There’s a shisha cafe i love its near my office on my way to the metro, they see me and know exactly what to bring. It looks the same people sitting down smoking shisha and talking until you look closer and see the gas masks on their faces. There are gas masks everywhere now. On the metro, in the office, on the faces of little children, accompanying them are faces sprayed white. When the teargas gets too thick a white substance is sprayed on your face that works wonders, however it leaves a stain, its a reminder to all who see you that you were there. BOOM rang out the loudest sound i had ever heard, louder than a car backfire, louder than the volleying of a teargas canister and i was startled but life goes on, everyone was soon back to their pipes and so was I
Monthly Archives: November 2011
It’s hard to understand what’s going on in Egypt right now. For days and days the police and the army have lobbed teargas canisters into crowds of protesters, the plume of smoke around Tahrir square now looks like normal everyday mist. The crowd of people is ever constant, when I go home they are there, when I come to work they are there. They see the sunrise and they see it set; they live under the glare of streetlights and television cameras. They organize field hospitals and sing freedoms songs, they accept donations and arrange things in such a way that those in most need get them first.
Hundreds of people injured, this is a huge number at least until you make your way down there and see the makeshift ambulances on their never-ending shift. At the worst of times two men per motorcycle race to the frontline, Mohamed Mahmud Street, on a bike pick up anyone who’s fainted and bring them back to the square, they have enough time to put the body on a stretcher before they have to race back again. The traffic of these bikes is endless, they hoot and swerve and save all day long.There is a terrific clang at these times, the protesters beat out a tune on a metal railing, they pick up a chant and sing it aloud, they surge forward and ran backward.
Then you walk down a couple of streets and there you find shops open. Enterprises with glass displays going on with the business of business. People walking to and from work, koshari being sold on the streets, taxi drivers haggling with fares. The metro is kept on. It has a stop right below Tahrir, one that leads to downtown. This is one of the busiest stops since it connects the two lines and leaves its passengers very close to the epicenter of Cairo commercial life. The crowds getting here are numerous, suffocating and sufficient enough to make you think there’s nothing going on. Walking up the metro leads you to the first signs of protest, a wrinkling of the nose, people selling gas masks and in the first days of the protests a handout of vinegar to anyone who put their hand out. Some people are going to the protest some are going to work, to life, to live.
I was in the office on Tuesday, the day of the biggest crowds and a TV was blaring right outside the door, carrying the sounds of Tahrir from less than a kilometer away to me. As I read about the protests and the protesters demands I could hear them come from the screen, loud, larger than loud, louder than life, the sing song continued. It ebbed and it flowed the beat of the drums the boom of the teargas canisters, anguish and defiance. But I was safe, less than a kilometer away I was safe. There’s a beautiful garden that overlooks the Nile, it has benches strewn all over it, and it’s across the Nile from Tahrir separated by a bridge made famous by its four lions. the water flows ever so slowly, and there are falukas (boats) paddling up and down making a splash so small you can hardly hear it. vendors walk up and down selling sodas and water, there is always a group of young musicians strumming their guitars peacefully and playfully, I was here when my father called to see how I was, “don’t worry am far from the square” I told him as I looked guiltily over and picked out the outlines of the entrance to the square. A place where there was no peace, people bleary eyed both from the sheer exhaustion of having stood there for days and days and the constant adrenaline rush that leaves your body sore and sorry.
It hasn’t been a year since the eye of the world was last focused on Egypt; it hasn’t been that long since pessimists said Mubarak would never step down, it hasn’t been that long since the last round of 24 hour news coverage. It has been 10 months since the last regime cracked down on protesters so hard the world had to pick sides, it has been 10 months since the people of Egypt last took to the streets and didn’t leave until their president did, it has been 10 months since they last had a shower of teargas so strong and long it felt like God was pouring it down and so they remember what to do. They and ask for donations of blankets for the cold, vinegar for the gas and blood for the sick. They set up field hospitals and send out field ambulances, they know what to do when the crowd starts to run, hold up your arms and say stop. It’s the same generation that went through this only ten months ago.
Ten months ago they had the army if not on their side at least on the governments, now they are calling for the resignation of the Field Marshall Tantawi. The army blames the police but the army is the government, if they’re not the ones issuing the orders to fire all the teargas in the world into Cairo and Alexandria who is? If it wasn’t the army who stormed Tahrir on Sunday dressed in military fatigues and carrying full riot gear, clearing away the square like only the threat of imminent violence can who was it?
And the square bleeds at the height of the clashes standing in one spot too long means you might faint, picking up a teargas canister and throwing it back is a sign of bravery and an inspiring act but its futility is also all too real as they are thrown so far back into the crowds all you do is transfer the gas. There were nurses everywhere lining Mohamed Mahmud then, they give out vinegar and a white liquid which when sprayed into the eyes takes the sting away immediately. There is determination in the air. Life does continue in the streets around downtown but it’s not exactly the same as before. The streets are a little less crowded with people, they are quieter than usual. The hustle and bustle, the hooting of cars has faded away and been replaced by a sense of expectation the closer you come. Something is happening here and you can feel it.
“How much should I pay to go see the pyramids?”
“It doesn’t matter whatever they say you’ll pay more”
In high school my headmaster was Mr. Gortaza. He inspired a lot of respect in Strathmore, there were rumours he was offered a job in NASA but turned it down in order to do this and teach physics. And he taught it so well. In my school physics was the subject you took. The one where an A~ was within grasp of anyone who tried just a little harder than the rest who all got a B+.The day after Dr. Griffin of Starehe died we were having a lesson and somehow we told him of the death of the old man [he hadn’t heard of it yet]. These being two of the best schools in the country am sure they knew each other and maybe had that friendly rivalry cold war novels like us to believe existed between British and German spy chiefs. He took off his glasses and said “now I can’t concentrate.” he blinked a couple of times and then with a strength that I will never forget he continued the lesson. Holding his sorrow for private moments. I was forever shaken by this, the idea that death would become such a part of life the longer we lived. He also said, in a completely different context, that he wasn’t impressed by the pyramids since if you pour sand from your hands it forms that same shape. Really? We all asked but he was much smarter than us so maybe he had something there.
