Amidst the Collection of Dead Animals
Emily Chammah

The year is 2012, and the couple arrives at the museum’s entry gate sweaty and squinting. To their left is a small, dark window. There, a woman—Nadia is her name—waits for six hours a day, six days a week, for visitors like them.

Or, for visitors. Nadia has never seen visitors like them. A school group? Sure. She let one in an hour ago. But tourists? Never.

Two, says the boy. His name is Matt, and he’s been in Egypt with his girlfriend of a year and some months, Jenn, for twelve weeks now. We live here, in Dokki, he says.

He says this because, generally, there is a price difference between tourists and residents. The difference is sizable, often forty or fifty pounds. But it’s nothing that would seem much to the two of them, young Americans, living in a country where sandwiches cost approximately twenty cents each, where an apartment’s utilities calculate to less than fifteen dollars a month.

This particular museum, however, has a flat rate. It’s so rare for anyone to come at all, and the Museum of Agriculture isn’t the kind of museum tourists generally have interest in or even know exists.

Six pounds, says Nadia. But for that camera—she points to the girl—it’s an extra thirty.

Matt turns to look at Jenn and the large DSLR camera slung around her neck. He makes a face, shakes his head. He hates that camera, that she carries it with her everywhere, that she constantly worries about it getting wet or dusty or scratched. She shrugs. It’s five dollars, she says.

Matt sighs. He has made a habit of not converting the cost of things into his own country’s currency. To do so, he thinks, undermines the moments when he is being ripped off, when people look at him and his sandy blonde hair and hear him speak English and decide to charge him two or three times what they would normally ask. But Jenn cannot get over the low cost of living here and allows herself to make the comparison on a regular basis. As a result, she is constantly insisting to him that it is okay to drop an extra so-many dollars here and there, even though he would rather save that money for something important, like travel. Isn’t our living here a kind of travel? She always wants to ask him this, but never does.

He doesn’t push the converting-pounds-into-dollars issue now, but pays with colorful bills. The woman passes to him under a piece of plexiglass two paper tickets thin as tissue. The boy says thank you, and the girl smiles, and they walk towards the main lawn, away from Nadia, who watches them with her head resting on her fist. Within two minutes, she will fall asleep, waking each time her elbow slides off the metal desk, but not when her boss walks in, nor when he pinches the forgotten half of her Bounty bar from atop the ticketing pad.

Now beyond the gate, the couple marvels at the expanse in front of them: a rectangular patch of grass crisscrossed by paths and flanked on all sides by large and impressively structured buildings. Other than the late 1920s, art-deco vibe of marble and glass, and the sheen of sand coating the lawn, they are reminded of the arts quad of the Ivy League school where the two of them met, though neither will bring up this reference because it will seem too sentimental, as if they have been out of college for a decade as opposed to just under a year. Jenn will notice that another couple, one about the same age as she and Matt, sit on a blanket with their chunky baby, enjoying sandwiches and a liter of Coke. She will want to point them out to Matt but will decide against it, and he will notice that she notices them and will not roll his eyes at her, but nor will he mention anything remarkable/thoughtful/touching about the situation.

As for the building immediately to their right, the doors are closed. On the side of the wall, a sign, one that is written in both Arabic and English, reads: THE HALL OF ANIMALS. Jenn smiles to Matt, who, in return, raises his eyebrows several times in quick succession. They push open the door to find the entryway covered in what seems to be tiny particles of plaster. Construction-like sounds reverberate from a room they cannot see down the hallway. There, men in flimsy painters’ masks and sandals use circle saws to break through asbestos-ridden tiles glued to the floor.

The couple is used to being exposed to toxins and carcinogens on a regular basis in this country. In general, they do not know when they are vulnerable (as they are in this precise moment), but they also tend to assume that they are constantly at risk, that some kind of parasite is lurking in the tap water they use to rinse the vegetables they buy at the market, ones that have likely been exposed to car exhaust, pesticides, and smog; that when they share their nightly sheesha at Café Bustan, even when using the disposable plastic tip, they are inhaling not only tobacco and chemicals and coal, but also years of fungi and mold that has built up within the snake of the pipe.

They tread inside carefully, wooden boards where tile once lay creaking under their feet. Just as they make it to the bottom step of a grand staircase, a middle-aged man with graying stubble and a soiled galabiyya emerges from a tiny doorway beneath the stairs. His belly is large and round, the size of the exercise balls certain NGO offices or start-ups have in lieu of proper desk chairs. (The couple came to this country after the Revolution in order to work, four days a week, between the hours of ten and three, in environments such as these.)

Since their arrival, Jenn has been perplexed by the bodies of poor, old men. What do you mean? Matt always asks when she brings it up. They are just fat, he says. All they do is eat carbs and sit.

But fat isn’t the word she would use. And she’s not convinced that carbohydrates alone can do this to a body. It is not like a Santa belly, she thinks, one that jiggles or rolls. And, they aren’t like obese American men, who are big all around. Instead, large men in this country have thin, lanky limbs paired with bloated torsos. If you were to touch one of their stomachs, she’s imagined, it wouldn’t be fleshy, but taut. Like a rubber four-square ball. She would never share this with anyone, not even Matt, who makes her feel guilty or racist for making these kinds of generalizing observations, but who, she knows, secretly does the same.

No, the man from below the staircase says to them in heavily accented English. No, no. Closed.

He says closed like close-id, something which always makes Matt chuckle. He learned in his senior linguistics seminar that residents of this country tend to add vowels to the ends of words when consonants are chained tightly to one another. Closed becomes close-id, clothes become clothes-is, and his favorite: sphinx becomes sphink-ous.

Closed? Jenn asks. She pouts her bottom lip and looks at Matt, who doesn’t pout as much as put on a face of disappointment and looks at the man. When will it be open? she asks in Arabic.

The man waffles for a moment, counting on his fingers. Eventually he stops, swatting the air in front of him. Go up, go up, he says. Quickly. But no one see you, okay? His name is Mohammed, and he does this not because he cares about them, or because of their presumed interest in taxidermied animals from around the world, but because he hopes that they will give him a tip for his kindness, for this special kind of access he alone will have provided to them.

The couple knows this and, in an hour or so, when they exit the building at the end of their visit, Matt will slide a twenty-pound note into the man’s open palm. Mohammed will pull his mouth into a frown and flap his fingers, asking for more. Matt will tell him that this is enough, that they appreciate it but that they do not have any more because they had to pay for the camera. This is a lie but, like most lies, an effective tactic. Mohammed will sulk away angrily in response, which is also a tactic but not much of a lie. In this moment, Jenn will feel more guilty than Matt, and think that she should have been kinder to the man.

But now, at the base of the stairs, the couple says shukran and sort of half bows, a weird ritual they have picked up from somewhere (not here), and dash to the second floor. Mohammed reaches into his cubbie below the stairs to grab his cane and hobbles up behind them.

One thing Jenn does is wear her long, soft-brown hair down. She does not cover her head with a scarf—plenty of women in this country do not cover their heads with scarves!, she says to anyone back home who asks—nor does she pull it back, tie it in a conservative knot at the nape of her neck, or put it in a braid. She has tried this several times in order to keep her hair clean and smelling fresh. When the couple first moved here, she found that at the end of each day, her hair would reek of humidity and dust, a smell the most floral of shampoos could not mute. Wearing her hair up helped, but when she did, she felt that her shoulders and spine were too exposed, that men on the streets would stare at the pale slope of her neck. They did, yes, but not any more so than men do back home, and it will take her years to begin to realize how vulnerable her delicate appearance makes her, no matter where she is.

When they reach the landing, they find themselves in a sunny atrium. The walls have been painted the pale green that many buildings in this city have been painted, and mounted animal heads stud the area above archways and in between door frames. They have never seen anything like this, and begin to examine the poised animals in cases. Tiny birds are arranged by color, crocodiles sit in an artificial ecosystem, and something labeled “Egyptian Buffalo Bull” was made to look, at once, both curious and ashamed. The thud of the man’s cane echoes throughout the open space, dampening as he makes his way closer to them.

This is Mohammed’s life: sitting at the base of the stairway of the Hall of Animals, acting as a sort of security guard. Protector of the Stuffed Animals, he likes to think of himself. He has held this post for nearly a decade, knows the ins and outs of the displays. He takes pride in what it used to be, this vast collection of animals from around the globe. Though they came from places he will never have the chance to visit, including regions in his own country, he feels that, by guarding them, he can be more connected to the world beyond his own. The exhibits and displays have fallen into disrepair, but he doesn’t have the skills nor the tools to restore them to their mid-century grandeur. The building has been closed for renovation for nearly eight months now, yet he continues to commute two hours to and from his village in the Delta in order to receive his paycheck of 125 pounds a week. For the most part, he is utterly bored, napping in his cubbie and making tea for the construction crew when they are on break. But so, this intrusion of foreigners is something that he welcomes, for a long time has hoped for. It will lead to some baksheesh, yes, but it will also add some life to this land of unmoving preservation.

