Victoria—An Excerpt

5 July, 2024,
In a family that counts its pennies, a sickly mother and her daughter visit the seamstress for new galabeyas, in preparation for what might be their last holiday together.
Victoria is Karoline Kamel’s award-winning debut novel, portraying the coming-of-age of Victoria, a young Coptic woman who moves from the provinces to Cairo for her studies. The story delves into the complex forms of oppression in Egyptian society on the eve of the 2011 revolution.



Karoline Kamel

Translated from the Arabic by Ranya Abdelrahman


“Victoria!” my mother called. “Come into the sitting room with me. It’s been gathering dust for long enough.”

I was surprised by my mother’s request. The sitting room had always been forbidden to us, its furniture covered with white sheets that only came off when we had visitors, and once a week when my mother cleaned the apartment.

We went into the room and stood across from each other, lifting off the sheets. Dust motes swirled, embraced by gentle sunbeams streaming in through the slats in the windows. I saw them shimmer like the fairy dust in cartoons. But our dust had no magical powers. Instead, it tickled our noses, making us sneeze.

My mother bundled up the sheets and gave them to me so I could drop them next to the washing machine in the bathroom. When I came back, I sat down beside her on the sofa, wriggling and squirming as I tried to get comfortable.

“Mama, this sofa’s killing me,” I said. “I don’t get it: The one in the living room’s better, but we keep this room saved up for guests?”

Victoria‘s original Arabic edition

Laughing, she said the furniture didn’t need to be comfortable; the whole point was to keep it looking new and unused for visitors who judged people by their sitting rooms. She told me about a different furniture set that she’d wanted when she got married. But, because her family was poor, she’d made do with her mother-in-law’s hand-me-down set, which her father had reupholstered and repainted.

I liked the old furniture’s lustrous, gilded look, but my mother said she’d never found it attractive. She still had hopes of getting the sitting room of her dreams — she’d buy it when I was old enough to be married and suitors began to visit us with their families.

We sat for a while in silence; then my mother looked deep into my eyes. “Listen, Victoria, I want you to do something for me,” she said, her voice heavy with sadness. “Even if I die before you get married, make sure Baba buys new furniture for this room.”

That made me cry, so she pulled me close and hugged me, gently patting my back. I asked her not to talk about dying anymore, so she went back to telling me about the new furniture she’d dreamt of for years — a dream she and my father hadn’t been able to make come true.

“Old furniture is always old,” she said, “no matter how much you spruce it up and replace the fabric. New means brand-new, right down to the wooden frames.” She insisted I was her only hope of changing what she’d failed to change herself.

We heard my father as he came in the front door, calling out my mother’s name. “We’re in the sitting room,” she called back loudly.

He walked slowly into the room and stared at us, confused. “Has anyone come to visit today, Mary?”

We laughed, and my mother pretended to be surprised by his question. “No, Mofdi,” she said. “We just fancied trying out the sitting room. No harm in that, is there?”

With an absent shake of his head, my father gingerly lowered himself into the chair facing the sofa, checking to make sure he hadn’t scuffed the wood. He raised his eyebrows briefly. “God rest your soul, Ma, I can’t remember the last time I sat on this furniture. Why’s it so damned uncomfortable?”

“Could be the upholstery’s bad,” my mother suggested.

He nodded. “Plus it’s been so long since anyone’s sat here, the stuffing’s rock hard.”

We fell quiet, lost in our separate thoughts about the furniture. Then my father said he had a surprise for us, and asked us to guess what it was.

I looked at my mother, but she seemed as puzzled as I was. In my entire 15 years, my father had only surprised me with plans she’d already agreed to. These usually involved cutting expenses, buying fewer clothes and shoes, and other dismal decisions. I sat up straight and wracked my brains for a clue. A few moments later, my mother and I confessed we were stumped.

My father widened his eyes dramatically. “I’ve booked us four days by the sea in Ras El-Barr!” he announced with a grin.

Incredulous, I gaped at him, then turned to my mother. An excited smile had lit up her face. I jumped off the sofa and pounced on my father, wrapping him in a bear hug. “Careful you little imp,” he said, laughing. “You’ll ruin your grandmother’s furniture.”

My mother got up and put her arms around us both. “Bless you, Mofdi,” she said. “Whatever would we do without you?”

