Focus Photo of Brown Sheep Under Blue Sky

It didn’t hurt that the streets were already soaked in blood. Severed limbs and entrails lined the shores of drying scarlet pools, and the blood-red trails of carcasses dragged up and down alleyways were still visible at night. Sidewalks, fences and light posts were sticky with gore. All washed in the blood of the lamb.

I cut the old man’s throat and let the life drain from him and blend with the viscera already littering the street. Then, grasping one of his legs and the collar of his blue denim work shirt, I pitched him into a pile of discarded fruit, table scraps and plastic water bottles where he splayed lifeless next to a bloody mass of indistinct animal hide. Then, I wiped the knife on my dark pant leg and exited the darkened alley without concern into an Egyptian teahouse alive with revelers smoking shisha and playing backgammon. The men smiled amiably as I passed, some saying hello in English. I nodded and replied, “Salaam”.

A waiter approached. Even in the darkness and with my black clothing, it was clear I was splattered with blood. His smile became a pained grimace. Some foreigner thing better not to get involved in. He stood aside, hoping, I’m sure, the blood was mine.

When I reached my building, I greeted the bowab Mustapha and handed him a few Egyptian pounds for taking such good care of the place and refusing to pay much attention to my nighttime wanderings or my appearance when I returned. I walked up the stairs to my third floor flat, stripped off my bloody clothing and let it fall just inside the front door and stepped unclothed to my living room bar to mix a strong drink. Then, I lounged in a microsuede recliner chair sipping from the rocks glass and, after pondering the dried reddish stains on my hands and wrists, soon drifted off to sleep seated there beside the window.

In the morning, Abraham’s holy sacrifice would commence once more with mass slaughter and streams of fresh blood flowing over the roads and walkways. In keeping with tradition, the sacrificial meat of goat, sheep and other livestock would be divided among friends and distributed to the poor while somewhere in the suburban district of Maadi an underpaid police officer would ponder the connection between the exsanguinated corpse before him and a series of murders around Cairo in those final few years before the revolution.

I awoke just before dawn and took a quick shower before moving to the bedroom to sleep a few more hours. As I stood there on the tile floor with the shower raining down on me and splashing all over the toilet, sink and open bathroom and watched water tinted pink with the old man’s blood circle the drain in the corner of the room, I reflected with some satisfaction on just how far I’d come during my time abroad. How I never imagined the existence of such strength and assuredness within myself.

I became a better version of myself in Cairo. I became a killer, sure, which is wrong and now more or less behind me as a write this nearly a decade later from a bland Midwestern suburb —a boring dad now and husband—but the strength I found back then in that broken place on the edge of collapse has left me transformed. Actualized.

Growing up, I was always weak. Too polite and conciliatory. Always avoiding conflict. In middle school, I was targeted and bullied by a gang of white trash child fascists because I rode skateboards and dressed like a punk. They called my friends and me thrashers and had planned some sort of ritual they referred to as Thrasher Elimination Day, during which we’d all be assaulted for our deviant tastes in fashion, music and physical activity. Although we escaped our fates after our older brothers intervened and threatened violent retribution, I still seethed at the indignation of it all. In my head, I replayed violent revenge fantasies while at school I shuffled around the hallways with my head bowed.

In high school, a kid in my grade who’d been held back multiple times and had developed a reputation for fighting and general juvenile delinquency groped my girlfriend in the school gymnasium. When I confronted him and asked him to back off, he punched me in the face and then, as I was still reeling, tackled me to the ground right there in the school hallway. The fight was completely one-sided, and I spent the intervening years feeling humiliated and diminished. I remember afterwards regularly seeing my assailant outside my Spanish class sitting on the third-floor railing above the stairwell and holding hands with his own girlfriend. I imagined tampering with railing and sending him plunging to his death, twisted and broken on the stairs below, but I never did anything to make this daydream real.

In college and into my first few years of adulthood, I regularly went to bars and clubs with friends to get drunk and meet girls, but I was always careful to avoid confrontation, not to look at anyone the wrong way and to steer clear of aggressive hyper-masculine assholes. And at home in my own bed or in the shower, I imagined scenarios where I confronted and fought back. Where I stepped outside to resolve conflicts with my fists or where I was the merciless, violent instigator.

While I wouldn’t call it an epiphany exactly in either the biblical or Joycean sense, it does seem that a change came over me almost immediately upon my arrival in Cairo in 2005. I’d moved there to teach in a private international school and was eager for adventure and to make some money, travel and access the world from Egypt’s convenient Mediterranean shores.