The approach to the pyramids is done on horseback. I have never ridden a horse before. Never even touched one all I have done is admire them from afar and wished upon a distant star which luckily heard me on this one day. Her name was Aziza. She wasn’t a warhorse, she wasn’t a racing horse she had no pedigree but I loved her all the same. Horse riding lessons are surprisingly easy if the horse you are riding is trained to listen to only her owner’s voice. Still I got the reins and was given my first riding lesson , pull left to go left, pull right to go right, pull back to stop, lean forward to go forward. Riding for dummies. Speed controls, I wasn’t given that. Some people got camels since the pyramids are deserted[bad pun but economical] but I wanted Aziza, she was chocolate with a spot on her forehead, impetuous and stubborn, complicated and in need of a cuddling she would never accept just the kind I fall for.
You can’t put your foot too far into the stirrup because horses have been known to fall and when that happens you want a quick disengage. I had been told about the blue balls feeling girls like this give so I was ready to do some bouncing around as she galloped so that I didn’t get hurt. We started off at a trot and it was nice, just sitting on the horse was enough. You feel like a prince, I leaned back and had the reins in my right hand, a hiss came from behind me hearing this the horse was ready to go.
Slowly ever so slowly and beneath me I could feel all that horsepower begging to be unleashed on the world. I tried hissing her into action like her handler did but her ears had no time to listen to my feeble attempts at control. So I asked the guide to let her free. Please just once I said and he agreed, he did give me one piece of advice though, ride her like you would a woman.
Ksss! Ksss! He said and off we were. The wind reaching for my hairs and me moving faster than it could, the horse beneath me galloping faster and faster and finally I found a rhythm, Aziza and I moved as one, now up, now down. Slowly making it more rhythmic knowing we had all the time in the world. There was no hurry to get to where we were going and in our restrained patience we got there faster and faster. Up and down we rode, I let out a whoop of joy the cold forgotten, the wind an ally that told me how fast we were going. The desert before me and the pyramids at the end of them, racing a friend of mine explorers of a bygone age, an age when looting brought to mind romanticism not desperation and floods. And then it stopped. I tried to get her to go again but Aziza wouldn’t listen to me. My friend told me when we had come to a stop that he now understood why there were so many wars once upon a time, horse riding. Getting on those horses gives you a sense of godhead or at least kingshead, I wanted to conquer, I wanted a sword, an arrow, a trumpet. I wanted an army at my back that would be inspired by my mindless headlong rush into enemy forces and then follow too buoyed by my courage.
The sun setting over the pyramids, right over them giving a golden glow to these epic monuments. Finding its way down, sinking into oblivion and darkness, the pyramids in this scene look far off and dark, black outlines against the yellow fire. That’s how they look from a distance, smooth and heaven-made but up close it was different. There were ridges and cuts in the stones. The stones were piles carelessly thrown and heaped, breaking off pieces of each other in the process. They looked real to me. Mountains that men had painstakingly carved from the sand, offering them up as sacrifice to their kings and gods. The pyramids looked human, humans are scarred and scary. Up close all beauty dissolves into reality, the reality of flaws, the reality of time and the reality of memories up close nothing looks perfect, under a microscope the cleanest of lives is swimming in dirt. Sometimes I think that’s where the true beauty lies, in the scars and memories the imperfections and trials, the sweat and stone. The idea of the pyramid as a diamond of stone smooth edged and dropped in the middle of Egypt like some kind of shuttle doesn’t hold on closer inspection. They look sweated over and sweated on. They look like work sites where people slipped and died numerous times. They look like stone scorched by the desert sun, scrubbed by the desert sand and served by the desert’s sons. And I loved them for it.
Now to the protests.
We got off the metro at Giza and started walking not knowing where we were going. Soon a friendly Egyptian came up to us and began talking to us. He offered to take us to the pyramids since he lived close to them. He was charming as all of them seem to be. Very friendly with a gift of the garb. He had on a puma tracksuit with the date Jan 25 stencilled on it. I took advantage of the opportunity quiz him on the revolution. He offered to get us a good deal on the pyramids by taking us to this guy he knew who was a government official. He paid our fare saying, “its just money, money comes and goes,” when we protested this.
He took us to an office and had a talk in Arabic with the guy there. Egypt is a tourist country and like many of them has different prices for foreigners and citizens to se the local sites. Six Egyptian pounds make one dollar, one Egyptian pound is a little less than twenty shillings. When he refused to talk about money until we were on our horses the first stirrings of suspicion centred. But we got what we thought was a good price. The owner told us he would pay our entrance and allow us the horses and camels for ninety minutes at 150 pounds. The entrance he said was 120 pounds since there was a sphinx ticket and a pyramids ticket(each at 60 pounds). There was a pyramids ticket but the sphinx ticket does not exist we heard later on. All we knew was that we had only seen one ticket and that we were determined to get back the money we paid for the other one. We agreed on solidarity and started riding back.
On the way back I gave my most ingratiating smile to the police and greeted them in my its~bad~but~at~least~am~trying Arabic. We might need them later. We trotted to the office, the horses knew the way, relations between us and the guide had been soured by the fact that we had been cheated.
We got off the horses and began our protest. The first man we spoke to told us the manager was off at his prayers. We explained the problem we had as clearly and succinctly as we could. We paid to see the sphinx and we didn’t see it, we were told it was because we were too late, that’s well and good but since you didn’t buy the tickets already can we have our money back [that the sphinx had been closed was the reason our guide had given us for us not seeing it.] he told us that the other ticket had been bought and left at the gate. “didn’t you see it being torn off.” it’s ok to be cheated this is life, it happens, it’s how we learn not to trust but I hate being cheated so brazenly thankfully I was with people who hate being cheated too. I told him the truth that I thought he was lying and he shut down completely, “if you think am a liar we can’t talk any more, wait for the owner.”
I was asked to drop that weapon from my arsenal something I gladly did. Then the owner came. He already disliked me since I had tried to pay for the horses and the tickets separately and now here I was with my group demanding our money back.
“The money for the sphinx.”
“Its not me who closed the sphinx, its the government”
“Ok but can you give us the money since it was closed it means you didn’t use it.”
That conversation had more reincarnations than a snail on the way to Buddhist enlightenment. He got angry at us and stalked off. He had no more time to talk to us but we didn’t let off. We called our “friend” who had brought us there because now we were clutching at straws. He came back and then the argument got two major centres, he asked us to come out of the office so he could talk to us. I stayed behind deciding to irritate the owner.
“…since we didn’t see the sphinx we want out money back…”I repeated this over and over, an automaton on automatic. He listened getting more and more angry, his friend was there witnessing this impetuous child do this and couldn’t stand it and asked me rather harshly to stop. They told our “friend” and he got me out, saying that he thought I had gone a little crazy in there. Maybe I had, my anger carried me away on a sea of emotion, and I jumped up and down like a little child and shouted over and over that I was very angry. He spoke to me in Arabic and I replied in Swahili being as creative with insults as I have in a while. We went round and round. Now all of us being called off, now some of us hanging back. Arguing here arguing there. In the office, our voices being carried higher and higher. Us calling threats of the police down on his head, him staring resolutely forward and not being moved. I am government he said, the police don’t scare me. In the middle of all this the puma was offering us another deal, all through the day they had seeded the conversation with hints to other pyramids 3,000 years older than the ones we had seen. He offered to take us to them even though tourists aren’t allowed to go there but he “knew a guy who was related to a guy who…”
Ten minutes of resolution became twenty of frustration became thirty of anger became forty of exasperation and still we stood and shouted, haggled and hassled then we heard the magic words.
“Lets make a deal.”
He offered us 20 back each we turned it down,
We offered him to give us 30 back each he turned us down.
He took out a crisp 100 pound and said either that or nothing.
This being 25 each we took it.
We walked off accompanied by our “friend”. At this point he was still pretending that he was our friend, he acted hurt and cheated, he couldn’t understand why we had done what we had done.
“its just money, money comes and goes,” he repeated. To which one of our party quipped.
“it comes from our pockets and goes into yours.”
We left him at the matatu stage.
What do you want to eat?
“Anything that’s not Egyptian” was the general consensus.
A few minutes later our “friend” has the nerve to call and ask to talk to the “girl.” with the same balls that built a structure like the pyramids he asks her out on a date.
His hands shook violently. Then he calmed himself, his breath threatened to overwhelm him then he slowed it. That small box held so much that he couldn’t comprehend the fullness of it. So small, why did it have to be so small? It reminded him of her small hands, her small nose, the look of determination on her small face as she held on with her small grip to the world. What was that they always said about children who passed on too soon? They were too good for this world. A comforting thought but right now he didn’t want comfort, anger and rage would help. Hopelessness and desperation would be welcome. Emptiness and despair were all he had.
He clutched the sand in his hand and let go ever so limply. The grains made their way to the box. He couldn’t think of it as a coffin yet. You put dead things in a coffin, how could somebody be dead if she hadn’t had a chance to live. Lilah he would have called her short for Delilah the name that now graced two documents in an unreasonably short period of time. A birth certificate and a death certificate.
Lilah. It was a good name, a beauty. Her mother was a beauty but that hadn’t gone too well. It hadn’t gone well at all. Now he mourned her too, not as the love of his life as he had once thought her but as the mother of his child. The screams still crept into his dreams silent burglars waiting for vulnerability before they laid claim to his sleeping moments. In the daytime they were more brazen, he heard them everywhere. He heard them when he was at the place they called home, he saw them in the funeral arrangements when he bought a box for Lilah. A small box. A box that was too small. It could fit a picture he thought. One of those family pictures they would have taken if the world wasn’t “too good” for his Lilah. He caught himself wishing his daughter was just a small bit badder so that she could fit into the world. The touch of a little devil was so much more comforting than the memory of a little angel. But now all his thoughts seemed strange and wrong.
Black tie. Black shoes. Black coat. Black trousers.
In the morning he had bent to tie his laces and frozen there. He put one lace over the other. He crossed them and crissed them back. His breath failed him as he looked at his knuckles, the one he could see. They were strange, not the knuckles he had once known, not the knuckles of a man and a husband, a father to be, a protector, a provider, now they were the knuckles of a ghost. Bloody and bruised but you should see the other guy. He had punched the wall so hard one of his fingers broke and now he wasn’t in all black. He regretted that. Black was sombre. White wasn’t. he was cast.
He had been rushed to the same hospital that his daughter had died in that his wife had gone to when she committed the ultimate betrayal. The smell of antiseptic made him howl louder than any setting of a bone could. They had thought him crazy then. Everyone except the doctor who had delivered his wife delivered but not saved. He had looked at him with eyes full of compassion. Only compassion, no understanding and he was glad of that, glad that the doctor knew that he would never understand what this man was going through. After his cast had been set the doctor came and gave him a bottle of vodka.
