Setting a Novel in a Foreign Locale

It’s very tempting for writers to describe their own cities and neighborhoods in their novels. It doesn’t require any research, and there is little chance of making the kinds of mistakes that critics love to point out. There’s no worry that some critic will thumb his nose at the novel because “only an ignoramus would be unaware that the river runs west and not east across the city.”

The problem, of course, is that setting all your novels in the same locale gets boring, both for the writer and for the reader. Even Faye Kellerman, the author of several best sellers set in Los Angeles, decided to write a novel set in Europe. Of course, the price a writer such as Kellerman faces is that some readers have certain expectations when they come to one of her novels. There’s a comfort level that comes with what the reader is used to reading. Michael Connelly, the well-respected mystery novelist, tries to balance reader expectations with his own desire to explore new territory by having Detective Harry Bosch take occasional trips. One Connelly novel takes place mostly in Hong Kong with a slice of the action back in Los Angeles.

For that reason, I had some misgivings when I decided to set Egypt Rising in modern Cairo. Since I don’t speak Arabic, my main character is an American teenager who happens to live in Cairo with her archeologist father. I only had to worry about Arabic words for food and clothes since Olivia Hunter only uses street Arabic when necessary. My trusty Egyptian Arabic dictionary (yes, there is an Egyptian version of Arabic) as well as a few good guidebooks provided me with all the Arabic phrases I needed to make the book feel authentic and to show that Olivia was accustomed to conversing in Arabic.

Any foreign city is a challenge to describe for an American writer. Small details really do count for authenticity. I still remember reading one of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and noting Fleming’s description of how his spy turned on a water faucet in Turkey and watched as it spat out an insect. In my case, I focused on some of the unique cultural aspects of Egypt. As an example, I described a bowab, a man responsible for handling the day-to-day needs of apartment dwellers. I also described specific Egyptian delicacies that Olivia was likely to enjoy. When it came to the city itself, I used several guidebooks as well as maps to describe modern Cairo and its unique neighborhoods. One area of the city, for example, is occupied by people who bring home garbage and sort through the mounds of garbage in search of anything valuable. Very poor people (it’s all relative in Cairo) are squatters in the many mausoleums found in another Cairo neighborhood. Olivia has a horrifying experience as she tries to find her way through that area.

My wife and I were fortunate enough to visit Cairo during one of her vacations. I still have vivid memories of the city. One fascinating detail I noted at the time and later incorporated in the novel is that Egyptians are taxed when a building is completed; as a result, many buildings are in a constant state of construction. I never have seen so many buildings that were occupied while clearly unfinished.

One major plot element in Egypt Rising has to do with the Egyptian revolution of 2011 that took place during the time known as the “Arab Spring.” I relied on several first-hand reports, many by Egyptian reporters, to get a sense of the chain of events that resulted in the ouster of President Mubarak.  I also did quite a bit of research on the Muslim Brotherhood as well as other groups of Islamic fundamentalists. I read reports of how some of these groups attacked Western women.

A city and its people can’t be plucked out of the air without writing about its history. Michael Connelly does a fantastic job in his novels of describing historic Los Angeles buildings and events. I wanted to give my readers a sense of Egypt’s history. I have always loved Egyptian history, so doing some additional research wasn’t a tough task.  Olivia’s father, an archeologist and lover of all things Egyptian, was a natural vehicle for adding historical elements to the novel. In addition, I described Olivia as a girl who very much wants to become an Egyptologist like her father. Her knowledge of all things Egyptian, including hieroglyphics, helps her save herself as well as others when she travels under the Sphinx. I also researched several Egyptian cults over the centuries, and I incorporated that element into the plot.

Of course history can only take a writer so far. I’ve always loved the theory that refugees of Atlantis influenced the early Egyptians, so I incorporated that paranormal element into the novel along with Edgar Cayce’s descriptions of a “Hall of Records” that supposedly is buried under the Sphinx.

I hope readers enjoy Egypt Rising and find my description of Cairo adds to their feeling that they really are visiting that city. As far as the paranormal elements of the novel, they help answer a question that long has stumped historians who focus on ancient Egypt.

The Slow Death of Microsoft, HP, Cisco, and Intel: Where Do We Go From Here?

I had a relative who made his fortune opening television stores. In those heady days of early color TV, he made his mark by being The Expert when it came to RCA color TVs. Of course he commanded a premium for that knowledge. He prospered until Japanese manufacturers entered the market. Try finding an American manufacturer of TVs today, and you’ll find the search futile.

The world changes right before our eyes, yet few of us are consciously aware of it at the time. It’s only in retrospect that we are aware. Remember the boom days of the PC industry during the 1990s? Intel and Microsoft formed a partnership that resulted in growth that probably astonished their own executives. Of course it helped that Apple didn’t know what the hell it was doing. John Scully will go down as clueless in the history books because he chose NOT to license the Apple to other manufacturers. Instead, he kept margins high and sales low.

When I was a technology analyst and consultant, I marveled at how much discontent there was among Cisco’s customers. They grumbled while they continued to pay what they called the “Cisco premium” for equipment that could be purchased much cheaper from competitors. Of course, because Cisco was a proprietary system, you couldn’t really mix and match manufacturers even though rival products far out performed Cisco products. Customers confided to me that they were “in too deep to get out.”

During the boom days I offered some advice to the CEO of HP which she ignored. I suggested that the major advantage HP had was that it offered a wide range of different kinds of equipment that was far broader than its competition. Why not create an advantage for customers who bought different kinds of HP equipment by making them work so well together that customers would want to buy all HP equipment. HP continued selling its product as if they were unrelated. The result was that HP lost its short-lived market advantage in PCs, never found traction in the consumer market, and staggered in the printer marketplace. Today the company is fighting for its identity. It used to be known for “high prices and high performance.” Today, there really isn’t anything special to distinguish its equipment.

Microsoft never saw the Internet coming and then was late to the tablet market. Its mobile products never took off, and now people have viable choices other than purchasing Windows-based machines and running Office. It just reorganized, but to me, it looks like rearranging the deck chairs on a very well known ship that ran into trouble.

Big companies don’t collapse over night; they die by a thousand cuts, bleeding  over a number of years that are filled with layoffs and reorganizations. Take Ebay. It looked invincible for a while until other companies offered auction sites that cost less. It turned to PayPal to keep its profits up, but today PayPal faces a lot of far more nimble competitors.

My point is that these changes happen all the time, but we don’t pay much attention unless we’re playing the stock market and worrying about our investments. I have a number of ex-colleagues who used to be analysts and experts that relied on these huge companies for consulting projects. Many of these people now have one-person consulting firms and are barely getting by. The many new startups on the block just don’t have money for high-priced consultants.

I used to have a very good record for predicting the future, particularly in technology. My current prediction is that mobile technology will become not just ubiquitous, but built-in. People will accessorize with mobile products, whether that means a built-in Internet chip in their heads, Google type glasses, or small earrings that serve as telephone receivers. Virtual reality gloves will mean that people will have access to a keyboard and monitor the size of everything they view. Devices won’t need much memory, because the cloud will be available everywhere, buttressed by very high-speed wireless links. That means that almost everyone will be connected all the time.

I read recently that 25% of people under 30 text while making love. It will be awhile before you see that in a movie, but it is happening, and it does reflect how our culture is changing.  There won’t be any privacy anywhere.

When you think of that kind of future, it makes reading Pride and Prejudice even more enjoyable because it hearkens back to a time when relationships developed over months and years instead of minutes and privacy was cherished. If Jane Austen wrote her novel today, her heroine would be tweeting the entire time. She would Google men who interested her and spend time looking at their Facebook pages.

So, while you might think of the huge technology companies as dinosaurs who changed too slowly to flourish in a changing landscape, note the effect of changing technology not just on companies but on individuals. We’re far different today than we were in the 1990s. We have far less patience, demand far faster responses from everyone we know, and expect Wi-Fi everywhere we go. We expect technology to cost less every year and do far more. We want our technology to be intuitive and not require a steep learning curve. We’re not willing to wait while a Microsoft, an IBM, or Intel decides what is best for us. We want a manufacturer to prove its superiority and not really smugly tell us that we’re trapped because we already have so much of its proprietary equipment, we can’t economically move to a different manufacturer.

Not all big technology companies fail to adapt. IBM used to be known for its mainframe computers, but today it is a software and services company that is doing very well. It was nimble enough to morph into a different company fast enough to stay relevant.

The pace of life is much faster now than in any other time in history. We expect instant response when we place an order online. Amazon has been experimenting with same day delivery as a result. We expect our movies to catch our interest in the first five minutes. No more slow-developing French or Swedish movies for us! We expect authors to capture our attention within the first 10 pages. Many literary agents don’t read past the first 10 pages when determining whether or not to add a client.

That’s one reason why cartoon-like superheroes are so popular in movies today. Because people know about them from earlier movies or from reading about them in comic books, there’s a comfort level and familiarity with these characters which means that viewers will give stories a bit more time to develop. They already know all about the superheroes, so producers don’t have to provide much background; they can get right to the explosions, chases, and fights that make these movies so popular abroad. European and Asian distributors love the fact that such movies require such easy dubbing. Who cares if the superhero’s lips aren’t in synch with his French when the camera is focusing on the superhero fighting a super villain?

Of course it is possible to move too quickly. If you speed-read a novel and then can’t remember the name of the main character, you’re not really reading. If you Tweet constantly, then you’re not really living your life; instead, your making the entire world a voyeur, forced to watch you go through the motions of living. If our film industry and our publishing industry are reduced down to the lowest common denominators because people have little patience with character development, then we’ve lost something very important. Keep that in mind the next time you hear a beep and can’t determine which of the half dozen mobile devices you own is trying to remind you of something urgent.

 

Discussion Guide for Egypt Rising

DISCUSSION GUIDE FOR EGYPT RISING

The Setting

1. Egypt Rising is set in modern Cairo circa 2011. It is a city of very distinct neighborhoods. What very distinct neighborhoods are mentioned in the novel?

2. Chicago and New York have also been described as cities composed of very distinct neighborhoods. What similarities and differences do you see between Cairo’s neighborhoods and those of American cities?

Characters

Olivia Hunter

1. What is Olivia’s attitude towards the restrictions Aasuma is forced to accept?

2. Describe Olivia’s self-image at the beginning of the novel. How does it change?

3. What are some of the characteristics you associate with Olivia?

4. What are some examples of maturity that Olivia exhibits even early in the novel?

5. Describe the relationship Olivia has with her father.

6. Describe how Olivia’s view of Taylor changes. Does the change strike you as plausible?

7. What are some early signs of Olivia’s interest in Paul?

Taylor Thornton

1. What are some of Taylor’s praiseworthy traits?

2. Describe the relationship Taylor has with her father.

3. What explains Taylor’s animosity towards Olivia? Is it plausible?

4. How do you think Taylor would describe herself?

5. Does Taylor’s change in attitude towards Olivia seem plausible?

Aasuma Nur

1. How would you describe Aasuma? What praiseworthy traits does she have?

2. How would you describe her relationship with her brother?

3. Does the attitude the Western students have towards Egyptian students such as Assuma strike you as realistic?

4. What kind of prejudices do the non-Western students exhibit?

5. Does the friendship Aasuma has with Olivia strike you as plausible?

Matt Hunter

1. Was Matt justified in keeping the secret from Olivia?

2 How would you describe the relationship between Matt and Emily?

3 What are some of the strengths & weaknesses of Matt as a teacher?

4. Does Matt change during the course of the novel?

The Politics of Modern Egypt

1. How would you compare the Egyptian revolution of 2011 as described in Egypt Rising with the ongoing events surrounding the Army’s recent deposing of Mohammad Morsi?

2. Mr. Hargrove’s journal entries reflect those of an Israeli agent with an admitted bias, but how do they square with your understanding of the Egyptian revolution?

3. Egypt Rising describes how some students joined nationalist clubs supporting an Islamic form of government. Using Iran as an example, what kinds of restrictions could be found under such a form of government?

4. Olivia Hunter, a 15 year-old American girl who has never lived anywhere but Cairo narrates Egypt Rising. Do you find examples where her view of Egyptian politics might not be accurate?

5. Do the actions of the Egyptian Government in offering a tenured teaching position to Matt Hunter in exchange for the promise of silence from Olivia and her father seem realistic? Why would the Government be so anxious to kill the story of Olivia’s discoveries?

The Paranormal in Egypt Rising

1. Research the life of Edgar Cayce. Describe some of his “miracles.” Are there any rational explanations for his ability to cure patients?

2. What do you think about the theory that refugees from Atlantis helped accelerate the growth of Egyptian civilization?

3. Research some of the theories regarding the disappearance of the Ark of the Covenant. What do you think happened to it?

4. Edgar Cayce predicted that a Hall of Records would be discovered under the Sphinx. Visit the Edgar Cayce Association for Research and Enlightenment website (www.edgarcayce.org) and read more detailed accounts of the Hall of Records. Does such a library sound plausible?

5. Matt Hunter points to water damage to the Sphinx as evidence that it is much older than the pyramids. What possible explanations can you find for the origins of the Sphinx?

The Egyptian Army’s Coup, Democracy, Morsi, and Egypt Rising

Over 500 people have been killed and thousands injured in the latest riots since the Egyptian army deposed Mohammad Morsi and once again assumed the reins of command. Both sides are talking at each other without really communicating, while our Government is in the awkward position of defending democracy but siding with a legally elected leader.

