Patricia Dunn

CAIRO, Egypt (WOMENSENEWS)–When I think of Egypt I don’t think pyramids, mummies, political unrest, the Nile. That exotic place that the Goddesses descended from. I think mother-in-law.

Egypt for me is Safi.

“My name means pure,” she tells me every single time she pours herself a glass of water bottled by the local manufacturing company called Safi. Each time I nod. If my mother-in-law is anything, she is pure. Pure in her predictability.

I know she will shout in English “hypocrite” to the young woman who walks by us wearing the hijab and a form-fitting shirt embossed with glittered English red letters, “LIPSTICK.” She does. It’s guaranteed she will ask in Arabic the woman who stands in front of us on the cashier line wearing the full covering, “Do you know your Qur’an! Where does it say you must dress like that?” She does. I know she will complain to the cashier about something she finds wrong with the store, something not like in America where she lived for almost 20 years, the way she always complained in stores in America about things wrong, not like in Egypt. She does. She does.

If there is anything Safi is, it’s predicable.

Usually, as I board the plane from New York to Cairo with a stop in between at whatever European country’s airline offered the best deal, I am filled with good old cross-cultural cliche daughter-in-law dread. Starting with the complimentary orange juice or water if the deal we had gotten was really cheap and continuing straight through the preparation for landing, I obsess over what my mother-in-law will find wrong with me. Buckle your seat belts . . . My hair is not cut right for my face . . . Lock your trays . . . My glass frames are too dark for my coloring . . . Put your seats in their upright position . . . And why don’t I just wear a little make-up. Then there are the “advices” as she calls them, directives, given in the plural never in a single shot, on the ways I should better live my life. Translation: How I need to be a better wife. If only I made her son take Q 10 and some other such vitamins, her son, perfect until he met me, wouldn’t need to take the “evil” chemical stuff for his high blood pressure.

But nothing is predictable.

On New Year’s Eve Safi called my husband and me in New York where we were both watching Dick Clark’s countdown and recovering from the flu, and said, “It’s positive.” She had breast cancer. This I never expected. Even when I had heard a week earlier that she had found a lump in her breast I never thought it would be cancer.

I know the statistics here in the United States. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer according to the American Cancer Society. I’ve read the World Health Organization statistics: more than 1.2 million people will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year worldwide. But the woman who is found every day at her local social club in Cairo playing tennis and swimming for hours or running for miles around the track while most members sit and talk (gossip Safi calls it) can’t be part of that 1.2 million. The woman who eats organic while others gorge on takeaway from Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza King can’t be a statistic.

Safi is the healthy one. My father-in-law is the sick one, the one with the weak heart and with sugar, as he calls his diabetes. The one whose hobby Safi says is sleeping. The one I expected to one day have to fly urgently to Cairo to see. Not Safi.

Three days into the New Year Safi has a mastectomy, her left breast removed. We fly to Cairo. I don’t obsess about what Safi will find wrong with me, but what the doctors will find wrong in her.

Two days of travel, two days after her surgery, we arrive in Cairo. In the taxi on the way to the hospital I try to prepare my 4-year-old son. “Grandma Safi just had an operation so she may not be like she usually is.” I forget that Ali was only 2 the last time he saw his grandmother. He has no frame of reference for “usual.” He doesn’t know his grandmother’s modus operandi, combustible energy. Besides, my son is too excited about Egypt. For him Egypt means the place with real mummies and, as of today, it’s the place where you get two, not one, cakes for your birthday. It’s Safi’s birthday. We are bringing her two cakes, one for the day shift and one for the night shift, to celebrate.

The private hospital reminds me of the two-star rundown hotel in my neighborhood in the Bronx where I grew up that I would rent with 10 or 20 other teen-agers when we wanted a parent-free environment to party. I look into an unoccupied room. A hospital bed that has to be adjusted manually. No remote. Heavy Gone with the Wind, red velvet, style drapes. No blinds. Dusty rugs on the floor. No sterile bare tile. A television with a knob. No clicker.

“They fix things here. They don’t throw them away,” my husband says as he catches the disdainful look I flash the X-ray viewing machine in the corner of the room that looks to be the first of its kind, ever, something I imagine from the 1940s, though I have no real idea what the 40s were like here or in New York.

On the elevator up to Safi’s room Ali’s disappointed that he doesn’t get to push the elevator button because the man who works the elevator does it first and I almost choke on all of the nationalism and cultural bias I have always professed not to have. “Why didn’t we make her have the operation in New York,” I would scream to my husband if we were alone.

When we reach Safi’s floor a nurse wearing a bright white hijab and even whiter long dress welcomes us to Egypt in English and Arabic. Safi’s door is closed. The nurse slowly nudges it open. There’s a scream. It’s Safi. She’s welcoming us to Egypt, her Egypt. Ali with no frame of reference runs the other way. My husband kisses his mother who looks more combustible than ever and, as I look at the decorations the hospital staff has put up for her birthday, I realize this time without saying a word Safi had shown me wrong. It was good she had her operation here. She calls for my son to come to her. I hear the power in her voice, a power that must have been descended from the Goddesses and I forget that she’s just had surgery. I brace myself for what I predict is to come
–a litany of my wrongs.

Safi grabs Ali, who’s hiding behind her son and looks at me. “Thank you,” she says. “Allah will bless you for this.” I’m reminded of how much faith she has. So much more than me.

I walk over to her. I kiss her. I’m grateful that nothing in life is always predictable. Safi means pure, I nod.

Patricia Dunn has an MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She is a regular contributor to and has written for the Village Voice, the Nation and the LA Weekly. Her fiction most recently appeared in Global City Review where she also acted as editor for the international issue.

For more information:

World Breast Cancer Organization:

Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization: