Short Story: Exodus

The plane dipped lower and Cairo's famous landmarks came into view...the Nile slithered its way through the mishmash of old and new.

April 26, 2011 15:35
Pyramids at night

Pyramids at night 311. (photo credit: courtesy)

‘How come Tel Aviv is not on the flight map?” Liat whispered to Sa’id. They were sitting in the first-class cabin of the tiny Air Sinai plane for the onehour flight from Lod to Cairo. On Liat’s lap was the in-flight magazine open to a map of the routes the airline flew – all of them save the one they were currently flying.

Sa’id wiped his brow with a complimentary wet wipe before answering. “Liat – as far as the jet-setting Egyptian public is concerned, Tel Aviv is a nonentity.” His tone was flat and explanatory, as if he was recording an infomercial. “While Air Sinai has daily flights to and from Tel Aviv, they make no record of this publicly.”

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Sa’id glanced sideways at Liat to register her reaction. She remained impassive as she reached into the pocket in front of her and extracted a copy of The Egyptian Gazette.

She opened the paper and shook her head. “Ya’allah, anyone would think Egypt is trouble-free. Look at this – almost all of the articles are about Israel: ‘Israeli Air Raid on Rafah Kills Four Civilians’ and here on page 3, ‘Israeli Double Standards on Gaza War Crimes.’ It’s nearly Pessah and here we are facing blood libels all over again.”

Sa’id took the paper from Liat’s hands and folded it before slipping it back into the pocket. He placed his hand on top of Liat’s and caressed her fingers. “The propaganda machine is very powerful in Egypt and Israel cannot be denigrated enough for her actions. But misinformation is very common: If you ask the average Egyptian how big Israel is, he will in all likelihood tell you that it is the same size as Iran with about the same number in population.”

“Well, they say ignorance is bliss,” Liat remarked dryly, “I guess I’ll have my work cut out for me educating your people, and even more so when I have to keep apologizing for my people’s occupational habits.”

Sa’id gripped Liat’s hand tightly. “Liat – you will attempt neither to educate nor apologize to ‘my people.’ I have no interest in having you engage in a political battle which – trust me – you will never win.”

Liat withdrew her hand from Sa’id’s grip and raised her eyebrows at him. His face softened and his voice was barely audible. “Darling, I want to show you my Cairo, the place I love and call home. I want us to have a good time. To forget any of our differences. I’ll show you how beautiful my city is. We’ll watch the sun set over the Nile. We’ll dine well and dance well – did you know that Cairo has both the best restaurants and the best clubs the Arab world has to offer?”

Liat did not answer. Her head was turned to the window as the plane began its descent. Sa’id leaned over and put his head close to hers. Through the layers of inky smog – or “black cloud” as the locals referred to it – the metropolis of the world’s largest Arab city emerged. A network of sky roads and motorways expertly architected by the French came into sharp relief. Rows and rows of streets lined with halffinished buildings were stacked in every direction like shoeboxes in a footwear factory.

The plane dipped lower and Cairo’s famous landmarks came into view: the twin buildings resembling New York’s bygone World Trade Center, the Cairo Tower dwarfing all the other buildings, the prominent red edifice that housed The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, and finally, on the horizon, Sa’id could just make out Cairo’s pièce de résistance, the Pyramids. Like a snake lying low before an attack, the Nile slithered its way through the mishmash of old and new, slicing the city in half.

Sa’id wondered again if he was doing the right thing. Could Liat ever appreciate the enormous albatross he had had to overcome when he finally decided to take her to his hometown? Even though he didn’t bring her here to meet his family – from whom he was estranged – he knew that she could never identify with the many ramifications of bringing a Jewish Israeli into his world. She was a quintessential Tel Avivian, whose political views matched the coastal city’s dress code: as long as it’s comfortable, anything goes.

Over the past four years that Sa’id had been on assignment in the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv, the city had been exceedingly accommodating for him as a non-believing Muslim. But Cairo was an infinitely more challenging city for anyone to withstand – let alone someone who had been cradled in the naïve womb of Tel Aviv all her life.

Sa’id looked sideways at Liat, at the gentle curve of her jaw line as it met with the small mound of her chin. Her eyelashes were thick and long and protruded over the contours of her appled cheekbones and Lilliputian nose.

They watched as the roads encircling the airport swelled with cars and taxis knocking against one another as they struggled to forge on through Cairo’s omnipresent traffic. Serving only as suggestions for the driver, lane divisions were largely ignored. Red lights were not adhered to and pedestrians risked their lives as they attempted to cross the thoroughfares. For Egyptians, the method was the madness, and somehow it all seemed to work.

The pilot’s voice filled the cabin, “Ladies and gentlemen, Marhaba fee Misr – Welcome to Egypt.”

Sai’d had made dinner reservations for the revolving restaurant on the 41st floor of their hotel on the Nile, and as the room slowly turned, so did their spirits. Their conversation was light and peppered with impish banter. With each champagne intake, Sa’id’s usual intensity and excessive formality evaporated and Liat was grateful. Even though Sa’id’s hyperbolic courteousness – so lacking in her Israeli exes – was part of what had made Liat fall in love with him, she was happy to finally witness a more carefree side.

Sa’id raised his glass. “Here’s to you my dear, and to an endless supply of champagne which should flow like the Nile.”

“Here’s to Cairo,” Liat said, “Which, by the way, I love so far.”

“Because the Grand Hyatt simply epitomizes Cairo,” Sa’id laughed as he clinked his glass with hers. “To Cairo. Oh – and to nonexistent neighboring lands.”

As Liat leaned in to kiss him, Sa’id surveyed the restaurant. He was in no mood for more raised eyebrows – already generated that evening courtesy of Liat’s microscopic red dress. She was of course blithely unaware, and her innocence was his darling. Reminding himself that he couldn’t have it both ways, he allowed his lips to briefly meet hers. Thankfully, his phone rang, saving him further mortification.

As he spoke on the phone in his native tongue, Sa’id’s intense furrow returned. When he finished he smiled again, and told Liat he was being called away by his colleague Akmal to sort out a diplomatic issue – insignificant but urgent nonetheless.

“I’m sorry for deserting you, sweetheart,” Sa’id said, squeezing Liat’s thigh.

Liat swept her arms around the room. “Hey, the embassy’s paying for this, so go save the world, habibi.”

“Thank you for being so cool. Afterwards, Akmal and I will pick you up from downstairs. Akmal knows all the best clubs and bars in town and he’ll show us a good time.”

After Sa’id’s meeting, the three of them went to Eros, an exclusive boat bar anchored on the edge of the Nile. A waiter came to take their order.

“We’ll order a jug of mango/vodka to begin with,” said Akmal. “And some shisha. Is that all right with everyone?”

“Oh yes,” said Sa’id, “Liat must taste Egyptian mango juice. It’s the best in the world.”

“Fine by me,” said Liat. “So Akmal, unless you’re planning to filter the mango from the vodka, I take it you’re a heretic like Sa’id?”

“Ah no, nobody can quite reach Sa’id’s levels of heresy. Personally I don’t drink often – only after sundown, after Allah is in bed.” Akmal rocked with laughter at his own joke. “So tell me Liat, what do you think of your man’s homeland?”

“If the Pyramids turn out to be as impressive as our hotel, I’ll be really happy I came to Cairo,”

“And is it very different to Quds?” Akmal asked, referring to Israel by the Arabic alias of its capital.

Liat was disarmed by the earnestness of what was clearly a rhetorical question. “Of course,” she said.

“Ah? In what way is it different?”

“In the way that it’s a different country.”

“Any preferences yet?” said Akmal, now cupping his face in his hands. He registered the look of surprise on Liat’s face and continued, “But of course you don’t know yet. Much too early to tell.”

Liat did not respond and started scanning a menu.

“Oh look, the waiter’s here,” said Sa’id in an attempt to dispel the awkwardness. The waiter served them their beverages and began setting up the long funneled shisha pipe with apple-flavored tobacco.

“Isn’t it tasty, darling?” said Sa’id, taking a sip of his drink.

“Yes, it really is. The mango is so good it almost completely hides the taste of the vodka,” said Liat, touching Sa’id’s forearm.

The conversation continued civilly for a while, focusing mostly on fruit.

“We also grow fantastic oranges here,” said Akmal, blowing out perfectly formed smoke rings from the shisha. “But then as I understand it, so do you.”

“Yes, they’re called Jaffa oranges,” said Liat.

“Isn’t Jaffa a Palestinian city?” asked Akmal. The word came out “Balestinian” and Liat winced. She was appreciative that Sa’id’s international schooling meant he had no trouble pronouncing his Ps.

“Palestinians live there. It’s annexed onto my hometown.”

“And are there – your people living there also?”

“Yes there are. But I think the majority is Arab.”

Akmal traced the rim of his vodka glass with his forefinger. “And do they get on well with each other?”

“As well as can be expected. Jaffa is fairly liberal on the scale of things.”

“This is good. Liberality must be embraced,” said Akmal. “You know, Liat, I told Sa’id many times when he was living there that I would like to come and visit him.”

“But of course you never came through on your word,” said Sa’id, speaking for the first time since they’d received their drinks.

“It’s true. I never found the right time, you see,” said Akmal, pouring himself his third glass of the mango concoction. “But now that I’ve met you, Liat, I’m keen to visit. Do you think I will like it there?”

“I don’t know if you will,” answered Liat. Her head was starting to spin. She wasn’t sure if it was the vodka or Akmal’s interrogation. “I don’t know you. We’ve just met –”

“Ah, but knowing someone isn’t measured by any length of time. Liat, Sa’id is like a brother to me. Perhaps this means that maybe one day you’ll be my sister,” Akmal’s expression remained cryptic. “Maybe I won’t have to come and visit you in Quds after all. Maybe you’ll be somewhere else.”

“Excuse me?” said Liat.

Sa’id shot a sentence to Akmal in rapid-fire Arabic before turning to Liat. “Darling, I wanted to discuss this with you first, but now that Akmal has put his foot in it, I guess this is as good a time as ever. Khaled, my boss, was at the meeting with Akmal and me. He wants to reassign me to the embassy in Abu Dhabi.”

Liat almost choked on the shisha pipe. “I’m sorry – come again?”

“They want to remove me from my posting in Quds. They have nothing left for me to do there.”

“Abu Dhabi is a beautiful place,” said Akmal, swilling his glass. “I have been there many times. And you know, no fighting there. Sa’id tells me you anyway cannot stand the way Quds is becoming so rightwing and fascist.”

Liat seethed. “I never, ever used that word in relation to Israel!”

“Akmal, halas, stay out of it,” said Sa’id, glaring at his friend. “Liat, let’s go home and discuss this between ourselves.”

“Yes, I think its time we went home,” Liat said, draining the last of her glass.

“I abologize, Liat, I meant no offense,” Akmal said standing up. “I must have misquoted. I am sure Sa’id would never put words into your mouth.”

“Abology accepted,” said Liat not looking up. “You can compensate by donating a couple of your cigarettes.”

“I did not realize you were a smoker,” said Akmal, offering a box of Marlboro Lights with a picture of a deformed fetus on it.

“I’m not. I quit a year ago.” Liat accepted the box and stood up. “Goodbye, Akmal.”

Sa’id did not say a word to Liat in the taxi ride home. She sat opposite him in the backseat staring out of the window as they drove down the Corniche, the road that wrapped around the Nile. Pleasure boats bordered with neon lights moved steadily down the river as if in a trance. Revelers sat drinking and laughing in the outdoor decks of exclusive bars that ran the length of the river. The taxi turned onto Ramses Street, a fourlaned boulevard that was a proud testament to former British presence in Egypt. But Liat was in no mood to appreciate colonial architecture. Her head reeled from alcohol- soaked anxieties.

Back in their room, Sa’id scored grids into a mango using his penknife and then pushed the slice out so that cubes of the fruit protruded. It was the way Liat had taught him to cut mangos so long ago.

The bathroom door opened and Liat walked unsteadily through the room and past Sa’id without stopping. She opened the door to the balcony and stepped outside. Sa’id waited a few moments before following her onto the balcony. Liat took deep drags of a cigarette and blew the smoke out in a vertical pillar. Sa’id offered her the mango. She shook her head. He walked over to the railing and leaned out. The city was dazzling from the 30th floor of the island they were on. The skyline was an enchanting fusion of lights and colors decorating the buildings. Boats continued to glide at a leisurely pace down the Nile, contrasting the rush of cars on the roads. The downtown din of car horns was still audible from up here, but it was muted, making Sa’id feel like he was in a cocoon. He turned slowly to face Liat.

“I’m sorry about this evening, Liat. I certainly did not intend for our first evening in Cairo to end like this.”

“I’m sorry it ended like that too,” she said curtly. “When are you going?”


“When are you going to Abu Dhabi?”

Sa’id squatted by her chair. “As far as Khaled is concerned, there is no need for me to go back to Israel other than to gather my belongings and finish some paperwork. He says I can fly to Abu Dhabi straight away. But Khaled is a good man. He is aware of my… circumstance… regarding you, and has agreed to allow me to return and take a few months if I have to. He will ensure that the posting in Abu Dhabi will be reserved for me.”

“So that’s it? You’re going? Three years later and it’s bye-bye to the land which doesn’t exist and to the people which don’t have a right to?” Liat blew smoke in Sa’id’s direction.

“No, Liat. That’s not it. I want to discuss this with you. I didn’t mean for Akmal to break the news to you.

I wanted to talk it over with you. I want it to be our decision.”

“Our decision?” Liat scoffed.

“What choice do I have in the matter? Your assignment in Tel Aviv is over. That much you made clear.”

“Yes. But that doesn’t mean it has to be over between us. Liat, you’ve almost finished your thesis and I can wait with you in Israel until you’re done.”

“And then what?”

“Well, that part we decide together,” he said, “Liat, let me tell you a little bit about Abu Dhabi. First of all, the position Khaled is offering me will mean a huge jump in my career and it’s also much better paid. And did you know that the population of Abu Dhabi is made up of mostly foreigners? It is not like Cairo, it is a completely ethnically diverse and multicultural society.”

“And how do you propose I – an Israeli – can live there?” Liat rubbed her temples.

“I’m not saying it will be easy. I of all people understand the challenges of living in a society that does not value my ethnicity. But you hold a European passport so from a practical perspective it can easily be done.”

A river breeze made Liat shiver. Sa’id stood up and extended his hand to her. She took it and stood, swaying slightly. He led her inside and sat her on the bed while he unzipped her dress. He slipped it off her and dressed her in her pajamas – a ripped T-shirt emblazoned with a slogan that read “Save water – drink beer.”

He kissed her softly. “I love you, Liat. This will work out, I’ll make sure of that.”

Liat nodded. She knew he was telling the truth, Sa’id was never frivolous with words. She had learnt that on the day she met him on Gordon Beach, almost three years ago. As the sun set over the Mediterranean, Liat had asked Sa’id why he chose to approach her and not the countless leggy blondes that were bronzing themselves. He considered the question for a few moments before saying, “I am going to abstain from answering because I don’t yet know. I will tell you if and when I do.” Liat, who had been gearing herself for some hackneyed pick-up line – the kind that on Gordon Beach were as plentiful as the grains of sand – was taken aback, but not unpleasantly so.

She looked up now at Sa’id, and found herself strangely pained by his beauty. His strong, square jaw line only added to his aura of nobility. His Egyptian cheekbones came up high and his brow dipped low, framing the yawning enclave of his eyes. Liat was fiercely in love with him, and in that moment, it was the only true thing in the world.

The next day, they walked hand in hand through the narrow alleys of Old Cairo until they arrived at the Hanging Church, possibly the most famous Coptic church in the world. Liat and Sa’id sat in a pew that faced the haikal, or main altar. Liat looked Sa’id in the eye. “Listen, Sa’id, I know that you wouldn’t have sprung such news on me like that – it wasn’t your fault. I’m not angry, and I’ve always known the Quds thing wasn’t forever.”

“Liat, I love you and I’ll do whatever it takes to be with you. If you don’t want me to take the position in Abu Dhabi, I won’t.”

She stared at the altar screen, the intricate pattern of the ivory-embedded Coptic crosses making her dizzy. “What would you do instead?”

“I can talk to Khaled about positions in Europe. Pick a destination and I’ll see if there is anything opening up at the embassy.”

“And we would live happily ever after in Europe?” she asked.

“Liat, wherever I am with you, I know we’ll live happily ever after.”

Liat smiled coyly, “Well I’ve always fantasized about living in Berlin.”

“Germany? You would be okay with living in Germany, with everything that means for you and your family and people?”

“Things are different today. Berlin is a vibrant city full of artists and poets and musicians. I believe we could really make this work there.”

“Well if that’s what you believe, then I do too. I’ll speak to Khaled when we see him later today.”

Their meander eventually brought them to the Ibn Ezra Synagogue. Three armed guards stood outside the yellow building, in front of a plaque commemorating the synagogue’s restoration in the 1990s. The plaque had an inscription by then-UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali, that read, "The restored synagogue is a monument to peace building in the Middle East."  The irony of having a symbol of peace flanked by such heavy security was missed by Liat. Similar juxtapositions were rife in Israel.

They stepped inside the synagogue and into the men’s section. Liat could not remember having entered a synagogue since her younger brother’s bar mitzva a decade ago. Inside it was beautiful, lavishly ornate with arabesque arches and marble columns. The sound of Liat’s heels echoed around the room as she walked up to the Holy Ark with Sa’id following her a few steps behind. She climbed the steps leading up to the ark and opened its heavy oak doors. It was empty – the Torah scrolls were long gone. Liat felt nothing as she stared into the hollow space. Behind her, Sa’id’s phone buzzed and he went outside to take the call. Above her, two marble tablets with the Ten Commandments were erected above the doors of the ark. The first engraving read in Hebrew letters, “I am the Lord your God.” A tiny, almost imperceptible tremor fluttered through Liat, alarming her. Unlike many of her peers, her indifference towards God had evolved into neither atheism nor religious fervor. And Liat had no way of knowing that the rest of the commandment, abbreviated in the tablets, reads “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

The taxi driver that took them from Old Cairo to Heliopolis, the wealthy suburb where Khaled lived, bobbed and weaved with a laid-back expertise through Cairo’s manic traffic. They passed the Khan Halili – Cairo’s main marketplace – filled with vendors boasting their wares to unassuming tourists. Turning right, they ascended the Sixth of October Bridge, an elevated roadway that was the spinal cord of Cairo.

“What’s the significance of the road name?” Liat asked.

“You’re kidding me, right?” Sa’id answered.

Liat raised an eyebrow at him. Sa’id sighed before continuing. “It is the date in 1973 on which the Ramadan War – or the Yom Kippur war as you know it – began.”

“And why would a road be named after that date?”

“Liat, people here believe that Egypt won that war.”

Liat was incredulous. “Do you believe that Egypt won that war?”

“I haven’t yet figured out how I determine the victory. All I know is it isn’t as clear cut as it’s presented on either side – in Egypt or in Quds.”

Liat was silent for the rest of the journey. They arrived at a tall residential building where Khaled owned the entire top floor. As they rode up in the elevator to the 30th floor, Sa’id watched Liat through the gilt-framed mirror. The dim light of the lift concealed the hazel specks in her brown eyes, making them look darker than usual.

They reached Khaled’s door and rang an ornate bell. A man with a beard that ended in a point opened the door and ushered them inside. He led them onto a terrace where two men were seated around a glass table. The first was a stout man of around 70, smoking a pipe. A goldcapped cane rested next to him. The other was much younger, in his late 20s perhaps, and had soft, kind eyes. The first man laid down his pipe and turned towards Liat and Sa’id as they approached the table.

“Welcome, welcome, my friends,” he said, and looked at Liat. “I am Dr. Hassan, but you may call me Khaled. You must be the beautiful Liat I have been hearing so much about. Please excuse me for not rising to greet you, I am not in the same form I once was.” He extended a wizened hand which Liat shook.

