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When the bell tolls for coal, By Vicki Lindner

VickiLindnerHorizontal1000-745x373When the bell tolls for coal: Pull yourself up by your WHAT?

By Vicki Lindner

(Previously published in Wyofile.com, Wyoming’s truth-telling online newspaper, representing free journalism in a conservative state. Reprinted by permission.)

(Opinion) — I moved from New York to Laramie in 1988, when cheap foreign oil made drilling for domestic reserves unprofitable. Unlike unemployed roughnecks, who’d walked away from vehicles and homes, I came for a job — teaching creative writing at the University of Wyoming. The salary ($28.2K) wasn’t so hot (my New York friends groaned), but it included benefits, and thanks to severance fees paid by the minerals industry, I wouldn’t have to “give the governor” a dime.

Like most newcomers with romantic notions, I was looking for change more than high pay. I soon rented a funky cabin on the Big Laramie River, 30 miles from town, and fantasized that a single rugged individualist like me would soon be two-stepping with cowboys down at the bar.

But strangers were suspicious characters in Woods Landing. A university administrator, an  outsider, complained about his high electric bill, a faux pas, as the rural power company was run by his next-door neighbor. My landlord, an artist, had shared the green shack with her lover — another gal. Then she rented it to a woman who left her miserable pets to fend for themselves while she flagged for highway construction crews in other counties. What, locals wondered, would this new citified single lady, also a UW prof, get up to in there? For almost four years, they kept their distance and waited to find out.

Isolated on the Big Laramie, I pondered the folksy signs and sayings that seemed to offer prescriptions for my Wyoming life: “If It Ain’t Broke Don’t Fix It,” was a motto never heard in New York, an economic “energy center,” where whatever didn’t change demanded rethinking. Were the stickers on pickups, “Welcome to Wyoming: We Don’t Give a Damn How You Do It Back Home,” aimed at me? And what about, “Stop Whining,” “If You Don’t Like it Here, Leave,” and “Pull Yourself Up by Your Bootstraps”? (Were those the wee loops on the tops of my used gold parade boots?) Most unnerving was the expression I heard when natives didn’t know I was listening: “Our Way of Life.” Was my new state an exclusive country club, open only to insiders?

While on one hand the maxims advocated self-reliance and proud survival on high desert plains, on the other, they concealed warnings for presumptuous newcomers: We own this place. Don’t try to change it. Cowboy up or ride out on the horse you rode in on. What was the difference, I wondered, between Our way of life in a boom-and-bust state, where the population had sunk to 458,400, and Xenophobia — defined asan unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers, or that which is foreign or strange.”

Meanwhile, my students feared they’d betray their birthright if they abandoned small, remote towns for overcrowded cities in other states, or even Jackson. I soon heard that only the Wyoming-born could win major state offices. In 2014 Gov. Matt Mead announced that three new additions to his staff were men with “Wyoming roots.” And last May, the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services introduced a new program, “Wyoming Grown,” designed to bring natives home by clueing them into job opportunities. Hayley McKee, the information officer, said that in the last eight months 26 professionals have been placed.

Yet, as the 21st century got underway, “Our Way of Life” took a sucker punch. The world finally acknowledged that climate change was real, and billions of tons of CO2 spewing from coal-fired power plants played the largest role in higher temperatures, storms, tornadoes, floods, impending food shortages and species’ extinction, not to mention lung and heart conditions. Thanks to new EPA regulations inspired by the June 2014 Clean Air and Climate Change Act, followed by the Paris Agreement on climate change, U.S markets were no longer buying the 400 million tons of publically-owned and federally-regulated Powder River coal that 15 mines had railroaded out every year. And largely dependent on fossil fuel fees, 11 percent of state revenues went down the drain. As 2015 ended, coal stocks continued their dive, the industry reeled from debt, two companies went bankrupt, U.S. coal production fell to its lowest level since the 1980s, and coal mine workers  applied for unemployment insurance. This past Christmas, New York Times reporter James B. Stewart wryly joked that we could extend coal’s future by putting more lumps of it in bad children’s stockings. Then, on Friday Jan. 15, the Obama administration landed  a knock-out blow by announcing a “pause” in approving new coal leases. If the National Mining Association had any doubts, it now knew that the Feds intended to keep coal in the ground.

Coal’s dim future was already a sensitive issue in 2012, when Tom Buchanan, then president of the University of Wyoming, was pressured by coal-county legislators and the Wyoming Mining Association to raze Chris Drury’s $45,000 campus installation, “Carbon Sink” — a spiraling circle of beetle kill lumber that morphed into coal. Yet the sculpture only symbolized what everyone knew: that CO2 emissions were largely responsible for tepid winters that allowed lodgepole predators to thrive. By 2015, the warmest year yet, Gov. Mead, the university’s School of Energy Resources, and legislators beat their breasts like ancient Egyptian mourners after the Pharaoh’s death, and asked what offerings coal would need to embark on its afterlife.  

You’ve heard the proposals: What about turning the mineral into a gas that makes plastics, pharmaceuticals, paints, and food sweeteners? (Those gasification plants are costly to build and also eject CO2). Could Wyoming cash in on iffy CO2 sequestration technologies that neutralize emissions in different kinds of reservoirs, or better yet, enhance oil recovery? How about shipping Powder River coal to Asia? (The states with ocean ports said no, and, it turned out, Asian markets could access closer, cheaper suppliers as they, too, began phasing out coal.) Meanwhile, Wyoming’s renewable energy sources, wind and sun, didn’t engage imaginations preoccupied with schemes for coal’s second coming.   

“Thank God for the rainy day fund,” Wyomingites sighed, meaning the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account, flush with $1.8 billion. But states can’t retire and live off their savings, like I did. And how long will Wyoming’s other non-renewable fossil fuels — oil and plentiful natural gas — hold out (centuries?) before they, too, go the way of coal, coal methane gas, and the dinosaurs that left their bones in Como Bluffs?   

The governor suggested diversifying the economy. (Not a new idea.) True, Wyoming is one of three states (with Texas and West Virginia) where the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the 10 highest employment quotients are energy related. Other industries, Mead affirmed, would make state coffers less susceptible to energy downturns. He focused on clean, high-paying technology companies, (Colorado has 495 in Denver alone), and proudly announced that Microsoft had expanded its Wyoming operation by 25 jobs.  (A positive move, but to put it in perspective, the new Google campus in Boulder, Colorado, will add 1,500 positions to the 300 the company already had.)

Diversification is a soul-stirring word, but what does it call for? Not just a few companies, expanding high speed wireless broadband, but a wider business base, including small manufacturers. They might choose Wyoming over China and Vietnam when they got a load of the Cowboy State’s lack of corporate and income taxes, less stringent regulations, and low union participation, as well as federal tax incentives for staying and producing in-country. (New Wyoming businesses do pay a franchise tax.) But one crucial factor is missing: Asia’s abundant labor force. You can’t attract a factory that makes, say, mattresses, or diesel-hybrid electric tractors, or even a meat packing plant without  potential workers.

A viable workforce demands an increased population. (Wyoming is the least populous state in the union.) And where in Sam Hill will the state get that? The answer, my friend, is blowing in a gale-force wind: The answer is people from other countries — yes, Immigrants, including refugees, with other religions, languages, traditions, and skin colors, who are unlikely to share “our way of life.”

These people, who may have suffered human rights abuses, war, economic and political oppression, don’t think that “freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”  As I write, the foreign-born that the state needs to transform its economy are walking through 31-mile tunnels under the English Channel, and risking their lives to cross turbulent seas in inflatable rafts. They’d love to have a job, a home, and a school for their kids in a peaceful place with beautiful scenery. And, I bet, they’d be happy to pay a state income tax, like the one Tax Reform 2000 suggested. (Sixteen years ago the group of legislators and economists estimated that a small, flat-rate tax would raise $153,633,405, only about $5 million less than the 2016 budget shortfall. And, they pointed out, every state on Wyoming’s borders, all red but one, has an income tax, except South Dakota.)

Other governors realize that paying taxes is one of the ways that immigrants expand local economies. Michigan’s Rick Snyder called for a new program to attract and welcome the foreign-born, citing statistics that said newcomers were more than three times as likely as non-immigrants to start a new business. (They also filed more international patents.) Cities, too, have adopted pro-immigrant initiatives. Despite Congress’s discouraging rhetoric, Washington, Atlanta, Nashville and Memphis, Charlotte, Louisville, Tucson, and Dayton have pledged to create immigrant-friendly climates because they recognize that new arrivals who attract businesses also start them, spend gobs of money, and pay sales, income, and property taxes.

Actually, immigrants already reside in Wyoming. The American Immigration Council’s statistics say that in 2013 one in 10 Wyomingites was Hispanic or Asian. The foreign-born made up 3.5 percent of the population, or 20,081. (All but 5,000 were “authorized.”) Comprising 4.1 percent of the workforce, they paid $105.9 million in federal taxes and $38.5 million in state taxes (property and sales). Like immigrants elsewhere, many are better educated than natives. As a Dubois summer resident, who buys groceries in Jackson, I can vouch that the thriving tourist town’s restaurants, motels, and grocery stores depend on Hispanic and Eastern European workers. (The former owner of the Italian bistro, The Yellowstone Garage, once told me that Hispanics had saved the restaurant and hotel industries, and are the only restaurant employees who still have a work ethic.)

This brings me to Syrians — for Wyoming, largely a symbolic issue, as the U.S. hopes to settle the 10,000 in cities where Syrian communities already exist. Instead of joining 27 Republican governors who rejected the war-ravaged victims of Assad and ISIL, Gov. Mead, who ran into political flack when he sensibly proposed a refugee center, should have begged for 5,000. With federal subsidies, nonprofit grants, a committee to create acceptance strategies, and a chunk of that bulging rainy day fund, the state could have stimulated its own economy by building the strangers housing in Casper, where Monster.com now lists 691 positions, mostly for drivers and sales associates. Like your grandfather and mine, the foreign-born who worked the Butte copper mines, and my cab driving Ethiopian friend in Denver, immigrants know you gotta start somewhere.

Diversity, however, describes not just changes in population, or a good business mix, but personnel in individual organizations. A study from The Center for Talent Innovation shows that companies benefit from hiring diverse employees, instead of safe “cultural fits,” like their friends, who root for the same team, look and act like the boss, and share his or her taste in movies and books. Research shows that homogeneity breeds complacency; and the mere presence of someone from a different social background improved workplace performance and accuracy. The strongest teams employ different ages, races, and genders, as well as members with “acquired” diversity, like military experience, foreign language skills, and time spent abroad.  Leaders who are receptive to unexpected or challenging questions, and support new ideas, increase their companies’ profits and capture new markets.

Which brings me back to the Manhattan emigrant I was long ago. Although I made no waves in rural Woods Landing, I shook up the university’s English department. I said what I thought in faculty meetings (a cultural no-no), challenged students to excel in harder courses, and designed a visiting writer program that hired authors from many states, including Wyoming, who also taught community members. As my own contribution might indicate, the diversity that energizes a single workplace, could energize an unsustainable fossil fuel-based economy.  

So how to fix what’s broke? Sure, create a Refugee Center to vet Muslim immigrants and dream up new lives for coal, but grow the workforce with ambitious newcomers who will have a profound personal stake in enjoying and enhancing their American home.

But what will keep the new residents from moving to Oregon? Before you roll out the welcome wagons, stop saying, “Our Way of Life,” and tear off that xenophobic bumper sticker, “We Don’t Give a Damn How You Do it Back Home.”

About Writing for Peace Adviser Vicki Lindner

vicki Lindner (3)Vicki Lindner is an Associate Professor Emerita at the University of Wyoming, and an instructor at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, where she serves on the Diversity and Inclusivity Committee. She is the author of a novel, co-author of Unbalanced Accounts: How Women can Overcome their Fear of Money, and many essays, short stories, magazine and newspaper articles. Learn more about Vicki Lindner and her work here.

— Essays are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at dustin@wyofile.com.

WyoFile is a nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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Check Out Our 2016 Young Writers Contest!

