:: 2017 SPRING TRAVEL WRITING CONTEST WINNER ::
Jackal-headed gods, Flaubert, black velveteen, Luxor, lateens, marzipan-chested hoopoes, architraves, Tomb Raider, schistosomes, modern-day dragomans, natron, molokheya, Agatha Christie, unconcerned selfies, Baedekers, gelabaya & the impotable Nile.
The Temples of Karnak
The place was a maze of pylons, dark sweating interiors, dry moats filmed with spring grass, numbered blocks of granite arranged in checkerboard patterns, obelisks, kiosks, fat painted columns, giant amputated statues, faded reliefs of striding jackal-headed gods. The grandest part was the Hypostyle Hall, which I was already familiar with from movies like Death on the Nile and Tomb Raider, children’s adventure comics, colonial lithographs, the paintings of David Roberts and Eduard Hildebrandt, countless online photographs dating from the 1900s through to the present day—the cultural capital we live by—but never up close and personal.
Dope. Hoowee. One for the book. This was where you came to get in touch with the past, with the first installments of desire and sorrow; this was where you stepped through a portal into another world. This was where you came face to face with avatars of ancient secrets, but not just any old avatars. The Mummy with Boris Karloff as Imhotep, Christopher Lee as Kharis and Arnold Vosloo as Imhotep again (in the updated 1999 version of the Karloff vehicle): These were ones I’d dreamed of, sitting in the dark on a gum-blackened velveteen seat, under the flickering blues of the screen, heartbeat syncopating with the sighs, booming whispers and pounding music of the speakers, a strawberry Mivvi melting over my knuckles, girlfriend forgotten. While my grownup, whipped and mastered mind might scoff at such an idea, there yet remained a tiny part of me that insisted a mummy trailing bandages, jaws eaten away by scarab beetles and rot, would come staggering through the dimly lit chambers, one arm outstretched, uttering throaty blandishments and threats, not just lamenting the days of past glories and lost loves but calling out to me to restore them. He would be the frayed and tottering embodiment of an original promise.
We had become veterans of global travel unburdening ourselves in a Tudor-beamed pub in Hampshire.
The temples of Karnak lie at the other end of Luxor, a mile or so along the corniche from the Winter Palace Hotel. I was alone, enjoying the cool early morning air, the crimson bougainvillea overhanging the high walls of roadside villas and the noiseless tacking of lateen sails on the Nile, unmolested. Huge multi-decked passenger cruisers were tied up on the banks, some listing, perhaps from holing below the waterline, others with naked electric lightbulbs burning in the lower decks, shadowy figures hanging out washing. I passed a pillbox manned by two men in tattered fatigues. Another soldier, eyeing me from a watchtower, waved an assault rifle. I took a detour, cutting back into the town, where there were no bougainvillea vines or hoopoes or soldiers.
Crumbling tenements, mosques, patched and pieced traffic, scruffy kids in oversized tracksuit bottoms being marshaled outside a school, women in face veils and thick black abayas picking through last night’s garbage, a queue of staring faces waiting at a clinic. I turned back to the corniche and its clean palm-cloistered road, where I had the marzipan-chested hoopoes, with their zebra-striped wings and icepick-shaped heads, the drifting feluccas and the faint acrid odor of the river to sigh over. There was a rank of carriages up ahead with skinny raw-boned nags between the shafts. The drivers were smoking under the trees. They watched me as I approached, licking their lips.
Going in, I didn’t take pictures, I didn’t take a selfie against the newly restored statue of Amenhotep IV, I didn’t photograph the massive image of Ramses II or the lake of the Precinct of Mut; I didn’t even straddle any of the stone sphinxes for a laugh. Instead, I headed straight for Hypostyle Hall, where I sat down on a bench and stared up into the floret-shaped architraves. I thought of Gustave Flaubert, who’d once amused himself wondering whether the giants whom he’d imagined living in this place had been served up humans whole on skewers like larks. How were those architraves hauled up to the top of each column? Levers, pulleys, ramps? How many thousands of workers were involved? Did the pharaohs ever come to look at the work? Who were the workers, anyway? Egyptians? Ethiopians? Nubians? What did they eat? Onions, as Alexander Kinglake had claimed of the builders of the Great Pyramids of Giza, or the round puffy bread and molokheya soup they still eat today?
