The curse on the River Nile
Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
36Trip End Jun 01, 2010
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Where I stayed
suppose, to learn a new lesson – or dispense one.
Especially if it means being
tossed out of a Cairo
No, there was no bad
behaviour, no drunkedness, raucousness, nor trashing the joint, no Keith
Richards, Keith Moon or Sid Vicious behaviour.
Winding down my Cairo days, contemplating
a long haul into the desert, the manager's wife owes me some small change for a
cup of coffee, says she'll pay me later, and asks rhetorically whether I trust
"I would (foolishly)
trust anyone with eyes like yours," is my cheap, though appraisingly
This is not any kind of fancy
establishment, you'll understand. Just a little downtown joint recommended as a
cheap doss-house, perhaps somewhat overburdened with its Regent House appellation.
It's a family-run ramshackle
1st floor establishment, where a US$5-per-night dormitory includes Indian and
Pakistani UN workers, a Cuban drifter, a fuzzy red-headed Canadian intent on
saving the world with his vow of silence, and a sensitive, soon to be published
Indiaphile French poet.
The manager and his wife seem
bored with their jobs, and take pleasure in teasing their foreign guests.
I simply join in.
Saunter around, as one does
in Cairo for the day, and return after sunset to pay for a few more days
preparing for my exit, after having already received a little bruising from an
intransigent Libyan embassy – no sir, though shalt not enter our country
without dumping a healthy wad in our laps.
sir, the establishment is full from tomorrow. Tonight will be your last night
here. Go and find another hotel!"
"We have just received
confirmation of a booking that will fill the room."
You can reek the balderdash,
camel shit and pharaoh fart, but cannot discern the truth as manager sits behind
his desk, avoids my eyes and sticks to his humbug.
Hubber-hubber, and grey beard
must head out into the Egyptian night to trudge the lone dark alleys in search
of tomorrow's bunk.
Up early for a pavement cuppa
or two before having to drag my bag through the foyer-cum-TV-room-cum-prayer
room, and bump into 'ze poet' who tells me Mrs Pink (the manager's wife only
wears pink skin-tight sleaves, a looser pink blouse, and pink scarf – and sports
startlingly large, perfectly almond-shaped eyes) had told her husband I had
complimented her, and he had taken umbrage … at the fact that I had even dared
to cast such an eye over his chattel.
I had fallen foul to the
'thou shalt not covet my wife' commandment, and paid the price of the gutter.
Ja, punished for kindness.
Kind of thing you could learn to live with.
What else is one meant to do,
but go and drink off the sully.
Hidden down some of Cairo's little,
friendlier alleys are a thinly-scattered series of 'men's bars'.
They are more like small
coves for weary ships than anything else. No glitz, sheen, leather or chrome.
Honest wooden chairs and tables, offering only Egyptian Stella beer, and
Balanouchi brandy, to which grey takes a gentle liking, never having been
over-fond of the bloaty, frothy stuff.
The taverns, that do not dangle
exterior neon, and surreptitiously - though in no way guiltily in this Islamic
society - cosset their obviously regular clientele, are around 8m x 8m. Little
cozy holes for contemplation and civil conversation.
The perfect places to throw
off insults and pay smiling homage to the muses of the long road.
I forgive Mr and Mrs Pink,
self-proclaimed Muslim ideologues, for forgetting that the holy text is
explicit on how foreign guests are gifts of Allah, and should be treated as
Two dollars gets a nip of
brandy, a bowl of ice, a platter of all-pervasive fuul (fava beans) and
dices and slices of pickled carrots and cucumbers. Sit back and feel the warmth
of dusty men clad in Cairo's
versions of frayed tweed jackets, scuffed shoes, and an array of wound
Egypt’s diva of divas, Om
Kalthoum, wails though the room, incessantly, her songs repeated and repeated,
just as they are heard through the city and across the country, floating,
drifting out of shops and cafes. Heart-rending sounds emit from her famous
throat, wrenching at emotions, but beloved absolutely. A tea-house pays homage,
two eight-foot busts flanking its doorway, playing her only songs 24/7.
I venture along earlier with
my trusty Turkish guide to Cairo (wondering how
apt an Egyptian guide to Istanbul
would be), and we peek in the window.
She baulks at the dowdiness,
and lack of femininity. But the kindly barman saunters out to invite us in. A meagre,
polite flicker of interest from the men at the foreign, let alone female,
interluders into their parlour, and polite conversation and retort continue.
We venture further, and find
a sister bar (no, not a women's bar), this one triangular, tiny, maybe 6 paces to each wall.
A little more forboding. All in close-up.
Guide finds the need to
unburden some beer, and heads for the head. All heads are raised. Something
seems afoot, but being the only woman in the place, she aptly steels herself,
I sit back and watch heads
The little 'washroom' is
tucked into a corner. Door opens, enter, and … retreat, door closes. Low mirth
chuckles across the floor. This simple men's bar offers only a pissoir. Guide
takes it with the panache to which I had become accustomed, sits down and takes
another swig of Stella.
Bar diffused, face saved.
McDonalds will soon receive another non-paying visitor.
Cairo begins slowly, in the
morning, winding itself up into full pedestrian and traffic flow between 7pm
and 11pm. This feels marginally odd in the cool of winter, but doubtless
carries great logic in the sapping day heat of summer, or most of the year.
Crossing streets is not for
the easily unnerved. Traffic lights are few, and de rigeur is to cross where
you like, taking on the oncoming cars.
Good manners mean cars will
slow down and allow you to pass. But there is the constant potential of
intimacy between bumper and bone. It is all well and easy with one or two lanes
– but the four and five lanes around Midan Tahrir (Tahrir Square, even though it is a
circle), in the centre of town, takes more than a fair degree of pedidexterity.
The art is nonchalance. Own the road. The driver must take appropriate action.
Little hunched ladies look neither right nor left, and walk, or shuffle,
slowly. Cars hoot and hunker down in polite frustration. The trick is to
tailgate one of these amblers, until you have worked out the rhythm.
Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City offer parallel challenges.
Thousands of small motorbikes and scooters, three, four and five lanes across,
hundreds of metres deep, cruise in packs. If you do not venture into the pack,
you will never cross the road. Here, walk slowly, purposefully, and at the same
speed. The drivers predict and dodge. Jink and dash and all is lost. Have
faith, for that is all you have.
Black and white taxis speckle
intermittently flowing lines of cars. Hail one with your bargaining quiver full
Ask the price and know that a
foreigner will be quoted double, instantly, unhesitatingly, with complete
authority. Know you must slash this immediately, severely, or be screwed.
The old British-style heavy
steel, square meters mounted on dashboards have been jammed since the previous
Don't ask the price, so long
as you have some kind of for-armed knowledge. Instruct destination. Get out and
pay with the same off-handed authority that the cabbie is dying to play out on
you. Get out and walk.
Asking the question opens the
door. Don't ask if you don't want to be lied to.
Newer white taxis offer
surprising, honest relief. They carry new electronic meters. Take one, discern
the going rate, and you are vitally armed for future forays.
Head to the pyramids, take
the obligatory three-hour camel ride around the big obelisks. Discover why
photographs portray desert camel riders hooking their legs around the post at
the head of the saddle, and lounge with both feet to one side of the large
beast's neck. Sit on it as one would a horse, and feel tender, intimate tendons
stretch in ways and wheres that are not fit to be described on family blogs.
Venture beyond upmarket
Zamalek, embassy centre on a verdant island in the middle of the Nile, and stumble into Imbabi. Hidden from the casual
visitor and museum gawker, the stench and filth of rotten, weeping vegetable
seeps down the roads, dusty footpaths and byways of the market area.
Cairo seems most closely matched
to the large Indian cities. Flaking 19th century British
architecture, browned, mottled, and a century of disrepair, most not higher
than five storeys. Large populations,
infrastructure stretched to its limits, the swaddlings of the women are
similar, the headgear of traditional men not very unlike either.
India sits in pretty poll
position, however, when it comes to rank poverty. Cairo's pavements are not permanent squatter
sites to millions. Perhaps the city should take heed from New
Chennai, lest similar fate befalls.
Thinking ahead, and book a
train south, to Luxor, Nile port to Valley of the Kings, Queens and a flotilla-load
of seriously well-heeled pith helmets.
Since the advent of
tourist-targeted bombings and attacks around 1994 (the most recent in Kahn
al-Kahlili, in the middle of Cairo
in February this year) foreigners have been strictly herded into very specific
Of course the target profile
is thus seriously highlighted for the gelignite junkies, but one supposes the
guardianship is as well appropriately raised.
Locals travel on dozens of
trains at affordable prices. Foreigners must dig deep for the pleasure of their
Book well in advance, seats
and bunks are relatively few.
In the interim, head west, to
An oasis lies close to the
Libyan border, 300km south of the Mediterranean Sea,
and flanked by one of the world's great sand seas – where dunes move like
waves, only infinitesimally slower.
My misunderstanding of a
desert oasis as a puddle 25m x 25m is quickly debunked. Two lakes inside the
slow, sweeping curve of hills and low mountans stretch out around 2-3km each.
The ancient mud and
salt-built town of Shalli stands rotting on a
lone hill, lakeside, amid the current village of Siwa.
Donkey carts outnumber internal
combustives by around 10:1.
But there is a burgeoning
cowboy mentality. Siwa is touted as a tourist stopover, and is also on a
circular-ish 4x4 desert driving route – one of the few roads that drivers can
take without permits, police escorts and assorted official encumbrances.
Euro-offroaders drag dust
columns in from the desert. A motley assortment of ‘desert camps’ rings the
town – offering camel and 4x4 driving through the local sand, churning up and
down the dunes.
Sounds almost awful. But it
is a great place to sit down, and watch a very slow procession of life. The
lads are raucous, slowly switching camels and donkeys for motorbikes and
pickups, the women are all, all, covered from head to toe to tips of fingers,
but the pace is slow, as slow as a donkey can walk in the sun for hours and
The sky is huge, 360 degrees,
blue, hot, still. Mud and salt brick ruins are interspersed between low-grade
brick buildings. Hillocks around carry the relics of ancient abodes, or are
pitted with opened holes, honeycombed hills of old graves, long robbed, dug
into the only hardness in the area.
Sunsets float in and out of
focus through the red haze of settling dust.
Hot and cold springs litter
the dry planes, and dune valleys. There are no roads or signs. You either know
where they are, or die.
It is Eid al Adha,
commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. Goats have been
gathered throughout the Muslim world for weeks; they are sacrificed in place of
On the morning of the
three-quarter waxing moon, the knives flash, and the blood runs red down
thousands of streets. The beasts should not see the knives, or know of their
doom, out of kindness, and lest their meat seize up with adrenaline panic.
By mid-morning thin tendrils
of smoke float upwards from different yards, mingling messages to the gods.
Shalli is the site of an
uber-oracle of old. A temple relic resides atop a flat, elongated kopje. So
important was it once that even Alexander the Great deigned to tread the stairs to consult
with the local powers. The same steps that exist to this day, the only ones
From Siwa to Pakistan
he roamed and conquered.
How easily most of
the world tosses off the ancients as illiterate, savage, uneducated. Today the
world powers are hard-pressed to press hard on even one country, let alone
sweep a swathe of victory.
Back to Cairo, en-route south.
Hear tales of single Western women pestered by frustrated local men.
Bad-mouthing them, fondling them while supposedly posing for pictures. These
tales are repeated, litanies of the same gospel, generally not discernible to
A newspaper carries
an expose, revealing local sexual harassment. A photographer on the 4th
floor of a building catches four youths surrounding an isolated Egyptian woman,
eight hands roaming forbidden pastures.
I continue playing
the Ali game: Where you from? Genoob Afrique (South Africa). What’s your name?
Ali (it’s just easier than Lance, and begs a conversation). Ali? Are you
Why? That is a Muslim
No my friend, many
Muslims have this name, but it does not belong to Islam.
One rake suggests
“you either turn your back on Islam, or turn your back on your name”. I suggest
he contact my father, my namer, on this matter.
suppose, one raise one’s hands, and pronounces “Insha’Allah”.
Who can argue with
“it is the will of Allah” (ie nothing to do with me), and eventually begets smiles all round – the
whole point, really.
On to Luxor, the southern capital of ancient Egypt. Crypts, burial chambers of
reams of royalty, temples and assorted large edifices dot the landscape.
Tutenkhamun’s grave is the most famous, but dozens of the big cheeses were
sailed down the holy river and entombed.
The temples are
magnificent, many having been bandaged and plastered over time, but there is no
denying the solidity of perfectly squared granite blocks dozens or hundreds of
tons in weight.
I opt out of venturin down
empty holes that once held the kings of old, long since emptied by tomb
robbers, the artifacts now scattered across the world’s gmuseums, or ensconced
in Cairo’s own
I take a donkey ride
across the western hills, looking down on the sites, venturing into temples,
trotting through the back alleys of Nubian villages and along spindly paths
through fields of cotton and sugar cane. Life feels rich, and poor, calm and
comfortable, the pastures having supped of the Nile
since man first carved a stone into a plough.
A preponderance of
serious dollar has fluttered down these river banks for 2,000 years and more.
Hustlers, hucksters, fleecers and rogues line the promenade, selling, offering,
talking, talking, talking.
Not one conversation,
no matter how long and innocuous, ends without some attempt to open one’s
wallet, to lift a little lolly.
rife, and rank.
Sit and have a tea.
Peanuts are placed on the table. Eat the peanuts, and of course get gouged. Buy
cigarettes, knowing the price, and wait for the change that never comes.
Force the change to
appear by slapping the believer with the word “haram” (forbidden). It is an
all-encompassing Islamic code for good, righteous and honest behaviour. Locals
are shocked that a foreigner can sling such a ‘curse’ at them (or more
realistically, call them out in the name of their faith) but the code has to be
adhered to, for such is the so-called depth of local belief.
It is akin to cursing
one with bad karma, in India,
when similar conmen get in on the act. A great dose of jitters ensues, as does
the appropriate change.
I charge my Cairo hotel hosts with haram.
Their resolve does not crumble ... but I know how much they must have cringed.