It was dawn, tepid, starless. The sky above Cairo was a bloody gob of spit. We’d gotten into a scrap on the street over some nonsense. For example, who should have the last gulp of whiskey from the last bottle. I’d raised that bottle out of the plastic bag to my mouth when Sanders muttered something. A moment later, I head-butted the pavement.
He was on top of me at once. He knelt on my chest, his sweat-soaked shirt touching my skin. He began beating my head against the asphalt in a measured beat. Blood flowed from my mouth. I became fucking nervous. With my free hand, I reached toward my pocket. I was looking for the knife so I could stab the scumbag. It was a reflex action, but I might have thought about it first: I myself had left the knife on the table earlier, so that if anything happened outside, the cops wouldn’t find it on me.
In post-revolution Egypt, it didn’t take much to be locked up without charge. One switchblade was quite enough.
All I achieved by digging through my pocket was that my loose change scattered about.
Sanders didn’t let up. His eyes were bloodshot. I was certain he would kill me. My head banged on the pavement five times before I managed to kick him off me. He flew four meters, smashing against the side of a nearby kiosk with a loud thud.
He sprang to his feet immediately. I stood up, too. He tried knocking me to the ground again, but this time I was ready. I stepped out in front of him, hooked a foot between his legs, and planted a fist, hard, on the nape of his neck.
I should kill him, I thought, turning after him. Why can’t he fucking hold his liquor?
The evening began when he called me, saying he wanted to celebrate. His contract had been extended. It was now beyond a doubt that he would remain the foreign affairs editor.
“You’ll have some work out of this for a while, too,” he said, and I murmured acquiescently.
We agreed to meet in Zamalek, at Deals.
We’d gotten through a few long weeks. I’d reported from Khan Yunis, in the Gaza Strip, on the bombings, and he took over after two weeks. We each saw lots of shit.
At first, I didn’t want to go anywhere. It would be best not to blow all the money I’d earned. But then I saw online that Rebecca had gone out partying. She’d dropped off the kid at someone’s place.
It’s not good if you’re a man, and alone, when others are fucking your kid’s mother. I got on my leather jacket and left. I took a cab all the way down the Corniche, along the Nile. The wind was hot; my shirt stuck immediately to my skin. After we drove over the 6th October Bridge, I had the cab stop in front of the American bookstore and went from there on foot to the bar, where Sanders was waiting.
It was an American-style sports bar, with big screens on the walls. An Arab guy in a white shirt was standing out front. When I told him that someone was waiting for me inside, he let me in.
Sanders was sitting right by the entrance, at a round table. Before him were four daiquiris in goblets, and he was picking out the little orange parasols. He meticulously closed each of them and lined them up beside the ashtray.
“So, what’s up, motherfucker?” he said, on seeing me.
I sat down beside him, downed one of the daiquiris, and lit a cigarette.
“You came back through the tunnel, right?” Sanders asked.
“Lucky fuckin’ devil.”
“I’m simply better than you, dog.”
He, too, downed a daiquiri, and then raised the next glass. I did the same.
“Those pictures of that school hit by a rocket weren’t shit, I’ll say.”
During the Israeli offensive, a rocket had struck a school in Gaza. The whole building caved in, all the cars out front burned to a crisp, and the flames even bent the jungle gyms in the school playground. There were spots of blood and abandoned toys all over the pavement. Hamas hadn’t let anyone leave the building. It was a horrible sight.
“Whose dead dog was that in the picture?
“Cool. Readers love that sort of thing.”
“Nothing shows the horrors of the conflict more than a dead little dog.”
“It’s not I who said that, but the editor-in-chief.”
“That woman is a stupid moron.”
“Yeah, she doesn’t get fucked like she should.”
“Well, you’re the section chief, so it would be your responsibility.”
“I don’t fuck hairy women.”
We fell silent. Sanders ordered four more daiquiris. I thought of the editor-in-chief. I’d seen her just once. She was a short, black-haired, Lebanese Christian chick, with thick black knots of hair on her hands.
The waiter emerged with the new daiquiris, put them one by one on the table, and brought a bowl of popcorn, too. Sanders stuffed his face with popcorn, picked the parasols out of the goblets, lined them up yet again, and said, “We are the emperors of existence.”
“We are indeed.”
“We’ve got lives of gold.”
“But seriously now. We make more money than we could possibly fucking blow in this city.”
“You can fucking blow anything.”
“Sure, if you buy a TV, a car, or something like that. But we don’t buy things like that.”
“We sure don’t.”
“That’s what I’m saying. We’re the emperors of existence.”
We each downed another drink.
“Tonight we’ll celebrate, Dan, my boy. We’ll let off some steam.”
“We’ve worked our asses off.”
“Yeah. Will we go out to Ma’adi?”
“We can go, but first we’ll drop by at Kim’s, since she’s having a party in our honor.”
“When are we leaving?”
“We should wait for someone. This character named Elih, from New York. A Jewish kid who came to save the world.”
We downed one more round of drinks before the guy arrived. He spoke on and on about how much he respected us. He held an entire little presentation about what an important thing war reporting is. Once he finished, he paid the whole bill.
Kim was Sanders’s Asian woman, from Washington, DC. She was one lovely little gal, short, with a good figure and almond-shaped eyes. She worked at American Relief. According to Sanders, she fucked as if everything was happening for the last time ever. She really wanted to be chummy with me. She thought I was Sanders’s only close friend.
Before the three of us—Sanders, Elih, and I—headed over to Kim’s party, we stopped in at Drinkies, on 26th July Street, and bought two bottles of Auld Stag whisky. The clerk put the liquor in black plastic bags. Right in front of the store, we began taking swigs from one of the bottles. Auld Stag is the only whisky in Egypt certain not to make you go blind. It tastes like paint thinner.
We’d had half the bottle by the time we got to Kim’s rented flat. Elih got drunk in no time, and his New York Jewish pride burst forth. He began to sing, loudly, “Hevenu shalom Aleichem,” or something of the sort. Sanders and I looked at each other.
“He’s your fellow countryman,” I said, “so you tell him.”
It seemed there wouldn’t be a problem, that he’d stop on his own, but we were wrong. After every swig of liquor came more Jewish songs, including the Israeli national anthem. Finally Sanders stopped and took the bottle from the kid’s hand.
“Listen here, for fuck’s sake, you finish this motherfucking fast.”
“Are you two anti-Semitic?”
“No, for fuck’s sake, we just want to stay alive.”
“No, for fuck’s sake, we’re in Cairo. They don’t like Jews around here. I’m Jewish, too. And him, he’s Hungarian. That’s almost the same.”
“Self-hating Jews,” said Elih, and he sang no more.
The woman lived on the top floor of a tower bloc, in a huge apartment with the other American Relief staff. We were in the most important part of Zamalek. The building had a concierge in a uniform and service cap, who allowed us to proceed to the elevators’ brass doors.
In the elevator Sanders grinned at me. “We’re the emperors of existence,” he said. Elih leaned up against the wall. A drunken sweat had soaked through his shirt, and he was deathly pale. As soon as we reached the top floor, we heard the sounds of the party. Soul music filtered out from behind a thick walnut door. Sanders led the way. Inside, some thirty people were chatting away in one large space, glasses in their hands. Kim, in a backless evening dress, headed toward us with a big smile.
“Hey, baby,” said Sanders, planting two kisses on her face.
“How’s your dad?”
“He’s well. Strong as an ox. Bearing the chemo.”
“Danny. I’m happy you came.”
“I’m happy you invited me.”
I turned around. Elih was nowhere to be seen. I looked around the room and caught sight of him sitting on one of the gray couches, his head on his knees.
“Can I have everyone’s attention for a moment?” Kim called out.
“I’d like you to be extra nice to these two gentlemen. They just got back from the Gaza Strip. And just today, David Sanders was named foreign affairs editor of the Egypt Independent.”
Several people applauded.
“You see?” said Sanders, turning to me with a grin. “Like I said, we’re the emperors of existence. Come on, let’s go chew on a bit of khat.”
We went back to the balcony, where a kilo of green khat leaves was lying on a white plastic table. Yemeni dealers home-delivered them to Zamalek. Five people were sitting around the table. Americans. Each one had a stuffed cheek.
Sanders stepped over and grabbed a big handful of leaves. He turned to me, pressed a helping into my hand, and crammed the rest into his cheek. He went off to get two glasses, which we filled with whisky as chasers.
“I’ve got to go chew the fat with Kim,” he grumbled. “Stay here meanwhile.”
I sat down in one of the chairs and chewed away at the khat. My saliva got unbearably sour, so I watered it down with whisky.
“Hello,” said a woman next to me. She smiled.
She was around twenty, with short hair and buck teeth.
“So you’re the war correspondent.”
“I’d like to do that, too.”
“You could give me a couple of tips.”
“No, I’d give you my number.”
We fell silent.
“I’m called Alba, and in my final year at the American University here in Cairo, majoring in Middle East politics.”
She reached out her hand.
She laughed politely. She looked me over. I was certain that if I wanted, I could fuck her.
“I love this song,” she said. “Don’t you want to dance?”
It was Adele’s rendition of the Cure’s “Lovesong.” I could feel the khat taking effect.
“I need to go to the bathroom,” I said, and stood up. I need to throw up whenever I hear any version of this song.
I fought my way through the crowd. The bathroom was enormous, with a Jacuzzi and a life-sized mirror. I spit all the khat into the toilet and stood before the mirror. My pupils had become as narrow as could be, and I was bathing in sweat.
I imagined that, just then, someone was screwing my kid’s mother. I could see the dude’s mug right in front of me.
“We’re the emperors of existence,” I said. With full force I punched the tile wall. My fist tore open; blood flowed.
I got back out to see Sanders in a shoving match with a big black guy.
“I don’t give a shit who you are, for fuck’s sake, but you can’t talk that way with Kim.”
I understood everything. Making my way slowly around them, I looked for an empty beer bottle, smashed it against the wall, and stepped up beside Sanders.
“Think twice about what you’re doing,” I told the guy. A smug grin came over Sanders’s face.
“And who are you?”
“I’m no one. The question is, who he is.”
“I don’t care who he is.”
“But you’d do well to care.”
“And why’s that?”
“Because it doesn’t fucking matter to him.”
“So you won’t stop, either, until he’s on the ground and bleeding.”
“Think twice about what you’ve got to lose, though, because he doesn’t have a thing in the whole world. Besides, it’s two of us on you.”
“Cut it out, all of you,” said Kim. “Stop it and go away.”
Her tears had smeared her makeup.
“Let’s get going,” I told Sanders, and began pulling him out of the crowd. He didn’t resist.
“What the fuck was that?” I asked in the elevator.
“Kim got on my case again about us moving together and building a relationship.”
“People get bored of each other and die.”
“Ah. What about Elih? We left him up there.”
“Fuck him. Let’s go to Ma’adi.”
“We’re the emperors of existence.”
“That, we are.”
We went all the way down 26th July Street and, meanwhile, opened the second bottle of whisky. Sanders mumbled something and was on top of me already.
I should kill him, I thought, and leapt after him. He was just standing back up. I planted a fist in his face, full force. He fell back to the ground.
“Die!” I shouted, hitting his head.
“This is for not holding your liquor.”
“This is for the fucking bombed-out school.”
“This is for my kid being on his own.”
“This is for the fucking work we do.”
Blood poured from his nose, and his eyebrows tore open.
“Give up, for fuck’s sake, ’cause I’ll kill you.”
He didn’t give up. That’s the type of guy he was: not the sort to surrender as long as he had a working bone in his body. He reached for my head. I punched him again, full force, at which he broke out laughing. Hysterical laughing drowned out increasingly by a choking cough that echoed through the street. I, too, began to laugh.
“My father died,” he said, taking out a handkerchief and dabbing his face.
Excerpted from The Most Beautiful Night of the Soul: More Stories from the Middle East and Beyond (forthcoming, January 2019, New Europe Books)