(selected scenes from Compass Stories, a nine-story manuscript)

Cairo, 1990 - 1994

Steve Street

At the muulid of Sayyidna Hussein, grandson of the Prophet, a boy danced with a five-foot bamboo stick. He was serious about it, deliberate and vigorous, winding the stick behind his neck, along his arms, down his side, hooking a foot over it, holding it above his head as he jumped. Four belled flutes and a drum made the music, a simple tune and beat with endless variations on a climbing, winding theme. "We have heard this music in Paradise," wrote the thirteenth-century Sufi poet Rumi about music that must have been similar."Although the water and clay of our bodies have cast doubt over us, something of this music drifts back into our memory.”

A dense crowd of men watched the boy dance, somber and attentive. Some sat on wooden chairs and others stood, all of them relaxed but intent, very still. The edge of the oblong clearing their feet made was even. Nobody smoked. It was about 10 o'clock at night, the street lit by white fluorescent tube lights from nearby shops and a few fruit-vendors’ gas lamps that glowed yellow on the cobblestones. Between tunes, you could hear the gas lamps hiss.

"It's like the Middle Ages, isn’t it?” whispered one tourist to another as a group of them left.

“Not exactly,” said a voice, accented but clear, at the speaker’s elbow, but when he looked down all the men still had their eyes on the dancer, still watching so intently the tourist thought he’d imagined it.

Away from the lit spot the street narrowed between high stone walls and branched into other streets. The tourists walked forever before they saw something they recognized, but for some reason they weren't really worried.


A Texan named Roger used to tell an anecdote to other xawaagas, or foreigners, in his Arabic class. The term, by the way, has comic, contemptuous, and/or fond overtones, depending on who's defining it, and depending on which definition applies, the term can be poetic, in poetry's own definition of a convergence between sound and sense, because the initial consonant sound is made by rattling air against the back of the throat, like preparing to spit.

Anyway, Roger's story took place at a conference he attended in a Northern city back home. His job involved commerce and the computer industry, and the conference organizers had underestimated attendance, so the hall was mobbed with over-excited people talking at cross-purposes. Finally he met a man with the host company, somebody Roger might have liked to establish contact with for future trading and whom he at least wanted to treat graciously in his present role as guest. But the man had a fairly severe facial disfigurement, some tic or snarled lip that must have been the first thing to get past in his dealings with other people, and Roger, in all empathy, was having a hard time acting naturally.

"My name’s Mawk," the man said.

"Nice to meet you, Mark!” Between regional pronunciation differences and the impediment Roger guessed, shaking the extended hand and offering his own name.

The man¹s face tightened. "Mawk," he said. "Not Mawk, Mawk."

Roger reddened. "I'm sorry, Mike. Mike?"

"Mawk. Mawk!"

"Mawk. I'm so sorry. Mawk." He echoed as best he could, beginning to sweat. The guy¹s eyes were popping, blazing.

"No! No! No! Mawk! Mawk! Mawk! What's the matter with you?"

Finally Roger looked down at where the guy's hand was twitching at his lapel to see his fingernail tapping a plastic-coated name tag, which Roger, in his effort to look the guy straight in the eye, had been avoiding. MORK, it said.

"Like the TV show. Easy to wemembow, supposedly."

Every time he told it Roger laughed, and so did the others in his class, because learning Arabic seemed so similar. Except that in this particular jam-packed conference center everyone else was talking like Mork, which of course makes the impediment theirs.


Overheard on the patio of the Marriot Hotel in Zamalek, from a table of four ladies lunching:

"I always load my dishwasher to the right. Always. I load to the right."

"I have very little wall space, Mother. Just think of all those cabinets I have."

"And no flooring to do. The workmen must have been in and out, for just those few feet in the hallway."

"Oh, they were. they were. They finished that same morning"

"That parquet of mine would have taken forever."

"Ever since the first dishwasher I ever used, in that house on Brainard Street, remember? Always to the right."

"Why to the right?"

Meantime, at a saint's day festival across town, soldiers were using their belts like whips for crowd control, lashing out to keep people moving, a technique that doesn¹t entirely work: before the festival was over, several were trampled to death. It gets worse every year, people say.

"I just do. That's just me. But my new one is made to be loaded to the left!"


The guy from the Embassy looked like a man determined to relax. He was the only one at the party in a tie, its knot halfway down his chest, and he perched on the back of the couch with one penny loafer dangling, the other planted on the floor. His haunch was as solid as a full sack of flour, and his beefy fingers made his highball glass look like a toy that he rotated idly, looking around. That afternoon a minister had been shot in a street in Abbassiyya, and everyone was talking about that. A drunk jostled his elbow.

"So what's the word, officially? Is it all going to blow?"

The Embassy guy glanced at him the way he might at a fly near his dessert.

"These things happen," he said. "Life goes on."

"Yeah, but will this government go on? The people who grant us our visas — will they?"

"The country will go on. The infrastructure and the systems here are basically in place. I don't foresee any great disruption. These guys aren't going to —" the Embassy guy ran his free hand over his face. " Look. I've been on the phone all day with this. Do you mind if we change the subject? You're not a reporter, are you?"

The drunk laughed and raised a large brown bottle he'd been dangling by his leg. On its oval yellow label the printing was in both Roman lettering and Arabic script. He extended the neck. "Beer?"

The Embassy guy looked into his own glass and downed what was left. "Why not? I think they¹re out of gin already. Thanks. What do you do here?"

