A Stranger in Trouble
by Vicki Lindner
Endless visitors last night. First came Farayela, the night mama, my favorite. Her face is warm, and she has a talent for a graceful sympathy, different from pity. She brought her sister and her sister’s baby. Then the night nurse, Lila, and her friend, the hospital receptionist, Anwar, came in. Anwar means “light.” “Very beautiful!” she glowed about me, although she couldn’t have been talking about my face. All were escorted by Achmed, grinning with sparse teeth, shouting, “These are my brothers!” and “Vicki—good! Vicki—beautiful!” Sister Vittoria also visited (“God Bless! God Bless!”) and we discussed my case. She said she is not afraid to die, but she couldn’t stand to be violated. I said I knew everything that happened in that hotel room would eventually become irrelevant if I could stay alive. Yet, when I was sure he would kill me, I felt calm, able to accept my fate.
Achmed, who was there, told a story translated by Sister V: A French girl, wandering through The Valley of Kings, plunged into a deep hole. Her parents searched for a year before they found her body. As she succumbed to thirst she wrote a note stating, “Nobody pushed me. I fell down here myself,” and instructed her family what to do with her things. “She accepted death,” commented Sister Vittoria approvingly, then added, “Never go alone. Alone is dangerous!”
The fervent call of the mosque marks another hour.
A while ago the police interrogated me again. A domestic presented Dr. Zein with my knapsack and belongings. Although they initially said I had not been robbed, only the receipts for my Barclay’s travelers’ checks were in my yellow money belt, now minus its strings. The $100 in cash I’d changed into pounds on the black market and American Express card are also gone. Since there is no branch of Barclay’s in Aswan, I can’t apply for a refund until I return to Cairo. Fortunately, I’d left my passport at the hotel desk, or he would have stolen that, too. The police passed it around, scrutinizing the photograph of my real face, and recorded the numbers of the missing checks. All this took a long time. Finally, the young man, manager of a travel agency, serving as interpreter, said, “Forget we are police and speak to us as friends. We want to know if you think all Egyptians are like this man. No, I will not say man, because he is an animal. You are a writer—what will you write about us?” Then the police apologized for “all of Aswan, although this man is not from Aswan,” and “for all of Egypt,” and Achmed lead me back to my room.
Sister Vittoria just came in (thanking God in Arabic) to assure me that they would soon catch “Sash.” His real name is Ascherif, she said. He used his Egyptian identification card to sign into the hotel, and the Cairo police have forwarded his record and photograph. “They know his mother. They know his father. They know where he lives. The police say he is married!” she added incredulously. “Perhaps he tried to make like this with his wife, and she ran back to her family.”
Yesterday Dr. Hassan fixed my broken nose, supposedly a “minor procedure.” But when I saw two old-fashioned metal gas tanks and an anesthesiologist, I knew I was in for it. Sister Carmen held my hand as he gave me the needle. “I will be here and I will pray,” she said. I woke up, thirsty, with wads of stuffing up each nostril, a soggy bandage smothering my nose. All night people screamed a frantic prayer in the hospital garden, accompanied by drums and the muezzin, blaring through the mosque’s megaphone. Sister Vittoria says this is a strange prayer for mercy: “They pray until someone faints.” This morning my throat hurts. Sister Carmen told me they put a large tube down it—larger than they use in Europe—and I’d lost a lot of blood.
Sister Hildegarde brought me lunch and tucked in my sheets, while Achmed, hovering about, brushed invisible crumbs off the cabinet, straightened my blanket, and looked at me with pained eyes. I began to cry because these strangers were offering me such deeply felt attention. They didn’t understand. When my tears began, Achmed put his hand over his own face and rushed out of the room, and Sister H. trilled Italian consolations.
Farayela flew by the door on her way to an errand, her black head scarf streaming behind her, and shouted in her new English words: “I love you.”
The entire hospital has been to visit me. “They are upset,” interpreted Sister Vittoria, “because they heard you were crying.” The nice doctor with very dark skin said, “All the people of Aswan feel shame and say, ‘If we catch him, we’ll kill him.’” Before leaving for Egypt, I made an impassioned speech opposing capital punishment on a TV talk show. I’m glad to say I’m still on the same side. I tried to kill “Sash” with his own gun when I thought he was going to kill me, but I wouldn’t want to see him executed in the name of my revenge.
