Authors: Parker Bilal
From the Greek
meaning to uncover or reveal – to remove the veil;
the revelation of what was hidden from mankind;
the end of a long dark age ruled by corruption and dishonesty.
At first no one really noticed. Everyone was too busy with the daily struggle. Nobody had time to lift their eyes from the uneven road in front of them to look skywards for fear of stumbling. The lighting in that part of town was poor anyway and you had to keep your wits about you if you didn't want to get knocked down by an impatient driver. To make things worse, the sightings took place at night, when the street was one long vale of frustration: motorcycles popping, minibuses beeping, bicycle bells and sirens, vendors calling out their wares, horses protesting. There was no time to notice anything, least of all a figure perched high above the street.
The mysterious figure rarely showed itself in the same place more than once. It would appear high up on the corner of a building, or perched on the balustrade of a darkened balcony, with no explanation of how it got there, nor where it disappeared to when it went. â
' cried one woman. An angel. She fell to her knees, much to the amusement of onlookers on either side of the crowded street. Gruff men threw back their heads and laughed. But then someone else pointed and soon a whole crowd was peering up into the gloomy shadows of the jumbled walls high above, trying to make out what it was that seemed to be poised there, halfway between heaven and earth.
It was a bad time for anything out of the ordinary. Nerves were on edge, tempers frayed easily. The appearance of this âangel' had coincided with the murder of a number of young children in the area. How could anyone kill a child, people asked, and where were the police when you needed them? Three bodies had turned up so far, and every day brought the possibility of more.
The sighting of the angel was taken as a sign, that God had not abandoned them. A small group of devotees formed a loyal cult. They would meet every evening to hold a candlelit vigil on bended knees in front of the church, hands clutched together in supplication, praying for a miracle. As they waited, their eyes sought out any sign of movement above. Reports naturally varied. It was quite a slight figure some said, while others claimed it was tall. Some said it was as rigid as a statue, others swore that it had wings that glittered like silver or gold. It glowed as if it was burning.
âIt is a sign,' they whispered. âThings are going to change soon.'
âGood will prevail. Our suffering will come to an end.'
âWe will be released from this trial.'
The angel, many were heard to say, had been sent to protect the young ones in this dangerous time. Soon there were avid watchers posted on every corner, craning their necks to see if it would show. The word spread. Christians in particular took this as a message meant for them: an angel had descended from heaven to bring them comfort in these difficult times. To guide them through this trial of persecution. The newspapers and the radio stations chattered eagerly on the subject, with everyone adding their own interpretation of the facts. There were suggestions that it was a trick, a hoax, but no one could prove who or what might be behind it and nobody stepped forward to claim responsibility. Was it a government plot to take people's minds off the hardships? Or had the Israelis started putting hallucinogenic substances in the drinking water?
The sightings continued. Whenever it was spotted the message went out and within minutes a group of Christians would arrive, hands held together in prayer, rosaries pressed to their lips. They ignored the jeering, the obscenities and rotten vegetables thrown in their direction. The newspapers and television stations began to take an interest and soon the Angel of Imbaba was being discussed on chat shows and talked about in the papers.
And while there were those who saw the angel as a benevolent presence, a sign of God's protective hand, there were just as many who viewed it as a bad omen. Why had its appearance coincided with the murder of those young boys? What connection could there be between one event and the other? People became fearful of letting their children out of sight. The police, whose presence was rarely anything but scarce, made little effort to find the brutes responsible. The death of a child in these parts was hardly worthy of their attention. But this was different. The children were murdered, their bodies mutilated in the most awful way. Now if the child had been rich, it would have been another matter.
The weather was unusually hot for this time of year. The nights brought little relief since the temperature barely cooled down at all. People behaved like dogs, barking at the moon, going mad in the sun. Fights broke out between brothers, between people who had been friends for years. The neighbourhood was like a tinderbox, ready to explode at any minute. Over all of this the angel seemed to float, as if biding its time, waiting for what was to come.
The offices of Blue Ibis Tours were perched on a concrete ledge that constituted the third floor of a crumbling building downtown, a stone’s throw from Al-Ubra Square, named after the old opera house that once stood on that spot until it was burned down in the riots of January
and eventually replaced by a multi-storey car park. Blue Ibis flew tourists down to the Valley of the Kings on whirlwind tours of the hot and dusty resting places of long-dead pharaohs. They took them on camel treks into the Sinai Desert in the footsteps of Moses, before depositing them on a beach by the Red Sea where they could roast nicely for a few days and feed themselves on lavish buffets or dive in clear blue water among the coral reefs. The nights shook to the uninhibited pulse of dance music that provided them with the hedonistic lifestyles they associated with being on holiday. They ran them up and down the Nile in luxury boats with belly dancers and live folklore shows every evening. The food was all prepared to European standards so that nothing as inconvenient as indigestion might come between them and their once in a lifetime experience.
Makana learned most of this from a stack of brochures resting on the table next to the chair by the door, while he waited for Mr Farouk Faragalla to turn up for their appointment. He had plenty of time to study them because Mr Faragalla kept him waiting for over an hour. Makana was not in the best of moods to begin with, suspecting that he was wasting his time. He might even have left but for the fact that work had been slow, and that he was doing a favour for the son of an old friend.
Having gleaned a lifetime of information about the travel business, Makana tossed the brochure aside and kicked himself for being so soft-headed. Talal’s father had been a highly respected lawyer in the old days in Sudan, one of the few who dared to challenge the regime on a legal front, for which he paid a price. When his father died in prison, Talal and his mother fled to Cairo, where Makana had taken it upon himself to provide whatever help he could. Talal was a bright young man trying to make a life for himself in his adopted home. He wasn’t doing too badly and had turned himself into a respectable tourist guide and interpreter. He now unravelled the arcane mysteries of the pharaohs for eager visitors in Chinese and Spanish. Others did the same in Japanese, Russian and German. Curiosity about the Ancient Egyptians was unlimited. People came from all over the world. They saw the same mess that Makana saw, but they paid a lot more for it. Talal’s real problem was that he was a hopeless romantic. To begin with he secretly ached to be, of all things, a composer of classical music. It was an ambition Makana had not quite managed to grasp but he put it down to the boy having an Egyptian mother of a certain social class and no particular talents, channelling all her failed ambitions into her only son from an early age. His father’s death had brought mother and child closer together than was probably healthy, and so Talal was struggling. Being a tour guide was, as far as he was concerned, just a temporary station along the way to composing and conducting his own orchestra. Becoming an African Mozart seemed like an odd kind of ambition to Makana, but then again everyone needed a dream to hold on to.