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I have forgotten many things about my early twenties, but I have not forgotten the trip I took to visit my ex-boyfriend in Cairo, Egypt. Those events have played themselves over again in my mind so often they have taken on the sharp edges of fiction. Like fiction, my story is a version of reality, one others might dispute. Nevertheless I believe my memories are true. I believe they are true in the sense that they really happened and I believe they are true in the fictional sense, too: that certain events remain in my mind because they hold some nugget of insight, something important, that continues to demand attention. Their significance has only deepened over time, both because of who I have become and because of what the world seems more and more bent on becoming.
It was our first year out of college. My ex-boyfriend was working for the President of the American University in Cairo. I was working in Athens as an under-the-table news stringer. Even though we had broken up officially at the end of our senior year, we were far from home and lonely. We wrote to each other often, and in the spring, a letter arrived from B inviting me to come to Cairo. I accepted.
The cheapest and easiest way to get to Egypt from Athens was to fly and to fly I needed to take a Valium. I had never been a nervous flyer before, but I had been covering an ongoing story of Athens-bound planes dropping out of the sky. Libya and America were in a cold war, and flights to Greece were an easy target. Bombs on planes became so routine that when one blew out the side of a TWA jet that managed to land with only two passengers killed, the bureau sent me to cover it because none of the real reporters could be bothered. I was only 22, and the sobbing survivors had shaken me. You could buy Valium over the counter, and I still remember how it felt on that short flight, high above the Mediterranean: not just calm but elated, separated from the earth and its mortal concerns. It was a god-like perspective I needed before seeing the man who had been my great love for three years and from whom I had parted on bad terms.
B and I had met when we were sophomores living in the same house at Harvard. We flirted with each other for a few months, then kissed at a Christmas party. Soon we were in love: a couple. It was the first, serious grown-up relationship for both of us, and we stayed together until our senior year. Not an uncommon story, but our love was perhaps surprising. He was a committed and passionate athlete; I was a café basement dweller with a poet’s suspicion of organized sports. He was an East Coast suburbanite who favored button-down shirts and loafers; I was a Californian hippy who liked to wear hoop earrings and ethnic prints. He studied Government and wanted to go into public service; I believed in Literature and the Cosmic Mysteries. He was a traditional Christian. I was a Jewish Greek Orthodox pantheist. When he got upset, he withdrew. I became hyper-verbal and intrusive. Also, he was black and I was white.
As a way to describe the difference in our pigments, that is not entirely accurate. In fact, he was a deep, velvety brown and I was the Mediterranean olive of my mother’s family. Since I believe race is a totalizing concept which was invented by Europeans to oppress people from other parts of the world, I am also uncomfortable with the way those words: black/white hide as much as they reveal. I do not believe in gender either and think we all exist on a gender spectrum. Nevertheless, I describe myself as a woman. As a way for the world to define us: we were black and white, a man and a woman, and those things mattered.
What we had in common: we liked talking; we believed in ourselves; we were physically and emotionally affectionate and sociable and enjoyed other people. We were curious and argumentative. As a black man and a second generation immigrant woman less than a decade after Radcliffe became Harvard, we both considered ourselves outsiders in the ultimate insider environment. This was one of the things that held us together until it did not.
In memory, the mind re-organizes events to become a story that makes sense. What I remember: we were a big couple on campus, bonded tightly all throughout our Sophomore and Junior Years, and then as we reached our final year, things began to fall apart.
B was a star athlete, and even though it was not my world, I was proud of his achievements. I always went to his games. But then he was invited to join a Harvard drinking club. These have recently appeared again in the news because of the university’s failed efforts to shut them down. When I was there, all the people I knew considered them untouchable: like fraternities but worse, outside the normal bounds of campus life, ancient bastions of male privilege notorious both for their unparalleled access to an old boys network going back generations and for their misogyny and elitism. At that point, they were not only exclusively male, but also exclusively white and B was one of the first black members invited to join.
