Raindrops fell on the pavement like fat toads.
It was one of those hot, heavy, summer days when, almost incorrectly, it was raining. It was the day it all began.
I had been teaching for the last few months in a university campus in suburban London, cleared for the summer. Full of bored foreign teenagers now, sent here to learn English. I had seen her first walking round the quadrangle’s corridors, surrounded by the lumpen Italian teens, the loafing oaf Saudis, the bovine Colombians. She looked impossibly small and sweet, and lost, as she carried her books from the staff room to the teaching block. The charging kids bowling past her, shouting and scattering. She had an unhappiness about her that almost broke my heart.
I’d fallen in love. And I’d worked all summer to attract her attention, or even just to spend time with this beautiful Greek girl. I’d made it to her room now at least – a tatty under-graduate’s bedroom – and I was still working hard. But everything seemed to be slipping through my fingers right here at the very last. I searched for something, anything, to say.
“We could go round the world. Teaching. You and me. We could teach around the world…”
I was just rambling. But for some reason this had seemed to get her attention.
As she sat on the miserably thin mattress, arms folded, she turned her prettily taciturn face up to mine.
“What did you say?”
“Just then. What did you say about going around the world?”
“Well, you know, I thought maybe we could go round the world. Teaching. We could teach in, say, 80 different schools around the world…”
There was a pause. I must have blown it now.
“Yes,” she shifted “Yes… I like the sound of that. Travel. I love travel.” This previously melancholy Greek girl was suddenly off the bed, dancing quickly around the room on the cigarette-scarred carpet, under the pin-marked walls. She picked up her rucksack from the corner of the room. “Do you see this rucksack? Do you know where it’s been?”
“No…” I said, abashed, expecting great tales I couldn’t possibly match from this European who’d come here to England to teach, full of dreams and wanderlust.
The Greek dwelled privately for a moment. Her face dropped. She really needed to start travelling too.
Cairo’s Arab Quarter at 4am. The hotel was falling down. Hands came out of the darkness.
“Hey, hey. You don’t want to stay in this hotel. Come with me.” “No no. My brother has a better hotel. You come.” “Don’t listen to this man, I have best hotel. Come. You follow me.”
I shrugged off these soliciting figures, slinking out from holes in the crumbling walls of the decaying medieval area.
“I have a booking here,” I said sounding hopelessly effete as I pushed through the crowd, through the doors. Our eyes stinging and starring. mad with fatigue, the Greek and I stood in the dark old hotel lobby, relieved to have finally got there.
The toothless owner had no record of any booking.
“No problem, no problem. You wait, you wait. I clear out a room for you”, he stopped to think, his eyes scanning the ceiling above them. “Somewhere…
Yes, yes, yes. You wait here, you wait here. No problem, no problem.” The owner patted his hand up and down on nothing, just on the hot air. and shuffled up the stairs.
We waited alone.
The call to prayer started outside.
The idea was to vaguely follow Phileas Fogg’s route eastwards from London, stopping at 80 different places to find a school to teach in. The resolute Englishman and his small, loyal, lively foreigner. His Passepartout. In Greece they call a girl who likes to wander, to travel, to go adventuring, a Giristroula. My Giristroula was as keen and as nervous as me. She gripped my hand, let me know we were doing the right thing with a small kiss.
After a change in Paris – a race through the city, bags lost in the metro, a desperate taxi journey stuck on the Boulevard des Capucines, round the Opera, rain lashing down, from train station to airport – Giristroula and I had arrived in Cairo.
Our travels had begun.
In the light of a new day, under a flushed Cairo sun, we walked out through the Arab Quarter. Dilapidated buildings, glassless windows, dustfull alleyways, hot breads served out of collapsed doorways all around us. A new world had opened up for us. We walked through the grand souk, the bazaar owners clicking their fingers, whistling through their teeth at me.
“Eh, Mr White Shirt, Mr White Shirt. You come here, Mr White Shirt.. You want another white shirt? I have white shirt…”
We drank glasses of black bitter tea in the bustling El Fishawe hideaway. The two of us stumbled into the 500 year old Sultan Al-Ghuri complex, with its formidable sand-coloured walls and towers and black and white intricate marble enclosures, housing inside the possessed whirling dervishes. We stood and watch, transfixed on the dervishes’ dance. The dervishes up on the stage spinning on and on, round and round, faster and faster. Called on by the musical drones. Blurring colours, spiralling skirts, the feeling of delirium coming from these crazed, circling performers. Everything adding to new sensations of mania around us.
Tearing from the trance-like dancing,we struggled to break out from the darkness of the performance chamber. Grinning disembodied heads floating in the dark in front of us. Figures appearing and disappearing. And then suddenly we were out. Into the immediately painfully bright light. Market streets running away from the main medieval centre of Cairo.
We headed down endless lengths of these market alleyways. Propelling ourselves through a procession of hanging intensely-coloured rugs and blankets dropping down from the awnings into our faces from each stand. Pushing through more and more of these suspended calicos, again and again. More faces – grinning with gold teeth – looming in and out of vision. A madness had set in.
Finally we made it through the miles of mercantile alleys. And out into downtown Cairo. A rotting and crumbling downtown Cairo. A composting Paris of old boulevards and incredible buildings left to decay in the sun.
We watched the seething moving carpet of people carry past us men in traditional jellabas and fezzes. women in long black dresses and veils. Others in Western Levi’s and cheap market t-shirts. Two wealthy, elderly men walked side by side in identical powder-blue safari suits, pocket squares, gold-armed oval sunglasses – glass the colour of molasses. Muslim dress, Muslim cultures, but also no strict unity. All existence here, in a huge swirling bowl of human life.
I quickly realised my idea of 80 schools was never going to happen. How could it? How could we ever find a school in this place, in this madness? I scanned every sign on every wall. Knocked on doors from a ramshackle ‘Mr Omar Ahmed Esq. English School’ to the domed and towered imposing American University. No one showed any interest or took us two cold-calling double-act fools seriously.
So we took a seat, feeling tired and dejected, at the Café Riche. The Café Riche had been the magnet for Cairo’s intellectual life throughout the 20th Century. Revolutionists, poets, assassins had all sat down here through the years amongst the old wood, glass, faded photos, broken pianos, secret doors, hidden basements. All served by the waiters scampering by in their traditional flowing blue robes. And in 2011 it served as a refuge again, for the new protestors in this city…
An eager, set-faced, Giristroula – a graduate from a life of Greek protests and turmoil – walked out onto the square. It was an armada of tents and banners and sheets with English and Arabic slogans. Like a camp after a great medieval battle, with the dust from the Sahara deposited on the square whipping up in puffing little mistrals around our ankles.
Giristroula stood for a long time, looking out at horizon. She breathed in deeply, took it all in, thoughtfully. I hesitatingly eyed the macabre, ghoulish hanging mannequin corpse flying from a tall lamppost in the square above. I felt less predisposed to the place. It had an unmistakable atmosphere of violence and revolt about it. I couldn’t understand the difficulty I had in getting Giristroula away. Finally I managed to get my drawn, mindful travelling partner by the hand, leading her away from this powerful but desperate feeling square, towards the red fort-like Egyptian Museum.
Flanked by two nose-less sphinxes, we argued outside the doors.
“We should both go in.”
“But we’re not allowed to take a camera in.”
“Well, let’s leave it there,” Girstroula pointed at an old garden shed type building where an old sat in the window, taking visitors’ cameras and giving back a pink raffle ticket.
I didn’t trust the look of it at all. As Giristroula, wriggled out from under the camera strap, I went to the window to test something. I told the man I’d lost my ticket.
“No problem, no problem. This is no problem,” said man, arms held wide apart, huge smile. He opened up the hatch door. “Come, come..tell me, which is yours? Point…”
I hesitated for a moment and then slowly pointed at two or three expensive looking cameras. The old man happily handing them to me. I stood clutching this pile other people’s equipment and turned slowly to look at Giristoula standing outside.
As Giristroula later walked the cramped, dated displays in the museum on her own – rocking back on her heels as she came across a dark room and a sudden ray of light bursting onto Tutankhamun’s death mask – I, cradling the camera, made own my way round the streets of downtown Cairo. Past the grey fossil trees, past the men in their white taqiyah rounded skullcaps, drinking short glasses of tea together, next to their wheeled wooden stalls. Stalls which remaining an utter mystery as to what they were selling. Often nothing.
With the Egyptian light falling on the hot streets, I entered the doorway of the unprepossessing pile of the Windsor Hotel and stepped straight into colonial-era Britain. The proud, heavy, iron lift – the very oldest in the whole of Egypt so I was told – jarringly sailed me to the first floor bar. The Cairo gritty dust on all the surfaces here, even inside the hotel.
An inscrutable, miniscule Egyptian barman with his hands folded over his genitals greeted me in front of the completely empty bar. Sullen, but unable to bring himself to be impolite. An unclean waistcoat and rickety bow-tie. He served me a gin. I sat in an armchair of the bar that had served as the British Officer’s mess in the wars and lifted the glass of foaming gulping tonic in private pledge, saluting to the anachronistic bar of dusty trinkets and antlers on the walls, hanging wooden lights and surreally placed faded early 20th century travel posters of snowy Alpine resorts.
The raw heat and light of Cairo licked round the net curtains, like the tongue of a flame catching the embers of a fire.
Giristroula was waiting outside, sat on the wall of the Egyptian Museum. She was in tears. She thwacked at my shoulder. “I thought you wouldn’t come back to meet me. I thought I would be left here in Cairo on my own.”
Trying to cross the manically busy road outside the museum, the two of us were joined almost magically at our side by a tall, dark parchment-skinned, tweed-jacketed man. His dark, greying hair was slicked back and there were a pair of ancient, chewed heavy National Health-style black rimmed glasses in the blazer pocket. He was bent almost double with arms behind his back and his head turned to look at us, staring intently, taking no notice of the swerving moped, the honking car or the flying open-backed van that mounted the pavement to avoid him.
“You are cultured people are you not?” he grinned a gap-toothed grin.
“Ah, you don’t need to tell me. I can see it!” He clapped his hands together.
Then offered up one hand to shake. “I am Dr Sharif. Yes indeed, Dr Sharif.”
Dr Sharif stood in the centre of the flowing lanes of traffic his hand stretched out, his grin turning to a slightly confused look as to why I didn’t automatically return the cordiality, as a packed Cairo bus bared down behind us.
“Come. Have shisha with me. I want to tell you about my studies…”
In the old Ahwa Bustan passages, men were playing multiple games of backgammon. Giristroula was dwarfed behind a huge shisha pipe. Dr Sharif lent forward and continued his intricate detailed story of his work in the Egyptian Museum.
“I am a Sudanese. Yes indeed. A Sudanese. But I am the most respected scholar of Egyptian history and culture and antiquities here in Cairo. The most respected. Yes indeed.”
He sat back upright in his chair and took another long inhalation from the shisha, sending two jets of smoke from his long serpentine nose as the bubbles churned deep in the bowl of the hookah.
“I have a team of men and women who work for me in the museum. They also respect me very much. For my studies. And for also how I protected them when the men came in.”
“Men?” Giristroula said, with a choke from her hookah.
“Yes. The men. The…”, Dr Sharif flapped an extraordinarily long, bony-fingered hand, searching for the word, “…the terrorists.”
“Terrorists?” I said, turning to look. I’d been distracted watching the games of cards for matches being slapped down on the wooden café tables lined up all along the alleyway.
“Yes. Deary me, yes. You must have heard? No, you did not hear? During the rioting? The men, the terrorists, they broke into the museum, my museum. They were robbing and stealing. The antiquities. I led my staff through the museum’s rooms, we collected all we could then we hid in the cupboards. In the cupboards for the cleaning. With the mops and the brooms. We hid with the priceless artifacts. They had guns. We were hiding. In the cupboards. With the artifacts. Sitting on buckets.”
