In his sleep, his fingers move in twisted circles, dancing a silent, drug-infused choreography. Eyes shut, his body lies slumped back in the pale green armchair. The liquid in his lungs makes it hard for him to lie down without drowning, so he sleeps in his chair while I sit on his hospital bed.
At times, he speaks out loud in sudden bursts, speaking confidingly as if to an old friend. Not to me. He mutters about his knee surgery, conspiracy theories, and loneliness. Then he falls back into silence in the armchair.
From his bed across the room, I watch Baba’s sleeping face lit by a fluorescent lamp above him. I count, I wait, then I shut my eyes and lean back to rest on the dusty, blue bedspread stitched with birds of paradise and stained with the scent of sweat and tired bodies. The doctors put him at the farthest end of the corridor, away from the loud TVs and the smokers in the emergency doorway, to insulate and protect him from any noise that could trigger his rages.
Boys’ shouts echo from the Smouha Club football field next door. It’s a humid Alexandrian night, the kind where a blanket of dew presses on your skin, making it hard to breathe. I try to stop thinking and sink into the pillow. Two minutes later, he calls out, and I swing my legs down like a pendulum.
A photo of him hangs on the wall of a dark corridor in our apartment in Attarin. In the photo, Baba stands in his black swimming briefs on a rock among crashing waves, grinning towards the camera. Now, dust collects in the corners of the frame, and details have faded and waned into sepia.
Behind him, Stanley Beach’s crescent rows of white cabins face the sea like an amphitheatre. Striped umbrellas and beautiful women in bikinis fill the background, while he stares ahead at someone or something just out of the camera’s view.
Nothing in this photo remains today. A bridge was built over the beach, connecting the crescent’s two tips. The cabins were torn down and replaced with garishly coloured shisha shops. Cheap plastic chairs litter the sand, and the lithe figures in bikinis disappeared many decades ago.
“He walked into a room and lit up the place. He had so much light; you couldn’t help but stand in his shadow.” My mother puts down her book and stares out of the living room window for a moment. Across the street, a neighbour leans over his balcony, craning as if to listen, with a cigarette hanging from his lips.
The narrow street outside our building is filled with screeching cars; drivers lurch out of their windows to grab at each other’s throats. The call to prayer sounds through a broken loudspeaker, and children roar in the school playground next door. Across the street, the hospital morgue expels mourners clutching their chests and screaming with an animalistic savagery that penetrates our frail windows and our unwilling skin. A vortex of unbearable noise surrounds this quiet apartment and my mother in the shadows.
My parents must have been proud to move our family into this grand apartment, an archaic remnant of old Alexandria with its high ceilings, nine rooms, chandeliers, and sea-facing balconies. The sound of an out-of-tune piano would drift up through the floors on Sundays. Our downstairs neighbour was a French piano teacher with silver hair, translucent knuckles, and memories of Alexandria in 1910. My mother found a friend in her, a fellow foreigner baffled by the invisible barrier between her and the country. They would drink tea together, and I would hide behind the piano, frightened by the old woman’s frailty and the scent of mothballs circling her.
She often talks about Baba in the past tense, even when he’s in the other room. The memory of him is stronger, more real than the ghost next door. Her legs and arms are covered in red and purple bruises that spread like ink stains across her tired skin. Varicose veins climb up her pale limbs like spiderwebs. Her body is filled with cancer from fifty years of sleeping in the Mediterranean sun, a physical manifestation of how poor this match was – the timid Western woman’s skin and the sharp Egyptian sun.
“We didn’t know then,” she shrugs and smiles. “We rubbed carrot oil into our skin to make us browner. We never thought we’d grow old anyway.” She draws circles with her fingers around the deep welts in her arm, ugly holes that burn and itch at night. She sits in the shade now, terrified of the sun.
Baba would fill up the room with his large frame, white teeth, and intimidating charm. It was natural chemistry that made men and women gravitate towards him, their feet trailing against the floor as they drifted towards him.
And my mother, well, she would cling to her drink and stare at the floor, while everyone spoke Arabic and laughed above her head. The raucous circles grew around him till she was slowly pushed away. Sometimes, someone would take pity on her and try to translate the jokes, but they never made sense in English, and she stopped trying to learn Arabic. Eventually, she stayed home instead.
Baba always sat with his back to the wall in Santa Lucia, a popular restaurant since the 1930s, where suited waiters served 20 piaster meals to actors and aristocrats in fur. He’d face the dark oak panelled door; his coffee-coloured eyes alert and roaming the crowded room for danger, while his friends drank, laughing loudly and retching through the thick cigar smoke.
