To Describe It a Little More


My father never forgot that apartment. He persisted in believing it was the best fit for him. He would start talking about it with me for the slightest reason. Once, a pen placed on the railing of the balcony fell down into the street, and I went down quickly to bring it back so he could finish his crossword puzzle. He grabbed the pen from me, saying that if we’d lived on the ground floor, I would not have had to go down three flights, or he could have gone himself to fetch it, or gotten it from a passerby. He was silent, as if he were searching for another possibility, so I fantasized about how I would jump right out the window and he would lift me up with his arm. I kept imagining the repetition of the jump, whenever he dropped the pen–how I’d drop the pen on purpose. Then, it would become normal to go out the window to the street and back through the window to the apartment.

I became the only one my father could talk to about the apartment, and he would explain to me how close he could’ve come to convincing my mother to take it, had my brother not already found the apartment where we now lived. His stories about the apartment and his memories in general formed my recollections of sitting with him while he was solving crossword puzzles. I liked watching him while he inscribed the letters in the blanks. He would finish the puzzles quickly, as if someone were dictating the answers. I wished he would start working on them as soon as the newspaper was thrown by the seller onto the balcony–sometimes it would settle on the clothesline and sometimes I would snatch it while it revolved in the air. He would ask me simple questions, about a preposition, a salutation, the name of a fruit, the floor he would love to live on–so I answered, the ground floor. Shaking his head, smiling, he wrote down the ground floor. And he would tell me the plural of floor in Arabic, which was one of the words repeated in the questions, and then send his blessings to the soul of Mr. Ma’moun. They’d stayed friends even though my father had never rented Mr. Ma’moun’s  ground-floor apartment. They’d never stopped visiting or contacting each other. When my father would call Mr. Ma’moun on the telephone, we knew we could forget about using it for at least an hour. My brothers would stop signaling their need for the telephone since these gestures simply pushed him to prolong the conversation.

One time he told my mother that Mr. Ma’moun could convince a tenant to leave the ground floor if we would agree to live there. She only answered, “That’s nice of him,” stopping an unpleasant conversation about the apartment that she’d refused to live in years before. My mother dealt with this matter as she did my father’s nostalgia for other things from the past, which he viewed as better than the present. If he could have, he would have stopped time, at the moments he hadn’t forgotten, even the crossword puzzles, which had been better in the past, adding to his knowledge. Sometimes he’d been forced to resort to books for the correct answers. But now—he pointed to me—even I could solve them. I wished I could do him proud, but I tried many times and I couldn’t fill in many of the blanks. He didn’t get upset when he found my attempts, rather he would encourage me while filling in all of the blanks quickly himself, correcting some of my answers. The intersection of the down and across letters was what enchanted me the most. I wished for there to be no black boxes; they thwarted the flow and the dovetailing of the letters. My father told me that type of crossword had been published in the old newspapers. And the solution had always been difficult, since most of the questions had been about obscure words that demanded the dictionary, and sometimes they weren’t there.

Once, when we were on the balcony and I was following his pen between the blanks, my mother came in to tell him that Mr. Ma’moun’s wife was on the telephone. He gave me the newspaper and stood up quickly, repeating, “God willing, let’s hope everything is okay.” She hadn’t called my father since the death of her husband, but he insisted on calling her every now and then to make sure that she and her son, who was living abroad, were fine. She told him on the telephone that he could buy the ground-floor apartment. She knew how much he loved it—his old wish to live there. My father didn’t have the money for the apartment, but he promised to find the right buyer. We didn’t understand how exactly he’d find a buyer, since he was far removed from the experience of buying and selling property; he was always surprised by the higher prices compared to those in the old days. But my father took it upon himself to call relatives, friends, and acquaintances to offer them the chance to buy the apartment. These calls were mostly squandered on greetings and how-are-you-doings, especially with those he’d not been in touch with for a long time. It was hard for him to end these calls with old friends when they’d ramble on about what had happened over the years. My father promised to call them again after finding a buyer. One of these friends thought the offer was a prank, like the pranks my father had played on him in the old days. He laughed while reminiscing about those unforgettable times. My father kept repeating, “I’m really serious.” It didn’t bore him to describe the  apartment to them—to tell them that, in fact, one room was spacious enough to equal two rooms of newer apartments, and that the breeze that came from the light well window was unparalleled. And that he would’ve liked to buy it himself, but he hadn’t. Furthermore, the ground-floor apartment would spare them the effort of going up and down stairs—he accentuated this point with friends who were starting to suffer from multiple ailments. He did not forget to bless the soul of Mister Ma’moun—the house would still be full of his blessings. He would call repeatedly anyone he felt was tentative, trying to persuade him, giving him another chance to reconsider the deal. Whenever my older brother would hear our Dad describing the apartment, he’d remark that he made it sound like the Royal Palace, so it earned this nickname. But all my father’s efforts ground to a halt when Mr. Ma’moun’s wife called to tell him that she’d found a buyer. He asked her if she wanted him to be present for the signing of the contract, to make sure everything went smoothly. His face appeared happy and he repeated: “I’m coming now.”

