“Certainty”—a short story by Nora Nagi

5 July, 2024,
An Egyptian woman in a desolate marriage regains her sense of self and freedom in Seoul, South Korea. 


Nora Nagi

Translated by Nada Faris


When she realized that she couldn’t continue her life with him, it wasn’t because of a fierce argument or a heated disagreement. She was, rather, waiting for the water to boil in a black kettle and contemplating the yellow Nescafé bags that had become familiar during her year-long stay in Seoul.

The kettle, like everything else in the small studio apartment, was purchased online. In fact, her husband, an Arabic-language teacher at Hanyang University, never consulted her before buying anything. After rapid keystrokes, mismatched items began to clutter the dimly-lit apartment that she never learned to love. Their furniture at the time included a green rectangular desk that her husband called their “dining table.” It was flanked by two ugly wooden chairs. The bed was a simple wooden rectangle under a firm mattress and two pillows. Then, there was a small wardrobe that belonged to her, a large dresser her husband had claimed for his belongings, and a red sofa with deteriorating upholstery next to a dun-colored rug.

She felt that she had never celebrated her union like other brides in her country, who had managed to savor every euphoric moment, from selecting their furniture to arranging their fine china, their glassware, and their seasoning sets. Her friends used to shower her with praise for her excellent taste and decoration skills; they had eagerly waited to see how she’d furnish her new place. But they never got the chance since she got married without an apartment, without furniture, and even without a wedding — despite dreaming of all these things like other girls.

She was an ordinary young woman, quiet and solitary most of the time. She rarely left Aga, her town, except on a few occasions when she went to El Mansoura or El Mahalla. She had settled for a diploma in commerce, hoping to attend university, but she never did, as she couldn’t muster any real motivation to continue her studies. At the time, all she thought about was settling in a beautiful home and raising children with someone she loved — so she couldn’t understand exactly what had happened, how it happened, or when.

Today, thousands of miles away from her modest home, which she adored much more than this tiny apartment in a picturesque, foreign city, she wondered why her husband had chosen her and why she had accepted. She did not fit into his life, and he did not match her dreams. What would compel a language teaching assistant from the Faculty of Arts to marry a girl with only a diploma in commerce and then sweep her away with him on a scholarship to Korea?

She considered all the answers to this question, yet they seemed trivial, and crumbled the moment she glanced at his face. Since their marriage, he looked at her only sparingly, while their conversations were limited to food and household necessities, usually about their daughter. Her husband would leave in the morning and return in the evening. He’d eat dinner and briefly play with his child before browsing the internet and then falling asleep.

From the beginning, she had sensed that something was off. Despite having never been in love and only experiencing fleeting admiration for strangers she encountered on buses and trains or at friends’ wedding ceremonies — upon which she’d weave childlike tales about them in her imagination without even knowing their names — she felt an emotional void in her marriage, even though she had spent years longing for a partner. This void became even more apparent whenever her husband marched ahead of her, his wide strides leaving her trailing and rushing to catch up with him. It was evident whenever she hesitated to kiss or hug him upon his return from work or when she cautiously touched his face and hands without reason. It was also visible whenever she hurriedly changed her clothes in his presence and found herself trying to conceal as much of her body as possible. She used to believe that she felt those things only because she hadn’t yet gotten used to him, but deep down she knew she was lying to herself. Something was clearly missing to such a degree that she began to feel this lack transforming into a gelatinous entity that now lurked between them. 

Everything about him had appealed to her family: they were longtime neighbors and he was a professor at their local university. On top of that, the union wouldn’t have cost her parents a penny, since he immediately took charge of the legal procedures so the two of them could travel after signing the marriage document. And then he alone would be financially responsible for furnishing their apartment upon their return.

Her reason for accepting his proposal was as clear as it was naive: she wanted to travel on a plane to a far and exotic country. Although she wasn’t highly educated, she had spent most of her time — after finishing her household chores with her mother — watching foreign films and TV shows, including Korean dramas, which ended up occupying a special place in her heart. There was a period before he had asked her father for his approval when she was obsessed with these shows. She was so engrossed, in fact, that she changed her Facebook profile picture to that of a famous Korean actress. She even began to cover her mouth with her hand when she smiled like them and called her sister “unnie” — the only Korean word she managed to learn.

After living in her dream country, she could no longer watch television because there were no subtitles, and she couldn’t adapt to the foul smell that assaulted her nostrils at every corner whenever she walked around the building in the morning, a stench that reminded her of decaying animals. She couldn’t get used to their kimchee and their spicy food on the one hand and their tasteless meals on the other, or their biting cold in the winter and their heavy rain in the summer. There was also her challenging pregnancy, which had drained the remaining residue of love from her heart. It started with persistent nausea that plagued her until the sixth month and ended with the doctor’s refusal to prescribe any medication for the severe headaches from which she had begun to suffer.

She had suffered from a severe migraine that prevented her from sleeping for three days, and her stomach kept rejecting everything she ate except for a few pieces of canned fruit until she was rushed to the hospital.

Sitting in front of the female doctor, she explained in broken English how she felt, but her husband interrupted her in Korean. His tone was cold, and there was a barely visible smile in the corner of his mouth, while the rest of his face showed no concern. The doctor, who moved her gaze from wife to husband, shook her head. 

Although she didn’t understand Korean, she felt as though she could interpret the conversation between the doctor and her husband the way she watched Korean shows in Egypt. 

Her husband said to the doctor, “It’s okay. She’s exaggerating. Egyptian women love drama.” 

And the doctor replied, “I understand that, but no one stays awake for three nights without a medical reason.”

A quick shiver ran down her spine at the time, the same way it always did when she felt insulted, but she said nothing. In the end, however, the doctor handed her a pillbox with three painkillers that only slightly eased her pain. Yet, after a few days, when she regained her strength, she stood in the middle of the narrow hallway and told her husband that she wanted to go home to see her parents.

He relented despite his lack of conviction in her distress, and she felt an immense sense of comfort upon arriving at the old house. Her breathing became easier, her jaw muscles relaxed, and her appetite returned. She even felt relief over her health and that of her unborn child.

Her family took care of her daughter, and after about a month it was time for both of them to return to Korea. She wept deeply on the ride to the airport and in front of the passport officer, whose curiosity was piqued by her behavior. He asked if she was suffering, but she simply shook her head. How could she explain that the airplane, once a dream, had now become akin to a grave, which she was willingly entering with her own daughter?

The baby cried throughout the 13-hour flight. When the plane finally landed, she emerged, carrying the child and dragging their luggage. She looked as worn as an old rag with her hijab loose around her head and her coat draped inside out. She carried the child’s bag on one shoulder and her handbag on the other. What pained her even more was the certainty that she would never experience comfort, for just as she had expected, her husband was of little help. He didn’t adjust his lifestyle to accommodate her or their daughter. He would leave in the morning and return in the evening to eat his meal, which had to be ready the moment he arrived. Then he would go to his bedroom, close the door, and sleep, leaving his wife and daughter in the other room.

What’s strange, however, is that the memories she was now recalling while sipping on her Nescafé in front of the closed window, weren’t what deeply saddened her. Rather, it was the remark he had made the previous day following her abrupt decision.

She had just finished preparing a meal, tidying their apartment, sterilizing the baby’s bottles, and changing her clothes when she decided to relax with her daughter by watching her favorite series, but she found a song she loved on YouTube, which led her to another, then another. This inspired her to create a playlist of her favorite songs, and she became so engrossed in her task that the baby fell asleep. Instead of resting, however, the idea of creating an extensive and personalized playlist occupied her mind, so she took pleasure in assembling the songs, arranging them according to her preference, mood, and what she believed would help her endure the days ahead.

She liked the idea, so she considered sharing it with her friends on Facebook. That’s when she remembered that there were ways to stream music through online radio stations that were easy to set up, but she didn’t know how or where to begin.

Though her Google search returned many false links, she persisted, and was so focused that she didn’t notice her husband’s return from work.

He asked her what she was doing with such concentrated focus, and she explained her idea while serving his meal. He seemed disinterested throughout, but then he asked her to stop worrying about trivial matters that she’d never be able to accomplish.

