Hey kids, I appreciate the outpouring of sympathy, but remember, this blog has two contributors. Bob Harris is actually the one who got singled out by overzealolus airport security personnel. (His entries are always identified as such at the top of the post.) I am also travelling--hence some of the confusion, I suspect--but I've been on a bus riding through New Mexico and Colorado with John Sayles and Steve Earle and Darryl Hannah and a bunch of other people, helping to promote John's wonderful new film, Silver City. (We're in Denver tonight, at the Paramount, and I believe there may still be a few tickets available.)
The following pales compared to Guantanamo on the Hudson, below. Not comparing, not remotely. Just adding, sharing my own delightful recent experience while attempting to get on a Delta flight entering the United States:
First, routine: did you pack your own bags? Have they been in your possession the whole time? And did anyone give anything to you?
Normal so far. Then, with God and perhaps 100 other passengers in line as my witness:
Where did you stay on your trip, sir? What hotels? Do you have receipts to prove it? We'll have to see those.
Where did you purchase your ticket? How did you pay for it? Can you prove that?
Where did you stay in Istanbul, sir? Which hotel? How many days? Can you show us a receipt to prove it? Can you show us all the receipts you have?
Furious, intimidated, embarrassed, unsure. Feigning calm. On my knees in the ticket line, going through my bags, trying to remain cooperative while being forced to produce documentation no one else was asked for, and which I had no way of knowing I might need.
The line stops, grumbles, and is re-routed around me.
No explanation as to why I alone am pulled from the line.
Red sticker affixed to my passport.
At security checkpoint, my backpack opened and inspected thoroughly, item-by-item. My camera bag opened and inspected thoroughly, item-by-item.
At the gate, quiet hostility. A criminal suspect. My backpack opened and inspected thoroughly, again, twice more, item-by-item.
My camera bag opened and inspected thoroughly, again, twice more, item-by-item.
My camera equipment taken, with no promise of return. I watch as a security employee simply walks away with my things.
My passport and ticket taken and withheld.
Still no explanation of why this is happening, or why I'm the only one selected for such scrutiny. Polite, soft-voiced inquiries presented with a well-tended smile and a patient tone are met with increasing hostility.
Segregated from the rest of the passengers for 45 minutes. During this time, I am in a position to watch perhaps a half-dozen gates. Not one other passenger is receiving this treatment on any other flight that I can see.
Taken to a special examination room. Thorough body search, front and back.
No bombs in my testicles, we all learn. I am relieved.
Moments before the doors close, and a full hour after it was clear that I was clean, I am given back my passport and belongings and allowed to proceed to the United States.
I am also blithely told by Delta representatives, with no sense of irony, to "enjoy my flight."
Other passengers, having noticed the proceedings, react to my presence on the plane with a mixture of sympathy... and fear.
One particular bottle-blonde married to a square-headed pink man who snores watches me suspiciously for almost ten straight hours. Her grandchildren will no doubt grow weary of hearing about her thrilling bare escape from death at my hands.
I still have no explanation. Your guess is as good as mine. Probably better. Did I look like someone? Did I pack too lightly, frightening them with my small backpack? Was it simply that I had visited two Muslim countries? Or was it something else?
I do not know. And I do not know how to know.
I am in Los Angeles now. I am in the United States.
But I am not home.
UPDATE: Two full business days later. The promised explanation from Delta has not materialized. I am twitching with shock.
Thanks for the many, many emails of support which have streamed in. And apparently, judging from your own stories, I was mistaken: this is America, at least lately, if you're trying to enter the country while not of obvious northern European descent.
The unusual thing here may only be that it happened to a white guy.
...or, Guantanamo on the Hudson, part two. Here's the first hand account:
On Tuesday the 31st my friend Sarah and I were on our way home from vacation.† We were driving right through New York City and were listening to news on the radio about the protesters at the Republican National Convention.† We wanted to stop and bear witness to the protests.† We wanted to add two to their numbers, if only for a few moments, as we each had to be at work on Wednesday.† We drove to town, parked the car in a garage and rode the subway downtown.† We had heard that there was to be a rally in Union Square Park from 5-7pm.† It was published information and it never occurred to us that we would be participating in anything illegal.
We arrived at Union Square around 5pm and didn't see anything particularly organized.† There were lots of people milling about with signs, costumes, and leaflets.† There were lots of police surrounding the park.† It felt a little bit like a stew simmering: everyone was waiting for someone to do something illegal.† The protesters wanted the cops to infringe on their rights, and the cops were waiting for the protesters to become violent.† We milled about for a bit, took some pictures.† Then we headed a few blocks downtown to meander through the streets of the village.† I work at a used bookstore and wanted to visit The Strand.† After a few hours of sightseeing, we thought, before dinner let's see if we can find this rally again. It was almost 7pm and the rally was scheduled from 5-7pm.† We again saw no signs of an organized rally, but after a few minutes a band started playing and swaying and then walked away from the park.† People followed them and we followed to see where they were going.† It never occurred to us that we were participating in anything illegal.
We crossed Union Square East and then turned into 16th St.† There were people walking in the streets, but I made a point of always staying on the sidewalk.† We were following a bunch of people.† A line of police closed off the intersection at Union Square East and 16th St.† Some people took off running for Irving St to get out of that block, but we stayed on the sidewalk and didn't run.† We didn't want to look like we might be doing something wrong. It never occurred to us that we were participating in anything illegal.
Soon a line of police closed off the other intersection at Irving and 16th, trapping us on 16th St.† We didn't get on the street, we didn't climb onto anything to see what was happening, we didn't yell, we didn't attempt to run, we didn't appear violent in any way.† There were probably 100 of us together there on the south side of 16th St, I think that the police had trapped other bubbles of people on the north side and farther up and down the sidewalk.† We saw the police roll out a yellow net, a mesh bolt of fabric that they unrolled and used to push us into a tight group.† At one point a policeman yelled at us violently and angrily that we had brought this upon ourselves.† He was walking past us on the sidewalk and he yelled and screamed; and this was the moment when I became seriously afraid.† I was standing closer to the street, not pressed against the walls of the buildings, and I was afraid that he would grab me and hurt me: I was very scared.† The police never gave us an opportunity to move, to disperse, they never told us that we were about to be arrested, and they never said a word, besides this one officer who scared the shit out of me.† It never occurred to me that this would happen.† I didn't know that we had participated in anything illegal.
Eventually the police pressed us tightly together into a group. And then they kept pressing.† They grabbed instruments from the band members and threw them into the road.† Then they grabbed the band members, the group held onto them, but the police pulled these individuals away and tossed them into the road.† The police were pressing us and pulling individuals who were on the perimeter away.† People were shouting to the police: "Tell us what to do and we'll do it" and instructing us to hold onto the individuals the police were grabbing: "Don't let them take them away."† I was on the perimeter of the group and I was scared that they would grab me next.† I was standing right next to a street sign, there was a bicycle tied to the sign and it had fallen, and I was standing on the bicycle; every time the police pressed us I grabbed on to the sign and Sarah grabbed on to me, and I prayed that I wouldn't fall and break an ankle on the bicycle.† I was scared like I have never been before.† I was carrying a bag and yelled at Sarah to get her ID out and gave her some money, and someone else passed around a Sharpie and we wrote the number for the National Lawyers Guild on our arms.† This was when I really knew that we were in trouble, even though it had never occurred to me that I had done anything illegal.
†The cops pressed and we held onto each other, they pulled people out of the group and took them away somewhere.† The cops looked like they didn't know what to do and I certainly didn't know what to do.† Eventually they had us sit down.† When we sat they started handcuffing us.† Before they got to me, I snuck my cell phone out and left a message for my sister "I think Sarah and I are about to be arrested, if we get separated we are going to call you to find each other, leave your phone on and stay near it." That was the last call I would make for 28 hours.† I wouldn't be released for 49 hours.
†Know Your Rights
I have never done anything illegal in my life. No illegal drugs, no underage drinking, I don't even smoke cigarettes. I had complete faith in the legal system of this country. I never thought that I would be arrested, much less arrested without any explanation.† I had no idea what my rights were as a citizen under arrest.
†I now know that I have the right to hand out leaflets, rally on a sidewalk, set up a moving picket line, and wear costumes.† I cannot block any building entrances or have more than 3 people wearing masks (including bandanas).† I need a permit to march in the street, rally in a park with more than 20 people, or use electronic amplification.† I do not have the right to resist a search (although I can say that I do not consent to the search).† I am not entitled to a phone call while being detained, and there is no limit to how long they can hold me.
