No map, no contacts, no guidebook.
The flight scuds into the Aerodrome before dawn. The jet peels onto the tarmac and ejects the passengers into the night. Toby’s foot taps on the cream line.
An agent beckons. Sweat treacles down his back.
He winks. “Pleasant stay, Monsieur.”
Toby smiles at the polish of monsieur. He moves towards the open doors. The carousels dance with luggage. Toby’s the rucksack.
Outside the Aerodrome, the air’s bitter and sweet. A Renault is his target. He issues the driver one sole instruction. “Cheap hotel, downtown — in the center.”
“Ciao?” the driver gurgles. He fusses with his hair, mustache, chin, the steering wheel, then ignition.
“Ciao,” Toby says, knowing little of what he agrees to.
The sun eats the last of the night from behind the saffron horizon. Black fingers of palm frond scratch the sky. Rubbish burns along the expressway, smoky beacons for cities within the city. The Renault exits and slows.
A moped scuffs along at the street, makes ineffable progress. A cart harbors cassettes, sandals, trinkets, and pairs of men. Soon they rise for tea, ablutions and prayer. Shops glow like candied fruits. Toby’s gaze settles on the sun shining colorfully in the prism of smog and sun.
The window’s down and the minarets cough, the Koran moving in the collective mind of the manicured muezzins. The passages ululate over the streets whitened by the milk of morning. Prayers intermingle. They chant over the city, welcome like thunder and rain.
The taxi parks outside the Ciao, a cement block haphazardly erected on the borders of Ramses Square. Here, Cairo arrives or departs. Stainless steel trains and tuned for long desert hauls. Porters perch on the roofs of the buses. The dull sonic phrases of Arabic are harmonious with the collision of goods and people over the sand.
Toby spots a cart tended by a woman. Her bangled wrist squeezes, then settles against a pitcher of juice and decants a glass. The limeade’s fantastic.
A shy girl hides in her gown. The woman exposes the girl’s neck as she pets her. She smiles toothlessly. Gold moves around her throat. The woman rinses the glass. The girl emerges from the woman’s shadow. He’s fraught with sugar as he enters the Ciao.
The taxi driver has already negotiated his commission from reception. It’s tucked in his shirt pocket, a few grubby pounds. He bows at Toby and laughs. The concierge joins in mad refrain.
The mustaches are freed by laughter. They escape from the men’s lips onto the carpet. Toby heels at the worms but they squeak away toward a feast of mulberry leaves and conversation as entangled as silk.
“Yes, Monsieur, yes-yes, room 809,” says the giggling concierge, handing the brass key to a boy.
The lift shakes with mirth. And the corridor.
He opens 809. Moist. The concrete respires. The boy switches on the fan. Toby straightens his brittle back on the lumpy bed, vividly daydreaming, blipping like a cursor through time and space, this hot gray room.
Departure’s quagmire flickers, a hasty exit, and arrival emerges.
The Ciao’s guests hoot in the corridors.
Toby has no courage for the amusement in 809.
A strange scratching intermittently sounds somewhere.
It emanates from the shutters, more urgent.
Flapping? Or thermals?
A dagger of feather juts from the slats of the balcony’s shutters.
The shutter erratically swings to reveal a disoriented bird.
The bird scatters down and ash. It smokes a cigarette. Its wings are gathered under a scarlet rag. Its human-like eyes distinguish the shape spooned on the bed.
Toby props himself up.
Did he inadvertently pack a parrot or falcon in his socks, now crumbled at the end of the bed? Maybe it’s a bit of brassy papyrus adorned with a hieroglyph, blown in from the square?
809’s no refuge.
Toby tangos under the water of the shower, chin and chest struck forward. The roaches clumsily fly around and the mildew holds its position. Toby cinches a towel around, makes for the concrete balcony. He passes the bird.
It lunges at him, dropping its cigarette in its haste. The ciggie harmlessly fusters on the tile floor.
Haze coats the city —a sprawl of domes, roofs and minarets. Heat and noise brood below. The square erupts. Every vehicle compels itself to Ramses with the blow of a loud horn. They merge into one long swollen toot, a chorus ambient like bees.
Toby dries in less than the moment it takes him to locate the woman and her cart of limes at the base of the Ciao.
809 could be a chamber of the sun, an immersion of light. His sanctuary, with kiln-like qualities, is queasy. A strange warm narcosis cleaves a toe from his awareness.
The bird perches on the oscillating face of the fan — readying an attack.
Toby pitches into his trousers, reels into his shirt. He ducks into the corridor cracked with laughs. Frantically, he turns the lock with the fat brass key.
At the Ciao’s rooftop restaurant, he takes a table. A waiter rifles in a stack of tapes and the deep voice of Oum Khalsoum settles. Drowsy flies bump against the window screens. Oum must be laughing somewhere behind her song. The waiter wipes on a smile. The coffee comes semi-sweet in a black demitás. He engulfs acrid smoke from an envelope of shag, stares blankly.
He knows the score. Nazarenes are destined for hell; thus they are good targets. Laughter shadows him around the premises of the Ciao. Allah issues credits like door locks, water wheels, gunpowder, windmills and silkworms in return for laughter. Is this the sixth century?
Boys call cigaro-cigaro, cradle Cleopatra and Marlboro, tambour stacks of coins. They proffer sweet and salty snacks too. Toby buys a paper trumpet of sunflower seeds. Is that a friend or foe preening in 809? He eats a few.
The melee of Ramses sings on.
Or is it laughter?
The whole of Ramses buckled in joy?
What is it about the tow-headed guy in the shirtsleeves and trousers?
Peals of “Monsieur, Monsieur!” ring in his ears.
Is it a welcome?
People pour from the local trains, fourth class no windows and no seats, spill from buses in desert gandorrah or unisex burnous. The veil, a flash of ankle and wrist, and Toby is on the watch. Beggars jostle his pockets, purposefully almost empty. They display mossy stumps and rotten teeth.
Foamy, acidic sky.
Strands of bulbs blink in the daylight. Smoke curls over the cafes blaring with teahouse tunes, the music scratchy and tinny, lob-sided, madly rotating on the gramophones. Neon-fringed minarets add their solemn religious funk to the day.
Toby answers the resonant poetry. Outside the mosque he touches the bulb-like portal cast with shoes, slippers, sandals. Oil lamps illume the arches, columns, calligraphy. The supplicants wait for mid-morning prayers. They kneel and gossip. Hundreds of carpets are sutured into one colossal rug. The men adjust and loosen, lean on their hands, pick their teeth. The women are above. Arrivals carefully wash everything below ankle and wrist. A single cough will commence.
Non-believers are forbidden. An old bearded man issuing stubs for checked-in footwear wags his finger and spreads his arms in defense.
“Mosque, no. Madrasa, yes.” He stutters.
He may see those who study, but not those who worship.
Toby’s hand checks the objects, reassures his eyes as the congregation bows in one great huff.
Café workers peel the next round of home-made chips, press falafel, stoke the grills layered in liver and lamb brochettes served with cilantro, parsley, onion, sumac, cumin and chili. He travels with his mouth, grateful not to be hiding in the atrium of the Ciao. He gobbles three falafel stones: Cheops, Chephren, Micerinus.
Nets of mangoes beckon. Amulets soothe the chaos.
The crystals dissolve, ambergris. He absorbs smoke and textile, perfume and daub. Customers lean against the stand, push their spit into the sawdust and rinds. His feet are imprisoned in black shoes. The sun’s the obstacle. Cautious, he returns for limeade, sweets the main bearing on Ramses compass.
His lips smack together enthusiastically and he touches her hands, sticky with limes and sugar. She recoils, smiles, then laughs, amazed.
Some gold teeth shake in the back of her mouth.
“Monsieur, I am Bedouin. Bedouin burns all the night.”
She shoves her daughter out from her robes. She gives him instructions. The beautiful imp then scampers away.
The Berber and Toby study one another, dumbfounded.
She’s from the crocodile south. She gapes, shakes her corrugated tail, evaluates his European meat. She thrashes him in her teeth, offers him a spell, transport to a private home.
The spell feels naughty and risky, like riding a breath.
He accepts and that night he will waft from the Ciao 809.
Hundreds of children fly like giant angels in the lights of the mosque; their shadows bigger, more magnificent than Ramses.
Souks, workshops, villas, bases, slums. He settles on a rooftop like a wayward pillow.
A large brugmansia shades the terrace. Under it, sheep, nighthawks, doves, hens, squab, gazelle; olive, pomegranate, palm, fountain cool the large courtyard. The brugmansia drips with white flowers redolent of carrion, a presence more than a scent.
A thick candle fizzes in the vague breeze under the tree, its long ovate leaves like the blades of spears. The trumpets of flowers dangle in white arrays.
The Bedouin woman brews tea from mordant vanilla flowers, torn leaves and seeds. She smiles in a way that might indicate concern for the poison.
Soon Toby will know the plant.
