Dancing Bare

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 33

An Offer of Employment

At Gabes, Tunisia's largest oasis and the closest to the sea, I swam at a deserted beach and to my joy was joined by a perfect specimen of Negro manhood who arrived, stark naked, on a bicycle. We swam then romped in the sand where I gave succour to the largest penis I have seen in my entire life – a horse would have been jealous!

Gabes is supposedly where Odysseus was enchanted by Circe. I was enchanted by my young man on a bicycle, but he had work to return to and cycled away, still starkers.

Duff, whose bowels had regained a measure of self-control, had also arrived at the youth hostel and reckoned I should join him on the road before daybreak, because we were both heading for Tripoli in Libya and no one drove through the desert in the heat of the day. But I was tired of his sullen moods and he set off alone.

In Spain, I'd given up pointing out that drivers were more likely to pick up hitch-hikers if they smiled and looked pleasant instead of glaring angrily. He'd snorted disbelief. He was a North American! That should be good enough!

Four hours later, washed, refreshed, and well fed, I left the youth hostel, waved to my Negro on his bicycle – now wearing a pair of shorts, and within a minute was in the front seat of a chauffeur-driven limousine, chatting over my shoulder to the Tunisian Minister for Education who was on his way to a remote desert oasis, before visiting his counterpart in Libya. To my shame, I couldn't resist waving cheerily to Duff, still waiting morosely at the roadside.

After a few kilometres, the chauffeur – a dark, lean, moustachioed, villainously powerful fellow who spoke better French than his master - was told to stop and I was ordered to get in the back – an immense compliment. I'd been promoted to social equal of a well-fed government Minister overflowing a tropical suit. We conversed in halting English which he was hoping to improve with my assistance.

While struggling to understand the meaning of the word Goodyear, emblazoned on a roadside hoarding, he placed ring-cluttered fingers on the inside of my thigh – I was wearing shorts that covered barely half an inch of my legs – and gently stroked. It was pleasant enough and I was in no position to object. Hitch-hikers place themselves at the mercy of whoever picks them up, yet I never felt nervous except with people who drove too fast. Sadly, the grand era of hitchhiking is over – everyone's too afraid.

The oasis was very romantic; like a Hollywood film set. They needed an English teacher. Would I....? I prevaricated, promising to seriously consider his extremely generous offer after I'd completed my trip. The Minister gave me his card, promised a job whenever I returned to Tunisia, then joined the patient welcoming committee. The chauffeur dusted and serviced the car while I wandered apparently deserted streets. A few kids peeped from shadowed doorways, disappearing when I spoke. I don't think they'd seen a man in shorts before. I don't think they'd seen a man's thighs before.

I was invited to the male-only dinner that evening, feeling out of place in sandals, slacks, and white shirt among elegant full-length flowing robes. I understood nothing, but from the slightly obsequious welcome, wondered if I'd already been promised as a teacher of English. I hoped they wouldn't be too disappointed. But then I suppose experience had taught them that politicians never keep promises. We were entertained with food, singing, a poet, and three men who danced some very complicated routines to music played on a two-stringed instrument.

In the guest house, a cool, spacious, thick-walled dwelling opening onto a small courtyard shaded by a tree but lacking a splashing fountain, the Minster was led to the room with the bed; the chauffeur and I to mats in the adjoining room where I removed my clothes, it being far too hot to contemplate sleeping in any sort of clothing. My room-mate was shocked. Allah would be offended if a Muslim exposed his naked body!

A few whispered words in Arabic from next door caused him to pick up his dagger and pistol. Baring his teeth in what I hoped was a smile he tossed a towel at me, mimed wrapping it round my loins, then, satisfied I wasn't going to offend either Allah or his boss, prodded me into the presence.

The Minister wanted to talk. My heart sank. Desert air is hot, dry and enervating – I was very tired and would have preferred to impale myself on the chauffeur's dagger than struggle to converse in my increasingly inadequate French and his six words of English. He wanted to know what I thought of the dancing. Naturally I was fulsome in praise, mentioning how much better it was than the Moroccan Dancing Boy.

That pleased him so much I foolishly let slip that I'd danced a bit. He snapped something in Arabic, the chauffeur began to wail tunelessly, and I was commanded to dance. I tied the towel firmly, low on the hips like the Tunisian worker I'd met in the south of France, and attempted to emulate his slinky sensuality.

The Minister nodded in aristocratic appreciation and patted the bed. It would have been foolish to refuse in front of his chauffeur, so I let him slip his hand under the towel. But his heart wasn't in it and within a minute we were dismissed; it was merely to prove he was a powerful fellow who could do what he wanted.

Back in our room the chauffeur casually suggested a fuck. I said OK, if I could do the same to him afterwards. Before I could blink the dagger was at my throat. I'd insulted his Muslim manhood! Men fuck but they are never fucked! Infidels aren't real men so it's OK to screw them. Understood? I nodded and gurgled, "Oui, monsieur."

Masculine honour confirmed, he let me go, rolled onto his side and was instantly asleep. I lay awake wondering if having a dagger at the throat twice in a month meant there was something lacking in my character. It didn't stop me from sleeping though, and I woke refreshed.

