On hot July days, those who had returned from Kuwait to spend the summer months in Cairo’s cooler nights would invite their friends and family once the temperatures dropped. The friends or family would arrive late, around 9 or 10pm, often with a watermelon, priding themselves for perfecting their techniques of selecting the best one by checking its skin color. The underside of the watermelon, the part that touched the ground, had to be buttery to dark-yellow in color. The friends or family would laugh about selection failures. Those who had returned would sit on their hard-earned, prized balconies, in their new apartments in Nasr City which they had finally bought after 15 years of labor in Kuwait. Now that they had accomplished their dream, and their children were about to leave for college, they no longer knew if they should stay in Kuwait or move back to Cairo permanently. Why they left and why they stayed, would become a life-long haunting inquiry. This inquiry on where to settle was dutifully passed down to their children.
The more red, rather than coral-pink, the center of a watermelon is, the more likely it will turn out sweet, but not only sweet, sweet and grainy in texture — hence the expression miramila in Egypt to describe perfect watermelons which means sandy. This unexpected connection between sand and sweetness has always pleased me. On the flip side, if your watermelon is more pink than blood red, it’s called araa’ — bald — and as I grow bald now, this association of baldness with a lack of sweetness — and a lack of utility — since a battikha araa’ is simply not edible — disturbs me. Many years ago, I went to a dermatologist on account of an eczema attack. As he examined me, he said that he thought I had come to visit him to discuss my thinning hair and forthcoming baldness. I was aware my hair was thinning, something I had inherited from my late mother, but I did not realize that I was going to be completely bald as a result. To convince me to start using Rogaine immediately, Dr. Ibrahim used a simile that has since stayed with me. He said: “You’re still young Manar, the more you wait, the more your scalp will become like a desert and we all know how hard it is to reclaim agricultural land once it is fallow.”
On the dating app Hinge I see a profile with the by-line: “Dating me will be like eating a seedless watermelon.” In the market in Montreal I find seedless “personal” watermelons. They are smaller watermelons that have been genetically modified to be kinder to lonely folks like myself who will have to carry them back home and consume them alone, but are also too lazy to spit out the seeds. The black watermelon seeds, which have been edited out for the convenience of North American consumers, are actually considered to be highly nutritious, rich in amino acids, proteins and vitamin B complex. When I think of vitamins, I always think of Mimi. Mimi, the only grandmother I ever met, insisted on the importance of vitamins so much that all my drawings as a child always included a giant human sized vitamin. I would typically label them: Girl. Boy. Vitamin. Perhaps in the abstraction of what a vitamin meant to me, it became another body that transcended gender, that was similar and equal in size and stature as girls and boys. Mimi had lost her daughter Magda to brain tumors when Magda was 17. Some part of Mimi likely blamed this loss on malnutrition, and vitamins haunted us like a lingering ghost.
When my sister is in a good mood, she punctuates her sentences with battikha instead of fullstops, as a joke. Egyptians dub anything a watermelon that raises expectations, but fails you. The political transition in Egypt after protests overthrew Husni Mubarak in 2011 is one such watermelon. So were the apartments in Nasr City, emigration, Rogaine, and vitamins.
"They put in their stomach a summer watermelon," in A Watermelon must be listened to, Edited by Noha Mokhtar and Gregor Huber, Fabrikzeitung, Zurich, Switzerland, May 2021. To read on the magazine's site: https://www.fabrikzeitung.ch/they-put-in-their-stomach-a-summer-watermelon/#/