Excerpted from a memoir-in-progress


The aunties fluttered in and out of the apartment all summer long. They were sturdy, verging on stout, perfumed. They’d sit together in a clutch on Auntie Zeineb’s couch and talk amongst themselves, and I’d try to make myself invisible so I could eavesdrop. I found their Arabic difficult to parse between bites of basbousa, but I got the gist. They opined about my upbringing, my life in America, my clothing and unruly hair. Why does she go to college so far away from her mother? What is this blouse she wears? Why three earrings? They wanted to know if the rumors were true: did cousin Hoda (my mother) marry a Jew? 

The aunties addressed me as they would a five-year-old. You must wear your slippers in the house, habibti! Their guidance was non-negotiable. It often had to do with food. When I told them I bought koshari from a cart on the street, they pulled their hair as if someone had died. But we have nice restaurants and hotels here in Cairo! When I explained I was vegetarian, their faces froze in disbelief. Why does she not eat meat?!  they wailed, even as I nibbled kebab to please them.  

Never eat anything you cannot peel! Never drink the juice! 

They were especially concerned about the juice, since, they knew, Americans never drank juice without ice. Ice was not safe. In Cairo, they explained, ice is packed in rotting straw and dragged across the city on filthy donkey carts—filthy!!

I didn’t tell them about the juice, or that I drank the juice every day. Juice dispensed from tiled cubbyholes off dusty thoroughfares. Juice squeezed from unpeelable apricots and unwashable strawberries. I never said a word about the sugarcane, how I watched a man feed stalks of it into a metal contraption where it cracked and splintered like bones, its juice trickling through a strainer full of the infamous filthy ice right into my cup. 


Every morning, before going forth on our own into the city, Hoda and I laid across our bed to pore over maps of Cairo. She deferred to my newly acquired expertise with trains, buses, taxis, hotels, restaurants, post offices and telephones, the routines of currency exchange on the black market, and the etiquette of baksheesh. I wanted to show off to her, and I especially wanted to display my grasp of colloquial Egyptian or ameya, the everyday language she grew up speaking that I’d worked so hard to learn. It had been thirty-five years since she’d last spoken it, but within days of our arrival her Arabic returned. 

My God, it’s a miracle! teased Uncle Magdi. First our Hoda has returned, and now her Arabic has returned! Everyone agreed her speech was odd—her pronunciation was typical, but her expressions were that of a teenaged girl from a bygone era. Your mother’s Arabic is painful to listen to, Magdi later confided to me. 

We took taxis everywhere. We planned visits to the souk, important mosques and monuments, museums, cafés. On our first outing, our taxi broke down, but within minutes another taxi scooped us up. The driver, an old man in a grey galabeya and plastic shibshib, was cordial and kind to us. He stopped to pick up another passenger, a young man in a suit with a briefcase who sat in the front seat and twisted around to chat, eager to repeat what everyone was saying, that Cairo was hotter than usual that spring, and it felt like June, not May. He pointed at the Mogamma, the curvaceous monolith on Tahrir Square, when it came into view. Egyptian Pentagon! he informed us with a mixture of pride and revulsion. He offered us some Chiclets, which tasted faintly of turpentine, and cautioned Hoda not to shoot photos of the Mogamma, or of any government buildings for that matter. I could feel her itching to aim her long lens out the window.

It was my job to carry Hoda’s camera bag. I stood with it patiently, sometimes impatiently, while she chose the angle, f-stop and shutter speed for every shot. Sometimes I would hand her a different lens or a fresh roll of film. In Cairo, women refused to pose for her but men were pleasantly surprised by the American lady who spoke Arabic like a teenager in an old movie. She cajoled shopkeepers to pose in their doorways. She snuck candid shots of men drinking ahwa in cafés while reading their morning papers. She crept up on beggars lying in the street and offered them coins to sit for her. I watched her chat up a taxi driver before she shot his portrait, weighing in on American cars and Hollywood celebrities, two subjects she knew nothing about. She got a rise out of waiters—I was born in Alexandria! she’d spring on them, eager as a schoolgirl. Charmed, they’d respond: Sawa sawa! She followed stray cats into alleyways while children watched. She flirted with the handsome policeman on the midan, and to my dismay he flirted back, but he wouldn’t let her take his picture. She promised to mail everyone prints and jotted down addresses in her little notebook. I don’t know if she kept her promises.

Hoda shot inanimate objects too, like the 7UP advertisement on the side of a building, a monumental soda bottle that mimicked the minaret next door. She shot donkey carts, parked cars, shuttered windows, open doorways, broken fences, walls with geometric patterns, graffiti, garbage bins. She shot whatever she felt would make a good picture. Not everyone appreciated her choice of subject matter. 

Why are you taking pictures of our beggars? asked Auntie Horeya. Anxious to be up on All Things Hoda, she’d invited us over for lunch before the other aunties thought of it. Horeya’s apartment was hot and airless with its shutters closed against the sun. I sat on the edge of a Louis Farouk chair, my sweaty thighs stuck to each other, while Hoda and Zeineb occupied the more comfortable sofa. Horeya wore a loose green housedress with a white zigzag pattern, and her hair, dyed black with henna highlights, was pulled back into a taut bun to reveal a stripe of white roots along the central parting. She talked at us non-stop, her hands moving knife-like through the air, pausing now and then to berate her maid who soon fled to another room. Leaning in close to refill my cup with tea, Horeya murmured in a confidential tone something I couldn’t decipher. She stopped mid-sentence as if she’d forgotten something and turned to address Hoda in a loud shrill voice: Why must you take pictures of our garbage? Is this how you want the world to see us?


Auntie Zahya bought Hoda and I tickets for a Nile cruise. It was a generous gift, somewhat pricey, and would prove more memorable than, say, an afternoon spent eating Horeya’s over-spiced hummus. First they flew us to Aswan, where the heat hit us like a wall. We soaked our bandanas in water from our plastic bottles and stuffed them under our hats, but the water evaporated instantly. I felt desiccated like a paper doll—I was never cut out for the desert—but Hoda looked radiant. The creeping arthritis that plagued her body had vanished. 

Somewhere, we knew, a small riverboat awaited us. We congregated with our soon-to-be fellow passengers in the only shade, a patch cast by three spindly trees—how did they survive, I wondered—and looked out across the mud-brown river at the far bank of rose colored stone and the endless desert beyond it. We then boarded a coach to Abu Simbel, where busloads of English and German tourists sat waiting, their faces suppurating in the sun. At last, the tour manager led us to our vessel. It was named Hoda Floating Hotel. Hoda was delighted. 

After dropping our bags in our cabin, Hoda and I wandered the length and breadth of the Hoda to orient ourselves. We climbed to the upper deck and discovered its tiny swimming pool. Below decks we found a dining room that doubled as a dance floor, and a canteen that sold bottled aspirin, boxes of tissue, and bars of soap. Satisfied we’d seen all we needed to see, we stood at the rail to watch the remaining passengers climb the gangway: a threesome of Italian men, a Parisian woman d’un certain age accompanied by her son, and a chic couple from Yemen that worked for an airline. They became the group we sat with every evening at dinner. 

Local boys who were fluent in various languages had been hired to serve as our guides. Whenever we spilled into the dining room, Abada, the Italian guide, made emotive announcements with a bullhorn to recruit people for ballroom dancing, board games, and masquerade parties. The very first evening at dinner, our cohort reached a consensus about the menu—roast squab, when available, was the most desirable plat, and no one should ever risk the fish. I made a mental note to try the fish at some point.

Hoda Floating Hotel chugged lazily across Lake Nasser and then downriver, stopping at a different point of interest each day. Men and boys selling bottled water and local crafts waited for us along the riverbank wherever we docked, and small children materialized to demand baksheesh. Our guides led us through the ancient ruins, narrating their stories in a cacophony of European languages as we wandered among the stones. In a cul-de-sac at Philae Temple, our English-speaking guide Anwar attempted to grope me, but I peeled away when he paused to take a drag from his cigarette.

Over the course of the cruise, Hoda stole one of every item that bore the boat’s logo with her name on it—objects small enough to hide in her backpack under her t-shirts. I watched her surreptitiously tuck away a cloth napkin, a menu, several bars of mini-soap, an ashtray, matchbooks, and a small ceramic bowl. 

