My face was being jammed into a toilet bowl the day the lights went out. I didn’t realize that at that same moment 9 million died under the crush of water bursting from the Aswan dam; in fact, I thought the power outage was a gift from God Himself because I used the opportunity to kick Yuri Sullivan in the shin.
“In’shallah, motherfuckker,” I said as he went down. Brad Burke made a lunge for me, but I elbowed him in the gut as I scooted past the other bullies on my way out. I was a popular target being far browner and way more Muslim than most of my classmates. Despite my sudden burst of manliness, fighting wasn’t my gig. I tended to heavily favor flight over fight. Besides, bruises were evidence that could later be held against a person in a disciplinary hearing, and expulsion was not an option for me. Unlike the rest of the students at Maadi British International School I had nowhere else to go.
I made it out of the gym locker room and into the pitch dark hallway filled with students struck dumb by the sudden loss of power. My footfalls echoed strangely in the too silent hall. Everyone stared at the ceiling, as if expecting the power to return any minute. When the back-up generators finally kicked in, I was safely ensconced in the front row for fifth period German. All Sullivan and Burke could do was shoot spit wads at me when Herr Stienmetz had his back to the class.
That night I had my last date with Alice Dewhurst, though I didn’t realize it, of course. A lot of people thought Alice was weird, but I thought she was awesome. Like me, she was mixed race. She’d inherited her father’s pale skin, but her blond hair grew out in tight curls she’d twisted into short dreads. I’d helped her twist in bits of wire and other cool antique circuit boards we “borrowed” from Mr. White’s art supplies. Plus, she had the most captivating accent: part run-of-the-mill London, plus a hint of Trinidad. I could listen to her read a grocery list and just stare. In fact, most of our “dates” were a lot like that. I wasn’t even sure she thought of me as her boyfriend, since I once overheard her tell one of her girlfriends I was a “good listener.”
That sounds very un-boyfriend-like, doesn’t it?
Regardless, I looked forward to our evening meet-ups. We’d met the first time by accident, both being night owls who couldn’t stand being cooped up after lights-out. There was this spot on the gymnasium roof where you could see the faint glow of Cairo’s lights. She was there any night she could get away.
“Spooky, isn’t it?” she asked when I came up beside her to perch on the ventilation hood. I looked out at the vast sky. I’d never seen so many stars in my life. I felt suddenly aware of how big the universe was. I snuggled a bit closer not only for warmth in the cool desert night, but also to feel just a bit less alone.
She didn’t pull away, but leaned into me, as well.
“I think it’s more serious than anyone is letting on,” she said.
I hadn’t heard any rumors, myself. But I attributed that to the fact that most of the guys in my dorm never talked to me, except to hurl insults. “We’d have heard if it was war,” I said.
“Margaret says she’s seen broadcast vid of someone’s LINK upload. It’s some kind of flood.”
I laughed. Look, I didn’t know, did I? “This is the desert, Alice.”
She shrugged. It was a delicate lift of her shoulder that brought with it the scent of jasmine. I was totally smitten. We spent the rest of the night naming constellations, remembering Greek mythology, and talking about the usual gossip, completely unaware that the entire world had been turned upside down.
The next morning we were all rounded up for an impromptu assembly. We jostled and joked, none of us prepared for what the headmaster would say. Sure, by nightfall rumors were spreading about some kind of industrial accident in Cairo, but no one thought any of it would affect the school. No one but me had family in Cairo, most of the students being sons of English and American expatriates, businessmen, and diplomats.
“Classes have been canceled,” the headmaster began.
For a brief moment, he was overwhelmed by cheers and applause, and then he added, “For the unforeseeable future.”
Someone started another whoop, but stopped in confusion. Classes canceled forever? Seriously?
“After assembly you will pack your things. We are being evacuated to a safer location. Your parents will meet you there to take you home.”
My first thought was war, and I wasn’t alone. I mean, it wasn’t that long ago the Americans “accidentally” rained glass on our oil fields. Someone shouted above the murmurs of the crowd, “Are we under attack?”
The headmaster shook his head. “The Aswan dams broke. Cairo is… it’s gone. All of North Africa is without power.”
I sat on the hard bleacher seat and tried to parce what the headmaster had said. I couldn’t get my brain to process any of it. Like a lot of people around me, I just repeated the words stupidly, “Gone?”
How could a city of 9 million be gone? It just didn’t make any sense.
The headmaster was still going on about the process for evacuation, but I didn’t hear it. Anyway, it didn’t apply to me, especially not the part involving parents. I had none. My mother had died two years ago. She’d gotten herself killed covering a story with old school, live journalism for Al-Ahram Weekly. The only thing about dad I knew for certain was that he was a Christian. My mom had named me that, in his “honor,” I guess. Christian El-Aref. What a stupid name for a Sunni Muslim. I should really change it, but nothing better had occurred to me.
See. That’s how freaked out I was. I couldn’t even think properly about what I should be doing. All I could focus on was my dumb name, and how desperately I needed a cooler nickname. At least I wasn’t screaming or sobbing like that contingent of girls from Ms. Rameriez class.
I just sat there with my head in my hands. It hadn’t really sunk in, you know? How screwed I really was. The only family I had was a distant aunt, Fatima, who lived in Cairo… which apparently no longer existed.
It just couldn’t be true. In fact, I would have trouble believing it even when I stood in the ruins myself, months later.