He had been angry at this man once, he still was, he had anger enough for everyone but there was a special place for one being. He thought of something he had read once, he couldn’t remember where, his eyes were bleary and his head foggy, his heart had sank to the pits of hell but the passage came shining through “…like medical missionaries with little patience for theology, each concentrating hard on the one baby before them, knowing and not saying that God wouldn’t do a god-damned thing to help. That for fifty thousand Ibo infant lives he wouldn’t bother to send rain.”*
He had never really believed before. Not before that pain and scream soaked day. Not before he had that ambiguous word that nobody wants to before their child is delivered. Complications. That word was too small. It couldn’t capture the magnitude of what it meant. It meant death. He had known it then when the doctor came out with that grim look on his face and said complications. He didn’t need to be told what would happen. He knew it was over. He said goodbye to Lilah then. He left and walked, wondering who to be angry at and then he prayed. He shouldn’t have. He should never have.
Religion lives on hope. It feeds on it like some junkie. Without hope there is no faith and for one faulty moment he hoped. He knelt and his heart screamed out its anguish. He felt the presence of God in that moment. He felt something move inside him and he thought that meant it would be OK. Then he felt something else and he knew, in that moment he knew. He had prayed and received an answer immediately. He cursed like it was his job. Like Job should have. God’s only excuse is that he doesn’t exist said Stendhal. The guards came to see what was wrong. Then they saw his face. They looked in his eyes and there was only despair there. They feared him. The three of them who had guns and sticks. They were scared of looking too long in his face.
In a little while too small a while he went to his wife’s bedside. She looked sick. She was suffering and he could see it. But she didn’t know and he couldn’t bring himself to wake her and tell her. The doctor came in and didn’t have to say a word. He had been working here too long to question the mystical connection blood seemed to carry; he didn’t ask him how he knew he just nodded and left. He knew he wasn’t welcome.
The clothes, the clothes they had bought in moments of love, the small clothes. The small shoes, the small socks, the small bonnet, the small… he couldn’t think of its name that pullover thing babies wear that has no zips. That too. He would have to put it over Lilah’s small body and cover her with it, prepare her for death. He thought about that. He thought about funerals and arrangements, about the difficulties in finding a small coffin, he thought about having to send out invites to all the people who had given him love. Small tasks occupied his mind. He had to tell his wife that her child was dead and he couldn’t think of that. He would have to break her heart he thought. He didn’t want to break her heart, he wanted to preserve it, but her eyes fluttered open.
Through the haze of drugs she saw her husband and saw his tears. Misunderstanding She was filled with love, the love of a newborn mother who sees that the father of her child loves the child just as much. She wanted to hold her baby and she whispered “where’s Delilah?” tears of joy look just like tears of sorrow but the sounds can never confuse, not when its real anguish.
Was all he could choke out. Then she was glad she had the drugs in her. She was glad she had screamed with pain before and that all that morphine was in her. She was glad of this one small thing. She closed her eyes but this kind of pain breaks down the strongest of walls. It tears them down and makes a mockery of all kind of defences. She had nightmares that night. Strange nightmares. She saw her daughter speak her first word. Saw her first step. Took her to school, listened in on their first real argument the one that shook the walls of the house. She saw her first boyfriend and hated him, she saw the heartbreak her child would have endured and then she saw the smile of happiness as Delilah told her about the man she would marry. She dreamt a life and when she saw Delilah give birth she woke up screaming. Screaming and screaming and she wouldn’t stop.
She was a ghost from then on. For 2 days she walked the earth no longer pregnant. She sat down in Delilah’s things and cried. She walked to the hospital, she went to her room on the tenth floor and then she went to see her daughter. She had too much to teach her. And as she jumped out and the ground rushed up to reach her the tears streamed up her face, falling up her chin.
Next to her body they found the white and black picture of Delilah still in her mummy’s stomach, the blood had flowed onto it so that it looked like she was drowning in blood.
When her husband was called by the hospital the last bit of him broke. He took it out on the wall, he took it out on himself. He took it out on her. His love withered and died just like him. He refused to be involved in her death. He didn’t want to know about the funeral arrangements there. He couldn’t bring himself too. He was alone and he knew it. Everyone leaves and turns into leaves.
He buried his daughter. He buried his sorrow. He buried his humanity and then he went to see her. Just one small thing he thought as he swallowed the pill. Just one small thing.
Too small, he couldn’t feel it go down his throat, too small he couldn’t believe she was gone, too small. She was so small was the last thought he had before he went to join his family.
* From Hannibal by Thomas Harris(i could remembere where i read it.)
I was talking to this Greek guy and he told me one difference between ancient and Modern Greek, in ancient Greek words weren’t just words, they carried weight and concepts and whole philosophies behind them. So to use the word sacrifice for example one had to call to mind love and pain and tragedy it was not just a word you used. The purpose of language was twofold, to communicate and to philosophise, to state what you want to say and to state your point of view of the world as a whole physical and metaphysical. Swahili does that sometimes. Think of the word ushago. On the surface this just means home but it goes deeper, it’s not just the home you call home, it’s not your house in the city with your family and friends, and instead it’s your real home. The one in the countryside, the one that carries gallons of your blood and kilos of your flesh. The word carries with it a concept designed to combat the alienation and isolation that surely faced the first generation of rural~urban migrants. It told you that there was a real home waiting for you once you went and did what you had to. That first generation had children, children who grew up in the city, children who only knew the city, divorced from the culture of ushago and al that goes with it. Children who feel alienated and isolated there instead of here. But still they used the word ushago, diluting it and changing it making it false. At least that’s how I feel. I don’t call it ushago, not in my mind at least, my ushago is Nairobi, and Gwassi is where my father was born.
I visited it for the last time two years ago
It’s by the lake, right by the lake. Lake Victoria I should say. The mystical source of the great river. There are islands dotted all over the place, Migingo is a motor boat ride away from the place, there are also a lot of close islands, one of which is called Kiwa and was the source of a visit my cousin and I paid. There is no ferry to Kiwa. The traffic is not that demanding. Instead there is a boat that fits about thirty and rocks its way there. The boat is nothing special, wood carved to make a hollow that floats on water on the back of which is a motor that pushes it along on those occasions when the wind takes leave of its sails. You sit on these benches 5 apiece and wait to be taken across. At the beginning of the trip there is sound coming from everyone. The conductor demanding payment, the people making fun of us city-goers as we cramp in and try in vain to fit in. but the lake must be heard and soon all this noise fades away, slowly, slowly, ever so slowly it ebbs like colour from cloth. A dark hue of noise becomes the white grey of quiet that is only possible near a large body of water. The silence of the wind finds your ears and that silence is one of the most beautiful songs nature can play you. The violin of the orchestra, when its peaceful its unobtrusive telling you stories and singing songs of yore. A wealth of age and experience exists in that silence and as if on cue everyone sits quiet to listen and to look. As if to add to the experience the motor died on our way back resulting in out sitting and twiddling our thumbs worried for that irrational minute that all landlubbers have when at water that we would never make it back.
On Kiwa we experienced a different lifestyle to even the rest of Gwassi. A pancake shaped island no bigger than a twenty acres it had a law unto its own that such places seem to. There was fish frying in pans all over the place. This was for the evening meals and we could see it since the demarcation between market place and commercial area and the rest of the place was purely theoretical on our way to the one bar we found housewives frying fish just outside their homes in huge pans within smelling distance of the marijuana we could whiff being smoked openly since the police never come here. We bought fried fish at 5 shs. Each asked for some salt and went to sit by the shore of the lake and listen some more to the song of the lake as we enjoyed our meal
Give it enough time and Lake Victoria turns into the river Nile.
It’s hard to explain the sheer size of the Nile. It’s the second biggest river in the world, a life giver to two of the biggest countries in Africa but what does this mean? It means it’s huge. I can remember the first time I saw it flowing through the streets of Cairo. It looks like a lake is finding its way through the city; the waters have millions of little waves in an expanse that takes the space of ten highways. A map of Egypt shows cities built near the river hugging their mother afraid to let go. The railway runs almost parallel to it since this is where everything is found and yet it’s still impossible to fathom the necessity of this river until you have an aerial view. In Luxor we climbed the hill that separates the Valley of the Kings from the temple of queen hochipsou. At the top of the hill you were treated to great views, a mountain where my name is now carved stands there making me feel like the explorers of yore. At the top you can also see the land before you, desert and sand. Desserts are bright; they hurt your eyes as they burn you up. The sun bleaches the sand leeching it of all colour so that the assault on your eyes is now twofold, the blaze on top and its reflection below. Suddenly the desert stops and before you there is a lush green plantation, forests and plants, the power of irrigation, a kilometre in there is the Nile again and a kilometre past the desert. There is no preparation for the change in fauna from white to green and back to white again, it just happens. Immediately its green, the Nile, green, immediately it’s white.
The previous night we had taken a Nile boat known as a faluka to the other side of Luxor, the west bank on the promise of a good shisha place. We piled into the boat and the quiet of the water settled on us too. I looked out over the water to the millions of little waves frolicking. Calm waters have more waves than turbulent ones. There is no huge show of strength, the kind that takes swimmers back to the shore instead there are millions of little ripples. Creases on a cheaply laundered suit. It speaks of untold power all these ripples. A certain wiry strength you find in people who have grown up farming. The Nile tells you of strength and history. A river that gave rise to Pharaohs and pyramids, to an elaborate seven thirty one god religion, an almost indecipherable language and temples as colossal as the debt Egypt owes this river. Yet it doesn’t shout out its significance, it doesn’t spend its time trying to make you understand its importance. Its unassumption is enough.
We got to the other side as the stars sank into complacence, content to twinkle in place till sunrise. We sat down and ordered our shisha. One thing most people will be surprised about when they go to Luxor is the prevalence of hashish. It’s everywhere in every offer as if it’s all tourists do, hashisha[my own term] is quite common and offered to takers on the west bank.
Our eclectic group of internationals sat down and got to talking, pretty soon the conversation turned to the dangers of the Nile more specifically crocodiles.
“…actually my brother killed a crocodile in the Amazon. He just went up to it and cut off its head, they’re very lazy after they have been eating and you can just walk up to it and cut off its head. Thwack!” said the Brazilian.
“My father killed a guinea pig by mistake once.”~Briton.
“Is this really the time to bring up a dead guinea pig?”~Greek
Like all things this night too came to an end. The smoke in the shisha turned to naught, the drinks in our glass became the drinks in our stomachs and the words in our mouths became yawns. We piled back into the faluka and began our journey back up the river.
There are several ways to get a ticket on a train in Egypt. You can buy one in advance at the train station, you can book one online using the train website or you can enter the train and buy a ticket halfway through your journey.
Every method has its advantages and disadvantages. Buying in advance is great except that they only sell first class tickets to foreigners the guidebooks warn. Booking is perfect as on the internet no one knows your nationality. The only problem comes in when it holiday time. They have amazing holidays here, religious days that dwarf our most elaborately extended Easter weekends. One of these is known in English as the holiday of the sacrifice. It celebrates the anniversary of Ibrahim having enough faith in god to sacrifice Isaac. Because of the sudden appearance of a ram thousands of years ago there is now a four day holiday, stretching the weekend from 2 days to 6, meaning you come back to work on a day before going back to the next weekend. This is a travelling holiday, book a ticket weeks in advance if you want one,otherwise get on the train and buy one.
We were leaving for a few days in Luxor and Aswan, tourist destinations places to see ancient temples and tombs, valleys of kings and their sarcophagi, colossal statues and ancient graffiti. I decided to go with my flatmates on the day of, they didn’t have train tickets either and the romanticism of getting on a train and going to a place 12 hours away without a ticket was intriguing to me. We left the house and got to the train station early, the train system in Egypt is embarrassingly punctual, it stands in stark contrast to everything else in the country, we got on the train at ten t midnight. The spaces between the coaches were already occupied. The line of space where the restaurant was located was already filling up but the seats were empty. Being hopelessly optimistic we got on the seats and sat down for a while. There is something about knowing that you could be asked to vacate your seat at any moment that makes you wary. Every person passing by could be the one who asks you to stand. Every stranger making eye contact could spell doom to your carefully arranged albeit stolen comfort. Every hale greeting feels like a prelude to a hurty awakening.
We left Cairo train station with no problem we got to Giza and in a matter of minutes we were all standing and shivering. This is when things began to make sense, the jigsaw began to take shape. My minds eye saw the dark silhouettes huddling in the spaces between the coaches, hugging their knees and already shivering, it made sense of the the fact that all the tickets were already booked, it remembered that al the tickets had been booked on this eid and this meant I was going to stand for the next few hours. By the time we had been asked to stand up things had coalesced and people had crystallised into shape in various places, the chairs near the ends of the coach have a space between them and this space had already being taken in every coach. The best bet is the line of space in the compartment that holds the kitchen but this was the worst time for that bet. Finally the girls found a place to stand, the Greek and I had to stand in the smoking section, the smoking section was the place between the two carriages, close to it is the connecting axle. This is a noisy nearly unsafe part of the train, it swings back and forth as the train moves and if you look down you see the rails replacing each other with swift immediacy. The wind blows in at every opportunity ad the train sways unable to stay in place.
“you and I are going to have to have a very long conversation” he said.
It was cold and cramped, tight and terrible, smoky and suffocating. Everyone in Egypt smokes, those who don’t inhale enough second hand smoke to kill a lung. A train with compartments built to fit fifty and actually holding nearly double that number where the only smoking zone is this tiny rooms , the hall outside the t toilet and the metal above the axe will have people coming and going, lighting up and putting out cigarettes at all hours of the night. Smokers a re friendly no matter what anyone says. They start to smoke and see that your hands are empty and your mouth suspiciously lazy. They think about all the times they have heard that second hand smoke is actually worse than first hand smoke and they move to remedy this situation. They take out an extra cigarette and hold it out to you. They put it in your hand and your refusal is met with something akin to anger “don’t you know am only trying to save your life?” their bewildered expression at your refusal seems to say.
In spaces that cosy conversations sprout wings and take flight, the near dark of a 2 by .5 room in which seven strangers are packed together lends itself to conversation. Luckily there was one Arab there who could speak English, we took advantage of this train ride to quiz him on Egypt and his life and he took advantage to find out all he could about the differences between British and American English, “prison and jail? What’s the difference, which one is American?” he would suddenly say when there was a lull in the conversation concerning the most important aspect of marriage, the money, the feeling of readiness or the girl. He served a as translator for the other people. He mumbled something once and I couldn’t quite make it out. He repeated it in Arabic
“allamdullilah.[peace be upon you.].”
“oh I said,” finally understanding, “shalom?”
“no, no, no, don’t say that here. We use that as a joke.”
this provided another glimpse into the feelings that Egypt has towards their neighbours the Israelis. Here among most citizens there is no question of the rightness of the Palestinian cause and the corresponding failing morality of the Israelis, I as tempted to play devil’s advocate but I couldn’t courage failing me in this place so far away from home.
Then the waiter came by with a tray filled with glasses. The glasses were filled with water, the water was filled with heat. There are very few mugs in Egypt is one thing you realise after a while. Tea is drank from glasses, the rims of the glasses are held carefully as its possible to come away with a contact burn. A tray was stacked with these glasses, dozens, OK maybe 2 dozen. The smoke could be seen steaming off them and the trays swayed this way and that, the rocking of a boat that you are assured will never spill its contents but there’s a reason for seasickness, every once in a while the world gives us an opportunity to use that harsh word capsize. So every time the waiter would pass y holding the tray aloft and pass through our little section completely confident in his capabilities, every time he would have to stop because there were people littering his path, three by the door, two asleep, one sleeping for 2 minute snatcher before he was woken up because the door had to be opened, every time the waiter spent more time in this cramped little place we had carved out for ourselves and had to kick someone awake in order to pass, the whole time the train snaking through Egypt I held my breath. “kids and children, which one is American?”
Four hours later I was still on my feet. My ankles ached and hurt, my eyes drooped and shrunk, my words slurred and slowed. I was exhausted. Tired of standing, tired of talking, tired of cigarettes, tired of telling myself over and over again that this was an experience worth having. Comfort is an experience worth having! Desperation began to assault my brain, climbing over the walls of the fort I had built, replacing rational thought as the master of the castle. Just let go. Was my first thought. My eyes close, my heart slowed and I was… jerked awake by the swaying of the train. With an envy green enough to stop global warming I coolly regarded the lucky people. At this point the lucky people weren’t even the ones with seats, I didn’t think of them, their heaven being too inaccessible to my present state, the lucky people were the ones stacked in spaces between seats, in nooks next to walls, in crannies near corners, curled up into balls with no barrier between them and the metal below. All I wanted was this space. I roamed the train hungrily looking for a place to sit for a while. I would enter a coach and see someone sitting in an impossible space and my brain would light up sincerely with flattery. I would ran to the next compartment and look for a similar position ad find it had already been taken by two. “who pronounces the r’s, ameircans? British?”
At this point conversation had lost its lather but it was ll I had. I was dragged by my translator to have a conversation with one of his cousins who was always willing to learn about other religions. All I could think was that I needed a seat, he asked me to explain the difference between protestants and Catholics. My mind clutched at strands, shall I tell him that dogmatically the Nicene creed holds all we have similar and the main difference is the veneration of Mary and the institution of sainthood? Should I give a historical answer that takes into account the triad of the corruption of the church in medieval times, the appearance of a printing press and greater literacy and the charisma of one martin Luther? And how well will this all translate into Arabic? This I could do while fully awake, this is how my mid should have worked, the proper train of thought but I was tired and my thoughts were more like the creed is a good prayer explains everything, I need to sleep.. I wonder if there is space over there… martin Luther, not king he did stuff… there looks to be space over there… people can read… I read before I sleep, I need to go check out that space, will he understand my Arabic? Instead of being given leave I was asked harder and harder questions. Will Abraham go to heaven though he didn’t know Jesus? In the bible it says Jesus died but I can’t accept that Allah died, if god was dead what was there? Nothing tell me that. A question that needed an explanation of the trinity and me without my shamrock leaf! I muttered some ncomprehensibles. Gave the best explanation I could thinking if Christianity had me as its last defence we would have gone over to the Greek side of things a long time ago.
Time dragged on ever more slowly. Cigarettes were foisted on me at every opportunity with an insistence I found increasingly hard to turn down, attempts were made to sleep in the toilet and finally as a reward for taking about God I was allowed a seat by my inquisitor. My eyes closed for a flutter before he asked me to give it back, ninety minutes having passed I did just this. My mouth was too dry to talk now. The sun had began to peek into the train having been told by the moon of the exhaustion etched on the faces of the occupants. Now I swayed back and forth actively avoiding conversation, looking to hibernate. Finally people began to leave and a seat was vacated next to me. I sat in closed my eyes and…
Have you ever wondered how it feels to be constantly hungry? How it feels to be constantly wanting food and never getting enough? Am not talking about starving, am talking about getting basic nutritional requirements but in such small quantities that its never enough? If you have wondered go on an unpaid intern-ship to another country.
Egypt is a land of contradictions. A consumerist society with a KFC, Mcdonalds, GAD, Adidas and Nike stores, Vero Morda and Gucci everywhere while still maintaining the kind of spiritualism that means when the prayer bell rings everyone in their car switches off the music, possessed of vast subways system and a road network complete with a ring road which is the 120 km plus highway but still owning maddening traffic and matatus, a tourist haven with foreigners on every street that still speaks in a language inaccessible to all but the most determined, a middle eastern country found in Africa, a stable nation pock~marked with revolutions and wars.” A state led by a secretive military council brought to power by a revolution based on demands for democracy, rule of law and an end to corruption.” *
So my intern-ship had to be filled with contradictions. Once in a while I’ll go out to the Armada or another nice place and spend like there’s no tomorrow and then tomorrow comes and I realise am not being paid, I have to eat, which means am not going to be eating much for that day or for the ones that follow. I wake up and boil a glass of water, a glass because my new flat has no cups, I pour the water into the glass add nescafe and add sugar. Not too much sugar, this isn’t because of any health reasons, its partly since if all this sugar finishes I won’t be buying any more but the real reason I add such a measly amount of the white powder is I want my coffee bitter. No I don’t like my coffee bitter I don’t even like coffee. But I know caffeine provides a kick in the morning plus drinking something means I have an excuse to sit and read for a bit before I leave. The reason I want my coffee bitter is because this taste gives it meaning. It adds substance, Am not drinking a glass of water any more, now am taking nutrients, something that can fill my stomach, life is a placebo effect.
I finish my coffee and feel hungry, very hungry but the budget for the week is almost gone. I put this out of my mind and walk to the metro station. I get in and stand patiently. Get off at the station near tahrir square and start the long trek to work. Cairo is a supremely confusing city, its huge, it has to be to swallow up twenty million people, it has to have twisting intricate streets, it has to be so confusing that the cab drivers routinely ask for directions. To combat this I have mapped out a way to work. Landmarks to follow until the next landmark and I walk this route feeling hungry. Thinking about how hungry I am when I smell something off to the left.
That’s shisha. Am off shisha for a while but the smell is tempting. Here shisha is cheaper than food, I could have two smokes before I afford a proper meal but something tells me that using money on drugs while my stomach rumbles is a sign of the end of days also am on my way to work. Walking along I see a beggar on the street and in front of the she has some fries, healthy looking fries, beautiful, golden yellow potatoes dipped in oil and I salivate, things are bad
I sit in front of the computer and feel hungry. I try to work. I really do. Am meant to be reading up on the Sinai region of Egypt. A place with a Bedouin culture that doesn’t buy into the pharoanic heritage that is the glue of unity in the country, a region near Gaza whose security is dependent on the state of Palestine which is always volatile. This kind of thing is always interesting but my stomach rumbles and I can’t really concentrate on Palestine’s troubles. Its 11 in the morning. I could leave now for lunch, no supervision now, but if I leave a t 11 I’ll be hungry by 1105. No I will save the 5 minutes of satisfaction for 1 pm.
The same thoughts repeat themselves except 11 becomes 12.
it’s lunchtime, I walk down the street to a GAD, my stomach has that tightness of being well toned, this is usually one of my favourite things about being hungry, my stomach becomes rock hard and I feel good to feel fit, but now it’s a constant a Viagra like side effect.
I have foul a sandwich made of mashed beans wrapped in bread, it tastes interesting, not good but interesting and its cheap. It fills me up and before I leave the restaurant I’m hungry again.
I sit in the office and fight my way to go time and get ready to leave. Am on the streets. You don’t want to be hungry on the streets of Cairo, there is food everywhere, people roasting meat and chicken, spaghetti, foul, falafel and everyone is eating except me.