Anticipation for sex and drugs consorts in his mind — it’s either one or the other. Steam gases from the potion. Her cocoa skin gleams. Her glance sends an impulse down his spine as if she, of an unwritten language, were scrawling an epic of lust on his parchment.
He loves the young witch. He holds her rough hand, minus a little finger. He sips the unpalatable brugmansia. He feels the first wobble. The glass is speaking when he finishes the dosage. He writhes on the concrete terrace. He tries to stand up but collapses. His left leg can only move with the assistance of his arms while his right leg quivers.
The Bedouin brings a mirror. He cannot recognize it. He’s dull and full of regret, but intrepid.
She multiplies and keeps him in place.
He’s trembling with brugmansia and new and old threads of LSD. It’s strong enough to assassinate anyone inept or enthusiastic.
Here, vibrating and levitating under the hairy tree, he also feels a great respect. It’s licking his ears and face. The lint in his pocket can talk. His fingernails are darting from finger to finger. He can screw his toes off his feet and drive them into the floor, his head or elbow, or the tree. Seeds, leaves and flowers stew a list of malformed words.
Hands. Hands soothe the tantrum: the thirteen millions brains seizing under his skull.
His mouth is dry; it’s an unmerciful plant.
Some sweetness counteracts the atropine tea. He’s seasick in his carcass, tossing on hallucinogenic seas.
He babbles in Spanish. “Isla Mujeres, Isla Mujeres.”
The witch purrs. “Las mujeres, las mujeres.”
They wipe him, hold him, seduce him — a zombie.
What is left of his body is strewn with bangles, rings, necklaces, charms and earrings. The objects talk around him, his new friends.
The Bedouin rises from the light. “Gifts for burning all the night long.”
He sleeps, but a sleep of disembodied alienation. He laughs, weeps and replies to walls, statues, plants, objects — nothing remains except a vague sense of being there.
Everything is as it should be.
Ramses is subdued, only a few taxis bleating around its perimeter. The Ciao is oddly off-kilter, ribaldry-free. Toby turns on the fan and collapses in 809.
Neither parrot nor falcon.
His pockets aren’t empty; never are they full. He knows better. It may not even be Toby who uncoils on the bed — a wire held together by two coiling brains.
Plush seat — first-class, air-conditioned.
A man folds into the next seat. He extends his knotted hand, put his hand to his heart.
The express starts slowly over the uneven tracks from Cairo.
A stop in the slums — houses quickly built from a wattle of sheeting and cardboard — brings pandemonium: wives, mothers, husbands, children, in-laws.
Strung out, mute, Toby glances down a mud street: washing, satellite dishes, the bustle of neighborhood affairs. People come here. They want water in pipes and shit in sewers; they adapt to little bridges of wood across the open drains. The canals are fetid but deemed clean for laundry and bathing.
The express slithers away, sidles along the Nile, skirts the trunk road. Camels, donkeys, bipeds, carts. A watery amalgam of images emerges from the verdant strip that cuts Egypt in two.
Palms lash the train, high on an embankment and bluffs, old quarries. Ramshackle daub villages. Palmeries.
The train vigorously bounces.
The passengers confer like sacred birds.
A blur flickers through his lids.
Hot air gusts into the bowels of the carriage.
A bride’s ivory gown.
Her retinue bumps along. She proudly walks, veiled. Somewhere down the line her new relatives expect her with a mirrored litter shimmering on the platform. Her feet cannot touch the ground.
The carriage fills with guests and presents, household objects clad in gold and silver ribbons, foils, gels, folia.
Musicians follow the presents. They pour into the train with their instruments: tar, tombok, dombok, violin, sourna. Complicated percussion rapidly fills the train — doum-tek-ka-tek-tek-doum-tek-doum. The maids dance. Boys dance. The musicians are pushed from the aisle.
His astonishment eases as he samples the clove and almond pastries passed around.
A girl spontaneously says, “Monsieur, a bride’s party. We travel to groom’s party, for final day of wedding.”
Her emerald eyes dance, rub his. His sight fills her swishing figure. She smells like sandalwood. This girl does not reply in words but lowers her scarlet sash on her fuchsia dress. She knows how far she can go. Her cuffs are delicate and embroidered. She gives him strands of hair, pricks her finger and puts it in his mouth. She wraps the hair around a tooth, while grinding his thighs.
An impulse to go native, convert, marry this creature, pay a dowry of four horses, ten goats and twenty sheep and move to her village sounds plausible. Taxi to Mombassa or Mogadishu?
He must be more diplomatic.
He scoots over to the ivory bride, wishes her luck, kisses the orchid cheeks.
Her house is no longer hers. Women join the trill.
One raw creature is replaced by another. And another.
Toby’s fuchsia admirer dances with her sisters.
The party surges with expectation of the bride’s blood, her matrimonial freshness, the soft pelt.
Orchards. Fields. Palms. Wheat.
The abrupt border of sands. The dunescape where his mother loved his father and conceived a new flake of DNA. Sandy sperm. Sandy egg. He’s comfortable, going home to the sand.
The train decelerates. A dusty, shadeless platform. Faces from outside press against the glass. The party is still underway. But it closes ranks at the approach of strangers.
Touts squeeze into the carriage, pass handbills for Luxor.
A roundy introduces his establishment. “Come to Habbeeland, Monsieur. Hot water, cold water, bed, fan, breakfast. All fair brice, real brice, friend’s brice, family brice.”
His tummy oozes over his belt. His brow is like the top an egg.
Toby’s impulse is no: no to any pitch, angle or con; no to haggling; no to any trinket, instrument, carpet, kilim, box, carving, sculpture or postcard; no to contraband; no to safaris, guides and maps. He’s learned that.
Mr. Habbee senses it.
“But, Monsieur, I have letters. Many travelers. Read what beoble say Habbeeland.”
Toby deliberates. The appeal’s working. He’s the owner after all.
“Wait on platform. I take. Five-minute. Only Mr. Habbee. Program, yes? Banana Island, Valley of Kings, Karnack?”
The heat’s sharp and exquisite. People spill into Luxor station, greeting, kissing, shaking, hugging, touching hearts. Habbee is scurrying forth, guarding his guest. Can there ever be trouble for one guest?
Habbee rolls on his feet. The streets are quiet, blistering.
“From France, Monsieur?”
“No, no… citizen du monde.” It’s a gross, blithe answer. He’ll have to hand over his passport anyway.
“But surely, Monsieur?”
“No, nowhere.” Toby refuses to admit much more, thinking of the Ciao.
They stoop through the mouth of the smiling facade of Happyland. Reception is freshly mopped.
Mr. Habbee exhumes his guest book, claps at his boy for a brew up. Habbee thrusts the book at Toby’s eggs. Habbee negotiates during the room inspection: clean, hot, fan spinning.
The third-floor terrace for breakfast and rooftop lodging for his boy looks nice too. The morose kid cowers at the sight of Habbee; he gives the laundry an extra rub in an orange plastic bucket — cleanliness adjunct to happiness.
Toby wakes in a lake of perspiration. He showers, dries, showers again, dresses and drops into the street through the smile.
He noses his way to the Nile. A fat ferry loads. The water is stippled with floating hyacinth and reeds.
He’s at ease. Cool wall. Hot earth.
The air’s heavy with ferry exhaust and leaded fuel. Some leftover chemical ordnance fires in Toby’s brain but he is calm, unsettlingly calm, watching the sun drop, so close he can walk on its surface, walk across its coals and not combust.
Passersby with hang-dog, comely eyes cruise along the embankment.
Man in robe, “Alone?”
Man in slacks, “Do you like Egyptian man?”
Man in shorts, “Waiting for me?”
Man in frock, “Lonely?”
They’re bored with brides, wives and girls they cannot get. Toby ignores the pinches.
Where no one knows?
Habbee’s boy is among them, catches his eye.
The boy concentrates to say, “Ahmed.” He extends his leathery mitt.
Ahmed nervously smirks, about to laugh. He musters an invitation. “Come to village party. Dancing and music. You will like.”
Toby perks up at the idea of dancing.
They jog down the promenade to the ferry. He takes a seat on the upper deck of the listing square ship. The diesel coughs at the river. Karnack emerges on the Luxor side.
“Mother make fuhl, cheese, egg.”
Toby offers Ahmed a Cleopatra.
Will he smoke deceitfully or honestly? What is understood or implicit?
Toby fires his with Ahmed’s ember. The smoke softens his edges. The triggers dissolve. The operators diffuse and dilute in his dirty metabolism. Then the serenity sharpens; his nerves itch. He scratches and the boy watches him.
The ferry booms into the dock and spreads its cargo onto the sandy embankment. Camels and donkeys are tethered nearby.
The Toyota is overloaded with passengers. Ahmed steps on the bumper. Toby does too. The truck coasts through the irrigated fields and a single continuous daub village. Sharp desert mountains hold oracles and tombs in the rocks. The stars just glimmer. Toby itches somewhere in his throat.
Ahmed jogs to a halt. Toby follows the threadbare jeans and T-shirt; they helter-skelter along the daub passages. A few green gaseous lights flicker at some junctures.
Old farmers, hobbled with age. White tunics, white trousers, white skullcaps.
“May God be ….”
Toby rondos the welcome. “And may God….”
The old white termites are on the way to the mosque. Soon prayer will envelope the dark land.
“My house. Wait.” Ahmed talks with his mother, arranges the extra plate. Ahmed gestures him forward. Toby bows to the shy woman wrapped in a burnous. He stoops in the bare interior, damp and marsh-like, a clay pot. Ahmed’s sister milks the black buffalo in the tiny courtyard. The hens dodge its the hooves. His sister leers.
“There are a 100 names for God. Buffalo is not one of them.” Ahmed. “Say there is no God but God — Al illah il Allah. Say it!”
“Al illah il Allah.”
He could say it for hours.
Ahmed’s sister pauses from milking the buffalo. A soft teat rests in her hands.
Toby finishes the last triplet. “Al illah al Allah.”
“Now we are equal. It’s that easy.”
“Is there comfort in believing that?” Toby asks.
Ahmed grabs his arm, leads him into his dirt-floored room — a bed, a chest and a radio. His lean face and curly hair glow under the raw bulb.
His entire life — postcards, photos, mementos, addresses — are folded in a plastic bag. Ahmed buries his arm in his life, extracts a handful of correspondence and pictures banded together.
“We have the same ideas about luggage. I like that,” Toby says.
He hasn’t been the sole tourist invited to Ahmed’s house, judging from the couples and friends who dispensed a photograph and greeting.
“People tell me, ‘No bring! Trouble!’ I do anyway. How hard we live? That’s why. Habbeeland is moment. Just. All hotels like this. Boy makes mistake and over for him. See, bricks for new house, my house, my wife. Lucky, many hotel in Luxor.”
Ahmed’s sister calls. They move into the perspiring night. Sister and mother carry out the palanquin, its passengers bowls of fuhl, boiled eggs, buffalo cheese and butter, bread fractured by the baking stone, pickled lime and lemon, a pot of tea. The women bow and adjourn. They wash their hands from a pitcher, sit cross-legged, scoop at the beans with the bread. Ahmed’s mother returns with a kerosene lamp, a corona of light. Toby eats the simple food. Ahmed routinely chews. In between mouthfuls he broaches the idea of the program.
“Many good friend in Luxor. You buy beer. For me.”
Toby is acutely wary. A moth dances around the glass chimney of the lamp.
They grunt and smoke. Ahmed jams more beans and an egg into his mouth, returns to the cigarette, squats, shifts. No effort.
Toby loafs in the dirt expecting a disclosure, an aperture, a telegram of understanding in their truncated words.
Ahmed’s lips glow, his toes splay in the dust, tongue splices the air. He reaches to touch Toby’s larynx, his jaw, to husk his coconut.
His coconut doesn’t flinch, a head relaxing inside a hand.
“Let’s go drink, sweet,” Toby says.
Ahmed takes in the kerosene lamp.
Toby squints at the moon. He stalls on the molar, bound with hair. The palmerie cries around him — birds, frogs, bats, one thousand and one welcomes.
They strike out from the low doorway, through murmur, short-wave, laughter, television. Warm walls — white-washed, smooth; others broken cubes — mud, straw.
Abruptly Ahmed stops. He whispers on a wooden door. It opens. A fat woman beckons. She pulls two green bottles from plastic crates, rubs them in the grooves of a block of ice clothed in burlap, opens their beaded necks.
The bottles sing and the suds are rapidly slurped down. Near beer. Beerade.
Ahmed drinks with gusto. “Discouraged but very good. Village has guards. No too much progress, problem.”
No other customers. Toby peels off more pounds. Two more are rolled in the ice. “She doesn’t sell anything else? Something to smoke?”
“These things for bad man.”
“Maybe. Some man. False man. Poor obey, not want prison, no chance.”
“For a little weed?”
“Alcohol is violent like a storm. How does it break?” Toby bothers the charm around his tooth.
Ahmed wipes the froth from his chin, rustles up some coins and guzzles at his beer. “Another type.” He spits.
Toby expects a blow for his insolence for putting Ahmed down. He tosses the last bottle onto the dirt floor. It thuds dully. The fat black proprietress gazes severely from her bench. A black ant noodles on Toby’s shoulder.
Ahmed glares at him with one eye. And moves.
The boys stitch and unstitch, unravel into ribbons, mating like snakes, a loud scuffling fabric of muscle.
The proprietress bulldozers them out the door with her rings of fat.
“Like fighting camels!” Ahmed roars, his hump and ego shaking.
Village kids scramble to witness the combat.
The demiurges roll through walls, tumble through thatch, fall into and climb out of wells and step through fires. They nudge against the dwellings, punch, lash, clinch, slap, parry along a passage, sizing one another up, rivals.
Feet tamp the earth.
A bulb sways in the distance, brightens a canary wall. Drums and delayed voice hark. They kick up dirt to get there. Toby loses a sandal. The earth is too soft for it to matter. A spare is always available; few people can afford a number as great as two. One sandal. One shoe. One cigaro. One seed. One child.
He misplaces Ahmed in the excitement.
Nine men chorus, squat, hiss, bend, chorus, stamp. The dance extends well beyond the palm mat into the dust. Tambours flick with taut rhythms. A singer, blue turban askew, chokes the microphone, waits, then wails. The cuffs of their gowns are wet.
Two handsome boys escort him through the boisterous crowd, arrange an honored place on a bench among the dance: claps, children, messages, beers, narghill, horns of seeds and nuts. Energy exudes from the intricate, enticing drums liquified with voice.
Toby feels sublime.
A group of women discard their bleak, black robes, transform with twirls and cascades of hands. Garish. Sequins. Understated steps. Sparkly eyes. A pair of men knot cummerbunds of fabric around their waists, lower the fabric to their hips, shake, provoke. Two village guards stroke their old rifles. Tension and surprise melt as the some girls rise, eager to display — undulating like land not water.
Moves burst from the fringes, strengthening as praise pours from the vocalist.
One of the boys pulls Toby from the bench.
“He sings. Joy, unity, community, brotherhood, all one under Allah — rich man, beggar, thief!”
There is a wisp of bearded fire on his cheeks.
“This way! There is more!”
The fine hand pulls him through the frenzy, around a corner, where another set of men dance and sing against a violet wall, another shadowy line of drums.
This is Toby’s best moment. He’s from nowhere and alone, unfettered and free to celebrate this oriental instant. He has nothing to fear off the map.
“It’s called dhikr, an ode of love to God. They sing about roses, letters and water. But, Monsieur, I beg you, are you French?” The young man is too polite.
“I’m from here, past the banks of the Nile,” Toby drawls.
“The desert. This one?” The boy shakes his head.
Ahmed appears, ticks up to his friend’s shoulder.
Toby points to the darkness. “This one that cuts across all of Africa.”
Ahmed catches the last phrases. “I’m not African. I’m Egyptian.” Ahmed is flushed.
“Africa acts on you. You cannot escape it.” The boy is smart.
“But we Egyptians are more closed than Africans.”
“You must excuse him,” says the boy as he calmly touches Toby’s shoulder.
The boys break into Arabic and quarrel. They’re locked on beer, youth and ideas about strangers.
A menacing woman intervenes, bumps the boys apart, gives a kohl glare, flashes her hairy gums. Her hips still kick to the music. Her fleshy bare arms are almost wings, feathers poking from under her arms. She smells like a damp grave.
Inadvertently Toby winks at her.
She winks back with a rotten eye, shimmers Fatima No. 1 First Quality. Gold filament and coins trim the edge of her scarf. Gold earrings swing in her lobes. In one hairy gold tooth a ruby glitters. She sways like a message, like a memory choreographed by the taste of old, deep emotion. Her mouth does not move with her breath — yet she dances a jerky loop.
Nina accepts, approves, blesses and then releases him with a last glance and disappears.
His heart leaps, stalls, runs deep and slow. The boys are cautious, lurking.
Toby steps into the night, stares at the slash of moon, stares into Nina’s creepy, curdled, cataract-dead eyes. He notices a motor idling somewhere, its purring engine a familiar, welcome beacon for quasi-panic. The boys hail him, but he explores the opportunity idling at the edge of the darkness.
Toby sinks into the sweet taxi smelling like pipes and leather. “To Luxor, the ferry.”
“This is Luxor.”
“Please, the other bank, east bank. I’m next to Fantastic, Happyland.”
The chauffeur chokes the engine. The boys spits at the car as Toby cracks the window.
A gob lands on his forehead, an insult.
“And may God be with you. Yes, Toby, good night.”
The boys’ faces disappear in the cloud of sniggering dust. It’s not the first time he’s left, unwelcome.
The taxi driver guffaws a touch too. The car bounces through the necklace of villages and Toby deals with the expectorant on his head.
Dawn rises over the canals. A sermon plays.
A Cleopatra. Burps of bean, beer, buffalo butter.
The bank: drowsy beasts, tired machines, a mawkish caste of cleaners, merchants and vendors.
He steps onto the busy boat. Toby drapes his arms over the railing. The glossy bronze Nile takes the dawn sky and the silhouette of the mountains, flaked like skin. The air is cool — low guttural whispers and glow of cigarettes, the touch of shoulders and feet.
Feluccas are moored around the flotels.
“Remember? Me, hammam?”
He stumbles to Habbeeland, ducks through the smile. Mr. Habbee genuflects on his prayer rug, his white, knit cap kissing the ground, pudgy hands fingering his worry beads. Toby trudges up the stairs, collapses, secure in bed.
The fan beats above. No cooler. He rolls onto the concrete floor, searching for a cool place, somewhere the heat will forget. It’s futile — shower and sleep, shower and sleep, wet sheets of water.
Flip-flops slap in the heart of the hotel. A broom knocks in a corner. A mop slithers across the floor. Tea pours, sugar stirs. An iron passes over one of Habbee’s shirts. Only with handshakes and leaflets do more guests come. The fan curdles the air.
Toby’s eyes weal in the heat. Habbeeland’s flat concrete roof collects the light. Ahmed cooks an omelet over a gas ring. Toby wants to challenge him but settles for courtesy. “Salaam, salaam.”
Ahmed says nothing, concentrates on the bubbling omelet, fiddles with opening a baguette. He brews tea in a copper kettle and decants into two fluted glasses loaded with slugs of sugar and mint. He gestures. “Breakfast included.”
Toby happily sups. Toby chews the eggs, flicks parsley through his teeth, crunches onion and crust. Ahmed squats on his haunches, knees in his armpits, his sober face between his legs.
“Tired?” Toby asks between a mouthful of omelet and tea.
Ahmed gyrates his arms and smiles. “Swimming wake up. Swimming cool down.”
“Dancing in Nile. Nile party.”
Ahmed reaches out to the gas ring, holds his hand over the flame, steadily, unflinchingly. It neither singes nor sizzles. Ahmed grimaces and repeats the trick with the other hand and each foot, each digit emerging clean from the flame. Even fire is cold here. Under this sun. Ahmed makes no remark though he has provoked fear in Toby. What kind of boy is he?
“You hire felucca. Cheap price.”
“I can’t, Ahmed —”
“You not like swimming?” Ahmed stabs at Toby’s shoulder. His request is more threat than command.
“Only friend with felucca. Swimming cools mind, wakes soul. You not say?”
Ahmed pushes into Toby’s private space.
“Perfect man for job, Monsieur!”
He pushes Toby off his haunches. But Ahmed’s hand pulls him up, clasps and shakes.
Toby drops to his torrid chamber. Happy monsieur.
Toby cannot stop Ahmed from hurting himself. Can he stop Ahmed from hurting him?
The song of water. Vivid palmerie and dun hills. The felucca crews chat under their lowered sails, tents for tea and cards.
The captain walks over the moored feluccas, rocking like floating footprints. He wipes his hands on his bare chest, strikes Toby’s hand, assures him. The boys chatter. No price.
The sailor hugs the rudder, cradles the ropes. They drift, testing the wind, turning upriver. Nile sprays the gunwales.
His arm dips in the water that knits over his hands. Henna. Bracelets. The wind weakens.
Toby follows Ahmed, plunging. They crawl aboard, start again. The Nile rushes over him like a cape.
They wedge a little closer to Banana Island. The felucca thuds on the muddy shore. Toby follow a muddy track built over the muddy plantation of mango.
Disenchanted tourists in hiking boots are ordering from a juice shack.
A man pours the mango slush from a sarcophagus-like deep freeze. Alabaster frost forms on the glasses, snow. Toby smacks his lips and chugs the slurry. It’s Nirvana.
Toby joyrides on fructose.
The boys don’t talk. Silence.
Until Ahmed burns his hair, parts of his mustache, his fingernails.
The captain punches Ahmed and shouts.
Ahmed scowls in umbrage.
Toby yells at the pyro too, but he’s afraid when he looks into those lucid eyes behind swatches of black hair.
Toby jumps. It’s not that far.
The felucca lingers. Ahmed and the captain fight on deck. Ahmed’s feet and hands are blistered, burnt.
The swim is a pull to the sandstone steps up the embankment. More sandstone delineates Karnack. Columns of glyphs cast solid shadows in the sunlight.
Toby smoothes his pate, hiccups Nile.
Do-you-like-Egyptian-man soon bids for his bones.
Surely he’s curious, knowing men are patient, wily dogs. Toby isn’t much different from Spot.
Habbeeland is no solace.
Even with a locked door Toby’s a target.
Habbee rubs the door, whispers. “Sign guestbook, Monsieur?”
Then he changes tact. “Excursion? Valley of Kings? Donkey ride? For you.”
“Please, Mr. Habbee!” Toby moans.
Habbee huffs outside.
The room is a scorching false friend.
Nina’s out there, on bivouac in the extinct past of the white man’s prefix: club, mess, flunky, uniform, regiment, mascot, the paperwork of the colonial army, in the bush assessing, surveying, sapping, contracting.
“Yes, Mr. Habbee. Yes, a donkey ride will be quite fine.” That’s the price for dreamtime.
A hurricane lamp flickering with Nina’s machinations, her wick indefatigable, night and day. She emerges from the underworld in a flood. Toby is swept away by the odious water of the Nile. He’s restless. The water is rising. All the transport is submerged. He files for transfer and enters a cell, half-filled with water. He rattles his can, shouts, plashes in the rising water, flesh soaked from the bones of night.
Habbee knocks and pleads.
Toby steps from the cell, thirsty.
The light’s pleasant rays permeate the hall. The donkeys wheeze and the guide coughs in the motes of morning dust below. Habbee shuttles Toby out the smile, onto a kind beast. The guide slaps its quarters and Toby is off, jogging down the alley, on the trot to the Nile, already like a brother, one of four rivers flowing from Paradise, a mirrored ribbon under the tremulous dawn eating the stars.
They pass villages, fields, decapitated statuary and vandalized shrines, rice and palm, a rugged town on the foot of the squat, sharp spires of rock. Banana moon hovers like a slice of mango.
Boys rise from behind rocks to hock alabaster and papyrus.
The guide slaps his donkey with a quirt, “Good donkey, good donkey for you.”
The boys shrink away.
The beasts are surefooted on the switchbacks. The colors turn from cinnabar to periwinkle, rose to ochre, evaporate into the escarpment. The rocks refocus the solar brightness.
Toby squints though the felt crosshatch of donkey ears. The cadence of the good donkey rises with the grade.
The sky pulses with vultures, hawks, storks, ibis. Jackals scatter. Scarabs scuttle. Hippos dance on the stony desert. Chains of camels carry slabs of salt. Ostrich play slaves and raiders. Black plastic bags (goats) cluster around brush and dry grass. The goats swarm, sometimes rise and plague the skies. They intermingle with the sand, graze for plastic bucket, jug, hose.
The pass is slim. Toby must slither through before he can turn back. Ahead and below is the dry Valley of Kings meeting the Nile’s obese limit.
The guide loosens a bundle of kindling from his saddle. He releases a teapot and plastic flask of water. He stoops at a black hearth.
“Walk from here.” He nods at the badlands. He lights palm fiber and blows. Flame builds in the nest. “Path, yes, just down. Good donkey stay with me. Donkey ride is riding and walking, Monsieur.”
Toby hops off his sturdy beast, paces around the kettle. A gradual curious drift takes him to the valley’s lip.
Rocks rolls with his toes. He tumbles down spires of rock, scrambles down the loose crumbly walls, careens through chasms of dust and thorns, drops, weaves down into the canyon. Chips of gravel turn under his feet.
Voices rebound around the rock. Some people are rappelling into the canyon. Donkeys huddle around the rim. Filaments of smoke etch the brightness.
He finds the asphalt parking lot and adjacent visitor center in the bottom of the canyon. Ranks of air-conditioned coaches drip coolant. Guides in turbans, robes and aviator eyewear shepherd the flocks. The hot, suffering tourists longingly stare at their coaches.
Signs point helter-skelter to the tombs. Deep tunnels dive into the rock, apertures to the cool dynastic chambers. Catacombs are the domain of swallows, wasps, beetles, kings.
A friend, baksheesh, turns on the lights.
The hieroglyphs are protected by sheets of Plexiglas. No one may rewrite the evocation of the king of kings, his curriculum vitae of wealth, temples and deeds. No mummies, treasure, barks or provisions. The Egyptologists have left only the architecture of tribute: arches, pillars, sarcophagi, chisel-marks in the rock, false passages, scarred doors.