I’d expected to be virtually alone. But perhaps my visit had coincided with another lull in hostilities. I could detect no fear or even watchfulness in the Chinese groups. They simply went about their business, photographing, wowing, laughing, high-fiving and shaking stones out of their Nike copies.
And what had the rulers done amongst these vivid unlikely columns? The columns were far too wide, far too close together and far too numerous for parades, ceremonies or sacrifices. Were they just there for show, then, for exhibiting to the astonished and fearful visitor the majesty of Ramses, the ambition of Amenhotep, the might of Thutmose, conqueror of Syria and Nubia? Should I, as Shelley’s traveller from an antique land suggests, recall the boundless and bare sands of the desert just beyond? Should I, like Omar Khayyam’s ringdove, cry out “Coo, coo? Where? Where?” at the fallen masonry? Flaubert wasn’t interested in these issues. He was interested in a yellow cow poking its head into a temple, hovels erected at the foot of the pylons, grubby children scrambling after piasters, and the whores who would jerk him off for a couple of francs in the shade.
A man in a white turban and a foot-length grey gelabaya emerged from behind a column and interrupted these earnest cogitations. “Come this way,” he said invitingly. “No, thanks,” I said. “Ana mabshi. I’m just walking along, you know, by myself.” As I moved off into the depths of the Hall, I heard a shuffling sound behind me, which seemed to speed up as I quickened my pace, and a low ingratiating moan. The man appeared from behind another pillar in front of me. “You want to see the Kiosk of Sesostris?” “No, thanks, just walking.” I’d been saying this a lot lately. Usually it worked. Politeness and a bit of Arabic, rather than snooty English rebuff or French curses, tended to go down well with modern-day dragomans.
There were touts, hustlers and grifters all along the tourist circuit, lurking in wait for the unwary, not easily dissuaded from accompanying you for a mile or more, convinced that you’d weaken sooner or later. The bolder ones said things like, “Ah, there you are, my friend. I’ve been waiting hours just for you,” or “Sorry, I didn’t catch that? I don’t speak Arabic.” Others might try implausible dry wit. “Welcome to Siberia,” a blackened felucca-tout had said to me in the sweltering midday heat of Aswan. If you stopped to argue the toss, it made it harder to get away. They would, as the Arabic saying has it, stick like flies. If you took a taxi, which you had to sometimes, it might take hours to decline the driver’s offers of expert guidance to the Colossi of Memnon, a papyrus factory or Farafra Oasis and the White Desert. In the end, you’d have to take his cell-phone number and promise to call him in the morning.
It was certainly big for a hotel garden, its trim walkways passing through orange trees with large succulent-looking but bitter fruits (tried one, when no one was looking), banana trees, date palms, giant lean Washingtonia robusta palms, jujubes with blunt unappetizing fruit like cartridge cases, spindly frangipanis, fluffy tamarisks, sprawling anthropomorphic sycamores reminiscent of the talking trees in cartoons.
I returned the way I’d come, only to find the same man waiting at the entrance. He had an ashen, oddly unlined face, reminiscent of wind-eroded stone. His eyes bored into mine. He shivered like a crack addict. A piece of linen bandage seemed to unwind from his sleeve. “I can show you the temple of Hatshepsut,” he urged. “It’s not far.” “I’d rather you didn’t. I’m going this way. Ma’salamah.” He raised a shriveled-looking hand. “Please…” I hastened away into the gloom of the Hall, trying to maintain a semblance of dignity but in the end breaking into a run, dodging behind a column marked with the symbols of Ra and Heaven. I held my breath, ears pricked. Nothing. He must have given up. I risked a glance back. I craned my neck. Nothing. I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Then can I take you to see the Temple of Ptah?” He was standing right behind me, one eye goggling roguishly. Had he been teleported there? Was he an illusion? “In the Sanctuary you will find the image of the god. It is lit, as if by magic, by an aperture in the roof.” The illusion seemed to be quoting someone—Michael Palin, perhaps, or a Baedeker. “No thanks,” I said. “I really prefer seeing things alone. Go with peace.” His expression didn’t change; probably, it couldn’t change. He just looked greyer than before, the goggling eye retreating slowly, reluctantly, into its socket.
The rising sun had begun to dissolve the shadows at this end of the Hall. The man’s gelabaya looked stained in the harsh new light, the hem blackened from trudging through dust and mud. He looked diminished. I turned away and headed back through the columns. He came stumbling after me. “What about the Sacred Lake, then?” His voice was almost a shriek. “On the edge, you can see an enormous granite scarab dedicated to the sun-god Atum Khepri!” We had come back to the entrance, and there, thankfully, swarming down from the Great Temple of Amun, were the tour groups, American, German and Chinese; I could tell by the guides’ strenuously clattering speech. The man faded away, leaving a faint whiff of cedar oil and natron.
Some of the Chinese group formed a rapid circle round one of the columns, reaching for each other’s hands, laughing to see how many of them were needed. They had colorful nylon backpacks and bottles of water stuffed into the net pockets. They looked as if they knew how to enjoy themselves. I pictured them crawling, giggling with fear, along that new glass-bottomed bridge over Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon in southern China, hands linked, water bottles bobbing.
The mummies had all gone, whether because the authorities had shipped them off to American and European museums or out of fright it was hard to say.
A man and a woman waved back an old American couple who wanted to pass, so that they could take photographs of one another unimpeded. The woman posed, twirlingly, on one leg. Then the man, mouth open, wide-eyed with joy, pointed up into the Hall, which he had to do three times till the woman was satisfied. The woman was wearing wobbly high heels despite the cobbles and cracked slabs of stone underfoot. She strode, lurching unconcerned, to take a selfie in front of the reliefs at the entrance when her partner went off for the necessary smoke. She smirked, pouted with bent knees, twirled and imitated a flamingo oblivious of anyone else, her phone at the end of its selfie stick floating above her head like a persistent wasp. The American couple could now pass through, which they did while making nasty observations about the Cultural Revolution.
Swigging water, I wondered what Flaubert would have made of it all. In his day, white folks had had the place to themselves. They thought of the Egyptians as a kind of local color. They went where they pleased, unburdened by doubt or anxiety, trampling through people’s houses, feeling up the help, sampling a hubble-bubble, guzzling
steaks and burgundy, which the householders seemed able to conjure up with a snap of the fingers. Not so different, really. Another man in a grey gelabaya was sitting next to me. He was looking at me interestedly, as if I’d been thinking out loud. His wore his turban at rakish angle. He had sunken eyes and foul breath. “Do you want to see the Festival Hall of Thutmose III?” he whispered leeringly. “Very nice.”
The Valley of the Kings
Evading the onrushing felucca touts (50EL, i.e. Egyptian pounds, or $2.50 for a sail to the other side) with suave brushoffs in Arabic, I took the public ferry (1EL there, 1EL back). There were no crocodiles. The surface of the river was unboiling, unruffled, unmarked even by bobbing Pepsi cans. Flaubert mentioned goats, buffalo and sheep drinking at the riverbank farther down. He saw women fetching water in tall vases, which they took away balanced on their heads. Nowadays the banks are concreted over, with souvenir shops built into the walls. Besides, the World Health Organization says the water is infested with parasitic flatworms, schistosomes, and so no one must drink it straight. Tourists and women bearing water urns have to rely on Nestlé and Aquafina bottled water instead.
A lot else has changed in the intervening years. Flaubert spoke of schoolteachers giving classes in the shade of the pylons of the Luxor temple and kids playing tag through the columns. Animals slept in the courtyards and there were goatskin tents for people to relax in and smoke their narguiles. Today, the ruins have become physically secure facilities, fenced in, overlooked by machine-gun nests and patrolled by dog handlers, open only to the wealthy, visiting celebrities and heads of state, television crews and package tours from Chengdu.
Mustapha met me on the other side. He was a graceful sandy haired man, a dead ringer, I thought, for Charles Dance in Pascali’s Island. I asked him if he could take me to the Valley of the Kings. “Of course, make yourself at home,” he said, yanking aside the door to his battered Škoda mini-bus. “There’s some bottled water on your left and some tissues on the dashboard.” “How much will it cost?” He looked so offended that I almost expected him to say, “My dear boy, let’s not discuss such sordid details.” Instead he said, “I’m afraid it will set you back a hundred pounds—Egyptian pounds, of course.” Anticipating my dismay (even though 100EL was only about five euros), he shrugged hopelessly at the world and its horrors. “If afterwards you want to do the Temple of Hatshepsut, I may have to ask for another fifty.” I noted his use of the verb “do.” It spoke of an easy familiarity with the world of English holiday itineraries and traveler’s tales. It assumed I was familiar with them too. We had become veterans of global travel unburdening ourselves in a Tudor-beamed pub in Hampshire.
there yet remained a tiny part of me that insisted a mummy trailing bandages, jaws eaten away by scarab beetles and rot, would come staggering through the dimly lit chambers, one arm outstretched, uttering throaty blandishments and threats, not just lamenting the days of past glories and lost loves but calling out to me to restore them. He would be the frayed and tottering embodiment of an original promise.
We went up a road that swept around bare sandstone hills that reminded me of the road from the Allenby Bridge to Jerusalem. The same layered yellow rock and empty desert fading away into the distance, the same black tarmac cutting through it, the same spotless blue above. “That’s where the temple workers buried their dead,” Mustapha said, pointing out some inky holes in the cliff face on the left. “They couldn’t afford anything better. The poor live there now, of course.” He smiled, exhibiting a sort of professionally cultivated Weltschmerz. “But Howard Carter’s old house is on your right. You may find that more to your taste.”
Mustapha was now in full tour-guide mode, speaking as if from a script, adopting the grave cinematic tone of a Sound and Light show. “Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb on the twenty-sixth of November 1922. On that fateful day, when he was peering through a tiny breach in the doorway, his employer, Lord Carnarvon, who’d motored up from Cairo for the discovery, asked him if he could see anything. Howard Carter replied with the immortal words, ‘Yes, wonderful things!’” Mustapha glanced at me, perhaps to see what effect this bon mot had had. I smiled. We drove on in silence for a while. “This land looks like Palestine,” I said, and waited, fishing for an attitude from him. But Mustapha didn’t have the one I was looking for either. “You are fortunate to have traveled to so many places.”
The Valley of the Kings was where the pharaohs had been entombed. Most of the mummies had been taken away and stored in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and the British Museum in London, but I had hopes that one or two might still be in situ. Perhaps, I thought excitedly, one might even now be clambering from a sarcophagus, reaching out, keening in the dim cobwebby passageways, one eye glowing greenly in its skull, as we approached.
“Welcome to Siberia,” a blackened felucca-tout had said to me in the sweltering midday heat of Aswan. If you stopped to argue the toss, it made it harder to get away.
The entrance to the valley was blocked by a barrier gate and a guardhouse. As Mustapha showed the guard his license, I glanced up at the surrounding hills, looking for uniformed men with dogs, the glint of rifle barrels. Mustapha said he’d wait for me in the car park.
There was no way into the valley proper except via an arcade of souvenir shops lined with yelling touts, like a gauntlet or charivari. One man thrust a gaudy image of Tutankhamun into my face; another tried to make me buy a papyrus scroll, which he said was two thousand years old, hopping along beside me, making increasingly large discounts. Others confined themselves to muted catcalls, reserving their energies for the return journey.
It cost 100EL for entry to the valley and three tombs. To get into more tombs, especially those of Ramses IV and Tutankhamun, with their famous wall paintings and reliefs, you had to pay another 100. I opted for the lesser option, not fancying the crush at the end of the other one. We couldn’t walk; we had to trundle up the valley in one of those little trams you find in Disneyland or Butlins till we reached another barrier gate and had our tickets torn. There were some palm trees beyond the gate. With its branching side-roads, its crafted walkways and metal staircases, the valley suddenly felt like a posh gated community, an affluent area of Beverley Hills or Weybridge.
Legend has it that Christie wrote Death on the Nile in an upstairs suite, though legend also has it that she wrote the novel in an upstairs suite in the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan, in an upstairs suite in Shepheards Hotel in Cairo, and in a purpose-built annex to her husband’s dig at Nineveh in Iraq.
I trudged after an American group whose elder statesman mugged for the entertainment of the rest of us, blissfully mixing up his mythology, geography and even millennia: “Oh God,” he intoned, throwing out his arms, “we’re about to go down into the underworld, where the undead reign.” The descents into the burial chambers were always crammed, arthritic elders being shoved aside by bustling matrons from Chongqing and Shanghai. Youths with spangly sunglasses raced one another up the ramps. In the chambers, the tombs were well lit but empty, and the walls echoed only with the tramp of our feet. Cell phones flashed and beeped. The mummies had all gone, whether because the authorities had shipped them off to American and European museums or out of fright it was hard to say.
Sidebar: China has now displaced Russia as the world’s leading tourist nation. Its people move across the globe in wacky multicolored ball gowns or Hawaiian shirts, bearing selfie sticks and parasols. They seem to know exactly where to go, rushing without qualms or (according to affronted touts) generosity, across the innumerable wonders of the world, be it the Nazca lines of Peru, the Stone Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe, the temples of Bagan, Nineveh in northern Iraq, the Nubian pyramids of North Sudan, Las Vegas, Whitechapel or the South Pole. They like to post pictures of themselves on Renren and other social media, with a big arrow pointing at the famous places over their shoulder. The Chinese government is building replicas of these wonders in Shanghai to save its citizens the trouble and expense of actually leaving the country.
Noticing a couple of oldsters rubbing at a hieroglyph to see if it would come off, I didn’t feel outraged. I couldn’t begrudge them their casual vandalism. At least they didn’t throw up over the two-thousand-year-old paintings of Anubis. I was thinking of all those Brits and Germans who still leave splashes of spew over the cobbles and shrines of Benidorm, Majorca and Crete.
She smirked, pouted with bent knees, twirled and imitated a flamingo oblivious of anyone else, her phone at the end of its selfie stick floating above her head like a persistent wasp. The American couple could now pass through, which they did while making nasty observations about the Cultural Revolution.
The latest arrivals were cramming themselves into the narrow passage leading down to the tomb of Tutankhamun, the odd arm waving above the heaving bodies and even, unless my eyes deceived me, someone’s leg. This wasn’t what I’d been led to expect. Western governments advised against all but necessary travel to Egypt. The country had been all but deserted by tourists, first after the Arab Spring and its repercussions, then after several fatal kidnappings and then, just when a few brave souls had begun to trickle back, after militants made Sinai and the east bank of the Nile no-go areas in 2016. Recently, there’d been bombs in Cairo and Kafr El Sheikh. Gunmen had attacked Coptic Christians outside a church just three weeks ago. I’d expected to be virtually alone. But perhaps my visit had coincided with another lull in hostilities. I could detect no fear or even watchfulness in the Chinese groups. They simply went about their business, photographing, wowing, laughing, high-fiving and shaking stones out of their Nike copies. In fact, no one seemed bothered at all—not even the locals. I could go where I wanted. Nobody told me, “Don’t go to Abu Simbel,” or “Avoid gatherings of men with beards.” The government no longer provided tourists with armed guards or military escorts.
Outside the Valley, Mustapha rescued me from a man in a turban. I asked him how he’d recognized me now that I was wearing a hat. He said he knew who I was by my green backpack. He added that the hat was cool. It made me look like Howard Carter. We both guffawed, enjoying the nested ironies. I asked him about militants in Egypt. He was non-committal: “I wish more tourists would come. It’s been years since we had enough.” I didn’t ask him about his excellent English. Dragomans, after all, are proficient in several languages because they have to be. They’ve had to be for over a thousand years.
Mustapha didn’t want to let me go, so we drove past the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, which was carved into a cliff face and which looked, to my haunted eye, like a Soviet-era prison. We passed the village of alabaster carvers and then the Colossi of Memnon. When we got back to the jetty, Mustapha found it even harder to say goodbye, a spectral family of six kids and a sick wife clamoring behind his words. I persuaded him not to give me his cell phone number. I would not be coming back. In the end, he was crestfallen but resigned. I glanced back at him as the ferry pulled out, feeling like Pascali in the movie about to betray Antony Bowles to the Turkish authorities.
The Winter Palace Hotel
Built by Charles Baehler and Thomas Cook as a rest house and watering hole for monied Europeans drawn by the healthy desert climate and the romance of the archaeological finds, the hotel was opened in 1907. It was here that George Herbert, the fifth earl of Carnarvon, stayed when he was supervising Howard Carter’s digs in the Valley of the Kings. And it was here in 1922, from the steps, that Carter announced his discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun to the world.
Amongst the hotel’s other celebrity guests over the years—King Farouk, Winston Churchill, Noel Coward, Tony and Cheryl Blair, Prince Charles and Princess Diana—only one stands out for me: Agatha Christie. Legend has it that Christie wrote Death on the Nile in an upstairs suite, though legend also has it that she wrote the novel in an upstairs suite in the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan, in an upstairs suite in Shepheard Hotel in Cairo and in a purpose-built annex to her husband’s dig at Nineveh in Iraq. Even so, when I sat on the terrace drinking chilled Stella beer and munching small salted peanuts still in their skins, it was not hard to imagine her filling a notebook and one of the wrought-iron chairs nearby.
They thought of the Egyptians as a kind of local color. They went where they pleased, unburdened by doubt or anxiety, trampling through people’s houses, feeling up the help, sampling a hubble-bubble, guzzling steaks and burgundy, which the householders seemed able to conjure up with a snap of the fingers.
I pictured her looking up, the Nile and Queen Hatshepsut’s carceral mortuary in the distance, features still crinkling sardonically over the derelictions of Linnet Ridgeway. Her sudden girlish lapse: “Oh, this is so frightfully pleasant, Max!” In my imagination, she was vulnerable in an aged-bear-like way, a heavier version of Margaret Rutherford (who’d played Miss Marple in the George Pollock films in the 1960s). Storks passed across the evening sky, their long necks slightly dipped, perhaps from the weight of the babies they carried. A scrawny horse and its carriage trotted by, the driver bludgeoning its withers, the passengers clutching one another in the back. Then I saw Christie again, peering crossly around the table, snapping at her younger archaeologist husband for his tardiness in ordering the tea. But was this vision right? Could Christie really be so intimidating, and Max so compliant? Was her bossiness really a form of longing? Was Max compliant for his own less-than-candid reasons? I envisaged him scurrying off and discreetly tipping the majordomo, Christie frowning over her notes, the suggestion of a tear squeezing out between her eyelids.
I stayed in the newer, much cheaper Pavilion wing with the Chinese tour groups, negotiating their ranks of suitcases in the morning—they always seemed to be leaving for somewhere else—on the way to breakfast and enjoying their ringing banter through the walls in the dead hours of the night. It opened onto the garden, which was billed as one of the biggest in Egypt.
It was certainly big for a hotel garden, its trim walkways passing through orange trees with large succulent-looking but bitter fruits (tried one, when no one was looking), banana trees, date palms, giant lean Washingtonia robusta palms, jujubes with blunt unappetizing fruit like cartridge cases, spindly frangipanis, fluffy tamarisks, sprawling anthropomorphic sycamores reminiscent of the talking trees in cartoons. The grassed areas were as smooth and velvety as snooker baize. There was a poolside restaurant, a hubble-bubble area and a cage in which bright-green lovebirds fluttered from side to side, eyes darting in their white featherless rings. Elderly sunbathers glistened by the pool, their polished leathery flesh sagging over their waistbands. The waiters weaved like dancers through the pool loungers, handing down tall shimmering glasses of lemon and mint.
A fierce old French countess was doing embroidery in the “Withdrawing Room” at the top of her voice while her partner, a saturnine man in a white flannel suit, leafed through a magazine, turning away sharply when I came in. I felt his eyes on my back when I left.
