Sunday, December 26, 2004

burtuaan

“Please, please, please, at least have some burtuaan, some orange juice,” she begged, tugging Muhsin off the crowded sidewalk and into her favorite juice stall. The stalls, typically cramped, colorful spaces adorned with all manner of fruits and vegetables and sugarcane stalks, were anywhere and everywhere in Cairo. But this one, a block from Tess’s apartment, was notable for the public piety of its proprietors. For the devotion displayed not merely through prayer beads and longish beards, but also through funky, poster-sized photos tacked to the stall walls, each bearing the image of a vegetable or fruit that had strangely, miraculously, appeared in the shape of the Arabic word “Allah.” And, if finding “god” in these images took imagination, it certainly required no more so than discerning the likeness of Mother Teresa or Elvis a grilled-cheese sandwich.

Maleesh nisf. I have no appetite,” Muhsin answered, as Tess pulled him into the three-foot-wide space between the juice counter and the image of an Allah carrot. But Tess ordered two juices anyhow, and the youngest juicer, a middle-aged man with sparkly eyes and a white gallabia, sliced and squeezed the fruit, filling two glass mugs that he set before them. So Muhsin had no choice but to humor her. And to drink his burtuaan before they continued on their way.

An ardent atheist estranged from his Islamist parents and living, at age twenty-six, in the cramped apartment of a divorced aunt, Muhsin was probably justified in wanting to avoid overly pious juicers and images of Allah carrots. But even if Tess had suggested they head elsewhere, his answer would’ve been the same. Muhsin never wanted to eat or drink much of anything. Well, anything other than countless cups of thick Turkish coffee, sipped nervously in small, crowded cafés and accompanied by one cigarette after the next.

Tess suspected that Muhsin’s distaste for eating, for sustenance, was in part his way of clinging to a few precious pleasures. Of making meager, irregular wages stretch further, covering more caffeine, more smokes, and the occasional Stella.

But perhaps more than that, Muhsin was just too agitated, too restless, too haunted to eat. His mind and heart and pen were driven by visions of social struggle, by fears of persecution, by the powerful forces aligned so ominously against him—Islamists, the State, global imperialists. Surviving was a very visceral, very consuming concern. It left little space for appetite.


And yet, for all his restlessness, for all his passion and fear, Muhsin was impossibly gentle and thoughtful and shy. All long eyelashes and timid glances, his thin face filled Tess’s heart with such worry. With such desire to protect him, to ease his suffering, to make him see his own beauty and that of the world around him.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Moe said...

I recognize Muhsen. I was him once. :)

September 5, 2007 at 7:48 PM  

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