The Coals Burned Low

Our first place winner, this is a powerful, subtle story set in modern-day Egypt during the turmoil in Tahrir square.

Add to List
Add to List
Categories: ,
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

A powerful story set in modern-day Egypt during the turmoil in Tahrir square.

Tags: libertarian, libertarianism, anarchism, anarchy, libertarian short stories, libertarian science fiction, libertarian fiction, libertarian sf,  anarchocapitalism

Author  Ahmed Khalifa
Edition Imagining Liberty
ISBN n/a
Pages  n/a
Publication Date Jan. 30, 2016
Publisher J.P. Medved
Series  n/a
BCRS Rating  CA-13
 BCRS ratings?Learn more


J.P. Medved

J.P. Medved

J.P. Medved writes fun adventure stories and thoughtful thrillers, from Steampunk works like TO RESCUE GENERAL GORDON, QUEEN VICTORIA'S BALL and IN THE SHADE OF THE ISHTAR TREES to philosophical mysteries like SECOND OPINION. You can preview his other works and download free stories at

When not writing, J.P. can be found frying anything he can get his hands on in his deep fat fryer, shooting tons of guns and losing himself in a good book at the most inopportune times (around the dinner table, at baseball games, during heartfelt emotional conversations).
J.P. Medved

Latest posts by J.P. Medved (see all)


    Imagining Liberty

    Volume 1 – Part 1

    Geoffrey Allan Plauché, J.P. Medved, Matthew Alexander

    Cover image courtesy of the Seasteading Institute, licensed under Creative Commons

    Want more libertarian fiction? Sign up for the LFA newsletter for info on new releases, free stories, and tons of other goodies!

    The Coals Burned Low

    By Ahmed Khalifa


    June. The sultriest of months, when tempers flare and the nights burn as hot as the daytime. I found myself, for the first time in four years, descending the familiar hewn stone steps and making my way to the shaded dock below. The houseboat was moored, as it always had been, by the faded antique parking meter almost obscured by a hedge of lavender and mint. I could not see the balcony behind, but I hazarded that it was firmly shut to the murky splendor of the Nile waters. They had always been Philistines in that regard.

    Amm Attia, the slight porter with skin like cured leather, had not moved in four years. He sat, as he had always done, in his wicker chair, rolling cigarettes by the light of a kerosene lamp that was the oldest object in the neighborhood. He arose when he glimpsed me, his eyes cloudy with cataracts.

    “Who goes? This is a private place.”

    I couldn’t help but chuckle, and the man’s weathered hand gripped the thick stick by his side. He rose and repeated his challenge, the tobacco in his lap scattering in the light breeze.

    “And what have the times come to,” I replied. “When a son of the neighborhood is treated like some street thug?”

    His body may have withered, but his mind was sharp as a dagger. My voice registered even as the stick clattered to the ground.

    “Mr. Ramy?” he said, tottering forward. “It can’t be! Mr. Ramy? Or…or is it Avvocato Ramy now?”

    I moved forward to embrace him. His head rested against my chest and his crisp white gallabeya fluttered around my shins.

    “A full Avvocato now, ready to take your money and run,” I joked. “It is good to see you again, old friend.”

    Amm Attia stepped back and his eyes travelled up and down. “You’ve grown, Ramy. You look older.”

    “The things you see in service of the law, Amm Attia, they grey your hair.”

    His laugh was hearty and punctuated with the cough of a smoker whose tobacco was cut with too much of the black stuff. “They’re all inside, your degenerate scum friends,” he said, waving in the direction of the houseboat. It moved on a bed of molasses, tiny tremors rising and falling in the black of the Nile. “Do they know you’re here?”

    I shook my head and stepped onto the gangplank. It felt like an old friend, and familiar steps took me towards the inviting wooden door. I rapped twice and it swung open to the sun.

    The sun clapped both hands to her mouth at the sight of me. Her wisps of flame had grown into thick tendrils that crept around her shoulders and down her back. The sun’s face, a smooth oval as pale as its fire was hot. Twin jewels sparkled in greeting; to call them emeralds would be to insult their luster. The sun dazed me and its silence told me I had dazed it.

    “Sabah, who is at the door?” a man yelled from within. The sun moved aside in silence, and I stepped into the dingy room.

    The seconds stretched on. There were three men arranged in a semicircle on the floor around a tall brass shisha, the hose caught mid-pass. Each of them was firmly planted on his own threadbare cushion. I knew them well.

    Youssef was the first to break the peace. He pushed himself to his feet with vigor and almost knocked the apparatus to the floor in his haste. His skinny arms enfolded me and his smoke-soured breath washed over me. It tasted like home. “Ramy, you beautiful bastard. Ramy, Ramy, Ramy!”

    The other two men stood up. Omar, brawny as an ox, lifted me bodily off my feet. Ismail contented himself with a solid handshake. He had grown a thick bristly beard in my absence. It stretched up to his cheekbones and his eyes looked sunken in contrast.

    Youssef fetched him a pillow and tossed it by his own. “Sit, sit. We have much to discuss, Ibn Battuta.”

    Omar interrupted him.

    “First things first,” the bear said. “We cannot talk unless you are where we are.”

    The phrase engendered confused grunts all around until Omar held up the shisha hose with a wry smile. I accepted it gratefully, a newborn babe at the teat.

    The hash was heady and tasted like handfuls of dry earth. My head spun and I coughed for a long time. Youssef and Omar laughed, clutching their sides.

    “Four years have made you as weak as a cat, my friend.”

    The world laughed at me and the floorboards breathed. A beard frowned at me. Finally, I regained my bearings and inhaled deeply once again. This time, the smoke stayed in until I wanted it out.

    Youssef clapped his hands together. “Where to begin? The drugs, the parties, the girls-”

    “You know very well how things are in the United States,” I replied. “The hub of delicious sin. You first, all of you. Tell me about the summer; I expect to hear tales of gallant chivalry and the most heinous moral depravity. Tell me about the girls.”

    Omar replied heartily enough, telling me about his new girlfriend, Nadine. She was, to hear him tell it, Helen reborn. Locks of spun gold, eyes like the richest moss, all the phrases the poets spurned for their meaninglessness. I could not help the trembling guffaws that escaped as he regaled us. He was affronted, mockingly so. I directed the question to Youssef and received a shy averted gaze for my troubles. I poked at him again and he remained mute on the subject, muttering about a marked lack of ‘his type’.

    “Enough of this useless talk of girls and iniquity,” Ibrahim scowled. He turned to where the sun was standing in the corner by the door. The sun, the radiant sun, had her eyes trained on my face and I felt my face redden. “Sabah. Fetch us some tea, girl.”

    The Sabah I remembered would have rolled her eyes and kicked her brother in the back. This Sabah moved towards the tiny kitchen in the back, her eyes lingering on mine. Ismail turned back to us and licked his lips. I averted my gaze, aware as I was of the rules of friendship and siblings of the opposite gender.

    “I want to hear about work. You passed the bar?”

    I put a hand to my head and feigned a melodramatic swoon. “Please sir, don’t even bring up that horrible time. People say lawyers bring misery but how can we do anything but, considering the misery we ourselves have been put through?”

    We spoke at length about our terrible jobs that didn’t appreciate us, our futures that seemed bleak at best and our precious intellects that were going to waste. Truly, our generation was rife with good-for-nothings. Sabah went outside to ask Amm Attia to pick some fresh mint for our tea. When she opened the door a dry breeze swept into the dank room, scattering ash from the charcoal and sending a cold chill up our spines.

    Our grumbling grew more shameless as the hash took control of our senses. Omar complained that the newspaper was never going to let him write anything but fluffy pieces on music and art and festivals.

    “Art isn’t fluff,” Youssef said, his voice quiet and his gaze fixed to the floor. He drew his arms tight across his knees. “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

    “Those words aren’t yours,” I mocked, jabbing him with the end of the hose and gulping a deep mouthful of brown.

    “Picasso,” came the curt reply. “What, you don’t agree?” His eyes followed a speck of ash threading its way across the floorboards.

    I laughed. “Why so melancholy, master of mysteries? You’re too young and pretty to furrow your brow like that.” I slapped him on the back for good measure and he managed a weak smile.

    The tea came and sat and went cold. Our words came slow and our thoughts slower still, until our conversation was treacle. Sabah sat behind her brother and to the left, still trying to catch my eye out of the corner of hers. The ever-thickening hash smoke made me bolder and I ventured a wry smile out of the sight of Ismail’s prying eyes. She looked away, a demure Victorian miss.

    “Enough of this stupor, gentlemen,” I said and got to my feet. There was a chest of drawers in the corner of the room and I made a beeline for it. “It’s time to relinquish your wallets. Poker or blackjack?”

    Youssef’s smile split his face, and he took a last, desperate pull at the shisha. “This thing is almost out as well. I’ll ask the pile of skin and bones out front to pick up another block of hash.”

    Ismail stood up abruptly. He spoke politely but his face betrayed a sour disappointment. “That shall be all for me, I think. Ramy, my prayers for your safe return have been answered. I will see you tomorrow.”

    A clamor of protests arose, mine first among them. “Ismail, you have not even touched the hose. Let me at least deprive you of your cab fare in an honest game of cards.” He did not drive, he’d never learned how. It was, to him, unnecessary.

    “Our friend has just returned from a long absence,” Omar followed. “It would be the height of impropriety to leave so soon.”

    Ismail forced a smile, a tiny insignificant thing, and pulled on a thick black overcoat. “I really must excuse myself. I must be at the mosque first thing in the morning and already I can see dawn approaching. Come, Sabah.”

    Omar sighed, resigned. “If you truly insist on this farce, I’ll drive you home.” He waved away Ismail’s protests and turned to me. “I’m sorry. I can’t let a girl take a cab at this hour.”

    I told him I understood, that the night was winding down anyway. Would he be okay driving with the hash in his system? He laughed like a bear and grabbed me in a destructive one-armed hug. I let the question lie. I wondered for a moment about my own departure, then decided I could open up my musty apartment in Heliopolis in the morning; tonight, I would gossip like a housewife. The musketeers filed onto the gangplank in an orderly line, where they bid goodnight to Amm Attia and made their way up the stone steps. Or so I imagined, as I made my way to the balcony where Youssef was lighting the first cigarette of a shiny new pack.

    His face, when I left it long ago, had been shining with the reckless confidence only youth can bestow. His face, when I returned to it, was haggard and drawn. “Surely you’ve noticed by now.”

    The United States had instilled in me a haughtiness that left me angry with myself for not noticing whatever it was I hadn’t noticed. I stayed silent.

    “Ismail. Since the elections…” He trailed off. The beard had thrown me off, but I had guessed that it was a fashion statement. That perhaps Ismail was readying himself for hibernation. I had, apparently, guessed wrong.

    “He voted Morsi?”

    Youssef nodded and took a deep drag. There is something inherently unsettling about the compulsion Egyptian men have, the need to always keep our mouths occupied. I had learned to treat Freud as dated and irrelevant during my studies, but I began to wonder. “That’s not all bad. My uncle-”

    He cut me off. “You know me Ramy. You know my views. Do you think it’d matter to me, who he voted for? There’s more.”

    He handed me a cigarette. I handed it back. I’d stopped smoking. Cigarettes in the Big Apple were prohibitively expensive, and the habit had faded. Youssef shrugged and went on. He told me about how Ismail had been spending his free time. Shady mosques with bad reputations. Visits to the countryside, and not the picturesque kind. Even visits to the Sinai, which often took a lot longer than they should and from which he returned withdrawn and edgy, disappearing for days on end.

    “The things he says sometimes, Ramy, I’m not even sure he realizes what he’s saying. Stuff about the Coptic Church, and how they’re plotting the downfall of the country,” he trailed off, fingering the cross around his neck. The circles we ran in, religious discrimination was not normally an issue.

    I was taken aback. Ismail was our friend, and had been for as long as we could remember. This sounded nothing like him. I asked Youssef whether he was sure, whether there could have been a communications mix-up.

    He turned to me, fire in his eyes, and viciously stubbed out his cigarette. Which was somewhat theatrical, seeing as how he’d just lit it. “Does it sound vague to you?”

    “Point taken.” His intense gaze made me uncomfortable, and I turned back to the still goop of the Nile.

    “It’s not going to end well,” he said after a lengthy silence. “Something’s coming, something big. He’ll be on the opposite side. I can feel it.” He looked at me, expecting some sort of reaction.

    “Feel it? Really? Doesn’t that sound a bit…histrionic?” I regretted the words even as they floated between us.

    The contempt drew its way across his face in deep creases. “What would you know,” he said, the words slow and deliberate. “About anything at all?”

    The burning embers atop the shisha had breathed their last as Youssef walked back outside. I took a few fruitless puffs before resigning myself to a sleepless night amidst the earsplitting snores of Amm Attia in his wicker chair.




    I awoke with searing fingers tapping at my skull; a sign that I had not smoked hash in too long. The thick smog of the drugs had not yet evaporated and I struggled to breathe for a moment before fumbling in the shuttered darkness until I found my glasses and my phone. The harsh white light of the screen was almost unbearable, but the ten or so unread text messages had an irresistible pull. My shiny new iPhone was a blank slate, so I had to guess who had sent which message.

    Up and at ’em, faggot was the first message displayed. The perfect English, the slur so utterly devoid of any actual homophobia. It reeked of the anarchy personified that was my best friend. I saved the number to my contacts and cycled through his four other texts, all colorful variations on the same central theme.

    Your country’s awake and you’re asleep. Come to Tahrir! was up next. I hazarded that this was Omar, although I couldn’t be sure. Almost no one else I knew texted in Arabic, except maybe Ismail. Whoever it was had sent the message twice, two hours apart. Once at 9am and another at 11, only a few minutes ago. The last two texts were from a restricted number and said only Don’t come to Tahrir. Cheerful.

    I was preparing to stretch my aching back- stiffened from the harsh pressure of the mangy cushions- when a crushing weight landed on my chest. As I focused, the shape extended a hand and stuck a finger in each of my nostrils. I opened my mouth wide, panting for air and swatting blindly when I felt a thick, sweet liquid trickle into my open mouth. I sputtered and bucked the figure off. Youssef arose and collapsed once again, this time in the throes of uproarious laughter. A clatter; a pot of honey fell by his side.

    “Your mother was a street dog,” I managed to choke out, on all fours, as the last of the honey dripped to the dirty floor.

    “You weren’t answering your phone, so I came over,” he said, as if what he had done was a natural tendency of   humans in possession of their full faculties. He stood toying with an errant strand of fabric hanging from a dusty tapestry. The melancholy of the previous night was all but gone. “And now you’ve had breakfast. Get dressed. We’re going to Tahrir.”

    I straightened up and stopped to consider. I’d heard things, of course. Filtered through the rose lens of CNN and Al Jazeera, I’d heard that the unwashed masses had taken to Tahrir Square once again, this time protesting the hairy ape of an Islamic despot nature had deemed it necessary to deposit on our doorstep. From what I could gather, it hadn’t quite picked up the same steam as last time. “Why?”

    “Do you have anything better to do?” He had me there, the cad. I had no one in this country, no one else I’d kept in touch with over the years. My parents were back in the States with my little brother, scrabbling for citizenship. If I passed on Tahrir, I’d have to while away the day in empty coffee shops while the rest of Egypt messed around without me. I didn’t like missing out. I acknowledged this fact out loud and got dressed under Youssef’s triumphant smirk. Before we left he rummaged through his backpack and fished out a belt with a heavy steel buckle in the shape of a skull; one of the ones we used to wear in eighth grade when heavy metal was social lubricant. He held it out, buckle dangling.

    “It’s really not my style.”

    “Self-defense. They search us for knives and batons, but if you get into trouble just wrap it around your hand like so.” He demonstrated. “Let the buckle hang and smack the offending party on the head. I call it the Flail. Patent pending.”

    I stared at him for a moment, not sure if he was serious. Knives? Batons? What had they been getting themselves into? He read my uncertainty and rushed to reassure me. “It’s just keda, in case. Nothing ever happens but just in case…”

    In the interests of expediency, I latched it around my waist and grabbed the other backpack he offered. A quick search yielded snacks, water and a flare gun, the latter again ‘just in case’.




    I was wrong. I was unquestionably, undeniably, full-heartedly wrong about Tahrir. It wasn’t a shallow shell of the January 25 revolution. It wasn’t the pathetic attempt of a dying country to capitalize on the limelight of unscripted fury. It was a party of the most Gatsbyesque proportions. Red clothed the floor and red clothed my eyes as the banners screamed NO at the skies. The incandescent rage of January 25th 2011 was replaced by a will of iron as the Egyptian people heaved and rippled as a single entity. The young came, with toys and coloring books to do their homework in the Square. The elderly came wielding walkers and insulin shots and yet forward they marched. The men in suits brandished briefcases and huge flags and the mechanics wiped the grease off their hands before leading the harmonic chanting. They had not won a battle- not yet- but already they were celebrating their freedom, flaunting their freedom, wearing their freedom down the trash-strewn catwalk.

    And I was in the eye of the storm, surrounded by the people I loved; not my friends, but my people. We travelled to the heart of the Square in single file, hanging on to the person in front to avoid being swept away by the human ocean. Omar took the lead, his burly frame cleaving a path like a bulldozer. Youssef followed, dancing merrily in the shadow of the giant and whooping with the best of them. I had a firm grip on the strap of his backpack and stumbled along with the conga line, stunned by a sheer immensity of character that stirred something dormant within me. Sabah walked behind me, her hands resting light as a feather around my waist and giving me goosebumps with their every fleeting motion. Every so often a strand of red hair fluttered across my face and I felt faint. Ismail came last, his beard out of place among the clean-shaven masses but his smile as broad as any of theirs. He beamed at us and he beamed at strangers and I understood the colossal inexplicable happiness he felt, the same one that threatened to expand through my chest like a balloon and spill from my mouth. We breathed happiness that day.

    The hours passed in a matter of seconds. We marched and sang and chanted –My address is Tahrir until Morsi goes! My address is Tahrir until Morsi goes!- and simply stood and marveled. For the first time since my return I shed my seasoned-traveler persona. I was no longer the bold Marco Polo, braving the shores of America to bring their light back to my cave-dwelling brethren. I was a sheltered child, hapless but not alone, dwarfed and made insignificant by a proud, battle-scarred people well versed in the art of merry warfare. As drums sounded, their reverberations thrumming through the fast-disappearing light, we collapsed onto a rare patch of grass and regained our bearings. Before long a stooped man with a lined face and a massive sack approached us with a familiar apparatus and inquired whether we wanted to partake.

    “Shisha? Even here!” announced Omar with childish glee. He handed the man a five pound note and watched him break the Guinness record for fastest assembly in history. As he packed the bowl, Omar stopped him and handed him a small brown block. A fleeting wry grin folded the man’s face as he began breaking it into bits and scattering them into the tobacco. Ismail caught the exchange and gave a rehearsed sigh. “Must we taint this beautiful moment with meaningless artificial sedation?”

    He was summarily ignored, and plastered a sullen look on his face in protest. The potent stuff did not tarry in filtering through us, drained as we were, and soon we were appreciating the majesty of the square on a different level altogether. If it had been red before it was a lifeless carmine whereas now the world was coated with a thick slop of pomegranate syrup, blinding to the eye.

    When the hose passed to Sabah, Ismail grabbed it from her hands and shoved it back in our direction. We ascended while the siblings lingered in the mortal plane. In an attempt to diffuse the tension and fortified by the hash, I broached the topic that had weighed on my mind all day. “Ismail, is this where you’d like to be?”

    He looked taken aback, then regained his composure. “This is where my friends are, despite what they might be doing,” he said, with a pointed glare at the shisha. “This is where I need to be.”

    “And your,” I hesitated, “other friends. Do they approve of you being here?”

    “I have no orders to the contrary,” he replied neutrally. The conversation ended there, on an uncomfortable note. The word orders lodged in my brain and sank to my stomach, where it nestled and germinated.

    I became aware of ants crawling over my hands. I glanced over and the ants lengthened and fused, forming a creamy white hand. I followed the hand up and it ended in freckles and a pair of jade moons. Sabah’s hands fell into my own and squeezed. I squeezed back and the lion in my chest threw back its head and roared. My disquiet evaporated and I lost myself in her eyes. I didn’t care if he saw. I didn’t care if he skinned me with a rusty blade. I was lost and never wanted to be found.

    My trance was broken by the sounds of a scuffle nearby. I heard raised voices and heard the distinct thump of flesh on flesh, rhythmic and sickening. Omar was up and sprinting before the rest of us could comprehend the chaos. We followed soon after, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Youssef unbuckle his Flail and wrap it around his hand.

    The scene was horrific. At least ten men stood around a prone figure on the floor, kicking and screaming obscenities. They were an assorted bunch, all brown skin and gleaming brown teeth. Eeriest of all they all bore broad smiles as the figure writhed helplessly. They screamed “spy” and they screamed “coward” and they screamed “Zionist”. Their cries turned heads and I saw more men, more women, more bodies, pull towards the scene. Their mouths stretched wide with smiles but their eyes were anything but sympathetic. They came with clubs and belts and fists. I saw nothing of the figure itself, only brief flashes of black and white as it squirmed under the barrage. I saw a stick descend on an outstretched hand with a crunch that ran up my spine and the target of the hand, an expensive-looking camera inches away, smashed underneath a black boot. The hand was pale, as pale as Sabah’s, and that was all I saw.

    Omar threw himself into the fray with gusto, shoving men left and right. Youssef brandished his Flail but looked sick at the thought of swinging it against these men with whom only moments ago we had been celebrating so buoyantly. I even recognized one, a kind-looking middle-aged doctor whose first-aid tent we’d passed hours ago. His surgical mask was sprayed with sticky red as his fist smashed repeatedly into the bundle on the floor. I launched myself at him, knocking him out of the way and covering the broken body with my own. The action made no sense to me, then or later, but I absorbed the blows as best I could as I screamed at the horde “Stop! What are you doing? Stop!” Those same phrases, repeated, a broken record player paralyzed by shock. A shrill scream rent the air. I saw the doctor pull himself up and grab a shard of broken concrete off the floor, murder in his eyes. I knew how this ended. I knew how far short my bravery fell. I knew my own powerlessness. And then I knew darkness.




    I slipped in and out of consciousness many times. I was vaguely aware of a measured bumping beneath me, a car. Pain spiked throughout my body with every jolt but it was never enough to keep me awake for long. After a while I became aware of a heavy weight against my back, and I turned to find a ruined face with closed eyes. I slept next to a corpse and woke to eyes filled with an existential terror. I caught fragments of the face with every awakening. Once the crushed nose, bigger than any nose had a right to be. Once the grisly left eye, a solid wall of red with only the barest hint of a pupil. The last time he had about-faced, leaving me staring at a mass of black curls streaked with grey, matted to a massive cut on the back of his head. White peeked out and I became violently sick before succumbing to the night once again.




    I came to to find a broad face etched with concern inches from mine. Omar, looking tired and dusty but none the worse for wear. He gave me some space and I sat up, fighting the wave of nausea that washed over me. I was in the houseboat, sitting on a worn blanket. Sabah stood by Omar with puffy eyes. Craning my neck I could make out Youssef on the balcony by an overflowing ashtray. He always chain-smoked under pressure. It’d be the death of him. I massaged my limbs gingerly, wincing when I felt something sting. Ismail stood a little further back than the rest, his eyes wary and searching. They zeroed in on a spot behind my left shoulder, and I turned to follow the gaze. The same crushed nose. The same ruined eye, shut now. A heap on my blanket’s twin. The “spy”.

    I coughed and the lance of fire pierced my side again. I might have broken a rib. I motioned to the man and waved an inquisitive hand. Omar took the hint. “They were beating him in Tahrir, you remember any of that?” I nodded and he went on. “We dove in, they didn’t beat us as much. Most of that,” he motioned to me, or more accurately the tattoo of bruises covering the visible areas. “Was one guy, the guy you shoved. They tried to get at him again though, we barely got out. Sabah found a friend of hers, he had some guys. They got us out. Amm Attia’s getting us bandages and stuff.”

    He was interrupted when I winced audibly, caused by the crushing pressure of Youssef’s arms around my neck. He’d snuck in and hugged me from behind, and I felt the back of my destroyed shirt moisten.

    “I’m so sorry, so sorry for bringing you. This never would have happened if I hadn’t brought you, you don’t deserve this.” He whimpered a while more, all of it incoherent. I shrugged him off, vaguely insulted at how fragile he perceived me to be. He too, looked pretty much untouched except for an ugly bruise marring his neck.

    “What now? Tell me something about this guy. Has he woken up?” I inquired. All three of them, save Ismail, shook their heads. Ismail’s stony expression remained unwavering.

    “His name’s Benjamin Underhill,” said Youssef. “We found a press pass in his wallet. He works for the Daily News. He’s English. The fucking primates.”

    “It doesn’t mean he’s not a spy,” said Ismail. In a heartbeat, the room went from silent to cacophonous. Youssef and I, we called him every name under the sun and then some. We called him a fascist and a nutjob and a paranoid pawn of the Islamists. Sabah called him an insult to their upbringing. Omar was silent throughout.

    “The fact remains, you can’t know what or who he is,” he said, unruffled by our anger. “Maybe they saw him taking pictures he shouldn’t have been taking. Maybe that’s why they attacked. His camera’s gone, we don’t know what he was doing there.”

    The hours were frittered away on fruitless arguments. I laid out, in the most minute of detail, the American justice system and the concept of innocent until proven guilty, shouted until I was hoarse and still Ismail called me a traitor and an enemy sympathizer. Sabah reminded him of the Prophet’s fairness and morals and his venomous glares silenced her. He refused to hear reason and when the time came, he was the first to leave.

    “I need to go,” he muttered. “Meeting.”

    “You go,” Youssef hissed. “Go to your brothers. They’ll tell you to kill us before long. Kill us for liking a little red wine with our supper and having the audacity to save a man’s life.”

    “You misunderstand us,” Ismail replied, his eyes full of what seemed to be genuine hurt. “We want to protect you, protect the country, protect Islam. These spies, they want to gain your trust to betray you.”

    “The man hasn’t uttered a word,” Youssef exploded. “Yet you put words in his mouth and condemn him to die.”

    “That’s enough,” Omar said, his voice barely a whisper. “I’ll take Ismail to his meeting now. We should all cool off and we’ll meet here in the morning.”

    The silence that greeted him was his cue to leave. Sabah left too, but not before leaning down and giving me a soft kiss on the cheek.

    “He doesn’t mean it, any of it,” she murmured into my ear. “Take care of our friend until the morning.”

    I asked her to text me when she got home safe. She said she would. Then she was gone.

    I was still fuming, but the kiss and the liquid honey of her voice had soothed me somewhat. Youssef had had no such respite and stamped angrily around the houseboat some more. When Amm Attia returned with the medical supplies, Youssef couldn’t contain his temper. He yelled at the old man to tend to the wounded Englishman and then to find him some hash before retiring to a corner to sulk.

    “I’m sorry Ammo, it’s a trying time,” I said to the old man as we wrapped Benjamin’s various cuts and bruises. We doused everything in iodine and did the best we could resetting his crushed nose. “You know Youssef, he can’t handle pressure.”

    “There’s nothing to apologize for,” he said. His old hands were nimble with the bandages and even his stitches were decent. He’d obviously done this before. I stopped myself wondering where. “I was in Tahrir myself today. I saw my brothers at the height of their glory, but you stay watchful, Avvocato. They can’t control this power they have. This freedom, this recklessness. We are not ready.” With that he left me to prowl his alleyways and find the hash.




    Ismail’s concerns, he insisted the next morning, were purely those of security, and we believed him less and less as his arguments unraveled. Sabah bandaged Benjamin’s battle scars on the floor in the balcony, out of sight, while we huddled in the main room to discuss the wretched circumstances we found ourselves in. Amm Attia had set the shisha up before we arrived and only stopped in to refresh the coal every now and then. Omar had the pipe and was taking puffs solely out of a sense of duty, his full attention fixated on toying with the hose and avoiding as much of our conversation as possible. There was no tranquility tonight, no dreamlike discussion of the mundane and the supernatural. The walls did not breathe but stared at us with a foreboding judgment. Our raised voices did not shake them, only deepened their silent sneer.

    “You cannot expect me to lay down my life for a khawaga, a fucking foreigner,” Ismail spat. “Every minute he lies on our floor puts us in danger. Do you know what will happen if State Security finds him?”

    “You brainless sheep of a man,” Youssef roared back. “Have they wiped your mind so clean you believe every pale man is a spy? You don’t deserve the brain God gave you.”

    “You see!” Ismail yelled, getting to his feet and whirling on Youssef. “The Zionist scum is already dividing us.”

    “You divided us!” Youssef screamed, hurling himself at the bearded man. The shisha toppled to the floor, spilling lit coals across the wooden boards. The overpowering humidity quenched their spark in an instant but the crash snapped Omar out of his reverie. He stepped in and encircled Youssef in a crushing bear hug yelling “No! Not like this!”

    Youssef squirmed and wriggled, lashing out with feet and hands that whistled inches past Ismail’s impassive face. “You divided us when you said Copts were plotting the downfall of Egypt. You divided us when you joined the band of fucking dogs you call brothers. You divided us! You divided us!”

    He finished his tirade in tears and went slack in Omar’s arms. Omar relaxed his grip and moved the fallen shisha gently out of the way and Youssef fell to the floor, sobbing. A slim silhouette appeared behind the curtains, framed by a mess of red curls. She parted the thin drapes, letting the cool breeze in, and stepped over to the heaving figure on the floor, crouching down and pulling him to her. She cooed in his ear and stroked his feathery hair. Ismail glared and clenched his fists and I, despite myself, felt a pang of jealousy, quickly stifled. She glanced up at her brother and her steady gaze said ‘Shame on you.’

    I spoke. “Ismail. I think perhaps, if you fear for your safety among us, you should leave.” And even as I spoke the words I regretted them, because when Ismail left he would have Sabah in tow. Still, they needed to be said.

    Ismail’s brow softened into sad resignation. “Even you, Ramy? I only wish to protect us from the enforcers of this totalitarian state. They will come, in their black cars and with their sticks, and no one will hear from you again.” He paused, letting the full effect of the words sink in. “Is that what you want? For this man, this Jew you don’t even know?”

