The first story is told from the point of view of Keiko, a Japanese girl in Cairo preparing to return home to teach Arabic to businessmen in Tokyo. The apartment above her is supposed to be empty, but Keiko hears noises. Cairo is noisy. Of course the Bawab, the super, tells her she is imagining things, especially “drilling” noises. In fact, the key has been rented, loaned and copied so often that there actually is a woman up there sewing belly dancer costumes. A part-time prostitute uses the place, as does a young man. In a flight of fancy, McCullough describes a herd of cats who congregate there, complete with dialogue. “Fat Louie played the piano. Sasha played the drums.” Everyone lies to the foreigner. No matter. She will leave soon.
In “Taken Hostage by the Ugly Duck,” Hada, an uptight conventional housewife disappointed with her own life, is scandalized by the British gay man across the alley. He is often naked, entertains young men, makes a lot of noise. To retaliate, she buys, inexplicably, a great blue heron that “yaws” noisily at him. He counters by buying a parrot that sings, loudly, “Wait a minute, Mr. Postman,” and “I’m on the top of the world, looking down on creation.”
When the flat across the alley goes silent, Hoda misses the excitement and even imagines foul play.
“The Story of Fresh Springs” is a murder mystery, sort of. Two young women, Pomegranate and Peach, are murdered. Detectives Hawks and Falcon are on the case.
In time, a virile young man “Superboy,” a kind of acrobat, is arrested probably wrongly, since it seems he has really been using his athletic skills to climb up trees and into the bedrooms of willing, bored housewives.
Like McCullough’s other stories, this too ascends into the metaphorical/fantastic as the detectives quell crowd unrest by threatening to let loose a pack of cross-eyed Chihuahuas, trained to chew off the big toes of protesters.
The physical volume of these Cairo stories itself reflects the international nature of her work. First, one reads the stories “normally,” from the front to the middle of the book. Then, if able, one can read the stories in Arabic translation, a collaboration between McCullough and Egyptian poet and editor Mohamed Metwalli, from the back of the book to the middle, there meeting the end of the English version.