When we weren’t sightseeing on land, Hoda spent her time on the upper deck braced against the rail, her camera pointed at the shore. By then, the Nile had shifted from its mud-brown roiling to a flat expanse of green. We passed a small island covered with tree herons, some with red crests and blue legs, and some with yellow legs. Dragonflies fluttered about. I could make out the vegetation on the riverbank, which seemed closer than it was: Canary Island palms, acacias, flamboyantes, bougainvillea, banyan trees. At a distance, women on the shore appeared as tiny colorful dots. 

Most mornings, before the mounting heat became intolerable, we lounged by the pool, where deckhands with pool implements sat staring at us from the shade of the wheelhouse. I’d strip down to my full piece bathing suit, wrap myself in a towel, and turn to my novel, The Golden Notebook. I’d never read Doris Lessing before. The blurb on the back described it as “inner space fiction” where the recently divorced protagonist writes novels within the novel, mainly about Africa and “Africa problems,” while negotiating a series of mental breakdowns—the “hazards of being a free woman”!—against a backdrop of societal fragmentation. 

It was a dark book—Doris Lessing was a true Cassandra—and I thought it might serve as my model and guide. But while The Golden Notebook was gloomy enough to align with my 20-something’s tastes, I disliked reading it. I found it plodding and impenetrable, and I knew I would never finish it. Still, I kept it beside me like a talisman—a blue bead to ward away the evil eye. Once in a while I’d open it to a random page and read. “The vaginal orgasm is a dissolving in a vague, dark generalized sensation like being swirled in a warm whirlpool,” I read as a kingfisher glided over the Hoda.

What are you reading? asked Hoda as she loaded a roll of film into her Nikon. As usual, she was distracted by her camera. The Golden Notebook, I replied. I wanted to tell her more. There was so much I wanted to tell her, but I knew she wasn’t listening. 

That night, I ordered the fish. The waiter was unfazed. No one said anything when he set down my plate of flakey white flesh garnished with an afterthought of parsley. It lay skin side down in a slick of clarified butter, wan baby potatoes clumped by its side. I squeezed leymoun over everything and ate. I cleaned my plate. That night, I was hit with a case of Pharaoh’s Revenge. A cup of hot tea might have helped, but tea was impossible to find at that hour. I unearthed the packets of saltines Hoda had squirreled away in her backpack—saltines, I’d heard, did the trick—and ate them. 

Early the next morning, I woke from a fitful sleep to find Hoda up and dressed, zipping fresh rolls of film into the pockets of her camera bag. We were all supposed to visit the Valley of the Kings that day. She felt my forehead and frowned. I was too sick to go anywhere, she said. She fed me two aspirin before heading off to shoot the ancient colossi without me. 

Hoda spent our final day chatting and exchanging addresses with our dinner companions and other new friends she’d made. I noticed her backpack was bursting with the Hoda memorabilia she’d accumulated. That evening, after the sun had set, I wandered alone onto the foredeck. The sky was dark, and yet somehow filled with light—stars!—vast and empty, and at the same time, replete. I felt overwhelmed by the beauty and unknowable nature of everything, and a sense of calm washed through me for the first time since we’d boarded the Hoda

Masaʾ al-khayr! I turned to see the tour manager emerging from the shadows. Izzayik? I wondered how long he’d been standing there watching me watch the sky. In a rare but fleeting moment of equanimity, we stood together in silence under the stars. I wondered if he remembered my name and couldn’t recall his, but before I could ask he had taken my hand to invite me to return with him to Aswan. He offered me a salary and a private room. It was narrow up there on the foredeck, and I could feel his breath on my face. As I backed away, he promised to teach me the words in Arabic for all the different parts of my body.


In the meantime, a drama had been unfolding in our absence. A few days after we’d flown to Aswan, a tourist boat sank in Lake Nasser. It was all over the news. Everyone on board had perished. Passengers that couldn’t swim drowned instantly, and those that could were stung to death by scorpions as they swam to shore. Hoda’s older sister, my Auntie Safi, had been calling Zeineb and Magdi long distance from Washington every day, but no one had any news for her. Names of the dead had not been released, and no one could say for sure whether or not the sunken tourist boat was ours. No one in our family knew the name of our boat. They had no idea it was Hoda Floating Hotel.