The nightclub went on till 5am. I had to check out by 10am. I woke up exhausted, had a cold shower, put on yesterday’s clothes and went downstairs to store my luggage in reception. There were still 10 hours to go till my parents arrived with the key to the flat. The day receptionist was pretty and voluptuous. Everything about her was more so. The big hair, the make up, the fake contacts. I start to speak in English and watch her struggle for a bit before I ask myself why I’m speaking to her in English when I can speak Arabic fluently, so I switch. This clearly annoyed her. Why is this prick speaking to me in English when he can clearly speak Arabic, said her face. I asked if its possible to leave my bag in storage until late tonight which she was happy to do. She waved for the porter, who whisked the bag away. She smiled and I returned the smile. She stared at me with her unnaturally green contact lenses which I returned with my own entirely natural uncoloured ones.
” Is there anything else. Sir?” she smiled.
“Well, yes, the receipt that I’ve left the bag?”
So, as delicately as I could put it, I explained that without a receipt there’s no proof that I’ve left anything anywhere with anyone. I know I’m not well-travelled but I assumed it was a logical point. What if she died? What if I died? How can we prove there was a bag? The profound depth of my logical point was simply dismissed. With courtesy and a smile. Apparently, they just don’t do receipts. It boiled down to trust she said (or dragging my suitcase around Cairo for 8 hours until my parents arrive). Trust sounded more appealing. I opted for trust. An hour after I left the hotel, I remembered that I forgot to change the padlock combination built-in the suitcase. That bothered me more than the fact that I left a suitcase with a complete stranger without any receipts. Never mind.
I walked for about 10 minutes aimlessly before I admitted to myself that I had no plan.. I was completely tired and just not feeling it. I can’t function without sleep. I can’t even walk straight without a decent night’s sleep. How I was going to even cross this main road in Mohandiseen, the area the hotel was located in, was a task. After standing at a pedestrian crossing for about 10 minutes waiting to be acknowledged, I realised that standing at a pedestrian crossing was not going to stop the traffic in Cairo. So I carried on walking. 10 minutes later, I thought, no, this is ridiculous.. I can carry on walking till I drop on my hands and knees but I won’t get anywhere because I don’t know where I am going to.. Screw it, I switched on the wifi on my iPhone sat down on the pavement downloaded 2 relevant apps. One was self guided tours of Cairo and 360Cairo. All the while at regular intervals as this was happening, I was getting text messages from my service provider back in the UK. You have now used 10MB, we just thought you might like to know.You have now used 20MB outside the EU, we thought you might like to know.. After the third message I naturally stopped looking. at £8 per 10Mb I wasn’t concerned. It was well worth downloading to apps that will help me get through the day. Apps downloaded, I turn on the interactive map that tells me I don’t have to cross the street, I can head to the closest metro. Somewhere downtown.. miles and miles away.. think I’ll get a taxi..
The skies were grey but it was unbearably hot. Thanks to my mother who told me that it was technically winter and the weather was cold, I arrived accordingly. Looks like the weather had changed a lot since she was last here over 35 years ago. The first two taxis refused to take me.. I felt furious.. This is going to be a long 4 weeks. There was an Egyptian man in his 50s who was watching me. He stepped forward and asked me if I needed help. This I liked. No one in London EVER stops and asks. Usually, they will wait until they are asked for help. This is a pattern I noticed in Cairo. The second you wear your confused face, someone will come out of the crowd, and ask you, quite genuinely: Are you OK? Is there anything I can do to help? Suddenly, I was in the mood for Cairo. I asked the man why the taxis refused to take me. Was there a gridlock somewhere? No, he says, maybe they thought you’re a Saudi or something.. He stops me a taxi, asks the guy to take care of me, because I am a Yemeni, and Yemenis are the best people and I get in.
I don’t like sitting in silence for long, so I open the conversation with a question: The guy that stopped you on my behalf suggested that taxis don’t stop if they think you’re a Saudi? is that true?
“And I would even kick them out of my cab if I didn’t notice in the beginning..”
Thus started my second political/economical discussions, or monologues, with Egyptian taxi drivers, which, thanks to the traffic, was extensive. In my zombified state I can’t say I followed much, and remember even less.. It wasn’t just the Saudis, it was the Gulf in general. His problems with the GCC countries are ones that I can identify with as a Yemeni.. The financial clout of these countries and their underhand ways of undermining any other Arabic/Islamic country, that is too alternative. He talked about how they have stopped recruiting Egyptian labour ever since the revolution. How Princess Banana of Qatar has bought 5 historical villas very dear to Egyptians to refurbish as her private holiday homes. He talked of their increased activities in buying lands, assets, and infrastructures. He talked about how they are deliberately cultivating a particular brand of MBs who have taken to loudly and belligerently advocating for all that is excessive, unreasonable, and impractical. All to prevent, or delay, the appearance of a new Egypt that is independent and assertive. What the Gulf Arab States lacked in military might, the quickly made up with cash. Naturally I believe him. Why? Because I’ve seen the exact same tactics in Yemen. But Egypt is a bigger morsel to swallow. He drops me in Wist el Balad, thats downtown for you and me.