Although his tone was neither sharp nor overly sarcastic, which was typical for him, at that very moment she noticed a vast distance between them. The green table seemed to extend until he was barely visible at the other end, and a heavy silence fell, amplifying the sound of the baby’s cries. It was then that she resolved to keep going until she reached her goal.

After he retired for the night, she persisted with her online task, wracking her brain to understand complex steps written in English. Eventually, she succeeded in launching her own internet radio station. As the first song streamed, she felt as though she owned the world and could achieve anything.

In the morning, after he left the apartment, the online radio continued to stream her playlist. Three listeners were tuning in — three individuals she didn’t know and who didn’t know her were all connected through a melancholic song by the Algerian singer Rachid Taha, a song she loved despite not understanding the lyrics. She tried picturing these listeners: their appearances, homes, and wallpapers on their computer screens. Could they be sharing her desolation? Were they grappling with the same loneliness or waking up with suppressed tears and a lump in their throats as well?

As she stood in front of the kettle to make her Nescafé, she became certain that she would not remain with her husband, but she wouldn’t leave him now. She didn’t want her daughter to follow in her footsteps, sneaking glimpses of joy while watching passersby through a glass panel or harboring modest dreams that shattered upon any physical encounter with reality. She wanted to complete her journey, not begin anew. Deep within, she even stopped wondering why he married her and instead began accepting that the divine purpose of their marriage was beyond her comprehension.

On this day, she joined a group of Egyptian migrants in Seoul. To her great astonishment, she discovered that her husband was already an active member. He had numerous photos with the group in various places, often seen enjoying his time in Arab restaurants and cafés in the foreigner’s district. Once she set aside her shock, though, she decided to live her own life, just like him, and to mirror his disconnection.

She fondly recalled her active participation in forums and blogs over the past few years, where she had formed many friendships with single Egyptian women and mothers who lived nearby. They were surprised to find an Egyptian woman in Seoul to whom they hadn’t yet been introduced. Their astonishment increased when they discovered that she was the wife of the popular professor they’d often seen at community gatherings.

The next day, she told him about her plans to meet some Egyptian women she had encountered at a local mall. He raised no objections and even left his credit card with her in case she wanted to make a purchase. Excited to interact with new people, she dressed up and left early for the meet-up.

Three Egyptian women arrived with their children. Two of them were the same age as her, and one was slightly older. She felt an immediate connection with the older woman. They spoke for a long time, during which she learned that the older woman had been living in Seoul for ten years and that she was fluent in Korean.

The older woman advised her to learn the native language herself. She showed her where the educational centers were located and even explained that Hanyang University provided after-school classes. 

This time, her husband voiced some objections, questioning what would happen to their daughter if she attended these classes. However, she was prepared for any response since she had discovered a nearby nursery that was willing to accept children of their daughter’s age. Moreover, her course only required attendance three days a week and three hours per day.

Moved by her determination and enthusiasm, he finally conceded and even went with her to university on her first day. Then, he gave her a rechargeable metro card and explained that their differing schedules prevented him from accompanying her on other occasions.

When he left her alone at the station, she realized it was the first time in a while she could move freely without her husband or daughter. A twinge of guilt surfaced, but she quickly brushed it aside, and savored her newfound freedom. The initial excitement she felt after setting up the radio station only lasted two days because her busy schedule prevented her from adding more songs. However, this time, she resolved to remain steadfast on the path she’d chosen for herself.

The world unfolded before her in unimaginable ways. Mastering the local language was the key to her complete immersion in the city. No longer did she need an excuse to visit the small bodega at the bottom of her building just for some alone time. She could now navigate the streets, which previously seemed unrecognizable even with Google Maps. She was able to take the metro and travel to distant stations to meet friends on the weekends, visit the park with her daughter, and shop at the mall. And, for the first time, she wore clothes that reflected her personal style.

Her exploration of the city allowed her to appreciate its deeper beauty. She began to admire the long, straight roads drenched in the shadows cast by the cherry trees, on both sides of the pavement, and she appreciated the vibrant fluorescent lights, which brought her joy in the evenings. She was drawn to the small, bustling shops nestled between buildings and to the friendly exchanges with older foreigners who always smiled when they addressed her as she walked with her daughter to get coffee in the morning. She discovered various types of delicious food she had previously overlooked, and she loved the vendors’ cheerful and melodious calls to one another. Whenever she smiled, they encouraged her to try their frozen pineapple slices, chopped melons, or rice pudding.

