Saturday 10 October 2020

Chapter 1 - Cairo, Saturday 18 February, 1990

Cairo, bloody Cairo.  God, I hate it.  This is not the Egypt I know and love - not Egypt at all, in fact.  A battle at the airport, as usual - taxi touts everywhere, almost rugby-tackling me to the ground.  Since there are only six of us this time on the tour - it was touch and go whether Higgs would cancel the whole thing because of the other couple dropping out - thank goodness his mark-up on these 'special' tours is a big one - and pity I don't see much of it in my paltry fee as guide.  This time I decided to take two taxis - but official ones - rather than hire a coach as I usually do.  At least Janet is useful for this, holding the old biddies' hands.  I end up with Stavros or whatever his name is, and the plain Jane.  The gods are with us: we seem to have all our luggage.

The ride from the airport past military installations, huge hotels, the statue of Ramses II.  Greetings, Ram.  Nearer Cairo the place seems to be all roads.  And the driving: London always looks bad enough, but this....  Nobody obeys traffic lights, everyone wheels everywhere, as if it's all some mad gleeful game.  Near the station, people join in, running amongst the cars, almost daring them to knock them down.  The station is new, gleaming in the floodlights.  We pass several metro stations, their big red M's jumping out from the Arabic spaghetti.  Apart from the inevitable Japanese trademarks, English is little in evidence.  

Safe at last, inside the good old Cosmopolitan Hotel.  I've had my run-ins with this lot, but it's got a great location at the heart of Cairo, ten minutes' walk from the Egyptian Museum and the Nile - and, more importantly, it has got some atmosphere.  

I remember the first time I walked in here.  With its gleaming white pseudo-classical architecture - all right, not exactly quintessentially Egyptian - filigree ironwork, its big pot-plants, creaking old lift and quaint-shaped rooms with their dark wardrobes and ancient French telephones, it felt like somewhere.  Unlike the Hiltons and Sheratons and whatever which all feel like Hiltonville and Sheratonville - i.e. Nowhereville, a kind of displaced eternal touristland.  When I travel somewhere, I like to feel I am there.  It's bad enough with planes: you get in this metal tube, sit there for three or four hours, then get out again, and you're supposed to feel as if you're in a different country, different world.  But your body has no sense of distance, of achievement.  It is as if you are still at home, but watching the world's best travelogue.

After giving everyone time for a wash and brush up, as they say, we go out to dinner.  One of the other advantages of the Cosmo is that it is very near to Felfela - still about the best restaurant in the place, good, cheap food, plenty of local colour.

As soon as you enter past whatever that oven thing is out front, the smell of incense hits you, along with the sight of the strangely woody interior, and the companionable hum of people.  All the senses pleasantly assaulted.  The polished tree trunk sections for tables, the terrapins in their tanks, the cats stalking everywhere like ancient Egyptian spirits come back to haunt their land.  A faint middle eastern musical whine in the background.  Teams of white wrapped waiters zoom around the place creating quite a draught, while managers in dinner jackets look on benignly.  The place is full to bursting with British as well as Frogs, Eyeties, Krauts and other euro-touros, the ubiquitous Japs, plus a few locals.  There are three sections, all long and narrow: the first has raised levels - and the terrapins plus baby crocodiles.  Next there's the bar, then a larger section.  On the ceiling interesting wicker work, plus variously ornate lamps.  Wood and stone everywhere.

The nice thing about this place is that in addition to its wonderful fuul, taamia and such-like, they also have boring stuff like steaks and hamburgers, so none of my charges need complain about having to eat all this foreign food.  More fool them - or should that be fuul? - if they don't.  Especially if they pass up the ambrosial delight of Felfela's famous Om Ali: pastry baked with nuts, raisins and milk.  One other reason why I like this place: it's so cheap, which means that I can pocket the difference from the allowance and still keep everyone happy.

After dinner, back to the hotel where everyone else decides to call it a day, Janet too.  So I go out to the Nile on my own - which, in all honesty, I rather prefer.  One of the problems of travelling with a group - never mind leading one - is that you cannot lose yourself so easily in your surroundings.  You always have this bubble - and babble - of people around you.  

The streets are full of people taking their evening stroll, admiring and being admired.  Amazing mix of people.  Some strikingly attractive women in western outfits, small, dark and shapely, with fine eyes.  But looking at the middle-aged women, it is clear that something horrible happens in-between: they seem to follow the Mediterranean model, turning fat and overblown in old age.  The men vary from blackest Nubians(?) to high-yaller types.  Unlike the women, or perhaps in some kind of cosmic compensation - that Egyptian love of Maat, or balance - the men seem to become attenuated, thinning out to nothing, as they get older, a kind of do-it-yourself mummification while you are still alive.

Tahrir Square bustling madly, lit up like Piccadilly Circus.  Then along to the Nile.  As ever, a lump comes to my throat when I see this river.  The Nile.  The Nile, the Nile.  Amazing.  How can we ever really grasp the reality of places that we visit, places like Egypt which are so rich, so freighted with incident, with our imagining of them, with the romances we build around them?  Do we ever really see these places as they are, or only through a haze of fantasy, hopes and desires?  I almost want to pinch myself, to make myself feel that I am really here, that I am standing by the Nile, the same Nile that carried a hundred pharaohs, that carried a million blocks of stone for the pyramids, along which so much history has passed.  But I cannot.  All I can see for the moment is a great river - the largest in the world flowing south to north did I read somewhere? -  slightly wider than the Thames in the centre of London, the great incongruous slabs of the hotels rearing up along its banks, with a few battered feluccas tied up nearby for tourists, the huge roaring bustle of dusty Cairo all around it and, not so far away, brooding on the horizon, the hidden but enduring majesty of the pyramids.  Ah!, soon.

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

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