Each of the stories in Sherif Thabet’s 2011 collection, The Couch Party (Hizb al-Kanaba), explores the everyday violence, hypocrisy and despair of Egypt’s demobilized majority. The Couch Party is, of course, the revolutionary term for those who did not participate in the 25 January Uprising, those who preferred to watch it on television, and those who decided it was safer to stay at home until things calmed down again. In Thabet’s telling, the Couch Party is a critical force of counter-revolution whose inertia makes it arguably the most powerful political bloc in the country. His tales never stray far from the television and refrigerator, but if you listen to him carefully enough, you can also make out the hum of revolution in the distant background.
The moaning echoes in your ears.
At first, you don’t get what’s happening. Then you do. Panicked, you stop then try to run back. Your legs shoot out beneath you. You try again—you’ll get a handle on the situation. You step—more like jump—across the parquet hallway connecting the bedroom to the kitchen. One second is all you need to dash across the doorway to the living room. One second is more than enough to catch a glimpse of the pink body-stocking Shayma bought two days ago at City Stars Mall. When the two of you got home, she put it on in front of you and her mother. The plunging neckline looked great. You liked it but it also made you a little jealous. Now, there it is again before your eyes, like a tight pink stain against bright blue of his Adidas t-shirt.
“Shayma, put some clothes on.” You shake your head as she goes to her room to change.
Your wife looks at you and shakes her head. “So what? Isn’t Haytham her husband?”
You hesitate for a moment. “He’s her fiancé. When they get married, he’ll be her husband.”
A minute later, and you’re standing by yourself in the dark kitchen. The anger comes off your cheeks in hot waves. You suck at the air in heaves, still unable to get over it. He was kissing her. That animal was making out with your daughter.
Despite the pounding in your ears, you can hear each sound coming from over there. In the empty darkness of your kitchen, you imagine him standing in the next room, wrapping his arms around her, holding her face in his fingers, devouring her delicate lips in a kiss so deep it make her whole body shiver. In your mind, you hear her breath, the surging sighs of your daughter, the soft groans from her painted mouth as his lips trace themselves down her long, soft neck.
“And did we wait until our wedding day?” Your wife smirks at you.
Furious, you stare back, looking for the right words to say. “Things were different in our day.”
What was it you wanted in the kitchen? You can’t remember. You stand there looking blankly at the shelves of the refrigerator. The packages of cheese, pastrami and bologna. Half a watermelon face down on a platter. Some coke bottles. Water bottles neatly lined up on the shelves of the refrigerator door.
It’s funny, but their engagement bothered you from the very beginning. Minutes after the ceremony, Shayma and Haytham stood there talking with one another, laughing with all their friends, on the steps outside the Al Rashidan Mosque. Holding hands like it was nothing. As soon as she got engaged, she took off her hijab and the loose-fitting clothes she used to wear. She went out with her hair down and started wearing all sorts of these clothes—skinny jeans and gowns and these body-stockings. Her mother would look at her and smile, “Mashallah! Mashallah!” And you’d turn and look the other way and take a deep breath as you felt the fury rise up in your loins.
“Scuse me, Oncle!”
You can hear the uncertainty in his voice. You turn and stare right through him. Your vacant expression hides how much you hate him. Of course, there’s no sign of Shayma who’s still hiding in her room.
You look at his thin face. His bright-red, thin face. You look at his big eyes, and the scruffy goatee around his lips.
When you speak, your face is cold and hard, “Good night then. Say hello to your mom and dad for me.”
You go out to the balcony and sit. You smoke one cigarette after another while memories play back like reels of film. There’s the image of a slim, handsome young man with jet-black hair. The young man who was once you, carrying a three-year-old Shayma in his arms. Then another image—you, middle-aged, balding, graying, now with pot-belly. The man Shayma convinced months ago to let her get engaged.
You hear the sound of the front door open, then footsteps walking down the hall. You take another drag on your cigarette without bothering to look, knowing full well who it is—Abdel Rahman coming home. In the past, you would have gotten up to scold him for being out so late or for hanging out with those stupid kids from Tahrir. But now, you can’t muster yourself to say anything.
“Your sister let’s herself get kissed in your house, and you want to go around acting like your some kind of revolutionary troublemaker?”
