ANCIENT MUMMY CURSE ENDED BY INTREPID TEEN!
CAIRO (JanNews)– Sixteen-year-old American January James arrived in Egypt earlier this month and single-handedly solved a centuries-old curse attached to the mummy of…
“Crap. What was the name of the person who lived in the tomb?”
The woman sitting next to me on the bus pursed her lips and squinted her eyes at my notebook.
“Sorry,” I said, sliding my hand over it so she couldn’t read what I’d written. “This is confidential. I’m a journalist. Or I will be some day. I’m hoping to sell a couple of my stories about my time at the dig, so I’m sure you understand if I can’t show it to you now. Do you get the Shocking News Today! here in Egypt?”
The woman, who wore a white head scarf called a hijab, flared her nostrils at me and looked away as if she’d smelled something bad. I did a covert pit sniff check just in case my deodorant had given way on me after the long flight from Paris–the heat in Cairo was enough to strip the air from your lungs–but the Ps checked out OK, so I just figured that she must be one of the conservative women Mrs. Andrews had told me about in her “Dos and Don’ts of Going to Egypt” lecture. Most of the stuff she had told me was about how to be polite in another country, but some of it concerned how women were treated.
“I’m not wicked or anything because I’m traveling alone,” I explained to the woman. She didn’t look very convinced. In fact, she tried to avoid my eyes, but I felt it was important that the first person I talked to in Egypt not have the wrong impression of me.
I looked at the woman a little more closely. “My name is Jan. It’s short for January. And yes, before you ask, I was born in January. My dad named me.”
The bus swerved to the side, throwing the woman next to me up against my shoulder. She made a horrified gasping noise, and quickly dragged herself off of me, half-rising out of the seat as she scanned the bus for somewhere else to sit.
I looked around, too, suddenly realizing that I had been so busy writing what was sure to be a killer story, that I hadn’t been watching for the stop the airport map showed was right next to my hotel. The bus, which earlier had been traveling down the busy downtown Cairo streets of offices and modern buildings, was now honking and swerving its way down a different part of town where the streets were narrow, dark, and filled with as many people as cars.
“Flash! You’re lost, Jan,” I said to myself as the bus slammed to stop while a donkey was dragged across the street by a guy in a long white and black robe. Donkeys! Uh oh–I’d gone from industrial, modern Cairo to something out of an old mummy movie in just the amount of time it took to tell a woman I wasn’t a perv. “I’d better get out before I end up at the pyramids or who knows where,” I muttered as I stuffed my notebook away in the bag that had been wedged between my feet. I hoisted all five hundred pounds of it, dragging both it and me into the aisle of the bus, groaning to myself about my luck in being so wrapped up with taking notes at the airport that I’d missed meeting the volunteer coordinator.
Worst case scenario was that I’d have to walk. It couldn’t be that far back to the touristy part of Cairo–I’d only been gabbing for a few minutes, after all.
“Come on, Jan, get a grip,” I told myself as I started down the crowded sidewalk. “You want to be a journalist, and everyone knows that journalists always do exciting things like get lost in the middle of Cairo.”
“Moomkin almiss bizazeek?” The sneering voice, accompanied by a tug on my bag had me spinning around, clutching the duffel bag tightly in case some of the street kids were thinking of doing a five-fingered rocket job on me. It wasn’t the kids, though…it was the guys from a cigarette shop I had just passed.
They were all pretty young, all but one in thin cotton shirts that looked like they were made out of the same material as my grandmother’s kitchen curtains, and tight black pants. The guys weren’t even cute, and if I have one rule in life, it’s that the very least a guy who is going to hit on me can do is to be droolworthy. These guys weren’t even remotely cute. They did, however, smell like they’d taken a bath in cheap men’s cologne.
I tried walking away, but Mr. Wimpy Beard had my bag.
“Áram!” I yelled at him, trying desperately to remember the other phrases the Dig Egypt! people had listed in their program guide as useful Arabic. There was something about saying “stop touching me” that was supposed to be useful…oh, yeah. “Sibnee le wadi!” I yelled at the top of my lungs.
I guess they weren’t expecting me to yell, because two of the four hissed at me and backed off, but the other two, including Beard Boy, just laughed and tried tugging my bag toward them.
“Illegitimate sons of a donkey,” I snarled, which was Rob’s suggestion of a good insult. They didn’t seem to get that at all, and Mr. Laughy Pants just laughed even harder, jerking me and my bag forward until he had a hand on my wrist.
I looked around for a woman to help me, like both Mrs. Andrews—who had been to Egypt before with the school choir—and the Dig Egypt! people had recommended, but the women who were scurrying by all had bags of groceries, and no one seemed to be inclined to help me.
“OK, I can do this,” I told myself, trying to pull free from the Bearded Wonder. “Áram, áram! This is going to make—áram all ready!—for a really great story. No newspaper will be able to resist buying it. I will probably win the Pulitzaaaaiiiii! TAKE YOUR HANDS OFF MY BUTT!”
While I was struggling with the first guy, the second one slipped behind me and copped a grope. A two-hander. I’m the first one to admit there was a lot back there to grope, but still! I jerked my hand and bag away from the Beard Weenie, stomped on the foot of the second, and deciding retreat was obviously called for, threw myself into the dark caverns of the nearest shop, racing around shelves and cases to the back, where I stood panting just a little and sweating a whole lot as I peered down an aisle of dusty sandstone statues toward the entrance.
The two guys stood in the doorway, obviously looking for me. I ducked behind a big fake mummy, and watched as a little bent old man in a dusty blue caftan pushed aside a bead curtain and scuffed his way out into the shop. Behind him, pausing in the bead doorway, was another guy, a dark figure in a black muscle tee, black jeans, and a long ebony braid that hung down to his shoulder blades. The two touchy-feely guys said something to the old man, but he waved his hands in a shooing motion and must have told them to get lost. They didn’t like that and started coming in to the shop, but the guy in black stepped forward and said something that had them hesitating. After a couple of what I was sure were snarky comments, they left.
I used the sleeve of my tee to wipe the sweat off my forehead (don’t make that face, I didn’t have anything else!). Dragging my duffel bag by its handles, I carefully made my way down the aisle toward the old man who was waving an ancient black feather duster over some objects on a shelf in a dark corner. The guy in black was up at the front of the store, bent over looking at a case near the doorway.
I’d had enough of the guys in Egypt already, so I kept my voice low when I approached the old man.
“Ahlan wa sah.” The Dig Egypt! lit said it was polite to say hello and goodbye when you entered a shop.
The old man, humming softly to himself, gave a little jump and spun around clutching the feather duster. He squinted at me and raised his hand to his face like he was going to adjust his glasses, then made a tch noise when he realized he wasn’t wearing them.
“Salam alekum,” he responded, which I knew meant ‘peace be with you,’ a polite greeting. I also knew the correct response, thanks to Mrs. Andrews.
“Wa alekum es sala. Um…do you speak English? Inta bititkalim?”
“English, yes, yes, speak English much small, much small.” The old man beamed at me. “Insha’allah, you speak slowly.”
“Whew. No problem. I’m afraid my Arabic is pretty bad, but the Dig Egypt! people say that we should pick it up quick enough once we start hanging around the workers and stuff. My name is Jan, January James. I’m going to be working on an archaeological dig in the Tombs of the Servitors. Out near Luxor, you know? Anyhow, I’m here for a month to work on the dig. I’m going to be a journalist, and I thought this whole Egypt thing would give me a lot of things to break into the biz with.”
“Tombs, yes, yes, tombs good. Eh…” the old man looked confused for a moment, rubbing the sharp ridge of his nose. “Tomb of Servitors?”
“Yep, that’s the place.”
“Yes, yes, Tomb of Servitors! You come here,” the little old guy said in his dusty voice, pointing to the far corner with one knobby hand while waving me toward it with the other. “You come. Tomb of Servitors.”
“You have some replicas of stuff from the Tombs? Like statues and jewelry and things like that?” I followed him to the back of the room, sneezing a couple of times at the dust his caftan stirred up as he hobbled down the aisle. There was one dim bare bulb in the middle of the small shop that didn’t do much to shed light in the corners, which probably did a lot to explain the old guy’s squint.
“Tomb of Servitors,” the man repeated, stopping in front of an old black bookcase. I looked. On the shelves was a pretty motley collection of items—a small brown stone Sphinx that was missing a leg, a papier mache King Tut’s golden mask, a couple of dingy blue scarabs, three amber and gold bead necklaces hanging from a rickety wooden stand, and a dirty black bracelet stuffed behind them.
