“I could only get on at all by taking “nature” into my confidence and my account, by treating my monstrous ordeal as a push in a direction unusual, of course, and unpleasant, but demanding after all, for a fair front, only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue.” – Henry James, The Turn of the Screw
The following occurred while in Egypt in the fall of 1997 when a fellow student from Conn went missing shortly before Halloween. The worst was assumed for an American college student alone in a foreign land. Without warning several days after his disappearance he reappeared at the dorms and told us of what had happened; this is his story:
It was mid October, even though it didn’t feel anything like autumn to us within the fragrant smog of Cairo. We were preparing costumes for an upcoming U.S. Embassy Halloween party and Oliver’s costume was the traditional attire of a Bedouin tribesman. The Bedouin are nomadic peoples who live throughout the Middle East, and who usually live as outsiders within their own countries. I think the place of the Bedouin within Egyptian culture fascinated Oliver, as it was a classic example of native peoples whose fidelity to their traditions had kept them apart from assimilation into the mainstream culture. The inspiration for his costume was a Bedouin dagger he had recently purchased at the Khan Khalili bazaar. All he needed to complete his costume was a robe, so he put the dagger in his backpack and got on a bus to head to a particular shop in one of the outskirts of the city.
After walking for a while, searching for the shop he realized he was lost. Dusk was approaching so he tried heading back toward where the bus had dropped him off. Retracing his steps, the streets falling quiet, he continued on when to his right he heard what he thought were the sounds of muffled screaming. He backed up slowly and in the shadows of a small alley he saw a man and a woman struggling. Frozen, not knowing what to do, only he could know what flashed through his mind in those few seconds. He realized as the man ripped the woman’s clothes that this was no domestic dispute but a rape in progress. He walked into the alley, moving closer. Quickly, Oliver shouted at the attacker hoping to scare him off by taking him by surprise. Instead, in that split second the attacker jumped up and instead of running, swung round and lunged at Oliver with his fist.
The next thing Oliver remembered, he was lying on his back with a warm sensation of blood running down his face. Awareness slowly came back to him and he realized that only a few feet away the woman lay sobbing, pinned to the ground, the attacker on top of her. For seconds that seemed to last for minutes he fought the overwhelming urge to drift back into unconsciousness. Closing his eyes, all he could hear were her cries in his ears. In that moment he remembered the Bedouin dagger. With all his will, Oliver pulled the dagger from his pack and rose to his feet. Quietly he approached from behind. Suddenly, Oliver pulled the attacker up by the shoulders and swung him around to face him. As the attacker wheeled around to strike, Oliver raised his arm and sliced the dagger across his face! Down he brought the knife and with every ounce of strength he buried the blade into the attacker’s midsection. Waves of pain and adrenaline overtook him and before Oliver lost consciousness he saw the attacker doubled over, stumbling off out of the alley.
The next thing Oliver remembered he awoke in a hospital bed surrounded by a doctor and two Arab men in western suits. They explained that he was in Alexandria, 250 kilometers from Cairo. Before he could ask questions, one of the men in suits began to thank him profusely for saving his daughter’s life, and told him that anything he wanted they would give him, that whatever he wished for to just ask. Oliver simply asked that his nose, which was shattered by the blow from the brass knuckles the attacker had been wearing, be fixed and that he have a train ticket back to school in Cairo. The men told him that the reason he was brought to Alexandria was that the man’s brother was one of the best plastic surgeons in Egypt. They showed him a mirror and removed the bandage from his face. His nose had already been repaired, however they couldn’t find any pictures of him to model the reconstruction after. The surgeon hadn’t had any experience working on African Americans before so the only thing they had to go on was a Tupac CD they found in Oliver’s backpack.
With his nose bandaged, standing around in the courtyard of the AUC dorm, almost a week after he went missing, Oliver told us this story. When he was finished and we were all asking a thousand questions, Oliver’s roommate Chris said “Do you know what’s weird, do you remember that dream you told me about last week?” In Oliver’s dream a huge snake rose up and confronted him. The snake lunged forward and bit Oliver’s face and he in turn sliced the snake in two with a sword. As we all stood around listening to this we couldn’t believe our ears, but Oliver really did end up with Tupac’s nose and the dream of the snake further re-enforced that we all really were engaged in some larger subconscious drama that was being played out. We couldn’t explain how a dream could have foretold of events that were yet to take place, but we couldn’t deny the powerful truth of what we witnessed. I personally will never forget the chills that ran up my spine upon hearing this and it was to me at least, as Henry James had said, another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue.