2016 FALL TRAVEL WRITING CONTEST FINALIST
Cairo, red gerberas, crocodiles, gummy bears, Omar Sharif, donkeys, sarcophagi, Nasrs, shisha nana, Anubis, rubber lobsters, bubblegum pop, Batman & missing pharaohs.
Cairo, red gerberas, crocodiles, gummy bears, Omar Sharif, donkeys, sarcophagi, Nasrs, shisha nana, Anubis, rubber lobsters, bubblegum pop, Batman & missing pharaohs.
Over mountains, over ranges
By great pyramids and sphinxes
We met drifters and strangers
Oh, the sands, my lovely creature
And the mad, moaning winds
At night the deserts writhed
With diabolical things
In Cairo, they still drive Lada cars. Only they are not called Ladas. They are manufactured in Egypt and called Nasr cars. In fact, most taxis are Nasrs. They pull up in the middle of rush-hour traffic and you yank open the door and fold yourself inside amongst the contrapuntal beeping and honking of impatient motorists around you. A ride in a Nasr is a speed course in yoga positions and a nightmare for people long of limb and large of stature. Inside, there is barely enough room to squeeze into the back, and most passengers end up with their knees somewhere around their noses, hunched like a sacrificial mummy as the car navigates traffic like an enthusiastic dodgem car. You become an instant contortionist. The seats of the city’s faithful Nasrs range from anything from torn tan to bright 1950s American diner booth red, and dashboards contain a variety of decorations often reminiscent of the contents of a bowerbird’s nest. Plastic dinosaurs, toy cars, football team banners and tin taxi meters from a previous century are just some of the treasures found there, amongst an eclectic array of stickers and velvet coverings. Most taxis drive with the windows down, so as you are hurtled through the clogged veins of the Cairene metropolis, the dense smoggy air rolls over you, caustic and thick. Some taxis even have portable incense burners, plugged straight into the lighter socket, the smell of rose mingling with the assault of benzene and motor oil on your senses. After a few days in Cairene taxis, your lungs start to hurt when you inhale, a burning sensation behind your heart and deep in your chest cavity.
Once, in Cairo on a business trip with my friend James, I took a taxi by myself, and the driver was young, a good-looking Egyptian man with short gelled curly hair and a broad white grin. I squeezed in and he thoughtfully changed the radio from Arabic to English music. I protested; I liked the song. We drove together through the city and along the Nile to the sound of Amr Diab singing “Habibi, Ya Nour El Eyn,” Arabic bubblegum pop: “Darling, Light of my Eyes.” He didn’t speak a word of English, and together we sang along to the song—Habibi, habibi, habibi, ya nour el eyn—ad infinitum. I offered him some of my gum, which he took, surprised, as I sat hunched forward, hugging the empty front passenger seat with my arms and trying not to hit my head on the ceiling as the car bumped down a hill. I was so happy, with the music and the sheer elation of being in Cairo, that I couldn’t stop laughing every time we careened around a corner and I nearly went tumbling to the other side. When I tried to pay him, he laughed and refused. I got out of the taxi at my hotel and pattered up the stairs feeling empowered, feminine, charming, exotic and blonde. I imagined him watching me swish up the stairs with all the elegance of a movie star. It was only after I got to the door that I realized that half of my cardigan had been accidentally tucked into my pants. It figured.
Cairo is a city of giant arteries, each emptying into the other, an endless stream of cars driving at unbelievable speeds, merging, converging, dividing and weaving in and out of each other. Nasr after Nasr rattling along with their bright-red seats and white paintwork. Where, oh where, are they all going? The Nile, unrecognizable from its days as the thoroughfare of kings and pharaohs, slides by, a dark grey mass glinting a dull silver in the sunlight, obscured by grey smog. A city where to stop means to invite conversation. Where to hesitate risks well-meaning advice, and where to barge onward risks getting lost. A great heaving dusty mass where everybody seems to know where they are going but you. James and I sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Police sirens pass us by, loud, maniacal. A donkey strolls past nonchalantly. A man in a wheelchair squeaks past my window and James winks at me. “I think we’re having an Egyptian moment,” he says conspiratorially, and offers me a gummy bear. All of this happens in less than five minutes.