After lunch, my parents went to their room for their daily afternoon nap. I sat in my bedroom wondering about my father’s decision to take us to a summer resort — a decision he’d made on his own, at a time when our finances were stretched due to my mother’s illness. She’d finished her second course of chemotherapy a few weeks earlier and was still on medication, for which my father sometimes borrowed money from his friend, Uncle George. On top of this, I was about to start the two years of my General Secondary Certificate, which meant I’d need expensive private lessons.

Every night, I’d hear them discussing our money woes. My mother doggedly refused to let my father use any of my trousseau money, which she’d been saving ever since I was born. But I couldn’t hold back my delight at my father’s plan. I’d just sat my first-year secondary school exams, and I’d never seen the sea before. Besides, we hadn’t been anywhere in years.

Half an hour later, my mother came into my room. She told me she couldn’t sleep — she was too busy stressing about what we’d need for the trip. 

Setting herself down on the bed beside me, she began to think out loud, jotting down necessities on a piece of paper. This was something she did to prepare for any important event at our house, such as fasting, feasts, and the new school year. Even switching from summer to winter clothes and vice versa was preceded by making such a list, which she kept on the dining room table, weighed down by a glass ashtray. Once the list was ready, my mother got up and looked through my clothes for outfits I could wear at the summer resort.

 “You don’t have anything dressy for when we go out to El-Neel Street in the evening,” she said, solemnly. “I need something, too.”

We waited until my father went out that evening to spend time with Uncle George at his workshop. My mother asked me to hurry and get changed: We were going to buy fabric for embroidered galabeyas, and we’d get them made by Samira the seamstress. I watched as my mother asked the shop assistants to bring down bolts of cloth from the shelves, inspecting each one until she decided which kind she liked. She inquired about the prices — of which she never approved — then put her brilliant haggling skills to use. I suddenly saw her as she had once been, all those years ago, before she came down with the “bad disease.” When she asked what I thought of the colors or the material, I just nodded or grunted. I was too busy reliving memories from my childhood, when visiting Samira was a favorite errand of ours. We used to head straight from Samira’s to the El-Abbasi neighborhood to buy trimmings and whatever else we needed for my mother’s dresses — which Samira made — and mine, which my mother made herself. The sewing supplies store we’d go to had always enchanted me with its array of colorful buttons and sequins and brides’ tiaras set with sparkling stones. I was too short to see the goods on the shelves, so I would squeeze through the crowd of women to touch the nearest ends that dangled from the rolls of tulle, guipure, feathers, and faux fur. I rubbed them between my fingers and ran them over my cheek to get a better sense of their texture — I always loved the lacy feel of guipure. Sometimes I was unlucky, and a roll I’d pulled too hard came loose and slipped off the shelf, bringing the other rolls down with it and causing a commotion. When this happened, my mother would drag me out from between the startled women, then pinch me for misbehaving — leaving bruises on my skin that lasted for days — and threaten not to take me with her again. I didn’t cry in public to avoid getting pitying looks.

We finished buying the fabric. My mother had chosen all the pieces in cotton. Nylons and polyesters might look shiny and pretty, she told me, but they were both unhealthy and uncomfortable to wear. Despite the pleasures of walking down El-Abbasi Street, past stores I knew by heart, the crowds, with their relentless pushing and shoving, and the din of vendors screeching their wares, made me anxious, sometimes paralyzing me completely. I grabbed my mother’s hand and made a point of walking one step in front of her to clear the way. I was afraid she might be jostled, or fall on the ground. Since she had fallen sick, she’d become fragile and frail; the slightest push would knock her over. I remembered how she was the one who would hold my hand when we went out together. When it was crowded, she’d squeeze my palm so hard it hurt, and sometimes left marks. And if we happened to pass a bearded man, especially one in a short white galabeya, she’d urge me to move faster and keep my head down.

“Whenever you see those Sunniya in the street, walk by quickly and don’t look them in the eye.”

My mother told me the Sunniya were the kind of Muslims who let their beards grow long and dressed in short white galabeyas with ankle-length trousers. She said they were the ones who sprayed bleach on Christian women, and also kidnapped the young ones. Those girls were turned into Muslims and couldn’t go home to their families again, no matter how hard the Church tried to get them back. Every time I glimpsed one of the Sunniya, I shivered with fear and picked up my pace so he wouldn’t catch me.

The styles my mother had chosen for us needed some trimmings, so we went to the sewing supplies store for beads and guipure. The sequins didn’t interest me anymore, and the memory of my mother’s pinches was no longer painful. All I wanted now was to enjoy her company for as long as I could.

We arrived at Samira’s house. It hadn’t changed a bit. As always, it reeked of cigarettes and was dimly lit except for the strong red lightbulb she turned on when she worked at the sewing machine. The living-room furniture was ancient, carved with angelic cherubs carrying torches and wreaths. They reminded me of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I’d read because of its cover: it had beautiful girls on it, wearing dresses I longed to get my hands on. And even before I’d finished reading it, I found myself wishing I could live in Shakespeare’s magical world.

Samira was decades older than my mother, and her face was covered in fearsome wrinkles. When she saw my mother she began to cry, her words tumbling out between her tears. “It’s the evil eye, Mary dear. You’ve been evil-eyed, my poor girl.”

My mother was in the habit of bringing a home-baked treat for Samira whenever we visited — that is, if we had any baked goods at home. Otherwise, she’d buy a packet of Fairy biscuits for each of us to have with the tea Samira served. Every time we saw her, Samira would praise my mother’s good character. When she had other women there, she’d say, “Mary here’s my favorite customer, you know. I like dealing with Christians, there’s no guile in them. They don’t drive me up the wall like you lot do!” Then she’d laugh out loud, and my mother would smile but never answer. The other women, I felt, weren’t happy with what Samira said. They didn’t smile — they just asked Samira to hurry up and finish their clothes instead of wasting time talking. I saw how she cheered up when they left. “You Christian women are always so pretty,” she’d say. “You’ve chosen the worldly things, but we’re holding out for the hereafter. Although that daughter of yours looks like she’s aiming for the hereafter, too.”

With a sideways glance in my direction, my mother told her those comments upset me.

“Does it bother you, Fico, if we tell your mama she’s as beautiful as the moon?” Samira asked, fixing me with a look.

It hurt when she said I didn’t look like my pretty mother, but I just shook my head. Samira let me look through the scraps of cloth and trimmings tossed in a heap beside the sewing machine, and she sometimes gave me a bit of leftover silk. And even though what she said bothered me, I liked spending time in her house and eavesdropping on the stories she shared with my mother from her cross-legged perch on the sofa, where she sat smoking cigarettes just like my father did.

My mother explained that the galabeyas had to be ready in ten days at most, seeing as we were leaving in two weeks’ time. When she asked how much they cost, Samira broke down crying again and hugged her.

“By the Prophet, Mary, I’ve been wanting to do this for ages. It’s a gift, my dear, and even the Prophet accepted gifts.”

Laughing, my mother gave her another hug. Samira held her tight, vigorously patting her back. Before we’d crossed the doorway on our way out, we heard her sobbing. My mother bit her lip and murmured, “By God, you’re a good soul, Samira.”


From Victoria, copyright © 2022 Karoline Kamel, copyright © 2022 Al Karma Publishers. By arrangement with the publisher.

Karoline Kamel graduated from the Faculty of Arts and has been working as a journalist since 2007. Her first novel, Victoria, was published by Al-Karama Publishing House in 2022. Her articles have been published in various Arab newspapers, including Al-Shorouk, Al-Jarida (Kuwait), and Mada Masr. She has also published several short stories in Akhbar Al-Adab, Al Doha Magazine, and the London-based newspaper Al Hayat. She currently resides in Cairo. Her two passions are photography and raising cats.

Ranya Abdelrahman is a translator of Arabic literature into English. After working for more than 16 years in the information technology industry, she changed careers to pursue her interest in books, promoting reading and translation. She has published translations in ArabLit Quarterly and The Common, and is the translator of Out of Time, a short story collection by Palestinian author Samira Azzam (1927–1967). Her latest translation is best-selling Kuwaiti writer Bothayna Al-Essa’s satirical novel The Book Censor’s Library, which she co-translated with Sawad Hussain.

fabricsgalabeyasillnessMotherRas El-BarrupholsteryWomen and Islam

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