Outside, the air had almost cleared. Samira checked her blood sugar and decide to go for a walk. Who knew what might have changed in the years since she'd been gone? She rummaged in her luggage for a pair of trousers, looped the blue silk of her scarf loosely around her head and slipped into a pair of shoes more suited for navigating the treacherous paving of Cairo.
The noise of the city hit her in a roaring gale. She'd been so dazed from the flight that she'd barely noticed, but now, on the street, it was almost unbearable. For a moment she considered hailing a cab, but decided that she needed to walk. The scent of diesel and heat played on her memories, bringing back a flood of disassociated images – the gleaming metal boot of the family sedan, a moonlit night on the roof of the house, the feeling of her tiny fingers encapsulated in the calloused hand of her father.
She paused for a moment in the center of 6th October Bridge. A few feluccas plied the water beneath, one filled with raucous tourists and blasting music. From this spot, the river looked curiously petty and unimportant. As a girl, it seemed to extend forever, and she'd forever heard about how it was the heart and lifeblood of Egypt. But the water in front of her now was dull and murky, narrower than the Thames and filled with petty fishing craft instead of freighters and speedboats.
With a sigh, she turned towards Zamalek and walked on, fingers trailing along the railing of the bridge. A few cars honked as they rolled by, although she wasn't sure whether it was at her or just part of the general chaos.
Reaching the the end of the bridge, she turned off into the quieter streets that made up the rest of Zamalek, winding avenues lined with high walls and trees arcing over the scarred pavement. For a while, she walked by the sprawling, dilapidated grounds of the Gezira Club, with its derelict buildings and overgrown plants. Its history was filled with different uses – a racing track, a social venue, an athletic club. It seemed permanently half in use and half in decay, a colonial relic dissolving into obscurity but hanging on by the strength of its reputation.
It also played host to a horde of horse-drawn carts, giving it a pungent odor of manure which wafted across the avenue. Many of the carriages were elaborate and astonishingly tacky affairs that hauled tourists around the island at exorbitant rates.
The guards of the Russian Embassy stared impassively through her as she passed in front of it. Half of the buildings on the island were embassies and government offices. The thought disquieted her.
A few boys kicked a football back and forth on the street, bouncing it off of cars and trees and flipping it with their heels. There was no structure to the game – it flowed over curbs and around the meager, slow traffic, tumbling over itself in the flush of youth. They paused for a moment and one looked as if he would catcall her, but Samira fixed his eyes with hers and he blushed before throwing himself back into the contest.
She paused for a moment in front of a shabby newsstand selling magazines, cigarettes and ancient cassette tapes which lay stacked in a kind of plastic mural of Egyptian popstars, bygone Western singles and Islamic sermons. Fawning press photos of President Mubarak stared back out at her, his face in different iterations of wise, aloof, fierce and noble, lording over Egypt like a latter-day pharaoh.
The idea put her in a foul mood and half out of spite she bought a pack of Viceroy cigarettes.
Three blocks passed before she realized she had no matches. The pack now sat in the bottom of her purse like a tiny brick, weighing on her consciousness. A little less than two years ago she'd smoked her last cigarette – or at least, so she'd planned.
Her ruminations brought her to her destination without warning. In front of her, the familiar cement wall loomed high, topped with a new addition of curled, rusting razor wire. The spreading palm in the courtyard arced over the wrought iron of the gates, as tall as she remembered. Was this a trick of memory or had it really grown?
She peered through the gate at the entryway, lined with flowers and bushes. It looked dilapidated, overgrown – the gravel lay in erratic lumps and whorls. The paint, too, had faded over the years, its crisp whiteness smudged to a dingy grey. A colony of feral cats squatted in the shadow of the staircase, lean and hungry even in their indolence. One of them whisked its tail as it gazed at her, the only break in their placid indifference.
She drank in every detail – the windows, now listing slightly in their frames; the climbing plants that crept in random patterns up the walls; the broken and missing tiles on the roof; and the asymmetry of the great double doors, one missing its brass door-knocker. The whole thing seemed to be a dream or a reflection in dirty water. Was this really the great house of her youth? Now, more than ever, she wished for a cigarette to smoke.