A memoir (unpublished)
Alexandria Stories is an account of learning Arabic in Alexandria in the late Nineteen Eighties. It is an idiosyncratic look at a challenging year, filled with a motley collection of Egyptians and non-Egyptians all attempting to be understood on their own terms, often to comic, sometimes, tragic effect. The stories of the title tell the tale of attempts of two distinctly different cultures to come together amid often-turbulent conditions, and with wholly different expectations. To a large extent they are stories of alienation, self-discovery, and coming to terms with otherness.
At this time Egypt was a stable dictatorship under Hosni Mubarak; the Muslim Brotherhood was active, yet well “contained” in the country, and Al-Qaeda was still a spectre of the future, of little interest to young Arabists. The protagonist and his colleagues were more concerned with the struggle between Israel and Palestine, the issue of women’s rights in the region, and the need for the West to re-think its relationship with the “Orient,” in the wake of colonialism.
Although radical Islam had still to make its true global debut (9/11), its force was being felt even in Egypt where mosque attendance was way up, and male students on university campuses were hotly debating the role of women in public society and the decadence of the West. All these issues made daily life for young Arabic students challenging; at times traumatic, and sometimes absurd.
Sex in a Foreign City: Alexandria Stories
Ah! The misery of harbors and the names they conjure when you are going nowhere. (Justine)
What was Alexandria? The gem of the ancient world; the Hellenic ideal of scholarship; birthplace of Neo Platonism; home of the scribes of the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament; scene of Cleopatra’s demise. Gobbledygook, in other words, to most young westerners. In many ways the city’s fame had been all but lost to the modern world; those things for which it had earned its name had diminished in importance and become obscure, as the world kept turning and producing great new things—new religions, new science, sliced bread, the Internet.
Maybe a city was only as great as the last great thing it did. In Alexandria greatness was looking dusty. The lighthouse was believed to be buried under several foot of mud on the sea bottom, somewhere off Quait Bey fort. The library had long ago been burned to the ground—Europeans had traditionally claimed it was the invading Arabs, but there are two sides to everything, and lately polite academic opinion pointed the finger at the Romans.
Indeed, the golden days of the Ptolmies had fossilized the city to some extent, casting it forever as a Shakespeare tragedy—from which it is always difficult to recover—freezing the city in time and rendering all that came afterwards nothing more than a stale after-thought, the death throes of a city past its prime, abandoned by its gods, its poets fled, its warriors dead. Istanbul—the Sublime Porte—had taken the mantle in the region for a while, and then Venice of course, with it traders and Doges and painters.
Then, only after centuries of sleep, sometime in the early Twentieth Century, like the Rough Beast that stirred in the desert at Giza, the city had breathed again, haltingly, shallowly, not to achieve its full former glory, this time, but just enough to rekindle some of its ancient cosmopolitanism, after European romantics and misfits began to seek solace there and feed off what was left of its Hellenic genius as imperialist newcomers, harboring dreams of the isles of Greece and longings for a mythic home in which to rest.
“Alexandria was the winepress of love,” said Lawrence Durrell, one of these romantics. “Those who emerged were the sick men, the solitaries and the prophets.” As if those Twentieth Century residents, those exiled malcontents, had found something bitter-sweet in a city that had died two thousand years ago but was limping on, nonetheless, its boulevards and alleyways cheap and foolish on the ruins of the heavyweight civilization they covered.
The exoticism of it was part of the appeal. Its position, teetering at the edge of the African continent, its gateway status and its blend of Europe and Africa providing fertile soil for art and poetry, loneliness and solipsism. Real Alexandrians, on the other hand, like Cavafy, did not need to escape, not because this was where it was at, but because they knew it was never really about place—it was about the self, and a perpetual longing that is unquenchable, which physical movement could never satisfy, only ever express. Cavafy seemed to understand that wandering was pointless to some extent, so he never left the city in which he was born, but journeyed through books and churned out poetry from and about this: “This city will always pursue you/You will walk the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods, will turn gray in these same houses. You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere.”
There was something melancholic about the city, I found. Whether it is really possible to perceive something cleanly, on its own terms, I don’t know. It is possible that my view was so completely clouded by preconception that it would have been impossible to form a different impression. But its melancholy grew on me as I spent time there, only partly because of my own experience—which was that of a young foreigner residing temporarily in a harbor looking across the ocean and obsessing about crossing it.
The modern city had little of the ancient. But it also had little of the tolerance and openness for which it was famous in the early part of the twentieth century. Then again maybe this reputation had its origins among a small group of foreign writers, and maybe they, with their Greek obsessions, had chosen the city as their haven, much to the sleepy indifference of their hosts. Around them the city was becoming part of the modern Middle East, more specifically, a part of modern Egypt, and as such was taking on its concerns, it character, its perspectives. Perhaps Alexandria had really begun this journey when Egypt had industrialized its cotton production to supply world demand in the nineteenth century. Alexandria’s port had then served a vital purpose to connect the modernizing state with the international market, and its cotton exchange had become the beating heart of the nation.
But now the city was experiencing, like other parts of the Middle East, a kind of stagnation born of two phenomena: economic and political constipation and neo-Islamic culture. These two were closely interrelated.
Alexandria as I found it looked inward. If on occasion it glanced across the glistening Mediterranean, that seductive tramp of a sea, it did so in judgment, the judgment of an increasingly prudish and intolerant religious fervor that was gripping the entire Islamic world, of which this was the very fringe.
For a young westerner the city had nothing of the fabled decadence of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian Quartet. The ascendant aesthetic was theological, but not even the theology of the ancient city, which had been bent, then, on a wildly progressive enterprise, that of furthering nascent monotheism and all its intellectual genius. The monotheism being pushed now was retro, was recherché, was anything but new, and was, at least to my mind, horribly antithetical to everything I stood for as a liberal, secular Westerner. Needless to say this fact, among others perhaps, meant that the year I spent there was not as pleasant or productive as I had hoped.
I was part of a small group of international students going there to learn Arabic and as much as possible about Middle Eastern culture. Most of us were from British universities and had therefore imbibed what was then current in the field of Arabism: We were overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian, as opposed to many of our American colleagues who, with their close association with Israel, and with their greater likelihood to be Jewish, were not so. We had all been versed in current thinking about Orientalism—the old fashioned name for the discipline of studying the East, which had become synonymous with Europe’s invention of the East, according to its own fantasies of harems, snake charmers and evil despots. Even the name Orientalism was thoroughly misleading in some respects. According to the historian Tim Mitchell, a reader of the Egyptian Journal al-Muqtataf wrote in 1888: “How have we come to be regarded as part of the Orient? Are we not closer to Europe than to China or North Africa?” The Editor replied that it had happened because “those who study us call themselves Orientalists.”
For our part we had read and re-read (sometime because we didn’t understand it the first time) Edward Said’s ground-breaking book on the subject, and were all determined not to recreate the mistakes and follies of our predecessors, among them Burton and Doughty, Lane and Lawrence, and of course lots of French intellectuals, among whom Flaubert was my favorite (because of his complete and utter abandonment to his invention of the Orient—more on him later.)
These writers and scholars appeared to have all been suffering under various idiosyncratic delusions about the object of their research. In many cases they just liked the boys in the region, and the culture’s tendency to turn a blind eye to what back home would have been called craven homosexuality. In others it was a weird obsession with the desert. We had all seen Lawrence of Arabia, and had laughed when Alec Guiness’ character, King Feisal, says to T.E. Lawrence, “Are you one of those Desert-loving Englishmen? Why do you English love the desert? There’s nothing in the desert.”
So on one level we were trying see the “Orient” for what it was, not what our psycho-sexual fantasies wanted it to be. But our struggle with Orientalism also came down to the attempt to get beyond the racist assumptions of power endemic to the study of the Orient from the time when Europe started studying it seriously (which was about the same time it started exploiting and occupying it seriously).
In this, Lawrence of Arabia was instructive again: there were the Brits running around the desert attempting to corral the nomadic Arabs into an alliance with them to fight the Turks and the Germans, using them in exactly the same was as the Americans were to use the Afghan Northern Alliance years later. To this extent Lawrence was the perfect example of the soldier-scholar, and was not shy about brandishing his knowledge of the Arabs as a weapon to achieve his—and his government’s—aims. Knowledge was, after all, power, and knowledge of the Orient was always gained in the context of power over it. Put simply, while one group of Europeans was busy governing and subduing various non-European countries, another group was busy learning their languages, scrutinizing their religions, analyzing their social customs and digging up the rotten cadavers of their old rulers. The two apparently separate endeavors of conquest and analysis were hand in glove conspirators.
But now that Colonialism was over, what did it mean for Europeans to be studying it, often reading the same “authorities” that had been writing about it in the Nineteen Twenties, or the Eighteen Eighties? And the biggest faux pas in the entire body of Orientalist scholarship seemed to be its exclusive focus on Islam as the one great motivator in the entire Muslim world; as if Muslims globally were not, like normal people, motivated by a complex nexus of lots of things—money, libido, ambition, fear. No, said the Orientalists. God drove all Muslim actions, prompting scholar after scholar to harp on about the extraordinary way in which Islam “prescribed” activities in every arena of life for the adherent: How to wash you hands, how to make love, how to eat, how to punish someone for stealing, how to tie up your camel. But a Muslim was first and foremost a human being, and was therefore more, or less pious, more, or less greedy, more, or less money grubbing, more, or less libidinal. And he or she also lived in a body politic that required decisions and actions that were not first and foremost theological decisions.
But here was the rub with the Middle East: While citizens of democratic states would have been involved in making decisions—decisions such as who to elect and what policies to opt for—in most of the Middle East these kinds of decisions were absent. Even meeting to discuss political matters was not on the cards, except of course in the Mosque. And this was precisely why it was sometimes difficult to understand why the Orientalist obsession with Islam as the be-all-and-end-all for Muslim societies was wrong—just look at the crowds of people in the mosques and the equally large crowds of police watching them. Surely they looked to Islam to dictate their every move?
The Middle East’s political climate post 1967 had pushed Islam front and center accidentally, and this was seen again and again—in Iran in 1979; in Algeria in the nineteen eighties and nineties; in Saudi Arabia. Therefore to the casual observer it seemed like those Orientalist scholars had it right; here was a civilization of God-freaks through and through who could not butter a piece of toast without checking in the Koran to see whether the knife goes right to left or left to right, muttering thanks to God and prostrating themselves on the floor in subjugation to the Almighty.
In the early nineteen nineties none of us knew how this whole fundamentalism thing was going to play out. Without studying Middle Eastern history, it was all too possible to presume that Muslims in this region had always been this way—forgetting the energetic movements of mostly secular, socialist nationalism that had swept through the fertile crescent from the early twentieth century, engulfing Syria and Iraq and Egypt and Lebanon and Palestine and Turkey and Iran. It was easy to forget that Ataturk had banished most overt signs of religion from the new Turkish republic, had adopted the Latin script, had banned headscarves. There was no unbroken line of politico-religious zeal, in other words, dating back to the goat herders of the Najd in the seventh century; fundamentalism, or Islamism, or whatever one chose to call religious politics, was a new phenomenon.
There were those who thought it would eventually go away; the Iranian revolution would eventually fail because it had no real policies when it came down to it: the Koran, exhaustive as it was—for seventh century Arabian society—did not do a good job in explaining how to rule a twentieth century state with billions of people. These people often thought that the best way to deal with fundamentalism therefore was disengagement—let them at it and soon they’ll burn out or be discredited; let them take power if that’s what the people want. They’ll screw things up and then the secularists will take over again, once the women were tired of oppression and the rest of the population were tired of the endless cant of GodGodGod. As a professor once put it to me: “If you have chicken every day, sooner or later you’re gonna wake up and want lamb.” That was his assessment of the future of fundamentalism.
There were still so many signs of healthy secularism abroad in the Middle East in the early nineties that many of us failed to imagine how widespread the Islamist movement would become by the twenty first century, and just how deeply hostile to western civilization in general much of the Islamic world really was. One often read superbly educated members of the Egyptian cultural elite opinions in the press, and sounding like Europeans, or on TV, speaking French or English, and seemingly no different to other westerners who had graduated from Cambridge or Yale. Indeed, King Hussein and his sons were British-educated, as were many of the Middle Eastern elite, those who were not American-educated. Mubarak’s wife’s name was Susan. But beyond this, all of us in Alexandria at that time saw enough to realize how antithetical the two worlds of western secularism and neo-Islamic culture were, and we found it often difficult to bridge that gap.
Although a certain religious fundamentalism seemed to be the cultural trait du jour in Egypt, it was not the only challenge to young westerners finding a foothold. There were older, deeper and broader cultural challenges that presented themselves. Gender relations, were perhaps the most notorious. If the west had been through a sexual revolution, this had only affected a tiny percentage of thoroughly westernized Egyptians. For everyone else both Islamic and Mediterranean mores about sex and gender prevailed. The honor code was, it seemed, a facet of most Mediterranean countries, from Morocco to Turkey, including much of Southern Italy. For the average man-and-woman-on-the-street in Alexandria this meant it was difficult to even imagine a sexual relationship outside of the bounds of marriage. And marriage without money was a tough proposition. Money without a job, if you followed the chain of causality, was impossible, and Egypt had a major unemployment problem even though there seemed to be six people often doing the same job.
This resulted in lots of young men hanging out in cafes and trying desperately to keep a lid on their libido. What they knew of the west was often from Hollywood films in which the women appeared to be easy and the men were having the time of their lives. It also meant that western women were not to be respected, nor were their men, because they allowed their women to run around on them. This was no new phenomenon. Sayyid Qutb, one of the most famous ideologues of the Muslim Brotherhood, had spent a year in the United States in the nineteen fifties. Having returned to Egypt he became determined to root out all signs of invidious westernization in Egypt, seeing it as the source of all evil. He frowned upon church dances in the small (dry) mid-western town in which he had studied, because they gave men and women the opportunity to mix it up. The freedom American men “allowed” their women reflected very poorly on all Americans.
Yet notwithstanding these ancient customs and beliefs which often controlled sexuality—and which were in large part independent of Islam—there was in Egypt, along with this prudishness and control, its opposite, a kind of craven licentiousness. One read about this in the characters of Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s Nobel prize-winning novelist: a Cairo (and Alexandrian) demimonde of whores and pimps and pushers. Of drug addicts and alcoholics. Of wife-beaters and abusive parents. And yet while these issues were quite recognizable to westerners, what was jarring perhaps was the energy with which many middle class Egyptians denied them. One of our language teachers, an elegant, erudite middle-aged woman, grew furious at the suggestion, based on reports from the feminist writer Nawal el-Sa’adawi, that not only female circumcision, but incest was a massive underground problem in Egypt.
No more contradictory was Egypt, however, than any other country, than our own counties. What we ended up struggling with perhaps was how to be an outsider, how to constantly explain oneself, how to live, ultimately, in a strange place with other people’s contradictions.
Chapter 6 – The Hour of the Rough Beast
Autumn finally turned into winter. The wind off the sea was often cold now, and the rain was frequent. The effect was surprisingly raw, and I went to one of the street markets in Muhattit el Raml and found myself a cheap Chinese coat, since I had not come to Egypt prepared to be cold, and a pair of shoes to replace the ragged ones I came in.
Feeling like it was time to shake things up a little, I decided a trip to Cairo was the way to do it. I took the bus down one weekend. Amir had decided to ride down with me as he was meeting a friend there from Canada. Amir was originally from Iran, and like most Iranians of his class, fled in 1979 after the Ayatollah’s revolution. About twelve or thirteen at the time, he went into a private school near Vancouver and grew up like many young Canadians—listening to Crosby Stills and Nash, hiking in the great Canadian wilderness, reading J.D. Salinger, smoking pot and making out with girls in cars. This is not what he would have been doing in Tehran as the son of a wealthy merchant, at least not under the Ayatollah. He might have come close to it if he had been free to live under the Shah, but that country’s trajectory suffered an abrupt and brutal change after the revolution of 1979.
Amir, however, chose not to lose touch with who he was; in his attempt to maintain a coherent identity he chose to learn Arabic so as to study Islam more and integrate it into is life. He had read widely in Islamic sources and had a strongly spiritual personality, and thought it fitting that if he was to be spiritual he might as well draw from the traditions of his one heritage. This was a brave thing for a hip young westerner to do, with Islam’s reputation in the west.
In the midst of this Amir was learning about the Prophet, figuring out Islamic eschatology, studying the Sufi mystics. But his religious instincts were naturally eclectic and tolerant. “What you have to understand,” he said, as we got on the modern bus at the station at Muhattit el-Raml, “is that this is not Islam, not the original message, not the core. You can make anything out of a religion and a history. There are bigots and zealots in all religions.
“What these guys are doing,” he gestured around, presumably referring to Egypt’s home-grown Muslim Brotherhood, “is contrary to many points of Islamic theology and history.” It was Friday and the crowds gathering to hear sermons from the Imams were immense. They spilled out of mosques and blocked off entire streets where the worshippers had put down massive rattan mats and seated themselves expectantly in front of the mosque. They started their worship routine, uttering prayers and prostrating themselves towards the Ka’abah in Mecca, most of them were dressed in white galabayas, some in polyester trousers and shirts, in tones of gray, light blue and white. There were no women.
“And it’s ironic,” Amir continued, scratching his short dark beard and looking at the worshippers with his large almond-shape Persian eyes, “this whole subjugation of women thing. Islam has actually proved itself pretty tolerant in the past, certainly as compared to Christianity, and this image we all have of veiled women is all a modern feature which says more about contemporary political and cultural mores than it does about some essential “Islam.”
In the nineteenth century the veil was only really sported by members of the ruling Turkish elite; upper-class women who wanted to maintain their privacy. Now it has been adopted as a sign of how Islamic you are, in opposition to permissive Western mores that became prevalent through the colonial period.
More interestingly, Islam has at least three fundamentally important women; Khadijah, Muhammad’s first wife and the first convert to Islam; Aisha, his second wife, and Fatima, his daughter. And these were no shrinking violets, there can be no doubt about that. Khadijah was twenty years older than Muhammad, and already a widow when she married him. In fact, she employed him to take caravans to Syria on her behalf and carry out the trade negotiations for her; this he carried out effectively and it was Khadijah who approached him through an intermediary and proposed to him. And it was Khadijah who wrapped Muhammad in a blanket after he had run home from Mount Hira after his encounter with the luminous Gabriel, afterwards consulting her (Christian) cousin Waraqa who opined that this could indeed be the prophet they were waiting for. Khadijah, the self-made business woman, was the first convert to the new religion of Islam, creating and interesting situation: the most important woman in Islam was in fact molded by the pre-Islamic era (and to some this meant she was an exception to the rule that Islam dis-empowered women).
As our comfortable new bus sped through the northern reaches of the western desert and skirted the vast Nile Delta, the endless rocky sandscape we had been passing through turned greener, with irrigation ditches full of brackish-looking water and women washing colorful cotton garments, camels and donkeys laden heavily with bundles of straw, sticks, baskets of vegetables.
The bus soon arrived at Giza, and we saw the hulking, impossibly ancient shapes of the pyramids towering over the cheaply-built two story houses along the side of the road. Even when you are several miles away from them, their enormity makes them seem right in front of you, with their ragged, cliff faces of weathered stone shimmering in the heat like a reminder of other, lost, worlds.So staggering are they to see that it is no wonder than otherwise relatively sensible people might think they were constructed by aliens.
I left Amir at the bus station, pondering Islam’s history, and its future and went off to find a room at the Windsor Hotel. This, several of us students had discovered, was a good place to stay in Cairo; it was near the Egyptian Museum and Khan al-Khalili, the largest bizarre this side of New Delhi, as well as Maydan Tahrir, in many ways Cairo’s nerve-center.
The hotel was a trip; it had been built in the nineteenth century as a bath house—albeit very elaborate one—for the Egyptian royal family, before being converted during the second world war into an officer’s club for the British army. The hotel clearly still had a sense of history, even if it was extremely frayed around the edges. Ornate oriental furniture decorated its lounge are and dining room. The bar was similarly outfitted with dark woods, ornately carved, and stocked with all the right beverages. Some elderly Egyptians and few ragged-looking, younger European travelers frequented the bar, and stayed at the hotel. For foreigners it provided a welcome break from the more obvious tourist hotels in richer neighborhoods like Zamalek or Maadi, and the history that oozed out of the woodwork here reminded you to the era of Pashas, Khedives, and T.E. Lawrence, historical eras with their own dark issues no doubt, but which were nonetheless more romantic and intriguing than today’s issues involving a repressive police state and its opposition, an equally repressive would-be Islamic theocracy.
I spent the night in a rather uncomfortable and dirty room at the Windsor, and the next day I headed back out of Cairo towards the pyramids, to rent a horse and ride it through the desert. I flagged down a taxi in Maydan Tahrir, and was soon careening through the streets as the driver chattered away, asking me about myself and what I thought of the country, this beautiful country, this ancient city. We arrived at the base of Cheops, and I got out a few yards away from the Sphinx’s enormous reconstructed face. The taxi driver made a hissing sound by sticking his tongue in between his teeth, a characteristic Egyptian way of getting attention, and asked me slyly if I wanted some hashish. I said sure, shrugging my shoulders nonchalantly, although a chill of fear and anticipation shot through me. He suggested he get it while I was out riding, and I shut the door and turned towards the pyramids.
I didn’t see the harm, I said to myself. Besides, I hadn’t exactly committed to anything, yet, and besides, he probably wouldn’t show up to pick me up later anyway. I was willing to take the risk. I battled my way through crowds of tourists who were haggling with the army of Egyptians hawking things: miniature Cheopses, papyri by the hundred, statues of Cleopatra, little black cats, ice cream, hats, T shirts with “I love Egypt” on them, and I headed a little down the road to where there were some stables. I had done this a couple of times before, and while the horses usually left a lot to be desired, they were cheap, and it was a great way to get away from the crowds and see the desert.
I passed a group of Japanese tourists, weighed down by camera equipment, back packs and humility, with massive bottles of water, being harangued by some agent of a stable pressing them to go with him and rent his horses: “Very good Arabians, very beautiful.” The interaction was becoming stressful, and the voice and expression of the agent was sliding quickly towards hostility as the Japanese continued to decline his offer, heads down, eyes averted. Although I was struck by something in their manner which almost suggested superiority—their unwillingness to address the hairy, barbaric agent—I knew what they were going through. Whatever it was that was submissive in Asian culture grated against its very opposite here.
A little further down the road in another stable’s enclosure I watched a hugely fat adolescent boy sitting atop a beautiful dun-colored Arabian mare doing dressage. The boy was clad in full traditional costume with a red and black headdress and a rich, tan galabaya. The horse pranced sideways holding its head high, its nostrils flared and its eyes wild and black. Then it seemed to skip forwards in a balletic trot as if keeping time with some inaudible music. I watched mesmerized as this unsightly lump of a boy controlled this extraordinary animal, caught by a vision into something beyond—and behind—the rest of the tourist industry which ran this whole area, and continued towards my stable, passing the Japanese again who were still marching down the road followed by the agent.
The stables were a dark dungeon with pungent horse smells rendered stifling by the heat and the lack of ventilation. I negotiated my deal with an elderly man who seemed to be running the show, and to my surprise as I was getting ready to mount the skinny black stallion he had allotted me, one of his employees came out on horseback to accompany me. This didn’t happen last time, when they were happy to let me go out alone. What did they think I was going to do? Steal the horse and ride to Lybia? I mentioned this to the guide, and he shrugged, and said, “come, you want to see pyramid, I will take you there.”
“I don’t care about the fucking pyramids,” I said loudly. I was suddenly furious that I had been consumed by the overpowering tidal wave of tourism, which was impossible to resist. I had been in the country long enough to know my way around, and being constantly reminded of my foreignness was beginning to irritate me.
“I don’t need a guide,” I hissed in Arabic, as we made our way, trotting, through the crowds towards Cheops, and the desert behind where the smaller pyramids of Saqqara lies in the sand. But the guide was not having any of my attitude, and was determined to stick to me like glue. “You want gallop?” He offered, kicking his dusty mare and succeeding after several attempts in coaxing her into a half-hearted gallop. I showed disinterest and walked my mount sedately, unwilling to enter into his antics, as if I could simply ignore him and pretend he was not guiding me. For nearly an hour I walked around the pyramids, occasionally overtaken by other tourists on horses with guides urging them on, packs of stray dogs on their heels, and my guide, Rashid, whooping and yelping for a while then reduced to a desultory walk in front of me. He genuinely did not seem to understand my anger.
“Galloping good, Mr. You want go fast? Not be afraid, no problem?” Although I responded to him in Arabic, he preferred to speak English, as he clearly prided himself on having mastered it through his interaction with Japanese tourists. We continued walking for some time, Rashid occasionally offering up some tidbit of touristic interest as he no doubt had a million times to others. Finally we reached the top of a large rise, from where we could look back and see all of Giza, and behind it the filthy cloud of smog that hung over Cairo proper. To our backs was thousands of miles of empty desert, the North African Littoral, the odd oasis, the occasional Bedouin camp. And I wondered at Cairo sitting in the middle of all of this, insulted by sand and distance, yet always and for centuries vulnerable to whatever came out of that desert, and many things had over the centuries—including the Arab armies as they spread out of Arabia in one of the largest and fastest migrations in history. Rashid pulled his mare level with mine.
“It is beautiful, no?”
“You come in Egypt before?”
“You come to Egypt before,” I said.
“What you say?”
“Nothing. Walahaaga.” I said. Looking around.
“What your name, Mister?
“Well, Mr. Bob. Where you are from?”
“I’m from England.”
“Why you no like Egyptians, Mr. Bob?”
“I like plenty of Egyptians.” I suddenly felt very tired, too tired to be angry at Rashid anymore, and too tired to explain my former anger to him.
“I’m just sick of being treated like a fucking tourist.” But Rashid was not listening anymore. He was watching an American couple approaching on horseback. The woman, blonde, was gallapoing up the rise on a sickly white horse followed by a man on a similarly feeble brown one. They were urging on their mounts, as their guide whooped from the rear. Rashid looked on enviously as the woman reigned in her horse at the top of the hill and stood looking back.
“Mr. Bob. Do you have women like that in England?” He said quietly to me.
“No. Our women all have horns. They eat men.”
“What they have. They eat what?” Rashid looked at me with a frown. I put my hands on my forehead mimicking a bull. Rashid looked alarmed.
“But I think they like to have seckes, yes?” He said.
“I’m sure some of them do. And I imagine some of them don’t. Anyway. Its usually after sex that they eat men.” Then I said it as best I could in Arabic for his benefit. He laughed and looked nervously at the American woman who kicked her horse in the shanks and started off down the hill, followed by two teenage boys who were riding a mule, and beating it with a stick in an attempt to keep up with the blonde woman.
The pyramids, notwithstanding Rashid’s company, were transfixing. The notion of such big structures being built so long ago made it difficult to look at them with any thing but awe and incomprehension. But one of my Arabic teachers was also an Egyptologist, and he had been telling me of the recent work going on at Giza which had revealed some new insights.
Until recently the assumption was that the pyramids had been built using slave labor. Think the movie version of Moses, with Charlton Heston. This makes some sense, after all, who would want to do the kind of work that was presumably necessary without modern equipment? The largest and oldest pyramid was built for the Pharaoh Khufu, around 2350 BCE. It took approximately a decade to complete, and everything was quarried, cut, (six and a half million tons of stone), transported and raised into place using nothing more than rope, wood, sail and human and animal muscle. But the idea that slaves were largely responsible for all this work is dubious.
The latest ideas about how they persuaded people to help involve a concept similar to corvee labor. Every year the Pharaoh’s barge would head downriver to visit villages and pick up young men to come and do their bit. This, it turns out, was most likely considered a privilege, not a punishment. Giza, where the work was going on, was the largest work site in the world, and would create the largest monuments worldwide until the twentieth century. These young men would have come from rural Egypt where they lived in villages of dozens of people, most of them relatives.
To be living and working in a city of tens of thousands would have been a sought-after opportunity. But more importantly they were raising monuments to house the bodies of their god-kings, sacred work, in other words, not the kind of thing you give to slaves to do. This makes sense when you consider that the power of the rulers in ancient Egypt only went as far as they could project it, as in all ancient societies. This explains why ideology, or in this case religion, was so important; their subjects needed to be awed by the gods, or even better, awed by their rulers who were (claimed to be) gods, only this would enable the Pharaoh to exert control over a people who were not physically controllable by virtue of being too far away. The symbolism of the pyramids was of paramount importance in this effort, and tying the rural population to the pyramids by having them build it gave them a stake.
