I’m Dimitri, and I trade in the Middle East. Arab Spring turmoil sunk my business like a trireme in a thunderstorm. My wife, Fatimah, suggested she take in wash. I couldn’t condemn her to a life of drudgery, and watch hard labor etch itself into her beautiful face. Then she hinted that I ask my father-in-law for a job. Admit failure, and lower myself in Fatimah’s eyes? My pride wouldn’t permit it. Egypt was a large market that I’d never cracked. Now I had to. A friend in Athens provided me an importer’s name, Mohammed El-Bakry, in Alexandria, and I went to see him. He invited me into his cluttered office, gestured for me to sit on the other side of his burl walnut desk, and a servant gave me tea in an unwashed glass. A blue-green film floated on top like an oil slick. I didn’t touch it.
El-Bakry had heavy eyelids and full lips. He looked like a Pharaoh without the nemes headdress and the false beard. I asked his advice for doing business in Egypt. He placed his palms on the green leather desktop and told me a story.
“President Mubarak and his head general were invited to a state dinner with President Bush and the First Lady. The tableware was silver and each piece was embossed with the United States Presidential Seal. The general picked up a butter knife heavy enough to trowel concrete and slipped it into the inside breast pocket of his uniform. Mubarak saw him and said, ‘General, I steal the silver, not you.’ The general replied, ‘Mubarak, you always steal the silver. When will it be my turn?’ Mubarak pointed his finger at the general. ‘Put the knife back.’ The general refused. When everyone had arrived for dinner, and the speeches of welcome were finished, Mubarak asked Mrs. Bush if she would like to see a magic trick. Her eyes widened, and she stammered, ‘Well, yes, of course Mr. President.’ Mubarak smiled. He made a big show to Mrs. Bush that nothing was up his sleeves. Then he picked up his butter knife. It glistened in the crystal lighting of the Murano chandelier over the huge, pristine-white tablecloth dining table. Mubarak said, ‘Mrs. Bush, you see this knife in my hand?’ Mrs. Bush nodded. ‘Watch carefully as I put it into my pocket.’ Mubarak slid the knife into his suit coat, and then raised his empty hands. Mubarak snapped his fingers. ‘Presto.’ He leaned to the general, put his hand into his uniform pocket, and pulled out the other butter knife. Mubarak said, ‘You see, now it’s in the general’s pocket.’”
I smiled politely. “That’s why Mubarak lost power?”
El-Bakry sat back with a crooked tooth smile. “The people tired of his parlor games.” El-Bakry noticed I hadn’t touched my tea. “Would you like a soft drink?”
“Thank you, no.” I lifted the tea. My lips touched the oily filth, and I almost retched.
El-Bakry leaned his chin on his hand. “Perhaps we can do business together, but I have some requirements.”
I put down the tea.
“I will be your exclusive government representative in Egypt, and receive commissions for all goods imported and sold.”
I kept my face stoic.
He said, “You’ll receive payment in U.S. dollars. I will clear the goods from customs, deliver them to the customer, and make facilitating payments from my commission. We will agree to the customer’s price, and the percentage commission for each sale. I will be paid in Swiss francs, deposited in a Bern bank according to the account information I provide you.”
I cleared my throat. “May I ask why the commission percentage depends on each sale?”
“Ah, you’ve not done much business with the Egyptian Government. Let me say, my friend, that often it’s the high bid that wins a contract.”
“Yes. The highest bid provides for the largest facilitating payment, and so is more attractive to a government official.”
“I see. And the post-Mubarak government has not altered these practices?”
El-Bakry laughed. “The more unpopular the new administration becomes, the greater their urgency to profit from a limited time in office.”
I pursed my lips. “May I have time to consider your proposal?”
El-Bakry’s eyes hooded over. “Of course.” He stroked his chin. “It’s the lunch hour. May I invite you to a fish restaurant with an excellent view of the Mediterranean?”
El-Bakry’s black Mercedes was dusted with sand. He directed his driver to skirt the city. “Protests, blocked streets,” he said.
