Friday, June 09, 2006

White

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It is the summer of 2001 and I am somewhere in the Sahara dessert in the back of an old jeep with four men named Mohammed and an Egyptian bodyguard named Hosnik. Hosnik was assigned to watch over me by a government, ever protective of their tourism industry. I’m not sure how much money the government charged my friends for my protective custody. But judging by Hosnik’s 1945 British uniform and 1920’s rusty pistol, I am guessing that they are not paying him much.

When I met the four Mohammeds in Karnak I was assigned a security force of eight. Three rode in an open jeep behind me, three in a van in front and two in the car with me, one on either side. Those guards wore bullet proof vests and carried semi-automatics. But their uniforms still fell off their bodies like tissue in some spots. And their boots were covered in tiny holes.

It all looked very official from afar. But we all knew it was a big show.

When I had to stop the caravan for a bathroom break, four guards entered the restroom before me, came out and signaled I could enter. I entered a room with three inches of standing water, rolled up the bottom of my jeans and waded into the room to hover ridiculously over the spot where the Turkish toilet was buried under brackish water in the back corner.

This was Egypt. I had learned to expect challenged plumbing.

Whilst pulling my drawstring pants back up over my falafel filled ass, I turned back to see two distinct holes that had been punched in the wall behind my Turkish toilet. Three men stood on the other side giggling at the full viewing access of my western sized ass.

Cursing at my useless security guards I shook my Tevas out onto the sand, got back in the car and continued in silence until the lunch camp. It was here that we left the six guards with their fancy guns and chest plates. Apparently terrorists don’t venture this far into the dessert.

But we did.

The next leg of our journey is by jeep. So here I am bouncing around in the back of the car and trying not to bump into Hosnik for fear his ancient pistol will shoot my knee cap off and we will be 100 miles from the nearest hospital. I had been suckered into buying the travelers insurance from STA, but I don’t recall it covering air lift.

Hosnik is happy. He smiles a lot and chat’s easily with the four Mohammeds. Two of the Mohameds never look at me, Grumpy Mohammed doesn't look at me or speak with me, but Friendly Mohammed is patient with my broken Arabic. He seems to mildly enjoy my company. Or at least he doesn’t carry the same bitterness for my whiteness, typical of so many of those we meet along our journey.

Last night, before we left the city, he watched me struggling with my Hejab. For as hard as I tried to cover my white blonde hair and farmer bronzed fingers, I couldn’t cover my Western origins. In this crowd, I would always be white. I would always be a foreigner. And I wanted nothing more than to blend.

When I walked into a room, the mood shifted, the conversation lowered to slow whispers, people left.

It was as if Friendly Mohammed knew that I so desperately wanted to assimilate. To be one of them. When the waitress approached my table with a $30 Shisha, Friendly Mohammed shooed her away. I didn’t dare smoke in front of the others. Even if we were in a tourist joint where all the women dressed in vintage belly dancing gear because that's what the Westerners wanted to see. I am a woman, and that would be inappropriate. Because I am white, they would probably let it go. But then I would be drawing attention to my differences. So I declined. Friendly Mohammed darted his eyes to the back door, inviting me to meet him out back.

I did.

Out back were the waiters, their ties loosened, hookahs dangling off their lips. He sat me down and paid one of the waiters a few coins from his change purse. One waiter moved aside and let me sit and Friendly Mohammed placed the hookah in my hand. Because he knew I wanted to experience something that was typical of the Egyptian life. But there was nothing typical about me sitting in my Hejab, surrounded by unamused waiters, smoking apple tobacco in a cloud of dust rising up behind a touristed shanty.

"Shukran." Thank you. And I shot Friendly Mohamed a thankful smile.

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Now today, we arrive at an oasis as the sun is beginning to set a yellow glow over the horizon. Desert sunsets are like that. Yellow. The oasis is a small but thriving town and I immediately notice the warmth of the people. It is a warmth I didn’t feel in the city.

I notice wealth, clean buildings, streets without garbage, and clear water running into basins in the center of town. The children here smile wide, they wear crisp white shirts over burgundy school uniforms. The girls sport headbands and knee high socks. I wander down where all the children are gathering after school and one of the girls pulls off my head scarf. Someone squeals and they fall into little girl giggles, swarming to touch my white hair. I ask them if I can take a photo.

"Minfadlik." Please. But I don't have to ask again because most of the girls aren’t shy.

“Hello…What is your name…How old you are…Thank you.”

They ramble off every English word they know. The girl with the ponytail is shy and she doesn’t want her photo taken. But the other girls convince her I am harmless. They touch my hand to show her that I don’t bite.

"Ma ismok?" What is your name.

"Fajr." She smiles and let's me take the photo.

"Ma'assalama." Goodbye. And she turns to join the others

"Fi aman allah." And I wave at them as they throw dust behind their thin legs, running back to their homes for dinner.

I explore the city, happy to escape the chaos of Luxor and Cairo. The oasis is clean, people are nice, they have proper toilets. I can walk the market without developing a crowd of salesman following behind.

"You are American? Follow me. I have an Uncle who sells carpets. I can make you a great deal. Come with me."

In the oasis, no one seems to look at me with pained glances. Out here I am not someone to resent. I am just a friendly visitor with funny skin, light eyes and white hair. I am only one tourist, not part of a pack of hungry, greedy tourists trying to rob them of their culture and poison them with my Capitalism.

I wander back to the jeep and find Hosnik and the Mohammeds behind the local restaurant smoking Shisha. They stand up when I come around the corner and I realize that I have not rewrapped my hair since the playground. But at this point it feels useless. No matter how much I try to cover my hair, bleached white after a month at the Red sea, I can never cover up that I am a Westerner. I will never be able to assimilate; I can never slump down in a corner and observe the culture playing out before me like a local. I will always be a white foreigner and my physicality will always deny me from the Arab privilege.

The next morning, we take jeeps into the White Desert. I try to contain my amazement at the world transforming outside my window. The lonely desert is turning into the moon. Once the bottom of the ocean about a million years ago, the White Desert is miles of limestone formations sprouting up from the earth like life size mushrooms down Alice and Wonderlands Rabbit Hole.
Everything is White. Some stone formations are the size of buildings. One looks like the profile of George Washington in one of those shadow etchings you get at Disneyland.

I am at home in the whiteness and it makes me giddy.

We light a fire. Grumpy Mohammed lays out our sleeping bags. Hosnik and I go into our nightly ritual of charades. This is how he plans to increase my Arabic vocabulary. But so far, we just act out funny sounding animals. And at this point, I figure I know the arabic word for 50 or so Northern African creatures. Tonight, his 6'3" lanky body is framed by the light of the campfire as he slumps over and morphs into the form of a camel.

“Yella, Yella,” I sqeal. And we all laugh because this is what they told me to say to the camels when we were trekking into the Valley of the Kings.

“Yella, Yella.”

The four Mohammeds repeat with chuckles.

Maybe it was the Shisha, or maybe the long day, but Hosnik is laughing so hard now that he is falling over. And now all the Mohameds are laughing at Hosnik. And now I am laughing at the four Mohammeds. And I fall backward onto the white rock behind me.

That’s when I hear it.

The sound of air coming out of a tire. A slow, smooth, hiss.

“Hissssss.”

And I look to my left. There it is. Staring me cold in the eye. A hands length from my nose.

A snake. A white snake. A hooded white viper snake.

No larger than the garden variety we would find when weeding the yard back home. But a snake in the desert is never a good thing. She is in strike mode, her body raised up about a foot from the coil of her tail. And we are miles away from a venom. I don’t recall seeing a kit in the back of the car.

I slowly begin to move my body to the left. I don’t break my stare. I speak quietly in a whisper that only Friendly Mohamed could hear over the raucous laughter.

“Snake.”

It comes out like a prayer.

And then everything happens fast. I have pulled away a few more feet from the snake and the snake strikes. Friendly Mohammed is on his feet and has somewhere found a large rock. Hosnik pulls out his rusty gun. Friendly Mohammed brings down the rock on the snakes head in a swift blow that instantly decapitates. Hosnik begins shooting at the sand around the headless body. The other Mohammeds scramble to avoid the bullets ricocheting off the rock. And I am still half laughing at ‘Yella,Yella’, trying not to wet myself with confused delayed emotional response.

But no one else laughs. They are all cautiously staring down at the sand.

“Pack up. White Vipers travel with mates. Where there is one, you will always find another.”

I get it. Every word. Everyone snaps into motion. I help Grumpy Mohammed pack up the sleeping bags and we move to the top of one of the white rocks. As we lay out the bags on the stoney surface of the white mountain, the mood begins to lighten. The Mohammeds are alive with chatter about the scene around the fire. They are re-enacting my fall against the rock and my cool response. I zip myself into my bag as Grumpy Mohammed shoots me an amused look. In the eye. He says something in Arabic, very quickly and all the Mohammeds laugh.

"Lil'asaf, anaa ataHaddathfaqaT qaliil min aläarabiyya." Unfortunately, I only speak a little Arabic.

"Haadhaa Hasan," That's all right, "Anaa afhamuk." I understand you.

And I feel like I’m sleeping on the surface of the moon.

When we wake up, we travel back to the base camp. When the jeep stops in front of the oasis, the Mohammeds all scatter and I am left alone in the big tent with all of the Bedouin. I try to tell them the story of the snake which makes them begin hooting and hollering and laughing and slapping their knees. And then one asks me what kind of snake. I shrug my shoulders because I don't know. There is no google in the desert.

So I put my index fingers up over my head and flare out my other fingers to show the hood and they laugh some more.

“It was white.”

And the room goes silent. And no one laughs.

“Very dangerous. Not many out this way. I’ve never heard of one in this part of the desert. You are very lucky. Those are the bad ones.”

3 comments:

Elizabeth said...

What an amazing story, I couldn't tear myself away!

stephie_ny said...

You're a wonderful writer. I look forward to every post. This story had me totally mesmerized. Thank you.

Digital Fortress said...

The few stories that I read today totally captivated me. They are so well written and seem to transport you to that moment in your life. Your profile mentions lots of travel representing US interests, perhaps your talent comes from having to make detialed briefs and the like? Well, I really enjoyed what I read and hope that I can come back and read more. Take care.

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