The Cotton Pasha
Each spring when Cairo began to grow oppressively hot, King Farouk abandoned his two magnificent palaces there and retreated to the caressing sea breezes of Alexandria, where he also maintained two palaces. The older of these, Ras-el-Tin, was the official residence and, as such, the setting for formal state functions heavy with protocol and the oratory of diplomats. For serious pleasure, Farouk preferred Muntaza Palace, a few miles east on the corniche that curved sensuously along the Mediterranean. A five-story fantasy of Florentine architecture with a ten-story bell-tower incongruously attached, Muntaza lounged amid swaying palm trees, its long white balconies smiling out over seventy acres of meticulously groomed gardens and the finest beach in Egypt.
It was a seducer’s dream, an oasis of exotic flowers, flights of bright-plumed birds imported from the Sudan, and gazelles wandering free, tame enough to drink from the hidden pools where, in later years, the king would indulge in erotic water games with whichever of his uncounted mistresses was currently most favored. By moonlight, according to visitors well qualified to judge such matters, the palace may have been the most romantic place on earth.
In short, Muntaza was fun, and in the spring of 1940, Farouk badly needed fun. He was just twenty, a ruler for only three years, a husband for two, yet already his world seemed to be collapsing. His wife, Farida, had recently given birth to their second child, but, like the first, it was a girl. Just as no Arab male was fully a man until he had a son, no monarch was fully a king until he had a male heir. In the aftermath of the bitter disappointment an estrangement had developed between husband and wife, and now Farouk had reason to believe that Farida was having, or at least contemplating, an affair with a dashing young air-force pilot who, unfortunately, happened to be a distant relation of his.
And then there was the war that was destroying Europe. Egypt remained neutral, but for how long? Two hundred thousand Italian troops stood massed on the Libyan border, and Alexandria was under nightly blackout. As for the Germans, no one knew when or where they might strike, but few doubted that the blow would come. Meanwhile the British were pouring in by the thousand to protect the Suez Canal, the lifeline of their empire. Nor were they appreciative of Farouk’s efforts to keep his country out of the conflict. It was quite possible, he knew, that they would depose him. They could accomplish the task at any time with a few tanks—and there were more than a few British tanks in Egypt.
Worst of all, at least from the young monarch’s viewpoint, his good looks had begun to suffer from the strain. His hairline was receding and he added weight daily—if he wasn’t careful, he would soon turn downright chubby.
But if there was anything Farouk was not, it was a worrier, and his cure for this multitude of ills was the one he would adopt in every crisis to the end of his life.
He threw a party.
“Oh, it’s perfect!” said Catherine Austen to her husband as their carriage, in a train of a hundred others, rolled between Muntaza’s high gates.
“Lovely indeed,” commented Henry Austen in his most agreeable tone. He and his wife had been at odds all morning, as they seemed to be so often these days, and he wanted peace, especially in front of their ten-year-old son, Charles.
“Perfect!” Catherine repeated. “It’s just how I picture Tara.” She had read Gone with the Wind long before the invitation arrived announcing the epic as the theme of a gathering at Muntaza Palace, and had studied it like a catechism in preparing for the party. She had desperately hoped that the cinema version would reach Alexandria before the grand event, but it had not.
Henry had not managed to slog through the novel and possessed only the vaguest mental image of Tara. But he had visited plantations in the American South and he owned plantations in Egypt, and neither greatly resembled the scene before him. It appeared that half of Nubia had been imported to Muntaza’s gardens, decked out in costume, and set to pretending to do various rustic tasks amid cotton bales strewn beneath the crape myrtles and bougainvillea.
It was ironic. Henry could trace his fortune—a very large one—directly to the American Civil War. When the northern naval blockade had cut off the flow of southern cotton to England, Egypt had filled the gap. What had been a minor local crop became the country’s largest export. Not long after, Henry’s grandfather came out, began buying cotton acreage, and steadily grew rich.
Henry’s father, like many second-generation millionaires, almost lost it all by spending his time and money in London while hired managers in Egypt robbed him blind. Only the First World War, with its insatiable demand for cotton for everything from uniforms and tents to the fabric skins of airplane wings, saved him from losing the lands. His luck did not last. Two years after the Armistice, he died of a heart attack brought on by drink and overexercise in a London bordello.
His elder son, Henry’s brother, inherited the money, the title, albeit a minor one, and the estate in England. Henry got the cotton fields—in the middle of a worldwide crash in cotton prices. No matter. Just past his teens he went out to Egypt himself, fired the managers, built the business step by step into a paying one, became wealthy himself. And now another war was making him richer than he ever dreamed of being or wanted to be.
“Are those black people slaves, Father?” asked Charles. It was his first visit to Muntaza, and he seemed excited. He was wearing what his mother conceived to be the uniform of a Confederate drummer boy.
“They’re servants,” Henry told him, hoping it was true—Cod knew, the line between the two categories could be thin in the Middle East.
“But they’re pretending to be slaves,” Catherine added helpfully.
“For money,” answered Henry at the same moment as his wife said, “For fun.” A brief, uncomfortable silence ensued before Charles laughed at their contretemps.
“I’m told,” said Henry to restore the conversation, “that Farouk keeps three hundred full-time gardeners on staff here.”
“Really—three hundred?” Any detail of palace life fascinated Catherine. “Can he actually need so many?”
“Oh, I imagine so. Most of them do nothing but water, of course.” Henry gazed around bemusedly. “I could cultivate another ten thousand acres with less help than that.” Catherine did not respond, and he winced inwardly. Clumsy to have plumped a practical note into what she obviously saw as a fairy tale come to life.
He stole a glance at her. She was, he realized with longing and frustration, as beautiful as ever, her sea-blue eyes picking up a hint of the deep green of her gown—meant to imitate, so she had told him, a dress that Scarlett O’Hara made from a set of curtains. A matching parasol shielded her from the hard noon sun; her creamy skin—the legacy of her English mother, a missionary’s daughter—was her pride, zealously protected.
Indeed, except for the jet-black hair inherited from her Egyptian father, Catherine looked like an Ingliziya. Yet it was odd, thought Henry: if she had been purely English, he might never have seen her as anything more than a beautiful woman. It was the Egypt in her that lured and fascinated him, that commanded his love, as the land itself commanded it.
His mood darkened as it always did when he skirted the truth of his and Catherine’s troubles. They were moving apart—ships passing in the night, that sort of thing—and, as best he could understand it, the reason was that he loved Egypt and the life he had built there, whereas she appeared increasingly to despise both. While he had steadily and happily gone native (as his English friends were all too fond of putting it), she had just as steadily turned her back on the land of her birth and become a raging Anglophile. It seemed to mean nothing to her that he was universally called pasha, the highest term of respect that a man could earn in Egypt; in all likelihood she would trade the title in a flash for the poorest baronetcy in Dorset.
They were nearing the palace, and the sound of an orchestra rich with strings welled from the lawn. There would be, Henry knew, another orchestra or two inside; the king was not one to stint on his entertainments.
Henry’s string tie had unraveled down the front of his ruffled shirt, and he fumbled at fixing it. According to Catherine, he was costumed as Ashley Wilkes. From what little he had read of the fellow in the book, Henry was uncertain whether to be flattered or appalled.
Catherine watched her husband struggling with his tie. “Here,” she finally said. “Let me.” His quick grateful smile depressed her. The phrase “wifely duty” flicked through her mind. His teeth were very white against his deep tan—he was as brown from the sun as any Nile peasant. Unavoidable, to be sure, for a planter, still, at any moment the man might start wearing a galabiyya and haunting the mosques.
“What’s that air they’re playing?” he asked.
“The theme from the motion picture,” she said. Very like him not to recognize it. She had heard it a hundred times on the wireless.
But Catherine could not sustain her irritability. After all, this was the royal palace. Give that to Henry. He was practically a regular at Muntaza—at Ras-el-Tin as well. The king quite simply liked him—at least, so the wife of an embassy attaché had said. The artfully hidden message, however, was that Henry was perhaps a bit more respectful of the king than befitted an Englishman. The British ambassador himself, Miles Lampson, often and openly referred to Farouk as “the boy.”
The carriage halted, and a towering Nubian in the Nilegreen silk of the palace livery hurried to hand them down. A splash of greetings met them. Catherine saw with pleasure that the guests were mostly foreigners—mainly British, but liberally sprinkled with Alexandrine Greeks or Syrians, along with the occasional Frenchman or American. Servants hovered with trays of hors-d‘oeuvres and drinks. Catherine selected champagne—Château Lafitte-Rothschild ’29 for most of the guests, while sweetened fruit juices were available for observant Muslims and the few children.
