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“That’s it, Poppy,” Vartan, my Armenian dentist, said, “not much longer, Poppy,” spraying water into the hole of my tooth.
Since I was his captive I couldn’t tell him, “My name is Joy.” He had opened the tooth to drain the abscess. Every time I visited his office he put in a tiny swab of medicated cotton and then sniffed it to see if the smell was "bad.” Shortly after he first drilled the hole the tooth broke when I was trying to crack open a pistachio nut.
I made countless trips to Vartan Migoian, with his shock of snow-white hair and black bushy eyebrows, the year after 9/11. Newspaper headlines echoed in my head: FLIGHT PATH OF FOUR HIJACKED PLANES. To get there I had to pick my way through piles of trash and mewling feral cats, dodge groups of men with greasy hands working on chewed-up Chevrolets, sidestep others playing backgammon on the sidewalk. His office was in a gloomy building across from a café where the regulars sucked on their hookahs as if it were opium. The toothless bawab, the gatekeeper squatting in front of the building, leered at me with olive-green eyes. “Madam,” he said, gesturing toward the dirty stairs as if I were going up to a brothel. An Egyptian colleague had cornered me at the elevator after 9/11: “Did you know all the Jews in the World Trade Center were warned before the attack? They stayed home.”
As I picked my way up the dark dirty stairs, I wished I could have stayed home. I didn’t trust the rickety elevator. ELEVATORS: DISASTER WITHIN DISASTER. In bright red letters above one door: “Import/Export. Automobile Parts.” The door was open, but there wasn’t even a desk inside.
“This won’t hurt a bit, Poppy, he said, holding a savage-looking metal contraption. I felt as if I were a victim in a bad Frankenstein movie. 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT WARNS OF BIOLOGICAL THREAT.
At least I had a full set of teeth, unlike my maid, Fatma. We all knew Fatma would feel much better about herself if she had a set of new teeth. When she smiled she looked like a jack-o’-lantern. She had served us loyally for years, even though she once put a backgammon set in Oliver’s washing machine. And that's not counting the broken sherry glasses from Prague, the cracked Faberge eggs and the shattered mashrebeyya, mother-of-pearl in-lay mirror. If she didn’t slap at the dust with her dirty rags, sweep the balcony, beat the carpets, change the sheets, order the groceries from the Blue Nile, we would have had to do it ourselves.
Better to have an honest maid with every human frailty under the sun than a thief. You have to be tolerant and accommodating. That’s what you learn about the locals after so many years in Cairo: real accommodation. When I was covering the civil-war in Beirut, I used to advise rookie journalists, “Don’t run into a mob. Wear comfortable shoes. Tie your shoelaces. Most importantly, carry extra packs of cigarettes.” You could always get through a militia checkpoint if you offered the guard a cigarette. PLO. Phalanges. Israelis. It didn’t matter; all those miserable soldiers were always longing for a cig, especially in the winter—they never resisted that temptation.
AIRPORTS NEED HELP. HOMELAND SECURITY ADMINISTRATION CREATED.
If we could pool a nest egg to help Khaled, the man who parked cars next to our building, to get his taxi repaired, then we had to help Fatma who is missing almost all her front teeth. After I came up with the idea, it took a month to coordinate our all schedules for a meeting. Oliver was correcting the proofs for his new book, A Field Guide to the Mammals of Egypt. Louise was playing in a tennis tournament at the Gezira Club—the times for matches varied from day to day and changed sometimes in the course of an hour. Mary rode her horse at the Sakkara Club on Tuesday and Thursday; Monday and Wednesday she had a standing appointment at Dr. Wafik’s for a cat with feline leukemia.
Vartan barked orders in Arabic to his assistants, Mustafa and the woman who covered her head with a pink veil, Zahra. She looked like a carnation; the lovely pink material around her head went well with the starched white lab coat.
Zahra handed Vartan a thin pencil pick. Vartan roared something in Arabic. Stupid? No! No! Quickly, Mustafa produced a set of gargantuan, shiny pliers.
“What are you going to use those for?” I asked.
9/11: GETTING OUT ALIVE.
“I have to break off the tooth, Poppy. Are you ready? This won’t hurt a bit. Do you feel anything where I gave you the shot?”
He didn’t wait for an answer, just plunged the pliers into my mouth. I closed my eyes: better not to know.
WHY WAS CIA UNPREPARED FOR 9/11 ATTACK?
“Rinse, Poppy!” Vartan said. “You see, it wasn’t so bad.”
I watched my blood and spit swirl down the white basin. Zahra offered me a Kleenex to wipe the residue from my lips.
U.S. HAS BLOOD ON HER HANDS. SANCTIONS. INFANT MORTALITY RATE IN IRAQ AT 40%.
Vartan deposited the shard of tooth in a jar with the delight of a child who has caught a firefly.
“I have others,” he said,. “Would you like to see Omar Sharif’s?”
MORE SURVIVORS’ TALES. SEE U.S NEWS AND WORLD REPORT.
“Omar Sharif is your patient?”
“We play bridge together. He’s a gambler. Not like me. I’m very cautious. I wouldn’t risk a single piastre of my hard-earned money. Once, the group insisted that I put something down to bet. I gave them one year’s worth of free visits to my clinic.”
“What’s he like?” I asked. “I loved Dr. Zhivago. Sharif was so handsome.”
“Charming, Poppy. Perfectly charming. But he’s a terrible loser. He is miserable when he loses.”
“Most men hate to lose."
The famous journalist Robert Fisk once blew cigarette smoke in my face at the Ali Baba Bar in Beirut after I had scooped him on the Flight 847 story. The Organization for the Oppressed of the Earth, a Lebanese group, had hijacked the plane. They flew it to Beirut, then to Algiers and back to Beirut, again to Algiers and back again a third time to Beirut. Nabih Berri, head of the Amal, was in charge of guarding the remaining hostages on the last day. The hijackers demands: all Lebanese prisoners released from Israeli jail; Israeli military activity to be condemned along with U.S. involvement in the Middle East.
Vartan put Omar Sharif’s tooth back in the jar. “That solves the mystery.”
MANY PIECES OF PUZZLE FROM 9/11 SOLVED. STILL QUESTIONS LINGER.
“The root was dead because the tooth was cracked. That’s why you didn’t have any pain. But you had that bump in your gums. That was your body trying to tell you something was wrong.”
EUROPEANS POINT TO U.S. FOREIGN POLICY AFTER 9/11.
Our group met at the Nile Hilton swimming pool to discuss Fatma’s new teeth. Much more pleasant than lying in a drab green dentist’s chair, my mouth stuffed with bloody cotton. Luxuriant, green trees hung over the hotel garden. With a perfect blue sky and cheerful sun shining down upon us, how could we not feel optimistic? Egyptian waiters ran to and fro adjusting the wide- brimmed yellow umbrellas that looked like floppy summer hats lying on the trimmed green lawn.
We all knew that Fatma would look much younger and more attractive with a set of new teeth. It was hard to believe she was only forty. But she had had a hard life. Poor nutrition. Illiterate. A husband who poked out her eye with a knife and then deserted her. She raised three daughters by herself and lived in a tiny apartment in Imbaba, the slums, on the other side of the Nile.
At our first meeting the group fanned around me in the shallow end of the pool like baby ducks. I lay against the pool's edge, sipping my drink.
“I’ve never understood why Fatma doesn’t wear a patch over her eye,” Mary said, making the motion of the breast stroke with her wrinkled arms. Did someone say she used to be an aerobics instructor?
“I think the eye is gone for good,” Oliver said, bobbing up and down like he was on a pogo stick.
“Her husband poked it out with a knife,” I said. Most men were bastards. Everyone knew that. My first husband had gambled away every cent of my salary at the Detroit Star.
BUSH SAYS TERRORISTS WILL PAY.
“That might just be hearsay,” Oliver said.
Ever rational, the Brit with his Cambridge degree, tiny waist and bird-like legs.
“I have a cat missing an eye," Mary said." I named her Pirate. She has such a sweet temperament.”
“We're talking about a human being,” I said.
“Shouldn’t we ask Fatma if she wants new teeth?” Louise asked, smoothing back her thick wet hair.
As a veteran journalist, I always caution, “Pick your translator wisely.”
Sometimes you'll find that the translator skews the message to suit their own agenda. Choosing Louise as a translator for our project was a mistake. Not only did she think she was Michelle Pfeiffer in her hot pink two-piece bathing suit, she was a big know-it-all.
“Yes, shouldn’t we find out if Fatma wants new teeth?” Oliver echoed, still bobbing up and down.
“Why wouldn’t she want new teeth?” I said, taking a sip of white wine. “Waiter! I need ice! Ice!”
We were giving Fatma something permanent, something that would improve the quality of her life.
Vartan was saying, “If you don’t floss and gargle with salt water and use hydrogen peroxide, you could make your periodontal problems worse. If you do your homework, Poppy, you won’t need scaling. That will cost you a fortune.”
He held up a plastic model of a set of teeth. With a bulbous forefinger he pointed to the gum line.
“There is an acceptable gum line. Too far below is not good.”
Was that how Fatma had lost her teeth? Poor hygiene with disastrous results?
RUDEMAN/HART REPORT: NEXT ATTACK COULD CAUSE GREATER CASUALTIES IN AMERICA.
Vartan was often peevish with Muhammad and Zahra. When Muhammad and Zahra left the room, he said, “If you’re too soft with them, they take advantage.”
Vartan once told me how he came to Egypt from Palestine after the 1967 war. His father was a jeweler and had stayed behind in the West Bank. Vartan was fluent in Armenian, Arabic, English and French. He could probably pinch-hit in Italian too. He had a brother who designed for Gucci, another who owned a hotel on the French Rivera.
“Do you speak French?” he asked one day when my mouth was full.
“Ah, yes. Excuse me for saying, Poppy, but the Americans and the French are the worst at learning languages,” he said, peering into my mouth.
“Hola, que tal?” Seventh grade Spanish with Mrs. Weed. The Pablo-and- Maria dialogue.
I wanted to say, but couldn’t because his fingers were in my mouth, that learning Spanish was far more practical in the U.S.
U.S. MILITARY IN DESPERATE NEED OF ARABIC SPEAKERS.
Of course, if my workload with the student newspaper had not been so heavy, I would have learned Arabic. I knew my numbers and a few amenities: peace, good morning, carnation, a thousand thanks.
Since Louise knew the most Arabic in our group, she was delegated the task of speaking to Fatma. She reported back that Fatma had said it was "a beautiful idea." Fikra Jameela. "Maybe she doesn’t want to offend us.”
A beautiful idea—that was enough for me.
That was how Vartan had described my new tooth. “I will make you a beautiful new tooth out of acrylic, as if I’m an artist. I’ll use acrylic because it’s much cheaper than porcelain.”
Mustafa filled out a card for me. “Miss Joy," he wrote alongside, "Please Advice Twenty Hours Before Cancellation." For crying out loud, why didn’t Vartan proof his appointment cards?
“Should I pay now?”
“No,” Mustafa said. “Next time.”
“But I think maybe she was being diplomatic,” Louise said. "Like she didn't want to offend us."
BUSH DECLARES: IF YOU ARE NOT WITH US, YOU ARE AGAINST US.
Completely unrelated to my broken tooth, I split an old filling on one of my back molars when I was chewing on a piece of sesame candy, spitting out tiny bits of metal afterwards.
On the way to Vartan’s I passed cars with open hoods like patients with their jaws open double-parked on the crowded street. Loops of heavy tires decorated the pavement. A single bulb beamed from underneath a purple- colored Fiat. A small boy hawked limes in front of Pirelli Tires, my landmark for Vartan’s: turn right at the next street after. The smell of garlic was overpowering. Were mechanics wolfing down kushoorie, Egyptian-style spaghetti with lentils and rice, in between engine jobs? Shiny new mufflers hung outside one shop like slabs of beef.
IRAQI BABIES DIE FROM LACK OF MILK. POOR NUTRITION.
Vartan poured liquid metal into a small mortar and pestle and then snapped his fingers at Mustafa. On cue, Mustafa turned on the water.
After he finished the filling he said, “Now, Poppy, make sure you wait two hours before you eat. You can’t feel your tongue. You could bite it off !”
I wondered if I did bite off my tongue whether he would pop it into a jar of formaldehyde for his collection.
Mustafa again said, “No charge.” I became suspicious. Why was he being so generous?
Later that evening when I tried to eat lentil soup, it dribbled down the side of my numb, heavy cheek. Did Fatma only eat mashed potatoes and beans with her limited dental capacity? Wouldn’t she be happier if she could chew?
Once we decided to get Fatma new teeth,we had to choose betwen implants and dentures. I asked Oliver if he would research prices, but he had been asked to go on a field trip by the Egyptian Environmental Ministry to search for gazelles in the Western Desert, who were near extinction. Mary volunteered, but then reneged.
In the end, it was easier for me to do the research myself. Luckily, I met an American-educated doctor named Fouad at the pool who specialized in implants and dentures. “Implants will cost up to LE 70,000. Good dentures will cost anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 LE.”
The amount of money needed was staggering. The higher range for dentures would cost us $1,500. This was a much bigger investment than I had bargained for. As it was, the university had only given us only a two percent raise, about $70 a month.
U.S. SPENDS THOUSANDS ON AIRPORT SECURITY.
“You should make sure she really wants them. Once, I had a Saudi patient who was furious that his son paid so much money for implants. When he found out how much the implants had cost, he stormed into my office and insisted that I take them out. Sophisticated procedures for sophisticated people,” he said.
Fouad was a competent swimmer, but I passed him on the breast stroke on the third lap. In water I felt light and fast, though I was sluggish on land and avoided looking at my body in the changing-room mirror. A tanned, sleek Italian grayhound positioned herself in front of the mirror so she could dry her hair. “Excuse me,” I said, trying to get into my locker, but she hardly moved. “Excuse me,” I said.
She continued primping and admiring her voluptuous breasts without the slightest self-consciousness. I wrapped a large towel around myself and hurried to the bathroom before she could see my thick, flabby waist and floppy legs.
Shortly after my conversation with Fouad, my beautiful new tooth came loose. I had a bad habit of sucking candy when I was proofing the students' articles at the Daily Mirage: CLUSTER BOMBS IN AFGHANISTAN. PALES- TINIAN DEADLOCK. STUDENT UNION DEMANDS MORE PRAYER SPACE. I had to make yet another trip to Vartan so he could cement it back. He had to squeeze me in between appointments, so I had to wait im his tiny waiting room. I picked up a red ashtray in the shape of a boot. How I loved the tasty panini sandwiches in Rome! If I had enough money I’d go back to Italy, but the dollar was very weak against the euro. There was also a plastic globe with snow on the bottom. I turned it over: Niagra Falls. On a bookshelf was a small figurine of a Matador. A stuffed toy leopard squatted next to some small potted palms. In between photographs of family gatherings with Vartan posing as the paterfamilias hung prints of Gaugin: nude, exotic women in Tahiti. I imagined the tanned Italian greyhound strolling buff through the road of mechanics and the riot that would ensue.
PALESTINE DEMONSTRATION IN CAIRO TOMORROW. U.S. EMBASSY SAYS AMERICAN CITIZENS SHOULD EXERCISE CAUTION. VARY THEIR ROUTES.
Was there a way to Vartan’s clinic other than through the road of mechanics?
“Miss Joy, Dr. Vartan is ready for you.”
AMERICA READY FOR NEW THREATS TO HOMELAND.
I opened my purse and fished out a black velvet jewelry pouch.
“Lucky you didn’t swallow it,” Vartan said, studying the acrylic tooth between his two weathered fingers.
AMERICAN CITIZENS CONCERNED MORE ABOUT SECURITY, THAN FREEDOM.
In late October the weather started to get cooler. Not everyone continued to turn up at the pool. When she did, Louise left early to play tennis at the Gezira Club. I found her sitting on a lounge chair in a lime-green jacket and black warm-up pants. Once I had a figure like that.
MICHIGAN WOMAN SAYS HER HUSBAND IN JAIL BECAUSE HE IS ARAB. HIS FAMILY EMIGRATED FROM SYRIA ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO.
I suggested to the group that we opt for dentures. I knew they wouldn't want to spend any more than that on teeth for Fatma, no matter how much they liked her. Fouad had given me his card, so that day I called to make an appointment. It occurred to me that if Fatma had a ride to her appointment, she might be even more amenable to the idea.
“Oliver, could you take her in your jeep?"
“I don’t think Fatma wants to go,” Louise said.
“We’ve gotten this far,” I said. "Why not go ahead and do it?
U.S NAMES AXIS OF EVIL: SYRIA, IRAN AND NORTH KOREA.
“I could take her in my car, but my horse just died,” Mary said, her eyes tearing up.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Oliver said.
“How long did you have her?” Louise asked.
“Ten years,” Mary said, drying her eyes with a dirty red bandana.
We needed to get back on track. Why did I always feel like I was moving backward in this country?
BIN LADEN ELUDES CAPTURE.
“Bad kidneys?” Oliver asked.
“Cancer. I had to ask the vet to put her down because she was in so much pain. She was arthritic too. Could barely stand in her stall. Not to mention that she had bad teeth.I had to pay someone to look after her full-time.”
I was wondering how to get them back on the subject of Fatma’s new teeth without appearing callous. Say a prayer for the dead horse?
MORE MEMORIAL SERVICES PLANNED FOR VICTIMS OF 9/11.
“I always wondered, but it seemed impolite to ask,” Oliver said.
“I’m sure it was her husband. We ran a story about cases of spousal abuse. There are hundreds of such cases in Egypt. Those are the facts,” I insisted. “I know I’m right.”
BUSH SAYS IRAQ IS CLEARLY LINKED TO 9/11 TERRORISTS.
“Why would the bawab lie?”
“Sour grapes,” I said.
“I can vouch for him. Once one of my cats got loose, and he searched everywhere for her. On the roof. In the elevator shaft. Eventually we found her on the roof of a building across the street,” Mary said.
SURVIVORS TELL OF HARROWING ESCAPE FROM WORLD TRADE CENTER.
"Could you find out when Fatma is free so you can take her to the appointments? Perhaps you and Oliver could coordinate?”
“Her schedule keeps changing. She works for Oliver on Tuesdays now. She works for the Joyce scholar on Wednesdays. But he asked if he could switch with me. On Thursdays she goes to Zamalek.”
“I didn’t know we had a Joyce scholar at the university. So many people come and go, it’s hard to keep everyone straight. Have any of you ever read Ulysses? I never could get through it.”
BUSH POOR STUDENT AT YALE. PARTY BOY.
“My Russian jeep, the Neva, is still in the shop. Anyway, I’m taking a group out on the Nile to look for the Kuhl’s Pipistrelle bat. We have a bat scanner,” Oliver said.
“Can’t we get any consensus here?”
U.S. CAN’T GET CONSENSUS AT U.N. AGAINST IRAQ.
“The bawab told me that once she had lost her eye her father was so afraid no one would marry her that he organized a marriage with her cousin. Fatma was not beaten by her husband. And she left him. They're separated, not divorced. They haven’t lived as husband and wife for years.”
“None of this helps with the question of Fatma’s schedule,” I pointed out.
When I asked when we should meet again, Louise and Oliver moaned about mid-term grades. Mary was presenting a paper at the University of Idaho: Blogs in Information Technology. And I was already overworked teaching five courses.
“We’ll keep in touch by email,” I said.
Emails flew round like sparrows trapped in a chimney. Much to my surprise, when I saw Fouad at the pool he told me Fatma had not been to see him once in the last few months. She cancelled every single appointment I had made for her.
In the meantime, my beautiful new tooth was irritating my gums which were raw as hamburger meat . No amount of gargling with salt water helped.
MORE HEALING RITUALS AT GROUND ZERO. CANDLE-LIGHT VIGIL HELD.
I wished I could cancel my appointment with Vartan. Every morning, though, I looked in the mirror and studied the raw gums around the beautiful tooth, which made me look like a vampire. As much as I hated it, I would have to go downtown to Vartan’s clinic, pick my way past the leering men and the toothless smirking bawab with the olive green eyes.
AMERICA RAW AFTER ATTACKS.
Vartan seized a thin pick and vigorously scrapped off the plaque. When I started to gag he ordered, “Rinse!”
I spat blood into the white basin and watched it spiral down the drain. Was this my punishment for never learning Arabic? For trying to help Fatma get new teeth?
BUSH URGES ALL COUNTRIES TO WORK TOGETHER TO PREVENT WORLDWIDE TERRORISM.
After the endless scraping, Vartan took a tweezer and picked out medicated cotton from a small brown jar.
“Open, Poppy!” he said, stuffing the cotton around the acrylic tooth. The peroxide n the cotton made me gag. “How much longer?” I felt like a prisoner in Guantanomo Bay.
PRISONERS HELD AT GUANTANAMO DENIED LEGAL RIGHTS.
At our last meeting in January the sky was gray and the wind whistled through the trees. Without the sun, a chilly gloom settled over the green garden. The pool was deserted except for a few serious swimmers. Fouad was not there. Oliver was dressed for a bird-watching expedition in a tan safari jacket with hundreds of pockets. A pair of small expensive binoculars hung from his neck. Louise turned up in a fashionable royal-blue warm-up suit.
“You’re not swimming?”
“Too cold,” Louise and Oliver said at the same time.
“But it’s heated!" They were sitting so far away from the pool, I had to shout. “Fatma keeps canceling the appointments I make for her. Can you talk to her? Couldn’t you all come closer so I don’t have to shout?”
Mary put one toe in at a time at the shallow end of the pool.
“The water is perfect once you start swimming. Don’t be such a baby.”
“I think I pulled a muscle when I was riding the other day. The sauna will feel better.”
BUSH SAYS REVENGE WILL MAKE US FEEL BETTER.
“But we haven’t had our meeting yet,” I said.
Mary picked up her towel and headed for the cave-like sauna in the health club downstairs.
“Mary,” I called. “Mary!”
UGLY INCIDENTS CONTINUE AGAINST IMMIGRANTS AFTER 9/11.
Instead of dealing with the issue of cancelled appointments, Louise told us what the bawab had told her: Fatma was worried about how she was going to pay for her daughter’s wedding. Her husband, who lived in Aswan, rarely sent her any money.
“You seem to have a lot of time to sit around and drink coffee with the bawab," I said. "Don’t you have any school work?”
“That’s how you find out what’s happening,” Louise replied, bouncing a ball on her racquet , then flipping the racquet and bouncing the ball on the other side.
CLINTON TRACKED 9/11 TERRORISTS. INTELLIGENCE IGNORED BY FBI AND CIA.
“Could you please stop doing that?”
“Maybe you should get somebody else to translate,” Louise said.
I could see I would have to eat crow and flatter Louise because she was the only one with some conversational Arabic. I wished I did not need Vartan, either. But we all had to go to the dentist sometime.
My gums were still so sore from the new tooth that Vartan finally decided to replace it with a porcelain one. Because I gagged so much or bit too hard he had to redo the wax mold fourteen times.Of course, he had to contain his rage with me, so Mustafa and Zahra bore the brunt of it.
“Poppy, just bite down normally. That’s a good girl, Poppy. Steady,” he said, putting yet another wax mold into my mouth. Was this how my cat felt when I tried to cram a pill down her throat?
ISRAEL ROLLS TANKS INTO GAZA. U.S. TURNS BLIND EYE.
AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION RELEASES REPORT OF THE EFFECT OF ANTHRAX ON THE BODY. TINY SPORES ATTACK THE LUNGS.
After that, our group did not meet at the Hilton swimming pool again: they all had excuses:
“I am waiting for my kit from America to see if my cat has feline leukemia. The delivery man from DHL is coming any minute.”
“I’m under a deadline for an article on the White-Tailed Mongoose for Egypt Today. Why don’t we just give her the money?”
Louise said she had an important tennis game.
Soon after, Mary and Oliver completely disappeared.
TERRORISTS WANTED BY FBI GO UNDERGROUND.
“Since you speak Arabic, it’s your job to see that she gets to her appointments,” I told Louise.
“We can’t make her get new teeth.”
“I'm overloaded with work," I said. "I don’t have time to go with her to her appointments."
Finally, even I was worn down and gave Fatma her teeth money in a sealed white business envelope with her salary. I asked Louise to tell her that the money was specifically for a pair of new dentures.
“I really don’t have time. I have to finish this summary on identifying suicide bombers through DNA in body parts."
