I remember a time of happy, dappled sunlight. French windows open onto a flowering garden. From the garden gate to the open windows runs a paved and sloping pathway, and at the top of the pathway stands a bright blue tricycle poised for the dizzying, exhilarating glide down the path. All you had to do was get it to the beginning of the incline and lift your feet off the ground and whoo--away you went. You had to pull up smartly or you ended up inside the living room.
The living room has huge, faded armchairs and colored rugs and lots and lots of books. The walls are covered with them. Some have pictures, some you are allowed to pick up and look at, some are not to be touched. All are to be treated with great respect and never torn or folded or scribbled in or put face downward or looked at
while eating in case you drop food on them. In the middle of the books sit the grown-ups.
The grown-ups are wonderful. They drink tea and smoke and laugh and talk all the time. The women are beautiful with red lips and fingernails. The men are tall and handsome. They all do clever things. They write books and make music and paint pictures. Their pictures blaze on the walls of our apartment.
Looking back, I see a pool of sunlight, and in it, a child. She is dressed in a blue-and-white-spotted frock with a white lace bodice. She holds on to her mother's skirt. Seized by a sudden fit of shyness outside the door of the living room, she sucks slowly at her thumb. But then, coaxed and encouraged, she ventures in and is immediately picked up and cuddled and kissed to a chorus of "Darling." "I've got to paint her. I've simply got to paint her," cries Uncle Sameer, as he does every time and, reassured, she tosses her hair back and smiles up at him. Yes. The grown-ups are wonderful.
And clever. And wise. They can do anything, explain everything. The child is lying in her bed. Every time her mother puts out the light a horrible creature with long curving arms appears on the ceiling of her room and she screams. Her mother comes back in and switches on the light, but she can see nothing. After a bit she calls the father. He too can see nothing, but he lies down beside her. Her mother switches off the light and closes the door. He sees the creature on the ceiling. "It's the shadow of the chandelier, little goose." He comforts her and shows her how it moves when the chandelier moves and explains about light and shadow. She is safe.
Yes. The world is safe and pleasant and the worst grief I know is to be beaten at Snakes and Ladders by Uncle Murad. He moves my counter slowly down every curve of the final fatal snake and I watch, lips trembling, on the verge of tears, till my father intervenes and carries me off.
My father is a psychologist. He is very strong. He can crack nuts by pressing them in his hands. When we play in the garden he can run very fast. He runs very fast in circles. He runs so fast that I can't catch him. But after a bit he slows down and I am able to run up to his legs and hold him tight.
The garden is always sunny. I play with my blue tricycle or eat my meals sitting in a wide-eyed rocking duck. This is my home. I know the address by heart.
Near my home there is the club. My nanny, Dada Zeina, takes me there most afternoons. In summer I swim. At other times I play on the swings. Sometimes I have a magazine or a picture book. I sit on the grass beside Dada Zeina and look at the pictures. She chats to the other nannies, but I am absorbed in the pictures.
In an older part of town there is another house that I go to often. There too I know the address by heart. It is older than our house and the rooms are bigger and higher. In the center of a high-ceilinged room full of sunlight, a woman is kneeling on a red and blue prayer mat. Her hands are folded one over the other. Her eyes are closed. When they are open they are a deep green. Underneath her flowing white headdress, her hair is a long, soft light brown. Beside the prayer mat, the slippers she has taken off stand side by side. They are flat and made of crinkly pink leather with a tiny rosette on each toe. I sit close by on the floor solemnly watching the familiar ritual. This woman is my grandmother. My mother's mother. "Mama Hajja," I call her: Mama who has gone on the pilgrimage to Makkah. It is a title of respect. But it is also a truthful description. For Mama Hajja has been to Holy Makkah. Although she was delicate and her health was frail, she had gone. She had traveled alone, my grandfather (her husband) having had neither the time nor the inclination to accompany her and look after her. Her lips move as she nears the end of the Qur'anic verses she is reciting and she slowly
bends over to prostrate herself, her forehead touching the floor between two open palms. The broad, loved back is too great a temptation and I steal up from the floor and clamber onto it. Mama Hajja makes no sign that anything untoward has happened. When it is time, she slowly straightens up. I try to hang on but tumble off her
back and onto the floor behind her. I wait. I know that soon it will be time for the second prostration. Sure enough, within a minute she bends over, forehead touching the floor, and in a flash I am again on
her back. She recites "Praise be my Lord, most great" three times slowly, then slowly straightens, tumbling me once more off her back. I settle on the floor behind her. She recites the final Greeting to God and Muhammad, and his family and children and all the prophets that God had ever sent. She turns her head to salute the angels at her right and left shoulders and, almost in the same movement, reaches for her slipper. She stretches an arm behind her back and makes a grab for me, but I am small and quick and crouch just out of her reach, laughing. She turns and starts for me, in her hurry and irritation forgetting to stand up but coming after me on hands and knees, brandishing a pink slipper. I dart away, reeling with laughter and pointing my finger back at her, and suddenly she sits back on her heels on the sun-flooded polished wooden floor and starts to laugh
too. I wait a few seconds to make sure it's safe, then rush back to fling myself into her open arms. "You little monkey. You would have made me break my prayers?" I snuggle contentedly against her breast in the sunlight, sucking my thumb. In my parents' house naughtiness is frowned upon. So is sucking your thumb. I name this other one the Spoiling House.
Now it is a sunny winter's day and I am playing in my grandfather's shop. It is a prospering furniture shop with his name, Morsi, emblazoned in gold Diwani script across the front. It stands on Morgan Street, the street forming the western border of the central marketplace in old Cairo. The market is a fascinating place with its
high glass ceiling, its stacks of vegetables and pyramids of oranges, guavas, and Lebanese apples. It is slightly frightening too, with thousands of slaughtered chickens hanging open-beaked above the live ones who continue to scurry around, clucking mindlessly. The gutters between the stalls run with mud and blood, but people sit on little wooden stools drinking sweet tea and swishing the flies away with graceful horsehair flyswatters.
I am not allowed to go into the marketplace on my own, but I have the run of my grandfather's shop. The
furniture on the ground floor is arranged for display. Gilt armchairs standing in a circle make a
drawing room in the shop window and I sometimes sit here for hours gazing at the world outside: the meat vans unloading in front of the marketplace, the carts trundling in with fresh vegetables from the villages. I stare out at the shoppers as they stare in at the gilt drawing room.
Upstairs there is a loft used for storing furniture. You go up a set of creaky wooden stairs without banisters. It is dark. There is one feeble lamp, but its circle of light serves only to make the place more ghostly. There is a well in the middle of the floor, and from it you can look down into the shop. This loft is paradise. The furniture is all tumbled together, and in the gloom I create caves under huge desks and labyrinthine castles in piled-up sofas. The only thing I am forbidden to do is get inside the cupboards. Occasionally I slip into
one and sit, knees to my chin, huddled in a corner, feeling both frightened and brave. But I never dare close the doors and engulf myself in total darkness.
Above this loft, arrived at by a different stairway, is the workshop: huge marble-floored rooms filled with the smell of varnish and the blare of the radio. A broad, sunny terrace overlooking the marketplace; stacks of wooden armchairs and desks waiting to be polished; and all my grandfather's workmen: carpenters, upholsterers,
and varnishers, who carry me on their shoulders and buy me sweets and Sport Cola.
I have been playing in the loft when I hear them call my name.
"Aisha! It's lunchtime! Come down!"
I run down the stairs just as the boy from the neighboring restaurant comes into the shop carrying a large, round brass tray shining in the sunlight. On it is a sheep's head festooned with parsley and surrounded by little dishes containing the various salads and dips. In one corner of the tray there are five round loaves of bread. In another there are three bottles of cola. There is only one empty plate. The boy puts the tray down on a table between my grandfather and his friend Sheikh Zayed.
"Got everything you want, Am Morsi?"
My grandfather checks that the bread is hot and the drinks are cold and nods, waving his hand to dismiss the boy. He is a man of few words.
I sit on a swivel desk chair with two cushions under me and Sheikh Zayed tucks a napkin around my neck. They put the empty plate in front of me. "In the name of God, the compassionate and the merciful." The two men start breaking up the sheep's head with their fingers. They shred off some lean meat and put it on the plate in
front of me. My grandfather hands me a fork. I want to eat like them with my fingers, but I know it's not allowed. I must eat with a fork. They eat in silence, occasionally putting a tidbit on my plate or in
my mouth. And we drink our cola and dip our bread in the salads.
My grandfather is a big man with graying hair and sharp black eyes. He has large workman's hands and a gruff voice. Myth surrounds him: how his father died when he was six and his uncles usurped his land; how he trekked from his village in Upper Egypt to Cairo at the age of seven and found work in the central market; how he built up his business and became fabulously wealthy; how he rejected the trappings of wealth and rode in overcrowded buses where a thousand pounds at a stroke were picked from his pocket. He does not pray and is not known
to be religious. Nobody ever calls him Hajj or Sheikh. They use 'Am for respect instead. They say he is a hard man, but I, his first grandchild, do not find him so. I know that if I choose the right moment and dance for him, singing,
I come from Upper Egypt
Like my father before me,
And my granddad too,
He comes from Upper Egypt
his face will break into a wide smile and he'll give me a brand-new pound note.
Now we finish eating and the boy comes to take the tray away. He brings with him two nargilas: one for my grandfather and one for Sheikh Zayed. I love watching the coals glow red and the water bubble as my grandfather pulls on the mouthpiece. I wait: I know that in time he will offer it to me. After a few puffs he does, and I pull and pull but I can't make the water bubble. He laughs and brings out his snuffbox. It is beautiful, engraved silver glinting in the sunlight. He takes a pinch and offers me the box. I am delighted. I know what he expects and I am happy to play the clown. I take a pinch of snuff and put it to my nostril. After a second I break into three exaggerated sneezes and my grandfather and Sheikh Zayed burst out laughing. I jump down from my chair and my grandfather catches me and wipes my face with his large white handkerchief with the blue border.
By Abdin Palace, there is another house that I remember. And another set of grandparents. I don't go there as often as I go to Grandfather Morsi's, but when I do go, it is to stay a few days. There are no uncles here, only two aunts, and it is much quieter and darker than in the other house. Here, I call my grandmother Neina and I would not dream of climbing onto her back while she prayed. However, sometimes at night she will take the net off her hair and it will fall down her back long and soft, black threaded with silver. Then she will let me
kneel on the sofa behind her, and brush it carefully and gently.
Yes. To everything there is an order and a pattern. And the pattern and the order are good. Time, from one birthday to the next, runs gently by, overflowing with an abundance of pleasures. If there are fears or griefs, they are minor and I am always able to be comforted by the grown-ups.
It is my birthday, I am five years old. In the morning I go with my grandfather to Groppi's to order a
three-tier chocolate cake with colored sugar rabbits and five blue candles. I also get a bar of Swiss chocolate. In the afternoon I go out on an errand with my aunt Soraya and spot a cart loaded with wooden bathroom clogs. I want a pair. "No," says my aunt. "Daddy won't like it."
Excerpted from I Think of You by Ahdaf Soueif. Copyright © 2007 by Ahdaf Soueif. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.