“When the Apricots Bloom”
by Ellen Larson
AHMM July/August 2010
A diminutive orange car pulled away from the train station and scooted through the empty streets of Benha, Egypt. It turned the wrong way up a one-way street (to trim three blocks off the trip) and stopped before a sprawling five-story edifice that dominated the city center by virtue of its imposing green façade and air of decaying grandiosity.
Ranya Mostafa, a plump young figure in a royal blue pants suit, emerged from the car and bestowed a cheery shokran to the driver, a lanky young man in a gray suit. She entered the mogamma and crossed the deserted atrium at a brisk pace, then headed up a sweeping staircase, careful to keep one hand on the railing, for the marble treads were treacherous, smooth as glass and fluted by the daily passage of countless feet.
She passed the public registry on the second floor and the passport office on the third. On the fourth floor she turned into the east wing, going down the hall till she reached an alcove furnished with a standing lamp and a couple of vinyl chairs. This was the antechamber of the Legal Reference Department, which occupied the lower of the two floors dedicated to the Office of the Public Prosecutor.
Ranya opened her briefcase and pulled out a copy of El Ahram, bought that morning at a newsstand in Cairo, and opened it to the legal section. On other days, Hussein, the teaman, would have materialized with a smile and her morning coffee, but it was eight thirty on the morning of the twenty-fifth day of Ramadan, and neither Hussein nor his kettle would be putting in an appearance.
The Mansoura arson trial was dragging on, with defense counsel arguing (with unparalleled rhetorical magnificence, according to El Ahram) that the bakery owner could not possibly have set fire to his own establishment because his wife and youngest child would swear that he was at home with a thunderous headache—a malady that had afflicted him on a regular basis for thirty-five years and which left him utterly prostrate and virtually blind with shooting pains behind his eyes.
Ranya imagined how swiftly she would counter that pathetic rhetorical indulgence: And does learned counsel truly mean to suggest that the testimony of those whose simple duty it is to protect their husband and father could ever carry enough weight to counter the unassailable evidence of two eyewitnesses and the official receipt for the purchase of two liters of benzene the day before? She would relish the battle.
Not that she was likely to have the chance any time soon. Though the Egyptian government guaranteed a job for every college graduate, the number of candidates entering the job market each year was inversely proportional to the number of jobs available. Ranya, the ink still wet on her Baccalaureate of Laws degree, might have secured the historically prestigious job title of Assistant to the Public Prosecutor, but the reality was that she spent her days seated at a table with twenty other attorneys with the same title, carrying out various menial tasks and contemplating the hard truth that there were thirty-six others ahead of her in the queue, each steadfastly waiting (at pitiful wages) for that same chance.
She returned her attention to the newspaper with some effort. Patience, that ancient pillar of Egyptian culture, had never been her strong suit.
“. . . an unprovoked attack on a bicycle messenger outside Benha University.” That was only a couple of kilometers away. She read on, her curiosity piqued, and as she read indignation rose in her breast, accompanied by the desire to avenge all such great evils.
Footsteps clattered on marble stairs, then fairly ran down the hall. Who could that be at such an hour during Ramadan?
A small man with an egg-shaped head bounced into the antechamber and struck an aggrieved pose. Ranya’s eyes widened: Ustaz Samir Hafez Abd El Moneim, the honorable Public Prosecutor himself. A formidable man in his mid sixties, famous in Benha (if nowhere else) for a twenty-five-year career in which he had failed to get his verdict only once; openly fawned over and secretly despised by nine-tenths of his underlings for refusing to do the decent thing and retire. Once you got a top position in Egypt, you didn’t easily let it go.
Ustaz Samir went to the door of the main reference room and pulled at the knob. When nothing happened, he shook it till the door rattled on its hinges.
Ranya rose, making a faint noise.
He whirled, pinning her with his angry eyes. “What are you doing here?”
Ranya cleared her throat. “My train arrives at eight fifteen, hadritak. I prefer to sit here until the office is unlocked, rather than wait at the station. I took the approval of Ustaza Mona.” Mona was secretary to the personnel manager.
Ustaz Samir’s scowl deepened. “You work here?”
“Since eight months.”
“Where is Lutfy?”
Ustaz Lutfy, one of nineteen deputy prosecutors, was Samir’s right-hand man.
