Chapter I “Scouting”
“In the company of wolves, the wise bare the most scars.”
“What is the color of change?” That is the question my elder posed to me through a cloud of blue cigarette smoke as we faced each other across the table. He had never deviated from his preference for Gitanes cigarettes in the 15 years I had known him. The air was damp and acrid with the smell of decaying fish and burnt tobacco. The sun was still high and intense although the day was waning and dust clouds added a reddish brown tint to the summer light. He leaned across the flimsy, plastic table and tapped his faggot into the ashtray with his index finger in earnest. “Change my lad,” he said in an involuntarily patronizing Oxford accent, “is defined by what we do not yet know. That is its nature. It is the difference between what is, and what will be. Change is the shade, the shadow between the two. And that… is what you are experiencing -the precipice of decision. There is no colour. No definition. The state of change in the present defies characterization because it is itself dynamic. It is the process of delineation.” I stared indignant at his cryptic response. I knew the pensive look bearing down on me through those bushy, salt and pepper eyebrows was an effort to hide his frustration in trying to stay ahead, in every possible way. “Queen’s bishop pawn to c4” he said, making the mental notation.
When I first met Professor Nasser he told me he was “scouting” as he called it, for candidates to participate in a chess club. I have since learned that his intentions that day were far from benign.
It was a Wednesday, the middle of summer in 1989 and I was playing chess with my childhood friend Mu’adh Ibrahim at an outdoor café in the Cairo sooq when Professor Muhammad Abdul Nasser first approached me. He offered an open blue box of his now iconic, French cigarettes. “Tadakhan?” He asked. “Laa. Ana mou dakhan. Shukhran.” I declined in my most educated Modern Standard Arabic.
“Are you a student at the University?” He responded in perfect English.
Before I could answer, Mu’adh countered quickly “We are just visiting some of my family. My cousin just got married and I brought a friend along for the ride.” That was a lie. He sounded annoyed, and very American. He was always more leery of strangers than his culture deemed appropriate, especially when I was around. He found the incessant need to practice my language skills somewhat perturbing and continually cautioned me to be more discerning in my choice of conversationalists. He would have been the most obvious candidate but his reluctance to use Arabic in social settings made practicing with him impossible.
I had actually learned most of what I knew of Arabic from Mu’adh’s mother as a child spending endless afternoons at their house in Detroit trying to avoid my father. He spent his non-working hours climbing into bottle after bottle of Wild Turkey and lamenting his lot. When he became particularly frustrated with life or the booze ran out, my mother and I got the blame. Finally after waking up in the hospital alone from a bout with the old man as a result of trying to defend my mother, I decided to go it alone. My mother was a good person, and she loved me. She was lively and beautiful when she was young. But like the city she lived in, the grime and hardship of her life tended to disfigure her former glories until they were forgotten altogether.
“Besides, we don’t smoke.” Mu’adh continued.
“Don’t smoke?! You Americans are always looking for ways to extend your misery. ‘And Allah created you; then He will take you in death.’ Surat An Nahl ayat saba’aeen. Your fate is decided my young friend. You will go when Allah wills it, and no sooner.”
“Allah says, ‘…make not your own hands contribute to your destruction…’ Surah 2 verse 195.” Mu’adh retorted. “I prefer the fresh air.”
The professor chuckled. “Well then, you are in the wrong city!” He motioned to the café attendant and ordered mint tea, for three. Then he grabbed a nearby chair and sat down at an empty side of the square table like an old friend.
“Ah Chess, the game of kings.” He lit his cigarette. “You’ll pardon my hypocrisy won’t you?” he said gesturing with the Gitanes between the first two fingers of his right hand. The smoke was thick and didn’t necessarily compliment the sooq’s natural aroma of spices, cooked meat and coffee. I also noticed that Nasser seemed to exude the distinctive smell of bakhoor, not typical for a man dressed in western clothing. But I was always fond of the characteristic Arab aroma and temporarily dismissed any reservations I might have had about our unwanted guest in order to prolong the experience.
“Your move,” Mu’adh grumbled at me through his eyebrows, turning his attention away from our visitor.
The café attendant appeared and produced three small glasses of tea on palm sized saucers. Nasser gracefully took the tiny spoon lying on the side of the saucer in front of him and stirred his tea to dissolve the sugar crystals at the bottom. He reminded me of one of the models from an alcohol advertisement I had seen in one of my grandfather’s old Playboy magazines. His right hand casually dangled off the arm of the chair, palm up to avoid soiling his meticulous manicure with ash. He was wearing a dark blue, tailored suit, a white button down shirt that appeared newly laundered and no tie. His shoes looked brand new and expensive. A diamond studded Rolex graced his left wrist and from the looks of him I assumed it was authentic. His legs were crossed in the traditional Arab fashion, tight and uncomfortable looking so as not to display the sole of the foot. He sat cockeyed to the table, a picture of ailuric savoir faire.
“Rook takes queen’s bishop four.” He said as if he were Mu’adh’s opponent.
“Uh, excuse me but we’re kind of in the middle of a game. Do you mind?” Mu’adh was starting to get angry.
“Its’ alright.” I said, “That’s a good move. Thanks. Mister…”
“You may call me Professor Nasser, if you like.” Nasser replied.
“How bout we call you a cab, Professor?” Mu’adh said, flushed with irritation as much as his dark complexion would allow.
“Has your western upbringing driven all hospitality from your Arab spirit, ya akhoui?”
“No. But it did teach me not to talk to strangers. And I am not your brother.” Mu’adh was tense. I didn’t understand exactly why.
“Very well then. And what about you?” Nasser said, shifting his gaze to me. “Did your parents succeed in cultivating an affable nature in their son?” He looked at me intently as he sipped his tea.
“I would say they succeeded in cultivating a sense of caution. I have been trying to suppress it ever since.” Mu’adh rolled his eyes and sighed. Then he banged his hand on the table and the soap stone rivals jolted as if startled by the sudden tremor. He hastily steadied the pieces. “Are you going to move or not?” He said as he assured the previous state of play.
“I told you. Rook takes queen’s bishop.” I said.
“No, he told me. He is not playing. If you’re not either then let’s go find my dad and leave the professor to his tea and tobacco.” Mu’adh’s father was not in the sooq. He had passed away several years ago but that was our sign to each other that our situation was undesirable and we needed rescuing. I wasn’t sure I wanted rescuing at the moment. This guy was interesting, probably for all the wrong reasons. He acted like he knew us, or knew of us. I felt like he wanted something. He certainly didn’t seem to mind Mu’adh’s air of hostility. In fact for the last minute or so, he had been examining some papers he took from his jacket pocket and was suddenly treating us with disinterest like strangers on a bus stop bench.
“You have yet to answer my question.” Nasser said to me without looking up from his papers. “Are you a student at the University here in Cairo?”
I pretended a sturdier backbone but was apprehensive about giving away too much information, probably because of Mu’adh’s reaction to the man. Finally, as is usually the case in stories with unfortunate endings, curiosity bested the better part of caution and I could no longer resist opening this particular box, no matter who it belonged to. “Actually, yes we are.”
“Dude, do I have to kick you in the teeth to get your attention?! Let’s go!” Mu’adh was now on his feet, gathering his belongings and glaring at me as if I was hitting on one of his sisters.
“Relax man. I’m just being polite. Besides I don’t think the professor means any harm.” I replied, motioning for him to sit back down.
“Quite the contrary, in fact.” Nasser spoke up, returning his attention to the both of us. “I am professor emeritus of European History at the American University here and I have always had a passion for chess. I am scouting for students who may have an interest in joining a club I intend to form devoted to the game. Innocuous enough I think,” he stated taking a drag on his hypocrisy and looking at us out of the corner of his eyes.
“Yeah well, neither one of us is that good at it and I don’t like anything well enough to call it a passion unless it deals with the female form.” The statement was partly true. Mainly the part about the female form.
“Ah, the priorities of youth. I may be able to assist in that regard. There are a number of handsome women in the history program and I have already recruited a few of the more attractive specimens to participate in my undertaking.” His use of the word specimens imbued the statement with a disturbing quality. “For official recognition however, the administration requires that I obtain the agreement of at least twelve members of the student body to participate. At present I am two members shy of my quota. With the addition of the two of you, we shall meet the requirement, insha’Allah. There would be eight women and four men in the group. Those are decent enough odds I should think.”
