Giza, Egypt
Monday, January 8, 2007
Sometime before the afternoon call to prayer


        Upon exiting the bank, Dr. Mustafa Mahmud Korany—a.k.a. the Cerebellum—
pauses for a moment. Tucked under his arm is a portfolio that contains what remains of his life savings. He has just closed the CD and cleaned out his account. The sum did not exceed fifteen thousand pounds by much, and all the time he had thought he was well off. From behind eyeglasses that cover half his face, he scans the area with nervous glances. Al-Tahrir Street flows in its usual turbulence, under the gaze of dull gray buildings sprinkled with the signs of doctors’ offices and a variety of businesses. In the middle of the road, people walk in their thousands and vehicles spar like chariots in a Roman coliseum. Snatches of a Nancy Agram song emanate from one of the shops. Hundreds of eyes intersect with his, redoubling his fears, almost driving him out of his mind. How is he to distinguish between an inquisitive youth and a scout for a criminal gang? How can he tell if that person in the café, observing him from behind his newspaper, is a
plainclothes policeman or an agent for the CIA? One thing is for sure: danger lurks in every corner. It aims weapons at him from the rooftops. It is ready to pounce on him from behind tinted car windows.
        Right now, his only wish is that the minutes or hours that separate him from his rendezvous with the most beautiful woman in the universe would elapse quickly. If only he could shut his eyes and reopen them to find himself back in his hideout in Cairo’s underworld. He absolutely needs to get away from the official city, to get back to his
room on the roof of a crooked house, in a slum whose name he doesn’t even know. His one desire is to get back into the arms of candygirl.
        His body suddenly jolts forward. A shove from behind has thrown him a few steps ahead. He looks back in terror. Facing him is an elderly gentleman wearing a tarboosh. The Cerebellum’s slender body shudders beneath his jacket, which is several sizes too large. He makes an effort to contain his anger. The man just stares calmly back. The serenity in his face dissipates the Cerebellum’s rage, without the man needing to utter a word of apology. The Cerebellum quickly forces himself to focus on the danger that is growing by the second. He heads for the Dokki intersection, leaving the old man behind.
        He walks as fast as he can, looking back every few steps. He bumps into a fat woman, who shouts in his face. With a distracted mumble of apology, he dashes ahead. He catches sight of his speeding body mirrored in the shop windows. Scrutinizing the reflections in the glass, he tries to ascertain if he’s being followed, but only sees people coming and going in customary gloom. Rounds of confrontation separated by moments of apathy: how better to sum up the everyday lives of Egyptians?
        Suddenly he freezes.
        He had already caught a glimpse of it among the displayed shoes in a shop he just passed, but now the image of the gallows is crystal clear, floating over there among women’s Islamic dresses. The nightmare that has surrounded him throughout the Eid holiday is now following him in the streets, peering at him from the shop windows. He had spent the holidays gargling like a just-slaughtered sheep. The hangman’s noose felt tighter around his own neck than it probably felt to the defeated dictator. The holiday elapsed at a snail’s pace, like a nightmare. But, like all crises, it passed. So today, the Cerebellum has hit the streets, eager to accomplish his desperate scheme. The plan of
his final escape is to sever whatever remaining links bind him to the official world, to drop under the American radar forever.
        Motionless on the sidewalk, peering at Islamic costumes in a shop window, he refuses to curse his bad luck. Years ago, he came to accept that the moment he agreed to link his fate to that of a butcher called Saddam Hussein, he had staked his future in a game of Russian roulette. But his anger today is directed inward. Why has he allowed
hope to trickle into his soul? How could he have passively watched as a sense of stability built up incrementally over the past few months? Who had given someone like him the right to fall in love, to become emotionally involved with the likes of candygirl? When will he stop being so naive?
        He fooled himself when he thought his life could ever regain the normality he had yearned for. Rats like him hide in their holes out of fear, not to cozily enjoy their stability.
        Will he never learn?
        He toys with the ivory dice he carries in his trouser pocket. Chance controls everything. The law of probability governs the universe. One throw of the dice took Saddam from the palace to the grave. The Cerebellum acknowledges that he never felt the slightest compassion for the Iraqi despot. He was not even sorry to see him hang from the gallows. The man deserved no better fate. But this is not about Saddam the
person. When mountains collapse the world loses its constants. He pictures scenes from movies about prehistoric times: angry volcanoes blow up the mountains, earthquakes shake the plains, the earth opens up to swallow mighty dinosaurs as they stampede in panic. A mass extinction, as the scientists like to describe it. Could this be what the
Arabs are facing today . . . the onset of a mass extinction?
