After over a year of neglect, it's time for me to do something with this space. Ever since I got back from Cairo, I've been toying with a story that incorporates some of my travels and experiences there. This will be a serial novel - like Dickens or Thackeray, except instead of a chapter each month I will post ~5 pages every week, hopefully on Wednesday evenings.
Ideally, it will run to a full novel length, at which point some guardian angel of publishing will come and scoop it up. In any case, I hope you enjoy it - and if you don't, then make some suggestions so that next week's installment will be better! I may also post articles I've written or read, reviews, and other odds and ends, but this is not primarily that kind of blog.
It is a blog about writing, about fiction and storytelling, and hopefully you will get a weekly advancement of plot. Tell your friends, co-workers, pen-pals - anyone with an interest in writing or the Middle-East. And leave comments - I don't want to write in a vacuum!
The Triumphant Sun
Sand swirled in the streets. The light filtered through like worn brass and the air had a smothering thickness. The traffic barreled on regardless, six cars across in roads meant for three. The sluggish grey Nile rolled under the bridge. From the middle of the river, even the tallest buildings were dirty silhouettes. Evan Rochester stood with a scarf wrapped loosely around his face. Dark glasses shielded his eyes from the blowing grains. He hefted his black case onto his shoulder and headed off, leaning slightly into the sharp wind. His scarf slipped and he lunged to catch it before it glided into the river.
His head throbbed as he walked onward. The air had a dense heat like a heavy blanket draped over his body. Sweat and a film of sand clung to his body under a thin linen shirt. The scarf didn't help much with the heat, but without it he'd be breathing in the storm. He'd always wondered why people wore so much clothing in the desert – robes, turbans, scarves and hijabs. After three months, it made more sense. It was on account of the damned desert; the fine yellowish grains insinuated themselves into one's clothes day and night. He would unbuckle his belt and it would trickle out of the metal. He woke to a thin layer of grit on every surface in his apartment.
In his distraction, he nearly stepped out in the path of a black-and-white Cairo taxi that hurtled by with a metallic death-rattle. He jumped back as the cabbie leaned harder on his horn. In the weeks after arriving, the constant honking had been maddening and infuriating – now, it seemed utterly normal, almost friendly. It wasn't the first time his life had been saved by the enthusiastic bleating of the cars – indeed, it wasn't even the first time that month.
He turned around and gave an almost wistful look at the huge stone lions guarding either end of the Tahrir Bridge, almost as if it would be his last sight of them. Crossing the street there, it might well be. He plunged into the swirling chaos of Midan Tahrir.
Cars wove around him as he dodged between the lane markers that were little more than faint suggestions and reached the foot-wide median with his heart in his throat and the Cairo buses wheezing by, their battered rear-view mirrors dangling inches from his head. A blast of diesel fumes enveloped his face, and with bated breath and one intrepid dash, he reached the safety of the wide-open square in front of the Mogamma. The brutal, Soviet-era building loomed over the chaos of the square. It had all the charm of a low-rent production of 1984, as if the Ministry of Peace had given up on basic maintenance. Its innumerable windows leaned open to air the endless claustrophobic offices of the civil servants who mismanaged the city and country from day to day.
He knew the inside of that building. The smell of cigarettes, sweat and cheap paper, weak tea and bureaucracy. The broken fans that swirled around in lopsided arcs and the one office where two ancient pencil-pushers played backgammon while they shunted people back and forth between departments. It wasn't all bad. There was Amin's office, with the beautiful hijabi secretary who smoked Dunhills when she thought no one was watching and cried silently over the husband who had vanished three months after joining the Army. Murad the clerk sometimes let him know when one minister or another was in a good mood and well-disposed to answering a journalist's questions.
A few guards stood listlessly by the doors, smoking cheap, foul-smelling Egpytian cigarettes. One leaned with his chin on his hands over the muzzle of a Kalashnikov. To Evan, it seemed a fairly demented idea to rest your head on the business end of a rifle.. But this was a place where children played football in the streets with the cars, and people ate fish out of the reeking, rubbish-filled Nile – because there was nowhere else to play, or eat. Evan had begun to give in - he drank water straight from the tap now, and no longer ran a discreet handkerchief around the rim of his glasses of coffee. What was the point, he reasoned? Everything seemed equally filthy.