My mind roiled over El-Bakry’s proposal. Could I trust him? How long before either a jealous competitor, or a minister’s slighted ego exposed our scheme? The car passed a necropolis. People dressed in rags squatted among the tombs and mausoleums. I imagined the filthy, destitute conditions for criminals in an Egyptian prison and swallowed at the thought.
Green, white-foam waves rose from a turquoise sea and crashed onto a sandy shore. Dirty, grey-brown buildings with hundred-year-old architecture, many derelict, lined the shore.
We sat in a restaurant crowded with men in keffiyeh and shemagh, traditional dress, at a wooden table covered with white paper. Puffs of smoke wafted into the air, and we were immersed in the tempting smell of fish sizzling on the grill. Animated, Arabic conversations and the tinkle of tableware surrounded us.
El-Bakry said, “I’m sorry. This restaurant doesn’t serve alcohol.”
“I don’t drink.”
“A Greek who doesn’t love ouzo with his fish is unusual indeed.”
“My wife is Jordanian.” Fatimah’s smiling face flashed into my mind, and I sighed. I couldn’t break that precious heart. I said, “Fatimah harpooned me with her green eyes when I called on her father. I became Moslem to convince him I was a worthy husband. That was three children ago. We live in Amman.”
“You’re full of surprises. You seem pleased with your choice.”
“I’m the envy of every man in Jordan.” I’d never risk separation from Fatimah and the children over money. But work for my father-in-law? There had to be another way.
He said, “Congratulations. May I order the fish? They have fresh Sultan Ibrahim. I believe you call it barbounia in Greek – red mullet?”
“I saw them as we walked in. They’re much larger than we have in Greece.”
“The Nile nourishes the land, the people and the fish.”
“In Jordan, I miss living near the sea, and we rarely eat fish.”
The waiter brought us mango juice, and El-Bakry ordered lunch. He raised his glass; I did as well. He said, “To a successful business partnership. Insha’Allah – God willing.”
I put down my glass. “May I respond to your proposal?”
“I hoped you would.”
“Unusually high commissions could be viewed by the new Egyptian government as inappropriate or even illegal.”
El-Bakry started to speak, but I held up my hand. “You didn’t suggest anything wrong, but we want to avoid behavior that could cause problems for both of us. And doing business in a regular manner benefits our government partners. Politics is a dirty business. By trading with us straightforwardly, a government official can call us as witnesses to rebut any accusations of corruption.”
El-Bakry sat back in his chair, and his eyes hooded again.
I continued. “Of course, your fixed commission would need to be paid in Egypt. We wouldn’t want the misinterpretation that we attempted to avoid taxes or found a way to smuggle money out of the country.”
A huge platter of whole, grilled fish arrived. The waiter brought a carafe of olive oil, a bowl of quartered lemons, and roasted potatoes.
El-Bakry put the largest barbounia on my plate. He watched me as I filleted the fish.
I said, “There are many tiny bones in barbounia that will catch in your throat if you aren’t careful.”
El-Bakry smiled. “Did any of your family come from Alexandria?”
“I know many Greeks in Athens whose people emigrated from Egypt. But no, my family originated in Thessaloniki.”
“Ah, the city of Kemal Ataturk. A clever man.”
A tattered boy of ten entered the restaurant. He went from table to table, hand extended calling out in a tired voice, “Baksheesh, baksheesh.”
The restaurant owner rushed to expel the child from the premises. El-Bakry stopped him and waved the boy over. He pressed some Pounds into the boy’s hand. El-Bakry said to me, “Perhaps there is another way.” He patted the child’s cheek. The boy smiled brightly, bowed and left the restaurant.
El-Bakry said to me, “I wonder when we’ll have the Egyptian Ataturk?”
I said, “Insha’Allah.”
El-Bakry smiled. He took a barbounia off the platter and his eyes met mine. “It’s too bad you didn’t live in Diogenes’s time, Dimitri. You would’ve ended his search for an honest man.”
Joe Giordano lives in Texas with his wife and their little Shih Tzu, Sophia. Joe’s stories appeared in more than thirty magazines including Bartleby Snopes, The Foliate Oak, and The Summerset Review.