As I waited in line at the airport just after landing that first time to pay the 15 L.E. fee for a tourist visa, two Egyptian men, paying me no attention, cut into the line in front of me. I was annoyed, but I spoke little Arabic and didn’t want to cause a scene or get off on the wrong foot with my new country. The two men stood there in front of me in the line joking and laughing and acting as though what they’d done was completely normal. For all I knew, maybe it was.

Just then, a dry, accented voice called from behind me in line, “Hey, fuck off to the back of the line and wait your turn like everyone else!” I turned and saw an elderly man, possibly German, wearing an off-white linen suit and with a ruddy, sandblasted complexion glaring angrily at the men in front of me. “Law samaht! Yes, I’m talking to you. Back of the line!”

Without any protest, the two Egyptian men obeyed, stepping out of line and walking to the very rear. I turned again and met the German’s eyes. He said, “They’re like children, always trying to get with something. You just have to be forceful with them or they’ll take advantage of you.” I was uncomfortable with the man’s words, his unapologetic assertion of privilege, but also I suppose I was exhilarated.

I think back to one of my early weekends as an American expat in the Middle East. I reflect on it now as one of many nudges in the direction I ultimately took living there.

A group of us had gathered that night at an upscale nightclub, and in its Korean-style karaoke room downstairs we had rampaged drunkenly, flaunting our debauched sexuality and decadence in a conservative, predominantly Muslim country. A woman named Michelle had flashed her breasts —only the left one actually —at the coda of her rendition of “I Will Survive” to our surprised delight and had then walked around the room as though offering it to us on a platter. My friend Mark had overturned a tray of mixed mezes onto the lap of some guy named Jeff who had then retaliated by deploying an arsenal of projectile falafel in every direction. Later, as Mark finished a rousing take on some forgettable 90s boy band pop song, this same Jeff had leaped up from one of the red, plush sofas and torn Mark’s t-shirt open in the front. It shredded like tissue, and Mark sat shirtless and shivering for the remainder of the night while Jeff lay balled up on the floor in the corner cackling hysterically. Green glass bottles of Egyptian beer, assorted Stellas and Sakaras, littered our battleground. Soon we were asked to leave by the nervous but amiable proprietor. In the streets afterwards, we had marauded like some barbarian horde. Mark, still shirtless, had half-heartedly attempted to carjack a sedan of expat women, slipping into the front seat as the local driver exited to let his passengers out. Jeff roared at the heavens while pissing on a sidewalk in full view. Someone I can’t remember tried to pick a fight with the nervous bouncers. Poor bastards, I doubt they were paid enough to deal with us.

I remember a feeling amid the wreckage of that night out: a note of shame overshadowed by a growing awareness of our power here. I’d seen foreigners behave deplorably before that night, but it hadn’t clicked before. We could do anything here. There would be no accountability. I remember joking then that you could hunt humans in the streets here and that no one would bother to investigate for fear of publicizing the country as anything other than a safe tourist destination.

The first man I killed in Egypt was a taxi driver. This isn’t surprising. At that point, maybe a year and a half into my five-year stay, drivers were the only the only local people I had much interaction with. I spent most of my time drinking or smoking shisha with other foreigners at the embassy and expatriate clubs or with the Sudanese prostitutes you could find all around the city back then without too much trouble.

That night, I was coming home from a party on the roof of a friend’s house. It was the end of Eid and the party’s theme was “Haraam-O-Rama”, a celebration of everything depraved and forbidden by local religious customs. There was alcohol, of course, and tons of hashish. All the food contained pork procured through embassy commissaries. There was ham and sausages wrapped in bacon. Pepperoni and prosciutto and salami. The women were mostly scantily clad in bikinis or tiny shorts and tank tops and danced suggestively with Western men wearing Egyptian galabeyas and with one another or lounged around a round plastic swimming pool that served as a makeshift jacuzzi. I sat among a circle of lounging partygoers most of the night smoking bowl after bowl of hashish from a shared shisha pipe adorned with Arabic calligraphy.

Before I left the party for home, the host stopped me at the door and asked jokingly, “Hey, what’s the difference between an expat and a racist?” I hesitated, and he continued with his punchline: “Six months.”

It was generally accepted at the time that a cab ride anywhere in Maadi cost five L.E. This worked out to about a dollar US back then. It was also an unwritten rule that drivers would often try to get more money out of foreigners and that a perfectly civil ride in a taxi could quickly turn into an argument over an extra pound or two, so the practice was to exit the car when you arrived at your stop, walk around the driver’s window and hand him the cash before quickly walking away. If he protested, you were to keep walking.

