Cairo’s Small Courtesies

By Iain Manley Jun 6, 2007

man-in-galabiyya-selling-cucumbers Ports are transitional: the places where countries merge, before coexisting on boats. Men had staggered clumsily through the pitching Ulysses, which took us from Rosslare to Cherbourg. They drank Guinness in the cabaret bar, and watched wide smiling dancers perform can cans or off balance jigs. On the less bumpy journey from Brindisi to Patras, men in fitted suits fingered worry beads, and the ship’s menu offered espressos and my first muddy Greek coffee.

At Aqaba, where we were to board a ferry for Nuweiba, two lazy lines and the Red Sea met: Claire and I could see four countries. To our south was Saudi Arabia. Egypt was visible across the water, pulling us west, away from Shanghai; next to it was Israel. And we were in Jordan, where shouting men moved household furniture and awkward, heavy sacks from the roof of a bus to the trailers behind a haggard tractor. The tractor belched greasy black smoke; it would later drag these trailers to the ferry’s hull, where they would be stacked behind trucks and a few out of place private cars.

We crossed. The ferry had no deck: all passengers were requested to remain seated for the hour-long crossing, and craned their necks to look from aeroplane seats through aeroplane windows. Two brothers, Mike and Dave, middle aged and from America, were sitting in front of us, twisting round to talk. Mike had travelled: he could speak Russian, mentioned an interest in Chinese characters and would, like us, soon leave the Middle East for India – where he, unlike us, had been a few times before. I had read too much, too detailed travel writing, and asked if India’s food or drink had made him sick. “No, other than a little bit of, you-know, tourista,” he replied, and rubbed his balding head. “I try not to eat meat in vegetarian countries.” Dave, the older brother, had a thick grey beard; often it was the only part of his face visible beneath a wide brimmed cricketer’s hat. Dave hadn’t travelled: he spoke about his family, which included children our age.

I sensed Africa immediately at Nuweiba, in the flies, dirt and pandemonium, in the smell of the air and the stunted acacias – perhaps because I was expecting to. Egypt was a detour, added onto our itinerary because our Gulf Air flight from Amman to Mumbai could be easily extended. It was also the closest to home that this trip would take us.

Claire and I, and Mike and Dave, moved ourselves quickly from ferry to port building to the bus station outside. The shouting men were just behind us, forcing their awkward sacks through metal detectors and narrow x-ray machines. We were asked for our passports twice, inefficiently, and might have entered Egypt unrecorded. A uniformed man – less an immigration official than a guard – had asked me “What country in South Africa?” before waving us through, bemused.

Minibus drivers approached us outside, spitting destinations. Mike and Dave were going to Dahab, a Red Sea resort town; they found a driver and said good bye. A man wearing a dirty, black checked keffiyeh howled “Cairo!” – we followed him to a vehicle with bright red doors on a rusting white body. Claire negotiated a reasonable tourist’s price, and, because we had emerged from the ferry first, the man gave us his front two seats.

It took nearly two hours for the minibus to fill. I watched a mangy cat run under cars – Egyptians used to worships cats – and wrote in my journal about the teasing proximity and ease of home. The driver signalled our departure by tying his keffiyeh into a complicated knot. Claire was stuck between us on a hard makeshift seat; he stretched past her, offered me a cigarette – “Cleopatra! Egyptian cigarette!” – and drove gently from the station, past laughing men in knitted skullcaps, sharing a long-piped sheesha outside the concrete walls of a small café. The journey, estimated at six hours, would take eight; the instances of true, mortal fear would be frequent, and clustered close together.

The man with the dirty keffiyeh, whose name I never learnt, drove in the middle of the road, often, when night came, with the headlights off. His right hand was always occupied, either by a cigarette or mobile phone. He accelerated past signs which suggested, in English and Arabic, that he slow down, and let the vehicle’s weight carry us with little control down long, whistling slopes. He took the shortest path between two points: the wrong way around traffic circles, blind corners on the wrong side of the road.

I reminded myself, repeatedly, that the man drove this route often. Only once, when he overtook on a blind corner, on a road with cut into a sandstone hill, with the lights off and hooter wailing, did I swear at him. Still accelerating, he turned to face me. I read both hurt and bewilderment in his sagging moustache; the wet filter of a cigarette dangled from his loose lipped mouth, but he said nothing.

We stopped occasionally, to dispense urinating men into the moonlit night. The desert became cold: Claire and I alternated between the hard but warm middle seat, and the soft passenger seat, exposed to gusts of icy cold air by the poorly fitted door. The passenger seat had the minibus’s only safety belt; when in it, I held my arm protectively, perhaps uselessly, in front of Claire, and exhausted my legs by bracing them against the floor.

Checkpoints littered Egypt’s roads. Our driver obligingly told soldiers that we were from “Saint Africa”; they grinned, said “Welcome!” and let us pass. Outside Taba, a short man in civilian clothes stopped us. He had sharp, menacing eyes and a gun at his hip. He asked for passports, and swore and gesticulated while inspecting the documents, offered quietly by the men in the back. A thin, heavily bearded man was removed from the minibus; uniformed soldiers escorted him to a corrugated tin shack nearby. There was a problem, the driver told me – we would have to wait.

I got out. The short, sharp eyed man, still there, glared at me. I walked two metres from the vehicle and bent over, to stretch. He moved his right hand to his holster and pointed to the minibus with his left. “You!” he shouted, “GET!” An argument was out of the question: I muttered darkly, but got.

After half an hour the bearded man, now smiling, returned. Our driver lit a cigarette, hooted happily at nothing in particular, and we left.

The minibus arrived late that night at a makeshift station on the outskirts of Cairo, far from the beginning of our guidebook’s map. We transferred our bags to the roof of a taxi, argued a price with its driver, and made our way through a still bustling Cairo to Meramees Hostel. It was on the fifth floor of a fast-decaying Art Deco building, with an antiquated lift. The double rooms were all full. There was space in the dorm, and in a room meant for four, which we could sleep in, but would probably have to vacate the next morning. Its ceilings were high, it had a balcony and what I described with glee in my journal as “non-scratchy blankets.”

I deposited my bags and went immediately in search of soothing beer, to return with three “safari-sized” Luxor lagers, which I drank quietly, in the balcony’s half light.

Mohammed was a small, unassuming man. His hair, neatly shaved, had retreated to the lower half of an oblong head. Wrinkles, and absent teeth, revealed all of his 42 years. He had passed us on a busy road – noses in our guidebook, trying to locate Sharia al-Gamaliyya, a “once important medieval thoroughfare” – and stopped, to offer assistance.

Mohammed taught English to six year olds. “It is Saturday,” he said, presenting a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone. Its pages were a greasy yellow, and spread sharply out from the spine. “Saturday is half day, so I read to the children.”

Mohammed suggested we follow him: he had grown up in the area and lived in it now. “I walk here everyday,” he continued. “I am only poor man, no car. But I like walking. I like also to make friends in many countries, and to speak English.” We followed him, and, after he described it as “very beautiful, with very good people,” agreed to visit his mosque.

I fell behind, to take photos, Claire chatted, and Mohammed led. Garbage was smouldering in isolated piles, choking the medieval streets. From flat-topped carts, men in turbans and galabiyyas – long robes which extend from neck to ankle, and cuff – sold coal and cucumber, cauliflower and metal scrap. After pausing for trade, they whipped flap-eared donkeys and hissed, to move the animals and, with them, their goods. Boys carried baskets of still hot, balloon-like bread on their heads, and set them down seemingly at random, to sell to passers-by. In filthy rooms with blackened floors, men drank tea – Egyptian shai – and fed coal to clattering machines.

At Mohammed’s mosque, entrance cost E£10. It was a donation: we were led ceremoniously to a locked wooden box, and told to insert the money. God would notice, claimed Mohammed, “and keep us safe in India and China.” Entrance to the minaret – highly recommended – required another E£10 donation.

We milled in the courtyard of the mosque. High gothic arches blurred the distinction between inside and out; a carved wooden screen drew the permeable line. Tourists, because they had paid, became intrusive, and set tripods down on carpeted floors, to photograph men at prayer. We entered, and sat cross legged on the floor. Mohammed, kindly playing the host, ran behind us, to offer sun bleached plastic chairs.

Megaphones had long replaced a wailing man at the minaret’s top, up a dizzy spiral of stone stairs. I climbed them with my hands outstretched, grasping the wall and a central column, and was immediately reminded of York’s Minster, where 295 very similar steps lead to the tower’s top, and views of a greener sprawl. Such literal immersion at last made obvious the minaret and belfry’s connection, and identical functions.

Both were medieval, and announced the religious buildings at a community’s centre. They raised brick fingers to heaven, and called the faithful to prayer. They told and still tell the time, with the ringing of bells and muezzin’s cry. Only their numbers seemed different: Cairo bristled with minarets; the narrow cylinders appeared in all directions, punctuating the sky.

We moved slowly down the stairs while Mohammed fussed: patting his head and referring to mine. I was hungry, and suggested we eat. Mohammed knew a good restaurant, clean, apparently, and frequented by actors and local politicians. I worried that it would be expensive. “Little bit expensive,” he said, “but I rather pay E£5 more and eat quality.”

The restaurant was dark, and off the same dirty streets. Old men sat stupefied before a crackling television, flicking their wrists to deter flies. Mohammed said he would help us order, but could not afford to eat. I was annoyed, but insisted he join us, and offered to pay. He refused. He was happy, he said, for the opportunity to speak English. Claire insisted he join us. He refused. I said we would like to repay his hospitality, and explained how rude we would feel eating alone. He relented, and helped me to order two portions of shish kebab and one of kofte kebab. They arrived with parsley, onions and chopped tomatoes, fresh pita bread – from the baker next door – and bowlfuls of thick tahini.

Mohammed ate with reticence, and spoke of his family. He was married to a woman 16 years his junior. “I am almost like her father,” he grinned. His wife was an Arabic teacher, and they worked at the same school. “She is very good woman, never asks anything. Even before festival, when I say ‘It is festival, what I can buy you?’ she never asks anything. Only, are you okay?”

The wedding was a product of Mohammed’s second engagement. His ex-fiancé, he said, tearing a pita and rubbing it in tahini, was a “very beautiful woman, with big strong arms.” He broke apart a kofte and placed it, with some salad, inside the pita. “Bad woman,” he said, “crazy for money,” and plopped the morsel into his mostly toothless mouth.

Mohammed had bought his ex-fiancé a watch. The woman had given the watch to her mother; when Mohammed noticed it was absent, she claimed to have lost it. “I see her mother wearing the watch,” he said, “but I don’t say anything.” He had, instead, ended their engagement. “But my wife,” he reminded us, “she is quiet. Never asks me anything.”

Claire looked up from her food. “Your wife is a teacher,” she pointed out, “she must also be intelligent.” Mohammed shrugged, but didn’t look up from his food.

We finished the meal. I had not anticipated Mohammed’s small appetite, and ordered too much. Excess tomatoes and broken bread remained beside forlorn pieces of meat on cold platters. The tahini was gone: what Mohammed had left, Claire and I devoured.

Mohammed insisted we have “proper Egyptian tea.” He took us across the road, to an equally dark room, where wet sawdust covered the concrete floor. The tea, apparently good for “relaxing the stomach, cleaning the body,” was yellow, and tasted like pumpkin soup.

Mohammed had recently been very sick. “I was in bed. I couldn’t work. My friends, relatives, they all came to visit me. They thought I would die.”
“What was wrong?” I asked.
He said kidney stones, but seemed unsure. The cure he called spice medicine; it had come from a nearby bazaar.
“Why didn’t you go to a doctor?”
“Doctor is too expensive, but spice man is different, a good man. If you can’t pay, he gives you medicine for free.”
He said the spice doctor was a friend, and offered to take us to his stall.
Claire and I had, by now, surrendered to Mohammed’s hospitality, and once again found ourselves following the short man’s steps.

The spice doctor was a fat, bespectacled man in a woollen jersey. He stood in front of a wall of shelves, lined with green and gold patterned tins. Between them were vials. Most contained yellow liquids, olive oil perhaps, maybe honey; others were green or blue or a murky red.

Mohammed sat us down and called for spices. We were told to sniff nutmeg and taste cinnamon; cloves appeared, as did cardamom. The doctor spoke no English. He gestured that eyes and ears were the only things he could not fix, and produced a book. In it, an article about him from the Egyptian Gazette, titled “The Attar’s Bazaar,” suggested spices might return balance to the body. A letter, written in English, too authentically imperfect to have been imitated, requested more of the medicine a Dutch man thought had healed his cancer.

At the Pyramids, a long slope, thick with touts, led to the ticket counter. Men offered horses or camels, and to take us through the desert, around the gates – we needn’t pay to enter. An emaciated horse lay in the sun below us, near stables, still attached to its cart. It breathed erratically: thick, visible ribs expanded slowly, and were grudgingly released.

We had resolved to confuse the touts by speaking only in Afrikaans. Men brutally demanding we ride their camel, in English, German and French, were told “Ons kannie Engels praat nie,” repeatedly, until their faces crumpled in confusion. Boys swinging whips, who offered us a scarred horse, met our ignorance with suspicion, but soon moved on.

At a viewpoint, Bedouin men crept into tour group’s photos, and immediately demanded baksheesh. Russians posed side on, with coy expressions and legs astride. Japanese held flat hands below each Pyramid and smiled: in the photo they would appear to be holding the buildings, like a waiter carrying a tray. It was a history destroying circus that left only visual appeal: large, unusually shaped buildings emerging the same colour as the sand.

On our way past the Sphinx, a Russian woman, wearing hot pants that revealed her firm, self-tanned buttocks, walked in front of us, holding her boyfriends hand. I gawked, so did Claire. We had tried, as far as possible, to be culturally sensitive in the Middle East. Claire wore long sleeved tunics and heavy trousers in the desert sun. Outward signs of affection were taboo: publicly, I never held Claire’s hand. The woman noticed our attention, and exaggerated her hip swaying, buttock grinding walk. She turned to face us, and winked.

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5 Responses to “Cairo’s Small Courtesies”

  1. Charmaine says:

    Very interesting article. Loved it!

  2. Heather says:

    Fantastic Iain – a great piece of descriptive writing that makes the place come alive.

  3. Frank says:

    Nice article.

  4. Juliet says:

    I really liked this article Iain, well written

  5. [...] photos imitating the hundreds I had already seen. I had made that mistake before in Cairo, where a dying horse and Russian girls in hot pants were a more immediate spectacle than the pyramids, and in Rome, where jostling crowds made the Sistine Chapel [...]

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