Live from Cairo
Hana slipped on the wet linoleum leading from baggage claim to Arrival Hall 1. No warning sign; no warning mop. She landed in the sitting position and watched her wheeled luggage roll unattended through customs. The fall ousted Hana from the trance caused by long, seemingly motionless travel; a curious lack of turbulence made it feel as if she’d spent all night pinned in the black yonder. Hana remembered waking full of dread somewhere over the Mediterranean. Her nightmare had been that she wasn’t moving. Move now, thought Hana. Stand up. She stood without making eye contact with onlookers. Then, unburdened of embarrassment, she chased her bags. “As-salamu alaikum,” said Hana as she passed the customs agent. Her rogue luggage had come to rest against a frosted-glass wall the height and width of the room. Installed therein was a frosted-glass door, beyond which lay her job, her purpose, her happiness. Finally, her life. Hana sped to the door, which slid open automatically. An air conditioner, mounted above and aimed straight down, blasted her kempt hair into a style more befitting her mood. She tucked the restive wisps behind her ears.
The arrival hall was almost empty, so Hana had no trouble finding the paper sign with her name on it. A tight cap hugged the driver’s fat head. “Welcome to Egypt!” he said.
“Everything was invented here. Poetry, science, math. The calendar, the plow.” Hana reached to shake his hand, but retracted at the last second. This wasn’t America, after all. She ought not to touch men she didn’t know. The driver led Hana at a brisk pace to the parking lot, where an ancient black Peugeot sat exactly parallel to the curb. “Please,” said the driver, gesturing to the back door. He loaded Hana’s bags into the trunk, then himself into the driver’s seat. “Here we go,” he said. In the mirror, the driver looked proud. As if God had delivered this task. You, drive! The car started begrudgingly but came to life when the driver throttled. The airport was suddenly a dim light in the rearview.
“Is there a seat belt back here?” asked Hana, fishing in the crevice of the seat. She quit fishing after concluding that, at this speed, the belt’s value was purely psychological.
“Don’t worry,” said the driver. “I’m Mustafa. Thirty years of legendary driving experience.”
The dark cinder-block city blurred past. Night even seeped into the main drags and busy intersections, as if streetlamps were designed to accentuate the dark instead of defend against it. The lamps whipped by so fast they appeared to stand at odd angles.
“Some people, they’re afraid of the revolution,” said Mustafa, as if he could sense Hana’s anxiety but couldn’t see it was his own fault. “I know it is a good thing coming. Mubarak is gone. God willing, the army will go soon. Oy, the army.”
Hana relaxed. Or told herself to relax while looking out the window for signs of protest. All the news, the viral imagery—everything she’d seen and read in the weeks preceding her arrival—suggested evidence of the uprising lay rampant in the streets. One photo had depicted a whole avenue blocked off by huge cement cubes that had been stacked into a wall by the army. Protesters had used that unyielding canvas to paint the exact image of the street that lay beyond. The optical illusion was itself an act of rebellion, as if to say, This wall doesn’t really exist. Hana thought there’d be more glass, more tires, more paper strewn on the sidewalks. The paper would be
leaflets and poetry and meeting places listed with dates and times, and xeroxed photos of martyrs.
“Do you mind?” asked Mustafa, tuning his radio. “My show is on.” White noise poured into the back of the cab. Eventually he found the station. A soap opera full of exaggerated crying sounds. “I hope you don’t mind. I have been waiting all week to find out what happens.”
Hana listened for stray words and phrases she remembered from her mother’s militant Arabic lessons. She’d only endured those lessons until she’d been old enough to mount an articulate protest against them. Hana had been seven at the time. “I don’t have anyone to talk to in this language but you,” she’d said. Now the radio offered a garbled story. Hana heard Please kiss me and Don’t leave. Then a struggle of some kind followed by a loud slap. The discrepancy between the number of words spoken and the number of words she understood was so severe that Hana leaned back into the seat cushion and regretted childhood. The rest of the drive passed at a speed enabled by that languor. The highway became a labyrinth of one-way streets. Downtown appeared around them.
“Ah,” said Mustafa as if he’d returned home after a long journey. “We’ve arrived.” Parallel parking required a surgical touch, though Mustafa made it look effortless. “Over there.” He gestured. “Sharia Mohammad Mahmoud. Mansour. That building.”
Hana recognized the cream bricks. Her new employer, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—mercifully referred to by its acronym, UNHCR—had sent pictures, a floor plan, a key. She reached into her pocket to confirm the key was still there. The crummy prison retained its tinny captive, which was strangely cold to the touch. Hana was so relieved she threw open the wrong door. The graver of her two mistakes was not looking for traffic. A passing car made contact, but just barely. The edge of her door peeled the blue paint off the passing car like dead skin. Screech owls would’ve sounded less piercing. The door, pulled open beyond the hinges’ limit, was stuck now at a gruesome angle. Brake lights bled red as the passing car came to a stop. Dust kicked up by the tires had
a spectral quality and wouldn’t settle. A sudden calm grew eerie amid the billow. Then, just as Hana was beginning to think she was having another nightmare—could dust really hang that way in the air without time having come to a stop?—the front door of the passing car cracked open. The driver rolled out. When he hit the pavement, he kept rolling. Back and forth as if he was in pain. Perhaps even near death. Oh shit, thought Hana. Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit. She tried to shut her door in an attempt to seclude herself from the mystery unfolding before her. Why did the man fall? How was he injured? Hana’s door wouldn’t shut, so she pulled harder. Her hands slipped off the plastic handle. The plastic felt like wax. Her palms were too sweaty.
