Gretchen McCullough’s Shahrazad’s Tooth and Other Stories, published in June of this year, link together quite well and is overall a short, enjoyable read. This is McCullough’s second book. The first book had three short stories in English published with their Arabic translation by Mohamed Metwalli. Two of the stories of the first book are now included in the new book.
Being a world traveler and having lived in Egypt for over seven years, McCullough understands well the dynamics of Egyptian society, as well as how it intertwines with the expatriate/foreign community living here. Her stories have the realistic feel of someone who really knows and understands Cairo well.
Her stories can be read as individual stories, but they also all link up in different ways. It’s a pleasurable read for both Egyptians and foreigners, though I think some of the American references might go over the heads of Egyptian readers.
“The Wedding Guest” features Botoxed, materialistic, wealthy Egyptians obsessed with excessive opulence interacting with foreign belly dancers at a wedding.
“The Empty Flat Upstairs” is about a Japanese woman trying to study and the daily hurdles she faces, especially when she is negotiating with the landlord and the bawab. This is so typically what many expats face when living in Cairo. Along with the difficulty of living in a very noisy Cairo, we are a loud culture, and this story shows how difficult this adjustment can be: “Japanese don’t love noise. Stillness is a value in our culture.”
In “A Little Honey and A Little Sunlight”, poet Joe Pulaski lays dying in a hospital bed in the United States after having lived in Egypt and reminisces about his experiences in Cairo: his friends, his apartment, the city.
“Taken Hostage By The Ugly Duck” is written from the perspective of Hoda, a frustrated, narrow-minded Egyptian housewife who decides to focus all her energy on her British gay neighbor instead of on her own problems. Her voyeurism turns into an obsession: “She enjoyed hating the Ugly Duck, much more than loving a man”.
In “The Charm”, Dr. Sheri goes through severe sexual harassment, narrowly escaping rape. She then falls into a severe depression. Her maid Zeinab is her only confidant and support.
In “Shahrazad’s Tooth”, the journalist/teacher Mary Beth Somer and the widower dentist Dr. Sami fall in love. The book is named after this story. It’s not the longest, I wonder if it was the author’s favorite. Mary Beth is a survivor of a Beirut kidnapping. Her descriptions of her hostage situation reminded me of An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan, who had survived five years as a hostage in Lebanon. Her description of war-torn Lebanon seem so similar to what Syria is going through today: “People just disappeared. Sometimes, they were killed in the street on their way to buy bread. They just never came back.”
“Tiger” shows the contrast between a young American Goth and Adel, a well read Egyptian taxi driver.
The last story, “Pure water”, is divided into two parts with the same two main characters, Dr. Gary and Karalombos. The first story happens in pre-revolutionary Cairo and the second happens during the Jan. 25 revolution. The contrast of what Cairo was like and how it transformed overnight is very well depicted. This includes how the transformation affected foreigners living in Cairo as well as well-connected government officials.
There are commonalities in all of the stories. Many of the stories seem to revolve around one apartment building in Garden City. There are always eccentric personalities, someone losing their mind and either depression or frustration. Which embodies the way many of us feel at many different times of the day or year about Cairo. Like many of McCullough’s characters, Cairo can excite us or bring us to tears, and at many times one feels at the brink of insanity.
For a short read, the characters and details are many. The lives of university professors and writers. The role of pets in our lives and in our surroundings. How disappointing children can be in any culture. The inspiration and motivation that grandparents give. How xenophobia continues in the Middle East, with foreigners accused of being spies or affiliated with the CIA. The role of food in Egypt: lupin beans, koshary, Aswan peanuts. Relationships. America. Iraq. Depression. Death. The role of the bawab, the maid, the taxi driver in the life of Egyptians and foreigners.
McCullough manages to display all the idiosyncrasies of Cairo in a slightly comic, nondramatic tone. Although the opposite is happening. Cairo is endless amounts of fervor, hoopla, commotion, confusion and turmoil. For all its corruption, pollution, noise, havoc, chaos and double standards, Cairo is still endearing for both foreigners and Egyptians and they long for it when they leave. This is what McCullough captures best.
Marilyn Gardner, a blogger, couldn’t have said it better: “Cairo is a city that gets into your blood, under your skin, becomes a part of your DNA and every other phrase you can imagine to describe the connection that is Cairo. For all it’s dirt and chaos, our family loves this city. I think it’s because we are like the city. We’re loud, we’re chaotic, and we’re complicated; we can’t be put in a box.”