Authors: Charles Benoit
“It’s hard to see how First Class can be much better.”
“It’s not. On Egyptian Air, First Class simply means they let you off the plane before the mobs,” he said, holding up a tangled and broken headset that he pulled from behind the small of his back.
“Why are you here? I mean, on this plane?”
The smile returned to Sergei’s face, his tightly trimmed goatee framing his even, white teeth. “I’m following you, Douglas, isn’t that obvious?”
“Following you. Trailing you. Staying in your back pocket. Keeping close tabs on you. Shadowing you. Ummm…” he said as he tapped his finger against his chin. “Those are the terms that come to my mind. Know any others?”
“Because Douglas, I like you. I had more fun in Casablanca when I was with you than I had had in years. You said it yourself, my old friends are quite strange, and, I assure you, quite dull. Captain Yehia is the most interesting and cultured of the lot. When you told me you were leaving for Cairo, just like that, I was impressed. I haven’t been around men like you in a long time and it brought back a lot of memories when I was more like you than, well, like me.”
“That still doesn’t explain why you’re following me.”
Sergei laughed. “Douglas, that’s really just a figure of speech. What I am doing, what I
to do, is see Cairo through the eyes of a new friend who has never seen the ancient temples, the medieval mosques or the quite modern watering holes. I know Cairo better than I know New York or London or Beijing. If you don’t mind the company of an old man, I could show you a good time.”
“That’s great for me, but what do you get out of it?” Doug said. He noticed his sleepy Arab seatmate weaving through the throng of people crowding the aisles like a department store on Christmas Eve, the flight attendants having long ago retreated to the aft kitchen to smoke and drink the flight away.
“What do I get? Ah, Douglas, you’d have to be my age to understand, really. I get the vicarious joy of experiencing this old city with fresh eyes. I get the pleasure of sharing with you the years and years of knowledge I have cultivated, the small teashops, the exotic nightclubs, and the perfect spots to take that once in a lifetime photo of a sunrise at the pyramids. And,” he added in the stage whisper he liked to use, “I get to spend more of the museum’s money.”
The large Arab man hovered above Sergei. “
,” he said placing a heavy hand on Sergei’s shoulder.
,” Sergei said to the man as he stood up, and then to Douglas “I’ll see you in the airport. It’s the most chaotic madhouse of a place so brace yourself for your first taste of third-world bureaucracy at its most refined. We’ll both be in the need for a drink afterwards. Where are you staying?”
“The Shepheard. Know it?”
“Of course. The old Shepheard was much more interesting, but they burned that down during the Suez affair. It’s on the Nile, or close to it. Good part of town. We can share a cab. I’ll be just down the road at the Sheraton,” he said as Doug’s seatmate wedged himself between the armrests. Doug noticed how happy Sergei looked, beaming like a schoolteacher on a long awaited field trip. “This will be so much fun, Douglas. I know you have work to do too, but I just know you can spare some time.”
“Definitely, Sergei. I’m glad you’re here,” Douglas said as Sergei weaved back through the crowd. And he meant it. There was something about Sergei that made Doug comfortable and confident. He was a gentleman all right, the most sophisticated man Doug had ever met. And yet he was so easy to talk to, not like the phony “gentlemen” in Pottsville like that manager at the bank or that guy who taught at the community college.
As the man continued to settle into his seat, holding up his broken headset and casting a suspicious look at him, Doug thought about what he would do in Cairo. Edna seemed pleased with his progress so far, even if he didn’t see any, and, like Aisha had said, as long as she was happy, enjoy the ride. He had a short list of people to talk to and an eager tour guide in Sergei. And who knows, he thought, maybe Aisha will show up. A month ago he had never been on a plane, now he was an hour out of Egypt. It wasn’t over yet, but Doug was sure this would be the best summer of his life.
Sergei was wrong about the airport. The government ministry in charge of updating the airport would have to make a lot of changes before it would be as organized and logical as a madhouse. There were “lines” that looked like the crush at the door of a Who concert, smoke from a thousand cigarettes, the smell of sweaty, unwashed bodies with breaths made toxic from strange foods, and stone-faced clerks who pounded their official stamps on the blank pages of his passport. Above it all, the mind-numbing din of everyone shouting to the person three feet away, the crackling PA announcing, in an impatient voice, messages intended only for those who understood Arabic, and the whole building acoustically designed to amplify it all and echo it back again and again. And then, when the mind could not absorb another sound, the call to prayer, filling the dingy terminal with ear-shattering reminders of piety, delivered in that same impatient tone.
And that was before he got to the baggage claim.
The airport’s one conveyer belt ran just thirty feet and every male passenger who had arrived at the airport in the past four hours was crowding in front of it, staring at the small door through which the battered collection of identical-looking boxes and suitcases circled endlessly. The female passengers stood towards the back, shouting encouragement and instructions to husbands and porters. Occasionally a body would force its way through the crowd and scramble for a piece of luggage that would stay just out of reach, disappearing through the door at the end of the belt, never to reappear. Overhead flowed a constant stream of suitcases as people in the front lines passed back what they thought looked somewhat familiar. On the fringes passengers opened and inspected contents, only to pass them back to the front when they decided that, no, they did not own that type of underwear.
After forty minutes of bobbing in the crowd, Doug noticed that some of the passengers from his flight were plowing their way through with their luggage, or someone’s luggage. He was taller than most so when his bag burst through the door, he was able to watch it glide along as he charted an intercept course. With his carry-on balanced on top, he held his bag above his head and swam upstream till he found a small clearing in front of the customs desks.
“American?” The customs man looked like everyone else he had seen so far in Egypt. Same bulky build, same three-pound eyebrows, same swarthy complexion, same five o’clock shadow, same Saddam Hussein mustache. In his rumpled uniform, with its dark sweat marks under the arms and the tightly knotted, crooked tie, he blended in with the porters, taxi drivers, and airline booking agents that swarmed around the baggage claim area. It was the large pistol and the oversized badge that made people obey him.
“Yes, American,” Doug said as he handed the man his passport; setting his carry-on bag on the counter.
The man flipped through the near-empty passport, pausing to reread Doug’s name several times. He handed Doug back the passport and pointed. “Not here. There. That man.” By a glass door stood one of the custom man’s many twin brothers. He read the first page of the passport, looking up at Doug several times as he did, and pointed to the door. Inside, a long table, with reams of forms stacked on one end, crowded the narrow office. Stale cigarette smoke hung from the ceiling along with a humming fluorescent light. Brothers number three and four sat motionless on metal chairs.
“Hi. The men outside told me to come in here,” Doug said.
The men stared at him, silent, the hum of the lights drowning out the chaos of baggage claim.
“I was told to come here,” Doug repeated in case they had been hypnotized by the drone. “I’m an American.”
One man held out his hand and Doug reached over to shake it. “Passport,” the man spat out, moving his hand to avoid touching Doug’s.
“Oh yeah, sorry. Here you go.”
The man took it and flipped through the same way his brothers had, reading his name several times. He said something to the other man in Arabic, who reached over to a clipboard thick with wrinkled papers. “Where are you arriving from?”
“Morocco. On the Egypt Air flight.”
The two men looked at each other, then at Doug. “Put your bags here,” the second man said as his partner came around the desk, still flipping through the passport. “This your luggage, correct?”
“Yup, that’s it. Just the two bags.”
“Your name is Douglas Pearce? From America?”
“Yes, that’s me.” The man behind the desk was unzipping every pocket on his black, nylon bag, peering inside and then spinning them around with a practiced hand.
“Why are you in Egypt?”
“Tourism, I guess. Is there a problem?”
Zip, peer, zip, spin. Zip, peer, zip, spin.
“No problem. How long will you stay in Egypt?”
Good question, Doug thought. “Ah, about a week or so.”
Zip, peer, zip, spin. Zip, peer, zip, spin.
“What do you bring with you to Egypt?”
Zip, peer, zip, spin. Zip.
“Just clothes and papers. Oh, and an ashtray I bought in Morocco.”
“Nope, that’s it.”
“Nothing?” he asked again, staring at Doug.
He smiled and nodded towards his partner behind the desk. Doug turned and saw his carry-on bag on the table. The man held open one of the side pockets by the zipper pull. He smiled at Doug, pointed to the pocket and then, with the flourish of a sidewalk magician, slowly pulled out a clear plastic bag, half filled with fine, white powder.