On the drive to Tripoli, the chauffeur was perfectly friendly and I was invited into the back seat again, so obviously I hadn't offended anyone. There are no problems at frontiers when travelling with a Government VIP, so we whisked through without even showing our passports.

If anything, the Libyans were even friendlier than the Tunisians. In Tripoli I shared a room in a cheap hotel with three workers, never worrying anything would be stolen. During the day I'd leave my rucksack in a shop or police station with no fear of pillage. My only problem was that I literally had no idea where in the world I was!

Just as I'd been surprised to discover the location of Belgium, I'd also been slightly surprised to discover that Tunisia was squeezed between Algeria and Libya. So it isn't surprising that what lay ahead was a mystery. I suppose it's surprising that I had never consulted an atlas before setting out – the thought never occurred to me, especially as you've got to know a few place names when hitching so you can ask if people are going there. I guess I thought I'd just ask directions – it had always worked in the past.

Fortunately, Tripoli boasted an excellent library in the same Italianate style as many other civic buildings, so I found a good atlas and with pencil and paper copied my route as far as Cairo, discovering that Libya borders Egypt, and is crossed by only one road, more or less along the coast, with a T-junction in the middle just beyond Sirte, where it is joined by a road from the deserts of the Libyan Plateau hundreds of kilometres south. Looking at the satellite photos on Google Maps today, I am astounded. I realised at the time it was dry, and had marvelled at the mirages, but hadn't realised how dry! The entire country is shades of ochre with the narrowest strip of vegetation along the Mediterranean shore. I read and watched TV footage of the recent American invasion and wept. Such a pleasant country. Such friendly, hospitable people. Such a decent society destroyed, broken, at war with itself. The misery Westerners spread wherever they go in their lust for global hegemony in trade, is beyond evil.

I spent a night at the desert junction midway between Tripoli and Benghazi, up a thorn tree to avoid a pack of wolves. During a sleepless and uncomfortable night, I formulated the notion of 'oneness'. The idea that every single thing on the planet is inextricably bound up with every other thing. It seemed clever at the time, but now it's commonplace and everyone not infected with creationism understands that Earth is a closed system in which every living thing is made up of the same 'building blocks' and therefore totally interdependent.

In Benghazi, the driver of another car was desert drunk… a sort of madness; and crashed his car into the back of ours. My rucksack was in the boot! The police came and refused permission for me to open the crushed boot as it was evidence. As soon as their backs were turned I grabbed a bar, forced it open, grabbed the rucksack and ran. I'd had some experience of bureaucracy and the associated bribery by then and didn't want to spend the next month in Benghazi.

Drinks and food were offered by people I passed on the street, so keen were they to be hospitable to the stranger in their midst. I saw no other foreigners. It must have been like that in ancient times when travellers were treated with generosity and respect.

Rather than risk meeting the police, I didn't stay long in Benghazi, hitching to Derna with three men who drove hundreds of kilometres out of their way to show me 'Green Mountain', so called because fifty years previously it had become green when it rained for the first time in centuries.

Derna, a pretty town on the coast at the base of cliffs that drop precipitously from the Libyan plateau, was the birth place of King Idris – absolute and not very popular monarch at that time, kept in power by Europe because he let them do as they wanted. A recipe for revolution if ever there was one. But when it happened in 1969 – Gadaffi was the bad boy, not the Europeans who'd created the tension in the first place. The hotel was cheap and spotlessly clean, the streets tree-lined, the ambience civilized and friendly, the river rocky and dry. No one could remember the last time there'd been water in it.

Only Tobruk lay between Derna and Egypt, and apparently no one was going there. After a day on the roadside when the only thing that passed me was a boy on a donkey, a student of about sixteen rode up on his bike and invited me home. That evening we went to a bar situated in the middle of the 'river', to meet his friends – soft drinks only, being Muslims. It was Tangiers repeated. I tried but wasn't permitted to pay for anything! Which left me feeling like a sponger; ashamed I wasn't as generous and friendly.

Despite vigorous protests I slept in his bed – he on the floor. I was fed, met the father but not the mother, of course, and the next day was handed a bus ticket to Tobruk! No! I couldn't pay for it. I was his guest and a good host takes care of his guest. I look sadly at his photo today and wonder what happened to this good-looking, clean, fresh, innocent and honest young man.

Every now and then the bus stopped and families would descend, women proudly displaying gold bracelets, necklaces and nose rings: the family wealth. Everyone impeccably, colourfully, and cleanly dressed. Then they'd wander into the desert! There were no visible tracks, no indication of civilization. Where were they going? After more kilometres of vast mirage 'lakes' 'reflecting' the low scrubby hills, we'd stop and take on board another group of perfectly healthy, fit, clean, and well-dressed men and women. Where had they come from? How did they live? No indication of human habitation was visible – and from the bus we could see for miles.

The warm hospitality I received across North Africa still causes a lump in my throat, and I curse Europe, the U.S.A. and its sycophant states like Australia for their arrogant aggression and contempt for decency in the Middle East that has destroyed trust and much that was so wonderful in those people; encouraging a militant form of Islam with such miserable consequences for them as well as us.

