:: 2017 SPRING TRAVEL WRITING CONTEST WINNER ::
Hibiscus juice, Friday clerics, amputees, persea trees, Aswan, feluccas, sempiternal asses, raki, the Libyan Desert, Quranic injunctions, François Mitterrand, sugarcane, passport control & the domain of the water god.
The Aswan Train
A 1977 Electro-Motive Division G22W train, with a front end like an Australian outback rig’s, came rumbling into the station. Foreigners, tourists or not, got directed into the last carriage, which had reclining seats, air-conditioning and a man in a threadbare suit selling hot water and tea bags.
I’d just left the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan. This was a renovated Victorian pile overlooking the Nile and Elephantine Island (site of the god Khnum and his wonders) with chocolate-colored superciliousness. So as not to interfere with the view, a power station and the local shanties had been relocated behind Elephantine and its neighbor. A picturesque camel train wound up the sand dunes on the far side of the river—I wondered if they were real for a moment—and feluccas plied the waters prettily below the terrace. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt had graced the hotel’s chandelier-heavy lobby. The Aga Khan had signed the guest book with an unreadable flourish. Agatha Christie had written Death on the Nile in an upstairs suite. (The movie of the book had been set here too, outside and on nearby Lake Nasser.) Churchill, who seems to have been to every upmarket hotel in the world, had perfumed the terrace with his cigars. François Mitterrand had goosed a waitress in the bar. Princess Diana had cuddled an urchin on its steps.
The only celebrities there when I sloped around the lobby were ancient Europeans in baggy shorts, American adventurers with hipster beards and designer backpacks, young Saudi honeymooners and a party of upper-crust weekenders from Cairo. The waiters slithered around on pointed Ali Baba slippers, delivering hibiscus juice and French pastries, while the management displayed the sort of meretricious patter normally found among estate agents and nurses in colonoscopy clinics. Outside, below the terrace, in the other world, boys dived for coins on the riverbed and beggars showed off their stumps. Overdecorated and self-regarding, the Old Cataract seemed to encapsulate Egypt’s (and the world’s, for that matter) current (and everlasting) situation: the filthy rich presiding, with god-like indifference, over the urban and rural poor.
Perhaps, I thought, as an elderly Chinese woman thrust her head in between my face and his in an attempt to look down his throat, he wanted to leap out and sprint off down the hall, howling in anguish.
I had a good view of the latter on the train, riding donkeys or squatting under the broken walls of half-built homes, staring at the train. We passed through crumbling villages and small flyblown stations, linked by green swathes of sugarcane and alfalfa and tall skinny date palms. We followed the river: barren rock on the right, fields of gold on the left. In the fields, lone farmers unblocked irrigation ditches or tied gigantic bundles of feathery green alfalfa to their donkeys. No sign of farm machinery — only trucks on busted axles laboring under towering sugarcane loads, and the donkeys, trotting in the shadow of the trees, ears flattened back along their skulls.
Rubbish was strewn alongside the track in some of the stations, women in black picking their way through. At Edfu, two men were plastering a new wall that was already falling apart at one end. Our guard nipped off to gather some fallen stalks of sugarcane from the platform, which he munched noisily over the next hour.
I felt I knew why Mohammed Morsi had become Egypt’s first elected president. The people in Upper Egypt were religious conservatives, harried by disease and poverty, listening to the threats and warnings of the Friday clerics in baffled silence. Only the Muslim Brotherhood had bothered to provide them with the realities of a better kind of life: clinics, schools, handouts. The revolution of 2011 had been urban-based and irrelevant, nothing more than a student-led elite’s dabble in Western liberalism.
The Sphinx, glimpsed between two peeling shop-fronts, suggested a junked sofa.
Donkeys standing between the shafts of carts, heads drooping, one leg lifted, mountains of garbage, clumpy mosques, cattle egrets, banana plantations, small domed shrines the size and color of peeled hard-boiled eggs, date palms, mile after mile of sugarcane and alfalfa strips—each a small-holding, each a narrow purchase on the ledge of survival—orange groves, persea and carob trees, then the mountains of garbage again, the sempiternal asses, the clumpy mosques, the egrets, the shrines like hard-boiled eggs. The rubble-strewn towns, with the women in black, covered from head to toe, the shishé smokers, staring vacantly from holes in breezeblock walls, the river itself, sluggish between its reed-strewn banks, a wind moving across the surface like a shudder. I saw herons and crakes and, once, as close to the glass as the track allowed, in the late-afternoon sun, on the branch of a carob tree, a whippoorwill cocking its large blunt head.
The train came to another station. I was not sure whether I had arrived. “Luxor?” I asked my neighbor. He assured me we had still twenty minutes of track to cover. His phone rang stridently, as it had for the last hour. Sometimes he would answer, sometimes not. “I have two wives,” he explained. “One in Luxor, one in Aswan. The one in Luxor is crazy jealous.” He smiled, spreading his hands. “What can you do?” I tried to look as if I was wondering that too. The phone shrieked again. “Difficult, juggling the two?” I was thinking of the Quranic injunction not to take another wife unless you could treat the first in exactly the same way as you treated the new one. “Yes.” He blew out his cheeks and sighed. “The one in Aswan is sweet, never makes a fuss, never complains. I go to see her every week.” He looked out of the window at the rolling yellow cliffs of sandstone. “I’d much prefer to be with her.”
He wore the jeans and T-shirt of the urban middle class, and so was a step up from his compatriots in gelabayas and turbans whose troubles were chiefly pecuniary. He spoke briefly into the phone, leaving it to ring again unanswered after he rang off. I wondered why he didn’t put it on silent—but perhaps the noise reminded him of the attractions of Aswan. At Luxor station, he showed me where to go and warned me not to pay more than 30EL to the taxi driver. He braced his shoulders as he moved away. He could have been marching into a stiff wind. The taxi touts came hurrying toward me with fixed staring eyes.
W hen I’d arrived, a week earlier, the road from the airport seemed to pass through mile after mile of unfinished umber-colored tower blocks. The walls had no cement cladding. Bare brick was left as it was, though sometimes I saw bright pastel paintwork, yellow, blue or green, in the balcony alcoves. The apartments had no glass in the windows. Instead, where they were occupied, they were hung with bedspreads. Most of Cairo’s suburbs seemed to follow the same pattern. Over seventeen million people lived in them. As my taxi passed from one umber-colored district to another, it had all begun to look organic, earthy, like a region of close-packed giant termite mounds.
I’d stayed the first two nights on the top floor of a purpose-built hotel in Giza. There was no lobby and no lift and the stairs had no rails, but it had a great view of the pyramids and the Sphinx. As it also overlooked the place where the horse-and-carriage drivers waited for the tour groups, the pungent smell of horseshit was overpowering—so over-overpowering, in fact—that, like a pathogen, it may have interfered with my vision or my sympathy. From the window, the pyramids looked as diminutive, cheap and kitsch as their souvenir reproductions, not quite the thuggish giants an earlier visitor, Jonathan Raban, had mentioned in his book Arabia Through the Looking-Glass. The Sphinx, glimpsed between two peeling shop-fronts, suggested a junked sofa.
François Mitterrand had goosed a waitress in the bar. Princess Diana had cuddled an urchin on its steps.
Islam, my guide for a day, took me up to the Great Pyramid of Khufu (aka Cheops), where I was surprised by the amount of local people enjoying themselves. Islam seemed to know most of them. A bit of a wide-boy, he chatted up the girls (“Ello, gels”) and tried to fleece me out of another few pounds for a look inside the pyramid (it was free with the ticket). You couldn’t climb the pyramids anymore, in the way that Anthony Trollope’s posh empire-insulated 1860s characters had done in his story “An Unprotected Female at the Pyramids,” so you just gazed up, stupidly.
Islam had a way of smoking a cigarette (index finger crooked over, teeth bared as he inhaled) which seemed designed to impress others rather than satisfy a craving. He claimed he was studying for a degree in tourism and hospitality at New Giza University. He said he didn’t like General Sisi and the current regime (“bleh”); he said he missed the days of Mubarak, and snapped his fingers in approval. When I said I didn’t want to go to a papyrus factory, he said he would take me anywhere I wanted; he even knew a place where he could get me some beer. He asked me why I didn’t take any photographs, and what I was writing in my notebook. I told him I wasn’t really all that interested in sightseeing; I preferred people-watching. A sly but well-meaning companion (much like me, from his point of view), he said he regarded me as a sage, well versed in the ways of the world, one who could impart useful advice. “Do you think I should get married?” he asked as we surveyed the edges of the Libyan Desert, on the far side of the pyramid. “Only if you stick to one wife.” He laughed and called out to a girl, offering her his telephone number. Strolling back from the Khufu’s resting place, he adopted a strange wiggle, singing over his shoulder “Walk Like an Egyptian,” the Bangles hit of the 1980s. I copied him for a few steps, to the amusement of onlookers.
The Egyptian Museum of Antiquities was bursting at the seams with Chinese tour groups. The two Royal Mummies rooms were particularly jam-packed. The queue inched past blackened desiccated corpses, some of which seemed to be screaming. When I got to Ramses the Great, I couldn’t see much because of the craning heads. When did I see him, he seemed to be on the point of pulling himself upright. Perhaps, I thought, as an elderly Chinese woman thrust her head in between my face and his in an attempt to look down his throat, he wanted to leap out and sprint off down the hall, howling in anguish. You could tell that the elderly woman was frustrated by the glass partitions. She kept trying to prise the top off. She clearly wanted to give the corpse a good going over, a good prodding. A girl on the far side had so arranged her selfie stick that Ramses’ tormented face was in close alignment with her own inanely grinning one and peace-signing fingers. Little did you know, oh king of kings, the indignities we would subject you to, two millennia after your death. At least the grave robbers, not noted for their piety, had left you in peace.
I watched an invalid being yanked out of his wheelchair and patted down while flopped over another man’s shoulder. Coins sprayed over the floors. People squeezed up against one other, and someone appeared to expire.
Outside, the Nile-Hilton, once an American respite from the disturbingly alien, had become the Ritz-Carlton, now a global respite from the disturbingly familiar. It was just up the road from Tahrir Square, which looked nothing like its boisterous, hand-holding, chanting 2011 TV version. With its neat central reservation and ornamental flowerbeds, it looked gentrified, neutered, defanged and declawed. I couldn’t even find the circular walkway Raban had mentioned as existing when he was there. He’d got caught up in a morose circumambulating crowd, harassed by hustlers and unable to exit. That had struck me as a useful metaphor for my own peregrinations across the globe. Tahrir Square was now an anonymous-looking intersection. It was just a place for exits.
On the way back with Islam, on the other side of the river, I took a tall glass cylinder, glittering above its shabby neighbors like a massive crystalline lamp, for another new hotel, possibly modeled on the Burj al-Arab in Dubai. No, Islam corrected me, this was the Saudi Embassy. He looked at it sourly. It had cost over eight million pounds to build. The Saudis, like other Gulf Arabs, were a conventional pet-hate of other Arabs—for what was perceived as their undeserved wealth and hypocritical piety, wearing their rectitude like a badge of office. The building certainly didn’t seem restrained or modest. I thought of Mustapha in Luxor pleading for an extra 50 pounds. We drove on, in silence.
Raban had met Jan Morris while he was in Cairo. He’d also met several unnamed Egyptian intellectuals and writers, and discussed Jean Anouilh with a playwright in the Café Riche. Like Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin and other Western travel writers, he seemed to have met up with a lot of literary figures on his travels. I often wondered how it was that these writers kept bumping into such personages in such out-of-the-way places. I mean, how come they just happened to appear like that, from round the corner of a pyramid, it seemed, or springing out of an acacia thicket? There didn’t seem to be many literary figures when I was mooching round the Café Riche. Literary figures were thin on the ground when I was glaring out of my train windows.
The waiters slithered around on pointed Ali Baba slippers, delivering hibiscus juice and French pastries, while the management displayed the sort of meretricious patter normally found among estate agents and nurses in colonoscopy clinics.
Well, if I couldn’t meet a live one myself, I could at least follow in the footsteps of the ones who’d been and gone—a sort of long-distance trolling or stalking by hindsight. So, a week later, on my return to Cairo from Luxor, I spent my last night drinking the local raki and Sakara beer (“The best!” the barman claimed repeatedly whenever he saw me putting away my billfold) in The Windsor Hotel, in homage to Lawrence Osborne’s drunken sojourn upstairs, as recorded in The Wet and the Dry. Osborne seemed to share my passion for trolling. The Windsor was once the haunt of British army officers, and Osborne had stayed there because it was the place where T. E. Lawrence, “scandalously dressed as a Bedouin,” had brought his Arab boyfriend after crossing Sinai in 1917. Lawrence had wanted to inform General Allenby personally of the surrender of the Turkish garrison at Aqaba. This romance owes more to the movie than the actual event, so Osborne’s reasons were probably more oblique. I suspected that, like me and other products of the post-colonial world, he was captivated by the seductions of the past, relishing their hold even as he sought to throw them off. His depiction of the bar’s characters made me smile: “One of them comes over…‘British?’ he says, shaking my hand for some reason. The eyes are quite beautifully mad behind the tinted ovals of glass and he leans towards me as Egyptian men sometimes do, suddenly a little too over-intimate but nevertheless unconcerned by one’s stiff-necked reactions. He whispers heavily in my ear: ‘Tally ho!’”
As a rule, I liked airports—the long concourses, the checkpoints, the trolley parks, the duty-free shops, the cafés and bars, the departure lounges and their boards, all in-between zones, places of transition and becoming—but Cairo International Airport was too horrible to suggest anything so poetic. It was hard to get to, for one thing, harder to get into, for another, and even harder to get out of. The business of undressing, of removing footwear, belts, watches and all other metallic objects, was overelaborate and over-punctual at the same time. I watched an invalid being yanked out of his wheelchair and patted down while flopped over another man’s shoulder. Coins sprayed over the floors. People squeezed up against one other, and someone appeared to expire. Police hauled a yelling bearded man out of his queue. A fat man barged his way to the head of his, claiming his flight was about to depart. (Later, I saw him snoring on a row of seats in the departure lounge.) Once through passport control, there were lines of dour unsmiling men, mostly Upper Egyptians, occupying the seats, looking at their tickets with horrified satisfaction.
They were bound for the Arabian Gulf, to labor in the sun, to dig ditches or lower slabs of concrete from cranes or lay cable or carry king-sized beds in and out of king-sized mansions or unload container ships or keep guard in residential blocks or salute people outside educational institutions and banks. This was not transition or becoming, anyone could see that; this was a kind of interment, an open-air immurement designed to petrify and preserve, a modern version of mummification. Chinese tour groups made their way to their departure lounge, selfie sticks waving, laughing, bawling at one another, indifferent to our glum uncertain faces. Their plane—bound for Timbuktu or Easter Island—took off long before ours. I sat with my Egyptian comrades, looking through the glass, watching it rise through the dry dusty blue sky.
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: Thomas Gantz