Gathering Together

       Paradise Regained

               

 

Paradise Regained back cover copy

 

Magdy Kamal had an appointment with destiny, and he was dressed for it like a bridegroom.


Magdy’s desires are simple, much like those of any young Egyptian man: to study hard, to get a good job, to marry his sweetheart, and to worship his God. But Muslim thug Ahmed El Faumoy has other ideas. Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, Magdy becomes one of six Coptic Christian martyrs cut down in their prime by a hail of state-sponsored terrorist bullets in what the world will come to know as the Nag Hammadi Massacre.


In the aftermath of riots and sectarian violence, Magdy’s family and loved ones become the true victims. Gergis Kamal, only trying to give his brother a decent burial, runs afoul of the Muslim-dominated legal system and gets sent to a hellish prison without so much as a court hearing. Magdy’s secret fiancée, Janet, becomes the target of a creepy, lustful Imam intent on forcing her to join his harem. Meanwhile Egypt’s Muslim power structure, from police to judges to the President, scramble to conceal their complicity from the omnipresent eyes of the international media.


And above it all, Magdy has his appointment with destiny. Was he right to follow Jesus and not Allah? Or has he wasted his life on the wrong God?


Paradise Regained is a thrill ride through the mean streets of Nag Hammadi, the unforgiving Egyptian desert, and the farthest reaches of the Cosmos. Edward Shafik mixes real events with plausible speculation to deliver the truth—not only about one of Egypt’s most horrendous crimes, but also about Islam itself

 

Magdy Kamal had an appointment with destiny, and he was dressed for it like a bridegroom.


Magdy’s desires are simple, much like those of any young Egyptian man: to study hard, to get a good job, to marry his sweetheart, and to worship his God. But Muslim thug Ahmed El Faumoy has other ideas. Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, Magdy becomes one of six Coptic Christian martyrs cut down in their prime by a hail of state-sponsored terrorist bullets in what the world will come to know as the Nag Hammadi Massacre.


In the aftermath of riots and sectarian violence, Magdy’s family and loved ones become the true victims. Gergis Kamal, only trying to give his brother a decent burial, runs afoul of the Muslim-dominated legal system and gets sent to a hellish prison without so much as a court hearing. Magdy’s secret fiancée, Janet, becomes the target of a creepy, lustful Imam intent on forcing her to join his harem. Meanwhile Egypt’s Muslim power structure, from police to judges to the President, scramble to conceal their complicity from the omnipresent eyes of the international media.


And above it all, Magdy has his appointment with destiny. Was he right to follow Jesus and not Allah? Or has he wasted his life on the wrong God?


Paradise Regained is a thrill ride through the mean streets of Nag Hammadi, the unforgiving Egyptian desert, and the farthest reaches of the Cosmos. Edward Shafik mixes real events with plausible speculation to deliver the truth—not only about one of Egypt’s most horrendous crimes, but also about Islam itself

 back cover copy


Magdy Kamal had an appointment with destiny, and he was dressed for it like a bridegroom.


Magdy’s desires are simple, much like those of any young Egyptian man: to study hard, to get a good job, to marry his sweetheart, and to worship his God. But Muslim thug Ahmed El Faumoy has other ideas. Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, Magdy becomes one of six Coptic Christian martyrs cut down in their prime by a hail of state-sponsored terrorist bullets in what the world will come to know as the Nag Hammadi Massacre.


In the aftermath of riots and sectarian violence, Magdy’s family and loved ones become the true victims. Gergis Kamal, only trying to give his brother a decent burial, runs afoul of the Muslim-dominated legal system and gets sent to a hellish prison without so much as a court hearing. Magdy’s secret fiancée, Janet, becomes the target of a creepy, lustful Imam intent on forcing her to join his harem. Meanwhile Egypt’s Muslim power structure, from police to judges to the President, scramble to conceal their complicity from the omnipresent eyes of the international media.


And above it all, Magdy has his appointment with destiny. Was he right to follow Jesus and not Allah? Or has he wasted his life on the wrong God?


Paradise Regained is a thrill ride through the mean streets of Nag Hammadi, the unforgiving Egyptian desert, and the farthest reaches of the Cosmos. Edward Shafik mixes real events with plausible speculation to deliver the truth—not only about one of Egypt’s most horrendous crimes, but also about Islam itselfParadise Regained back cover copy

Magdy Kamal had an appointment with destiny, and he was dressed for it like a bridegroom.

Magdy’s desires are simple, much like those of any young Egyptian man: to study hard, to get a good job, to marry his sweetheart, and to worship his God. But Muslim thug Ahmed El Faumoy has other ideas. Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, Magdy becomes one of six Coptic Christian martyrs cut down in their prime by a hail of state-sponsored terrorist bullets in what the world will come to know as the Nag Hammadi Massacre.

In the aftermath of riots and sectarian violence, Magdy’s family and loved ones become the true victims. Gergis Kamal, only trying to give his brother a decent burial, runs afoul of the Muslim-dominated legal system and gets sent to a hellish prison without so much as a court hearing. Magdy’s secret fiancée, Janet, becomes the target of a creepy, lustful Imam intent on forcing her to join his harem. Meanwhile Egypt’s Muslim power structure, from police to judges to the President, scramble to conceal their complicity from the omnipresent eyes of the international media.

And above it all, Magdy has his appointment with destiny. Was he right to follow Jesus and not Allah? Or has he wasted his life on the wrong God?