I assumed he would turn them down. When he said he was considering joining, I was shocked. B invited me to come see the club during the off-hours. I remember like many evil things how banal it seemed close up. He took me into an old-fashioned living room, furnished with Persian rugs and heavy furniture. In the light of day, it looked dusty and smelled of stale alcohol. I wanted to see more, but B told me I was not allowed upstairs. Even though we were alone in the house, he intended to honor the rules. Maybe I have made this up, but I have a strong image in my mind: dark wood stairs, the sense of injunction. All of it felt wrong, hurtful, even dangerous. B and I agreed to disagree, but it left a barrier between us. He thought I was insensitive and privileged, unable to understand the historical significance of breaking this particular race barrier. I thought he was lacking in solidarity, ready to leave our outsider’s ship on the back of his gender.
That final year at university, we argued a lot. We broke up. We got back together. I slept around. We stopped being kind to each other. The unknowable future pressed down: finals, papers, decisions. I told B I wanted to write a novel and open a café, and he told me I was being naïve, silly, impractical. He won a prestigious fellowship to work as the assistant to the President of the University of Cairo; I went off to Greece with the names of some cousins and no plans.
Six months later, I was only relieved to see him standing on the other side of the barrier at the airport in Cairo. He looked so grown up and self-assured: a man. He beamed at me; I kissed him. We took a taxi into town, a journey I still remember as my introduction to the chaos and anarchy of Egypt. I thought Greek drivers were rule-breakers, but they were meek in comparison to the six lanes of cars moving in and out of each other in the space laid out for three, everyone honking, honking, smoking, music blasting, bumper to bumper at high speed. I clutched at the seat, all traces of the Valium vanished. B was relaxed, confident, talking to the driver in Arabic, until we arrived at his flat.
He lived in an old building in a quiet neighbourhood. On the way, he told me how lucky he had been to get the apartment, a one bedroom, all to himself. Good housing was scarce. I remember feeling naïve and unworldly, as I considered his statement that this was good housing. The 19th century façade opened into a wide hallway covered in sand and dust. The caged lift had stopped working years before; a beggar slept on the floor near the steps. B told me to step over him, as that was where he lived. As I listened to him explain what times of day the water and electricity might be available and how to expect them to cut out at any moment, I pretended to take it all in my stride.
On the first evening, we went for a walk. He had written in advance to tell me to dress modestly, and I wore a long skirt, long-sleeved shirt, a scarf for later in case it got cold. It was spring and the night was warm but pleasant, and we set off towards the university. I remember how quiet it was on campus and how green; the beautiful woodwork in the President’s office where B worked and the charm of his co-worker, an Egyptian woman in her 30’s who welcomed me with open arms. Later, we walked through the crowded streets past sheesha shops and hawkers selling water and bread; the air was full of dust and haze. I felt hot. I got tired of carrying my scarf and wrapped it around my waist.
When we got back to his apartment, B looked down at me and frowned.
“What are you doing? What’s wrong with you?”
I didn’t know what he meant.
“That scarf! On your hips! It’s a provocation!”
I remember exactly that phrase: a provocation.
Instantly we were back in the anger of our senior year. I was defensive: he was so conservative, so quick to align himself with male privilege. He was dismissive: in his eyes, I was careless and thoughtless, inexperienced. He drew up into his distance.
That night, I slept in his bed while he slept on the couch.
We wanted to get along, and we tried. We went to the pyramids; we visited the famous mosques. I let him take the lead and was suitably impressed with his ease in Egyptian culture, how he knew his way around. He negotiated the neighborhoods, knew where to duck into a Western hotel for some peace and quiet, and knew which prosperous, bohemian neighborhoods had the best restaurants. He knew how to order us bowls of rice and lentils with caramelized onions whose sweet and salty flavor I still remember.
Towards the end of our time in Cairo, B asked me if I wanted to take a felucca out onto the Nile. Many sailors hawked their boats up and down the bank to the tourists, offering their services in multiple languages. B chose a slight young man who looked like he was still a teenager. He was lively and friendly and spoke English well.
As soon as we were on the river, the temperature dropped. A breeze rose and the city receded away. It was sunset – the traditional time for a felucca ride – and the slap of water on the side of the boat, the breeze in the sails, the low light on the sandy-colored buildings retreating into outline created a sense of peace and calm.
Our captain gave us time to enjoy the scenery and to talk to each other. On the way back, he was more chatty, asking where we were from, what we were doing in Cairo, how we liked it, the usual tourist questions. I let B do the talking. He asked if we were Christians, and B said yes. I thought: yes, why explain. That’s the right answer. At the end, as we were about to disembark, the sailor asked one more question, in a tone that said he already knew the answer:
“You are brother and sister?”
“Yes,” B replied. “Brother and sister.”
That surprised me. When we got off the boat, I asked why had the sailor assumed we were brother and sister? Why did B say yes?
I still remember B’s answer, because he used a word that would never have entered his vocabulary before he lived in Egypt:
“To save his honor.”
Neither of us wore wedding rings. It was easier for him to imagine us as siblings than it was to suppose we were an unmarried couple out on our own, B told me, even a foreign couple. Egypt is in the north of Africa; its inhabitants have roots both in the deep Nile and in the Mediterranean, and in one family you often find a variety of skin tones, from dark black to palest white. That we were brother and sister was easily imaginable. That we were a single man and a single woman, not related, out together in his boat would have been unthinkable.
That was clear, if unexpected. What happened next was the really surprising part. I felt suddenly full of elation, joy. The sailor’s question had re-framed reality, for one moment: to him, what we had in common: nationality, religion, age, attitude, was more important, by far, than the one difference in America that really counted. The burden of culture lifted off my shoulders, for the first time in my life. I experienced a physical sensation of floating, just like when you remove a heavy pack you have been carrying, the way gravity drops off you. The feeling entered me and stayed with me, longer than any drug.
B had not yet been to Israel. I wanted to go to Alexandria. We decided to go first west then east, taking a night bus through the Sinai, which would be punishing but save the cost of accommodation.
I had recently read the Alexandrian Quartets, and my mind was full of Laurence Durrell’s stories of the city in between the wars, his multi-lingual, glamorous cast of characters, Greek, Jewish, Egyptian, European, caught in their webs of passion. I also loved Cavafy, and in my imagination had often entered his world of café society and illicit love.
The post-Nasser Alexandria, when we got there, was deeply disappointing in the way real places often disappoint after vividly imagining them. A sad and desolate air hung over its empty streets as if swept by disaster. The cornice with its wide pavement was intact, but the buildings lining the seafront looked hollowed out, skeletal, their windows covered in shutters. Art Deco cafes with elegant arches lay open to the sky, empty and full of dirt. The water was blue, but each heave released a sewage vapor from the overflow dumped directly into the bay. My imagined Alexandria, with its interwoven threads culture and religion, on the borderline of Africa and the Mediterranean, had vanished with scarcely a trace.
We walked around, trying to soak up the atmosphere. At the end of the day, we ate dinner at a sea-front restaurant. B warned me, but I wanted fish. By the time we got on the bus, I was already feeling ill and spent the whole night wracked with pain, trying not to throw up. B was solicitous and kind, and I remembered how much I loved him.
At three in the morning, I started to feel better. We stopped to give the driver a break. We were in the middle of the desert and those who were awake had a chance to get out. B helped me down and we stood, looking up at a dense array of stars. They stretched horizon to horizon, fat, bright jewels to tiny dots, a secret window to the cosmos that for most of us now on earth has closed.
In the morning, we crossed the border into Israel and the world turned from brown and grey to green and blue. Potholes smoothed, and the highway widened, marked by large, orderly signs in English and Hebrew. Neat houses appeared in suburban rows with watered, well-kept lawns. The teenagers wore jeans and looked like Americans. I was flooded with homesickness. I wanted to take off my modest clothes and run around bra-less and barefoot. That some of the teenagers also carried machine guns gave me pause.