Both sides can make legitimate arguments. Morsi’s defenders point to the fact that most observers felt the election was conducted as fairly as possible in that neck of the woods. Anti-Morsi groups argue rightly that he promised he would listen to input from other groups but scorned them instead. His answer to resistance regarding his pro-Islamic fundamentalist positions was that people could choose to not re-elect him when it was time for the next election. Many pro-democracy supporters felt that the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood had stolen the election and pointed the ship of state towards an Islamic republic governed by Shariah law rather than a democratic government that respected the rights of all its citizens.

The sad truth is that even though Egypt’s literacy rate is high for that part of the world (not including Israel), it still is low. Democracy requires an educated citizenry. Many people in Egypt cannot read, but they can listen to advice from their religious leaders. Once Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood colleagues took office, women began to chaff under new restrictions. Just one example of these actions was the Government’s requirement that   women broadcasting on its television channel had to cover themselves with traditional garb. Western women and Egyptian women who chose to walk the streets in Western style clothes found themselves under attack.

In my new novel, Egypt Rising, I describe the conditions leading up to the Egyptian revolution of 2011. In fact, during that revolution, fundamentalist-leaning men attacked Western reporters such as Lisa Lang. Olivia is far more fortunate since she was able to subdue our attackers. The attacks on Israel-supporters described in the book actually did occur.

Egypt Rising described a creaky Egyptian bureaucracy that survived regime change. Recent reports indicate that this situation is still true. Squeeze and payoffs are engrained in a culture in which they have been part for thousands of years. The Government did shut down all digs near the Sphinx. You can buy the Government’s arguments that digging was undermining the structure, or you can accept my theory (and the theory of many skeptics) that there is far more to the story.

Novels predictably have happy endings in which the author ties together all the loose ends. That’s not going to be the case in Egypt. Neither side can afford to concede, so the fighting is bound to continue. Our Government has a very unfortunate set of options. One choice is to side with the Army and continue our foreign aid while trying to justify going against the Government elected by the very democratic principles we preach. The other choice is to cut off our support for the Army and face the very real possibility that democracy goes away and the people wind up with an Islamic republic where women face all kinds of new restrictions and lose of freedom. When we sever our money connection to the Army, we also sever our influence. We will have no influence whatsoever with an Islamic republic.

The  best policy is to continue to provide financial aid to the Army while pushing it to speed up the process of setting up new elections. The problem, of course, is that there is no guarantee that a party favorable to our interests will be elected.

Popular Culture on the Couch: Revealing a Darker Side to Us

Remember the optimistic 50s and 60s? You know, two cars in every garage, meat every night, and everybody absolutely certain that their children would enjoy even better lives than their parents. Of course our movies and popular culture in general reflected that view of life. Think of Star Trek, as an example. We weren’t out there conquering new worlds, we had our own rules against that sort of behavior. No, we wanted to explore new worlds and bring them into a federation of planets that all treated each other civilly.

Of course science fiction has taken a darker turn since those days. When SF writers aren’t describing space operas with us (the good guys) fighting everything from mindless robots to very intelligent bugs. We’re fighting for survival, so anything goes.

Have you wondered at the change in tone? Popular culture has a way of putting humanity on the couch and analyzing it. Ask yourself what really has changed since Spain conquered the new world? Some alarmists already are describing our planet as “doomed” because of the pollution we’ve created. They’re solution is that we colonize other worlds. Their major fear is that we’ll be late to the party. Other intelligent races might beat us to juicy planets and stake their claims.

If humanity found a world where there were all kinds of valuable natural resources and a race with less powerful weapons than we have, what are the odds that we would leave that race alone? I think all you readers know the answer to that. We’re probably somewhere between Shakespeare’s description of Man as “noble” and Mark Twain’s condemnation of the “damned human race.” The fine point of where we actually lay on that scale would be lost on a defenseless race when we roared in with advanced technology and superior weapons.

Many leading scientists tell us that there are infinite numbers of parallel worlds. Theoretically, we could visit each of them and view them as scientific experiments as to humanity’s basic goodness. How many of these worlds exist where the Nazis won or Rome never fell? How many Earths where slavery still exists or women still are second class citizens? How many Earths where life is far better than in our current world?

So, the next time you view a science fiction movie, think of it as more than just entertainment. It’s telling us something profound about our own view of ourselves. If you saw Prometheus, for example, why did the aliens decide to terminate their experiment (us)? Did they discover the had major a tragic mistake and perhaps failed to eliminate a fatal flaw in our DNA?

Why do so many science fiction films and novels show us under attack from aliens who want our planet or our women? Think of the film “Independence Day” as an example. There’s a psychological condition where people transfer their own flaws to someone else. Perhaps we are doing that ourselves.