“I didn’t see him today.” That was putting it mildly. During Ramadan, when all Muslims fasted from dawn to dusk, no one arrived before ten. Or twelve. If at all.
Ustaz Samir pulled at his face. “This is not possible.”
On the day she had graduated Ranya had vowed that she would always be the first to put her hand up, no matter how many times it was slapped back down. That was the only way to prove that she was different. So she took a step forward and asked: “Any service, hadritak?”
“I must appear before the magistrate in three hours to present the charges in a most important case. I must meet with defense council in two hours. What can you possibly do? Tch.”
Ranya clutched her hands against her rose chiffon blouse. “I could prepare the charging document. And I could take them to the court.”
Surprise flickered across his face. “You’re an attorney?”
He took in her coiffed dark hair, the frills of her lilac blouse peeking out from beneath her suit collar, the gold bangles around her wrists, and the cinnamon polish on her nails. He reminded her of a butcher sizing up a side of lamb.
“What’s your name?”
“Well then, Miss Ranya Mostafa. Follow me.”
Ranya grabbed her briefcase and hurried after him.
The inner sanctum of the public prosecutor’s fifth-floor office showed the inevitable signs of disrepair but was, like everything else in the
Samir sat behind his desk and picked up a police report. “The case involves a fifteen-year-old boy who was attacked outside the Faculty of Agriculture the night before last.”
“The bicycle messenger.” Ranya sat on the less decrepit of the two chairs in front of the desk. “I read about it in the paper.”
“Did you.” He treated her to another scowl, but not so fearsome this time. “So. The perpetrator was identified as a student at the Faculty of Agriculture: one Showkat Mohammed El Razi. Showkat was located by the police the next morning in his dormitory. They found a blood-
spattered shirt on the floor. Here—read it yourself.”
Ranya skimmed through the handwritten report. The victim, one Hosni El Fareed, was out delivering a package on behalf of the courier service for which he worked. It was after midnight, but that was not unusual; during Ramadan, much of the day’s work was done in the evening after iftar. Hosni was peddling along a dirt road behind the agronomy building when an assailant sprang from behind a rubber tree and struck him repeatedly about the head and shoulders with a short-handled hoe. The attack was witnessed by one of the University boabs, who had been sitting in his kiosk smoking a cigarette and enjoying the late-night holiday quiz shows. The terrified boab ran for help and oversaw the transport of young Hosni to the hospital. Interviewed the following day in his home (for the boy was too poor to be able to afford to stay in the hospital), Hosni told the police he had never heard of Showkat Mohammed El Razi.
“Why would a university student do such a thing to a boy of such humble means?” asked Ranya.
“I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t care. I care only that he is brought to task for this heinous act. It is imperative that I enter the case before the magistrate today!”
“Is it so critical?”
Samir treated her to a mighty frown. “You said you were an attorney. Tch. Didn’t they teach you that a suspect must be formally charged before the magistrate within two days of his arrest?”
“Of course.” Ranya felt her cheeks warming. “But it is the end of Ramadan. El Eid begins tomorrow. I have heard that in such cases the two-day rule is relaxed in the courtroom as it is in society in general. I believe it is considered normal to—”
“To wait? You wish me to wait? Until after the feast? Is that your professional advice?”
Ranya’s face grew hotter. To think that she should be accused of preferring delay! “No, I—”
“Let me explain something to you. The boy Showkat is the devil’s spawn. He is twenty-four, but he is only in his second year of university. Why is that? Because no less than six times in the past ten years he was expelled from various educational facilities for fighting, cheating, stealing, and other disruptive behavior. In Zagazig, where he was raised, he is known as a drug user and suspected distributor. Last summer he was arrested for the rape of a fourteen-year-old shopgirl.”
Ranya’s eyes widened. “Then why is he not in prison? Certainly he was convicted!”
“Certainly not. The girl changed her story—and then moved to another city, to a very nice villa with her parents, who were later seen driving a very nice car they could not possibly afford. You see?”
The desire for justice ran hot through Ranya’s veins. This was why she had become an attorney. Just for this. “He must be punished.”
“Exactly. And I will not risk any irregularity in the proceedings that could be used as an excuse to have this case thrown out. This is my chance, and I will take it. Though why it comes today, of all days in the year when there is no one here . . .” He eyed her again, weighing her in the balance. “Where does your family live?”
“Six October City.”
“Cairo?” His eyebrows rose like the two sides of a drawbridge. “That is a ride of one and a half hours. And you take the early train, though you are entitled to come an hour late during Ramadan. You possess initiative.” He patted his jacket pocket for cigarettes—an instinctive gesture seen a hundred times a day during Ramadan, when fasting meant no smoking too. “What does your father do?”
“He is an attorney in private practice.”
“Ah, I see. We rarely hire female attorneys, as they always leave when they marry. I was wondering how you got this job.”
“My father did not assist me. He did not even want me to be an attorney.” She stirred uncomfortably. “A family friend of my mother’s brother lives in Benha, and he was kind enough to recommend me.”
“Connections, connections. Don’t blush, Miss Ranya, we must all have connections. It is only when they thwart the cause of justice that we can condemn them.” He tapped his fingers on the desk for a moment, then roused himself. “It is time to begin. Here is the form for the charging document. You will fill it out. Then I will instruct you on how to prepare the justification of the complaint. I must leave at ten o’clock to meet with opposing counsel, so, if Lutfy is not here by eleven thirty, you must bring the documents to the court.”
Ranya took the form. She had filled out many such documents while at university. But that had been practice, and this was the real thing. Date, name of suspect . . . She could do this. Specification of charge . . . She looked up. “Assault and battery?”
“No. Not for this dog. The charge is attempted murder.”
Three banks of fluorescent lights dangled from the courtroom ceiling, their harsh light illuminating each streak of dirt on the benches and every pile of dust on the floor. The sulfurous smell of cheap cleaning fluid could not cover the underlying odor of stale cigarettes. It might have helped, thought Ranya from a seat at the back of the room, if they had considered opening the windows once or twice a century.
It was quarter past one, but the tiny courtroom was empty. In the hour Ranya had been waiting, she had seen no one save a bleary-eyed man in a faded galabeya and floppy sandals. He had shuffled over to the waste
basket next to the judge’s desk, emptied its meager contents into the sack he carried, and left. Ranya opened the Showkat Mohammed file for the fourth time. She would be ready to assist Ustaz Samir and Ustaz Lutfy should they require it.
Shortly before two, the court clerk wandered in, carrying a sagging stack of paper folders, which he deposited on the judge’s desk. Next, the stenographer arrived to check her apparatus. They moved with the lethargy of people who have had little sleep and nothing to eat or drink since dawn. Ranya sympathized. Her stomach was growling and there was a dull pain in the back of her head.
At two thirty, half a dozen young men in suits arrived, talking in loud voices about their travel plans for the upcoming holiday. The court clerk reappeared. Ranya dabbed her forehead with her handkerchief. There was no sign of either Samir or Lutfy, and she did not know when their case would be called.
She looked up to see Samir’s driver, his pencil thin body lost in a heavy gray jacket, regarding her with an ingratiating smile.
“Ramadan kariim, Mohammed,” she said. “Can you assure Ustaz Samir that I have saved him a seat?”
“Yes, hadritik; of course, hadritik. You are very considerate.” Mohammed nodded, still smiling, over his clasped hands.
“Also please assure him that the complaint printed perfectly. I have all the necessary documents here.”
“Yes, hadritik. I will do as you ask. But first let me give you a message from Ustaz Samir. He expresses his most profound regrets. Another case requires his immediate attention. Of course you know the Public Prosecutor has many responsibilities.”
“I see.” Ranya frowned. “Where is Ustaz Lutfy?”
“We have heard from his wife that Lutfy fell from his balcony after eating his supper this morning. He broke his nose and badly bruised his knees.”
“Impossible!” exclaimed Ranya.
“God knows all,” said Mohammed.
“Ustaz Samir is confident that you will do your best, and does not doubt that your initiative will lead to success. God willing.”
The sound of a gavel being struck galvanized Ranya’s being. The court clerk’s voice called those in attendance to their feet. The judge, a weasel-faced man in dull black robes, entered and seated himself at his desk.
The clerk continued to speak, but Ranya didn’t hear a word. She stared at the folder in her hands. What was Ustaz Samir thinking? To send her, unprepared, into the fray?
“Showkat Mohammed El Razi, step forward.”
Ranya turned and saw him enter—a lithe young man in expensive clothes, his too-long hair drooping across his too-handsome face. But neither clothes nor good looks could disguise the underlying expression of selfishness gone mad.