A ripped, gym-chiseled man in Lycra shorts did conspicuous sit-ups in the grass behind the pool and then sprinted along a pathway, singlet stained tastefully with sweat. A woman with a Hasselblad camera took careful photographs of a blind Greek kouros displayed in an alcove below the hotel steps. I remembered her from breakfast, tagging gloomily along behind her elderly parents. She seemed absorbed in her task now, leaning forward, aiming the lens at the boy’s hacked genitals, adjusting settings. Under the palms, a uniformed servitor marched briskly ahead of a newly arrived Chinese tour group. They passed a gardener weeding a bed of blue pimpernels, his trowel turning over dusty brown earth. The sun, when it went down, spread reddish fingers around the throats of shocked-looking palms.
In the bar, sampling a gin and tonic, I finally noticed the guy across from me. He had an Arabic-language newspaper and curled purple lips, but he wasn’t reading it. He was looking at me. “You are drinking gin and tonic,” he said. “I am drinking tea.” “Nail on the head,” I replied. We nodded grimly and turned back to our mutually exclusive worlds. Samuel Huntingdon claims the world contains separate civilizations, each divided by language, religion and culture, each clashing like cymbals. I couldn’t say this was an illustration, and I certainly didn’t agree with the argument, but I did hear something jangling harshly in my ears.
When Huntingdon’s iconic Mussulman eventually stalked off, another man, in a plum-colored cravat, with wavy blond hair—Anthony Andrews, I decided, in Brideshead Revisited—came and sat down at a nearby table. He was holding a glass of red wine. We shared the faintest of eyebrow twitches. The man called out to the barman. “This wine’s…uh…must have spoiled or something. I’ll have a martini instead.” The barman, old-school with a pencil-line moustache, went to work immediately, whisking away the offending drink, wiping the table clean and supplying Anthony with a cocktail glass of liquor and ice. “Been here long?” I said. “Well…honeymoon…but…” He looked suddenly anxious. “Wife’s not too well.” “Sorry to hear that.” “No, no…it’s nothing, just…” His “just” hung in the air between us like an unread chapter in a Christie novel.
Flaubert wasn’t interested in these issues. He was interested in a yellow cow poking its head into a temple, hovels erected at the foot of the pylons, grubby children scrambling after piasters, and the whores who would jerk him off for a couple of francs in the shade.
The hotel—the original Winter Palace, that is, not the new wing—seemed full of people like that: hesitant old-world types in cravats and blazers; women all woolly hair and shawls against the evening chill. There were cagey dowagers drinking tea and lemon out on the terrace, quarrelling younger couples who lowered their voices as I passed, Peter Lorre lookalikes who peered over their newspapers, bright young things who drove up to the entrance in Bugatti Brescia sports cars, pumping the horn joyously. No, that’s going too far. But the place definitely had an atmosphere of 1920s intrigue and mystery. A fierce old French countess was doing embroidery in the “Withdrawing Room” at the top of her voice while her partner, a saturnine man in a white flannel suit, leafed through a magazine, turning away sharply when I came in. I felt his eyes on my back when I left.
I went back into the lobby and asked to see if they had anything on the history of the hotel. The woman behind the desk gave me an uninformative printout. Just a list of names of people who’d stayed there. TripAdvisor and Wikipedia had been more illuminating. “No brochures, even—a reference book?” “Maybe if you looked in the library…” I looked in the library. Nothing. Amongst the Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum novels, I did find a copy of James Stephens’ The Crock of Gold, which, for me, was a thrilling discovery, just as good as any of Howard Carter’s. On the wall opposite hung a copy of Thomas Philips’ portrait of Lord Byron in “Oriental” costume, which seemed ectopic and mildly satirical in this context. It may have been a reference to nearby Abydos, which at least (inaccurately) suggested one of Byron’s Heroic poems. No pictures of Christie, and not even one of her novels to flick through. Not a single body on the carpet with a pair of scissors stuck in its neck.
Piers Michael Smith has published travel pieces in Eclectica and Cold Noon, and his poetry has appeared in Critical Quarterly and Red Rock Review. He’s currently working in Kuwait, but can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lead image: Sergey Pesterev