The Snow of Cairo

Chapter One


Nur Jihan:

In the orchard of our big house above the grave of my grandfather, there is a mango tree. My first grandmother, aunt, father and mother are buried there. I am also buried there in the shade of this palace, forlorn and solitary. I was the last of our family and the last to leave the palace.


Bushra woke, trembling from the cold, as if the snow her feet had touched were real snow. Severe pain held her feet, tying them together like rope, preventing her from moving. Sometimes she even doubted whether she could really walk; part of her was completely paralyzed. Then, she ran toward the window and cracked it open a little, her level of vision in the darkness and the void. Life was rowdy in the street, but here she was elevated several yards above the ground and was distant from the noisy world, separated and linked at the same time according to her mood.

She started to take a deep breath.

The dream was repeated.

Cairo is covered in white snow and she is running toward a ground that is covered in white and then, she tastes icicles and then she freezes, becoming a statue. The dream scares her. She is terrified by the idea of feeling alive while being unable to move–could that be how the dead are–the moment the soul departs the body, aware of everything around them, but unable to act?

From the window, a bit of noise sneaked in from the outside scene, the honking horns of cars, songs, motorcycles, children crying, men yelling and cursing.

It was night already. Asmaa’ was not around now. Was she sleeping? Had she returned? Was she in her bed or was Bushra the only one in the house? She thought of this while she was gazing at the painting of the wondrous names of God that faced her on the wall. Every day she used to stand praying to God by repeating some of His names. She found this painting here when she moved into the house with her mother. She never knew when it was hung there or why she had moved it and why he never took it with him. Exactly beside the painting was another with the verses of El-Hallaj that said:

You breeze of the wind tell the light drizzle that

The roses only increased my thirst,

My sweetheart is so beloved among the world

That he could even walk on my cheek

His soul is mine; mine is his

If he wills; I will; If I will; he wills. (1)

Nasser dedicated these verses to her after he wrote thuluth handwriting on a huge piece of canvas and she chose the right frame for the canvas and placed it on the wall in her room. The painting remained there even after the end of their marriage. Once she unfolded a small piece of paper, her father’s handwriting of the same verses, and showed it to him. She told him that she had kept the folded paper, among her other important papers, but she had never told him about her passion for El-Khallaj and his poetry since she used to sit in her father’s study, reading for hours while he busied himself selling books to his customers or drinking tea with one of his old revolutionary friends. She never told him many things she wished to say; however, their story was abrupt. Whenever she planned to talk about these memories, she stopped since she sensed that Nasser wouldn’t bother with the details of that past. He was so completely absorbed in his own reality that he would never be a good listener.

The cold sweat she felt pouring out of her the moment she woke up transformed into a powerful thirst in her dry throat and she felt the humidity within. It’s just desire now, nothing else, not the need for hugs, nor for warmth, just sheer desire. Desire is more merciful than the need for affection because it comes and goes, without stubbornness, without maneuvering. Yet longing is hard on one’s self. Once upon a time, it was possible to tell Nasser about sheer desire, its true essence, not passion, not affection: since desire was the most he could grant her. When she was aware that he felt the risk when he let her advance to areas of his soul which surpassed the limits of the body, she retreated, leaving him alone with his fears, going back to her solitude as well. In solitude, dedication to the self, a bit more aware than staying in ambiguity with contradictory dualities.

Careful. Careful. Was there a distinction now between the desire and the need for warmth? Or was this just sheer practice on awakening?

She opened her hand and looked at her palm. What lay there? What will happen next? She repeated the question to herself many times.

She almost cried while repeating: “Why am I here? What brought me back to this place except the desires of a dead woman?”

Her mother told her a few days before she died:

“Do not keep searching in vain if you find a blocked road. I spent my youth searching for something that I never found.”

What was her mother searching for? What didn’t her mother find? What was Bushra looking for here?

The squeaking of the main gate drove her to be alert to her future. Asmaa’ returned from the newspaper and entered her room, appearing to be in a bad mood. Bushra detected her mood from the way the door slammed with force the moment she entered, as if she wanted to cut off her relationship with the outside world. Then, Asmaa’ headed directly to her room without attempting to talk with her. In about two years, their relationship had been through many phases–so many entangling situations that set the basis for their relationship.