“Nothing?” the man said as he gripped Doug firmly by the wrists.
It was the gray meat with the flat bread again.
For breakfast it had been the gray meat with rice and last night, for dinner, it was the gray meat with what was probably potatoes. It had been the gray meat with every meal, although the three meals he missed due to vomiting and diarrhea might have offered lobster and steak, he couldn’t say for sure.
It wasn’t beef—that he had deduced by the second day—and it certainly wasn’t chicken. That left, he reasoned, goat, lamb, horse, dog, camel, and rat, none of which he had ever tried but any of which he felt were reasonable candidates for the gray meat. The size of the bones should have ruled out rat, but the greasy texture and musky flavor kept it in the running. Despite several days of eating little other than the bread, rice, and probable potatoes, the gray meat still looked and smelled as unappetizing as it had looked when he was offered his first jailhouse meal, over a week ago.
Between the illness, brought on, no doubt, by the one serving of gray meat he had thought he could stomach, and all the small meals, Doug had dropped the fat that he had built up since leaving high school. Two days ago he had looked lean and fit, today he looked emaciated and weak. The lack of sleep didn’t help. There was a constant echoing roar in the jail, all the words in Arabic, all the sounds produced by metal on metal, metal on concrete, metal on flesh, flesh on flesh.
But even if it had been peaceful he could have hoped for little sleep. He had spent all of his time in a windowless concrete space smaller than his hotel room in Casablanca. There was a bunk bed, taken right from every prison movie, and a ceramic tiled hole in the floor that served as a toilet. A small plastic bucket of water was kept full by a dripping pipe that poked through the wall, and this was used in lieu of toilet paper and for any other hygiene needs. A steel door with a grated window and no inside knob broke up the uniformity of the concrete walls. It was roomy for one, cozy for two, intimate for three, and home for Doug and eleven of his newest friends.
He had sat on the bed once his first day, but this had caused such a commotion that he never tried again. The four men that claimed each of the two beds guarded their territory like pit bulls and, by the smell, probably marked it the same way. There was the gut-turning stink of body odor that got worse every day, the poisonous smells produced as the gray meat worked its way through the bowels of his cellmates, and the pervasive smell of sweat-soaked concrete. But the smell that wafted up from the hole, a smell that Doug was certain carried diseases deadlier than the plague, a smell he was sure he could see, made it impossible to ever get comfortable.
True to the Pearce line, his beard grew in spotty and disheveled. He wore the khakis and polo shirt he had put on that morning at Aisha’s but they had taken his shoes and belt when they signed him in. He spent the day, like his roommates, sitting on the floor, back propped against the wall. At night, like the three others not squeezed on to the beds, he slept in the same position, his head balanced on his crossed arms.
It was his second full day, just before the vomiting started, when John Wayne spoke to him.
“I reckon you’re not from around these parts, are you pilgrim?” It was an excellent John Wayne with not even a hint of Arabic. “Abdoulrahim Abdulrazzaq,” he said, extending his hand. “Call me Abe.”
“Douglas Pearce. Call me Doug.” They shook hands and Abe slid down next to Doug. He was a good-looking man, even Doug could see that. He wore his thick, black hair short, and he needed a shave, but it only made his angular jaw seem more masculine. He had a young face and athletic build, but deep crow’s feet made his eyes look as if they belonged to an older man. His clothes—jeans and a tee shirt—were even dirtier than Doug’s.
“Wow, you don’t look so good,” Abe said, this time in his normal voice, an accentless English of a Middle American variety.
“I feel like shit. It might have been something I ate.”
“No doubt. You are what you eat, you know. My first time here—Egypt, not this jail—I got sick too. I guess I’m immune to it now.”
“That was a pretty good John Wayne you did there,” Doug said, pulling his knees in closer to his chest. His stomach was starting to rumble ominously.
“John Wayne?” Abe said, smiling. “Shit, that was my Bogart.”
“You pick that up here in the jail?”
“No, here I picked up lice, crabs, scabies, and the nasty habit of burping loudly. The John Wayne I learned to do growing up in Michigan.” He thought a moment and then said, “Not a lot a call for John Wayne imitations here.”
“I guess I picked up the lice too, that would explain the itching.”
“No, that would be the scabies. They deloused the cell the day before you got here. They use some derivative of DDT, kills everything. Probably killing us all right now. What you also have is an intestinal disorder brought on by bacteria, probably from the food. It’s not fatal but I bet it feels that way. You’ll get sicker before you get better, but in two days you’ll be back to your cheery self. I’ll talk to the guard, have him get you some Lomotil, and make sure you drink a lot of water. Believe it or not, it’s safe.”
“Are you a doctor, Abe?” Doug said.
“No,” he said slipping into a Groucho Marx, raising his eyebrows and holding an invisible cigar, “but I’ve played one in the women’s dorm.”
Soon after, the vomiting started. The diarrhea started the next morning. Doug added his bit to the smells in the jail, but it was hardly noticeable. The cramping in his back and stomach, from the dry heaves and his wringing intestines, doubled him over in pain. Abe had him lie as flat as he could on the floor, the bunk men offering the cleanest blanket they had. Despite the fever and the sweats, Doug could tell the other prisoners were genuinely concerned. When a guard checked in around noon, they were on their feet, shouting at the guard, pointing to Doug on the floor and gesturing heavenward, either seeking divine assistance or divine retribution. Later, one of the men—grossly overweight with a fat sweaty face that glistened like a glazed ham—knelt down beside Doug and began rubbing his back. Doug tried to protest but was too weak to really care. After five minutes he felt his back relax, the pain melting away. The man spent two hours massaging Doug’s back, stomach, shoulders, and legs. When he finished the pain was gone and Doug fell asleep. Later, when the drugs had stopped the mad dashes to the porcelain hole, Doug tried to thank the man, who smiled and said
“Maleesh, maleesh. Al Hamdu Allah.”
“He’s trying to say forget about it, it was no big deal. Thanks be to God. That kind of stuff,” Abe translated.
“Tell him how grateful I am, will you?” Doug asked.
“Ah, he knows.
. Forget about it.”
Abe said a few words to the fat man, who smiled again and patted Doug on the knee. “While you were sleeping the guards came and took five of the guys out. Sent ’em home I guess. They put six more in their place and you already missed out on the bed.”
“That’s okay, I’ll pass. Look, who do I talk to to get in touch with my embassy? No one has said a word to me since they brought me in about how long I’ll be here or what happens next.”
“Get used to it. I’ve been here two weeks already and I was never even charged with anything. Eventually your name will come up on somebody’s list and, if they can remember where they stored you, they’ll come and get you.”
“Then how come you’re still here?” Doug said and added, “I mean, if you don’t want to talk about it, that’s cool.”
—my friend,” Abe laughed and put his arm around Doug, “I’m here because somebody wanted me here. It may be my asshole brother-in-law who is pissed off about me refusing to help him secure a loan from the bank, it could be the man who owns the building next to my family’s shop who wants my dad to sell out cheaply, it could be the father of some young lady I may or may not have helped to corrupt. I haven’t figured it out yet. This is Egypt,” he said, holding his hands out, palms up, “it could be a thousand things, it could be nothing. But what it will be is slow, inefficient, and costly.”
“And you’ll just sit there and take it? You won’t say anything? You won’t get a lawyer?”
. It’ll all work out. Nothing happens from the inside. My family is no doubt making all the right calls, finding the
—the bribe money—like I said,
. And you? They don’t get many Americans in here, well, non-Arab Americans anyway. What are you in here for?”
“They found drugs in my suitcase at the airport.”
Abe looked at him. He made a low, long whistling sound as he leaned his head back against the wall. “That, Doug, is deep shit.”
“It wasn’t mine, really,” Doug said.
“Sure, and you didn’t inhale.”
“No really,” Doug insisted, “somebody planted it on me.”
“Like who?” Abe was smiling again. “Come on Doug, listen to yourself. This jail is full of people who were framed, who are innocent.”
“You are, aren’t you?”
,” Abe said, holding up a finger as if he was conceding a point. “Okay, Sherlock, if it’s not yours, whose is it?”