†The police were instructed to lie to us, to pacify us, to tell us that they would move us soon, "It will only be a little longer." Some police were honest and said they didn't know what was going on, while others took out their hostility on us, blaming us for "clogging the system" and lecturing us about how we deserved what we got.† There were instances of sexism and verbal abuse.† We were held in numerous cells and we were often reshuffled with people from other cells, a tactic I believe was purposeful to help discourage solidarity.
†Many police, I think unfamiliar with the plastic, zip-tie-like handcuffs put them on too tight inflicting much damage and pain.† I saw people with bruises and swelling, one person had surely endured nerve damage and possibly a broken wrist.† One person had just had shoulder surgery and her request to be handcuffed in front was ignored, hours/days later she was sent to the hospital in a sling.†† Fortunately I was only in handcuffs for four hours the first night, and the next day for three hours as they transported me again.† My cuffs were undeniably too tight, but I suffered no bruising.
We sat handcuffed on the sidewalk for over three hours while the police figured out what to do with us.† We were denied food, water, the opportunity to use the restroom, or our cell phones.† Finally we were transported (in a city bus) to Pier 57, a holding area.
†I was held for 14 hours in Pier 57, also called "Guantanamo on the Hudson," a warehouse previously used by the MTA as an automobile garage.† The conditions were appalling.† There were numerous cages built out of wire fence and razor wire.† The concrete floor was filthy, covered with oil residue, soot and chemicals, there were in fact still signs posted around the facility warning of the chemicals.† People experienced rashes, chemical burns, asthma attacks and head to toe filth.† Some chose to stand or sit against the fence all night, but I was so exhausted I lay right on the ground and was caked and covered in filth.
†We were initially held in a large cage while our arresting officer filled out paperwork and had our property "safeguarded."(They took our property in exchange for a pink voucher slip that once released we could present with ID to have the property returned.)† There were about 600 of us in that first cage.† There were four Porta-Johns that we could wait in an hour-long line to use.† There was water near the Porta-Johns, so I would've had to wait in line again just for water (to drink only, they would not let us wash our hands).† We were given an apple.† Later I was moved to a smaller female only cage, about 20x40, there were almost 100 of us.† Two Porta-Johns were accessible in the cage, as was a waterspout, though paper cups were hard to come by.† In this cage I was given a bag with two sandwiches: white bread with government cheese.† Fourteen hours with one apple and two crappy sandwiches.
I read that Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said the air quality at Pier 57 had been tested and determined safe, and that the average stay in Pier 57 was 90 minutes, with 8 hours as the longest (I was there 14).† I also heard that the day after we were held in Pier 57 they laid carpet in the cages, covering up something.
Wednesday morning around noon my name was called, and I was moved to a different smaller cage in preparation for being transported to Central Booking.† (Fortunately Sarah's name was also called and we traveled there together, once we arrived we were separated and I didn‚t see her again until we were released.)†† We waited in this smaller cage almost an hour for a vehicle to become available, and then were handcuffed for the short ride that took over an hour.
Arriving at Central Booking we were again searched and I spent time in three cells before I was fingerprinted around 8pm.† I was held in two cells and in hallways finally arriving where I would spend the night around 11pm.† It was here that we were able to use the phone, or at least some of us were able to use the phone before the guards grew tired and refused to respond to any more phone requests.† There were about 27 of us in this cell.† Here we were given soap and toilet paper for the first time, and those women who were on their periods were given appropriate products.† There was not enough room for us to all lie down, some chose to remain sitting on the bench, I curled as best I could on the floor in the space available.† We were denied blankets and the police refused to close the windows.† Every two hours they would come in and sweep the cell making us all stand or sit with our feet raised.† Every few hours they would wake us up again bringing food, white bread sandwiches (can you believe they had soy meat as an option), milk cartons, rotten apples, peaches, and once I had an orange that tasted like heaven.
†I stayed in this cell the longest; my name was not called until around noon Thursday when we were told that we were about to get our mug shots.† They pulled five of us (from various cells) into the hall and chained us together (the usual way of moving around Central Booking).† The NYPD were then going to put us back in a cell, when the Corrections Department insisted that we not be chained and locked in a cell at the same time.† We were unchained and locked up in a small cell right next to the one I had just left.† An officer told us he would be back in 15-30 minutes to take us downstairs for mug shots (an hour and a half later he did in fact apologize for not being able to come get us when he said he would).