Paradise Regained is a thrill ride through the mean streets of Nag Hammadi, the unforgiving Egyptian desert, and the farthest reaches of the Cosmos. Edward Shafik mixes real events with plausible speculation to deliver the truth—not only about one of Egypt’s most horrendous crimes, but also about Islam itself

 

  Chapter 1


Dressed like a bridegroom for his wedding, Magdy Kamal Fahamy had an appointment with death.

Passengers leaving the steam train clashed with the human herd trying to board, jamming the doors.

Standing back from the chaos on the platform, Magdy used a little trick he learned from his Boy Scout years: he pulled a whistle from his pocket and blew hard. “Get away from the door; Secret Service Police are coming. Let the people on board out first, or I’ll throw all of you animals in jail.”

Some froze in fear and obeyed, allowing the arriving passengers off the train without injury.

Luckily, no Secret Service Police came to seize Magdy as an impersonator.

He fought his way through the crowd onto the train. Farmers crushed inside, their rough faces ploughed by winds and hard work. Women wore long, black gowns resembling potato sacks. They carried crying children whose dirty faces served as landing grounds for flies. A rotten-egg scent hung heavy in the compartment.

A muscular man with a scarred face and a wrestler’s build called out from his seat, “Afendy? You there, Afendy?”

Finally realizing this hulk was addressing him, Magdy turned. Only eighteen, Magdy still found Afendy (Mister) only appropriate for his father or big brother.

Care to sit by the window?” The man sat next to a plump woman in a black veil, and beside her on the bench, a stack of suitcases and packages claimed the window seat.

Yes, please.”

Captain El Faumoy is at your service.” He began shifting the baggage to the floor below the bench.

Helping move the last two, Magdy struggled with their heft. What was in there, barbells?

Thank you, Afendy.” El Faumoy sat, and crammed the last bag between his legs. “Sit, sit.” Smiling, he patted his wife’s thigh. “Don’t mind Fatima. She doesn’t bite.”

Magdy took his seat and hung his head out the window, gulping fresh air. The draft softly caressed his cheeks and freed his soul. The worn tracks shone under the sun’s rays, belying their age. The train whistle screamed like a mourning woman as the train left the station.

He pulled his head in and settled into his seat. A freshman studying architecture at Sohag University, Magdy was returning to his home in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, for Christmas break. How he wished the train would go faster. Not just for his family, but for his high school crush, Janet. Imagining her face and voice, he realized how much he missed her.

Suddenly a hand rubbed against his side.

Fatima pressed against him, and he felt every curve of her body. Her shiny cat eyes peered at him over the loose veil, rippled by a seductive smile.

Was she flirting? Lord have mercy.

To free himself, he shifted to the window and dangled his head out again. The sweet aroma of the lush green fields purged her exotic scent.

Satan was tempting Magdy, big time. What would Father Mathew say?

El Faumoy looked Magdy’s way. Did he think Magdy started this? Men like him had killed for less.

Trying to act casual, Magdy felt a hand pulling on his pants. Fatima! He jumped away as though shocked with a thousand volts.

Fatima tipped her head toward El Faumoy. “My husband wants to talk to you.” Her soft voice was like the soprano aria in Aida.

Magdy swallowed hard and looked at the muscular giant. Warm blood rushed to his face.

El Faumoy showed no signs of suspicion or threatening. “Afendy, are you going to Nag Hammadi?”

Yes, the next stop.”

El Faumoy howled like a wolf. “So are we. You’ve seen how heavy my packages are. What a jam, We could use a strong young man like you. Will you help us?”

Though wary, Magdy did owe him for the window seat. “What did you have in mind?”

At Nag Hammadi station, I’ll jump from this window to the platform. Then you’ll hand me the luggage, one by one, and then help Fatima to exit through the door. What do you say, Afendy?”

How would this big ape jump out of the train’s window without getting stuck? Talk about passing a camel through the eye of a needle! Which part would go first, head or tail?

Magdy looked at Fatima, who had warmed him like an electric blanket during the ride. He took an inventory of the five packages under the seat.

The lifting would be no problem. But escorting Fatima to the exit?

Magdy prayed for help.

Brother El Faumoy, you escort your lovely wife. I’ll get through the window and help you with your bags. You just throw them to me one by one. What do you think, brother?”

The woman squirmed like the giant sand worm of Dune, and her breast squashed against Magdy’s chest.

The husband scratched his skull, looked at the window opening, and surveyed his scattered bags. Then he smiled a mouth full of a smoker’s yellow fangs. “Okay, Afendy. You look like an honest man. Watch for thieves; they’re everywhere.” Looking at his wife, he yelled, “Fatima get ready.”

Fatima gave Magdy a parting pat and a wink with her big black eyes. She moved closer to her husband’s thick arm.

The train howled like a hungry wolf. It came to a full stop at Nag Hammadi, and the struggle between the incoming and leaving of people ensued again. Riding the third-class train in Upper Egypt could be a life-changing experience. With wallet, pants, dignity, eyes, and limbs all at risk, a passenger should be thankful just to stay alive.

Magdy received a text message on his cell phone from his elder brother, Gergis: I’m at the station. He searched the throngs outside until he located Gergis running parallel to the train, then shouted his name.

Six feet tall with wide brown eyes and a thick groomed mustache in the tradition of the Kamal men, Gergis beamed back at Magdy.

My brother is here.” Magdy waved to Gergis. “I’ll give my suitcase to him, and then I’ll jump from the window. Once I’m on the platform, throw me your bags. Please make sure you don’t bust my head.”

El Faumoy found Gergis in the crowd. “Tell your brother to come closer.”

As soon as Magdy opened the window sash, a group of four passengers clambered to it, lifting their packages high to throw out first.