Toby tumbles from tomb to tomb, like a die, in the cup, out of the cup. At a spigot at the visitor center Toby soaks a handkerchief, slakes his overwhelming thirst.
He climbs from the canyon floor through the garden of stone.
The guide sits at the rim. Bands of donkeys and men squat in the sun, slap the dust with their hooves and hands. The guide shakes out the tea leaves, reloads.
“Like Valley of Kings?”
“No like treasures?”
“No treasure. Howard took it all.”
“Treasure for government.”
“It’s graves. Fancy ones. But graves. Egypt sells its dead.”
“Ah, but not Muslim dead. So it’s OK.” The guide rouses the donkeys from the pods of rock.
A spine radiates from the star of hills. The Temple of Ptolomy shimmers below.
“Good donkey, quality donkey.” The guide soothes the beasts before asking, “Donkey you like?”
“Oh yeah, good donkey.”
“Bad donkey too. Nothing like bad donkey.”
“But this donkey’s good.”
“My good friend, you no bad donkey. Bad donkey fall into tomb. Bad donkey hurt. Bad donkey cost money. Bad donkey no compensation from Ministry of Antiquities.”
They thread to the grandiose Temple of Ptolomy.
At the perimeter Toby tethers his amiable beast. Souvenir shacks brim with postcards and trinkets. Obligatory parking lot and visitor center.
Someone taps Toby on the shoulder.
“Senore, photo? Red button?” The Italian’s green like olive oil. Shell necklaces shake around his neck. White teeth.
Toby takes the heavy camera. frames the shacks, buses, ramps of the temple. The aperture clicks once. He likes it.
“Keep on walking,” Toby says.
He crops the man’s body, the buses. He leaves only sunburned feet, half a face. He brings the tourist into the foreground, soaks him in the mid-ground of tourists, men and women dressed in almost nothing.
Total cover is the answer.
He shoots the galleries, columns, piedmont, stairs and statues, all with a bit of the Italian tourist on the negative, a finger, a hair, sunglasses, something to marvel.
Toby soon returns, his back warm from the Italian’s slaps of gratitude.
The donkey ruminates on a piece of desiccated cactus. It solemnly chews the weed. And refuses to budge.
The guide kicks it in the gonads. “Bad donkey! Bad! Donkey bad!”
The donkey wheezes.
The guide bows elaborately.
A cry denatures the air.
Ahmed’s shadow stalks in the escarpment above. The band is nestled in the rocks, unmistakable, brooding. They flank the temple’s premises. Ahmed and his friends are armed with serrated palm fronds, bandoleers of coconuts and slings.
The rocks hum into the parking lot. The band scream in the background. The tourists look at one another curiously. Stones ping off buses, ricochet. They begin to smack with accuracy. Hats, fans, lotions, cameras, sandals scrimmage to safety, the temple, the buses, the plaza. A barrage cuts through the air.
A few tourists take the ordnance between the eyes and fall like statuary.
Coconut mortars are lobbed from a cliff.
Security and merchants rush out from the shacks and the visitor center. The black geckos storm the heights. Ahmed’s boys greet the easy targets with a fusillade, grinning like shepherds behind their scarves. Rocks crackle in the parking lot.
The donkeys catch the stones too. Toby leapfrogs his startled animal.
Toby and his guide trot to safety away from the pandemonium.
The donkey sweats between Toby’s legs as they gain on the green net of fields.
“Every week. Attacks. Village boys,” the guide says. “Anger here. For no Mubarek, no tourist. No good for Egypt.”
Everything is calm in the searing heat. Except for sirens and shouts from the plaza, somber and heavy.
“Stop at papyrus house so you buy souvenir for mother in your country, yes?”
“No!” Good donkey jolts the breath out his windpipe.
“No tour of valley without papyrus.”
A cinderblock building rests among the fields. Papyrus house.
“Just to look?”
“Good donkey, go home.” Toby murmurs into the beast’s velvet ears.
Cranes and spoonbills shiver from the trees. Sheep and goats bleat at the wells.
Toby sorely dismounts. He tips the guide as a child waters the friendly fellows. He feels sick about Ahmed.
Near the ferry a group of young boys in dirty, drooping underwear swim with water buffalo, their enormous charges. Innocence can’t last.
Toby boards the chugging wreck. He sits under the awning on a hard bench, depleted — helium over terra infirma.
A teahouse patio. Highballs of hibiscus tea. He sits at a table, smokes and swallows.
A man says, “Woman’s drink. Bad for your dick.”
He packs his kit with resolve. Forget Karnack and Thebes. He tabulates baksheesh for Habbee’s boys. He adds a cryptic autograph to the register.
Toby walks for the last time through the sordid grimace. From Luxor’s central roundabout, he identifies a bus northwards.
“Port Said,” says the chauffeur standing on the corrugated rubber steps.
He edges past the glowing cabin displays, settles into the seat, washes his hand with proffered scent. He focuses on the hopeless air-conditioning jets.
The mercurial, malevolent boy stands in the sun. Scratched and bludgeoned Ahmed gawks at the bus. He jumps up to the windows, his swollen eyes spying Toby tucked away behind the tinted windows. He waves.
Toby waves back guiltily. He doesn’t get up. “I have money, I can escape,” he admits.
Ahmed has his sling and his cunning. He’s stuck in the village. He has no money. And no possibilities. And Toby fears him.
He scampers out of view, intent, tense.
Commotion on the roof.
Ahmed is thrown to the ground like unwanted luggage. Epithets decay into a skirmish of fists. The chauffeur delivers a solid jab, a hook and a hook. Ahmed is out lying in the oily grime.
The engine revs.
Ahmed revives in time to dent a window with a stone.
The bus guns the roundabout, turns down Luxor’s sole avenue. Steelish sunlight, scooters and donkeys weave behind.
Ahmed shouts and runs among them before vanishing in a scrum of police.
The chauffeur rolls his sleeves, adjusts the air, seat, coiffeur. The passengers follow the example, calibrate seats, clothes, belongings wrapped in black plastic bags (goats). The monitors flicker. No one seems curious and he can relax.
Relief buds in Toby’s stomach like an ice-cold narcotic. They sidle the canals churning with Nile water.
“Respirate,” he tells the hypothalamus. “Swallow. Sleep.”
When he wakes, the bus has stopped. A rolled Citroen lies on one side on the desert road. Three people sleep beside it; no assistance is deemed necessary.
The constellations are bright, near, present.
Cairo Vice plays on the monitors. The passengers cheer the detectives, grip their seats, applause between rounds of gunfire.
He dozes to the deep bass of the wheels, to the smell of a clandestinely smoked cigarette, inhaled under a spritz of perfume. The desert night embalms them.
The hydraulic hiss of the doors. Smoke from lamb and goat brochettes. Smoke from oil blistering in cauldrons. Smoke from refinery flares along the Suez.
“Cigaro, cigaro,” call the boys.
They shake their coins; sonic slinkies walk the aisles. A gentle rain of seeds, wafers and ash.
Again a lighter snaps.
A hand on Toby’s shoulder indicates the terminus.
Nights and Days
The bus opens like a present. The bonbons emerge at the mercy of the urchins and touts in the night cafes. Salt and petroleum colors. Tension — lethargic and greasy like melted chocolate. Gas lights glow over the circular square. Spectators wait for any miscalculation.
Toby licks the stupor from his face, studies a rank of snub-nosed Peugeot 405s. He plods down the rank for a reliable savior. Most drivers have only assembled a few passengers; it’s too early, so they aren’t going anywhere. Not enough buses have crossed the desert.
One man shakes Toby’s hand cordially. He says, “I’m Mohammed. I go Dahab from Bort Said.”
They agree to tea — spoon, sugar, backgammon pieces, tannin tea, elaborate chocolate croissants.
“Sinai nice, very nice. We find bassengers for nice blace,” he intones. Mohammed touches his tight, gray hair. “Car is original. Everyone know in Bort Said that Mohammed goes to Masara but first Sinai. No worry. Where you like, my friend?”
Toby stares, at the verge of consciousness.
“Rest, tea, I find,” says Mohammed, vanishing into the circus.
The cafés are decorated with awnings and tubs of oleander. Displays of sweets and pastries buzz with flies. Customers intermingle.
“Cigaro, cigaro,” call the boys, jangling their accordions of coins.
A slab of almond nougat is the antidote.
The illicit world beckons with a hint in the eyes: any word is available in Port Said, the city an old grommet punched into the dust.
Toby squanders nothing and tempts no one as first light pitches into the circus.
Many passengers are assembled around the 405. At Mohammed’s word, they plunge into the three long rows of seats.
Toby shares the front seat with a modern man (button-down and slacks). The half of seat coils and curls under his thighs.
They sputter away from the belabored buildings, pass through the no zone of equipment yards, storage drums, refineries and shipyards. A toxic mist colors the air in pale-hued layers.
