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I am in Cairo. I’m meeting a friend of a friend whom I’ve never seen before. I’m supposed to be her professional sound recordist for a radio documentary about some unknown topic.
I took far too many sleeping pills on the flight over.
[private]Someone is waving at me: an olive-complexioned girl in khakis and a fitted polo. I wave back as if we weren’t total strangers. She laughs and points at her head, indicating, I suppose, my safari hat, which I doff in a hammy way that feels totally unnatural, and after that we run out of things to gesticulate.
The customs line moves at that agonizing airport rate: too fast to put baggage down, yet too slow to carry baggage comfortably.
“What is the purpose of your visit?” the agent asks.
Good question. “Business?”
“What type of business?”
He eyeballs me suspiciously and takes his sweet time flipping through my passport, its unending series of blank pages creating a shameful secret between us. Stopping at random, he pastes a sticker askew on the page and bangs it with a red stamp.
“Enjoy your stay in Egypt, please.”
“Salami lake hum,” I say, phonetically reciting what the stewardesses had grumbled at me, and also giving a nondenominational bow.
I shuffle across the vacant lobby while she, growing elated, rushes to meet me. At the security cordon a soldier inspects my passport, inspects the neckline of her polo shirt, then after a sufficiently long period to establish his importance to this whole proceeding, lets us unite. Smiles beam. We cheek kiss. Bystanders disapprove ostentatiously.
“Billy Orr! Look at you! You’re looking good – just like I imagined! Nice hat! How do you feel? Was it a long flight?”
“Thanks. You too. Fine. No.” I shake my head while grinning involuntarily, and cannot for the life of me recall her name. “Deborah’s doing great!” I say, blurting out our mutual acquaintance in hope that this will start a cascade of useful facts.
“Considering all that she’s been through recently, yeah. We can only pray.” She clucks her tongue in remorse.
What the hell happened to Deborah? I suddenly feel estranged, demoted. Which is extremely odd, because this whole time I’d been assuming that Deborah and I were actually the ones keeping a deep, dark secret from her Egyptian friend. Namely, the fact that I’m an English major, have never worked for radio in my life, and merely wanted an excuse to travel abroad, to escape from New York City. Deborah sympathized. Deborah knew someone. Deborah vouched for me. We both figured what the heck – how difficult can sound recording really be?
“Poor Deborah,” I sigh knowingly.
“But you’re here now!” She hugs me in a spontaneous balletic jump, which gets us both chuckling and wobbling for balance.
I chivalrously resist her attempts to help me with the baggage, but accept her compliments for bringing only carry-ons. “You’ll feel right at home!” she says, plowing through the teeming concourse, as I trail along in her wafts of hyacinth perfume. “This is exciting! Thanks so much for agreeing to come last minute. Sorry I wasn’t in closer contact, it’s been nuts. You’re so much taller than my previous sound guy!”
“Why did he quit again?” I inquire, blasé, trying to reconstruct the situation for myself. Had Deborah filled me in on that detail?
“He didn’t quit. I fired his Egyptian ass. He couldn’t handle taking orders from a woman. Have you eaten breakfast?”
“Um, I don’t think so…”
“Ha! What does that mean?”
“I was zonked out the whole time. I’m only vaguely hungry, though.”
“There’s snacks in our van. Oh, and this juice place? We’ll stop by my favorite juice place. I’ve got some news, by the way, but everything will be clearer once we’ve…”
She marches us through the automatic sliding doors and shoots a glance up the roadway. Taxis idle curbside. Their drivers immediately engulf us, yelling, clutching at my bags. They only desist once she shoos them away with a chirruping cell phone.
“Allo, Ali? Allo? Ali?”
Clearly our van should have been waiting for us – I understand that much of her fiery Arabic babble. But I actually feel glad for this brief hiatus. The air-conditioned hoarfrost thaws from my skin, and I experience for the first time an unfiltered Egyptian morning.
How best to describe the manifold sensations that assail me from every—
Someone is yelling. “Oy! Orr!” I glance over to see her leaning out of a van, and so I lope across the sidewalk and slip inside, heaping myself into the back. “Drink.” She reaches over the middle seat and hands me a plastic water bottle, which I empty down my gullet. “This here is Ali. Ali, meet Billy Orr!” I trade salutes with our driver, who turns around completely in his seat, making its bead coverlet rattle like an abacus.
“Ali’s not his real name,” she explains, causing confusion about whom I should be regarding. “It’s a professional title. Or a whatchamacallit – a moniker. Something easy for Westerners to remember. Pretty much all the drivers in Cairo call themselves ‘Ali’.”
He grins at me while jabbing the lapel of his threadbare charcoal jacket, winking. “Ali!” I give him the one-time chuckle that he must have wanted, because he instantly spins around – rattling the abacus – and fires the engine. Ali clips a wireless headset around his ear, suddenly calling attention to how youthful he is and how handsome too – swarthy, stylish, like a hipster Omar Sharif – despite the awful condition of his teeth.
“Are you a Londoner?” I ask her abruptly, detecting the on-and-off tenor of her accent. In the same moment I realize that I just blew a perfect opportunity to discover her name.
“By mistake, yes. I followed a boy to London and he followed a boy to Paris—”
She ceases talking in deference to brute physics. Our van launches from the curb and rapidly climbs through its gears, in a matter of seconds flying across an elevated highway where traffic resembles a demolition derby. No lane lines, no turn signals, cars swerve at top speed around gigantic sand drifts that appear in the road, crazily redefining the shoulder and median. I buckle up and go ashen. Perhaps seeing my abject horror, she reaches over the middle seat and gives my elbow a tender squeeze. “I forgot to say. It’s best not to look ahead when driving through Cairo…”
The side window has a curtain stretched over it, which after parting reveals a view of the city’s outskirts. Minarets lance the skyline all over.
“The man we’re going to meet is an ex-talib,” she says offhandedly.
I immediately turn to her in fright, giving the exact reaction that she was no doubt expecting. “Talib? As in ‘taliban’?”
“You know that ‘talib’ means ‘student,’ right?”
“Sure,” I lie. “That makes sense.”
“It’s an archaic term. But our guy is an archaic sort of guy. It’s hard to explain. He studied at Al-Azhar mosque before converting to a garbage collector and a Copt.”
“A garbage collector and a cop?”
“Cop-t. Coptic Christian. Egyptian Christian, is the basic gist.”
“So do kids here play Copts and robbers?” I jest, which she gives the tolerant grin that it deserves.
“He, Mohammed – Mohammed ibn al-Zakawi is our guy’s name, which he had to change to ‘Monsour’ after converting religions. But whenever his boss, the bishop, isn’t around, he still prefers to be called ‘Mohammed.’ It’s a prickly subject. He’s also kind of a prankster. I met him through a family connection, and you should probably check over the equipment while we talk…”
She indicates a stack of indestructible black plastic cases on the seat next to me.
“There’ll be plenty of time tonight,” I say, as a way of articulating to myself the plan for magically becoming a professional sound recordist. It comes across so convincingly that I almost forget what had made me nervous before, when I woke up on the airplane with all of those unread instruction manuals in my lap. Just a late night cram session – what could be easier? I’m nothing if not a studious phony.
“Did I not tell you? We’re heading there right now. Mohammed has this important church thing tomorrow, which of course he just informed me about like two minutes ago! But today’s wide open. He’s difficult that way – scheduling. I’m super, super appreciative that you’re okay with meeting him directly from the airport!” She squeezes my elbow again. “It’s fantastic. I really need someone like you. This’ll be great! You’ll love Mohammed. He’s a riot. And boy what a storyteller! Anyhow,” she pats the indestructible plastic cases, “lock and load.”
I crack open the topmost case to reveal a futuristic piece of hardware that looks very, very expensive.
“I hope it’s all there. That’s the basic kit Deborah should have emailed you about. You got the attachments, right? Cool. Let me know if anything’s missing. I’ve never done this sort of thing before – at this level, I mean – which is why it’s so exciting! The BBC might pick our story up. Fingers crossed. Toes too. That would be a dream come true, because, to be perfectly honest with you, I’m trying to become one of their Middle East correspondents. Our project could be a life-changer! I really appreciate you agreeing to help me out on such short notice, and for free. It’s kind of amazing.”
What the hell am I looking at? The device resembles a DVD player but without a disc slot. Rather, two dials, like electricity gauges that you might find in the laboratory of Dr. Frankenstein, occupy most of the front panel, crowded on either side by knobs and buttons and what appear to be headphone jacks. I skim it all with a look of approval. Then I set the enigmatic machine back into its case – the padded contours fitting as snugly as a foam sarcophagus – and clasp it shut.
We suddenly veer off the highway, whip onto a secluded alley, and halt by a canopied kiosk.
“What can I get you, Billy? Mango? Sugarcane? Mystery purple? Each flavor is yummy. I’ll make it a surprise!” The van door unpeels and she hops outside. Ali has already disappeared into the recesses of a nearby coffee shop, leaving the engine running and the air conditioning full-blast. I find myself alone. A quick perusal through the curtains reveals the layout of the juice vendor: plastic lawn chairs scattered about, a high counter with baskets of decadent ripe mangos and some other greenish, knobby-rind fruit, beyond which a hairy man wields knives. She stands there yelling in Arabic.
I rip open my backpack and pull out the instruction manuals, flipping through them with the giddy hyperalertness of a boy skimming smut.
How to assemble the audio equipment? Is there a diagram to follow? Can this really be so complicated? I dump out the plastic cases, suddenly visualizing myself in a science fiction movie at that pivotal moment when our sweaty, resourceful hero must jerry rig a bypass before his spaceship self-destructs. This helps, actually, the movie analogy. Having watched enough behind-the-scenes DVDs, I can vaguely recall what a sound recordist should look like. Picture an unkempt man standing at the edge of the frame, awkwardly contorting himself into right angles so as not to impede upon the well-lit world of gorgeous people, like an elaborately outfitted eavesdropper whom everybody pretends not to notice and who joins their ruse by willing himself into nonexistence; sensing the very instant when he enters the shot and flinching back, leaving behind a fragmentary image of an audio recorder dandling about his waist, long wires connecting it to a boom pole, atop which a padded microphone aims obliquely toward the starlet’s russet lips…
I upright the recorder. The male end of a coaxial cable should plug into the female jack alongside one of the Frankenstein dials (or “decibel meter,” as the audio recorder’s manual informs me), and then the other end should attach to… huh. I lift the… zeppelin? Blimp! The blimp microphone – it seems to have no input. But I do notice, however, a seam around the circumference of its honeycomb shell. With minimal prying an end cap pops off, revealing the blimp’s inner chamber. A sleek microphone hangs on rubber stirrups. The coaxial cable plugs neatly into it, making a satisfying click. Then I thread the cable out, reattach the end cap, and realize that everything is assembled. I’m finished. Another skim of the instruction manuals proves fruitless. But after a quick series of disjointed ideas, it occurs to me: earphones! I rummage the leftover gear and find a pair – the kind that you nestle inside your ear. Earbuds. I don them and immediately go deaf; the deafness of having dived underwater. Then, at last, very systematically, I begin flipping every switch in sight.
From leagues away someone raps on my window. I prepare a wise, unflustered grin and look up, discovering a street urchin. Dozens of them. The whole van is surrounded by children’s faces, like bobblehead dolls, until directionless Arabic thunder sends them fleeing. She reappears at the van door and shimmies it open with her hip, then plops herself into the middle seat and offers me one of three plastic baggies, plump with juice. I give a grateful smile and notice that her lips are moving.
“What did you say?” I say from miles inside myself, yanking out the earbuds.
“Coffee shop, I think. Over there.”
She grumbles while shooting off a text message. As if by magic, the electronic chime summons Ali into the driver’s seat. With infinite obsequiousness he accepts a juice baggie. Then, by silent agreement, we all sip our juices.
“Is it all,” she draws a curlicue over the sound equipment, “good?” I give a thumbs-up, which receives an A-OK. “You’re a genius! I could never,” she flinches away from the gadgets in mock terror. “Although I should probably overcome my technophobia if I want to be a radio journalist. Maybe you can teach me?”
The word, “Sure,” leaves my mouth, and I follow it up by arranging the equipment about me as if preparing a demonstration.
“Have you ever done any sound recording in Hollywood?”
Wait a minute – have I? Did Deborah tell her that I’ve worked in Hollywood? I try to recall whether we developed a fake resumé for my fake career, some sort of backstory for this fictional character named Billy Orr, Professional Sound Recordist? Better play it safe… “There’ve been plenty of offers from Hollywood, obviously. But I only work with friends, or friends of friends, as a favor.” (I need to stop lying. I really need to find out her name.)
“Later! Thanks, though. We’ll be there in a sec, and I need to bring you up to date. Do whatever you have to. Just,” she squeezes my elbow. “Brace yourself. Mohammed is an intense guy. Intense in an Egyptian sort of way. Which is to say, if I can put it like this, he’s intensely serene. But at the same time you can hear explosions going off inside of him. It’s a combustible serenity. The stuff that comes out of this guy’s mouth!” She rolls her eyes while smirking. “Just wait. I’m incredibly excited for you to meet him! Now let’s see… did we get to his religious awakening yet? Where were we? So Mohammed was a talib—”
“Right. At Al-Azhar mosque. Which is like the Oxford of mosques. It’s like the Sorbonne of Islamic study. He was sailing through his lessons, and came to within one or two steps of becoming an imam, when out of the clear blue sky – and I’m not editorializing here! This is exactly how Mohammed tells it:
“One day he was eating lunch on the veranda of Al-Azhar mosque all by himself, and the sky was clear, very, very clear, so clear that it was like an almost transparent sapphire blue, and then out of that perfectly clear blue sky: bang! Hallas. We’ve got this saying in Arabic, ‘Hallas.’ It means…” She dusts her palms and then holds them up in surrender. “That’s that. Enough. He dropped out, got baptized Coptic Christian, changed his name officially to Monsour, and moved to the ghetto of the garbage collectors. I’ve never gotten him to explain it beyond that. For a talkative guy, he can be strangely uncommunicative about certain things—”
“Check, check, one-two, one-two…”
I keep the microphone blimp aimed at her mouth while pretending to fine-tune the signal. But really nothing comes through. Nothing in the faintest. My earbuds muffle all sound into an oceanic drone. Regardless of what knobs I twiddle or how many switches I flip, the recorder just sits in my lap, inert.
Our van weaves, skids. We seem to be bouncing down an escarpment. I accept this all with sacrificial lamb-like placidity.
“Oh!” she gasps, from miles away. After a quiet pillaging of grocery bags, she emerges with two packs of D batteries, and mouths something shaped like, “Emergency!” I suavely agree, taking the batteries in a furtive desperation bordering on euphoria.
We slam to a halt. Doors fly open. A gagging, pestiferous odor floods the van as it tips to one side – all of this happening on the margins of my consciousness as I jam the batteries into the audio recorder and hit every conceivable button. Then out of nowhere my brain joyously explodes with voices, shouts of Arabic, booming laughter, from amongst which hers rises like a howling angel of reason—
“BILLY ORR, PLEASE MEET MOHAMMED! MOHAMMED, THIS IS BILLY!”
“HIYA!” I hunch forward to shake hands with the bedraggled man now piled into the passenger seat, and I surreptitiously dial down the volume as he screams, then grumbles, then whispers back to me, “Salaam al-akum.”[/private]