Magdy blew his whistle and shouted at the invaders, paralyzing them with surprise. He flung his suitcase to Gergis, then jumped out the window. He landed firmly on the platform and gazed at El Faumoy, arms held out to receive his bags. “Ready.”

The four passengers’ contention over the window exit resumed.

Fatima stood back, then did the unthinkable. She took off her veil, exposing her round olive face, beautiful with daring wide eyes. After a brief glance at Magdy, she reached down and removed her high-heel shoe. Striking at the other passengers, she hammered like a woodpecker until one poor man cried and retreated from the window.

El Faumoy hauled his first load and yelled at Magdy to catch it.

Magdy and Gergis received the five pieces and watched Fatima and her husband exit safely from the train’s door.

Thank you, Afendy, how can we repay you?” asked Fatima.

Glad we could help, mum,” Magdy said, “Shall I call a taxi for you?’

No need, Afendy.” El Faumoy gestured toward a car on the other side of the road. “Do you see that beautiful green Fiat? That’s my second woman. She’ll take it from here.”

Gergis stared at El Faumoy as if trying to place him. Suddenly Gergis looked away, perspiring. “Come on Magdy. We have to go.” They raced down to a waiting taxi. Gergis pushed Magdy into the cab.

Had Gergis gone mad? What did he see?

What’s the matter, Gergis?”

His brother replied, “Do you know who that man was?”

Yes, his name is El Faumoy, and his wife is Fatima.” Magdy grinned.

Ahmed El Faumoy is no good. He’s been convicted of a dozen crimes. He’s a hired killer.”

Magdy gasped. He’d just helped a killer. “Lord have mercy.”

Gergis rubbed his forehead. “I have to call Bishop Michael right away.”

* * *

Magdy’s house wasn’t a mansion with marble stairs or elaborate rising columns, but it was his sweet home. He wouldn’t trade it for the Taj Mahal. The moment he set foot on the chipped mosaic steps, he climbed them with the vigor of a professional athlete. Gergis could hardly keep pace with him.

The door was open; the aromatic smell of Mama’s cooking flowed in the air, promising a feast. Mama stood by the door with a bright smile, so tender and loving that no words were needed. She hugged and kissed him as if he’d been gone nine years, not nine weeks.

But much had happened in those nine weeks. He had progressed in his studies and defined his plans for the future. He left this place as a boy, but he was returning as a man.

His fourteen-year-old sister, Mary, leapt up from reading on the couch. She ran to him and Mama and joined in their embrace.

Such a homecoming. Only one thing missing.

Janet. What was she doing tonight?

His mother pointed to the couch. “Sit, Magdy. Habebe, have you been eating well, sleeping well? Do you like school? Do you have good teachers? Do they like you? I can’t imagine anyone couldn’t love this angelic face.” She cuddled Magdy’s cheeks between her warm hands and showered him with more kisses.

Mama, please.” He caught her hands. “I’m a grown man.”

Mama raised her eyebrows, retrieving her hands. “Not too grown for my eggplant casserole.”

Magdy’s stomach purred. “Is that what I smell?”

Come and see.” She waved him to the kitchen. “My, you have grown taller.”

Gergis flexed a muscular pose. “Not as tall as me. With his looks on this body, I could be a real lady killer.”

As if the word killer triggered a relay in his brain, Gergis turned serious. “Excuse me. I have to call Bishop Michael.” He went back into the living room.

What he is talking about, Magdy?” Mama looked worried; she twisted up the hem of her plaid apron.

Nothing, Mama.” Magdy eased her concerns. “Now, let’s see what you’ve prepared. It smells wonderful.”

In the small kitchen, a brass kettle brewed rice-stuffed cabbage. Mary took a scoop and flipped steak fries on the second burner.

Check the oven, Magdy,” Mama said

He peered through the window. Delicious fried slices of eggplant covered with tomato sauce and onions baked in a Pyrex glass pan. The aroma fueled his hunger.

Sit.” Mama waived him to a chair and prepared a platter. “Enjoy, habebe. Baba won’t mind that you have a taste now.”

Magdy ate until he was quite full.

* * *

Gergis Kamal called Bishop Michael on his cell phone. “Bishop, I have bad news for your Holiness.” He told of his encounter with El Faumoy and unloading the packages. “Three in particular felt as if they contained heavy artillery.”

Bishop Michael drew in a breath. “Are you certain it was El Faumoy? I thought he was still at Qena State Prison.”

I’m sure, Bishop. I looked him in the eyes, and I know it’s him.”

The bishop was silent as if pondering. “Why do you suspect he was carrying weapons?”

I lugged similar containers in the Army. I know how it feels to handle them. They were probably machine guns.”

Why would he carry guns and ammunition in a public train?”

Gergis paced. “El Faumoy had a driver, but the car was in bad shape. It wouldn’t handle the two-hour trip. In the midst of all the farmers going to market, El Faumoy became just one peasant among many.”

Gergis, I see your point. I have known El Faumoy for several years. Someone smart is planning for him.”

Your Holiness, what do you make of his appearance two days before Christmas?”

El Faumoy is out of the cage to strike at the Copts during the Christmas celebration. More than two thousand men, women and children will come tomorrow night to worship.”

Charged silence prevailed.

The Bishop continued. “My son, we must neutralize this threat. But I won’t let my enemy quench the Christmas spirit. His Holiness, Pope Shenuda the Third, is aware of the threats I received. I informed the police, but we should take all measures to protect the worshippers. How much does your brother know about El Faumoy?”

Not much, Bishop. I told him that El Faumoy is a violent criminal.”

Good, tell him nothing more. I’ll call Colonel Muhammed and inform him of El Faumoy’s arrival, but I’m certain he is aware of it. May the blessings of our Lord and his blessed mother Virgin Mary be with you? Give your family my love and tell Magdy I have a lot for him to do in this year’s Mass.”

* * *

El Faumoy and Fatima rode in the green Fiat tooling slowly down the dusty streets of Nag Hammadi. Humza, his skinny and mousy driver, swore at five kids chasing the car like little puppies. The filthy rascals, some barefoot, giggled.

One kid pleaded through the open window. “Any change or candy, please, Basha?”

El Faumoy barked, “Go away, or by Allah, I’ll break your legs.”

The kids ran along, then picked up a few chipped stones and pelted the car.

One stone hit Fatima’s arm, and she screamed. “What are you waiting for? Stop that rascal before he hits me again.”

Any other day, El Faumoy would have raged against any attack on his beloved Fiat. But today he had no time to defend his other woman, the one who didn’t yell back.

Swallowing his anger, he shouted to Humza, “Honk the damn horn to scare them away and speed up.” He turned to Fatima. “Relax, they’re just little kids. We need to go home and secure the cargo.”

The street boys clearly recognized a losing battle. They retreated to prey on another car.

A few minutes later, the Fiat reached a run-down house with a rustic wooden door. Fatima almost ran El Faumoy over in her dash for the bathroom. With the help of Humza, El Faumoy carried his cargo inside to the storage room in the back.

Humza opened the wrapping to expose a plastic machine gun casing.

El Faumoy checked the handle, barrel, and nose. Perfect shape, clean and ready to use.

Humza lined up five boxes of ammunition on the table. “Welcome home, Capitan. It’s just like the good old days. How did you manage to get out of prison so soon?”

El Faumoy stretched his arms and cracked his ring- studded fingers. “Allah is great.” He laughed.

You do make things happen for them.” Humza opened another crate.

El Amir and El Basha do their thing with telephones and cash; I do mine with arms and guns. They work in offices behind closed doors; I work in the streets. They kill people with laws; I kill with bullets.” Inwardly it enraged El Faumoy. He was their pawn. All they did was talk and dress fancy. He was the one who got things done.

He tossed Humza a bundle of cash. “Here’s your first installment, one thousand pounds.”

Humza started to count the money, his skinny fingers holding the money against the light as if checking for counterfeits.

El Faumoy shook his head and spat on the floor. There is no honor among thieves. “After the job is done, you’ll get three thousand more. Meet me at Horia Café.” He walked Humza to the door.

El Faumoy’s cell phone rang, and he answered. “Hello?”

It was El Amir. “I need an update.”

On hearing the voice, El Faumoy’s mouth cracked into a wide crocodile grin. “Allah is great, we are ready for jihad.”

El Amir growled. “Allah is great. Proceed as planned.”








Chapter 2


Magdy opened his eyes; the room blazed with sunlight kissing his face. Disoriented for a moment, he looked at the ceiling trying to remember where he was.

Home.

It was his room, his own pillow and blanket. Mama had put on new linen sheets, fresh with lemon scent.

His portrait hung high on the wall, centered in a place of honor. He remembered posing for it as a high school senior. His wide, black eyes, mysterious like a summer night and playful as a dancing reef by the River Nile, reflected anticipation of future greatness. Someday he would design buildings to rival the Pyramids.

Why had Mama displayed his own photograph in his bedroom? Was it a reminder to his family that he’d become a man living on his own? Or was it a reminder that the printed image endures while its subject decays to dust?

He closed his eyes, wondering if he should sleep few minutes more, but another image enchanted his mind: a vine by a running stream, bathed by sunlight. Janet stood there. Lovely like a white dove cooing for the spring flowers. Sweet like grapes harvested from the vine. That was Janet, his Janet. All night long on my bed, I looked for the one my heart loves. Those words from the Song of Solomon held true through the ages.

Though too young to marry, he was old enough to fall in love. Did she care about him? Did she think of him as often as he thought of her? Janet’s smile captivated him. She was more beautiful than the angels on the stained glass windows at church.

Picturing those angels inspired Magdy with a vision. He wore his white deacon’s robe and stood in line with the other deacons. They chanted praises and followed Bishop Michael around the altar. He smelled the soothing essence and recited the mass prayers. The life-size portraits of Jesus, the blessed Mary, and angels seemed to be looking at him. Suddenly the ceiling dome blazed with blinding light. Every knee bent, and their voices grew louder and louder. Magdy froze like a blind man. A strong hand lifted him high into the air. He passed through the dome and flew above the clouds.

The dream faded as he heard voices just beyond his door.

Mama bossed Mary around. “Don’t forget to toast the bread; Magdy likes it hot and crunchy. Did you boil water for his tea? It’s almost ten o’clock; I’ll go and wake up my habebe.”

As Mama came in, he pretended to be asleep but then cracked one eye a slit and saw her lovely face hovering over him like a guardian angel. She kissed his cheeks.

He opened his eyes wide and pulled her close, throwing her off balance.

She fell onto him. “You silly, silly man, rise and shine. Your breakfast is ready. Today is a big day, Christmas Eve. I’ll have plenty of holiday cookies to take with you. Gergis and Baba already went to work.”

Oh, Mama, I was having a dream about heaven. If you’d just let me sleep one more minute, I could have met Jesus.”