“I don’t think you can really call them terrorists…” Giristroula said. “More like… rebels.”
“What?” said Dr Sharif, “What did she say?” he turned to me.
Giristroula and Dr Sharif’s views on Egypt’s Arab Spring obviously seemed to clash.
“Show me some more of your workings out, Dr Sharif,” I said quickly.
“What?” Dr Sharif’s long, thin, cadaverous face flicked between mine and Giristoula. “Oh…Right…Yes. Yes indeed.”
A last watchful look at Girstroula sat innocently sucking and examining the end of her shisha, and Dr Sharif bent down again to his ratty piece of paper and added mystery hieroglyphics with one of the sundry leaking fountain pens taken from the old tweed pocket. I didn’t really follow anything Dr Sharif talked about. I did wonder why the professor was so badly shaved though.
“You must come and see me tomorrow at the museum. 9am.” Dr Sharif shook my hand vigorously as he left us – a final doubtful look at a smiling Giristroula – and then he vanished into the crowd as quickly as he had first joined us.
We stood for a while alone on the pavement on our own. The small, meshed, Arab streets flying off in all directions behind us, the long dust-tormented main Meret Bashat Road stretching away in front, loaded with traffic.
“I want to go to Tahrir Square again,” said Giristroula.
As the sun set a rich peach, low in the sky, we stepped back onto the square. A protest was beginning. Giristroula seemed to be searching for something. We walked Mohammed Mahmoud Street, with the spectacular graffiti covered walls: part revolutionary document, part eulogy to the revolutionists and the tragic young martyrs of the Arab Spring. New temple drawings for a new age.
The streets were now darkening. Thinking with my stomach I just wanted to return to Abou Tarek’s restaurant for more koshary – the working man’s meal that we’d been feasting off the last few days with its dried lentils, chickpeas, spicy tomato sauce – but Giristroula had seem to set herself on a determined mission I didn’t quite understand. She kept checking houses around the unlit streets. Just as I had done the last few days, looking for schools to take us in. But Giristroula seemed to have something far different, far more cryptic, in her mind.
She seemed to have finally found what she was loooking for and we entered a doorway next to a dark, boarded shop and climbed some darkened stairs up into an open set of rooms. Shadowed figures reclining in the dimness. I stepped over prone bodies. A heavy smell of smoke, hashish, in the air.
“Welcome friends.” A tall, long-haired, handsome young Egyptian walked purposefully towards us. He gripped my forearm and looked me purposefully in the eye. “Brother,” he said, meaningfully.
He took Giristroula’s hand and kissed it. “Sister.”
Without breaking eye contact with Giristroula, he told me, stood behind, with a waft of his hand to “Please. Sit.”
I stared down at the chair, and then back again, with an irascible look, at the back of the long-haired head of the man, already guiding Giristroula to a collection of cushioned seats and divans .
“So how can I help you?” this smooth man dressed all in black, asked in his perfect English to Giristroula.
“Are you anarchists?” she replied, looking around her. “I’m looking for the anarchist centre in Cairo. I’ve read about this café. I’m part of the Greek anarchist milieu myself.”
I slumped into the chair.
“Yes, we’re anarchists,” he purred at Giristroula, pushing his hair behind one ear.
Other faces, bearded men, all dressed in black, from all corners, turned to look at me in my damp white shirt and idiotic straw panama hat.
“Were you part of the Black Bloc? Did you block the railways to Alexandria?” Giristroula started to ask, excitedly.
“Yes, yes, all of that. We do all of that. But tell me, why are you here in Cairo?” in one manoeuver he sat Giristroula down next to him on some blankets on the floor. “Tell me about yourself. Do you know you have beautiful eyes..?”
The thick smoke got in my nose. I clacked and choked as I craned my neck to see exactly what was going on.
“What was it really like on the blockades?” said Giristroula.
The suave, preened man shifted a little. “Well, I didn’t actually go on the blockades.”
