Arroz Bil Lebn





I found the recipe online, bought a bag of rice and a gallon of milk from the store on my way home. Walked through the door and set the bags on the floor next to last week’s Times. Put on my slippers. Kissed my girlfriend.

I turned on the stove, put the pot of water on to boil. Left the room to go pee. Returned. Stared at the unmoving water. Turned to my computer, opened the Al Jazeera live stream. Sat down and organized my to-do list. Listen to fifteen minutes news in Arabic. Check. Stood up to pour in the rice.

I breathed. Focused on the rise and fall of the newscaster’s voice—the cadence of the words as they fell from her mouth, the heaviness of the consonants on her lips, the way the vowels stretched and groaned. She was a hijabi woman. Small. Most likely Syrian, judging by her accent.

I measured and poured the milk in with the rice, added sugar, wished I knew where to find a real vanilla bean. I settled on cinnamon instead, and emptied a teaspoon into the pot. Stirred. Put the lid on it.

The news switched over to a correspondent in Cairo, and my ears perked up. Copts were planning protests for the two-year anniversary of the revolution. Two years. I shook my head. Wondered who I knew that would be there. Winnie, surely, and Dillon. The idiots had gone to all the protests, and then posted pictures of bloodied noses or statuses about tear gas on Facebook, as though expecting admiration. As though this fight were their fight.

And Mina—he was Coptic, right? And Michael, who spoke perfect Arabic and had managed against all odds to find a gay scene in less than two weeks. And Colette and Mihiret, who had gone to Gaza after the ceasefire in November to bring supplies and scared the shit out of their families. Maybe even Guyatri—although I remembered her mostly as the girl who had hung around the embassy and stolen dates with soldiers, working her way through the branches of the military like a baboon in Pharaonic times. Her favorites were the Marines, she said, because they had access to the embassy’s commissary, lined with endless shelves of peanut butter and Chips Ahoy! and Jack Daniels.

Amr wouldn’t go because he’d be on a plane to New England, and Bashir because he supposedly didn’t care about politics—which I finally understood after he explained to me that he’d been expelled from college in Sudan for refusing to join the National Congress Party. That there was a warrant for his arrest if he ever tried to return home.

And Tim, cautious and dependable Tim, would go to our old cafe, like normal, and order a water pipe and Turkish coffee, like normal, and smoke the night away, like normal, hoping all the while that everybody down in Tahrir Square would be okay.

I looked up just in time to save the pot from boiling over. Cursed. Burned myself removing it from the stove. Cursed again. Poured the stuff into a tin to cool. The newscaster started talking about something happening in Europe, and I turned it off. Fifteen minutes had long since passed.

I walked to the window. Sun was setting. Fucking cold outside.

I retreated to my chair with a semi-interesting textbook that I’d like a lot more if it hadn’t cost me a hundred bucks. Tried to read. Found myself staring at the pages, too tired to even pretend to find satisfaction in these goddamn mundane classes. I convinced my girlfriend I wasn’t hungry, cleared a space in the fridge for the dish, and went to bed.

Woke up. 3 AM. A car backfires a few blocks away and the echoing jolts me out of bed. I disturb the cat on the way up. I hate that cat.

3 AM is dinnertime during Ramadan. At 3 AM, traffic jams used to form on the bridge to Dokki, gaudily-dressed youth honking their way merrily to the disco. At 3 AM, I might just be coming home from the cafe with Tim, heady with caffeine and nicotine. The cats would pour invisibly from the shadows as we walked, the sound of their scattering paws rising in warning to the ears of the Egyptian soldiers slumbering in their booths on the corners. Those who woke up always stared; if I was alone, they’d whistle.

I went to the fridge and pulled out the tin from the night before. Slinked against the refrigerator door, falling cross-legged at its feet, and savored a spoonful. The floor was so cold. So was the arroz bil lebn. Rice pudding. 3 AM was when my craving would get away from me, when I’d walk down the street and buy three or four tins of it from Ahmed, who was always there and who couldn’t have been more than twelve years old. Nice kid. Only flirted occasionally. 3 AM was when I’d stagger off the Nile boat we would rent for our Saturday night carousing, and 3 AM was when I’d finally go to sleep, destined to miss the bus to my morning classes. It was 3 AM when I sat on the couch in the common room as Ohio was declared, and the guards asked me, Obama?, their eyes nearly a bright as mine.

And 3 AM was when the taxi came so I could catch my 5:30 flight.

The moon blinked at me from behind a branch, shone through the kitchen window. The clock ticked on toward 4 AM. My spoon scraped the bottom of the tin.