Gretchen McCullough

Gretchen McCullough

Gretchen McCullough was raised in Harlingen, Texas. After graduating from Brown University in 1984, she taught in Egypt, Turkey and Japan. She earned her M.F.A. from the University of Alabama and was awarded a Fulbright to Syria from 1997-1999.

Stories and essays have appeared in: The Texas Review, The Alaska Quarterly Review, The Barcelona Review, Archipelago, National Public Radio, Storysouth, Storyglossia and Guernica. Translations with the Egyptian poet, Mohamed Metwalli have been published in: El-Mustaqbel, Nizwa, Brooklyln Rail, Banipal and Jacket.

Her bilingual book of short stories, Three Stories from Cairo, was published by Afaq Publishers in Cairo in July 2011; Mohamed Metwalli and the author translated the stories into Arabic.

Currently, she is Senior Instructor in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo.

Please visit Gretchen McCullough’s website: www.gretchenmccullough.com

 

A Letter from the American Cemetery in Cairo

 

Recently, I went to visit the graves of two young, vibrant women who were killed when I lived in Cairo in 1986. I was a recent graduate of Brown University and I had signed up to be a volunteer teacher for the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. The assignment was a bigger trial by fire than I bargained for: teaching wild Egyptian girls the value of minor Jane Austen novels, living on the grounds of a dreary, dusty school, eating stringy buffalo for dinner. One could easily imagine what it might be like to be Jane Eyre.
     I will never forget the morning when Mary Anna Bodie, the chairman of the English department at Ramses College, appeared at breakfast to tell us the sad news. Mary Anna was at the end of her career, having served as a missionary in Iran before it fell—she didn’t bother much about the practical details of running an English department but she was a marvelous oral storyteller. She told harrowing stories about those she knew who had been murdered in Iran with real dramatic flair, even drawing her forefinger against her neck. However, what scared me that day was just how quietly she informed us that the two young women we had just seen the day before, were dead. A few days later, the other volunteer teachers and I stared at the flowers, covering the two coffins at their funeral.
     Now, my only friend left from my sojourn in the 80’s, since all the missionaries have either died, or left the country, was my dear friend, Jean Isterro, a kind, determined woman who had served as a volunteer teacher for the Presbyterian Church, but in 1963. I was two years old at the time. A native of a remote town in South Texas, could I ever have known that my destiny would be two sojourns in Egypt? Jean had married a handsome, courtly Egyptian pastor, Albert Isterro and raised a family in Cairo. After my two years at the dreary school, I had fled, vowing never to return to Cairo. However, I returned in 2000. As my father would say, “Never say never.”
     Kathy Lorimer and Ann Weir were killed in an accident when their bus was hit by a train on the way back to Alexandria. They both worked at the Schutz American School in Alexandria. Kathy and Ann were the only ones on the bus who had been killed—the freakish bad luck of life.
     Time does not stretch out in a endless blue expanse, as it did when I was twenty-four.
     Not too long ago, I read Tawfik al-Hakim’s play, Ahl el-Kahf, People of the Cave, in Arabic based on the story from the Quran about the sleepers of the cave. The first time I lived in Cairo, I couldn’t read street signs and knew only the most basic words, like bokra, tomorrow and insha’allah, God Willing. Besides learning that I didn’t know much about teaching, I also felt disoriented by the squiggles and dots of a strange language. However, even if I could have read Arabic at twenty-four, I am sure the play would not have resonated for me in the same way, as it does now. The young Christians, persecuted by the Roman Emperor, Decius, fled to a cave to escape death. Three hundred years later, they awoke. When one of the sleepers was sent to buy food, the seller was amazed he tried to pay with three-hundred-year old coins! The sleeper was bewildered by a new, unfamiliar world.
     Suppose Kathy Lorimer and Ann Weir emerged from the American Cemetery in Cairo after twenty-six years, they would feel like the sleepers of the cave, to find an even more unpredictable and volatile world. Young men burned fire on the tracks to stop trains: to express their rage to the new regime, the Brotherhood. Every day, chanting people raised their fists and carried banners throughout the provinces. Crowds carried coffins through the streets to bury those tortured by police or killed in protests. Packs of men roamed through Tahrir Square, targeting women for gang rapes. Masked men in black blocked bridges.
     Because of the security situation, one of Jean’s friends’ Anne had offered to take us to the American Cemetery in her car. Jean and Anne suggested that we take a small detour and visit the British Cemetery on our way to our destination.
     The British War Cemetery is an impressive tribute to careful gardening: perfect rows of headstones in green mowed grass, a miracle in Cairo. When Anne asked about someone killed in a bombing in the eighties, the caretaker brought us a list of all the people buried in the cemetery in alphabetical order, complete with their autobiographical details: age, nationality and location on the grounds. When I mentioned this to a British friend, he said, “Gretchen, we have a government office which maintains cemeteries.” Strolling around in this garden, one sees how young the people who are buried here: mostly soldiers from World War I—and they are very young: 19, 20, 21. Even younger than Kathy Lorimer and Ann Weir. But there are children, too. Adventures in foreign lands were not always a lark! What did children die of? Cholera. Malaria. Dysentery.
     The American Cemetery is an ignominious, shabby neighbor compared to the grand British garden. However, a magnificent tree fans its branches out, almost over the entire graveyard. Not neat and tidy, but idiosyncratic, like a garage sale with plenty of bric-a-brac, mementoes and oddities. Headstones were broken and defaced. Who did that? Why? Tree stumps grew up in the middle of graves. Wood was stacked next to the convent next door. What were they doing with the wood? Was someone making furniture in the graveyard? We peered inside the cone-shaped tomb through the metal bars. Blankets and old Baraka water bottles littered the floor; however, the floor had been swept clean. Maybe someone was sleeping in the tomb.
     In a city where so many people could barely satisfy their basic needs, was taking care of the dead a luxury?
     I searched for the graves of the two young women; not immediately obvious. But when I found them at last, I was more detached than I thought I would be. Aloe vera cactus curled out of the double headstone—this reminded me of my home, South Texas. When I was little, my grandfather rubbed aloe vera on me when I was sunburned: a miracle cure, the green viscous inside the plant was a salve for wounds.
     Kathyrn Ann Lorimer: 30/1/58. Ann Louise Weir: 25/1/61. My birthday is October 8th, 1961. A verse from Isaiah is carved on the stone: “Arise, Shine for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Their parents, Presbyterian missionaries, must have chosen the verse. I do not have any children, but realize I am now the same age as the parents when they had lost their daughters.