Writing for Peace dreamerWriting for Peace challenges young writers (ages 13–19) to expand their empathy skills by researching an unfamiliar culture and writing from the point-of-view of a character within that new world, while exploring social, political, and environmental pressures, and universal themes. We’ve extended the submission deadline to April 15, 2016 at midnight (Mountain Time). There is no fee for participation.

First, second, and third place prizes will be awarded in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry categories. Announcements will be made on May 1st on the Writing for Peace Blog.

  • First place winners will receive $50. Second  place winners will receive $25. Third place winners will receive $10.
  • Winners work, photo, bio, and a follow-up interview will be published in DoveTales, An International Journal of the Arts. Winners will receive one hard copy of the book.
  • Finalists may be eligible for online publication in our Writing for Peace blog.
  • Winners and finalists may receive invitations to participate in other Writing for Peace events, such as our Annual Youth Summit, readings, and possible mentoring opportunities.

Check out our full guidelines here.

Recommended Reading From Adviser Dr. Margaret Flowers:

Dr. Margaret Flowers, Writing for Peace Adviser“The conflict between democracy and state repression, often claimed as necessary to protect our safety and security, has moved the United States consistently toward a greater national security state that has become inconsistent with people’s privacy and freedom; as well as their ability to exercise First Amendment protected political activities. Where are we in this balance? How do we change it?”  Newsletter: End The Security State


Copyright © 2016 Writing for Peace. All rights reserved.



Beyond the Sea, by Vicki Lindner

Vicki with JimBeyond the Sea

An excerpt from Baby, It’s You,  a memoir

By Vicki Lindner


Author’s Summary:

“Beyond the Sea” is Chapter 17 of Baby, It’s You, my memoir-in-progress about love, race, and rebellion. This story of an ill-fated interracial relationship begins in the early ‘sixties, before the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Birmingham Crisis, and the church bombing that killed four African American teenagers in 1963. Also yet to come is the March on Washington, the Assassination of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights Bill, and nation-wide protests against the Vietnam War. With no computers, we wrote on typewriters, and couldn’t imagine the feminist or sexual revolutions. In spring, 1962, however, when the scene below takes place, these changes were blowing in the wind. Although I’d won the “Miss Morris Hills” contest for reciting my own funny “odes,” and was the high school’s star journalist, as well as an actress, I was a renegade, a self-declared Existentialist, determined to defy cultural expectations that all girls were meant to become mothers and housewives. “Jim,” as I call him, the handsome, sensitive boy I fell for, (and address as “you”), was an amazing track star, and the only African American in my large high school. Ready to take on the world of discrimination and prejudice, personified by my southern mother, I had no idea that New Jersey was a surprisingly racist state, known to blacks as “The Georgia of the North.” As for Jim, he wanted, reasonably, to be accepted for who he was, but he rejects the Civil Rights Movement, and when prejudice and taboo come down upon us, he runs from me, only to return declaring his love. We are apart more than we are together. When this chapter begins, the reader knows that the important adults in my life are trying to persuade me that Jim and I, and the “mulatto” children they believe we will have, do not have a future. My Dad, a brilliant engineer, who has worked for the local Arsenal since World War II, will soon become an internationally known authority on conventional ammunition, including weapons now banned by international law. My mother has threatened not to send me to college if I don’t stay away from Jim. My father, as you will see, has another solution. But both of our lives are full of secrets.

Beyond the Sea

Dad suggests we take the rowboat out. “Come on, it’s too nice a day to sit around mooning.”

“I’m reading!” I retort. I hold up The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin’s new essay collection. I know this was the book because I wrote, “I don’t see Jim as a ‘priapic black stud,’” a Baldwin quote, in my journal. Still, Dad is the only family member I can stand at the moment, and I’m pleased he’s asked me to join him.