Bushra tried to return to sleep, but she couldn’t. She turned on the computer and opened the file “Graphic” and started to put light brushstrokes on a painting that she was working on. The genie coming out from the pumpkin plant holds a magic wand–she looks like an inquisitive African genie that keeps appearing in most of the paintings that Bushra draws. The heroine in the heroic story “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was not white and Cinderella was never goodhearted, as often believed. Bushra was rewriting the tales from her own point of view, with pictures and phrases to illustrate the story. In children’s films, there are forests and rivers, with pure, clear water and rocks that could be used as stepping stones to the other bank. There is no dust or trash in the streets–the evil ones get what they deserve in the end. She never cared for such idealistic ideas; instead, she preferred to grant children room for developing their minds, experiences, and imaginations. Her work in cartoons drove her to analyze this colorful world and its beautiful lies, which children themselves would know were lies. She was thinking of holding an exhibition of her children’s paintings with small captions on every painting, which would tell a complete story. She started to prepare her project carefully. One step at a time. The features of the painting started to crystallize into the story of Baby Nur and her companion, Ram. She drew the story of her small heroine–one illustration after another. When she presented the illustrations to Asmaa’, Asmaa’ asked her if Nur was actually her, Bushra. She was stunned by the question and quickly denied it but maybe what Asma’ had said carried some truth. All of these illustrations of this illusory girl might resemble her own story.

She contemplated the paintings and thought: “What does this mean?” She did not want to paint herself; instead, wanted to veil the original story and move into an illusory world. If she were Nur, then who was Ram in this game? Who was that smart, naughty boy who appeared with Nur in most of the paintings?


She was chasing a little idea that crossed her mind until her behavior might be interpreted as enigmatic and mysterious.

She became drowsy and turned off the computer, thinking that the nucleus of her work was taking the imagination seriously–embracing the drawings and the small stories and then, transforming them into some visual reality.


When I lived in the body of “Nur Jihan” I never mentioned a thing about the girl I was before. Her name was “Soleil” and she lived long before in a land far from here. How she lived, how she died and what was her goal in life? Why would her songs resemble gypsy music? Why did I love playing the lute?! It was my inability to confront her deep past, staring pensively at her epoch in darkness that made me want to escape from her and her many pains. I had to die first in order to know the whole story–and realize how much my soul was imprinted by the story.

I never looked behind me. We do not have to look behind; instead, we have to look deep inside so we could delve into oblivion. Our knowledge of oblivion enables us to value life and our struggle to know our role in it. I knew my role, but couldn’t act. It is not as important to know, as to realize our knowledge.

What I achieved in my past life in the age of Nur Jihan was not perfect at all. I remained a coward–impotent–therefore, my soul will stay tormented by what my heart wanted. What became of my little notebook of poems? What became of my memory? Where was the child I wanted to give birth to? Dreams and desires, I never even approached, but death has put an end to all that, then, but they tempted me to go back.

I never fulfilled anything I wished. I spent most of the time in the cold castle alone. I watched days pass and I was helpless. In spite of that, I felt in my last days, I lived longer in “Soleil the Gypsy’s” life. The day I died, after a severe illness, I was seventeen: I died young. When I seized the chance to live again, I lacked the ability to act. I could not perform, unless I sympathized with any living object, pulsating with life. I remembered nothing about the young girl I was before. Now, I can speak of her across this oblivion. I tell about her short life in the castle, that gypsy dancer who befriended an Arab doctor, who could not save her from death. But what good is memory now? Memory is not good enough when we are not able to act?

Bushra doesn’t know me enough, either. She doesn’t know the story of Nur Jihan. It doesn’t matter whether she knows–what matters is that she senses my existence; I am another soul. I am not an illusion; I am not a mirage. I am her; she is me. I live in this life through her and cross into it, through her. She lives and crosses through me into a borderless time.


Bushra never spoke of the other life she experienced. No one would believe her if she told of the woman she resembled. But she does not know what she could become. She only can approach her story from afar without being able to come close enough to know the truth.