“Please," I said. "This is the last time."
Fatma smiled and nodded, yes, yes yes. They smiled and said yes to make you happy, a mask they put on to please foreigners. “Shukran, Miss Joy,” she said, pointing to her teeth. Mustafa called to say my porcelain tooth was ready. I made yet another pilgrimage down that awful street with the leering men and the toothless bawab. Did I want to end up with one front tooth like him?
The brass plate said: Vartan Migoian: Specialist in oral surgery. How did I know he was a certified dentist except for someone’s word at the university?
U.S. SAYS THEY HAVE PROOF OF SADDAM HUSSEIN’S WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION.
“Now, remember, Poppy, don’t eat before the anesthesia wears off or you could bite off your tongue.”
“My name is Joy,” I tried to say through a mouthful of cotton.
“What, my dear Poppy?”
I took the cotton out of my mouth. “Is it okay to drink?”
“Why, of course, Poppy,” he said, grinning. “Do you drink Scotch or gin?”
“Listen," I said. " I hope this is the end of my troubles with my teeth.”
“Mustafa,” Vartan bellowed. “Another appointment for Miss Joy.”
“I have to see if the porcelain tooth takes.”
All the dental work cost me five hundred Egyptian pounds, not even one hundred U.S. dollars. I wondered if Fouad was a better dentist than Vartan. But Vartan was so confident and explained everything so thoroughly. He was certainly not overcharging me. Even so, what if he was just a carpet seller who had fled Palestine and set up as a dentist in Cairo?
Traffic was gridlocked in the center of the city—President Mubarak was hosting an important conference on Terrorism in the Middle East.
MUBARAK WARNED U.S. OF TERRORIST THREAT BEFORE 9/11. U.S. IGNORED WARNING.
One of my journalism students was supposed to cover the conference, but I had no credit left on my mobile phone, so I couldn’t check up on her. No taxis were available, and I had to walk home from Vartan’s clinic. After I flipped on the light in my apartment, I spied a pair of shoddy dentures on my dining room table, covered with a starched white cotton tablecloth that reminded me of Vartan’s white coat. Fatma had not gone to Fouad, the American educated dentist, the slim swimmer, but to someone much cheaper. The teeth were not even straight. They probably hurt as well--which was why she had left them on my dining room table.
My mood worsened when I discovered I was out of white wine. I was flat broke. How stupid I had been!
“For crying out loud, why didn’t you tell us she didn’t want new teeth?” I shouted into the phone at Louise.
“I've been trying to tell you for months.”
How many times had I been cheated in this country? Why did I stay in such an inhospitable place?
“She spent the money on her daughter’s wedding. They had a nice party. She’s embarrassed by such generosity. She doesn’t know how to thank us. 'A thousand thanks.' Alf is-shukr.”
“A wedding,” I said. "A one-off?"
"It was important to her,” Louise said. “Look, I gotta go.”
U.S. BEEFS UP ARABIC LANGUAGE PROGRAMS. SURGE OF INTEREST IN MIDDLE EASTERN STUDIES IN U.S. UNIVERSITIES.
Fatma would rather go around looking like a cross between a jack-o’-lantern and a pirate. She'd have to eat jello for the rest of her life. They don’t appreciate our help. They just want to use us, play us for fools. We should forget about them. And I resolved to do just that--lay in more cases of wine and an icemaker too, so I would never run out of ice.
XENOPHOBIC ATTACKS ON IMMIGRANTS IN U.S. CONTINUE AFTER 9/11. PAKISTANI MISTAKEN FOR ARAB KILLED AT 7-11 IN OHIO. HIS WIFE SAID HE ONLY WANTED A CHERRY ICE.
The phone rang.
“I forgot to tell you,” Louise said. “Fatma’s daughter was very happy.
They used some of the money to get Fatma and eye patch. With her new outfit,
the new eye patch and a new hairdo, she looked great--the perfect
(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 1997-1999. Her stories and essays have appeared in: The Texas Review, The Alaska Quarterly Review, Archipelago, The Barcelona Review, Storyglossia and Storysouth. Currently, she teaches at the American University in Cairo and is working on a collection of stories set in Egypt.)