Raindrops fell on the pavement like fat toads.
It was one of those hot, heavy, summer days when, almost incorrectly, it was raining.
The day it all began.
The location for this beginning was unpromising: a tatty under-graduate’s room, cleared for the summer, on a suburban London campus filled with bored foreign teenagers. I, and the Greek, had both been working here all season, teaching.
I’d fallen in love at first sight and had worked hard all summer to attract the attention of this small dark Greek girl. I’d made it to her room now at least. I was still working hard. But everything right here, at the very last, seemed to be slipping from my fingers.
As she sat on the miserably thin mattress, arms folded, prettily taciturn face turned to his, I searched for a final move.
“I could take you round the world in 80 lessons?”
This got her attention.
“Well, you know, 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 for good now.
“Yes,” she shifted “Yes! I like the sound of that. Travel. I love travel.” She was suddenly excited. Off the bed, she danced quickly around the room on the cigarette-scarred carpet, under the pin-marked walls, picking up her rucksack from the corner of the room. “Travel..” she said “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, full of dreams and wanderlust.
The Greek girl dwelled privately for a moment. Her face dropped. She really needed to start travelling.
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 in my ridiculous clipped English, pushing through in Empire-issue looking khaki trousers, damp with sweat.
Stinging starring eyes, 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. He 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.
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 – me and my Giristroula had arrived in Cairo.
Our travels had begun.
In the light of a new day, under a flushed Cairo sun, Giristroula and I 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.
Through the grand souk we walked, the bazaar owners clicking their fingers, whistling through 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. I looked at my Giristroula and thought how a new life had suddenly opened for me. I stared at her for an age. I wondered – I wish I knew – just what she’s was feeling about it all.
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 spin on and on, round and round, faster and faster. Called on by the musical drones. Blurring colours, spiralling skirts, the feeling of detached delirium coming from these crazed, circling performers. Everything here 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. Faces appearing and disappearing in the dark in front of us.
And suddenly we were out. Into the immediately painfully bright market streets that run away from the main medieval centre of Cairo.
We headed down endless lengths of market allwyways. Propelling ourselves through a procession of hanging curtains of intensely-coloured rugs and blankets dropping from awnings at each stand.
Pushing through these suspended calicos, again and again. More heads – grinning with gold teeth – floating in and out of vision. A madness had set in.
Finally we made it through the miles of alleyways. 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 them men in traditional jellabas and fezzes. Women in black long 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 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. Knocking 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.
We took a seat, feeling a little dejected, at the Café Riche. This place was the magnet for Cairo’s intellectual life throughout the 20th Century. Revolutionists, poets, assassins have sat down here through the years amongst the old wood, glass, faded photos, broken pianos, secret doors, hidden basements. All served by waiters in their traditional flowing blue robes.
And in 2011 it served as a refuge again, for the new protestors in this city…
Me and my 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 mistrals around our ankles.
Giristroula takes it all in, thoughtfully. I hesitatingly eyed the macabre, ghoulish hanging mannequin corpse flying from a tall lamppost in the square above us.
I took my drawn, mindful partner by the hand, leading her away from this compelling but desperate feeling square, towards the red fort-like Egyptian Museum.
Flanked by two nose-less sphinxes, we argue outside.
“We should both go in.”
“But we’re not allowed to take a camera in.” I said. “Look at the sign. See the guards…”
“Well, let’s leave it there,” Girstroula points at an old garden shed type building where two men sit in the window, taking visitors’ cameras and giving back a pink raffle ticket.
My eyes narrowed. “I don’t trust that place one little bit…”
“But it’s the official place.” said Giristroula, wriggling out from under the camera strap and heading towards the hut.
I went to the window.
“Well hello there my dear sir!” the first man greeted me brightly. Arms held apart, huge grin.
“Er..yes..good afternoon,” I said. “Now, I’m afraid I’ve lost my ticket..”
“No problem, no problem. This is no problem,” said the second, arms wider, smile larger, opening up the hatch door. “Come, come..tell me, which is your camera? You point…”
I hesitated for a moment and then slowly pointed at two or three expensive looking cameras. The two men got to work reaching to the back of the booth, picking the cameras up, handing them back to me.
I stood clutching this pile other people’s equipment and turned to look at Giristoula standing outside.
“I guess we’re not leaving our camera here then…”
As the Greek walked the cramped, dated displays in the museum – suddenly rocking back on her heels as she came across a dark room and an abrupt ray of light bursting onto Tutankhamun’s death mask, I – cradling their camera – made 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 wheeled wooden stalls. Stalls which remaining an utter mystery as to what they were selling. Often nothing.
With the Egyptian light, filtered through an essence of orange, 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 oldest in Egypt – jarringly sailed me to the first floor bar. The Cairo gritty dust on all the surfaces 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.
I lifted the glass of foaming gulping tonic in private pledge 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 – as the raw heat and light of Cairo licks round the net curtains, like a tongue of flame catching the embers of a fire.
Giristroula was waiting outside, sat on the wall of the Egyptian Museum. She was in tears.
“I thought you wouldn’t come back for me,” she said. “I thought I would be left here in Cairo on my own.”
Between teary gulps she pushed and thwacks at my shoulder. “My mother always said to me you can only trust your family. I thought you’d left me. I thought I would be left in Cairo forever on my own.”
Trying to cross the manically busy road outside the museum, the two of us were joined, almost magically, at their 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 talk to us, staring intently, taking no notice of the swerving moped, the honking cars or the flying open-backed vans that mounted the pavement as the Cairo traffic tries 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.
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 slight 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 Ahwa Bustan alleyways, 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 a 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 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 didn’t 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 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 you know…” Giristroula idly remarked. “More like… rebels.”
“What?” said Dr Sharif, “What did she say?” he turned to Kemp.
Giristroula and Dr Sharif’s views on the participants of Egypt’s Arab Spring 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 blithely 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 chary 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. 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, from nowhere. With a vague nervousness, I agreed.
As the sun sets a rich peach, low in the sky, Giristroula and I stepped back onto the square. A protest is 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 are now dark. 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 has set herself on a determined mission I didn’t quite understand.
She kept checking houses and streets around the unlit streets. Just as I had done the last few days, looking for schools to take us in. But Giristroula seems to have some different, cryptic, purpose in her mind.
We finally entered a doorway next to a dark, closed shop and climbed some darkened stairs up into an open set of rooms. Shadowed figures reclining in the dimness, that I stepped over. A heavy smell of smoke, hashish, in the air.
“We here,” said Giristroula.
“What do you mean? Where here? Where are we? What is this?” I asked, with a slow, increasing, unease.
“Welcome friends.” A tall, long-haired, handsome young Egyptian walked purposefully towards them. 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?” the smooth, good-looker, dressed all in black, asked in 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, stunned.
“Yes, we’re anarchists,” the slick stranger 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 straw panama hat.
“Were you part of the Black Bloc? Did you block the railways to Alexandria?” Giristroula asked, 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 implored. “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 points at the gold pots on the lit braziers as he walked away. Turning back again “They’re not free by the way.”
The dashing anarchist took his leave, 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 you know,” said Giristroula, crossly, back out on the street again.
“Perhaps not…” I said. Trying not to sound smug. “But never mind that, you’re an anarchist then are you? I’m going round the world with some kind of, I dunno, some kind of, like, insurrectionistor something?”
Giristroula looked up with large eyes, shrugged a knowing little shrug and turned away with a small smile.
So here we were. And my loyal, faithful, sidekick travelling companion seemed to have 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 showing some sort of 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 friends…?” 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 Cairo hucksters.
She didn’t want to admit they have had one of the million conversations struck up in the city – conversations that always seems to end in a friend’s shop. To feel the thud to the stomach when you realised 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 wanted from us though was anyone’s guess. 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 hands together coming up with new fresh ideas on this 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…