The archeologists these days were digging up evidence of workers’ barracks near the pyramids, entire cities, really, including the sleeping quarters, kitchens and burial chambers for managers (richly decorated, suggesting high status), for thousands of people. The garbage piles at Giza (the best way to see what a society has been up to) included tons of bones from young cattle: prime beef, in other words, to keep the work force strong. And this work force had a personality; ancient graffiti was being discovered that suggested that the men were organized into teams, think unions without any political power, such as the Drunkards of Khufu. Seeing the pyramids from this perspective made it clear how it not so much that the Egyptians built the pyramids, but that the pyramids built Egypt; they cemented the country together and acted as unforgettable symbols of both the state and the divine beings that ruled it.
“Come on Mr. Bob, we go this way to Great Pyramid and then back that way.” Rashid trotted off, and I turned my horse to follow. As we reached the outer edge of the pyramids and turned towards home, however, my phlegmatic horse sensed the end of the journey and broke into an uncharacteristically energetic trot. A few minutes later three stray dogs came racing across the sand to bark and nip at my horse’s ankles, causing her to upgrade trot to gallop, a kind of frenzied, eye-rolling gallop that I would not have thought her capable of had I not been sitting on her. There was not much to grab hold of with the legs, on this horse, her stomach was concave, her hindquarters bony and malnourished, her girth pitiful. But I clung to her with all my strength as she raced across the sand, fearful that she might at any moment buckle and collapse, leaving me to face the ravenous hounds. Rashid was delighted that I seemed to be getting my money’s worth at last, and he was riding next to me, his horse equally spooked by the dogs, and he was yelping Bedouin imprecations, as his kefiyah billowed out behind him, looking for a minute like one of his Bedouin ancestors, an Omar Sherif redux, the last survivor of a nomadic tribe at the very bottom of the food chain, goats stolen, camels slaughtered, horses reduced to a pathetic collection of sickly skeletons—yet the only means remaining for them to eke out a meager living in this brave new world. I kept my eyes on Rashid in his new, noble, transfigured state and as I watched him race across the desert as Bedouin had been doing here for thousands of years, I realized that I was, after all a tourist, I was a hapless visitor in this place and perhaps the dogs sensed this as they chased me away from the pyramids and back to the stables where I belonged; certainly the horse sensed this, for she was not about to put out on my account, and it was all I could do to hold onto my seat as this collection of animals conveyed me out of the desert and dispatched me into the safe keeping of the stable owner.
“Good, Mr. Bob!” Said Rashid as he came into the stable, his horse gasping for air.
“Good galloping. Have a nice day!”
Back at the main car park in between the German tour buses and camels I re-located my taxi driver. I jumped in and we drove away, back towards Maidain Tahrir. In the front seat of the tatty old Fiat I turned to the driver, a forty-something rotund man, short, with a moustache and beady, brown little eyes.
“Do you have the hashish?” I asked.
“No. I have to get it, couldn’t get it while you were away, but we’ll go and get it now, no problem.” He gestured with his hand to suggest, its just up the road. I got a small tense feeling in my gut, like I knew something was not quite right and I shouldn’t be doing this.
“Where are we going, exactly?” I put on a harsher tone, giving him a clear signal that I didn’t like what was happening. “Well, let’s just forget about it then, I was interested if you had it right there to hand but if we have to go somewhere else, just forget it.” At this moment he started nodding his head vigorously, knowing that he’s got a customer here and he wants to make a little extra cash, probably by screwing me. He pulled the taxi onto the curb, on a fairly smart street with lots of shops, and he urged me to sit tight while he rushed off to the shop next to us, and down a little staircase.
After two minutes he was back, and he jumped into the taxi and we resumed our ride. He pulled out of his trouser pocket a ball of silver paper about the size of a plum and gave it to me saying, “This very good, very good hashish.” I muttered to myself in English, “I’ll be the judge of that,” as I started to unwrap the parcel, and suddenly he put his hand on mine and said, “No! Don’t unwrap it here, the police….everywhere.” I looked around and saw nothing but trucks and taxis and pedestrians, and anyway we were moving fast and my hands and the hashish were all well out of sight of anyone outside the vehicle.
“I’m not going to buy anything before I see it,” I said, and, continued unwrapping the parcel to his protestations, and in a couple of seconds I had it open before he could protest further, and discovered a large gray ball of wax.
“What’s this!?” I said, angry now. The driver shrugged his shoulders, knowing he had no defense whatsoever, shrugging as if to say, well, I tried, and so what? I tossed the wax into the back seat, and laughed, now beginning to appreciate the comedy, and quite pleased at having foiled his petty attempt to swindle the foreigner.
“What now? I want some hashish,” I announced, feeling almost as if I had gained some moral ground with this scoundrel, and was in a position to demand something. He said, “Yes, yes, I will get you some,” and I could see his mind racing to figure out what to do next, and he turned the taxi around and headed off in another direction calculating whether he could still turn a profit on his fare.
We drove on, through the crazed streets of Cairo, this extraordinary, decrepit, crumbling and massively overpopulated city heaving with humanity and choking on sand. We penetrated tiny alleyways with colorful washing strung above and chickens underfoot; we passed tenth-century mosques with doors three foot thick pock-marked by centuries of battle, endless falafel shops and carts selling sloppy platefuls of foule beans to ragged men in dirty brown trousers and collapsing moccasins; through whole quarters which are vegetable markets littered with carts laden with tired fly-bitten produce and beggars scrounging pennies with withered arms or no legs; around traffic circles so choked with vehicles and pedestrians as to resemble a river completely silted up, the air above dark with exhaust and sand and smoke. And finally, in a non-descript road full of modern cheap construction we mounted the curb outside a small café. This was deep Cairo—the kind of place no foreigners would ever go—it was a residential neighborhood and had no touristic value, not even any old mosques or museums, just ramshackle jerry-built homes with no frills.
There were six or seven men seated on the pavement at a couple of tables. They were drinking tea and Seven Up. They looked intently at the taxi as it arrived. I watched through the window as the driver walked up to them and tried to figure out from their body language whether the men knew him; was this his neighborhood café, or was it a known dealing café? Or are all cafés in Cairo full of dope dealers since the drug is so prevalent? They talked for a few seconds then the driver went inside and the men looked past him towards me sitting in the car. There he is, they must have been thinking, the foreigner who wants drugs. How vulnerable was I at that moment? Was he going to hand me over to Mubarak’s infamous secret police at whose hands I would be beaten and imprisoned, lost to the world in one of those Cairo jails?
I had briefly assessed the risk when we were in the taxi and felt that the driver had much more to gain by simply selling me a few pounds worth of dope than handing me over to the cops; after all, I hailed him from the street, so the chances of him working with some vice operation are pretty well non-existent. He had already proved to me that his intention was to screw some money out of me in some way, and having failed in his first attempt then at least he was going to make some cash off this deal, and get a long fare into the bargain. I sat there waiting for him and thinking this through, very uncomfortably, as the men drinking tea watched me, half expecting a team of vice cops to run out of a side street and haul me away.
After what felt like half an hour, the squat driver beatled over the pavement past the tea-drinking men and jumped in to the taxi. As he started the engine and pulled away from the curb, he handed me a package about the size of a walnut in plastic wrap. I felt the hard, knobbly edges of the hashish and brought it to my nose to sniff. The driver looked over with an expression of relief and said, “happy?” I nodded and told him to take me to the bus for Alexandria. My nerves had had enough for one day, alarm bells were still jangling in the halls of my neurons, and I was keen to pay him off and get settled on the bus home where I could relax, have a snooze and then regain familiar ground in Alex.
We arrived at the bus station after ten minutes, and we began to haggle over the price: taxi, hashish, everything in one convenient package. I looked at the bus waiting across the road and told him that I could only give him his price if I had enough left for the bus to Alexandria. He assured me that I had enough, that the bus was only fourteen Egyptian pounds, and so after handing over the money I got out and watched his little decrepit car rattle away. Despite all of the tension involved in the relationship we still managed to maintain friendly relations. Taxi drivers in this country were a strange breed, I mused as I navigated the deadly street to get to the waiting bus.
They are full of political opinions, just like London cabbies, but unlike the English counterparts they don’t seem to have that distance, emotionally. There is more of a desperate need if they are ferrying a foreigner about—the idea that in the back seat lies an unusual opportunity for some kind of advancement, some extra gain. First world cabbies are nestled in safe, prosperous communities with no real need to resort to tricks to extract what they need to be satisfied; they are insulated by insurance plans, health services, retirement schemes and safety guidelines. All these things seem absent here where they struggle to keep their decaying vehicles rolling on the city’s sinking streets.
I reached the bus and as I stepped aboard, proffering my fourteen pounds, the driver looked at me strangely, and said, “Its twenty pounds.” This was all the money I had on me and there was no way of getting more since all of my money was in my apartment in Alexandria or in the bank in the same city. The taxi driver had nailed me, after all, knowing full well how much the bus cost, determined to shake a few extra pounds out of me, regardless of the consequences. I stepped off the bus and began to figure out what my options were. I looked around feeling a rising panic. Stuck in Cairo with no cash, and no recourse? I did not know anyone in town, things would get weird very quickly if I could not get back to Alexandria and my stash of cash that I withdrew from the bank every week.
On the other side of the square I saw a line of large white Peugeot taxis. I had seen these on the road, and standing around in Alex in various places. Usually groups of Fellahin used them, and they always seemed to be crammed to exploding, with a ton of extra luggage roped to the roof. This would have to be my way home. Rushing over the the line of cars in the gathering dusk, I started asking the drivers about a ride to Alex, and was promptly shoved into a car that seemed already full to bursting. But there was one spot free, in the way back, and I scrambled over the other passengers, having surrendered the rest of my cash, and sat back with a sigh, next to a elderly man in a galabeyya, holding a vast bag on his lap. I didn’t really care about the mode of transport at this point, I was just glad to have a seat conveying me home. Soon we were on the Alexandria road, weaving in and out of traffic, overtaking in insane places, and as it got dark we were careening towards oncoming traffic, turning out headlights off instead of dipping them as was the custom here.