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by Phil Slattery




The mullah's thin, haunting call to prayer drifts down a dusty Cairo street late one summer afternoon and settles among a garden party of expatriate Americans and embassy staff circling around a cooler of beer and two pitchers of margaritas under a group of tall palms. A Texas oil rigger picks up a pitcher from near the hummus and baklava and pours a glass for the naval attaché's daughter.

"I didn't think any place could be hotter and drier than Del Rio in the summer until I came here. God almighty."

"I was snorkeling at Sharm-El-Sheikh a few weeks ago and it was incredibly hot. I heard it was 133," says the naval attache's daughter as she licks the salt from around the rim of a margarita.

"I thought the highest temperature ever recorded was 128 in Death Valley."

"I don't know. That's what I heard and that's what it felt like. Is there any more pita bread left?"

"There's plenty of pita behind the salad next to the lemonade," says the navy lieutenant. "It's good dipped in hummus mixed with a little olive oil."

"Ugh. I don't like hummus or olive oil. I can't stomach either one. I can hardly wait to get back to the states, where I can get some real food. I'm practically starving over here."

"Egyptian food can be delicious. You ought to try as much of it as you can. Of course, maybe I've been trying it too much. I'm going to have to start exercising more, if I am going to stay within the Navy's weight standards." The lieutenant dips some pita into the hummus and takes a bite. "Anyway, last week, I was at Abu Simbel near the Sudanese border and it was very hot. When I came back to Cairo, the local news gave the temperature for Abu Simbel. I forget what it was in centigrade, but when I computed it, it came out to 138 Fahrenheit. By the way, are there any more ribs on the grill?"

"Lots" says the oil rigger. "Help yourself or they'll just go to waste. I overestimated what we would need for tonight and bought way too many at the commissary. The same goes for the booze. Drink up."

The agricultural attaché finishes his iced tea and scans the group.

"I can believe the temperature in this region might reach over 130. It is very hot in Sudan. I was assistant agricultural attaché in Khartoum in 1987."

He puts down his glass and looks off into the distance, as if watching something puzzling beyond the horizon.

"That was a bad time. The army was fighting rebels in the east and a famine had been decimating the country for several years. I remember seeing emaciated children with bloated bellies begging in the streets while along the highways were dead cattle that had been reduced to nothing but leather and exposed ribs."

The naval attaché's daughter grimaces. "How horrible!"

"That wasn't the worst part."

"What was the worst part?"

"One evening I went to a garden party like this and met two English nurses who were working for the Red Cross-"

"That doesn't sound so bad to me," says the lieutenant.

"No, that wasn't."

The attaché glances to the lieutenant then over to the naval attaché's daughter sitting next to the table loaded with food.

"Their names were Paula and Christine. They said they had just come from a remote section where the famine was the worst. They had been working in a makeshift hospital on a hilltop. There was a staff of about a dozen. During the day they could see three large buildings on a neighboring hill. They were the only other buildings within view. Everything else was parched, cracking ground and dead trees and withering brush. Down the hill was a village of wattle huts, but no other dwellings. A few nearly empty wells provided the only water available. I don't know how any of the locals managed to find something to eat, but they did. It was probably what little they could raise in their disappearing gardens or what few of their remaining animals they could slaughter or what little they could buy in a small town twenty miles away or God knows what else they could find.

People came to the hospital from throughout the region and the nurses' work was steady. They had little time off and when they did, they were bored. The little liquor and occasional beer they could bring in was precious. They played a lot of cards and read everything they could find. The weather was much too hot to play any strenuous sports, but once in a while a couple of them would fill some canteens and pack some sandwiches and go walking, just to get out of the camp.

