descended on the room.
“Mahmoud,” came the measured reply. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because you’ve survived this long you’re indispensable. Let me remind you that this year’s budget cutbacks are severe. You’ve got a job, after all, so—”
“Actually, I do have to get back to my work.”
Abdul Mannan’s jaw dropped. “What did you say to me?” He came out from behind his desk and glared wildly at Mahmoud. “Listen, you jumped-up nobody, do you think the world owes you a favor? Why, I only have to snap my fingers and you’ll be down in the gift shop, selling postcards to tourists. I’ll have you know that—” The words disappeared. Mahmoud saw the mouth opening and closing. But there was no articulation, only a series of barking hau-hau sounds. “You’ll be out on the street and—” Hau. Hau-hau-hau. Sheer gobbledygook.
Out on the street? Mahmoud stared incredulously. What was the slave-human talking about? Didn’t he know he’d turned into a street dog? Certainly, he had the head of one. He must have always been that way: a flea-bitten weredog who masqueraded as human or—
Mahmoud took a step back and felt his lip curling disdain, which quickly became a full-on sneer of repugnance. He dimly recalled that, for equids, this was known as the flehmen response. It felt appropriate. It felt real.
“Anubis!” he exclaimed, and shot his leg into the demon’s stomach. This put an end to the hau-haus. The demon was now in a more servile position, bent forward at the waist. But it would recover soon—either that, or shapeshift into a still viler form. Mahmoud wasn’t having that. He dragged it over to the window, levered it open, shunted the demon forward, and got ready to deliver the coup de grâce. The moment had arrived, and a croak from the demon announced that the recognition was mutual. Mahmoud turned his back, readied himself, and bucked a leg into the demon’s posterior.
Perhaps because it was winded from the initial kick, the death scream, when it came, was pitiful. If that was how demons perished, Mahmoud thought, there wasn’t much to be said for it. The silence that followed, on the other hand, washed over him like a cool evening breeze. He savored it, knowing he couldn’t do so for long. The body would be treated as human by the authorities, even if it had long ceased being so. His own presence in the office would therefore require explaining, and so, with a whinnying cry of exhilaration, he fell to his knees and began shouting for help.
It was hard to put her finger on it, Saira thought, but Mahmoud wasn’t quite the same. When he told her that he’d taken leave of absence, she welcomed the change of pace. There would be more time to spend as a couple, and Dr. Asfour was bound to be pleased. They could read poetry, plan their future together, and move toward self-actualization (a delicious foreign term that she dropped into many conversations). Saira even flirted with the idea of checking into Le Reve Hotel for a while. It was supposed to be nice and had a reputation for infusing new passion into tired marriages.
On the other hand, that particular side of things wasn’t exactly where the problem lay. Not anymore. On the contrary, Mahmoud’s bedroom behavior had dramatically changed of late. As she told her lady friends, he’d become rather sweet and had taken to—how should she put it?—well, a sort of nuzzling that was far gentler than he’d been in the past. She liked it, sort of. As for more passionate moments, those were there as well. But there was only one position in which Mahmoud wanted to do it. She didn’t mind too much, but it would be nice, she mused, to see his face once in a while. Then again, on second thought, maybe not. She didn’t care for his ululating climaxes or the way he dropped down on all fours afterwards. Why couldn’t they cuddle, like normal people?
That was one thing. Flicking through her marital diary, she noted a few others as well. He now spent an inordinate amount of time brushing his hair, which was surprising given how little he had left on top. When she knocked on the bathroom door, he sometimes insisted that she continue where he left off, at which point rolling grunts of pleasure would issue forth. In the beginning, she’d thought it was a game but it was now a regular feature, almost daily in fact. Once he’d even suggested she clip his toenails, but she drew the line at that.