Mama’s cheer evaporated. She buried Magdy’s face into her bosom, her fingers combing his curly black hair in short strokes. “Magdy, please don’t tease me like that. You’ll live long enough to give me grandchildren and have grandchildren of your own. Jesus lives in your heart, and you don’t have to die to see him!”

Hastily she wiped tears from her brown eyes and gave Magdy a sneaky smirk. “Guess who came here yesterday asking about you?”

The President of Egypt.”

She laughed. “No, habebe, someone more important.”

He scratched his head. “The President of America? I’m getting a visa to work in the United States?”

No, silly, you know what I mean. I can see you blush like a girl.”

Janet?” His heart bounced.

Yes, habebe. Who else? Beautiful Janet came with her mama, and we had tea.”

Magdy rolled his eyes and folded his hands. She was a great teaser like him. “And?”

We talked. Women like to talk, you know. I remarked how much Janet had grown up to be such a pretty young woman . . .”

Come on, Mama. Did she ask about me?” His anxiety rose.

Mama seemed to enjoy this game. “Not exactly; good-mannered virgins don’t talk openly about boys.”

I’m not a boy. I’m a man, a college man.”

Yes, you are, habebe, and a very handsome one indeed. Any girl would be lucky to marry Magdy Kamal Fahamy. But you must finish school first.”

Yes Mama. I know. Did you think I’d get married tomorrow? Please tell me what Janet said about me.”

Magdy, you surprise me. I raised you to be spiritual. You’re a deacon who serves in the church. Now you talk like a teenager hopelessly in love.”

Yes, Mama. I love the church and God, but I love you and Janet too. Is there anything wrong with loving pretty women?”

Magdy’s flattery earned him another kiss. “No, habebe. Loving Janet isn’t a sin. We know her family, and she is a good neighbor. However, you still have few years before you are ready to get married.” Mama’s voice was tender, yet firm.

Magdy listened, his eyes fixed on Mama’s face, but he still thought of Janet.

Mama continued. “You need three years to graduate from college and another to get a job. Then you have to start saving for an apartment and wedding expenses. That’s going to take at least six years—ten in all. You’ll be twenty-eight, which isn’t bad for a single man. But a girl needs to marry by twenty-four or people will think something’s wrong with her.” She said it with the gravity of a doctor diagnosing a terminal condition. “Janet’s parents won’t allow her to wait ten years. If the right man asks for Janet’s hand, Mr. William won’t reserve his daughter for you.”

Magdy frowned at his mother’s calculations—and the notion that anyone else would marry his Janet. “Mama, I agree that ten years is too long for Janet to wait. But what if, after graduation, I immigrate to America? After only two years I’ll have saved enough for marriage. Then Janet will wait only five years. She will be twenty-two, the perfect age.”

Mama smiled. “Why not, Magdy? That could be the answer, but pray for the Lord to open the door for you. Gergis has been trying to win the visa lottery for four years now.”

Mama, what did Janet say about me?”

Habebe Magdy. What do you want me to say? Does Janet love you? She might, but only God knows our hearts. She said very little, but her eyes said volumes. She looked at your photos and sighed. I think she missed you.” Mama smiled, placing her hand over his shoulder. “I believe Janet likes you a lot. Who wouldn’t? Her mama asked questions about your life and schooling in Sohag, and what job you’ll have after graduation. Traditionally, a mother wouldn’t ask such questions unless she sensed her daughter’s feelings.”

What did you say?”

I told her how good, kind-hearted, and smart you are. Janet liked what she heard; she looked again at your photograph and smiled.”

Mama, you should be proud. The most beautiful girl in Nag Hammadi is in love with your son.” Magdy smiled. “I know of her love, and I feel it inside. I’m sure that Janet will wait for me. She wouldn’t marry anyone else. I won’t let her wait ten years. I promise.”

They made the bed and walked to the breakfast table. Magdy sniffed the aroma of the fava beans swimming in hot olive oil. The tea’s steam hit his nose with his daily dose of caffeine. As in the old days, his mother sat to his right and his sister sat to his left. Magdy gave thanks for the food and for being home.

* * *

After a hearty breakfast, Magdy dressed in his blue cotton shirt, navy dress pants, and buffed brown leather shoes. He combed his curly black hair and whistled a happy tune to the image in the mirror.

Not bad, not bad at all. By God, I’ve got it. Janet is mine.

Before leaving for work that morning, Kamal had left one hundred Egyptian pounds for Magdy as a Christmas gift. Every year he earmarked this money for a white dress shirt, black dress pants, and red tie. This was the choir’s required uniform.

Magdy tucked the money not in his wallet, but securely inside his shoe. No wallet could escape Nag Hammadi’s army of child pickpockets, even in full daylight.

After walking about ten minutes to the town shopping market, he met his two friends, Mark and Adel. They exchanged greetings and marched three astride, talking and laughing. They walked five minutes more and reached Kamal Groceries.

Magdy greeted his dad at the register. “Hi, Baba. Do you Remember Mark and Adel?”

Magdy’s dad, Kamal Fahamy, a man in his early sixties, medium height and weight, groomed a thick mustache above his lips and wore metal frame glasses. His gray hair had more salt than pepper. “Oh yes, how are you? Magdy, the cooler has Coke on ice. Please treat your friends, and you too can have one. No charge today, since its Christmas Eve.” His loud belly laughter echoed through the store.

The three friends sipped slowly to prolong their enjoyment of the soda while hearing Baba Kamal’s latest anecdotes about aggravating customers. As the counter grew busy, the trio stood idle by drifted away to the storefront.