As I rode in the front passenger seat on this night beside the driver, each of us smoked cheap Cleopatra brand cigarettes and my head spun from all the alcohol and hashish. I don’t remember what we talked about, but the man seemed nice and the night was dry and mild. I remember the radio played some schmaltzy ballad sung in Arabic and that the singer’s voice warbled forlornly.

We arrived at the dark and empty end of my street at the north end of Road 9 in Maadi. I had him stop at the roundabout closest to my apartment because it was easier to walk the next two blocks where the roads became unpaved. I got out of the car and walked to the driver’s window. When I handed him the money, he let it fall to the ground.

“Ten pounds,” he said. “Not five. Ten.”
I said, “Come on. It’s always five pounds. Don’t be a dick.” “Ten pounds. You pay ten pounds,” he said angrily, his voice beginning to rise.

I laughed, “Well, if you want any money at all, you can get out of the car and pick it up from the dirt. Ma’a Salama.” Then I turned and walked away.

I intersected the roundabout to reach the end of my actual road, but the taxi, a rusted mid-1970s Peugeot, cut me off, having sped around the circle to block me. The driver began yelling in Arabic, calling me a thief and threatening to call the police. I knew he was bluffing, but I was tired and getting more and more annoyed. I turned to walk around the back of the car, but the driver shifted into reverse and blocked me again.

“Are you really going to be an asshole over five pounds?” I asked.

Just then, the driver opened his door and began to get out. Without thinking, I grabbed the door with both hands and slammed it hard into his chest and shoulder. He yelled in pain and fell back into his seat.

“Stop, man! Just stop!” I yelled. “What the fuck?!”

The driver was furious. He pushed the door open again, yelling curses in Arabic and attempting to exit. I grabbed the door again and slammed it shut on him. This time, he made a strangled noise and his head swiveled at an odd angle. Still holding the door, I slammed it on him over and over until he finally stopped struggling.

“Holy shit!” I said to myself breathlessly. “Holy shit!”

I could see the man’s body slumped to one side and sprawled partly into the passenger seat, and I knew I needed to do something. I didn’t want the taxi to be found in the morning so close to my house, so I climbed inside after the kicking the driver all the way to the passenger side. The steering wheel and my hands were now sticky with blood, and the driver still twitched beside me and made sporadic gurgling sounds, but I managed to drive the cab to an empty lot out near the New Maadi settlements where I abandoned it, did my best to wipe my fingerprints from the door and interior and then walked the 40 minutes back to my apartment.

Full of adrenaline and anxiety, I didn’t sleep that night despite how drunk and stoned I’d been. All night, I played the scenario over and over in my head, waiting for a sense of remorse that somehow never came.

The next morning, I went to Sunday brunch at the embassy club with a few friends. Later, we would have a swim or play some tennis on the club’s clay courts. At brunch, a woman named Stephanie, who’d been at the party the night before, told me about her own encounter with a taxi driver on the way home.

“Leah and I were pretty smashed when we left the party,” she said. “We got into the back seat of a taxi together and both fell asleep pretty much immediately. I didn’t mean to pass out, but we were both so drunk. At some point, I woke up to this weird sound. I didn’t know what it was at first, but then I realized it was Leah. She was making this kind of whimpering sound, but she was still completely unconscious. And then I noticed we were stopped. The driver had pulled over beside a field, and he was reaching one arm into the backseat towards Leah. I looked down and his hand was up her skirt. He was fingering her, and I think he was jerking off with his other hand. I started screaming ‘Fuck you! Fuck you!’ and just punching him in the back of the head. Then, Leah opened her eyes. I don’t know if she knew what had happened, but she started fighting and hitting him too. And then we both got out of the car and just ran.

“I’ve been harassed here before,” she continued. “I’ve had people yell ‘sharmoota’ out car windows at me when I’m running or just walking home from the grocery store. I had a driver expose himself to me before, but this was…just awful. I’ve never felt so unsafe here before.”

By the end of the month, I’d killed another driver. I strangled him from the backseat with a leather belt. He hadn’t done anything specifically to deserve it. He hadn’t haggled to try to get more money out of me or driven erratically, at least not especially so, and I’d been completely sober at the time. I don’t know why I did exactly. I just knew that I was going to, and that nothing would come back on me. And it didn’t.

