Sudden Rivers takes us into a richly imagined modern Egypt

AN EXCERPT FROM THE NOVEL:   The line that divided the past from the future was like wire pulled taut. Parrish liked to roam that path, it was his domain. Each time he left Cairo the substance to his life was wrenched from him leaving a hollow he could not fill until he returned. Like departing lovers, he mused: skirts tossed in late summer breezes. Hair flying. Faceless figures. Ephemeral images. Lost moments. Familiarity more than anything was to blame, for he was certain that his existence once had meaning outside the context of the sweltering Al-Qāhirah even though now it was only the city that infused him with promise and gave him reason where his own had failed.

“So you’ve got something…ehhh?” He pushed the cup of sweet dark coffee across the table toward the enigmatic Egyptian who sat opposite him in the outdoor cafe. The unwavering eyes of Ali Fakeih Aissa fell on Parrish. The man struggled to suppress an ungainly grin perhaps because of unhealthy teeth or just the subtle understanding that it was bad business. The resulting grimace made his weathered features screw up like an old shoe and gave Erskine Parrish MacKenzie comfort. “What is it, what is it you’ve got that was so damned important?”

Flames rose up inside as they often had threatening to consume the small dark man. That morning, just past the dusty buildings where men in flowing robes paid the equivalent of fifty cents to share a one room flat without water or electricity, Ali Fakeih Aissa had awakened to subterranean murmurs of the far off Nile. It brought messages from beyond the hills and he had listened. A deceiving coolness lingered. The fabric of voices had barely been stilled but for the one brief moment before night had pivoted into a transcendent dawn and all was abated in breathlessness, poised in an equilibrium of forces between one day and the next. Even the river’s mists hung suspended. It was precisely when his revelations had always come before and so he had sat in reverent expectation on his small cramped balcony, which doubled as a laundry, surrounded by the odor of sour linen listening—always listening. The city was breathing and he heard its breath rushing, its whispers almost understood, its soul and substance nearly touched—but nothing came to him. Nothing. Even though he focused all his energies gritting his teeth so hard they almost chipped. The silence was most profound just before first light.

But then, as if a phoenix arising from his sense of abandonment, the dawn exploded in a storm of voices that thundered from mosques and shook the great city to its foundations. Clarions of Allah were summoning the faithful as they had for fifteen fleeting centuries. He could easily count twenty minarets silhouetted against the pre-dawn light from where he sat—pillars of the faith.

“God is most great…” The muezzin’s call came in dream-speak. “I testify there is no God but God…”Smoke like voices moved through doorways and windows as desert wind. He poured into the half-light with the others having chosen long ago to hide his Coptic Christian origins to be absorbed by his beloved city. Later, as he prostrated himself in ritual, it occurred to him that the thousand-year-old Cairo—which perched as fragile dew at the edge of the Sahara, stretching from the Mars Atlantic well into Asia—had another name: Al-Qāhirah. It meant victorious.

Now he raced through the streets to meet the American from the embassy: his heels echoing determined tattoos, sweat bathed his nut-brown face. He had his revelation. It had come after all. And it was a great relief to him for on his side of the Nile few dreams were ever realized and the ground was too agonizingly near. Ali Fakeih needed a lift from victory. Today it would happen.

He had been born in a nameless village on the Muqattam hills, a barren plateau that rose above Cairo’s eastern perimeter. The dirt track that lead to it wound endlessly up the slow bluff and strained the legs and backs of those who hauled their priceless burdens into the nightmarish world of the Zabbaleen. He had been cursed from birth and could not purge himself of the memories and, though luck had given him escape as a child, he would never admit to his history. Still he violently cursed the wahiya, the street bosses, and vowed that until his own crossing into paradise he would seek vengeance on one exceptionally evil man for his father’s death. “It was a massacre!” He spat out venomously if ever the subject came up, which it rarely had except in angry dialogues within his own mind. He regarded the wahiya as snakes, vermin he would just as soon shoot as allow to pass by in the street undisturbed.

The Zabbaleen were rubbish barons. They alone had rights to the garbage of Cairo. Blood rights. Inalienable rights. Contested rights. Early in the twentieth century, Muslims swept in from the Western Sahara and had developed a profitable business collecting the city’s trash. Decades later when Coptic Christians arrived from the South the Muslims sold the Zabbaleen the privilege to their collection routes charging both the new arrivals and their old tenants simultaneously. The system endured. Still palls of smoke float eternally over villages of roofless huts in the Muqattam hills where there is no electricity or water or sanitation, nor schools or clinics and only one great old Coptic basilica to whose doorstep the rubble brews. Clouds—as clouds once hovered in an earlier age over areas where the rubbish was burned to heat Turkish baths.

Forty percent of the children die their first year, but not Ali Fakeih Aissa and it was his indelible curse to bear. Memories still scalded him of clambering up spiral staircases that clung precariously to the sides of ancient buildings and retrieving the garbage left there to the little cart waiting below. If there were servants, anything of value had already been removed leaving his family to eke out a living from the rest. It was chance that elected who would survive and who would not played out across the dirt floor of a hovel shared by family members, chickens, pigs and goats where the haul, a thousand tons a day, was sorted by hand. Soggy paper in one pile, which sold for seven dollars a ton; metal, computer parts, household items to be repaired or used and other things—anything without worth was burned as fuel. Over the years garbage swelled and cascaded down towards Cairo in an ineffable flow. It had always been that way. Whole communities had evolved on top of trash. Seven or eight steps had to be descended to reach the once street level entrances of some Cairo buildings as civilization’s waste accumulated. Anyone who has spent time living knows the fundamentals never change. Children and scrawny dogs danced amid the dark piles.

Everywhere else the night was effervescent with prospects for the future. Overhead a thin golden line was etched into the firmament as the first globally functioning commercial space station caught the rays of a sun slumbering behind the horizon. A hundred men lived inside all sweaty and suffering from the same hungers and moral weaknesses earthmen complain of. It was humanity’s needle piercing the unattainable. A man named Castogan had ultimately designed it in a fit of brilliance unmatched thus far. It was one of the high moments of life that was trumpeted across the globe in luminous press accolades. Ali Fakeih Aissa, however, had never heard the name and if he had, and if the small pin of light had been pointed out in the sky accompanied by the fact of men living there in space just as he did in the swelter of Cairo, it would have meant nothing to him. Nothing at all. He had been overcome with bitterness from his first breath and consequently expected nothing better.

Stories had circulated through the lower rungs of Cairo’s social hierarchy for generations that the Zabbaleen had become rich from mistakenly discarded treasures and hoarded their wealth out of sight of the wahiya in fear of reprisals. However, brutal tradition had taught them that if they failed to pay their rents or if they tried to collect from the tenants themselves or in any way attempted to better their condition they would be roughed up—men would bloody their faces and smash their carts scattering a days work to the street. How these rumors were started was a mystery. Father Ghazali, the young bearded Coptic priest who was the only civilizing element in all the villages of the Zabbaleen, attributed them to “weak brains.”

The rumor was exactly the reason Fakeih’s father became the accused. As a small child scampering through the trash—already deeply embittered and plotting his impossible flight from the wretchedness of the Muqattam hills—little Ali Fakeih Aissa did not pay close attention to the details. One day his father came home without a thumb. Dried blood covered his leg. That was the first time he heard the utterance Shari’ah. Only later did he learn that it was the word for the Islamic legal code employed in its entirety only by fundamentalists. His father had been branded a thief by a wahiya who, driven to it by jealousy of the Zabbaleen’s imagined wealth, denounced the man publicly and produced a small, insignificant item from his trash cart he claimed had been stolen. All things considered the minor Imam who determined the case showed mercy and considerable restraint by only severing his father’s thumb contemplating the fact that he had been driven to the act by desperation. Compassion, the Imam knew well, was the one thing that would assure him a place in paradise. Later he cursed himself for wavering in his rendering of the Shari’ah when Fakeih’s father was accused again and this time had him imprisoned to await judgment as an habitual thief. He knew well personal interpretation was the one thing that could destroy Islam.

Ali Fakeih Aissa had yet to be truly tested. The pivotal moment in his young life was to come later. It was, he decided afterward, by divine intervention that he had been guided to that exact spot in the city as a spiritual lesson. Suddenly a squall of people arose from the hot winds that swept up the dust from the streets and there were crowds. Shifting. Pushing. Wiping their gritty brown necks. Heated multitudes that towered over his small frame and were packed shoulder to shoulder. He squeezed through their legs propelled forward by an unquenchable curiosity. As he reached the center around which all were gathered he saw a huge Ethiopian man with glistening skin. A deep foreboding embraced him. The giant black man stood with his weight squarely distributed on both legs, his muscles were flexed and he exuded an animalistic power. From his clenched hands hung a three foot sword.

The Ethiopian would earn about two hundred piasters that day, more money than Fakeih had ever imagined. On a piece of cardboard before the man the boy was shocked to see his father trussed up and splayed out in a curiously awkward manner. It was as if he had expected to see him there in complete humiliation, as if the fates had hold of him and so he numbly took in the sight yet it was dreamlike and unreal. Then a flash. A glint from the sun. A whoosh. Then once again. Quicker than the eye. Quicker than a breath. Infinite. Inexorable. An act that could only be regretted in old age but never undone. It was the sort of act that changed the course of civilizations and catalyzed wars and great migrations. A soldier held up the severed hand and leg in the air brandishing them in sacred victory.

Although his father survived the sentence of double amputation, he died a week later from infection.

It was perhaps that traumatic moment which caused Ali Fakeih Aissa’s later conversion to Islam. For the day after his father’s death when by rights the trash route fell to him as the oldest, and indeed only male, he came into possession of the very item that was to be the key to his escape from misery and introduce him to a completely new existence. It was a change as complete as from black to white, in one instant he was a Zabbaleen and then he wasn’t. Simple. How else could he attribute this miracle except to the will of God. From then on the phrase In-sha Allah took on meaning where it had none before and he lavished it on everyone he met.

His hands had been sunk to the elbows in the muck he had collected that day long ago when he felt something hard, solid, rock like. Its surface was smooth and irregularly shaped yet even with his fingers he felt the design. He yanked it out but it was so soiled and caked with sediment what it was remained a mystery even under close inspection. With a strange excitement he ran to wash it in a nearby bucket and soon in his hand, glistening from the water as if newborn, lie a small figurine unlike anything he had ever seen before. A horse, yes a horse, but not a horse…something else, more ancient, a conduit perhaps through which his soul could travel into lives past. The fat perfectly arched neck crowned by a neatly cropped line of mane that culminated in a small graceful equine head. The body obese, legs impossibly short so that it could never run—out of its back rose a round fluted opening with a lip. No, he knew immediately this horse was never meant for the real world, it was spirit horse. A painted saddle decorated with leaping greyhounds and partridges and other symbols too, beautiful and mysterious, figures which he could not fathom although he tried taking long meditative moments to run his small fingers over the smooth, cool ceramic horse. It electrified him. The past reared and swirled about him in double spinning whirlpools until he became dizzy and euphoric with wonder. Here was something he had never dreamed of, never thought of, and now he held it in his hand. It was the first time in his life he had ever felt the true weight of something, the pressure and the substance all at once. It unleashed a strange and wonderful fire in him and he imagined that he might posses something of his own someday, something of value.

Years later he was still imagining. The fire had dimmed and only flickered at full storm when the deal smacked of exceptional opportunity. At such times his eyes were luminous and one could never imagine the degradation out of which the man had drug himself.

“What’ve you got?” Parrish could not contain his excitement and was drumming his foot and his right index finger in unison. He smiled inwardly, but his face betrayed nothing.

Fakeih reached down with leathery fingers and nimbly grasped the bone white cup bringing it to his lips where he savored the thick brew. He exhaled. The moment was his. “I can only say one thing…,” he sipped again from his coffee narrowing his eyes with a distant look, “I have had an offer from the Egyptian Museum already.”

“Christ…” Parrish mumbled and sat forward tapping his fingers on the tabletop more deliberately. “Have you?” He hated competition, especially when it came to things nearly out of reach anyway.

“This very morning.”

“I’m not a foundation,” he raised his hands and glanced sideways under hooded lids, “just your underpaid public servant. Why do you come to me with something I can’t afford?” Of course he knew why—it was stolen. All of it was stolen. Collections around the world were filled with stolen artifacts. Museums, mansions, ateliers of the rich. Perhaps this time the Department of Antiquities was under pressure and it was not worth the risk for the institution. Even the excess of PhDs couldn’t justify certain acts. All those driven men were the same as he was. The illicit quality made them want the treasures all the more, their pedigrees impelled them forward and tantalized with the spice of resistance. But ultimately it was the inner need drawing others as he knew he was lured toward the ancient by a sublime desire to unravel the outstanding questions of existence and redemption. Assyrian monuments standing still stark and grand upon breathless shimmering plains gave testimony. Who was not challenged to learn what these ancient men knew, what advantage might it bring? Each artifact a piece of the puzzle, fragments making their way through the black market. Parrish was suddenly anxious with longing. “I’d like to touch it,” he said, “just touch it.”

Ali Fakeih Aissa smiled more broadly than before recklessly betraying his hand and the bad teeth he had been so careful to hide. “I don’t have it.”

“You don’t have it?”

“What I mean is, it’s not with me.”

Parrish fondled the pocket full of money he had brought just in case wishing now that he had left it in the bank. “Then where is it?” The streets of Cairo were not a safe place to carry cash.

“In a house that we will go to.”

”Damn! A house? …close?”

“Yes.” Fakeih replied already up from the table without looking back knowing that the discontented American would follow unquestioningly. “Yes. It’s close.”

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