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Event # 222: SOMETHING SO RIGHT
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Baltimore - 3 JULY, 2000 - It's 4:00 a.m. and I have just returned from the Khan al-Khalili district, one of the oldest in this most ancient of cities, Cairo. I move out onto the rooftop of my building to better hear the blinded-canary sweet singing of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. It echoes from minarets all over the city: "The Perfection of God, the Many-named, the Benificent, the Wondrous! God is Great! I sing the Perfection of God!"
A flock of white doves bursts into the dawn sky, an expression of Hope, flying before a close minaret, then above it, they twirl in the air and their wings go from white to gold as they are emblazoned with sunlight. It is an image I shall never forget. "The Perfection of God!"
The Al Azhar Mosque resides in the Khan al-Khalili district. My apartment mate, Wafah Amona, a.k.a. Richard Damon, finished his instruction and officially converted to Islam there. This was all part of the process of his disappearing (he hoped) from Western radar screens, especially those of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Interpol, and melding into the heart of Africa. It did not quite work out as he had planned, of course. American culture leaves a stain on you. It is not so easily shed. Try as you might to lose the American stain, it shows through wherever you go... Wafah would learn this to his peril, later, in Nigeria.
I "inherited" Wafah from Kofi, the Ghanaian refugee I had taken in two months after moving to Cairo. I got Kofi the way anyone gets a stray: I had seen him with a French woman in a local cafe one night. I had decided on a whim that they looked so happy that I would pay for their dinner and drinks. Typical Rod. When the waiter told them they owed no money, the American had covered everything, they came over to join me.
Kofi wanted to move out of the hostel where he was staying as his French paramour was leaving the country. He thought it would be a great idea to move in with a generous guy like me.
He regretted that quickly, as he hated "Ah-rabs" and I was thick as thieves with them. Worse yet, I had made it part of my program to avoid Americans. Oh-oh! he must have thought. AND he needed my help to get out of Cairo. Because he had been one of Kwame Nkrumah's Young Pioneers, and trained in Moscow, Ghana was the last place on Earth in 1974 he wanted to go. He told me that returning there would mean imprisonment, at best, and possibly death. So it was determined that I should use my black market connections in order to purchase enough foreign currency to spirit him out of Egypt and deeper into Africa or up to Europe.
Sometime during these transactions he began talking to me about taking in Wafah, even though Wafah was an American...
I had sworn to myself, upon moving to Cairo, that I would have nothing to do with my own countrymen in order to fully immerse myself in this culture. I planned to see the Pyramids, at Giza, the Sphinx, the mummified remains of great Pharoahs in the Egyptian Museum, but I did not want to live the life of a tourist here... That would have defeated my purpose. The plan was to present Cairo as a resident would --- even if a immigrant resident could not present all the nuances of a city whose literal history spanned five millennia.
I found a Greek woman, a Mrs. Kannakis, who rented to foreigners and acquired an apartment in the center of the city, in the Suleiman Pacha district, hard on the Nile and even the Nile Hilton --- swarming with Americans, even sold hamburgers (but they came with egg, strangely enough.)
The American University of Cairo was also close. It was a stone's throw from the infamous Mugama building --- home to those bureaucrats who controlled the transactions of all our lives, visitors and native-born. The Mugama was the home of the rubber stamp, of endless queues and being sent away without answers, expected to return if answers were needed.... Some people said that paperwork in the Mugama could disappear, as though into a black hole, and that in some deep cellar whole lives were lost.
But then this was the city where the watchword was "Ma'alesh"(Nevermind.)
We used to joke among ourselves, my Cairene friends and I, that one of the greatest treasures you could take back from our city was a photograph of yourself in front of an empty taxi. Cairo's taxi's were reputed to be among the cheapest in the world at the time, the trick was being nimble, aggressive, and blessed by the gods enough to get one.
The American embassy was close by. I believe I visited it once. Something to do with how long I'd remain in Cairo... or perhaps I was doing research on how to spirit people without passports out of the country --- Egypt was still officially in a state of war with Israel at that time --- something I became increasing good at. I bought Kofi out of Egypt, circumventing a few currency laws along the way. You had to buy currency at the "official" rate, a rip-off compared to what those of us living there got in foreign exchange, with a certificate proving same, in order to buy any form of transport out of Egypt. This stricture made the black market in foreign currency thrive. To get Kofi out, I went around the city bidding on pounds sterling, deutsche marks, etc. Seldom dollars, they came at too high a premium.
Kofi had a Brit passport he used, pages and pages of countries he had travelled to in order to keep away from his own countrymen.
Wafah was a serious challenge for me. He had no passport at all. He had lost his American passport when the Muslim terrorists he had lived with --- and who had spirited him out of the States via Mexico and then Tunis --- required that he surrender the passport to them as part of being under their protection. Some protection: while they were hiding out in Lebanon, Interpol raided their compound and Wafah found himself in a Beirut jail facing the threat of being left on the Syrian border. Only his plea to Muslim brotherhood bought him a reprieve. He bribed his way into a passage to Uganda with money wired by sympathetic relatives.
