Life in the Afterlife

            It was certainly not the afterlife I expected. One day I’m Pharaoh of Upper and Lower Egypt, careening through the palm groves on my chariot, and the next thing I know it's the summer of 1967 and the police have me pinned up against a mud wall in a Cairo suburb, frisking me for an I.D. The timing of my emergence was uncanny. All of Egypt was on edge as the invading Jews cinched their hold on the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip. It took the Israeli army just 6 days to totally kick Egyptian ass and leave them feeling abused and anxious—Ramses must have been rolling over in his vitrine. In ordinary times the locals would have been indifferent to the presence of a half naked 19 year old wandering around their neighborhood babbling in some unrecognizable dialect, but an incursion of fear and uncertainty heightened their suspicions and intensified their responses. I spent the first few weeks of my afterlife in a basement cell below Abdeen Police Station in central Cairo while civilian police and military intelligence struggled to interrogate me through a baffled young interpreter. On the ride into town I puked the contents of my stomach all over myself and the backseat of the squad car and the fetid waft from my partially digested 3,000-year-old breakfast all but incapacitated the two officers in the front seat. I entered the station still dripping from a pressure hosing at a coin-operated car wash where they also scoured away the subject of an anthropology dissertation from the car’s upholstery. For what seemed like days, I sat in silence on the floor of my cell, stunned, trying to process the freakish landscape I had hurtled through at 40 miles per hour and the frightening sights and sounds of the jail, but the sensory overload paralyzed my mind. Then when I was capable of focusing my mind again my tormentors began their intelligence gathering efforts in earnest: two hours of relentless questioning each morning, two hours more each afternoon, and an hour or so every evening before I was given my rations. The military interrogators, two dour hard-asses, were especially resolute. When nothing else seemed to work they attempted to communicate with me through sign language and gesticulation. Nonetheless, my incarceration eventually settled into a familiar routine and as I became more comfortable with my immediate surroundings and immune to my captors' bullying, I began to try to make sense of this uncouth netherworld. In retrospect I have to say that I kept it together pretty well for someone who, for all practical purposes, had just stepped out of a time machine. Sure, I felt totally bewildered by this place and annoyed by the rude behavior of my hosts, but there was no jackal-headed creature waiting here to weigh my heart or any of the other terrifying ordeals that I had expected to endure on the journey to the hereafter. Instead, the experience was merely exasperating.

            At first I blamed the priests in charge of my burial for some procedural error that cast me into this temporal hinterland. The priests were competent bureaucrats but more than a few were dicks and quite capable of malfeasance. Despite a rigid protocol, the priests had a certain amount of discretion in outfitting the burial tombs, so the quality and quantity of the accommodations, though roughly commensurate with one's wealth and eminence, might also reflect a final assessment of fealty and liege. That's why some Pharaohs got model boats for the voyage to the underworld while others got real boats. Why didn't I get a real fucking boat? And where was all my stuff? How was I supposed to claim and defend even a modest piece of real estate in this hostile new environment without my weapons and treasure? As it stood, I didn’t have the means to command a mud hut in the slums. Gold would be nice. I’d settle for just a fraction of the gold I was entitled to. Sure, I had been taught all my life that a successful journey to the afterlife would be fraught with peril and depend on cunning and endurance, but without my possessions, or at least some familiar cultural references, I was a powerless outcast. But then, here I was alive again, and on Egyptian soil. Maybe I didn't pay enough attention to the priests when I was growing up. Maybe they did the best they could to prepare me for the afterlife but I just got it all wrong. Maybe my own spurious beliefs condemned me to this remote hellhole. Could this be the domain of the people who got it wrong? And why should I expect a funeral ritual to be an exact science anyway? These were humbling thoughts but they brought me to the conclusion that if I ever wanted to regain some control over my life I had no choice but to get over my expectations and try to find my place in this bizarre new world.

            The language barrier finally forced the investigators to back off for a while and let the interpreter attempt to establish some rudimentary means of communication with me. The interpreter, a personable associate professor of languages conscripted from the American University, took an academic interest in my obscure dialect and spent long hours teaching me Arabic. We developed a strong rapport and our mutual curiosity kept us keenly focused on the task at hand. Learning modern Arabic was a struggle for me at first but I was a determined student and soon conquered the learning curve. I was anxious to use the language to not only learn about my new surroundings, but to also assert my considerable repute. I wasn't ready to abandon my station in life or discount my pedigree just yet. However, before I was capable of articulating my privileged status to my captors I began to grasp the depth of my cultural estrangement and decided not to play the Pharaoh card too hastily. I came to fully appreciate that decision when I learned that folks here would regard my assertions with the same credence as someone claiming to be a vampire or a being from another planet.

* * * *

            It was easy to lie to my inquisitors before I was proficient in Arabic. In a naturally stilted cadence I alleged a lonely childhood of goat herding and stuck to my story. After many tedious hours of chronicling my hermitic life, the military interrogators grew weary and left my fate to the jailers. I would have probably rotted there in my cell but the interpreter persuaded the police to release me into his custody and he put me up temporarily in a vacant dorm room on campus until he could find me more permanent accommodations. His incredible generosity with his knowledge and his time, kept my education on a fast track the rest of the summer. The professor likened me to a sufficiently intelligent being from another world, and I thought that that pretty much characterized the situation. For a while I repaid his tutelage by making tape recordings in my native language and translating them. He came to believe that I spoke a primitive dialect from some isolated southern province, and as bad as I felt about leaving him ignorant in that belief, neither of us would have benefited from the truth. Eventually my studies turned to history and I fixed the relative coordinates of my past and present and traced the intervening course of historical events. A lot has happened in three thousand years.

            Despite the rocky start to my afterlife it was good to be alive again, and I felt strangely liberated in my new life. The truth is that I was never very excited about assuming the responsibilities of Pharaoh. My mother was the force behind the coup that brought me to power, and I felt obligated to merit the position that she had managed, with guile and guts, to secure for me, even though I had little passion for the job. Thankfully I didn't have to concern myself much with the actual affairs of state, but protocol permeated both my official and personal lives nonetheless. I was prepubescent when I took the throne but was urged to marry without delay. My queen, a woman several years my senior, had been sloughing off royal eggs long enough and was incessantly horny. Consequently, she was acutely aware of every increment of my pubescent development and I believe that we consummated our marriage on the very day that I was physically capable of producing sperm. In the earliest days of my reign all I really wanted to do was cruise around on my chariot all day and play games with my friends all night, but I eventually acquiesced to my official responsibilities and was left with very little time to myself. However, within a couple of years the inevitable surge in my testosterone levels supplied me with both the urge and the confidence to allow myself some personal indulgences, and as I gained a satisfying degree of latitude in my personal life I also began to assert my regal authority. The latter development vexed certain influential members of the court, and latent discord surfaced. I sensed that the more involved I became in state affairs, the more conflict arose among those around me. It was a perplexing problem and I don’t suppose I handled it very well, but that wasn’t my only source of anxiety.

            My wife was a bitch. My wife and my mother were like a bitch tag team. When I see the surviving imagery depicting my lovely young wife in a gesture of affection towards me I’m reminded of the mutable nature of history and the ironies it often belies. The reality was that the more contentious my marriage got, the more amicable it was portrayed. The priests were behind what survives in the public record and they were more concerned with leaving a favorable impression of the culture than an accurate one. They were accomplished public relations men who could tweak your image to the greatest advantage or expunge you from history altogether. Nothing, so to speak, was written in stone.

* * * *

            It would’ve been nice to find a community of ancient Egyptians in Cairo to take me in and help me assimilate. There’s probably an enclave of them somewhere in Queens. But I was eventually invited into the home of a Sunni family that the young professor hooked me up with. They called me Ahmed and I worked part-time for them and attended a private school that was one of their many philanthropic beneficiaries. I studied Islam and learned English, and a little French, in addition to Arabic and the core curriculum. At home I had a television in my room and access to an extensive library down the hall, and I joined the family and their distinguished guests for dinner every evening. Everyone in the family was remarkably kind and generous and intelligent, and they liked to have fun.

            On Friday nights in the summer we would all squeeze into the family's Fiat sedan and go downtown to the Palace Cinema where they often featured American movies. One of our favorites was Cleopatra, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, which we had great fun critiquing on the ride home. And the family had parties almost every weekend—from intimate gatherings to black tie balls. At formal affairs they often served Pepsi-Cola in Champagne glasses, but when they entertained close friends—gatherings sometimes lasting well into the morning—they served port or brandy cordials, or even martinis. Whenever alcohol had been served the night before, the family's housekeeper felt it prudent to go out early the next morning with a mallet and thoroughly smash the empty bottles in the folds of an old rug that she kept for that purpose, and discreetly dispose of the shards.

* * * *

            In 1973 the family managed to procure a passport for me and arranged for me to travel to the U.S. to attend university. All of their own children had attended university in the states and when I was sufficiently prepared I was sent there too. They provided me with contacts in Los Angeles who helped me apply for scholarships, find work, and get settled in. The following year my application was accepted at UCLA with a full scholarship and a stipend. I majored in electrical engineering—my passion—and did well enough to have an aerospace job offered to me in my junior year. Back then a guy named Ahmed with a green card had no problem getting security clearance.

            Although I didn’t study Egyptian history at UCLA I mingled with some of the university’s social scientists and occasionally participated in discussions with them over pitchers of beer. Among the regulars were two gay Egyptologists who were particularly impressed with my knowledge of hieroglyphics and amused by my nuanced speculations on various aspects of ancient Egyptian society. Despite my firsthand knowledge of such things, they would often challenge my views so persuasively that I began to question my understanding of the old culture. Nineteen years of enculturation in the ancient world were apparently giving way to a fading memory and a few years of intense Western acculturation. Anyway, we had some lively and enlightening conversations and became good friends. For Halloween in my senior year the Egyptologists invited me on an all night progression of parties and gay bars from Westwood to east Hollywood. That year we all went as mummies.

            That was also the year that my tomb’s treasures were exhibited in Los Angeles and I couldn’t resist attending despite the long lines and limited viewing time. It was a dazzling show. The experience affected me profoundly in some mysterious way even though I couldn’t really relate to most of the artifacts on a personal level because they were ritual items that were never actually part of my daily life—except for the throne. The throne was mine and I remembered every minute detail of its surface with remarkable clarity. But even the throne seemed somewhat alien to me now. On the one hand it was as if I had sat on the thing yesterday, and on the other hand it was like coming upon some relic from my childhood in an antique store. While viewing the exhibition I thought about what I would want in my tomb if I were buried today, here in America. A motorcycle came to mind, maybe a bass boat, and a big screen television in case there's cable in the next afterlife. Oh, and my throne would be a cushy recliner. Anyway, I was as impressed as everyone else with all the gold on display and it occurred to me that technically all that gold is mine. That night I thought about the enormous wealth represented in that show and the next morning went out and bought myself a new color television set.

            I became a U.S. citizen in 1986. I'm officially single but for all I know my ex may be living out her own afterlife in the here and now. I was never clear about how that worked. In any event I have no intentions of remarrying. I enjoy my work very much and I’ve had moderate success in my field. I live modestly in a Santa Monica apartment near the beach, pay my taxes, and save and invest a little. As soon as I began my engineering career I started to make regular contributions to the foundation that helped me come to the United States and attend college—the foundation endowed by the Egyptian family that took me in back in Cairo. Not long after 9-11, our government included the family and their foundation in a list of suspected terrorist supporters and froze their U.S. assets. Everyone that the F.B.I. could locate in the U.S. that was in any way associated with the foundation was interviewed. The family had contacted me in time to warn me of my predicament and give me time to prepare. I assumed that my work on classified government projects would heighten suspicion and probably lead to my detainment so I took the precaution of transferring my projects to colleagues and arranging for friends to manage my personal affairs and care for my cat. I was, in fact, declared a person of interest and escorted by F.B.I. agents one day to a detention center in Kansas for further interviews. I shared my wing of the facility with numerous other Arab Americans and even a few Hispanic Americans.

