“Why don’t we take our clothes off?” Kemp said to the Greek. “We don’t have to do anything…”
And so the travel adventures 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, where Kemp and the Greek were both working, teaching.
Kemp had fallen in love at first sight and had worked hard all summer season to attract the attention of the Greek. He had made it to her room now at least, and was still working hard. But everything right here, at the very last, seemed to be slipping from his fingers.
As she sat on the miserably thin mattress, arms folded, prettily taciturn face turned to his, Kemp 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. He 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…” said Kemp, abashed, expecting great tales he couldn’t possibly match from this European, full of wanderlust.
The Greek dwelled privately for a moment. Her face dropped. She really needed to start travelling.
Cairo’s Arab Quarter at 4am. The hotel is falling down. Hands come 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.”
Kemp shrugs off these soliciting figures, slinking out from holes in the crumbling walls of the decaying medieval area.
“I have a booking here”, he says trying his best clipped English, pushing through in his Empire-issue looking khaki trousers, damp with sweat.
Stinging starring eyes, mad with fatigue, Kemp and his Greek girl stand in the dark old hotel lobby, relieved to have finally got there.
The toothless owner has no record of any booking.
“No problem, no problem. You wait, you wait. I clear out a room for you”, he stops to think, his eyes scanning the ceiling above them. “Somewhere…
Yes, yes, yes. You wait here, you wait here”, the owner says, patting his hand up and down on nothing, just on the hot air, and then shuffles up the stairs.
They wait, alone.
The call to prayer starts outside.
The idea was to vaguely follow Phileas Fogg’s route eastwards, stopping at 80 different places to find a school to teach in. The resolute Englishman and his small, loyal, lively foreigner. His Passepartout.
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 – the two of them had arrived in Cairo.
Their travels had begun.
In the light of a new day, under a flushed Cairo sun, Kemp and his Passepartout walk out through the Arab Quarter.
Dilapidated buildings, glassless windows, dustfull alleyways, hot breads served out of collapsed doorways all around them. A new world.
Through the grand souk they walk, the bazaar owners clicking their fingers, whistling through teeth at Kemp: “Eh, Mr White Shirt, Mr White Shirt. You come here, Mr White Shirt.. You want another white shirt? I have white shirt…”
They drink glasses of black bitter tea in the bustling El Fishawe hideaway. Kemp looking at his Passepartout and thinking how a new life had suddenly opened for him. He looks and wonders just what she’s feeling about it all.
The two of them stumble 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.
Kemp and Passepartout stand 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 the two travellers.
Tearing from the trance-like dancing, Kemp and Passepartout struggle to break out from the darkness of the performance chamber. Faces appearing and disappearing in the dark in front of them.
But suddenly they’re out. Into the immediately painfully bright market streets that run away from the main medieval centre of Cairo.
They head down endless lengths of market allwyways. Propelling themselves 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 has set in.
Finally they make 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.
They watch the seething, moving carpet of people carry past them men in traditional jellabas and fezzes, women in black long dresses and veils, and others in Western Levi’s and cheap market t-shirts. Two wealthy, elderly men walk 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 is here, in a huge swirling bowl of human life.
Kemp realises his idea of 80 schools is never going to happen. How can it? How will they ever find a school in this place?
He scans 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 shows any interest or takes these two cold-calling double-act fools seriously.
They take a seat, dejected, at the Café Riche. 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…
Kemp and his eager, set-faced, Passepartout – a graduate from a life of Greek protests and turmoil – walk out onto the square. It is 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 their ankles.
Passepartout takes it all in, thoughtfully. Kemp hesitatingly eyes the macabre, ghoulish hanging mannequin corpse flying from a tall lamppost in the square above them and takes his 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, the two of them argue outside.
“We should both go in.”
“But we’re not allowed to take a camera in.” says Kemp. “Look at the sign. See the guards…”
“Well, let’s leave it there”, Passepatout 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.
“I don’t trust that place..” says Kemp, hesitating, eyes narrowing.
“But it’s the official place.” says Passepartout, wriggling out from under the camera strap and heading towards the hut.
“I don’t trust it. Look…”
Kemp goes to window.
“Hello sir!” the first man greets him brightly. Arms held apart, huge grin.