I’m starting to feel restless and wander through the hospital corridors. Many of the patients are afflicted with eye diseases and bilharzia. There is a fever ward downstairs, as well as a separate wing for TB patients. I am in the post-operative ward, where few of the patients seem ill; (in the U.S. they would have been released a week ago, and I would have been sent home with a large bill after an exam in the emergency room.) They sit on the wooden benches, drinking tea, or lie, sometimes two or three to a bed. Family members hover over the patients, nursing and feeding them. An entire family of sisters and their children have checked in down the hall because one of the little girls, Fateh, had an operation to separate the fingers of her deformed hand. The mothers are young—teenagers—and wear gold on their necks and ears. All day they sit in the “lounge,” or gaze out the window, holding their children, who don’t have toys and play no games. All of them eat the free government food and follow the hospital routine, although only one little girl is a patient.
At visiting hour legions of relatives swarm noisily through the corridors. Entire towns seem to be camping in some patients’ rooms, eating and drinking, throwing fruit peels on the floor, or huddling in bed with the sick one. They laugh and talk, creating a loud, cheerful clamor. Sister Hildegarde says that my sink is broken because the visitors sat on it.
All the patients and their visitors are friendly, curious about me. They beckon me into their rooms and motion me to sit on their beds. They bring me flowers, fruit, and a sweet pastry called basboussa. Yesterday someone gave me a bunch of roses, fragile red petals darkening in Nile heat. A fat businessman with gold teeth, Hassan, always hanging out in the lounge, waves to me and shouts, “Vicki! Com-a. Drink-a tea!” Najud, the prettiest sister, insisted on doing my laundry in the bathroom this morning, and I let her, although I wanted to do something for myself. My favorite is a teenaged boy, Wassim, who has been here for two months because he first fractured, then burned his left arm; the skin grafts, done by a foreign specialist, didn’t take. He swiftly parades the corridors, as if he has a secret mission to accomplish. Sister Vittoria says that Wassim likes the hospital: “Why not? He eats very well for no money and goes about all the day.” I give him the chocolate wafers and hard candy that the sisters give me; today I gave him a pen. He pockets these presents, winks mischievous eyes, then sails off down the hall with the satisfied air of a stockbroker who made a killing. Today he delivered a dozen oranges, his part of our unspoken “deal.”
Zeinab, the skinny mama, kissed the bread before she gave it to me.
I thought I was recovering my equilibrium, but last night, my dreams transported me back to the Hotel Abu Simbel again. Finally I gave up trying to sleep and went to the nurse’s station for a sedative. The nurse, doing needlework, didn’t have one. Farayela came in, and I told her, via gestures, that when I closed my eyes my heart beat wildly and I felt afraid. She understood immediately, and placed her own hand on my heart, as if to calm it. She rapidly translated what I had indicated into shrill, intense Arabic for the benefit of the nurse and the patients who were hanging out in the station. She and I understand each other although we don’t speak the same language. Before this, I met no Egyptian women on my trip. In the streets they hurried toward an errand, their heads and bodies shrouded. Sometimes they smiled, or beckoned me to a more comfortable seat on the bus, but none tried to communicate. All of my conversations were with men. If I had not ended up in the hospital, I might have passed through without getting to know any women, or experiencing the tenderness they’re offering me.
This morning, in fractured Italian, I told Sister Hildegarde that I can’t stop thinking about what happened to me. “No Pensare” she advised. Or, “Don’t think.”
My left eye has opened, revealing a familiar green pupil, swimming in a bloodshot white. Immediately I started reading William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!, the only novel I brought with me.
Because I am eager to leave the hospital, the sisters suggested I do more walking. This afternoon Sister Carmen took me up to the roof of the hospital, where the nuns, the Mons Camboni, have their quarters. This order was founded to help black people, she said, and works mostly in Africa. Egypt is a training ground for the sisters who will travel to the hotter, less healthy climate of the Sudan. She showed me where they sleep, two to a room, and their garden of basil and tomatoes. Sister Carmen is the youngest, new to the order. She told me that she is finding it difficult to adjust to the hospital culture. “They do things so differently here,” she said. “If a patient is on the verge of death, the nurses say, ‘God’s will,’ and after that they do not give medicine or water.” She has seen patients die who might have been saved if it was not for “God’s will.” “Night duty was terribly hard for me in Europe,” she continued. “It was almost impossible to stay awake. It is no problem for the nurses here. They simply fall asleep at 11:30, and if the patients want something, they wait until morning.” In Egypt, she continued, the hospital is like a free resort; relatives visit the patient lucky enough to be admitted, bringing money and food. Once installed in a coveted hospital bed, patients expect intravenous feeding, and plenty of injections and pills. Otherwise they think nothing is being done for them.
We drank tea from flowered china cups. I felt surprisingly weak, and asked to return to my room.