"I¹m sorry," said the drunk. "Less than five miles away a guy gets shot from a motorbike and you want to make small talk. What other subject is there right now? I've been here five years, and I still can't get used to it. Every time it's the same. You hear the news and it's like everything you know is erased, like one of those tablets where you draw with a bare nib on a plastic sheet, and it's impressed underneath on a kind of carbon copy — you know? Then you —" he pantomimed lifting the sheet away from the tablet — "poof! everything's gone, you start over."

"Etch-a-Sketch?" said the Embassy guy, rubbing his face again.

"No, that¹s the one with the knobs, I think. This is a — anyway, my point is that every time something like this happens I question all my assumptions from the ground up. Self, country, God, no God, the whole bit. I mean, I¹m looking for answers I haven't worried about since I was a kid. In other words, terror works! Doesn't it?"

He had a shaky, pleading sort of laughter, and the Embassy guy didn't laugh with him. The drunk¹s face was pasty, his movements exaggerated and out of sync: even just standing there, he twitched like a marionette. In fact, he might have been more sick than drunk.

"You should think about going home, buddy. And I mean HOME home."

"Can't stand the heat, I know. But it's not the heat, it's the morbidity."

This time his laugh was a bark, with no pleading but something like triumph in it.

The Embassy guy looked at him. "Let me tell you something. In these cultures, it's not the rule of law that holds things together so much. Take a building like this one, for example. Dogs in the lobby, plaster falling off the walls, light bulbs out — it looks like a tenement on the Lower East Side, doesn't it? Except no spray paint. Then you go in a home like this one and it's like the inside of a crystal, the way the apartment's kept." He gestured across the room, which was indeed elegant. Beside the door a woman with a jet-black pony tail and earrings like chandeliers was greeting newcomers. "Nobody makes them do it, either. They do it because they want to, because they know what's steady and good. Same thing with the culture as a whole. Assassinations, corruption, even wars can come and go. When the dust settles, there they are, same as ever. I'm frankly admirous."

The drunk blinked. "'Admirous'?"

The Embassy guy leaned toward him, spreading his arms expansively: his navy blazer gapped open like a cape.

"Things are not as iffy as they look, my friend. That's all I'm trying to say to you. It's like the difference between scaffolding on a building and a truss that's an integral part of the architecture. Which lasts longer?"

"Not the scaffolding, I suppose."


The Embassy guy stood up, looking refreshed.

"Talk about admirous," the drunk said, "that's the way to make an analogy, too. Crisp and clear. Cut and dry, make your point. None of this —" he pantomimed his own previous pantomime with the tablet. "None of this groping, fumbling around. Make it all fit. Neat. Easy. Nice."

The Embassy guy was surveying the party over the drunk's head. "I just saw somebody I've got to talk to," he said, though who that might be wasn't immediately apparent. "But I want you to consider what I said about going back. Maybe it's time for you."

"Maybe." The drunk gave him a little salute.

"Meantime, take it easy. Everything's fine. Bottom line, we pump billions of dollars of aid in this place, and both sides know it. Every side does." The Embassy guy seemed briefly troubled, then broke into a luminous smile. He pointed with two parallel fingers, the large thumbs straight up, as he moved off backwards, loafers shuffling on the parquet floor. "Just keep a low profile, my friend. And avoid large crowds!"


Say you¹re a xawaaga, a foreigner, and you come home some evening during Ramadan, just after the canon shot from the Citadel has echoed across the city. In the lobby of your building you interrupt your bawaab, FatHi, breaking his fast with a plate of seasoned beans, scooping them up with a piece torn from gritty flat bread. On the stone floor with him are soldiers from their posts outside your building and embassies, banks, and elsewhere in the neighborhood where xawaagas live: seven or eight young guys with bad teeth and bruised faces who wear black uniforms that don¹t match or fit, one or two still in dirty summer whites, one in a white coat with black pants and another the opposite, gappy boots crumpling around their ankles. Russian-made rifles (Raskolnikovs, you always think, so far are they from any reality you¹ve ever had to know; they¹re rumored to be unloaded, though other rumors have them going off, inadvertently shooting pedestrians or the guards themselves in the foot, as that story usually goes) lie around like dropped toothpicks. At the moment, the lobby¹s free of dogs.

As soon as the men become aware of you their faces light up, and they lower their food from their mouths and indicate their plates, spreading palms like leather on either side of the stacked metal pails in which their food¹s been brought to them.

"ItFAddal," they chorus, meaning, Here, have some. Share my food.

You don¹t, of course, but the next time an opportunity arises for some return gesture, some small indication of generosity or goodwill, even if not toward FatHi in particular or the soldiers outside your door, you make it. Say it's the guy who sells bread in the souk, or the date seller there. Say you offer him a cigarette.

He might accept it. Or he might decline with thanks and appreciation by holding a hand to his heart, wrist to breast, fingers flat or curled in a loose fist. Or, if your own gesture has surprised and moved him, he¹ll lean toward you suddenly, intently, smiling faintly, and with an index finger touch first one cheekbone, then another, meaning, "I'd give you my eyes," which have become moist.

Nor do you take them, of course.

Steve Street's

. . . short fiction has appeared in The Missouri Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Exquisite Corpse, The Quarterly, and elsewhere; an essay is in William Heye's 9/11 anthology American Writers Respond. He has taught writing and literature at over a dozen colleges and universities, including at the American University of Cairo during and after the first Gulf War. Now teaches writing and literature at three SUNY campuses in Western New York. He is IPR's fiction co-editor.