The judge peered over his bifocals. “Who speaks for the Public Prosecutor?”
At sundown, a cannon boomed from the walls of the mosque by the river, and in its wake came the call to prayer, a hundred voices raised from a hundred minarets gathering power in slow crescendo till they covered the city like a cloud of sound. For five days the shops and banks and offices remained closed in celebration of Eid El Fitr, the time of prayer and charity that marked the end of Ramadan. In the evenings, the Ramadan lanterns hung from trees and balconies, shining yellow and green in the warm night.
Shortly before eleven thirty on the following Sunday (the first day back to work after the five-day feast), some dozen women—secretaries, receptionists, research assistants, and two attorneys—drifted into the secretaries’ cloakroom for noon prayers. On other days, they might have talked about the just-ended holiday and caught up on family news as they waited for the latecomers to arrive after washing their feet. But on that day, there was only one topic of conversation:
“It’s a real compliment to Ranya. She should be honored.”
“You think so? Who else was there to go?”
“And that is the disgrace. Three dozen attorneys and not one of them bothered to appear before noon.”
“Nonsense. What was the rush? The magistrate would have taken the case today. Never in twelve years have I heard of such a thing! There is something behind this, mark my words.”
“There she is. Ranya! Don’t hide . . . come, tell us what it was like!”
“I’m not sure I can.” Ranya, dressed in subdued brown, turned to take her prayer mat from the shelf. “Since I made such a fool of myself, I am doing my best to forget it.”
“Don’t feel sorry for yourself, Ranya,” said a cool voice. “The charges were filed in the end, weren’t they? Some of us would give an arm for the privilege of being foolish before the magistrate.”
Ranya raised her eyes to the speaker. Nermiin had graduated six years before her, and had yet to see the inside of a courtroom.
“Now you must try to use this chance to your benefit,” Nermiin continued.
“Yes, Ranya, you will be assigned your own case in no time!”
“She may be appointed a deputy prosecutor!”
“Ladies!” said an authoritative voice. “You do Ranya no favor by putting such ideas into her head. She will just be disappointed.” The women fell silent as Mona El Gindy, a full-bosomed woman decked in enormous gold earrings and bangle bracelets, entered the cloakroom. Mona had been secretary to the personnel manager for thirty years. “Honestly. Why don’t you just tell her she will be appointed Egypt’s second woman judge?”
“Certainly not,” said Nermiin. “Second? By the time Ranya is old enough to be considered for such an honor, there will be dozens of women judges.”
Mona arched a heavily penciled eyebrow. “Very clever, Nermiin. You are always very clever. Nonetheless, I recommend that you keep quiet on this topic. Others in this office are not as understanding as you. It is not every attorney who must ask the advice of one of the drivers while in court.”
Ranya winced, concentrating very hard on finding her Quran in her purse.
“Now Ranya, I know you did your best, and really, they should be grateful. Just keep to your place and wait patiently. In time the unfortunate details will be forgotten.”
“I think that is too much to hope for,” said Ranya.
“Ustaz Samir himself stumbled at the beginning of his career,” said Mona.
Ranya looked up. “Are you speaking of the case he lost?”
“Yes.” Mona allowed a nostalgic expression to smooth her face. “It was twenty-five years ago, when he was a young assistant prosecutor in Zagazig. The case was horrific: A man of forty, who achieved fame in his youth as a soccer player, murdered his wife and her sister. Khalid Barsoum.” She grimaced. “There was never a doubt that he did it.”
“Then how was the case lost?” asked Ranya.
Mona shrugged eloquently. “How do these things happen? Money is a powerful evil. Evidence disappears; weak-minded judges are unduly influenced. The trial was aborted and Samir was forced to leave the Zagazig Public Prosecutor’s office. In fact, I hired him here. His brilliance was clear even then, for those who knew how to see it.” She gave a humble smile. “Now, please. Time is passing. Let us begin our prayers.”
As they knelt side by side on their mats, Nermiin touched Ranya’s arm. “Don’t listen to her, Ranya. This is your chance. Try.”
Ranya said nothing. And yet . . . if Ustaz Samir had overcome such a signal failure early in his career, maybe she could too.
The afternoon passed as all days in the Legal Reference Department pass. The junior attorneys sat at their table, clad in shabby suits and well-worn patience. Some (those who could) translated case law from French or English. Others, including Ranya, made hand copies of court documents, for it was a sad fact that the salary of a college graduate was lower than the cost of using a photocopier.
