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I Know Many Songs, but I Cannot Sing
By Brian Kiteley

Chapter One

Ib still misreads simple images: the shadow cast by a sleeping child is the family cat back home in Massachusetts snuggling illogically into the ribs of this dusty Egyptian kid halfway around the world. Jet lag, dehydration. A young Egyptian man joins him at the same pace, walking too close for Ib's comfort and on his deaf side. He says, "Vous voulez un bateau?" Ib has lived in Cairo three years, but he's still a tourist to the local touts. Tourists ride the lateen sailboats on the Nile. Ib flew to Massachusetts four days ago for his stepfather's funeral and returned this morning. He usually answers in Arabic, "I am not a foreigner," which often confuses these people. But today he shakes his head and sleepwalks over the uneven flagstones and gazes up at a lovely mixture of date palms and feather-leaved locust trees. The fight with his oldest sister after the funeral replays itself. She called Ib a foreigner. There were divided loyalties when his parents divorced and, after their mother divorced their Dutch stepfather, remarried each other. Ib's sister felt he grieved too ostentatiously over his stepfather, and that this was a veiled criticism of their parents' remarrying. But foreigner was such an odd thing to call Ib that a bubble of silence followed the word. Then both siblings burst out laughing; hugs, kisses, tension reduced but not entirely eliminated. "I am not a foreigner," Ib repeats to himself in Arabic. Ana mish khawaga.

Time passes, and Ib is amid the African jungle aromas of a nursery that impolitely obstructs a public promenade with basket ferns and rubber trees and passion flowers. He finds himself in conversation with the fellow who asked if he wanted a boat ride. Ib does not speak French well but soon is chattering away in it, relieved to be speaking a language so similar to English (and weary after an hour of conversation in Arabic with his tutor). It is perfect spring weather, warm and dry, the air pollution blown briefly into the desert, and the odors of unwashed bodies and donkey manure and absolutely unregulated vehicle exhaust fumes are as intoxicating as ever. Without being asked, Ib tells his companion that he is an American teaching Middle Eastern history to Egyptian students in an English-language university. The Egyptian does not laugh. He tells Ib that he teaches, too, at a secondary school called Dar es Salaam near the Palace of the President. Ib knows dar es salaam means the realm of peace, where Islam is ascendant (as opposed to the realm of war, dar el harb, where it is not). The Egyptian says, "I am Gamal. We will be good friends," and Ib wants to believe this common rhetorical flourish. But when Ib asks where the city of Dar es Salaam is, their continents begin to drift apart. The city is somewhere in Africa and for the moment this feels to Ib like the missing piece of a puzzle. In answer, Gamal describes in great detail how his school building is laid out. He finishes and asks, "Compris? C'est compris?" Ib says yes but that Gamal has misunderstood his question, so he rephrases it. Again the elaborate architectonic tale; it seems Gamal wants to become an architect in Paris. All this Ib learns, almost against his will, but he cannot make himself understood on one small point. Where is Dar es Salaam? Gamal says (in English with a French accent), "You say you comprehend, then you say you don't. I can't comprehend what you fail to comprehend." Ib loses that dim glow of fellow feeling, and he asks with irritation, "You told me you teach, so why did you ask if I wanted a ride in a bateau?" Gamal says he was translating for a boy whom Ib did not seem to hear. Despite Ib's deaf ear, this answer fills him with distrust. They stop by the banyan tree in front of the Indian Embassy, and Gamal feebly asks for Ib's phone number, which Ib honestly cannot remember. The ministry of communication changed it last week. An Egyptian military policeman sits half asleep in his narrow booth with an unloaded rifle on his shoulder. "Bien," Gamal says, wheeling around, insulted Ib has not offered the hospitality of his home or even his telephone after Gamal was so generous with his talk, his time, his work, and his afternoon promenade. He disappears. Dar es Salaam is the capital of Tanzania, Ib remembers, with a slap of the forehead. When he is sure Gamal is gone, Ib turns around and retraces his steps along the Nile half a mile to his apartment building. His sisters saw him off at the airport, and his middle sister said mildly, "You loved your stepfather more than your own father." Except Ib had heard, "More than your own fatherland," and when he found the remark hilarious, his sisters just stared at him. Egypt is a green and black lotus when viewed from the upper atmosphere, cleanly chopped off at the Aswan High Dam and set in the earthen vase of Lake Nasser. Nutrients steadily bleed from the enormous flower. The Nile no longer floods annually and the soil grows saltier each year. Cairo is the knot at the point in the plant where stalk becomes flower--a tumor that now threatens to choke off this ancient organism. The river ran a few miles east several centuries ago, so the modern colonial city of high-rise hotels and government bureaucracy stands in old riverbed and swampland. Examine one small part of medieval Cairo, which sits on higher ground on the former banks of the Nile. A certain street can't make up its mind which direction to go and dithers, turning sharply here and there, narrowing, then widening, before it abruptly concludes in a great pile of bricks and trash. As if it were a mountainside, goats perch on this ruin of a once fashionable caravanserai, an old hotel for camels and men. A dozen steps from this rubble, the second floor of a three-story building juts out over half the lane. Peeling turquoise paint reveals faded yellow beneath. Ib dangles for a moment outside a window in this boxy section of the building. He grips the wooden latticework of the building across the street, only two feet away at this height, to stare in at the room from which he has just crawled. In the apartment is another man named Gamal, thin and wiry with a nearly implausible shock of black hair like the first Gamal Ib had met halfway across this big city earlier in the day. When he met the second Gamal in front of a perfume merchant's shop near Husseyn Square, Ib asked him if they had run into each other that afternoon in Zamalek. The man misunderstood the question and spoke for a time about his brother, who works at the Safeway in Zamalek. Ib lands on the hard-packed earth floor of the alley, and two boys fly by shouldering hot metal pans of bubbling eggplant casserole from the neighborhood's communal ovens. They pay him no heed. The smell that lingers in their path briefly blurs the scenery. It is Ramadan, fifteen minutes before sunset, when the city will break its daylight fast.

