August 2003
volume 1, issue 2

Story Stalking

“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 later.

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.



MOTHER and FATHER, a white middle-class American couple, wake up to the BBC report, their main source of news.


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 a prison.


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…


We see a 3story brick school building with external balconies and staircases. Zoom in on a door on the second floor.


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 interest.

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?

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 whispered words.

She nods.

He leaves.

She, calm as can be, walks to the windows lining one wall and nonchalantly pulls shut black curtains.

MRS. N: So, back to our lesson, what is a tool?

There’s a much longer shower of gunfire on the street below.

STUDENT: Meow… Bam! Bam! Bam!


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