To her delight, he’d readily agreed to try the Jamila Awad diet with her. How sweet he’d been. But whereas she’d wanted it to be fun, Mahmoud had become single-minded. He’d cut out everything except greens and, eventually, preferred undressed salad and nothing else. This, Saira testily pointed out, wasn’t what the magazine recommended at all. Besides, dieting was meant to be her idea. But Mahmoud, never a talkative person even during their courtship, barely responded at all. He’d stared across the table with his cheeks full of carrots, crunching stolidly and making no attempt at conversation. She got angry, hurled her chair to the ground and screamed at him before running outside. When she returned, it was no different; he was staring ahead with the same expression, polishing off the rest of the salad and then getting up for more. It was at that point that Saira wondered whether something might be just a tad off. She missed her cat.
On the plus side, Saira was keeping up her marriage diary entries. She rather fancied herself in the role of the clinical observer and had even devised her own grading scheme, which she used to promote or demote Mahmoud according to how he behaved. Tonight, for example, she wasn’t sure whether to give him a B+ or just a B. Silly man, why did his feet paw at the ground every time the phone went off? True, the police had been round a few times to ask about poor Abdul Mannan, who’d left no suicide note, but Mahmoud had gone out of his way to assist them. Saira’s pen hovered over the letter. Then she remembered the protracted lip trills that greeted her every time she spoke or approached him. He was naughty and, until he mended his ways, B was what he would get.
Mahmoud watched the muezzin park his car and walk up to the mosque. It was too early for anyone else to be there, but as the sun rose the man would get ready for the azaan—that is, if the fool could remember how to do it. In any case, this morning was going to be different. Yes, the voice had said, today is the day. Mahmoud had risen early, skipped breakfast, and performed his ablutions with particular thoroughness. The plan had come to him right after the therapist’s recent visit. Dr. Asfour’s arrival was unannounced, at least to him, though he dimly recalled a prior moment with Saira flapping her arms around and talking about togetherness, a last resort, emotional distance… These days, her words melded into one another and he tended to respond with gusty exhalations. The sudden sight of Dr. Asfour had momentarily brought him up short and he’d responded with a snort of contempt, so small did the man’s worldview now appear.
Dr. Asfour spoke at length and soothingly, which Mahmoud largely ignored until the man produced a syringe. At that point, Mahmoud stamped his feet and prepared to charge—something he would have done, but for the azaan. While Dr. Asfour performed salah, Mahmoud grabbed the syringe and approached him with a gleeful nicker. Only a cry from Saira raised the alarm, at which point the visitation came to a natural end. Still, it had not been entirely wasted, for now Mahmoud had a clear vision of what would come next.
As the muezzin took off his shoes, Mahmoud bit heartily into an apple. Hearing the sound, the muezzin turned around and froze.
Munching and crunching, Mahmoud padded up the steps.
The muezzin’s eyes filled with horror as he backed up, dropping books, keys and money all about. He was talking, Mahmoud saw, though the words were unintelligible. It didn’t matter. He simply wanted the man to leave, which he was now doing at speed.
Now that he was alone, Mahmoud bent down, picked up the keys and entered the mosque. He had one task: to locate the entrance to the minaret before the muezzin alerted the authorities. After that, he would need to act quickly before the azaan drowned out his own message. That must not happen. Having found the door, Mahmoud methodically tried each key until the last one clicked and he entered the minaret. As he’d suspected all along, in front of him was an amplifier, microphone, and recording device. By these means had the muezzin’s voice wrenched countless couples from their dreams and early morning reverie.
The equipment wasn’t difficult to understand. As soon as it was on, he cantered up the minaret, microphone in hand. At the top, he found Cairo laid out below and the full promise of sunlight beginning to cross the horizon. This city was ready. The whole country was ready. He caught his breath, cleared his throat, and braced himself, placing the quartzite object on the ledge. Inside him, the voice came forth stronger than ever before. At last! Steady now, don’t falter. Never fear, thought Mahmoud, I’ve come this far, haven’t I? We both have. Now, let us speak the message, the first salutation. After this, it will carry from land to land. Nodding, Mahmoud brought the microphone to his lips and took a deep breath. The one true message rose within him, wordless but insistent. Once it broke, he knew there would be no turning back for anyone.