Ib studies the area for a place to hide and to stake out the apartment he's just left. A hill of shoes sits in the middle of the dirt street. The sagging buildings are two and three stories, with evidence of grandeur in the elaborately carved entry doors, but the top floors are newer, shoddier, lamed by too much sand in the concrete. The confusion of line and color across the way coalesces into meaning: a barbershop. Ib enters and takes the only chair, waving his right hand to prevent a haircut. He asks in a whisper if they mind him sitting here for a few minutes. The puzzled barber nods graciously, and his tiny malnourished son returns to poking the single pot of fuul cooking on a hot plate in the corner of the cavelike space. The smell of burnt garlic and turmeric sends a wave of calm through Ib's frazzled nervous system. All three people in the small room are disoriented from lack of food and grateful for the promise of something in their stomachs. The barber and his son accept the foreigner's strange behavior because during this last week of Ramadan it's normal to be inside out and upside down, sleepy during the daylight fast, eating the biggest meal at midnight, and awake before dawn for a light snack and prayers.

In the apartment above the street, Gamal carries a tray from the kitchen to the only other room, which has a sleeping mat and a low table with candles on it. The tray holds two tiny glasses, a brass kanaker of steaming Turkish coffee, and a cellophane tube of Biscomisr cookies with which to break the fast. This is not the usual iftar, which would be the glass of dates and water, the cup of tea. Gamal is still talking nonstop, as he has been since they met in Husseyn Square an hour before. Gamal does not yet know that Ib is missing. Ib climbed out of Gamal's home to escape this maddening talk. So why is Ib spying on this man's movements after his clean getaway? Ib behaved rudely by sneaking off without saying goodbye or thanking Gamal for the hospitality. But Gamal was equally ill-mannered. Ib does not know why he is watching this man.

Some of the subjects covered during Gamal's hour of talk: the great friendship they will have; the difficulty Gamal has accepting Ib's name--he prefers to call him Ibrahim; the movies of Kaleemt Ishtwud; the language of Arabic, which Gamal will make Ib speak like one good Arab Man, which Gamal says is the language everyone in the world knows; felucca rides on the Nile; the English language, the greatest language on earth, which Ib will teach Gamal to speak like one good English Man; this great beauty the singer Paula Abdul, but what is she a servant of (abdul means "servant of") and how can we make her visit our house which we will build together near the Pyramids; the Pyramids, which Gamal feels one moment are the great monuments of the world we know, the next moment, garbage heaps, where bad people sell bad things that do not make Egypt look good;'the right of a man to marry a woman for a few weeks, a very necessary right, men are much stronger and fairer this way, men grow beards more quickly, men walk in straight lines.

