Logic on a donkey's back

Or An Egyptologist at Pharaoh Mobius' Court

20-9-1990, Cairo, al-Muski

I was sitting at my crowded desk above Muhammad al-Shedid's antiquities shop, doing what they call "nursing my wounds", I think. Muhammad had given me some artifacts the day before that he wanted identified and catalogued - they were still lying here, in their little boxes, among all the rubbish on my desk, untouched. I had trouble taking it all in. The stuff in the boxes would either be something straight out of this "Nile Empire", or they would be something from "my" Egypt- before the invasion. I didn't know it, and I wasn't sure I wanted to find out. Muhammad was as cheerful as ever, but then he had been transformed into this new reality right at the beginning of the invasion. In a way, I think, he now felt right at home. He'd been using my Egyptological knowledge ever since I had come to Egypt a few years ago - only that now, we were dealing with far more than just a few illicit antiquities, and no one actually cared. I saw it as one of my tasks that some of the original stuff was preserved and not twisted into something I can only call a caricature of itself.

That would-be pharaoh down there in Thebes was a right pain in the arse, and the white-kilted goons of his lurking everywhere didn't make it easier for an honest Egyptologist such as me to help save the world. Save the world? Was that me? Boy, I already sounded like one of those Nile Super Heroic types out there. I mean, it's good of them to go out save the world, but this alien reality that had taken hold of Egypt had its ways to make its heroes almost as obnoxious as its villains. Talking of which, I thought that I really had to look out for other people like me - whom the invasion had not changed and who might also feel the urge to change something. This might mean that I had to go and seek adventures or some such. After what had happened to me lately, I wasn't so sure whether some of the events were a blessing or a curse. Of course they were a curse, but then again...

Finally, I took a look at one of the things in the boxes. It looked funny - a shabti figure made of burnt clay, but painted in a particularly gaudy colour scheme. A ghastly thing to behold - but after having had a closer look, it felt genuine - although not genuine in the sense that it came from the reality that I call home. This little clay figurine was transformed by the reality of Mad Moby. I put it back. I was supposed to write a description for Muhammad to promote and sell the little thing, but right then I didn't feel up to it. I would need to write some notes glorifying this so-called Nile Empire, and I can't bring myself to do just do that.

Praise that bloody bastard Mobius...


I had already taken a fountain pen, and my hand was hovering over the paper - no, actually it was trembling. GodDAMN it!

I dropped the pen, splashing burgundy ink all over the paper. I got up and took a bottle of gin out of the bookshelf, where it had been standing next to a bunch of old travellers' handbooks about Cairo that were now pretty useless except for nostalgic reasons. Everything had changed. I took some water from a large clay jar I had put next to the closed shutters of my bedroom window - just as in olden times, and almost as good as a fridge, those porous jars they made (and, surprisingly, still make) at a town called Ballas in Middle Egypt.

I poured myself a stiff gin and diluted it with the water.

"Ya Muhammad! Ana awez wahid shisha, min fadlak!" I shouted downstairs and sat down again. My thoughts just kept wandering and I found it hard to concentrate. The gin was supposed to soothe my spirit a little, as it usually does when I have some before I have to board a plane, for example - I hate flying. But this time, the gin didn't make a difference. My hands were still trembling and I put down the glass rather too hastily on the desk, splashing the open notebook with watery gin. Absentmindedly I tried to wipe it away, only to get all the burgundy ink on my fingers as well. I looked at my hand - it was dripping red - it actually looked like blood - my blood. I couldn't think straight, it was as if someone had switched off my rational thoughts. I was still screaming my head off when Muhammad took my shoulders and shook me.

"Stuart, stop that - what will the neighbours think?"

I shut my mouth and looked at my friend, feeling extremely silly. Had I thought only a few minutes ago that I would have to go out seek other heroic types like me and try save the world? Me, who gets hysterical watching ink dripping off my fingers???

I hadn't even seen Muhammad coming, I hadn't seen anything, really - just some kind of sensory overload, the essence of what had happened barely two weeks ago.

I was dripping red ink on the floor, so I took a handkerchief out of my trouser pocket and tried to wipe the red off, which insisted on stubbornly sticking to my fingers (It was that stupid expensive German ink I was using - it stained everything).

Muhammad saw my trembling hands.

"Allah, Stuart - sit down and enjoy the shisha I have brought for you - you look like an affrit has possessed you. You will need the shisha."