We had to go through border control. Because we were on a tour bus with a regular route, we were told it should only take a few minutes to process the paperwork.
We were interviewed one by one. The woman soldier who talked to me in American-inflected English was around my age, and smiling. After the routine questions about where I was going and what I was planning to do, she asked if I knew anyone in Israel. I told her I had relatives in Ashkalon and gave her the name of my father’s first cousin. She knew the family! I would have to say hello! I would love Ashkalon. The beach was fantastic.
Then it was B’s turn. Suddenly, my bubbly buddy turned into a surly soldier. What was he doing here? How long did he plan to stay? His answers were the same as mine, but that did not help. Why was he in Egypt? Did he have any proof? B gave her the private number of the President of the University. She took his passport away and told him to wait. The other passengers had all been approved and were getting restless. The bus driver told us we would have to make our own arrangements.
An hour went by. Then two hours. Five hours later, the soldier came back with B’s passport. They had finally reached the President. As she handed him his entry visa, she gave him a look as if to say, letting you in was not my idea.
When I eventually told my cousin this story, he said it wasn’t racism. There was a black American Christian cult leader who had been causing all kinds of trouble in Israel. The guards were probably worried B had come to join. Of course, I wanted to answer him sarcastically but didn’t: that was the first thing you would imagine a Harvard educated American working at the University of Cairo would do!
We skipped Tel Aviv because I was planning to go back later, and went straight to Jerusalem. On our first day, we were accosted by a bearded man in a black hat and jacket who harangued me so violently in Hebrew I thought he might hit me; I looked Jewish enough that my standing on the street with B was a personal affront. I could not understand a word coming out of his mouth, but I knew what he was saying. Other than that, no one bothered us. We both loved wandering through the back streets of the old city. In the Arabic quarter, we used B’s expert haggling skills to buy souvenirs. In the Armenian quarter, we stopped at a Greek café for coffee. I found the ancient rubbing up against each other of the different religions a kind of miracle, and B agreed.
We went to Masada and had an argument about whether or not to take the funicular. One of us walked; one of us rode up and I can’t remember which. At the top of the mesa, we looked at the bleached out ruins and read about the small group of families and fighters, killing themselves rather than allowing themselves to be captured by their enemies. It seemed a heroic story, worthy of awe.
Afterwards, we went to the Dead Sea, where we floated, light as air, all our differences equalized in the salty water. When we kissed goodbye, the anger between us had evaporated, and we were as close as we had been in a long time.
It bothers me that I can’t remember now if we had become lovers again or not by the time we parted. I know that based on what happened later a door which had been closed, among all the other many doors of that time in life, was unlatched and ready to be opened.
I spent some time visiting relatives in Ashkelon before getting back on the plane to Athens. One more thing stands out from that trip and seems part of the story.
I remember feeling calm and ready to go back to my life in Athens. The airport was clean and modern, light and airy, busy but orderly. There was a long line of people waiting to go through security, and from the end of the line, it all looked efficient. We were moving, and then we slowed and stopped.
I was close enough to see why. Two young women: pretty, blond, rosy-faced Canadians who looked like they had spent as much time on the beach as I had, were having their bags checked. The young, uniformed security officers were opening everything: shaking out each piece of clothing, emptying out shampoo bottles, questioning where they had been and why. The girls were shaken, tearful; the guards abrupt, rude, invasive. Yes, the girls admitted they had visited Jordan, as tourists. Nothing more.
As they were trying to explain, another young woman in uniform came up to me. I was half-way back in the line, watching like everyone else.
“Are you Jewish?”
I was not going to take the time to explain that really it depended on which rabbi you asked and how strictly you adhered to the rules, but since my mother always told us, “Hitler didn’t care if you were half-Jewish, so neither should you,” I answered, “Yes!”
“Okay, then come with me,” the woman gestured with a friendly smile.