“But what did you do in the riots then? What do you… what do the Cairo anarchists do?”
“Well,” he searched around for a thought. “Well, we have this café…” he circled his arms indicating the dark lit rooms with the artfully disheveled hipsters lounging on the floors. “It’s a very good café I think you’ll agree, yes?” he shifted a little closer.
“But how are you promoting the anarchist ideals?” Giristroula said. “We need to cooperate, you know, internationally, our groups. If we’re ever going to to break things down…”
The chisled man pushed himself back upright again. “Ok, you know, I’ve got some other things to do here. It’s nice to meet you. Maybe we’ll talk later. You help yourself to a drink.”
He stood up and pointed at the gold pots on the lit braziers as he walked away. Turning back again .
“They’re not free by the way.”
He planting himself by the wall next to an elegant tall Egyptian woman who he muttered darkly to, looking now and again with a glower towards Giristroula
“I don’t think they were anarchists really,” said Giristroula, as we made our way out, back out on the street again.
“Probably not…” I said. “But you’re an anarchist then are you? I’m going round the world with some kind insurrectionist am I?”
Giristroula looked up with large eyes, shrugged a little shrug and turned away with a small smile.
She seemed to be full of more surprises than I ever could have first imagined.
“We have no Dr Sharif who works here.”
The woman at the antiquities desk of the Egyptian Museum was absolute about this. “We have never had a Dr Sharif who has worked here.”
“But look, here are his workings out,” said Giristroula. “He told us all about his papyrus, the key to the lost tombs, the royal cyphers. I mean, well, I think he did…”
The woman raised her large glasses hanging on a thin link chain around her neck, not letting them rest on her nose, and peered at the crumpled pages.
“This is… Well… This is just nonsense,” she said. Her face pulled long, as she looked. A listless mouth show fastidious displeasure.
She handed it quickly back to Giristroula, almost eager to get it out of her hands. “Nonsense.”
We headed out of the museum’s offices and out again into the stinging sun.
“Maybe he goes by another name amongst his work colleagues…?” Giristroula said, without much real conviction.
But Giristroula wanted to believe. She refused to allow herself to really think we had been caboodled by one of the millions of the city’s hucksters. She didn’t want to admit we’d had one of those meetings – meetings that always ended in a friend’s shop. She didn’t want to feel the thud in the stomach when you realise that every interaction you had was always leading to someone wanting something, somewhere, from you at some point. Every Cairo moment leading to a swindle.
What Dr Sharif had wanted from us though remained a mystery. Giristroula enjoyed speculating wildly that we were involved in some secret, that the paper we held was a code, that Dr Sharif’s life was at that very moment in terrible danger. She thumped her fist into her hand coming up with new fresh ideas on the theme.
I just felt a sadness.
We were stuck in a taxi. We were not moving.
The taxi was stuck in traffic. The extreme, never moving, traffic of Cairo. In the extreme Cairo heat and dead air. The wound down windows refusing to allow anything but fumes in.
Over 10 million people outside, in the central city alone.
Finally, briefly, the traffic thinned slightly and the taxi managed to pick up speed on the wide 8-lane highway: the Pyramid Road.
Predictably enough to both me and the Greek, Egyptian driving was alarming. Cars, motorbikes, moped, pedestrians cutting in, cutting across the traffic. Men in flapping sandals sprinting slappingly in front of the lanes of roaring traffic.
Then a terrible sight.
I saw it first. And the a reluctant-to-look Giristroula – turning away, and then back again, to look through splayed fingers, then turning away again. We watched an elderly lady sat down by the side of the road: black head-scarfed, her head was turned upwards, a pained face hollering to the sky.
She cradled a man’s lifeless body in her arms. There were other men who paced around her manically, slapping their heads in anguish. High pitched cries carried over the noise of the traffic. It was an awful, grisly, disturbing sight.
One of Cairo’s mad, uncurbed, road crossers, who just didn’t make it.
