Excerpt from Confessions of a Knight Errant
By Gretchen McCullough
We had fled Cairo to Malta from the people who must remain unnamed, two years before: Kharalombos and me, his wife, my face covered with a black veil, a complete niqab. Of course, if Yasser Arafat could escape the Israelis across the Jordan River in 1967 fully veiled, disguised as a mother carrying a baby, why not me? Hiding out in Malta, I made wax knights at the Knights Templar Museum and enjoyed giving tours with factual tidbits to curious British tourists—a refreshing change from duties on tenure committees. Meanwhile, Kharalombos coached Spanish dancers, who preened and lunged in Who’s Got Talent tango Contests. I was a rogue professor wanted by Interpol; Kharalombos was wanted by the Egyptians for a problem too sensitive to be named. Even though we had rooms in a pension, with balconies overlooking a shimmery Mediterranean, and feasted on fried squid and red mullet almost every day, I still worried a SWAT team armed with assault weapons could burst through the doors at any time.
But now, we had sneaked back into Cairo to find Kharalombos’s son. My novel had been erased by the publishing conglomerate, Zadorf. In a hurry to get out of town, I had dropped my flash drive down an elevator shaft. The very last hard copy of my novel nestled underneath my bed in my old flat in Garden City—I had to find it, or else risk certain obscurity. This time around, I was disguised as a tourist in a loud Hawaiian shirt, wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses and a Howard Cosell-type toupee. Clad in a white suit, with a panama hat perched on his head, Kharalombos resembled a British colonial. I expected the police to appear with handcuffs the moment we got off the plane—straight into the box. My new identity: a vacuum-cleaner salesman from Ames, Iowa, who was going on a once-in-a-lifetime Nile cruise, a bonus for selling beyond quota; Kharalombos was a Greek olive farmer.
We sailed through the airport all the way to customs. Flashing on the arrival sign: Budapest, Cancelled. London, Cancelled. Munich, Cancelled. Moscow, Cancelled.
Only one officer manned the series of booths, immaculate in his black wool winter uniform. He was buttoned up to the collar. When he saw us gaping at the arrival monitor, he gestured to us, “Come in. Come in. You are jumping into the fire!”
Kharalombos asked, “Is it really that atrocious?” I could see he was tempted to lapse into Arabic.
Yawning, the officer cleaned his ear with a pen. Why didn’t he answer? Then he mimicked the American saying, “Have a nice day!” He stamped the passports, without the usual bureaucratic sense of conviction.
A rail-thin Pakistani, who looked like a student from Al-Azhar, stood next to us at the baggage claim, but avoided eye contact. He clutched a huge Quran, the cover decorated with gold. Did he think we were suspicious?
Our bags came in five minutes—unheard-of in the history of Cairo airport.
Grabbing my tiny suitcase, full of costume props, off the belt, I said, “Kharalombos, are you sure Happy City Tours will pick us up?”
“There have been demonstrations,” Kharalombos said, heaving his monstrous suitcase. “Didn’t you see the monitor at the Valletta airport?”
True, we had watched the Al-Jazeera video at the Valletta airport. But there were frequent demonstrations in Cairo over the years, all of which had fizzled out, or been squashed. Egyptian citizens raised banners, festooned in Arabic handwriting: “Justice Now!” They chanted: “Bread. Dignity. Freedom. Social Justice!” The image of yet another young man who had been tortured to death in a police station flashed on the screen: his face was disfigured beyond recognition.
We had dragged our bags through the Cairo airport, and exited the hall. The parking lot was completely deserted, except for a few cars. Only one streetlight gleamed; otherwise, it was a forbidding black—four o’clock in the morning. Usually the place was mobbed with relatives, hasslers, and enterprising entrepreneurs. Tour guides who intoned strange-sounding names as they raised their makeshift signs high. But this evening there were no drivers with signs. No Happy City Tours, either. And even the fleet of battered, black-and-white taxis that usually lined up to harass the weary traveler had disappeared. Where were they all?
Kharalombos pulled out his mobile phone. “I’ll call my uncle.” His uncle was a psychiatrist at the mental hospital, where I had been sent two years before. Kharalombos was my sane, colorful roommate—he was simply hiding in the hospital from the people who must remain unnamed. We had become fast friends and had teamed up to escape the authorities.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“No line,” he said.
“Maybe there’s something wrong with your phone?” I asked. “You need another SIM card.”
“No,” Kharalombos said. “That’s not the problem.”
He sauntered over to the exit doors, where a policeman stood puffing on a cigarette.
“You’ll blow your disguise!” I hissed.
But Kharalombos was unconcerned and ignored me.
He lumbered back to where I was standing. “The government cut the networks. There’s a curfew.”
I should have stayed in Valletta. Why had I let Kharalombos talk me into returning to Cairo? For the sake of a little adventure, I was going to be arrested for a crime I hadn’t committed! I was no Julian Assange. One could understand, though, why Kharalombos would take such a risk to see his new son, Nunu. But was my novel worth ninety-nine years in jail, or even dying? Did I fancy myself the next John Kennedy O’Toole? Or maybe I was more like a dunce. I brushed this disturbing thought out of my mind, like a horsefly, before it had time to bite.
“The policeman said the demonstration against the BIG MAN and HIS MEN has become violent,” Kharalombos said. “Anyone who disobeys the curfew will be shot.”