MK SUCKED back on the hookah and the coals flared and the water bubbled and smoke, dense green smoke, surged through the pipe and then trickled out of his mouth. The room was one of those pastel yellow, concrete-floored apartment numbers Cairo was famous for, 15 stories high and probably a fire hazard. MK stood at the window as the hash sank in and stared at the Hosri Mubarak Flyover, currently hurling 40 cars a second towards the new commuter suburbs of the north. Nagvib had his draw. The sky was darkening and the characteristic Cairo night, half blazing neon, half suffocating smog, was already replicating itself inside the bedroom.

<<Heard any good tunes lately?>> Nagvib said.

That was how conversation went here: <<Heard any good tunes?>>, <<Taken any decent drugs?>> <<Have a listen to this!>> MK said, or the nearest Arabic equivalent, and he threw his needle on the latest dabke derivative to hit North Africa. It was like Omar Souleyman on LSD with ululation, hectic strings, wadi moons, sugarcane lament, and the odd burst of real machine gun fire. The record flowered out like hashish smoke or your being when you smoke hashish and MK thought about potentials, how Egypt could be ruler of a new world if the government wasn't so fucked up and how there was more than just financial poverty and how earlier today, coming home from university, he had seen a drive-by shooting on Midan Tahrir. He focused his attention on that one.

<<Crazy. It was wanton>> he said. <<Some businessman blasted all over the pavement. And the sound... bullets whizzing through the air...>>

<<I know the sound>> Nagvib said, and was that a machine gun propped under his elbows?

<<Fuck, man, these are dangerous days. It could have been me plastered on that road.>>

Knock knock. Knock, the door went. Knock-knock-knock kn-knock-knock.

<<It's him>> Nagvib said. <<Our Palestinian exchange student.>>

!SHMAEL THE !NVINCIBLE and other characters copyright Robert Sullivan 1996-2000.