This post may sound real but it is real only in parts.
I crafted the story based on my encounters in Egypt, Indonesia and Vietnam where I had an opportunity to work with some amazing office secretaries.
To tell you this story, I chose Egypt as the setting but some of the incidents come from Indonesia and Vietnam.
Names and characters in the story are masked and any resemblance if at all – is only incidental and not intentional.
Hope you will enjoy the story. Life can be full of surprises.
I met Dina in Cairo. She was Office Secretary on a project I was working.
Dina was a copt. Copts are the largest Christian community in Egypt.
Dina was middle aged – must be in late thirties. She had a tanned skin and a great dress sense. She spoke good English compared to others. She had a sweet French accent as her mother held from Morocco. Dina was outspoken, bold and a dashing personality.
In her early twenties she fell in love with Captain Hashim of Egypt Air and married him despite opposition from the family.
Capt. Hashim was smart and handsome. As many feared, he turned out to be quite a flirt. Dina caught him red-handed with an air hostess and it raised a sand storm in their lives. Dina abandoned Hashim and left his house. Since then she raised her only daughter Shani on her own. Past ten years have been a tough living for Dina as she hardly made much money.
Dina made my life in Cairo comfortable
She knew the kind of sandwich I liked during lunch. So, she spoke to the Marriot bakery downstairs and made sure that I got my sandwich that had less cheese and more of greens. In those days, I had to get my passport stamped from the local police station on arrival in Maadi. Dina used to get this done with her influence avoiding my visit to the police station. I was always booked at the room facing Nile at the Sofitel at a discounted price. Driver taking me to the airport was given instructions where to stop on the way to pick up the Egyptian bread, Tahina and Humus – something my friends in Mumbai always looked for.
I once asked Dina about her advice on taking a break in Egypt and travel around.
“Well Dr Modak, you may like to see the “usual” places and even take the celebrated Nile Cruise but if I were you then I will go to the Siwa oasis” She said.
The historic town of Siwa stands on an isolated oasis situated in the Western Desert region of Egypt, approximately 550 km west of the capital Cairo, and some 50 km from the border with Libya. Extending some 80 km in length and 20 km in width, the Siwa oasis is one of the most isolated settlements in the country.
Dina told me that reaching Siwa is a long ten-hour drive, but it is still worth as it presents spiritual tradition of people, amazing land, healing salt lakes and rejuvenating natural springs, set against the centering serenity of the Sahara.
Siwa oasis is one of North Africa‘s best kept secrets.
Have you been there Dina? I asked.
“Not yet Dr Modak. I really want to. One day I will” She sighed. Perhaps her life in the scorching sun was looking for an Oasis like Siwa as a solace.
In one of my travels to Cairo, I was in Abu Dhabi airport on transit. My mobile rang, and it was Dina from Cairo
“Dr Modak, can you please do me a favour” She was breathing heavy.
My daughter Shani is desperate to have new Nokia mobile phone (Gold edition). I knew about Shani (means wonderful woman in Arabic) and how dear she was to Dina.
“I will pay you once you are in Cairo” She said and hung up the phone.
I found the gold edition in the duty free and shopped the mobile phone for Shani.
When I reached Sofitel, Dina was waiting for me in the lobby.
I handed over the box containing the Nokia. “Thank you so much Dr Modak, tomorrow is Shani’s birthday and I want to give her a real surprise” She was very emotional. She hugged me.
When I met Dina next day morning I found her a bit tensed. She asked me to come out to the elevator lobby. She told me that she is short of money– but will settle somehow before I leave for Mumbai. She was very apologetic.
I said no worries as I was to spend 2 weeks in Egypt for my project.
In the next week, I was sitting in the office of my Project manager Tim. We used to sit late sometimes and go together for a glass of wine in the Sofitel or for some Thai food nearby. As we got out of the office, Tim said “Prasad, something strange has happened. Dina told me that 1000 Egyptian pounds got missing from her drawer today. The drawer was locked but she had inadvertently left the keys on the table top. She had drawn the cash for settling some sundry expenses.
This theft probably happened when she came to my office for a dictation. I really don’t know how to handle this situation. I have asked Dina not to draw large cash anymore and keep the cash box from now on in my office drawer. This is the first time a theft of this sort has happened in our office.
I could see that Tim was really upset.
Dina was crying. She took leave for two days to get over. She even offered to pay Tim as she said she was responsible. We never found the thief. Dina paid me for the mobile on my last day to return.
On one of the Fridays, Dorothy, my Australian colleague, invited me to her apartment in Zamalek. The apartment had a balcony that faced river Nile. “I am calling Dina too” she said “She can be a good company”. I couldn’t disagree.
Dina came to the apartment with a crate of beer and sheekh touk (chicken tikka). We drank the beer sitting in the balcony and played some cool music. All of us were pretty “high” and Dina was certainly sozzled and started speaking out her mind. She vented out her anger on Hashim (her ex-husband), his betrayal and the broken marriage. She spoke about how different he was when they first met at a coffee shop at Cairo international airport.
“I will never see or speak to this scoundrel” she almost screamed.
“Time to go home Dina” Dorothy said realizing her anguish with rising intake of alcohol.
I offered help Dina reach her down in the basement where she had parked her car.
“Oh, I don’t need anybody – I am just alright” Dina was loud this time when she said this and walked out of the apartment to the elevator.
In the next 10 minutes, we heard a big thud in the basement. Dina had rammed her the car on the wall as the car was parked on the reverse gear. I had to call Shani to come and fetch her. “Oh Mumma, not again!” Shani said. Then she turned to me “Do you know when Mumma drinks she misses Dad and goes just crazy”
In one of my last missions to Cairo, I developed stiffness in my lower Jaw. First, I thought it had something to do with a tooth infection but when I approached the doctor, he suspected a potential cardiac issue and recommended that I return to Mumbai earlier.
Dina checked for the flights and found that the flights were absolutely full.
I told her not to bother and that I will take the flight I had a confirmed reservation.
But Dina refused
“Dr Modak, I don’t want you to take any risk, you must return soonest possible” She was very firm
“I will manage somehow – leave to me” she said in her characteristic confidence.
I don’t know what magic she did or the influence she used, but she secured me a seat to Mumbai the very next day. She picked me from Sofitel and drove to the airport. She insisted that she must come as her presence was needed at the check-in counter.
We reached Cairo International airport. At the check-in, I saw a tall handsome Egyptian and his uniform carried a batch that said Captain Hashim
Dina spoke in Arabic. It was a very brief conversation, but I could sense that Dina was asking a favor.
I got a seat
I thanked Captain Hashim profusely for his help. While praising Dina, I said “She is truly a treasure that one should never lose”
Captain Hashim smiled – was he repenting? – I thought
Dina walked with me to the immigration gate. She hugged me to say good bye. “Take good care Dr Modak” She said.
Capt. Hashim stayed at the check in counter as if waiting for Dina to return. I noticed a coffee shop few meters away.
I wonder what will happen now as I leave – I said to myself.
In next few months, Dina lost her job as the project got closed. I didn’t receive any emails from her thereafter.
But just after Christmas, last year, I received a new year card from Cairo.
It was a family photo from Siwa oasis. In the photo I saw Capt. Hashim standing with his arms around Dina with Shani was standing next to them with a lovely smile
It was so nice to see the reunion at the Siwa Oasis.
And I was happy that I was a part.
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