My usually very jolly friend, who had, a few years earlier, always insisted on singing the latest English pop songs to cheer me up (and had now taken to singing, of all things, Gilbert and Sullivan if he felt like singing), the legendary antiquities dealer Muhammad al-Shedid, scourge of the naive tourist, looked pretty concerned now. I dragged myself to the low bench in the corner of my little "office" and sat down clumsily on the large cushions. Muhammad arranged the waterpipe for me, handing me the mouthpiece. He is a very caring friend, not the least because he thinks all the brainy archaeologist types need proper help, and so he also got me my glass of watery gin and even hurried downstairs again to harass one of the boys in the busy Sharia al-Muski to bring us tea from a nearby ahwa, a coffee house.

Arranging myself on the cushions I noticed I was still hurting, physically, in a lot of places. I took a draw from the shisha, watching the water bubble inside the blue glass body.

Soon, Muhammad came back with a battered little metal tray and two glasses of sweet hot shay.

"Drink, my friend!" he said and sat down on the bench next to me. Lacking a proper table, he put the tray on the floor.

He looked at me expectantly.

I took a few more draws from the shisha and then passed it to him. After another few moments silence, a time as long as I would not have thought Muhammad being able to be quiet, he finally asked me.

"Ya salam - what happened to you down there in Thebes? Will you ever talk about it?" He sighed. "I don't think we can go on like that. You're not a very big help, I'm sorry to say, if you just keep acting weird as soon as I give you some artifacts for classification!" He took a deep breath. I took the shisha again and also took a deep breath, trying unsuccessfully to blow a smoke ring. I didn't want to talk about it, but maybe I had to. Egypt, my beloved second home, might have turned into a madhouse where black and white, good and evil, seemed to be excessively clearly cut, where action was more important than thinking - but maybe, because I was not a part of this new reality but still clinging to my own -(a reality where your parents try to drag you to a mental institute when they think you are a bit weird, by the way...), maybe I had to tell someone (and not a quack).

That someone not being someone as obnoxious as "Colonel Cairo", for example, who hadn't understood me anyway. When the shisha had calmed me down a bit, I finally told Muhammad what had happened in the South. After all, he was my only true friend here, who had always supported me - even about that elusive underground structure at Saqqara.

The whole idiotic story had started two weeks ago when I had finally had it about all that pseudo-Egyptian crap that self-styled "pharaoh" Mobius was promoting. I had not got a doctorate in Egyptology to end up in a fake Egyptian reality, being mocked from afar by this sad combination of a third- class villain and a would-be king. I had told Muhammad I would prepare a proper hieroglyphic letter of complaint, such as, for example, the workmen in the village of Deir el-Medineh had written in the New Kingdom when they had gone on strike. I was careful to make it as authentic as I could, writing it in Late Egyptian and in my own, bare intelligible hieratic hand and put all my complaints about the authenticity of things here in the "Nile Empire" into highly stylised poetic form. I was extremely proud of my work - it was a papyrus of about two meters' length, and even Muhammad was impressed, but still thought my idea was utter bollocks (although he, of course, called it "balderdash", not bollocks). I still dreamed of the pen being mightier as the sword and some such.

"You can't just go there and say hello to Mobius!" -

"Of course I can! I will just formally register a complaint in the Ancient Egyptian fashion, and if he wants to observe protocol he has to listen. Besides, what do I have to fear? I'm just an Egyptologist, I'm no threat or anything. I'm not one of them costumed blokes that Mobius seems to be afraid of!"

Well, yes, we've had our fair share of costumed "Nile Super Heroes" getting into scraps with the respective "Nile Super Villains" here in Cairo, and the idea even made Muhammad chuckle into his beard when he imagined me in a costume. "No, you're definitely not one of THOSE."

So I was convinced what I was going to do was a logical, brilliant idea - it would have been in real Ancient Egypt, anyway. So I was wrong.

Go figure.

Against Muhammad's wishes, I had packed just a little bag, put on my best Lawrence of Arabia imitation garb (no, really - I was wearing loose trousers and a short galabeya, in an attempt to combine native and Egyptian dress), bought a return ticket to Thebes and set off on September 4, 1990. The train took ages, and when I finally arrived at Luxor station, it was already evening. I got myself a cheap bed at a cheap hotel in Station Street and set off early next morning. I hired a small felucca to get me across the Nile without creating too much attention and got myself a donkey on the other side. The west bank was so totally different from what it had been before the arrival of Mobius, it was actually breathtaking - one could see all the temples lined up at the edge of the irrigated land, restored to their former splendour - or so it would seem. Upon closer inspection, most of them would probably have changed a bit, I feared. But I didn't have time for this then. I got on my donkey and rode towards the new "Royal Palace" - which was situated next to Medinet Habu, where once the palace of Amenhotep III had stood - at Malqatta.