We sat back in the taxi in silence for a long time. Even the sight of a small hatchback car passing on the other side of the road, with a large adult camel squeezed and folded onto the backseats, its head out of the window, wind blowing its face into a nonchalant smile, failed to really raise our spirits sufficiently.
Then the first glimpse.
It’s with a small shock that we saw the first glimpse of the pyramids, as we are driven closer through the suburbs of Giza.
The first views are in a weirdly clashing, contrary way: the tips of these ancient beasts, born at the beginning of civilisation, poking up over dull blocks of white modern flats.
Then, all of a sudden, the car was off the road, and away from the uninspiring carpet-selling modern buildings.
And we were there. Standing on the Sahara. The city abruptly disintegrated away behind us. Only desert now all the way across to the other side of Africa: Morocco, 5,000 kilometres away.
A huge sweep of sand, sky and dunes lay in front of us. Emptiness. A land of thirst.
“You want camel?”
A tall, robust, hawker with a powerful criminal’s face and his boy apprentice in an old Al Ahly football club tracksuit appeared by our side with their roped ships of the desert.
“You want camel? This one Moses. This one Michael Jackson.”
He pointed at me. “You should take Michael Jackson. You’ll like him. He likes to dance.”
Well why not? Why not be fleeced just as people have been fleeced in this spot for hundreds, if not thousands of years?
So the queer quartet of Moses, Michael Jackson, Giristroula and me set off, making our dilatory bobbing way across the waves and breakers of sand, getting closer to the mighty blocks of the Pyramids.
The ranges of the Pharaohs rose serenely, powerfully above them.
Unmoveable. Sat there, while ancient empires rose and fell. Seeing everything. Commenting on nothing.
Our guide took the camera. “You stand there. I take photos.”
I complied unthinkingly. Lost in other, bigger, thoughts.
A tetchy argument however simmered between the guide and Giristroula.
“Now…you jump in the air…”
The man of the camels looked shocked. He lowered the camera.
“Hey, lady, you listen to me. Hold your finger in the air. Like this. Just there. Point down. Looks like you pointing down on top of pyramid! Eh? You see? Good, eh?”
“Not really, no.” Giristroula’s arms remained resolutely folded.
The guide looked wounded. “Eh, look, you look lady..” he spluttered “I am… what you say, I am… the professional. I know what I’m doing here…”
He spat on the dry sand and complained in caustic Arabic to his young boy helper holding the camels, who nodded without much care and shrugged an indifferent shrug.
Giristroula glowered in the sun, under the huge footstones of Egypt’s majestic mausoleum monument. With the desert flowing away in tidal treads.
I looked dumbly at the huge scene coloured out in front of me. As if it were all untrue.
“We’ve got to carry on.” I said out loud. Everyone looked up at me.
“We’ve got to carry on travelling” I said. I reached out to Giristroula.
“Never mind the teaching and the 80 schools, or 80 lessons or whatever it was. We should go on. See more. We’ve got to carry on, travel onwards, travel to more countries. We can’t stop here.”
Giristroula lept with the pleasure of expectation across the sand towards me. “So what then? Where? Where next?”
“Ah… well…yes, where? I’m not sure.” I said.
“You take photo of me,” said the police man on top of his camel as we trekked past the mordant looking Great Sphinx. The sphinx with such little interest etched in her face for the all insignificant piffle teaming around her. Lost in thought too. Concocting her riddles.
“10 dollars,” he called out. “You give me 10 dollars for photo of me.”
“India,” I said. “Let’s go to India.”
Giristroula agreed almost before I’d finished saying it.
“10 dollars?” called the policeman after them as they walk through the crowds.
Under desk fans in the British Embassy, with papers flapping – desperate to be set free under their paperweights – typewriters, tea cups, men in sweat-patched shirts, we sat, filling in visa forms. The country of Greece having apparently never been heard of here.
A change of transport first, in a preternaturally quiet brooding Oman, and then Mumbai lay there for them. Open, beckoning, grinning invitingly.
And we both fell in willingly. Happy, complicit, prey. Into waiting jaws…