The book—which examines class and wealth in modern Cairo and the Egyptian diaspora—was hailed by Booklist, which called the book an “enthralling debut…Mahmoud explores the intricacies of Cairo’s social dynamics and how powerful family relations, societal judgment, and class can be despite physical and socioeconomic distance. His dynamic storytelling will keep readers engaged throughout.”
Outside Cairo International Airport, four taxi drivers approached me and began with “Welcome, welcome home,” and “The city has lit up,” and “What a sweet face you’ve brought us,” before they offered to carry my suitcase and argued among one another about who would take me home. I rebelled against their unsophisticated system and demanded to ride with the oldest man, who was losing ground in the dispute. I figured he would be the most likely to let me sit in silence until I arrived home, but as we waited in line to exit the parking lot, he asked me where I had returned from, and it turned out he had numerous opinions to share about America.
“It’s all their fault,” he said. “They burned Iraq to ashes, thinking that they could spill that much blood and get away with it. But that’s not how the world works, is it? They’re lucky they haven’t had more attacks. Do you know, my son, what it means to have a foreign man come into your land, kill your neighbors and relatives, and imprison you in your own jails? They will suffer the consequences for decades. It’s good you came back to your country.”
I performed a smile. “There’s a lot of kind people there, you know. And to attack innocent civilians is just wrong.”
He looked offended. “Of course it’s wrong. Do you not know the chapter from the Quran, ‘The Disbelievers’?”
“I do,” I said, hoping he wouldn’t recite it.
“In the name of God, Most Merciful, Most Compassionate. Say, Disbelievers. I do not worship what you worship. I will never worship what you worship. You will never worship what I worship. You have your religion and I have mine.”
“Let there be no compulsion in religion. Attack only when attacked.”
“Of course it’s wrong,” the man said again. “These same terrorists kill their own Muslim brothers in Iraq. On the day of days, they will meet God, who will hand them the worst punishment.”
“But so will the Americans.”
I sighed. On a regular day, I would have spent the rest of the journey trying to explain to the driver, regardless of how stubborn he was, that there were millions of Americans who accepted and loved Muslims as their fellow citizens, and that their main intention was to get by, not to wage war against Islam. I would have emphasized that for every million men who believed that America was at war with Islam, one man would be successfully convinced to sacrifice his life for that war. But now my own cousin had become that man, that fool, and I didn’t have the will to argue with the driver.
I lit a cigarette as we made it out of the airport and onto Salah Salem Street. On the surface, Cairo was a shock to the unaccustomed eye. Buildings originally painted in different colors were covered with so much dust that they had evolved into similar shades of grim. Drivers swerved in and out of lanes with no regard to order, honking every few seconds for no reason, as if to contribute to the mandatory peep peep peep that never ceased. Vendors whipped at the legs of malnourished horses so their carts could be dragged faster. Stray dogs and cats scavenged for food around the piles of trash that were dumped every mile or two on the sides of the road.
I usually began to appreciate Cairo’s aesthetic within a few days of my return. Instead of being agonized by the constant honking, I would enjoy the sha’abe music blasting from the speakers of different cars and maybe even clap along to the tablas. Instead of being disturbed by the children who begged, the scars and zits and despair on their faces, I would notice the luckier children behind them, doing tricks with their bicycles on the sidewalks. Instead of fixating on the restrictions of religion, I would see just how profound it was that, five times a day, every day, millions of people gathered to pray and meditate together. This, however, was far from a regular homecoming, and I feared I was at risk of losing whatever affection I had for my hometown.
At a stoplight, a man with no legs dragged his torso through the spaces between the cars and asked me for change. I stuck my arm out the window and gave him a five-dollar bill. “You have to get it exchanged at the serafa,” I said. “It’s worth thirty pounds.” He kissed it, tapped it on his forehead, and then looked up at God.
There was no traffic on the 6th of October Highway, an unusual occurrence that punched my chest with anxiety. We would be downtown in minutes, and I would have to withstand what could be weeks of family arguments, breakdowns, and mourning without being able to have a single drink.
As we drove through Zamalek, I thought of what would happen if Amir was identified by someone who knew him as my cousin. It would be one of the relevant topics of conversation for weeks to come. Did you watch the game last night? Did you go see that movie? Oh, you know that terrorist on the news, the one who shot up the train? Well, that’s Sheero’s cousin. What would it do to my reputation here in Cairo? Would people assume I came from a family of fanatics? Would any respectable man ever let me marry his daughter? I already came from an inferior lineage. My grandfather hadn’t been a basha with European blood; he had been a businessman, and a peasant too. He had never learned how to eat with a fork and knife and could speak only one language. Now, my cousin had become a terrorist, a murderer, and not only would people claim to know someone who knew him, but my high school friends would remember meeting him, the day my mother forced me to take him out on his birthday.
An excerpt from the novel Cairo Circles by Doma Mahmoud, reprinted with permission from Unnamed Press.