Sitting next to me on the plane was my first impressions of Egypt. An elderly Christian woman flying from LA to Egypt. In Egypt ,awaiting her, was her husband, some of her grown children, money she was moving out of Egypt, and other unfinished business to complete before the entire family relocates permanently to LA… She was very charming.
The plane journey ends at Cairo airport and I realise that I have left too much unplanned. I had a whole night and a day before my parents arrive into the flat a friend of theirs had kindly lent them. For free. Meanwhile I assumed there would be easy to just find a hotel next to the airport for the night. Wait for my parents flight to arrive the next day, meet them, and head for the flat..
As I come out of the airport security dragging my bag, I suddenly notice.. Egyptians everywhere.. talking Egyptian Arabic just like in the movies. It all seems so familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. This is a big deal for me. The only Arab capital I’ve seen is Sana’a. The only Arab country I have been to is Yemen. But I was born here, in Cairo. And this trip was meant to be not just a family reunion for me, but a trip down memory lane for my parents, as well as a medical trip of great importance which naturally is irrelevant in this blog. This is a big trip for me.. and this is my first night..
The first part was familiar.. A horde of taxi drivers asking where I want to go. I ask them to give me a chance as I need to find a hotel for the night.. To cut a long story short I was somehow overwhelmed, bundled into a taxi for a hotel downtown. I asked for cheap. and cheap is exactly what I got as it later turned out.. As the taxi left the airport grounds.. I told the driver the address of the hotel..
” You know there is a nightclub there? Are you the nightclub type?” he asks
“Good, we like the straight and narrow types over here..” he replies and continues “This place has a reputation and believe me you wont get any sleep..”
So far so good. I can handle this very personal intrusion. It’s an Arab thing.. Usually drives me nuts while I go through the cultural readjustments from Western to Eastern mentality.. What do I do? Am I married? How many children do I have? I turn the tables and start asking questions as we start to speed through Cairo itself..
“First time in Cairo?” He asks
“And your first impressions?”
“It looks very tired.”
And thus started the first political conversation of many I had with Egyptian taxi drivers. The comment brought out an sigh from him.. He sort of deflated, went pensive, and started a monologue about the political/economical situation since the revolution. And he had a lot to say.. meanwhile, I had my first good look at Cairo as it whipped past.. I was tired, confused, and not a little disappointed. Just an initial impression.. It just looked tired. Shabby. We were driving on flyovers that cut the city in half horizontally that had a very disjointed jarring effect on the senses.. I didn’t pick up on anything other than the grime.. I had this strange vision of me in compulsive cleaning mode with a bucket of warm soapy water and a rag wiping little sections on buildings just to see what was really under there..
“These buildings have always been like this..” said my driver.. I dont believe him and I tell him
” Wallahi thats what they looked like since I was born here. And its not a good idea to repaint them or restore them. That’s their beauty and they don’t work in any other way. ” He said as we sped past an army of huge tower blocks built in the 80s for military types.. Row after imposing row..
We finally arrive.. He wasn’t wrong. There was a nightclub somewhere at the top of the hotel.. and Gulf Arabs everywhere.. Not good.
The receptionist starts to talk to me in English. Then he sees my passport.
” Your a Yemeni? I don’t believe it? You are a Yemeni?”
“Of course I am a Yemeni, don’t I look like a Yemeni?” I asked
“No Bisaraha shaklak nidif kida . Mush musada’ inak Yemeni..” He replied..
I was gobsmacked but I wasn’t going to show it. What he said was: To be honest you dont. you look clean.. I can’t believe you’re Yemeni!”
“Clean? Are you suggesting Yemenis dont bathe regularly?” I was offended and I was wanting him to feel it..
“No! No! Nidif (clean) here in Egypt means well dressed. well coordinated, well taken care of.. Usually Yemenis arent. They look like their coming from a different time zone.. You look very westernised..”
“Almuhim nathafat alkulub..” I said. Maybe the most important thing is to have a clean heart.
“Sah ya bashmuhandis..” (which roughly translates into something like “You’re right, Engineer”
I wasn’t going to ask why he thought I was an engineer. or a posh one at that.. The most important thing is I can smoke whereever i want and there is free wifi if I sit in reception.. Before that I take the suitcase and follow the porter to the room.. There are 4 lifts in this building.. all had young men in them. That’s all they did. They just pressed the lift buttons up and down.. I couldnt understand. As I stepped into the lift one of them asked me for a cigarette. A good icebreaker.
“Boring job?” I ask.. I just wanted to understand what it was all about..
“You think?” He replies sarcasitically..
“You know I can operate a lift on my own..” I reply
“But I am not here to operate the lift for you..” Perfect…
“So why is there a guy in every lift in this hotel?”
” To stop the entertainment from leaving the nightclub and going into any of the rooms.. where are you from?”
” Theres loads of Yemenis up there.. Want to go up?”
I entertain the thought but… maybe not.. Although I am very curious to see what this nightclub is all about..
The first thing I do when I go into the room is check for bed bugs.. I double lock the room and put a chair in front of it.. Then I stand there and wonder what I am doing. I had been tense the whole taxi journey here and progressively getting worse.. I keep checking for my wallet every five minutes. I refuse to get something to eat. I refuse the water. Even though I was very hungry and very very thirsty. I was questioning why I put the chair in front of the door that I had locked. After a while of contemplating I realised that I had all my filters on. When I go to Yemen I am going home. I know Yemen. Even though I get the same foreigner’s reception there but I know it and I am familiar with it. I wasn’t familiar with Egypt and I was coming with all the baggage of biases and perceptions that I had picked up from the West. The dodgy Egyptians, The thieves, the opportunists, the wheelers and dealers, the unsafe water, the bed bugs, the beggars, The hepatitis thats everywhere.. Basically I realised I just how brainwashed I was. How precocious. how embarrassing. Feeling more than slightly ashamed of myself, I left the room, went down to the lobby and ordered myself a coffee. I wasn’t going to get over decades of indoctrination by isolating myself in a shabby, drab room, with a bathroom sink that is blocked and a shower with only cold water..
Sitting in the lobby I smoke away and skype my parents to let them know I’ve arrived as I watch a strange procession of ‘nightclubbers’ get escorted to the top floor. Only they don’t look like clubbers.. At least not the clubbers I know.. I was watching Gulf Arabs mainly.. Fat ones.. Old ones, Young ones, local looking types.. and surprise surprise.. fully bearded types with the white gowns etc. The type you imagine giving sermons on a friday in a mosque somewhere.. This baffles me.. So I turn to the guy sitting across from me.. colored eyes and white..
“What’s a bearded type doing in a nightclub?” I ask him..
“Surprised?” He sounds amused. ” You don’t think a bearded man should go to these kind of places?”
” I don’t even know what kind of a place it is.. Have you been up there? What’s it like?”
“Just a nightclub.. people go there to dance.. ”
“Dance? They don’t look like they know how to dance.. ”
“The women dance.. the men watch..”
“Is it a whorehouse.. you can tell me..”
“Of course not.. can’t you see all the security everywhere? Its strictly look but don’t touch..Most of the men are married”
Now I am even more confused… I ask him what the whole point of the exercise is.. They can’t touch the women who are brought for their viewing pleasure. They can’t take them to the room. They aren’t dancing with them.. What;s the point..
” Does there have to be? It’s just holiday distractions. Harmless.. Where are you from?”
“Yemen.. and you?”
And I met my first Saudi.. and thankfully.. my last.