How do you find your missing sister? Who can you even ask to help when you live in a police state? Not the police, that’s for sure.
This short extract from The Girls from Alexandria goes back to February 1968.
Monsieur Jean, we called the man. It wasn’t his real name. I wondered if he’d ever been a real journalist. Rashida served him coffee when he arrived, and she, too, saw his frayed cuffs and made her disdain plain.
‘Who knows why she left? After all, the brain is a mysterious box, especially a female’s.’ Monsieur Jean spread his hands and laughed at his own wit.
How dare he speak about women like this, and what did he know of the brain, anyway? He was just some old journalist in ragged clothes.
He extended his little finger and sipped his tiny coffee with huge noises. ‘She hasn’t disappeared completely,’ he observed when he’d put down the cup.
True, she hadn’t, because she’d sent postcards now and again. But she was no longer here in Alex with Mother, Father, and most of all me, her biggest fan, even if she did have a tendency to say I was a humara. Well, she could call me a she-donkey all she wanted if only she’d come home.
‘What is her name again?’ asked Monsieur Jean.
‘Simone. Would you like to see the cards she sent?’ Father handed him a small bundle.
Monsieur Jean should have realised that letters took longer to reach Egypt, arriving weeks late, if at all, with a printed strip down one side of the envelope where the censors had slit it open then sealed it up again. Under Nasser, nobody ever wrote letters if a postcard would do.
‘Let’s see.’ The man picked up one of the postcards and held it up to the light coming through the only window. We were sitting in the basement, the one room that we were fairly sure wasn’t bugged. ‘Her handwriting is interesting.’
Father gave a polite smile. ‘In what way?’
‘I am something of an expert in calligraphy.’
Of course he was, I thought. ‘What do you make of her writing?’ I ventured.
‘It’s very mature,’ he said. Since Simone was twenty-four, this was hardly a revelation. He took off his glasses and twirled them in his fingers. ‘I suppose you have spoken to her friends?’
Mother fidgeted in her armchair. ‘Of course.’
‘In cases like this, there’s always something the family overlooks. But I have my methods,’ he assured us.
As a nice young Arab woman, I had to mind my manners, but it was hard to hide my impatience.
Father asked what he proposed to do, and the man outlined his plans. His account clearly aimed to impress, but it was just a long-winded way of telling us he would use the network of contacts he’d made over a thirty-year career in newspapers.
My parents thanked Monsieur Jean courteously, and he left, shoving on his battered hat and promising to be in touch.
‘C’est un pauvre con,’ Father said as soon as the front door had shut.
Mother glared at Father because un con is the height of vulgarity, and not at all the same thing as con in English, though he was probably one of those too. ‘But,’ she said, ‘he’s the only chance we’ve got.’
If that was the case, then we were never going to find my sister.
You can read more about Nadia and her missing sister Simone in The Girls from Alexandria. Shortlisted for the Rubery Book Award, it’s available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook.