Monday, November 30, 2009

Robert Ready, "Her Infinite Variety"

Robert Ready

Her Infinite Variety

One late January afternoon, when they climbed to the top of Mt. Sinai, Edmund Goin and Nawal Atta came upon twenty Korean Christian pilgrims singing “Amazing Grace” to the sun. The pilgrims sang it over and over again. They gave new meaning to “Ra, Ra for Jesus.” Nawal glared at their volume, but they were in an ecstasy groove, though a couple was texting the moment to souls back home. The top of the mountain was a flat ledge for not more than fifty. To find a purchase to sit and look out at the biblical vista took more patience than the sun at that time of day in January was willing to lend.

Goin and Nawal started the descent down the monastery side of the mountain as the light washed out and dwindled. Goin led, though he didn’t know why. She was the professional guide. He had their two flashlights, the small skinny kind given as wedding favors, good for beaming in on wall frescoes deep in tombs. In daylight, Nawal said, getting down took about an hour and a half. If he sometimes feared they’d get stuck up there in the night, Goin worked at not being pissed at her for being the reason they’d started up at two in the afternoon. But then, she was just doing her job, on the phone in their visitors’ room in St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Sinai, there since the fourth century and in no hurry itself. The extra hour was her getting past being put on several holds while she worked out her next tour guide gig in Sharm el-Sheik. Things got done, that was enough for her, unlike what she called his American business man’s way of being on top of things like time and light.

“Bullshit,” he muttered at that remark and at the new cul-de-sac he’d led them into. He pointed both of their flashlights into a four-foot drop ending on a sharp rock maybe as old as creation morning.

“Circle the lights around with both arms, big man,” Nawal said. She brought her arms up over her head and back down. “Like this. Jumping-jack style. “Signal the good monks down there.” She was getting a kick out of his short-tempered mountain skills. “Then you won’t have to curse the darkness.”

He liked “big man” from her. It was one of her ways of touching him. He jumping-jacked the lights three times. It was good to hear her laugh at him. “Do you think they were Methodists?” he asked.

“The Koreans? I know Methodists. We had Methodists at Wellesley. I know Methodists. Those folkeses—”

“Folks. One syllable.” He shouldn’t have been correcting her English in that tone of voice, but she let it go. Last night, in one of their two beds in the spartan monastery guest room, they’d reviewed relative pronouns from several positions. The who position. The whom. The purist distinction between the which and the that. She had a hard time with the relativity of the which and the that and asked to hear about each twice. It was a good thing they were quiet lovers that night in that place. There was a lot to get said right. They almost missed breakfast in the St. Catherine’s refectory. There was still bread, fruit and coffee, but the scrambled eggs that hadn’t been finished by the people who turned out to be the chorus on top of the mountain had been taken away.

“The folks, yes the folks sing like Pentecostalists. Which. Sorry. Whom we didn’t feature at Wellesley in the fourth quarter of the twentieth century.”

“Think you’re ever going to get over it?”

“Wellesley? You going to get over Virginia Tech, eh, tall man who never played?” As if she gave one tinker’s damn about basketball. He certainly hadn’t.

Fast change of subject, a skill he’d learned doing business in the Mideast. “Who even knew what they were in the fourth quarter of the twentieth century? Sunni, Shia, Pentecostalists. Who knew?”

In control and not cursing worked. They went down further in good humor. A group of Australian night packers appeared in a line of four, trudging up to Elijah’s Basin for the midnight to dawn experience. One called Goin and Nawal “mates,” and his white knee caps were like bread plates against the flashlights.

“Amazing,” the climber said to Nawal because she was the woman and he was the midnight climber. “The way all those stars don’t seem to help when the moon is just an ellipse like that.”

Goin knew that Nawal heard “why” for the Aussie’s “way,” so he laughed when she said, “Why’s just the beginning of it.” Off balance, the man took off his backpack.

“How much further down?” Goin asked him. He could have asked Nawal, who’d done this climb for years with tour groups. He switched off both lights. The summit was now blocked by a high dark ridge like a crosscut blade seen up too close. A lot of deepening bruise color was settling onto the distant hills and the face of the mountain. Cold breezed around stronger.

His answer was to want to know if Goin was an American and had voted for the current administration. A big man himself, he had to look up a little to address Goin in the face.

Even on Mt. Sinai. Give a working whore a break, mister, he didn’t say. He did say, “Well, now, as opposed to your own, ah, head of state?”

“Just as well not to get him started,” Goin’s tour guide told the man.

Goin burned, glad for the dark. This was another gratuitous incident of his Egyptian lover-guide covering for her American charge when international outrage took it out on him. Nawal the Arab, of the white hands and glinting obsidian eyes, head-scarved as always, took firm control of all such situations. Her Ministry of Tourism training was part of it. The other parts were about keeping the two of them safe.

What little an Australian global ladies-man-outdoorsman could do to flirt in Arabic then saved an argument about American imperial hegemony halfway up Charlton Heston’s hill in the January darkness. His name was pure, bland Alex, so Nawal got him to say Iskander better—Alexander in Arabic—after six face-saving tries on his part. Ice candor was as good as it was going to get. Goin watched Nawal work the guy as if he were part of a tourist group just getting its orientation in one of the big Cairo hotels on the Nile. In the mountain darkness, he didn’t want to put the light on her to see her. But it came over him again, this love that was going nowhere. There it was again, the fear.

After they wished Ice Candor and his mates good luck, tour guide and semi-tourist went down, like Everready crabs, sidling here, there, backing off a little fright just there, sliding once together down a flat tone incline, him skinning the back of a hand but able to use his other long arm to snatch up the rolling flashlight. He turned just as she slid into him. That started a little side grotto something neither one of them tried to stop. After that, the monastery came into view, flickered stronger ten minutes later. The desert darkness got a little less immoveable, like a promise that if they just kept pushing down tired toes and forgot about thirst, the darkness would at least stay steady.

“Dark,” he said. “There’s meaning for us here, you know.”

“Oh, stop it,” she said.

“The hard light of day we have to deal with, not just this.”

“You have this error complex. Give me the flashlights.”

“Error complex.”

“Exactly. Your war on terror.”


“Has nothing on the error you think we are.” Exasperation with him clipped her words. He felt the stars leaning in to hear them do their fighting so soon after their loving.

She took her flashlight back, went ahead of him, and led them back down the rest of the way. As they turned onto level ground, the young camel driver who’d hounded them a good deal on the way up at first—for the lady, good camel—sat on his mount and watched them approach. Goin saw Nawal, fifty feet ahead of him, shine her light on the driver’s covered head. He yelled something at her and moved his squawking beast away as he flicked open a cell phone. That seemed to stop her, made her wait for Goin to catch up. They watched camel and driver, ambling motion up and down, move toward the lights of the monastery walls, the driver turned half way around in his saddle, talking on his cell phone. The camel’s neck, draped in yellow fabrics, looked upholstered.

“Fucking Farouq.” One boot of hers tamped down fury in the dirt as he joined her. That’s all she said about it. Goin didn’t push to know what it was about Farouq this time, here of all places. She hadn’t mentioned Farouq in weeks. Goin connected Farouq with walking in the Sinai night now as if being led in invisible ropes hitched to the rejected camel.

Nawal started telling him about the greatest treasure in the St. Catherine’s library. It was too bad they couldn’t see it, but the library was closed for Orthodox Epiphany.

“What?” Goin said. Up ahead of them in the dark, the cell phoner was no longer driving the camel with much energy. “Just tell me what.” Goin had to thin out irritation. “Okay?”

She went into guide mode. Sometimes, like now, her professional explanations of Egypt seemed a way of fending off all that scared her about the Egypt she lived in with him.

After the Vatican, she said, the St. Catherine’s library housed the most valuable collection of Christian manuscripts and books in the world. It was undergoing digitization. The priest in charge of it, she said, had a beard ribbed like an Assyrian king’s. She loved especially the framed parchment, or maybe it was a reproduction, of the Prophet’s seventh-century declaration of protection to the monastery.

“We are all people of the book,” Goin said. “Jews. Christians. Muslims. All.”

She ignored him. He wondered if the sentiment extended to the kid on the camel. Or to himself, or to Farouq. The keep walls of the monastery were close now, as was noise from radios, camels, light truck engines of the Bedouin camp under great steps of rock angled down from the desert sky. The Bedouin, too, were part of the Egyptian tourist industry.

She was still talking. Her other favorite thing, in there where they weren’t going to get to go. A paneled gilded icon of St. Catherine. The head of St.Catherine staring blissfully upward from an empurpled marble floor, while her trunk stood firmly with arms out, the aftermath of her martyrdom. They’d tortured her first on a spiked wheel. She’d fought the emperor’s persecutions. Catherine came from a Greek word meaning “pure,” and milk erupted from her severed neck. In another panel, Nawal told Goin, her body was spirited away by angels from the torture wheel. In the next, the wheel spun out of control and turned on the pagans.

Nawal stopped. She said to him, “Know what I mean? Or care less?”

It was his turn to do the ignoring. They went the final quarter mile in silence, past the Bedouin camp, including their sulky camel driver, who blew cigarette smoke as if in their faces from that distance. They went into the monastery. She went ahead of him to their room, saying they were too late for supper.

He walked on an ancient walk, straight to the direct descendant of the Burning Bush. He watched its rustling in the darkness. The monks trimmed it high, cut back the bottom eight feet of it. Inviolable. Unreachable. He was next to a donations box for the bush. He slipped in a hundred-pound Egyptian note. He made sure he wasn’t being seen by Nawal or anyone else. He thought about it, and put another hundred in the box.

They’d first met in the Egyptian Museum. Goin perked to her voice as she talked to a partly attentive Scottish group she was directing into the Royal Mummy Room. Quiet and Cairo were antithetical, but her rich voice in the din made him watch her. He followed.

The cavernous Egyptian Museum, dismal imperial mausoleum, historical relic stuffed with relics, was jammed with tourist groups blocking everything from single gazers like Goin. Group identity banners—a cricket bat, a rolled up Al Ahram, a balloon Tut, an actual flag—waved over Japanese, German, South Africans, Polish, Irish, Terra del Fuegans, whoever. In the Royal Mummy Room, respect toned down the cacophony to mumbling curiosity at shrunken kings and queens three thousand years old.

Goin listened to her distinctly American-accented English, though she was scarved like many other professional Egyptian women he’d been dealing with during his year working in the Mideast. He tagged along with her group, meandering around the mummy cases in the half-light, while she pointed and talked briefly before answering any questions from the few Scots who cared to ask about anything. She talked lovingly of the remains of Tuthmosis IV, king of the beautiful hair and the pierced ears, and of some of the oldest linen in the world. Goin knew linen. Linen was part of his job in the commodities futures markets. He liked the way she said linen, and the way she drew its hieroglyph in front of her in the air, with a golden remote pointer that hit his chest with a red spot for a second.

After ten minutes, Goin was off in one corner, watching her drift his way as her group gaped or focused by themselves. He blurted out that he hoped she didn’t mind, but he’d been listening to her and was grateful for the chance and did she have a business card. She gave him one that was warm to his fingers. He read her name.

“Nawal,” he said. He could tell that the flip of the vowels in his mouth pleased her. He said it again, along with her last name. “Nawal Atta.”

Quayyis,” she said. Nice, as in okay for an American, thanks, pal. She started back to her Scots, turned, came back to him, asked him if he were interested in joining the group at a lecture they were going to after the museum.

Goin was interested. He had the cultural savvy not to walk beside her, to stay in the middle and make small talk about Egypt with a couple of foreigners like himself. She led the group in quick march through the Hilton shopping mall, around the Midan Tahrir rotary and across the four lanes of Qasr al Ainy. Feral traffic roared and honked at the Scots, who were still getting used to crossing main Cairo streets unhurt. Goin could feel her success in making the group move like a determined convoy, and damn their nerves. She gave them a five-minute break, their choice for something fast at McDonald’s, the KFC, or the indigenous fast food joint, the Zed Café.

In the McDonald’s, young men leered at Goin as he stood on line with two Scottish women, one of them red-haired, stacked and glowing as if out of a Highlands travel poster.

“Hey, American. Lucky man. You need help with your wives, you call me.” Goin shook his head dismissively at one of them, probably sitting at a little table for hours just to hassle the tourist ladies. In a huge Jeter 2 tunic, the kid waved thumb and pinky by his ear as if he had a cell phone. “That’s right, you just call me for help. Lucky man.”

Nawal appeared. “Abe!” Shame!—pronounced like Abe, as in Lincoln. She must have sounded like the young man’s mother, father, aunts, whole extended family, about to beat him senseless for disrespecting women. Goin had to laugh at the way the kid snorted, cowered, got up, shuffled off in poor gangsta imitation, not knowing a shortstop from a shish kabob.

They got to the American University, were bundled in a rush through security, guided by a mute uniformed man, the usual unloaded automatic strapped across his back, into a lecture hall on the second floor. Nawal had him sit beside her. When the front door to the hall opened, a fully veiled and covered woman came out. Goin couldn’t miss the startled intake of breath Nawal made. She recovered, said out loud in a hard voice, “The will of God. I must have read the lecture schedule wrong.” Something raised the lecturer’s head from the computer she was using to set up the overhead, something that zeroed her veiled face onto Nawal’s, something darting, furious, old.

If she had an ax, Goin thought. “None of my business,” he said. “But does that lady know you?”

Nawal didn’t break her stare back at her. The woman started to talk, straight at Nawal as if words were a wind to drive Nawal from her sight.

“Shh.” Nawal said to him. “When she’s done, ask a question.”

Goin looked at the lecture outline being passed around. This was the internationally famed Egyptologist Karima Idris, unashamed to be known as a fundamentalist Islamic intellectual, whose list of talks around the world made her a kind of post-9/11 spokesperson for traditional Islam in the modern world. Goin was never much for lectures, but this thing between the two women riveted him to Karima Idris’ clear, concise layout of New Kingdom architecture and culture, the design and depth of pharaonic tombs, the entire godless eighteenth- to twentieth-dynasties, the jahillyya, the chaos of the contemptible Ptolemies and Romans before the dawn of Islamic Egypt.

Goin got into it. He got his question straight. He thought it was a good one, in his field, so to speak, about ancient Egyptian textile making. The glasses, stylish, glinting under her veil, showed hard brown eyes at the man next to this woman. She told him a couple of things he already knew, told him cold, minimizing him in his seat.

“Watch this,” Nawal said. She raised her hand. She was flatly ignored. Other questions were asked. Nawal kept her hand raised. After a few minutes of this, Karima Idris shut down the overhead, thanked her audience, wished them God’s gifts during their stay in Egypt, seemed to endure the sincere applause from world visitors, departed the lecture space. Nawal never put her hand down.

He felt intrusive, but he asked. “What in the world is this all about?”

“That’s just it,” she said. “The world. She’s disappointed in me in the world. What you call, a long story.”

“Always, as ever,” came a voice behind them that cut her arm down from the air.

They both turned, Nawal cringing, as if to ward off something she’d been waiting for. Goin and the man surveyed each other. Goin got up, put out his hand. The man, thick-faced handsome and in a tailored pinstripe suit, took it limply, released it, talked to Nawal. “They say we do not let our students be inquisitors”—correcting himself with a slight “ah”—“inquisitive. Ask questions the way you”—and he pointed a finger at her chest—“American-educated people are urged.” Now Goin saw, above the flat smile, a distinctly broken nose, eyes that had eyes within them, and a forehead edged with shaved scalp.

Nawal introduced them. Mr. Alla al-Farouq of the Al-Fatimid Social Agency. Mr. Edmund Goin of World Textiles.

It was as if Farouq had to guarantee instant dislike, with the one clichéd question about what American voters were going to do about their country’s president. Goin could not help but fall into the ready response, that he hadn’t voted for him. Farouq had the kind of laugh that almost made Goin turn the insult around, ask about Egypt’s president of twenty-eight years. But he knew better. It wasn’t his country. Goin listened to their strained small talk, about her business, his agency, the times, the lecturer. He was listening to a man who had been turned down, and who wasn’t ever going to let it go. And to a woman who had to watch herself any time life put her back in front of that man. Goin got it now. The dread started from within but it came from without. From right over there. The slightly open door into the lecture room, behind which stood the fully covered professor, her glasses off, her eyes like tiny high beams on Nawal Atta’s back.

They got together, taking great care to manage an affair that wasn’t supposed to happen for either of their jobs. It was economic miscegenation, violation of spaces, borders, walls that countries built to keep business business. They knew all that. They told themselves they’d have a year, one good year, in which they’d converge, scheme, lie and arrange to be together all over the tourist loop of Egypt.

Their first night together in Cairo, she told him some, not much, about the disappointed Farouq. Of her family, she told only of their disappointment about Farouq. He listened, asked no questions.

That night, too, they did their names. She did his comically. “Go In. Go on. Your goin is acting up again. You goin to miss me when I’m in jail for this. You are the goin of the realm.”

Goin reached to undo her head scarf. Kindly, she put his hand aside. Everything else was his to take off, was what she expected him to take off, but not her hijab. He wasn’t sure, but he came to think she never wore the same one twice.

“Now let us do my name. It is not my name.” For a long time she wouldn’t let him know what her real name was. After a while, it didn’t matter. Nawal Atta was a made-up combination. Nawal was from a first-wave Egyptian feminist novelist-physician alternately tolerated and harassed by the regime for writing what she wrote about marriage, education, and opportunity. Atta was the name of the most hated dead Arab in America. She didn’t go around explaining it, but Egyptians who got it didn’t much appreciate it. Nawal Atta. The worst of two worlds, peopled with renegades.

She’d reinvented herself after she’d come back from her American education. At Wellesley, she’d studied languages and played goalkeeper on the soccer team. All of her official identification papers, bills, cards, even her license from the Ministry of Tourism were built on one successful sexual bribe, paid to a huge uxorious man who had never dreamed of such joy, collapsed dead into his Alexandria dinner over three years now. She was as real as one needed to be, including the periodic way she found Goin, loved him, then went off for weeks to be a guide in some other part of the country. Nawal Atta, 21st-century Cairene, stayed alert, in control of her attractive person and public self. She became licit, in her way.

“Mirrors,” she told Goin another time. “It’s all mirrors in Egypt now, and mine is just one of them.”

“You think it’s different from anywhere else?”

“Listen,” she said in her guide voice. “Down in the New Kingdom tombs in Luxor? Know how the eighteenth to the twentieth dynasties got the light in underground to do the divine and regal frescoes? They reflected the outside light through a series of mirrors down into the tunnels.”

“So, go underground, use mirrors?” he asked. “That’s a way to live?”

“Learn from the ancients,” she said. “Here, like this. Like that. Like which. Show me again.”

In between their times together that year, they did their jobs. She guided. He traded in commodities, especially cotton. He hadn’t been back to World Textile’s main New York office since he met her; that didn’t matter, because he brought in the futures better than any of the rest of them. They kept themselves moving targets, but they were marked. His dread picked one recurring fantasy. She’d simply be picked up, taken in a police car, chucked right off the street for not being real in a recognized way in this country.

One afternoon in an Alexandria hotel room, some attack of nerves she wanted to head off made her get up out of bed to stare at the standard picture of the president. Naked, she struggled to get at it on the wall over the dresser.

“Tall man, stop ogling from behind. Help me.”

He picked it off the wall. Her circling hand gesture told him to turn its face into a chair. Intuition made him say, “Farouq again. I know it is.”

A lot came out then, more at other times. That time, she took a sheet off the bed, wrapped herself in it, including her head. She sat in the chair opposite the one with the turned around picture. He filled again with hunger for her.

“We were teenagers together in AUC English classes. We had an American teacher who talked about Fanon. The ANC. The socialist policies of the Young Officers of the1952 revolution. The teacher didn’t last long. Farouq and I, we kissed in the courtyard corners.”

Goin put up his hand.

“Don’t be that way,” she said. He blinked away seeing her sheeted body as if in a shroud. “No Muslim girl goes even, how you say, to third base.”

He laughed, happy that she didn’t know why. “What’s the agency he runs?”

“That’s just it. He does a certain amount of good. He’s just complicated. Welcome to Egypt.” She told him that the al-Fatimid Social Agency gave basic educational skills to children who worked half-time from six years old to help their families get by. Farouq also ran discussion workshops for the parents. That got him in trouble with security people, who periodically confused the Center’s talking about cable news shows with sedition and the history of Islam with the Islamic Brotherhood plotting against the National Party.

“So my first boyfriend grew up and learned how to play both sides. He’s what the government tolerates in the way of opposition intellectual. Every Mideast dictatorship has a bunch of them they let carry on. In return, he does fact establishment.”

“What’s that? Sounds dubious.”

“You got it. He establishes facts about people.”

“Rats people out?”

“Sweet man, what in the world of English does that mean?”

He told her. She said, “Sort of. Let’s put it in safe terms. Mr. Alla al-Farouq helps the government draw clear lines between his kind of allowable secular opposition and even beginning kinds of Islamist organizing.”

Goin said, “The stuff that gets the government into one of its periodic roundup rages and trouble with human rights groups.”

Nawal seemed to get herself back from trouble. Her face brightened. She seemed to take him in again as the man she loved in this room in this hour, minute, which was precious. “Yes,” she said. “Why didn’t you say which gets? You said that gets. Explain again, please.” She took the part of the sheet covering her hair down and clasped it gently at her neck. In the light she gave his afternoon, her hair was a gleaming fit of springy dark curls that his fingers ached to touch. Which his fingers.

Like that, she could banish Farouq, and everything collecting against them.

They were in Groppi’s, the big airy grand patisserie set on Midan Talaat Harb. The place, once grand, old Europe-looking Cairo, had dimmed down in the Cairo of now. The waiters grew old on the job, which they did slowly and well. In black pants shiny in the seat and white shirts with wide grey ties, they moved between Groppi’s back kitchen and its front room circle display cases filled with good acts of sugar made the same way since German officers filled the place in the forties.

They were talking about representation. If what the shebab, the rude young men in the street, saw on TV and music videos was Britney Spears and Spice Girls and their Egyptian knockoffs, then there had to be some part of young American women that was Britney Spears and Spice Girls. Leering, clucking, and occasional lucky groping followed.

“But of course,” Nawal told him, “American teenagers have access to one another physically. Here that’s impossible. Virginity is the only key to an apartment.”

Goin figured there weren’t many apartments available around there anyway, virgins for marriages or breeders for madrassas.

“Do you think,” he asked her, “American teenagers fuck like crazy, then move on ten years later into the business of marriage? Is it that simple a contrast?”

She turned her head away, surveyed the tables around them at Groppi’s, fingered the rim of her cup. “You know, like all Americans, how to be really irritating while being very sincere. Sometimes I can’t believe I’m with you the way I am.” She bent toward him, exaggerated the width of her eyes, gestured at putting her hand over an invisible microphone, whispered deep from her throat, “I’m in bed with my own touree. Is that an English word? Loving with one’s touree is definitely expressly forbidden in the ethics section of the Ministry of Tourism test I got a nine on. Probably would have been a ten if I’d taken the touree section seriously.”

He fantasized again about taking her heard scarf off, that forbidden act, before she let him begin touching her, unraveling her global casual outfit from her strong supple body. Once, he wasn’t yet thirteen, he’d watched, entranced, a beautiful old woman on an altar, lifting the silvery gown-like covering off the tabernacle, which glowed an odd gold in the shaft of light coming down through a stained glass scene of the tomb, first Easter morning. He is not here. But the bare tabernacle was. Something in the intensity of his twelve-year-old altar-boy staring turned the beautiful old woman around to look at him across the altar rail in the first pew. She had thick iron gray hair and her face shone in the same cone of green and gold light. She pulled the tabernacle gown up before her face to shut out his obscene need. Amazed before the reality of Nawal, Goin was again in the first pew, in his late afternoon of Holy Saturday surplice and cassock, losing his religion.

He came out of the old memory feeling like a mirror of his own need to unveil this woman of many scarves.

“You remember Flaubert’s dancer?” he asked her.

“Yes. Kutchuk Hanem. When Flaubert was traveling here. The exotic woman he got all Orientalist about.”

“That part of you that won’t let me all the way in reminds me of her.”

“Flaubert said you could sleep with Kutchuk and never make an impression on her. As in, have sex with the Sphinx. That’s Egypt to you Westerners, me to you. Shokran, yankee imperialist Orientalist boss.”

“That confectioner’s sugar above your top lip? Know what I’d do to get that off?”

“Filthy giaour.”

“Occasional eater of sausage.”

“Don’t come near me until I signal you to from across the Nile.”

“Like Antony’s Cleopatra,” he said.

She knew the roles, would play them for him. “Custom cannot stale—”

“—her infinite variety.”

“Be very careful. My woman’s heart may yet, like the queen at Actium, cut and run. Know what it means, Kuchuk Hanem? It’s Turkish.”

“Do tell.”

“’Little woman.’ Hah.”

“Umm Nawal,” he said to tease her in Groppi’s, while she stirred her coffee in two swirls of her wrist. “Our danger. Our life. Our mother. I would fight a crusade to get to you, dear Know-All.”

“There you people go, over and over the same thing.”

They were having fun. Then the fun in her collapsed.

“There’s the anti-Mubarak Mubarak.” She said so dully, as if announcing the arrival of a human transport train to another country.

It had happened before in places like this, with people who disapproved instantly of the way she looked, the American she was with. Somebody with Farouq possibilities, just this time it was Farouq, and nobody did it like Farouq, all of a sudden taking away the air and light above the two of them as they sat at their table in Groppi’s.

He spoke with careful composure. “And how was your journey up Mt.Sinai?”

“Not as interesting as coming down in the dark,” Nawal told him with just enough of a hint about what that might mean to stiffen his eyes on them both. Goin marveled at her comeback power, which she drew up from survival skills developed long before he first saw her in the museum. The trouble was, they were skills not instincts. She could be hurt, and this man could still do it.

“Now,” she was saying, “do tell us, Mr. Alla al-Farouq, do tell us how you knew two casual travelers like us were there at all? Do you remember meeting Mr. Edmund Goin? At the eminent Karima Idris’s lecture at AUC?” As if he needed all that to place the man she was with. “A business man from the United States.” As if Farouq needed to be told where Goin was from.

Goin asked him to sit down, but the invitation was swept away by a hand. “I am with family for coffee,” he said. “And only wished to pay my respects. Interesting, if my English is right, pay my respects. Why is everything a paying matter?”

“Just a figure of speech,” Goin said, knowing full well Farouq wouldn’t have a clue what that meant, and wouldn’t ask.

“Ah, it was the Bedouin camel driver,” Nawal said pleasantly. One of those skills was counter-punching. “The one who wouldn’t leave us alone.” She mimicked the boy in a way meant to irritate Farouq’s nationalism. “Is good camel. Is good camel. For the lady, sir, for the lady. Is good camel. All dressed up in gelabeya, Hamas scarf, and Nikes very, very white.”

“Yeah, Hamas checked terror scarf, definitely.” Goin’s words reached Farouq about throat level behind his Windsor-knotted blue and red striped tie. Goin dropped into central Virginia American. “I must have la-shokraned him about ten times before Nawal let him know the limits of her non-Western patience with annoying camel drivers ruining a spiritual ascent.”

“They are, of course, if my English has it right,” Farouq said, bowing. “Just trying to make a buck. Sometimes they think they have the right to annoy tourists to do so. They occasion great sarcasm in, ah, foreigners.” He meant that word for the two of them.

“The kid wanted to know if we knew anymore Arabic than no. La shokran, la shokran,” she went into the voice again.

“And you showed him that you do, of course,” Farouq said. He laughed in an act of good natured acceptance of her useless accommodation of herself to Western ways, to this Western man. Her eyes and body said she could hear all that dead stuff in his touchy manners, as usual.

“And let me inquire about the business,” Farouq said to Goin. “What is on your economic plate of late?” His mouth tightened at the rhyme he’d fallen into. Goin wouldn’t ever react to a linguistic slip. He had his own troubles in four languages. But he pulled up inside, wary of where the question would lead Farouq, damning with faint praise whatever benefit business like Goin’s trickled down into the other Egypt.

“Cotton shares.”

It was like a trigger. “Ah,” Farouq said softly. “Al qutu. Five hundred thread Egyptian cotton sheets. Highest quality.”

“Fifteen,” Goin said.

“Excuse, pardon?”

“It’s fifteen hundred thread count, highest quality Egyptian.”

Nawal coughed once to keep her snicker inside.

Even more softly, punctuated by gentle smiles for both of them, Farouq launched two minutes of the exploitation involved in cotton sheets. Over a pound of pesticides to produce a T-shirt. Illiterate five- and six-year-olds in sun-baked family cotton plots in the Delta, taking boll worms off the leaves, maybe a million of such children, ants biting their hands. The competition from Sudan and Ethiopia. The U.S. price supports for its own cotton industry.

“One must talk,” Farouq said, “to Mr. Mohammed Atesh—”

“I know him,” Goin interrupted. He sat up straighter, making himself a little more on a level with the standing Farouq. “In the Khan al-Khalili.”

“You know him.”

“Sits in his open-front shop in the souq, near the mosque.”

“Al-Hussein Mosque.”

“He’s got these huge jute sacks of raw cotton. He sits there among them. Reads The Economist.”

“I didn’t know that. The Economist. Truly.”

“While he waits his next customer. I know him.”

“Then you know the pressures of his trade.”

“It’s business,” Goin said. “He’s a pro.”

They would get nowhere together on this.

“That much?” Nawal said to Farouq.


“A whole pound of them?”

He ignored her, looking as if he knew he’d said too much all at once, a defeat. He said, “Perhaps Mr. Goin will come with such presence to the Center. Speak to some of the families who go into the Delta to hire themselves out.”

“I’ve been to the Delta,” Goin said. “Fayoum. You’re right about all those details.”


“There’s the picture. There are the details.”

“The full economic picture. Or does one say complete? No? Global, perhaps.”

“In English, you get to choose.”

“And your family?” Nawal asked him. “Quayyis? All is good?”

“I’d be fascinated to come to the Center,” Goin said. “You know I’d really like to learn its mission in light of its toleration by the government.” Trust was not a word that came to his mind about Farouq, but he could figure, more than he wanted to, the ache Nawal left in the man’s chest.

That was enough for both of them, for now. “Whenever you come by, it will be our honor to open our work for your review.”

“Fine,” Goin said. “Fine.”

Farouq gave his regards and went back across Groppi’s to his family, his veiled wife and two behaved children who watched him come back with ice cream on the way to their mouths as if asking his permission.

“The son of a bitch,” Goin said.

“Remember that camel driver?” Nawal asked.

“Is everybody in this country networked and informing on every American going up Sinai with a beautiful Egyptian woman?”

“That would be absurd,” she said.

She took a slow survey around the café, taking in people, spoons clinking on saucers, clumps of haze over tables in the smoking sections, the melding undertone of fifty conversations under the chandeliers that never had all their bulbs working. Something between a wince and a surprise creased her forehead, maybe the sight of Farouq’s hunching back and neck as he leaned into his family center. She picked up her own spoon, tapped it against her saucer.

“It may be that absurd,” she said. She took his hand without looking anywhere except at him. “I’m not doing anything I don’t want to do. Something, inshallah, will protect even us from harm.” She looked at her watch, startled. “Oh, I must run. It’s Professor Karima time.”

“Still plaguing that lady?” Goin asked. He knew the answer, heard it before she said it.

“Complicated, isn’t it, love? Egyptian women these days?”

“What is it between you? I never had the nerve to ask.”

“Ten years ago, I was sort of her protégée. She was instrumental in getting me to the States, to college.”

“And she became appalled at the results?”


“Means pissed, disappointed, betrayed, cheated, grudge time forever.”

“All of that, yes. She had great hopes for me, while I had my father’s name.”

“I’m sorry.”

“As I said. Complicated. Know what her last email ever was to me? ‘Nawal Atta, indeed.’”

“Indeed,” Goin said, as if she needed a champion. “Indeed you are.”

“You’re sweet. My sweet infidel. But I don’t let it get to me. You’re staring at me. Okay, I don’t let it get to me more than the rest of it.”

She left him by himself in Groppi’s to meet up with another tourist group. He hoped they were Scots. She was getting quite a name among Scottish travelers to Egypt. Indeed.

Goin wondered if Farouq’s kids had finished their ice cream happily, but he didn’t look around to check. He wondered if the social activist who collaborated with the government and the famous Egyptologist who was so disappointed in Nawal knew each other. A good bet. Not absurd, not at all. Not in this place. Not anymore. Not that professor, the one at the lecture door.

They coincided intentionally in Sharm for different job reasons. Nawal registered at one hotel on Na’ama Bay with a group of Russian tour agents working with the Ministry of Tourism and locals like her. Sharm was big for Russian tourists, who had a reputation as cheap boors among the resort hoteliers and merchants. Goin was in the Ghazali hotel at a meeting on cotton futures. It was the place radical Islamists had bombed several summers before. Somewhere in the middle of a panel discussion of risk management options for Egyptian cottons, he started losing track of the principal speaker’s regression analysis of the relationship between price movements and hedging opportunities in re futures contracts obtaining on the New York Cotton Exchange. He then waited patiently for the final panelist, a sun-darkened but highly educated independent farmer from Fayoum in the Delta, to finish his wonkish and barely audible rant against the marginalization of the cotton farmers and the continued imperial price supports for U.S.-grown middle-staple cotton. The panel broke up after cool tea and sweets, Goin working the room of international commodities speculators, all of them smilingly aware of their backs at all times. The Fayoum farmer shook Goin’s hand, even pulled him like a sack down and into him for a thick-knuckled back slap. Yes, Goin promised, they were all working for regime change in Washington. Thumbs up for America the good.

