Saturday, June 9, 2012

Darkness below the Sphinx (1998, Egypt)

It was late and every one had left the outside seating area who had been watching the illumination show of the Pyramids, and Sphinx, except a hired guide given me by Solomon: the Captain of the Bellboys, at the Sheraton Hotel, in Cairo, and a hired policeman, who guarded the Sphinx, whom I paid well, a middle aged man, as was Solomon and the guide—all paid well to take me after the show to see the Sphinx—and there I waited in the shadow of the building, the Sphinx in the darkness in front of the building beyond the dirt road that lead to the plateau, and there I waited, against the electric light that appeared to be on permanently.
       In the daytime the dirt road in front of the building and seating area overlooks the Giza Plateau, in that it is visible—where the Great Pyramid is—now closed for repairs, in which I had to go to the Khafra Pyramid in place of the Khufu Pyramid, the Sphinx being in front of the pyramid, and causeway, the street was dusty, but during the evening dew had settled the dust and now as it was close to midnight, it was quiet and the heat of the day was cooled, and one could feel the difference.
       The guide and the policeman were friends of Solomon the Arab, all three were Arabs, and while he knew the two were good contacts and associates, and took me as a client, paying only the policeman (and themselves), without paying the soldiers that guarded the Sphinx, so they’d allow me to visit the Sphinx at night in person —actually forbidden, told me: ‘Don’t utter a word during the visit…’; then Solomon dressed me in a white tunic, and head-covering, hiding my Irish-American look.

       “Now don’t say a word,” said the policeman—repeating what Solomon had said, meaning: be quiet there are guards down there—soldiers, “we didn’t pay the soldiers, so we don’t want any trouble with them (had I paid them, it would have been a lot more costly—$1,400-hundred dollars is what they all wanted, total).
       He looked—as he talked—with a slight showing of despair within his eyes, and around the corners of his mouth, then told another Arab that came out of the dark, to take me down to the Sphinx’s enclosure, and in-between its arm.

       And there I was.
       We stood together, a full moon overlooking the head of the Sphinx, then I got closer—as he remained at the paws of the Sphinx, venturing inward towards the large stone plaque in its center with its ancient writings on it, then I found myself against the wall of the arm, and looked for a spot to climb up, found one and pushed upward three feet or so, and the Arab whispered, more than a whisper, a hiss:
       “No..oooo, you can’t climb i…T!”
       I was already a few feet up, I jumped back down—there was a thump, he held his breath, “Why not?” I asked.
       “Be quiet, we don’t want to alert the soldiers,” he prayed.
       Nothing seemed to move, not even a slight wind; with the light of the moon, and the few stars: the Sphinx was seemingly looking down on me as if it had a demon inside its rock riddled carcass, as if it was awaiting a storm. I even visualized Seth: the ancient Egyptian deity of storm and turmoil, as if he was gawking at me through this representation of the head of Khaf-Ra (an earlier King of Egypt), —as if he wanted to pull out his legendary wings, move that robust lion’s body, and devour me, or its legs crush me.

       A streetlight shown in the far back, gave, a little light in that I could see the Arab didn’t wear a head covering.
       From the start to this point he was constantly trying to hurry me.
       I pulled a chip of stone from the side of the Sphinx, put it in my pocket, then I took my camera and took a picture, why I did this, I don’t know, I just don’t know—no excuse for it, but the light flashed—with a swell effect throughout the whole plateau, and the Arab was feeling worse for it every second, put his hands over his face, bending over as if not wanting to be noticed, crouching like a dead vulture.
       For a moment there was no communication between us—then he said, disappointed, and disapprovingly, said—pointing, with his hand and finger, and stretched out arm, pointing the way back, the same way we came in: “Now,” he began, “now we finish…, we go, go… please, please we go! Everybody sees!” he was scared, real scared, scared as if the hounds of hell were going to be upon him.
       He did not wish to be rude, but he was terrified and so the tone of his voice showed it, and thus, it just came out that way, and I was not seemingly in a hurry—as I should have been, but I left because of his panic— heretofore, I felt indifferent, not really in any danger. And as we started to walk back towards the Policeman, —perhaps feeling he had talked too loud if not too much, because he was now mumbling in a near whisper, and kept on saying:
       “You d not un-er-stand da light…da light…bad…!” nearly inaudible, as I patiently followed him with my eyes; hence, I felt an impulse of apprehension creeping up my legs, spine, the hair of my arms, goose-bumps-bumps.

       Now I heard footsteps, coming out of the dark, towards me and the policeman—someone had seen the flash, and my guide who was waiting, and the Arab that had shown me the Sphinx, he was long gone, as if he had disappeared into thin air, and I could see an unhappiness on the mouth of the policeman; what was he thinking? I, at that point was unaware just how costly that flash could be—that it would take an act of God’s intervention to settle what was going to take place.

       “Certainly you do not want trouble…” said the policeman, who spoke better English than the Arab who took me to the Sphinx, although I am giving him the benefit of a doubt here, “You should not have flashed your camera!” and he wasn’t kidding.
       What went through my mind was: what did he fear? I mean it all could be explained, yet there was that fear or dread. Then a soldier appeared, came up and out of the dark, evidently behind the shadow of the back of the Sphinx, with an automatic rifle pointing it at me. Consequently, I woke up, cooled and awakened to the ache of trouble.
       Some words were said, and then the policeman told me abrupt and perhaps a little obvious:
       “He wants me to give you to him, but I know if I do, he’ll take you out behind the plateau and kill you, and no one will find you ever again—; he disapproves of you being here, resents me for allowing it without notifying him.”
       And then the soldier, a youth perhaps twenty-three years old, an Egyptian in military black garb, grabbed my wrist fiercely, and started pulling me towards him, and the Policeman grabbed my other arm pulling me his way—the opposite way, then the guide ran away in a cowardly fashion—he would ask me later on that evening, halfway down the dirt road: not to tell Solomon about his cowardly behavior. He was the one who had done some of the arrangements, announced to the Policeman that Solomon had arranged this, paid him.
       And there he was, the soldier:
       “Give me this person,” the soldier must have said, demanded, from the look on his face and sound and tone of his voice. And my arms were being pulled every-which-way—both ways, stretched to the limit—until my arms ached, neither one giving up, emotionally too.
       I didn’t say a word, I stood erect without a smile, with a dull stream of strain, knowing one or the other was going to win this tug-of-war, and if it was the soldier I was dead.  Oh, yes, dead buried in some sand heap, or mound, behind the sphinx or pyramids, or out in the desert long forgotten—oh, I was sure the policeman was not teasing me—to the contrary: for to the soldier I could see clearly: I was nothing to him no more than a pebble, or stone in the sand, perhaps his thoughts were: ‘I’ll teach him,’ breathing eagerly to have me all his own.
       I looked at him without the slightest idea of what was really in his head, although I felt he wanted for a moment to dispose of me (remembering what the policeman had alleged), and I knew he’d not give up. Yet he seemed so young to me, I was fifty-one years old. It was just a forlorn hope he’d let go but that never occurred at this juncture, and I knew it wouldn’t—; one feels in the heat of danger, the impression that it must happen, something must happen: take place, before the unthinkable takes place, yet you must allow yourself time to figure it out, if indeed you are allowed time, and therefore you must make it happen, and the latter was drooping with dismay and disappointment in my mind that—how, this was the dilemma how! I had to come up quick with a solution to this situation, if not Catch-22: —the old-fashioned cliché: do or die was staring me right in the face: there would be no second episode!
       (I had discovered one thing about myself, and if time allows, we all discover things about ourselves that seem to amaze us, as if we had a blind spot, and then one day it just becomes—suddenly becomes—visible or noticeable—because we just became aware of it: in my case that being, I had the ability—as it often appeared throughout my life, the ability to hold in my mind two opposed ideas –then and there at the same time, and still function normally—; let me explain: I could see that things—this situation—looked hopeless, but yet I was determined to make them otherwise. This was a peculiarity of my life. It was no philosophy, it just was—a hundred times in fifty-one years, it just was.  Perhaps it was more at my determination and instincts, things turned out the way they turned out; in essence the improbable, or implausible, could come true—that said: the unlikely becomes the likely. You see what I discovered was: life either bends to intelligence or effort, or both, God willing: if it is both interwoven, then in proportion. Where I fit in I don’t know, but what I do know is, I’m in there somewhere: and this was one of those situations, or I should say, another one.)
       The young soldier, He stood solid and firm in the sand.
       Thus, at this point, the policeman talked and talked as if giving me time to figure out how to handle this, once he had to let go, because he was weakening he knew he was weakening, and the young soldier was gaining and the young soldier knew he was gaining—and the old policeman did not look as if he’d pull out his revolver to save me: my mind had been as if in a dark cave, but I was recovering my thinking—it wasn’t too late—thus, once he’d let go I’d have to make my move:
       “Take him” my mind said “…take him quick!”
       “Go on…” my mind unfrozen murmured: rigid and expectant—now it told me, coarsely told me: “He’s absolutely yours,” but he wasn’t, not yet.
       The darkness of night, I figured, would draw the cover for me once the policeman let go, this would be my chance, my one and only chance.
       “Take him; go on, once you get an opening, that edge, an offensive move, plow over him like a storm,” my mind told me, “wait for that opening, that move, make a defensive strike, not one strike, but several—put him out cold!”  (Thus my mind was shifting back and forth, while observing the changing situation, changing with it: —moreover, going back to my old thesis, or that blind spot that was no longer a blind spot, that, the unlikely could become the likely: that life has a varying offense and defensive structure, realization—: I could change the picture in the frame with a simultaneous blow when one of my wrists were released, no reprieve—once I attacked.)
       I figured I had nothing to lose, should the policeman lose the grip on me, so I’d have my right arm free, and once free, I would have to react quick, my left hand would be useless, but I could push with it until he let go, and kick with either left or right foot, equally, I knew karate well, and a good kick to the groin or chest, and my right hand punching him in the head, and once the left hand was let free grabbing the rifle or his wrist that held balance its mussels aimed upward, thus pushing it downward, I’d have a chance.
       I bet I’d have a 55% chance, odds were better than half I figured, but what I had not contemplated, or calculated, if I did get the upper hand my back would be to the policeman, under such changing circumstances, whose side would he take?  He could change the equation; hit me over the head with the butt end of his revolver, if he didn’t his comrades—those he worked with, would shame him for taking sides, against his own countrymen, thus never be able to live with them again: but I’d have to take the chance, perhaps he’d do nothing or let me go it all was getting perforated—my plan had holes in it but it was my only plan, there was no other one.
       On another note, I assumed the soldier figured I knew nothing of combat or counter attacking, that was my weapon, my surprise weapon: this was not the first time I found myself in harm’s way, yet it was perhaps the most entangled, if not most unanticipated—but I was given that time to deliberate—and to be honest, I wasn’t afraid of the assault. Call it luck or providence, or even call it instinct or knowing what I knew in karate technique—in a way it was like business, and I was good at it, I had confidence, and I had that joyful conviction, and excitement—perhaps I needed psychiatric treatment, now that I think of it, but the handwriting was on the wall, do or die, do or die.  Thus I was going to—one way or the other—going to pull down the curtain—figuratively speaking.

