A Stranger in Trouble
by Vicki Lindner
Before I left for Cairo, I fell asleep reading The Egyptian Book of the Dead. I dreamed a two-headed mummy hid in the hall of my apartment building, waiting to kill me. I woke up, afraid. Warnings foreshadowed my solitary journey –my first to a Muslim land. Avigail, an Israeli, then a Nigerian who did social work in North African villages, advised me not to go there alone. “Why not?” I asked. I hated tours, and none of my friends wanted to join me…. Egypt had been a tourist destination since Herodotus’s time… I’d meet plenty of travelers… Besides, I needed an inspirational trip—a reward to myself for finishing a novel—and for me inspiration was synonymous with risk. In 1981 I rejected the idea that a woman couldn’t move freely. I thought fear was old-fashioned, in itself, restricting. I believed—correctly, as it turned out—that the world would take care of me.
A month later, on a second class train from Luxor to Aswan, I met, but didn’t recognize, the specter from my gloomy nightmare. Now I see there had been other bad omens: in crowded buses and dark corridors unseen hands felt and pinched me; a spicy kebab from a street stall produced acute food poisoning. In Luxor, an unctuous character named “Magic Man” followed me everywhere, insisted on carrying my bag to the train station.
Still, most Egyptians were enthusiastically friendly. In 1979, our President had reduced Egyptian-Israeli hostilities by negotiating the remarkable Camp David Accord; although the 1980 peace settlement was already unraveling, some shouted “Jimmy Carter” in delighted voices when they identified me as American. In Groppi’s, a smoky café on the Midan Talaat Harb, I’d met a handsome, brooding doctor, who’d taken me to view the moonlit Sphinx; in two weeks, after my tour of the South, I hoped to get together with him.
That morning, though, on route to the ancient desert city, my come-what-may mood had changed; I felt tired, lethargic; my stomach churned with ominous liquid growls again. I decided to skip the Temple of Edfu; suddenly, I was bored with faded friezes and tombs, populated more by pushy trinket salesmen than the spirits of gilt pharaohs and their eagle-crowned gods. A ragged boy ran through the orange peel-strewn car, beating a cringing puppy with a stalk of sugar cane.
A man boarded the train and sat down beside me, as if our meeting had been pre-arranged. (I now think “Magic Man,” my persistent shadow, had marked me for him.) In perfect English he said he was an Egyptian-born Jew, living in Israel. Soon he confided that he worked with the military on “intelligence” and showed me the handgun in his shoulder bag. He told me he was delivering a document to Egyptian authorities. To a traveler in a dramatically foreign land, this unlikely revelation didn’t seem strange. “A spy!” I thought, a gullible writer, recognizing a character from her novel, starring, as it happened, an ex-con toting a symbolic Beretta. This pleasant, mild-mannered man—he introduced himself as “Sash”– helped me find a hotel room in the tourist-glutted town, took me to dinner, then stowing his pistol in my wardrobe, read my future with tarot cards. He swigged rum from the bottle, not taboo for tourists, but vaguely alarming. Predicting I would meet with accident, he departed, intoxicated, and promised to return the next morning to guide me through Aswan. Having had more than enough of this man, I wondered how I’d get rid of him. A few minutes later he knocked again; he had to speak to me about something important—a problem with the hotel management. Succumbing to fate, to me, indistinguishable from fiction, I reluctantly opened the door.
To abbreviate a painful story, difficult to tell, “Sash” was a psychopath, and, I later learned, a dangerous criminal, wanted by the Cairo police for crimes against other tourists. As he vented his illness on me at gun point, he raved about his mother: Why was she a prostitute? His father was a good man! In the morning a bellboy heard my muffled groan, and found me, tied by the neck, hands, and feet to the bathroom pipes, severely beaten, bleeding from the nose and mouth. After torturing me for hours, Sash had forced me to swallow twelve tranquilizers, robbed me, and escaped. Somehow, I’d emerged from my drug-induced coma, worked the gag loose, and mumbled for help. I remember struggling to focus my blurred eyes on the aghast Egyptian faces and feeling joyful elation before I sunk back into sleep; by a mysterious reprieve, I was alive. When I regained consciousness again, I asked for my journal and continued writing about my trip….
I don’t know what day of the week it is. I seem to be in a large, old hospital. Last night, as soon as I came to, a nun and a blue-gowned lady led me to a sink and washed my hair with cold water. “Why are you washing my hair?” I asked. They said because it was covered with blood. They X-rayed my face on a large, old-fashioned machine. I can’t see out of my left eye, but they don’t think anything is wrong with it. Then they took me to an office downstairs, where a number of well-dressed men, supposedly police, were waiting. One of the sisters held my hand. “Don’t be afraid,” she said. They asked if I remembered what happened and I said, “Yes. Everything.” I thought I spoke loudly and answered their questions with perfect clarity. Now I don’t remember the questions or the answers. I guess I grew incoherent, because the man in charge, the hospital director, said to the police, “The patient is tired. She must return to bed.
Just forced myself to get out of bed and look at my face in the broken mirror– a dull purple flesh mass, a featureless, sexless, rain-soaked prune. My nose points to one side; my left eye is swollen shut, and both eyes are buried in puffed fuchsia rings. It could be worse; my teeth seem okay, and the nun told me my skull wasn’t fractured.
A plainclothes policeman, wearing a gellabaya and turban, sits outside my room during the day and is replaced by another plainclothesman at night. The day-guard comes into my room, escorting visitors, bringing me tea and fruit, and performs small nursing duties, staring at me with distraught compassion. He takes my hand and repeats the only English sentence he seems to know: “I am Achmed, your brother!”
The nurses are sisters from an Italian order of nuns. Sister Hildegarde, who speaks only Italian, says, “La Vita! Brutto e bello!” as she briskly tucks in my sheets. Sister Vittoria, my namesake, has taken me on as her personal charge. Tiny and vibrant, smiling with silver-capped teeth, and speaking in a loud, rasping voice, she bounds in and out like a creature with rubber feet, announcing her presence with “God Bless! God Bless!” I told her at the moment I was sure I was going to die I recited Hail Mary’s to myself though I’m not a Catholic. “Who taught you that prayer to Our Lady?” she asked, surprised. (I said “A friend,” but I don’t remember learning it.) She said she has never seen a case like mine in her twenty-five years as a nurse in Egypt. Things like this do not happen here. Women are beaten by their husbands, but not by strangers. If a strange man speaks to a woman on the street, she can have him arrested. She showed me my blood-soaked T-shirt and the yellow scarf he used to gag me, rolled in a newspaper in the cabinet beside my bed, along with the sandals with the broken thongs he used to tie me. “Don’t tell them I showed you this!” she whispered. “We will wash the clothes!” I want to throw them and my own body away.
Egyptian visitors file in to see me. They stare at the foreigner, not with the prurient curiosity I expect, but with sorrow and compassion. Some seem on the verge of tears. “Maleesh!” they say, wiping their eyes, “Maleesh!” Sister Vittoria told me that maleesh means “Never mind.” “They say that too much here,” she advised. Others ask, “Kwaiisa!” which means, “Are you all right?” and when I answer, “Yes,” they exclaim, “Ilhamdulallah!” in jubilant voices, or “Thank God!” Everyone says, “We are so sorry!” and takes my hand. The doctors come by, sometimes in brigades of four, and shake their heads sorrowfully. One boomed in basso profundo, “We will punish him, but God will punish him more!” The blue-gowned ladies, hospital domestics called “mamas,” stroke my forehead and bring me tea, half composed of sugar. According to Sister Vittoria, the Governor of Aswan rushed to my bedside when I was unconscious. Although the newspaper has not reported my case, the whole town is talking about it; such things do not happen here.
It is good for me to have so many distraught visitors. I have to sit up, pronounce my name, shake hands, and look cheerful for their sakes. When I am alone in my room, (they are keeping the other two beds empty), I stare at the curling fresco of leak-warped green paint on the wall and am immediately transported back to that hotel, where it all happens again. Cockroaches and ants inhabit the drawer next to my bed, and the sink is broken. The door to the room, missing its handle, is pulled open by a string. Outside the window I see a Bedouin village that specializes in smuggling contraband to and from the Sudan on camel back, according to Sister Vittoria. It is three o’clock and the mosques all over Aswan release their call to prayer, the closest one blaring the same sounds that the distant ones echo in thinner voices: “Wooooo-adddd Le Alllllahhhhhhh! El Allllahhhhh” There is no god but God. The desert air collects into a visible wave, quivers around this onslaught of devout exaltation.