Do I have any loose change? No, just paper notes I’m afraid.
“Hmm.. There’s a problem because I don’t have change..” He grumbles. Meanwhile the cars piled up behind us.
“It’s Okay, Keep the change.”
It took a couple of more goes before I figured out the trick.. BUT somehow you can’t hold it against them.. loveable rogues, Egyptians.
Downtown was a seething mass of humanity.. Everything moved like schools of fish, or swarms of birds. There can be a crowd of people waiting to cross a road forever, then, suddenly a lone figure makes a mad dash, to be followed by a surge. This unrelenting surge puts a stop to the flow of traffic and continues until it ebbs. Then as soon as the smallest gap appears, the drivers step on it. Traffic lights and pedestrian crossings are for the most part ignored. After a while I liked it. I liked the freedom to be able to cross wherever and whenever I want without waiting to be told when and where to do it by a safety-obsessed automated system that assumes I can’t cross a road on my own. Cairo’s chaos was more human. Less indoctrinating. But that’s the price of living in an orderly city like London. If you want orderly, you have to do things by the book. and to do things by the book, you have to put your trust in the system, not in yourself.
But now I wasn’t just sleep deprived exhausted, I was famished. And thirsty again. So where do I end up? McDonald’s. And I don’t even go to McDonald’s in the UK. I didn’t just go there. I ran there. Like when you run to your favourite bar that you haven’t been to in ages where the bartender is friendly and everybody knows your name. Why? I felt dwarfed. Overwhelmed. Cairo is more than the size of London in population alone. 18 million? And although I wasn’t aware of that at the time, I felt it.. I knew what I needed was a place where I can anchor myself. relax. McDonald’s didn’t do it. I left bloated. So now I was exhausted, disoriented, lost, and bloated. All this time I was walking but not really aware of my surroundings. I was focusing how to weave between people, how to get out of the way. Another look at my interactive map, showed me I made another miscalculation.. Downtown here was not like downtown London.. It was huge. I opted for taxi again. All the way to Al-Attaba, which is where my interactive tour was supposed to start.
I chose this tour because it was my stereotype of Cairo. My cliché and I’ll do with it whatever I want. I don’t know where I picked up this cliche from and it even came with a soundtrack, which was playing with my head. All I needed to do now was lose myself in the tour and the music in my head. Here I was about to go into Khan Il Khalili.. What I didn’t anticipate were the shopkeepers. And I looked like a tourist. backpack worn on the front and all.
I could write an entire entry on that gauntlet of shops but I won’t. I’ll just give advice. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t look at the shop. Don’t stroll. Walk through like you’re late for an appointment that change the rest of your life. Look stressed, rushed, and God damned pissed off.. I didn’t.
At this point, 120MB later, I decided I’m not into self guided tours.. I’ll just lose myself and walk around. It was Asr. How did I know? Because you can hear it everywhere.. The call to prayers.. waves and waves of it.. each voice overlapping with the next, like a musical tapestry suspended over the city.. So I step into one. And lo and behold, peace.
I kid nobody. The only places where I could get away physically, mentally, and psychologically from the seething mass of Cairo was in its mosques. The ablution freshens you up. The fans cool you down. The silence soothes. The prayer calms. People nap here. Literally just lie there and sleep. After prayers I take out my camera to take a picture of the mosque. But before I do, I seek permission. The imam is a blind man and I approach him and ask. NO, was the curt reply. So I leave. As I step out and prepare to put my shoes on, someone comes out. The imam has changed his mind. Why, I have no idea. But, I go back in and photograph. As I do, a youngish, bearded guy comes up to me smiling.
” What are you photographing?”
“Just the mosque in general.”
“Yes, but why?”
“Why? Because I feel like it. I like the look of it. ”
“So like a hobby?”
“Yes exactly like that.”
He leaves. my phone tells me its 3pm, and, As I forgot to turn off the roaming thing I was getting all my mail and text messages. In this peaceful environment I decide to look at them. There were the string of texts from Orange tell me how much MB I had used. And about every 4th or 5th text was the price tag. It wasn’t £8/10MB as I thought I’d read, It was £8/1MB. I almost needed to do my ablutions again. Did I just run up a £1600 phone bill? Then something remarkable happened. Something I don’t do very often. I thought: It’s done. I’ll let God deal with it. I’m on holiday. and with that I walked out.. Either at peace or numb with shock I don’t know. I still don’t know.. But on the whole God gave me a sweetner.. a whole afternoon in a place in Cairo where I truly was the only person around. Just me, empty halls, and buildings full of silent ghosts of the past.