One detail puzzles Ib. In the middle of these schemes and harangues, Gamal stepped out of character to speak of a recent Egyptian novel, which had been serialized in the Communist newspaper Al-Ahali. Ib keeps track of such things, and he had not heard of the book, nor the writer. Gamal's review of the novel was entertaining. A sultan in medieval times decides a certain sheikh, later a saint, is developing too large a following. The sultan sends agents to do what they must do. The saint assumes several different forms--as a lowly donkey, as a beautiful young woman, and as a wrinkled old man--to fool the agents of the sultan. They are so baffled they are won over and they turn on their master, who in turn has to disguise himself as a street actor and circus performer to escape their vengeance. Ib accepted this fleeting eruption of literacy in a man he assumed was illiterate, because a love of books and old poems is so common in Cairo. The ability to retell this story with flair and an elegant sense of timing kept Ib interested in Gamal long after he might ordinarily have abandoned him.

The barber invites Ib to join him and his son for if tar, to break the Ramadan fast. Ib descends slowly from the chair without turning to acknowledge the invitation. He walks out of the shop, whose walls are painted a soft sweet blue. The barber follows Ib to the edge of the turquoise glow the shop gives off, as if to step beyond it into the vaguely defined street--there is no door or wall to separate the barbershop from the city--would rob him of his powers to speak, to cut hair, to entertain his new friend. Ib tries to ignore the look of sadness that spreads across the globe of the barber's face by examining the shop directly across from this one, dark now, but with a small flame flickering in the corner--a tinsmith, Ib guesses, who keeps a fire going perpetually for heating and molding the tin into shapes and designs dictated by tourism, not utility. He looks up. Ib watches Gamal discover that his very good friend is no longer in the apartment. Ib tells the barber, whose wife probably died in childbirth, that he is very sorry he cannot accept his hospitality. The barber says, "Our feast is only beans and rice without you." Ib walks away, grinning at the barber's wit, making no effort to hide himself from Gamal's view.

He comes around a corner to a street fair. Dozens of people pass him, zombies, walking stomachs. They bump against each other constantly, but never against Ib. The sky is sunlit and daylight blue above the buildings, but it is already dusk in the narrow canyons of these ancient streets. The neighbors have strung a row of blinding halide lights from second-story balconies. Electricity is heavily subsidized by the government so it costs little to waste this way. Children swoop up and down in a boat swing. At one stall, where the object is to shoot at strings of popcorn, the proprietor sits on his tall stool, casually aiming his air rifle at passersby, including Ib. A fly-covered boy is "tugging at Ib's shirt. "What time, mister, what time?" Ib usually ignores this question, but there is good reason to want to know the time now: when does the sun set? Without looking at his watch, Ib tells the boy, "Fifteen minutes, better hurry." The boy breathes on both palms and wipes imaginary sweat from his brow and limps off. At the end of the temporary playground, two long tents with orange, black, and green patterns take up the whole width of the street. Ib has heard somewhere that a Christian neighborhood borders this one, and these Muslims know full well that Egyptian Christians on the way to or from work or market will have to squeeze by the tents, peer into the warm, friendly interiors, and wonder for a moment if their centuries of clinging to an outmoded religion are not, after all, wrongheaded.

Ib chooses the darker, less crowded tent, where three European men in their mid-thirties sit on mats talking softly. A fourth man, Egyptian, sits slightly apart, smiling at his socks. Clearly, the Europeans are converts to Islam. They all wear full beards, white robes, and lace skullcaps. The other tent blazes with light, buzzes with chatter and shouts and laughter, and smells of wonderful food. Ib prefers this tent because only four discreet oil lamps illuminate it. An Egyptian would always choose the crowds and noise and light. In Arabic Ib asks the air between the four Sufis if he might join them. One replies courteously, though not warmly, that he is most welcome. Ib removes his shoes and shakes over his shoulders the kufiyeh he has been wearing in the style of a European scarf. The aloofness of these converts appeals to him. The convert desires nothing more than to convince other unbelievers to join him in the realm of peace. But it is nearer still to iftar. The excitement and derangement such hunger causes is at a fever pitch. No one expects normal courtesies three weeks into the month of fasting. Ib makes a cozy spot on the rugs, slightly outside the group, and he sees the second Gamal walk by. Gamal stares directly in at Ib, but he does not break his stride, and in the next beat he is gone. In the traces this Gamal leaves in his memory, Ib is not sure which one has just passed, the first or the second Gamal. Something he has not noted before about Gamal's dark curly hair strikes him now: the hair is a wig; the wig was slightly askew.

Ib tries to listen to the phlegmatic conversation these men are having. The language feels German at first, but Ib cannot make himself pay attention. They appear to be talking about food. The perfume of roasting lamb wafts over them, and each man's head moves slightly in the direction the smell is coming from.

The muscles across his chest and his shoulders begin to unkink. Ib turns the house lights down in his mind, to conjure up X an Egyptian woman he knows from the National Library. He closes his eyes and imagines her lying on a hospital table. A thick white towel protects her modesty. A doctor's pink-gloved hands probe her damaged ears and mouth. Her eyes are open but unblinking. The doctor folds the towel back from one breast and cups the stiff dark nipple in his hand, which is familiar with this terrain. The other hand reaches deep into her mouth and pulls something out: a simple gold wedding band. Noise from the tent intrudes on this improbable hospital scene. Ib uncrosses his legs. One of the Sufis has spoken in English, a moment before, and only now does the question form in Ib's mind: "You sit on your hands as if at any moment you will jump up and run away. Yet you entered our tent as though you were coming home. Why this contradiction?"

Ib stares through his eyelids and takes his time answering. When he has a ripe paragraph of thought to pluck, he begins. "I do research at the National Library," he says in English. "It's a great place. I love it. I miss it. The problem I guess is, there's a woman who worked there. A young Egyptian woman, very pretty. Her job was in the microfilm room, where I do most of my research. Some of the medieval Persian and Arabic poetry manuscripts the library has--they're falling apart. The library has such an enormous . . . treasure of these things and they're turning to dust. I never thought much about her. But I began to notice she favored me over other researchers. This can be a lonely city for single European men, unless you're a convert." The converts agree vigorously. "Gradually we became friends. I felt awkward with her, but she was so eager to be my friend, and she knew these books fairly well. At first I wondered if she was literate. No, that's ridiculous, she could read, but I just assumed she wasn't literate in the archaic language of these poems. I always underestimate Egyptians that way, their knowledge of great poems. What we would consider esoteric literature in the West--they know by heart. When she microfilmed a poem for me that she knew, she was so happy. I found out, eventually, afterwards, that . . . anyway, nothing happened. We had a cup of coffee once. One cup of coffee. Then she didn't come to work. In two years I've never known her to miss a day. I began to hear stories. The front desk started harassing me. I just got my annual work-study visa renewed. An enormous hassle. They are taking longer and longer checking my identification. I asked about her at the desk. They said she'd been . . . hospitalized. Then my library card is taken from me. Now the interior ministry is calling very politely asking me to stop by, and the appointment is invariably canceled at the last moment, usually after I've been sitting in the waiting room half an hour."

The Sufis seem to have moved closer to Ib when he opens his eyes. He examines them carefully for the first time. Like Ib, they are adept at not talking and staring calmly--as if into him. He feels he has met two of them before, a common suspicion among foreigners in Egypt, and usually true. Ib wants to know what country in Europe these men call home. As a test, he says in Dutch, "We could build our highways in the Netherlands as straight as rulers because the land is so flat, but we deliberately kink them to keep drivers alert." One of the converts laughs for an instant, then looks embarrassed, and translates the thought into German for two of his friends and into Arabic for the fourth, who has the preternatural stillness of a sheikh. After this brief exchange, no one talks The three who spoke Dutch and German could be from anywhere in northern Europe or Scandinavia. Chanting from the next tent leaks into this one. The ground vibrates, hands pounding the earth. Ib examines the Egyptian man he assumes is the sheikh to measure jealousy or any emotion on his face. But he is the picture of self-abnegation. His tariqa of European converts is enough mortification in itself. Ib imagines this man going home to his wife in a middle-class apartment block in Giza. Would he ever vent his spleen over these dim, showy, flat-footed ex-unbelievers? Would his wife shut the door in their faces and shout to her husband, "They're here! Have you not yet convinced them what a silly mistake they made renouncing their own born cultures and religions? They'll never understand Islam, and they'll certainly never marry any of my daughters!"

A cheerful voice from the street calls out several friendly Egyptian Arabic greetings, and the four men in the tent, who have formed a glum semicircle around Ib, sit up straighter and put on bright smiles and edge away from him. Another European, also bearded, but dressed in jeans and a leather jacket, enters the tent, takes his shoes off with his back to them, and trots over to the group. He grasps each Sufi by the upper arm and plants a noisy kiss on each cheek. He banters with every man in a different language. Ib can make out German, Danish perhaps, English sprinkled in here and there, as well as Arabic. The recent arrival moves from one vernacular to another without pause or the gear-changing Ib is used to, even though he knows three languages well. The pastiche of foreign words fills the tent with such goodwill that Ib forgets for a long time that he is being completely ignored. He peers into their breathless, hearty conversation, looking from one face to the next as the talk dances from man to man. He is shoulder to shoulder with them, curious one moment, bored the next, but he feels as if he is an intimate part of the conversation. From time to time the new arrival, who is clearly the real sheikh, even puts his hand on Ib's arm or knee while making a point wholly unrelated to Ib.

But Ib knows he does not exist for these men. They can smell his cynicism and casual refusal to accept the simple truths of their faith. They know without even probing that he is not a candidate for conversion. His pathetic story, which the four Sufis have imparted to their sheikh without, Ib imagines, actually telling it, has nothing to do with their ignoring him. He is simply not of any use to them.

Ib replays his story and finds it truthful and accurate, which surprises him because he felt at the time that he was telling a pack of lies. But a few details are not quite true. Ib has had no problem with the library or the government about his visa. The American University takes care of all his work-visa matters. As a matter of general principle, he should be in trouble. The government ought to be looking into the situation. But, so far as he knows, it is not. He still has easy access to the library. He never took the woman across the street for coffee. Even coffee in a public, outdoor cafe would be enough to condemn him in Egypt. The appearance of sin is as damning as sin itself. He wants at least the possibility of a guilty conscience. Her savage beating and hospitalization might have been remotely his fault if he had taken her across the street for coffee. He uses the "X" in his interior monologues not to protect her innocence, but because he cannot remember her name. Indeed he is not even sure whether she was beaten up or he misunderstood a stray remark. It might have been her appendix.

He stands up. "Why," he says quietly in English, "do you pretend I don't exist?"

The European in the leather jacket motions for Ib to sit down, the first gesture he has directed at him, which undams a flood of gratefulness in Ib's chest. "Haven't you been listening to us?" the leather-jacketed sheikh asks in English. "We've been talking about your case since I arrived. I am sorry. I thought you understood German."

Ib speaks German almost as well as he speaks Dutch and English. His stepfather grew up in Germany and Holland. Ib is astonished to realize his brain has been scrambling the German the converts were speaking.

The sheikh patiently summarizes their discussion. One of the converts knows someone who knows Ib well, and he also recognized Ib from the Dutch Institute, where Ib has lectured several times. He'd heard the story of the beating. This sends a chill through Ib: How can his improvised lie told only to disorient the moral compasses of these holy men have become common knowledge? The sheikh in the leather jacket confesses that they are more worried by the visa problem, which struck a nerve in them all. He explains how each one of them has a similar story. It is ironic how the nominally Muslim government harasses European converts to Islam. "We sympathize with your plight," he says. "But, as you yourself admit, you were wrong to be seen with this woman in public. Even unbelievers must honor the customs of the country."

Ib's deceptions make him feel argumentative. He chooses to speak German. His stepfather once said German is a good language for yelling at dogs. "How can you honor something you find repugnant?" he says. "When yu return to your homelands, do you honor abortion or the careless pornography of advertising? Do you stomach the ingrained attitude that Western businesses deserve to feed on the markets of the Third World? Do you accept it as your fatherland's right to dump on Egyptian peasants the chemicals and drugs and birth control devices our own countries have long banned?"

The sheikh smiles and extends his hand. "I see that we will have to agree to disagree," he says in English.

Ib takes the hand, not to shake it but to pull some emotion out of this man. Still in German, he says, "I don't agree to disagree. I want to hear you say that it was wrong of this woman's cousin, who is an internationally renowned plastic surgeon, to beat her up so badly that he had to operate on her himself. I want all five of you to admit that the violent defense of honor and virginity is the sign of a backward culture."

The German sheikh tries to free his hand. He suddenly laughs, as if he's just gotten a joke. "You Americans. We don't have the luxury of an objective point of view, as you do, because this is now our home."

The German turns the stranglehold of his hand into a handshake. He says, "Stay with us for iftar. Smell the food? I promise we will convert only your stomach."

"Yes," Ib says, rising from his crouch. "I have an errand to run, but I'll be right back. Before the cannon shot. Save me a spot."

Tears cloud his view of the exit, and he stumbles into a wooden post, to which he apologizes in Arabic.

Outside, he climbs over ropes and stoops under posts jammed against crumbling walls and comes to a rare quiet street, the inadvertent gift of these prayer tents, which prevent even Korean midget trucks from roaring and honking down this narrow passage. Beyond the last tent is a cafe. The chairs and tables take up the whole street. The aromas that emanate from the cafemint tea, karkaday, shisha pipe smoke, burnt sugar, and coffee--are hypnotizing. A waiter zigzags from table to table, delivering tall glasses filled with dates and water to the lonely smattering of men in the coffee-house who patiently await the cannon shot from the Citadel that will inform them the sun has set so they can break their fasts. Everyone who has a family should be with them now; these men must be recent immigrants to Cairo from the countryside or some of the estimated one million Egyptians from other parts of the country who spend days and weeks dealing with the monstrous centralized bureaucracy, all the while camping out on streets or in parks. The thread of a mournful amplified chant begins to rise above the distant, diminishing car horns, shifting gears, shouts, and clopping hooves. The sky has grown deep blue. Birds return for if tar too. This monthlong celebration is really a tribute to evening--the cool and calm of it in the desert world.

Gamal Number Two sits alone at the edge of the tables, watching Ib carefully, eyes just above his newspaper, like a cartoon spy or private detective. Ib walks straight to the chair beside him and says, "Mind if I make myself comfortable in this here seat, Gamal?" in loud American English. "Or are you the other Gamal?" The Egyptian looks bewildered, but after a moment he meticulously folds the crinkling tissue of his newspaper. Gamal lays a palm on his chest, as a taxi driver does when he tries to charge the tourist rate to a foreigner who does not consider himself a tourist. This gesture puts Ib completely at ease, back in the known world of cardboard cutouts of the Egyptian working class. He considered Gamal an unbearable annoyance half an hour ago but is very happy to see him now. He calls to the waiter for coffee and lupini beans. Casually, as a joke, Ib asks why Gamal is following him.

"I follow you not, Bey," Gamal says, in English. "There are many of me in this city. I miss you when you leave my window. But I follow you no. You follow me, mish kidda? This is happy good luck we do iftar together. You go to this table. I live in this table. Ask all my friends." He speaks to the nearest neighbors, a rapid sentence in Arabic that Ib can only partly translate: "Tell the American professor that a woman . . . four streets of leather." The men at nearby tables burst out laughing. Gamal seems at home on stage. He momentarily lights up, grows more noble, while the laughter washes over him.

"You know I follow another American today," Gamal says again in English, in a tone that indicates he has something to confess. I do not know why."

Ib says he is not American, a lie he commonly uses for anonymity. Americans are more exposed, better liked, and representatives of the place most lusted after by the average Egyptian.

"As you say. This American is rich and own many books and understand our ways and he walked as if he knew the secret of happiness, so I follow him from Boulaq across the bridge to Zamalek, and then to the Gezirah Club, and I try to speak with the guards, who are from my village in the Delta. But you put a man in front of the wealthy and he becomes one of them, a snob, patronizing, better than you. But he's no better, he's worse in fact, a pathetic uniformed lackey who licks the trail these slugs leave on the ground and then thanks them. So I climbed a tree and saw you playing tennis in yellow underwear with a beautiful young woman, calling out to her to raise her racket this way or bend her knees or think of the ball as her friend, and I laughed and laughed until I fell out of the tree."

A shiver runs up Ib's spine, like the shadow of a jet thrown from miles above. Gamal appears to have learned, in the course of one paragraph, to speak fluent, unaccented, and idiomatic English. He has also described with chilling accuracy an earlier portion of Ib's day, four hours before and three miles away from where he met this Gamal in Husseyn Square. Shortly after getting home from the airport, he played his regular Tuesday morning tennis match with the daughter of the Egyptian ambassador to Greece in Zamalek. The game might have looked like a lesson because Ib gave Soha many pointers. "Enough of this charade," Ib says calmly, trying to sound commanding, but falling flat in the last syllable of "charade," which he pronounces pompously in the British fashion. "You work for the government," he says. "I don't know why your department is having me followed. Surely you don't think I made love to the girl. Everyone I've talked to knows it was the cousin. My behavior was always honorable. I took her across the street to a little coffeehouse on the Nile and we held hands. Nothing more. I wanted to kiss her, but one knows that sort of thing is out of the question."

Gamal begins to laugh. It is an uncomplicated laugh at first, what Ib would call peasant laughter. Ib hears his own idiotic confession and cringes at the bizarre and progressively less plausible versions of this story bubbling out of him tonight. "Erase all that," he says. "Let me try again."

"Naw, you were doing just fine. I wanna hear more," Gamal says in perfect American English, with the flatness of a Californian ordering a burrito on Venice Beach.

They look at each other as if they have just met.

"Who the hell are you?" Ib asks. "What kind of game are you playing on me? Did you think you were having fun with some stupid tourist? Well, you were obviously not what you pretended to be from the moment I met you." He is desperate to salvage even the illusion of understanding from this wildly incomprehensible moment.

Gamal stands up and says in an awesome voice, "Who the fuck are you to criticize my acting?"

The cafe goes silent. Even the women chatting across the street from second-floor windows freeze mid-gesture. The volume of Gamal's outburst staggers Ib, but also sends a brief spasm of pleasure through his system.

