The Serendipity of Sand

If my former boss were reduced to a collection of ideal geometric forms, he would be a circle and a line segment. If described by a child, in deepest winter: two-thirds of a snowman on a stick. If a still life: a moldy brioche, an overripe squash, and two wispy stalks of grain. In the real world, where I knew him, he was a physics puzzle. My boss had a roughly spherical head covered with a white mane of hair and a large, sagging, oblong torso with long, thin legs that looked too weak and too insubstantial for their burden. His was a marvelous structure, impressive in size, ingenious in form, asymmetrical in proportion, seemingly ignorant of gravity, and the source of a perplexing mystery: How did he remain upright? What forces conspired to keep this human edifice — so absurdly defiant to natural laws — from toppling over or crashing to the ground?

My working hypothesis was that my boss simply never stood up. My clearest memory of him is in his office, seated, his bulk framed by the city behind him. Our office was on the eighth floor, and the panoramic window behind him looked west, over the traffic that threaded between the Mugamma and the Egyptian Museum. In the distance you could see the Nile and the latticework Cairo tower, and then, swimming like a mirage in the heat, the endless boxy expanse of Bulaq al-Dakrur. Continue far enough and you would reach the Western Desert: hot wind, shifting sands, desert roads, and military installations, operational and abandoned.

My own office, by contrast, had a single window that faced north across a two-foot-wide alley into the window of another office, occupied by two men. One played solitaire while the other rhythmically hammered at a thick green ledger book with a very large stamp. Throughout the course of the workday, I would watch the two of them as they tossed a steady stream of refuse out the window and into the alley below: loose tea, wet coffee grounds, wax paper with smears and specks of taameya and tahina, cold ful, stale bread, the horoscope section of the newspaper, a leather briefcase with a broken clasp, a cracked SIM card. A veritable pyre of cigarette ash and butts. As the weeks passed and the refuse heap grew, I came to envy these men. The mound below their window was proof of their existence. In the early evening, after they turned off the lights, descended, and disappeared into the city, the pile of trash remained. When they returned the next morning, it grew again.

I had no trash pile to call my own. A janitor, Ayman, swept my office twice a day, and in any case I could not figure out how to open my office window. This was unfortunate for several reasons, not least because I had no other outlet for my existential ambitions. I was given no work assignments, had no discernible responsibilities; I was generally superfluous to the functioning of the office. I could disappear at any moment and no one would miss me.

And yet I persisted. I arrived punctually every morning to sit at my desk. And I would spend a full workday at my desk, developing a healthy paranoia that someone would discover my uselessness. In order to protect myself, I perfected an elaborate mimicry of work. I kept an Excel spreadsheet open at all times, filled with meaningless numbers. If someone came in, I would type furiously for a moment, squint, and then lean back in my chair with an air of puzzlement, stroking my chin for good measure. When alone, which was most of the time, I would gaze through the window at the men across the alley. I grew particularly enamored of the man who showed up in the morning, turned on his computer, and played solitaire the whole day long, with periodic breaks for tea, prayer, and littering. We were not so different, he and I. This man, playing solitaire with neither pleasure nor purpose, and I, watching him play solitaire with neither pleasure nor purpose. Some days I felt a deep empathy bubbling within me. He and I, utter strangers, were engaged in a common project: humanity.

But empathy was not enough, I decided. I needed a sense of purpose. Perhaps I could find mine by talking to my boss. He seemed sensible. He was from the American Midwest. He wore short-sleeved button-down shirts paired with large rectangular glasses. Admittedly, his beard did not inspire confidence. It was unwieldy and, more often than not, speckled with crumbs. But it was said that he had once been an engineer, the sort of person who made practical, mechanical things. In contrast with the other people I “worked” with — Omar, who spent his time buying real estate; Sara, who spent her time collecting emoticons; Hoda, who spent her time buying socks from a lady who visited our office every day to sell her socks; and Ayman, who may or may not have lived in the hallway closet — my boss was a model of stable productivity.

And so I knocked on his door. He was seated, as always, in his large swivel chair. I sank into the couch.

My boss asked me how I was liking work. I lied out of habit, enthusiastically: “Greatly!” He smiled, or at least I imagined he did — he was so heavily bearded it was hard to tell what his lips were doing.

“I do hope you’re not working too hard,” he said.

I assured him that I was not.

“I hope you have enough time to do some sightseeing.”

I assured him that I had.

“Have you been to the pyramids?”

I had lived in Egypt for six months. Of course I had gone to the pyramids.

“You should go to the pyramids,” he urged.

I blinked. Had he not heard me? Just in case, I assured him that I would go. His beard made it impossible to understand his intentions. It seemed safest to agree with whatever he said until I found a way to discuss my predicament.

“The pyramids are marvelous,” he said. He held up an arm to draw my attention to the window, as if the pyramids loomed behind him, which they did not.

I looked through the window at the pyramids that were not there and nodded.

“I don’t think you understand,” he said. “They are magnificent structures.”

I paused to reflect on the full magnificence of the pyramids. “So many stones” was all I could think of to say.

“So many stones,” he repeated. “That is correct.”

I agreed. It did seem correct.

“And do you know how they moved those many stones?” he asked.

I smiled good-naturedly. “Slaves?”

“Absolutely not!”

I had offended him.

“Volunteers! Thousands of volunteers, donating their labor during the dry season. It was an honor to work on the pyramids — to create monuments that would outlast them and their civilization.” He paused and looked at me expectantly.

“How did they manage to move all of those stones?” I asked.

“No one knows,” my boss said with great satisfaction. “No one knows how the pyramids were built.”

I was sincerely confused. I had thought we must have figured it out by now. “Really?” I said.

“Oh, there are theories,” he said. “Theories. But we do not really know.” He seemed genuinely pleased by our ignorance of how the pyramids were constructed. “All of our technology,” he said, “scientific advances, computer-aided design, robotics. And still — we do not know. Ancient civilizations had knowledge that we moderns are yet to discover.”

It dawned on me at this point that my boss was not going to be particularly helpful in solving my issues with work. “Do you know how lucky we are to even know that they exist?” asked my boss. “It is the serendipity of sand. The sand buried the pyramids and preserved them. Even today, there are so many more mysteries — not just other pyramids, but other remains of the ancient Egyptians, buried beneath the sands of the desert, waiting to be discovered.”

“Wow,” I said. I said it again: “Wow.”

“And if you go to Africa,” he said, “do you know what you will not see?”

I did not.

“Pyramids,” he answered. “In fact, you will see no large ancient structures in Africa like you see in Egypt. Many people think that is because the Africans were not advanced.” I think he smiled again. “Do you know why that is?” I now worried that my boss was going to say something racist.

I held my breath. “Climate.” He let it sink in. “Climate.”

I was still holding my breath. “It is warm in Africa. Warm and humid. Nothing built by man can survive that climate. If there were structures the size of the pyramids many thousand years old, they would have rotted over time. And we would never know.”

I exhaled. My boss wasn’t racist. Just crazy.

“Consider the zebra,” my boss commanded. “Such a strange-looking animal.”

I smiled despite myself. “It’s like a horse, but with stripes,” I said.

“Correct. And, now, consider the giraffe — such a tall, absurd neck. What do these animals have in common?” “They are funny-looking?” “Correct. And these are not the only ones: the zebra, the giraffe — the elephant with its preposterous nose. The leopard with its spots.”

I pondered this small menagerie, which consisted only of the most ridiculous animals.

“But do you know what else these animals have in common?” I did not.

“Africa! Africa is home to the strangest-looking animals in the word. Did you ever think why that is?”

Not as such. “Natural selection?” I guessed.

“Natural selection,” he agreed. “The gift of Africa’s ancient civilizations: the large-scale hunting of species to weed out undesirable strains, the selective cross-breeding of different genera, all in the service of creating the most extraordinary land mammals. It would have taken scores of generations of coordinated effort across all strata of society. Every ancient would have to know which animal to hunt and which animal to let live, and every man, woman, and child would have to have felt motivated to do so.”

I had thought natural selection meant something else. I also thought that we already knew how the zebra got its stripes. “Theories,” my boss said.

“Theories. We still don’t really know. Does Darwin explain why only the strange-looking animals survive? Does Darwin explain why the exotic-looking animals are only in Africa?”

I admitted that he probably didn’t.

“Every civilization wants to create something greater than itself. In Egypt, the pyramids. In India, the Taj Mahal. In ancient Greece, the Parthenon. In South America, pyramids — of a different kind! But in Africa it is the animals. A living monument that could thrive where a building would rot and crumble. A testament to the power of people, driven by the desire to leave something for the future.”

I am almost sure he smiled then. There was a momentary quiver in my boss’s head, a bobble almost, that seemed to betoken an impending vertical movement. The moment passed. My meeting with my boss was over. “Well, there’s work to be done,” he said, shooing me out. “Monuments of our own to build!” I returned to my office and took my place at my desk, no more purposeful than before, contemplating spreadsheets and solitaire and the refuse heap outside my window.