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tearing the rag off the bush again
From The Egyptian Chronicles: A Fulbright Memoir PDF E-mail


A part of a hoof. Then an ear. I can't figure out why so many body parts are mixed with the rubbish.

"Mom, there's a horn."

"Maybe it's from the same animal."

We walk a little further down the street.

"No," Alex says. "Here's part of a leg. It's black—the ear was white." He prods it with his shoe.

I discourage direct examination of refuse.

"I'm not touching it!" He veers suddenly to the left, near an over-flowing trashcan. "Look, Mom—a hoof! A perfect hoof!"

It lies there in a pile of fine gravel, its enamel gleaming in the sun.

We walk on, thoroughly fascinated by the trash at our feet. And besides, if we keep our eyes down, we can avoid meeting the stares from other pedestrians and completely ignore our surveillance in the slum towers that line the road.

"Why are there so many needles?"

"People are doing drugs—see? There's a bottle." I'm not sure methadone comes in a bottle like that, but the object has some sort of illicit quality about it, guilt by association with syringe.

I spot a tail next to a gummy cola can. "Looks like a sheep."

Alex stands over the amputated patch of fur. "Sheep," he concludes solemnly. "How come Egyptians leave sheep parts everywhere?"

"That's it!" Some neglected neural net surged to life. "You don't remember the sheep slaughtered on our front steps in Beirut." 

He was too young, and I didn't let him watch. Blood stained our porch for days. It faded from brick to brown to grey, and finally wore away.

"Gross," frowns Alex. "Wow—there's a really good horn. Can I keep it?"

No.

"For the Aïd holiday," I recall. "It's sorta like Christmas, only Muslims eat lamb." The slaughtering follows very strict guidelines, with lots of prayers and verses from the Qur'an. "The butcher knows exactly where to place the knife so that the sheep doesn't suffer—it's a lot like the kosher traditions of the Jews."

The similarities among Semitic peoples seem to outweigh their differences, once the weapons are taken away.

"In fact, hallal and kosher butchering is more humane than Western slaughterhouses where the animals are traumatized en masse and die a painful death."

"I don't want to talk about it."

Then Alex adds, "If the horn's still there when we get back, can I have it?"

*****

WESTERNER NEEDS TAXI.

As soon as my arm goes up—one swoops to the curb.

"Mumkin Carrefour Mall?"

The young man at the wheel, his dashboard lined with Nubian tassels, nods.

While the man in the passenger seat looks at us coolly, the woman sitting in the back scoots over. Her head is covered in a hijab, but her eyes are visible. They are bright and wide with surprise, shiny stars.

Alex hesitates. "Mom, there's a veiled person in the back seat."

"Taxis are shared here," I say in French as we squeeze in. "The drivers can’t make enough money off one fare so they have to combine riders."

I'd learned this particular point of taxi etiquette in Lebanon where I had harangued a taxi driver from Hamra all the way to the Ecole des Beaux Arts, thinking he was taking advantage of me by loaning the taxi ride I'd paid for to other people. Wrong. The other riders paid, too. Just like here.

Our fellow passengers look at us curiously as they come and go in the other seats, as if we are stray parts of the body politic, odd bits that have somehow ended up in a broken-down taxi wheezing its way through the most densely populated country in the Middle East where over one-third of the region's population lives and kids drink from sewers. But in the last ten years, Mubarak's policies and kick-backs have apparently created a middle class, enough of them to warrant a shopping mall on the outskirts of Alexandria—or maybe the mall survives on the Persian Gulf influx during the scorching summer months when Alexandria's population swells to the point of paralysis.

The mall seems incongruous in the dun-colored landscape, all glass and marble and neon. It's more like a movie set than a shopping center, a kind of surreal icon of the US suburbs displaced to the shores of the fetid Lake Maryut, the ancient waterway from Alexandria to the Nile now silted up and home to families living in squalor.

"Maybe there's a Chucky Cheese!" says a hopeful Alex, as we drive across the parking lot to the grand entrance that tries a little too hard to be impressive. The colorful signage and buoyant architecture seem somehow suspect, like a woman with too much perfume.

I hand the driver 15 Egyptian pounds through the open car window. It's important to pay when you're out of the car so that if an altercation with the driver ensues, you can steel yourself and walk away.
   
"I'm sorry, but the fare is twenty dollars," the driver says in perfect English. He might speak French, too. He's been listening to us talk the whole way. He probably has a graduate degree in engineering or political science. He's lucky. He has a job.

"La'," I reply. "Khamastãshar."

"Twenty," he insists. The driver is doing this, I'm certain, because we're foreign.

"Khamastashar da sah." Fifteen is right, I protest, though I wonder, for a second, if Fatima has told me the wrong price. "Ana sekna hena." I live here.

"Iskandria?" The driver is befuddled.

I nod.

"OK." He raises the money to his lips and kisses it tenderly, intimately, the way a lover presses his lips on the hand of his beloved.

Alex plows through the sliding-glass doors of the entryway, confident in known circumstances.

I follow.

*****

And just like that, the nature of reality changes. The film between worlds is thinner than we often think, more like the skin of a bubble than the heavy velvet weight of the curtains on stage.
Inside the mall, everything is bright and shiny and new, muzak in the background, potted ferns thriving in the atrium light, the fronds reaching toward the skylight with tiny, determined fingers. Many women are showing their hair—some are even dressed like westerners, in tight jeans and transparent shirts—they must have come here in chauffeur-driven Mercs. They are probably educated Coptic Christians or Muslims from liberal families. I unbutton my black coat and drape it over my arm, slide my hat into my backpack while Alex makes a beeline to the entertainment center, his kid radar honed by previous challenges. After the bumper cars, bungee ropes, moonwalks and slides, we find a Western-style café.

It isn't exactly Marilyn's Pie Shop in downtown Belleville, Illinois, but some fiber of recognition seems to beckon from the refrigerated vat ringed by strands of attractive plastic ivy where the tuna salad is heaped in decorative mounds like a landmark of youth, some mini-Mount Rushmore of the protein and fat variety. You can take the girl out of the Midwest, but you can't take the Midwest out of the girl. I order up. For some strange reason, I even feel compelled to eat the potato chips with my sandwich, something I never, ever do.

Is it a latent expression of homesickness triggered by the disorienting circumstances of eating Western food while listening to Sting in a DNA pool of Hamites? Or does the tuna just look irresistibly tasty? Do the Egyptians who order it know how quintessentially American tuna salad is? Could it even be that some Egyptians have a passion for tuna fish salad the way that some Americans have a passion for Egyptian cotton? Or is tuna fish salad sales based strictly novelty? Would the Egyptians who welcome tuna fish salad into their personal stomachs welcome us as readily into their collective homeland? Or, like the pirated DVDs of Sex in the City in the shop next door, did they want the symbol of America but not the real thing? Eyes, of course, follow us everywhere we go in the mall—hey! there's a couple of khawagaaya!—but we aren't quite as sensational in the mall as we are in the slum where we live. And I certainly feel more relaxed.

"Look!" I point to a storefront. "Sleeves."

Alex considers The Modesty Shop display. "Those sockie thingies?" He chuckles.

Muslim women, I explain, wear the sleeves under their veils in case they move an arm in such a way that the flesh above the glove is exposed. I also point out the dickies, those bizarre turtleneck garments with just enough fabric to make certain that the neck and throat stay covered, lest a woman move abruptly or loosen her veils in a sudden gust of wind. And then there are the stocking caps, which the women wear under the veils to make sure that no seductive lock of hair slips out of place. The black abaya goes over it all, unifying the parts in a continuous drape of black cloth. The facial veils are mostly simple transparent pieces of sheer black fabric, but the store also carries a kind of hockey-puck face-guard worn by ladies in Yemen. It makes them look very scary, at least to me.

"This is the place you go if you want to dress like a Muslim woman," I conclude.

"You aren't going wear all this stuff, are you?" wonders Alex.

No way, I thought—once I get back to Europe, my cleavage is showing.

"Look at that one," says Alex. "Is she facing forward or backward?"  We consider a manikin submerged in floes of black cloth. On the edge of the veils is a discrete row of black beading, matt, not shiny, since shiny things are considered haram under strict interpretations of Islamic law. "I can't see you wearing that," he says. "You look weird enough already."

He's not quite used to my Egyptian uniform yet.

"Alex—Egyptians think our clothes are weird, too. Here you don't judge women on how they look—here the women are all equal. And they hide Western clothes under their abayas if their husbands and fathers permit it. When they get home, they get rid of the veils and hang out in halter-tops and mini skirts.

"But why do they do that? Why put on all that stuff?" He is genuinely puzzled.

"Fabric or death," I announce.

1) Traditional Muslim women have to do what their husbands and fathers tell them; 2) The men have been taught at conservative mosques that there is a link between family honor and fabric; 3) In order to keep family honor intact, the men tell the women to wear fabric; and 4) If the women don't wear the fabric, wear it incorrectly, or bring dishonor upon the family in some other way, they can be killed. I don't tell Alex the part about being buried up to the neck in the earth and being publicly stoned, a fate Muslim women still suffer from Afghanistan to Algeria, though more often a quick jab with a knife is preferred.

Alex suggests that maybe we should go into the store and buy me some extra layers, but I reassure him that as a foreign woman, I'm not being held to the same standards as my Egyptian sisters. I can't bring dishonor upon my family. Besides the lovely little boy whose hand slips so effortlessly into my own, I don't have one.

As long as I behave modestly, we'll be fine.

*****

In an adjacent bookstore, Alex flips through The Magic School Bus in Arabic, while I consult Islamic Facts Refuting The Allegations Against Islam by Dr. Zakzouk. I go straight to the section on fashion. Dr. Zakzouk does not suffer from questions and confusions concerning Islamic dress. For him, the matter is clear:

The attire that Islam imposes upon the Muslim woman is that she appears in a decent and respectable mien in order to save her from any unpleasant remarks or from being harassed by irresponsible youths or men. Thus the Muslim attire for women is to safeguard their honor and dignity and does not hinder their movement or activity. Islam does not command women to cover their faces with a veil or to wear gloves. This custom belongs to certain communities for which Islam is in no way responsible. (p. 74)

In other words, Islam does not advocate head-to-toe robes and veils, at least according to Dr. Zakzouk—it's the men running fundamentalist mosques. But like the American father who would tolerate a slightly low-cut blouse but prevent his teenage daughter from leaving the house in a transparent midriff, Dr. Zakzouk believes women should dress modestly for their own protection.

He's right.

I've never been in a hornier country.

