Cairo landscape
Laura El-Tantawy

The Cairo Apartments

A poem for Sunday

The cousins as barefoot children floating out of polished rooms. Together we clattered between floors in each other’s jalabiyas, spectacular games of hide & seek, three floors & a roof to search. I can’t remember if we made the songs up ourselves, where is the bride’s house? Ali Alloy prayed his prayers boarded the boat worked his labors. The specter of our adults in the mornings & nights, their strained & hushed voices. Our grandmothers were beautiful & suited to exile. Enormous coifs of blackened hair. Silk scarves only for driving. The eyeliner tattooed, eternal livid stain on the rim of each eyelid, bare faces forgotten in childhood. Our mothers were less glamorous & always tired, always at work, wore blue jeans, cool hands that carried us to our beds at night. I loved exile & the close quarters it afforded us. I loved it enough to stay gone when all the others went home, moved on, unlatched their shuttered houses, beat the carpets & kissed their neighbors & cried. The apartments were emptied. I return to Cairo years later & look for our child-ghosts kicking a ball in the corridors between unfinished buildings. The time Almustafa tripped & opened the skin of his palm on a fallen brick, how I wouldn’t look up from my book to see what he was trying to show me, how he wrapped the bloodied hand in a dish towel & pressed down until our mother came home. I cannot find us. I more closely resemble now the young parents who corralled us, creased & shot through with sadness. There will be no children of my own to carry to their waiting beds. & the city that belonged to me has gone, was never mine, I dreamt it, I wrote it down, invented it, made all of it up, everything but the smell of corn roasting sweetly on the street below. The carved wooden shutters. Motes of dust arcing through the light. A workbook splayed before me, strained cursive in the feminine conjugation. Why I didn’t look up. He didn’t say he was bleeding. A shopkeeper remarks that I look very clean for a Sudanese. Ya samar ya samara. Ya asmar ya asmarani. Upper Nile. Silt color. Who taught you to speak Arabic like that? I don’t know where the cousins have gone. I don’t know what countries we’ve settled for. I imagine everyone back home, that they might have been playing for hours without me. My brother still with the faint stripe of a scar down his palm, remembers the stitches were done without anesthesia. The doctor telling jokes to distract him.