I followed her past the scene of hostile interrogators and frightened foreigners. I went straight to the check-in desk, where an El Al clerk beamed at me. I handed her my tickets and my passport. I sailed right by the trouble onto the plane, and I remember so well the pleasure it gave me, being on the inside, at the head of the line, and the separation I felt from those two girls in trouble with the authorities, two girls who were not so different from me after all.
That is really most of the story.
B and I both went back to the US at the end of the year. I went to Los Angeles and enrolled on a creative writing MA; B went to law school. He came to California for a summer internship program; we did not walk through the open door after all. A few years later I fell in love with an English philosophy graduate student and moved to London. We got married and had children. I wrote to B at some point in the last decade, asking for forgiveness and friendship. He did not write back. I heard from a friend who saw him at a party when he was in law school that he did not speak of me fondly. Whatever happened at the end of our relationship, he continued to hold it against me.
B and I were born in 1963; we grew up during a time of liberation. His parents were educators who left the racist South to raise their children in suburban New York. Mine left their East Coast families and sent us to a hippy alternative school in Los Angeles. I sang “Free to Be You and Me” and thought all the battles had been won. By the time B and I got to university in the 1980’s, no one talked much about racial or sexual struggle in America. At graduation, we all wore black arm-bands, to end Apartheid in South Africa.
Then I married someone from a different culture and began to loop back and forth from America to England. I experienced culture as a form of perspective; I saw how the unspoken histories in both my countries limited what could and could not be easily discussed. I would go to America and feel the wounds of race and racism cover me like a heavy cloak; back in England, I had to fight through the veils of class. The people on the other side of the wall of privilege could not see it and did not want to talk about it. But being married to someone who grew up with a different set of cultural assumptions has helped me to see the way we are all blinded by our backgrounds. Sometimes we can lift up and see beyond our own borders. We can empathize with others who are different from us. Those moments of insight are difficult to achieve, dazzling and rare, worth all the trouble.
Recently, in America, it has become impossible to avoid the wounds of history, but our ability to be open about how we have hurt each other has not improved. Now more than ever I would like to be able to talk to B again, as we did in the past. I miss his intelligence, humor, generosity and insight. I have never managed to stay friends with anyone I ever dated, but I wish I could. If B and I were in touch, I would tell him one more story. I would ask his opinion.
Recently, Masada was in the news. An article appeared, questioning the prevailing myth about the high plateau where brave Jewish rebels made their last stand against evil Romans, undermining the 2,000 year-old frame of freedom fighters versus corrupt imperialists. I would ask B if he remembers the lure of the story, with its good guys and bad guys. I would tell him I have kept a photo from that time of certainty, of him in his jeans and dazzling white polo shirt, camera over shoulder, looking young and handsome and sure against the red rock of that ruined fortress.
According to the article, I would tell B, the latest archaeological digs at the site offer a more complicated reality. A cache of bones has been discovered belonging to a young woman and two men. They were killed, and in her case, scalped, her double braids suggesting she was a married woman, and an insider. Were they punished for transgressions, killed not by Romans, but their own puritanical tribe of fanatics? Have these bones appeared now to tell us something, B, about our times: about extremism, about purity, about the dangers of never coming down off your rock of righteousness, even if it means killing your own children? Is it a metaphor for what we need to learn now?
Since B and I travelled together through the deserts, my sense of what the universe contains has expanded. Once I had children, I crossed a border. I felt loyalty to all children of every ethnicity, every background, those of every skin color who deserve their place on our imperiled planet, so small in the vastness surrounding it. From the perspective of the stars, what unites us in our fragility seems so much more than what divides us.
This what I would like to ask my dear college boyfriend now that we are both parents in a world in which the enemies facing our children are so vast and so strong, so far-away and yet so close to home, half-way across the world and here, right here in our own hard and unforgiving hearts. We are the Romans. We are the Jews. We are on our knees, trembling; we are holding the sharp knife in our hands. How should we fight against ourselves? Maybe someday when we have crossed the final border from matter to light, we will have the chance to find out.