All her life, she had been looking for a mind to grasp her unspeakable thoughts and a soul to embrace her inexpressible feelings—rather than merely a heart to love her or an eye to covet her, let alone a body to use her own. She contemplated this old wish—always hiding in her head, refusing to lose hope, yet clinging to very little of it—while making coffee in the early morning.
That Saturday was special. She was going to meet her old friend who came to Ottawa on a business trip for a couple of days. When she had received Nour’s letter a month earlier, Alena could not believe her eyes. They had not written to each other for years. It was a surprise for Alena, breaking the daily routine of her life, which was mainly going to work, reading books, and watching movies.
She sat at the round kitchen table and turned the radio on, breathing the fresh air filled with the petrichor. The tablecloth and the window curtain, patterned with all kinds of fruits and vegetables on an amber background, were dancing in the breeze to the musical tones of the windchime. The window overlooked a quiet path, with tall, old White Spruce trees on both sides, leading to a gazebo in the middle of a public garden.
Alena listened attentively to the news, as the radio was her only connection with the outer world to keep her informed of what was going on. She rarely watched TV. After the news, she changed the radio station to the international one, which had a specific time for each culture. It was the time for the musical Turkish program. Although she did not understand the lyrics, she still enjoyed the tunes. The songs reminded her of life itself—a beautiful melody with words written in a language she did not comprehend. Alena lived alone but seldom felt lonely. Books, songs, pictures, and movies were her ever-faithful companions; they rarely disappointed her.
After she had finished her cup of coffee, she visited her best friend, the indoor jasmine tree in the corner of her kitchen. She watered it gently, admiring how peacefully graceful it was; she was almost talking to the plant to say good morning. The fragrance of jasmine reminded her of the warmth of home; there was a bigger jasmine tree in the backyard of the five-story apartment building where she grew up.
Satisfied with how she looked in the mirror, she took the car keys and started her drive to downtown. They were going to meet for breakfast at the Baker Street Café, a walking distance from the Ottawa River. She spent the half-hour drive thinking about many stories she had lived, and many people she had known in Egypt before she had left forever. She had many questions for Nour about her and the rest of their friends, whom she had not seen or heard from for decades.
She had been thinking about Nour’s visit since the previous night, which brought memories back to her sight and mind, memories as old as her grandmother. Doris, with her fiancé, had moved from Athens to Alexandria after World War I, when both she and the century were in their early twenties. The war had destroyed a great deal of Europe’s beauty and security. She came to Egypt to start a new life, along with many Europeans, hoping to take refuge in the safe, elegant, and developed country, back then.
Doris, her paternal grandmother, was the only reason Alena could still remember a few Greek words—she always spoke to her in Greek. However, Alena’s mother, Leila, born and raised in Alexandria to an Egyptian mother and a Greek father, did not speak one word of Greek. Neither Leila nor Panos, Alena’s father, had ever seen Greece; neither of them came from a rich family who could afford the flight tickets at the time. World War II erupted while they were teenagers and continued until they were in their early twenties. They stayed shielded in Egypt, even though Alexandria was not too far from the battlefields. After all, they were both born and raised in Egypt, and Leila’s blood was half Egyptian, although her soul was entirely so.
Alena recalled Sunday mornings, when her grandmother took her and her sister to the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria. After nearly every mass, they went for a walk by the ancient Mediterranean Sea. She loved listening to the waves mingling with her grandmother’s soft, dear voice, telling tales about her beloved country on the opposite shore.
Alena experienced the strongest Greek influence through her grandparents on her father’s side, yet she also felt a solid connection with Egypt. Her exposure to the Greek culture ended with her grandmother’s death when she was in high school, while her Egyptian culture expanded from her birth and during her youth, until she decided to leave for good and come to Canada.
She grew up the same way as the other Egyptian children, among whom she barely felt different. Later, during her years in the university and at work, she did not experience the persecution, unlike many Christians in Egypt. Most of her close friends were Muslims, one of whom was Nour.
Soaked in her sweet and sour memories, Alena found herself downtown Ottawa, only two blocks away from the coffee shop, where they were about to meet. She parked her tiny car and had to walk for about five minutes. She loved to walk under the tender sun of the autumn and watch the amazing colours of the leaves. She contemplated the paradoxical beauty of the trees, growing old and dying around her.
Arriving early, she entered the small bistro and asked for a table for two. Leaving her purse on the opposite seat, she sat down on hers and started her favoured hobby of all times, to look around and observe people. There was a young lady sitting by herself, worried and confused, looking at her watch every second, until her long-awaited knight showed up, apologising many times for being late and providing his excuses. They fell into a hot, romantic dialogue full of emotions, dreams, and promises.
Alena was taken to their little world, while they were building together their charming sand castle on the unrealistic beach of their unknown future. Apparently, it’s just the beginning; any love story always starts with the same words and repeated promises at all times everywhere, she thought. I wonder how it’s going to end, though.
While Alena was lost in thought, Nour arrived looking for her, and when she found her, she walked toward the table and burst into her well-known, loud laughter.
“Seriously, Alena, you still drown absentmindedly in your deep thoughts, like you always did,” Nour teased her.
Her laughter woke Alena up, and she jumped from her seat. They held each other tight for as long as the many years that separated them, until their eyes sparkled with some tears. They stared at each other for a few seconds, until they both uttered at the very same moment, “You haven’t changed a bit.”
Nour sat down on the opposite chair. As always, Nour took the initiative and said, “Alena, I haven’t realised how much I missed you until now. You have kids. Right?” “Yes, I have Youssef and Rashi. They both go to McGill University in Montreal.”
“And how is Magued?”
Alena stayed silent for a few seconds, then answered, “I’m sure he’s doing very well.”
“What do you mean?” Nour asked.
“Magued and I got divorced a few years ago.”
“What? I can’t believe it. After your famous fairy-tale-like love story?”
“Oh yes, believe it. There’s nothing in this world too hard to believe,” Alena said, having trouble maintaining eye contact.
“But why?” Nour asked, wide-eyed. “The small details of daily life.”
“The small details of daily life!” Nour echoed Alena in a confused shock; she expected to hear that there had been another woman, for example, or a long story with as much suspense as she saw in movies and read in books. She could hardly believe that reality was much simpler than she could imagine. Wondering what Alena meant by that, Nour asked, “What do you mean?”
“I couldn’t live with him in the same house or share the same kind of life any longer,” Alena said. “He had his own way of living that made him feel comfortable, and so did I. The problem was, the two ways were very different. And it’s not fair to force the lifestyle you choose on someone else to the point that it turns their life into hell.”
“Did he leave you so easily?” Nour asked.
“Of course not. No man leaves a woman just like that, even if he doesn’t want her. A man usually considers his woman as one of his possessions,” said Alena in a cracked tone and with avoiding Nour’s eyes, trying to escape the subject.
Alena and Magued had met when she started her first job. Marrying an Egyptian was no issue, because she always viewed herself as one. One year after their marriage, they both felt that Egypt was not the place where they wanted to raise their children. Egypt was no longer the beautiful and safe country to which her grandparents had fled fifty years earlier.
In the seventies of the twentieth century, Egypt became financially challenging and economically discouraging for the new generations. The Islamic ideologists’ influence, creeping from the newly rich neighbouring country dominating the Arabian Peninsula, gradually conquered the Egyptian soil. And the Islamic extremists’ stances found their secret ways to penetrate the soft skin of the Egyptian soul.
Alena and Magued felt strangers in their own land. She thought of moving to Greece, but Magued had a broader vision, which she happened to like. Finally, they ended up in peaceful Canada, where they had both of their children, and where Alena lived, satisfied until that day.
Surely, there was so much to say about the reasons for their divorce, but Alena preferred to keep it all to herself, especially that those stories were already fading away in her memory. She was not interested in bringing them back to life. In an attempt to open a new subject, Alena looked at Nour and asked, “Tell me now, do you have children?”
“I never got married in the first place,” Nour answered.
“How come? Weren’t you and Nader engaged when I left Egypt?”
“Yes, we were engaged. We broke up, and since then, I haven’t met the one and only yet. If I had been married, I wouldn’t have reached my position at work now. My life is revolving around work. I am the Regional Director of Marketing and Public Relations at one of the largest investment corporations in the Middle East,” said Nour, steepling her fingers.
“You’re right. When a woman gets married and has children, she spends all her time for her family and home,” said Alena, twisting her ring. “Still, some women can do both at the same time. I don’t know how, though.”
“I don’t know how, either,” Nour agreed.
“I can only focus on one thing. That’s why I wasted all my life on my children. Well, I shouldn’t say wasted, but, sadly, this is exactly how I feel now,” Alena said, looking down at the table. “I work with the city now; it’s a decent job, for which I’m thankful.”
“You know something,” Nour said, “I don’t really care for getting married or being in a relationship anymore; what I truly miss is having my own son or daughter.”
“Children are a gift from heaven,” Alena said, “but once they grow up and become independent, it’s over. What I mean is, having children won’t make a big difference in the end. Look at me! I have a girl and a boy, but I also live alone. I realised that I can be the best company for myself.” Alena pressed her hands to her cheeks.
“I can’t say that I’m lonely. As you know, I can’t live without people. Half of my life is for work, and the other half is with family and friends,” said Nour, “yet having my own children would be something else. How about you? Do you have friends here in Canada?”
“For sure, I know many people in Ottawa, but at the end of the day, everyone is busy with their own lives.”
It was time to look at the menu and choose what to order. They skimmed through the menu quietly until they both knew what they wanted and ordered the food. Soon after that, their breakfast was ready and served on the table.
For a little while, silence prevailed; each of them examined the other secretly and wondered if she had changed. Alena scanned Nour’s face; she noticed that her hair was bleached; she had never seen her blonde before. Did she bleach it just for a change or to cover the grey hair? she silently asked.
Alena also observed that Nour’s face was relaxed, with close to no wrinkles, unlike hers.
“Maybe because she never got pregnant or stayed up the long nights?” pondered Alena.
Similarly, Nour inspected Alena in silence, looking at her from the corners of her eyes as she ate. She found Alena as she had always been: simple, elegant, and pretty. Alena was wearing a brown outfit, square sky-blue topaz earrings matching the tint of her eyeshadow, and a pink scarf around her neck in tune with her lipstick.
Nour noticed that Alena’s hair was not dyed. Alena had lived all her life with her natural hair colour. Even when she saw some grey hair, she didn’t mind. Her hair was almost black—dark brown in the indoor light, but the sun rays added a burgundy tone to it. It was the colour of eggplants, and it deliciously agreed with her olive skin.
Nour noticed that Alena’s brown eyes still had the same continuous bewilderment and mysterious embarrassment. What Nour was busy thinking about, however, was how to restart the conversation; she was looking for a question to ask or a subject to open. Nour was a good speaker who grabbed people’s attention by her talk and laughter. Alena rarely spoke but listened and contemplated profoundly.
“Is there a man in your life?” Nour asked curiously.
“No, there isn’t. They’re all friends,” Alena answered.
“Why just friends?”
“Because it’s better that way. How about you?” Alena asked.
“I’ve met many men in my life, but the story ends there every time. And the older I get, the harder it is. Now, I have my position at work, my own house and a lifestyle that I’ve chosen for myself. It’s hard to find a suitable man who deserves a sacrifice of any of that. So, for me, it’s the same; they’re all just friends.” Nour shrugged.
“I totally understand because I have very similar circumstances. I told you, sometimes being alone can be a blessing. Tell me, then, have you ever thought of leaving Egypt and moving somewhere else?”
“I could never leave Egypt.” Nour’s lips stretched in a confident smile. “What are you talking about? Why would I? I’d be like a fish out of water. In my eyes, Egypt is the most beautiful country in the world.” She sipped some of her apple juice.
“I’m surprised. For me, Egypt was like a prison: an intellectual, emotional, and social prison,” Alena said, slicing up the crepes.