Recently, he’s traveled to a lot of foreign countries. The Arsenal sent him to Vietnam. From Germany, the last place he went, he sent me two postcards. On one, with a picture of a fountain surrounded by marble monkeys, he wrote that Braunschweig had been hit badly in the war, but was rebuilding fast. In Cologne he’d visited the university, an “awe inspiring” cathedral, and traveled down the Rhine by ship: “While I didn’t see maidens beckoning to me, or hear any irresistible siren calls, I saw the impressive country side and fabled castles,” he scrawled. On a page of thin blue parchment stamped “Hotel Europa, Weimar,” he described the “torturous streets full of hurrying students,” Goethe’s house, herring and black bread, and said he hoped I’d someday find a professor and settle down to raise my brood in a university town. (I pictured a hen pecking worms into cheeping beaks, but didn’t wonder why my father failed to imagine that his bright daughter could become a professor herself.)

He never said what he was doing in Europe. Mom, who complained that Dad didn’t discuss his job with her, had no idea either. But from a newspaper clipping I recently found in his desk, I now conclude that he was making sure West Germany’s defense system was interoperable with ours.

“I want to make you an offer,” he says, as we slam out the door. Suspicious.

We plunge down the steep bank that leads from our backyard to the lake, our shoes sliding on slippery dead leaves. Spring is underway. The maples and oaks have untwisted their twigs into yellow-green sheaves; soon they’ll thrust shady umbrellas above their black trunks.

Although we’ve lived in our big new house in Randolph Township less than a year, my secrets already infuse the grey boards of this dock. Dad has no idea that we kissed down here one winter night, you holding me inside your letter jacket, warding off the sky’s cold glitter. Now it’s too risky for us to be together this close to our house.

I also hang out here with Izzy, my tall skinny friend. He told me about the book he found in a box of his dead father’s stuff—Love without Fear, by Eustace Chesler. “It explains how to explore a woman’s body,” he said. He and Edie, his rich New York girlfriend, had gone through all of Eustace’s preliminary exercises; he wanted to do it with her so bad he could hardly stand it, but she stuck to her goddamned rules. I was dying to know what these exercises were; I didn’t think you and I did them. Sometimes I thought I loved Izzy, too, platonically, of course, not the desperate yearning way I loved you. “Your words are like sun on brown water,” I wrote in a poem dedicated to Iz. “I need not watch your face to know how your eyes crinkle to ripples and what shade of blue they are.”

Mystical events, I’d found out, could happen on this dock. Last week Lorraine and I dangled our feet over the side as she complained about her mother, who’d forbidden her to go to the senior prom unless she lost five pounds. “With Dean, for Crissakes!” Back in October they’d promised to go together if neither managed to score a real date.

“Oh pu-leez,” I’d groaned, clutching my throat. “Dean pushes that huge belly of his around like a baby carriage!”

Lorraine’s laugh clanged like a can of pennies spilled on the floor. (She didn’t tell me her mother had taken her to a doctor who’d prescribed “diet pills” for appetite-control. Later, she figured out how to get more herself.) “I did make out with him once,” she confessed, “when I was insanely frustrated.”

This weathered platform on the windy lake, near yet far from the manicured lawns of the suburban world above, freed us to be our disconsolate, alienated selves. After we quit laughing we screamed “Crash!” at a passenger plane flying overhead. Oh God, the aircraft took a sudden dive toward the trees, spewing exhaust fumes. “No, please, it was a joke!” we yelled at the sky. Miraculously, the plane heard us and righted itself.

Now Dad unlocks the chained oars. After I clumsily maneuver to the rocking hull, he pushes the “Renee Dee” into the lake. Mom named the second-hand rowboat after her step sister, Renee. Recently we’d learned that my aunt’s fifth husband, Horace Dee, was a bigamist. He had other wives all over the place, and the stores came to take back the fur coat and diamond ring he’d bought my aunt on the installment plan. “When it comes to men, my sister never had an ounce of sense,” Mom summarized.

The water is olive-colored, clear; you can still see to the bottom, not yet strangling with slimy seaweed, as it will be in the August heat. I see the skeleton of another house, sprouting in the new development on the opposite shore. The foundation scars the red dirt that was covered with thick sumac and birch. Already this place is ruined, I think.