My mother was not pleased. One of Mr. Ma’moun’s relatives would be present, and after all, my father wouldn’t do anything but watch the signing. While Dad was getting dressed, he spoke about what he owed Ma’moun–this was the only gift he could give to his soul. “And who knew?” Something unexpected might happen. After the signing, he came back and insisted his presence had been necessary–he’d convinced the buyer not to haggle for a lower price, since the apartment was worth much more.

Mr. Ma’moun’s wife started to call Dad whenever there was a problem with the taxes on the house or the tenants refused to share in the cost of repairs. He tried to solve these problems quickly. My mother kept  reminding him that he was neither the landlord nor the tenant, and my father replied that the wife was alone and her son was living abroad. His ability to solve any problem would bless us with the absence of complaints about his leg pains for days. But it would also make him late to the crossword puzzles and distracted more often than not. I would pull the pen from his hand and write the needed letters. Startled, he would grab my hand and say “Careful” while pointing out that the number of letters in the word were not equal to the number of blanks, or did not agree with the adjacent word written down or across. During those days I saw him pause mid-word to jot down the name of an old friend who could help with the taxes on Mr. Ma’moun’s house. He was wondering how to get his phone number. Dad’s plan was foiled by a phone call from one of Mr. Ma’moun’s relatives, who was furious that Dad had Mrs. Ma’moun’s power of attorney. He told him not to bother helping—the family still had men.

Still, Dad would call Mrs. Ma’moun every once in a while to check on her. He would tell my mother that she needed his help, yet she was wary of her relatives: there were words on the tip of her tongue that she couldn’t utter. When he asked his wife what she thought about him going to Mr. Ma’moun’s wife’s house for a visit, my mother smiled and answered decisively, “It’s over. The story of the Royal Palace is over.” My two brothers also started signaling their need for the telephone again whenever Dad launched into a conversation with one of his old friends, whose friendship he had rekindled in the search for a buyer for the ground-floor apartment.


Montasser Al-Qaffash

Montasser Al-Qaffash has published four collections of short stories and three novels. In 2000, he was awarded the UAE prize for the Best Short Story Collection, and in 2002, he won the Egyptian State Incentive Award for Creative Writing for his collection Shakhs Ghair Maqsood ("The Unintended Person"). He's a two-time recipient of the Sawiris Cultural Award, first in 2009 for his novel A Matter of Time, and again in 2014 for his collection of short stories At Eye Level. His novel To See Now was translated into Italian in 2012, and many of his stories have been translated into European languages.

Gretchen McCullough and 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 for 1997-1999. Her stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in the Texas Review, The Alaska Quarterly Review, The Barcelona Review, Archipelago, National Public Radio, Storysouth, The Literary Review, The Common, and Guernica. Her translations with Mohamed Metwalli have appeared in Nizwa, Banipal, Exchanges, World Literature TodayAl-Mustaqbel, and InTranslation. Her bilingual book of short stories in English and Arabic, Three Stories From Cairo, translated with Mohamed Metwalli, was published by Afaq in 2011, and her collection of short stories about expatriate life in Cairo, Shahrazad’s Tooth, was also published by Afaq in 2013. She is a senior lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo.


Mohamed Metwalli was born in Cairo in 1970. He earned his B.A. in English Literature from Cairo University in 1992. The same year, he won the Yussef el-Khal prize by Riyad el-Rayes Publishers in Lebanon for his poetry collection Once Upon a Time. He co-founded an independent literary magazine, el-Garad, in which appeared his second volume of poems, The Story the People Tell in the Harbor, in 1998. He was selected to represent Egypt in The University of Iowa's International Writing Program in 1997. The following year, he was Poet-in-Residence at the University of Chicago. He co-edited the anthology of Egyptian poetry Angry Voices (University of Arkansas Press, 2002). His third collection, The Lost Promenades, was published in 2003 by the independent press al-Ketaba al-Okhra and republished in 2013 by the General Egyptian Book Organization. A Song by the Aegean Sea, his latest collection of poetry, was published by Afaq  in 2015.

At Eye Level. Copyright (c) Montasser Al-Qaffash, 2012. English translation copyright (c) Gretchen McCullough and Mohamed Metwalli, 2018.