– Midwest Book Review says…
“This annual collection of great stories from the road comes from various award-winning writers – including Solas Awards winners – and represents the best in travel literature writing, making it a powerful pick for any library strong in travel writing. The Best Travel Writing 2008: True Stories From Around the World presents accounts of encounters from villages to mountains, cruisers to African cities, and is simply outstanding, involving reading for any armchair enthusiast.”
Night, the Desert and a Car
It was Ramadan, and there was a quiet listlessness among the general population, probably because everyone was hungry all day, and thirsty in the heat. There were few people on the street of Cairo in the heat of the early morning. My brother, Martin, had arrived the night before, and late the next day we set off for the Nile Sheraton to rent a car. All they had was an uninspiring Fiat of some vintage, but we took it and headed out of the Sheraton’s parking lot. Our first stop was a music store just off Maidan Tahrir. Here we found all of the recent Egyptian hits, garishly displayed. Being badly versed in contemporary Egyptian Music we made a couple of blind guesses, and just for luck took their entire offerings of the Beatles, which, apart from Madonna and some Michael Jackson, and a series entitled “Late Night Sax,” was about all of the recognizable western music the store offered.
Cairo traffic even in Ramadan, is not the easiest traffic in the world to navigate. It has an organic quality in which traffic truly “flows” somewhat like water, except more damaging when you come into contact with it—the constituent molecules do not blend quite as seamlessly. We battled our way out of town on the tail end of the rush hour, amidst decrepit trucks laden with camels, tied a hundred ways, sheep, chicken and goats. These jostled side by side with black Mercedii and other smooth luxury automobiles of the economic elite, public buses with people hanging off the sides, and the incessant whining of mopeds with frantic, two-cylinder engines. Under a railway bridge we noticed a long string of railway cars, out of whose windows poked the heads of camels, all expressing the same resigned bewilderment at what was happening to them. These were probably being transported from Upper Egypt, Aswan and the Sudan. The big camel market in Imbaba is a terminal for many of the camel traders from the Sudan who walk their herds sometimes hundreds of miles across the desert to bring them, emaciated and bone-dry, to the northern markets. Camels end up being distributed all over Egypt’s Nile delta, and to the oases, and the farming communities along the Nile.
In the thickening night, we passed the naked gas lamps of local markets selling pomegranates, figs, dates, pigeons; small cafes in nondescript concrete buildings, doors open to reveal a few elderly men in grubby galebeyas, sucking on shishas and playing Backgammon. Ragged, flickering Coca-Cola or Seven Up signs added a splash of color to the darkness. Outside, young boys in rags chewed on unidentifiable foodstuffs. Mangy stray dogs lumbered across the streets. At a traffic light, suspended above the road on a wire swinging in the night breeze, we heard the evening call to prayer howling from a nearby minaret. Some drivers pulled over and, hazard lights flashing in the twilight, unrolled their prayer mats on the side of the road, and stood facing south east towards Mecca, the city where, fourteen hundred odd years ago, a merchant named Muhammad started receiving messages from God.
We drove on through scrubby desert in the darkness, passing the occasional gas station or roadside convenience store. There was not much to see. We could dimly make out the shadows of some sandy hills away to the South. We were heading across a relatively empty stretch of desert towards Isma’iliyya, and the Suez Canal, to cross over onto the Sinai Peninsula. Then we were to drive across the peninsular and through the mountainous interior, and arrive in Dhabab, a small seaside community on the Eastern coast of the Sinai. We drove monotonously along a straight two-lane road, the White Album issuing from the two tinny speakers under the dashboard. Soon we spotted the flicker of oil wells burning off gas on the horizon; strangely eerie torches rising from the sand and disgorging heat and light. There were no towns around here, just a few works buildings, and little traffic. From time to time one of the ubiquitous Peugeot station wagons that are used as shared taxis flew by, turning off their headlights altogether as they approached. For several seconds they would careen towards us in darkness and then they were gone, their lights diminishing into the night behind us.
As we approached Ismailiya, the town through which Michael passed on his way to the jail in Cairo, our Fiat suddenly died, without warning and without melodrama, just a loss of power and an end to all electrical activity—The Liverpudlian musical commentary brutally silenced. It was about 11:30 pm, and there was no traffic whatsoever on the road. About ten miles away we could see a few glittering lights, what probably amounted to an oil company out-station, and beyond it some more illumination on the horizon, probably Isma’illiya itself. We tried to turn the car over again, but there was no juice whatsoever. The car had coasted to a standstill on a sandy island in the middle of the road. We smoked while as we wondered what to do, and discussed, while surveying the considerably empty desert, whether the Sheraton had a roadside emergency unit in the neighborhood. Even if they did, we had no way to alert them to our problem.
Twenty minutes passed and then we saw a figure walking towards us out of the desert. He was a small man dressed in a dark galabeyya and tattered running shoes. He looked at the car and then at us, and said, with a twist of the wrist, “Broken down?” We nodded and asked him absurdly where the nearest phone might be, looking hopelessly around us at the emptiness. He turned and looked back into the desert from where he had just appeared, and pointed at the nothingness, “Not far. Just there.” Peering into the gloom, we could see nothing, no lights, no buildings, no suggestion that there might have been a telephone for tens of miles. Maybe he had a cell phone in the saddlebag of his mule somewhere. “Follow me,” he said with another hand gesture. Seeing as there was precious little else to do, we dutifully stubbed out our cigarettes and, shouldering the bag, which held our money and passports, we fell in line behind our guide. For a good fifteen minutes we walked over what seemed to be a huge field of sand. As our eyes grew accustomed to the darkness we began to make out some mountains ahead of us. Certainly there would be no phone there, in those inhospitable, barren hills. In fact the only lights visible seemed to be in the opposite direction, the other side of the road.
Martin came up behind me. “Do you think we should be following him, there’s nothing here. Maybe he has some friends waiting behind a rock somewhere…” His caution hit a nerve, and I ran up to our guide, and asked him, with some anxiety, where, exactly, this supposed phone was. He gestured ahead of us, apparently to the mountains, and said, “no problem, no problem, a little more…” Martin, still at my shoulder, looked ahead.
“What did he say?”
“He said its just up there,” mimicking the man’s flick of the wrist. We walked some more in silence, and Martin repeated, urgently, “Look. There’s nothing there, for Christ’s sake! It obvious this is not about a telephone. I think we should turn around.” We stopped as the man disappeared into lightlessness, and we looked at each other, and looked around for the fiftieth time, and I could not put my finger on why, but I didn’t feel anxious. I knew that I should have— all the evidence suggested that Martin was right. I had a vision of us from five hundred feet up in the sky; two bemused Europeans standing in the desert, fifty miles from the nearest settlement, a dead car behind us and a live guide ahead and a dilemma all around. I looked to see if any brigands were hot on our heels. Then I looked for any outcrops of rocks, behind which death in the form of a blade-wielding Bedouin might have been lurking.
“Look at us,” Martin said. “We’re easy prey for anyone who cares to attack us.” I thought of Michael’s experience in prison and his stern warning about how, in the Third World, you can easily slip under the thin net of security from where there is no escape, and disappear without trace.
“I dunno,” I said, and I made to keep walking. “D’you think we should just turn around? I guess it might be wise.” Both of us were racking our brains to figure out what he could have been up to, in the light of the apparent reality that there was no phone in sight. Were we in for a ten-mile walk, or was there some other explanation that we simply could not imagine? This situation seemed vaguely familiar. We were suffering from a lack of information, and my experience in Egypt so far had told me that there are many things that I had simply failed to imagine, ways that the story might be resolved that had entirely escaped me. So part of me was not too concerned, happy to keep trudging after the guide and see what materialized, mirage-like from the sands. But part of me was in rational agreement with Martin; I could not see where the guide was going. Should we risk making fools of ourselves by bolting and leaving him, bewildered, standing by some unimagined pay phone in the middle of the desert? I ran to catch up with him again, wanting to quiz him further before abandoning him.
“Hey, wait a minute,” I said to him. “Look, there is no telephone here, these are mountains…please tell us where you are going?”
He muttered something I didn’t fully understand, something to do with a “base, with telephones,” and urged us to keep following him. For another couple of minutes we kept walking, Martin muttering behind me and looking around vigilantly. As we were preparing to ditch our guide, however, we noticed a faint light coming out of the ground a little way ahead of us. Around the light was a simple square of concrete with a bulkhead on top of it. It looked as if someone had dropped it here from the back of a flatbed truck. On closer inspection, it proved to be the entrance of a stairway. Our guide stood at the top of it holding the bulkhead door open and smiling broadly, as if he’d just taken us to the Sheraton Hotel, and gestured into the bowels of the earth. We both stood at the top of the stairway and looked down. There was some bright light at the bottom of the stairs, and it seemed to have a concrete floor. Was this some little known Pharaoh’s tomb? As we stood there I could hear voices, the scrape of a chair, someone laughing.