            At the detention center I was taken to an interview room and questioned for about two hours every Monday and Thursday morning. In the early interviews I managed to side step the topic of my childhood but I was forthcoming about everything else. I told my interrogators what I knew about the Cairo family that had taken me into their care and I carefully traced my activities since arriving in the United States. The first time they asked me about my aerospace work I said that if I told them I’d have to kill them. It was an awkward moment in which I learned that these guys considered humor to be a hostile attitude. In time my sense of humor also withered away and I became fed up with recounting the same stories over and over. I just wanted to get the hell out of there.

            On a Monday morning around the twelfth week of my detention I walked into the interview room to find a polygraph machine and its operator instead of the usual interrogators. For some reason, in that instant I made the decision to tell this guy everything, starting from my earliest childhood memories. I mean why the hell not? I felt that I had nothing to lose at this point—and I was curious to see the operator’s reaction and what the machine would indicate. So while the operator finished his baseline test and prepared to move on to the subjects that my interrogators had badgered me with for the past three months, I psyched myself for revealing my secret life for the first time ever.

            For an hour or so I gave my usual answers to the usual questions and patiently waited for the appropriate leading question to make my move. Then, when I was asked if I had ever been part of a foreign political organization, I said, “Yes, I was once Pharaoh of Upper and Lower Egypt." Surprisingly, the operator didn’t flinch. Of course he couldn’t have taken my story seriously, despite what the polygraph might have suggested, but he seemed willing to humor me so I continued my story and he listened patiently. The following week some of the original interrogators were allowed to sit in and observe the sessions. I told stories about my childhood, about my mother, my wife, my hunting adventures, my chariot accidents, and bits of gossip and royal intrigue. I described the priesthood and its cunning ways—the likes of which must have resonated with the attending F.B.I. agents—and boasted about their proficiency in civil matters. Although my stories must have seemed like a pathetic feign of insanity, no one challenged me about them, nor did the stories provoke these guys to take action one way or another in regards to my incarceration. Then suddenly the interviews stopped and the next two months were the worst of all because I had no contact with the agents and felt like I was marooned and living in limbo. Would I remain here in this minimum-security facility or rot in some prison cell? Then just as I thought I was about to go legitimately insane, my clothes and personal items were returned to me along with a hundred twenty dollars in cash and I was issued a plane ticket home. The timing of my release, I soon discovered, coincided with the exoneration of my Cairo family and their foundation. The foundation successfully recovered from the effects of the agency's accusations, but the family, like myself, emerged from the incident more circumspect about our futures.
            My home-life has settled back into a routine now—but things are different. One dispiriting development was that, without any explanation, I lost my security clearance, and consequently, most of my projects. I started drawing Social Security when I turned 62 and shortly thereafter I retired from my job and began spending more time down at the beach. Within a month of enrolling in Medicare I was diagnosed with colon cancer and promptly admitted for surgery. Fortunately the cancer was detected early and treated successfully, but it was a serious procedure nonetheless. At the time, I was so focused on the process that I never stopped to ponder my mortality, but as I continue to age and feel my vitality wane, I've been contemplating the increasing likelihood that my afterlife will someday end, and I wonder what, if anything, might come after it.

            It's difficult for me to discount a spiritual belief system that apparently effected my resurrection from the dead, but it's equally difficult to maintain devotion to a belief system that expired thousands of years ago and of which I'm probably the sole exponent. So these days all I know is what I think I remember of the past and what I perceive is happening at the moment. As for the future, I'm probably approaching the grand finale this time, but who knows. Since I started hanging out down at the beach I’ve met several reincarnated historical figures and a couple of guys from outer-space, and each one has professed to me his indisputable knowledge of what's on the other side of the veil. Of course I regard these guys in the same way most reasonable people do, and I’m especially wary of the old man who claims to be the Egyptian pharaoh, Khufu. Having said that, Khufu happens to be one of the few pharaohs who got buried with a real fucking boat.