Gamal sits down again and leans over Ib's lap and says, looking straight at Ib but with his eyelids fluttering halfway down his eyes, "I performed that role beautifully," now in neutral, mid-Atlantic English. "You have no idea what a subtle game I was playing. For example, I had never before set foot in the flat I claimed was my home. That was a stroke of genius. How did I know the door would be unlocked and no one would be in? At a glance from the street, I could tell it was a single man's digs. He would be off with family, preparing for .iftar. It was gorgeous." He breaks off and laughs, eyelids blinking so fast Ib has to look away. "But even that is a lie. A single man's digs! There is no such thing in Cairo, but a callow foreigner like you would not know that. The rooms are rented from an Egyptian family by an English friend of mine who's trying to go native. And what about your so-called acting ability? You have been nothing but a series of insincere and unsuccessful masks since I first saw you. You were a pretentious ass with that girl who tutors you in Arabic. You treated her like some precious porcelain doll whose virginity was the only reason she was so valuable. You weren't slobbering over her like most Europeans would, but you were just as condescending, treating her vapid nouveau riche adaptation of fashionable Muslim values as if it were sincere. That girl was no virgin. I've seen her at orgies that would make you blush even if you saw them on the screen in the private darkness of an Amsterdam porno theater. You were her unknowing pimp, introducing her to other Europeans much less gullible and earnest than you. You are an idiot to believe that drivel she fed you. Those people are fools. You're smarter than them. You ought to know there is a more competent intelligentsia in this city."

He breaks off and jumps to his feet and drinks his Turkish coffee in one swallow. Then he lays the cup gently upside down on the dented metal tray and strides away. In a moment he is gone.

Eventually, the second hand on Ib's watch begins to move again, and he has the muscle control to turn over Gamal's Turkish coffee cup. The accidental design of the muddy grounds is supposed to tell fortunes, although he has'never before had the slightest curiosity about this form of divination. Ib sees a side view of a man holding a mask to his face, except the face behind the mask is hideously unformed. He closes his eyes for a moment, then looks more closely. He can no longer detect any image in the coffee grounds.

Who is this man Gamal? The California accent means he might be upper class, educated at some time or another in the States. He could be the son of a diplomat or a wealthy businessman. The latter is more likely, because diplomats are usually stationed in Washington or New York. But it is possible he is the bright child of the lower middle class who won a scholarship to an American university, or a former emigre who drove a limousine or built architectural models for a few years in Los Angeles until he had enough money to return home and marry his childhood sweetheart. "All this," Ib says, laughing out loud and poking his food, "because he spoke one sentence of English with an accent that may have been from California." A man at the next table turns to look, just as Ib is poised to project a bean into his mouth. Ramadan. The cannon has not sounded yet. The men at this teahouse are still fasting. Ib places the guilty bean back on its battered aluminum plate. Across the street on a three-legged stand is a globe-shaped brass kettle for cooking beans and rice. Half a dozen men huddle around the kettle, each fondling a plastic package containing red liquid and strips of eerily white pickled radishes.

"The guy who just left," Ib says in Arabic to the man nearest him, "where was he from?" The neighbor shakes his head. "Have you ever seen him before?" No, again. "Why was he so funny?" The man ponders this question for a moment. His answer makes him excited as he tells it. Gamal did an imitation of a famous actor who was in a government television commercial for birth control. In fact, Ib's neighbor seems to think he was this actor. He consults his friends. They discuss the possibility. Some dismiss the idea out of hand. A famous actor would never visit this district, not even during Ramadan. Many rich Egyptians do slum around Husseyn Square, but that is several miles away. Other nearby cafe patrons join in to weigh the possibility that this actor has been in their midst. Ib listens, fascinated, baffled, unable to translate after a time. The thin film of isolation floats over him again.

Ib reminds himself that he does not care if he offends these Muslims. He drinks his coffee very slowly and stares at each bean for a long while before squeezing the meat out of its skin into his mouth. No one pays any attention.

Ib followed an elaborate maze of movements today before and after meeting the first Gamal in Zamalek along the Nile. It is clear that the two Gamals are one and the same man, and Ib is impressed. His movements after Gamal Number One were irrational, spur-of-the-moment. His behavior must have looked very much as if he were trying to shake an undercover policeman. Ib took a taxi to one place, one personal landmark, only to decide on arrival to jump into a second taxi in the opposite direction to another end of the city. He threw himself into a crowd leaving a huge lecture hall at Cairo University, and then again along the upper-middle-class shopping street, Kasr el Nil; he chased a bus and recklessly jumped onto its rear platform instants before it came to its next stop; he leaped onto a subway train as it was pulling out of the station, not because he had to but because so many other Egyptians did, daring fate, as if conscious of the tragic overcrowding in the country and saying, in effect, "What's one less Egyptian, Allah?" Ib loves the feel of a thousand bodies per one hundred yards in the narrow centuries-old fabric souk, arms bumping elbows.

The cannon booms and all talk stops. The first call to prayer wails nearby, without an amplifier, a beautiful and haunting sound. Other muezzins respond, some with recorded calls, some with scratchy amplifiers, some in their own naked voice, weaving a densely layered tapestry of the common-sense advice that praying is better than not praying. Everyone in the coffeehouse turns away from Ib. He knows this is because they are turning toward Mecca, not bowing but at least making the gesture of turning. But he can't help feeling they are rejecting him. He avoids looking at their shared moment of togetherness, at the whole country's collective prayer. He tries to ignore the crescendo of silverware clinking against plates. Down the street, just at a sharp turn, a man stands alone. The image at first reassures Ib. Here is another person not involved in the massive, communal act of giving thanks, another mere observer like Ib. It is darker now. He cannot see as well through the twilight. He squints. Piece by piece, the visual puzzle of Gamal smoking a cigarette comes together. In the next frame, Ib finds himself striding toward him, calling, "Tell me who you are." As Ib nears him, Gamal calmly stubs the cigarette against the building, flicks the butt into the street, and disappears out of view. Ib breaks into a run and seconds later realizes the waiter from the coffeehouse has also joined the chase. Ib neglected to pay. Without stopping, Ib extracts his wallet, counts two pounds, and throws the notes into the street behind him. The waiter skids to a stop, stumbles, does a rolling fall. Onlookers laugh and clap.

Now that they have shaken the waiter, Ib and Gamal slow to a fast walk. There are still a dozen yards between them. When Ib speeds up, Gamal does too, though he never seems to glance back to see how far behind his pursuer is. If Ib slows, so does Gamal. Gamal has a knack for finding crowds. This is a feat, because nearly everyone has abandoned the streets for leisurely if tar dinners. But in the endless old city the two of them come upon one square or length of street after another where people have congregated. When Ramadan falls during the warmer months, families and neighbors gather outdoors. Some eat at enormously long tables and mill around. A quarter mile of curving street, at one point, is filled with such tables, a whole district of people assembled convivially--a charity feast organized by the Muslim Brotherhood. Invitations to join the meal issue from dozens of lips. Gamal shakes hands and laughs and speaks one or two words, but he never stops moving. Ib has more trouble freeing himself, because he does not know the language as well or does not know how rude he's being, and because men stand up to embrace him and pull him into their celebrations, which does not happen to Gamal. But the mysterious figure always remains in Ib's sight. Even when he jumps onto a moving bus, at the front, Gamal seems to have calculated that the bus will slow after a moment to allow a panicked Ib to jump onto the rear well, with four boys cheering and reaching out to help him. When they run out of crowds, Gamal appears to panic and doubles back on his route. Several times the two men nearly collide, and Ib forgets momentarily that he is chasing this man, letting Gamal slip away again, down an alley, into a shop that has a rear exit onto another walkway and nest of shops. They round a corner, one on the heels of the other, and come to a cul-de-sac. Gamal reverses direction, but Ib has him securely by the arm. "Stop," Ib says. "And tell me who the hell you are."

"Look," Gamal says. He is pointing to a window. "We are home," he says. They have inadvertently retraced their steps and are back at Gamal's "apartment." The barber has turned off the one bulb in his shop, so no blue light spills into the street. Gamal puts his arm over Ib's shoulder and walks him past this subtly reconstructed scene. "We will talk, but let's keep moving."

They pass the prayer tents again. The European Sufis have joined the crowd in the other tent. They are all seated, holding plates, eating and talking with vigorous arm movements. Each European is among his own group of Egyptians. The sheikh in the leather jacket sees Ib and waves, inviting them in. Ib is tempted by the seductive smell of curry, and, he must admit, also by the friendliness and the evident integration of these foreigners into the fabric of Egyptian life. But Gamal has Ib firmly by the arm and says, "Please. Don't go in there. I have been rude. I'll act better. I need someone to talk to." Ib frees his arm and thinks it over. The sheikh nods at Ib, as if to say, Go with the Egyptian. Ib is trapped: either decision looks like the will of God or the wish of this sheikh. But Ib has never felt so happily under the spell of chance as he does just now. He goes with Gamal.

© 1996 Brian Kiteley

Simon & Schuster

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