The smartly presented border guard in the lone concrete bunker at the edge of Libya where the bus stopped, waved me through with a smile. A hundred yards down the dusty road sloppily dressed and unkempt Egyptian border guards said there were problems with my visa. I asked them what. They shrugged and went back to their card game.

The wretched straggle of decaying concrete structures lining a dusty track could scarcely be called a town. There was no bank, but I still had a few Libyan coins. A sort of general store with little to sell accepted them but only sold dry bread, dates, and dry beans. A dozen of the scrawniest, sickest-looking cows I'd ever seen were munching on cardboard cartons they'd scavenged from among the dust and rubbish that looked as if it had been accruing since the war. A deserted war-time hospital bred flies and mosquitoes. The water supply was a tap beside the border police hut from which trickled brackish, beige water.

The beach was only a hundred yards away, so I slept there, plagued by mosquitoes and the dreadful heat that never lifted. On the morning bus, Duff arrived. I wasn't pleased to see him, but he was pleased to arrive in a country where they more or less spoke English – he'd had a lonely trip.

It took us a full day to realise the 'problem' with our visas; we hadn't offered a bribe. Five American dollars or the Sterling equivalent, an exorbitant amount, suddenly produced permission. We caught the daily bus, as the only other traffic on the road was an occasional car laden to the axles with Libyans driving to Alexandria for sex. Poverty-struck Egyptian women were pleased to sell themselves to cash-rich, sex-starved Libyan males

Egypt under Nasser was a more or less secular dictatorship, identical to that soon to be created by Saddam Hussein, at that time languishing in prison.

Lawrence Durrell's description of Alexandria in his Quartet cannot be beaten. Beyond the grand, palm-lined esplanade encircling the bay, lay slums the like of which I'd never imagined. Duff took off on his own and I took up with a young Egyptian student eager to practice his English. He led me through streets deep in rubbish, swarming with half-naked kids begging, carrying loads, and hawking useless oddments.

"If you weren't with me, those guys would slit your throat, strip you of everything and throw your body in the canal," my guide said casually, indicating a gang of excessively lean and menacing youths. "Don't ever leave the main streets on your own."

His family house was three rooms up a barren concrete staircase lined with chickens and their shit, snotty-nosed kids, women gossiping, evil cooking smells, and the ubiquitous Arab music on radios turned up too loud. Open doors showed bare rooms with old men sleeping on mats, women squatting over a primus, their kids playing. Water had to be brought up from a tap at street level. Electricity was only enough to power radios and lights. My friend shared a mattress on the floor with four brothers, one of whom showed me his school history book.

I read enough to learn that the Egyptian view of the British occupation was radically different from what I'd been taught. It was the first time I'd realised that history is not fact, it's a selective recreation of the past – just as art is a selective recreation of reality. All maps had the state of Israel blacked out.

Back in the street, an ancient crone sat in the dust holding out five wrinkled tomatoes, offering them for sale. She had nothing else. I slipped an Egyptian pound into her hand but didn't take the tomatoes. My companion thought I was stupid.

Cairo hadn't changed, of course. While Duff explored the pyramids which I'd visited while my ship was passing through the Suez Canal what seemed like a lifetime ago, I spent the afternoon in the swimming pool of Mena House Hotel. Free, if you were cheeky enough to breeze through reception as if you were staying in that luxurious establishment.

The concrete tenements surrounding old Cairo were as poverty stricken, filthy, and miserable as those of Alexandria. Streets so clogged with years of rubbish there was only room to walk single file through the waist high stench. The Nile offered no respite. Even in the middle of the city, the river was lined with people washing clothes, washing themselves, shitting, and filling jars to take home to drink! It was a nightmare.

I saw a man walk down to the water between two people washing, lift his robe, expose a bare bum, do a dump, flick a bit of water on his ring, and wander off. Dust-filled lungs caused everyone to spit. I quickly learned never to walk out a doorway without checking that someone wasn't about to hawk a gob of thick yellow phlegm in my direction.

The night train from Cairo to Aswan was the final ring of Dante's Inferno. Platform and carriages jammed with aggressive men and screaming women carrying children, pigs, chickens, baskets… everything they needed to survive. They fought for every inch of space. The wily threw themselves and their luggage into the racks above the seats, where they lay for the duration. My mind emptied. This I could not handle!

With a bellow of despair that opened a temporary gap in the seething morass of diseased bodies, I hurled myself and rucksack out an open window back to the slightly more tolerable insanity of the platform. Duff was made of sterner stuff. Whereas I relied on charm and friendliness for survival, he, having none of either, had learned to be combative and competitive and managed to hold his own, arriving in Aswan only slightly battered.

I was rescued by four machine-gun-toting soldiers who laughed at my stupidity for trying third class. One shouldered my rucksack and, by waving their guns around, cleared travellers off two wide seats facing each other in a not so over-crowded, second-class carriage.

Of course I felt guilty; especially when the ticket collector was threatened when he asked me to upgrade my third-class ticket. Nervous too, when shots were fired out the window for fun during the night, because my rescuers' guns appeared not to have safety catches and the rifles were always pointing at someone – too often at me!

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