Photo: Sophia Moreau
Leaving Egypt (Passover 5752)
By Julie Wiener
I am sitting on a black leather couch, in a sparsely furnished large apartment, while Adel makes call after call from his old-fashioned black rotary-dial telephone, trying to find me a taxi.
At least that’s what he says he is trying to do. Given that the conversations are all in Arabic, for all I know he could be negotiating my sale into white slavery. How could I have been so stupid? I don’t even have my passport with me or very much money. What if Adel is a date rapist? What if he doesn’t even know what date rape is, just assumes that if a woman comes to your apartment she is consenting to sex? And who knows if he’ll even use a condom? I could leave Egypt not just with my virginity disposed of, but pregnant and HIV-positive. If I leave Egypt at all!
Just a few hours ago, I was thinking maybe I would want to have sex tonight. Adel, who is tall, dark, and muscular, with a chiseled nose and piercing brown eyes, is the most handsome man ever to ask me out. Yes, sex on a first date is slutty — all the more so losing your virginity on a first date — but once I leave Egypt I may never have another opportunity like this again. Having sex has been one of my goals for this semester abroad, although the plan was to be deflowered by an Israeli, not an Egyptian. However, I’m pretty sure things are over with Yair, the Israeli video store clerk I have sort of been seeing but who hasn’t called me since our last encounter, when we almost but not quite had sex, leaving me in an awkward limbo between virgin and non-virgin.
Adel is the youngest and hottest of the men (and they are all men) who work for Hebton Tours, the operator of the week-long Egypt tour package sold by an Israeli company called Masada. All this spring break week my friends and travel companions Heather, Elena, and I have been lusting after him as we hang out with the Hebton employees — we refer to them as “the company guys” — in the evenings in the company offices on the second floor of the Cairo Sheraton. (We’re staying at a cheaper hotel that is a short cab ride away.) Ostensibly these nightly social gatherings are a way for us to learn more about the real Egypt, but mostly it’s just because they invited us and we like to feel like we are not the typical semester-abroad tourists.
Each night we sit around the office table and drink cardamom-scented Arabic coffee from doll-sized cups (Elena insists it tastes better then the Arabic coffee in Israel, but I can’t tell the difference), and make small talk while the men, and sometimes Elena, smoke. Adel smokes one cigarette after another, his tight, strong, brown fingers stained with tobacco. Although I have never smoked myself, there is something almost glamorous about Adel’s smoking, like a movie star from an old black and white movie.
Adel isn’t a licensed tour guide yet, so his main role at Hebton is to accompany busloads of tourists to and from the Israeli border. I can’t imagine getting so close to the border and not actually crossing it, but Adel says he has never been to Israel.
“Aren’t you curious to see it?” I ask, thinking how tantalizing it would be, this whole other country that you can see but never touch, kind of like when the Tel Aviv U program took us to the Dead Sea, and I could see the mountains of Jordan, forbidden and dangerous, looming on the other side.
He shrugs. “Maybe someday.”
“You’re allowed to visit, aren’t you?” I ask. “I mean, Israel and Egypt have been at peace for 13 years! And you could get to the border for free, so you’d only have to pay for things once you get there.”
He smiles and taps his pack of Marlboros against the table to open it, and I’m not sure if he doesn’t understand or just doesn’t want to answer. Talking to him is a bit like talking to Yair; I am never sure we are actually communicating.
But last night was different from all the other nights. When we arrived at the office, Adel sat down next to me at the table, close enough so that our legs were touching. He invited me to go with him to the store to get cookies for everyone, and on the way back, he asked, “Will you go on a date with me tomorrow night?”
It was absurd, given that I would be leaving for Israel the day after that ― how could it be anything more than a fling? But I said yes anyway, and he darted into a flower shop, emerging with three flowers. “I got for Heather and Elena so they won’t be jealous,” he informed me.
This evening I met up with Adel at the Hebton Tours office, and before we had even left the lobby of the Sheraton, he declared, “You can’t go back to Israel tomorrow. It’s too soon. I love you.”
Taken aback, I wondered if he was saying he loved me because he thought this was what I wanted to hear or if it was in some manual for Egyptian men dating American women. Or maybe “I love you” meant something else in Arabic, something more like “I like you” or “I want to sleep with you.” In Hebrew, the word for “to love” was the same as the word for “to like.” Not that Yair had ever told me he loved me or even liked me.
“You can’t love me,” I said. “You barely know me.”
“That’s why you must stay longer, so we can get to know each other better,” Adel said, holding my hand. The touch of his hand, which had felt so good the previous night when it grazed against me, now felt heavy, like he was claiming me, telling the world I belonged to him.
“We’re already staying longer than we originally planned,” I said, reminding him that we had changed our bus tickets that day so we could ride on Adel’s bus to the Israel border rather than taking a different, earlier bus staffed by another tour guide.
“That’s good, but it’s just twelve extra hours,” he said. “It’s nothing. Didn’t you say your school vacation lasts another week?”
“It does, but I have to get back to Israel for Passover.”
“What is Passover?”
“It’s a Jewish holiday, and it starts just two nights from now.” I had been invited to Jerusalem for a seder at my Israeli suitemate’s house, and I was excited at the prospect of an authentic Israeli Passover, one where we wouldn’t have to say “next year in Jerusalem.”
“But I thought you weren’t religious. Can’t you celebrate Passover here?” he asked, putting the emphasis on “over” instead of “Pass.”
“The whole point of Passover is to celebrate the Jews being freed from slavery and leaving Egypt,” I explained.
He shook his head, bemused. “A whole holiday to celebrate leaving Egypt?”
At the restaurant, the menu was only in Arabic, so Adel ordered for both of us. As we waited for our food, he said, “Tell me about yourself,” and stared expectantly into my eyes.
It was such a strange, open-ended question, and as I pondered how to answer, it occurred to me that Yair had barely ever asked me anything about myself.
“What do you want to know?” I asked. “Should I tell you about my family?”
“You are so beautiful,” he said. “I would like to eat you, you are so beautiful. Where should I start?”
“I’m not sure,” I said, a bit unnerved, wondering if he was aware of the double entendre of “eating”, or if this was just some weird Egyptian saying.
The food was a lush spread of spicy beans, rice, skewered meats, and vegetables. Adel ate in large but not sloppy bites, scooping food and mopping up the sauces with wedges of pita. I was too nervous and excited to eat much, which seemed to disappoint Adel.
“Egyptian food isn’t as good as Israeli food?” he asked.
“No, I’m just not very hungry,” I said. “I didn’t realize you were ordering so much.”
I wondered what we should do next. I decided I still wanted to fool around with him. Even if he was crazy and a bit nudgy about staying in Egypt, he was handsome. And even if I changed my mind about him later, I’d be leaving for Israel the next day, so there would be no need for any awkward breakups. I stroked his hand tentatively, and he smiled.
Back on the street, I felt overwhelmed by the craziness of Cairo: the aggressive drivers ignoring lanes and swerving into any narrow space between cars where they could fit their vehicle; the yelling, the honking; the sidewalks crowded with vendors, beggars, pedestrians, even chickens and goats.
“Is there somewhere quiet we could sit?” I asked, thinking that maybe there was a park we could go to or a bench with a view of the Nile, something peaceful and romantic and not too far away. But Adel, despite studying to be a licensed tour guide, seemed to think there was nowhere like that in Cairo, certainly not near where we were.
“We could go to my apartment,” he suggested.