    Sabah stood and faced her brother. “Have you forgotten, oh holiest of holy men? Even if he were a Jew this man, and his people, are our siblings. You, who claim to follow Allah so righteously, what know you of the Quran?” Her expression was inscrutable but the awesome ferocity of the sun bubbled underneath.

    “Silence, woman, before I make sure you never leave the house until you are married,” he scowled. My hand inched towards the Flail and I would have struck him then, I’m sure of it, had Sabah not placed a light hand on my chest.

    “Those who believe and those who are Jews and the Sabaeans and the Christians, all who believe in Allah and the Last Day and act rightly will feel no fear and will know no sorrow,” she recited with closed eyes. “Surait al-Maida brother. Do you remember, or will I have to fetch Madame Abla to hit your hands with a stick again to jog your memory?”

    The slap was lightning-fast, the hand-shaped welt rising before Sabah’s eyes could even widen. Youssef leapt from his crouched position, death in his eyes and once again Omar intervened, with more purpose this time. Shielding Ismail, he grabbed Youssef by the wrist and flung him to the ground where he stayed, shocked. Omar then turned to Ismail and guided him towards the exit. The door slammed shut with a deafening crash and we were left to contemplate our mess once again. Youssef sank to the floor, head in hands.

    I took Sabah in my arms and held her as her shoulders heaved and still the tears refused to materialize. Silent, dry sobs punctuated by the hardening of her fingers on my back; clenched against the futile reality. She pulled away and I tried to stop her.

    “You can’t. Not while he’s like this. Please.”

    Her eyes were older than immortality then, dark with the accumulated despondency of eons of human existence. She was wise and in her wisdom she found endless pain.

    “I must,” she said, finding her choked voice. “Look after Benjamin tonight.” Then she was gone.

    We adjourned to the balcony and spent an hour there as the dawn wrought its pale pink signature across the pitch-black sky. I had forgotten that you couldn’t see the stars in downtown Cairo with the thick blanket of industrial smog. Youssef asked for a cigarette and I obliged. A healthy lifestyle was unsustainable here, where cigarettes were cheaper than bottled water and I lit one for myself as well. Several times he opened his mouth to speak and reconsidered the decision. I would have said something but I owed him an apology and I could not muster the fortitude to deliver it. He had been right about it all; about Ismail, the country and the war on the horizon. I had seen it all firsthand, and my American-taught skepticism faltered and failed.

    I did not spend the night on the houseboat. I had an apartment to see, after all, one that could be a ransacked ruin by now, for all I knew. Youssef would have liked to protest, I knew, but he could not begrudge me the brief respite today, after what we’d seen. I made him promise to check on Benjamin every few hours, to make sure he didn’t bleed out or just die. His bandages wouldn’t have to be changed for hours yet, so his role was that of a watcher, nothing more, I told him. I stepped in for a hug, a quick squeeze, and found myself engulfed as Youssef held me tight for at least a minute. I was surprised to find his eyes dry when he let go. He was an emotional wreck.

    I hailed a cab and we zigzagged our way through downtown Cairo with the precision of a drunken mule. I’d forgotten where the apartment was and I described it as best I could to the driver. It took us three unsuccessful attempts before we finally got the right house. I let myself in, got the mattress as clean as I could and collapsed with only boxers to hide my modesty.




    We found ourselves in Tahrir again the next day and I prayed my thanks that we did because it was the day the dictator fell and the day the sun and I became one.

    The day did not begin as the one before it had. This time I was the weight on Youssef’s chest, although I decided to forego the honey experiment. I shook him awake and he was dressed in seconds.

    “Do you think it’s okay leaving him here?” I asked, motioning to the still form of Benjamin on the floor. “He’ll probably wake up, right? He’s been out for hours.”

    “If he comes to, he’ll find his way home,” Youssef said. “He’s got everything he needs here if he wants to wait it out. We can’t miss Tahrir today. Today’s speech day!”

    He was not wrong. We stood amidst our brethren and listened to a buffoon of a president make speech after speech, alternately promising us the world or denouncing us as traitors to the state. He welcomed us all as his children then sicced his followers on us on air. Both Youssef and I had our Flails around our waists in case of trouble but I had not heard from Omar since the previous day. Ismail was absent as well, though this was markedly less surprising. It didn’t matter. Youssef and I, we were protected by a human tidal wave.

    I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to face the sun. She flashed a shy smile and I did the math, wondering how she’d found me in a crowd of millions. The numbers fled my head as we embraced. There was no welt on her face, and she seemed to act like the previous night had not happened. I took the hint and joined the cover-up, anything to see her keep smiling. I glanced around as I hugged her, worried he was nearby. He was not. Her skin was hot to the touch and I noted with more than a little satisfaction that the hug she gave Youssef did not last nearly as long. She introduced us to the friends she was with and they were each imprinted onto my mind because one does not forget who one was with then Morsi was felled like an oak tree.

    The inevitable proclamation came and cheers rippled through the crowd like waves. Slow at first, they reached a crescendo and both Sabah and I were tossed off our feet and into the seething mass to be heaved from one man to the next, rag dolls. We rode the world’s biggest trampoline for some time, and then I begged the crowd to let us down in between snorts of laughter.

    I excused myself from the group a few minutes later and she followed, as I had hoped she would. We walked under cover of darkness, through throngs of campers, taking the widest loop we could around our little band of revolutionaries. We held hands and I noticed for the first time that the leather jacket she wore was had tiny birds embroidered on the cuffs. A rich crimson, with shiny orange plumage that caught the light. Phoenixes. I told her she was corny for choosing a red bird as her spirit animal. She told me I was jealous of her immortality. We walked again and I looped an arm around her waist and drew her close. She told me I was forward. I told her I loved her. I hadn’t intended to, but she was my sun. The words formed themselves and fought their way out. She told me she knew. She told me she loved me too. We neared our friends and had to disengage, physically at least. My eyes followed the glinting phoenixes as she loped ahead. Youssef saw me approach and winked theatrically. I was still giddy from her last words and paradoxically, I couldn’t stand to be around her much longer. I wanted to preserve the image of her, the willowy leather woman with the bright red hair, telling me she loved me for as long as possible. To do this, I had to leave her here, for now.