So much happened the night of that party. It became legendary. There was my first murder, of course, but no one ever knew about that. There was Stephanie’s story that spread around the district and provoked a temporary panic, but one of the craziest things that happened that night involved a guy I worked with named Gary.

Gary was odd. He was always sweaty and disheveled and wore these compression socks all the time for varicose veins, I think. He worked at my school, but I don’t remember what his position was. Apparently, he’d been at the party that night on the rooftop among the half-naked revelers, but I have no memory of seeing him there.

When he got home from the party, there was some livestock tied up outside his building. Sacrifices for the next morning’s ritual. For whatever reason—mercy or drunkenness or deviant sexual perversion, I’m not sure —Gary untied a sheep from the herd outside and led it up the stairs to his apartment. Later, he claimed he’d been trying to save it from being sacrificed, but no one was ever sure, least of all the sheep, which freaked out after Gary had gotten it inside his apartment and turned on the lights, rampaged around Gary’s living room smashing furniture and assorted decorative Egyptian knickknacks and then crashed through Gary’s front window to its death on the sidewalk four stories below. Gary had had to call our school’s director in the middle of the night and explain the situation, and the school found itself in the embarrassing position of bribing local police and residents to cover it all up.

Everyone was so privileged and behaved so badly in those days. Maybe I was the worst. I mean, I’m sure I was, but it’s debatable how much worse I was. I’m not making any excuses for what I’ve done. I have no excuses. I don’t even fit the profile of a serial murderer. I didn’t come from a broken home. I wasn’t abused as a child. I didn’t torture animals when I was young or wet the bed well into preadolescence. But I always felt weak and powerless and angry at my powerlessness, and I when I left my country I left that all behind.

By the time I left Egypt in January 2011, I’d killed approximately twenty people. They were all Egyptian men, mostly poor and old. No women. No foreigners. Nothing to draw too much attention. Besides, in those days people disappeared all the time. The government disappeared its most vocal critics. The police disappeared homosexuals. People disappeared their enemies in feuds or their family members in domestic disturbances gone wrong. And on and off for approximately three years, I disappeared anyone unfortunate enough to be out in the darkness whenever the bloodlust consumed me.

I expected to be caught at some point. I wasn’t exactly careful, and the streets of Maadi were patrolled all night long. One night after strangling a bowab with a sprinkler hose in someone’s front lawn, I jumped down from a barrier wall and landed on a sidewalk in the center of four police officers standing around a radio and listening to an old football match. I startled them, and there was a brief, uncomfortable silence before I yelled “Azayek!” and made them all laugh. And then I just walked away, casually and soaking wet. The next morning, someone must have found the man’s body gone stiff and blue from strangulation and waterlogged from the sprinkler that soaked him all night long. Certainly, one of those police officers would have connected the murder scene with that strange foreigner who’d dropped to the ground right in front of them. No one ever questioned me, though, and I never heard anything about it.

And now I spend my days uneventfully. I go to parent conferences at my eight-year-old son’s school and take the little guy to the park on weekends. He loves the swings and never gets tired of having me push him. I teach at a public school, and my wife works full time as a bank teller. On weekends, we hang around the house watching our son play, drinking coffee and reading books. Once in a while, we’ll hire my wife’s niece to babysit and go out for dinner in town somewhere.

It’s not an exciting life, but I feel fulfilled. Occasionally, I’ll go for a walk in the dark while my family sleeps and, from time to time, the horrific aftermath of one of those walks shows up in the local paper, but these moments are infrequent because I have to be careful now. Mostly, I keep my urges in check. I’m grateful for the time I spent abroad, and although I rarely act the way I did in Egypt, I also no longer walk around afraid or shrink from confrontation.

About a week ago at my son’s pee-wee football game, one of the other parents started getting aggressive and yelling at the refs about some call they’d blown. I could see the kids on the field starting to get upset and the parents squirming uncomfortably in their folding chairs, so I walked up to the man and very calmly said, “Listen: if you don’t settle down, I’m going to come to your house in the middle of the night, slit your fucking throat and paint the walls of your bedroom with your blood. OK?” The man left soon afterwards, and I felt proud of myself for being able to handle situations like this in a way I never could have before.

Repatriating can be tough, but I think I’ve handled it well. My friends and colleagues are fascinated by my stories about the pyramids or snorkeling in the Red Sea. They wonder what it was like getting out of there right before the Revolution, at that moment when the people finally got tired of being powerless and rose up against autocratic government and corrupt foreign influence. I tell them I don’t know much about the politics of the place. I was just a young guy having an adventure and finding himself.

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