*****

Every time I'm in Egypt, men offer to give me Muslim babies, a fact I've often pondered. In my experience, Greek men don't say, "You want Orthodox baby?" Japanese men don't say, "You want Shinto baby?" Even Jordanian, Syrian and Lebanese men don't proffer their seed, a couple of random Bedouin notwithstanding. But the phrase, "You want Muslim baby?" I've heard a lot in Egypt over the years, to the point that it no longer shocks me. Just the other day in the museum store in Cairo, a man asked if I'd like a Muslim child. "No thank you," I politely replied, as if I were declining a high-caloric sweet.

The Egyptian men who propose their semen aren't aggressive or rude. They're more like Boy Scouts, trying to do a good deed so they can get another badge. Their queries are gentle, rational, almost as if they feel sorry for me. In fact, I do think they feel sorry for me—a single woman, a single Mom, clomping around their country, my maternal longing evidently stymied since I'm not tucked away taking care of the kids. But they'd never risk asking an Egyptian girl if she'd want a Muslim baby. No way.

"Look at it like this," a Greek diplomat to Egypt once explained. "Egyptian girls are virgins until they marry, and they keep the bloody sheets from the bed to prove it—sometimes the evidence is even examined by a Sheikh. If a girl is sexually wayward, she will never get married. She'll bring dishonor upon her family. They may ostracize her… or worse. Frankly, the behavior of some tourists here just reinforces the notion that Western women—."

"Are total sluts."

"Frankly, yes," the man agreed. "But the worst offender is the media. If you want your daughter to remain chaste until you find the right boy for her, how are you going to handle an episode of some sixth-rate US-made TV show portraying the sexual prowess of teenagers? You're going to think—thank God I don't live in that country among those people! And every time you see a Western woman on the streets of Egypt, you'll think she's like the show you saw last night."

Since the women in this land of tawny, dark-eyed beauties are kept under lock and key, the country is awash with repressed sexual energy that cannot manifest through flirtation, much less through physical touching or even autoeroticism. Islamic law confines sexual activity to marital intercourse or to the paradisiacal afterlife where 72 virgins will service each man, providing him with a "sensation," according to commentators, that is "out of this world." Virginity is obviously a key component in strict Muslim versions of satisfying orgasm. For reasons that remain obscure, Islamic sources equate sexual bliss with sexual ignorance.

At their origin, these rules for sexual behavior were aimed at groups of loosely affiliated tribes. When the Qur'an was codified, men married their first wife when they were 15, not 35 or 50. There wasn't a huge mass of disaffected youth, no seething urban centers, no gold standard. Where camel herders once reigned supreme, now horny young men, bursting with testosterone, simmer. In other countries, sexual longing is sublimated into jobs and hopes for the future. But there are no jobs in Egypt. Few men can obtain the minimum financial independence required for marriage. Few know the pleasure of god-given sexual release.

Into this raw void, where the longing of the soul screams and cries and whimpers, steps the Islamic fundamentalist agenda.

No wonder mainstreamers, like Dr. Zakzouk, are losing the battle. But I buy his book anyway. Then, true to my American upbringing, Alex and I march into the Carrefour Super-Center, determined to find a deal.

*****

It begins with a headache on the third day of school. "I need to lie down," says Alex.

I clutch a tepid mug of Nescafe, "Coffee American" as it's locally known. Alex and I have already had our breakfast—feta, pita and thumb bananas—and are about to meet the 6:45 A.M. mini van. "Are you sure you don't want to go to school?"

He nods, looking more confused than ill. After all, we've changed time zones, continents, languages, houses and schools in little over a week.
 
I hand him his coat. The to-do list pulses impatiently.

"Come on—you'll be OK."

I have a poem in my brain—I have to get it down before it flies away. Then I have to scavenge an internet connection, surmount bureaucracy at various agencies, meet with colleagues at the university and undertake the considerable labors of food shopping.  I am determined to get a lot done.

Or so I think.

Something stops me from pushing my kid out the door.

*****

The screams from the golden couch are real. My son is in agony. It is the second time in his short life when he has suffered the kind of excruciating pain that adults seldom forget. I wish I could die myself, transfer that pain from him to me, take it, all of it, in some sort of wretched intravenous transfer that would save him from the onslaught of misery. Oily tears smear his face, his temperature just over 40C/104F and, like the burning star in the morning sky, climbing.

"Mommy's going to help you," I say calmly, trying to hide my fear, my egregious ineptitude, my flat uncertainty as to where, exactly, Mommy might find help.

*****

Four years ago. We are in Beirut. All of a sudden, like one of the Israeli bombs exploding too close to home, Alex is in crucifying pain—he actually passes out from the pain. I think he is dying. I call a friend to help me translate at the hospital, and she says I must call Dr. Ayoub. "Now!" she admonishes. "Dawn, call him now!" She knows the country better than I do. While my son lingers in an ashen state, the film of death upon his face, I dial—it's a rotary phone, so I have to place my finger carefully. Get it in the number slot, slide it around. The doctor tells me to hail a cab and bring Alex to his house. "Hospital! Hospital!" I scream into the phone because I think my son is dying. I can still hear the doctor's words: "Madame, you will regret taking your child to the hospital. I suggest you bring him to me first."

All the way to Dr. Ayoub, I watch my son die—he is unresponsive, then screaming, then unresponsive. I hold him in my arms while the clock slows, slows to a pace that only crisis allows one to perceive, when you realize that so much of what takes up your life, your attention, takes you away from all that matters, the present moment, one breath, and then another.

The doctor greets us wearing a silk dressing gown. We walk past a small, original Monet painting hanging in his living room—I glimpse it the way one notices a flower in a devastated landscape—and go to the examining room. No words are exchanged. The doctor looks Alex over while I lean against a wall, weeping. After a while, he says quite simply, "Your son will live." Later, we arrive at the hospital to meet the surgeon Ayoub has summoned for the procedure. Alex is limp in my arms. The two urgent care interns, who Ayoub has prompted to receive us, are intently reading, The Pediatric Guide to Emergency Medicine. I see it in one doctor's hand, the other one reading over his shoulder.

I don't let them touch Alex until the surgeon arrives.
 
*****

There is no Dr. Ayoub to call in Alexandria. My infrastructure isn't sketched yet, let alone the girders of a network. There is no ambulance to call, no paramedics. The Fulbright staff in Cairo won't be at their desks for another hour or so. They haven't supplied me with a list of emergency contacts because they don't have them. And even if they had them, the numbers change, the phones go out, the line ends up in a store where everyone wants to help but no one understands what you're saying. 

Once a woman I barely knew, a woman who lives in New York City, a mother of two small children, reproached me for not having a pediatrician before leaving for Egypt or Lebanon or wherever. She didn't understand. So much she didn't understand.

Alexandria is not America. Alexandria is not Cairo. There are no detailed maps or phonebooks in any language. Ditto a directory service. Scant expatriate resources. Guidebooks exist in honor of the glorious city that Alexander the Great founded, but no guidebooks to demystify the scruffy modern one. If you need something, it's phone-tree all the way. If the phones work.

My landlady Fatima doesn't answer hers. The switchboard at Alex's school isn't on yet. I can knock on a neighbor's door in the General Tower 13 with an English-Arabic glossary in hand. But which door will open on the path of knowledge, expert medical care, relief? Who can I turn to in Alexandria? The only thing I'm sure of is that I have to know exactly where—or to whom—I'm taking him.

Alex screams.

I stand in the emergency of my life.

Nazek! The Chair of the English Department at Alexandria University! Knowing things is a scholar's business.

"German Hospital!" Nazek shouts into the phone in an effort to make herself heard over Alex's cries.

I half-carry my son to the elevator. But in my fluster I have forgotten to ring the soldier on the interphone before I close the door. I have to drag Alex back, open the door to the apartment, and shout into the interphone: MIDFADLUK! ASANSAYAR! TALATTASHAR!

The soldier sends the elevator up and calls it back down—the only way it functions. As we descend, we view the club sandwich of floor doors and floor insulation—sometimes with wires, sometimes with pipes, and often with crunchy stuff I hope isn't asbestos. The elevator itself has no door.

"MOTASHFA ALMANEE," I roar into the lobby. The soldier's eyes widen in alarm.

"Monsieur-Madame—!" He scoops Alex up and surges down the broken sidewalk, past abandoned vehicles full of cats, to the street to hail a cab. Just the other day, Alex and I stopped at one of the cars where we thought the cats were dead. We rapped on the windows. They moved.

By the time we reach the hospital, Alex's pain has, like a sudden thunderstorm, ceased. He can hold himself upright, unassisted. The aspirin I've given him has kicked in, and his fever has fallen. I don't know what worries me more—his capricious symptoms or the medical consultation. After all, the reason Alex got so sick in Beirut was that a doctor from the best hospital in Lebanon misdiagnosed his illness.

*****

Hospitals that serve the poor are always under-funded, whether they're in the projects of Detroit or the center of Paris. The German Hospital in Alexandria is no exception. Judging by the crowd at the soiled entrance, the ubiquitous trash mounding the steps, money isn't available to staff it properly, let alone repair the cracked walls or repaint. I wonder what the hospitals are like that care for Egyptians who cannot afford even a nominal consulting fee.

The crowd looks at us and parts. The sick, the maimed, the pained, the disfigured, the suffering—they let us pass. I want to wait, to take our turn—I feel unworthy of the privilege, as if that blond hair is being treated like real gold. Did some weird colonial reflex, something left over from the British occupation, open a path through the masses? Or was it more of a class issue than a racial one, since by definition, we are rich Anglos and they poor Egyptians? Or is it the sickly look on my son's face? The worry that inscribes mine? These conflicting emotions pale in the presence of my fear. My only concern is saving my son from more pain.

The nurse who greets us in Urgent Care wears immaculate white veils that frame the moon of her face. She has an admirable command of English. I recount Alex's symptoms. She eyes him skeptically. "No fever," she says, pressing a perfectly manicured hand to his forehead. I am relieved to see her fingernails are impeccably clean.

"But fever very high! Fever 40.3." I insist, pointing to my watch. "One hour ago, fever high. Much pain here!" I point to my stomach.

"Diarrhea?"

"No." I can't help pointing to my bottom—when I'm in sign-language mode, it's difficult to stop. "Here, OK."

She leads us to a cubicle with a bed covered with a clean sheet. Various old, sad, outdated medical apparatus stand guard around the parameter, like ancient retainers of a prior medical regime. The walls are soiled with the gloom of illness and tragedy.

"How are you feeling, Sweet Pea?"

The bags under Alex's eyes, translucent silver shadows, whisper in the florescent light. Then the pain hit. He folds into a torturous work of origami, moaning.

"MIDFADLUK!" I yell, yanking the curtain, noting that I'd promised myself not to touch it. The nurse runs back, her face whitening with alarm. "I see."

