Honesty in the color of beige.
There has been a real dearth of surf news over the past few days for which I apologize. I’m sure things are happening, I’m sure interesting, robust, vital things but somehow they aren’t finding their way to me.
They will again, I have no doubt, but in the meantime here is a story from my past. My next book is about the Middle East so here…
I think my obsession with the Middle East begins here. I was hanging onto the side of The Great Pyramid of Giza, some 300 feet off the ground, and trying to track the police flashlights below, crisscrossing the desert, looking for the bastards who dared sneak in to the pyramid complex to climb the oldest and biggest 7th wonder of the ancient world.
Looking for us.
Sunrise was still a few hours off but Cairo’s skyglow, floating on the horizon, makes dawn appear perpetually imminent adding a layer of intensity. I figured it was way worse to get caught in the day rather than at night, for reasons I can’t recall, so was trying to hurry.
Or wait. I remember.
I used to work the campus safety dispatch night shift at my Christian university and remember how abjectly lazy I was. Like, students would call at 11:30 pm or 1:30 am or whatever and say they needed an escort from the art barn to their dorm or the café to their dorm and I would tell them the campus safety officers were busy because I couldn’t be bothered filling out the paperwork then I’d continue watching the bootlegged copy of Army of Darkness I’d put into the VCR that was supposed to be recording the administration building’s front entrance. People who are good at their jobs and try hard and shit work in the day. The night belongs to fuckers and fuck-ups.
I pulled a Cleopatra cigarette out of my pocket and lit it, trying to figure a way out of the mess. A flashlight slashed across the base of the pyramid zigzagging nowhere near me. Fuckers and fuck-ups but felt my best option was to begin singing Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl at the top of my lungs so I did.
“Uptown girl, she’s been living in an uptown world…”
The flashlights zigged closer but still nowhere near me and I began to descend, singing, smoking, while the police started shouting in Arabic.
“I bet she’s never had a backstreet guy, I bet her mama never told her why…”
The idea to climb had been hatched a mere four hours earlier. Joel, my classmate at University of Cairo’s Middle Eastern Studies Program, had come into my room and said, “We should climb Cheops tonight.” Ethan, my roommate, said, “Yes.” I said, “Obviously.” And two hours later we were in a classically busted Egyptian cab, floorboards mostly missing, gears stuffed with sawdust, swerving and honking toward Giza.
Cheops or Khufu or The Great Pyramid of Giza is the only one worth climbing and likely the only one you know. It is the pyramid with that weird cap on it. The one that looks like it has a snowy peak. The other two biggish pyramids in the complex belonged to Pharaohs Khafre and Menkaure and impressive but not nearly as impressive as Cheops.
It is one of those rare phenomena where reality is more fantastic than the imagined. Like, the sphinx sucks. It is a tiny little thing. Maybe as big as a Chevy Suburban. Maybe. All the photos I’d ever seen had it in front of the pyramids and shot low so I was convinced it was 200 some feet high but it is not. It is a GMC Yukon. Very disappointing and much smaller than dreamed. The passages inside the pyramids are also all super lame bummers. Cramped, hot, stinky and not romantic with no paintings or spooky lights etc., but the outside, the Great Pyramid’s external skin, beats dreams.
It is immense, almost 4000 years old and completely baffling. How did the Egyptians do it? How did they stack giant stones that high? How big are the stones? Was it Hebrew slaves? Aliens? One can lounge in the desert there and ponder how life felt in those ancient times and how this giant three dimensional triangle was constructed and all manner of small human thoughts and feel the weight of amazement. It is truly crushing.
And I could hear the police’s Arabic shouts below clearly. Shouting “u’af!” “Stop!” And I kept singing. “She’s been living in a white bread world…”
One of their flashlights grazed my foot and the shouting grews more urgent. “Why in the world are you singing?” Ethan said from somewhere above me.
“Because there’s no way we’re getting out of this. We may as well act as if we didn’t know it was wrong. Better to ask forgiveness instead of permission etc.”
We were all now bathed in flashlight, sweeping across our faces, our bodies, our legs and arms. The policemen had gathered at a particular section near the base and our guiding us there. No way out but there never was. I took one last drag of Cleopatra and snuffed her out then climbed toward where they all were. Putting a cigarette out on 4000 year old wonder of the ancient world would have been the worst thing I had done that night had I not pissed on it 30 minutes prior.