     The verse is a prophesy of Jesus’ coming to earth. “Arise, Shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you.” (Revised Standard Version, Isaiah 60. 1-2)
     I could only begin to imagine the darkness their parents must have felt. And yet, the rest of the verse describes heaven: “Lift up your eyes round about, and see; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far, and your daughters shall be carried in the arms. Then you shall see and be radiant, your heart shall thrill and rejoice; because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you…” (Isaiah 60. 4-5)
     A few weeks later, I fished out my unpublished novel out of the drawer. Maybe the chapter about the women’s funeral would give me more insight about the past. But I couldn’t winnow out the facts from my own story since I had already merged fiction and fact. Or was it just that too much time had passed? In my story, the young volunteer teachers at the College didn’t know the two women well who were killed so they made up stories about them. Do we make up stories when we don’t know or can’t remember? But now the mystery of their death in the past, is almost as mysterious as the American Cemetery in the present.
     Jean told me that Ann’s father, the Reverend Benjamin Weir is now 89. He felt frustrated by his loss of memory, his daughter wrote. His wife, Carol died. She had a prominent streak of gray in her hair when they came to Ramses College. She was determined to get him freed as a hostage. She laughed and said, “They asked us to stop sending postcards to Congress. They kept having to hire secretaries to keep up with the mail.”
     Benjamin Weir’s name is Isaiah McKinnon in my unpublished novel. In one chapter, he came to talk to the volunteer teachers about his experience as a hostage in Lebanon—the other missionaries thought this would force us to see how petty, the infighting in our flat was. We listened, but were not transformed radically: we were not like Paul, who saw the light on the road to Damascus. Instead, we wanted to meet charming Egyptian men, jealous of whoever had the latest boyfriend.
     He told us the story of how he had been taken hostage in Lebanon: a sobering tale for young women in their twenties, intent on adventure and fun. On his way to visit an Armenian pastor, a man pulled him into a car. Later, his captors started taping up his body, like a mummy and shoved him into a metal box. He said, “I was like a corpse in a container.” He was chained to a radiator for sixteen months. The chain served as a rosary for his prayers and stories; every day he remembered a person he loved. He told us we did not know our spiritual resources until we were challenged, yet we were too immature to understand.
     Kathy Lorimer and Ann Weir were killed the day after Ann’s reunion with her father, Benjamin Weir, just after his release as a hostage in Lebanon. I remember that Kathy’s mother, Mary Lou Lorimer wanted Kathy’s knitting basket. Was the knitting basket really lost in the accident or did the authorities think it better to throw a basket coated in blood? Maybe some mystery was merciful.
     Who was I, then? I remember making a Will for myself for the Presbyterian Church, in case my remains needed to be repatriated. I had no assets so there would be no money to speak of in the event that I died. My father, a lawyer who was accustomed to making out wills, drew one up for me. He had a small black sign, propped on the counter close to the receptionist: HAVE YOU MADE YOUR WILL? Squeamishly, I signed my name to my will—dying was not in my plans.
     Jean told me the story of a young American woman in her twenties who had died in Cairo. She was curious to know how much it would cost to ship a body home. In 2013, the price listed by the American Embassy for repatriating a body: four thousand U.S. dollars.
     In the end, does it matter where you are buried? I had not visited the Mont Meta Cemetery in San Benito, Texas to see the graves of my grandparents. When they were alive, I was cycling or motoring over to their house almost every day. On return visits home, my brother, Gene and I had ridden by their house on the arroyo on our bikes, but we had not visited their graves, shaded by a large mesquite tree.
     On the other hand, didn’t the dead deserve to be honored? Even if you were not buried in your home country, shouldn’t a cemetery be tended and cared for?
     When Mohamed Metwalli, my partner and I wandered in the Italian cemeteries in Alexandria, we found black and white photographs of the dead on their sculptured marble headstones. At least, we could see what the dead had looked like—the photographs gave us a sense of who the person might have been. While in the American Cemetery in Cairo, the only remembrance was crudely carved names on stone. Some stones did not have names. And if the headstone had been removed, the dead are gone without a trace.
     Mohamed shouted, “Look! A hoopoe! It’s a rare bird. It’s important in the story of King Solomon.”
     But hoopoes were also considered sacred birds in ancient Egypt; they knew how to find water. They heard secrets and cured diseases.
     “Have you ever seen a hoopoe?”
     “No,” I said.
     The hoopoe had an orange crest, tipped with black and a needle-like beak. His wings were striped black and white.
     Almost as if the hoopoe heard us, he suddenly flew away.
     Mohamed noticed a grayish colored dog behind us, who was reclining on one of the graves. He wagged his tail. “Let’s feed him some bread. He must be hungry.”
     The dog wolfed down the pita bread.
     In the distance we heard the loud chants of demonstrators, shouting, “Yasqut. Yasqut. Hukum el-Morshed.” Down with the rule of the Brotherhood’s cleric.
     When I lived in Cairo in the eighties, I stood on the balcony of the school, watching tanks roll down Ramses Street. Helicopters whirred overhead. Convicts had been released from the prison. The Holiday Inn Hotel out by the Pyramids was torched. In the night, we heard the boom of gunfire. Only later, did we learn that Central Security Forces had revolted against President Mubarak.
     The chanting was getting closer. “Baatel. Baatel.” Null and Void. The New Constitution was Null and Void. Maybe we should leave. But the foreign graveyards of Alexandria were more tempting than safety—Greek, Italian and Jewish. Anyway, who would storm a graveyard? We had wanted to visit the Jewish graveyard, but the Egyptian caretaker had not allowed us in. Mohamed jumped up in the air to see if he could get a glimpse over the wall—the graveyard was unkempt and forlorn.
     We decided to visit the Greek graveyard next door. To our surprise, we found another visitor, carrying a small camera. Mohammed struck up a conversation with her.
     “Do you want to see Cavafy’s grave?” she asked.
     Neither of us knew Greek so we would never have known it was Cavafy’s grave. Mohamed, a poet, was ecstatic about finding the grave of the famous Greek poet of Alexandria.
     We stared at the grave, substantial enough, but not as elegant as the sculpted Madonnas in the Italian cemetery. Did the grave reveal anything to her or us about Constantine Cavafy’s life in Alexandria in the twenties?
     Maybe not. But Cavafy’s poem, “Voices” described our afternoon:

 
          “Voices, loved and idealized
          of those who have died, or of those
          lost for us like the dead.

          Sometimes, they speak to us in dreams
          sometimes deep in thought the mind hears them.

          And with their sound for a moment return
          sounds from our life’s first poetry—
          like music, at night, distant, fading away.” (Cavafy 20)

 
The Greek tourist wandered off. Orange butterflies fluttered on top of the dead. Mohamed grabbed my hand. “Don’t you feel like eating crab on the balcony?”
     Before the sun set, we picked out our crab at a nearby restaurant and rushed back to the high rise, where we were staying. I spread newspaper on the small round plastic table on the balcony—we had a wide view of the luminous Mediterranean. I remember how my Grandfather Gene tied chicken necks to bits of string to a stake and threw the necks into the green salty ponds near the Gulf of Mexico. When the string pulled tight, we knew that we had caught a crab. “Whoa, easy does it,” he said. Eager to help, my sister, Margo and I lowered the long pole into the water to scoop the crab into the net. Afterwards, my grandmother spread newspaper on her round oak table in her breakfast room. We loved cracking open the claws with nutcrackers, dipping the sweet meat into a cocktail sauce and popping it into our mouths.
     Unlike Kathy Lorimer and Ann Weir whose lives were cut short, my Grandmother Margaret lived into her eighties. Once, towards the end of her life, she said, “You know, I feel the same inside. It’s only when I look in the mirror that I’m surprised by the wrinkles.”
     Mohamed laughed and handed me a crab. “Break it open the other way round.”
     The whitecaps of the waves were barely visible. For a few minutes, a single streak of pink illuminated the sky.

 
Works Cited

  • The Layman’s Parallel Bible. Containing King James Version, Modern Language Bible, Living Bible, Revised Standard Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1973. Print.
  • Cavafy, C.P. Collected Poems. Revised Edition. Trans. by Edmund Keeley and Phillip Sherrard. Ed. By George Savidis. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992. Print.

 
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Published with the permission of Gretchen McCullough