Monday 7 September 2020

Chapter 12 - Alexandria, Wednesday 1 March, 1990

I sit now in the 7.50 am train for Cairo.  I feel, well, odd.  Although I am still strangely distanced from things - I find it hard to remember, to make myself know that I am in Alexandria, Egypt, here - I also have this sense of expectation.  Perhaps this is because I shall do something I have not done for ages: visit somewhere new in Egypt - Suez, to be more precise.

Such an evocative word for an Englishman, 'Suez'.  It seems to have a kind of dying fall to it, of things ending.  I don't really know what to expect.  Apparently the city was more or less destroyed during one of the periodic Egypt-Israel wars - those continuing skirmishes between desert tribes which have probably been going on for 10,000 years.

I have this image in my mind's eye of great ships appearing to sail through the desert, but perhaps this is some childhood vision I cling to.  I must say that I found it interesting doing the research for the stuff above, which is of necessity book knowledge rather than knowledge on the spot.  - Which is what I hope to pick up today.  But it's going to be a bit of a rush.  We should get in about 10.30 or 11, have a spot of early lunch, and then grab a taxi out to Suez, which will take around three hours.

What have I done to deserve this?  We get to the Cosmopolitan, I walk up to the desk to get our keys - and they say they have no reservations.  What?!  I knew that something like this would happen one day.  I shout and bluster and generally give them a hard time, but in my heart of hearts I know that there is nothing to be done.  They have obviously booked in some more lucrative group, and we have got the heave-ho.

So, my blood pressure rising by the minute - how are we going to get to Suez with all this? - we jump in some taxis and start playing hotel tag round Cairo.  Eventually we find one that has some rooms - the Semiramis - a swanky establishment, but at an ultra-swanky price: $130, compared to the Cosmo's $30.  God help us, what am I doing to do about the difference?  What will Higgs say when I get back?  Supposing he won't reimburse me?  I'll lose a fortune.  It's not my fault, after all.  It's such a mess, I feel really depressed. 

And now, after all that, as if that weren't enough, would you believe it?  I make all these carefully-planned arrangements, and what happens?  Nobody bloody wants to come to Suez.  The bloody Smiths simply refuse - 'for personal reasons' they said - what the hell is that meant to mean?  And then the Greek also said he'd rather not go.  The Smiths asked whether we could go to the Wadi Natrun - I said no, that there was nothing to see there, just a church in the middle of the desert.  Not that I've been there, but judging by the guide-books.  And then what happens: - Janet, my Janet, who is supposed to be on my side, offers to go out there with them.  And then the Greek and Miss Blue Stocking pipe up that they want to go too.  What is this, rebellion?  So, sod them, I say, I'm going to Suez, and they can bloody do what they like.  And I thought that this was going to be a good day.

So, I have decided to leave the others to their lunch in the hotel café, and go straight to Suez - otherwise I'll have no time to look around.

Agreed E£90 for the trip.  A tape playing in the taxi as usual - can't they live without music these Egyptians?  I ask what it is - the Koran being sung, achingly, in pain almost.  The smell of petrol as we drive through the outskirts of Cairo.  Endless suburbs, blocks of flats, lorries everywhere.  Dust. Lots of army camps here.  And now, to cap it all, we have picked up some Egyptian squaddie - the driver did not ask, or rather said 'OK?' in that tone which means 'you are not going to argue, are you?'  I am annoyed at this intrusion - and annoyed that I am annoyed.  Eventually we drop him off.

Near Suez, fine mountains to the south, great barren folds of brown.  Hazy now, clouds coming in from east.  Closer, oil refineries, their flames like great Bunsen burners.  Into Suez, which looks very ramshackle, as if thrown together.

I sit now on the corniche - what passes for one - which fronts on to what looks like a huge flattened rubbish tip.  Nice hazy view to the south, and of nearby Port Tawfiq.  Disconcertingly, there are three tanks next to me - three captured Israeli tanks, bent and burnt, just sitting on the promenade as if nothing could be more normal.  Everything very spaced out here.

Checking out the hotels and restaurants for the book - though I can't imagine anyone wanting to stay here.  White House Hotel, E£30 for a single, E£36 double, breakfast included.  Restaurant looks OK.  Several other restaurants nearby - Champs Elysees, Saint James.  Seafood a speciality.  A sign over an engineering office: 'for erection and general contraction.'

With the taxi again, to the end of Port Tawfiq.  More tanks around, a strange torpor hanging over even the port.  I sit right at the end, near an Egyptian family taking photos of themselves - the only other tourists here - and I watch ships emerge distantly from the canal.  I am rather disappointed that they are so far away, hazy forms.  I feel very tired.  This place is just dead.

The journey from Cairo through the desert reminded me of my other great trek out through the desert, my own version of Alexander's trip to Siwa - and about as pointless.  It was when I was at Assyut.  I decided to visit Kharga, one of the Western oases which sit a few hundred miles west of the Nile in the middle of the Libyan desert.  Partly I wanted to get a feel for the desert - the flights to Abu Simbel give you some idea of the scale, but you are too distanced, too isolated up there in your tin tube.  I wanted to experience the desert close up.

I certainly did that.  Even with another crazy taxi driver hurtling along at 60 or 70 miles per hour, the desert was simply so vast that it engulfed us.  The greenery near the Nile at Assyut had died out suddenly, leaving nothing but sand.  The road was hypnotically straight, with telephone lines alongside adding to the mesmeric effect.  In the middle of nowhere, an army encampment, out training in the blistering heat.  I remember that there were curious yellow lines on the road: no waiting??

The occasional ridge, but basically flat, flat, flat.  I began to understand how the deserts had given rise to three monotheistic religions -  the Aten of the Hymn to the Sun, the God of the Old Testament, and the Koran's Allah - religions without the busy paraphernalia of minor gods and goddesses, religions based on man's unutterable loneliness in the desert - unutterable except as a prayer.  Here it would be easy to imagine that you heard the voice of God talking to you - born of a desperate need for an answer amidst this huge nothing.  And as I crossed that nothing, the sand now a deep ruddy colour, I too felt something of that desperation.

After an hour and a half, about halfway, there was a rest house, a welcome blip of civilisation.  A few lorries and cars huddled there, people drinking tea, glad to have stopped, glad to have seen other humans.  Amazing to think that this route out to the Kharga oasis was part of a 40-day camel route down to Sudan: what a journey that must have been.

After the halfway point, the landscape showed a little more variety, though remained totally barren.  There were rocks - carved by the wind and the sand into strange egg-shapes - ridges and hills.  And odd single  dwellings, miles from anywhere, obviously without water or electricity or anything.  Why live here? I wondered.

Then finally we passed over a hill and were confronted with a huge depression, many miles across and even more long.  This was where the oasis was, and indeed, in the far distance there seemed to be a dark clump of greenery.  Huge pylons appeared from the south - from Aswan? -  marching across the landscape, a welcome vertical in this sheer horizontality.  The road went on and on, but now there were odd tufts of grass, the odd bush, then suddenly a blaze of trees: Kharga.

However, getting in proved a little tricky.  Unbelievably, there was one of the many police checkpoints just outside the town - I had often come across them as I had travelled with taxis through Egypt.  Usually the driver just waved some permit at the officer, but this was different: they wanted to see my passport.  My passport?  Inside Egypt?  Of course I didn't have it with me, and so had visions of driving all the way back without reaching my goal - the tourist's nightmare.  The policeman went away and the head of the local security came out to size me up.  We talked for a while, and eventually he obviously decided that I was not a spy, and waved me through.

I had a meal at the Kharga Hotel - the only person there in its school refectory-type dining room.  Why a hotel here?  Who on earth would want to stay?  This place was such a mystery.  Then after a quick look round the town - nothing to see - on to the two main attractions of the place - apart from its situation.  One was a temple of Amun, unusual because it was built by the Persians.  It had been restored with wonderful stippled stone, looking like petrified ice cream.  Then I went to the great Coptic cemetery at nearby Al Baqawat.

This was splendidly situated on a low hill, and presented a vision of a complete city of mud-built tombs, mostly round-topped beehives in design, some two or three hundred of them dating from the second to the seventh century AD.  Apart from the novelty of their survival, the main interest there was the early Christian wall paintings - strange, crude images of familiar scenes - Adam and Eve, Moses, Noah and the rest.  Also strange was seeing the ancient Egyptian ankh symbol - a loop on top of a cross - alongside ordinary crosses - thousands of them.

I remember one of the small chapels - miniature cathedrals in mud - which had a hole in the roof, a great slab of pure blue.  There were also some well-preserved mummies there - Christian mummies.  The 'guide' insisted on dragging me down to see them, which meant crawling along on all fours into some dusty crypt, to find myself confronted with a grinning man - his black hair pretty much intact - a woman, another man and a child.  The guide prodded them roughly.  There were mummy wrappings all over the place, inside and outside in the sand like ancient litter.  I was struck by the oddness of this: travelling out through the desert for three hours to end up on my knees looking at dried dead bodies.

When I came out I found my driver happily ensconced with some other guard in his tin hut drinking tea.  They offered me some, but I was keen to get back; it was getting late, and the thrumming of the car had made the blood pound in my head.

Back in the desert the sinking sun cast huge shadows among the ribbed and ridged sand.  Fantastic view of the escarpment we had come down, caught now by the sun's rays.  Long, long journey back through the falling dusk, tired but happy.

And now I am increasingly tired but unhappy.  This is not the Suez I had imagined, a mighty port with equally mighty ships passing through it.  Instead it is a dusty and fly-blown town with barely a ship to be seen.  What I want to do is to get nearer to the main canal in order to experience that juxtaposition of ship and sand.  So, back to the taxi to persuade my driver to drive east of here to get to the canal.

Which he does not understand at all.  We turn down a small road, and start heading along an unpromising road.  But this is not the way.  I tell him to stop, tell him that I want to be next to the canal, that it is possible, that there is a small road leading to a tunnel under the canal.  Finally he understands, says no - 'too far'.  I realise now that we should have taken a turning to the left on the way in.  But once again, my lack of Arabic lets me down.  I must stop, think.

Which I did, certainly, and how....  But I sit now back in our extremely expensive hotel room, looking out over the Nile as the sun begins to sink.  Janet and the others not back yet.  A great red globe of a sun in front of me, pinks, purples, greys, pearls everywhere, a few light clouds, the sky shading away to the blue, bled into by pink.

All very beautiful, but I am not in the mood for such beauty now.  Now, I feel very alone sitting here.  I wish Janet were back.  Something - I don't know what exactly - has happened to me, out at Suez.  It feels as if something has died within me.  That encounter with the taxi driver, my failure to communicate, my increasing rage at his stupidity - and then my sudden realisation that it was not his stupidity, but mine.

It is very strange this business about foreign languages.  I remember my honeymoon with Janet - a disaster.  We could not afford anything grand, so went to Paris for a long weekend.  The weather terrible, and the crossing much delayed, so we got into Paris around midnight, hours after our original plan.  When we arrived at the hotel there was only the night clerk there.  I spoke to him in my French, and he barely understood a word.  His face contorted as he tried to gather what I was saying about our reservation and being delayed.  And it was like that for the rest of the honeymoon, which was pretty awful really.  I tried to speak French all the time, and instead of being met with gratitude that I was making an effort, was met with contempt that I spoke so badly.  I resolved never to bother speaking the local language again - it just placed you in the weaker position.

And so it is in Egypt - nominally, at least.  The waiters, the taxi-drivers who speak a little English are treated by us - by me - as fools, barely able to talk at all, children almost.  But in fact these are ordinary people struggling to speak our language - in addition to theirs.  We should feel impressed that they speak it so well, especially considering their lack of education.  But no, we - I - get impatient, wonder why they are so stupid.  And so it was at Suez.  I was playing the typical imperialist - expecting Johnny Native to pick up the lingo - because I certainly wasn't going to.

The link with empire is interesting.  In many ways the empire is defined as those lands which a country rules who do not speak your language, or at least who do not speak it as you do.  We conquer those who speak differently from us, perhaps because we fear the difference that calls into question our own particularity.  We wish to conquer, to make them like us, to convince ourselves that we are right.  We use the differences which exist to justify our treatment of them as inferior: 'damn natives can't even speak the Queen's English.' 

And of course the tourist is the modern-day equivalent of this, going to foreign lands not really to experience them in all their difference, but to observe them, find them wanting, implicitly to mock, to come back feeling smugly superior: 'North, South, East, West, home's best.'  Travel does not broaden the mind, it provides grounds for its narrowing.

Perhaps, then, I have not really been to Egypt.  Instead, I have visited only a romantic construct for tourists, safe and grand and totally unreal.  My deafness, dumbness and - especially - my blindness to Arabic means that I walk through the land as if its people were not there, as if all the Arabic script were just so many meaningless graffiti.  I am like a ghost wandering the land, unable to make contact.

If I want to understand this country, and to write about it, if I want to produce a guide book that is no mere tourist's tale, I must clearly learn the language.  I must speak with the people, understand them, read their signs.  Otherwise the Egypt I know is as dead as the mummies which I saw in the Coptic cemetery.

I thought about all these things on the way back from Suez.  Along the way the landscape was as austere as ever, but with a deep, natural beauty.  What had been a whining voice on the tape now became a siren call to me to learn what it said, to understand its message, to respect its religious heart.

Even the tobacco smoke which permeated the taxi - which permeated every taxi I had ever been in Egypt - gradually acquired a different aroma.  It became the smell of Egyptian travel, redolent of a thousand adventures, a thousands experiences, a thousand possibilities.

And then, something extraordinary happened.  Unbidden, a poem I had written when I was about ten came to my mind: 

Smoking is bad,/For a dad,/It can cause lung infection./Although it has not much detection.

A poor, weak runt of a poem.  It kept repeating inside my head as if on a tape loop, like a mantra, like a crazy, desperate prayer.  I had forgotten it for twenty years, but now it circled and circled in my head like a blindfolded donkey circling a well.

I had forced myself to forget that poem.  I had written it at school, for I don't know what reason.  I wrote many poems then, perhaps a sign of my early love of words, of putting them together.  I had even written my own epic about Troy, which seems an amazing act of cheek.  All of these are mercifully lost.  Except that one small broken-backed poem.  And I knew why this had stayed with me.

Shortly after I wrote it, my father died - from lung cancer.  I was shattered.  Not just by the loss - which was incomprehensible - but by the apparent power of the poem.  To that frightened ten year old, it seemed that the words had been prophetic, possibly even the cause of my father's death.  I felt as ancient societies must have felt about that magic which words seem to capture, the power of naming, the ability to catch the world and to hold life before it flees into the past.

I have never written another poem.  I was terrified that they would kill as that small insignificant poem had killed.  Especially when my mother died shortly after my father's death, again from cancer, that most treacherous, most perfidious of diseases.  Although it was not logical, I felt as if the deadly power of my poem had seeped out and was killing everything dear to me.

And so since that time I have murdered the poems that have started writing themselves in my head, as one drowns new-born puppies, innocent, defenceless, doomed.  However much I have wanted to put words together in this way - to Janet, for example, who would so have loved them from me, I am sure - I just could not.  Instead, I turned to prose, a variety of writing that seems safer, less charged.  And because of those pent-up, denied poems, I have always felt the pressure to write prose all the more, as I do now, desperately trying to write it out of myself, to run away from those words which destroyed my world.

And so with that poem going through my head in the taxi, I started to wonder about the driver.  Perhaps his parents died when he was young; perhaps he had suffered in countless other ways.  Was he married, with a family?  I began to weave histories for him, how he had come from Upper Egypt as an orphan, living rough on the streets.  How he had worked from dawn to dusk to save money to open a stall, how he had learnt to drive, driven taxis for friends, and finally bought this clapped out old Peugeot 504, his pride and joy.  And all he got was abuse from arrogant, insensitive tourists like me, so rich that they can hire a taxi for one person for E£90 - a good week's wages elsewhere, perhaps.  I thought about asking him to have a cup of tea with me at the hotel, trying to get to know him - Egypt - to make up for my rudeness.  But I knew it was impossible, the gulf between us was too great.  It would only have embarrassed him - and the hotel would never have allowed it.

Perhaps these feelings have been welling up inside me over the last few days, and only now, triggered by that small but telling crisis in Suez, have finally burst the dam holding them back.  Perhaps this is why I have been sinking deeper and deeper into depression.  In Alexandria especially, that city of empire, of dominion, of the ultimate war-mongering tourism.  Every conquering nation - Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, French, British - had taken it, subjugated it.  It stands as a constant reproach to all of us who come to gawp at its few glories.

It was us or our forefathers who took most of them away, just as we have despoiled the rest of Egypt - look in the British Museum for all the booty of empire, at the Rosetta stone and the rest - of its past, of its self-respect.  It is extraordinary - and sad - that it took until 1956 until Egypt finally won back fully that past and self-respect.  And we who had taken it - and tried to hold on to it through the folly of the Suez invasion - were diminished in doing so, just as I was in my egotistical use and bullying abuse of an uncomprehending taxi-driver.

Now the sun has gone, having passing down between two skyscraper hotels on the opposite bank, swathed in grey clouds like an embalmed Osiris, the Nile a sheet of light-blue steel.  The scene turns into a Christmas tree of orange lights.

But I must stop.  Janet has come back, and looks tired but happy after her day.  I feel that I have lost something, some protective illusion that I have carried around with me.  At moments like this I feel grateful that Janet is here.  I must ask her how her day went.  I feel sure now that things will be different when we get back to England.  I realise now that I will not be able to write my book yet, that I have more work to do.  That being the case, perhaps we might even think about starting a family.

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

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