Mustafa yelled out the window and honked his horn until the man writhing in the street reluctantly ended his act. Aha! thought Hana. You’re not dying. You’re not even injured. You fraud! You cheat! Relief preceded anger and the sound of her own heart beating her eardrums. What did he want? Money? How much money? The fraud sat, stood, then started toward them. He hesitated as he passed through the headlights, appearing both afraid and enraged. “Oh, no,” said Hana when he proceeded to the stuck door. She tried desperately to close it again, to no avail. “Jesus Christ,” said Hana to the waxy plastic handle. The fraud leaned over and peered in. He seemed shocked and saddened to see a woman in the backseat. His fingers were rolled in a fist. Mustafa shook his own fist out the window and threatened to get out. Hana didn’t understand the Arabic, but Mustafa’s tone suggested a threat. Her spine prickled when the fraud moved from the back door to the front. Loud words were exchanged before the fraud lunged through the open window into Mustafa’s lap. His entire torso was now inside the car. He and Mustafa grappled in the space between the driver’s seat and the steering wheel, both men vying for air. Hana wanted to run, but guilt kept her ass planted. What had she done to Mustafa’s taxi? To his livelihood? What would the fraud do to his body? To his face?
Grunting and keys jangling in the ignition gave way to a popping
sound and, at the same time, a yelp. Hana, ashamed to discover how low she’d sunk in her seat, peered through the space between Mustafa’s seatback and the headrest. The tussle had come to an end. By the look of it, Mustafa had landed a punch square on the fraud’s box nose, which was flatter than it had been and was now bleeding. The fraud was so dazed that he hung listlessly in the window. Not that Mustafa squandered any time waiting for the fraud to extract himself; he shoved open the door and thus ejected him. The fraud landed with a thump in the street. Mustafa got out, grabbed the fraud by the arm, and dragged him back to his well-used Volkswagen. All the while muttering something like, “I warned you. I did warn you.” The Volkswagen must’ve been manufactured in the ’70s. The aesthetic damage Hana had caused, now that she had time to look, blended seamlessly into the car’s long and presumably storied history. Mustafa lifted the fraud into the driver’s seat and said, “Yallah” so loud he sounded like a foghorn. The fraud, though grimacing, didn’t overtly protest; he sat up straight, closed his door, and slowly rolled up his window. Mustafa slapped the roof to hurry the rolling along. The fraud, like a whipped horse, sped away.
“Now the hard part,” said Mustafa, traipsing back to his cab. His contrived smile was still there, like a scar from thirty years spent earning tips. “Shutting a door that does not want to be shut.” He leaned with all his weight, dug his heels into the hot tar, and shoved the back door until it submitted to the pressure of his will and what must’ve remained of his anger. The door wouldn’t latch until Mustafa kicked it. “Best not to lean on the . . . ,” he said, kicking the door a second time.
Quiet, suddenly. The joints in Hana’s body began to unfix, so she could again move. Her fingers uncurled, nails leaving tiny red crescents on her palms. She pulled out her wallet even though the fare had been paid in advance. “For the door,” she said desperately. But Mustafa said no money. How could he blame Hana for what God willed? “Oy,” he said about God. “I don’t know what He does to my car. Yesterday I drove all morning with no gas.” Mustafa landed
in the driver’s seat. He rested his head on the steering wheel. He breathed and sweated heavily.
“I’m sorry,” said Hana after a few seconds. “Really, I didn’t mean . . .” Her words seemed to evaporate before reaching him. A sick, empty feeling lodged in her stomach as she exited the vehicle on the sidewalk side of the car.
“Please, take my card.” Mustafa leaned across the front seat and extended his arm through the far window, presenting a copy. “Call every day for best fare, best service, best safety record.”
Hana accepted the card by way of apology. Mustafa didn’t want her money, but at least he’d accept her business. She dragged her bags across the sidewalk as if they contained both her clothes and her guilt. “I’ll just pay for the door by tipping excessively over time,” she said, turning back to him. “You know that, right?”
“Very good,” said Mustafa. He exited the parking spot as if he drove less by sight than muscle memory. An unconscious finesse. “Please remember to call,” he said out the window. “Otherwise I go out of business.”
Hana watched Mustafa’s taillights fly away before dragging her bags up the stairs and into her building. A tile floor led to a rickety-looking elevator: the manual glass door had to be latched before the buttons lit up; the wooden floor managed her slight weight by curving into a shallow bowl; and the whole apparatus whined during ascent. Not that Hana had energy left to consider what the whining implied. The elevator stopped abruptly at the seventh floor, revealing polished concrete walls leading to dark-colored doors. Hers was brown, inlaid with carved wooden polygons forming a complicated geometric pattern. The apartment beyond a door like that, thought Hana, must be really special. Unlocking the door proved difficult. Her hands shook just enough that her key kept missing the keyhole. She ordered her hands to stop shaking by glaring at them. “Calm down,” she said to herself. When Hana finally got her door open, she met a dark room. She navigated by colliding with and bouncing off waist-high furniture. After locating the light switch on the
far wall—an odd spot, yet it added character—she discovered the apartment looked the same in life as it did in pictures. Hana was almost disappointed that her expectations were met. A tortoiselike tour of the apartment revealed a single surprise: bath towels stacked neatly in the hall closet. Thick and, she thought, absorbent. She counted them. Three, the perfect number. One for using, one for using while the first was in the wash, and a third for backup or in case of company.
A cold shower washed away the shock, the sweat, the smell of peanuts, even the lethargy. No way could Hana sleep now. At least, not until her hair dried. In the meantime she began unpacking. Her bags were jammed so tightly they exploded when she unzipped them. While sifting through the mess, Hana found a note her mother had secretly packed. Her mother’s name was Ishtar, same as the Assyrian goddess of love and war. A goddess who, according to myth, descended into the underworld, kicked down the front gates, and wreaked havoc in hell. The note said, Have a good time! in huge, messy cursive. Love, The only mother you’ll ever get. P.S. Thanks for waiting so long to leave me. I know you wanted to go earlier.
True, thought Hana. But not very nice to point out. What was Ishtar’s motive? To solicit pity? To implant regret? Hana refolded the note before returning it to its hiding place. Then she ducked her pensive mood by lying down. In bed, Hana resolved not to miss or even think about Ishtar. Now wasn’t the time. She needed to sleep. It was past midnight. Way past, almost morning. Hana closed her eyes and tried to think of nothing. Her idea of nothing was the black area between stars. That scared her the same way thinking about death scared her. She tried to think about something else. Her sore arms were the obvious candidates. Why were her arms sore? Dragging her bags, probably. Or yanking the car door. Her arms felt as if they’d gone to the gym without the rest of her body. Hana wondered if there were gyms in Cairo. Surely, there must be. But gyms for women? Hana tried to think of nothing again. God damn her wet hair. Not that her hair was really the problem. The urge to sleep was precluded by a
body drained of the ability to feel even tiredness. Her endorphins had poured out with the whiskey and were all used up. The whiskey had been free on the international legs of her flight. Hana had indulged in a desperate attempt to block out her fear of burning up or drowning in the cold black ocean. Then went her adrenaline, left back in the cab. The only thing she could feel now was the firmness of the pillow and the weight of the air. Not the weight, exactly, but the thickness of it, so that her body was again covered in a thin layer of sweat. Hana got out of bed and walked to her balcony. The dark and the loneliness—or aloneness, since she felt no longing for companionship—went well together. She didn’t have to worry about waking Ishtar or stepping on Pen, the family spaniel. The old dog, at his own peril, loved feet.
When Hana reached her balcony, she sat in a plastic chair and witnessed the sun’s meek declaration. A red blemish in the eastern sky. She watched the red spread out and change color as traffic noises amplified. The city, seen now in the light of the morning, looked different from in the light of the television. Where was the tear gas? Where were the tanks? Satellite dishes large and small capped every building. Cairo, thought Hana, was surprisingly well connected to space. A strange, happy fact. Like how all the buildings in Chefchaouen were painted blue; and how, in Beirut, dried sea horses could be found along the promenade. The feeling of having arrived in a new place finally settled upon her, like a bird landing.
Later that morning, Hana visited her office in 6th October City—an hour’s drive west, though Mustafa’s lead foot shortened the drive to forty minutes—where she matched names with faces, which Hana found easier to memorize. A penchant for sketching people had trained her how to see them. Mostly she sketched older women, whose treacherous lives were plainly declared in lines, scars, spots, and other dermatological anomalies. The faces at the UNHCR,
however, had less to tell; they were much younger. Employees included Yezin, whose giant eyebrows met in a tuft above his nose. His beard was neatly trimmed and his outfit was clearly ironed. There was Fadwa, who wore a scarf, and Noha, who didn’t. Fadwa had chapped lips and long arms she hid by crossing. Noha had wire-rimmed glasses and bloodshot eyes that betrayed the rigor of her work. Not that she looked unhappy. There was also Joseph, another American. His bow tie overshadowed his face. Silk, by the look of it; navy, pindot. Either the bow tie was too loose or he just loved talking. He listed every famous Joseph he could name. Saint Joseph. Joseph Stalin. Joseph Conrad. Chief Joseph. Jerry Lewis, whose birth name was Joseph. And finally Napoléon Bonaparte, who married Joséphine. Upon finishing his list, Joseph disclosed his motive. The names inspired him to do more with his life. By do more he meant “work harder.” His eyes were even more bloodshot than Noha’s.
After the awkward introductions came an awkward lunch. Or a lecture disguised as a lunch. The lecture happened at Margret’s desk. Margret was the office coordinator and the liaison between the UNHCR and the Egyptian government. She spent most of her time on the phone with the Refugee Affairs Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the secretive, sometimes intimidating Ministry of the Interior. Margret was a German who spoke English and Arabic with almost no accent. She was feisty, tall, and her skin was a painful shade of pink—a combination of heatstroke, sunburn, and stress.
“I brought kofta and ful,” said Margret, gesturing to the spread on her desk. “That’s meatballs and mashed fava beans. Well, not exactly mashed. More like stirred aggressively. Dig in. How was your flight?”
“It landed, at least.” Hana took beans by the heap. The idea being to cure or at least bury her hangover.
Margret stabbed two meatballs with a fork, then took great pains to cut them evenly. “You almost look like you’re from here. Pretend you are and you’ll get hassled less. In the street, I mean. Not much less, but some.”
“My parents are Iraqi.”
“That’s right.” Margret raised her index finger to excuse her chewing. “Assyrian.”
There’d been a background check. Hana had gladly signed the consent form when applying for the job, for it relieved her of the duty to explain who she was and where she came from. Her life story had been distilled into a series of facts. Her father was blown up in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1980, a few months before Hana was born, when an Iranian missile dropped like a shot bird. Her mother fled to America. What other choice but to run? The war had compounded a more historical danger: the persecution of Assyrian Christians at the hands of the Baathists. Not that Hana could remember what she hadn’t witnessed. The pain her mother told was just a story.
“Mm,” said Hana, finally setting in on her beans. “The ful is . . .”
“Tastier than it looks? I know, it looks disgusting.”
Margret looked relaxed as she was eating. Hana found this impressive—Margret’s ability to eat and talk and look relaxed at the same time, and to simultaneously be a boss with authority and probably a rule book. If you crossed Margret, she’d hit you with the rule book so hard you’d wake up years later having learned how to follow orders. Impressive. Also, frightening. Hana was impressed and frightened and happy. Frightened because she was finally in Cairo and had to prove she deserved to be. She had theoretical, but not practical, experience—what Hana thought of as “too much school.” Could she do the job? Could she do the job well? Could she do the job well over time? The job would be reading and evaluating resettlement petitions, filed by refugees on the run. On paper, a plain duty. But in practice?
“Well,” said Margret, eyeing her half-cleared plate with conflicted interest, “I’m probably fuller than I think. I better stop.” She cast her plate aside, but not into the trash; maybe her decision wasn’t final. The pause in conversation was thus filled by the sweet feeling of discovery. Margret wasn’t just a boss, nor just a leader. She was an actual person with insecurities that leaked out at weird times. Hana counted her discovery as one more reason she was happy to
be in Cairo now, in the thick of it. Summer was coming and the revolution was still a spark suspended over a pool of gasoline. The office was air-conditioned, the employees were curious, and the boss was more human than most.
“I might as well get on with the spiel I give new hires.” Margret cleared her throat to make way. “Your goal, like mine, is to send every refugee to a safer place. Sound about right? Sadly, that won’t happen. Not now. Probably not ever. There’s not room, politically speaking. Not in any country. We’re talking about an onslaught. Tens of millions worldwide. Worse still, not every person who petitions to resettle is even a refugee. Insofar as that word is officially defined. Egyptians or Jordanians will pose as Iraqis. They’ll say their houses were bulldozed or bombed. They’ll burn themselves with a lighter and say it’s really a bullet wound that hasn’t healed yet. No matter how sincere a story sounds, or what it makes you feel, remember that tears don’t qualify as evidence. We need proof of origin, proof of trauma, proof of flight. That means source documents. Identity cards, medical records, pay stubs, death threats, even the envelopes in which the death threats were sent.”
By not talking, Margret allowed the background noise to assert itself. People wrestling with the copy machine; phones ringing; cold air blown in by old fans. The noise made it easy for Hana to remember what she’d learned in law school. The truth paled in comparison to the paper trail. With paper, you could prove anything.
“Something else,” said Margret finally. “Most resettlement cases are filed by nonprofits on behalf of refugees who don’t normally apply for resettlement themselves. Not everyone knows English or has a computer. Or even the right forms. Information is surprisingly hard to disseminate. You’ll be dealing with a few resettlement lawyers, most of whom are foreigners and all of whom are a pain in the ass. My ass, especially. One is gifted in that regard. Charlie Wells. He calls and e-mails relentlessly. As soon as he figures out we’ve got a new hire, he’s going to zero in.”
Hana believed herself to be a hard target. Evasive by nature.
Calls could be ignored. E-mails could be deleted. “He can try. But I’m very . . .”
Margret didn’t appear to be listening. “The last thing that you need to know . . .” She paused as if her own speech had sped ahead of her. “Ah! I remember. Feel free to stop by my office whenever my door is physically, actually open.” Her smile suggested her friendliness had a limit. “Just don’t knock on my door if it’s shut.”
“I will. And I won’t, ever. Not even in an emergency.”
Margret laughed, a little. “Go find Joseph.” She finally slid her plate into the trash. “He’ll show you how to do your job. Or at least where to do it.”
Hana shook Margret’s hand with what she hoped was a firm grip. But not too firm, lest she seem eager. Then she cruised the halls in search of Joseph, whom she eventually found in the kitchen eating lunch by himself. At one time he must’ve had company. Several empty chairs were pushed back from the table, giving the kitchen an abandoned look. More like Chernobyl than a ghost town in the Old West. It wasn’t as if people had moved out over time as the town died. Something had made people run.
“Folks here take their jobs very seriously.” Joseph turned and gestured to the chairs with his foot. “Badr, Fadwa, Noha, Hend. The list goes on. We’re all victims of a collective office ego, which has run amok. Who can do more work faster? Who can eat lunch in two minutes without choking?” Joseph lifted his applesauce; he’d been irrevocably changed by his environment. “Recently I discovered I’m less happy than I want to be. I want to be more like Yezin. He’s the only one who eats lunch at a normal speed. He gets more work done than the rest of us combined. An infuriating paradox.”
“Yezin.” Hana recalled each of the faces she’d seen. “He’s got . . . big eyebrows?”
“One giant eyebrow, actually. You’ll see him around. Or hear him, more likely. Humming while he cleans lint off the hard drives. I think it’s some kind of Zen-like activity—polishing, the way he does, with the cloth.”
Hana felt as if she’d entered a world that had existed for a long time without her. She relished that and imagined, months from now, being invited into the fold. “Margret said you’d show me the ropes.”
“The ropes. Of course. One second.” Joseph made quick work of his applesauce before pushing his chair and every other chair back under the table. Then he led the way down the hall. “The office is an assembly line. You’re at the beginning of it with me and Yezin.” Joseph pointed through a doorway as they breezed past; Hana caught a glimpse of Yezin waving. “We read and evaluate testimonies, which are the narrative portion of each refugee’s petition to resettle. There are thousands of these documents in this office at all times. They never stop coming. We keep them over there and over there.”
Joseph pointed at two lines of filing cabinets, which in no way hinted at the catastrophes they contained. Then he gestured through another doorway to Hana’s desk: “All yours.”
Hana walked in and sat down in her chair. The memory foam had already forgotten whoever had last sat there.
“How does it feel?”
“Pretty comfortable.” Hana thought she could sit there all day and feel no pain.
Refugees came like dust blown from other deserts. Iraq, Sudan, Somalia. The men had survived abduction and torture. The women had survived abduction and torture and rape. Aggravating circumstances included missing relatives or children, various psychological disorders, and a high rate of arrhythmia. The average heart, it seemed, was unable to normalize after the shock of learning what people could do. Testimonies arrived in stacks, but Hana moved through them one page at a time, so slowly that she never had to lick her finger. She knew the UNHCR processed hundreds of thousands of resettlement petitions each year, but only a fraction were approved and even fewer were actually resettled. Her burden, then, was to choose carefully.
There were two categories of reading. The good kind and the other kind. The good reading contained electricity, causing the hair on Hana’s arms to stand up. Such as when she read about an Iraqi family whose story was awful and true as far as she could tell. Not only did the timeline add up, but the case had urgency. The mother’s terrible heart condition satisfied that requirement. Not just arrhythmia, but a severe prolapse requiring surgical replacement of the mitral valve. The supporting documents proved everything, and Hana got to pass the case along for further review. Maybe the family would be vetted, approved by the American embassy, and flown to Philadelphia or Boston or Detroit. A hard life would await them, but so would physical security, which the family hadn’t known since before the war. Plus, the mother would get her surgery. Her fear of death would be replaced by other, lesser fears. Would she miss hearing the call to prayer so much that she’d hear it spontaneously—a kind of muscle memory, but in her ear? Would she find a job? Would her son make friends? Would he be happy?
The other kind of reading had a less tactile, more insidious effect on Hana’s mood and overall happiness. Such as when Hana revoked a Sudanese woman’s refugee status after reviewing her case. Not by choice, thank God; by mandate, which slightly reduced the considerable feeling of guilt. That woman, named Rita, was from southern Sudan and not Darfur. The United Nations had declared the region safe for repatriation even though there was no peace or even cease-fire. Now Rita’s petition to resettle would become a one-way plane ticket home. The worst part? Her village was still controlled by the militiamen who’d stormed into her life on horseback while she and her boys had slept all those years ago. Time had a way of sharpening bad memories. The rape, the theft of her livestock, the burning of her hut. Most of all, the murder of her children. The facts were in plain English on white paper. The children had tried to flee, but there’d been nothing to hide behind. The children had been thin, but not thinner than the grass and the trees. The sound of gunfire had drowned in the sound of horses galloping.
It was, all of a sudden, two weeks since Hana had arrived in Egypt. She’d done nothing but work. Hana interpreted that as a good sign. She liked her job. Or saw how she might like her job one day after her skin thickened. The process had already begun. Now she could read testimonies without crinkling the paper by gripping it too hard. A marked improvement. Not that Hana could enjoy the feeling of having changed. Not today, at least. Today she was late for work. Ten minutes late, to be exact. She burst through the office doors out of breath and off-balance, causing a racket by steadying herself against the wind chime. Why would Margret hang a wind chime by the door if not to know when it opened?
“There you are,” said a voice from down the hall. Margret’s head appeared from a doorway, followed by the rest of her body. “Exactly who I needed to see.”
“There was a jam on the bridge.” Hana was still new and felt she had no right to be so late. Ten minutes was too many. “The army was shooting protesters with water cannons. The weird part? Protesters ran toward the water—”
“To indicate they’re not scared,” said Margret coolly. How could anything surprise her after such a long career in the conflict business? “By the way, do you want to conduct a resettlement interview? You’ve been here . . . uh, a while. I think it’s time.”
Hana didn’t ignore the question. She placed it in the queue of things to process. Other questions came first. Such as, why show the army you’re not scared? Wouldn’t that compel the army to change tactics? Wouldn’t water become rubber? Or even metal? Not to mention, Hana’s lunch, her coffee, and her work—a stack of testimonies, thick as a phone book—were slipping from her grip. She couldn’t hold everything much longer. How to decide what to drop? Not the coffee, for the carpet’s sake. Nor the stack of testimonies. How long would that take to clean up? That left only her lunch, which she let slip from her fingers. “Ugh,” said Hana when the bag fell. She set the testimonies
and the coffee on the filing cabinet, then set about collecting her lunch. Hana hoped the yogurt’s seal didn’t break when the bag landed. The yogurt offered relief from the heat, the pressure, the stress. In the afternoon, when Hana felt like a dead dinosaur being compressed into a fossil fuel, she escaped to the kitchen, ate her yogurt, and played Tetris on her phone until she achieved the high score. If the high score was too high, she reset it to zero. That way she could forever best herself. But if the yogurt’s seal had broken, she had no way to carry out her ritual. Hana peered forlornly into her bag, where a gruesome murder scene lay in wait. A quarter strawberry, aloft on her baguette, looked like a tiny heart with a yogurt coating.
“About the interview,” said Margret. Her calmness alerted Hana to the absurdity of the situation. The yogurt didn’t matter. The protesters were none of her business.
“By ‘interview’ you mean . . . ?”
“The other half of your job description,” joked Margret. Or maybe she wasn’t joking. With Margret, it was hard to tell. “You can’t just read, not forever. You’ll burn out if you keep reading.”
“I love to read,” said Hana. Should she describe exactly how much she loved reading? How her mother used to work in a library? How Hana had spent every day after school in the stacks? How she’d taken home Kafka, Woolf, and Mahfouz? How she’d lingered so long in the pages that her mother was reprimanded for excessive use of the blind eye? The blind eye was library lingo for refunding the late fee, an off-the-books employee benefit.
“Variety is related, I think, to job satisfaction,” said Margret.
In a last-ditch effort to avoid the inevitable, Hana finally confessed. “I’m not ready. Just knowing the names . . .” Hana thought suddenly of Rita. How blessed she felt to have never met the woman.
Margret gave Hana a sorry look. Also the testimony. Just printed and still warm to the touch. “Joseph offered initial approval. My feeling? The case isn’t dire enough. Either the interview will change my mind or it won’t. It’s scheduled for three o’clock. I trust you’ll be ready by then?”
“Yes,” said Hana without believing it true or even possible. The UNHCR handbook described what the interview entailed from a mechanical standpoint, but suggested no tips on how to maintain poise, distance, and objectivity in the face of traumas that were technically in the past but lived on, even grew, in the memory. Hana was, she realized, totally alone in the task of becoming reticent. And had only hours to change. She sped-read the testimony and took notes—Dalia, thirty-four, fled Baghdad—while pacing her office, but the wind of her own movement failed to blow away the feeling that she was about to jump off a cliff.
When Margret reappeared that afternoon, her presence automatically drew Hana into the hall. A kind of tractor beam. “Follow me,” said Margret. They walked to a sparsely furnished conference room, which neatly presented an oblong table, matching chairs, a fake plant with waxed leaves, many of which had detached from the plant—the illusion of wilting gave life to the room—and two framed pictures of Gandhi. Technically one picture of Gandhi and one picture of his possessions at the time of his death. Two pairs of sandals, two bowls, a wooden fork and spoon, three porcelain monkeys, his diary, his prayer book, a spittoon, a watch, and two letter openers. What couldn’t fit in a single pocket could be carried in a single hand. Margret said she loved the photo because it depressed the hell out of her. “Not in a bad way,” she’d said. The photo clarified what possessions had true value—time, family, home, and health—and served as a reminder that every refugee had lost at least one, often several.
