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 on 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 here. But 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,” he started again. 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.
In the light of a new day, under a flushed Cairo sun, the city was impatiently waiting for us. It seemed to have been tipped off about our arrival. After waking in the tiny cleared cupboard we had been given for the night, I padded to the toilet on the landing – my stream breaking the the thick film of urine that had formed on top over night, releasing a plume of the most nauseating vapour into the air. As I returned to our room a door open and the most enormous black man I have ever – sleek and muscled and carved from pure jet black marble walked past me, completely nude. 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.
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…You’re a lucky man, Mr White Shirt. Very lucky man…” they would say to me, gesturing at Giristroula.
We drank glasses of black bitter tea from the street stalls and then stumbled into the 500 year old Sultan Al-Ghuri complex, with its sand-coloured walls and towers and black and white marble enclosures housing the possessed whirling dervishes inside. We stood and watched the dervishes’ dance. Transfixed. 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. It all added to the new sensations of mania we were feeling. Tearing away from the trance-like dancing, we struggled to break out from the darkness of the performance chamber. Grinning disembodied heads kept floating in the dark in front of us. Figures appearing and disappearing. And then suddenly, shoving through a pair of doors, we were out. Into the immediately painfully bright light – market streets running away from the main medieval centre of Cairo. Paris seemed a long way away now.
We headed down one of the endless lengths of market alleyways. Propelling ourselves through a procession of hanging coloured rugs and blankets dropping down from the awnings into our faces from each stand. Pushing through more and more of them, as faces – grinning with gold teeth – again loomed in and out of vision. We finally made it through the 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 and others in Western Levi’s and cheap t-shirts. Two wealthy-looking 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 was here, in a huge swirling bowl of human life.
I quickly realised the idea of the 80 schools was never going to happen here. How could it? How could we ever find a school to take us in all this madness? Still, I scanned every sign on every wall. We 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, 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 right here through the years, amongst the old wood and glass and faded photos and broken pianos. Secret doors and hidden basements. All served by the waiters scampering by in their traditional flowing blue robes. And in 2011, of course it served as a refuge again: for the new protesters in this city…
Tahrir Square. An eager, set-faced, Giristroula – a graduate, so she had told me, of a life of Greek protests and turmoil back home – 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 the 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 than her. It had an unmistakable atmosphere of violence and revolt about it and I finally 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 said, pointing at an old garden shed type building where two men sat in the window, taking visitors’ cameras and giving back a pink raffle ticket. I didn’t trust the look of the place. Not at all. As Giristroula wriggled out from under the camera strap, I went to the window.
“I’ve lost my ticket”. I told the first man there.
“No problem, no problem. This is no problem,” he said, 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 two men happily set about handing everything I pointed at to me and I soon stood clutching a pile other people’s equipment. I turned slowly to give a look to Giristoula, who was holding her camera limply by her side.
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 seemed to be, more often than not, selling perfectly nothing.
With the Egyptian light falling on the hot streets, I entered the doorway of the unprepossessing pile that was 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 – sailed me jarringly up to the first floor bar. The Cairo gritty dust on all the surfaces here, even inside the hotel. An inscrutable, miniscule, Egyptian barman greeted me in front of the completely empty bar. Sullen, but unable to quite bring himself to be impolite, an unclean waistcoat and a 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 on the walls. The raw heat and light of Cairo licked round the net curtains, like the tongue of a flame catching the embers of a fire.
Later, reunited with Giristroula outside the Egyptian Museum, we tried to cross the manically busy road. We 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 his blazer pocket. His tall frame 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 at us. “Ah, you don’t need to tell me. I can see it myself!” 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,” he said. “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, clacking the counters as they laid them down with a flourish. 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.”
“The 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 at Dr Sharif. I had been watching the games of cards, played 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. “Shouldn’t you call them more like… Rebels… Revolutionists…”
“What is that?” said Dr Sharif, “What did she say there?” he turned to me.
Giristroula and Dr Sharif’s views on Egypt’s Arab Spring did not seem to match. “Show me some more of your workings out, Dr Sharif,” I said quickly.
“What?” Dr Sharif’s long thin face flicked between mine and Giristoula. “Oh…Yes… Yes indeed.”
After one further watchful look over at Girstroula, sat innocently sucking and examining the end of her shisha, Dr Sharif bent down again to his ratty piece of paper and added more mysterious hieroglyphics with one of the 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. At 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 but I couldn’t quite tell what. 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 set herself on a determined mission I didn’t quite understand. She kept checking houses around these unlit streets. Just as I had done the last few days myself, looking for schools to take us in. But Giristroula seemed to have something far more different in her mind.
At last she seemed to have found what she was looking for and we entered a doorway next to a dark, boarded-up 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?” Giristroula 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,” the man 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. “We have this café…” he circled his arms indicating the dark lit rooms with the 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 was 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 a tall elegant 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 back out on the street again.
“Probably not…” I said. “But…so… you’re really an anarchist then are you? I’m going round the world anarchist am I?”
Giristroula looked up with large eyes, shrugged a little shrug and turned away with a small sweet smile. She seemed to be full of a lot more surprises than I ever knew.
“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 this is what he told us about…”
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 read the notes, 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.
She wanted to believe though. She didn’t want to allow herself to think we’d been caboodled by one of the millions of this city’s hucksters. She didn’t want to admit we’d had one of those meetings – meetings that always seem to end in a friend’s shop. 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. But what Dr Sharif had wanted from us 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 fresh new ideas on the theme. I just felt a sadness.
We were stuck in a taxi and we were not moving. The taxi was stuck in traffic. The extreme, never-moving, traffic of Cairo. In the never-moving Cairo heat and dead air. Over 10 million people outside, in the central city alone. The window was wound all the way down, refusing to allow anything but fumes in. 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, Egyptian driving was alarming. Cars, motorbikes, mopeds, 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. Then Girisrtroula, reluctant-to-look, turning away, and then back again to look through splayed fingers, then turning away again. An elderly lady was sat down by the side of the road. Black head-scarf, her head turned upwards, a pained face hollering to the sky. She cradled a man’s lifeless body in her arms. There were other men, pacing around her manically, slapping their heads in anguish. High pitched cries carried over the noise of the traffic. It was an awful sight. One of Cairo’s mad, uncurbed, road-crossers, who just hadn’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, the wind blowing its face into a nonchalant smile, failed to really raise our spirits sufficiently.
Then the first glimpse.
It’s with a shock that the first sight of the pyramids comes into view as the traveller is driven through the suburbs of Giza – a weirdly clashing, contrary view: the tips of these ancient monuments, born at the beginning of civilisation, poking up over dull blocks of white modern flats. And 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 falling and 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 very spot for hundreds, if not thousands of years? We said yes and so the queer quartet of Moses, Michael Jackson, Giristroula and I 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 us. 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 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 mausoleums. With the desert flowing away behind her 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 and reached out to Giristroula.
“Never mind the teaching and the 80 schools, or 80 lessons or whatever it was. Ok, so we couldn’t find anything here in Cairo, but we’ve got to carry on. We can’t just stop here.”
Giristroula smiled across the sand at me. “Ok. So what then? Where? Where next?”
“Well…yes, where?” 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,” said the policeman as we passed. “10 dollars for photo of me… Hey, you, I said 10 dollars for photo with me…”
“India,” I said. “Let’s go to India.” Giristroula agreed almost before I’d finished saying it.
“10 dollars?” called the policeman after us as we walked 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 planes in a preternaturally quiet brooding Oman, and then Mumbai lay there for us. Open, beckoning, grinning invitingly. We both fell in willingly. Complicit prey into waiting jaws…