†Mug shots and waiting in various halls took two hours and then a new group of us were taken to another cell.† This time I waited over three hours before my name was called and I was transported to a new cell, this time to see an attorney.† From there it took another two hours until I stood in front of the judge and was released.† It was 8:30pm Thursday night, I had been put in handcuffs on the sidewalk of 16th St. at 7:30pm Tuesday night.
It was an anti-climactic moment.† The judge said I was free, the attorney nodded kindly to me and I turned around in the courtroom.† I didn't even know which way was out.† I walked past a few people sitting waiting for friends, out a set of double doors, into a hall where lots of people were milling about.† I found a representative from the National Lawyers Guild and gave her my name telling her I had been released (earlier from a call inside the prison we had each given our names and any complaints).† I wandered outside, crossed the street and found our supporters.† All throughout the previous night we could hear people on the street chanting for our release and letting out whoops and hollers every few minutes, they were a blessing for those of us inside.† They boosted our morale and we chose to believe that every whoop and holler meant someone else was released.† I kept waiting for the whoops and hollers that would be mine.† By the time I was released, 8:30pm, a lot of our supporters had dwindled, but they were still there with food and water and hugs.† One person I had befriended while inside rushed over to me and gave me a huge hug.
†The next step was property pickup.† Sarah and I had set that place as our meeting place and rather than find a pay phone and call my sister to see if she was out I thought I‚d get over to property pickup as fast as I could.† The police had given us a sheet with directions when I got my property voucher but the route they described had been barricaded.† I got pretty lost before I ended up at a trailer on the side of the road with a makeshift line formed out of police barricades and entirely surrounded by police.† Sarah wasn't there although a lot of people said they had seen her back in jail and they thought she was on her way out soon.† One person was so concerned that I find Sarah she offered to hold my spot in line so I could walk back to the courthouse to look for her.† And that's where Sarah was, wandering around shaky and lost, teary and spent.† There was no way she could have made her way to property pickup.† I thank that women for enabling me to go find her.
We waited together in line at property pickup for two hours.† At one point barricaded in place, surrounded by police and waiting, I commented that it didn't feel all that different being free.† I was able to get my bag, but my camera is being held as arrest evidence so I need to go to the DA's office and get a release before I can get it back.† I expect that on Tuesday, after the holiday, I will drive to NY and wait again in interminable lines both at the DA's office and then at the Property Clerk's Office.† I witnessed people who were unable to get their stuff back.† One person had initially refused to give her name so her property was checked under Jane Doe, but her release had her name aka Jane Doe. The police officers said since she couldn't show ID with the name Jane Doe on it she couldn't have her stuff.† There was a lawyer with her, but I don't think she was able to get it.† Another person had lost her wallet right before being arrested; in fact she had only been in NYC for thirty minutes before she was arrested, so she had no ID.† I knew of another person who's ID was in her car, but her car keys were in her bag, I don't know what became of her property.
It was almost midnight when we made it back to the garage where I had parked the car (fortunately in a garage and not towed, ticketed or broken into).† The garage was in a hotel where many delegates were staying.† It was a surreal experience walking amongst them, smelly, dirty, hungry, without having slept in two nights. We got more than a few unpleasant glances.† I then drove the two hours home to Philly where we were welcomed with banners, signs, flowers and balloons from our roommates.
I have been amazed at what the news has been saying about those of us arrested.† I hear that there were 1200 arrests in four hours on Tuesday, over 1900 arrests all week, the most for any political protest.
†I feel that many of us in jail were not protesters; there were a lot of innocent bystanders swept up in the arrest nets.† There were people on their way home from work, people heading out for dinner, and people like us.† At the same time there were also people who expected to be arrested, people who were staging acts of civil disobedience, performing sit-ins or refusing to move when requested.† A lot of people were warned by the police that they were about to be arrested, and a lot of us were given no chance at all.
†I have read articles that said that no one requested medical attention.† In every cell I was in someone requested medical attention.† At Pier 57, people were experiencing rashes, chemical burns, asthma and other possibly chemically induced conditions, people repeatedly requested medical attention, frequently even chanting for it, and I never saw anyone at Pier 57 receive any type of medical attention.† Once we were at Central Booking a few people were sent to a medic.† I personally saw a person suffering from a migraine and another with a kidney infection taken to a medic.† I heard of a person who had massive bruising and injuries from the police and the handcuffs taken to medics.† Sarah takes medication twice a day and had missed four doses, she saw a doctor who wanted her to go to the hospital.† We had been told that people who went to the hospital waited in the Emergency Room to be seen in order of severity and then came back to Central Booking to pick off waiting where they had left.† Sarah did not want to add 12 or so hours to her waiting time and she refused to go to the hospital.
I read a few editorials that said that the protesters were violent and deserved to be locked up.† While I was in New York City, I saw no violence on the part of the protesters, but instead plenty of violence and violent behavior from the police.
†The police have said that they were prepared for 1000 arrests each day of the convention, and they also said that they delay in processing us was because we clogged the system.† Both cannot be true.†
Wednesday, from prison, we heard from the National Lawyers Guild (someone would always call them when we had a chance to get to a phone) that there was an order to have us released by midnight.† We heard that the NYPD stalled and at an appeals court on Thursday the State Supreme Court ruled that everyone held over 24 hours be released by 5pm, and that for each person held longer the city would be fined $1000.† (I personally wasn't released until 8:30pm.)† Here are some articles to that effect.
Guantanamo on the Hudson
Some people in one of my cells at Pier 57 still had a cell phone and they called Democracy Now, this is a transcript of their talks.† Most of them were arrested where I was on 16th St and most weren‚t even protesting.
Guantanamo On the Hudson: Detained RNC Protesters Describe Prison Conditions
I believe that we were held until the convention was over.
I believe that that the mass arrests were a tactic to discourage any protesting.† There are people who are full-time direct action activists, but when the level of commitment is raised from one afternoon of protesting to three days of work lost, people are likely to be scared away.† I know that I personally am unlikely to attend any protest that is not legally permitted and well organized.† At the same time I feel that my arrest and subsequent detaining have encouraged me to become even more aware of politics, my rights and any possible influence I might have over issues that concern me.† I plan to monitor non-mainstream news sources daily to stay alert and aware.
J. was released after 49 hours in custody - charged with disorderly conduct.† She had been walking down the sidewalk when the police closed in on everyone in that general vicinity, pressing them against walls and parking meters and screaming at them.† Some of the others standing around ran away as the police approached, but because J. and S. weren't doing anything wrong, they didn't think running was necessary.† The only time she even raised her voice was in the pressing when she yelled out "just tell us what you want, just tell us what you want."† There was a group of musicians (this was right next to a small park where musicians frequently gather) that had begun to play together, and their instruments were ruined - Jaie said the musicians were treated the worst in the scuffle.
The reports I have read said that there were no injuries.† J. knew of several people who were hospitalized from bruises, cuts and handcuffs that were so tight that the wrists were cut, swollen and the concern of nerve damage.† With a phone within sight, they were denied access to it for over thirty hours.† Open toilet only, with no paper products, a sizeable percentage of the women in their periods.† Moved over and over again from cell to cell, mixing them up to keep them from any comfort in a familiar face.† 27 in one cell and told to stand up every two hours for floor sweeping.† J. estimates approximately 1 hour of sleep during this time, constantly being yelled at by the police.† S. missed four dosages of anti-convulsion medication that she constantly was denied.
They still have her digital camera, with photos documenting much of this. They kept all the cameras from these people who traveled great distances and were told that to get them back they have to return to NYC at some future date and go to the DA.† What chance is there that it still contains the images she caught?††† The plan was to sleep all day today and then write.† Knowing that she could write all this down helped J. get through the abuse, constantly taking mental note of exactly what was happening and how long things were taking.
Quick note now that I've settled here in Cairo for a bit...
The day I left Istanbul, I realized that if the Aegean coast felt a bit like California, then Istanbul felt like the San Francisco of the mideast. You've got hills and density and a history as a trading post and a whole bunch of other similarities. (Although since Istanbul has been around in various forms roughly ten times longer, perhaps I should reverse the phrasing.)
With that in mind, Cairo feels a lot more like New York, in almost every way I can think of. That'll have to do as a shorthand description for the moment.
Basic tourism first. Got up at 4:45 am to go watch the pyramids turn colors as the sun rose against them. (Of the Seven : five down now, two to go.)
The taxi driver, Tarik, knew a good spot to pull the car over on a fairly deserted freeway overpass, then bribed a nearby cop so we could hang out for an hour. To pass the time while we watched, he regaled me with stories of people he has driven around town, even showing me their business cards.
One of them was from Judith Miller of the New York Times. Hand to God.
I told Tarik that she was the one who repeated Ahmed Chalabi's falsehoods about Iraq, helping to start the war. Interestingly, he wasn't particularly aghast or even surprised. Guy lives in Egypt. Knows a thing or two about reporters who won't question certain things if it's good for them.
Even more enjoyable than the pyramid sunrise: the frenzied race to get inside one. The tourism officials have a limit on how many wide-bodied yokels like me they allow to go careening around the innards. Tarik thinks it's about 150 for the whole morning. So the minute I get a good picture, Tarik's 1973 Mercedes (again, hand to God -- or Allah, I should say) is rocketing toward the entrance, weaving between black-belching buses, melon-lugging horses, and shin-risking pedestrians. I go back and forth between giggling and just closing my eyes to wait for something to go squish.
Next thing I know, it's 7:50 am, and we're in line for the 8 am-opening of the entrance to the pyramids. When the flag goes up, every vehicle will jockey for position to get to the parking and ticket booths in the moments before the 150 get-you-inside tickets are gone, after which the losers will by left to walk around, gawk, and wait for the next batch on offer.
Tarik gets out and examines the competition already ahead of us. 6 buses, 4 private cars, and 3 minivans. I'm not hopeful. Tarik just grins. "You watch. I am super driver."
Seconds later, we're zigzagging across a dusty hillside, the Nixon-era Mercedes heaving and groaning but handling each sudden jolt of speed and G-force. Buses and minivans surrender one by one to Tarik's berserk genius. "Fuck you, bitch!" he says victoriously, in English, laughing, as one last bus of hopefuls concedes to his slashing rear fender.
And sure enough, we're suddenly parked. Ten feet from the ticket counter. Tarik takes the checkered flag. Now I'm running -- running! because Tarik says I must, and the frenzy is exhilarating -- toward the oldest crypt in the world, the race completely obscuring the singularity of the climb I'm about to make.
To wit, as it happens: bend over into a four-foot passageway. Climb, climb, climb, climb. Occasional places to stand up, or a ladder to tackle. Climb climb. Anticipate. Climb. Anticipate. Climb anticipate anticipate... aha!!! ...
Pretty much an empty room.
Cool, though. Standing in a pyramid. Damn.
Aussie guy behind me, Melbourne, construction trade, completely freaked out by the sheer gigantor rockage -- perfect garage-sized rectangles of ancient stone, somehow fitted together so tightly to appear as one. "We didn't make these, mate," he says. Over and over. To me, to his wife, to some Japanese people sweating in deep thought, to the air. "We didn't make these, mate."
Climb climb climb down...
Rest of the day just as stunning, little time, not sure you're interested, and reluctant to be so precious as to think every detail worth recounting. Still...
Noon, blazing sun.
Tarik has dropped me in Coptic Cairo, an agglutination of old churches, mosques, synagogues, you name it. Decaying and holy as hell, serious worshippers punctuated by a few waddling map-wielders gasping for air and leaving a snail-trail of sunscreen. I'm in full-on Icon Overload, buried for the moment in the same vault as somebody or other who knew somebody who knew somebody who knew Jesus. The blur means it's time to go away until I can come back actually knowing which particular religion it is I'm incuriously hobnobbing.
So I walk, looking for a Metro station. Seems close on the map. And I walk. And walk. Wrong turn somewhere becoming obvious. Walk. Pretty soon, the Egyptian sun joins me for the stroll, emphasizing how not-in-a-Metro I am.
There's a Metro station on the map. And I'm sure that all the people in that two-dimensional fantasy world are having a marvelous time riding on it. But me, I'm walking. Starting to understand why someone here would eventually consider the sun a god, with the power over life and death. Hell yes.
