(Taba, Egypt. January 1992)
The man leaned down, coughed, cleared his throat with a rough scraping sound and spat a massive, grayish brown glob of phlegm right in the center of my passport. “Isra-eil people shit!” he shouted. That was Mohammed Abdel. He ran the drink and food stand on the Egyptian-Israeli border near Taba.
“But I’m not an Israeli! I pleaded softly and swallowed hard. “I didn’t do anything!” I was just me. Innocent. I just came here.
“You go Isra-el.” That was clear. It was the Israeli customs stamp from Ben Gurion Airport he had spat on. I had flown there from Istanbul. “That already something. Isra-el shit.” He dropped my passport in the dust and stomped on it several times then gave it a good kick. I stood in silence and watched. Was I supposed to be angry? Scared? Was this funny? Guido thought it was funny. Yes, Guido. A Swiss Guido.
“Why are you laughing now?” He had been laughing since I first met him.
“You are such an American,” he said. “I have never met anybody quite like you.”
“Then how do you know I am ‘such an American’?” I growled at him. “I didn’t do anything.”
“I know. That is so endearingly American as well. I didn’t do anything!” He imitated me and began laughing again.
“What do you like to drink?” Mohammed interrupted, his lung-oyster tired complete. He swirled his full body robe behind the plywood and aluminum bar out of the sun and wind and laid on a huge smile. His over-sized mouth bunched up around his eyes and his moustache disappeared into his nose. It was a genuine smile. He even batted his eyelashes.
I kicked my passport in frustration and ordered. “Fanta?” I answered and Guido laughed again.
There were no taxis from the border that day. They were on strike and I was stuck with these guys. It was mid-January and there was not another tourist or traveler in sight, just a fat, lazy camel, strings of empty hotels in the distance, and a small, filthy girl with blue eyes who brought drinks and food to the stand from somewhere out in the sand. Every time she passed, she asked me for money. Each time I said no, she told me to “fuck off”. She was not more than seven years old and I found her rather intimidating.
The buses were working though. A bus was indeed coming, but it wouldn’t arrive until seven or so in the evening. It was not quite eight in the morning when I crossed the border so I had a long wait ahead.
Guido had been with me at the border. At customs I showed the young guard that you could eat vitamin C – that is wasn’t drugs. He wasn’t any older than me, and until that moment had been all smiles. When I put the pull in my mouth and chewed it he backed away as if I were a ghost. From behind the bench he jerked a thick wooden truncheon and crashed it into the bottle in my hand. It splintered and tiny round pills filled the air. My knees trembled as he began screaming to his superiors as if he were a child and I a madman throttling his dearest teddy bear. His eyes were hollow and full of fright. I could only think: Midnight Express comes true.
Soldiers, police and customs agents filled the tiny cement and plywood shack that served as customs and passport check. Men, pistols and Kalashnikovs, flying sticks, badges, and moustaches. One rough-looking officer jerked my bag from the customs table and dumped its entire contents into the dust and began kicking them around. Another pointed some kind of rifle at me.
“Hey!” It was a feeble protest but I was frozen. “I didn’t do anything!” Behind me, a tall, lanky Euro-guy cracked up. He was the only other person crossing the border with me. “What’s so funny!?!? What’s so fucking funny?!?!
“They are tearing apart your baggage,” he answered and kept on with a full belly laugh.
“That’s not funny Goddammit!” But clearly I was wrong. By now, everyone seemed to be laughing. Suddenly there were no more guns, no truncheons, and everyone was looking down and picking through my gear.
“What’s so fucking funny!?!” I yelled at the Egyptians.
“You have so many…things! Why you bring so many things?” Asked a soldier. They were poking through my possessions now with curiosity. “Where you have…where you have…” the soldier stopped, leaned over and said something to a police officer in Arabic. They went back and forth for a minute then he looked at me and continued “where you have kitchen sink?” They all laughed.
“What this?” asked a policeman.
“First aid kit.”
“Extra underwear. My mom said…”
“You are panties smuggler?” the roughest looking officer asked, and they all laughed.
“Shit.” Actually, that was funny. It was a two-way breathing mask for mouth-to mouth resuscitation; the gift of a paranoid mother. The plastic tube allowed you to blow air into the injured person without actually touching them. “Nothing.”
“More vitamins.” I had enough of these to choke the Budweiser Clydesdale Team. At this they got serious.
“No, no, no….”Then the men proceeded to gather up all my vitamins, including the individual vitamin C tablets that were scattered all over the room, empty each bottle into a huge, clear plastic bad and take them away. There was chattering in Arabic and more laughing from the back room and it somehow felt good to know that I was the source of someone’s amusement. They younger border guard who had initially screamed, gather all my things into a neat pile, folded my clothes and proceeded to very politely re-pack my bag.
“They will talk about you for years,” said the European. I gave him a seriously dirty look, grabbed my bad and walked away.
In the afternoon, Mohammed, Guido, and I sat out in the brain-searing sun admiring the camel against the backdrop of cement and glass hotels. It was round and fat and slow. It seemed quite a healthy animal and we talked about it for a long time. The girl had spat at me on the last pass and missed. I spat back – and missed. Mohammed insisted that she liked me. “Right,” I said.
“A game of chess?” Guido offered. He had stopped laughing with the heat. “I hate the heat,” he told us. Mohammed said the only cure for the heat was coffee and so after our fifth or sixth Fanta, and a couple of hours of animated discussion about Israel’s right to exist and a fat camel, we began drinking coffee. By then it was the afternoon. Wasn’t there any water around here? “Yes, sure, sure,” Mohammed announced and pointed to the Gulf of Aqaba. Then he burst into laughter. Guido and I chortled weakly.
We wanted water.
We dragged a flimsy card table out in the dust and fixed an old red parasol next to it for shade. Decades of cars, and centuries of feet and hooves had trampled the ground around us to a fine powder. There was not a single piece of vegetation within 100 years and every short breath of putrid, chrome-melting air blowing out of the Sinai added another layer of dust to us. If we hadn’t moved, we would have been completely covered in days.
Guido was quick to beat both of us in chess; slaughtering us actually, in a matter of minutes. Mohammed and I spent the next hour in competition, each trying painfully not to gain the title of “the worst chess player in Taba.” Then we all sat in silence and watched the camel again. It didn’t move. It just stared back at us. The little girl came again. “Fuck you,” she said. She wasn’t carrying anything anymore and not asking for money. She existed just to insult me and, frankly, she was scaring the hell out of me.
So I decided to drink beer.
“The problem is,” Guido began suddenly after we had polished off a few rounds. “You Americans think that you are individuals. In fact, you are not and that is why you cannot understand that someone might hate you for being an American.”
“But I am not my government and I am not a corporation,” I protested. It was the most intelligent thing I could get out of my contracting, water-starved brain.
“But you support American government and business guys,” Mohammed joined in. “You support American government and American businessmen and you buy what is stolen from other countries.”
He sat back triumphantly, having made his point.
“I just live my life.”
“And you just living your life deeply affects people in other parts of the world and you don’t realize that. You cannot even comprehend such things. So, you get attacked and think…but I didn’t do anything, why do they hate me?” Guido was clear. “You Americans are so out-of-touch. One day, something very bad is going to happen to your country and you won’t understand why.”
“It is because of what you do do,” Mohammed added firmly and folded his arm triumpantly.
“My gut is going to fall out if I don’t get water in my body. I need some water.” I changed the subject and again we fell to silence, watching the camel as if it were a television. My eyes crossed, my head hurt, and then I passed out.
Just after six o’clock a beaten-up bus flew through the dust, squealing to a halt just inches from our table. I lurched onto the ground. There was yelling, bumping, and scurrying about. The table fell over and the parasol blew under the bus and snapped with a bang. Then Guido was gone. So was the bus. It dragged the parasol a couple dozen yards and then spat it out. It lay, spinning slowly in the road.
“You pay me.”
“You pay me…” I can’t recall what Mohammed demanded but I gave him a pocket full of Israeli shekels and a few Egyptian pounds. He seemed satisfied and disappeared into the shade of the hutch. I looked around. Shit.
“Was that the bus?”
“That was the bus.”
Shit. “When is the next one?”
There was no answer. I pulled myself out of the dust and held my head. I had my first and worst sugar-caffeine-alcohol hangover of my life and it was killing me. I staggered around for a few minutes and tried to spit on the camel.
Eventually, I gathered my passport from the dust where it had laid most of the day, slung my bag over my shoulder, and threw Mohammed a few extra coins. He said nothing, sitting silently as if a sage, staring deep into the reflection of the sunset glaring from one of the hotels.
I walked south along the coast road for the next three days, living on the water and snacks the taxi drivers brought me.
This story origionally appeared in Hyenas Laughed at Me and Now I Know Why: The Best of Travel Humor and Misadventure (Travelers’ Tales Guides.)
published in 2003 by Travelers Tales.