By E. A. Hansen
“I’ve just had a flashback,” B. says with
a sense of wonder and doom. Soon after and about another event
he’ll say, “it’s a flashback kind of thing.”
I don’t believe these are flashbacks; he is calling up
memories and trying to make sense of them, fit them into his
current stream of takes on things. He likes looking back. He
likes to believe that it’s spontaneous, that it starts
outside of him – it isn’t something he wills or
does, it does it to him. “I like to tell the story of
the riots to people when I want to shock them.” That’s
something else he said that was uncomfortably familiar. We attended
sixth and seventh grade together in Cairo, Egypt and were now
reacquainting at a Coffee Bean in Burbank, CA sixteen years
I have a few clear memories of him. I remember his greasy glasses,
clunky trapezoid lenses in a large, metal frame. He collected
empty Pepsi bottles in his locker –- his backpack was
huge and weighed down his prepubescent frame. He wore excessive
layers, dark colored jackets in ninety plus weather. I remember
he had a crush on me and that I was not interested; he was troubled,
“behavior problems” as they like to say –
he liked to talk about scary things – Qadafi and Nazis.
I remember thinking about him a lot after learning his father
had committed suicide when he was a toddler what was that like?
– is it permanently damaging, is he okay, had my father
ever thought of killing himself? What if? What if? I believed
he was nice, but was “cautious nice” in return.
I felt kinda sorry and scared around him because he was the
kid whose father killed himself.
My family lived in Cairo from 1985 to 1987. My father was a
personnel manager for a large multi-national corporation with
global construction and energy interests. My mother was a housewife
the first year and taught ESL the second. My older brothers,
then around thirteen and fifteen, and I, eleven, attended a
K-12 American School in Cairo. The school was populated by an
internationally diverse group – the children of privileged
professionals from around the world – diplomats and big
oil accounting for most. A couple blocks away was our apartment
filled with about a dozen, American mostly, families with the
same employer. All of our units were identically furnished from
Bloomingdales circa 1982 – boxy gray upholstered living
room sets, bland wooden dining room and bedroom ensembles, the
same tan plates and identical silverware making visits to neighbors’
prematurely and strangely familiar. Added to each home were
the personal touches, not dissimilar though – colorful
rugs and copper and brass knick-knacks procured locally or from
other exoticized lands – a ridiculous multi-culti aesthetic
embracing each family, but we were Americans with an insatiable
desire for TV and junk food. Every family had a VHS library
of television taped Stateside – the highly coveted Cosby
Show and Moonlighting especially. We watched those repeatedly,
but food was another issue. Families would return from vacation
with suitcases that doubled as pantries for impossible to get
delicacies like Doritos and Oreos. The only US fast food was
an unappealing cat ridden Kentucky Fried Chicken and the Frankfurt
airport housed the most accessible McDonalds. Parents returning
from trips would bring their kids the gift of a six hour cold
Happy Meal – a treasure so coveted that ingestion was
further prolonged until school lunch the next day, creating
a uniquely American social spectacle – pre-teens groveling
for the tiniest taste of home. And maybe, cruelly, as if by
some sadistic rationing commie stereotype, maybe, after desperate
pleas had been made in the face of a smushed bready-beefy decomposition,
a lucky few would be granted their wish for a cold and foamy
french fry or bite of soggy cheeseburger.
So, earlier this year, B. sends me this email outta the
blue, saying he found me on the alumni website where I had made
my email address available to fellow nostalgics. He wonders
if I remember him and what I’m up to. I’m pleased
to be contacted – it’s rare that I’m able
to reminisce about Egypt with someone who knows of it beyond
a Bangles or Steve Martin song. I remember him and am curious
to know what he’s like now. He has a seven year old daughter
and is married to someone he provides no description of other
than that she’s his “best friend’s sister.”
He works in wireless/website technology and would love to know
what I’m up to. And most interestingly, he says he has
all these photos that he took in seventh grade on a day when
the entire school cross-dressed. He will make a website to show
them to me. That’s right, I remember, he always went around
with his camera.
B. getting in touch, lucky
for me, coincided with my attempt to write about these intense
riots that happened in Cairo in 1986. One branch of the Egyptian
conscripts called “Amn El Markazi,” the Central
Security Forces (CSF), rose up in response to a rumor that their
term of conscription was going to be extended an extra year
in addition to their eighteen month term. They set hotel night
clubs on fire, banned together in leaving their posts (including
leaving prisons unguarded) and started ravaging the city. The
army had to be brought in to quell the uprising, we had to be
evacuated from school and the entire city went into lock-down
for a week – nobody could leave their homes except for
bakers and engineers, suppliers of the city’s life force:
bread and electricity. In the meantime the CSF and escaped prisoners
were rounded up and order was eventually restored. I was 11
years old and the experience made a huge impression on me at
the time and ever since I’ve been trying to extract meaning
– emotional, political, physical, something… The
first attempt was trying to capture the cinematic feel of it
all – a romanticized memory of image and sound.
INT. - APARTMENT IN MAADI, AN EXPATRIATE ENCLAVE IN
SUBURBAN CAIRO, EGYPT - EARLY MORNING
MOTHER and FATHER, a white
middle-class American couple, wake up to the BBC report, their
main source of news.
BEEP, BEEP, BEEP.
BBC RADIO MAN VOICE OVER: The time is three
AM, Greenwich Mean Time, February 25, 1986.
CRISP BRITISH LADY NEWSCASTER VOICE OVER: Violence
in Cairo, Egypt through the night. Rioting conscripts, part
of the CSF, have set fire to several hotels night clubs in Giza,
a popular tourist area and home of the Great Pyramids. Occupants
were evacuated successfully, but several hotels have been severely
damaged. This comes as a reaction to rumors that the term of
conscription is going to be extended an extra year. An already
mandatory 18 months of service working over twelve hours a day
for meager pay and in horrible working conditions has dissatisfied
forces retaliating against what they believe would be an unfair
extension of service. Other CSF forces have been brought into
quell the riots, but instead show signs of joining the uprising.
Central Security Forces continue to leave their posts.
FATHER: This news does not bode well. This
isn’t near over.
MOTHER: Will you go to work?
FATHER: I must. If there’s an outbreak
of terror, as the personnel manager of this operation, I’ll
be responsible for getting all company employees and their families
out of the country. Yes, I’m going to work downtown now
to prepare for possible disaster. I want you to go to the grocery
store across the street and buy lots of bottled water and peanut
butter and bread in case there’s some sort of emergency
that might limit our access to food. We must be prepared. The
children will go to school and we’ll behave like this
is any normal day. I love you dear.
MOTHER: I love you, too.
Father drives in his
company car, a 1983 light metallic blue Chevy Malibu to downtown
Cairo. In light of her experience of living in Iraq during the
Six Day War, Mother decides there is no danger on the horizon
and consciously decides not to secure extra rations. The children
are sent to school, armed only with news that hotels near the
Pyramids were set on fire. Mother takes two large dogs for their
morning exercise out in the desert, beyond the school, near
So, my mom goes on her morning
walk with our two huge super-hairy non-desert climate dogs,
an English Sheepdog and a Retriever/Great Pyrenees mutt. She’s
beyond the edge of the city in an open desert area where the
dogs can roam free off leash. All of a sudden she sees a man
running in the desert, he is in prison garb. Then another man
appears running toward her in a panic. And then another and
another, leaping in a frenzy that makes her realize that these
men might be escaping the nearby prison. My mother is a runner,
she is in her jogging shoes, she gathers the dogs and runs toward
the American school to alert the administration. Not soon after…
EXT. – A CORNER
OF THE SCHOOL CAMPUS – MORNING
We see a 3story brick school building with external balconies
and staircases. Zoom in on a door on the second floor.
INT. – CLASSROOM
Mrs. N., 6th grade social studies teacher, lectures to an
internationally diverse group of about fifteen students. E.,
a young American girl, sits in class listening attentively.
MRS. N.: Is
a rock a tool?
Children sit without piqued
MRS. N: What is a tool? What is technology?
E. Voice Over: (thinking to herself)
We have an Apple II e –that’s technology.
MRS. N.: If a person uses a rock to make something,
to pound or hit something, does that make it a tool?
The seeds of critical thinking
have been planted, sloppily taking root.
E. Voice Over:
(still thinking to herself) So, if a human touches
it, it’s a tool?
Brief patter of GUNFIRE outside the window.
So, 6th grade, I don’t think I even know who B. is; he’s
not in “technology” class, but a few doors down,
I learn later. My social studies teacher, Mrs. N., was one of
the wisest teachers I had, extremely demanding, yet so generous
in her desire for us to be able to think in complicated ways.
One conundrum she inspired had to do with the mystery surrounding
how the Great Pyramids of Giza were built. As I remember, there
were two basic theories she proposed, the pulley method (using
a weight and pulley system to raise the multi-ton stone blocks)
and the push method (that the blocks were pushed up a series
of spiraling ramps –- the slave-driving method Hollywood
seems to agree with). We had limited tools, only a pencil and
a piece of paper, no scissors allowed and this was a group project
and we’re supposed to build a geometrically precise 3D
model of a pyramid. First lesson in impossibility – Where’s
the effort? Push or pull? Push or pull?
INT.– CLASSROOM – MID-MORNING, CONTINUED.
Mrs. N. is in the middle of her lesson. The lower school
principal, a tall man of middle age, enters the classroom and
very quickly and efficiently calls the teacher over to exchange
She, calm as can be, walks
to the windows lining one wall and nonchalantly pulls shut black
MRS. N: So,
back to our lesson, what is a tool?
There’s a much longer shower of gunfire on the street
STUDENT: Meow… Bam! Bam! Bam!
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