Dogstar Rising - By Parker Bilal


Cairo, 2001

At first no one really noticed. Everyone was too busy with the daily struggle. Nobody had time to lift their eyes from the uneven road in front of them to look skywards for fear of stumbling. The lighting in that part of town was poor anyway and you had to keep your wits about you if you didn’t want to get knocked down by an impatient driver. To make things worse, the sightings took place at night, when the street was one long vale of frustration: motorcycles popping, minibuses beeping, bicycle bells and sirens, vendors calling out their wares, horses protesting. There was no time to notice anything, least of all a figure perched high above the street.

The mysterious figure rarely showed itself in the same place more than once. It would appear high up on the corner of a building, or perched on the balustrade of a darkened balcony, with no explanation of how it got there, nor where it disappeared to when it went. ‘Malaika!’ cried one woman. An angel. She fell to her knees, much to the amusement of onlookers on either side of the crowded street. Gruff men threw back their heads and laughed. But then someone else pointed and soon a whole crowd was peering up into the gloomy shadows of the jumbled walls high above, trying to make out what it was that seemed to be poised there, halfway between heaven and earth.

It was a bad time for anything out of the ordinary. Nerves were on edge, tempers frayed easily. The appearance of this ‘angel’ had coincided with the murder of a number of young children in the area. How could anyone kill a child, people asked, and where were the police when you needed them? Three bodies had turned up so far, and every day brought the possibility of more.

The sighting of the angel was taken as a sign, that God had not abandoned them. A small group of devotees formed a loyal cult. They would meet every evening to hold a candlelit vigil on bended knees in front of the church, hands clutched together in supplication, praying for a miracle. As they waited, their eyes sought out any sign of movement above. Reports naturally varied. It was quite a slight figure some said, while others claimed it was tall. Some said it was as rigid as a statue, others swore that it had wings that glittered like silver or gold. It glowed as if it was burning.

‘It is a sign,’ they whispered. ‘Things are going to change soon.’

‘Good will prevail. Our suffering will come to an end.’

‘We will be released from this trial.’

The angel, many were heard to say, had been sent to protect the young ones in this dangerous time. Soon there were avid watchers posted on every corner, craning their necks to see if it would show. The word spread. Christians in particular took this as a message meant for them: an angel had descended from heaven to bring them comfort in these difficult times. To guide them through this trial of persecution. The newspapers and the radio stations chattered eagerly on the subject, with everyone adding their own interpretation of the facts. There were suggestions that it was a trick, a hoax, but no one could prove who or what might be behind it and nobody stepped forward to claim responsibility. Was it a government plot to take people’s minds off the hardships? Or had the Israelis started putting hallucinogenic substances in the drinking water?

The sightings continued. Whenever it was spotted the message went out and within minutes a group of Christians would arrive, hands held together in prayer, rosaries pressed to their lips. They ignored the jeering, the obscenities and rotten vegetables thrown in their direction. The newspapers and television stations began to take an interest and soon the Angel of Imbaba was being discussed on chat shows and talked about in the papers.

And while there were those who saw the angel as a benevolent presence, a sign of God’s protective hand, there were just as many who viewed it as a bad omen. Why had its appearance coincided with the murder of those young boys? What connection could there be between one event and the other? People became fearful of letting their children out of sight. The police, whose presence was rarely anything but scarce, made little effort to find the brutes responsible. The death of a child in these parts was hardly worthy of their attention.