Across the shades of reality and during moments of fantasy before she sleeps, she pictures the front yard of a huge, two-story house. In front of the house is a wide space, paved with white marble separated from the street by a large iron gate, decorated with copper. The house has pillars that resemble those of a palace. It has many doors, even internal and external doors. Parallel passageways connect the front parts to the rear. The interior windows are wide and high, with iron interior frames–the color of the wood is a pistachio green. The outside wall is painted a cream color. A few yards from the gate, inside the house there are a number of steps and then a small distance leading to another three steps, before the final set of steps that lead to the main gate.

In the backyard of the house there was an orchard with mango, banana, guava, and peach trees; the left side of the orchard overlooked the Nile. And there was a small, oval balcony that almost touched the waters of the river.

In the heart of her recollection, Bushra sees a small ten-year-old girl skipping in the orchard, her hair plaited into a single braid. She is playing with another boy and girl; all of them are playing hide and seek behind a huge banana tree. They are running and laughing in childish merriness–that suddenly evaporates.

Suddenly, the big house appears as if it were a hundred years older. The paint on the pillars has peeled and the pure cream color of the outside walls have faded. The huge green wooden windows are peeled and decrepit; the inside walls of the house have cracks and scratches. But only the high ceiling remained faraway, looking with awesome grief to what time can do to things around it. The back orchard has wilted, the earth dried up and the Nile was never high enough to touch the oval balcony.

The child with the braid who was playing hide and seek so happily has grown up and become a woman who sits alone in the evening on the small terrace opposite to the main gate, reminiscing of the days when she wasn’t alone. When the palace was crowded, a dark Nubian servant, not much older than she is, approaches her; they appear as if they have shared their life together. The Nubian girl gives her a pack of cigarettes and goes inside. No one is in the house except for her and the lady, as for whoever is still alive from the palace, they visit once in a little while.

In the woman’s hand is a small notebook, where she scribbles her diaries and a few occasional poems. She chain-smokes with obvious boredom. She takes several puffs of the cigarette and then nervously puts it out in the middle. It is as if she has lit the cigarette with the goal of putting it out, in order to enjoy smashing the lives of these consecutive cigarettes. After she smokes three or four cigarettes in this nervous way, she lights the fifth and smokes it with a tranquility that contradicts her previous state of mind.

The more Bushra delves into her memory, the more details she can see about the woman. She is wearing a violet gown, made from georgette crepe with delicate frills in the front, narrow at the waist, which then flows for half a foot below her knees. Her chestnut hair is gathered at the back in a bun, fastened with a black barrette. She wears pearl earrings, framed in gold. Her face is jasmine white with hazel eyes and thick eyelashes. Around her eyes are crow’s feet, which makes her beauty look mature.

In her memory, Bushra paused at the neck of the woman, long and smooth, a gold chain encircles her neck, from which a locket dangles–her name inscribed in Arabic letters. She scrutinized her contemplations, dove into the darkness with extreme difficulty: she saw her playing with her necklace with her left hand while her right hand was absorbed in the art of writing. She moves her left hand away from the necklace to hold the cigarette between the forefinger and the thumb. She moves it between them violently before she crushes it. On her face are some marks of old pain. The hand goes to the chain, which dangles in despair. Bushra followed the movement of the desperate hand. She concentrates on the letters. Finally, she can distinguish the letters on the locket: “Nur Jihan.”


In the morning when the alarm went off, the window was open. A sparrow was pecking at bread crumbs that Bushra had placed near a little jasmine plant in a clay pot, which hung in an iron frame by the edge of the window. Bushra was sleeping face down, her left arm was lying next to her body. Turned off the alarm and her eyes wandered and then gazed at the ceiling–she didn’t have much time. She had to go to work in an hour.

When she opened her wardrobe, the elegant black suit with grey stripes caught her eye–she had not worn it for more than two years. She was repelled by the color black since her mother’s death and her commitment to black for a whole year, but today she decided to wear it with her own touch to break through the dominance of black. She put on a colorful silk blouse that matched the suit. When she placed her hand in the pocket of the jacket, she found a piece of paper in her own handwriting with a message that she’d written wrote one day: “Climb to the top of a majestic tree. Walk over the branch that you fear will break because of your weight. Let it break–Old wisdom.” At the end of the paper she found another expression that says: “This also will pass.” The second expression reminded her of some dire straits when she used to repeat to herself: “This also will pass.”

Bushra did not intend to live in Cairo; she came to comply with her mother’s wishes. Every day she would think of leaving, but she couldn’t make up her mind. Everything happened so quickly since her father’s death and mother’s insistence on selling the house and returning to Cairo, and then she was faced with the death of her mother, nine months after they returned.

Nine months are enough to establish a new beginning and long enough to give birth to a child, but also long enough for moving to another country and then, dying there. All events look like a series of imaginary sequences in her eyes, but the moment of the mother’s death, the moment her burial appeared was the moment for losing her desire to live. Her journey with silence began when she shared in the washing of her mother’s corpse. She, Asmaa’, and the woman who washed her mother’s corpse. She couldn’t determine why Asmaa’ was in her life. Why had Asmaa’ moved in with her? All she could remember of Asmaa’ was that she was present the day of her mother’s death. Who asked her to come and how did she know that her mother had died? She had never raised this question with Asmaa’ since she knew Uncle Naguib certainly was the one who called her to come and stay with Bushra.

Who made the burial arrangements? Who followed through on the details? She didn’t remember a thing about this–what she could remember well was the face of Naguib El-Qadi pale with grief and his conversation with Asmaa’ about the details, and then Asmaa’ with her stocky powerful body moving on her behalf, to turn on the cassette recorder to play the Quran. What Bushra did know about Asmaa’ before she moved to Cairo were a few fragments of her mother’s anecdotes when she remembered her relatives, Samia and her daughter, Asmaa’. Samia had been dead for more than five years, and Bushra’s mother was intent on communicating with Asmaa’ and her brother Reda when she came to Egypt.

There were not many mourners; just a few people she didn’t know nor could she remember their faces, but it was certain that those who came did so because they knew Naguib or Asmaa’. She didn’t remember if she had met any of them with her mother, or even heard about them.

The months that followed the trauma of her mother’s death were similar. Bushra stayed in a state of darkness: her single link to life through Asmaa’ and her deadly attempts to shake her out of silence and solitude. Naguib El-Qadi used to bring her books about love, death, pleasure, and life, but she was unable to do anything; she was actually unable to move from the bed. It wasn’t any physical pain, but rather, a spiritual ailment of the soul, without a cure.

She did not have close contacts in Damascus, either. The mother thought she would protect her more when she returned to Cairo. Little did she know she was taking her from one hell to another. Her mother insisted on selling the house they had lived in for a long time, and in this way, cut her daughter’s ties to the city completely, and it appeared that daughter could never forgive mother, except after she had been dead a long time–only after she reconciled with the idea of death, realizing it was an extension of life.

Her father, Mahmoud Rifae, returned from Egypt, after his years there studying law, while his real intention was to stay in Damascus since he was detained and imprisoned more than once–his escape to Lebanon and then return because of his opposing political views to the regime. His father wanted him to inherit the family business in woodcarving, “Arabesque,” but the Little Refae didn’t have the patience, was easily bored and restless. His father’s perpetual attempts never succeeded in teaching him the craft, yet Mahmoud Rifae returned to Damascus after his father’s death, accompanied by his Egyptian wife. She was a small, swarthy woman with wild eyes, thick eyelashes and long black hair, wearing modern clothes and strongly scented perfume, which made other women jealous.