From the moment the twins at the airport wrestled his arms behind his back and clamped on the cuffs, Doug had struggled with that question. It had to be cocaine, a drug Doug had never even tried, and it could only have come from one place. He had tried to imagine a dozen different scenarios explaining its appearance in his bag—slipped in by an airline steward who knew the police were on to him, stashed by an Islamic fundamentalist eager to see the godless American suffer, spontaneously created by a bizarre combination of shaving cream, aspirin, and the increased cabin pressure. He wanted to believe anything other than what he knew was the truth.
“Some girl I met in Morocco put it in my bag. She has ‘business connections’ here in Cairo and I assume they would have stopped by my hotel to pick it up.” It didn’t feel any better saying it out loud.
Again Abe whistled, it sounding more like a bomb dropping from a great height. “Well
, you know what that means?”
means no problem,” Abe said. “What you have here is
“Right. A big problem.”
The gray meat looked out from under the flat bread.
“If you’re not going to eat it,” Abe said, making a thick, gray sandwich, “give it to Yasser over there. He loves the stuff.”
It had been eight days since Doug arrived in the cell. Many of the faces had changed but the cell stayed as crowded. Abe’s cousin had managed a visit to let him know that the family was working to get him out and,
, he’d be home by Friday. Doug sat with his back against the cold wall, his spot strategically selected to be as far from the porcelain hole as possible, looking forward to another day of watching the ceiling.
Despite the crowded conditions, five times a day Doug’s cellmates, including Abe, answered the call to prayer. In shifts of four, they lined up, shoulder to shoulder, and faced one of the walls. They stood, they knelt, they placed their foreheads to the floor, repeating the movements three times.
“The Quibla,” Abe explained as he started into his sandwich, “is the direction to Mecca. We face that way since that’s where the Ka’ba is located. The bowing and gestures are all quite symbolic, but basically it reminds us what Islam is all about, submission to the will of God. We’re Muslims,” he said, pointing around the room, “those who submit. But really everything is Muslim, everything submits to the will of God. Muslims just do it willingly.”
Doug pulled the flat bread apart into small pieces, trying to stretch out his noon meal. He was uncomfortable with the topic. “I don’t think about religion much.”
“Me either,” Abe said.
“What are you talking about? You’re up there praying every few hours. And with all your
, you’re thinking about religion all the time.”
“I’m not thinking about religion, I’m thinking about God.”
“Same difference,” Doug said, eager to end the discussion.
“Religions are fucked up, every one of them. But we all still submit to God’s will, even you, my little atheist friend.”
“I never said I was an atheist, but since you don’t see me up there,” Doug said, pointing to the last group of men finishing up their prayers, “how can you say I submit?”
“I see you sitting here, next to me, in this jail cell. Like it or not, this is where God wants you.”
“I wish God’d get me the hell outta here.”
. If God wills it, it’ll happen.”
“So I suppose God willed that girl to put the drugs in my bag?” He didn’t want to come across too sarcastic but it came out that way.
“Somebody say amen, brothers,” Abe said, now in the voice of a TV evangelist. “The
,” he continued, stretching the word out to four syllables, “works in strange and mysterious ways.”
“No offense, Abe, but I think it had less to do with the Lord than it did with….”
“Satan!” Abe shouted as he stood, warmed up to his role now, but trying hard not to laugh. “Yes,
had you by the very balls, sinner. Your very balls! The devil in the shape of a woman, sinner! And she lured you—oh
did she lure you—into her den where you made the beast with two backs!” Abe gyrated his hips, driving home the image. “And now, sinner,” he said, dodging a pillow thrown from the bed and ignoring the Arabic jokes, “now you reap what you have sown. But it is not too late, sinner! No, not too late! Tell Satan to get behind you, sinner. Shout it out: ‘Get thee behind me, Satan!’ And when the Devil is behind thee, for
sake, sinner,” he said, eyes wild and pointing at Doug, “don’t drop the soap.”
For the first time since he got off the plane in Cairo, Doug was laughing. And so were the other men in the cell, Abe’s broad theatrics entertaining despite the language barrier. The laughter stretched out, led to other imitations, these in Arabic, which led to singing and, cramped and crowded, traditional Arabic dancing. Several of the men tried to teach Doug an Arabic line dance Abe called a debka, but with little success. For half an hour Doug forgot all about Edna, all about the jewel, all about the drugs, all about Aisha.