“Er..yes..good afternoon,” says Kemp. “Now, I’m afraid I’ve lost my ticket..”
“No problem, no problem,” says the second, arms wider, smile larger, opening up the hatch door. “Come, come..tell me, which is your camera? Point…”
Kemp hesitates for a moment and then slowly points at two or three expensive looking cameras. The two men get to work reaching to the back of the booth, picking the cameras up, handing them back to Kemp.
Kemp stands clutching these other people’s equipment and turns to look at Passpartout standing outside.
“So, we’re not leaving our camera here…”
As the Greek walks the cramped, dated displays in the museum – suddenly rocking back on her heels as she comes across a dark room and an abrupt ray of light bursting onto Tutankhamun’s death mask, Kemp, cradling their camera, makes his ways 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 remaining utterly unclear to Kemp what they’re selling. Nothing, usually.
With the Egyptian light, filtered through an essence of orange, falling on the hot streets, Kemp enters the doorway of the unprepossessing pile of the Windsor Hotel and steps straight into colonial-era Britain.
The proud, heavy, iron lift – the oldest in Egypt – jarringly sails him 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 greets him. Sullen, but at the same time with impeccable manners, an unclean waistcoat and rickety bow-tie. He serves Kemp a gin.
Kemp sits in an armchair of the bar that had served as the British Officer’s mess in the wars.
He lifts 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.
Passepartout is waiting outside, sat on the wall of the Egyptian Museum. She’s in tears.
“I thought you wouldn’t come back for me,” she says. “I thought I would be left here in Cairo on my own.” Between teary gulps she pushes and thwacks at Kemp’s 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 them are joined, almost magically, at their side by a tall, dark parchment skinned, tweed-jacketed man.
His dark, greying hair is slicked back and there are a pair of ancient, chewed national health-style black rimmed glasses in the blazer pocket.
He is bent almost double with arms behind his back and his head turned to talk to them, staring intently, taking no notice of the swerving moped, the honking cars or flying open-backed vans that mount the pavement as the Cairo traffic tries to avoid him.
“You are cultured people are you not?” he grins a gap-toothed grin.
“Ah, you don’t need to tell me. I can see it.” He claps his hands.
Then offers up a hand to shake. “I am Dr Sharif. Yes indeed, Dr Sharif.”
Dr Sharif stands in the centre of the flowing lanes of traffic his hand stretched out, his grin turning to a slight confused look as to why Kemp won’t automatically return the cordiality, as a packed Cairo bus bares down behind him.
“Come. Have shisha with me. I want to tell you about my studies…”
In the Ahwa Bustan alleyways, men are playing multiple games of backgammon. Passepartout is dwarfed behind a huge shisha pipe.
Dr Sharif leans forward and continues 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 sits back upright in his chair and takes 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?” Passepartout says, with a choke from her hookah.
“Yes. The men. The…”, Dr Sharif flaps an extraordinarily long, bony-fingered hand, searching for the word, “…the terrorists.”
“Terrorists?” says Kemp who had 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…” Passepartout idly remarks. “More like… rebels.”
“What?” says Dr Sharif, “What did she say?” he turns to Kemp.
Passepartout 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” says Kemp quickly.
“What?” Dr Sharif’s long, thin, cadaverous face flicks between Kemp and Passepartout. “Oh…Yes…Right. Indeed.”
A last watchful look at Passpartout, sat blithely sucking and examining the end of her shisha, and Dr Sharif bends down again to his ratty piece of paper and adds mystery hieroglyphics with one of the sundry leaking fountain pens taken from the old tweed pocket.
Kemp doesn’t follow anything Dr Sharif talks about. He does wonder why the professor was so badly shaved though.
“You must come and see me tomorrow at the museum. 9am.” Dr Sharif shakes Kemp’s hand vigorously as he leaves them – a final chary look at a smiling Passepartout – and then he vanishes into the crowd as quickly as he had first joined them.
They stand for a while alone on the pavement. The small, meshed, Arab streets flying off in all directions behind them, the long dust-tormented main Meret Bashat Road stretching away from them, loaded with traffic.
“I want to go to Tahrir Square again,” says Passepartout, from nowhere. Kemp, with a vague nervousness, agrees.
