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Smoke and Mirrors

Just before the balcony and front windows were blasted off, Charles Collins was in his room on the ninth floor of the Hilton hotel in Taba, Egypt, watching the vampires beat the werewolves in Underworld. His mother, Nancy, was by the pool on the first floor with a friend. Charles, a big, shy 11-year-old from Providence, Rhode Island, remembers closing his eyes for a minute.

“When I opened my eyes, everything was destroyed. I panicked and I forced the door open. And when I got out, part of the building was, like, collapsed, and you could see outside. And then I went to the automatic fire doors, and I saw other people, and they were really scared, and I just followed them and went down the stairs.”

He was barefoot. One floor was full of smoke, and he could hardly see. The next floor was all rubble, and he had to climb over it to continue down. He was bleeding all over — face, legs, arms — from small cuts made by flying debris, and his wrist was fractured. It took him about 10 minutes to get downstairs. All that time, his mother didn’t know if he was alive, and he didn’t know if she was alive.

“I had to hold him for a while because he was very, very frightened,” his mother said.

Most of the dozens of people killed in three well-coordinated bombings last week — one at Taba and two explosions at a resort town farther south — died in the Taba attack, which was the biggest of the three. Many of those who died were Israeli. The Taba Hilton is a 10-minute walk across the border from Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city. Both Eilat and Taba are resorts on the Red Sea, but a lot of Israelis prefer Taba because a hotel in Eilat — like the one I’m in right now, with kids’ footprints on the walls, low water pressure and no room service — costs more than $200 a night. The Taba Hilton is $35 a night.

Farther south in the Sinai, where the two other explosions took place, are clusters of bungalows by the sea that Bedouins rent out for even less money, on beaches with few family-friendly activities but lots of empty stretches on which to walk, make out and get high.

After the bombings, Israelis streamed out of Egypt by car and on foot. It was a blur of sandals, flimsy cotton pants, Guatemalan bags and exposed stomachs. These were people dressed for relaxing, not fleeing. Genya Tzarfati sat behind the counter of her kiosk on the Israeli side of the border and watched the exodus. She’s lived in Eilat for 40 years. She remembered the last time a group of Israeli tourists were killed in Egypt: Almost exactly 19 years ago, an Egyptian security officer opened fire on a group of Israeli tourists in a town called Ras Bourka, killing seven.

“After Ras Bourka, business was dead for four years,” Tzarfati said. She predicted this time around will be worse, maybe 10 years before Israelis go back into Sinai.

Americans will probably be avoiding Egypt for a while too, although they weren’t beating a path to Egypt’s door before this. Charles and his mother are an exception. They’ve been living in Cairo for six years, since before these attacks, before 9/11, before the Iraq war, and beheadings, and Abu Ghraib, and the bombings in Spain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. Nancy Collins works for a group called the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services, which, she said, “runs development programs and tries to bring Muslims and Christians together to address issues of mutual concern.”

So there’s plenty to do, and she and Charles are staying.

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