“Catherine Austen! Miss O’Hara. And Mr. Wilkes, I presume?”
“Jackie! How good to see you,” said Catherine, meaning it Jackie Lampson, the ambassador’s absurdly young wife, barely in her twenties, was a lively, lovely little bird of a woman who, despite her notorious flirtatiousness and even despite her doll-like prettiness, had not an enemy in the world.
“I,” said Jackie, indicating her own costume, “am the golden-hearted Melanie. Casting against type, I believe it’s called.”
Miles Lampson loomed up, all six-foot-five and 280 pounds of him, and snapped a salute to Charles. “Military discipline,” he said to Henry. “A thing devoutly to be desired these days, but sadly lacking in certain quarters. I suppose I’ll have to have a word with our boy.”
“With Farouk?” Henry asked. “What’s the difficulty?”
“The blackout,” said Miles. He had not dressed in costume, but his customary frock suit and bow-tie hardly seemed out of place. He towered over his tiny wife and was nearly forty years older. No one, least of all Catherine, could understand what Jackie was doing married to him.
“One of our ship’s captains made an interesting report,” Miles went on. “Said he spotted Alex from thirty miles out Saturday night last. What do you suppose the source of the light was?”
“No idea,” said Henry.
“We’re standing at it. Muntaza Palace. Glowing like a lighthouse.” Miles sighed elaborately. “Not saying it was deliberate, of course. But who knows with this lot? Half of them waiting with bated breath for Muhammad Haidar to come goose-stepping in and run us out.”
They all smiled, if a little ruefully, at the reference. In a brilliant propaganda ploy, the Germans had planted the rumor that Adolf Hitler was a Muslim, born Muhammad Haidar in a village in Egypt. It was all that the fellahin toiling in the fields needed in order to choose sides in the war. Educated Egyptians knew better, of course, but even among them there was a widespread feeling that the Germans could hardly be worse than the British.
“Surely, darling,” said Jackie, “we’re not going to stand here talking dreariness all day. People are going in. Come along, Catherine. I’ll bring this handsome husband of yours. I’m going to exercise all my wiles to bewitch him into dancing with me.”
“Your funeral,” said Catherine. Henry famously hated to dance and was excruciatingly awkward when forced into it.
Jackie held out her arm for Henry. “Ashley is mah cousin,” she said in an attempt at a southern drawl. “And what’s a little dance between cousins?”
Inside, Muntaza glittered. Inlaid in gold and jade and topaz, the images of dancing girls in various stages of undress undulated on walls of marble and precious woods. Chandeliers blazed. A menu posted at the entrance to the grand salon promised a feast of twenty courses, quail in sherry, sautéed. Mediterranean prawns, grilled rabbit, figs and soft cheese, a bouillabaisse—Catherine stopped reading. Food was food. What pleased her more was the people: all these lovely women and handsome men costumed as characters from a novel set in a distant era in a land few of them had ever seen. The fact that most of them were English made it perfect.
The salon was crowded. A forty-piece orchestra, silent for the moment, sat at the far end. Jackie was chirping at Henry, who seemed to be at a loss as to how to proceed. Miles had disappeared somewhere along the way, as had Charles with a few other youngsters who had no desire to participate in this dull grown-up ritual.
Catherine felt a light impact on her shoulder. She glanced down to see a pea-sized ball of bread bouncing to the floor. She looked up just in time to see another one arch over Jackie’s head and strike Henry in the eye. Henry did not seem surprised. “Your Majesty,” he said.
Catherine turned to see the king approaching. Vaguely she recalled Henry telling her about the childish pleasure the young man derived from such pursuits as throwing bread balls at people he regarded as stuffy.
Farouk was laughing. “Henry Pasha, you see what English military schools did for me—spoiled my aim. I’ll never be an artilleryman.” He turned to Catherine. He was taller than she remembered. “Endless apologies, madam. Please say you forgive me. Say you’ll dance with me to demonstrate your forgiveness.”
It happened that quickly. As if by magic the musicians struck up a Strauss waltz and he swept her across the floor. He danced wonderfully.
“You are the most beautiful woman here,” he told her. It sounded like a practiced line—very well practiced. But she reveled in it.
“How is your father?” he asked. It was the last thing she expected. Surely he did not know her father, a modest schoolteacher?
“He was a friend of my father’s,” Farouk explained as if sensing her doubt. Surely that was a lie too.
“He’s well, thank you,” she said.
“Why don’t you leave your husband and come stay with me?”
Her smile felt frozen. “Your Majesty is in a humorous mood tonight.”
“Not at all. It would do wonders for us both.” He smiled. There was an almost babyish softness about him but he was very handsome.
He was joking. He had to be. But what if he weren’t? The man’s reputation! And he was the king—the absolute ruler. There were stories …
Catherine smiled back. She didn’t know what else to do. One thing was certain, she told herself: she wasn’t going to tell the king of Egypt she was nearly old enough to be his mother while waltzing with him.
Farouk frowned sadly. “Alas, alas. It would never work out I’m a married man.” Then he winked and grinned. “But isn’t everyone?”
Catherine laughed. It was funny. It was fun. Wasn’t it? She wondered if she had drunk too much champagne. What if she had? The whole world had gone mad. Bombs were falling. She was Catherine Kemal, the bourgeois Cairene daughter of an English mother and an Egyptian father. She was married to the richest Englishman in Alexandria. And she was dancing with a charming boy in apparently permanent rut who happened to be a king.
She laughed again and floated on the music.
Henry sipped a pink gin, congratulating himself on having got through his waltz with Jackie without permanent damage to either of them. Catherine was going another round, a foxtrot, with Farouk. On such occasions as this the king did not normally dance twice in succession with the same woman, and Henry might easily have felt alarm. He didn’t. He knew Farouk—at least he thought he did. As for Catherine, the obvious fact that she was enjoying herself was all to the good, as far as Henry was concerned. Perhaps it would break her out of the ruddy funk into which she had fallen.
“He’s something, isn’t he? Our Mr. Farouk?”
An American accent. Henry turned to see a brown-haired, brown-eyed man no older than thirty.
“Jake Farallon,” said the American, extending his hand. There was little choice except to shake it.
“I thought I recognized you. The cotton pasha. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“Likewise I’m sure.” Henry found some Americans entirely too forward.
“I really shouldn’t be here,” said the young man pleasantly. “Wasn’t invited. My boss brought me along. I’m with the embassy.”
Henry assumed that the fellow was some sort of intelligence agent.
Farallon nodded toward the dance floor. “Yeah, Farouk. Funny. When I first came out here, I met this Egyptian fellow whose wife was having a fling with His Highness. Best thing that ever happened to this fellow. Not only did it make him rich, but after the smoke cleared, the wife was crazy for him. Thought he was a hell of a man.” He lowered his voice confidingly. “You’ve heard about the royal equipment, right? Not exactly fit for a king, if you know what I mean.”
Henry had heard some tales about “the royal equipment,” but he was fond of Farouk and he was not fond of gossip. The royal equipment, he believed, was no one’s business—except the king’s. He drained his drink. “Excuse me” he said to the American and walked away.
He wandered aimlessly among knots of chatting, laughing men and women, decided on another pink gin, found one. His mood had turned morose again. Regardless of his own opinion of the matter, if the king danced a third time with Catherine, rumors would be all over Alexandria tomorrow.
The sparkling, playful opulence of Muntaza seemed heavy and monotonous. The party was scarcely half an hour old, yet Henry longed for it to end. He wanted to sit at ease on the balcony of his villa, looking out over the city and its harbor, conversing with someone, laughing with someone. Laughing with Catherine as they had done when Charles was a baby.
Ahead Henry saw Ahmed Hassanein, Egypt’s most respected scholar and in his younger days a great explorer, who had also served as the king’s childhood tutor. Henry was mildly surprised by his presence: gossip had it that Hassanein was immersed in an affair with Queen Nazli, Farouk’s widowed mother, and that Farouk deeply resented it.
A young man who looked vaguely familiar was speaking to Hassanein with evident enthusiasm. At his side a young woman so stylish that she could only be French hung on his every word. Newlyweds, guessed Henry, or soon to be.
“Look at one disease alone,” the young man was saying. “Bilharzia. Caused—as I’m sure you know, Ahmed Pasha—by a parasite found in the water, attacking the liver, bladder, lungs and central nervous system, eventually killing its victims. There are villages, hundreds of them, where more than half the people are stricken before they reach middle age. No country can go anywhere carrying such a burden. And that’s just one disease.”
“You’re a doctor,” said Hassanein simply. “Find a cure.”
“Medical research takes money,” said the young man. “But money in Egypt goes to other pursuits.” He waved a hand to indicate the palace around him.
“I understand,” said Hassanein, “but others might not. Some might even find your ideas revolutionary.” The word was a warning, not a compliment.
“No doubt they would,” muttered the young man.
Henry stepped into the little group and greeted Hassanein. The young man brightened: “Henry Pasha! How good to see you.” Realizing that Henry was at a loss, he quickly added, “Tarik Misry—Hassan Misry’s son.”
“Of course,” said Henry. Hassan Misry was an acquaintance, a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Agriculture. “How is your father?”
“Well, thanks be to Allah.”
“Forgive my not recognizing you. The last time I saw you, you were just a lad.”
“I’ve been in Paris for several years. At college.”
“Taking a medical degree,” the young woman amplified proudly.
“My wife, Celine,” said Tarik with equal pride.
“Madame. You’re newly arrived from France?” he asked them both.
“Two weeks,” said Tarik. “And just in time, at that. The Germans won’t be stopped.”
“That’s sad news.”
“They’re pigs,” said Celine with sudden venom.
“It impresses me,” said Henry to Tarik, “that at such a time you still think of Egypt. I overheard a bit of what you were saying. I’m of course aware of bilharzia, but I’m hardly a physician. How much money would be needed to make progress?”
Tarik shrugged. “Who knows? Probably millions.”
“I can’t spare millions, but perhaps I could be of some little help. Stop by my villa at your convenience and we’ll talk it over.”
“You’re too kind.” The young doctor seemed genuinely moved. “I’m not a specialist, but I’ll try to put together some facts for you. Some work has been done already. Not much, unfortunately.”
“Call on me, too, if you’d like,” said Hassanein. “I’m not as wealthy as Henry Pasha, but perhaps I can help in other ways.”
“I simply don’t know what to say. Thank you.”
“There you are, darling!” It was Catherine, glowing with pleasure. “What a lovely party!”
“What’s become of your dance partner?”
“Oh, he’s taken up with Jackie for the moment. I think he means to dance with every woman in the room.”
“Ah. All’s right with the world then.”
Henry made introductions, and Tarik gallantly asked Catherine for the next dance, leaving Henry little recourse except to ask Celine.
The poor girl, he thought as he escorted her to the floor. First the Nazis, and now this.
The sun was setting, but for many of the guests the party was only beginning. Festivities at Muntaza often ran on until dawn. The Austens, however, had Charles to think of, and Henry was adamant on reaching home before the blackout took effect.
Catherine assented grumpily. She had eaten too much and drunk too much and was irritable. She felt like a sleepy child who nevertheless wants to stay awake with the grown-ups. Why couldn’t Henry take the boy and let her get a lift home with someone else? Well, of course, that was nonsense. Why was she so tired? There was a time when she could dance for hours. Was she getting old? The thought did nothing to improve her mood.
They found Charles playing Saracens and crusaders in the gardens with a small pack of boys. He was dirty and Catherine scolded him. Then, at a turn in the path, they came upon Farouk and Miles Lampson. The king looked like a scolded child himself; Catherine assumed that Lampson had been lecturing him about the palace’s blackout violations.
Farouk looked at them like a drowning man seeing a lifeline. “Henry! You’re not leaving, are you? Not yet? There’s something I want to show you. You like motor cars, don’t you? What about you, young man?”
Charles shyly admitted that he did indeed like motor cars.
The king led the way, collecting other guests as he went—it was obvious that he had no intention of being left alone with Lampson again.
The Muntaza garage was a converted stable nearly as large as the Austens’ home, which was far from small. A servant ushered the group in. The place was lighted like a museum. It was a museum. Catherine cared little about motor cars, but this collection was breathtaking. Farouk was naming them off: Duesenberg, Bugatti, Rolls-Royce, Packard, Cadillac, on and on. All were bright red—by royal decree, the only red automobiles in all of Egypt.
“And this one,” said Farouk, stopping at a beautiful Mercedes coupe. “A wedding gift. Guess who gave it to me.” He made a dramatic pause. “Hitler!”
The Englishmen in the group had stopped smiling. Catherine hoped they weren’t going to start on politics. She had developed a throbbing headache.
“I also received wonderful gifts from His Majesty King George,” Farouk went on, clearly enjoying himself. “A pair of Purdey shotguns, the finest in the world, and—” another pause—“a set of golf clubs!” He took a mock golf swing so comically awkward that even the Englishmen laughed—except for Lampson, who looked as if he were contemplating assassination.
“What do you think, Henry?” the king asked. “Do you see me winning the Open?”
“I think, Your Majesty,” said Henry evenly, “that you should hold onto that Mercedes. One day soon, with any luck, it may be the last one on earth.”
“Hear, hear,” said several voices, and for a moment Farouk looked nonplussed. Then he laughed uproariously. “Spoken like a true Englishman!”
Catherine was astonished—and filled with pride. Henry hated the Germans, of course, and hoped for British victory in the war, but rarely did he make any display of his feelings; Egypt was neutral, and he apparently thought of himself as Egyptian. And now to have said such a patriotic thing—to King Farouk’s face in front of a dozen people! Maybe there was hope after all. Maybe he would see his duty clear and take her and Charles home—home to England. She imagined the palatial estate they would have in the green countryside. Henry would take an officer’s commission—he wasn’t too old, only forty-two. She pictured him in uniform. A war hero. A knighthood, possibly a lordship. Definitely a lordship. Lady Catherine.
The fantasy might have stopped but didn’t. There would come a tragic day, soldiers in dress uniform arriving at her door. Addressing Charles as Your Lordship. Even a million pounds would be no consolation—at first. But after a respectable period of mourning …
She almost blushed with shame. No decent person would have such thoughts. She hadn’t had them. They had happened on their own. God, her head hurt. She needed a drink. She would have one as soon as they got home. Not champagne. Something with medicinal strength.
The king was bidding them good-bye. So was Miles Lampson. The party was moving on.
As she walked back through the gardens, the fantasy flicked through her thoughts again. All on its own.
Mustafa Ismail glanced in the rearview mirror. Madam looked under the weather. The pasha was sitting in back, not in front with Mustafa as he usually did. Mustafa knew why. It was because Madam was under the weather and the pasha didn’t want to annoy her. It annoyed her for the pasha to sit up front. Mustafa had overheard her berating him about it once. Why, she demanded to know, did he embarrass her in this way, treating the driver, a servant, like his dearest friend? He was an Englishman. He ought to act like one. The English were the masters. The Egyptians were the servants. That was the way it was. Why did he wish to act like a servant?
Mustafa would not have allowed his wife to speak to him like that. On the other hand, it seemed to him that Madam was right If he were in the pasha’s place, he certainly wouldn’t sit with the servants.
Mustafa considered himself a lucky man. He had been one of the fellahin, a common peasant when the pasha came to Egypt. But he worked hard and honestly, and one day the pasha called him out of the fields and sent him to learn to drive. He had been the pasha’s driver ever since. His house in the servants’ section was made of brick and had three rooms, each one larger than the mud hut in which he had grown up. He had a wife and children who also worked for the pasha. All of this put Mustafa as far above the fellahin as the pasha was above Mustafa, and he had no desire to pretend otherwise. So, yes, in this respect it seemed to him that Madam was right.
But on the other hand again, despite the pasha’s occasional undignified ways, he was an excellent master. A fair one. Which was very good, because at the moment there was a crisis at the villa that a harsher master might blame on Mustafa, a senior man expected to keep order among the other servants.
“Mustafa, slow down!”
He eased the accelerator slightly. “A thousand apologies, madam.”
“I have a splitting headache, and the man drives fifty miles an hour,” Madam said to the pasha.
Feeling a need to justify himself, Mustafa decided to break the bad news now. “A thousand apologies, Pasha. I was going fast because there is a little problem that I thought you would want to know of.”
“One of the girls—Fariza—is sick.” Fariza was more than sick. She was almost certainly dying, if not already dead.
“What’s wrong with her?”
“I … I don’t know, Pasha.” Mustafa could not bring himself, in front of Madam, to say that the girl, who was unmarried, had tried to abort herself and that now no one could stop the bleeding.
“Hmm. I’ll have a look at her directly once we’re there.”
The villa was only minutes away, just off the corniche. Madam and Master Charles went into the house. The pasha accompanied Mustafa to the servants’ quarters. On the way, Mustafa told him all he knew.