The taxi ramps up the canal and scoots onto a flat-bottomed ferry.
It crosses the lavender sky.
Ships park on the horizon. Pungent iron-red saltpans are studded with flamingo. The ships gain in volume, buttress the sky, the continents where they kiss.
Spars of mountain tack down the peninsula. They reach for the sun, which lifts its kind early rays onto the sheer rock sails. Gnarly clumps of weed and thorn spike the road.
Toby is hunched over the dash as the car hurdles down the black tarmac, curves inexorably inland, chases the mountains.
The desert crinkles and tingles. Like skin.
The taxi abruptly halts at a roadside shack — garbage, cars, dogs, a functional propane ring. Hunger pullulates in everyone.
Toby slurps a plate of beans, sours them with pickled lime, spices them with harissa.
Mohammed picks a tart desert fruit that tastes like mustard from a desiccated vine near the shack.
It’s acrid and terrible.
Toby’s feet rest in the blancmange sand. The heat’s coming like scorched milk. He fishes around for a wrinkled pack of Cleopatras, fiddles for a light and basks in the smoke-like sounds.
The desert feigns innocence and mercy. The desert is fey and coquettish. The desert is trite and sly. The desert rules over gods and men. The desert offers sanctuary to those that join the tribes. The desert is culture’s smuggler. Religions, peoples, songs, philosophies journey across the desert. Neither ladders nor doors nor walls confine anyone, a labyrinth without shelter. It glimmers with the scimitars and shields of a fallen army, with tanks and armaments.
The vehicle rides low for the blow to come. The giant hairdryer runs for hours through the escalating, dizzy degrees of cruel sun. Ticks in thermometer match clicks in tachometer. Everyone unbuttons modestly.
Khaki taxis glint like stars on the road. The hairdryer doesn’t abate.
A settlement of houses, scrubbed, calcite teeth among the minarets. The taxi slows on a gravel lot, another roadside stop, and they quench their brittle thirst. Before moving on.
Toby gapes like a croc, snaps at the scent of blood, the blood gurgling in his mouth somewhere around his tooth.
Low-staked tents of Bedouin pock the landscape, as harsh and unforgiving as the Koran, fortifying their love of God like ice. The plum of moon, dusty, suspended, a negative of the night, is waiting to be pushed through their lips. Tassels, mirrors and Muslim saints hypnotically swing against the windscreen.
Mohammed squints, concentrates on the Sinai, urges the lion to its destination, its mascot mauling the air, vulnerable to a thorn in the last minutes.
The car presses onward, the thorn massaging out the air.
The Gulf of Aquaba’s meniscus is near — the tapestry of reefs, the currents, the mountains hence, Mecca, Medina, Wahhabi scrub.
Wicker bungalows are scattered on the sand. Along the bay there are encampments of mud hotels, white-washed rooms, a strip of shacks, garages, restaurants. Creeds, sexes and nations rendezvous in Dahab. For freedom from the mores of brotherhood, for a taste of sex. For budget travelers in Dahab for little jars of beer and grass and dips in the gulf.
Toby tramps from the taxi. The beach is covered in Scandinavians broiling in the noonday sun.
The low-key Star of Dahab. Two rows of blue and white rooms at the end of the paved road, a scatter of plastic bottles, Styrofoam and shells. Toby registers.
At the Star’s summer kitchen, he swallows liter after liter of yogurt, honey and tea, anything after the Sinai blow dry. He partly recovers at the reef’s shallows, sips the sea, rides the waves of rehydration, gargles salts, frolics at the sight, smell and taste.
Toby passes out in the mud-walled shadows, somehow later the beach under the web of stars.
Samah brings him a blanket. Samah, apple-hipped, pencil-mustachioed Nubian help, man of all trades from Mansura. Samah keeps the key to Toby’s room, fetches without complaint.
Toby is enfeebled by the spigot of Samah’s gentle ways and good will, soap substituting for sand.
Samah arrives with buckets of cheer. Samah fawns over his every move, and for a moment he is magnificent. He scoops the sun up like a basketball, dunks, swishes and stuffs the solar basket, the hot flaring dimples of the sun lingering on his fingertips.
The sun loops across the sky, Samah rallying and volleying through the days, accomplishing every one of Toby’s movements in his stead —washing his parts, retrieving something from his forgotten room, bringing meals, a lost brother of unceasing servitude proffering towel or plastic sandals and mask.
Toby drifts over the reef. He swims down into the spectacle of the sea: anchoring himself for a breath to the cliffs of life. Sunlight gentles through the effervescent soup, where Samah would sink since he cannot swim.
One tape deck and berated amplifier complete the Star of Dahab sound system; it crackles through the night.
The manager fusses over his clique of hipsters, posted to Dahab where their superiors cannot watch them: smoking, kissing, dancing, fooling around, testing the resort’s waters.
Guests smoke, squint out from the thatch, rest for pancakes and ice cream. Some slip along the strip for alcohol and the gregarious foreign women. The bony local men are marooned in the torpor — an outpost of desire. Progressive western women select from the eligible Egyptian studs: dive guides, helicopter and fighter pilots, Amsterdam coffee shop owners, businessmen, children of insider’s Egypt. They’re stranded on the reef, human flotsam washed ashore.
Mecca is opposite, across the Gulf of Aquabba, hidden behind the range of mountains. The hot desert wind has chased the vapor from the horizon. Sacred flecks of the black stone emboss their skin.
A luxurious voice calls from one of the domed wicker beach bungalows.
“You’re the one they call Toby, aren’t you?”
He nods from his cocoon of blanket and sand.
A door creaks open. A face swaddled in scarves, offset with gold hoops. Candlelight falls on a tan female face.
“You’ve found your home, haven’t you? Come inside and tell me.”
Toby wiggles over in his blanket and inches through the door. Nag Champa burns in the interior slashed with slivers of light.
“The crystals tell me.” She empties a kerchief of quartz. “See? Nothing can be wrong here.”
“They sparkle because of the light.”
“That’s why I’m here. I’m rewarded.” She points to the shadows.
Behind a curtain, a pair of aqua eyes.
“My sad tale has a happy ending, at last.”
A hand dances on hers.
Mohammed grunts through the silk curtain.
Sarah reaches for a jar stuffed with kif. Pungent smoke soon fills the bungalow. The sativa tastes of wadi, like dung, sun, aquifer. The crystals in Sarah’s lap are smoky too. The weed permits a smile. Then laughs. They enter the discourse of friendship, barter to reveal the mask and spirit.
Mohammed speaks, mixing Arabic and French.
Sarah translates between gaps in the ululating narrative: how many camels, how many donkeys, how many goats, how many wells; the young wife, the young bride that cannot have children, her guts scarred by circumcision; Mohammed’s sadness, his recluse, the bottle; God’s grace of a child; now new love with new woman, new second wife in marriage. The odd couple smiles at one another.
Mohammed, first to eat, first to speak, leans into the shadows,
“My tale is different,” she says. “It starts in Switzerland, in Geneva. I was young and a beautiful stranger asked me to marry him. I did not think of his reasons. I assented, and as becomes marriage, we had a child, my husband always busy with his life while I mothered and cared, not thinking he might have a secret. But he did have a secret. Of men, imagine! And drugs, something he couldn’t keep from me. Now if your husband is a junkie you don’t expect much of a sex life. If he is gay, then even less. And I suffered, even as I took lovers. I wanted him, my beautiful husband, but he belonged to men and junk. I was complicit too. I traveled from Kabul to Geneva on his behalf, my pack filled with heroine. It was my gesture of love, my way to keep him mine.
“Long ago in India I had a dream. I would meet a man from the desert. With blue eyes. I have met that man — Mohammad, show Toby your eyes.”
The date-colored Bedouin leans into the tight circle and opens his lapis lazuli eyes, crystalline as the sea.
“From the French. The legionnaires — And look at his hands.”
Together, tools, two vices, printless and polished. Mohammed grins. Two stumps fill each quadrant of his mouth clicking with tongue.
“Love is good. Mohammed has gone back to his wife, asked her permission for a second wife. And she has consented.”
Satisfaction beams from their faces.
Agog with fatigue, Toby wiggles back to his nest of pillows on the sand, dreams of his own blue-eyed desert, his dirigible casting a shadow over the sand, searching for Nina.
Dawn’s wind, scented like slave and spice ships.
Toby takes his morning baptism over the reef. He squats over the continental shelf. Tuna and snail. Squid and eel. Porpoise and sardine. Grouper and polyp. Seahorse and clam. Toby is the curious corpse with a snorkel in its mouth.
Samah waits onshore.
The smoke smells like camel dung, charcoal and coffee. Someone perpetually fingers a bone, grass from the Bedouin, hashish too. Bored, Toby makes a tour around the hemisphere of bay, trolls the strip, mostly peddlers and merchants, false friends of this rose-faced nut. At first repulsed, he blisses out on the congregation of travelers. But he’s too hysterically psychoactive to participate. The cushions, fountain, candles, menu, music, much less a conversation are too much.