Then Magdy smelled her scent, his first and only love. Like a breath of perfumed air, Janet William entered the store. Magdy’s heart drummed fast and he felt his face turning red. He froze, drowning in her charming hazel eyes. He didn’t know what to do except make room for her to reach the front counter.

Kamal yelled from behind the counter. “Janet, how are you, my sweet? You came at the right time; Magdy was about to leave, but since you are here, he’ll help you with your shopping.” He winked and smiled.

Mark and Adel giggled like baboons and stood at the side to watch Romeo helping his Juliet.

Janet called to Magdy’s dad. “Uncle Kamal, my mama needs milk, butter, tea, sugar, and rice.” Turning to her right, she greeted Magdy with a smile, flashing two rows of dazzling white teeth. Her voice vibrated in his ears like a hundred violins playing a Mozart symphony.

Magdy greeted her. “Janet, how are you?”

I’m good, thanks. How is Sohag?” Their eyes gazes tangled.

Big. Ten times bigger than Nag Hammadi. There are many big stores, and I bought you a gift.”

She recoiled with fright and whispered, “Magdy, I cannot accept any gifts from you. Baba will kill me.”

He smelled her hair and the jasmine perfume on her neck and face. He helped her select items from the shelf. When she was done, he added some things of his own: a box of chocolate and some dried dates, dried peaches, mixed nuts, and sardines.

Magdy, what are those for?” Janet asked.

It is Christmas. Compliments of Kamal’s store.” Magdy added corned beef and cucumber pickles. “Janet, I want you to have a few treats.”

She grabbed him by the wrist. “Please, Magdy, don’t get me in trouble. I can’t accept anything from you until we are engaged.”

He enjoyed her warm hand holding his. If she kept this up, he just might try to unload the whole shelf. “If that’s the problem, look.”

Burying his free hand in his pocket, he grabbed a red velvet jewelry box. He presented it to her and opened it. Inside were two golden engagement rings.

Here Janet, I told you. I bought you a gift from Sohag.”

She dug her nails into him, eyes bright like a full moon. “Crazy. Magdy, you are crazy. We’re too young. You just started college; I’m in high school. Your parents will hate me for this. They’ll think I pressured you.”

He pulled her to the side. Adel and Mark snooped around, stealing glances. Magdy’s father looked their way.

Magdy tried to ignore the audience. “Janet, I know we’re too young to be engaged, but a voice inside my head told me to do it. The ring is a symbol, a visible reminder of our love. Before God and his holy angels, we are committed to each other forever. I’ll love you to the last day of my life.”

She drew a deep breath, and her eyes softened like a clear sky. She froze, withdrew her hands, and hurried up to the front counter, her sobs carrying behind.

Magdy’s legs numbed. Did he pressure her too much?

Yes, he had.

Kamal frowned. “Janet, why are you crying? Did Magdy say anything to upset you? I’ll kill him if he did. I swear by Virgin Mary and Saint Michael the Roman to cut off his tongue and feed it to the cats.”

Afraid to face Kamal or Janet, Magdy rushed out of the store. How could he have messed things up so badly?








Chapter 3


El Faumoy opened his front door, stuck his neck out, and looked on both sides of the street like a robber casing a bank. It was early morning. Street kids were still sleeping, and so was Fatima. El Faumoy approached his green Fiat with a lover’s eyes. He patted a large dent on the left fender as he would Fatima’s cheeks. Kneeling in front of the broken headlight, he examined the extent of the damage.

Shame on Fatima and Humza,” El Faumoy whispered to the car. “I leave you for six months and look what happens to you: everything breaks loose. I’ll fix you up, sexy chick.”

Fit for a circus freak show, the car was an old, one-eyed beast that spouted smoke and fire when it crawled on its four worn tires. The muffler dangled as if duct taped on.

When I drive you back, neighbors will faint with envy. Still, I have to keep the rascals’ dirty hands away from you.

In preparation for the big operation, El Faumoy drove the Fiat to a two-pump gas station operated by a mechanic named Hussein. The vehicle struggled to climb the little hill and coughed like an asthmatic smoker. Every time the car hit a bump, it sparked and growled.

As El Faumoy pulled in, Hussein jumped from his chair out front and disappeared inside the garage.

El Faumoy honked his car horn several times and parked his car by the gas pump. “Salam Hussein. Why are you hiding your ugly face from me? Come on the double; I have a job for you.” He rolled from the driver’s seat, left the door open, and charged toward the garage like an angry ape.

A muffled voice came from inside. “Who is it?” Hussein poked his head out from the inner door. “Captain El Faumoy himself? I can’t believe my eyes. Humza didn’t tell me you were back. A thousand white days, Captain, I must celebrate your safe return. What would you like to drink?”

I don’t want your drink. You are a thief. Humza paid you a hundred fifty pounds last week to fix the muffler. You scumbag, you didn’t fix it. By Allah if you don’t fix it right now, I’ll break your head. Speak up, man, I can’t hear you.”

Hussein approached El Faumoy on shaky knees, painting a flattering smile on his long, skinny face. “By the life of Prophet Muhammed, it cost me 259 pounds to fix it last week. Captain, Fiat parts are imported—expensive and hard to find. I did the best I could do.”

Is that so?” El Faumoy’s hot blood rushed high.

Hussein persisted. “This Chevy I’m fixing now is only ten years old. I’ll sell it cheap. Make me an offer. By the life of your father and mother, I’m telling you the truth.”

Now he adds my parents to the talk. “You’d try to rob me again?”

Forgive me, Captain, your Fiat is like a fourteen-year-old horse. It should be shot.”