Now, lying in bed, I’m thinking about these gentle, but vigorous sisters, who work astonishingly hard. They have no day off, and rarely leave the hospital, except to visit a sick relative, or attend a religious retreat. They perform their duties with a jovial concern, not to please the patient, the doctors, for money, or for themselves; they are working for God, infusing what they do with an abstract, almost mechanical quality that must be devotion. Everything I’ve done, I did for employers, friends, or my own satisfaction. I always expected a reward– credit, pleasure, a paycheck, a line on my resume… Even in the Zen center in Jemez Springs, I sat zazen in the freezing cold at four a.m. to gain enlightenment for myself.
As I write, Moustafa, the orderly, is removing the mattresses from the extra beds in my room so that the nurses on night duty can get their rest. Sister Vittoria says that she trained Moustafa herself when he was young, dissolute, and smoked hashish, but now, God Bless, he is married.
This morning I woke up obsessed with getting out of the hospital. When I look at the curling green wall, I can only think about the reason I’m here, and I want to get on with it, start to forget. When I realized I’d lost my money, I was still too much in shock to care; now, I’m beginning to worry. How long will it take to get the refund I need to fly to Barcelona to meet Jimmy and Joan? How will I deal with my life? With men, already a problem? I lie in bed and read Absalom! Absalom! through persistent tears. Sister Vittoria came to comfort me. She said that Dr. Zein has heard they caught “Sash” and he never repeats rumors. I ate two cookies, two custards, drank a Coke and some sugary tea. My spirits lifted.
Dr. Zein himself paid me a visit this morning, holding his dignity overhead like a large umbrella. “Carry on with your breakfast,” he ordered sternly. ( It’s hard to slurp cold pea soup and talk to this important person at the same time.) He had heard I was crying and asked to leave. “Point one:” he began. “It is our duty to care for you. Point two: We are not annoyed by your presence here. You must not be annoyed with us.” Sister Vittoria interrupted. “She is not annoyed. She is upset.” They think I am crying because I am angry with them; I feel ashamed of my tantrum; my emotional outburst now seems ungrateful to me….
One a.m. Awake again. It gets harder, not easier to sleep as my body recovers. Afraid of the dark, I got up and wandered into the lounge. One of the patients was playing a tape deck, and Wassim was dancing, gracefully dangling his bandaged arm, to a haunting melody. He wriggled his eyebrows at me. They don’t understand why I want to leave the hospital. “Stay one more week; stay a month!” Hassan encourages.
Farayela says she wants to go back to New York with me. She zooms her hand like an airplane and laughs. “What about your husband?” asks Sister Vittoria, and answers, “He will cry one day, then marry someone else.”
The night plainclothesman has offered to marry me, via Hassan, but inquired whether I am a “woman” or a “girl”—i.e. a virgin.
This morning I woke up more anxious than ever to leave the hospital. Outside I heard a continuous, high-pitched wail. I ran to the window. A chorus of black-shrouded Nubian women were flailing their arms in precise motions of abandon, jumping up and down, and emitting the same loud, single-pitched cry. Hassan motioned me away, (“Vicki, Come-a! Drink-a tea!”), but I was riveted. I assumed someone had died, but Sister Vittoria said no, a girl had burned herself; girls from rural villages throw themselves into the fire when they are betrothed by their families to a man they don’t love. “They cry before death here,” Sister V. commented. The patient lies in our ward under a blanket tent. From her room issue thinner versions of the shrieks outside. Now the villagers are performing what looks like a ritualized remonstration—arguing in artificial voices, pulling at each others’ clothes.
I went back into my room, agitated. My horror for myself, amplified by what has happened to this girl, burst in my chest. I told Sister Vittoria that I am afraid I am doomed; I was meant to die. I told her about my dream, how I invoked the gun by writing that novel. She said positively, “No, it is over. You will live, and die when you are old. You will write better now. You will understand terror, cruelty, and pain.”
The village women have squatted down on the hospital grounds and around the ugly, concrete apartment complex across the road, like inert, black feathered crows. The midday sun burns. The girl’s brother is weeping in the lounge, his head on his knees.
A few minutes ago the resident doctor, wearing a vivid turquoise shirt with aqua trousers, staunch Sister Clelia, the Minister of Tourism, the Publicity Director for the Government of Aswan, and the Governor’s personal representative filed into my room after a single knock to present me with a “purse” of twenty-five pounds to defray my expenses in Cairo. I dredged my body out of the covers, tried to look happy, and accepted their apologies for “all of Egypt.”