Dad rows, his brown hands, not too hairy, gripping the oars. Though it’s chilly, he’s wearing his oil-stained gray shorts; his legs, permanently tanned, are shapely with graceful ankles, like mine. In an old photo of him at 16, he posed, slender and muscular in an old-fashioned one-piece bathing suit; he’s still handsome, and his eyes are still blue, but his greying hair is no longer black. Today he’s wearing a bag of salt around his throat to ease his chronic laryngitis, an old Polish remedy from my Jewish grandmother. I trail my lily-white fingers in the sorrowful green water, like a captive princess in a fairy tale.

“Ahem,” Dad rasps, clearing his hoarse throat, “are you aware of what’s happening in Viet Nam?” He already knows the answer: I’m not aware. When I do read The Times, not that often, I skip those parts, always boring and confusing, and focus on theater reviews and ads for linen dresses with wide leather belts. All I know is that Vietnam is a tiny country somewhere in Asia. We never talk about it in American Civilization class.

“We’re putting more of our people in there,” Dad tells me. He was right. In October of ’61, we had increased American troops and advisors from 600 to 16,000. According to an April, 1962 edition of Life, we’d just sent an additional 4,000, plus helicopters, transport planes, and tactical aircraft, armed with rockets, bombs, chemicals that defoliated jungle along the highways, and sentry dogs to flush out the Viet Cong. All this had cost billions. Yet, President Kennedy warned that it would take “skill, stubbornness, and perhaps ten years” for the South Vietnamese to win the war.

In fact, contrary to official reports, the Vietnam conflict, really a civil war, wasn’t going well. Ngo Diem, the Catholic monk that President Eisenhower had pulled out of a U.S monastery and sent back to Saigon to rule the South, was a problem. The shy, reclusive President ignored our military advisors and listened only to his brothers and flamboyant sister-in-law, Madame Nhu. He seemed to believe the U.S. was in Vietnam to keep his wealthy, elite family in power. He put on big parades in his own honor that Vietnamese citizens weren’t allowed to watch, and did nothing for the Buddhist peasants, who the Viet Cong either killed or helped.

When I scrolled through microfilms of Morris County papers, looking for articles about you, I discovered that on February 27, 1962, three days after you won the National Hurdles Championship in Madison Square Garden, two pilots in President Diem’s own Air Force bombed the Saigon Palace. Borrowing U.S. Navy AD-6 Skyraiders, they engulfed the former home of the French high commissioner in napalm flames, frightening the tame deer on the lawn. Finally they crashed and were captured. This was the third failed coup against the leader, but the histories I’ve read never mention it, and my father didn’t either.

What he was likely to say is, “I trust you understand The Domino Theory.” His tone indicates his doubt.

“Not exactly.” On my forays into Greenwich Village, I’d seen old men knocking walls of black and white dotted squares onto concrete tables in Washington Square.

“It means if we let South Vietnam fall to the Communists,” Dad explains, “the Russians and Chinese will swarm in and take over that entire part of the world.” (In fact, after the third failed coup, the Russians had warned that U.S. aggression against the Viet Cong, in violation of the 1954 Geneva Accord, threatened “alarming consequences” for world peace.) (“Consequences” signified nuclear war.)

“No kidding,” I say. “Is that why you went there?” A Mallard takes off, its tiny wings twittering to hold its heavy body aloft. The duck flies toward the island where “Spring still coys her petticoat frill of first green,” as I wrote in Izzy’s poem.

Then Dad gets to the reason why he lured me into this No Exit boat. “I understand the Wellington boy will be going to Georgetown.” Here we go again. I clutch my red cotton cardigan to my torso, wishing for the warm wool letter sweater you gave me, now hidden from Mom’s prying eyes in my bottom drawer.

“Maybe,” I say, pretending indifference. “I think they want to give him a scholarship, but I’m not sure he’s going there.”

This is the truth. When I bring Georgetown up, you don’t say how great it will be for us to be together in D.C. next year. Recently you’d mentioned trying to get into Michigan, where Hayes Jones is, and I didn’t know whether to feel hurt or relieved. I couldn’t quite picture us in D.C. Would we have an affair? I liked the exciting, dangerous word, but the actuality was hard to imagine. What if you dumped me? Or I met someone new? (I couldn’t see myself wearing a scarf and sunglasses in a fraternity boy’s convertible, like the coeds in Glamour.) If you dated other girls would I flunk out, deranged by jealousy and suicidal despair? (I don’t consider that under different circumstances I might get to know you.) Anyway, no one picked a college because it was close to someone from high school. Couldn’t you be in love in two different places?