While she summons the doctor, I hold Alex in my arms, feeling a kind of fear I had felt in Beirut, when the one you love more than anything else in the entire world, the one you love more than yourself, the one you want to teach, and help, and nourish, and protect, is powerless in the throes of suffering, and all you can do is touch and hold and rock and reassure when really and truly, if you are honest, you only want someone else to touch and hold and rock and reassure you.

"I here," a young man in casual dress announces. "I Doctor. What problem?"

He is a cheerful fellow emanating confidence.  I trust him immediately, although I have no rational reason for doing so. "Here," I say. "Here problem."

A tucked and grimacing Alex points at the upside-down V-shape below his ribcage.

The pain halts as abruptly as it has commenced. The doctor runs his hand lightly over Alex's abdomen in a practiced gesture that has always seemed to me more intuitive than empirical. Then he pulls a plastic glove full of tongue depressors from his back pocket—obviously a private stash—and peers into Alex's throat with such determination that Alex gags and chokes.

"There it!" he exclaims, breaking the tongue depressor in two and lobbing it triumphantly into the trash. "I doctor university, pediatric medicine."

"I doctor university, too. Literature."

"Alexandria University?"

I nod.

We pause a split second in mutual recognition before entering into a lengthy noun-driven communication.

The doctor explains that Alex has contracted a serious bacterial infection called haemophilus influenza. It comes with a high fever, manifests in the throat and drips down into stomach, triggering excruciating abdominal pain. Antibiotics are prescribed. Then the injection.

Who cares what the hospital looks like—this guy knows what he's doing.

"Stop now," he concludes solemnly, referring both to his imminent departure and to the healing properties of what proved to be a large, burning shot in Alex's hip.

I pay the equivalent of $2.00 and leave with medications, precise instructions on food and drink, and an admonition to phone every four hours. I think the doctor is perhaps overly solicitous in having me check in so often. It's only later that I learn haemophilus influenza is the precursor to meningitis.

It's the primary school nurse who tells me. "I have to go through all the immunization records in the school to make sure the other children Alex came in contact with are immunized," she says sternly. "The children from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates are legally required to have HIB vaccinations, and the Egyptian parents are very good about it, too. It's the children who were vaccinated in Europe and America that I have to be careful about."

I don't understand why Alex wasn't immunized—his pediatrician examined him and gave him a tetanus booster before departure. I also don't understand how Alex could have become infected so fast—after all, we've barely arrived. But there are moments of life in which so much happens that time itself seems to dilate, and you live more intensely in the span of a few days than you have in last few months, or even years.

Egypt always has that effect on me.

*****

Some lives collect adversity the way that dust collects on wood, on countertops, on tabletops and floors and window sills, fireplaces, toilet seats, bathtubs, nightstands and end tables, lamp shades and book cases, shelves, cars, stoves, terraces, b-b-q pits, dust in the curtains and sheets, dust in my archives, my hair. I can taste adversity in my mouth. I was born with it. Instead of wiping me off, the doctors had to dust me off. On top of my soft, heavenly baby-skin, there must have been a sprinkling of grit that collected in the womb and has been drawn to me ever since. Maybe that's why I'm attracted to desert countries—I understand hardship. I understand friction and fall-out. I know how the tiniest grain of sand can irritate your vision for hours on end, how the bit in the toe of your shoe can hobble even the most obvious progress, the grain in your bed can amputate sleep. When I die, I’ll roll the particles around in my mouth, worry their edges with my tongue before my whole body follows suit. I understand the meaning, the true meaning, of dust.

It seemed to seep through every pore in General Nazim's apartment in General Tower 13, in the cracks around the windows, the door, falling from the ceiling, powdering the golden interior with fine particles carried by the wind across the Sahara. Each grain carts along the memories of caravans and privation, tents and livestock, as well as the hope for the fabled oasis where, at long last, the journey pauses and you can look at the stars, not in the hope of finding your way, but just for the sheer pleasure of their beauty. In the mud brick house in Luxor where X and I once lived, the dust was so bad every glass had to be washed again before use; the toothbrushes had to be covered or by the time you put them back in your mouth at the end of the day, you risked scratching the enamel.

The dust isn't quite as bad in General Tower 13 in Alexandria.

Small dunes collect on the landing.

*****

Soft cloth in hand, I gently wipe off my PowerBook and start it up, finally ready for a full day of work. But like a deceptively cheerful weather forecaster, the ill-informed one in a bright, flouncy dress, the one who hopes that hope itself can coax those dark clouds away, boy am I wrong. A new low-pressure system is moving in.

The screen goes dark.

Hmmmmm. Must be an electrical thing.

Cord? Check. Outlet? Check. Switch?

I press the start button. Nothing. In the empty silence of a blank screen, there was a kind of hollow expectation, as if the data itself were holding its breath.

(                                 .)

System CDs? The computer spat them out. I try again. I press the buttons to by-pass the hard drive and boot from the disk, but no dice. It was scary. Then, like a harsh declaration from another world, where the dark and powerful forces of Harry Potter and The Hobbit combine, a short programmer's code appears in the upper left-hand corner of the screen, followed by a monstrous commentary: No password found.

"NO! NON! PUTIN DE MERDE! SHIESA! BASTARDO! IT CAN'T BE!"

But it is.

"This is so unfair!" I yell to no one in particular.

There's only one thing to do: succumb to the paysage moralisé and let the downpour begin. I weep globular, self-indulgent tears, each one obediently forming, like raindrops do, around a single particle of dust. Disappointment seems to well up from deep inside me, all the gooshy stuff within my dermal casing liquefies and pours from my eyes. I slosh and weep. And still the computer won't start.

First the flood, then the fire. In moments of stress, I'm apt to be Biblical, no doubt about it. I fantasize about getting on a plane to New York—I'll charge it!—and bursting into the offices of Tech Serve bearing the cadaver of a G4 hard drive, steam pouring from my ears, my breath melting the shrink-wrap around the CDs, Wagner's The March of the Valkeries blasting synchronously on all the I-Pods, the inferno sequence running at 2500 pixels on the monitors. I will wreak havoc in the Apple showroom and bring business to a halt. The sales staff will bow down before me, offering me a trade-in on an upgraded model. I'm on the side of the light, after all. My computer is still under manufacturer's guarantee.

One Coffee American later, I weigh more practical solutions.

Let's see: no list of computer stores, no directory service for phone numbers for computer stores, no one I know with an Apple. I call the Fulbright Commission in Cairo, just for the heck of it. They sympathize—but they only have PCs. I thumb through my phone log. Nazek? My colleague at the American University of Alexandria? She's probably still recovering from the last emergency.

I put in a call to TC Solutions, the internet company it has taken me a solid week to locate.

"We internet company," the man says.

"I know!" I yelp. "I just paid for six months of internet to be installed and now I have no computer!"

The man calmly asks why I have signed up for internet service if I have no computer. I explain, capping my account with a beseeching, "Please, please, help me!"

My whiny voice is unbecoming. As poet Anne Carson argues in her essay, "The Gender of Sound," men will do anything to stop that voice.

Thus the internet company comes up with a top-notch computer tech in the Soha area of Alexandria where I'd heard there is a Metro grocery store with peanut butter and other food products I'd recognize. I don my fabric and puff into the streets, the slum towers staring down at me like disapproving sentinels. The cab driver drops me in an upscale neighborhood in front of a fancy shoe store just as the mid-day call-to-prayer reverberates from the loud speakers that nest like birds in light poles and dusty trees. I turn the corner of Sharia El-Minya. And there they are: men.

Not just any men.

These are barefoot men kneeling on individual prayer carpets, most of them in traditional dress, their hands on their thighs just above their knees. Their sheik is positioned between us, his back toward me, so that sixty or so men look at their sheik, and past their sheik, to the blond Westerner in a billowing, black Myake windcoat standing a little ways behind him. For a split second I falter, a deer in the headlights. The men have box beards. They don't look friendly. I can't summon the mental resources to construct an alternative narrative, one in which these men aren't Muslim extremists, aren't meeting at an unofficial mosque, aren't gathered in front of a sheik apt to incite hatred for all who do not follow a homegrown version of Islam propagated in this very street. So I look away, scan the low-rise concrete buildings for street numbers—after all, that's why I'm there in the first place. I go about my business, hoping that the right door is adjacent so that I can step nimbly off the stage of what is, in all probability, a gathering of the Muslim Brothers or Jihad.

One foot in front of the other.

"Ingleezee," booms the sheik's microphone.

'Ingleezee,' strictly speaking, means "English," but it's also a synonym for Brits, or Americans, or Anglophones, or even just Caucasians. And everything associated with these cultures.

I have apparently arrived on cue.

In some strange nanosecond of being, the Muslim woman's modesty shop in the Carrefour mall spears its way into consciousness. Why hadn't I bought a face guard like the Yemeni women wear? The kind of hockey-mask that would shield me from life's whacks and baffs? A disguise that I could hide behind so that I could advertise my conformity rather than distinguish myself by my difference? And just as quickly, I realize it might not work anyway. You can't pretend to be something you're not. I know that. But I can't help but think that in some circumstances, it's convenient to at least stall for time. If I were completely veiled, these men probably wouldn't suspect I'm Caucasian.

"Ingleezee," the sheik booms again. Does he have eyes in the back of his turban? Some kind of remote-viewing device tucked into the folds? How can he know I'm right there behind him? Is my presence even a confirmation of his insider knowledge of God's will?

I didn't like this a bit.

Not one bit.

"Get off the X," our Fulbright security advisor said in Washington. The X was not, in this case, my former husband, though perhaps the two are related in the way that a hiccup from a cow in Calcutta calves a glacier in Halifax. This X, according to our CIA security rep, is the spot where you are in danger. It exists in space and time, as concrete as any other address. You visualize it and do what you can to move out of range. Lift your foot. Put it down. Lift the other foot. Put it down.

The sheik is on a roll. "Ingleezee."

I move slowly and steadily across the street, across the stage of his monologue, across the men's vision, as Ingleezee as you can get. What is he saying, I wonder? I can't shine the beam of conscious attention long enough to decode the Arabic surrounding the word "Ingleezee." So I keep going in the direction I'm headed while the word "Ingleezee" reaches my ears yet again, along with khatar and haram, "dangerous" and "forbidden." I'm grateful that I'm not dressed in a denim mini and a lacy camisole. If these guys saw me in my normal attire in the heat of a Provencal summer they might pass out from shock or surge from the prayer carpets and tear me to pieces the way that the Christian monks dismembered Hypatia, the most accomplished and revered scholar of her day, some 2000 years ago. It happened in this very city. Maybe it even happened right here.

I reach the other side of the street as casually as I can, and walk along the sidewalk, toward the men. Neat rows of shoes line the curb. Sandals. Tennis shoes. Dress shoes. Sandals. I want to scan the men’s faces to see how many are paying attention to the sheik, and how many to me, but I don't dare. I glue my head to the storefronts and step quietly, modestly, alongside the gathering and make my way down the street. After all, I haven't done anything wrong. If they lynch me, they'd be doing so for reasons of accident and birth, not because I have broken the rules of Islam. I continue. Number 47, 48, 49…. They couldn't lynch me during religious service, could they? 50…. There it was. Allah akbar. God is great. The door is open. I shut it quietly, raising my eyes just before the edge fits into the jam. The men are looking at the sheik. I climb the stairs.

I'm off the X.

On the second floor, I knock at the door with "Micromedia" hand-written in English on a blemished piece of notepaper scotched to the wall.

A thin, older man, shabbily dressed, shows me into an office that obviously has never known a feminine touch. Old computer magazines—in English—are piled on a drab couch. Computer parts—perhaps put down yesterday, perhaps years ago—are strewn on the floor and desk. I'm led into a second, more orderly office where a man, his back to me, is typing rapidly on a keyboard. On either side of the desk are two windows where the Sheik's voice continues to preach. We are above the level of the loudspeakers, so the sound is grainy with feedback.

The man at the keyboard stands and turns.

He is about my height, slender, dressed in a Western shirt and trousers. He is younger than me, but only by a year or two. His eyes smile, but his mouth doesn't. He has a box beard. He is probably a member of the mosque in the street.

Apparently, I have wandered from one X right onto another X in some sort of cosmic game of tic-tac-toe.

No one knows where I am. No one. I make a mental note to always leave papers lying around my apartment with "today's destination" clearly marked.

"Salaama," I say, opting, as usual, for the Nubian greeting.

"You can speak English." I detect a faint British accent.

He tells me to have a seat at the table near the window. I'm careful to move so that my whereabouts aren't made public to the men outside and take a chair. I unzip my computer bag on the table.

"Why aren't you at the mosque in the street?" I don't see any point in beating around the bush.

"Why don't you take off your coat?"

Neither of us answers the questions that have been put to us.

"It was hard to get to your door."

Now he smiles, a real smile.

"Do you want tea?"

While the servant goes to make some, I explain my computer woes. The man—I remember his name was Nagib—listens thoughtfully and then explains that it sounds like a hardware problem. He says he can take my Apple apart, find the cause, and put it back together again, but then the warranty will be cancelled if he as so much as turns a screw.

I take a deep breath, listening to the sheik's voice in the background the way one listens to thunder in the distance. "I have to work," I explain. "It's absolutely necessary."

He asks me what I do. I say I teach at the university. I'm careful not to make a misstep there. Years ago, when my companions and I were arrested on the Sudanese border, I was asked by the Egyptian General what I did for a living, and I said "writer." A man who was also being interviewed by the military, a man who knew more about the danger we were in than I did, corrected my response. "Secretary," he said. "She means 'secretary.'"  His response still irks me because I don't derive enough satisfaction from following procedure to ever succeed as a secretary. I hate procedure.

Nagib stares me.

I break his gaze, drop my eyes, look at the dust bunnies on the floor.

"Fulbright," he decides.

It's strange—I feel as if this guy can read me inside and out. He already has my number, which I'd given him over the phone. He knows my name, that I teach, that I live in Alexandria on a Fulbright, that I have enough money to afford an Apple. He's probably wrung other identifying details from my appearance, like the fact I am wearing a ring on the third finger of my left hand—it looks like a wedding ring, sort of. My glasses, in the German style, are definitely European. My accent is the broad and flat Great Northern accent of the upper Midwest inflected with West Coast and European markers. I don't feel frightened, just very wary—I feel like I did when, years ago, I taught poetry at Vacaville State Prison for the Criminally Insane, and the prisoners knew where I lived, where I went to school, and that I had a boyfriend just by looking at me. They also knew that I wasn't a native California, and that I wasn't used to working in the prison system. They probably knew a lot more, too. Like this guy. He can tell I'm uncomfortable.

"It’s OK," he says softly. He serves me tea from the tray the servant slid on the table.

"Please," he says, handing me my glass.

I sip my tea, holding the glass by the rim, as is custom in these parts, the body of the vessel being too hot to touch, let alone wrap your fingers around. We sit in silence. Nagib looks out the window. The sheik is still preaching.

"I'll take you out the back so you don't have go past the mosque," he says as I pack up my bag. "This way, please."

If he's a member of an extremist sect, at least he's polite.

"How long do those guys stay out there? How long does the sermon last?" I ask as we make our way down the corridor.

"It depends." He shows me the back-porch stairs. I don't shake his hand, because I don't want to send the signal that I'm comfortable touching the hand of a man who isn't related to me either genetically or through marriage.

"Good bye, Dawn." I feel a little jolt of electricity surge through my body at the sound of my name. "Call me if you can't repair it."

*****

Forty-eight hours, numerous cups of tea, and three techs later, Alex and I prepare to board the train to Cairo. It's the first time we've taken the train, but I've read about it in the Cairo guidebook. I know it exists. The cab drops us at a thickly crowded station and we wait in one of the ticket lines. I have my Arabic phrasebook in hand. I turn the pages, giggle, carry-on, hesitate, correct myself, hesitate, finish both the sentence and the question.

"It leaves from the far platform in twenty minutes," the man says in perfect English, counting out the change. Then he asks Alex, "Are you learning Arabic, too?"

Alex replies by rattling off the Arabic alphabet, a feat that elicits admiration from those crowded in line with us.

Once we get to the platform, I'm not sure which side the train is going to come from; therefore, I'm not sure which train.

"Ask that woman over there," says Alex. "She looks smart."

What he means is that she looks Western, since she's wearing a pantsuit, has her shoulder-length hair uncovered and sports trendy sunglasses. Which means, in turn, that she's probably educated.  Which means, in turn, that she speaks English, and that she'll understand our plight since I can't read Arabic, except for the numbers and a few words. There's a lot of numbers on our ticket and no words that I recognize. And not a single foreigner anywhere in the station. Not a one.

"Ask her, Mom," repeats Alex.

"Salaama," I smile. "Tikkallimee ingleezee?" Do you speak English?

"La'," she shakes her head. "La', la'."

A man in traditional dress, with a little white kufi skullcap on his head—the Muslim corollary to the kippa of the Jews—asks if he can help. He explains which side of the platform I should wait on and adds that I should enlist the help of one of the porters to get a good seat.  I don't know how to recognize a porter.  There are a couple men in elegant suits, a lot of men in traditional gallebeyiahs, and many men dressed in cheap Western wear—heavy on the polyester, light on the cotton. One of them asks for my tickets. Whether he's a real porter or a self-appointed porter, I'm not sure. I'm not sure there's a difference.

Alex tugs on my arm. "Mom!" he says, "Mom!"

"What?" I'm keeping my attention on the man studying our train tickets. I'm not sure he knows how to read. More than half the people in Egypt don't.

"Look at his hand," says Alex in French. "Regard son main!"

Since most Egyptians speak English as a second language—the legacy of 70 years of British rule—I'm grateful that Alex and I can use French as our default language for privacy, particularly when Alex's honesty tests social conventions.

The man grabs our bags and sets off down the platform, presumably in the direction where our train car is going to stop. One hand is normal. The other is not a hand in the usual sense of the term. It has fingers; it can lift objects; it apparently obeys the motor cortex at the bidding of the anterior frontal lobe. But it looks more like a chapped buttock. There is so much mounded flesh it's difficult to identify digits.

I whisper in Alex's ear: "Elephantitis."

I'd seen it before, mostly in Zaire and Uganda.

"Elephant-us?" Alex looks worried. "Is it catchy?"

"No," I reply. At least I don't think so. "Don't stare," I add, as much to avoid humiliating the porter as to prevent Alex from fixating on disfigurement.

But it's hard not to look at that misbegotten lump of a hand and wrist. It must be heavy, I think. It must hurt. Perhaps it is the most grotesque thing I've ever seen.

When the train comes, the porter escorts us with great show into the car and indicates our seats. I give him what I think is a good tip.

He holds his blubbering walrus of a hand up to my face. He asks for more money. I give it to him.

"Why doesn't he fix it?" asks Alex, concerned.

"There's no money to pay the hospital."

Alex is pensive. For the first time in his life, my son has realized that not everyone has access to health care.

"We have money to pay for a hospital," he says to reassure himself.

The train ride to Cairo is smooth and uneventful—cities, sugarcane fields, cities. Alex commences his homework—with periodic Game Boy breaks—while I read a book on Pharaonic gods. I'm excited about seeing the Cairo train station for the first time because of its well-known architectural beauty—very different from the concrete slabs we left behind at the station in Alexandria.

Built in the 1890s, the Mahattat Ramses mingles exquisite Islamic detailing with the happy fervor of the Industrial Age—its volumes recall the breathtaking Gare de Lyon train station in Paris, which was constructed about the same time. I want to marvel at the colorful tiled arches but I can't: there's a mercantile assault by cab drivers with one goal in mind: get the foreigners' fare!

"Stay next to me," I bark at Alex, as we push our way through the hoards, through the tiled archways—was that azure enamel? a true cobalt?—to the curb outside the station where the taxis cue. My idea is to find a driver in his car, on the assumption that I'll pay less if I go to him rather than he gets out of his taxi—or hires someone—to go to me. I ask a couple of them for the fare to address where we're headed. It's higher than it's supposed to be.

"How much higher?" asks Alex.

Five dollars.

"Why not just pay it so we can go?" Alex wants to get the computer repaired as fast as possible so he can hit the Disney channel in the hotel.

"It's the principle of the thing," I reply, rummaging in the food pouch and handing him a cookie.

Any woman who's traveled in the third world on her own knows that every commercial transaction is fraught with assumptions. They cling to monetary exchange the way that lichen clings to a rock.

You're rich by definition, since you've paid for the journey to Egypt. You're rich, by definition, because you come from a country where everyone is rich. You're dumb, because many foreigners are dumb. You're dumb, because you're a woman. And you're dumb because you're blond. These biases mean that the odds of obtaining a fair price for anything are slim indeed. You have to know how to read the numbers if the prices are marked. If you're paying for a service, your best bet is to pay market rate, not because you've been told by the vendor what market rate is, but because your knowledge of the culture is habitual, not improvisational. You dole out the cash with unflinching conviction. Deal closed.

But somehow, at this particular juncture, standing with my kid and my broken computer at 6 pm outside the hectic Mahattat Ramses railway station in downtown Cairo, the strategy is hard to follow. I'm not sure I have the right price. Since I live on a tight budget, I don't want to throw money away. And I certainly don't like being an easy mark—some idiot, some foreign woman, who doesn't know what things cost and pays a fortune. And besides, if I pay more than I'm supposed to, the next foreigner the cabbie comes across will pay too much, too. By holding out for the right price, I'm performing a social service. My aims are altruistic and admirable.

"May I help you?" a pleasant young man inquires. He must have been educated abroad, since his English doesn't have a trace of an Arabic accent. "I've watched you speaking to the drivers—where do you want to go?"

"My mom won't pay the taxi fare," volunteers Alex.

"That's not true!" I protest. "I want to pay the right fare. It's supposed to be twenty dollars, not twenty-five."

The man understands the problem. He talks to a driver and returns. "The price has gone up," he says. "It's twenty-five. I'm sure of it—they'll make me pay twenty-five, too."

I hesitate. Five dollars can buy both Alex and I a good dinner. I'm already going to shell out substantial earnings to repair the computer.

"This cab is ready to take you," the young man insists, making the decision for me. He grabs the suitcase and ushers us into the vehicle.

Alex and I head to the chic district of Mohandiseen on the left bank of the Nile where my long-sought-after computer tech has an office. Apple heads in Cairo are like Apple heads everywhere in the world. The firewire cables come out, the CD's go in, and an hour later I'm up and running, n'sh'allah, at least for the moment.

"Why'd this happen?" I ask the tech, a fast-talking, high-strung guy who has four portable phones and two landlines, all with different rings. You can almost feel his brain waves reverberating in his office.

"Maybe for you to come to Cairo," he answers, offering me a friendly, knowing smile. Six thousand years or so of fatalism echo faintly in his voice.

I wonder if he's right.

*****

"How many hours are we going to stay?" asks Alex as we wait in line outside the Cairo Antiquities Museum, a huge, 19th-century salmon-colored edifice that exudes scholarship and pride.

"Until it closes," I tease.

Alex isn’t in the mood. "But we've already been here."

I try to explain that the purpose of a museum is to study objects—you keep coming back because the more you look at the exhibits, the more you understand them. It's like getting to know a friend—the more time you spend together, the stronger your bond becomes, the more intimate your shared knowledge. I’ve been looking at these displays now and then for over 20 years. Each time I enter the museum it feels like a homecoming, like I belong here, among these artifacts. It is almost as if their stories felt like my own. Familiarity and affection often go hand-in-hand, I reflect. Though as poet Robert Duncan always used to point out, familiarity breeds contempt, too.

"I don't want to do Old Kingdom stuff again," Alex says.

"And miss the wooden statue of the seated scribe with ivory eyes?" It's like missing a chance to see the Pope up close, as far as I'm concerned—get the ceremonial robes out and prepare to kneel. The seated scribe is, perhaps, my favorite piece of sculpture in the world. The form is graceful and harmonious; the lines natural; the 5000-year-old wood mysterious and strong; the subject matter rich with historical, social and cultural resonance; and most importantly for me, that scribe is serene. He enjoyed his job. Did he write bawdy lyrics, too? A lost opus on the nature of stellar dust? When I meet his enigmatic gaze, I confront the wonder of all there is to say.

"Come on," I cajole Alex. "Next to the 18th dynasty, Old Kingdom statuary is the most beautiful art Egypt ever produced."

"I like Picasso and Matisse," he declares, his nine-year-old voice child-like and wise at the same time. "And Archibaldo."

The pair of Brits who are in line in front of us turn around to see who's talking.

"We have to at least do Akhenaten," I insist.

"The guy with rubber lips?"

As we inch our way through security, I suggest that we only look at our favorite pieces on the first floor and then head upstairs, though if I had had my druthers, I would have stopped to inquire of each and every object, admire its features, marvel at its purpose, the way that two lovers greet each other after an absence, reveling in every familiar detail. My brain is apt to make quick connections, but loses them at the same rate. Reinforcement is my only hope.

As soon as we clear the x-ray machine, we burrow through a cluster of bewildered Germans, and I point out the exquisitely carved Palette of Namar from the pre-dynastic era, which is among the oldest administrative artifacts ever found on our earth. "I know," says Alex. Then we weave through clumps of Koreans, whipping past the 3500-year-old sacred boats to admire, fleetingly, the monumental statue of Ramses VI and his wife that came from the temple of Medinet Habu where X and I lived, years ago, on sacred ground. "I know," sighs Alex. We exit through the rear entrance to the main hall, past the gorgeous heads of one of the female pharaohs, Hatshepsut—"I know," groans Alex—and enter the Akhetaten room. I realize I have to slow him down or we'll be upstairs before I even have time to study a label.

I reach for my son's hand. "Why is Akhenaten important?"

"I don't know."

We stand together in front of a likeness of one of the weirdest guys in Egyptian history—a dude with sloe eyes, elongated nose, bulbous lips and hips, and a tummy that spills womanly over his toga. Even his thighs seem distended, as if his whole body had suffered from some sort of physical malformation. But yet the statue is somehow wonderfully pleasing—Akhenaten may have been grotesque, but his portraiture is beautiful.

"Does he have elephant-us, too?" asks Alex.

I can't remember the name of his condition—some kind of DNA malfunction.

"Marfan's Disease," says an Egyptian guy in a sports shirt and khakis on his way out of the room.

He must work here, I decide.

Next we admire the limestone stele of the royal family—Akhenaten, Queen Nefertiti, and their six lovely daughters. The Aten, the shining solar disk situated above their heads, has rays that end in delicate, nimble little hands. They reach on slender arms from the sky to the family and seem to caress them all in a loving, solar embrace.

Alex snaps. "I've seen this before."

"In books! And what have you seen? What do you understand?" Now I'm irritated. "Did you notice the famous Armana blue? The signature Flapper wigs the family wears? Do you know how lucky you are to be in this museum? To see this stuff up close with your own eyes? There are people all over the world who would give anything to stand here and look at the artifacts, up close, in real time!"

He huffs over to the corner, collapses on the floor and picks at his tennis shoes.

I work my way through the cases while he pouts. Akhenaten is an intriguing figure because he had some sort of vision in which he saw the inter-relatedness of all things, a vision so strong that it breached security and brought down the main frame. In one fell swoop, he wiped out the cacophony of competing ancient Egyptian gods—all 80 or so of the principle ones, depending on how you count—and installed his loving solar disk, the Aten, the one big, unifying force behind it all. The old-school priests eventually retaliated and assassinated the entire royal family, including each and every one of those darling girls. Centuries later, Akhenaten's vision was co-opted by monotheists who see the Aten as a precursor to Christianity or Islam or Judaism. Not me. Akhenaten's vision was bigger than that. He understood how dependent matter is on matter, idea on idea, love on love.

"Would you like to see the mummies?" I ask Alex. "If you can hold out for an hour and a half without complaining, I'll take you swimming at the pool and we can watch a movie tonight."

"One hour and fifteen minutes." Alex sets the alarm on his watch and stands.

We take the long way around, past the statue of Alexander the Great ("I know," says Alex), and climb the steps to the second floor. The Cairo Museum is a cavernous sort of place, with 25-foot ceilings and large, central galleries that adjoin smaller ones around the perimeter. I want to go to one specific room near the front left staircase that I'd first visited years ago with my Scottish boyfriend. It is a wonderful mishmash of an exhibit, full of mummified animals in 19th-century wooden cases with thick glass and little brass keyholes to lock the vitrine doors. It is all bandages and dust, history and mystery, the unrecognizable forms labeled with yellowed squares of hand-typed paper, reading "Mummified Cat, 21st Dynasty" or "Mummified Mouse, Fifth Dynasty."

"That's a crocodile?" wonders Alex, pointing to a large, elongated oar-like form wrapped in ancient cotton gauze yellowed to the color of Dijon mustard.

In the next case, a huge flattened fish, the size of a café table, leans its mummified form against the glass, almost as if it were trying to wiggle free. "The Pharaonic Egyptians had a thing about fish," I explain to Alex. "There were some words you couldn't say if you ate fish, and some fish you couldn't eat." I don't go into the reason why, fearing that the story of Osiris' penis being swallowed by a trout might provoke castration anxiety, as it apparently did so long ago. Even today, 5000 or 6000 years later, stories of Egyptians finding body parts in fish circulate in the press. I read one just the other days: "Egyptian Housewife Finds Male Organ in Carp."

Alex and I wander along, considering the mortuary catalog of ancient wildlife—anything and everything was mummified according to the dictates of some sort of ancient hoarding instinct that would rival the pathological collectors of today, the ones who keep newspapers from 1973 in case they need to check a refrigerator reference. In a curious reversal of the Second Noble Buddhist Truth, the one that counsels detachment, the Pharaonic Egyptians tried to hold onto time itself. And now we, in turn, hold onto theirs.

Alex points to an object that looks like a cocoon.  "Why would anyone want to keep a cockroach?"

"Everything is sacred, even Dung Beetles."

He glances at his watch. "Royal mummies?"

I love it when he does the one-raised-eyebrow thing.

We head toward the entrance of the mummy exhibit. "It's a little scary in there," I warn, remembering how I'd seen kids burst into tears, guilt written on the faces of their stricken parents who haul them down the marble stairs and out into the sunshine. And once I'd see a young Muslim woman faint, falling like a stage curtain in a heap of veils. I, myself, had always been aware of a woo-woo factor in the museum, but I'd never really been scared. Not yet.

"Mom, I'm like a man now." Alex stretches to his full nine-year-old height. But that little man reaches for my arm when, in proximity of the royal mummies, the dim lighting and hushed atmosphere, death becomes palpable. It seems to ooze through the room, almost as if the 5-HT2A receptors in the brain were about to loosen up and convince output layer 5 in the cortex that other forms of reality are real, too. The museum guards don't go into these rooms at night; they don't even walk around the museum if they can help it. There's too many tales of fleeting shadows, movements and sounds; too many witnesses to unaccountable stirrings; too many who have smelled perfumes, if they're lucky, decaying flesh, if they're not. Dear Reader, would you spend the night in the Cairo National Museum? I wouldn't.

"This mummy is unhappy," a veiled woman says in a whispered voice. The speaker is wearing boushiya headgear, a piece of transparent fabric without eyeholes that drapes from the forehead over chest, a fashion that I saw often in Syria.  It strikes me as ironic that the tourist next to us is completely covered in black fabric while the Pharaonic Queen in the glass case is stripped to her bones. The Queen's face gazes back at us, her expression petulant.

While we huddle over her, I tell Alex the little I know about Queen Makare who lived and died in the 19th Dynasty, when mummification techniques were at an all-time high. In its 3500 history, embalmers could botch their work, losing an appendage here and there, or, worse yet, spoil the chemicals so that putrescent worms breed, decomposing what's left of the remains. Queen Makare is in good shape, relatively speaking, though her bandages are an unsightly yellow, almost rusted in places, and her brown fingernails poke crudely through the gauze. A little bundle nestles at her feet.