You put your cigarette out in the crystal ashtray on the table, while getting up to go to bed. You throw yourself on the bed, but can’t sleep at all. Your wife opens her eyes and looks at you in astonishment. “What’s going on?” Her voice is sleepy.
You turn to look at her face, most of which is still hidden in shadow.
“I saw him kissing her.”
She looks at you, but doesn’t really understand. Exasperated, you slowly explain, “Haytham. He was kissing Shayma. Today. I saw them.”
For a moment, your wife doesn’t say anything. Then the ghost of a smile appears on her lips. “So what? Isn’t he her husband?”
“He’ll be her husband on the day they get married.”
She laughs, “You always forget the things you did before your wedding day. Don’t you remember? My father, God have mercy on his soul. He couldn’t stand you at all.”
You roll over and look at the other side of the bed and murmur over and over, “Things were different back then.”
Same exact thing happens every Friday, right after prayers.
The imam finishes his prayers and so does everyone praying behind him, including you. It’s not like you then exit the mosque, because most often you’re praying on the mats spread across the sidewalks outside. Then you murmur, “Amen,” while you struggle to locate your shoes. You step into them, then walk away, slowly but not too slowly.
You stop for a few moments in front of the rows of newspapers laid out carefully on the sidewalk across the street. Just as you reach out your hand, clutching your 1.50LE, to the skinny brown newsvendor, his hand stretches out with a copy of Al-Ahram.
The street is jammed with double- and triple-parked cars, left there by men praying at the mosque. You cross the street with ease, reaping the sole reward of the traffic jam. All around you, car horns blare and drivers yell.
You go a few steps then stop in front of The Cheese and Pastrami King, or that’s at least what the owner of this tiny bodega announces to the world on the bright red-and-white sign outside.
You see them every week standing near the entrance to the shop, one or two of them leaning up against a car parked out in front. There’s usually only five or six of them. How old are they? None of them are over twenty. They sit there with their neon t-shirts and their worn-out skinny jeans, and some of them with their long hair and baseball caps.
They’re swigging cans of Pepsi and Schweppes Gold, bags of chips dangling from their fingers. You walk by them and overhear a word of two. They’re talking about how crappy Ahly’s playing. Or about a bouncy new song by Abou El Leef or Tamer Hosny or some hilarious new sketch of Ahmed Mekki’s. And of course, they’re talking about rubber. Meaning chicks. Meaning girls.
You’re asking the shopkeeper for a bottle of corn oil and a bag of coarse salt, and then suddenly you’re feeling like you’re worlds away from these kids even though you’re only thirty-two. What the hell happened? Where did the last ten years go? You used to hang out just like this on Friday afternoons—so why is it that now you’re digging through your pockets for change so you can buy the béchamel sauce your wife told you to bring home?
Bags in hand, you exit The Cheese and Pastrami King, and then you’re walking by them again when you hear one of them hurl some nasty comment at you. You can’t really make it out, but it feels like a slap on the back of your neck all the same. And they are all laughing at you.
You head home, feeling like an old man, like you’re eighty or more. You pause for a few seconds staring into the mirror hanging in the front hall. You look at yourself and run your fingers through the white hairs around your temples and your half-shaven beard. You hand the bags to your wife who’s standing in the kitchen. She looks at you and wonders what’s wrong. You shake your head as if to say, “Nothing.”
You sit, trying to lift this heavy rock sitting in your chest. You try to focus, you’ll read the sports page. You skip over the headlines about another mass protest in Tahrir. The fingers of your hand curl around a mug filled with steaming mint tea. Then you sense the tiny little fingers touching your knees, and you hear the tiny little voice so dear to your heart, “Baba—the movie!”
You lower the paper and gaze down at the beautiful face with the pudgy cheeks. Then you look up at the clock on the wall. “Did you eat your whole lunch?”
“She opens her arms as wide as she can, “All! All of it!”
You grab the remote and turn on MBC3. You put the paper down and say, “Come over here!”
You lift your little daughter into your arms and hold her tiny hand in yours. Who knows how long the two of you are sitting there like that before your wife comes in and says, “They’re almost here. Aren’t you going to change?”
When you nod, you catch a glimpse of your wife’s face in the mirror on the wall. For a second, you can see the frustration in her eyes, and just then, it disappears into a faint smile as she walks back into the kitchen.
Feeling like a child, you go back to watching the cartoon that comes on MBC3 every Friday after prayers.
- Translated by Elliott Colla