On our traveller perception of a place & finding alternate stories

It was mango season in Egypt. The stall-holders of Souq al-Tawfiqiyya swatted flies away from the fruit piles with colourful feather whisks while spraying jets of water onto the fruit so that the mangoes’ blush-tinged skin glistened slickly. The heat within the narrow street market was nearly unbearable despite it nearing dusk. The fecund tang of over ripe produce hung in the still air. Cairo’s summer temperatures cocooned the entire city like a blanket, smothering us into a fug of indolence and idle loitering. We shopped in slow motion; picking mangoes up, smelling them, putting them down lazily, and waddling to the next stall to feel and prod again. Even the haggling was a half-hearted show, me and the vendor sighing as we carried out the pricing-battle to keep up the appearance of caring.

We were all waiting for the dark when the ripple effect of the Nile’s cooling breeze, like some ancient form of natural Prozac, would lift us out of apathy and restore us to our senses making us sigh in relief that another day in the furnace was finished with. Then the stall-holders at Souq al-Tawfiqiyya would smile at you when you picked up their fruit rather than frown and the thin alleyway, lit up by fairy lights, would thrum with a crowd of people pushing and shoving their way through while trying to manoeuvre past motorbikes and donkeys and carts. Now it was fairly quiet and easy to navigate. As long as you didn’t mind cranky vendors and the slightly off-putting smell, it was the easiest time to come here.

“There are no women here at all,” Louisa said.
I turned around just as she raised a camera to her face and snapped a couple of photos of women buying mangoes.
“What?”
“There are no women on this street.” She checked her last shots back on the digital viewfinder and then raised her camera again. “It’s absolutely bizarre.”
The camera whirred and clicked.
“It’s an entire city without any bloody women.”
I walked the few paces back to her and yanked her camera down from her face. Then I started pointing out women.
“Look there are two there, one in the bright orange floral headscarf and the taller lady beside her with the brown headscarf. You just took a photo of them. Here, a lady has just walked in front of us. She’s practically just barged into you because we’re standing still – the one in the black abbeya. There’s another one just there, with all the plastic shopping bags. Here,” I pointed. “And here, and here, and here.”
“Oh,” she said. “I must have only been looking at the fruit sellers. Well there aren’t any female fruit sellers are there?”
“No Louisa.” I said. “Market work is typically a man’s job in the Arab world.”
She shrugged and took another photo.

I gathered my tour group together and continued the walk through the souq. Later, we’d go back to the hotel swinging a bag of perfectly ripe mangoes and when we sliced them open we’d suck out the sunshine-yellow flesh, peeling it straight off the skin so that our hands were sticky fly-traps and delicate strings of mango fibre hung from our chins. That’s what Louisa would remember from the walk through Souq al-Tawfiqiyya on the first day of her three week tour of the Middle East. I’d remember her words though.

“There are no women here at all.”

And I would wonder how the hell we all became so blind.

The second time I arrived in the Middle East it was to live. I’d been hired as a tour leader for an adventure travel company with a job based in Cairo. At the interview the tour company were vague about what destinations needed new leaders. Initially I applied hoping for India. Nobody was more surprised than me when they rung me up to ask if I’d be interested in the Middle East and I said yes. Returning to Egypt had never been the plan.

The first time I departed Egypt it was by Nuweiba’s tortuously slow ferry. The crossing took five rolling and pitching hours across the Red Sea to Aqaba in Jordan and when I went to use the toilet someone had left a shit on the floor and on top of the toilet seat. At the time I thought it was a fitting final full stop to a nation I was glad to see the back of.

I had found Egypt unfathomable. It threw contradictions at you dart-speed and I had spent much of my initial 2004 journey there ducking for cover from my own muddled perceptions. Within my first five minutes in Egypt, on the Amsaad border crossing from Libya, I had found myself in the middle of a rock-throwing fight between the Egyptian border officials and a bunch of cross-border smugglers who were trying to jump the fence. In the packed immigration shed a fight broke out between two men standing directly in front of me and I had to be pulled out of the way to safety. In Luxor a man trailed behind me as I walked down the street alternating a hopeful hissing sales pitch of ‘sex’ and ‘hash’ with every step. In Aswan a child threw a rock at me. Everywhere I went I was besieged by perfume and papyrus sellers. By the time I got to Dahab in the Sinai, I was exhausted. I sat back on the cushions beside the Red Sea and talked to other travellers, drinking bottles of vodka labelled ‘Finlandia – Product of Cairo’. We were told drinking the local spirits would make us blind but it only ever succeeded in inducing hammering headaches.