I went by way of the village of Al-Kom, which had, indeed, not changed a bit. Still there were hordes of small scroungy children cheering at me when I rode by - just like the last time I had been here, a year ago.

I was full of self-esteem - I had even told a few people in town what I wanted to do the night before, when I was having a coffee at the ahwa next to the hotel. Everyone had thought I was mad. In hindsight I'd say, yes, that was a crap idea. But while I was approaching the palace at a sharp trot on my donkey, I still thought it a brilliant idea. The guards (and there were a lot of them) had quite some fun when I told them what I wanted. Well then, I let them pull their jokes, and finally they sent someone to ask whether the "pharaoh" also wanted to have some fun. I grew irritated, but finally, some of the underlings took me to Mobius himself.

To me, he looked strangely unreal in his fancy dress get-up, and all the weird colours in his elaborate palace made me giddy. And, suddenly, there was a nagging thought - Mobius seemed so completely beyond any kind of logical argumentation that I'm used to that I started feeling strangely under pressure. I did every thing that I had come there for, I read my scroll to him, told him about my complaints as an Egyptologist, and he seemed amused no end.

If you ever meet him, believe me, he is beyond just being creepy - he is creepy AND mad as a hatter - and unfortunately very powerful, and in a powerful position to boot. He laughed at me and didn't exactly take me seriously, which, in turn, hurt my professional pride. With some trick of his, he transformed my papyrus into a completely different text - propagating his ideas of a re-created "pharaonic" Egypt. I was confused. I had never seen anyone twisting reality so easily. He even had the funny idea - at least for a second or two - that I, as an Egyptologist, might want to work for him. I had to decline for ethical reasons. He managed to get me into a pretty vile temper, and for a moment I forgot I was dealing with a very powerful madman there - I think I uttered a few very impolite and uncooperative sentences.

I thought it was time to go then, if no one wanted to listen to my complaints.

Unfortunately that was the moment when Mobius asked me why he should just let me go free. Very suddenly I felt utterly alone and afraid. I tried to get the sentiment across that one does not kill the jester, but obviously Mobius didn't find me that funny - only annoying, I assume. Maybe, at that point, there would still have been a chance for me to get away unscathed - had Mobius not hesitated and taken a closer, more intensive look at me. I didn't know then what he was looking for, but I do now. For someone with such a black twisted heart, I must have seemed like the embodiment of naivety, innocence - and good. And he also saw something else - I had told him I didn't think I would pose a threat of any kind, but he suddenly said I had the potential to become a threat. I didn't know what he was ranting on about, but since then I have learnt that I am now a storm knight - exactly what Mobius had feared.

I don't know what you've heard about what Mobius does to people that he doesn't like or that get in his way - Muhammad knew quite a few stories about that, though, and when I got to this point in my little tale, he turned slightly pale. I can only tell you I have not exactly recovered yet. Not physically, and especially not mentally. Of course I had tried to get away - but what would you expect of a bunch of people who happily torture you to death with some infernal machinery only to revive you and try again? They're not above shooting you in the back just to keep you from getting away, because it doesn't matter to them.

I spent three days in the clutches of Moby and his henchmen, and I can't say that I don't remember much. Unfortunately, I have a very acute sense of time, and I remember every damn minute of these three days. I had been threatened with eternal torture, and I, at least, wanted to see eternity coming. I can't go into more detail. It hurt. A lot. And again. I still have nightmares about it.

But in the end, I was lucky, as word had got around and a few people heard about my stupid little stunt, and one of those costumed heroic types had actually taken it upon himself to save me. He's called Colonel Cairo, and he's about the most positively obnoxious hero you can imagine. Nevertheless, I owe him my life, even if I couldn't actually tell him for a while - when he came to heroically carry me away, I was beyond any argument, and besides, I didn't have any voice left to say anything. If I had had, and if I had been properly conscious at that point, I would have probably told him to wait another five minutes for the infernal machinery to wake me up yet again, but I was not exactly in the right state of mind to do that. I don't remember much of our flight, because I stopped being responsive very soon.

I know he dumped me at the Hotel de la Gare, the doss house that I had stayed at before, because I remembered the stained ceiling I was staring at when I woke up again. He even got me a doctor and some old magic woman, a sheikha - afterwards he told me that they had all thought I would die. But I stubbornly refused to do just that, as I usually don't do what people expect, and so I was finally spirited away, back to Cairo, where my saviour delivered me right to Muhammad's doorstep.

When I finally ended my little narrative, Muhammad still looked a bit pale.

"That - that was that infernal Omegatron machine you were talking about, right?" I was looking at my ink-stained fingers again, this time trying not to drift away into hysteria again.

"Yes, it was."


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