"What do you think that is?" I ask Alex in a hushed voice.

"A baby?"

That's what everyone thought for more than a century. While Alex's eyes scan the label to check my answer, I tell him that the mummified bundle at Queen Makare's feet is the Queen's Favorite Baboon, her constant companion in life and in death.

"The pharaohs were a strange people," the Muslim woman half-whispers, half-giggles, through her fabric. I already know I'm strange, but I didn't point out that she's pretty strange, too.  Religious devotees of every stripe are so locked into their own ideas that they can't get the big picture through the bars.

Alex and I take our time moving around the room, the woman in the boushiya tagging along. Each royal mummy, as Pierre Loti wrote long ago, is strikingly different from the next. I can never look upon those faces without reading the vestige of identity and emotion—some seem about to break into guffaws, others are on the verge of sobbing, and still others look as if they might sit up, as happens when weird physical reactions occur, triggered by changes in humidity, light and temperature. Understandably, abrupt movements in the mummies terrorize Egyptologists and tourists alike. Most of the time though, the mummies are obedient. They recline rigidly in their places. There is beauty and suffering in their faces, and great dignity, too. I always feel that they're looking at me much as I'm looking at them.

"Ramses II is my favorite," I announce to Alex with pride as we pause next to his display. I can feel my heart beat faster. Ramses is still downright handsome after all these years, still amazing to look upon, with pleasing features, his skin dark and shiny like ebony. You can look at that face and see how he fathered 100 or so kids, and those are just the ones he bothered to list. He also set out on the largest building campaign since the pyramids, creating the famous rock-cut temple of Abu Simbel, adding walls and sculptures to various temples throughout the land, writing his name everywhere, erecting new structures, modifying the old, multiplying his likeness in stone as he multiplied his genes in the flesh; it was he, Ramses II—lest we ever forget—who won the first battle of superpowers, the Battle of Kadesh, and who also won the hearts and minds of his people.  He was the greatest pharaoh who ever lived.

"He was over 90 when he died."

Alex studies Ramses' skull. "It's kinda hard to tell."

More than a century ago, as the story goes, one of Ramses' arms suddenly shot up, scaring the museum-goers out of their wits—it hung in mid-air for decades, as if he was reaching out from the after-life with announcement or warning. The arm has since lowered, but the strength in that face remains, despite the years of humiliation, including an episode of cadaveric fauna that thinned his white hair. After he was sent to France for treatment, some of his hair turned up on the black market on a website out of Geneva. Once, in the 90s, much to my dismay, I found Ramses II tucked under a dirty tarpaulin during a museum restoration, and all I could do was literally verbalize an apology—the Greatest Pharaoh of Egypt deserved better. And now he had it, though if his voice could be heard, he'd probably want the exhibition all to himself. I don't think Ramses II would be good at sharing—destiny was too strong in him. He knew what he wanted, and he got it.

"How did your dad die?" Alex asks.

"I'll tell you about it one day," I say.

"How?" says Alex.

"He is ugly," the Muslim woman in boushiya comments.

Ramses looks at me sternly.

Everyone seems to be awaiting a different reply.

"How much time do we have left?" I ask Alex.

He observes that I'm changing the subject.

"We can do some King Tut and then go."

I can almost hear Ramses' joints creek. He always wants to be the center of attention, but since his tomb was robbed and Tut's wasn't, the tourists flock to the gold. But Tut wasn't important, not like the man whose remains are preserved in the case before us.

"Welcome to Egypt!" calls the woman's voice through her veils as Alex and I head toward the door.   

"My dad died in a kind of accident," I aver. "We'll talk about it some other time." Alex and I spend our last half-hour wandering through Tut's grave gear, objects that are sacred and beautiful. The artifacts in the museum fill my heart with joy, with the knowledge that, no matter what heinous depths civilization succumbs to, it is also capable of producing sublime works of art testifying to all that is noble, good and true about being alive. I feel so giddy in the presence of this accomplishment that I splurge in the bookstore on a history of the Middle East, a biography of Cleopatra, an anthology of Pharaonic literature in translation, a volume of Cavafy, and a classic on Egyptian magic.

Maybe I'll learn something in one of those books that will inspire me, something that I wouldn't have found if I hadn't gone to the museum; which I wouldn't have done, if I hadn't gone to Cairo; which I wouldn't have done if the computer hadn't crashed in Alexandria; which wouldn't have happened if I hadn't come to Egypt; and so on.

The philosopher Schopenhauer says that the pattern to events in our lives isn't there—we just seem to discover it when we look back on our history and extract a shiny chain of cause and effect. I'm more inclined to think it's the other way around. I want significance in adversity. I want a relativity of order. I want hope. I want Neter—an ancient trust in a collective, organizing force in the universe. I want to believe that suffering infinitely greater than my own can, if lessons are learned, diminish suffering in the future.

"Did you love your Dad?" Alex asks me in the taxi on the way back to the hotel.

"Yes," I say. "But I love you more."

*****

The groan of a drill, followed by the quick, sharp jabs of a hammer. Heavy furniture scraping, as if gravity could convert friction to pain. A thud. More drilling—shriller this time, more determined.

Off with the bedcovers! On with the slippers! I fling open the front door of my apartment, stomp downstairs and surge through a bright, open doorway, right into my Egyptian neighbor's living room.

"Why are you doing this?" I demand, in English. "Why on earth are you making so much noise at this time of night? Don't any of you have to get UP in the morning?"

I stand there with my sleep-mushed hair and face, my tent-size t-shirt, my sweatpants and ballerinas. An extended Egyptian family blankly stares back. They are seated on different-sized cardboard boxes and a couple of chairs. The walls in the apartment are painted bright, cherry-pastel and trimmed in a rich, creamy white. The color is overwhelming. We congeal in a stranger-at-the-door tableau—part bon-bon, part cough syrup.

Then the child, aged about 10, bursts into an uncontrollable fit of laughter.

A khawagaaya! In her Most Unattractive PJs! Yelling incomprehensible words in the family living room in the wee hours of the morning!

I'm probably the first 3D white woman the kid has ever seen, and hardly a credit to my gender or race.

"Why?" I repeat, more faintly this time. It isn't just the noise—it's everything I don't understand about Egyptian culture. Or myself. Or the dim and vertiginous terrain of the entire universe.

A stout woman in a red headscarf and a floor-length black coat takes charge. She flicks her hand and shoos me out the door, as if I'm some trifling irritant. "Malesh!" she says.

A misplaced key, a broken-down taxi, lack of change for a bill—these are Malesh. But I'm not prepared to yield nocturnal assault to the terrain of Things We Must Graciously Accept.

I stand my ground. I imitate a drill, a hammer, and scraping furniture in rapid succession. Then I point to the ceiling.

"It's 2:30 A.M.! C'est pas possible! Mish mumkin! Oxi!

The child convulses in giggles.

Back in bed, my earplugs no match nighttime remodeling, I try to reason with myself. Dawn, I say wisely, this culture has a very different noise threshold than other cultures you've lived in. You have to accept it, Dawn. Malesh, Dawn. Don't be a pushy American, Dawn. You don't have the right to meddle in other people's affairs, let alone tell them how to live their lives. You're a discredit to the Fulbright, Dawn. No one invited you in, Dawn. Go back down there with a box of chocolates and apologize.

But this isn't just an isolated incident. By the time Alex and I reach homework hour the next day, I'm fighting back tears or fury—whichever comes first.

"I can't think in this house, Mom," Alex announces, his protractor idling on the tip of his pencil.

"Why is this happening?" I ask, almost by rote.

"Did you hear that?"

"Huh?"

"DID YOU HEAR THAT?" shouts Alex.

What? The rugs? The maid on the other side of our thin front door is beating them with a large wooden mallet–she hangs them over the banister of the stairs and whacks away.

The elevator? It's screaming, thumping and heaving through the wall, its heroic exertions as frightening as they are loud.

The Call to Prayer? State-of-the-art loudspeakers directly opposite our living room ensure that we personally vibrate with the Call five time a day, unless it's Friday, a religious holiday or a funeral, when Islamic liturgy lasts several hours.

The music? Tunes from Officer's Rec Club blast into the courtyard below, ricochet up, and bounce among the concrete high-rises that crowd us in on all sides. At night, Alex has to put in earplugs and sandwich his head between pillows while I wait it out.

Or is it the-dreadful-apartment-upstairs?

A particularly stupendous blow explodes overhead.

"That!" Alex laughs, thoroughly amused.

Kids seem to perceive, more rapidly than adults, the point at which expectations About How Things Should Be irrevocably collides with How Things Are.

But I'm not ready to pleasantly cede control, let alone opt for acceptance. I don my black Miyake coat and tastefully arranged its folds before I clop upstairs.

The maid holds her mallet respectfully as I trudge past.

From the open doorway in the apartment above us, I watch sky pour in on three sides. The outside walls are mostly gone. I wonder if there is enough structure left to brace the roof. Bits of broken tiles, concrete, plaster, moldings and fixtures mound together, in strange, nostalgic dunes. Something more than architecture seems lost. I notice a swatch of Siwanese fabric, a fragment of an amulet, and a scrap of worked brass poking from the rubble. The mounds rise and fall, rise and fall, as they near the edge of the 14th floor. Egypt's western desert is just a few kilometers away, but the noble traditions of that way of life seem already swallowed up by the sand.

One workman is lifting a sledgehammer in what used to be an outer corner; he isn't wearing a safety harness. Another is hammering away on what might have been a balcony. I join in, banging loudly with a metal bar on a wooden strut. They notice I'm offbeat.

A real live khawagaaya! What was she doing here? What would she say?

We each put down our tools. I politely wait for them on the threshold.

I say hello formally, then I point my watch. "Arshara-talata, Arshara-talata," I solemnly intone, attempting to enforce, by my lonesome, the legal restrictions on construction work from 10 in the morning until 3 pm. Bursting with American efficiency, I note that it's already 5:30—they should have stopped a long time ago.

The workers look guilty. And confused. They mumble to each other. The khawagaaya is right—they know that. What they can't explain is the economic suffering in which they live. The money from their work will probably fill a child's stomach with something nourishing and warm.

"Meshi, meshi," one of them avers.

I thank them, say good-bye, go back downstairs and start some organic rice. The pounding resumes with a deafening boom; our ceiling lamp falls. It dangles bashfully on its wire above the dining room table, like a shy, uninvited guest.

Alex roars with laughter. "We've got to move, Mom."

The moment has apparently come. I look at the bulb.

"I know," I say. "I know."

*****

"Would you care for tea?" my new landlord asks, reaching for the pot.