Neighborhood's getting worse, too. Warm smiles not so much now. More a series of increasingly unpleasant glares. Could just be the heat. But I've been in enough cities to feel a potential bad situation. Time to turn around.
Duck in a corner. Map. Where the hell. Shit. Maybe I can ask that guy selling fruit. He looks OK...
Suddenly, a little boy, smiling up at me. Maybe 7 years old. He says something in high-pitched Arabic. Three of his friends instantly appear. Older, T-shirts and jeans, 10 years old, maybe 11. Arabic this and that, all at once, looking at the map, my bag, my shoes, the color of my eyes. Tourists very clearly do not walk here much. I'm saying (in fluent Tourist) "Salaam" and "Ana ma takallam Arabaya" and mostly the world "Metro."
The second-tallest one is evidently becoming the ringleader. Showy if still-squeaky bravado, but still with hesitancy, testing the role out. I like him. He points to what might be where I need to be. Or, well, not.
We take about five steps before a brief confrontation with one of the scariest, most powerful beings on the planet: a parent. Sizing me up, not the boys. Which tells me louder than any words that I can trust these kids. Finally he smiles, nods. Brief handshake. Nice.
With dad's permission, off we go. Marching through a part of town I am certain you will never read about in Frommer's. Third world stuff. Crumbling walls. Troubling aromas. As many vehicles with as many feet as wheels. But the boys are cheery. "Esme Bob," I tell them. "Esmac?" Mohammed, Hamid, Mahmoud, another Mohammed. The five of us duck and dodge our way through a street full of Tariks driving various levels of horsepower.
Increasingly silent sign language from curious boys, heard loudly even over the midday call to prayer: "I'm ten. How old are you?" "Forty." (This surprises people in the mideast, where I seem to look younger than that. But then, almost everyone here smokes.) "What's the white gunk on your arms?" "Sunscreen. My skin burns bad." "Do you like football?" "You kidding? I love football." I add to this, out loud, my favorite team: Arsenal. This is followed by the kids reciting the names of many Arsenal players -- I guess they get the English Premier League in Egypt -- followed by a group evaluation of their relative merit. Mostly we grin and emulate soccer moves.
More questions. "What country are you from?" A quick look around the neighborhood; saying "America" right now doesn't seem like a good idea. With crosses and crescents made by hand: "Are you a Muslim? Or a Christian?" Religion and politics: awkward at a dinner table; bad when completely lost in a mildly dodgy part of an unfamiliar third world city.
Fortunately, crumbling debris intervenes, in the form of an abandoned Roman aquaduct, broken long ago to make way for the road. I gasp at its impressive slendor! and pull the digital camera from my bag.
Subject hereby changed.
The taller of the two Mohammeds is particularly fascinated by the small display screen. Soon, they call to another friend -- one I am later informed by pantomime that they don't particularly like, partly because he smokes -- and the five boys and I are all posing for pictures in front of the broken aquaduct, laughing at the faces we make.
And so that was the afternoon for a while. Walk walk walk. I buy them soft drinks from a man standing silently in a small unventilated room facing the road. "Do you smoke?" says a young hand. "La la la la la" I say, frowning, feeling a need to be a good role model in thanks to a father's trust of a sweaty, confused stranger.
Twenty minutes -- maybe half an hour, I dunno -- the Metro. The ringleader is pleased, as if his position in the group is just a tiny bit more confirmed. We shake hands. With the others, a few high fives, a couple of last football evaluations. I shukran and masalaam them, quite sincerely, suddenly wishing to have remained lost a little longer. And then I turn and enter the station, waving goodbye.
The smaller Mohammed -- the first boy, the one who approached when I was mapping and ducking -- sneaks through the turnstyle and enthusiastically instructs me about how to cross the tracks and operate the exit. I feign relief at the further assistance. Now, fully satisfied with my delivery, he ducks back under the turnstyle and disappears, catching up with the others.
I climb the pedestrian overpass (which, fortunately, I have just learned how to operate in the nick of time) and watch the boys go home. Through that neighborhood.
I wonder what their homes look like. I am afraid that I already know.
And I am happy and sad for this day, more than what feels right now like my poor Tourist English can express. But if I was telling you this while walking with you on a street somewhere, my hand would be over my heart.
I took a picture today that I will frame and keep on my wall.