As the man in the wheelchair glides by me again, this time going in the opposite direction, his head on par with mine, I think, Where have the pharaohs gone? When I shut my eyes I see great palm colonnades and palaces. Men, dark with the sun, slick with oil, toiling along the banks of the Nile. I open my eyes and see grey asphalt pavements, colonial buildings and steel monsters alongside old, fat women with cracked, calloused heels who sit at the side of the road selling piles of flat Arabic bread, spread out in the open air as cars belch black exhaust fumes. Young students, old dignified men and women carrying groceries with furrowed brows all rush past on their daily business—a million milling ants passing through multi-sided squares centered by statues of presidents and poet laureates. You are pushed along with the masses, and all you can do is grab your skirt and keep moving, hoping that somewhere this human tide will spit you out on the right shore. Somewhere along the line you eat one too many gummy bears and James confiscates them, relegating them to the bottom of his rucksack.
We visit an artist in his studio. Amongst walls and ceilings lined with a collage of photographs, reaching up from the chairs to the kitchen cabinets, along the legs of the table to a tailor’s mannequin in the corner, we drink coffee and discuss gods and superheroes, the human need for belief over time, our strange lust for the dark horse, figures we eternally spurn yet crave. Dark protectors. Anubis. Hades. Batman. We like to revere and yet be reviled. It is how we cope. Sometimes something is so beautiful, it is terrible, and we must spurn it for fear of it taking over. Fear of the power it has over us, of losing control. Nobody likes to feel indebted. Nobody likes the black sheep. We talk, sunk in comfortable sofas and piles of books amongst giant canvases depicting Egypt’s most ancient deities. Is this ancient Egypt? James sits leafing through watercolors. I talk bass and Depeche Mode and drink coffee. Disembodied eyes, faces and fashion models stare at me from their places on the walls, pasted in place for all eternity. No, this is not ancient Egypt, although it is vibrant and new and beautiful. Between the smell of cigarette smoke in a warm room and the musty books, the artist explains a new project with a deft flick of the wrist—a video animation in which the god Anubis awakens and walks the streets of Cairo. Maybe in this video, I can see a glimpse of ancient Egypt. Flip God and you get Dog. Anubis again. Take the plan and spin it sideways, says Brian Molko in my head. Maybe if I see it, I can connect the old with the new, bring together the two ends of the plug and create electricity. Snap. Click. Power on.
You are pushed along with the masses, and all you can do is grab your skirt and keep moving, hoping that somewhere this human tide will spit you out on the right shore.
James and I are taken for dinner and we eat stuffed pigeon and smoke intoxicating mint shisha, cool and thick like menthol as it glides down your throat, heavy with peppermint oil, a different kind of smog. The walls of the restaurant are dark purple and green, with works by Chant Avedissian; Omar Sharif and King Farouk smile down at me, totems of Egyptian masculinity with their verdant moustaches. Oum Kalthoum looks at a spot above my head, forever remote, a half smile on her lips and eyes hidden by dark glasses, a strange, mystic Mona Lisa smile. Is this Egypt, I ask? Here, amongst the laughter and the noise and the wrought-iron chairs and painted tables? I stab a rice-filled sausage with my fork and twirl it. The smoke of a cigar curls lazily through the air and there is the clatter of glass teacups. I ask for more shisha nana and sit back as my head spins and the colors of the room all blur together in a rich brocade of Egyptian life. I think of Thomas De Quincey and his opium dreams and the cancerous kisses of crocodiles.
Later, I walk along the Nile and look up at the bright lights of the hotels that line the waterfront. In my mind’s eye, crocodiles lie in wait for me in the depths, great silent predators that are as old as time. Majestic reed barges float down the river in front of me. I smell the perfume and the flowers and the fear and the sweat. Except I can’t. Debris floats in the grey water instead, muddy whirl of trash bags and cigarette butts. I return to James and we sit at the window of our hotel bar, safe in deep leather chairs, surrounded by Van Leo photographs of Cairo’s glamorous black-and-white movie stars. Another incarnation of Omar Sharif looks over the bar, suave, elegant, ever young, a dapper star at the beginning of his career. We put our feet up on the polished wooden window ledge and drink martinis and watch the sun set over this great metropolis, turning the sky from yellow to gold, pink to deep red. Dusk finally settles over the city like a grey veil, spread out by the goddess Nut herself. I look up but cannot see the stars. The smog of the city sits above me like great dark gauze. I cannot see the pyramids but am told they are there. How can this possibly be Cairo if I cannot see the pyramids?