One evening a bunch of us had gone dancing and the waiters from the beach-side restaurant we spent most of our time in turned up at the bar as well. They barged onto the dance floor; shimmying up behind us and rubbing their stiff penises up against our backs. Shoving them away didn’t help. They just came back and did it again so that in the end we just gave up trying to dance. One of the guys who worked at the beach camp where we were all staying told a girl to come up to the roof terrace to look at the stars. When they got up there he dropped his pants and told her to give him a blow job. When she ran back down stairs and told us what had happened, all we could think to do was laugh because hey, we said to each other, that was just what happened in Egypt.

Six weeks later, on my first day in Lebanon, Rafiq Hariri and 22 other people were blown up by a terrorist bomb along Beirut’s corniche. That same day I wandered down to the street where it had happened. My shoes crunched on thousands of fragments of broken glass underfoot. Up above hotel curtains flapped freely out of window frames. A crowd had gathered around the small cordoned off section which the police were guarding and a group of young guys wearing skin-tight jeans and bandannas tied around their heads revved past waving the yellow Hezbollah flag. Flicking through the satellite channels on the television that night in the hostel I found that there were twenty channels of porn and at least as many channels devoted to religious readings of the Qur’an. I travelled down to Tyre and took a taxi to Al-Khiam Prison which would later be bombed by the Israelis during 2006’s July War. When I visited Hezbollah were operating it as a macabre museum, with tours led by ex-prisoners who showed you around the tiny cells and explained the torture methods that had been dished out by Israel’s proxy army the SLA when Israel had occupied this chunk of Lebanon. When the tour finished they asked you to make a donation to Hezbollah and then took you to their souvenir shop where you could purchase Hezbollah key rings and miniature Hezbollah flags.

The Middle East, I had decided right there and then, was too confusing. You had to peel back onion layers of history just to attempt to fathom a single answer, and then, when you thought you understood, something would happen that would turn it all upside down again. After a particularly hard day I crashed out in front of the hostel television to watch the international news. There was a report about a woman’s refuge centre in Egypt. The centre was battling to stay open due to a lack of women using it. This wasn’t because Egypt lacked battered wives, the reporter explained, but because the cultural shame of airing your marriage problems in public in Egypt meant that women were unlikely to use it. To highlight the problem the journalist interviewed one of the women staying there whose father had berated her for seeking shelter at the refuge. “Why are you bringing shame on the family by coming here?” He had asked. “I beat your mother every night and you don’t see her running away.”

I’d had enough. On a cold March morning with snow lightly dusting the palm trees of Sultanahmet Park in Istanbul I flew out of the region and washed my hands of the Middle East. It wasn’t a place I expected to ever see again.

But then I came back. And as I settled into life there I began to feel the region had something to teach me. Lessons that took more time than a nomadic romp around its edges could ever unfurl. A couple of years ago it could have easily been me making Louisa’s throwaway remark about not seeing any women in the souq when in fact she was surrounded by them.

We all arrive in the Middle East with a particular concept of what it is already ingrained in our minds. After all, we’ve been fed the same story over and over again until it has become the only story. Blinded by our own perceptions, we choose not to seek out any alternative narrative to our own.

The second time I arrived in Cairo, I had a feeling that I had come full circle. This mark on the map had drawn a line around me for some reason and I was caught within its curvature. The ancient Egyptians had understood the power of circles. Long before they began worshipping the great sun god Ra they had deified the tiny scarab beetle which scuttled along the desert sands. Observing these little black beetles, as they laid their larva into dung and then industriously rolled the balls across the ground, the Egyptians saw that the dung balls were circular like the sun and also like the sun they would bring forth life when the scarab beetle larva sprung forth from them. They named Kephri as god of the scarab beetle and imagined the sun too was slowly being pushed by a beetle across the sky bringing light and darkness in a circular cycle of death and rebirth. Later the cult of Ra assimilated itself into the older legends but the god Kephri lived on as the dawn incarnation of Ra merging with this new impostor. Scarab beetle effigies were placed in tombs as a reminder to the dead that only half their journey had been fulfilled and they had yet to journey full circle to resurrection in the afterlife.

On that second arrival I got a taxi from the airport and drove into the centre. Above, the sky was a sludgy smear of low hanging grey glowering over the city. The springs in the back seat of the car had long ago given up hope and when I sat down I sunk into the seat and failed to rise back up again. Pieces of sponge fought to be set free from the fake leather upholstery, rising up out of the ripped fabric in little yellow geysers of foam.

The front dashboard was covered with a candy-pink fake fur rug and had been decorated with glittering talismans to ward off accidents, or at least provide a disco atmosphere in the event of one. Stickers portraying seductive eyes, laden with kohl, stared down at me from the windscreen. Christmas tinsel snaked across the pink fur. Multiple bands of amber and cherry-red plastic prayer beads were wrapped around the gear stick. Both wing mirrors had been smashed in some previous road altercation but Ahmed the taxi driver had made up for that by installing an oversized rear view mirror which stretched three quarters of the way across the windshield. Hanging down from this, was a collection of silvery baubles and a miniature Qur’an.

Ahmed caught my eye in the mirror as I stared at it and waggled his eyebrows.
“Welcome to Egypt” He grinned. “What kind of music do you like? I like western music.”
“Really? Who do you like?”
“I like Eminem and Celine Dion.”
“Ahmed you can’t like both Eminem and Celine Dion.”
“Why not?” He turned around and the car veered lazily off to the left. The car behind that had been trying to overtake us swerved to miss us and the driver beeped his horn. Ahmed beeped back and waved him on with a dismissive flick of his thin wrist. “You don’t like Eminem and Celine Dion?” He scrabbled around the dashboard to retrieve a homemade mix tape. “My favourite songs are Stan and My Heart Will Go On,” he announced. “Very beautiful.”

The mix tape crackled into life. We wound down the windows – Ahmed had to pass the communal window winder back to me as they had all fallen off the doors – and he pumped up the volume so it blared out onto the street as we sped down the highway. He kept one hand on the steering wheel and waved his other out the window in time to the music in between drags on a cigarette. The entire car shook as we picked up more speed and Ahmed turned the volume up to maximum so we could hear it over the rattling drone of the engine. We passed a highway sign pointing the way to ‘Dwon Twon’.

A maverick seat spring dug into my thigh as I leant near the window and breathed in the sharp, acrid smell peculiar to Cairo. It’s the petrol-tinged perfume of a city where two million cars fight for space on the roads every day; the exhaust fumes mixing with the desert sand which scrapes against your skin. When I swallowed I tasted metal.

I didn’t know it then but it was the start of a love affair with the Middle East and with Egypt; a tempestuous one at times, but a love affair all the same. Surviving the first summer – the summer of mangoes and of Louisa’s comment – was the real turning point. Time seemed to stagnate in Egypt in summer. You could hear resignation in the shudders of the air conditioning units as they groaned and wheezed their way through another day when the temperatures hit 40 degrees and their water overload dripped down on you as you walked down the street. Traffic ground to a halt downtown amid a symphony of car horns. In Cairo, people looked to the past as a way of coping with the city infrastructure’s slow but steady decline into chaos.

“We were once a great nation,” my friend Aisha summed up for me as she sucked on a shisha pipe. “And now we sell papyrus to the tourists.”
She blew the smoke out through her nose and it rose in curling plumes up into the night.
“Oh well. At least we have the pyramids.”

In the evenings that summer I’d walk down the streets near my flat in Zamalek, scuffing up the scattered petal confetti from the Jacaranda trees across the dingy asphalt. A petal drift clogged the potholes and piled up at the curbs. One morning, not long after I had first moved into the flat an abandoned toilet appeared on the corner of my street. It sat there all through summer, slowly gathering a layer of dirt and grime. Enterprising passers-by began using the bowl as a make-shift rubbish bin.

What’s Egypt like to live in? A friend wrote and asked me. It’s hot, I replied. There’s a toilet bowl sitting in my street. If I lean over my balcony on tip-toe I can see the Nile.

When the light began to fade I’d stand out on the flat’s balcony and listen to the local mosque’s microphone click on with a hiss of static and a muffled cough before the muezzin began the song of faith. I’d gather my washing in, dried stiffly in the crisp sun and breathe in the Cairo freshly laundered smell of diesel, desert, and faint whiff of laundry powder. Afterwards, I’d sit out there on the creaky chair as the neighbouring buildings became silhouettes under the eerie yellow tinge of the street lamps and wonder if I’d ever understand this country.

Five years later when I finally left Cairo a friend would muse that people who were attracted to the Middle East were attracted in some way to conflict. But I couldn’t agree with that analogy. Because the Middle East wasn’t just the conflict and chaos that clogged up the news channels to me any more. And it wasn’t the macho world where women were kept cowed at home that Louisa had assumed. It was a place, just like any other, full of different stories and the wonder of every day surprises. Egypt was an unfathomable mystery with an ancient stillness that resonated at the most unlikely moments and I would never completely unravel it. And that was ok because life didn’t run on straight linear lines here. It bent and wobbled. It curved. Like a circle.

And I’d remember when Ahmed the taxi driver had dropped me off in downtown Cairo at the end of the first day of my second arrival in Egypt. It had started to rain; a steady drizzle which turned the sidewalk dust to oozing mud. Egyptians ran between shops with newspapers held high over their heads to protect them from getting wet and tried to avoid the growing litany of puddles which were slowly filling the pavement potholes. He retrieved my pack from the boot and handed it to me. I paid him and said goodbye but just as I was starting to walk away he yelled for me to stop. When I turned around he was scrabbling around amid the pink furry dashboard.

“Here!” He said with a smile and put a little stone into my palm. “Ahlan wa Sahlan. Ahlan wa Sahlan Misr.”
Hello and welcome to Egypt.

When I opened my palm I saw a tiny blue stone scarab beetle.

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