    I said it was time for me to depart, to a chorus of groans. Youssef said he’d join me, and the group wished us all the best. We hadn’t seen the last of them, they promised. We laughed at their wit and bid them farewell.

    “What a bunch of tools,” Youssef said as we threaded our way through the crowds.

    “They’re good people you judgmental ape,” I replied, grabbing an ear of roast corn off the tray of a nearby vendor and leaving him a pound in its place. I tore into it like I was mad at it.

    A cab was found and in short order, we were back at the houseboat. We made our way to the balcony and found a pleasant surprise- the gleaming shisha, freshly assembled and waiting only for a coal. Amm Attia came in with a basket of them a few moments later, his smile broad.

    “Time to estebeh, time to wake up,” he told us conspiratorially as he placed the lit coals on its head. We laughed- an honest one this time- and asked him to join us.

    “Heaven forbid, men,” he said as he held the hose out to Youssef. “I’ve never touched the stuff. Nothing that impairs your mental state, that’s what God says. But please, don’t let me make you uncomfortable.”

    Youssef took the hose and inhaled with a passion. The smoke that emerged wrapped around my face like a veil and I suppressed a cough. We thanked Amm Attia and he retired to his post outside. Soon enough we were giddy, giggling like schoolgirls at the patterns that appeared on the walls and dripped like slime to the floors, coating them in hexagons.

    I told Youssef about Sabah, and what she’d said. He wished me well, from the bottom of his heart, but worried about Ismail. I told him not to worry. I’d keep her safe. I’d make him see reason. I’d fight for it and I’d marry her.

    “That’s not the way they do things,” he said, and he didn’t need to tell me who they were. “To them you’re an infidel. A traitor. A foreign double agent. It doesn’t matter how little sense it makes.”

    “You talk about him like he’s beyond saving,” I shot back. “He’s our friend. He has been since we were children. You were right, he’s changed, but he’s been brainwashed.”

    “He slapped her right across the face, in front of all of us,” Youssef said quietly. “He didn’t care who saw. Can you tell me you felt he was worth saving then?”

    I looked away and sought solace in more hash. I needed more, to stave off this attack of reason and rationality. I didn’t need logical. I needed dreamy and the hash obliged. We sank back in our cushions and watched the ceiling melt away.

    A faint groaning came from within and we both leapt to our feet, having momentarily forgotten our unconscious Anne Frank five feet away.




    We learned more of Benjamin that night, much more. He’d scurried to his feet like a rabbit that senses the fox closing in, but we’d managed to calm him down. It was our English, I think, that finally reassured him. We fetched him his own pillow and passed him the shisha, hoping it would loosen him up. He adjusted the bandage around his nose, winced, and accepted the proffered hose. He smoked like a pro.

    He was, in fact, a Jew. His mother was Israeli, his father English. He told us he’d always loved Egypt. He’d studied it in history class when he was a child and found it fascinating. When he became a photojournalist he’d traveled a lot and covered a lot. Infant mortality in China. Modern-day slavery in Mauritius. He’d even been on Gordon Ramsay’s crew covering shark-fin trading in Costa Rica. But once he’d found the job at the Daily News, he never took another international job.

    “I never wanted to leave,” he explained. “It was all so overpowering. The country is majestic and the people have the biggest hearts in the world. ”

    He’d predicted the Islamist rise to power years back. He had watched it all play out, and even attended Brotherhood rallies. He took pictures, lots of pictures, but he felt it wasn’t his place to interfere.

    “The English have done enough to Egypt,” he joked. “If you guys wanted the Brotherhood in charge, who am I to say you can’t?”

    “Liars and scoundrels, the lot of them,” Youssef scowled. “They clawed their way to power on our backs and they’re clawing at us on the way down too.”

    I asked him about the beating. He waved me off.

    “Don’t know, don’t care,” he said. “Bunch of nonsense, really. Those people aren’t Egyptian. They don’t represent this country. I should know, I’ve been here ten years.”

    I lost it then. I couldn’t hold them back and the tears streamed. To hear this complete stranger talk about his devotion to the country I’d abandoned four years prior, even as rivulets of blood snaked down the wreckage of his eye stirred a burning passion in the pit of my stomach, equal parts love and hate. Love both for this man who dismissed the nearly-mortal beating he’d received as uncharacteristic and the country that inspired him, and hate for those who’d repaid his love with barbaric brutality.

    I pulled him towards me and wept at how unfair it all was. He winced- I must have squeezed a bruise. Then, somehow, he found the strength to laugh.

    “Get off me, you sentimental sod,” he joked. “We’ve only just met.”

    Youssef slapped me on the back of the head and joined him in his laughter. Soon, we were all laughing, clutching our sides and gasping for breath. We took leave of our senses and our laughter boomed through the room, magnified a hundredfold.

    It didn’t last long, despite my fervent prayers. Our revelry died down and sober reality set in once again. Youssef told Benjamin the best course of action was to go directly to the British Embassy. The hospitals would be unpleasant and the streets would be downright hostile. It was agreed he would spend the night on the houseboat, under the watchful eye of Amm Attia, and take a cab straight to the Embassy first thing in the morning.

    It wasn’t as intimate as I expected, the conversation between us and the man whose life we saved. He was polite, of course, and treated us like old friends, promised us the world and more. Some part of me had expected unabashed gratitude, tearful proclamations of eternal indebtedness and yet here I sat with the red eyes while Benjamin clapped me on the back and told me to ‘grow a pair’. It would have been comical had his nose been pointing in the right direction. As it was, it just made me queasy.

    I excused myself, citing a need to sleep in my own bed for a night. They both protested.

    “I’ll send Amm Attia out, we’ll set up the shisha and play some cards,” Youssef said. “Benjamin, you play poker right?” Benjamin answered in the affirmative and told me I should stay.

    “It’s been too long of a day,” I replied. “I need to sleep sober tonight, somewhere with a soft bed. And I need to go to my apartment anyway, make sure everything’s there.”

    With defeated sighs all around they let me go. Benjamin pulled me into a hug and told me to keep my chin up, that I was a good kid.




    I awoke with a start to the demonic buzzing of my phone. I checked the time- an ungodly hour- rubbed the sleep out of my bleary eyes and hoped to God whatever it was didn’t require me leaving my bed.

