The first place that offered me a full-time job in journalism came with a salary of around $900 a month and was located in Cairo. I would take it! I shelled out my own airfare and became an editor of an English-language magazine in Egypt.
With the help of two teenage boys who drove me around to various buildings in their rusted-out car, I found an apartment in a characterless block of sand-whipped apartments on the edge of the city. Mussolini would have approved of the exterior, though inside the apartment was furnished with highly-stuffed pink tafeta chairs and particle board tables with gold edging, a sad attempt at luxury.
Initially, I was thrilled at the prospect of working in Cairo, where I’d spent a semester in college studying Arabic, though the job turned out to be less of a party than I was hoping. My boss, a ginger-haired Irish-American convert, was perpetually furious in a way that would require anger management courses if he were working in the US. Being in Egypt, however, allowed him to unleash his ire as fully as he liked on anyone he desired, and the job became more of an exercise in avoiding his wrath.
At the beginning of December, the first goat appeared in my neighborhood.
That day it was only one dirty brown goat standing on the cracked cement to the side of the apartment building. The next day there were three. Then there were more. There were goats all over the neighborhood, all over the city.
Tethered to the hands of young boys they came willingly up the road, necks looped in rope. They puttered up into our dusty concrete development from the main highway through Cairo in the backs of old Lottas whose rear windows later bore the dried-out smears from their wet noses and mouths.
The building next to mine had an open space below it for parking. This became the storage area for the neighborhood’s burgeoning animal population. A heavy rug was hung along one edge to spare the goat’s crooked pupils from the direct desert sun. Wire fencing was rolled out on the other sides to keep them from wandering.
At night, sitting on my balcony, I watched the neighbors gather by the enclosure, faces illuminated by the yellow light of their battery-powered lamps. I listening to the women talking and the children shrieking happily as the goats nibbled at their fingers.
I walked by the goats every morning as I left for my job at the magazine. Mahmoud, the apartment’s caretaker was often there, his fingers hooked into the chain-link, elbows dangling loosely, speaking indecipherable things to them in a soft voice.
On the day of the Eid I walked home from work quickly, as though there was something I could do to stop it. A large truck passed by on the street, intercepting me several blocks from my apartment building. A group of young men were standing up in the open back, holding limp skins bright red with meat to be distributed among the city’s poor. One of them held a machete in a way that didn’t strike me as a particularly religious. The blanket was no longer hanging over the carpark and the fencing was bent and torn away from the wall.
Shaking, I climbed the filthy stairs to my apartment.
I sat on the pink ruffled couch and turned on the TV. An image materialized through the monitor’s thick coating of dust. A crowd was screaming in Arabic. So much was happening that my beginner’s tongue understood none of it. The camera shook, then swung upward.
A man with a thick black moustache was being led to a platform. Saddam Hussein looked straight at me sitting on my pink ruffled couch. He looked straight at me. Then his neck snapped. Outside, my neighbors decorated the building with their bloody handprints, which would stain the doorway for weeks.