This was during the most notorious period of the Idi Amin regime. A telephone call admonishing you to "head for the bush!" was a serious warning to be acted upon immediately as Christians and Muslims were gunning each other down on the streets. The Nile was ripe with the bodies of dead Ugandans and foreigners who had said a little too much...
How can I present the great city, the ancient White City to you?
Perhaps as an oasis in the desert. Perhaps as waves of shimmering heat rising up from the street in Ramses Square (Sharia Ramses) and giving everything the hallucinogenic look of being under water. Before the old train station a mammoth statue of the Pharoah Ramses looms above all of mankind, you and me, as enigmatic as the Sphinx and reminiscent of Shelley's Ozymandias.
Living this way, between my interviews with government officials and activists, my evenings taking "B-52s" to stay awake during Ramadan until one could eat, my feasts with goldsmiths and bazaar merchants, all of us dipping into a shared pot of lamb, greenbeans, potato and tomatoes, a sumptious stew we valued all the more after a full day of fasting, I also had the drama of Kofi and then Wafah's lives as a backdrop.
(About the fast of Ramadan. It was a curious experience which I felt compelled to share with my hosts. One is not allowed to smoke, eat, even drink water, during the hours of fasting. But after the evening and the early morning prayer, one may eat and have water. That's where the "B-52s" came in. Lots of merchants would close their shops at midnight --- recall that Cairo is in a desert and that we slept during midday so as not faint in the heat --- and go to celebrate in the old districts of the city until near-dawn in order to enjoy that morning meal.
On the other hand, silly fights would break out in the middle of the day --- when the hunger and irritation kicked in --- it was not unusual during Ramadan to see grown men slapping each other over who would get an empty taxi-cab. We took this in stride. It was Ramadan.)
It was inevitable that one day a knock would come at my door. A tall, white American wearing a black suit and brogans stood before me. (Why would anyone wear a black suit in Cairo?) He wanted to know if I knew "a Richard Damon." I told him I knew a Wafah whose last name had been Damon, as far as I recalled.
He asked if I knew of Damon's whereabouts.
I said I had no idea. This was true. I had spirited Wafah to the Sudan by this time. If my machinations worked out (it turned out they did) he would have gotten into Khartoum where we would connect him with a Nigerian connection which would spirit him across Chad --- a journey not for the faint-hearted --- and over to west Africa and Nigeria.
Abdelrahman al-Abnoudi, 1999
So, between my association with the Abnoudis, who even admirers referred to as "a little bit the Communists" and Wafah, who was a known member of an international terrorist organization, it was only a matter of time before that tall man in the black suit showed up at my door.
The humorous part of all this (for me) was that Wafah was not actually a terrorist. He was just a dupe in a larger game. His problems with the FBI sprang from the fact that *friends of his* had borrowed his car and driven to the home of a known Mafia drug dealer --- after the death of a neighborhood child --- thrashed the man's bodyguards and taken him out and given him a very brutal ass-whipping. Then they had taken him home.
BUT because the man was "connected," and his blood was found in Wafah's car, a number of people --- Wafah among them, of course --- were charged not with assault and battery, but with kidnapping, a federal offence.
Faced with this predicament, Wafah turned to the Muslims for help. This led to the trips to Mexico and Tunis, the loss of his passport, and his being held a virtual prisoner by a Muslim terrorist organization. Interpol came into the picture because of Wafah's new protectors pulling off a few bank heists in Europe. But, like I said, their "protection" was not actually that good. It measured right up there with their "revolution."
The tall man at my door was proof of the idea of guilt by association. Since I knew so many people, Kofi, Wafah, the Abnoudis, who were considered radicals, dissidents or worse, I must be one myself. But I was just a writer. A writer with a willingness to listen to anyone's story, open to new experiences, and living in a country most people would not even consider immigrating to in their wildest dreams... These attributes all made me suspect.
Attiat al-Abnoudi, 1999
Meanwhile, I was living in a country that was filled with stories, stories that went back five thousand years. A writer's dream. Cairo was a city where everyone still lived in the oral tradition. Stories abounded and were part of our everyday life. How could I not revel in such a place?
Why had I done this?
Recall, if you will, that you are dealing with a hopeless romantic. As I had explained to the interviewer for the Watson Fellowship, all of my dreams in life, all of my heroes, seemed centered around Egypt.
Flaubert had gone to Egypt before writing Madame Bovary. Alexander had gone to Egypt and built the great city which produced the world's greatest library. Caesar had been seduced by Egypt, as was Napoleon, who brought us the Rosetta Stone and the Behistune Rock. The Egyptians, like the Tibetans, had supplied us with a Book of the Dead. Lawrence Durrell had given us the Alexandria Quartet and given us a rival for De Sade's Justine.
In my mind, I had no choice. The people at the Watson Foundation agreed with me. I was meant for Egypt and Egypt was meant for me...
As you may have gathered by now, living in Cairo was one of the formative (and informative) experiences of my young life. Other great cities would expand the list: Florence (Firenze,) Rome, Austin (TX,) Denver, New York, San Francisco. The imprint of urbanity was on me. I would never let that go...
ALONE AT NIGHTEveryone has advice. But no one lives my life.