“Maybe its an illegal gambling den,” Martin offered. The guide, impatient with these two sheepish foreigners, descended the stairway. We had one final look around at the dusty dim landscape with the mountains towering above us, and went down after him.
Inside we found a huge room, one wall of which was a solid telephone exchange with wires going in and coming out, lights of all different colors blinking and flashing. In the center of the room was a large table around which sat five or six soldiers in the usual ill-fitting uniforms, with trouser legs coming up to their calves and sleeves up to their elbows. These were clearly not the elite guard. The table was covered with half-empty glasses of tea, paper bags with the remains of felafel and foule sandwiches, bottles of Seven Up, the remains of a Ramadan feast. One or two soldiers were sitting at their stations at the wall, with headphones on, chatting away. Our guide made a sweeping gesture of the room, as if he was introducing us to Aladdin’s cave itself, and fixed us with a cheeky told-you-so kind of stare. Some of the soldiers looked up, and a couple come over and asked us what we wanted. The old man mediated for us, and after they had listened to him, one turned to us and said in English, “Would you like to use the telephone?’ They politely offered us some tea as they asked us our story. We gave them the details of the car, our plan to get to Dhahab, and they had no problem with this. Michael’s story came back to me and I wondered whether they were going to start asking for papers. Luckily, however, most of the soldiers were too absorbed in their backgammon or paper-reading to be much interested in us. But it occurred to me that this must be a fairly important communications post, near the sensitive Suez Canal, and not far from the Israeli border. Finally we gave them the name of the Sheraton Hotel, and sat down to drink a cup of sweet black tea, as their telecommunications experts placed a call to Cairo.
“Looks like we’ve come to the right place,” Martin observed, all dark fantasies of death and brigandry dissipated, as he found himself back in the lap of the authorities who were on his side.
“Right,” I agreed. “If there’s one place to find a telephone that would be here.”
We made small talk to some of the soldiers for a while and then the soldier who had gone off to contact the Sheraton Hotel returned.
“Sorry. All lines busy. Too busy to get through tonight. Sorry. No good.”
We looked at him in astonishment. Speechless.
“You mean you can’t make a phone call to Cairo from here? In the middle of the night?” Martin asked, incredulous.
“No. No lines working. All too busy. Maybe tomorrow.”
“My God.” Martin looked at me, the fantasy that we were in good hands vanished, and the knowledge that we would have to return to the car and find an alternative way out of our dilemma, growing. We picked up our bags and bid goodbye to the soldiers who waved cheerily, and returned to whatever it was they were doing before we came in, and realized that if this is a remote listening post, waiting for the Israeli invasion, then mother Egypt was in deep trouble. Our guide walked out with us, and escorted us back towards the road.
We asked him what his fallback plan was and he offered up the idea of a taxi.
“At this time of night? Are there taxis here?” I asked. He was not perturbed, and, on reaching our dead Fiat, he motioned up and down the asphalt and said just wait, a taxi will come by soon. Then he was gone, back into the darkness, and we were left sitting in the Fiat again.
We waited for an age. Every so often a car came by at breakneck speed. Eventually a taxi showed up and we both jumped up and down, determined not to let it pass without stopping. It duly slowed to a standstill and we ran up to it with our bags. I poked my head through the window and ascertained that the driver was, in fact, going to Cairo and he was happy to take us there. But as Martin got in the front seat and I made for the back door, I noticed that there was no back seat. In fact there was one, but it was occupied by an enormous lump of cargo that appeared to be a coffin. I asked the driver where I should sit and he said I should feel free to sit on top of it. I was torn between asking him if there is a cadaver inside, and not wanting to know, but before I could ask it, the driver answered the question for me.
“Here is my friend,” he said. “I am taking home.” He grinned into his rear view mirror as I squatted awkwardly on the coffin’s lid. “I am taking him home to his family in Cairo. No problem, you can sit there.” To the raucous yet melodic strains of Farid Al Atrash, we sped through the night, leaving our dead Fiat behind, sitting on top of a dead man and headed for Cairo to demand recompense from the Sheraton Hotel.