Saturday 5 September 2020

Chapter 13 - Cairo, Thursday 2 March, 1990

I sit now eating breakfast in our highly expensive room, staring out at the Nile.  And yet I feel like saying 'Where am I?  What has happened?'  Janet has already gone, which is strange, to 'look around the town' - I can't imagine at what; she left a note - said she didn't want to disturb me.  I feel abandoned.

Everything is breaking up.  Ms Blue Guide is leaving today on her own - has to get back for work or something.  I offered to see her to the airport - probably with a rather ill-grace - but mercifully she refused, said she 'could manage.'  The others, I don't know, pottering around the pool probably.  And at the rate I'm going, I could well end up joining them.

I don't know what's got into me - or rather, out of me.  I remember when I first came to Egypt I had such energy.  I used to charge around from sight to sight, from town to town, eating up experiences, inexhaustible.  But it's as if something broke yesterday, as if I had lost something in Suez.  Perhaps this whole trip has been jinxed.  Ever since that other couple dropped out, causing no end of problems in terms of re-arranging things with the hotels, ever since I decided to ask Janet along.

Not that I'm blaming her.  In a way, she seems to have enjoyed Egypt more and more as I have less and less.  I suppose I should be glad.  At least we'll have something to talk about when we get back, something that we've done together.  It's just that things have felt wrong, out of place.  It all comes down to that great Egyptian quality of 'maat', balance.  Things have not gone their accustomed smooth way this time, and that has disturbed me.

I am conscious of the fact that I like things to be in their place, for everything to happen as I plan it.  I was like this as a child, too, carefully ordering the books in my desk at school, arranging my room exactly as I wanted it.  I used to fly into such terrible rages when Auntie came in and 'tidied' things up.  It felt like an invasion, and destruction of my world.  Perhaps this just says I'm a creature of habit.  And yet I like new experiences too - travelling, for instance.  It's just that I like a bit of order.

Something terrible has happened.  As I was writing the words above, I suddenly became aware of them falling out of the end of my pen - like a series of disgusting snakes dropping on to the page.  Once you become self-conscious in this way, you are struck by the sheer ridiculousness of writing.  Your gaze becomes fixed on the point of the pen where it touches the paper; you see only the trail of ink leading up to it, you cannot imagine its future path, somehow contained within the pen.  Perhaps it goes back to my childhood.  I remember seeing my father writing - I must have been four or five - and asking whether I could have a pen too - one exactly like his, with lots of words in it.  Now it feels as if the pen has a mind of its own, as if the words are escaping as I hold the pen, which moves of its own accord, dragging my terrified, subservient hand with it.

And this sense, in its turn, has made me aware of something else: how ridiculous this whole travel journal business is.  Who exactly am I talking to?  Who is this 'I' I keep on using?

When I started this journal, I could fairly legitimately claim that it was just a convenient way of jotting down experiences for my book, and therefore it was a kind of a transcription of that eternal internal monologue we keep up.  But I see now that it has become much more than that, it has assumed a life of its own, almost like a character in a novel is supposed to.  I have started a strange kind of reflexive conversation with myself, in an attempt to understand what is happening to me.  Is this a sign of madness, this talking to yourself without being aware of it?  I've never really considered madness as an option, just as I never really think of my death as real; madness, death, these are things which happen to other people.

To tell the truth, there is another reason for my writings, for this dramatisation - novelisation - of my life as I live it.  These are my photographs - but instead of 'light-writing', these are whatever the Greek word for dark is -o-graphs, written with black ink instead of coloured light.  I've always rather despised tourists who try to capture their experiences with photographs in a little black box.  But thinking about it, I must confess that my impulse to words in these journals is the same: an attempt to capture the amazing, wonderful and fugitive experiences as I travel.

I can still feel the excitement that shot through me the first time I saw Egypt and its marvels.  I knew that I would never be this impressed or happy again.  And part of the thrill that I experienced was bound up with the melancholy sense of how impossible it would be to hold this moment, to grasp it and hold it forever.  In a sense, this is the paradox of tourism: the more amazing the things you see, the more deeply you are moved and grateful for being moved, and the sadder the inevitable loss of that sense when you leave.  True, you have your memories, but in a sense, these are unprovable, and clearly very fragile.  In part I think this explains why people like to travel with others: other people act as guarantors of shared experiences, custodians even.  How often have we heard tourists say to each other: 'and do you remember that amazing day when we...?'?  Perhaps this is part of the glue which keeps couples together: their shared repertoire of great experiences, their need for the other to be there to echo the memories.

