It doesn’t feel real that I lived in Cairo, but the evidence is scattered around my apartment. It sits on my bookshelf, hangs on the wall in a green frame. There are digital files of photos I don’t look at. But they are there, and the man who saved my life lives one town away whether or not we speak.
Several years ago I received a beautiful backgammon board as a parting gift. Inlaid with mother of pearl, the white spaces alternate with thick black enamel in geometric patterns like tiles in a mosque. We played on it before I knew it was mine. The game pieces are dime-sized tokens of smooth wood. They made satisfying clacks as we navigated them around the board until I lost, again.
“Damn,” I would curse under my breath, as we downed the last of our foreign beer and takeout koshary from Felfela.
My American boyfriend would sit back and laugh. He was tall, and smart, and he spoke beautiful Arabic. He lived with a roommate on the sixth floor of a dusty gray building off Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. Ahmed, one of the doormen, had a problem with our unwed state and wouldn’t let me in the building. The other’s morals could be bent in exchange for baksheesh, either alcohol or a wad of Egyptian pounds.
One night Sam snuck me in while Ahmed slept on a cot beside the stairs. I waited outside the building while Sam scouted.
“Coast is clear,” he said with a bright grin. “But you’re gonna need to take off your shoes.”
I climbed the stairs in panic mode, clutching my heels in a sweaty palm.
“What kind of reporter are you?” I demanded back in his apartment. “That you didn’t notice your lease had a no ladies clause?”
“One of us didn’t come here for dates.”
“Hey! You asked me out.”
“Yeah but you were asking for it.”
“Perv,” I said, but this city did feel easier with a man of intimidating height around.
We’d met at After Eight, one of few clubs that didn’t close for Ramadan. Expat camaraderie ran high and I’d worn a sleeveless dress under my jacket, which yes, in Cairo, is asking for it.
From my first week in Cairo we’d been sitting in plastic chairs at a local café drinking sweetened Turkish coffee or hibiscus juice, puffing on a flavored water pipe, where I would lose more rounds of backgammon. Our dating had happened so quickly it felt like my Cairo life. Eat falafel. Smoke shisha. Go to Sam’s. I let him handle any necessary conversation. Teshrubi eh? A server might smile in my direction, but Sam would step in to help. He knew I was afraid. Afraid to draw attention to myself. Afraid of what I’d do when he left.
I hugged his gift to my chest and helped him to a cab for his flight back to the states.
“Take care.” He said, and that was it.
December nights in the city were still warm, but I was dressed in heavy loose layers, an attempt at camouflage. I ducked into my own cab and directed the driver in curt Egyptian Arabic to New Cairo, my expensive verdant campus in the middle of the desert. Our walled and lonely oasis was safe, but not much else. New Cairo had been envisioned as a solution to Cairo’s crowding, but for now only skeletons of houses and duplexes lined imagined cul-de-sacs. Men in traditional robes would dangle their legs off the sides of balconies and chain smoke for days. Development was stagnant.
The campus rose out of the desert like an eerie shrine in a Hayao Miyazaki movie. A system of fountains kept us cool during the daytime, but we were exposed to the nighttime’s chills. A Texan friend and I would sneak out of the residence to watch episodes of the X-Files on the roof of a lecture hall, the desert laid out before us like an endless frozen ocean. We would pull our wicker chairs close and try to hear our laptops over the wind without disturbing campus security from their naps. Unofficial policy frowned on students of the opposite gender huddling for warmth on rooftops, but no one else shared our love of 90s conspiracy theories; the lounge was 24/7 football. The fake kind, as the Texan would’ve said. The sleepy guards were hardly intimidating. The only building off-campus within walking distance was a Chili’s in an unfinished mall that served shisha until 3:00 A.M. Our entertainment options were limited and our work load was light.
There were two dorms, one for men and one for women, with a small open-air living room in between where we were allowed to interact. The suites were organized with four single occupancy bedrooms, two bathrooms and a shared kitchenette. Maids came to clean them regularly. Grime and sand accumulated quickly on the tile floors. The only residents were foreigners and a handful of Egyptians from outside Cairo. Schoolwork was painfully easy. We had plenty of time to flee to the European style beaches at Dahab, Herghada and Sharm el Sheik. One of the first trips organized for students in the Arab Language Institute was a David Guetta concert on the Sinai Peninsula. AUC presented Egyptian culture in its most Photoshopped light, but not even all the Armani sunglasses on campus could hide the inequality and tension that escalated in the months leading up to the Arab Spring.
My first weekend away some Egyptian classmates invited Mandolin, a study abroad student, and me to Marina 5 on the Mediterranean. We lounged under a cabana while the host’s butler served us oysters, Stellas and hash. The neighborhood had mass-produced artificiality to it, trying hard to mimic the other side of the Mediterranean. I was surprised to see how quickly the desert turned into ocean, not buffered by vegetation.
On the way back to the city my friend Mischa’s car got a flat tire. The Alexandria (or “Alex”) highway’s three-lane current rushed past us like rapids. Lanes were only painted on Egyptian roads for show. There wasn’t any consensus about whether you’re supposed to drive on top of the white dashes or in between them. The roads were either completely gridlocked or a recreation of Frogger. After the tire was replaced, our student caravan pulled back into the stream of traffic. We were nearly back on campus when Mischa asked if we wanted to see real Egyptian driving, teasing Mandolin and me for our queasy expressions. He didn’t wait for an answer to begin accelerating. We flew across the smooth pavement, approaching two trucks that began drifting in towards the center lane.
“Shit,” Mischa floored it, recognizing we would not be able to break in time, or swerve around. We sliced in between the two trucks. The rear view mirrors smashed off with a metallic tear and thudded off the roof of the car.
He shrugged. “That was nothing.”
Egypt was thrilling. Because every drive felt like a car chase. Because I was speaking a new language. Because I was living in beautiful Cairo, spending weekends at my new friends’ beach houses. Later this would change. In one of many stunning displays of injustice an AUC student would be fined about 15 USD for driving his BMW into a crowd of pedestrians, killing twelve. Later my friend would be hit by a cab in a hit and run and spend months in a wheelchair with two broken legs. Later I would be assaulted and ignored by the police like others before me.
AUC began to feel like a playground for rich young Cairenes. Most students were chauffeured from their family homes and spent the day in clusters smoking and drinking iced coffees from Cilantro, Egypt’s answer to Starbucks with European portions. Only half the women students on campus wore hijabs. The Spanish style was most common, leaving the neck exposed, unlike in downtown Cairo, where women were commonly cloaked in black abayas and niqabs, if they were leaving home at all.
“Keep an eye on the veiled girls,” an Egyptian girlfriend remarked. “They get less and less modest each year. At the beginning of the year ankle-length A-line skirts were a common sight, then straight denim skirts until they were replaced by above the knee tunics with leggings.
A friend from Riyadh, Sara, panicked every time her father was visiting, “No one mentions that I’m not wearing the veil. It’s worse than awkward.” AUC was not real Cairo. AUC was a rumschpringe. Sara and I signed up for all the touristy Cairo events together. We have pictures together on Nile felucca rides, astride underfed horses at the pyramids, outside the mosque Al-Azhar.
Most of the other residents in the dorms were older study abroad students. My roommates came from Cyprus, from Germany and one from Japan. The only two other American freshman had Egyptian family. “Are you seriously planning on spending four years here?” Everyone I met asked.
“Well I was until I got here,” I would joke.
“I’m going to Egypt,” I announced to my mother and college counselor in September 2009, my senior year of high school.
“No, you’re not,” my mother said.
“How about Ohio?” My college counselor contributed.
“Not willingly,” I said. I didn’t want to go to college. I wanted to go to Egypt. Egyptian university seemed like a good compromise.
Excellent Google skills had brought me to advertisements for the American University in Cairo’s brand new campus. It was perfect. I was going to learn Arabic, and I would bypass all the first-time away from home nonsense. No falling down drunk through small town USA. I was moving to Arabia, were everything would be a fun adventure.
That’s right. Where other people saw religious conflict and safety issues, I saw “fun” and “adventure.” Without my parents knowledge I began completing the application. I had sent off the requisite negative HIV test, my recommendations. The only thing left was a short essay.
Then my parents found it.
“No, no, no, no, no,” my mother said. “You are not going there.”
I accepted defeat and left my application incomplete. In March I received a thin cream-colored envelope telling me I was in. I hadn’t even written my essay and they were offering me a hefty scholarship. I concentrated my 18 years of whining expertise into just “a year or two” in Egypt. Like a gap year. Only with credit. And it worked, though in the end I would spend only a semester in the Nile Delta.
I said goodbye to my parents at the airport.
“It’s not too late to stay. You don’t have to go,” my mother begged.
“I’m good,” I rolled my eyes and ducked into security.
I would take a campus shuttle to Sam’s place after school and walk the two longest blocks in the world to his place. I wished he would meet me at the bus stop, but I didn’t want to concede my weakness. It was two blocks. Two blocks. Things don’t go wrong in broad daylight in Wust El-Balad.
Surprising no one but myself my fearlessness faded each time I left campus. Constant harassment shredded my sanity. I was stalked by two men and got lost trying to get away from them before a stranger distracted them and I hailed a cab to flee to Sam’s.
“What took you so long?”
“I got lost.”
He laughed. I wanted to cry.
I didn’t go to Cairo to live like a foreigner, but that was the only world open to me if I wanted to be safe. I was jealous of my boyfriend, that he would be welcomed to strangers’ weddings and parties. Asked to talk politics with the café regulars. I would have my ass, my chest grabbed by sneering men, walking two blocks by myself.
It was the Texan, not my boyfriend, who saved me in Alexandria. My boyfriend texted me on my cheapo drug dealer phone to tell me he’d gotten an assignment last minute.
“What are you guys doing tonight? Last chance to join me for a little road trip!” I interrogated a table of my friends at lunch as they downed shawerma.
“We went to Alex last weekend.” Maja supplied. “Come to Dahab! We’re gonna do yoga with the hippies and bask in the sunshine.”
“Spoiler alert: the Alexandria Library is super depressing. You don’t need to go,” Mo said.
“I’ll go,” the Texan said.
“Hooray! Can you ask your classes and see if anyone else wants to go?”
The Texan was a grad student on a Boren scholarship from the Department of Defense. We sat next to each other on the train didn’t notice the two-hour delay, while Stephen and Naz from the Texan’s Arabic class suffered behind us.
He held a crumbling copy of Robert Jordan’s “The Eye of the World” but didn’t open it.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“I have a degree in Math.”
“But I play basketball.”
He did have the body for it. “I don’t think you can be redeemed.”
“You’re the one who never leaves the dorms.”
“I do! My boyfriend lives in the city.”
“Ahh. Well maybe I’ll let you borrow the book. I bet you can be converted.”
“I do love me some George R. R. Martin.”
“So it’s not a lost cause.”
“Have you ever watched the X-files?”
“I have every season on my computer.”
“Ha ha. I’d stay in my room too then.”
“I don’t hide in my room. I have a boyfriend.”
We dropped our bags at the New Capri hotel and left to wander the corniche and sip sobia in wicker chairs before a glittering Mediterranean.
“If you make me sit with her again, I will strangle you two,” Stephen whispered as Naz giggled with a guy named Mahmoud she seemed to know from Cairo.
“I’m the one who has to room with her,” I said. The Texan gave me a look. “He invited her.”
“Why did you invite her?” Stephen asked.
“I invited the class. Because Miss Anna here asked me too.”
“I think she likes you,” I said, admiring her healthy layers of brunette frizz.
We transferred the party to our hotel, laughing as we climbed the stairs. I nodded a greeting towards two somber men behind the desk. Naz and my room had a broad balcony overlooking the sea. The Texan had stocked up on Auld Stag at Drinkies and we passed the bottle around for a couple hours, cramped together in chairs we pulled out from both of our rooms.
“That’s not what drone use is about,” Naz argued with the Texan about defense policy I understood less and less with each swallow.
“Where did you guys wanna go tomorrow?” Stephen interrupted.
“The catacombs! I have a list in my guide book,” I realized I was talking a little too loudly. I could feel the Texan’s leg against mine and a blush creeping into my cheeks. “We should probably call it a night.”
“Goodnight boys,” Naz’s voice sounded like a constant whine.
“See you in the morning.”
We left the chairs on the balcony. The door shut with a soft click behind the guys as Naz and I changed into pajamas. I collapsed in the bed closest to the door, and felt my brain pulse against my skull. Ugh.
“G’night,” I said as my head swirled.
“You are probably gonna have to shake me awake in the morning.” She groaned.
“Hah. Don’t worry. I have an obnoxious alarm. Get pumped for sightseeing!”
The digital clock glowed a green 4:17 and I feel asleep.
I’d had nightmares where I’d found myself paralyzed before an approaching monster. Dinosaurs. Burglars. It took me too long to realize that the heavy shape on top of me was not a dream. There was something there, someone there. I felt his knees against my legs through the blankets. And saw someone else standing by the door. Don’t move, don’t move and they won’t notice you’re here. I thought and lay petrified, unable to scream, until I realized I was the reason they were there. I gasped. The form thrust a hand over my mouth and I screamed—choked out a pathetic sound and bit down on his hand. He grunted and the other form moved closer.
“Naz, run, help!” I shrieked and tried to push him away, but I couldn’t raise my knees and my one free arm wasn’t strong enough. “Help, help, help!”