I lift my wafer-thin China cup and saucer, its flowers reminiscent of 17th-century Sèvres porcelain. Only this is an Alexandrian copy, hand-painted on Attarine Street a couple generations ago. Like other furnishings in Mr. Hamdy's flat—the Venetian chairs and deco couches, the wooden lamp stands and marble-topped tables—the China set hints at former affluence, which, like the waterways from the Nile to the sea, has dwindled, perhaps already disappeared.

My own flat, three stories above Mr. Hamdy's, thoroughly embodies the desuetude that seems to saturate even the brand-new Carrefour mall. It is as if the weight of time, of history, can leaven the appearance of newly minted matter the way that a pan flavors food. My flat is run-down, worn, even a little sad, but it clings to a hereditary dignity. It has charm. As soon as I saw it, I knew I'd move in.

"This villa was built in the 1940s," says Mr. Hamdy, pouring out the cup. "I divided it into three apartments, and added the garage. It's been in the family now for over 60 years."

"Solid? The construction I mean." I'm thinking again of what brought the Lighthouse to ruin. "Those high rises we just moved out of—they don't seem strong enough to withstand even a small quake."

Mr. Hamdy lifts three spoonfuls of sugar into his cup. "They'll plunge."

I hear a faint "pht" as the sugar is swallowed up by the tea. "Most of the buildings in the city will collapse."

"Like pancakes." He frowns and stirs his cup. Mr. Hamdy is an architect of repute. Like long-lost friends from a previous incarnation, we click immediately when somehow, in the first three minutes of conversation, I refer to Hassam Fadi, one of Egypt's most celebrated architectural geniuses, the man who said it makes more sense to use indigenous mud brick and plaster than concrete.

"How do you know Fadi?" Mr. Hamdy asked, the surprise in his face erasing the creases that time put there to remind him of all the laughing and smiling he's done. He's a wise man, who has obviously suffered and achieved and carried on. Mr. Hamdy designed the bridge at Mina that millions of Muslim pilgrims cross to throw stones during the final rituals of the Hajj. The Ramy al-Jamarat, the stoning of the devil, is the riskiest part of the Hajj since millions of pilgrims, each with 49 stones, are determined to hit each one of three pillars seven times. The pillars, eventually expanded into walls, commemorate Abraham's three refusals of satanic temptation. Since the Saudi's didn’t route the crowds across the bridge the way Mr. Hamdy wants, each year pilgrims get trampled to death. "It's hard to tell the Saudis what to do," he sighs. Mr. Hamdy's other projects dot the Cairo skyline and suburbs. He takes a piece of paper and sketches a building he's just worked on. He's a good draughtsman.

"I can't understand why the Fulbright housed you in the General Buildings area, he says, when the conversation winds back around to the lease. "It's such... a popular district."

"I think part of my job is to know how people in Egypt actually live," I answer, refraining from the details. "But I'll work much better here—in the villa. It's quieter. And greener." I gesture to the tamarind trees outside his window, the fruit waving slightly in the breeze like slender hands stroking an aqua sky.

"It used to be gardens—gardens all the way down the hill."

As we sip our tea, Mr. Hamdy spoke of the Alexandria of the mind, of history, of literature; the city of cranky Forester and Cavafy-the-dreamer, of the visionary Durrell and the realist Mafouz; the ancient city of General Alexander who, by age 23, had conquered lands the Roman dynasties could only aspire to, never rule, the taste of the desert in their mouths; the golden and perfumed city of lovers, of sly, knowing embraces and torrid affairs; of rose water and lotus; the city of Trojan Paris and Mycenaean Helen, Helen with her slender ankles and erudite Cleopatra, and the loyal, flawed Anthony loving love more than life itself; Alexandria, a city of wide paved avenues and marble palaces, mosaics trimming the fountains and baths, the sound of running water cooling the summer air; with date palms and coconuts palms, eucalyptus and lilac; the city synonymous with the Lighthouse, the 7th wonder of the ancient world, its fire magnified by glass mirrors visible from 30 leagues; this is the Alexandria of Jews, Phoenicians, Nabeteans, Arabs, Indians, Greeks and Egyptians, a cosmopolitan city of learning, its library burnt and rebuilt, burnt and rebuilt; every ship that pulls into port yields her books and receives identical copies in their place; a city of first editions and mad manuscript collecting, where the definitive copy of Homer was edited and literary criticism was born; a city of astronomy, physics, geography and botany, where the circumference of the earth was first calculated, and the distance between earth and moon; Euclid worked here, geometric theorems spilling from his hands; in the labs, glass thickened into the magnifying lenses, and the brain was identified as the seat of consciousness, the nerves following their path, the heart put with the blood; Alexandria, a pragmatic city of realism and illusion, the magnets bringing the god Serapis to life, the steam opening the gates of the temples; the learned city where lovely Hypatia furthered Athenian philosophy on the steps of the Museion, her students so numerous the monks tore her apart, separating skin from bone with oyster shells; the city of burnt holocaust and missing tombs—where is Alexander? where Cleopatra?—the archeologists plotting centimeters of rumble, rescuing fragments of ornamental glass, the colors brighter than Tiffany; the decadent Ptolemaic city of wine and beer and syncretic art, and the stern, severe city of fasting Christian patriarchs, Origin and Clement and perhaps St. Mark; of gods Mazda and Mithras, the gods of the Manicheans and Gnostics, and the Hermeticists, their magic formulae etched in stone, the agathos daemon coiling mysteriously toward the sky; the debates were never settled, how much of Christ is human, how much divine, and how much more a prophet Mohammed; the Fatimids came and went, then the Mamluks and Ottomans; for millennia the merchants brought their wares—Bedouin, Magherban, Andalusian, Francs, Venetians, Pisian; they came from China and India, from Palmyra and Carthage, from Byzantium and Vineland; gold, silver, gems, mother-of-pearl still stock the stalls of the suk, and fabric, and carpets, and alabaster goblets brimming with karkadey sweetened with brown sugar and shined with key lime; the smell of fresh bread wafts on a sudden in the Mediterranean breeze, and pastries beckon from the sweet shops; this is a city crowded with pashas, Caesars, sultans and saints, with Bonaparte and Nixon, Mohammed Ali and Farouk, Sadat and Nasser, and the tenacious Mubarak; the Renaissance Fort of Quatbay houses original Lighthouse granite, and the Lighthouse with its square, octagonal and round tower models every minaret; not so long ago Bentleys and camels shared the same road, still bearing the name of Soma Street, as it has for over 2000 years.

"I remember when this street was lined with villas." Mr. Hamdy looks out the window as if they might still be visible.

I swirl my mint leaves in the bottom of my teacup and look out the window, as if I'd be able to see them, too.

*****

"Algammah considers this urhent massge apologize to Allah from all soles which will be gone no way during this severe facing. Oh God wi are sed," I read on the exterior wall of Alexandria University. Someone else has written a sloppy "fuck you" over the typescript. I can't read what the Arabic says.

I'm surprised to see the call to jihad, or holy war, on the walls of the very institution where I am going to teach this spring, and where I am probably one of a handful of foreigners—and perhaps the only foreigner. Am I the enemy of jihad? I wonder again.

Me? A woman who has come to this country to promote cultural exchange? A woman dressed in a long black skirt, a black shirt, and a black coat for extra modesty? A global citizen dedicated to experiencing the world in all its various and conflicting and lovely and frightening and resonate and invigorating and clumsy and accomplished manifestations? A woman who not only respects, but seeks out difference, on the principle that heterogeneity is necessary in a Darwinian perspective, adds spice to daily life, and kindles the fires of an intellectually promiscuous spirit?

I always tell myself that the extremists couldn't possibly be targeting me, but I keep my guard up, just the same.

Especially here, at the university.

*****

For decades, Alexandria University has had a reputation for foment. Periodically, the government cracks down on radical groups, and periodically, on-campus arrests are made. From the outside, give or take a few calls-to-arms, Alexandria University looks like other urban colleges elsewhere in the world, in the sense that it's a group of buildings and lots of young adults, with walls and gates to keep trespassers out. Trespassers are a sensitive issue on campuses in the Middle East, since the colleges are major recruiting stations for extremists of every stripe.  One of the big myths about the jihadi movement is that it's just a bunch of illiterate poor folk who don't know better, when the real dynamo of the death-to-Westerners campaign is the educated Muslims from the upper classes.

"Ana modarissa hena—Fulbright," I tell the armed guards at the gate while I hold up a long line of bustling students. I professor here.

The guards look incredulous. "Secretary?" one smiles.

"Professor," I reply a little too sharply. "Fulbright."

The mere mention of the Fulbright usually garners respect because of the quality of the professors associated with the program. I assume in other countries, in other cities, even Cairo, the first day the scholar arrives at the university there'll be some sort of welcoming committee, perhaps a reception with the university deans and faculty. Everyone will smile and shake hands, sip fruit juice and nibble on pastries. At the American University of Beirut, when Fulbright scholar Evelyn Shakir came to campus, we arranged all sorts of activities—parties, dinners, lectures, and so on.

But that was Beirut. This is Alexandria.

I already know there won't be welcoming speech.

No buffet.

"Fulbright?" the guard repeats.

*****

The guards lead me to a nice, but somewhat dim, building nestled in the shade of banyan trees where someone asks for my passport and goes to find a phone that works in order to verify my creditability.

After all, I could be a Christian Fundamentalist impersonating a Fulbright scholar in order to convert Muslims to Christianity, a nasty proposition, since proselytizing is usually illegal in Muslim countries. At their worse, missionaries obtain Visas under the guise of teachers and relief workers. Then they accompany the distribution of goods and services with scripture readings that turn into clandestine prayer groups and illicit Bible study, with a precise goal in mind: Christian baptism and conversion.

Once, in Paris, I received one of several emails from Mahdi, my most gifted student at the American University of Beirut. "Dr. Baude, May Allah strike me blind if I ever forget you."

Mahdi's emails always begin with a complimentary religious injunction. Allah's personal interest in the matter aside, we'll never forget each other, that's certain. I can still see Mahdi now, a plump young man with a quick sense of humor and gussets sewn into his pants by an apparently accomplished tailor.  A few weeks after classes began, I ran into him sitting on a bench in the AUB campus gardens with a huge pile of donuts on a plate, a look of confusion on his face. I asked, "What on earth are you doing with all those donuts, Mahdi?"

"I have to eat them," he said. "It's really hard."

"Why do you have to eat them if you don't want to?"

"If I lose weight, I'll be drafted into the army. I have to keep it above 90 kilos."

Mahdi was a born journalist if ever I saw one, able to summarize and interpret new material at the click of a screen. And his sentences, when he worked on them, were as clean and tight as guitar strings. He was a wonderful presence in the classroom, had lots of friends, and set an example of excellence.

