Escape to Aswan
A Novel by Amal Sedky Winter
"A very strong read. A very strong protagonist in Salma. This is accessible, informative, bittersweet and tense."
Caroline Folley (Editor/Reviewer)
Meet the Characters
Here you will meet the three main characters through excerpts from the book's chapters:
Salma with a foot in both worlds.
Paul in the western world.
Murad in the Arab Islamist world.
A thirty-eight year old Egyptian American woman
Salma had delayed the start of the sociology classes she taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and came up with a way to join her fiancé, Paul, in Cairo without scandalizing her family by appearing to accompany him. She submitted a paper based on a
sociological study she’d directed: The effects of Islamophobia on American children of Arab heritage. The research paper had little to do with the theme of the Conference on Counterterrorism, but the conference panel chair had been Salma’s schoolmate at the Cairo
British Academy twenty years ago, so naturally, she invited Salma to present it. Things worked that way in Egypt.
She watched the desert’s colors transform from indistinguishable grey sand to gradations of ochre yellow as the plane descended, struck once more by the dramatic demarcation between the arid yellow sand and the deep-green strip of irrigated land that spread into the lotus-shaped delta anchored at Cairo, on its way to the Mediterranean Sea. She felt the plane circling and looked out at a forest of satellite dishes mounted on rooftops covered with debris—fortifications meant to hold her at bay as they prepared to land.
Pausing at the top of the airplane’s metal stairway, she slipped on her sunglasses to fend off the harsh glare of the Egyptian sun. Thick air wrapped itself around her body and seeped into her pores as she surveyed the familiar landscape. This moment of return insisted on being
absorbed: air sodden with industrial effluence, field manure, carbon monoxide, the boil of heat from the tarmac, the bleached-white sky. This wasn’t her favorite time of day, here. Cairo was at its best at night. She loved the short route to the art classes she took in her teens. Neon strips outlining the facades of stalls awash in fluorescent lights. Yellow phosphorescent lights in apartment windows. Strings of colored bulbs across the alleys off the main road. Adjusting her carry-on shoulder strap, Salma started down the stairs.
Something was wrong. She felt it—like static activating the tiny hairs on her arms. Humvees on the tarmac? Machine guns atop Jeeps? Soldiers at the airport? There were always soldiers at the airport though never this many. Some on the rooftops in desert camouflage fatigues. More lined up in the building’s thin shade. Had the Muslim Brotherhood moved against President Sisi? Perhaps a radical Islamist had assassinated him. Couldn’t be. It would have been all over CNN. So, what kind of disaster was she walking into?
She headed across the tarmac to the terminal, worried the oven hot asphalt would melt the soles of her sandals, her father’s voice in her head, "Why aren’t you wearing decent shoes?” After twenty years of growing into adulthood in California, visits to her upper-class
family in Egypt had become challenging. The social structure was oppressive, family obligations were weighty, and her father was maddeningly controlling. She didn’t want her family to know she and Paul planned to marry until she’d felt them out.
“Amrikeya?” The tone jolted her. Coming from this uniformed (passport control) official, it was more an accusation than a question. “Step to the side,” the jowly man ordered. “Let the others pass.” A bad sign. His contempt was palpable; she smelled his spite—the odor that small people in positions of impotent authority exude. Salma knew her father could terrify this man with a single word, but she wasn’t about to call him. He couldn’t tolerate her choosing to be American.
As far as Hani Hamdi was concerned, Salma’s choice meant she was siding with her mother against him, betraying him and his country—Salma’s real country. The one where she was born.
A forty-five year old Jewish American journalist
In the early afternoon of Salma’s arrival, Paul woke to the sight of pharaohs walking sideways on the wallpaper behind his hotel’s television console. He was jet-lagged. It seemed only a minute since four in the morning when he’d fallen into bed. How had the fierce
shaft of sunlight made its way between the curtains he’d pulled shut?
The top-notch Shams Hotel he’d checked into had once been Princess Diva’s riverside palace and thus decadent beyond belief. Gold-leafed Greek columns wrapped in Arabesque designs held up its vestibule’s Romanesque dome. The peach-colored walls were real
alabaster as was the gold in the mosaics embedded in the floor.
Four sharp knocks on Paul’s hotel door—followed by insistent rapping. “Stupid room service,” he muttered into the phone. “I put out a ‘do not disturb’ sign before I went to bed. I’ll call you later, Ben. I have to get that.” He opened it to a tight-faced man in his mid-fifties he’d never met before but looked like he could have been a Haaretz News journalist.
“Good morning, Mr. Hays. My name is Aaron Schwartz,” the man said, shouldering his way in. “Please sit down,” he ordered rather than invited Paul. Then, securing his perch on the hotel desk with thick- muscled legs to the floor, he seemed satisfied that he’d positioned his head three feet higher than Paul’s. “You’re
surprised,” he concluded, with a smug look on his face.
Paul wondered how the stranger had managed to seize control of the room.
“I asked for information on Ali Walid,” he said, regaining equilibrium. “I didn’t expect Haaretz to deliver it by hand.”
“I’m not from that news rag,” Aaron replied, his voice thick with disregard. “And it’s the other way around.”
“Meaning?” Paul felt he had every right to be curt.
“We want information from you.”
“Who the hell are “we”?”
“An inappropriate question.” Aaron pulled away from the desk and stood with strongman arms across his chest. “Suffice it to say, while I don’t work for Haaretz, I work with the CIA, FBI, Interpol and the Mukhabarat. My job is essential to Israel’s security.” He stepped to the window view and looked out. “We’re happy with the Sisi regime. Call it a popular mandate or military coup—it’s all the same to us. We work together well.”