Rifae Junior tried to run his father’s shop by hiring craftsmen and following their work in the afternoon, as long as he could be free to work at his law office in the morning. Only a month later, he realized he would not cut the mustard. But El-Rifae never continued as a lawyer either, since most of cases he tried were political opposition cases he always ended up losing. El-Rifae was nicknamed “The lawyer who never won a case.” He was proud of this title for some time until he had to close the Arabesque shop. On top of that, his spinster sister Samira kept hinting indirectly that he was throwing away his father’s inheritance. Suddenly, Rifae decided to open a bookshop, instead of Arabesque, and he supervised it himself. His long hours there allowed him to focus on his favorite hobby: reading. El-Rifae lived a quasi-isolated life, between his wife and his bookshop with his old rebel friends whose dreams ended in smoking hooka and discussing politics discreetly. They grew bored and became stagnant from so little change. With the political events of 1982, Rifae Junior became even more isolated, but at the end of the year, God blessed him with a child: “Bushra, the child of his dreams” after his wife had been unable to conceive for years. (2)

In those years of  barrenness, El-Rifae and the women in his family oscillated between jokes and seriousness, criticizing his wife: “We wish she could give birth; what if she were a little fairer; what if she had a fuller bosom and wider hips. What did he see in her anyway? Our girls are more beautiful….” El-Rifae faced this commentary coolly, which only made the women in his family more furious.

Bushra held the shell-inlaid box that her mother brought with her from Damascus: a set of sapphire necklace and matching earrings, decorated in gold; a thick gold bracelet with a carving of Horus, the Pharaonic God; a silver chain with the key of life. She cupped the sapphire necklace between her hands and then returned it to the box. She took the necklace with the key of life and fastened it around her neck. She closed the little box and put it back in the wooden wardrobe where she hung her clothes. She viewed her mother’s picture on the wall and smiled at her.

There was no obvious resemblance between them except for the bone structure of their faces and full lower lips; Bushra had a pale white complexion with colored, round eyes and soft long hair. Her father used to say she looked like her paternal aunt, Basma, who she had only met a few times since she had emigrated to Canada directly after her marriage; therefore, her visits were infrequent. Yet her older aunt was Samira, who terrorized her because of her constant attempts to intervene in their lives.

“I will die and Samira will take over the house and marry you to one of her sons. Or she will come and live with you since you’re alone, and take over your life. She will be even worse than she is now.”

These were the words her mother repeated after her father’s death. In less than twenty-four hours, her mother sold the house. Bushra didn’t know how this could happen so quickly; suddenly, the wolf within her mother appeared and moved swiftly to find practical solutions. Bushra attended the closing on the sale of the house. The mother extended her hand powerfully to show a piece of paper; she had a contract for selling the house; however, before her father’s death, her father had deeded the house to his daughter; her father had done this for Bushra–she only needed to sign.

Then Bushra could have refused to sign and resist her mother’s decision to leave Damascus! Had she known she was owner of the house, she would have refused and stayed in her own country, continuing to live her life. She would never have obeyed her mother’s fateful decision, which had changed both their lives.

Later, a series of events happened one after another: preparing to move their household items, which her mother considered to be valuable. In a locked trunk, her mother put woven tapestries with shiny beads; gold silk curtains and sheer beige curtains that accompanied them; a few pillowcases and silk bed sheets. That day her mother opened this trunk in front of Bushra and then locked it quickly, saying: “This is your trousseau.”

Bushra was bedazzled by the glitter of the items; it was the first time she had seen this trunk. Her mother was good at keeping secrets.

“What about the furniture?” she asked.

“I sold the house furnished.”

This was how her mother responded and she moved quickly, almost as if escaping from a crime–there was no other way to hide the crime but escape. Bushra knew that her paternal aunt Samira had never loved them and she would think about taking over the house despite everything that she possessed, because she considered it part of her father’s inheritance. Yet Bushra was not convinced of this, especially the way her mother had arranged to leave secretly.

“We will leave before your aunt finds out about the sale of the house. We will never hear the end of it.”

Back then, her mother said that.

Both of them left together after the Friday prayers. A widow and her young orphaned daughter both in black. The color black–was the color her mother wore until the day she died. As for Bushra, she had merged with it; she never made a distinction between black and any other color because she never could accept the fact that first, her father died and then, her mother in less than a year. She had never absorbed the reality that she was alone in this world.