The smell she once detested no longer bothered her. Perhaps due to familiarity, it didn’t seem to be there.

She became fond of her newfound freedom. Her husband, seemingly living in a different world, often came home late, dined out, and made no attempts to touch her.

When she asked him if he was interested in another woman — their relationship at the time resembled more of a friendship or a fraternal bond — he confessed while looking her straight in the face.

She didn’t argue. Instead, she felt a quiet relief: she no longer needed to shoulder the responsibility of caring for him, and began contemplating ways to land a stable job as quickly as possible.

With the help of her Egyptian and Korean friends, she secured a position at a foreign school. While it didn’t help her procure an official visa to remain in the country, it did provide another source of income and allowed her to confidently set out on a new path. Refusing to settle for partial freedom, she continued working towards complete independence.

Today, years later, she waved goodbye to her daughter at the school gate on the girl’s first day. As she rushed afterwards to her new job as a member of a human relations team at a large hotel in Seoul, she experienced the same lightness that she felt on her own first day at the university. The leaves of the trees fell around her, and the drizzling rain on her face made her feel even more refreshed.

Her latest job at the hotel had granted her full residency in Korea, which liberated her from her estranged husband. They had been separated for the past two years, during which she moved into a new apartment in a modern building. Although her apartment was small, even smaller than the previous one, it was bright, well-lit, and efficiently designed. Most importantly, she was the one who chose it and who selected the furniture. She assumed he would help her move after they agreed to separate rather than remain miserably together, but he didn’t offer any assistance. He simply admired her place once she had finished furnishing it.

They would meet on weekends for lunch, either in the foreign district of Itaewon or at a park. She’d come with her daughter, and he’d arrive with his Korean fiancé who worked with him at the university. 

She could now also use her brief annual vacations to travel back to Egypt with her daughter.

Every day before sunset, she would sit in the park adjacent to her building, watching her daughter play with other children. She would reflect on her past dreams and everything that led to this present moment. Life is peculiar in the way it guides each person along a unique path that seems unchangeable despite their beliefs. How did the young girl who had peeked outside her window at a narrow street overlooking nothing become a woman raising a child in a different continent and a different, faraway town? 

Turning to watch her daughter play, she felt a subtle joy. It was faint, like a dim light, but one that comforted her. She decided to stop questioning what, when, and why things were the way they were. She had managed to rebuild her life, after all, and for that, she was grateful. She appreciated everything around her, especially the peculiar feeling rooted deep within her soul, which she could never identify no matter how hard she tried.


Nora Nagi is a prolific novelist from Egypt. She is the author of Bana [Pana] (2015), Al-Jedar [The Wall] (2016), Banat al-Basha [The Pasha’s Daughters] (2017), shortlisted for the 2018 Sawiris Prize; Sanawat al-Jari fi al-Makan [Years of Running in Place] (2022) as well as a collection of interviews, Al-Katibat Wa al-Wihda [Women Writers and Unity] (2019), all published by Dar Al-Shorouk. Her latest novel Atyaaf Kamilla [Spectres of Camelia] (Dar Al-Shorouk, 2020), won the Haqqi Award and was shortlisted for the Sawiris Cultural Award for Best Fiction Nominee for Young Writers. Nagi has also worked as an editor for the women’s pages in several Egyptian and Arab newspapers and websites.

Nada Faris is a writer and literary translator. In 2018, she received an Arab Woman Award from Harper’s Bazaar Arabia for her impact on creatives in Kuwait. She is an Honorary Fellow in Writing at Iowa University’s International Writing Program (IWP) Fall 2013; and an alumna of the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) 2018: Empowering Youth through the Performing Arts. Faris holds an MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry & Literary Translation) from Columbia University. She is the author of multiple books in different genres. Her shorter works have appeared in: The Norton Anthology for Hint Fiction, Gulf Coast Journal, Indianapolis Review, Nimrod, Tribes, One Jacar, The American Journal of Poetry, and more. Lost in Mecca by Bothayna Al-Essa (DarArab, 2024) is Faris’ first literary translation.

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