“I feel you’re talking about another Egypt,” Nour reflected, adding some pepper to her omelette. “But are you happy here? I mean, you’ll never be Canadian, after all. You’ll always be looked at as an immigrant.”
“Well, I didn’t choose how I look, where I was born or grew up, or who my parents were. What I chose was to come to this land named Canada to start a new life,” Alena answered Nour, looking her in the eye. “What makes me Canadian is not my skin colour or English accent, but whether or not I share and respect the Canadian values.”
Neither ashamed nor proud of being Egyptian, Alena considered it a fact that she had never chosen and would never be able to change. What she certainly sensed was, she did not fit in, in the Egyptian society.
Nothing in the world frustrated her more than the unfair, huge social gap dividing the country into a remarkably rich minority, an extremely poor majority, and a vanishing middle class in between. Good education and health care were provided only to those who could afford to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds, yet the vast majority of people were left with no choice but the neglected and corrupted public schools and hospitals.
Poverty and illiteracy worsened the backward mentality and social traditions belittling women in the Middle Eastern cultures. Corruption spread like cancer in the country on all levels and in every domain. The stubborn mindset could not accept different beliefs and ruined even the most intimate relationships among friends and neighbours.
Alena had no desire to go back, not even for a visit. None of her family was there to go visit, anyway. Her parents had passed away, and two years later, her only sister, Liliana, decided to move with her own small family to Toronto.
When Alena had first moved to Ottawa, she found it easy to adjust to the Canadian traditions. The Canadian culture seemed appealing to her, and the language was no barrier. Yet she did not completely mingle in the Canadian world. At times, she still felt like an outsider.
Never in her entire life did she find a tribe to be part of or a land to belong to; there was always something missing. She was too Egyptian and Middle-Eastern to be Greek, too modern and practical to be Egyptian, and too sophisticated and Mediterranean to be Canadian. Sometimes it was so confusing that she felt she was born either on the wrong planet or perhaps in the mistaken century.
Time flew, and before they knew it, it was already 1:00 P.M. Nour looked at her watch and realised it was time to go; she had to be at the airport in two hours to catch her flight back to Cairo. Her business trip was over, and it ended with the sweetest opportunity to see Alena and spend good time with her. They hugged and promised they would always stay in touch until another occasion would unite them once more. Each one went her way.
Alena took her car and drove back. She turned the radio on, only to hear them still talking about the EgyptAir plane that had crashed in the Atlantic Ocean, suggesting that it might have been a suicidal attempt by one of the co-pilots. Then, they kept discussing the Y2K crisis. “How depressing this ugly world is becoming,” she said, turning the radio off with her trembling hand. She wondered whether the new millennium would bring any joy to this miserable world, or would only add more hatred, insecurity, and distrust.
She considered Nour’s visit, which had shaken the solid ground of her boring life like a 7.5 Richter earthquake. She felt lost. She had a longing to go home; she just did not know where home was. Perhaps this encounter with Nour after all these years had awoken emotions and thoughts inside her that had been snoozing for a long time, brought back memories she had always tried to avoid, or rather put the spotlight on her in front of herself and made her rethink her entire life. It made her think about ‘Alena’. Is it too late for me? she asked herself.
She questioned if she honestly enjoyed her aloneness, or if she isolated herself from the world, wasting her days. She wondered if she was truly satisfied with her life, or she passively accepted it. She could not believe how fast the years slipped through her fingers when she tried to remember one thing she did to prove she could succeed in something. The emptiness of her life, in the last few years, had gradually formed a depressing surrounding of which she was hardly aware. And without noticing, she gave in to the stillness of her lifeless routine day after day.
She opened the door of her apartment while the phone was ringing. She ran to answer. “Hello.”
“Hi, Alena. Where have you been all day? I called you six times.”
“Hi Lili. I had an interesting, long day with Nour, my friend from Alexandria.”
“I barely remember her, but that’s so cool.”
“Yeah, it was nice,” said Alena as she laid her purse on the coffee table. “She has a prestigious position with a big corporation. She never got married, though. I was surprised.”