Mu’adh stared at him in animus but I could tell his interest was piqued at the mention of the fairer sex. “How can you tell what the hell they look like if they are all wearing abayas?” He was fleshing out the possibilities.
“Most of the women in our program are Christians. The Muslim women have little need or interest in history, particularly that of the European variety. And the Christians are… Well, let’s just say their flowers bloom where they will.” An uncomfortable silence fell for a moment. Nasser cleared his throat.
“I might consider it,” I said attempting to quell the awkward hush in the conversation. “I am actually pretty good and I wouldn’t mind meeting some of the students in the other departments.”
“Jayyid jiddan,” Nasser said slapping one hand down on the arm of his chair. “We are meeting at 4:00 pm on the first Monday of class for tea, or coffee if you prefer, in the Tahrir Square Campus café. Introductions and discussion of the club’s charter will follow. I look forward to your participation.” With that Nasser stood, stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray at the empty table where he stole his seat and deposited a few qirsh coins next to our chess board for the tea. Then he bowed slightly with his hand on his chest. “You honor me with your hospitality, gentlemen, masha’Allah. Until we meet again. Ma’a as-salama.” Before either of us could make sense of the whole conversation Nasser disappeared into the crowded street.
“I feel like I’ve been groomed for this my entire adult life. By you! And now, everything that I am is in the balance and you patronize me with your idealism and chess?! You act like you’re not even involved! As if you were critiquing the decisions of characters in one of your historical narratives. I am losing my mind while you just sit here enjoying the luxuries of Beirut.” I leaned forward pounding my fists on the table. “You indolent bastard!”
“Do you have any idea what it’s like?! In those caves? Sleeping with the enemy?! Just waiting for the moment they find you out and cut your f’ing head off?! Have you ever seen it done? I mean up close. It’s surreal. The pointless struggling as shrouded men force you down and begin painstakingly drawing the blade across your throat again and again. These guys get off on it! Every stroke! Its like a drug. The metallic smell of blood and shit as they cut deeper and you lose control of your bowels. You piss yourself! Gurgling endless prayers for mercy and none comes. Just the jeers of those twisted shits asking if it hurts, screaming curses at you and telling you to hold still.” I put my head in my hands trying to shake away the memory.
“Then they get into it. A blood lust comes over them and they start working faster. Your eyes roll in the back of your head and in utter desperation you grope for the hand clutching your hair. Your only hope to keep breathing is to try and hold your skull in the right place while you choke on your own blood. Then the bastards start on the spine. Sawing and hacking between the vertebrae like you were a fish carcass. The blood is everywhere. Your jaw starts twitching and your body convulses in sickening jerks. Shock and pain rack your every member while they sever your spinal cord. Just fast enough for you to feel every minute of it! When their done they hold your head up, mocking you to your face while you cling to the last sliver of life with each muscle spasm. Then life fades from your eyes and all you have to look forward to is hell!”
“Very dramatic.” Nasser said between his lips while he lit another cigarette. Blowing the smoke up into the shade of the umbrella over the table, he reclined in his chair and dropped his forearms on the white plastic arm rests. “You’re scared. That’s understandable.” He pulled a bit of loose tobacco from his tongue.
“Scared?! I’m f’ing terrified! I can’t do this anymore. They know. Abu Hashim has never trusted me and he has the Amir’s complete confidence. He’s going to Islamabad next week and I think he’s going to tell him about what happened in Mazari Sharif!”
“That is out of your hands,” the professor replied sternly, lowering his tone. “You need to focus on what you can control. Why don’t you start with you voice. It is your move.” He focused his attention on the airline tickets lying on table in front of him.”
I took a deep breath, pulled the left corner of my keffiyeh loosely around my neck and starred at the boarding passes for Middle East Airlines flight 147. “King’s knight to f6.”
Weekly Writing Challenge: Dialogue | The Daily Post http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/09/16/writing-challenge-dialogue/