"Remember those nice people from Texas I had pizza with?" he wrote in his last mail. "The other night they formed a circle around me and prayed for Jesus to enter my heart. Two of the girls cried. I know they're nice but I felt weird. They gave me a Bible. I don't know what to do."

Mahdi's email distressed me. I worried for his safety. And I was angry. How could these stupid missionaries from Texas corral my best AUB student? What gives them the right to mess with the lives of happy and successful kids? How can they justify indoctrinating a progressive Muslim into a fundamentalist Christian religion as intolerant and spiritually arrogant as any other fundamentalist camp? A conversion for Mahdi would, at the very least, damage, if not permanently wound him, both psychologically and emotionally. It would force him to break all ties with his family and his culture. It would even risk his life.  Mahdi may have been going to school in Beirut, but his family lives in Syria where the charge of Islamic apostasy carries the death penalty.

"Have you ever heard of the crusades?" I wrote back to Mahdi with a brusqueness I still regret. I advised him to immediately speak about the problem with his parents, pleasant people he'd brought all the way from Damascus to Beirut to discuss graduate school with me.

I never heard from him again.

*****

"Dr. Baude?" the officer says. "I take you to meeting."

It is a short walk to the English building, co-ed students staring at me every step of the way, 80% of the girls veiled, 10% with their faces covered, and 10% with bare heads. No foreigners. None.

The guard passes me next to a man on the first floor entrance of the English Building, who leads me to a totally veiled woman who takes me up three flights of dimly lit stairs ("No elevator," she says) to the office of the Head of English.

Though we've spoken on the phone on several occasions, Nazek and I are meeting face to face for the first time—or so I think. She is an attractive woman with a sparkle in her eye, dressed like female professors around the world in a conservative pantsuit. Her head is unveiled. She wears a tiny cross on one of her necklaces. She is Copt.

"You haven't changed a bit!" she exclaims. When I look surprised, she says, "I was at the lecture you gave at the American Cultural Center of Alexandria, the one on the Modernist poet …H.D."

I remember that lecture. I spoke about H.D.'s propensity for visionary consciousness, dwelling perhaps too long on the incident in which she saw the god Pan on the island of Capri. After my lecture a Western businessman came up to the podium. He was wearing a suit and a tie. He exuded a no-nonsense air. "The same thing happened to me," he said. "I was on Capri, and I saw Pan." He was relieved to share this information.

"Please, please—have a seat!" says Nazek. She is a practical woman. First, she tells me which building to go to when I need the bathroom, because there is no water in the English building. Then she tells me that there is often no electricity in the building, either.  I have to bring my own chalk for the board—there are little stands outside the campus walls where you can buy a stick at a time. There's no room for me to hold my evening seminar on campus—and it's not safe on campus at night, anyway—so starting next week, the students have to meet at my house at 7 pm. And, of course, the students don't have books.  There's no library either—or rather, there is a library, but no one can go in there since a couple years ago when the books were sprayed with an insecticide apparently lethal to humans, too.

I ask her how I am going to teach classes without books. And then I ask her which classes I'm teaching?

"We're still deciding," she says.

I see an opening.

"Can I teach creative writing?" No. "Poetry?" No. "Postmodern theory?" No. "Shakespeare?" No. "What is it you need then?"

Nazek says the best classes for me are "American Literature from the Civil War to World War I" and the "Contemporary British Novel."

"Did you read my Fulbright proposal?" I ask. "I'm not an expert in those areas." What I mean is that the classes she's assigning me will take a lot of work, since I'll have to read all the material.

"I'll give you the books, and then you give them to the students to photocopy," says Nazek, her confidence in me apparently sincere. "You'll do fine. Just be sensitive to social issues. Avoid discussion of religion at all costs. Do not discuss sexuality or love. Avoid any reference to political figures. Remember: these students are young and naïve."

I said that as a Fulbright Scholar I'm supposed to encourage discussion. And isn't that what a university is for? Isn't it a place where you come across new, unfamiliar, even disagreeable ideas?

"If I were you," Nazek smiles, "I'd be careful."

*****

"Mom!" says Alex. "What are you doing here?"
   
"Miss Debbie wants to talk to me."

She waves across the classroom from her desk. She can't get up to come to the door. She's crowded in on all sides with excited third-grade students, mostly Egyptian, a couple of Indians, and one little Dutch girl named Sibilla who Alex won't admit he has crush on.

Miss Debbie's classroom is a high-energy, high-powered place to be if you're nine years old and need an education. Classroom posters admonish, "Think like a winner!" and "Diversity is Strength," while "Tolerance" is the Word of the Month. On every bulletin board, on every wall, hang pictures of Endangered Species, colorful math props, maps of the Middle East, Europe and the Americas—even the planets in the solar system hover on invisible threads attached to the ceiling, the asteroid belt a swath of painted Styrofoam curving around the ceiling lamps. Miss Debbie isn't exactly Miss Frizzle from The Magic School Bus series, but she's close. Her appearance is even a bit odd, like Miss Frizzle's. Although every part of Miss Debbie is thin, her stomach is huge, distended, present. It precedes her by at least a foot. But it isn't a pregnant sort of tummy—no, the shape is all wrong, and Miss Debbie's kids are all in college back in the States. This is some sort of remarkable concentration of belly fat.

"What happened to her intestines?" Alex asked after the first time he met her.

She calls to me across the room, "Just a few minutes! They'll be going to gym soon!"

I know Alex will have a treat in gym class—I saw the middle schoolers flying kites in the field on the way to the classroom.  Some of the teenagers are in the pool, others on the tennis courts. Art students are sketching in the gardens.

I fell in love with The Schutz American School of Alexandria the moment I crossed the threshold. Although my X was putting on the pressure to keep Alex in the French system, the unfortunate site of the Lycée Francais d'Alexandrie in downtown Alexandria could never compete with the campus I found a short cab ride away. The grounds at Schutz are gorgeous—the original colonial estate serves as the administration building, with a colonial building for the teens, newer buildings for the primary school and preschool, and all of it encircled by a formidable, and regularly patrolled, wall. The pool and other amenities, I guess, must date from the 70s; the gardens have been there for over a hundred years.

As a prospective parent, I was shown the library, the computer room, the music room, and all the rest. But it was the spirit of the place that sold me: "Here's a reflection of winner!" a mirror at the bottom of the main staircase proclaims. "Reach for the stars!" challenges the hallway ceiling on the top floor. Everywhere I glanced, I saw busy kids, happy kids, studious kids, Muslim and Christian, local and foreign, native English speakers and those just learning our imperial tongue. And the Head of School and Primary School Principals were happy Grandpas. In fact, the more I looked around me, the more Grandparents I saw running the show. I knew Alex would thrive here.

But was he?

"I need to have a parent-teacher conference," Miss Debbie said in a phone message. "Please come on Tuesday afternoon."

When the kids file out to gym—Alex giving me a little, affectionate wave good-bye—Miss Debbie asks me to have a seat. "In Alex's chair," she says, indicating one of those school desks with the seats attached so that I have to sort of fold myself up in order to fit. Miss Debbie stands.

It is clear that I have been put in my place.

"When I heard we were considering accepting Alex," she begins, her tummy fat at eye-level, "I was in favor of allowing him in my classroom since he's a native speaker."

"This is the first time he's been in an English-language school, " I blurt, thinking there is something unsatisfactory about his written work. "He hasn't had much chance outside the home to write in English."

"He adjusted immediately," she continues, as if she hasn't heard. "The kids all seem to like him, which is unusual, particularly for a student who enters mid-year. It usually takes time to be accepted in this school. But it's as if Alex has always been here, all year long."

"He loves your class," I interject, hoping a little flattery might help. But I know it's coming—something I don't want to hear is coming.

The tummy fat shifts a little—it sort of rotates from hip to hip. Above the mound, like an eagle on high, Miss Debbie looks at me pointedly. "May I show you some homework projects?" she asks.

Yes, yes, of course. All the homework projects you want.

"This," she says, "is the work of an average student." She reaches into an adjacent desk. I realize it's the project Alex recently completed on our overnight weekend in Cairo—the "Working River" project. Miss Debbie holds up a little booklet like Alex had to make. The cover design, like Alex drew, is of a river with boats and a city on the bank. Only this one looks better than what Alex drew. More detailed. Neater.

"And this booklet was done by an 'A' student." Miss Debbie now shows me a "Working River" project cover that puts Alex's deeply to shame. The kid clearly used a ruler and a 40+ pack of colored markers.

Now Miss Debbie holds up Alex's booklet. I am aghast.

"I agreed," she says, "to allow Alex into my classroom because I thought he'd set a higher level of achievement."

Oh lord, I say to myself. Maybe French village standards are different? Or are the standards at Schutz very high?

"And since you're a Fulbright Scholar," she continues, her belly fat contracting ever so slightly, "I thought that Alex would be a skilled student."

Wait! I want to say. Alex is fluent in two languages, knows bits and pieces of two others, can identify a Paleolithic arrowhead from a happenstance imitation, can do wheelies on his scooter, play boogie-woogie on the piano, catch a catfish, multiple two-figure numbers in his head, discourse on the Greek myths, decide whether it's better to eat the paella or the polenta, wonder how stars are made or who invented the ink cartridge. He can't be judged once and for all by his "Working River" project, can he? But what can I do? There is an imposing concentration of belly fat at eye-level.

"I'm afraid Alex's work in my class," Miss Debbie announces while I tense in his seat, feeling embarrassed for him, "is substandard."

I take a deep breath. Above that squishy, jelly-belly is an accusatory gaze. Miss Debbie wants Alex to conform to homework assignments in such a way that his results are able to be assessed so that he is in the middle or the top of his class, not at the bottom. She puts his "Working River" project on the desktop in front of me. I acknowledge that it's sloppy. I see that it's careless.

"Maybe he has disgraphia?" I half-ask, half-announce, wondering if Alex's impatience with manual tasks is indicative of a physical disability.

But Miss Debbie is too smart for me. "I've been teaching for 40 years," she replies, a slightly world-weary tone in her voice. "I've seen disgraphia. I can assure you: Alex does not have disgraphia. He can hold a pencil. He can direct it."

We pause. From the open windows, I hear the joy of the kids chasing kites.

"We'll do better," I say, definitively, managing, at the same time, to scoot out of the desk so I can regain my height and, by association, my authority. I am a Fulbright Scholar, after all. My kid is not an idiot. "I don't think we're used to working hard," I explain. "Alex has been in small village schools in Southern France where the expectations are obviously of a different order. We'll work diligently, I promise. Alex can do much better—I know it."

Instead of cheering me on, like I expected, Miss Debbie offers a perfunctory, "I hope so."

Then she hands me the disgraced "Working River" project as I head to the door.

I realize the belly fat is a ploy. She's made of iron, Miss Debbie.


   











 
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