Paul rubbed the nape of his neck. “I take it you’re Mossad.”
Paul played for time, braced himself against the pressure he knew Aaron would exert. He stood up to lean across the desk and slide open the window. The fragrance of green palm fronds and pink jacaranda blossoms that struggled through the dusty air cleared his head. He focused on the Nile’s dull brown water
rather than look at the man from the Mossad. “Since when do journalists work for Israel’s secret police?”
“You’re the keynote speaker at this Counterterrorism Conference. That came to our attention three months ago. The timing was perfect.” Aaron stood up, stretched his leg, and stood in front of Paul. “We know you have a relationship with Salma Ibrahim,” he said, evenly.
“And by extension, her father. A man highly placed in Egypt.”
“Why bring her up?” Paul asked, and now felt as though the ants had been
replaced by a porcupine in the space between his collar and his neck.
“Another reason for you to cooperate.” A threat lurked in Aaron’s words. “She and
her family, particularly her father, are in danger. Twice the Taj has tried to assassinate Dr. Hamdi.”
“Why the Hamdi’s?” Paul asked, his voice mirroring the stress he felt.
“We don’t know. Perhaps you can find out. In any case, once you get the disk from your friend, we will decommission the sheikh. Meanwhile, your fiancée is an easy, opportunistic target for him to get to her father.” Paul would go mad it he thought of Salma in the hands of the
Taj. He shook his head to clear it. Drumming his fingers, this time on the armrest, he asked the man from the Mossad,
“Why doesn’t Abu Taleb just give the disk to the Egyptian authorities?”
“You know better than that. Leaks, deceits, betrayals. He has good reason to fear for his life.” More of Aaron’s arrogance. “As long as the disk is in his possession, your friend’s
life is in danger. He’s probably only alive because of its password protection. Sheikh Nabulsi would have already had the man killed if he thought he could access its information.”
“You’re telling me my friend is willing to hand off a primed grenade and have the
Taj kill me instead?”
“You won’t be at risk of anything like that. Just hand off the disk to us at once.” Aaron interrupted Paul before his resistance turned into a rant. “Mr. Hays, it’s important for you, and for us, to eliminate Nabulsi,” he continued in a more conciliatory tone. “So—” he dragged the word out. “When your lady gets here–we know she arrives this afternoon—she’s likely to be an attractive target for the Taj. And—” he paused for effect, “we can always arrange that she
become one. The Taj need only discover she’s with you and you, of course, are with us. It could be fatal for Salma if Nabulsi ever linked her to the Mossad.”
Paul’s heart skipped several beats. The Mossad was capable of anything. There was nothing left to ponder. He would have to work for this disgusting man.
On the morning of the same day Paul and Salma had flown separately into Cairo, Murad Ragab sat at a glass-topped table in the interminable crackle of a television set, its volume turned up loud enough to mask the headquarters’ activities: moving assault rifles and grenades in and out, discretely.
. . .
Murad reflected on the strange fate that brought him to this table. It was seven years since Salma refused to marry him and he left America heart-broken, and humiliated. Counting on Sheikh Nabulsi’s support and guidance in Egypt, he’d abandoned his studies in California not knowing his mentor had split from the Muslim Brotherhood to form the more radical Taj al Islam. Murad would likely not have joined the extremist group if he’d had a real choice, but it was impossible to get a job without highly placed “influence” of which from a village south of Minya, he had none. The sheikh would only secure him a part-time job teaching electronic equipment repair at a vocational institute there. In exchange, he put him in charge of a local Taj cell in the agricultural area surrounding it.
. . .
He drummed his thumb against his thigh, used his shirt-cuff to wipe the laptop’s screen, then, as though it would somehow summon the sheikh, turned to look at the door behind him. If the meeting didn’t start in the next few minutes, he’d miss the two o’clock train, the day’s last one to Minya, from where he had to take a ferry to his grandparents’ village of Sidi Osman.
. .. .
The sound of Nabulsi’s cane tapping on the hallway’s wood floor preceded him. Murad jumped to his feet, raised his right hand to his heart, and bowed his head to acknowledge his mentor. In his early seventies, the sheikh was tall for an Egyptian. A white, turban-like cloth coiled around his red clerical skullcap made him look taller than his six feet; the wire-framed glasses hanging over his beige cleric coat added to his gravitas. And finally, the Council convened, Murad recording the minutes with thick but nimble fingers on the keyboard. Admiral Ahmed Tarazi, stocky, and square-chinned, summed up the naval support for a Taj operation when he clicked to the last frame of his PowerPoint presentation. “It’s time, brothers,” he concluded, resuming his seat.
. . .
The Taj’s plan to overthrow Sisi’s regime relied on the same well-tested elements used by previous coups: massive, widespread civil disruption and simultaneous explosions in cities, followed by the breaking out of political prisoners. As in similar actions, networks of university, college and vocational school students would disburse to the streets. Since the Brotherhood had been secretly taking over the country’s professional associations or syndicates, its members would strike. Those in other syndicates Sisi hadn’t purged would also strike. Its members would close hospitals, judicial courts, schools, and colleges. Paralyze the state. Incapacitate the government. In other words, unleash a civil war and then in the wake of predictable upheaval, a small group of Army officers allied with the Taj would establish an interim government headed by Nabulsi. Sisi did it, so would the sheikh.