On the Benghazi Express and Hamm’s Toe

by Ruby on July 22, 2011

To get you in the mood for the Slake reading on Sunday, I have a couple of excerpts from the new issue for you! The first excerpt comes from Marc Cooper, who will be reading alongside his daughter Natasha Vargas-Cooper on Sunday. He is also a journalist and the author of Pinochet and Me, Roll Over Che Guevara, and The Last Honest Place in America.

On the Benghazi Express - Non-fiction by Marc Cooper

After days of being cooped up by our Egyptian “hosts,” we journalists staged a rebellion and demanded that the government press office take us on a tour of the front. “There’s a cease-fire in place,” we said, “so it should be no big deal.”

“Meet us at 7 a.m. and you’re on,” was the surprise answer.

Nearly a dozen reporters gathered in the Hilton lobby at the appointed hour, and the army piled us into a caravan of Russian jeeps. We were told that before we went to the front, we would visit a special training camp to see how President Sadat’s call to train and arm a civilian militia was underway. Confession time again: my hopes slightly revived. An armed people’s militia? Awesome.

Turned out that the special camp was actually inside the very posh Giza Country Club. Like Keystone Kops, our army escorts drove us across a rolling lawn full of wealthy and overweight Egyptians who were lazing in the sun, sipping on drinks or napping while the sons of their housekeepers were at war a few miles away.

In its infinite ineptitude and indifference to reality, the Sadat regime had unwittingly given us a close-up tour of a feckless and morally corrupt Egyptian ruling class, the same kleptocrats who would constitute the primary constituency of the Mubarak reign.

But the real dog-and-pony show awaited us when we got to the racetrack inside the country club. The army had assembled about twenty teenagers, who, dressed in ragtag olive greens and using dummy wooden rifles, were undergoing “militia training.” Two of these kids had inked swastikas onto their soft combat hats, and the PR idiots running the show didn’t seem to think it made any difference. This was the “people’s militia.”

From there, it was a bumpy ride to Ismailia, the point where we crossed the Suez Canal and landed on the West Bank of the Sinai, territory that the Egyptian army had freshly recaptured from the Israelis as a nationalist trophy. How much territory had the Egyptians reclaimed?  Authoritarian regimes are anything but transparent, and Egypt had been claiming that its military forces had taken back a fifteen- to twenty-mile-deep swath of the Sinai. The Israelis, telling a story much closer to the truth, said the area was more like two to four miles deep.

Our Egyptian army escorts, instead of conceding to the reality that much less territory had been captured, had a simple solution: they looped our jeeps around in sweeping concentric circles over the barren sand dunes to make it seem as if we were going in much deeper than we were.

But things went wrong. Our army driver suddenly got agitated, and the chatter on the radio among the other drivers turned nervous. Some Brit riding shotgun with us understood a bit of Arabic and said to me, “I do think these chaps have gotten lost.”

Right after he said that, we screeched to a halt in a haze of dusty sand. The army drivers piled out into the middle of the desert and started pointing, looking at maps and arguing with each other. As the debate dragged on, we got hot and cramped in the jeep and decided to stretch our legs.

We clambered up a few feet to the top of the dune we were parked on and our eyes settled on a vast valley in front of us. Oh yes, one other detail. There was also a brown line of troops and equipment in the sand 300 yards in front of us and … a blue-and-white Israeli flag.

We were lost all right. The Egyptians had driven us through the cease-fire no-man’s-land and right into the Israeli front lines. Our escorts figured out the same thing (I think the Mogen David flag was the tip-off) and they started motioning and yelling at us to hurry up. “Yella! Yella!”

They grabbed us and pushed us underneath the jeeps, and within seconds an Israeli jet roared toward us, swooped down, and fired a burst of warning shots about fifty yards to our side. I wanted to open my shirt and flash the Mogen David medallion I had left back at home. Before the Israelis came back for the real thing, the Egyptians packed us all up and tore ass back down the dune and toward the canal.

All I wanted was to get back alive to one of those chaise lounges at the Giza Country Club. Of course, when we finally did make it back to Cairo, the censors did not let us report that we had bumbled into the cease-fire zone.

 

The second is by Joseph Mattson, who isn’t actually reading on Sunday, but who had his own event at Vroman’s for his book Empty the Sun, and whose writing appeared in the second issue of Slake. He is a multi-talented writer and musician, and as author Jerry Stahl says, he “Writes like a guitar player with nineteen fingers–everywhere at once, stinging, dark and beautiful.”

Hamm’s Toe – Fiction by Joseph Mattson

Midnight, eighty-six degrees F in the middle of December. Hamilton Swift sits in his office, a converted hot-water-heater closet off the kitchen in a scanty bungalow in central Hollywood. Chain smoking rolled tobacco, listening to “He’s Gone” (Doris Duke, I’m a Loser, 1969), drinking the insipid, cold white from some far-flung, pastoral valley in—says the label—Marlborough, New Zealand.

Perks, Hamilton thinks. Wine perks. He gazes into the bottle as if it might hold answers in lieu of taste.

In bawdy chugs, he slurps it down. There is an entire case of the stuff sitting in the weary icebox next to a molding chunk of California Gouda and a gunked-up flask of catsup. Trickles cling to the corners of his lips, cry off his chin, and onto his chubby, bare belly as he sucks on the wine. It is the first decade of the twenty-first century, but might as well be 1969, or 1946, or 1978.

Hamilton Swift stares at his machine and exhales a gauze of smoke that covers his eyes.

Holly’s Woodland Saloon

It’s all he’s got. Nothing more to show for a few hours in front of the remarkably preserved 1946 Smith-Corona Silent series portable on his desk. Cataleptic it stays, same as Hamilton. At least he has the wine and cigarettes.

The song changes and the world grows quietly older without Mrs. Duke. “The House of the Rising Sun” begins. The words on the paper go out of focus. His body goes slack in the chair. Lost time, old places, one question, one woman—omnipresent—crash in alternating waves inside of him. Days of unmitigated despair turned ghostly, anesthetized. And now, “The House of the Rising Sun.” The only song he ever sang karaoke, and just once, on their honeymoon in the city of the rising sun. Firmly not his thing, but for a woman—the unyielding love of a woman—for her he did it. Surrender, yes, the serious things and the fickle things we surrender in love, for love, making even a worthy, facile example out of stupid fucking karaoke. And then—

Have you ever seen your wife shot in the head?

By a government assassin?

The typewriter stares back blankly.

New Orleans is fucked now. Hooray for Hollywood.

But the sun never rises on this house. Only it sets.

Hot desert winds belt the other side of the cracker-thin plaster wall. The Santa Anas. It went from fifty-seven F damp to ninety F dry overnight. Roaring heat riding the Mojave line.

Hamilton Swift raises one straight from the bottle. “Here’s to you, idiot wind.” There are no glasses left in the house to toast this anniversary.

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