Now Dad comes out with it: “Your mother and I are thinking of offering you a chance to study for a semester or two at a French university.”

“Huh?” I’m startled out of my musings. “I’m going to American University in the fall as you very well know,” I say with the contempt that denigrates my parents’ intelligence. (Today I’d ask, “What the fuck?”) How did they dream up this bizarre-o punishment? A breeze riffles up wavelets that slap the Renee Dee with a resonant blip.

“Europe would provide a wonderful opportunity for a future writer,” Dad argues. “‘Fabulous,’ as you would say. Think of the interesting characters you’d meet—poets, actors, jazz musicians…. You’ve been studying French for a few years now, and the Sorbonne offers language courses for foreign students. You could postpone American, and enroll there next year, a more knowledgeable and mature young woman, truly prepared for what higher education has to offer. I can attest you’d enjoy experiencing another culture.” He clears his sore throat. “I’ll be kicking around over there myself, consulting with the allies, so we could dine in authentic cafes and explore the Louvre together.”

“Not France!” My squawk flies out of my mouth like a goose.

“But you’ve always said you wanted to live in Paris someday.”

“Someday, not now,” I sob. “You’re just trying to get me away from Jim.” Tears gush out of my eyes. “I hardly ever see him anyway.” This is more or less true. Last weekend, you told me, you were up in Lake Telemark, playing pool with your new Scandinavian buddies. “Maybe I’m part Swedish,” you said, “Why I have these blond hairs on my arms.”

The boat moves farther away from the shore. “You’re just trying to get rid of me,” I rant at my father, “for no earthly reason.”

“That’s not what your friends are telling us.” The slack muscles in Dad’s arms are straining as he leans into the oars, and his soft furry stomach contracts into folds.

“What in high holy hell are you talking about?”

“Watch your language,” he warns. (He’s slapped me for saying “shit” at the dinner table.) “As it happens, a friend of yours called to tell us they’d seen you with him.”

“Who?” I retort. None of my friends would rat me out. Or would they? For the first time, I feel paranoid. I flip through a mental rolodex of everyone who knows about us. A few weeks ago we hung out in Morty Barr’s kitchen listening to his mom tell how she eloped with his dad a week after they met. She’d hugged you and didn’t act like she minded seeing us together. But maybe she did.

“Someone you think of as a very good friend,” Dad says mysteriously. Was Morty himself the tattletale? I wouldn’t put it past him, the double-crossing little skunk. Could it be Ruthie? Quel Horreur! She definitely qualified as one of my best friends. But recently she’d hinted that the girl hosting the Thespian cast party was against us coming together. I felt shocked and betrayed when Ruthie said, “I don’t think it’s such a good idea either.”

“Maybe they’re lying,” I say to my father. “Did that ever occur to you?”

“You’re the one who’s been lying,” Dad states. “To your mother and myself.”

So people I believed were allies were spying on us. “Where did they see us?” I demand, my voice wavering. I consider jumping over the side and swimming for shore in the icy water. It would serve Dad right if I drowned, or came down with pneumonia, but if I made it, he’d be there at the dinner table, angrier because I worried him with that stupid stunt.

“You have no idea where I go or with who,” I rave on. The last time we got together, we were making out in a strip of woods bordering a two-lane highway while Lorraine and your older brother, Nat, just home from Europe, waited in the car, swigging red wine straight from the bottle. Nat, who’d been a major baseball star at Morristown High School, amazed Lorraine with his stories about the West Bank of Paris. Neither of them would have called my parents.

Dad’s mouth tightens, meaning he’s fed up with me.

“You were the one who taught me that all people are equal,” I say, keeping my eyes on the bottom of the boat. Dad doesn’t reply. He turns the Renee Dee around, his arm pulling one creaky oar.

“I REFUSE to go to France!” My self-control cracks; I’m screaming now. “If you make me go, I’ll run away! I’ll kill myself!” These are my favorite threats but they sound hollow, unconvincing, leftovers from the distant past. As Dad knows, I haven’t run away from home since I was twelve, bundling my babysitting money in a scarf like a hobo would. I’d planned to take the bus to New York, and after that? I didn’t get far. Now I lock my door and run away to my secret thoughts, my poetry and journal. When Mom put me “incommunicado” for not cleaning my room, and wouldn’t let me talk on the phone, I wrote to Lorraine, “I may kill myself. I will swim out to sea and drown like the girl in that Moss Hart play, “The Climate of Eden.” Then I admitted, “I’m only toying with the idea of such a dramatic gesture.”

Now I come up with a more original bombshell to drop on my father: “If you force me to go to France, I’ll become a prostitute on the Champs Elysees.” The girl knows she’s losing it—while she maintains a haughty dignity in fights with her mother, her father quickly reduces her to an infantile fool—but she can’t resist adding, “And I won’t take money from Negro men!”

Dad assumes the bemused expression that distances him from his own Irritation. “That might prove a fascinating subject to write about,” he responds coolly.

After more weighted silence, he asks, speaking just above a whisper, “Do you want to try rowing for a while?”

“No,” I say sullenly, folding my arms across my chest. “You got us out here, you get us back.”

“You’re hurting your mother,” Dad croaks, implying he feels no pain himself.

As I suspected, this all came from her, the Racist. Maybe she dreamed up this Paris scheme when I told her I was moving to France after college. The girl believes that her father, who is big on civil rights, secretly approves of Jim, but sides with his wife to save his marriage.

Now he says, “It may not seem like this to you, but Mother and I are mainly concerned with your happiness.”

About Vicki Lindner, Writing for Peace Adviser

vicki Lindner (3)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 her work here.

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A Stranger in Trouble (Part II), by Vicki Lindner

A Stranger in Trouble

(Part Two)

by Vicki Lindner

Vicki Lindner, Writing for Peace Advisor

March 18

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.”

March 20

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.

March 21

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.

March 22

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.

March 23

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.

March 24

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.

March 25

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.

March 27

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.

 March 29

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

The  “Occupied” 2013 issue of DoveTales has gone to press! The release date is slated for March 30th, but you will begin seeing some exciting changes on the website before then. Stay tuned, and thank you for your support!

Equity for Women Writers

Writing for Peace encourages all young people to write and to believe their writing can make a difference, but is that equally true for boys and girls? Sadly, the latest VIDA Count indicates that we have a long way to go to achieve gender equality in the literary world. Please help us reverse this trend by reading works written be women and promoting your favorite women authors. Ask your children who they are reading in school, supplement their reading list with books by women authors, and talk to their teachers, librarians, and principals about adding women authors to their curriculum. Take note of the authors reviewed in your local papers and advocate for women authors. Head to your library or book store with a list of the twelve amazing women on our Advisory Panel. And please make a statement in support of women writers here. Thank you!

Copyright © 2013 Writing for Peace. All rights reserved.

A Stranger in Trouble (Part I), by Vicki Lindner

A Stranger in Trouble

by Vicki Lindner

Vicki Lindner, Writing for Peace AdvisorBefore 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….

March 15

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.

March 16

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.

March l7

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

The  “Occupied” 2013 issue of DoveTales has gone to press! The release date is slated for March 30th, but you will begin seeing some exciting changes on the website before then. Stay tuned, and thank you for your support!

Equity for Women Writers

Writing for Peace encourages all young people to write and to believe their writing can make a difference, but is that equally true for boys and girls? Sadly, the latest VIDA Count indicates that we have a long way to go to achieve gender equality in the literary world. Please help us reverse this trend by reading works written be women and promoting your favorite women authors. Ask your children who they are reading in school, supplement their reading list with books by women authors, and talk to their teachers, librarians, and principals about adding women authors to their curriculum. Take note of the authors reviewed in your local papers and advocate for women authors. Head to your library or book store with a list of the twelve amazing women on our Advisory Panel. And please make a statement in support of women writers here. Thank you!

Copyright © 2013 Writing for Peace. All rights reserved.