Samira leaned heavily on the door of the main campus building. The wooden doors opened with a grudging squeal of hinges into the dim, arched stairway, rows of marble steps illuminated with shafts of lighting cutting through the dust filled air. It was quiet; the sounds of the city faded into a a distant hum. She padded softly up the steps, footfalls echoing under the arched ceiling. She'd always loved the High Orientalist drama of the building's architecture, particularly the high arches that absorbed sound like a vault.
A back door hidden in an out of the way nook led her out on to the roof of the building, overlooking the courtyard with its fountains and spreading trees providing pools of shade. The top of the AUC building was a strange and somewhat random mess of worker's shacks, air conditioners, skylights and a peculiar, winding path that traced its way around the entire complex. She followed it now, ignoring the bemused looks of a few of the university's laborers taking time off for a smoke. Finally, she found the door she'd been looking for and slipped inside.
She found the office without trouble. The door was ajar, still plastered in yellow, curling clips from the Times of London, Al-Akhbar, and a dozen other papers. The nameplate had fallen at an alarming angle, held on by a single rusted screw, and a folder bulging with students papers listed at a similarly perilous slant. With a light knock, she pushed the door open.
“Yaa ustaaza!” she cried. Her voice raised itself louder than she'd meant to, and Professor Khalida Maalouf started, nearly knocking over a cup of coffee. She peered at Samira over gold, half-moon reading glasses. “Remember me, ustaaza?”
Professor Maalouf blinked. “Samira? What are you doing here?” She raised herself out of her chair, brushing away the hand Samira offered in support and grasping her head for a firm kiss on each cheek. Samira felt a wave of nostalgia at the sandalwood scent of her imported perfume and the firm, dry sensation of her palms. “My god, how many years....” The diminutive woman rushed about the room moving papers and books, clearing a space in the encroaching chaos that had only reached new heights since Samira had last seen the office. A line of gilt-edged bone china coffee cups marched across an Alpine range of scholarly journals and essays like Hannibal's elephants, and she had to steady a few as Khalida shuffled paper aside.
“Sit down, sit down,” she insisted. “Here, I'll call Mehmet for some coffee.”
“Sayyida, that's not...”
“Oh, don't call me sayyida, please, it's absurd. I'm not Methsuelah,” the professor cut her off. “Mehmet!” she cried through the open door.
A tall, somewhat absurdly good-looking young man appeared at the door, the almost feminine angles of his face marred only by a patchy beard and the rough zebiba that came from excessive devotion during daily prayers. He wore a pair of ancient trousers, cuffed high in the style of devout Muslims, and, incongruously, a faded Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt. “Two coffees for Samira and myself, please,”she asked in English.”
“Yaa, sayyida.” He padded away silently on a pair of battered leather slippers that seemed to be held together more by faith than thread. “Incorrigible,” growled Khalida. “He's a nice enough boy, although I don't think he approves of my clothes.”
If he was as orthodox a Muslim as he appeared, thought Samira, she'd have to agree. Though the professor was almost seventy, she still dressed with the same cosmopolitan, European flair she'd always displayed – a product of the monarchy and the Nasser years, her elegantly draped shawl and skirt-suit bespoke the kind of expensive, international refinement that had once defined Cairo's elite.
“So, Samira – of all the people I'd expect to see, you are definitely one of the most surprising.”
“I only just arrived this week. I'm taking the Cairo desk here,” she said, pride slipping into her voice despite her best efforts.