Friday, April 13, 2007

As The Crow Flies

"If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." - Voltaire

And as there's no news in my life now, it was necessary to make some up. So a short fictional vignette, instead. I stress fictional because that is what it is. Small bits are based on reality but basically that's what it is - a story.

I hope you enjoy it!

As the Crow Flies

Ink glittered for a brief moment as it slid onto the paper. In moments, it dried as a matte black snake of words. I watched it as I wrote, paying more attention to the shapes than the words themselves. They had become little more than crumpled heaps of shed emotion. The paper was stiff and its crackling annoyed me as I wrote. With a final sigh of frustration, I tossed the pen aside and watched as it rolled along the margin, tiny drops of black spattering the page.

A month here had worn me down to a raw stub of frustration. My computer, stolen on the plane, had been my one link to the rest of the world, a lifeline to modernization. Plunged into the daily chaos of Cairo, these papers were the only, tenuous connection to everything I had left. One a day to my family; one a day to my friends. And one - a hopeless, futile gesture to the woman I had left waiting for me, written in an unsteady hand that grew shakier with time.

This was the last one. The final letter. It pounded the last nail and rolled the coffin over the edge of the boat. We had been on shaky ground when I left. I was nervous over so many months apart, with temptation always beckoning. Our trust was worn thin and the arguments had always bubbled just below the surface. In my letters, the tone grew increasingly strident. This final communique was the product of the past weeks, throwing my words into the void. I told her it was finished – I was finished. I could not stand another month of raging silence.

I stood on the balcony and watched the balletic madness of the street. A taxi made a mad swerve around a bus of children to offer an old woman a ride. She waved her cane and shouted something in Arabic – curses? Greetings? At this height, I couldn't tell. The restaurant across the street from the Algerian embassy shone with lights and music. Uniformed guards lounged at the entrance as well-dressed guests filtered in. There were two sets, actually. The Cairo police leaned on their battered Kalashnikovs while the Embassy security stood in shadows. The latter were hulking men in black suits caressing submachine guns.

And the guests! A month in the grey dust of the streets made their luxury look like a djinn's palace. Women in shimmering cocktail dresses, men in dinner jackets and black ties. Long parades of luxury cars that snaked around the block. I saw one man enter flanked by two blonde women in white dresses – sisters? Wives? What was the party for, anyways? It could be a wedding – there was one of those a week, at least, and the celebration never ended before sunrise. Or just revelry for its own sake – the excitement of being rich and privileged.

I contemplated sending my letters to one of those women, just addressing it at random to a Yasmin or Rasha and seeing what happened. It couldn't be any more frustrating than my current plan. A month's worth of letters, one each day, and not a single response from her. Thirty-one pages of endearments, questions, demands, poems, news, and finally pleas.

The silence nagged at me, like the dull buzzing that filled my ears when a room was totally quiet. The slightest event would set it off – a young couple entangled in the back of the library, a man smoking on the 6th October bridge while he waits for his liasion, even the sight of someone writing on the shaky metal coffee tables in an ahwa. It intruded on my sleep with dreams of drowning in a sea of ink leaking from my pen.

Frustration propelled me down and out of the apartment. The lobby was empty and my boots echoed on the scuffed marble floors. I hesitated briefly at the door, than turned heavily down the street and towards the ahwa that I had adopted as my second home. On the way, I sent my last letter off at the post office. My hand shook slightly as I handed the money over to the veiled girl at the counter, and she looked at me oddly. I could hardly blame her – hair slightly disheveled, three days of stubble and a faint aura of disreputability. But it was done. I thought of Caesar at the Rubicon, and that gave me a brief moment of amusement before I realized the pretension of the thought.

The floors were dirty but the mirrors were clean when I got there. Some days, it was the other way around. Nothing was ever really clean, as Cairo dirt and car exhaust coated everything in a layer of blackness. Only the glasses shined, and that was among the reasons I came. Abdel, the owner, croaked out a hoarse “Salaam aleikum” - Peace be upon you - through his cigarette-and-sugar-rotted teeth. As alarming a figure as he cut, he was a kindly and welcoming man who didn't object to my long hours sipping tea and coffee while scribbling away. With his head of crazed white hair, paltry collection of teeth and hands like sandpapered bronze, he was half an Orientalist-cliche and half everyone's peculiar old uncle.

Wa aleikum salaam,” I replied. And upon you, peace. Did he have peace, I wondered? I was convinced he was gay, as many Egyptians are but refuse to admit. His ancient three-piece suits, the unusual cleanliness of his store and the hanging portraits of the former royal family's handsome young princes all pointed towards that. So did his clientele – dandily dressed elderly men, to a man, sporting such eccentricities as rosewood canes and umbrellas.

I imagine him spending his whole life offering nothing more than little hints and gestures – telegraphs in code, sent out to the cruel unfriendly world. Did he ever hear a response? Did he want to? There are ways to outflank society's walls, but they are long and tortuous paths. Or is it just a whole castle of cards that I build in my mind?

I sipped my coffee, letting the aroma of cardamom fill my nose. After a month in Cairo, I couldn't smell much, but this one scent was too powerful to loose. As I reached the bottom of the glass, Abdel sat down next to me with a shisha, his own personal one rather than the many he kept for customers. It had been painted with a picture of King Farouk. He offered me the pipe and I took a few drags. The tobacco was heavy and perfumed, and it left my head spinning.

We chatted quietly for a while. My Arabic was rough and his English fractured and interjected with French. But an hour passed, and eventually I wandered back. As midnight approached, the streets grew lonely and the river mist settled over the island of Zamalek. The streetlamps glowed with faint halos, and even the guards' cigarettes seemed to float in the darkness.

I shuffled into the lobby and was halfway into the elevator when I realized the bawab was calling me. I turned reluctantly. He was standing in front of his desk, waving his arms. In my daze, I had walked right past him. He proffered a battered package to me. “Sunduq, yaa Basha.” He always says that – basha, officer. To each and every foreigner, without fail. I wish I could talk him out of it but I can't.

A box, stamped from America. Probably a package of cookies or books or some other little token from my family. I slouch in the elevator, picking idly at the worn brown wrapping paper. My door squeaks as I open it and I grit my teeth against the sound. Inside, I pour myself a measure from the half-empty bottle of whiskey on the counter. It isn't particularly good, but it fills up that little space inside.

I open the box with a knife from the Khan al-Khalili bazaar, a cheap tourist trinket. There is another smaller bundle inside, tied up with rough twine. A letter is laid out on top, in a familiar, loopy hand done with red pen.

I'm so sorry, love! The postage went up and all of my letters got returned at once! But here they are...

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