The pasha took one look at Fariza, who was ashen and whimpering that she was cold. “Get some blankets. The girl’s in shock. Mustafa, go back to the palace. Ask for Dr. Tarik Misry. Use my name and say it’s an emergency—a matter of life or death.”
Mustafa hesitated. “It’s nearly dark, Pasha. The blackout.”
“Damn the blackout! Use the headlamps. If someone stops you, tell them what I said. Go!”
Charles had taken a bath and it was past his bedtime, but he was curious about what was happening in the servants’ quarters. All he knew was that Fariza was sick and a doctor was there, along with his father. He decided to see for himself.
Slipping out the back door, he was for once glad of the blackout. With the thick curtains in place, there was no chance his mother would look out and see where he was going. She didn’t like for him to play with the servants—especially not with his friend Karima. She could get very angry about it when she was drinking.
He didn’t understand it. He had played with Karima as long as he could remember. Not when there were other boys around, of course: Karima was a girl and a year younger than he was. But he liked her. They talked about all kinds of things. He even thought that she was pretty—although he kept that a very dark secret.
His mother said he was too old to play with Karima. But his mother didn’t know what Karima was like. She wasn’t silly like some little girls. She knew things. All the servants, maybe all Egyptians, did. Things about babies, and about men and women. Things his parents didn’t know, or at least didn’t talk about. These things Karima talked about quite naturally.
He found her in the darkness near the house where Fariza was.
“Hello, Karima. What’s the matter with Fariza?”
“Do you think she’s going to die?”
“I heard the doctor say that she might not. It doesn’t really matter, though.”
Charles was shocked. “What do you mean?”
“Her life is over anyway. She’ll probably kill herself from the shame. Or maybe her brothers will kill her.”
“What are you talking about? Why kill her? What shame?”
“She was going to have a baby and she has no husband.”
Charles began to understand, although he still couldn’t see the point of killing anyone.
“They might throw her down a well,” said Karima matter-of-factly. “They do that sometimes in the country, where my parents are from.”
“I told you. The shame. But don’t let’s talk about it. It’s bad luck. Tell me what it was like today—at the palace.”
He told her the high points as he remembered them. The gardens. The food. The king’s motor-car collection.
Her eyes went wide. “You saw the king? He talked to you?”
“And the queen?”
“I didn’t see her.”
“Oh, it sounds so … beautiful! I wish …”
They had wandered near Karima’s house. Suddenly, from the shadows, came an angry voice: “Karima! What do you think you’re doing?”
It was her older brother, Omar.
“I was only talking with Charles.”
“Only talking with Charles! Only talking with a boy in the dark! Go inside. Now!”
Karima bowed her head but didn’t move. Omar grabbed her roughly by the arm.
“What’s the matter, Omar?” said Charles. He wasn’t afraid of the older boy. Omar might be twelve, but he was still a servant.
“Nothing that you would understand,” Omar answered with a growl, “you, or anyone like you.” With that he dragged Karima into the house.
Charles stood in the darkness. It made no sense. He and Omar had been friends once. But lately it seemed that Omar was angry with everyone. Why? He wondered if this was something he ought to mention to his father. No, better not. He didn’t want to get Karima into more trouble than she was in already.
He walked slowly back to the villa.
“You’ll learn to listen to me, ya bint.”
Karima was afraid to answer her brother or even to look at him. She didn’t think she had done anything wrong, but the way Omar was acting, it was as if she had disgraced herself. She wished her mother and father were at home. They must be with Fariza. And now she was alone with her very angry brother.
“Do you know what happens to girls who dishonor their families? Look at Fariza. Just a dirty whore.”
She knew that he was right. She said nothing.
“But do you know what else can happen to girls who run wild? Do you?”
She did know—something at least—but she shook her head.
“They cut you—here.” He pressed a knuckle into her groin and she cried out.
“Yes, it hurts, doesn’t it? They cut you. Not like Fariza. They cut part of you away.”
She had heard the stories, stories told in whispers among the women.
“Do you want me to talk with Father?” pressed Omar.
Again she shook her head.
“Then always obey me and never dishonor your family.”
He walked out, slamming the door behind him.
Karima stood without moving until she was sure he was gone. She had been afraid in her life, but she had never felt as if she would always be afraid. That was how she felt now. “Allah the all-merciful, our only protector,” she began, but the words of the prayer seemed only words.
One thing always helped. One thing always pleased others, even gown-ups, as well as herself.
Softly, she began to sing.