The couple wanders from display to display, holding hands. Jenn snaps pictures, Matt delights in the pairing of handwritten Arabic and block-letter English typeface. Old scientific charts (Keluner’s Feeding Standards for Horses), diagrams (The Skeleton of a Camel), and graphs (The Gestation Periods of Ruminants Around the World) they find to be particularly charming. Mohammed hobbles just behind them, pointing out which plants in the displays are dried originals and which are made of plastic.

You want pictures? the man asks. Let me show you something. He leads them to a door that is open only a crack, pushes the bottom of his cane along the edge opposite the hinge. The door swings open to reveal a storeroom where once-living animals are stacked nearly atop one another. A brown bear stands on his hind legs, his teeth bared and paws raised above his head. A lioness creeps low on the ground, on the prowl. A small desert dog with a limp tail and gait cowers behind the others. Jenn takes pictures from several angles, bending her knees and jutting her rear in the air in order to catch the best light. Instead of staring at this bizarre collection of corpses, both Matt and Mohammed stare at her jeans, which are light grey and tight, but neither would want to admit that he is similar to the other in this regard.

When Jenn turns to them and smiles to signify that she has captured her shot, Mohammed leads them to the insect alcove. Scarab beetles, cockroaches, butterflies and moths are pinned to slices of cork and framed by wood and glass. It reminds Matt and Jenn of childhood biology projects they wished had been but never were assigned, of an old world science that only seemed to exist in novels and their parents’ outdated textbooks. Mohammed leads them to one wall, where blue and white and orange butterflies are systematically aligned onto a grid. He points to one frame in particular. Matt and Jenn smile, not understanding why it is this frame that is being singled out amidst the dozens of others.

You see it? Mohammed asks. See the name?

And slowly, like the understanding of one’s second language, the meaning becomes clear to the couple. The butterflies are not just arranged in a random pattern, but the blue ones have been carefully placed in order to spell out the name of the country’s recently fallen leader. Matt laughs and high fives the man, and Jenn bends down with her camera to an angle where the sunlight does not reflect against the protective glass.

Matt then wanders through other alcoves: ruminants, horses, sea mammals. He stops at the preserved gastro-intestinal tract of a camel and ponders the resilience of his own digestive system. This reminds him that he didn’t eat breakfast, that he only downed a small cup of muddy coffee from the café near their apartment, and his gut sours. Today, I want to eat something familiar, he thinks. Like a Big Mac.

Jenn meanwhile is still taking pictures, only partially aware that Matt has wandered off (this is nothing new; he tends to leave her ten steps behind whenever they are somewhere for the first time). To her left, she hears the man’s rattled breathing. She turns and smiles at him, nods her head and walks toward where she thinks she will find her boyfriend. It’s not that she is afraid of this old man, but she doesn’t necessarily want to be alone with him.

But when she reaches the main atrium, Matt isn’t there. She quickens her pace, or at least tries to, but the man grabs her wrist and motions in the other direction. Come, there is something else to see this way, he says.

She nods, not wanting to be rude—after all, it is because of him that they are even here—and follows his lead. His fleshy, dry hand that isn’t rough as much as it is calloused and firm, squeezes hers, small yet ashy, and rests its back along the side of his gut. It is taught, like she had imagined, but she is distracted in this moment and doesn’t notice. Okay, she thinks, he’s just being a little touchy, that’s all. This is not a big deal.

The man points to a fox, to a collage of antelope and deer horns. He is speaking in Arabic, but the majority of his words are far beyond Jenn’s third-year vocabulary, which mainly consists of hollow diplomatic verbs like “talks were held” or “demonstrations took place.” She mmms and ahhs, trying to ignore the sense of panic that is building up within her chest. Where is Matt? she wonders. Matt, please please come back, she thinks.

Mohammed’s body has formed an erection, but the tent made from his belly covers what would otherwise poke against his galabiyya. He didn’t plan this, the cornering of the girl, and doesn’t have any expectations of what will happen here, but he is curious to see how far things will go. What he knows about her is that she is pretty and young, that she has allowed herself to be with him, alone. What he presumes about her is that she is too nice and guilty of her privilege to call him out on his pervy-ness, especially because it is under the guise of hospitality. Also, that she is American and, well, you’ve seen American women in movies, right?