       “What’s the matter?” said a voice, as if this situation was not as it should be.
       The soldier didn’t answer him, but the policeman did. The young soldier just looked over our heads and said something to the effect, “What’s yours? This man is mine!”
       He continued kindly, “You speak English?” he asked me.
       “What,” I said in an awed voice
       “English, do you speak English?” he said the second time.
       “Yes,” I echoed obediently.
       “Are you American?” he asked.
       “Yes?”  I said firmly: the situation as a whole was seemingly being defused, I considered, hoped, but who was this stranger, with a comrade to his right side also a stranger.
       The man reached over and took the soldier’s hand off my wrist, unsatisfactorily to the soldier’s expressive, disarray as if for that instant he was out of sorts, off balance, unprepared for this scene, and the policeman let go—I drew a long breath—this was seemingly like magic.
       “Go!” said the tall Arab in the white tunic, as if he was some guardian angel: I mean he appeared as if out of nowhere. The soldier held his rifle at waist level; he had lowered it some, but looked as if it would not remain lowered too long—I was overwhelmed at this point but I felt it was a darn good thing he showed up when he did:
        “And don’t come back, get out of here quick, don’t turn about and walk fast…” said the tall Arab, I stood in shock, wondering if the soldier was going to challenge that, but the soldier couldn’t speak English, and so I figured he didn’t know what the tall Arab had said, and once he had, I’d be out of harm’s way:
       “I think it will be better if you go now!” he said again, and finally, I was gone—I didn’t care what the soldier said or felt at this point.
       I felt an awful silence as I rushed towards the dirt road as if the soldier was going to come running after me, yelling “Halt!” Perhaps even shoot me in the back.
       Consequently, into the dark I faded, leaving the sphinx looking on in the blurred compromise.
       My mind conjured in anticipation: how many years had Seth as a demonic form, embodied the Sphinx, tried to touch fury in man’s soul, and conqueror its visitors who dare to pluck its wings, its paws, its long arms.
       The sphinx like the soldier must have smugly kept watching… so forethought told me; I think Set, again Seth inside the Sphinx was groping, if not entranced in annoyance—saying: ‘…who’s this guy think he is who dare comes to wound the beast and walk away free, and say nothing apologetically.’

       The guide paused on the side of the dirt road, as if to get back his composure, as if to see if I was still alive, as if he might hear a gunshot. The roads lead into Giza—the coward was leaning against a telephone pole, as I approached:
       “Are you going to Solomon’s Brothers Café?” he asked.
       He was on his way there also, and I had to give him back his clothing, “Yes,” I said ashamed to even be talking to him.
       “Pease don’t tell Solomon what I did!” he begged. “It’ll go all around and people will laugh at me, I have to live here.”
       The logic of his suggestion didn’t fit into my area of play; he grew rather unenthusiastic walking with me now, and not getting a confirmation on the question. Perhaps I wanted to prolong his state of agony, or simply didn’t know what I wanted to do.
       “Well, see!” I said, apprehensively—that would have to do.
       It was about then I came in sight of the café, stepping cautiously into the jammed café. Solomon wasn’t there, and so the guide shook off the facts of the nightmare.
       It was jammed amidst the consequent mixture of voices, some American girls at a table, middle aged Arab trying to make time with one of them, and they greeted me.  I moved through the small café quickly, the fervor of the last hour still inside of me, nothing simple that anyone could see.

       The disentanglement was now faintly out of sight, and the night was passing into morning, had passed in an atmospheric way, to an even cooler hour of darkness than expected.
       At the café a middle-aged Arab was pressuring a young American girl to go with him, or so it looked as if he was pressuring her. He was there with a table full of white blond females, and evidently the Arab was the guide. I somewhat interfered, said hello to the American tourists, was surprised they were brought into Solomon’s café; it was out of the way, way out of the way for the tourist agenda.
       “Join us,” the young blond female suggested, plainer than pretty, but nice figure, and well groomed, perhaps twenty-two. The Arab-guide took offence to this, but I paid him little to no attention. He tried to pretend he was friendly, but was not, not really.  I figured the girl was in need of protection.  Why I don’t know, she didn’t ask for a shield. And I suppose I felt the Arab was using an old male formula to seduce the girl.
       “If you want to join me,” I said to the girl “at my table, you’re free to.”
       That did not go well with the Arab.
       “Why you come over here and try to take the girls away?” asked the Arab.
       “She’s free to do as she pleases, is there something wrong with that, you’re the guide, not the boyfriend, right?”
       That got him even madder, “You are a guest in my country,” he said with boiling eyes, and trying to settle down as if not to show his agitation in front of the girls.
       “You needn’t be afraid of him,” I said to the blond; his insincere eyes rolled up per near into his forehead.
       “You go,” he commanded.
       “I don’t have to go, she invited me not you,” I told him.
       Again I said, “You don’t have to listen to his rigmarole, just get up and leave; with that I stood up, excused myself, and went back to my table, figured if she wanted to stay there, so be it. As the Arab slowly recomposed himself; she held no real expression on her face just a slow wooden mask, dreamlike.
       Outside I waited for a taxi, and as I stood there waiting, I saw the Arab and the young blond get into his car, and as they drove by I saw her face, as if it had lost all its inhibitions, who would do anything…I went back to my hotel room.  But I felt as when I was looking at her, the best I could wish for her would be a little misfortune, because I felt she was in for a lot. And all I could say was: “I don’t know—I just don’t know!...” 

#915   (written between: 5-31 and 6 -2-2-2012) for Diane Horton