As the sun sets a rich peach, low in the sky, Kemp and Passepartout step back onto the square. A protest is beginning. Passepartout seems to be searching for something.
They walk 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. Kemp wants to return to Abou Tarek’s restaurant for more koshary – the working man’s meal that they’d been feasting off the last few days with its dried lentils, chickpeas, spicy tomato sauce.
But Passepartout has set herself on a determined mission he doesn’t quite understand.
She keeps checking houses and streets around the unlit streets, as Kemp had done the last few days for schools to take them in, but Passepartout seems to have a different, more cryptic, purpose.
They finally enter a doorway next to a dark, closed shop and climb some darkened stairs up into an open set of rooms. Shadowed figures reclining in the dimness, that Kemp steps over. A heavy smell of smoke, hashish, in the air.
“Where are we? What is this?” Kemp asks, with a slow, increasing, unease.
“Welcome friends.” A tall, long-haired, handsome young Egyptian walks purposefully towards them. He grips Kemp’s forearm and looks him in the eye. “Brother.” He takes Passpartout’s hand and kisses it. “Sister.”
Without breaking eye contact with Passepartout, he tells Kemp, stood behind him, with a waft of the hand to “Please. Sit.”
Kemp looks down at the chair, and the back again, with an irascible look, at the back of the long-haired head of the man, already guiding Passepartout to collection of cushioned seats and divans .
“So how can I help?” the smooth, good-looker, dressed all in black asks in perfect English to Passepartout.
“Are you anarchists?” says Passepartout, looking around. “I’m looking for the anarchist centre in Cairo. I’ve read about a café. I’m part of the Greek anarchist milieu myself.”
Kemp slumps into the chair, stunned.
“Yes, we’re anarchists,” the slick stranger purrs at Passepartout, pushing his hair behind one ear. Other faces, bearded men, all dressed in black, from all corners, turn to look at Kemp in his damp white shirt and straw panama hat.
“Were you part of the Black Bloc? Did you block the railways to Alexandria?” Passepartout asks, excitedly.
“Yes, yes, all of that. We do all of that. So tell me, why are you here in Cairo?” in one manoeuver he sits the Greek down next to him on some blankets on the floor. “Tell me about yourself. Do you know you have beautiful eyes..?”
The thick smoke gets in Kemp’s nose and he clacks and chokes as he cranes his neck to see exactly what’s going on.
“What was it really like on the blockades?” says Passepartout.
The suave, preened man shifts a little. “Well, I didn’t actually go on the blockades.”
“But what did you do in the riots? What do you… what do the Cairo anarchists do?”
“Well,” he searches for a thought. “We have this café…” and he circles 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 shifts a little closer.
“But how are you promoting the anarchist ideals?” Passpartout implores, “We need to cooperate, you know, internationally, our groups. If we’re ever going to to break things down.”
The chisled man pushes himself back 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 stands up and points at the gold pots on the lit braziers as he walks away. Turning back again “They’re not free by the way.”
The dashing anarchist takes his leave, planting himself by the wall next to an elegant tall Egyptian woman who he mutters darkly to, looking now and again with a glower, at Passepartout.
“I don’t think they were anarchists really you know,” says Passepartout, crossly, back out on the street again.
“Perhaps not…” says Kemp. “But never mind that, so are you an anarchist then?” he asks “Am I going round the world with some kind of, I dunno, some kind of insurrectionist?”
Passepartout looks up at Kemp with large eyes, shrugs a knowing little shrug and turns away with a small smile.
His loyal, faithful, sidekick travelling companion it seems has more surprises than he ever first imagined.
“We have no Dr Sharif who works here.”
The woman at the antiquities desk of the Egyptian Museum is absolute about this. “We have never had a Dr Sharif who has worked here.”
“But look, here are his workings out,” says Passepatout. “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 raises her large glasses hanging on a thin link chain around her neck, not letting them rest on her nose, and peers at the crumpled pages.
“This is… Well. This is just nonsense,” she says. Her face pulled long, as she looks, a listless mouth showing fastidious displeasure.
She hands it quickly back to Passepartout, almost eager to get it out of her hands. “Nonsense.”
They head out of the museum’s offices and out again into the stinging sun.
“Maybe he goes by another name amongst his friends…” Passepartout says to Kemp, without much real conviction.
