How Can I Be of Use to You?

Fiction by Randa Jarrar

The fall after I graduated from college, I moved to Seattle to work as an unpaid assistant for the Egyptian feminist Mansoura Metwally. Mansoura is famous in certain intellectual circles in Europe and North America and has been notorious in Egypt itself since the ’70s, when she published a string of works—novels, books of criticism—that challenged patriarchal practices and landed her, several times, in jail. She had a shock of white hair and bad teeth, wore plaid shirts every day, and dressed from the waist down like a serf out of a Turgenev short story.

Every female Arab academic or writer falls under Mansoura’s spell at some point in her life. She came to visit my college when I was a sophomore, and, being one of very few students of Arab descent, I was invited to go to dinner with her. I was nervous and wanted to bring her a gift. I hadn’t visited Egypt since I was a small child, and one of my cherished objects was a cassette featuring a one-hour performance of Oum Kulthum’s most famous song. The afternoon before dinner, I placed the cassette in my double-deck boombox and made Mansoura a copy. I wrapped it and gave it to her over dessert, and she graciously accepted it and said she loved Oum Kulthum. Years later, when I visited Egypt alone, I noticed that this cassette was ubiquitous in all the street markets. Gifting it to Mansoura had been akin to gifting a grain of sand to a Southern Californian. And yet she had made no indication of my naiveté.

When I first arrived in Seattle, I viewed my work with Mansoura as sacred. I was the daughter of bourgeois Egyptians who read the paper and real estate listings—nothing else. This assistantship was not something they understood—my father wanted me to intern at an ad agency, and my mother wanted me to continue with school and get a Ph.D.

Instead, I lived in a garage apartment five miles from the house where Mansoura was staying for the academic year, and I rode a bicycle—a heavy and impractical three-gear cruiser—the five hilly miles to her house, as I had done every morning over the last six months. Often this ride would be through a thin curtain of rain, but when I arrived in her foyer, she would invariably chastise me for having wet hair. I was always baffled by her superstitions—she reminded me of my hysteria-prone mother, who refused to allow me to leave home if my hair was wet because she was convinced it would give me pneumonia, cancer, AIDS. I didn’t understand how someone The Times had recently named an intellectual force to be reckoned with was just as ignorant as my mother about wet hair.

I made Mansoura her tea and picked up the area around her workspace—she hated visual clutter and couldn’t think around it, or create around it, or write in it—and she stood by the window and watched me work. She then sat at her desk, put on her heavy eyeglasses, and peered over her notes from the previous day.

“Think about it,” she said, beginning the day proper. “Who named the children in your family?”

My father had. I told Mansoura this. She nodded and said, “Just as I thought. It begins with even the way we’re named. We must encourage the women to name the children.” She sat in front of her computer screen, her back creased, and typed slowly, with two fingers. I admired the way she forced her body into creativity.

My job was to go over her notes and try to shape them into sentences. I would then show her the sentences, and she would either approve or ask me to go back and try again. It never crossed my mind to tell her to do her job and write these essays, this book, herself. I thought many writers were like this, that ours was a natural writing process.

I sat in an armchair across from her desk and watched her work. There were no photos of her in existence with a different hairstyle or hair color, so that it seemed as though Mansoura had been born already a woman in her sixties or seventies, with the same cloud of white hair. I accompanied her when she spoke to audiences about being a young girl in the south of Egypt and when she discussed female circumcision—as a general practice and her own experience with it. Just a few years before, I had devoured her personal history about undergoing this practice, Woman and the Clitoris (not to be confused with Woman and the Hymen), and the next time I had gone back home to Alameda for the holidays, I had asked my mother if she was circumcised, too. She had clutched at her golden necklaces and said, “Absolutely not! That’s something the peasants do.” The next morning she told me not to go out with wet hair, and I told her to stop being silly. “That’s something the peasants believe!” I screamed at her, and left.

After her three-hour thinking session, Mansoura told me that she wanted to get her daily double espresso from the coffee shop around the corner. There was an umbrella bucket in the wood-paneled foyer, and I lifted the umbrella out and took it with us. We walked slowly, her arm hooked over mine, and I held the umbrella aloft and tried to shield her from the rain. She complained, saying I was protecting only myself, so I moved the umbrella closer to her side, which meant that I was getting soaked. Within two blocks, we were at the doorstep of the café. Mansoura waved me in the direction of the coffee counter and then sat at a table by the windows and brought out her notes, wasting no time.

The usual folks stood behind the counter, including a dark, bearded guy. Every afternoon, I hoped he would greet me with something more than, “Hey, what can I get you?”

“That your grandma?” he asked, and I sighed. I couldn’t imagine Mansoura being anyone’s grandmother.

“No. She’s a writer. I work for her. Around the corner. She’s Egyptian. She’s famous.”

“Egyptian, huh?” he said, and then the dreaded clit-boner-killer: He began to walk like an Egyptian.