I hesitated. Would he think I was a slut, an easy American, for agreeing to this so early in the evening? On the other hand, it would be nice to go somewhere private, where we could fool around, and I was flattered that he wanted me to see where he lived. Yair had never shown me his apartment or anything from his life, rebuffing even my offer to visit him at the video store. What would Yair think if he knew I was dating an Egyptian? Although he was not at all religious, he’d been shocked when I told him I had dated Christian guys. When I asked him if he’d ever been to Egypt, he said, “Why would I want to be surrounded by Arabs? There are enough of them here in Israel.”
“You don’t trust me,” Adel said, hailing a taxi, which pulled up with screeching brakes. “It’s okay, I’ll just put you in a taxi back to your hotel now.”
“No, I do trust you,” I said, not wanting to hurt his feelings, and not ready for our date to end so abruptly. “I want to see your apartment.”
So we climbed into the taxi together, and he gave his address in Arabic to the driver. I assumed it was nearby, and was surprised as we seemed to go further and further out of the city ― away from the neighborhood where both the Sheraton and my cheaper hotel were located ― past Sadat’s tomb and the military cemetery filled with soldiers who’d died fighting Israel.
“Where do you live?!” I asked, as we merged onto a highway.
“Nasser City,” he said. “It’s a — how do you say it? — suburb.”
How ironic, I thought, for a suburb to have “city” in its name. I assumed it was named for Gamel Abdul Nasser, Egypt’s leader during the Six Day War. What would an Egyptian suburb look like? I imagined rows of identical houses and neatly tended lawns, women in hijabs standing at barbecue grills while their children threw basketballs into hoops attached to two-car garages.
Every moment in the car meant it would be that much harder, that much more time-consuming, to get back to the hotel. I started to regret my decision Should I ask the driver to turn around? Maybe Adel wasn’t even taking me to his apartment but was kidnapping me and taking me deep into Egypt. By the time we reached our destination, and I saw that Nasser City, with its high-rise buildings packed close together, looked nothing like I’d imagined, I was in a full-fledged state of anxiety and dread. As the taxi driver sped off, leaving us on the sidewalk on this dark street that seemed to have no stores, and certainly no other taxis, I said, “I can’t stay long.” Adel furrowed his brow, surprised by this, but said, “Okay. Let’s just have a cup of tea and then I’ll figure out how to get you home.”
Did a “cup of tea” mean sex, I wondered? After all, the Tel Aviv U director had told us that if an Israeli guy asked you to have coffee with him, he was “really asking for something else.” As we rode the elevator up to Adel’s apartment, I wished I had spoken up in the taxi and asked the driver to bring me back to my hotel. Adel no longer seemed handsome but menacing, his muscular build not sexy but merely a sign of his vastly superior strength. His vow to eat me up no longer seemed like an awkward flirtation, but more like he was the Big Bad Wolf and I Little Red Riding Hood.
He ushered me into his apartment, which felt only half moved into, with no decorations on the wall and some light fixtures that still needed to be installed. It smelled faintly of cigarettes.
“Sit down,” he said, gesturing to a couch. “Do you want anything to drink?”
“Just water,” I said. He disappeared into the kitchen and emerged with two glasses of ice water, which he set down on the coffee table before joining me on the couch.
“I’m so glad you agreed to go out with me,” he said. He leaned in to kiss me, but I stiffened.
“I think I need to leave,” I said. “My friends are going to wonder where I am. I didn’t realize your apartment was so far away.”
And that’s when he got on the phone to try to find me a cab. Why is it so difficult, I wonder, to get a cab from Nasser City? Did he know this would happen? I realize that despite being in Adel’s apartment, I know almost nothing about him. For all I know, it isn’t even his apartment ― there are no photographs or family mementoes. Here I was laughing at him for claiming to love me on the basis of a few conversations, when he was probably laughing at me for trusting him on the basis of those same few conversations.
I wonder if I will have to have sex with him now, and if so, would it be better to just pretend that that’s what I wanted anyway? At least I’ll be able to cross off “lose virginity” from my to-do list, which would be good since there’s no way I’m going to achieve my other goals for this semester. I’m nowhere near becoming fluent in Hebrew or learning enough about Judaism to compensate for never having had a bat mitzvah.
After what seems like the tenth phone call, Adel puts the phone back into the cradle and apologizes for the taxi situation. “You’re going to have to spend the night. But don’t worry, I have a guest bedroom you can sleep in.”
He helps me dial my hotel room so I can tell Heather and Elena that I won’t be back until the morning.
“You’re sleeping over?” Heather asks a bit disdainfully.
“It’s not what it sounds like,” I say. “It turns out his apartment is farther from the hotel than I thought, and it’s hard to get cabs from here at night.”
“Whatever,” she says. “But don’t stay late in the morning. Elena decided to take the earlier bus after all, and I don’t want to sit alone in the hotel all day waiting for you.”
I feel guilty for abandoning my friends, and I also feel guilty for not wanting to join Adel in his bed. He shows me the small guest room, its double bed neatly made with a teal green bedspread. Who else has slept here? And how does it compare to Adel’s bed? There’s a chair made of wicker, and he lays a towel and a toothbrush on it. He gives me a clean T-shirt to sleep in. I collapse into the bed, relieved when I hear the sound of his bedroom door clicking shut across the hall.
He leaves me alone all night, and in the morning, well-rested and with natural light pouring into my window, rather than the oppressive fluorescent light of his apartment the night before, I feel better. I decide I have misjudged him. He is not a date rapist, but a sweet, well-meaning, and handsome guy.
“Did you sleep well?” he asks, sitting down at the foot of my bed.
“Yes,” I say, gesturing for him to lie down next to me. We look at each other for a few seconds, and then he kisses me. His lips are thicker and softer than Yair’s. His whole mouth tastes faintly of smoke, but I don’t mind.
“Do you still think you love me, or were you just saying that last night?” I ask.
“Of course I love you,” he says. “But you ― how do you say? ― are hurting my heart when you act all suspecting like you were last night.”
“Sorry,” I say, wondering if he is telling the truth. “Have you dated a lot of other tourists?”
“Not very many,” he says.
How many is “not very many”? I wonder if I am the only Jewish one, just like he’s the only Arab I’ve ever dated. Squeezing his enormous biceps and stroking his firm abs, I regret having slept alone in the guest bed all night. I am overcome with a desire to fool around. I kiss him and guide his hand to my breasts. He touches them for a moment, through my shirt, but then sits up and says, “This is why you need to stay longer. Now is no good, because I have to get to school and you have to get back to the hotel to meet Heather.”
In the daytime, his street seems less desolate. A vendor, a bearded man wearing a long white Muslim caftan, is selling fresh-squeezed carrot juice, using an old metal blender that looks like it was built in the 1940s. A few people are lined up at a bus stop, including a woman in a red hijab with a little boy wearing a Bart Simpson T-shirt. Bart Simpson shirts are popular in Israel too: at the shuk, where Heather and I shop for fresh produce each week, there is a whole stall devoted to Simpsons T-shirts and posters, next to the one that sells IDF T-shirts, pirated cassettes and hamsa keychains.Taxis and cars zip by and Adel easily hails a cab.
As we ride together in a taxi back into the city ― him to school, me to my hotel ― I say, “Maybe I can come back to visit in a few weeks.” We have a four-day weekend coming up for Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. I could spend the first and last days traveling and have two full days in Cairo with Adel. Or maybe we could even get a hotel room in the Sinai and spend the time there. Would it be wrong to spend Yom Ha’atzmaut in Egypt?
“Yes, please come back to visit,” Adel says, his face lighting up. “I don’t want to have to say goodbye to you tonight.”
I don’t want to say goodbye yet either, especially since we’ve barely had a chance to fool around.