Passepartout wants to believe, refuses to allow herself to really think they have been caboodled by one of the millions of Cairo hucksters.
She doesn’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 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 wanted from them was anyone’s guess though. Passepartout enjoys speculating wildly that they were involved in some secret, that the paper they held was a code, that Dr Sharif’s life was at that very moment in terrible danger.
She thumps her hands together coming up with new fresh ideas on this theme. Kemp just feels a sadness.
The two travellers are stuck in a taxi. Not moving.
The taxi is 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 thins slightly and the taxi manages to pick up speed on the wide 8-lane highway: the Pyramid Road.
Predictably enough to both Kemp and the Greek, Egyptian driving is alarming. Cars, motorbikes, moped, pedestrians cutting in, cutting across the traffic. Men in flapping sandals sprint slappingly in front of the lanes of roaring traffic.
Then a terrible sight.
Kemp and a reluctant-to-look Passepartout – turning away, and then back again, to look through splayed fingers, then turning away again – watch an elderly lady sat down by the side of the road: black head-scarfed, her head is turned upwards, a pained face hollering to the sky.
She cradles a man’s lifeless body in her arms. There are other men who pace around her manically, slapping their heads in anguish. High pitched cries carry over the noise of the traffic. It is an awful, grisly, disturbing sight.
One of Cairo’s mad, uncurbed, road crossers, who just didn’t make it.
Passepartout and Kemp sit 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, fails to raise their spirits sufficiently.
Then the first glimpse.
It’s with a small shock that they see their first glimpse of the pyramids, as they 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 is off the road, and away from the uninspiring carpet-selling modern buildings.
And Kemp and Passepartout are there, standing on the Sahara. The city abruptly disintegrated away behind them, 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 lie in front of them. 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 appear by their side with their roped ships of the desert.
“You want camel? This one Moses. This one Michael Jackson.”
He points at Kemp “You should take Michael Jackson. You’ll like him. He likes to dance.”
Well why not, thinks Kemp. Why not be fleeced just as people have been in this spot for hundreds, if not thousands of years?
So the queer quartet of Moses, Michael Jackson, Passepartout and Kemp set off, making their dilatory bobbing way across the waves and breakers of sand, getting closer to the mighty blocks of the Pyramids.
The ranges of the Pharaohs rise serenely, powerfully above them.
Unmoveable. Sat there, while ancient empires rose and fell. Seeing everything. Commenting on nothing.
Our guide takes the camera. “You stand there. I take photos.”
Kemp complies in a lost manner, unthinkingly.
A tetchy argument however simmers between the guide and Passepartout.
“Now… jump in the air”
The man of the camels looks shocked, lowers 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? Good, eh?”
“No.” Passepartout’s arms remain resolutely folded.
The guide looks wounded. “Eh, look, you look lady..” he splutters “I am… what you say, I am… the professional. I know what I’m doing here…”
He spits on the dry sand and complains in caustic Arabic to his young boy helper holding the camels, who nods without much care and shrugs an indifferent shrug. Passepartout glowers in the sun, under the huge footstones of Egypt’s majestic mausoleum monument, with the desert flowing away in tidal treads.
Kemp looks dumbly at the huge scene coloured out in front of him, as if all untrue.
“We’ve got to carry on.” Kemp says out loud. Everyone looks up at him.
“We’ve got to carry on travelling” he says, and reaches out to Passepartout.
“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.”
Passepartout leaps with the pleasure of expectation across the sand towards Kemp. “So what then? Where? Where next?”
“Ah… well…yes, where? I’m not sure.” says Kemp.
“You take photo of me,” says the police man on top of his camel as they trek 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. Concocting her riddles.
“10 dollars,” he calls out. “You give me 10 dollars for photo of me.”
“India,” says Kemp. “Let’s go to India.”
Passepartout agrees almost before he’s finished saying it.
“10 dollars?” calls the policeman after them as they walk through the crowds.
And so under desk fans in the British Embassy with papers flapping – desperate to get free under their paperweights – typewriters, tea cups, men in sweat-patched shirts, Kemp and his travelling Passepartout sit, 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 lies there for them. Open, beckoning, grinning invitingly.
And they both fall in willingly. Happy complicit prey, into waiting jaws…