“Truth be,” the farmer said. His taupe jacket hung down almost to the knees of his black trousers. “You can produce Egyptian cotton anywhere. The bottom’s falling out of it for us. So your job’s in the tank, too.” He laughed heartily at that. Goin said maybe they’d all go into religion.

“Ah, spiritual futures. Maybe that one we can win over you.”

Out of the hotel by the beach and into the street, Goin walked through Sharm, feeling certain that Nawal would find him.

Sharm el-Sham, Nawal called it. Goin wandered through Sharm el-Sham.

The place was an image, a simulacrum, a construction site for a dozen different Egypts, all ersatz, noisy, Western, corrupted European spa envy, a place to find any Egypt one wanted. Sharm brought in hundreds of millions of tourist monies. To get into it, you had to have a passport or a work permit. Without the latter, you’d be hauled off one of the buses going down the Sinai toward it upon one of the periodic security stops. You better look right, fella, which meant not fellahin. Sharm was a silly pleasure dome, a nicely breezy casino beach town all louded up and nowhere to go but stupid, crowded, and everywhere doing money changing of one kind or another. On his own ride down the Sinai to get here, suddenly a mirage, merchant ships seeming to float on the sand, really in the Suez Canal. In the late afternoon glare in Sharm, Goin saw a busload of Russians and Scandinavians ordering loudly in a garish couch-filled outdoor space Aida’s Rest Stop. Entombed, walled up for love, Aida was. Goin wouldn’t trust the menu.

This time, he found her, sitting at a street-edge table in an outdoor beer garden. The place was called El Munich, and its afternoon band called El Munichians was on a break. She was drinking iced tea, upset. He noticed her toenails the red-purple color of her head scarf, which made him feel better when her tight face did not. She was fingering a circle of topaz prayer beads. He’d never seen her do that before. Hawkers and beggars yelled or whined near her but just went away when they got no reaction. Worldwide tourists in beach outfits and big stomachs wandered the open-air pedestrian mall, looking and finding nothing really, really Egyptian.

“The motherfuckers,” she told him. “They are just that.” She called them that again. Though she accented the American word exactly, it wasn’t one she’d ever heard from him.

A Nordic man in a powder blue velour beach combo overheard her, stopped to gawk at her. “Just that,” the man said to her. Goin waved him off.

A Chiclets girl child in a raggy dress emerged whimpering from the parade of passersby, stood by them in tears springing up from four different ways of saying please and baksheesh. Goin waved her off and glimpsed the claw hand of an older child reaping her by the neck to the next set of tables.

“Who are they?” He winced at the wrong tone in his own voice, at his own irritation at her. He felt himself out in the open, in the sun without a hat. Everything wrong with them together, like everything else in this ersatz place, was on display, subject to distortion that would serve people much more readily than truth. It was just that he couldn’t find the truth of them right then and there.

“What?” she said. “What?”

He’d been talking to himself.

“Hold these,” she said. He took the beads, scrunched them together in one palm. She produced a hand mirror, she checked her eyes and cheeks, she folded the colorful scarf he’d never seen before around her ears, she put the mirror back into her bag, she started to read to him in the Red Sea sunlight. He didn’t know where she got the piece of paper from, maybe from a flick of her wrist out of the thin air just behind her.

It was a letter from the Ministry of Tourism. There was a problem with her license. She had to suspend her job until she came in and straightened out an identity certification issue.

“I saw him here.” She looked around, afraid. “Last night, outside the Hard Rock Café, talking to Russian guys. Russians and Nasser and the High Dam. They ruined the Nile, Edmund. They ruined the Nile!”

Goin knew. “You saw Farouq here.”

“Do you think he knows what an ‘Attagirl’ is? Maybe I should have let him find it out from me? Remember when you taught me in the Hilton Alexandria how to merit an ‘Attagirl’? It was very funny.” Hysteria checked in and out of her voice. She said very softly into her hands, he barely heard her, “They ruined the Nile.”

“This letter and Farouq being here are linked? Doesn’t he go all over the country? So maybe it’s just coincidence?” He opened his hurting palm, threw the beads down on the table. She was talking a streak of paranoid possibilities. Farouq. Russians. Her job in danger. They really were starting to attract attention. He pulled back in his own head, saw how actually odd the two of them looked in most Egyptian eyes. Her voice was rising. Nawal, scared, was scaring him.

El Munichians single filed back from the inside bar to the outside raised platform in the middle of the unbrella’d tables. They clowned, they sound-checked, they played rotten soft rock from the nineties. The lead singer’s style was falsetto in a huge flannel shirt.

The lovers didn’t eat. He paid for teas. She said, “Let’s do something touristic.” Dread made him move with her. Something heavy was in her hold on his elbow. The usual curious glimpsing or disapproving staring painted faces passed by them—to Goin as if they were going along a funereal tunnel that just happened to have its roof done up as a wisp-clouded sky.

They went into his hotel, passed the green-blazered desk clerk in thin bronze sunglasses who fawned without moving or taking a step toward them, around the swimming pool and onto the passageway to the beach. It was like going over a threshold out of Egypt and into a cheap copy of a cap in the South of France, a little crummy Cancun. The hotel boys looked at the Western women, who just wanted to be and be beautiful and gleaming in the sun. A Scandinavian deep-diving group in tight black wet suits fussed with their gear. Goin saw a line of tankers out on the horizon. They seemed to shimmer, a force of floating metal holding up an ephemeral flotilla of McYachts and McCruisers. The whole scene before him flitted along and underneath the blue dome sky. The Gulf of Aqaba drifted into the bay, lapped around a half-horseshoe of hotels and tented restaurants featuring mostly Italian, American, and French food.