Ranya, who had faced her first morning back at work with some trepidation, felt she ought to be satisfied to have survived. And yet she was not. In truth, she chafed to know what was happening in the Showkat Mohammed case, and could not kill the hope that Samir would call for her, if only to admonish her for her bumbling performance. Late in the afternoon she made several pointless trips to the ladies’ restroom, knowing she would meet one or two of the secretaries there. In this way she discovered that no investigators had yet been asked to review the information, nor had any of the deputy public prosecutors been assigned to the case. The consensus was that Ustaz Lutfy’s continued absence was the cause of this delay. But, she was assured, Lutfy would be back the next day no matter what his condition, because he would be afraid to lose his place if someone more talented got the chance to show his stuff.
At nine forty-five on Monday morning, Ranya left the Reference Department and headed for the walkway that encircled the open atrium on the fourth floor. No one asked her where she was going. No one noted her absence. Clutching a half dozen paper folders to her bosom, she took up a position behind a decorative pillar and glued her eyes to the marble stairs.
At five past ten Ustaz Samir appeared, flanked by an honor guard of two deputy prosecutors with briefcases in each hand. Ranya stepped out from behind her pillar, walking nonchalantly toward the research room—a route that took her directly across Samir’s path.
“Ustaz Samir!” she said, feigning pleasant surprise.
“If I may, hadritak.” She spoke with a deferential tone, but did not wait for his approval. “I prepared a report of the magistrate’s hearing on the Showkat Mohammed case. I made some observations of the suspect’s demeanor and remarks. I think I have it here.” She flipped through the folders and held one out. “If you think this may be useful . . .”
Samir stared at her a moment, then nodded to one of the deputies, who managed to take it from her, despite the briefcases.
“If I may, hadritak,” said Ranya hastily, as Samir made as if to move away. “I was wondering if I should spend some time gathering further thoughts on the case, perhaps trying to determine the motive.”
Samir frowned at her, and her heart sank as she saw the negative reply forming on his lips. Then he hesitated. “Do what you like,” he muttered. Then he turned and headed up the stairs to the fifth floor.
It was four o’clock when Ranya emerged from the mogamma. She purchased a chocolate bar at the kiosk on the corner and headed down a tree-lined side street. In the shade of the trees sat the orange car, and beside it stood the lanky young man, reading a newspaper.
“Yusef! I am very late!”
The young man looked up and smiled. “I don’t mind. Especially since I see by your face that things did not go so badly as you feared.” He tucked the newspaper under his arm and opened the passenger-side door for her.
“I must learn to hide my emotions if I am to be a success in the courtroom.” She thought of Samir’s perpetual scowl; perhaps that was his way of disguising his thoughts from unscrupulous defense attorneys.
Yusef took his seat behind the wheel. “Where shall we go today?”
“Some place where we can talk in private.”
Yusef, who worked at El Akhbar, Benha’s largest newspaper, was the son of the “family friend” Ranya had mentioned. It was his habit to give Ranya a ride to and from the train station almost every day. As it happened, though she got off work at three thirty, her train to Cairo did not leave till four forty-five. This situation suited them both, for it gave them an excellent excuse to spend time together—alone.
“It’s not too windy today. Let’s go to the Corniche.”
A drive of three minutes brought them to the banks of the Nile, where the Benha Chamber of Commerce, in the hope of attracting some small sliver of the precious tourist trade, had put in a stone boardwalk and planted a row of date palms. They sat on a bench that overlooked the river and the rich green farmland beyond, and Ranya related her encounter with Samir.
“Of course it’s unofficial,” she concluded, “but at least he is giving me a chance to prove myself. At first I could not understand why he left me alone with the magistrate, but I now see that it is because he has confidence in me.”
“So it seems,” said Yusef.
“I believe I can assist in establishing the motive. It is the defendant’s responsibility to prove his innocence, which is impossible, as the facts of the attack are clear. But since we are going for attempted murder rather than assault, it is important to prove intent.”
Ranya eyed his usually good-natured face. “You are the opposite of enthusiastic.”
“I’m happy for you, of course.” Yusef reached for a cigarette. “I’m just wondering—why you? There are many other attorneys senior to you waiting for their opportunity. Now they are being overlooked in favor of the most junior attorney, and a woman.”
