The Bomb of Atoms


After a few days, the diarrhea eased up and I took the train to Alexandria.  I would only be staying there for one night.

A group of Egyptian boys in their late teens were staying in one of the other rooms.  They spotted me checking in.  One of them made it a point to introduce himself and the others.  He had a solid handshake, steady eye.  He welcomed me to Alexandria.  He said they were students.   He offered to assist with anything I might need while there.

I gave this crew a quick look-over.  Decent enough looking kids.  If anything, nerdy.  Pocket liner types.

I thanked them and excused myself to my room.  I really had to get off my feet.

I washed up and took a nap.  I woke up feeling good and went to dinner.

Walking felt good again.  I reached a stride.  My legs felt long.   I was walking west.  I was close to the ocean.  I could smell it.

Like everywhere in Egypt, everything in Alexandria looked old.

I took notice of the buildings. Century-old structures filled the role of the youngest buildings around. These are people’s homes. These people here all around me are living in rooms that were once lived in by those who peopled a world where flies spawned from dew drops and Sultans taxed the Nile.  A world in which ships were as tall as trees and cholera played in the breeze.  These people are sleeping every night in rooms that have been slept in for centuries.  I was raised in a brand new house.

I came back to the hotel after dinner and one of the boys was in the lobby.  He invited me to their room.  Again I tried to sidestep it.  He persisted ever so politely and I relented.  I asked him which room and promised to show in thirty minutes.

I returned to my room and washed up again.  I plopped on the bed.  I was tired.  I wanted to sleep.   After a few minutes I hitched up my diplomacy and went calling on the neighbours.

I knocked.  The high and heavily painted door pulled open just a crack.  In a heartbeat it was pulled wide.  I looked in on a room about thirty feet deep and twelve feet across.  There were eight bunks and dented metal cabinets that looked like gym lockers.

There were a few small tables.  One boy was sitting at one of the tables and obviously attending to a mathematics book.   They all stood to greet me and shook my hand.  The boy doing the math immediately returned to his work.

There were two older Egyptian guys there, too.  One was lying on a bunk.  The other sat in the corner staring into space, smoking a cigarette.  They ignored my arrival.

The room was neat, clean, and sparse.  The tables had textbooks and other student paraphernalia in neat, personal piles.

They offered me tea and popcorn and insisted I sit on one of their few chairs.

There were six of them.  They were attending some kind of engineering college in Alexandria.

As I settled, I saw immediately that they were assembling themselves around me like an audience.

The questions started slowly.

“In which United State do you live?”

“Have you ever owned a car?”

“Are there donkeys in your cities?”

They had a hunger for the information about every little detail of my life.  In turn, they shared with me the contrasting elements of theirs.

They were extremely interested in the sex lives of Americans.

One leaned forward and asked in hushed conspiracy, “Have you ever done the thing in the bed with the woman?”

They all leaned forward straining to hear my answer.

I held them for a beat, then answered, “Sure.  You?”

They pulled away from me in unison.  Each nodding and waving off the question as superfluous and hoping I wouldn’t ask it again.

One of them had a crush on broadcaster Barbara Walters.  He wanted to know the American custom for taking a wife. He wanted to know whom he’d have to ask in order to marry Barbara Walters – her mother or her father? When I told him he’d have to ask Walters herself they all began buzzing in wonder.

There had been a quiet one.  He hung around the fringe of the group.  He was constantly repositioning himself and never participated in the discussion, yet followed every word.

He had thick, knotted dark hair.  His eyes darted and hid.  His eyebrows were the window to his soul.  They tattled on his every thought.

Though he didn’t participate in our conversation he would occasionally guffaw at something that was said, deliver in Arabic what came across like a bad pun, and then pump his fist into somebody’s ribs.  When the target recoiled from the blow he would burst into laughter, then just as suddenly, stifle it.

Occasionally, he would start mugging or hopping on his chair.  The others would settle him down and gesture apologetically.  I nodded sympathetically.

Only once did he attempt to communicate with me.  They were changing shifts at the study table.  As people shuffled into new seats, he elbowed his way to the front.  He put his hands out in front of him.   I looked into his eyes and saw that much of life was dark to him.  He stammered a bit before speaking firmly and deliberately.

“How do you make the bomb of atoms?”

Everyone in the room hushed.   With all the graciousness at my disposal I assured this kid I had no idea how to make the bomb of atoms.

After another weird pause, the brightest kid placed his hand on his roommate’s shoulder and said, “Americans don’t like to talk about the bomb of atoms.”

They started another batch of popcorn.  They talked about the war.  They talked about the sound of the enemy jets roaring over the city.  From their faces, I could tell that each had his own bad memories of that time.

Suddenly, I saw a flash of light outside and heard thunder. I looked to the window and saw a cloudburst. The boys immediately jumped up and went rushing about the room.  They grabbed towels and ran outside. I looked out the window and saw them all standing in the rain.  They were shampooing their hair.  They stood rubbing their heads into a lather and grinning at each other over their good luck.

When they came back they changed the topic to mathematics.  They were all Egyptian engineering students but the only textbooks they had were in English.  While they spoke passable English they were having some difficulty with the texts.   I translated “cross multiplication,” “quotient,” and “ratio.”

As the evening wore on they began to zero in on what was really on their minds.  They wanted to know what went on between American men and women.  They had trouble understanding how American men could be friends with some women and lovers with others.  After some effort to explain this, but not to their satisfaction, I began to feel tired.

I tried to excuse myself.  They persisted ever so politely.

The hunger of their curiosity was beginning to excite them. They saw this simple concept as the key to understanding the world outside their world. Women and men who talk and do things together without being married. They were just plain stumped as to how this thing could possibly be.

These guys were trying to find out as much about the world as they could.  They were learning the languages, plumbing the mathematics, reading the news.   When it came to women, they were hitting a stone wall.  They simply were unable to understand how a man could have anything at all to say to a woman.

And I was unable to explain it.

I again moved to leave and this time they relented.  They thanked me tremendously, each vigorously shaking my hand.

I went back to my room.  As tired as I was, I had trouble sleeping.  I had been having a good time answering those kids’ questions, but that last deal about men and women was starting to bug me.  I wanted to answer their question.

The next morning I got up early to catch the train to Cairo.  Before leaving the hotel, I left a note for the boys.  It read, “Love and friendship.  One is my brother, the other my sister.”

Allah only knows what they made out of it.

Larry Roszkowiak was born in New Jersey.  He now lives in California. Visit his website at: