This plague feels absurd, a little like a B-grade movie, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And if it weren’t all true, it might be funny. We switch off CNN headlines of infections and death counts throughout the world, especially when we are eating—calamity unfathomable. On France 24: just the forlorn image of a man in Italy standing next to his mother’s coffin. I worry about my elderly parents who are far away at their home in central Texas situated on a bluff overlooking the Guadalupe River. But they reassure me and send photographs of fields of bluebonnets in bloom. When I called them, my father said he was awake at night, brooding, remembering his mother’s stories of the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918—how coffins lined the streets of her small town in North Carolina. Here in Cairo, almost a hundred years later, I cast my eye over the newspaper headlines in Arabic: a vaccine won’t be available for a year. Yesterday, a nurse at Maspero, the state television building, tested positive. This headline hits close to home since Mohamed Metwalli, my husband, works as a translator there. I fold the newspaper over and put it on the coffee table—how much more do we need to know?
Few creatures are out at 7 a.m. except sentries at embassies, pet owners, stray cats and dogs.
My occasional Friday stroll around the Zamalek island has become a daily necessity now, a chance for fresh air and a brief escape from confinement. The new blessing is the rare quiet in this rambunctious city. Why hadn’t I noticed the rich variety of trees before? Sago palms are companions to jasmine trees, yellow acacia, and hundred-year-old ficus trees. Few creatures are out at 7 a.m. except sentries at embassies, pet owners, stray cats and dogs. The occasional weasel skitters under a car. When I glance down at my new smartphone about to cross a deserted 26th of July Street this early morning, a briefing pops up on the screen: grocery workers in US die. How to balance the need to be informed with quietude? Despite my friends’ enthusiasm for my new phone, I pine for my Nokia with the cracked screen and regret the upgrade. I invent destinations around the island for myself with a new mission: to find the homes of dead Egyptian movie stars from the black-and-white movies.
Coincidentally, when I cross 26th of July I spot the historical plaque marking the home of the comedian Ismail Yassine, who reminds me of Abbott and Costello with his vaudevillian routines and goofy antics. Born in 1912, he would have been seven years old when Saad Zaghloul led the Egyptian revolution of 1919 against the British. I peer through the small gate, admiring the forest-green rococo door to the building. Originally from Suez out of a poor family, he made dozens of slapstick comedies and provided Egyptians with at least twenty-five or thirty years of entertainment. My favorite is his hilarious romantic comedy Shahr Asal Basal (1960; Honeymoon, onion-moon), about a couple whose idyllic honeymoon turns into a fiasco when the bride’s mother, played by Mary Munib, appears at the hotel in Alexandria. She is so protective of her daughter, starring Kariman, and interferes so much that they never do the deed! A sly dig at the role of mothers-in-law in Egyptian society.
Another day, meandering back home, I discovered Soad Hosny’s plaque on Yehia Ibrahim, a side street off of 26th of July. She died in 2001 in mysterious circumstances in London. Many Egyptians believe she was pushed off the balcony—it was rumored that she was writing a tell-all autobiography that would be scandalous for the mighty.
Unable to see our real friends, these Egyptian movie stars from the past are charming dinner companions—and they do cheer us up.
I am delighted again by Eshaet Hob (1960; A rumor of love) with Soad Hosny, Omar Sharif, Abdel Moneim Ibrahim, and Youssef Wahbi. Unable to see our real friends, these Egyptian movie stars from the past are charming dinner companions—and they do cheer us up. While we are savoring my husband’s pan-fried octopus tentacles one night for dinner, on our television screen, Youssef Wahbi, who plays an old womanizer, coaches his nephew, Hussein (Omar Sharif), how to make his daughter, Samiha (Soad Hosny), fall in love with him. The director, Fateen Abdel Wahab, had to work hard to make the handsome, twenty-eight-year-old Omar Sharif look unattractive. Sharif plays a clumsy accountant, with his penetrating brown eyes hidden behind severe, clunky glasses. The father wants to make his daughter jealous by insinuating that Hussein is having an affair with the “real” movie star, Hind Rostom, a voluptuous blonde often referred to as “The Marilyn Monroe of the East” but perhaps more talented.
Omar Sharif died in 2015. I saw him around five years before at his son’s Italian restaurant, Trattoria, in the neighborhood. Even as an elderly gentleman he was still dapper. A young Egyptian couple in their twenties rushed over to him, thrilled by their luck. A table or two over, I was struck by his patience and sweetness. He talked with them for a long time—and then took a picture with them.