        The aroma of frying falafel hits him. If he were a normal person, he would get himself a couple of sandwiches, one fuul and one falafel, with maybe some pickles and eggplant stuffed with garlic paste on the side. But he is a scientist on the run, one of the pillars of the defunct Iraqi nuclear program. He possesses forbidden knowledge, the kind
that condemns its owner to sexual violation at Abu Ghraib, or silent assassination anywhere else in the world. But now he must control his runaway imagination and leave the vicinity of the bank as quickly as possible. The bank, after all, is his last point of contact with official Egypt, his last station along the road of government documents and
international information networks, the last location he can be traced to. As quickly as he can, he must plunge into the Cairo underworld and merge with the masses before some Mossad agent can catch up with him.
        The Cerebellum starts to hurry away, but once again he freezes. The same man who had pushed him at the bank’s entrance is now blocking his way. He is an elderly man with a radiant face, smiling now, beautiful in a way that is difficult to define. A crimson tarboosh decorates his head, brand new as if just out of the factory.
        “Ah, my good man . . . you were just on my mind.” The man speaks through a toothless mouth.
        Surprise ties the Cerebellum’s tongue. Why does the man address him like an old friend, though he’s quite sure he’s never set eyes on his face before? And why did he make no allusion to the fact that they had just met in front of the bank, and that he had pushed him with neither excuse nor apology? And, most importantly, why is he following him?
        What is really perplexing him is that the old man’s reflection did not appear in the shop window. He is quite sure of that, because he carefully studied the mirror image of the street behind him to see if he was being shadowed. Fear starts to seep into the Cerebellum’s heart. He does not respond to the man’s comments, but tightens his grip around his valise. After all, it holds all that is left of his life savings.
        “You remember the ten dinars you loaned me on the seventh of March, 1955?” The man speaks in a quiet voice, low-pitched but crystal clear.
        “At exactly 10:20 p.m.,” the old man goes on, when the Cerebellum—out of sheer amazement—does not respond. Then he produces a worn leather purse from his pocket and counts out ten shimmering gold coins.
        One by one, he drops them into the Cerebellum’s breast pocket.
        “There you go . . . now we’re even, my friend.”
        The man is wearing an elegant brown suit, a silk shirt, and a striped tie. His shoes are brown and white in the fashion of an old Abdel Wahhab movie. The Cerebellum is certain that he has never loaned this man money. He has never even met him until today. But what blows his mind is that the date the man mentioned is the very day he was born. In fact, his mother—God rest her soul—told him he was born at night, a little after ten.
        “Stay in touch.” The old man turns around and, with surprising agility, speeds away.
        The Cerebellum has no idea how much ten gold guineas—or dinars, as the man called them—are worth. But he has no doubt they would fetch a fortune. The old man must have made a mistake. Well, at least he is not a pickpocket or a gang boss. He certainly presents no threat. Despite the Cerebellum’s dire financial straits, he has no doubt that he must give the man back his coins. He follows, shouting:
        “Hajji . . . one moment, please.”
        Rather than stopping, the man doubles his pace. Maybe he’s hard of hearing and can’t hear the Cerebellum’s call. But where did he get this amazing stamina?
        The Cerebellum is surprised by the enormous effort he is forced to make in order to catch up with the man. He pauses for a split second at the Metro exit. He has the opportunity to disappear into the bowels of the earth, this very instant, to shake off any possible surveillance. It is definitely in his best interest to go down the dusty stairs. His personal security dictates it. He’d be wise to put this madman behind him and hold on to the coins. Who knows, they may turn out to be worth something after all.
        But he simply cannot get himself to do it. All his life, he has never acted dishonorably and he is not about to give up his principles. He is determined to return the dinars to their rightful owner, come what may. Yes, come what may. Before resuming his trot behind the man, like a schoolboy, he takes a last glance at the Metro exit.
        Abruptly, the old man changes direction and turns left into a side street. The Cerebellum follows, but when he reaches the corner, there is no trace of the man . . . he is gone, like a pinch of salt disappearing in soup.
        The Cerebellum looks around. Then he decides to search behind a closed cigarette kiosk. From behind the kiosk, he thinks he has caught a glimpse of the man walking into a nearby building. He heads toward it and penetrates the darkness of the foyer. After the bright sunlight in the street, the building’s darkness makes him squint. He waits for his eyes to get accustomed to the dark. The sudden transformation has confounded all his senses.