He then pulls her closer against his side, slides his arm behind her back and allows it to rest on her outer thigh. This puts her arm along the length of his body, her hand dangerously close to his boner, of which she is unawares. Her hip is pressed against his, and his head is at a better angle from which to see the space between her breasts. (Though Mohammed wants to, he does not grab her ass. He wants to take things slowly, to stretch out this moment for as long as he possibly can stand to, but he is also afraid. This isn’t the kind of thing he has ever done before, nor is the situation one which he could have ever imagined himself in.)

Jenn’s heartbeat intensifies, and she is fighting her instinct to scream and run away from this old creep. But with every thump of his heavy cane, still grasped in the hand that is not pressing into her hip, she reassures herself, thinking, I am not in any real danger here. He leads her into the Hall of Mammals, where they happen to find Matt, and she slides out from the man’s grip, attaches herself to the far side of her boyfriend. Matt will smile when he sees them, and she will motion with her eyes that they should get going. We only have an hour left, she says, and still there is the Hall of Wheat, the Hall of Cotton, and the Bread Museum.

Matt agrees, and the two of them say shukran, shukran owie! to the man as the they descend the stairs. Once outside, Matt and Mohammed go through the ritual of tipping, and Jenn wanders towards the shady lawn, unsure whether or not she should tell Matt what she thinks could have happened to her had she not found him.

In the next hour, they will speed through the Hall of Wheat, the Hall of Cotton, and the Bread Museum. They will be charmed by a group of third graders and cast looks of sympathy towards their teachers, whom they assume are underpaid and perpetually exhausted. They’ll go to a McDonald’s for a late lunch, like Matt suggests, and he will eat a Big Mac, like he had planned, and Jenn will feast on a large fry and an Oreo McFlurry. She’ll look at him, notice the joy in his face at the sight of American comforts, and snap a picture.

As for Mohammed? Later that night, when he heads home to his family in the countryside, he’ll use the extra money from the couple for a coffee and sheesha at the café near the train station. He should use all that he can get on food for his wife and seven children, he knows, or to repair the leaky roof in their one-bedroom home. But, he’ll feel brazen after having held that girl’s hand, after having led her around on his arm. On the train ride home, he will have let his thoughts drift to the girl, to all of the excitement she brought to him in that moment amidst the collection of dead animals. He’ll have stared out the pane-less window, looking at the Nile and the stars as they glide by.

So, Mohammed will go to the café, order a sweetened coffee and a plain sheesha, and challenge the teenage boy in the acid washed jeans to a game of backgammon. He’ll feel lucky, hold the dice in his left hand—the hand that he used to touch the American girl’s wrist and thigh—and blow. But the boy will get double sixes twice in a row, and Mohammed will find, though he has set himself up for success, that a single chip will continue to be eaten and trapped in the boy’s home corner. The rest of his pieces, those that were so expertly placed!, will remain immobile for the duration of the game.

He’ll return home later than usual, feeling defeated but still horny and now, thanks to the sweet coffee, wide awake. His children will be asleep on his bed and his wife facedown on the couch. Her nightgown will be hiked up just enough so that he can see the side of her thigh and the cup of her bare rump. His erection will form once again.

There is a short story like this, one where a Delta man, too poor to afford any kind of entertainment, goes to a café to drink tea. He returns home, unable to sleep because of the caffeine, and proceeds to make love to his wife. In doing so, he impregnates her, which leads to another mouth to feed and another body to take care of for the next twenty or so years.

In this story, however, Mohammed goes to his wife, kisses her gently on her cheek, and begins to stroke her tangled hair. He thinks about the kind of love-making they used to share, before they had too many children and weren’t able to ever sleep alone in their bed. She wakes when he tries to climb onto the couch with her, to squeeze himself between her and the pillows and press his body against her own. She turns around, looks at the man she has been married to for fourteen years, and shoos him away, to his own pile of cushions on the ground.

Emily Chammah is the winner of the 2017 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and the recipient of a 2018-2019 Fulbright Grant in Creative Writing to Jordan. She is an assistant editor at American Short Fiction, where she co-organizes The Insider Prize, a contest for incarcerated writers in Texas. Her fiction can be found in The Common and the anthology PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2017.