My mother told me how he broke up fights outside Pam Pam, their favourite nightclub in the sixties, almost every night: one arm locked around a man’s head while he pummelled another in the stomach. These escapades were always started by a drunken friend – and Baba would pick up the mess.
I always wondered about his choice in friends. A working-class Alexandrian boy, whose sister never finished school and whose father was illiterate. He surrounded himself with rich, lazy men and women with white villas in Louran, who lost fortunes on cards and drank away their mothers’ dowries, who sailed on their uncles’ yachts in the golden sun with their Swedish girlfriends, never struggling, never hungry like he was.
He dressed like them: gold medallions, heavily unbuttoned white shirts with slouchy collars, thick sideburns, and a debonair smile that never suggested he’d walked to his school in Saba Pasha with cardboard soles in his shoes. Today, even in hospital, he throws out comments of discontent about the youth slouched on the streets with their greasy hair and vulgar gestures. Perhaps his reinvention back in the day disconnected his memory from what he once was.
Baba was an intimidating giant with square fists and broad shoulders that could carry men, and he was also a gifted storyteller. As a child, I would sit cross-legged on the floor, watching him tower above us, laughing and recounting the most vivid tales of life in the old days. There was the night he dined at San Giovanni, a Greek-owned restaurant on the cliff of Stanley Bay, when the king walked in. This was the late sixties, a decade after his abdication, yet the piano stopped playing and everyone fell quiet, even my father, a part-time socialist, who noted pettily that the man smelled of whisky and expensive Italian cologne.
There was the day his actor friend woke up in bed with a famous belly dancer, and they realized to their horror that they got married the night before after too many drinks at the Spitfire Club, a hole in the wall bar named after the remains of a WWII British fighter plane hanging from its ceiling.
There was the Greek singer, Demis Roussos, who sang for baksheesh outside Pastroudis – a bakery and tea salon on Fouad Street – as a young boy in the fifties. Decades later, whenever Baba heard his song on the radio, he’d yell out: “I want my money back!”
And then there was that time – his friends would tell us this, their eyes wide with disbelief – where he got into a fight with a bus driver on the Corniche just outside Miami Beach, and in a fit of rage he lifted the front of the bus with his own two hands, just to make a point.
My favourite story was the night he played blackjack in Casino Chatby and won thousands of pounds, an immense sum in the late sixties. He returned home to wake my mother up. She opened her eyes to find him standing on the bed above her, throwing thousands of pounds into the air, laughing with glee at the bills showering down on her. Then he gathered the money up and went back to the casino, promptly losing it all again.
Today, he repeats these stories, only the names have changed, and the details frayed. His mind wanders as he talks, his sentences trailing off into lost silences. He confuses friends with foes and delusions with reality. He repeats the same story over and over again – as if he’s afraid of his own silence. There are nights when he won’t stop talking, exhausting us with a relentless voice that is fraught with fear of the dark hours ahead, when we will leave him, and he will sit alone in his chair. When I was younger, I would roll my eyes at him and his tired anecdotes that had lost their wit. But somewhere in my head, I knew I should write them all down. That I should sit down one day and ask him to tell me about his whole life, his incredible journeys across the world, the unbelievable scraps he and his rowdy friends got themselves into, the men he fought, the women he loved.
But now, watching his head bowed feebly, his eyes distant and vague, words heavily trailing off his lips like molasses, I realise that I waited too long, and now the stories are buried somewhere inside him.
I stare at the photograph of them side by side in Santa Lucia: my mother with her soft blond hair and black dress, Baba’s bushy eyebrows and white, tiger teeth. She looked so happy. But even then, even in that photograph, he wouldn’t look at her – he looked vaguely ahead, smiling at something off-camera.
When we went to Stanley beach as children, Baba would stand facing the sea alone, lost in thought. We sat in the shade of the umbrella behind him, digging shapes into the sand. Often, he’d turn back and look at us, three little children with thick, curly hair and coffee-coloured eyes, and for a moment, he would not recognize us.
I never figured out where his mind went when he stared into the distance, or why he would avoid direct eye contact with us, or why he could never bring himself to look straight at a camera. His head was always elsewhere, his thoughts never shared. And as the city slowly disintegrated with bulldozers tearing down two-hundred-year-old trees and skyscrapers blocking out the sun, he retreated further into his distracted gazes.
It could not be a coincidence that all three of us worked our bodies to exhaustion, trying to build ourselves into giants. We suffered torn ligaments, slipped discs, swollen feet stuffed into unforgiving shoes, and skin that constantly peeled back layers. We struggled to look people directly in the eye, to reciprocate warm hugs and accept genuine compliments.
We slumped our backs and hid in our heads, defeated by the abysmal lives we led in comparison to his. When he slowly started to unravel, we scattered like terrified beetles to the far corners of the earth, nursing our homesickness with cheap wine and other misplaced Arabs in cold, unfamiliar cities. We found ourselves lost abroad, fluttering like paper planes in a breeze, unable to find ourselves there, yet unwilling to return home despite Baba’s increasingly frantic and reproachful phone calls, asking us to come back and take care of him as he grew weaker.
In our new foreign homes, we each gravitated towards sea-facing balconies and dark-haired Arabs with tiger teeth. The longer I stayed away from home, the more I dreamt of tall, white buildings in San Stefano collapsing slowly into the sea. I was in the water, looking up helplessly as modern concrete walls and Roman pillars crashed down over me, pushing me down into the dark, murky waters, until I woke up, gasping for breath and drenched in sweat.
When his incessant overseas phone calls became more urgent and my fretful nightmares wouldn’t let me be, I moved back to Alexandria’s thick cloud of humidity, dust, and memories. Everyone and everything around me seemed weathered like the paint peeling off the Italian buildings in Mansheya. All my friends had left long ago for better lives in various corners of the world. I was left with the company of my parents, who could do nothing but bemoan the demolition of their friends’ villas, the flattening of Montaza’s beach cabins, and the authorities’ continuous but resilient erasure of every landmark of their memories. The people that helped build the city – the Italian architects, Greek restaurant owners, Armenian jewellers, and Jewish businessmen – had been forced to leave decades ago, and over the years, all signs of their existence and influence have been eradicated.
A writer once told me that the reason why Arabs are so immersed in nostalgia is that our present is so unbearable to grapple with. My parents’ mourning was infectious. I found myself looking through cracks in my neighbourhood’s walls for remnants of beauty from my childhood. I ran my fingers along the dark wooden barre in the Russian Cultural Centre’s empty ballet room, where I had danced for hours as a small child in front of its large mirrors and French windows. I breathed in the damp sweetness of Violette’s dark backroom filled with dying roses and lilies. I drank a bitter cappuccino in Elite Café and touched the booth’s orange leather seat, trying to ignore the blaring music videos on the TV screens above me.
I had a beer at the Spitfire Club and spoke to one of the old brothers that had run the joint for years since the khawaga had died. I stood outside Salon Vert, where my mother used to buy her sewing thread, but the pallid faces and flickering neon lights stopped me from stepping inside. I walked into Santa Lucia, and immediately smelt the decay clinging to its walls. The dark room with its dusty tablecloths, the forlorn-looking, ancient waiters and overcooked veal, all reminded me that I was inside a ghost.
Despite my resistance, I had inherited my father’s nostalgia for a city that no longer stood, and I was confronted daily by the new city’s rough noises, gaudy colours, sharp smells, and scowling faces until one day, I realised that I was a stranger to my own city. I no longer felt a kinship to the sharp eyes I met on the street. The only connection I held onto was to my parents’ past. So, I stopped leaving the apartment and sat with them in the shadows instead.
Now here I am, rubbing my tired cheeks and watching him helplessly as his weak feet trail across the dark hospital room, refusing my arm to lean on.
Baba needs me but won’t look me in the eye. When I try to talk, he tires, unless I bring up the past. His eyes light up, something switches on in his head, and he gestures with his hands while trying to remember the words. He starts a sentence, and I finish it for him, filling in the pieces. Often, words fail him, and he slurs incoherently; but I can tell from the tone, from the vague music in his mouth, that he’s telling me a story where he was once a giant and full of life, loved by everyone in a city that has almost completely disappeared.
Note from the Prize Jury:
“With lilting prose and restrained storytelling, “Baba and the Sea” is a heartfelt portrait of a man on his deathbed as seen by his daughter. Soraya Morayef weaves themes of nostalgia, illness, and the transformation of Alexandria.
The story is charged with the anxiety that comes with realizing that when loved ones die, the stories they told – the stories that made them – also risk disappearance. As such, “Baba and the Sea” reads also like a daughter’s frantic effort to document her father’s stories, and the Alexandria he knew, before it is too late.”
The Barjeel Mudun Prize is an international competition inviting writers to showcase, in fiction, a city in the Arab world they know intimately. The competition aims to produce short stories and narratives that reflect the urban spirit of cities, neighborhoods, and structures in the region.
Soraya Morayef is an Egyptian-Australian writer from Alexandria, Egypt. Her essays and photographs have been published in Esquire Middle East, Huffington Post, Smithsonian Magazine, Jadaliyya, Atlantic Council and the National, among others. She is a contributing author to Translating Dissent: Voices from and with the Egyptian Revolution (Baker, 2016). She has been writing fiction since she was nine years old.