He made his way past the towering Orientalist dream of the American University, a grand white complex ringed around with hedges and nine-foot walls. The gates had two sets of guards – the national State Security that patrolled every corner traversed of the outside, and the school guards that watched on the inside, mostly unarmed but somehow more serious-looking. The difference turned out to be mostly illusory – the ones inside had all been on the outside before, sergeants and lieutenants making their way in the private sector – where they had a chance of actually earning a living.
Down the affluent streets of Wast al-Madina, downtown Cairo, littered with posh cafés and restaurants, rich Cairenes ate McDonald's, sipped lattes, and sometimes even spoke English to each other in the faux-Starbucks shops. A left turn and just as abruptly back into what Evan thought of as real Cairo: sidewalks crowded with bushels of grimy produce and wooden racks of steaming baladi bread, the smell of grilling chicken on metal skewers, strong Egyptian tea and the aromatic honey-and-charcoal scent of shisha from every ahwa. The sounds of people buying, selling, bargaining and arguing, car horns and the squealing of both angry cats and tires, and the ear-piercing screech of the metal chairs being dragged along the wet tiled floors.
Evan once again braved the maddening traffic of Talaat Harb St. and reached the opening to Huriya – the sprawling open-air ahwa in the middle of downtown that was filled with odd drunks and chessmasters, local shoe-shine boys and embassy personnel, sweet tea and the cheapest Stella beer in Cairo.
“Ya habibi,” exclaimed the waiter as Evan entered. The same man, every day, every week, always waiting with a crook-toothed smile and a repertoire of bottle-opening tricks for each and every regular of that bizarre, seedy dive. “What's the news?” he asked in Arabic.
“Half-and-half,” replied Evan in the same. “Some good, some bad. Tomorrow it will all be arranged, inshallah.”
The waiter grinned. “Wasn't it arranged 'tomorrow' last week?”
Evan shrugged. “Egypt...”
“Yaa raab, it's supposed to be Egyptians who say that kind of thing.”
“Then I guess you've won me over to your side, Hamid. A few more months and you'll drive me off to Mecca. Then you'll have to call me “yaa hagg” and I'm going to finish every sentence with - “so says the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.”
Hamid frowned. “You shouldn't make so much fun.” He jammed the top of a Stella beer between his gilt teeth and popped the cap off, flipped it around his knuckles and slammed it down on the rickety stone table. Condensation dripped in glistening lines down the murky green glass of the bottle, forming a damp pool in seconds. “Anyways, you're too much of a western kaffir. I doubt the prophet himself, peace be upon him, could ever un-corrupt you.” He smiled sardonically. “But we forgive you here.”
Evan sipped his beer and then pulled a slim leather portfolio out of his bag, leafing through the disarray of documents and notes. Occasionally he would mark the pages with a steel fountain pen that leaked ever so slightly, staining his fingers and the paper with midnight blue ink.
When his phone rang, the irritating synth jangle startled him into dropping his work onto a pile on the damp, sticky floor. The pen rolled on top, leaving a blotted blue line across the top of a crumpled triplicate form.
He swore, picked up the pen and answered his phone in English, voice taut with frustration. “Yes?”
There was a brief pause and then the voice returned. “Mr. Rochester? My name is Said. You wished to speak – about Abdel-Kareem.” The voice switched briefly to Farsi, a language Evan had learned years ago in college. “General Abdel-Kareem and the Central Security affair.”
Evan had to grab his beer to prevent his hand from shaking. The glass was slick and ice-cold against his hand. He took a long swallow. “Where can I meet you?” he replied in Arabic.
“I'm at the Sheraton Zamalek. I'm sure you know where it is, yes?”
Evan bit his lip. In good traffic, it was less than eight minutes, but if he got stuck, it might be twenty-five or more to cover the distance. “Yes. Will you be in the lobby?”
“I will be in the cafe, waiting. Please do not be long.”
Evan took another long swallow and spoke slowly, in Farsi. “How will I know who you are? What should I look for.” He held his breath during the long pause and heard a low laugh.
“Don't worry, Mr Rochester. There will be no problem with that.” The line went dead. Evan quickly checked the phone for the number, but it came up unlisted. That was strange, for Egypt – strange, and not a little disconcerting.
He drained the last of his beer, threw a crumpled five-pound note onto the table and dashed out the door. He'd barely reached the pavement when a cab came squealing to halt and the driver leaned out the window, shouting in broken English. Evan leaned in and, smiling, asked in perfect Arabic for the Sheraton.