Ranya’s temper flared in tandem with Yusef’s cigarette. “I thought you had a modern view of the necessity to improve women’s role in society, Yusef.”
“I do! Ranya . . . tch.”
“I suppose you are threatened by the thought that I might have some success in my career,” Ranya continued. “Do you think I would have the same reaction if our roles were reversed?”
“Let’s find out.” He blew a stream of smoke through his lips. “I’ve been offered a job at The Middle East Times, Cairo office. I’m going to take it.”
Ranya looked at him in surprise.
With a glance to make sure they were alone, he took her hand. “Marry me, Ranya. It will be perfect. We’ll live in Cairo, near your parents. You can join your father’s firm. Or teach. Anything you want.”
Ranya furrowed her brow. Yusef leaving? Yusef wanting to get married? Already? They had talked about having a life together, but she had always thought of that as something that would happen in the future. To be sure, both their parents approved. Yusef was not only sweet tempered, but also hard working and ambitious. And despite her accusation, he was more liberal than most when it came to the difficult issue of women’s rights. The hours they spent together after work, talking over their jobs and discussing the issues of the time, were the highlight of her day. He would make a good husband—someday. When she had established her career.
“What I want,” said Ranya slowly, “is to win this case. I can’t think about anything else right now. But I need your help.”
It was Yusef’s turn to show surprise. “What can I do?”
“You can drive your car. Are you free tomorrow morning?”
Yusef sighed and lifted his gaze. He watched an ibis float slowly down from the sky. “I am free until noon.”
The following morning, Yusef met Ranya at the train station and drove her to the center of “old” Benha. They wound through unpaved streets barely wide enough to accommodate the tiny car, forced at one point to roll onto the front stoop of a tailor shop to let a donkey cart go by.
There was no sign in front of the couriers’ office, but a collection of rusty, fenderless bicycles convinced them they were in the right place. A receptionist regarded them from behind an extraordinary amount of mascara and, upon hearing Ranya’s request, sprang up quickly to inform her superior of their presence.
“He is doing all right,” said the manager in response to their query about young Hosni’s health. “My wife made soup for him, which I brought to his home last night.”
“We hope he is soon able to return to work,” said Yusef.
The manager shrugged. “Unfortunately he lost the eye. That will take time.”
Yusef blanched, but Ranya spoke in a firm voice. “I will see that the man who did this is punished.”
“Insha’allah,” said the manager.
“I have a question about the package Hosni was carrying. Do you know if it was delivered before he was attacked?”
“I did not wish to bother the boy about such an insignificance, under the circumstances. However, the recipient was no doubt contacted.” He called for his assistant, a small man whose worried expression turned to near panic as he stuttered that no one had told him to contact anyone.
The manager made a show of chastising the assistant, then offered to call the recipient at once, in person.
“I prefer to speak with him myself,” said Ranya. “If you would be so kind as to supply me with his name? And also the name of the sender?”
“Of course.” He signaled to the assistant, who retrieved the bill of lading. “Here it is. The package was sent by a Mr. Saied El Araky in Zagazig to Professor Doctor Ahmed Mohammed Naguib, Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture, Benha University.”
The campus of the Faculty of Agriculture was located south of the city on twenty hectares of agricultural land. The scene was peaceful and green. Day laborers in long galabeyas wielded short-handled hoes among the test plots. The concrete buildings were surrounded by rubber trees and glorious bougainvillea.
The dean, a large man with grizzled hair, listened to Ranya’s story with the bare minimum of politeness, and got to the point before she was finished. “I’m sorry, Miss Ranya, I can tell you nothing about the package.”
“You did not receive it?”
His expression gave away nothing. “Perhaps it was misplaced. May I offer you ahwa?”
“No thank you,” said Ranya. She did not want coffee; she wanted answers.
“Most of our deliveries are seed samples, nothing important,” said the dean.
“This one was from Mr. Saied El Araky of Zagazig,” said Ranya.
Ranya felt her anger rising. The dean’s words were empty and his manner was of barely veiled contempt. “Showkat Mohammed was raised in Zagazig. He was often in trouble there. It occurred to me that someone there might write to you with information disadvantageous to Showkat, and that Showkat might have attacked the messenger in an ill-conceived attempt to prevent this information from getting to you. Are you certain the package was not delivered?”
The dean narrowed his eyes, no longer bothering to hide his disdain. “Let me give you some advice, young lady. You are wasting your time. Your case will come to nothing.”
“There is a witness to the crime. And today we begin to see a possible motive. There is no doubt he will be convicted.”
The Dean leaned forward and curled his lip. “F’il mishmish, hadritik.”
When the apricots bloom. Meaning “never,” since the apricots bloomed but rarely or so quickly that the blossoms were never seen. A quaint proverb, suited to the slow, easygoing lives of the average Egyptians, so accustomed to waiting that they made an art of it, not least because they knew full well that failure was inevitable.
“The case has been filed with the court,” said Ranya. “A trial date has been set.”
“Papers. Talk. Words. Are you mad? Don’t you know who Showkat Mohammed is?”
Ranya shook her head.
“Then allow me to enlighten you. Showkat Mohammed is the grandson of Abdullah Ahmed Zaki. Judge Abdullah. He has been a judge in Zagazig for thirty years, and now presides over the Court of First Instance.” The dean stood. “There is no more possibility that he will face trial than that he will be expelled from this university—no matter what he has done.”
“Samir must have known,” said Yusef on the drive back to the city center.
“I’m sure he did.”
He twisted to look at her. “Then why didn’t he tell you?”
“I think I know.” Ranya straightened in her seat. “Turn left up ahead.”
“That is the wrong way.”
“I’m going back with you to El Akhbar.”
“It’s after eleven. I have to cover the governor’s speech.”
“Just drop me off. I’ll take a taxi back to the mogamma.”
“Ranya, this situation is not straightforward, and you are getting too close. Stop before they make you stop.”
“I will. But there is one thing I must know.”
The archive room of El Akhbar was a poorly lit, bad-smelling den. Someday, according to the modernization plan drawn up ten years before, the back issues would be scanned into digital format. Someday.
To be safe, she started with the 1983 binders and went backwards. Forty-five minutes later she turned to the legal section for June 14, 1982, and there it was. Reading back through the previous year gave her the tale:
Khalid Barsoum, retired sports hero living in Shobra, a suburb of Zagazig, was arrested following the stabbing deaths of his wife, Nadia, and her sister, Afaf. Upon physical examination, the wife was found to be malnourished and covered with knife and burn scars. Afaf had left a letter with the sisters’ aunt detailing a long list of abuse by Khalid, dictated to her and signed by Nadia. This was followed by a postscript explaining Afaf’s intention to remove Nadia from her husband’s home by stealth, and their mutual fear of what would happen if Barsoum should discover their plan. Upon the deaths of her nieces, the aunt took the letter to the police. Barsoum was arrested and charged, but in the intervening weeks the letter was lost and the supporting witnesses changed their stories. During pretrial motions the Public Prosecutor accused Barsoum of tampering, but the panel of three judges dismissed the case for lack of evidence. The principle judge was Abdullah Ahmed Zaki.
Ranya closed the binder and sat in silence for some minutes. How had Barsoum’s people bought off Judge Abdullah? She didn’t know—it was probable that no one knew—but she knew they had. For here was the explanation of Samir’s haste, of his frustration the first time she had seen him. Some people might think he was only going after the son to wreak vengeance on the grandfather, but not Ranya. Showkat Mohammed was a danger to society. He would be put away where he would never harm anyone again. And Judge Abdullah would know that Samir would never be bought.
It was two o’clock when Ranya arrived back at the mogamma. She was scarcely inside when one of the doormen told her Ustaza Mona was looking for her. She hurried up the marble stairs, not bothering to hold on to the railing in her haste.
Mona was lurking in the alcove to the Legal Reference Department. “There you are!”
“Ustaz Samir advises me that you are to attend a meeting on the fifth floor. You are to bring all your notes pertaining to the Showkat Mohammed case. He directs that you go at once to the conference room and wait.”
It was a quarter past three when the door opened and Mona entered, followed slowly by Ustaz Lutfy, his face mottled with purple bruises, teetering on a pair of crutches.
“Thank you, Miss Ranya,” slurred Lutfy in reply to her expression of concern. “I am fine.” He lowered himself into a chair and allowed Mona to take the crutches.
“So Miss Ranya,” he began. “I understand you have been gathering information on Showkat Mohammed. Please give me your materials.”
Ranya handed him her notebook. “There are some details I have not had a chance to note down. We must talk with Mr. Saied El Araky—”
“That won’t be necessary.” He put her notebook in his briefcase. “You no longer have anything to do with this case. Do you understand?”
She was not surprised. “Yes, hadritak. I will write down his num—”
“There is no need. The case against Showkat Mohammed has been dropped.” Lutfy turned to Mona and gestured for his crutches.
“No!” Ranya rose in her place. “It can’t be! Why? The boy is a menace!”
Lutfy’s hands trembled as he rose. “No one is suggesting otherwise, Miss Ranya. It is most unfortunate. But the magistrate uncovered a critical mistake.”
“There was no mistake. What mistake?”
“I am sorry to say that you neglected to hand over the charging document, Miss Ranya.”
“No. I assure you I did. I had it ready in the folder, and I remember clearly handing it to the clerk.”
“It is not advisable, Miss Ranya, to contradict those whose experience so completely overwhelms yours.”
“Ustaz Lutfy. Please, I beg you!”
Lutfy spoke sternly, though his face was gray with pain. “We cannot fire you, since you have a contract. But you will be on probation—”
“I don’t care about me! Ustaz! You can’t let that boy go unpunished! I have established the motive! Please!”
“As I was saying, Miss Ranya. You will be on probation for one year. During that time, you will not be allowed to handle any legal documents, even those in the Reference Department.”
Ranya turned to Mona, but the personnel secretary would not meet her eyes.
“Of course,” continued Ustaz Lutfy in a thoughtful tone, “should you decide to resign . . . Ustaz Samir tells me that he will give you a good recommendation. We would be sad to see you go, but under the circumstances . . .”
Yusef lowered his newspaper, but his usual smile died on his lips. “Ranya, what happened?”
“Ranya, please. Don’t insult me.” He helped her into the car and hastened to his seat.
Ranya folded her hands and stared at them. “The case . . .”
“They pulled you off. I knew it!”
“I wish that was all. The case is dead. The charges have been dropped. And—” She took a deep breath. “—they are blaming me. They say I bungled it.”
“What? Just because you did not exactly know the procedures—”
“But it’s not true! I made a fool of myself, but I did the job. They say I did not file all the documents. But I did. Someone lied.” She raised her eyes. “Yusef. Why would anyone lie?”
His face twisted. “Why? Because you are surrounded by a pack of lazy, bitter transgressors who know they will never amount to anything and hate the thought that anyone else might succeed. I told you they would turn on you.” He slammed the newspaper against the steering wheel and stared out the window.
Ranya eyed his angry face. Was he right? No. It made no sense. Ustaz Samir would never let them get away with it. He—
Her gaze fell upon the newspaper and the bold headline halfway down the page: charges filed in 25-year-old murder.
She reached out and pulled it toward her.
“Murder charges were filed against Hosni Barsoum this morning by the Zagazig Public Prosecutor’s Office in the 1983 death of Nadia Barsoum and her sister Afaf Naguib. On the advice of Judge Abdula Mohammed, evidence previously thought lost—”
Yusef pushed the paper aside and took her hand. “Marry me, Ranya. Leave these pitiful people and this empty job. Come with me to Cairo.”
Ranya sat motionless. Waves of sickening understanding slapped at her consciousness, eroding the moral pillars of right and wrong, good and evil, exposing the truth that lay buried at their core. Samir had never intended to take the Showkat Mohammed case to trial. He had hidden behind her—set her up as his sacrificial lamb, offering Judge Abdullah his grandson’s freedom in exchange for the promise to right an old wrong. And when she thought of that long-ago brutality, and how long he must have waited, and planned, she could not find it in her heart to blame him. She wondered if he would regret what he had done to her. He could have no idea she had uncovered his scheme. No doubt he expected her to take his offer, to creep away defeated and forget.
“F’il mishmish,” she whispered.
Yusef’s face blanched. “You don’t mean that.”
Ranya roused herself. “Forgive me, Yusef. I do care for you, and I want someday to have a life with you—but I can’t leave.”
Tears swam in his eyes. “Why not?”
She thought of the shopgirl in Zagazig, and of young Hosni, each in their own way scarred for life. She pictured the smug face of Showkat Mohammed, grinning at her from the dock. Someday, she would see him there again.
“Because there’s something I have to do. No matter how long it takes.”