I have a theory about how to tell if a city will accept you. Drink its water. The water of a city goes everywhere, there’s nothing more intricate and far reaching than the drainage system. It enters the houses of the high and powerless, it gets into offices and hotels buildings, its below your feet and in the walls around your ears. It rushes along without a stop for lights or traffic or even because the president is passing by. (In Egypt we say military commander, because well read the news.) It is the city’s life blood in a very literal sense. Life rushes before its triple molecule, life is brought along with its dust and impurities, in its bacteria and viruses. If you can drink the water of a city you are in. also it saves a lot of money. I can dink Cairo’s water, being Kenyan not a lot of different kinds of water can make me sick
Dinner is a chicken burger(sharwerma) which is actually almost as cheap as the foul. Just like the foul it leaves me hungering for more. I reach for a glass of water and swallow some in the hopes that I won’t be hungry any more but then that wouldn’t be me in Egypt would it?
* not my phrase but found in the article its linked to just seemed to match the general tone too much.
Where I lay my heart is my home, am a rolling stone.-50 cent
I was first introduced to the concept of a memory palace by an article that a friend of mine sent me in the last days of law school. It’s an ancient Greek invention, thought up by a guy who survived an earthquake at a dinner party. He found that afterwards he could remember all the people who were there by placing them in his minds in the seats they had occupied at the party. The concept is simple, the results are astounding. Bring to mind a structure you know like the back of your hand, for most people their childhood home is best. It has to be a place you can close your eyes and move around in your mind without making one mistake. In every room in this palace you then place a memory of something, its best to do this by using association rather than the actual words and figures.
I had forgotten about it till I read Hannibal by Thomas Harris. You see Dr. Lecter maintains a memory palace, his is extensive and airy, it contains works of classical art and architecture,he stores everything that happens there and thus has superhuman recall ability. Consider his remembering Clarice Starling’s address,
a parade in Arlington cemetery led by Jesus thirty three, driving a twenty seven model t~ford truck, a “tin lizzie,” with J. Edgar Hoover standing in the truck bed wearing a tutu and waving to an unseen crowd, marching behind him is Clarice Starling carrying a .308 enfield rifle at shoulder arms. Translation?
Her address is
Arlington, VA 22308.
That’s how they work.
Well, am moving tonight, I got the call to pack up and get ready in 2 hours, my last flatmate left this morning and for a glorious 12 hours I had a two bedroomed apartment all to myself, this kind of thing doesn’t last very long in my life. Also I can’t live alone, I never had my own room till I came to Egypt and I can’t stand the solitude of my own apartment. One day I came home early and couldn’t sleep, I looked out of my window at the red sky and it felt ominous, for the first time since I came here I was anxious and scared, what if something happens? I asked myself. In the morning she was back and so it was OK. Another thing every time a flatmate leaves they take a small something with them, a trinket that without which life becomes unbearable. This could be read to mean I fell in love with both of them and a piece of my soul is missing but it’s not so. The first one went back to Italy with the only key to the apartment leaving us hermits for a day, this one went with the lighter. The cigarette lighter we use to turn on the gas cooker. Charading my way to an understanding that I need a lighter is past my capabilities. So I can’t warm water for tea, I can’t cook, its impossible to live without fire.
Still I’m sad. This apartment could be a memory palace for me already, I’ve been here barely 2 weeks and i made it home. Cities resemble disorganised human beings in that they spread to their outskirts taking over more and more of the surrounding area, they envelop whatever space is left to occupy, slums and tin shacks, shanty towns and nomad like shelters pockmark the surrounding country side, a chaotic person does the same,they begin by living out of a suitcase then they spread, they leave their clothes everywhere, find a method to madness that is the shoe brush under the bed, the dirty clothes on the floor, the soap next to the sugar and so forth. My room looked like a hurricane was still passing through it and this made me feel at home.
When I leave the house I turn right and press the button for the elevator, I turn left and press the other one, I take out my wallet as I wait and put my key in its abode. When the lift comes I enter it and go down, there I’ll see the landlord, he lives in a small room on the ground floor, it has enough space for his bed and for him to tumble out of it. “izzayek!” I call with a smile.
Then I leave and turn left, then right down an alleyway I wouldn’t think of walking down if I was in Kenya. The first business I come into contact with is the shisha bar. There’s a young boy who works there, I bonded with him since he can understand English, I wave to the owner and smile. he doesn’t smile back but he’s not a smiley sort of guy, he looks up from his shisha long enough to acknowledge me and this is enough. I start down the road to the metro, in the next two hundred metres I’ll see nearly fifty businesses selling everything. Food, medicine, household supplies at least 5 more shisha bars. Dozens of young schoolgirls all similarly garbed in a white hijab walkthrough here taking their time getting to school crowding all the places to buy food. Then comes to the road down which cars are always speeding. Then the subway station.
But I leave all this behind today. I went to the shisha bar for the last time and they all greeted me, I was served my shisha and I sat there for the last time, I looked around at the bar and its patrons. The old men who sit and smoke and play at all times of the night. The smoke left my nostrils and I knew I would never see this place again. I wanted to say goodbye desperately. These were my friends but my poor Arabic stopped me. What words do you use for “i’m moving so I want to say goodbye forever.” I have no idea so I smoked. Puffing and puffing away, hearing these sounds as I prepared to pack.
Packing took maybe ten minutes, it’s strange how few the things we need to make a house a home. My suitcase sits on my bed bulging and satisfied and I sit next to it as empty as my apartment. Am excited about where am going, new flatmates and all that but I can’t help feeling like am losing something. Unlike my flatmates who always took something away from this apartment I feel like its taking something away from me. But at least I’ll always have another memory palace.