Yesterday afternoon I was brought back to the police for a second interrogation. This time everyone was solemn. Sister Vittoria, Sister Carmen, and staunch Sister Clelia, the Mother Superior, sat beside me in their white uniforms with helmet-shaped head cloths, like a holy rear guard. I was handed a glass of tea. They asked if I was Christian. “Not exactly,” I replied. I didn’t want to admit I am half-Jewish, usually atheist, so I placed my hand on the Bible and swore to tell the truth in the name of God.
This seemed to be a criminal trial, although the accused was absent. The police, dressed in starched pastel, made up the jury. At the desk, wearing a double-breasted European suit and lavender shirt, was a young, red-haired man they called “The Judge.” When he reached into his well-tailored pocket for a Cleopatra, the others competed to supply him with one of their cigarettes. Glasses of cold rose hip tea and tiny cups of Turkish coffee were brought in by the domestics. Everyone seemed ill-at-ease. Dr. Zein, the hospital director, who carries his weighty dignity like an awkward parcel, asked questions, then translated my answers into Arabic, written down by a scribe.
“Miss Vicki,” Dr. Zein asked, “who paid for the room in the Hotel Abu Simbel that you occupied? You or the man who assaulted you?”
“I did,” I replied.
“What was the number of this room?
“Miss Vicki, when you were found you were covered by a blood-stained, yellow blanket. How do you explain the presence of this blanket?”
“Miss Vicki, were you raped?” There was an uncomfortable silence. I hesitated. Rape was too benign a word for my experience. “Do not be afraid to tell us,” encouraged Dr. Zein. “To rape without force is not a serious crime in Egypt; to rape with force is extremely serious.”
I said, yes, Sash had raped me, but had been mainly interested in abnormal sex. I waited for lascivious questions. There were none. “Abnormal sex,” translated Dr. Zein. The tribunal of fashionable men nodded.
I put all my energies into recounting the story so they would understand, demonstrating on Sister Carmen’s soft arm the way “Sash” had twisted mine when he led me from the bed to the bathroom. When they asked how he forced me to take the pills, I pointed an imaginary pistol at her head. I described my escape attempt, how I grabbed his gun, which wouldn’t fire, how I cried for help, hit him beneath the nose, a blow I’d read would cause instant death, which he didn’t feel. I spoke in a voice that sounded histrionic, even to me; I waved my hands in dramatic gestures. More well-dressed men entered and took seats. But the harder I struggled to re-enact this play, the less real it seemed—a B movie. I imagined how I, an unmarried, thirty-seven- years- old foreign woman, who’d invited a drunk into her bedroom, must appear to them. I thought, “They’ll never think I’m telling the truth.” I barely believed my story myself. I turned to Sister Carmen’s gentle face; “Do they believe me?” I asked.
“Yes,” she answered quietly, “they feel his guilt.”
Then the lights went out. (Aswan has frequent power failures, despite the famous High Dam.) The police lit candles and waited for a generator to kick the electricity back on. I looked at these elegant men, supposedly police, at the flickering, half-lit room through my one good eye. I envisioned my purple, swollen face, my hospital gown. How had I journeyed so rapidly from the familiar security of my New York apartment to this unlikely space? I must be dreaming I’m in Egypt, I thought.
When the lights flickered to life, Dr. Zein asked the final question: “Miss Vicki, what are the injuries to your body?” With silent indignation the sisters pointed to my swollen hand, scarred by rope burns, the burns on my ankles, my bruised neck and face, my broken nose, and the welts on the back of my head.
“We are so sorry,” somebody said.
Sister Vittoria guided me back to bed and gave me two containers of zabadi, or yogurt. “They are hot!” she said of Egyptian men. “He drank liquor so he could do that to you!” Then she praised the police. “They are very good,” she said. “When they put their minds to something they do it right away. They will catch him, don’t worry about that.” She believes the police are everywhere, disguised as peasants and laborers; wearing these costumes, they accompany the sisters when they travel.
A Stranger in Trouble, by Vicki Lindner, will continue on Wednesday (3/21).
“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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Equity for Women Writers
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