Nawal Atta wanted to snorkel. She had a cream utilitarian bathing suit on under her garish Sharm-el Sheikh gelabiya. He left his room number at the beach shop for her to rent a snorkeling mask and feet flippers. He didn’t want to swim, but he went with her onto the glass-bottomed boat, crowded with Europeans and especially a group of loud, athletic and mid-afternoon drunk Russians. Nothing was wrong but everything was out of order. Exodus was the word. He wanted to get off the glass-floored boat, get the hell out of Egypt.

The boat hove out into the bay, looking for astonishing fish by Temple Reef and Fiasco Reef. Nawal revealed herself in her bathing suit. Goin knew her body like the insides of his own two hands. He clasped them together and watched her put her flippers on her color-toed feet, wash out her visor and breathing tube, set herself up backwards on the ladder, pad down, swivel around and dive, all as if she were quite okay, a Nawal all in control, thank you.

So did two Russians, thick muscled thirties-types, hairy chested short men in little Speedos, the skin at the back of their knees peeling ugly in exactly the same pattern. They went into the water to look at Nawal look at the fish, at the brilliant yellow red black spotted striped gelatinous whiskered miraculous evolving rainbow fish.

Goin squinted, moved from side to side of the boat, ignored the piscine paint boxes squiggling and lacing and darting and cheek blowing around under the glass below him. He and the Nubian two-member crew were the only people on the snorkeling tour boat now. He found her, found them, her breathing tube stuck out of her head as she moved upside down in the ultramarine bay under the now free sun. The Russian breathing tubes bobbed. After a while, they parted, went off a ways. Goin sat down, listened to sounds of water and boats and people coming up to tell each other of that fish, that one right there, who would know such things exist in the same country as that filthy grimy Cairo and the dirty diseased children sent out to beg and then beg for more.

The Russians took turns looking at each other stand on top of the coral reef.

It got Nawal Atta wild in the water.

She went off on them, cursing and swimming up and away from them as they just wouldn’t stop doing it, destroying a thousand years of growth in the sea with their rubber- flippered feet on the coral stone. She seemed to rise half-way up out of the bay water as if she could stand on it, took off her snorkeling mask and threw it at the one whose turn it was, hit him dead-aim square in the forehead. More the surprise than the force of the missile itself stunned him, made him dive for safety right onto a high piece of the coral that broke off at the same time as it cut into his cheek. He pulled up blood in his palm and panicked, as did the other Russian, who swam and muscled to the boat howling.

Nawal got to the injured one, ducked under his vicious right fist, got him in a cross carry and started to move him toward the boat, talking him down from rage in her own furious Arabic laced with Russian. The other Russian started to make a move out again, but one of the Nubian crew members reached down and held him flat up against the hull by his hair. Goin saw the police speedboat starting out from the dock. He helped the crew get the three of them into the boat. The cut was long, shallow, seeping. There was hollering everywhere.

Goin used three of the boat’s orange guest towels to get the blood off her stomach and underarms. The crew got everyone else back on. Goin sat her in the corner by a gunwale, got her outrageously colorful gelabiya over her shrieking head and down over her spastic quivering shoulders and turned around in front of her to face the outraged snorkelers and their ten different versions in ten different vacationers’ languages of what had just happened. Six police boats swarmed, their sirens quivering off one another like virtual-game swords. A drab green helicopter plopped up and down in the sky, loomed just above them a nightmare praying mantis, rotors yelling and special forces men inside it fingering assault rifles, its rear Egyptian flag wagging like a tail.

Nawal was lifted off the one boat into the police boat, which roared off amid Goin’s hysterical assurances to her as she cried out wildly for him, Edmund, Edmund, Edmund. She was through being a guide, for good. She and he were through being. It was the end. The Russians were gotten into a medical speedboat.

The world was louder than anything Goin had ever heard anywhere. When he stumbled up onto the dock, still tracking blood, he saw Farouq in a middle distance talking to police and military types. A group of police came in a wedge toward him, through clusters of half-bare wondering tourists and single, knowing hawkers of Egyptian beach towels and Nefertiti pen sets.

Goin and Farouq saw each other clearly. Goin felt an awful need to tell Farouq.

He brought his arms up jumping-jack fashion, slipping out of the wristlocks of two short policemen. He got right up to Farouq, who stood amid four men in green blazers bulged open by weapons on their backsides.

Farouq’s face was firm, set at Goin in an attitude of “whatever.”

“Mr. Goin,” he said, “the kutun man. Five hundred threads.”

“I never got to do that,” Goin told him flat out.

“That,” Farouq said. “Is it my English again? What is this that?”

“Her scarf.”

“Excuse, pardon?” He made a signal to the green jackets that Goin not be touched.

“Her scarf. Her scarves,” Goin told him.” Her many, many scarves. I never took her scarf off. Ever.”

Farouq’s lips opened, trembled, once only. Goin felt himself towering over him to no purpose.

Farouq wide-mouthed the name, twice, without sound. Nawal Atta, in victory. Nawal Atta, in contempt.

“Not once,” Goin said, telling his truth to the only other man left in all of Egypt who knew what he meant.

Robert Ready lives in New York City and teaches at Drew University. His fiction has appeared in Antaeus, West Branch, Gargoyle, Mondo James Dean, Princeton Arts Review, RiverSedge, Water~Stone Review, and elsewhere.

RECONFIGURATIONS: A Journal for Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture, http://reconfigurations.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1938-3592, Volume Three (2009): Immanence/ Imminence

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