W e go for the day to Alexandria. We take the train. We must depart Cairo at the crack of dawn from the central train station, and somehow we manage to arrive an hour too early, forced to sit in the station café drinking coffee and eating squashed croissants at tiny little metal tables to kill time. The plastic wrapper of the croissants is so crisp it crackles loudly every time I touch it, almost echoing off the café’s tiled walls. We navigate the streams of people coming and going in the early morning hours, amongst the porters in their blue jackets and white turbans, deftly walking by large bales, suitcases and street vendors. We locate our seats (violent green) and chug along in the train through the city’s outer urban nightmare of high-rise buildings, blackened by the smoke of the train and years of sand in the air. Each building is dotted with balconies and each balcony is carefully tended and painted a different color (individual expression at its best). Alcoves of bright blue, green, purple and terra-cotta are embedded in the filthy sand-colored walls of buildings. A piece of personal pride amongst the uncontrollable. We glide through green fields, see donkeys and farmers at work. I imagine asps lurking in the knee-length reeds, press my nose against the window of the train. I am a child looking upon the world with eyes open wide, drinking in the palm trees, houses and patient farm animals (more donkeys).
We pull into Alexandria and the taxi driver offers to buy me from James. I am worth five Egyptian pounds and I have beautiful blonde hair. James declines, on the grounds that he is too attached to his “wife,” and the two men laugh, albeit at different jokes. I notice that the dashboard contains a strange floppy purple rubber lobster and a Lego spaceman figurine. Rattling along the waterfront, I cannot believe that I am driving down the very same strip of land on which Alexander the Great once set foot. The clean curb and new streetlights stripped of all greenery make me think of the Arabian Gulf. For a reason I cannot explain, I feel as though I am in Kuwait instead. James looks at me incredulously and I fall silent. Am I mere meters from where that great hero, that royal bully and raging legend, with his mop of unruly hair, first surveyed, conquered and mapped out this great city? I cannot believe that there, in front of my eyes, once stood the great lighthouse. That below my very feet was once the great library. It is all too much and I cannot connect past and present, much as I try. The plug won’t connect. There is no power on. No buzz. The beautiful architectural lineation of the new Alexandria Library, with its Norwegian wood and Scandinavian furniture, is a world away from what I am looking for; I am despairing. We sip tea at the Cecil Hotel, once-splendid colonial grandeur reduced to red velvet floor carpets, rattling elevators and Edwardian mirrored walls. Red gerberas on a windowsill. I sulk and steal a gummy bear.
I ask for more shisha nana and sit back as my head spins and the colors of the room all blur together in a rich brocade of Egyptian life. I think of Thomas De Quincey and his opium dreams and the cancerous kisses of crocodiles.
My “husband” takes me to some catacombs. We read the guidebook as we walk through winding streets, past piles of refuse and garbage and dirty children. Past shops and pharmacies and wagons piled high with fruits and vegetables. Old men smoking in doorways. A herd of sheep, small, with their tails uncut. The ubiquitous donkey (possibly the same one). The roads become unpaved—I lift the hem of my skirt as I skip over puddles and brown mud—until we reach the entrance of the archaeological site, wedged between residential buildings and iron railings. Other tourists are converging, annoyingly naïve and European in their bandanas, blond plaits and eager smiles. Large trusting faces coupled with rucksacks, shorts and mosquito bites. We do not want to be seen as part of them, embarrassed by association like teenagers at a museum. We breeze past them, old hands, and descend for what seems like forever: an endless spiral going down into the very bowels of the Earth, around and around a central well.