    It vibrated again and I somehow managed to unbalance myself enough to fall out of bed. I noticed the pants around my ankles and remember the quaking wreck I had been the night before. Deciding that further movement was futile, I resigned myself to a life on the floor, swiped right and read the text. Come to the boat. Now.

    I sighed at the melodrama of it all. Three in the fucking morning and he wanted me to traipse halfway across Cairo. I hit the “Call” button and it rang twice before Youssef rejected the call. A moment passed, then my phone buzzed again.

    Come to the boat. Now.

    Tendrils of unease snaked through my stomach. Even throughout all that had happened, Youssef had never been this curt with me. I got to my feet, pulled my pants all the way up and latched the Flail around my waist. It was still early and I anticipated a chill, so a sweater went on over my shirt. One three-touch-tap (phone, wallet, keys) later I made my way downstairs to hail a cab.

    The only cab I found- a clunky monstrosity gushing great plumes of vapor- wound its way through the tight streets of Zamalek. We turned onto Abou El Feda Street, where the boat was moored and were greeted with shrill sirens and an ocean of red lights. Fire trucks, police trucks and ambulances swamped the narrow road, making its traversal impossible. I pushed the folded twenty into the driver’s hand and threw the door open. No, no, no.

    The smell hit me first, filled my throat and nostrils at a hundred paces. Thick, heavy smoke settled in the deepest part of my lungs, and I forced it out in great, hacking coughs as I shoved my way through throngs of onlookers. The taste came next, salty flakes of ash and still-alight cinders forcing their way into my mouth, into my eyes, singing my eyelashes and streaking my cheeks. I took the stone steps two at a time and sprinted the rest of the way, stopping next to where Youssef was standing just short of the burning wreck. The roof had caved in and the boat resembled nothing so much as a jagged crater, displaced from its home in some forgotten abyssal dystopia. Flames tasted the air and found it to their liking; they slurped it up greedily. In our silence, what was left of the gangplank came free and fell into the water with a syrupy plop.

    My mouth made sounds without words, without meaning. Maybe he understood and maybe he didn’t, but Youssef answered anyway. “It was Ismail. Amm Attia saw. He had Sabah with him, but I don’t think she wanted to be there.”

    Sudden, implacable rage. I saw it in my mind, as clear as if it had been a TV program. My Sabah, my sun and stars, once resplendent in leather and moonlight, dragged kicking and screaming by the hair by her brute of a brother. My friend. Her brother. My friend. “Benjamin?”

    “He is alive, for the moment,” said a deep voice from some ways behind me. I turned to find the porter sitting in his wicker chair. He had dragged it against the stone steps where it was invisible to anyone coming down. Even at a distance I could see his fingers trembling as he rolled the cigarette and licked the paper. His left eye was a swollen red mess.

    I rushed over and came to my knees at his feet, fingers probing the old man for further damage. “What happened? Are you well?” I was shaking him now, on the verge of tears. He put down the cigarette and took my head between his palms. His good eye softened. The warmth of his hands was reassuring in the crisp cold of the early morning and I felt myself relax against my will. He held me for a few more moments without uttering a word.

    When he finally spoke, it was with measured calm. He’d sensed my fragile state; I’m sure, and acted accordingly. “I’m fine and Benjamin is too, praise God,” he said, picking up the cigarette once more. “Ismail came last night looking for him. He had men and gasoline and Sabah. Youssef had left not long after you did. When I saw the pickup truck with the men in the back I ran to wake Benjamin and he took my rowboat. The night hid him well. Then I went out back to stall Ismail. And then…”

    He trailed off, gesturing to his eye. He lit his cigarette and I pulled one from the pack in my pocket. I took a seat on the rough stone beside his chair and we took it all in; Youssef lost in anguish, the policemen crawling over the scene like fruit flies, the black hole that was the houseboat collapsing in on itself.

    I thought of Benjamin, miles away by now. He wasn’t safe, far from it. The Brotherhood were the city; they embodied its density and the hive-mind of its underground. I had no doubt that if Benjamin was foolish enough to linger in the streets, they would find him and do unspeakable things to him. A futile yearning tugged at me, that perhaps Ismail would come around and renounce his ways. Come out in a grand way to his twisted brethren and denounce them as zealots and gangsters. That Benjamin would make an escape of Bondesque proportions and row past the Horn of Africa to Brazil. Row and row and row until his muscles bulged and his damningly pale skin was slow-roasted to a comforting brown. Impossible dreams. Dreams of a child huddled by his father’s wicker chair.

    I got a text then, from Omar. I hadn’t seen him since the events of the night before. It was short and devoid of unnecessary prose. I’m so sorry, I just heard, it said, but I cannot be a part of this any longer. My faith will not protect me if I fraternize with infidels and friends of Zionists. I am sorry and take care. Please delete this number.

    I didn’t reply. I couldn’t. I regretted, then, not paying more attention to Omar’s absences. I had no doubt that deep down, there was not a shred of maliciousness in his soul but I had become too wrapped up in Sabah, in Tahrir to dispel the nothings whispered in his ear. I had neglected him and I had lost him, and I could only hope he stayed clear of trouble.

    Youssef joined us not long after and we sat for hours. The policemen came and asked their muted questions, a faint buzzing in my ear. Yes sir no sir yes sir no sir. Youssef had come better prepared and paid the appropriate bribes to avoid further harassment. Amm Attia made us some tea, without mint this time. The flames sputtered and died and the coals burned low.

    The End.

    About the Author

    Ahmed Khalifa is an Egyptian student at Columbia University and graduating soon. He hopes this whole writing thing will work out.


     A great many thanks go to everyone who helped us throughout the process of promoting the contest, selecting, editing, and finally publishing these stories. A special thanks to Geoffrey Allan Plauché for his creation of the LFA with all the wonderful collaboration that has made possible. Thank you as well to the members who donated for the contest’s prize money, and to our SFL counterparts who were so involved in promoting and managing the contest and entries, David Deerson, Monica Lucas, Nicole Lough, and Kara LaRose.

    (Visited 669 times, 1 visits today)


    There are no reviews yet.

    Be the first to review “The Coals Burned Low”

    Your email address will not be published.