The sea and desert hem him in, Dahab like a cosmic slop, serene days and nights as deadly, innocuous, a potent nothingness of careening from camp to camp, looking for the faces that stay and don’t, whisked onward by the jets passing overhead, going that way, coming this, Dahab only good for so long.
Toby fades into the daub walls of the Star. He hears mention of Cairo, to which he says, “I’ll go any night.”
“Tamir is ready,” someone says, pointing to a leathery muscle-bound fellow hidden behind a pair of sunglasses.
Tamir isn’t ready. Tamir doesn’t even know when he’s going.
“Bay for betrol,” the manager suggests later.
Tamir still isn’t going.
Another person nods. “Leave our camp for us, let Tamir take you. Sarah is gone now. Sarah’s gone with Mohammed.” This is new information. Somehow in the apathy of Dahab Toby missed her departure. Frenetic, strung-out energy and secret, collaborative smiles mark the days that fix his body here.
He takes her empty wicker bungalow. Shells are planted in the sand. Traces: shredded scarves, candle wax and hair, her mask and snorkel. His mind becomes a chrysalis, a pupa, in its center. He waits for the wind to blow him into the clouds but there are no clouds above Dahab, nothing but calluses, salt and sand.
Only Samah seems to move: Samah holds towel, Samah brings pancakes, Samah arranges pillow, blanket.
“Talk to other Tamir. It’s his Jeep,” a resident of the Star opines.
But it isn’t easy. There are many Tamirs: Tamir One, Tamir Two, Tamir Three in Roots of Dahab. Who is Tamir? Everyone and no one. Tamir is out on the reef, like Jacques Cousteau, helping Italians find conch shells and chunks of coral for their bathroom shelves.
“Tamir is going, now’s your chance to leave us.”
He listens through the wicker.
The voice speaks in a tone that infers a command. Toby is another species speaking another language — Nazarene sniffing ass, in heat, needing a walk, with worms.
Indeed, Tamir is filling his jeep with fins, flotation jackets, weight belts, spear guns, wetsuits, tanks, regulators. Tamir One, aviator shades and thick henna curls, like a Tontons Macoute, chooses among supplicants. Only Tamir Two and Toby have enough money to win a place in the Jeep that has neither doors nor windscreen.
Tamir One guns the engine, spins off for fuel, spins back, hails them, Toby hands over some money to Samah, something he’s wanted all this time but never dared ask.
He’s expunged Toby so well. Toby hasn’t even noticed how ideal it has been, how his equilibrium has returned to an approximation of normal saturated with waves and drugs.
Sand chases itself across the road. Night is coming, not black but blue, as Tamir One moves the Jeep along the road. It skids and scuds. Tamir Two busily produces spliffs from a bag.
They cross the cobalt night, azure desert and navy mountains, slowing, slowing as each little cone of grass disappears into the journey, the moon their compass as they drive without headlights, baiting the celestial bear. Embers trail behind them, cascade into the blue flotilla of stone ships. Wind buffets the cockpit. Cold seeps into their bones.
Toby chatters in his cotton garb, waiting for the dawn, for the Suez, for an indication of Cairo.
If he only had splurged on real transport, the asylum of a bus!
He crouches among the fins and gear, tries to find any nook untouched by the cold fingers of wind. Tamir One and Two gesture among themselves, the cockpit deafening with noise, underwater. They’re neither friendly nor hostile. Toby rifles in his bag and swabs himself with clothing, puts on a scuba mask to relieve his smarting, frozen eyes, considers a wetsuit among the dive gear.
The neoprene carcass is cold and clammy. Pissing in it warms it up. Tamir One and Two like the idea of the masks, and they want to mount a large caliber octopus in the back of the Jeep for Zem Zem, hobbling the camel brigades.
It’s even colder when the sun tints the sky with amethyst long before the majesty of the great sizzling orb.
Treads gnaw the pavement. Prides of ships. Pumps suck oil from the earth. UN observation personnel monitor the wasteland. Jets after-burn in the sky, dawn patrols flying from air force bases that ring Cairo. Above the expressway the lamps dim.
Tamir One exhales, hands the gurgling regulator to Tamir Two. Fields of golden high-rise condos rise like wheat, dangling laundry and sprouting aerials.
Toby looks past the lenses of Tamir One’s sunglasses, sees the ominous sunken eyes. “No idea. The Ciao?”
“He’s cool. He can stay with me,” says Tamir Two, craven, a hunch decorated with a snag of nose, ebony eyes and sinewy limbs.
“But —” Tamir One sweats at the obligation.
“Stay with me.” Tamir Two isn’t too earnest.
“Betrol?” One protests.
“Don’t worry about it.” Two slurs hospitably. “You’re guest in my country. I will show you my Cairo. You shall see who we are.”
The Jeep glides through intersections. Traffic merges in a terse agreement of horns. Neither border nor break nor square. Cairo materializes, a spectral city of catacombs.
“Beople,” says Tamir Two, “Beople are everywhere in Cairo.”
Indeed they are.
They dog-leg into some slums, stop at one cinder building.
Tamir One asks for money.
“For betrol,” he says as he steps into the stink and waste where the paved road, phone, gas and government end. Tradition is alive in the alley. Illegal building pushes aside the burning, rancid garbage of the public dump and adds to the city as it has for century upon century. Tradition has returned to the metropolis from where it was once cast in the name of development.
“Want to do something bad?” asks Two.
They study the scene in the jacked-up Jeep and wait for One’s business to conclude. The slum inhabitants churn around them, slapping children, hitting wives, shouting and screaming, crying and grunting.
“How bad?” He’s inquisitive. Hesitant.
They prop their masks on their dusty brows.
Tamir Two whispers; he jabs his arms flutters his eyes pretends to sleep. Little pats of mud form around his mouth.
“Done something like that. Didn’t work.”
They sweat in the sun and smog.
“Medicine doesn’t work. Or it does work, so perfect that it is?”
Tamir One ducks out a doorway, moves through the oranges, detergent, bottles of propane, flat corn pancakes and heaps of onionskins. He hops in the Jeep and punches the engine. They move along stinking canals of excrement where kids swim and women wash the family clothes. The Jeep rejoins the paved road, the order is slightly better. A palpable, charged excitement fills the cockpit as Tamir One smiles about the quality of what he purchased.
They grind to a halt outside a pharmacy. Tamir Two returns with a paper bag filled with needles, prescription-free.
One unloads dive equipment. Two feebly helps bring in the gear into a marble foyer. A servile concierge contributes what he can. Toby rides the stuff up in the lift. Hoses wrap around his feet. Wetsuits, clammy like the skin of men, obstruct the way. The lift opens in a penthouse with a panorama of Heliopolis, suburb of nabobs and beys. Tamir One disarms the alarm, a series of chicken-like peeps.
Hushed air-conditioning floods the rooms, where everything is scintillating, sparkling, gold. Furniture, plates, mirrors, toilet, remote, cutlery, light switches, porcelain, crystal, lamps, plants, fountain, whatever object, it’s gaudy, glitzy and gold.
Two more boys soon appear, flushed and feverish.
Toby cleans up in the gold bathrooms, washes away the gold dirt.
The new arrivals are Tamirs: Three and Four. Everyone is frustratingly Tamir.
They sit on the gold furniture, channel surfing the gold channels on the gold TV. One hoots in the kitchen (gold counters, gold fridge), cooks up the shit, loads, taps and squirts. He brings a gold tray.
“Very bad. Like devil,” Two remarks.
Three calls, “We’re best — ”
And One sings, “And brightest — ”
“Of Cairo!” The Tamirs roar, raising their arms.
He’s nervous. “I’ve never shot up. Can I snort it?”
“Too late. It’s all in,” says One, calmed by the careful cooking ritual. The other Tamirs are tapping their veins for the flash. Their skin grows dry.
“Shoot three times and you’re addicted.” Four chimes.
“I just do it at weekends.” Three laughs. “What are they on about?”
It’s a very serious hobby. Everyone has their own syringe and hose. Three has many tracks in his arm, looks desperate and is the first to do it.
One helps Toby.
The receding heart.
He looses sight of the Tamirs. The syringe washes with blood. The cold rushes into him. He folds into the Tamirs crashed on the gold sofa and gold pillows. Tamir One extracts the needle. Blood seeps from the wound. Then he helps himself.
Toby pokes at the wound, doubting. His body purrs, whirs on its lowest setting, oscillates on the sensual drug. No pain. Only beauty.
A slurry of vomit wells in his mouth. He heaves chunks over the gold god, empties every last drop of liquid from his tract. It’s gold like his blood, two gold cats philandering in his arteries, clawing and so very sexy, knocking.
Midas rules the penthouse of iniquity. One has let Midas in and no Tamir can rout Midas once in the gold threshold. Midas peruses the house and perches over the gold toilet, his black wings in the gold mirror. He snorts over Toby’s shoulder and clicks his wings.