That evening, Heather and I wait for the bus with a group of other passengers gathered at the Sheraton’s circular entry driveway. The others are mostly American students like us, plus a few couples in their late twenties who are speaking a language I don’t recognize ― maybe German? Of the Americans, a bunch are girls from the Hebrew U overseas student program and a few are guys we recognize from Tel Aviv U. None are in any of my classes, but Heather says a few are in her class, “Arab-Israeli Relations from 1948-1967.” The Hebrew U girls all wear eyeliner and lipstick, two are in University of Michigan T-shirts, and another in a Grateful Dead concert shirt. They wear Bermuda shorts and Israeli sandals and have lots of silver rings on their fingers.
When Adel arrives and kisses me before ushering everyone onto the bus, I melt with excitement. I can feel the other passengers’ eyes on me and imagine they are seeing me with new interest. Are they impressed that I am dating the hot Hebton Tours representative? Maybe they are shocked that I am such a rebel, a Jewish girl defying expectations and dating an Arab.
Once we are on the bus, Heather and I realize we have forgotten to bring water for the ride. Adel says not to worry, and at his request, the driver happily stops at a busy corner so that Adel can run into a little grocery for us while the traffic we are blocking angrily honks.
The route to the border is different from the one we took to Cairo a week ago, when we traveled there from Rafah, the border near the Gaza Strip. This time we go through the center of the Sinai instead of the northern part along the Mediterranean, and we’ll end up at the Red Sea: Taba on the Egyptian side of the border and Eilat on the Israeli one. Looking out the window, I try to imagine the Israelites here thousands of years ago, following Moses around and eating manna, whatever that was.
As we ride through the desert, which looks magical as the sun fades and then slowly dips behind the pink-gold mountains, I feel more and more attracted to Adel and ever more committed to coming back to visit him. Who cares about Israel’s Independence Day? This is so romantic. It’s like West Side Story, the two of us star-crossed lovers across the Jewish-Arab divide who will be forced to say goodbye at the border. With the seats immediately surrounding us empty, we are able to sit close and make out, especially as the bus darkens.
At a rest stop, Adel, Heather, and I linger with the bus driver while they smoke Marlboros and drink Arabic coffee, and the driver uses my camera to take pictures of Adel and me together. I promise Adel I will send him copies once I get them developed. Two of the Hebrew U girls interrupt us, asking Adel, “How much longer are we going to be at this rest stop? We were supposed to get to Taba by eleven, and it’s already ten.”
“Not so much longer,” Adel says, an irritated tone in his voice. “You will be in Israel before you know it.” He pronounces Israel in the Arabic way, drawn out into three syllables, Iss-rah-eel. He lights up another cigarette and offers one to the driver, who says something in Arabic that makes Adel laugh.
“What did he say?” I ask.
“Just that these girls, these Americans, are so spoiled,” he says. “They are so used to getting their way, they can’t wait five minutes.”
I wonder if they think Heather and I are spoiled, too.
A few minutes later we are startled by the sound of the bus honking; the other passengers are all aboard, waiting impatiently for us.
“Who touched my horn?” the driver demands, as we climb aboard.
“You said we were only going to stop for twenty minutes,” one of the boys from Heather’s Israel-Arab relations class says. “That was almost an hour!”
“And we left Cairo half an hour late!” one of the Hebrew U girls grumbles. “This is the last time I will ever go to a Third World country! I can’t wait to get back to Israel where things are civilized.”
“This will be the best Passover ever,” another Hebrew U girl says. “We’ll have escaped from Egypt, just like the ancient Hebrews.”
The closer we get to Taba, the more desperate I am to hang on to Adel, to make the most of our last moments together. We kiss each other and press against each other. I put my hand on his lap and can feel the hardness through his jeans. I wish I could climb onto his lap. Yes, this is sleazy, fooling around in public like this, but also daring. If I ever play “Never Have I Ever” or “Truth or Dare” in the future, I will be able to say, “Never have I ever fooled around on a bus in the Sinai with a hot guy I barely knew.” And it’s dark, so no one can see us, until one of the Hebrew U girls, the one in the Grateful Dead shirt, is standing in the aisle glaring down at us, tapping Adel on the shoulder.
“When are we going to get to Taba?” she asks. “We’re already an hour late.”
“We’re almost there,” Adel says, sitting up straight, smoothing his shirt, looking at his watch. He stands up and walks to the front of the bus, grabs the microphone, and says, “We will be at the border in half of an hour. Make sure you have your passport and entry slip ready.”
“Are you Jewish?” the Hebrew U girl, who is still standing in the aisle next to my seat, asks me.
“Yes,” I say. “Why?”
“Just curious,” she says, then returns to join her friends before I can say anything else.
Half an hour later we are getting off the bus in a dimly lit, sandy, gravelly parking lot. The others race ahead to the passport control office, a makeshift building that resembles a trailer.
“Finally!” I hear one of the Hebrew U girls exclaim. “I can’t wait to be somewhere clean, where it’s safe to drink the tap water.”
“I’m so happy that I’m going to hug the first Israeli soldier I see when we cross the border,” another one says. Adel and I linger, and when we enter the passport building, the Hebrew U girl in the Grateful Dead T-shirt is stamping the floor impatiently while three Egyptian soldiers reclining behind their desks look amused.
“This is completely unfair,” she shrieks. “We were supposed to get here before midnight. I can’t believe you’re not letting us through.”
“You shouldn’t have cut it so close,” one of the soldiers says, adding something in Arabic that is received with snickers by the other soldiers. “Your entry slip says you were supposed to return yesterday.” They are enjoying this display, the pale arms of this spoiled Western girl flailing helplessly before them. She whirls around to the rest of us for support. “This country is so backward,” she mutters, running her fingers through her long brown hair. “Everyone is out to cheat you.”
One of her friends, anxiously fingering the strap of her Bedouin bag, says, “Come on, Rachel, just pay the fine. What else are you going to do with your leftover Egyptian money? It’s not like it’s worth anything or like you’ll ever want to come back.”
“It’s all his fault.” Rachel points accusatively toward Adel, who is standing beside me. “If you hadn’t stopped to get water for your girlfriend and if you hadn’t spent so long at the restaurant with her, we would have gotten here long before midnight!”
Adel sighs. “It’s not my fault the bus left Cairo an hour late or that there was traffic. Why don’t you just pay the fine? You can afford it.”
“Because I’m Jewish?” Rachel asks.
“Because you’re American,” Adel replies.
Rachel shoots me a nasty look, pulls out her wallet, and dumps a bunch of bills onto the desk. “Your boyfriend is an antisemite,” she tells me before flouncing out.
“What did she call me?” Adel asks.
“Nothing important,” I say. Is Rachel right, is Adel antisemitic? It’s true that all of us are rich compared to the Egyptians we’ve met, but I don’t like the cold way he said, “You can afford it.” He puts his arm around me, but it feels heavy, like when we were in the restaurant on our date, and he waits with Heather and me until our passports and entry slips, which are still good for another day, get stamped. The soldiers say something to Adel in Arabic, and I wonder if it has anything to do with me or with what Rachel said about me being Adel’s girlfriend. I realize they must know Adel, since he is at this border crossing several times a week. Will they be here when I come back for Yom Ha’atzmaut? Have they seen him here with other Jewish girls?
Outside in the courtyard, Adel and I kiss goodbye. One part of me wants to make this kiss last forever, but another part of me is antsy to get it over with. On the other side of a wire fence, I can see the Red Sea shimmering in the moonlight, the lights from Eilat reflecting in the water. At the gate ahead, an Egyptian flag and an Israeli flag flap together in the breeze.
“Promise you’ll come back,” Adel says. “Don’t forget to call me.”
“Of course I’ll come back,” I say.
But as I step across the invisible line into Israel, its clean, modern facilities beckoning in the night, I am not sure I will.