“But she’s happy. At least she’s established a career.” Alena sank in the armchair.
“How are your other two friends?” Liliana asked.
“Hoda is an English Literature Professor at the University of Alexandria. And Noha moved to England with her husband. She works as a translator,” said Alena, losing her focus in the pattern of the rug underneath her feet.
“Do you have plans for Thanksgiving? Are the kids coming to see you?” Liliana asked. “No. They’re too busy,” Alena answered in a flat tone.
“Are you alright?” Liliana wondered.
“I think so. I mean, it sounds like I’m the only one of them who didn’t really accomplish anything,” Alena said, playing with her hair.
“You’ve raised two wonderful people.”
“What have I done for myself, though? Nothing! I used my children as an excuse. What did I do with my life? Where did the time go? I’ve wasted all my life waiting for the right time to start doing something for myself. And this right time never came.”
“You worked. You have a good job.”
“But I failed to build a career. I could’ve done my graduate studies, but I chose not to. My life has been purposeless. I failed my marriage. I’m not even sure if I was a good mother.”
“Don’t be too hard on yourself, Alena. You’re a great mother and your children love you. You’re not the only woman who got divorced. And it was your wish anyway.”
“I never knew what I wanted. Until this moment, I don’t know what I want. My life is tasteless. I need to have a goal. A dream. Something to live for.” She rose and walked around, as she talked.
“You’re smart. You always got the best grades in class. Remember?”
“What have I done with my good grades? Nothing.”
“You’re talented, Alena. Remember when you decided to paint again?”
“Haven’t even started.”
“Ask yourself why. Promise yourself this time to start something and finish it.”
“I know for sure I’m not stupid. I know I’m not lazy. But I also know that my dilemma is I don’t know what I want. I never cared for academia. Having a career was not my ultimate ambition. A job for me is just something to pay my bills and keep me busy.”
“Be thankful then.”
“I am thankful, but I’m not fulfilled. There’s something missing. I think I can do more. I feel like a part of me still needs to be identified. I’ve wasted my life. There’s no one to blame but myself.” Alena plunged in the armchair once more.
“You did the best you could. Stop blaming yourself for everything,” Liliana said.
“I feel sorry for myself.” Alena wrapped a curl around her finger.
“You need to find a man, Alena,” Liliana suggested.
“I need to find myself first,” Alena sighed.
Alena ended her phone call, turned the radio on, and started wandering in the apartment. She stopped in front of every picture on the walls. She went in both bedrooms as if she was looking for something. She opened her closet, looked through her clothes and then closed it again. She went to the kitchen and drank a glass of water.
She glanced at the dying sunflowers in the big pot on the balcony, drying up under the sun. She stood for a minute, contemplating behind the closed glass balcony doors. As she walked by the bathroom, she noticed her figure in the mirror. She stopped, walked closer, and stared at her face and body for a long time. Her wrinkles seemed deeper, the grey hair increased, and her body was heavier than she had last noticed.
She found herself in front of the storage room. It was cluttered with plastic bags of some shoes and clothes she had been meaning to donate, and a box of books she was yet to read. Another box was on the shelf, full of video and cassette tapes. Some pictures were stacked behind the boxes against the wall that she had intended to hang but never had. She found the acrylic colours containers, the canvas frames, and the easel she had bought months earlier, in the far-left corner. She took the painting materials out and placed them on the dining table.
Already feeling hungry, Alena went to the kitchen, drank water again, and prepared a simple meal for her dinner: avocados, beets, baked corn, and cooked chickpeas, garnished with diced tomatoes and chopped cilantro, and seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice, cumin, salt, and pepper. The dish looked like one of the colourful paintings she had painted in the past. After her small meal, she made her daily hot drink of ginger, cinnamon, lemon, and honey, turned off the radio, and went to the living room.
Starting to feel the life in her blood, she turned on her CD player to listen to a collection of songs from the sixties. She delighted in the old songs as she admired the tableaux on the walls. Paintings and melodies were the two wings with which Alena flew in her skies of comfort. And the higher she went, the smaller the world appeared in her eyes.