Later, Sister Hildegarde asked me if I wanted to visit the burned girl. Perhaps she thought that seeing another victim would take my mind off myself. We went into the darkened room: the sister lifted the blankets. About seventy percent of the girl’s body is hideously charred, the brown skin shredding away from raw, red patches. “No Vivire,” said Sister H; she will not live. The girl did not try to kill herself, said the sister, she is retarded, and, by accident, set a gasoline can on fire. That is why her people are so sad. The entire ward is also depressed. After lunch everyone, including Hassan and the peripatetic Wassim, went back to bed and lay on their backs quietly. No one talked. A little boy, hit by a car, has also been brought in. Sister Hildegarde says he won’t live either.
At five the hospital admitted the Nubian villagers to the ward. I sat on the bench outside my room, watching the crows fly through, wailing, chanting, some crying, or emitting a theatrical high shriek, pulling at each other, all black-shrouded with blue-stained lips and tattooed chins—a horde of furies, repudiating centuries of celebrated Egyptian dying and eternal life. I felt my heart beating in my throat; I could barely breathe.
Sister Vittoria came to rescue me. She spoke to Achmed in fluent Arabic. He was upset. “Nubians—bad!” he said. “Why are they crying? What happens is God’s will. What is the point to cry?”
My namesake saw I needed to get away. She took me for a walk through the housing project across from the hospital, telling me stories about her patients, their unhappy marriages, the nurse who was beaten by her husband. I asked if she feels sad when a patient dies. She said, oh yes, but in the beginning she was distraught, cried constantly. She thought, “How will I be a nurse?” As we walked, people from the apartment complex ran up to greet her, and invite us in. She told me that she no longer visits, because her former patients try to give her everything they have, are insulted if she refuses. The Nile wind whipped the desert dust into a granular sunset; shouting boys played a lively soccer game. I felt stronger, less terrified, glad to be alive again. On the way back, we met the young nurse who walks with a limp. Sister V. told me that her leg is attached to the middle of her foot instead of joining it at the ankle. A good orthopedic surgeon offered to operate, but she declined. “God made me this way,” she said. “Why should I change?”
Now I am back in my room. The burn case is near death, a poisonous vapor in the hospital atmosphere. Zeinab, the skinny mama, has curled up on the foot of my bed so I won’t be alone.
Sister Vittoria claims that there are bureaucratic problems preventing my release. The hospital administrator below Dr. Zein refuses to take responsibility, unless Dr. Zein personally approves; he is touring the villages and can’t be reached by phone. Also, the police must support my release “more strongly,” and my passport must have a special stamp. “This is why the sisters leave Egypt with liver trouble,” said Sister V. “But don’t worry; I am pushing them.” She told me that they have not caught “Sash”—it was only a rumor.
Zeinab came back in, dressed in her black street clothes, and kissed me three times before going home.
Just as I resigned myself to a long stay, Sister Clelia told me that I may leave tomorrow night. She is going to the station to buy me a train ticket to Cairo—a gift from the nuns.
The burned girl died today. The noise level was normal in the ward, and everyone seemed in a good mood as usual. The little boy who was hit by a car is “quite better” Sister Vittoria said.
My last night. Farayela walked me past the dead girl’s room to the window at the end of the corridor. She undid the bolts and threw it open. The dogs barked amorously at lights glinting in this most everlasting of skies. “Vicki… …Aswan,” she said with deep pride. This is the only tourist sight I will see in this ancient market city—a glittering nightscape from the hospital window.
Finally I’m in the cheap Tulip Hotel, facing my weak, frightened self amidst honking traffic and Cairo’s disorienting crowds. The sisters and Achmed put me on the train this morning. Sister Clelia demonstrated how to double lock the cabinette door. Achmed warned me not to speak to a soul, and Sister Vittoria whispered that I must avoid a suspicious character who turned out to be the conductor. Achmed had to hurry away before the train pulled out of the station, because he was scheduled to have a small operation, maybe his reward for guarding me so well. Sister Vittoria slipped me an envelope, saying, “To read someday.” In it was a postcard with a picture of Christ, punctured arms outstretched, pale face bleeding profusely beneath the crown of thorns. On the back she had written, “Aswan, March 28, 1981. God is love.”
Epilogue: The scars on my wrists and ankles faded quickly, and my post-traumatic stress symptoms did, too. Sister Vittoria had suggested I see a psychiatrist (“It will be worse six months from now than it is now”) and I did work with a therapist, unraveling the reasons why I’d opened my door to a drunk with a gun when I wanted to double lock it instead. After that, I became more self-protective. Ultimately, though, I attributed my recovery to my experience in the Government Public Hospital in Aswan. After reading up on trauma therapy, I realized that the Egyptians provided excellent care. The hospital, although far from modern, treated me, free of charge, for almost two weeks, managed my physical symptoms, sedated me, assuaged my terror by stationing guards, fixed my broken nose, and gently but firmly provided me with physical and psychological coping strategies before allowing me to continue my journey in a very strange world. The nuns, the doctors, the visitors, the “mamas” had offered me their consolation and honest outrage. More important, they had spiritualized my emotional survival with their blend of passionate faiths, and what felt like global, unconditional love. I initially believed, like most egocentric Americans, that my personal qualities—my intelligent interest in the foreign culture? My accepting attitude? I was a writer, taking notes?—inspired the healing empathy I got. For years I did correspond with the nuns and Dr. Zein, who, like the police, wondered what I would write about Egypt, and asked to read whatever I wrote. From a translation of the newspaper clipping the hospital administrator sent, I learned that “Sash,” a former tour guide, was captured in the act of assaulting a French woman and was sentenced to seven years of hard labor. Decades later, my eyes are still drawn, like magnets, to the line drawing illustrating the psychotic criminal; the dark moustache framing a sour frown, the cleft chin, remain startlingly familiar, intimate, like the face of a long lost lover in perverted reverse….
Time heals misconceptions as well as rope burns. As the years went by, I wondered whether undefined factors—having little to do with me– inspired the treatment that had successfully restored me to myself. (Dr. Zein’s words, “It is our duty to care for you,” echoed anew.) Jimmy, the wise poet I visited in Spain, told me that Muslims regard a foreign tourist as a wealthy infidel, ripe for petty harassment, until misfortune strikes; at that point, he said, the outsider becomes “family,” and the real journey begins. Perhaps there was something to that: I remembered the Egyptians on the Cairo-bound train, poor people, who collected a pound in coins for me, despite my embarrassed protests. And I recalled others, who approached in the crowded labyrinth of the capital’s streets, expressing horror over my bruised eye, begging me to reassure them that “one of us did not do this.” Then, 19 years later, fate opened another door…
In 2000, a year before the world I believed in fell apart, a Jordanian university student appeared in my office; she wanted to write the story of her fraught escape from a cruel father, and a culture with few opportunities for educated women. Could I help? In one of our conferences, I told her a bit about my stay in the Egyptian hospital. “Is there a custom that might explain the care and kindness I got?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” she replied. “There is a saying…I will bring it to you.” She printed the proverb on a copy of an Arabic folktale: “A Stranger in Trouble is a Gift of God. “
“A Stranger in Trouble” was published in American Literary Review in Fall, 2006 and nominated by the magazine for a Pushcart Prize. An earlier version, “Aswan Diary,” was published in the British journal, Margin, in 1989.
About Writing for Peace Adviser, Vicki Lindner
Vicki Lindner is a fiction writer, essayist, and journalist who has published a novel, Outlaw Games, and many short stories, essays, magazine and newspaper articles. She has written about a wide variety of subjects: cooking, bird watching, loneliness, dinosaurs, sculpture, not having children, travel, and medical malpractice. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies, including The Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Fiction, Chick-Lit; Post Feminist Fiction, Witness, the Best of Terrain, Del Sol, The American Literary Review, Gastronomica, New York Stories, In Short: An Anthology of Short Creative Non-Fiction, American Nature Writing, Northern Lights, and The Seneca Review. Her short story about karate, “Barefoot to the Bridge in Winter,” was the Fiction Premiere for New York Woman. Most recently, Lindner’s essays were published in Shadowbox and Western Humanities Review. Learn more about Vicki Lindner here.
Writing for Peace News:
In Our Blog~
This spring, Writing for Peace will look at gun violence and women’s equality, two important issues that are often intertwined. We’ll take a step back from the inflammatory gun control debate by exploring the subject through poetry, essays and fiction. Links to previous posts on the topic of gun violence can be found below:
Silent Day, by Richard Krawiec
What Happens When We Lose Our Innocence? by Andrea W. Doray
Where Peace Begins, by Cara Lopez Lee
Opportunity, and Public Encouragement, by Richard Krawiec
Young Writers Contest
Our 2013 Young Writers Contest closed on March 1st with 106 entries from 21 different countries! Announcements will be made on May 1st, 2013. Congratulations to every young writer who participated! The 2014 Young Writers Contest Guidelines will be posted on June 1st, 2013.
DoveTales, an International Journal of the Arts
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