“I’m in fuck with you.”
Toby giggles. His vision collapses into a heap of cones and rods. He feels wet ejaculate in his dirty linen trousers but finds none. He struggles from his garments, barfing. His nerves celebrate; his body needs nothing, not sound, not movement, not touch, not language, not pain, not food.
Toby is shadow: Toby dull around the edges, Toby blissed on lassitude and pestered by the itch, refusing to go upward with Midas.
Tamir One warms him back to life with a hair dryer — perhaps kind, dependable Samah? The breath of Nina?
Midas has gold karabiners, gold crampons, gold test rope, gold chalk, everything to help Toby scale the reverie. The sweat around his neck forms a golden noose.
Toby’s ego breaks under the narcotic code. He’s in its amniotic refuge for days, like a bus, like water, deleting his soul to eternity. He cannot muster an escape as Midas comes and goes, rousts the Tamirs from their torpor for more, more of his cold gold liquid.
Midas sells Toby a golden nail, something from his smithery. Midas sells Toby his own soul in return for his body and life. It’s two for one with Midas. Midas turns his teeth into gold for good behavior.
Midas’s court in the gold apartment is open to fugitives, rebels and bandits. Midas smuggles his wares westward and changes small small price into big big price. Cairo is one stop on Midas’s payday.
Toby is the delivery boy and the goods have found their owners. There can be no end to the Tamirs dealing with Midas. He’s the transaction, the trips to the slums to scrounge for more, more Midas.
The Tamirs are ecstatic when they return to the gold shooting gallery, Toby its hostage. Tamir One drives in the Jeep, carousing the boulevards. From the gold penthouse, Toby stares through the gold oleander on the gold terrace. He’s multiplied. There. But going.
Nothing takes the edge off, not even Syrian hashish, smoked to ease the gap between push and flash.
They load Midas into the graduated plastic syringe and chase him through their veins, lost in junkie choreography. Three takes one drag, forgets to smoke and ignites his fingers. One spends hours raising his finger to his nose. Tamirs sit around the gold TV, draining the satellite, bored kidnappers.
The days turn until Toby is lost at sea, more unfortunate than Jonah.
Food arrives that no one wants. The Tamirs pick over it, dance around it as if inedible fire, then fall asleep. Two puts a mirror to Three’s mouth, for he is the most likely to fall into Midas’s clutches, and resumes the vigil. Four eats one bite of falafel. Two rocks on the gold shag carpet. One is peaking, almost dead. Yet he breaths, thanks to his land lung. No god seeks redress. Only Midas.
The channels flicker, barely transmitting, drugged.
Drool runs from everyone’s mouths and pins form in their eyes. Cooking, needles, injections. Without stopping.
The terranauts disappear upward, spheres, specks.
Many do not like to lose control. They don’t get high, or they get high to increase that feeling of control from the men in white coats in the clinic and parliament. A few fear control and they get high to know that chaos is the enemy of control and the world’s natural state. Each has its purpose and is unafraid of risks.
Boys know boys’ games like boys everywhere.
Tamirs are in love with one another, segregated from any available females, of whom they nothing about. Tamirs circle the urban hinterland. Tamirs populate the limbo between power, money and elites. Tamirs are mini-autocrats. Tamirs have no qualms about chaos.
Toby blurs among the Tamirs. It’s hard to breath, more difficult to think. Is he also Tamir? That’s his real name?
A familiar kind of mayhem comes from somewhere, the shrill voice, the taunt commands, someone rallying him from the upperworld, awful abandon.
A large bird attacks the boys, slicing them with her razor-impregnated feathers, a deadly dueling kite.
The Tamirs sprawl before her, quivering.
Of course it must be Nina.
Who else would return?
Did he not suspect she merely pretended to be dead on his journey here?
“I was alerted!”
She screeches between feathered strokes.
Toby anchors his perception in the kitchen tooling with some dimpled limes and a knife, juicing and diluting and adding sugar.
The bird flies to his outpost and curses.
“Get packed, for Christ’s sake. Tally-ho! Move, son, you’re slower than the dead.”
Toby dries his sticky, stinging hands in the toaster.
The Tamirs are battling with Nina but she’s too zippy.
Midas swoops out from the gold toilet, leaps from the gold terrace. He glides over Heliopolis, leaving a dazzling gold powder trail.
Toby hustles together his loot, cradles it in his leaky, bruised arms, leaves without courtesy.
The boys dodge the angry bird.
Nina assembles a bloody nest of Tamirs’ fingers, wiggling like caterpillars. She seeks Tamirs’ eyes for eggs.
What’s left of Toby walks out into the street and sunlight, reborn.
A taxi chauffeur doffs his cap.
“Monsieur,” he says.
The old sanctuary and its keeper open the door, and the taxi pulls away.
“Aerodrome,” he mutters, playing his last hand.
The boys push against the penthouse windows. They smear T-A-M-I-R with their bloody pens, the letters lost in empty eyes. They stab and shoot anywhere, carelessly aerating their blood. They aneurate, arrest, defenestrate into the avenue.
The bubbles pop.
Tamirs explode like carpets.
Midas watches, guardian djinn.
Nina misjudges the taxi, cartwheels into the road. She regathers and skirts in the window. She shakes her head of blood, preens her dusty, bloody gold feathers, plucks the razorblades from her wings.
She strokes Toby, cooing, “Dear, dear boy.”
He flickers in and out of consciousness down the highway.
Nina wheels her miserable piece of luggage into Departures. She hops into his bag, presents his documents, corrects his pellucid speech.
Nina scrawls his signature. She buys a bottle of Johnny in the duty-free. Nina untwists the cap and he guzzles the hot, spicy whisky at the airport bar. A series of coffees at least remind him of time. Nina marches around him until the flight is called.
Nina shepherds him through customs, security, hoists him like a carcass in a savannah tree. He only has to step on the plane.
She turns into a golden idol, his souvenir from Egypt, pinned to his bag.
The captain drops the throttle, adjusts his braided cap, lowers the flaps, hums down the tongue of runway. The ship’s cone rises, past the cascades of light towards the sun, and peels off the tarmac.
Author’s note of February 7, 2011
I struck out for Egypt in August of 1994 and my travelogue from that hot month forms the basis for this story that follows the route from Cairo to Luxor to Dahab and back to Cairo. I must have been about 23 at the time, midway in a summer of Balkan adventures and hop picking in Herefordshire, and by the time I arrived in Cairo I was recovering from a heavy excursion into psychedelics along the sandy banks of the Danube. Some of that mood I try to bring forth in this story, along with themes of ancestors, ritual, transformations, the limits of consciousness, and other shortcuts to God. I didn’t fear what warren I might end up in, for both sides of my family had spent large amounts of time in Libya, Sudan, Lebanon, and Egypt from the 30s to the 70s. By the 80s we were desperate for the oasis of a particular Palestinian shop in Houston, Yasser smiling benignly upon the sheets of Syrian apricot paste that I adored. You could taste the flies in that primitive fruit roll-up.
But I do depart from my experiences in this story, and some of that was a delayed reaction to 9/11 and the disabling of my former ease and willingness to be led astray, even in very secular countries like Morocco or Turkey, where events could quickly take on another dimension, sometimes threatening, most often benign. I understood anger, why you would turn your back or pick up your shoe. What emerged as fiction as I grappled with many different drafts over the years was a mock attack on the Temple of Ptomoly that occurred not long after my own visit. I prefer to leave the incident in here and refer to the slippage of time that is our biased collective memory.
Now, as Egypt purges itself of the Mubareks, I ask myself why would I would implicate and burden a character with what is an unfair transformation of his anger and his poverty? He’s innocent, a simple soul and the best of what Egypt offers. I would put it down to misrepresenting my own fantasies that any real character or event. Certainly, we don’t have to witness to violent events to be a valid witness of everyday life and the transformations that are happening so quickly in our societies that we can hardly keep up with what’s real, what’s noise. At the end of this account, the horror is the cynical hedonism destroying its elites, even back in 1994 when Mubarek was a spry seventy, so one can only imagine how twisted could the corruption and amorality at the top of Egyptian society become since then. Or maybe it’s just stayed the same, preserved with cold, dull eyes. Until now.
In releasing this nearly a decade and a half later, I apologize in advance for any echoes of Orientalism, Exocitism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Othering, or the Absurd that may appear here. I was a young man in the sway of Bulgakov, hungry for everything and every possibility, and maybe I took it too far. I admit it’s probably flawed and misrepresentative, the source material written in what was annotated in the Dissipationist Hypothetical Achiever Aloof Chauvinist’s Notebook. That is clearly one of the dangers of having too open a mind when pushing the limits of what, in essence, is tourism, and relying on the ease with which one can board a plane and forget it ever happened to you.
May peace, democracy, and prosperity return to all the Middle East in the very near future.