I fingered the bead necklaces, trying to see how well they’d clean up. My mother liked amber, maybe a necklace would make a good gift from Egypt? “Um…how much are they?” I asked, pointing to the necklaces.
“How much, yes, how much. Tomb of Servitors, how much. Yes.”
I sighed, almost too tired to care. My t-shirt was glued to my back despite the fact the sun had gone down. Little rivulets of sweat snaked down the back of my neck, slid down my spine, and joined their brethren captured in the waistband of my jeans. I was sweaty, lost, and had already yelled bad things at people my first hour in this country. Rifling through my mental files labeled Things I Had To Learn Before I Got on the Plane For Egypt, I trotted out the pertinent phrase for how much is that? “Bikam da?”
“Bi-kaem?” The old guy rattled off something.
I pulled out the letter from the Dig Egypt! people that had the hotel name and address, and a pen. “Can you write it down for me? I’m not very good at numbers yet.”
He wrote down the number fifty. I looked it up on the list of currency conversions Rob had printed out for me before I left home. Fifty Egyptian pounds was a little more than eight dollars—well within my souvenir-buying budget, but Mrs. Andrews had told me how much fun she had bargaining with people in the stores, and said it was expected by the shopkeepers.
I grinned at the old man and crossed out the fifty and wrote ten.
His eyes lit up as he made a clicking sound with his tongue, tipped his head back, and raised his eyebrows. “Not enough! Not enough! Tomb of Servitors. You see. Rekhis. Very cheap.” He scratched out the ten and wrote forty.
A la Andrews, I tried to look like I was so shocked by his price I’d rather staple my fingers together than pay what he asked. “Too much! Too expensive. Let’s try twenty.” I wrote the number down below his.
He opened his eyes really wide and slapped his hand up against the side of his face, which I assumed meant he was ready to beat himself silly before he accepted that price. His gnarled, twisted fingers grabbed my pen and wrote thirty.
I pursed my lips and looked at the necklaces, fingering the little money I had changed at the Paris airport. Thirty pounds was about five bucks. “For all of them? All three? Oh, shoot, what’s three, hang on, let me look it up…talat! Talat necklaces?”
He shook his head, saying, “Wahid, wahid,” as he scooped up the black bracelet and plopped it down in my hand, his elderly, arthritis-riddled fingers having no difficulty in quickly extracting the thirty pounds from the money I held in my hand.
I looked down at the ugly bracelet sitting on my palm. It was of some sort of black stone, with a small blue bird-shaped blob on the top. “Hey, wait a minute, my mother likes amber, I want the amber necklaces!”
“You take, very good. Tomb of Servitors.” He hobbled toward the front of the store, ignoring me as I followed slowly behind him desperately thumbing through the Arabic phrasebook in hopes it had “I don’t want this ugly bracelet, I want the three pretty amber necklaces, instead” as one of their translated phrases.
“Look…um…what’s the word for old guy…”
I looked up from the phrase book just in time to avoid running into a tall black shape that said, “Effendim.”
“What? Oh. Thanks. Effendim, sir, I want the necklaces—hey! Where’d he go?”
“In the back. Hassad is very old.” The guy in black with the long hair turned to look at me. He was a little taller than me, and although he had dark hair and dark eyes like the gropers outside, there was something different about him. For one, he obviously spoke English (with an accent, but it was a cool accent), and for another, he looked at me differently. The guys outside, even the older men, looked at me like I was a cherry on top of a sundae and they wanted to lick the whipped cream off, and how creepy is that? But this guy, he just looked at me like I was nothing different from any other girl. And he didn’t stare at my boobs, which was a really nice change.
Until I thought about that.
Why wasn’t he looking at me like he wanted to grope me? Was I that repulsive? Did he think I was too fat? Even guys who thought I was fat liked to look at my boobs, but not this guy. Oh, no, mister sexy-as-sin with his long braid and his muscle tee and nummy brown eyes just looked at me like I was no more interesting that the ugly bracelet that was glued to my sweaty palm.
Sigh. Some days life just wasn’t worth the trouble to chew through the leather straps on the straightjacket.