When we had arrived at the pyramid complex it was maybe 2:00 am. The cab had dropped us off nearby and we wandered past broken down homes and witches with coal smoked eyes before reaching a little desert perch where we could plan our ascent.
Joel came up with the best plan. “We should just start walking toward it and the first guard that catches us we bribe.” Ethan and I agreed so we started walking and, sure enough, were quickly snagged by a guard. We told him we were going to climb Cheops. He clucked his tongue while saying, “Mish mumkin. Mish mumkin.” Mish mumkin. Not possible. Absolutely not possible. Very not possible.
And so we asked, “Kam?” How much? He continued to cluck his tongue while saying mish mumkin while adding a slow head shake in for good measure. “La la la la la mamnua. Mish mumkin.”
No. Forbidden. Not possible. Very not possible.
We stood, expressionless, having spent the last few months playing this game with all manner of Egyptians from shop keepers to government officials to Arabic tutors. Nothing in Egypt is possible, initially. Everything is, in fact, not possible and other things are forbidden but then after enough tongue clucking and head shaking cracks magically appear. Maybe something is possible but… Oh to make it possible will require a mountain of money. A giant pyramid of money.
We negotiated for a few minutes down to $50 U.S. per person and then he stealthily guided us to one of Cheops’ corners, pointing the best way up while looking around to make sure that no other guards or policemen were around to cut into his bribe. He told us to go up very fast and come down very fast then darted into the night.
We started climbing. None of us had any idea beforehand as to how big the stones were going to be. Maybe they were ten or fifteen feet tall and we’d have to hoist each other up. Maybe they were smooth and we’d have to climb like real climbers with our fingertips and end up falling to inglorious deaths.
In real life, though, they were neither tall nor smooth but perfect for skill-less ascent. Mostly just below waist high and so there we went, up the corner, one exaggerated lunge at a time just like the Hebrew slaves. Or aliens.
It took a quick 20 minutes then there were on the top of the ancient world, looking at Cairo floating on the horizon. Feeling the unfathomable bow of history. Feeling indestructible like the great explorers before us. Like Capt. William Shakespear, not the playwright, who mapped the Nafud desert and was friends with the first King Saud or better yet T.E. Lawrence. Lawrence of Arabia. The greatest explorer/writer of all time.
Charlie of Arabia was, anyhow, on the roof of the world. I was Charlie back then because I wasn’t quite douchy enough to be a “Chas” though all the future hallmarks of a “Chas” were there. Permission worse than apology? Check. Billy Joel on instant recall? Check. Cigarettes? A whole pack of check. Pissing off the top of the greatest of the 7th wonders of the ancient world?
But that’s what I did. Hate me for it because I hate myself for it too. I had sucked down a bottle of Baraka water during the cab ride, which coincidentally means “peace” and felt the pangs as we negotiated our bribe and felt them stronger as we climbed and then on top, after summiting, the pain became unbearable. Looking out and Cairo and thought, “I can’t hold it anymore plus I want to be here forever and if I spray a little DNA who could blame me?” I tried to shoot it out so far that none of it hit the pyramid but that was, of course, impossible. A horrible, hideous, unforgivable thought but also what would you do if you climbed to the top of the most famous pyramid of all and it was 3:00 am and… never mind. Unforgiveable.
I will say it was amazing but I can’t remember any spiritual hit. It felt like an accomplishment but… I don’t know. Not spiritual. So I stood and pissed and then we all starting making our way down into the crisscrossing flashlight beams of policemen who hadn’t been bribed.
“…And now she’s looking for a downtown man.”
The policemen grabbed us and pulled us off the side rougher than necessary and they had very stern faces. Very angry and stern shouting “Mamnua! Mamnua!” Forbidden forbidden. Flashlights were swinging around wildly as they gathered Joel, Ethan and me up trying to figure out what to do, jabbering so quickly in Arabic that I couldn’t make anything out.
It was eventually decided that we should be force marched to a small police shack over near a pit where a 4000 year-old boat had been pulled from the sand. The shack looked like it was a made from the bits and pieces that fell off during excavation which would not be surprising. Egyptians are industrious this way, loving to repurpose materials in new and exciting manners. The Great Pyramid used to be covered in highly polished limestone, for example, but diligent Egyptians chipped most of it away in order to build forts, mosques and corner stores that sell Cleopatra cigarettes which also taste repurposed, maybe from ancient papyruses.
The shack turned out to be a makeshift jail and we are all pushed though its mostly broken door and seated roughly on a wooden bench. The policemen stood over us clucking their tongues, shaking their heads and repeating mamnua.
After a few moments of heavy shaming one of the policemen scooped Joel by his arm to take him outside. We all protested robustly, standing hunched so as not to hit our heads on the ancient ceiling, waving our arms around, shouting “mish mumkin.” Not possible to separate us. But of course, like everything in Egypt, it turns out to be possible with vague promises of “everything is going to be ok” from the policemen and also tea.
Joel was shuffled out the door, into the cool night. Ethan and I were served sweet, black Egyptian tea and treated to a little friendly conversation about the new movie Dump and Dumper that happened to be playing in theaters. Egyptians don’t use the sound “b” after voiced nasal bilabial stops so “b” becomes “p” and Dumb and Dumber becomes Dump and Dumper.
The policeman enjoyed Jim Carrey’s slapstick and also thought Lauren Holly was “helwa awi.” Very beautiful. I told him that Jim Carrey and Lauren Holly are married in real life and he sucked air through his teeth in a low whistle maybe imagining what a wonder that would be but probably also in his mind a totally achievable wonder. American film has taught Egyptian men that western women are sexually insatiable. They cannot get enough. All you have to do is be in the right place in the right time and voila. Easy.
“Ua’f! La! Wehesh awi!” We heared Joel’s very stern voice rise from outside, punctuating our little cinematic exploration. Stop. No. Very bad. And jerked to our feet to push through the door.
The policeman inside, Lauren Holly’s future beau, tried to stop us and the policeman posted by the door tried to stop us too but half-heartedly and we marched to where Joel was sitting against an ancient stone 50 yards from the shack with the policemen sitting next to him looking very guilty.
“He tried to get me to touch his penis…” Joel said before throwing another vicious wehesh awi toward his captor and pairing it with a very severe frown. Very bad. Now it was our turn to shame so we all start clucking our tongues as furiously as we could, shaking our heads, and saying no no no no. La la la la. Making sure to keep our brows furrowed and indignation high. The policemen all looked very guilty.
But how? How did he try to get Joel to touch his penis? I was very confused. Did he make his penis extra appealing? Like, arch his back and make it look irresistible or something? So I asked Joel, “How did he try?” Joel grabbed the policeman’s hand and pulled it toward his own penis in a helpful object lesson. The policeman continued to look very guilty while Joel stood up, dusted off his pants and we all started walking away bitterly. Our erstwhile captors muttered for us to stop but didn’t try to chase us, knowing that they had been bested in the shame game. Knowing they were not even going to get a bribe now but I suppose handjobs are a real “win some lose some” proposition. I can’t imagine a high success rate but maybe it’s one of those Lauren Holly things. A misunderstanding of facts presented on celluloid. That all American men are keen for a little quid pro quo.
When we were back in the desert I told Joel I was jealous. “Why did he pick you? Did he think you were the best looking of the group? Did he think you were the most adventurous?” He was still rattled but I didn’t care and continued. “You got to be T.E. Lawrence in his Syrian jail with those rapey Turks…”
“That story has been discredited…” Ethan cut in. “…I think they found some Lawrence journals where he said he made it all up. The Turks never raped him in Syria or anywhere for that matter. He was a masochist. Or a sadist. I can’t remember which is which.”
“Oh.” I say disappointed and started humming Billy Joel again.
Somewhere behind us we heard different policemen shouting again, with different voices, looking for their own bribes or sensual moments and saw their flashlights cutting the blackness in front of us. Slashing it like lightsabers.
Another batch. We started running as fast as we could toward Giza, the crumbled neighborhood named after the pyramids, jumping over the small wall that separated the desert from Cairo and running across roofs until finally dropping through a hole into a sparsely furnished living area.
A witch sitting there with her coal black eyes acted nonplussed. There are so many witches out by the pyramids. Real life weird witches whose lives must be filled with such weird that three Americans dropping through a roof hole is nothing at which to blink. Nothing at which to even flinch. If I had to guess, I’d say the witches are attracted to pyramid energy but that seems very dumb and is likely more to do with all the people who live in the catacombs on a small hill just north of the pyramid site.
We apologized and left through her door. I told Ethan and Joel that I wanted to be a Middle Eastern writer like T.E. Lawrence while we were looking for a cab back to our dorm. I wanted to tell stories from this world of endless fun. They both nodded and said, “It sounds like a good idea.” But also add the caveat “It doesn’t seem like you’d do a very good job. Pissing on a 7th great wonder of the ancient world doesn’t play well with… seriously anyone.”