That was it. Nobody insulted his second woman. The three-hundred-pound El Faumoy sprinted toward the mechanic and punched him in the face.

Screaming, Hussein toppled on his back like a rotting log.

El Faumoy landed on Hussein and wrapped his steel fingers around the mechanic’s throat. Hussein’s eyes bulged, and he gasped for air.

Three bystanders rushed into the assault. With great effort, they dislodged El Faumoy from Hussein.

Still trembling and sweating, Hussein stood on twig-like legs that barely supported his thin frame. “By the life of Prophet Muhammed, I love Captain El Faumoy more than my brother. I fixed his car as if it was my car.” He muttered to the onlookers, “Men, look at him; he is trying to kill me. Allah is my witness.”

Just shut up or I’ll really kill you, like a dog. In respect to these good men, I’ll give you a second chance to save your ugly neck. I’ll sit in the cafe next door. I won’t leave until you fix the muffler and the headlight or else . . . understand?”

But Captain, you saw me fixing that Chevy inside the shop. Today is a bad day for me, Tomorrow; I’ll take care of you. To prove that I love you, I’ll only charge one hundred pounds for the new headlight I ordered for you.”

El Faumoy shook his fist. “You stupid donkey. I need the car tonight. Do you hear me? Tonight. You have two hours to fix it. Last week Humza paid for the muffler. I’m not going to pay again. If you do a good job, I may give you a pack of cigarettes.”

Okay, Captain, but I just smoked my last cigarette. Can you lend me one?”

Here, you rotten fart.” El Faumoy threw a pack at Hussein. “If I hear any more rumbling, tonight you’ll sleep with the fish in the Nile.”

Hussein hushed; he rolled the Chevy out of the garage and then drove the Fiat inside the single bay. He crawled underneath the car.

* * *

Magdy cowered outside his father’s store, certain that Kamal would cut his tongue for provoking Janet to tears. He cracked the door and peered through, wondering what to say.

Before he could speak, his salvation came from Janet herself. “Magdy isn’t at fault, Uncle Kamal. I can’t help myself, I cry when I’m happy or sad.”

Kamal’s gaze went back and forth between his son outside and Janet. Mark and Adel were listening by the door too.

I understand that well.” Kamal groaned. “So now, are you happy or sad?”

Janet placed her groceries on the counter. “Both”

Magdy and his friends laughed.

Sweet Janet wasn’t mad, she was overwhelmed. She loves me. Certain that Heaven’s angels were rejoicing, Magdy ventured back into the store.

How can you be happy and sad at the same time?” Kamal placed her groceries in double paper bags.

I can’t explain. It is a woman thing, I guess. Uncle, how much do I owe you?” She extracted a few paper bills.

Janet, please keep your money. Tonight at the church, I’ll charge your baba. Hurry to your Mama so she can cook Christmas Eve dinner. After forty days without meat, we all miss the taste of steak. My mouth is already watering.”

Janet blushed again, her cheeks like a red roses petals. “Please, Uncle Kamal, take the money. I know my mama; if I don’t pay for the food, she’ll send me back.”

I’m sure Magdy would love to see you come back. Right, son?”

Magdy nodded, focusing on Janet’s dovelike eyes.

Kamal waved Magdy to the counter. “Magdy, please carry Janet’s stuff to her home. I have also prepared four shopping bags for Mama. Take them too.”

The trio stretched their muscles; each carried two grocery bags and started the three-mile walk to Janet’s house. Janet took the lead, walking alone. Egyptian tradition forbade Magdy from walking next to Janet in public because they weren’t related, engaged, or married.

Magdy’s trio stayed a few paces behind, though. Janet’s lack of a veil identified her as Christian and a target for sexual harassment by teenage Muslim boys. But after seeing Magdy, Adel and Mark, they went on their way.

They passed by a street café where men sat around tables idly smoking, drinking, and spewing dirty words and obscene gestures at passing females. Janet crossed to the other side of the street.

There stood Ali’s food cart, serving steaming hot koshary. Magdy’s mouth watered as he smelled the aroma of hot rice mixed with pasta, smothered with hot sauce and topped with lentil beans and fried onions. Peasants dressed in the long field robes stood in line for a bowl. Magdy almost joined the queue until he remembered his mother warning him not to buy koshary from an unsanitary street vendor like Ali, known for his heavy drinking and abusive behavior.

Janet avoided the koshary cart. She looked back at Magdy and his friends, and Magdy gave her an assuring smile. She kept marching forward.

Ali was serving five adults and four others were waiting their turn. Magdy watched the forty-five-year-old Ali shouting a high-pitched invitation to taste a free sample. Ali’s fourteen-year-old son, Ahmed, joined in the call, even though every moving skirt put him in heat.

Ahmed carried a full steaming bowl of koshary to Janet. “Try this, you pretty thing.”

She shook her head. “No thanks, not hungry.” She hastened her steps.

The boy kept after her, almost blocking her way. “The best koshary in town. Try it for free.”

She kept saying no.

One Muslim bystander whistled at Janet, and another flirted with dirty words. In seconds, a noisy mob surrounded her like an iron ring. Ahmed pulled hard on the arm that held her purse.

The mob swelled to sixteen men. Magdy prayed for heaven’s intervention and looked at Mark and Adel to figure out a way to rescue Janet. He spotted Faud Fahamy’s fruit shop a few feet away. Magdy knew Faud from the church.

Magdy whispered, “Guys, go to Uncle Faud’s store and ask him to call the police and our parents for help.”

Adel said, “Good thinking, buddy, we’ll be back to help you.” Mark and Adel grabbed Magdy’s bags and hurried into the store.