Forsa sayida,” she said, dutifully mimicking the Egyptian phrase for “nice to meet you.”

“Ah, I see Sa’id has you well trained,” Khaled said, winking.

“Allow me to introduce you to my youngest son, Ziad.”

The second man rose and shook hands with both of them. “Welcome to Egypt,” he said warmly. “Please take a seat.”

Sa’id and Liat sat on the two empty seats sandwiched between Khaled and his son. Khaled beckoned the man who had opened the door downstairs over to the table.

“You’ll have some juice, Liat? Or maybe something a little stronger?”

“Juice will be fine.”

Khaled said something in Arabic to the man before turning back to Liat. “So tell me, I’m anxious to know what you think of Sa’id’s birthplace.”

Liat hesitated before answering. “It’s a beautiful city.”

“Splendid,” said Khaled. “And I believe you visited Old Cairo today? You went to the synagogue there, is that correct? What did you think?”

“It has been restored to pristine condition,” Liat answered simply.

The manservant returned with a tray laden with mango and guava juice. There was another man following him with a platter bearing a variety of seafood that had toothpicks inserted into them.

“Oh, I hope you like seafood, Liat,” said Khaled, helping himself to a piece of prawn. “The crab is the very best – moist and succulent.”

“I do. Thank you very much.”

“So as you know, Sa’id has finished his term in Israel.”

Liat was surprised to hear the country called by its name. “Yes. I hear you would like him to travel to Abu Dhabi.”

Khaled looked over at Sa’id who wore an impassive expression. “I believe it will be the best move for his career. Sa’id is not in touch with his parents so I seized the opportunity to step in as surrogate father. I want only the very best for him, Liat.”

“As I imagine a father would,” said Liat, selecting a bulbous prawn from the tray.

“Abu Dhabi is a very open place, as I’m sure Sa’id has told you. You know it makes me sad when I recall the days of my youth in Cairo – probably a long time before you were born. There were many Jews in the city then and we lived peacefully side by side.”

Liat did not know how to respond, so she said nothing.

Khaled hacked a lobster apart with his hands. “Do you know, my son is working on a PhD in the field of antiquities.” Khaled turned to address his son. “Ziad, why don’t you show Liat your collection? I am sure she will be impressed.”

“Of course.” Ziad rose from his chair. Liat wiped her hands on a napkin and stood up.

“Mind you don’t steal her for too long, Ziad,” said Khaled.

Ziad and Liat left the two men and walked downstairs into a room that was lined with shelves filled with antiquities ranging from small Sphinx figurines to ivory daggers. The floor was covered with books stacked in high piles.

“This is my collection. Feel free to poke around, but I am sure it is boring to anyone other than me.”

“Not at all,” said Liat. “But I am sure that this was just an excuse to leave your father alone with Sa’id.”

“You have a sharp wit. It has taken you less than 15 minutes to figure out my father.”

Liat walked over to a mahogany table in the center of the room. There was a stack of documents lying on top. Picking them up, Liat was surprised to find that they were written in Hebrew letters.

“You have a sharp eye also,” Ziad said. “You selected the one thing in the room that may be of interest to you. Can you understand what it says?” Liat scrutinized the page. “No. I can read it but it is not Hebrew.”

“Correct. It’s written in Aramaic. They are copies of scrolls salvaged from the Maimonides Synagogue downtown. Shame you will not see the synagogue this trip – it is currently being restored.”

“Like everything else,” said Liat, more to herself than to Ziad.

Ziad watched as Liat traced the words with her finger. “Tell me, Liat, what are you doing here in Cairo?”

After only two days, Liat had realized that when an Egyptian asks a banal question, it’s usually pregnant with deeper intonations. The duplicity angered her, but when she looked at Ziad, his eyes were compassionate and patient. Liat was consternated to feel her own eyes well up with tears.

“I don’t know if I know anymore,” she said, replacing the scroll back on the table.

Ziad extracted a tissue from his pocket and offered it to Liat. “Come, let us return to the men. I am sure you are still hungry.” Liat nodded and followed him back upstairs.