Hana and Margret sat across from Dalia, who sat by herself. Hana knew the no-lawyer rule—people trained to obscure the truth were not welcome—but it seemed now like an extraordinary caution, and patently unfair. Especially unfair given the size of the table, which could’ve sat ten people comfortably. “Do you need a translator?” asked Hana, irked by her paltry offer. Yet she had to ask. “Also, nice to meet you. My name is—”
“No,” said Dalia, somehow interrupting without seeming rude.
“My parents taught me English when I was young.” Her skin looked the right age, but her eyes were much older. “I studied in college, too. And taught my husband. That’s how he got the job with the Americans. Not only did he work hard, but he could speak their language.”
Hana didn’t want to disturb what she hoped was a happy memory—Dalia had shut her eyes and seemed to withdraw from her body—but Margret, tapping her watch, threw Hana a stern look. Hana said, “Ahem.” Then, “Excuse me. Ahem.” The silence grew until it draped the table. Hana had no choice but to jolt Dalia from her pensive state. “What happened in Baghdad?” blurted Hana. “Why did you flee?” Sensing her questions had accomplished their task, Hana added, “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be . . .”
“The war,” said Dalia. “It wasn’t safe.”
Hana saw now that doing her job—extracting Dalia’s horror story in its peculiar form—would be difficult and, by nature, unkind. Hana hoped she’d be able to forgive herself. “That’s what happened to your country. I’m asking what happened to you.”
Dalia’s hesitation was so slight Hana wondered if she’d imagined it. “We were walking to our home. From the market. We carried bread and vegetables. On the walk, Omran asked if I thought we’d have electricity that night to cook food. The electricity came and went with the water. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘The potatoes will be washed, one way or another. If I can’t wash them in the sink, you can rub them clean on your shirt. I will find some way to cook them.’ What I really meant was that I loved Omran, but it came out that way about the potatoes. Then a truck pulled up to the curb. The brakes screamed. A man screamed out the window. Another man flew out the door. He hit Omran in the head with a rock. Omran fell over.”
“When?” asked Hana.
“Right after the rock,” said Dalia, as if that were so obvious it almost hurt to say. “They hit him so hard.”
“I mean, the date.”
Dalia cocked her head. “August,” she said coldly. “I don’t know what day.”
Hana listened to the sound of Margret scribbling notes on her legal pad.
“That’s all right,” said Hana after a few seconds. “Please, continue.”
Dalia inhaled as if relief might be found in the air. “Omran fell and there was blood on the sidewalk. I sat by him and grabbed his arm and held tighter than I’ve held anything. ‘Omran, wake up!’ I screamed. The men from the army approached and kicked me right here.” Dalia put her hand on her stomach. “I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t scream again.”
Hana said, “By ‘army’ you mean . . . ?”
Dalia’s eyes widened and Margret’s pen scribbled madly. “Militia. Young men with guns, but no fear or even restraint.”
“How can I know?” cried Dalia. “Maybe the Lightning Brigade of Ansar al-Sunna. Maybe al-Qaeda. Even the mujahideen. I didn’t care at the time and had no fear except in losing Omran. Finally, I stood up. I fought back. I hit the nose of the one who was closest, a young man. So young he had no beard. I think not even the ability to grow one. I balled my fist and hit so hard he fell onto the ground and made a whimpering noise. His friend, the much-larger man, hit me with the stock of his gun and said, ‘Damn you.’ I can’t be sure what he said, but I think he said ‘Damn you’ and ‘whore’ and ‘bitch’ before he hit me a second time in the face with his gun.”
“Were you injured?” asked Hana.
“I woke up later and my husband was gone. That is an injury.”
“Did you break any bones? Was your eyesight affected? Your memory? Do you get headaches? Nightmares? Flashbacks?”
Dalia’s disgust, indicated by her blank face and her refusal to say more, prevented Hana from making meaningful eye contact.
“Okay,” said Hana. “So you don’t know who took Omran.”
“I told you. I don’t know.”
“Do you know why, at least?”
“Yes. Why, I can tell you. Omran worked for the American army. He rebuilt water mains after they were blown up. The militias say, whoever helps the enemy is also the enemy. Even the worse enemy for betraying their home.”
“Did you receive any threats before the kidnapping? Some warning? A letter of some kind?”
“Yes, a letter. I found the letter in the trash. I think Omran didn’t want me to know.”
“What did the letter say?” asked Hana. “Do you have a copy?”
“The words won’t leave me alone. Even after I burned the letter. I suffered once the threat and suffer a thousand times the crime in my imagination.”
“Please, if you don’t mind . . . will you . . .”
“?‘Leave now you atheist, with no God in your heart. Take your whore wife out of our country. Leave now or die. Your wife, too, will die after we ravage her. God’s will be done by our hands if you don’t go.’?”
Margret had warned Hana about rape. That warning was really instruction on how to broach the subject. “Caution should be matched by persistence,” Margret had said—aware, if not comfortable, with the irony. “Few refugees volunteer the information. So few I’ve never met one myself. The shame is too great.”
“Was the threat of rape just a threat, or . . . ?” The whole story was already in the testimony, but that didn’t save Dalia from Hana’s prodding. The truth of her story would be determined, at least in part, by any disparity between the written testimony and the verbal interview. Facts would align; lies would reveal themselves as small divergences in the story. When Dalia presented a blank stare, Hana tried rephrasing her question. “It says here that you—well, is that something you experienced? I’m not referring just to the men who took Omran. I’m referring to any men, anytime in Baghdad.”
Dalia’s face changed. There was a sickness in it. “Omran is the one I love.”
Hana couldn’t stop thinking about her choice of words. What a horrible, empty way to ask that question. “I know you love him,” said Hana in a vain attempt to repent. The instinct to offer a few more kind words, or even her hand, was curbed by Margret’s insane scribbling. “Please, I need to know. Ahem. Dalia.” Hana felt sick to her stomach for saying ahem so many times. “I need to know if you were ever . . .”
“I got Omran back,” said Dalia, more coldly than before. “After paying all the money we ever saved and selling whatever possessions we owned that were worth anything to anyone with money. That’s the important part, that Omran came back alive in good health considering. Blinded in one eye, but not both. And not dead. What else do you possibly need to know that’s not written in front of you? You keep reading the sheet. I see you reading.”
Hana didn’t know how to explain the methodology. What could she say? That institutional distrust compelled her to ask questions to which she already had answers? No, Hana would never say that. At least, not in present company. Not with Mute Margret wielding her black pen.
“At least, tell me about Omran,” said Hana. “Why did he go to America without you? Boston, right? That’s where he resettled?”
“He didn’t abandon me, if that’s what you mean. I told him to go.”
“I don’t mean to suggest . . .”
“Omran worked for the Americans. He qualified for a special program. If we had legal documents to prove our marriage, I would have gone with him. We had no papers, so I didn’t go.”
“That’s what I want to know.” Dalia wore the sort of despair that looked from afar like apathy. “Our marriage was a religious one, in the village. We didn’t sign anything or even take a picture. The memory of the people who were present, and the memory of God, was enough. Why didn’t the US embassy permit that history? ‘It’s a fraud issue,’ they said. I could’ve been anybody. Omran’s neighbor. Omran’s cousin. Omran’s friend. I am his friend! The one he loves! That’s why we married!”
Hana, who’d been holding her breath, sought to release the pressure without making any noise. Controlling her breathing that way proved Hana wrong about herself. Maybe she could calm down. Maybe she could finish the interview. To that end, Hana rushed the rest of her questions. Dalia did her part by answering tersely. She’d fled Baghdad when the violence got worse. Life was slightly better in Cairo, but not good. Not good at all. As a noncitizen, she had no rights. She couldn’t work or buy property. Not that she had or would ever have that kind of money. The revolution made things much worse. A rising sense of nationalism—reflected in the street by flag-waving, but taking more insidious forms at night, in the metro, on buses—meant trouble for immigrants such as her. “It’s not safe to reveal my origin.” Her accent, Dalia said, was enough. What was she supposed to do? Stop talking? That’s where the interview ended, with the feeling—belonging to no one specifically, but floating in the air above the table—that the only way to change Dalia’s fate was to change her location.
After the interview, Margret used her tractor beam to pull Hana into her office for an informal debrief. Hana stood under the ceiling fan, which made an obnoxious clicking noise. Click, click. Her hair kept blowing into her mouth. “The testimony says she was raped,” clamored Hana, words dislodged by the pressure of waiting to speak privately. “That has to count for something.”
“I wish it did,” said Margret, master of the relaxed look. “Unfortunately, if her verbal testimony contradicts the written one, or even presents omissions, we have to strike the relevant details from the file and flag her for reliability issues. Now, tell me what to do with her case.”
“How can we strike that? Wasn’t the proof on her face? Didn’t you see how she reacted?” Hana knew, suddenly, what Joseph had been thinking. Or feeling, at least. A compulsion to approve the
case. As if there were no other way to spend his empathy. “Every bone in my body tells me she needs our help. She can’t work. She can’t own property.”
Margret had dexterous fingers. She rolled a pen cap from one side of her hand to the other like a gambler with a coin or a poker chip. The behavior seemed utterly unconscious. “What about her husband? Can’t he work? Can’t he send money?”
“Hypothetically,” said Hana. “But that doesn’t mean—”
“My point is that Dalia’s case doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Is her poverty more compelling than another’s destitution? Is her broken heart more compelling than another’s broken spine? Is her rape more compelling than another’s fall into sex trafficking? I hate to juxtapose tragedies with greater tragedies, but there’s no other just way to fill the quota. Now, tell me what to do with her case.”
A single-file queue almost a million people long appeared in Hana’s mind. Dalia was an invisible dot in the distance, with no chance whatsoever of leaving Egypt.