So my craving to capture what I have seen may be bound up with the fact that I have only travelled alone - or rather only with people I will never see again, and so who cannot act as witnesses.  At least until this time.  Now, Janet has shared these things with me.  Has that changed my relationship with my writing?  Perhaps I can use this fact to bring us closer together.  I am conscious - particularly after yesterday, for some reason - that Janet and I have become rather distant, two people who happen to be walking along the same path, rather than walking together.  This overwhelming tiredness I feel, this - dare I say it? - almost indifference to the Egypt which lies around me - perhaps this is signal that things must change, that I must change.  In particular how I treat Janet must change.

After yesterday she has become precious to me again, something I had rather lost recently.  Actually, perhaps she has never been 'precious' to me in this sense, if I am being honest.  When I first knew her, I was attracted to her bright eyes, her friendly smile, and to - what, exactly?  Thinking back, it is obvious that what really attracted me to her was the fact that she was clearly attracted to me.  So what is this, vanity?  No, surely not just that, I hope?  Or was it?  Was it that I needed someone to look up to me, to be impressed by me, to believe in me?  Did that need cloud my vision, stop me from seeing what I was doing?  God, what have I been doing these years?  Perhaps I have not really seen her properly until now, not really been aware of her existence as a separate person, rather than as an adjunct, 'my wife'.  Perhaps, then, I should be grateful for what has happened now, for this sense I have of her - truly - as being precious, important to me.

But how then does this relate to Egypt, to what I am doing here, to what happened to me? - because I am sure it does, somehow.  Perhaps, as with Janet, I have not really seen Egypt, only my romantic, touristic version of it.  Perhaps I should try to get to know the real Egypt, just as I see that I must get to know the real Janet.  All this obsession with the past, these dead empires - that will have to go.  Poor old Ramses, perhaps you really are just a trunkless head in the desert, staring out at the sands, having wasted your life - and thousands of others - in your pointless campaigns.  What I must do is to try to make contact with Egypt - and yes, that is what happened at Suez yesterday, I began to see things as they really are, and the shock was terrifying.

There is another implication of all this, another rather frightening one for me.  I have just been flicking through my guide books, and I've realised something that again I've refused to acknowledge so far: they really are rather good.  The Blue Guide is actually quite staggering in the amount and depth of information it gives; the Lonely Planet Guide tells you everything you need to know on a practical basis, and von Haag - the bitterest pill to swallow, because I see now that in a sense he has already written the book I wanted to write, a book which captures through his personal experiences that romance of Egypt.  This is a devastating discovery for me: what am I to do, not just with all the notes I have made for 'Egyptian Romance', but even more importantly, what am I to do about all the plans I had predicated on my book and on its hoped-for success?

Again, I think that Suez is the key.  I was very conscious there of Britain's pointless intervention, of the final guttering of its imperial ambitions.  I feel certain now that there is a book in this, a book about empire, and about the failure of empire.  I'm not exactly sure how it will work, but the more I think about it, the more sure I am that there is a book there, and that my experiences on this trip feed into it.

One tack might be to look at the history of Egypt as the story of a series of overlapping and clashing empires - from Ramses' own, through the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, French and British.  Another approach would be to look at the old British colonies - including Egypt - and how they have evolved since independence, how they achieved it, and to what extent they still wear the scars of empire.  The ends of empire - yes, 'Empire's End', that's what I'll call it - lots of resonances there.  As ever, this is the best bit of writing a book: thinking about it, planning it, seeing it grow, finding a name for it.  Doing it is not nearly so much fun.

And Egypt?  How can I see it, understand, approach it on its own terms rather than as a mere tourist?  I think the secret lies in language - as I said above, I must learn the language.  But not Ancient Egyptian, however tempting that would be.  I would love to read the hieroglyphs on the monuments, to say the words as they were said five thousand years ago - but what's the point?  Nobody speaks the language - well, apart from the Copts, and they don't really count.  No, it is clear to me that I must learn Arabic, so that I can hear and speak and see Egypt as it truly is.

I suddenly feel energised again.  I feel as if I had been resurrected, had crossed to the West Bank of the Nile, and been re-born.  I am positively excited by what lies before me - learning Arabic, really seeing Egypt, writing my new book, getting to know Janet, sharing my life with her.  I can't wait until she gets back.

But she may be a while.  What shall I do now?  I must try to sustain this new momentum I sense.  Ever one for neatness, I think I shall make a final sortie out to the Egyptian Museum, to say a long slow goodbye to that world, to Narmer's world, or rather to my old way of seeing it, a goodbye but also a hello.  Only this time, no guide books, no narcissistic travel journal, just me and the things themselves.  

So, signing off, here I go, entering a new kingdom.  Who knows what lies ahead?  I certainly don't, but I do know that things will, at least, be different.  Goodbye book, it's been nice knowing you....

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

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