Screeching halts. We’ve all been there. Let’s say you’re on the road driving down the highway. The scenery is beautiful. You’re really enjoying the moment, so much so that you shift your car into cruise control to allow yourself more freedom. There are police cruisers along the highway. You note them as you pass by. But you’re still legally within the speed limits so you keep going. Little by little you push your foot down on the pedal and the car begins to accelerate. You push past the limit. Suddenly the throughway ends and you find yourself at a traffic light with three choices: green, yellow and red. The yellow light switches to red. You can either CONTINUE, PROCEED WITH CAUTION, OR STOP to obey the current instruction.
I found myself facing this same traffic light at the tail end of my teaching duty in Cairo, Egypt. Not a real one, of course, but one with every bit the same choices and consequences.
I met Ihab at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas in the winter of 1992. Because of his excellent leadership and language skills, his country selected him to receive advanced teacher training in the Instructor Development Section (IDS) at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) where I taught. A Lieutenant, Ihab was one of the three Egyptian officers sent on the six-month training program. Toward the end of his time, I was promoted to IDS. Before throwing me into the classroom, I had to observe various classes at this level. You got it! I visited the class Ihab was studying. He kept the class in stitches!
Six to eight months later, DLI selected me as part of a four-member teaching team sent to Egypt. The teacher whose class I observed asked me to deliver three letters, one to each of her former students. I found out after carrying out this important mission, the letters curried favor for me with these three officers. The first was newly-married. The second, quite wealthy. The third, clumsy, but incredibly funny. Of course, the third officer was Ihab. I delighted in our friendship.
The Commandant of the Military Of Defense Language Institute (MODLI) in Cairo unwittingly opened the door for me to spend more time with Ihab. I was studying French under the Commandant’s instruction. Nobody else on our teaching team had any interest in the class so I took taxis to get to the class at night. But, the Commandant did not like this arrangement. So he appointed Ihab as my “official driver.” Ihab taught an English class in the building on those evening. He was also a favorite of the Commandant. I did not know at first that he gave Ihab explicit instructions to drive me straight home; Ihab kept that from me.
Instead, we drove out to nice restaurants and ate late-night dinners after class. I remember laughing all the time. Occasionally, we walked along the Nile, and took the winding staircase down to the river boats and drank tea as the boat gently rocked on the water. Other times, we rode a faluka, a traditional Egyptian sailboat, along the Nile in Cairo. Our friendship blossomed. I didn’t know then that I was falling in love. But I was. How could I not be when the moonlight was so magical and the laughter so spontaneous?
We walked along ancient pathways an sat on the same Nile River mentioned in the Bible. He held my hand and caught me when I tripped in the darkness. He was teaching me Arabic. I was an excellent student, he said. Like others in our same situation, we both forgot that the perfect nights of moonlight on ships with names like Alpha Leila Wi Leila, A Thousand and One Nights, would ever end.
I’m not sure why Ihab kept the General’s orders secret from me. Perhaps he was trying take care of me and shouldering the responsibility of our relationship at the same time. He knew that he had to be extremely careful. Maybe the Commandant’s order for him to serve as my driver gave him a sense of freedom. Or maybe he was having too good of a time to think of the consequences.
The Egyptian military had a no fraternization rule in place.
I was vaguely aware of this rule because another student took me to Fayoum, a historical city within a few hours from Cairo. He carried out the entire visit in a clandestine manner. I thought the whole day trip was a little strange, especially since the student initiated it. I also knew that our team chief, an older woman in her sixties, had special permission for a Lieutenant Colonel and his family to accompany her wherever she went in Egypt. But I secretly thought she was making a big to-do about the whole thing because of her position and really, because she had that type of personality. She knew about our growing friendship. She never sat me down and said, “Ihab can get in big trouble taking you around.”
As my time in Egypt drew to a close, Ihab and I began to discuss our feelings for each other. For the first time in my life, I had someone pursuing me. It was a heady feeling.
Ihab drew people to him like a magnet. He was a favorite within his family, within the military school, among his superior officers and his peers as well as his students. Ihab cared about people and showed great loyalty. He had so many good qualities. He’d been raised well, had a good heart, was extremely hospitable, and most of all, he was someone that I could relate to. He made me laugh with his stories. He filled my time in Cairo with adventure—or misadventure—as he got hopelessly lost or took me on hair-raising drives through the congested city streets in his old oft-repaired Fiat. I loved every single memory we shared together. How could my heart not get involved?
I didn’t have much in common with the members of my teaching team. The three women were much older than I was—almost ready to retire—so we had different interests. For example, I didn’t like museums. They could spend days wandering through them. I wanted to climb mountains and hike through deserts. They didn’t. In light of this, I decided to travel to Upper Egypt by myself. Ihab wouldn’t hear of it. He decided to take some time and accompany me. But by now, I did know about the no-fraternization rule. We argued a few days about the chance he would be taking.
“Women don’t travel alone in Egypt,” he pointed out. “It’s not safe.”
“Well, I am sure that some women must travel alone.”
“It’s not common. People will get the wrong idea about you.’’
“Well, I can take care of myself.”
“That you can’t!” Without further argument, he assigned himself as my bodyguard. “Besides, you don’t know the language like I do and I can get us Egyptian prices.
Egypt had two sets of prices, especially for famous travel destinations and tourist attractions. Westerners paid double or triple what Egyptians did for everything from transport to admission tickets. Even food.
I began to waver.
“Besides, I want to spend this time with you. How can we not be together? You’re leaving.” He looked so morose.
What a sweetheart! I couldn’t turn him down when I heard that last reason. I was secretly thrilled!
“Well, okay. But don’t tell anyone where we’re going.”
“Great! I’ll check into prices right now. I’ve never really been on holiday to Upper Egypt either.”
We decided that we would take a week for the trip, starting in Luxor. We left Cairo late one evening without so much as a goodbye to my team, and settled ourselves for the very long and delightfully uncomfortable train ride to Luxor. My kind of travel!
In Upper Egypt, I have a vivid memory of us seated on a canvas floor, seated on some cushion, at one of the many tents along the Nile, which also runs through that area. We were drinking small hot glasses of mint tea and eating shakshuka, a scrumptious aromatic Egyptian dish similar to an omelet, filled with hot chilies, tomatoes, garlic, cumin, basil except the eggs are just cracked and plopped down on top of the mixture at the end and not mixed in beforehand. As usual, we were talking avidly about the sites we’d seen the evening before. I remember the feel of the early morning sun slanting through the cracks of the colorful tent, and thinking “This is the life.” Ihab must have been thinking the same thing because he stopped what he was saying and looked over at me. “I’m going to marry you one day.”
I imagined our life filled with inexpensive travel around Egypt, long delays in which we would discover the best and cheapest local food. Dishes like foul and tamaya, a greenish bean ground into a patty smothered with humus, or delicious samak, a local fish usually filled with cumin and other spices, and served on special tasty grains of rice…
Two days before our trip to Upper Egypt ended, Ihab received a curt message from his uncle, an army general. “Come home at once—and alone.” Scrawled in Arabic and hand carried by a military cadet based in Upper Egypt, we’d been found out. Ihab had told his brothers his whereabouts.
“I’m not going!” Ihab shouted in rebellion. He fretted all that day. Finally, he decided he had to take the night train back and face his uncle. “I’m sorry for leaving you. Please understand. I don’t want go.”
As he boarded the train that night, I begged to return with him but he was adamant. “My uncle’s probably just going to smack my hand,” joked Ihab but in a voice that betrayed his fear.
Suddenly, our trip to Upper Egypt together seemed rash and unwise. We knew the rules. Had Ihab’s uncle notified the Commandant? Would Ihab be put in military jail because of our decision to travel to Upper Egypt?
As the train chugged out of the depot with Ihab’s fate unknown, I stood there for a minute in the dark. How had life gotten so complicated in such a short time? Had I not wanted to see the danger? Had I been so taken with having a suitor that I ignored all the warnings that I had dismissed earlier? If Ihab were punished, would it trickle down to me? Would I be fired from the most fascinating job I ever had?
I dragged my weary body back to my room. Sticky sweat clung to my skin, even in October. I was in Aswan, a tourist paradise in Upper Egypt in the Sinai Desert, but without Ihab, the clear blue waters and other stunning scenery all around me and the rich, savory foods meant little. I felt a loneliness envelop me as palpable as the actual persperation from the tropical climate.
Lying down, I pulled a sheet over me. Ihab had arranged for a guide to take me to Abu Simbal temple very early the next morning. The guide would pick me up at my hotel and together we would go to Lake Nasser where the guide would row me across the lake and onto the shore to tour the temple. I had a tour for one.
The honeymoon was over.