The rest of the meal continued benignly. Liat and Sa’id exchanged goodbyes with their hosts before getting into a chauffeur-driven car provided by Khaled to ferry them across town to Giza. The journey took less than 40 minutes, and Liat and Sa’id sat in a silence that was neither comfortable nor awkward.

Giza was packed with foreigners in baseball caps and flipflops. They were jostled by street merchants offering plastic models of the Sphinx and Pyramids.

“Liat, you’re going to be blown away, the best way of seeing the Pyramids is by night. The Sphinx is lit by hundreds of colored lasers and is breathtaking.”

In the courtyard facing the Pyramids, rows of chairs were quickly filling up with rambunctious tourists. Sa’id chose two chairs in the back row and they sat down to wait for the show to begin. Liat looked ahead at the triangular structures. They looked small, much smaller than she had imagined.

Presently, a voice that sounded like it belonged to Laurence Olivier came over the speakers, hushing the crowd.

“Welcome to the Pyramids of Giza – one of the seven wonders of the world and indeed, the most impressive,” boomed the voice. Sa’id and Liat watched as laser images depicting hieroglyphics were projected onto the Pyramids.

Laurence Olivier’s droning monotone, narrating historical facts and anecdotes, faded into the distance as Sa’id’s mind drifted to one of his early dates with Liat in a restaurant in Jaffa. Sa’id had expressed his desire to take Liat to see the triangular tombs one day. Her reaction, he recalled, had been polite but dismissive. Liat had made a passing remark about slavery getting the job done and her ancestors doing a nice job of it.

Although it was said casually, it was a lightbulb moment for Sa’id, marking the first of many that would make him wonder about the Israeli school system. Even after Sa’id explained to her that the Pyramids were in fact built in the First Intermediate Period when the Hebrews were not even around, Liat had not seemed too bothered by her error. How could someone so smart also be so stupid?

The light-show wound down and Sa’id and Liat got up to leave.

“What did you think?” He asked her.

“I think that if I ever had trouble falling asleep, I would hire that narrator to lull me.”

“That’s it? What about the Pyramids – aren’t they astounding?”

“Yes, I suppose I can see why some people think they are.” She walked ahead of him towards the exit.

Sa’id took a look behind him at the Sphinx which stood austerely less than a hundred feet away. It was bathed in a soft pink hue and seemed to be mocking him.

After they had climbed into bed, Sa’id put his arm around Liat. She rested her head in the space between his shoulder and chest and looked out of the open balcony doors. The moon burned outside with an unfamiliar potency. Liat suddenly felt like she’d been in Cairo forever.

“So now that I’ve seen the Pyramids,” she said, “what else is there left to do?”

“Cairo has no end of things to do and see,” answered Sa’id. “But we’ll do whatever you want.”

She hesitated before saying softly, “I want to go back home.” Sa’id looked down at her. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. He didn’t know what to say.

“Whatever my darling wants,” he whispered.

“It doesn’t feel right here anymore. Tomorrow night is the Pessah Seder and all my family will be together. I would like to be with them.”

Sa’id ran his fingers through her hair. “I understand. You spend the festival with your family if that’s what you want, and I’ll join you next week.”

“It is what I want,” she paused, watching her tears roll off the side of her face and onto the bed. “And you want to go to Abu Dhabi. I cannot stop you. I cannot be the reason you jeopardize your career. Maybe in another life and under different circumstances this could’ve worked.”

There was a long silence before Sa’id spoke. “Let’s discuss this when I get back next week.”

Liat didn’t reply.

Sa’id said, “I want you to know that I will always love you, Liat.”

She nodded as the salty taste of her tears slid into her mouth. “I know. Me too.”

“Tomorrow I’ll take you to the airport and we’ll get you a flight back to Israel.”

Liat looked up at Sa’id. His eyes were dry but they were dark pools of vanquish mixed with clemency.

“Back to the country that doesn’t exist,” she said, and closed her eyes.

The writer studied for her master’s degree in the Shaindy Rudolph Creative Writing program at Bar-Ilan University.

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August 28, 2014
Grapevine: September significance


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