As Dan VandeMortel says jocularly in VOX POPULI I have lived the life of a man of 73 already. I have nothing to prove to anyone now. What have I learned by cramming so much life into so few years? All you need is love.... and some men, like me, become unlovable.
I feel that I have done all I can as a person and a writer.
I welcome an end.
I know this is a difficult concept for most people to fathom. That is why I have approached it gingerly here. I receive weekly lectures about how much more I have yet to contribute.
In my more surly moods, or in my cups, I am tempted to respond: "Bat guano! Don't tell me what it's like inside of me!" But I exercise forbearance.
A classic example of my situation is that the thought crossed my mind the other night, before drifting off to sleep, to change my beneficiary. (Yes, I've gone so far as to bequeath what little net worth I'll have at death to someone.)
My reasons for wanting to make the change are my own and private.
But here's the rub: I could not think of a single person to make my new beneficiary. Not one. You see, in my mind, I should leave what little I can to someone who:
- The bequest would allow to create something in this world that they could not do without it;
- That it would not be squandered on hare-brained schemes that never reach fruition nor have any possibility of longevity; and
- Most desired: The beneficiary would somehow carry on my own dreams and ideals, in whatever form. Most specifically, encourage and promote other writers and (in my wildest dream) continue producing this magazine.
It's the legacy issue again.
I have complained in the past that I have had a problem, in these latter years of my life, being considered a great *editor* rather than a great writer. This hurt me in ways I shall never be able to fully explain.
The converse, of course, is that *other writers* trusted me to advise them on polishing their work and then presenting them in the best possible light. Over the years, I now see, I have fostered new voices. I look at people like Ron Morgan, Anne Wheatley, Jeff Winbush, Doug McDaniel, Rendt Gortner, Piyush Kumar, Felicity Ussher and our newest addition, Rakesh Agrawal, with great joy. I see now that part of being a writer is adding other voices to the stream.
I have been proud to be able to do that and have the respect of seasoned writers like Bob Powers, Jules Siegel, Lionel Rolfe, Tom Hargrove and Robin Miller in the process.
It would have been wonderful not to fall into the Maxwell Perkins role, but being Maxwell Perkins is something I could only dream of achieving. I haven't come close. That G21 has produced so many sterling voices is its own reward.
Under those criteria, I came up with a complete blank... That, in and of itself, says a lot about my feelings about my life...
Don't take this as a downer.
The simple fact is this: I believe, along with many in ancient Greek and Roman cultures, including the great teacher Socrates, that we all have a right to choose an honorable death, to euthanasia. That modern culture has chosen to deny us this, because of majority sentiments, I consider a form of tyranny over the individual.
You may not agree. That's your right. But I resent you imposing your ethics on me.
As a writer, I am confounded by a single and unescapable fact: I've already said all the things which excite me. There is no project I look forward to with anticipation and energy.
That makes hearing people say, "But it's important to me that you continue..." sound hollow and a bit selfish.
The Philosopher's StoneI understand that bringing up personal philosophical issues like these --- rather than the usual stories to fulfill your voyueristic leanings --- is like serving rare meat at a banquet. Some people don't like meat. Some people especially don't like it served raw.
But it's my magazine and my Glass House. I can expose or conceal whatever I want here with impugnity. UNBOUND. This week I decided it was time for some heavy-lifting.
This was likely brought on by a conversation with my friend, Bill Purcell, who said to me that I did a sterling job of presenting the WHAT of my life (in measured bits and pieces) but I never explained the WHY.
Bill knew this would give me pause. Even though I countered at the time that the WHY should be all-too-evident, I also immediately recounted the story of receiving "My Wicked, Wicked Ways" at the age of thirteen. That act demonstrated that I had not spent enough time on WHY.
The only successful way of doing that, in my view, is to share some of the philosophical underpinnings which have motivated me over the years. That way requires a focus on my reverence for history.
Part of what has prompted this Cathedral of Words, for sure, is my sense that history is the key to our shared humanity... as well as our shared folly.
THINGS THAT BOTHER ME THIS WEEK1. My philosophical voice taking center stage.
2. Keeping my pledge to see physicians.
3. Knowing that G21 goes when I do.
Thanks for coming back this week.
"Work like you don't need the money,
"Love like you've never been hurt,
"Dance like no one is watching..."
This is another Web site made on a Macintosh.
ROD AMIS has published this magazine since 1990. It first appeared as a hardcopy 'Zine. In March, 1996, he launched it here on the Web. Rod was a Contributing Editor at Suite101.com, where he wrote the " 'Net Publishing" feature. His work has been featured in the San Francisco Bay Guardian Online, NRV8, and at WebLab's Reality Check site. Rod was also a contributing writer on technology for Faulkner Information Services.
Rod was a columnist for the Andover News Network, where he wrote over two hundred articles on web design and development issues. He was also principal writer and Editor for IT Manager's Journal, where he reviewed technology issues weekly. His opinions on the Info Age began appearing on MethodFive's HYPER technology newsletter in March. 1999. He became the Managing Editor for Electronic Mail/Newsletter Publications at Andover.net at the end of February, 2000.
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