The form by the door slipped out of the room into a flash of light that illuminated the receptionist’s face above me. “Help, help, help,” I choked against his fat hand, and used my free arm to bang at the wall. I heard a scream beside me and thumps as Naz began to bang at the wall.
“Stephen! Jake! Help!” I heard her rasp.
“Anna? Anna!” The Texan was the first to rush in. He grabbed the receptionist by his collar and yanked him backwards off the bed so that the receptionist fell towards him and they both tumbled to the ground.
The receptionist got to his feet, tripping over his unbuttoned pants. The Texan moved to follow him.
“Jake, Jake, help,” I sobbed. He came to the bed and put his arms around me.
“It’s okay. It’s okay.”
Naz came over and stroked my hair, “Oh my god. You’re okay. Thank god.”
Stephen entered the room panting. “I…lost…him…upstairs…”
“Nothing happened. Nothing happened,” I muttered for myself and the others. “Nothing happened.”
“It’s okay. It’s okay,” Jake held me tighter. The clocked glowed 5:46.
“I want to be asleep,” I said.
“We’ll stay in here. Stephen can you get our blankets?”
“Can you stay with me?” I held onto Jake.
I closed my eyes and Stephen came back into the room and fluffed up his comforters on the floor. Naz had gone back to her bed. After a few minutes I felt Jake’s arms relax around me. I stayed awake until my phone went off at 8:00. Jake was lying beside me in his boxers. I was braless, in booty shorts.
“You’re okay,” he whispered, too quiet for Stephen or Naz to hear.
“Nothing happened,” I explained to Sam when I told him the story.
“Nothing happened,” he agreed.
What happened was we packed our bags and walked down to the lobby, the Texan holding on to me.
“He was in the room.” I spotted the smaller of the two forms behind the desk as we came down the stairs.
“Are you sure? I didn’t see him.”
“He was in the room.”
“Fuck. Stephen go ask him some sightseeing questions while we get the cops.”
Naz, the Texan and I walked out of the building. We had passed a police station only a few blocks away the night before, but had to circle around several times before we found it. An officer squatted out front, smoking a cigarette.
“We need help,” Naz was the closest to fluent. “Two men broke into our hotel room. They tried to hurt her.” She pointed to me.
“Okay,” he said and got to his feet. “Where are you staying?”
He stubbed out his cigarette and opened the door of the station to shout something.
“Yalla,” he started off.
Stephen was there at the desk with his back to us as we entered. The receptionist blanched. Stephen kept talking, pointing to something in a pocket language guide.
“Him,” I told the police officer. We approached.
The officer began to speak in rapid grunts I didn’t follow. The receptionist feigned shock.
“He says he wasn’t in the room. He says he heard a lot of noise.”
“He was in the room.”
They spoke again. “He was in the fucking room,” I yelled at the officer. “This piece of shit and his fat friend broke into my room.”
“That language is not necessary. He says he was not in the room. You can come to the station and file a report.”
“I don’t want to go to the station. You need to take him to the station.” I looked at Jake.
“We can go to the embassy in Cairo. It might be better to go through them.” This scene is the worst to remember. My friends looking at me as if they weren’t sure he had been in the room. The cop looking at me with the same blank gaze as the man behind the desk. The man who stood in my doorway while his friend climbed on top of a sleeping girl.
My body didn’t feel big enough to contain the hate pulsing through my blood. “Fine. Let’s go.”
“This isn’t a fun adventure,” I told Jake on the train.
He squeezed my hand, “I know.”
U wanna watch some Xfiles? Jake texted me. U shouldn’t b by urself.
It seemed like a good idea, a distraction from the anger festering under my skin. We started spending nights together, picking out movies for each other. The chair arms formed a thin barrier for wind to slice through. I still went to Sam’s on Thursdays and Mondays.
One night in December after we’d watched Scully and Mulder track down a liver eating immortal, Jake sighed and shut the computer abruptly.
“Okay, no smoking man, but still a good episode—”
“Anna,” he paused. “Will you come with me to Beirut? I think—”
“Then we need to stop doing this.”
He pulled me out of my chair, “Please. I want to be with you. Why are you doing this if you don’t?”
I didn’t have an answer so he tugged me closer and put his mouth on mine.
A few days later, I left with Sam for Amman. He was going back home to New York on the 22. Jake had left by the time we got back.
I spent my last two days in my new apartment on Maadi’s Road No. 9. It was beautiful and bright and all I could think was how will I come back here? One month later, the school closed indefinitely and I didn’t have to. I transferred back to the states where I can almost feel safe alone. My only reminders of fear the gifts from those who kept me safe: a worn copy of “The Eye of the World,” and a backgammon board I can hold my own on.