More or less, the details looked foggy to her. When had her mother communicated with her relative, Naguib El-Qadi? When had her mother asked that he rent a flat for them and furnish it simply? How did all of this happen? Bushra never knew…. Never knew…. All she realized was that her mother had become both mother and father at once. How did this woman who had depended on her husband for so many years suddenly take control of her own life? This was what Bushra was asking herself when she replayed the tape of her memory, searching for the answers she wanted.

At the airport a customs officer stamped both passports. Her mother’s facial expressions were relaxed. The rest of the details took place slowly, but smoothly. Five suitcases were being pushed in front of them to the outside area; then the porter escorted them outside where her mother gave him ten pounds. Bushra glanced at the faces of the crowds waiting for arriving passengers. Uncle Naguib’s face appeared in the middle of this thick crowd–he was the only one left of her mother’s relatives, a man in his seventies with a paunch and a smiling face, bald on the front part of his head and a conspicuous mole on his left cheek. He was wearing a fashionable black suit, as if he were going to an important date.

Bushra will discover later that his elegance was part of his personality.

He greeted her mother warmly with a kiss on her head, saying:

“Thank god you arrived safely. Hello, Nabila. You light up the place. You’re more than welcome here.”

Bushra loved Uncle Naguib maybe because her father had loved him also; he was the only one who kept in touch after she moved to Damascus; he also met them whenever they came in the summer to Cairo or Alexandria.

Naguib took them to a small third-floor flat in Manial where they would live. It was an old-style building, yet still looked sturdy. It looked as though the tenants had renovated it occasionally–that’s why the entrance of the building was paved with marble, which didn’t match the small elevator, a little like the elevators she had seen in black and white movies. Naguib entered the flat and started to open one of the big windows and pull back the curtains that kept in the light, asking, “What do you think, Nabila?”

Her mother was exhausted and she sat on the edge of the nearest chair. Bushra sensed how sad her mother was, as though she were an orphaned, forlorn child. Bushra cut him short: “It’s good but it needs some work.”

It was as if Naguib were defensive, explaining the importance of what he had done. He addressed Bushra: “It’s good we found a flat so quickly. You are living on an island, ya Bushra. Manial used to be inhabited by pashas in the past.”

The memories of those days kept growing in Bushra’s mind like plants. She viewed the details as if they had happened to another girl acting on her behalf. Did her mother know she would die–that was why she traveled in such a hurry, or was it nostalgia, in fact, which made her return, searching for her old roots? But what was her mother looking for here and then, why would her mother abandon her? Only questions, waiting for answers.

When she left the house at eight in the morning, the noise in the street alienated her from her conflicting thoughts. She walked a few yards before she crossed the street to walk close to the bank of the Nile. This short morning walk helped her cope with whatever difficulties she might face in the day. She passed by a ful cart at the corner of the street where a group of men of varying age and other workers were gathered, eating with gusto. She remembered the day she was with Nagi in Ataba; she had suggested to him that they eat ful from the street cart–Nagi agreed at once. That day they got to know Am Khaleel, the owner of the small colorful ful cart with yellow and red etchings to ward off the evil eye, parked on a sidewalk under a huge Jacaranda tree. Later, Am Khaleel’s cart became their favorite ful place and they often invited their friends there to show them that Am Khaleel had the most delicious ful in all of Cairo. They used to eat ful and then lounge in a small street cafe, drinking tea and watching pedestrians–Nagi smoked apple hooka; she loved how it smelled.


The castle where I lived overlooked the bank of the Nile. In the evenings I would listen to the chirping of the sparrows while they were calling to each other. From one of the balconies I’d see the mysterious surface of the water where ancient secrets are buried. I lived a long part of my life here and I died here also. Here I was, circling around it now. The pores of the Poinciana tree was emanating grief when I sat next to it; I transmitted my loneliness to the plant so that her red leaves fell close to the edge of my long dress. The Poinciana tree was still in the same place and if I approached her now, she would know me when I shake her leaves and repeat the same words I used to say in the past.

And then came the young Turkish prince from his faraway country in order to take me, a blooming girl of seventeen. I met the prince on one of these trips, on a ship that launched from the Alexandria port on a tour of European cities–accompanied by my father, a great admiral–and my sister, Malik Shah. Under the lights of the ship, I danced the first time with the prince, swaying in his arms; our emotions were swayed by the sea breeze. Two young, inexperienced hearts falling into the illusion of love. Yet life is not a joyous journey. The imagined dream of happiness on an ocean trip was different from real life in palaces.

Then I was kidnapped from a floating palace by the river Nile and taken to a cold palace at the foot of a immensely high mountain in Anatolia. There I lived between a chorus of women: mothers, paternal aunts, maternal ones, sisters, harems, nannies. I was a despairing bride, yet I never realized this despair at first, but I never moved from these apartments in the beginning. I was distracted by travel and glittering things that blinded me from seeing reality in my suite–lots of rooms full of wardrobes where I placed my things: valuable jewels, silk, velvet, satin, organza, frilly dresses, hats, shoes, and trunks. I guessed these would provide me with some warmth, but everything went to waste.

Woven into the life of the palace were wicked plots and conspiracies. But what is said in public is different than what goes on behind closed doors. There is someone who appears to rule, yet the only who actually rules does so secretly. My existence hung on my husband’s adoration, and this increased my hatred for him.

“You have joined the palace of the great prince, a new bride, an Egyptian girl. That appealed to the prince’s young son so he married her,” they used to say.

Those were the last words. Cold, cold invading my limbs. It was repeated. Repeated. Sharp attacks and then I became ill. Gossip that I was not fertile revolved around me. I drowned in a fever for long weeks.

My body was stretched on the bed, afflicted with a severe ailment of the spirit. Many servants watched me with hatred. Beside me was my nanny Julnar, who had been with me in Cairo.

I didn’t remember anything except for the bed that was stretched on the floor next to a big fireplace. Snow fell in icicles, covering the peak of the mountain. I had never seen snow before. In my country there was no heavy snow that would make someone freeze. My nanny Julnar rubbed my forehead with a white handkerchief and pushed into my mouth a dose of a bitter solution she had prepared herself. She murmured a healing prayer she knew by heart. She thought I was not aware of these whispered words whose fragrance permeated outside and then became a sharp blade in my neck.



1. El-Hallaj was an Iranian Sufi poet (858-922) A.D. who died for his unconventional religious beliefs. He inspired other Sufi poets, including Rumi.

2. “The political events in 1982” is a reference to the massacre in Hama in 1982. President Hafez Al-Assad squashed a rebellion in Hama, killing an estimated 20,000 Syrians.


Lana Abdel Rahman

Lana Abdel Rahman is a Lebanese writer who works as as cultural journalist in Cairo. She earned her PhD from the Lebanese University in Beirut, focusing on the autobiographies of Lebanese women writers. Her novels Mirage Gardens (2006), Contact (2008), and A Song for Margaret (2011) were published by Arab Scientific Publishers in Beirut. She has also published two collections of short stories: Oriental Illusions (2004) and Dead Men Never Lie (2006). She was selected to participate in the International Prize for Arabic Fiction Seminar in 2009. An excerpt from her novel A Song for Margaret was published in the Emerging Arab Voices anthology in 2011. Her most recent novel, The Snow of Cairo, was published by Afaq Publishers in Cairo in 2012.

Gretchen McCullough, assisted by Mohamed Metwalli

Gretchen McCullough was raised in Harlingen, Texas. After graduating from Brown University in 1984, she taught in Egypt, Turkey, and Japan. She earned her MFA from the University of Alabama and was awarded a teaching Fulbright to Syria in 1997-1999. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Texas ReviewAlaska Quarterly Review, The Barcelona Review, Archipelago, NPR, Storysouth, Mediterranean Poetry, and Guernica; her translations with Mohamed Metwalli have appeared in Nizwa, Banipal, Al-Mustaqbel, and InTranslation. Her 2011 book of short stories in English and Arabic, Three Stories from Cairo, was published by Afaq Publishers in Cairo, as was her most recent book of short stories about expatriate life in Cairo, Shahrazad's Tooth. She is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo.

The Snow of Cairo. Copyright (c) Lana Abdel Rahman, 2012. English translation copyright (c) Gretchen McCullough, 2014.