The sage walls of her small apartment were covered with pictures and paintings of all sizes and types: mostly family photos, panoramic pictures of natural sceneries, vivid paintings by local artists, whom she was always keen on supporting. In her bedroom, a big picture of Queen Cleopatra was above her bed. On the nightstand lay a book The Life and Death of Hypatia of Alexandria, and stood an elegant, antique lamp.
Trying to warm herself up in that cold night, she held her hot tall cup between her hands and stood in front of the fireplace and her bookshelves, gazing at all the books she had read and trying to remember what each of them was about.
There was the Greek mythology collection on the top shelf, next to the Bible, and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The scent of history revived her soul. On the second shelf were English literature books from her undergraduate university degree and others: Novels, plays, and anthologies. She grabbed Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw and smiled; she leafed through some pages and put it back. When she saw Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, she felt like reading it again. The third shelf had Egyptian and Canadian novels, short story collections, and a few books of poetry.
Getting tired of standing, she went to her desk, sat down, opened the top drawer, and took out her thick notebook, where she wrote every night before going to bed. That night, she chose to read rather than write. She flipped the pages and read lines here and there: some written years earlier, and some, only a few days back. A few forgotten lines made her stop and read them out loud.
The strong woman always looks for a stronger man; the intelligent woman does not mind if her man is more intelligent; the brave woman is pleased to find a man, braver than her. Is this how things normally are? Is it really an instinct in every woman, as women always convince themselves? Or are they accumulations in the subconscious of humanity, piled up for centuries because of the patriarchal world, which always indirectly tells women they are inferior? Where did the goddesses of the ancient civilisations go? Why has the female half of the Universe been hidden all those centuries?
Alena glanced at the framed photo of her grandmother and grinned. It was Doris who had named her ‘Alena’ and always reminded her that her name had a purposeful meaning: Protector of humanity, which, to Alena, did not make much sense. How could anybody protect humanity, anyway, and protect it from what or whom? she wondered. Later, she had learned that her name also meant ‘light’ in Greek, which made her wonder more and ask herself if it was light that could protect humanity. “Is it the light of knowledge? Or the light of faith? Or perhaps both!” she asked.
Alena took the last sip of her drink, closed the notebook, and laid it gently on the desk. She reclined in the chair, contemplating why she would not write for others to share with them her reflections. Staring at her painting materials, she spent a long time conversing internally with herself, diving into her deep soul. She asked questions and searched for answers, striving to pinpoint what type of writing would best fulfill her potential.
And that night, she made the decision that started a new chapter of her life. She would write short stories. They are condensed, focused, fast and easy to read, coping with the fast rhythm of today’s world, she concluded. Writing literary fiction would allow room for her artistic creativity. Writing a short story would be like painting a scene. “After all, life is nothing but a collection of short stories,” she said.
Perhaps it was time for Alena’s sunrise to crack the dull skies of her long nights. It was a moment of self-discovery; a flicker of hope sparked in her head, leading her to the right path. It took her forty-five years to unearth her gift, yet her passion succeeded in reaching out to her heart overnight. The cloudiness of not fully knowing her strength began to clear the way for the rays of self-awareness to glare. She always valued art, but she had never known until that day she could also create it. And since she felt she did not belong anywhere in this world, she decided to create her own universe with words and colours.
Accepting the reality of being a late bloomer in life, Alena reconciled with herself. “I know it’s never too late,” she thought, “I just wish I’d started earlier.” Yet deep down inside, she was thankful she had waited for her fruit to fully ripen before picking it. It was all worth it.
She took a brand-new notebook and a pen out of the drawer, and started to write—not for herself, but for her future readers, letting them explore what was inside her, the notions in her head, and the emotions in her heart. Alena was all set to unleash her suppressed feelings and guarded thoughts. She was ready to get naked in front of her audience, with no shame of timidity or fear of insecurity. She would let her pen freely draw on paper what she saw in her imagination. And she went on writing the first line of her first short story.