Magdy resorted to his whistle again. “Secret service! Move away, you dogs and donkeys.” The deception scattered a few men, clearing the way for Magdy to grab Janet’s hand. Enraged, Magdy kept blasting his whistle and yelling to break loose from the mob.

Ali shouted. “He’s not Secret Service, he’s just a kid.”

A hairy, hyena-faced man charged at Magdy with fist raised. “Stop where you are, Mama’s boy. I’ll break your neck and feed it to my ducks.”

Releasing Janet, Magdy ducked and kicked the attacker in his groin.

Screaming like a woman in labor, Hyena Face fell onto his knee.

A police officer stood aside watching the fight like a spectator. He cheered for Magdy and booed the hyena.

The mob had begun to surround Janet again.

Magdy called to the policeman, “Officer, please help my sister.”

The officer glanced at Janet and then at Magdy. “What’s your name?”

Magdy Kamal Fahamy.”

He gave Magdy an indifferent grunt. “Christian. I should have known.” Spitting on the sidewalk, he crossed the road to the café.

The harassment of Janet continued with a renewed vigor.

Adel and Mark returned. They pushed and shouldered the mob, opening a path for Magdy and Janet to break free. The four of them ran to the fruit shop, whose Christian owner hid them in a storage room.

Shaken and frightened, Janet clung to Magdy’s arm. He embraced her and felt her heartbeat. Her head rested upon his shoulder, and her silky hair brushed his cheek. Her perfume soothed his nose.

Janet looked into Magdy’s eyes. “I never gave you an answer on the ring, did I?” She kissed him. “Yes. I want to spend my life with you.”

There amid crates and bushels of citrus and succulents, Mina hugged the woman he loved. In his heart he believed she was his new fiancée.

What God has united, no one can divide.

* * *

Sitting by a corner table in the Horia Café, El Faumoy sipped the hot tea with the slurp of a piglet leeching his mother’s nipples. Mousy-faced Humza sat facing him; to his right, Ihsan, El Faumoy’s former cellmate, occupied another chair.

As usual, the radio blasted recitation from the Koran, a good cover as El Faumoy outlined the big operation in terse whispers. It seemed simple enough at a large scale. Afterward they’d escape to the sugarcane fields only a few kilometers away. “For five minutes, a whole year’s wages.” He flashed bundles of cash to their wide eyes.

Extra bonus,” El Faumoy added. “This isn’t an ordinary operation; it is also a holy jihad that will guarantee both of you an instant admission to Paradise.”

Humza spoke, “Faumoy, Paradise can wait, but my pregnant wife cannot. I want three thousand pounds now in case something happens to me.”

Humza, don’t nag like a woman. By Allah, no one can touch us. We have machine guns; they have Bibles. Guess who will win. It’ll be like hunting ducks without hearing their quacks.” He laughed. Humza and Ihsan stayed silent.

Ihsan talked for the first time. “How do you know the police won’t come?”

El Faumoy grinned. “El Amir swore by El Kaaba that the police won’t move until we’re far away in the fields.”

Humza asked, “How long will we hide there?”

Until sunrise. Then El Amir will send a car to take us to a safe house in Cairo.”

Humza’s questions continued. “How long will we be there? My wife will give birth within two weeks. I must be with her.”

El Faumoy nodded. “I’ll give you three thousand now to stop your crying in my ears. Tell your wife you have a job in Sohag that will take a week. I’ll call El Amir; he might allow your wife to be with you at Cairo.”

Humza stared at El Faumoy and then turned to Ihsan, who nodded in approval.

The men wrapped the cash bundles tightly and stuffed them in brown paper bags. Each man hid his bag in his knee-length robe and agreed to meet again at the café at 10 p.m. when El Faumoy would pick them up.

When El Faumoy crossed the street from Horia café to the gas station, Hussein was filling the Fiat’s tank. He’d given the car a complete makeover. El Faumoy watched the pump’s meter with suspicious eyes, but otherwise he liked what he saw.

Hussein, son of a gun, the headlight looks good. You fixed the pipes and washed the car. Your face is still as ugly as a monkey, but this time I’m happy with you. I’ll give you a tip.” He clutched a bundle of cash. “How much are you asking?”

If the Captain is happy, I’m also happy. By the life of Prophet Muhammed, I gave you a thousand-pound job.”

El Faumoy balked. “Forget it, thief. I’m not paying you a thousand. How much is the gas?”

Uh, forty-five.”

And the front light?”

About a hundred fifty.”

El Faumoy peeled off two notes. “Here’s two hundred pounds. Keep the change, and don’t spend it all in one place.”

Driving home, he called El Amir, and a strange, high-pitched voice answered. “Go to the cellular store and return your phone. There will be a new phone for you under the name Murad Sultan. Only El Amir knows the number. Don’t use this number again. El Amir is unlisted now. The police and the Copts are getting too suspicious.”

Give me El Amir’s new number. I need to talk to him before the operation.”

The voice turned hostile. “I’m your contact now. I’ll call you on the new phone at the right time. El Amir doesn’t know you. You never worked for him, understand?”

Are you telling me you’re in charge? Who the blazes are you?”

You don’t want to know!” The voice cracked into an eardrum-piercing laughter, and then the line went dead.

Stinging with betrayal, El Faumoy swerved to avoid an oncoming truck. He pulled to the curb and cursed out loud.

El Amir is selling me out. Why would I trust a voice without a face?” It was too late to call it off; nobody had ever crossed El Amir.

He tossed the phone into the passenger seat. Why did he get the feeling he was dead either way?