The first relationship I got myself into after David passed away from AIDS in April of 1990 (in case you’re new to this blog, I wrote about my relationship with David in my book, Holding Breath: A Memoir of AIDS’ Wildfire Days) was with an Egyptian man I worked with at an AIDS agency in New York. He was a very good man at heart, but unfortunately developed a serious addiction to something similar to crack.
Before things went too bad, however, I went with him to visit his family in a suburb of Cairo called New Maadi (we were both actually hoping that a good long stay with his Moslem family would help him with the drug problem). We stayed two months, and I wrote this poem (as well as a long article which, if you’re interested, you can find by Googling something like, “Nancy Bevilaqua Malik Enti“–the latter basically meaning, “What’s the Matter With You?”).
At dusk from edges of cornerless desert came voices
of the farthest stars starting to recite, and dust
that held inbred wild dogs at bay, along with heavy heat,
all day, brushed back down through thick petals
and tentacles of oleander leaves to the ground. The dogs
rose from patches of grass where they mated and slept
to follow us, yelping confused threats, through numberless streets.
Headlights jolted over rocks we tossed to distance
the dogs and passed into hills that butted up in vague
perfect pairs in the night-blind eye of the mind.
From downtown Cairo, Helwan, Old Maadi, muezzin
competed to call day’s last prayer through amplifiers
mounted on mosques, a music that sounded like mourning
but was not. Trees bent over balconies and shook
with black birds, hundreds, returning, and flowers fell.
Women, talking, talking, took laundry, instrument
of love, off lines, eating peanuts, dropping shells that fell
like ashes to the floors of the balconies, and crickets told
their angry stories to the stars. Inside, light brightened
in proportion to the darkening outside, fluorescent
in most rooms, incandescent in the white room where the old man
prayed, moribund, mummied up in muslin, speaking
to his beads. Inside we were quiet, and fed him
honey and halewah on bread and tea, and smoked
away from where his paper lungs would feel it.
Heads were pulled off pink shrimp picked from the market
in old Cairo, pomegranates split and bled into glasses
of water and sugar, and leaves that smelled like skunk were plucked
and soaked in broth and everything was eaten, nothing
wasted. After would be milk and sweet green oranges bought
from fellaheen next to their fires in Maadi,
where European streets still rolled with fruit and smelled
of flapping fish and henna, tobacco, sorrel, saffron.
If there was water we would heat it with propane and bathe,
dreaming in steam and leaking gas, and save the rest for day.
Nowhere to be alone except in sleep, and sleep
sometimes came slowly, a litter of languages
in rooms behind the door, the window whisked with light
from distant desert cities, foreign moon, planets
crushed together in an unfamiliar field of black.
Mosquitoes that could find me in the dark by scent
of blood disturbed the drape of air around the bed,
methodical, tasting hidden wine I’d had.
Dreams were islands, slim as rafts and color
of smoke, slipping up the Nile like ghosts.
Homesick, strange, I dreamt my dreams
in English, luxuriating, understood.