The deeper we go, the weaker the sunlight and the stronger the damp, earthy smell of underground: the smell of soil. Through dim and dark rooms we wander together. We sit in an atrium for the dead, there, deep below the surface of the Earth, and continue down narrow earthen tunnels ever deeper, into small shrines and past rows and rows of holes in the wall: a honeycomb of spaces for dead bodies. We are in a giant beehive, but the workers are all long gone. I separate from James and walk alone, trailing my hand along the cool, silky wall, tread on the wooden boards laid over ancient walkways, worn smooth by eons of tireless feet coming to pay their respects. I peek into empty sarcophagi and will myself into dark corners. I breathe deep of the air as if by doing so, I could breathe in the dusty souls of people lost.
We pull into Alexandria and the taxi driver offers to buy me from James. I am worth five Egyptian pounds and I have beautiful blonde hair.
I walk around a corner and squeeze through a crack to find myself alone in a cave spreading out before me, a giant necropolis before my eyes, and I all alone. I stop. The air is cold and still. Time is still. I feel the pause in the earth as she holds her breath. I walk steadily past a wall of niches, black, gaping, reaching up to the roof of the cavern, and imagine how many dead have been buried there: who were they all? Where are they now? Disturbed from slumber in a thousand museums or desecrated by grave robbers long before my time? At the end of the cavern is a large stone basin, a giant sarcophagus of grey rock. I peer in and nearly scream; gleaming in the half-light is a shinbone. Not a shinbone. A piece of stone. I stand, eyes squeezed shut. I lick my lips and slowly open my eyes and become aware that I can feel them. Behind me, above me, around me. Eyes staring at me from the darkness. Three thousand years of death breathe down on me. I imagine I am an Egyptian girl, standing alone in the torchlight so many millennia ago: would I have trembled? Would I have believed Anubis would appear out of the darkness to claim the soul of my beloved? Perhaps I would have stood there paralyzed as he walked silently, power in every step of those long, elegant limbs, and bent down over the body of the dead in front of me, took the heart and weighed it on a scale. Would he have turned his great black head and looked at me in the darkness with eyes like onyx? Impassive portals of endless dark universes reaching into infinity, right back to the beginning of the world, before the stars were born. What would it have felt to truly believe? I am in a world away from the world above and here I have found what I am looking for. I touch the edge of a stone basin and smile in the darkness. Click. Connect. Lights on.
Outside, on the surface, I feel as if days have passed. The light has dwindled in the late afternoon sun and we sit on the upturned ends of columns and eat the last gummy bears. They sparkle like gems in all the colors of the rainbow as I rustle into the bag, violent, bright and unnatural, a handful of transient modern treasures amongst the fallen marble remains of human past.
We spend the evening trying to find our way back to the Alexandrian train station, fighting with taxi drivers and sitting in another station café, identical to the very one we left that morning. I feel strangely as though we have come full circle. Eventually we find ourselves rattling back to Cairo, falling asleep to the rhythmical sound of the axles on the tracks, the harsh neon light of the cabin bringing out the garish blue pastel of the walls. I lean my head on the window and look out into the night, but cannot see anything. The window is not cool, and it rattles violently, rejecting the pressure of my forehead and throwing my head back. The passenger in front of me enjoys Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom on his laptop, not bothering with the fuss of earphones, instead allowing the entire compartment to share the joy of the film with him. Oh Indy, where were you today? I find the last gummy bear in my pocket as James discovers my iPod.
The beautiful architectural lineation of the new Alexandria Library, with its Norwegian wood and Scandinavian furniture, is a world away from what I am looking for; I am despairing.
When we reach Cairo we tumble out of the cabin with all the relief of being home and navigate our way back to the hotel through a five-way traffic jam in front of the station. I suggest we buy some Borio biscuits from a kiosk and James says no. Under the warm yellow lights of the Four Seasons hotel, the doorman greets us like old friends and the smooth marble and clean modernity of the hotel calls to us, dusty as we are from many adventures. I am happy to be in Cairo and accept her for what she is. I am covered in her, sparkling with infinitesimal grains of sand.
Another walk down to the waterfront.
I look into the dark silent mass of the Nile and let the night swallow me.
Anna Wallace-Thompson grew up predominantly in the UAE, but has also lived in Australia, Finland, Germany, Italy, Scotland and Singapore. She is currently working on a collection of short stories inspired by the Middle East, as well as her first novel. Her creative writing has been published here and there, including The Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual.
Lead photo: Sophia Valkova