Present and Tense: Mixed messages

Nabil Shawkat
7 Min Read

“Orabi had to secure the train connections near Zagazig. He dug a sequence of trenches and waited for the Highland Brigade advancing from the north. Intelligence had told him the Black Watch Battalion would arrive at dawn . I was dictating a biased account of the 1882 British campaign to a young man who was making a name for himself in documentaries. Every now and then, I would interrupt the narration to make calls to the Bronx, Milan and Belarus. After two weeks of inactivity, I was eager to get things done.

Mario from Milan was on the phone, reporting on the progress of my summer fashion collections, due to be launched simultaneously in Milan and Santa Fe in two weeks. I was explaining why Dorothy wouldn’t be working for us anymore when I got a call from Dahab.

The call was from Husein Abdel Ghani, the veteran Al Jazeera correspondent whom I’d given off-the-record information in the past, but no interviews. You either sell guns or go on the record. It’s as simple as that. Even in the fashion world, I remain anonymous. I go to the yacht for the after-show champagne reception, but never step onto the catwalk for the final bow.

What Husein wanted to know was whether the bombings were the act of anyone I knew. He should’ve asked Yuri really, but Yuri was not available, not since Bali. I said I had no idea, and wasn’t even lying. It was true. I am distancing myself from terror groups these days on the advice of my therapist. “Sell guns if that’s what you have to do, but don’t get emotionally entangled. Go to a happier place in your mind. Imagine the ocean. Feel the sand under your toes. Look at the overcast skies and visualize shark attacks. Three sharks, one fishing boat, a man on deck smoking a cigar, looking onto the horizon, unaware of what comes next. the sharks circle. then they circle again, Annette was hypnotizing me over the videophone from Vienna.

A few minutes earlier, Husein was on television describing the mayhem. It was hot in Sinai and he was wearing what seemed like an off-the-shelf jacket from JC Penny. I had to avert my eyes. That was too much. Bombs go off without notice and reporters rush to the scene wearing last summer’s collection. Something has to be done about that.

“I know you’re busy, Mario, I had pushed the speed dial to Rome. “But there is something else I need you to do for me. Send me the caramel three-button striped jacket, the hand-knit white linen tank top, and the natural cotton pinstripe drawstring pants. Yes, from the Desperado Collection. What size? I’ll get back to you on that.

Network correspondents in this part of the world think that their sole responsibility to the public is to present the facts as they are. I disagree. A television personality is a role model, someone people look up to and emulate. You cannot go on camera wearing yesteryear’s clothes and think you’re doing your job. No sir. Your phonebook should include stylists as well as academics, designers as well as politicians.

What size shirts and pants do you wear, Husein . Are you there? Apparently I had put him on hold for too long because I got no answer. So I went on dictating, “The advance party outflanked the Egyptians and marched all the way to Belbeis, where they ran into a police patrol and a brief skirmish took place .

That’s when I started to get dizzy. I took two pills that were supposed to help but didn’t. I was getting tired but couldn’t afford to lose anymore time, not after two weeks of doing nothing. So I went on working at breakneck speed, handling five or six people on the phone almost simultaneously.

I told Frankie in the Bronx that we have located his woman in Hurghada and she was fine. I told Mario in Milan that Santa Fe needed extra cash. And I instructed an associate in Cairo to get me Husein’s measurements before noon. And I should have taken the green and white pills, not the orange ones, I now discovered.

A few hours later, Husein was sitting in a police station in his underwear, refusing to name the sources for the Belbeis report and snarling at a young lieutenant who only wanted to take his measurements. Mario was in Milan transferring cash to an exotic dancer in Hurghada. Frankie was in the Bronx putting a contract on Yuri in Uzbekistan. And a set of designer apparel was on its way to a war criminal in Darfur.

All of this was my fault, I was sure. But Annette reassured me on the videophone. “The pills are a minor consideration. Recovery comes from within, from your inner self. Now, have a deep breath and visualize the ocean. Feel the sand under your bare feet, look at the horizon. Clouds are gathering. It’s going to rain now. It’s raining. The man on the boat is putting on his coat. He doesn’t see the sharks, not yet. But they’re out there. They’re taking their time, circling, circling, circling .

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