One day, Paula and Christine were out walking, when they decided to find out what the buildings on the other hill were. They didn't foresee any danger, because in all the time they had been observing the buildings from their own hill, they had rarely seen any activity around them. At most, they saw maybe one fairly large truck every week or two. They reasoned that, if the buildings were important, the government surely would have stationed troops to guard them. After about an hour's trek they came to the bottom of the hill and found a dirt road leading to the top. As they hiked up the road, they passed a thin Sudanese woman, who smiled at them. They estimated that she was probably in her mid-twenties, but starvation and a hard life made her look much older. After several minutes more, they met and greeted another, older, more haggard woman, who was coming down the hill and who also smiled at them. She had her skirts gathered up as if she was holding some small, precious object in them. After about an hour more they turned the final bend at the top of the hill and found that the buildings were warehouses. There were no fences and only a few signs posted, but none were in English or any language the nurses understood. The nurses walked up to the first warehouse and peered in the windows. Rows upon rows of sacks filled the building. On each sack was a red cross. They looked into the second warehouse and found the same, but a few of the sacks had burst open, or maybe had had holes eaten into them by rats, and something resembling grain had spilled onto the floor. They couldn't tell what it was because of the filth on the windows. They went over to the third warehouse and a third Sudanese woman with an infant was picking up some very small objects at the bottom of a side door. They watched her for a minute, before the woman noticed and greeted them in Swahili with a big smile. Then she went back to her work. The nurses walked over to a window and saw the same sacks as in the other two buildings. They walked around the buildings looking at the floor in front of each door, but saw nothing of interest. They were about to give up their investigation when the woman they had passed on the slope arrived. She smiled and greeted them again and proceeded to walk around the third warehouse eyeing the ground and bottom of each door very carefully. Paula and Christine followed her to the back of the building, where suddenly she grinned at the base of a door that they had examined earlier. The woman then knelt in front of the door and starting picking up some very small objects. Paula and Christine walked up and peered over the woman's shoulder. She turned to them and, smiling, held out her open palm with a few grains of rice in it. The woman beamed as if she had found a treasure and motioned for them to take some. They declined politely, but the woman continued smiling and being insistent, so they each took a few grains and put them in their pockets and left after giving her a few drinks of water and a sandwich in return. They said very little to each other on the way back to the camp.

Over supper that night they talked with one of the senior doctors on the staff about the warehouses. 'Oh, those,' he said, 'that's the rice the Red Cross and other organizations have donated to feed the famine victims. Every fortnight or so they bring in another full lorry and add it to the cache.'

Paula asked, 'Well, why don't they distribute it? God knows it's going to waste.'

'They don't have the lorries to haul it through the country. The local government has only the one and just enough petrol to bring it this far from the main depot. They are probably lucky to have the one running. These people are terrible with machines. Many of their vehicles are rusting by the side of the road or in their garages. If one breaks down, it may be months before they can get a part for it from outside the province or they may simply take the part from another vehicle that has already broken down, in which case the second vehicle becomes harder to repair.'

Christine was flabbergasted. 'Surely they can find another lorry somewhere. Maybe they can lease one from another province or at least borrow the petrol. They should just open the doors. The people will come for it. To let the rice sit is nearly criminal.'

'I agree, but the government doesn't have the infrastructure or organization to transport the grain. It probably can't lease a lorry or borrow petrol, because there probably isn't any to lease or borrow. And I have no clue as to why they don't just open the doors. It probably has to do with their Byzantine politics, which I have never been able to fathom. As a matter of fact, they may not be able to obtain another lorry or more petrol, not because they don't have one available, but because of the blasted internal politics. This province may have angered the province that does have the lorries and petrol. I have no idea.'

'Oh, bollocks', said Paula.

For the next three weeks life went on in its usual, mundane, routine, parched rut. Then one night Paula and Christine were coming off their shift at midnight and were walking over to the camp kitchen for a midnight snack and cup of coffee, when they noticed a flickering light in the direction of the warehouses. A crowd had gathered at the camp perimeter and was watching the light, so the ladies walked over to find out what was going on. They spotted the doctor, who had just finished talking to one of the natives.

The doctor had a look of exasperation they had never seen on him before. 'The government is burning the bloody warehouses,' he said. 'They couldn't distribute the rice and now it's rotten, so they're burning the bloody warehouses.' The three stood and wept as the flames grew then eventually faded away.

While the rest of the onlookers meditate for a moment in silence, the naval attaché's daughter sips her margarita.

"Hmm, interesting story", she says licking the salt from her lips. She looks the lieutenant in the eyes and smiles, "Did I tell you that I once thought about becoming a nurse? I couldn't do it though, because white uniforms are such a pain to keep clean. I didn't like the thought of being around all that blood either."

The lieutenant returns the look and smile. "Really? White uniforms are a pain to keep clean, but for me the job has always been more important than the uniform."

"I wonder what kind of uniforms the nurses in the story wore." The naval attaché's daughter turns to the storyteller. "Do you know what kind of uniforms the nurses in your story wore?"

"No, I don't. They probably didn't wear any. They probably wore just what was comfortable for the climate."

The naval attaché's daughter turns to the lieutenant and whispers. "Imagine that. Telling a story and leaving out an important detail like that."

"Sometimes," says the lieutenant, "the most important part of the story is what is not said."

Knowing they can hear the girl's remarks in spite of whispering, the lieutenant glances at the agricultural attaché and the oil rigger. Both return his gaze and nod silently in agreement.