According to Greek mythology the first sphinx lived in the suburbs of Thebes and killed anyone who failed to solve the riddles she posed.
I wish she were around now, because I have a riddle for her.
My riddle started about fifty years ago, as I was drinking a Coke in the Hong Kong Hilton.
A fat man, a dead ringer for John Candy, started a conversation with me.
He was the Governor of the Gaza Strip and he took a liking to me. I was barely 22 and looked about 17.
…. a charmed life ….
I had the magic of youth and strangers wanted to be friends with young Americans and Canadians. (I was both.)
I was also a Mormon who had just completed a two year mission in New Zealand and although I thought I knew a lot, I was pretty stupid.
I recall after I returned to North America that my father introduced me to his friends as “a world traveler and lecturer.” We all laughed. (They more than me.)
Getting back to my return home…when I landed aboard a Pan-Am plane in Cairo, a small greasy man, the governor’s assistant, escorted me to a lovely hotel.
He said the governor — who was in Cairo on business — was busy and would see me in a few days.
This man had paid for my hotel room and his assistant asked me to wait. How the governor knew my itinerary remains a puzzle to me.
I had time to kill and someone was paying for it. What luck. The next day I caught a streetcar to see the sights.
I vividly remember my open-windowed streetcar: two trolleys in tandem. In the center was a round platform.
People climbed onto this platform where a conductor, a large smiling man, took their tickets.
Sitting on a straight-backed wooden seat, I watched a street urchin, a boy of perhaps seven, hop onto the filthy platform. He snared cigarette butts and broke them into a leather pouch; I suppose he sold the tobacco to a vendor.
… but life is hard ….
When the smiling conductor was able to waddle close enough, he suddenly drop-kicked the kid in the stomach.
The impact hurled the wretched child into screaming traffic.
I feared he would be killed instantly, but the boy sprang to his feet and, like a gazelle, darted through traffic, dodging wheels twice his size.
We reached the edge of Cairo and I got out.
After inspecting the Sphinx, I hiked to nearest pyramid. It looked like a two- or three-minute walk.
The noon sun must have been frying my brain…what seemed like a few minutes turned out to be 10 or 15.
Finally, I staggered to the base of the pyramid and its welcome shade.
A diminutive man approached me and claimed he was a guide. Would I like a personal tour of the Great Pyramid of Giza?
“That’s what I’m here for,” I said. We negotiated a fee, about a nickel. I took out my wallet and handed him a dollar. “Show me everything.”
I entered and soon on all fours began a journey up an incline.
Within a few meters, the temperature dropped to that of a warm spring evening. This brought me to my senses.
Many things tumbled through my mind.
… I was a dead man….
First, I had just shown the little guide more money than he could make in a lifetime.
Second, no one on earth knew I was there — except the little man.
Third, I thought of how cruel the streetcar conductor had been to the small child. This was a country in which life was cheap. I had been warned that Cairo thieves would kill you for the silver in your teeth.
I was aware of the rasp of metal on stone and, looking back, realized the sound was made by my guide’s scabbard scraping across ancient rock.
At any moment, I expected to plunge into a deep pit, to be impaled at the bottom of some secret shaft where my guide would strip me of money and fillings.
I dared not go back. That grating scabbard contained a long knife.
Ahead: a wedge of light, faint voices.
I stumbled upward, my guide pressing closer behind me, blocking my escape.
I arrived at a small room.
Three men huddled around an oil lamp, its illumination making them grotesque and sinister. One sharpened a knife on a whet stone. Its blade had probably been used to slice the throats of many a luckless tourist.
A sixth sense warned me that my guide would quickly convey to his countrymen that the perfect patsy — me — had arrived.
I had to act.
I turned to “help” my guide into the chamber.
As he stepped up and forward, slightly off balance, I flung him with all my might across the stone floor into the laps of his astonished accomplices.
The oil lamp shattered.
Robes and turbans burst into flames.
Men, cursing and screaming in strange tongues, beat out their burning robes.
I stumbled back down the incline, sprinted across the sands…
…and made it to the streetcar in record time.
I often wonder what my singed guide told his family about the crazy young tourist who handed out that large tip.
All of which leads me to the riddle I would like to pose to the Sphinx:
Were those men in the pyramid simply harmless guides, who had no thought of harming me?
Although he paid for my hotel room, I never heard from the governor. About 20 years ago he was shot to death not far from the Sphinx.
I often think of what happened to me so many years ago in the Great Pyramid. I was either very wrong or very right and I didn’t have a clue what was going on.
The consequences of what I did either didn’t matter or saved my life.
Today’s Middle East feels like I have just walked into a room that there is no escaping from.
It’s a much bigger and more deadly room than I encountered in the pyramid. In that room men with knives are looking at me. And each other.
I wonder what the Sphinx would tell me to do.
There are many theories of how the pyramids were made. Most people think the ancients piled stones on top of each other. Here is a theory that uses ramps. But how about building the pyramids by making the stones as you go. Look.
I mentioned I was a Mormon Missionary in New Zealand. Here’s how the novel starts.