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.

Inside the camel market

It ain’t for the squeamish. Birqash camel market, just outside of Cairo, stinks. The stench of animals swelters stagnantly in the heat until it rubs off on you. This isn’t a tourist attraction although a few intrepid travellers always make it out here – and the market organisers enterprisingly make foreigners buy a ticket to enter. But it is a side of Cairo far removed from pyramids and King Tut’s treasure.

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On the fact that we’re all more similar than we first think

The weather had turned up to Cairo-boil. A sweet and sticky fug of heat settled across the city like a blanket. It was so hot it hurt to breathe. I dreamt of air conditioning at night as I listened to the ancient, wobbling ceiling fan wheezing and shuddering through its circular rhythm to try and whip up a breeze.

On the street, sweaty and frizz-hindered, I looked like a straw-haired scarecrow compared to the Cairo girls. Me in my loosest cotton tops and baggiest pants with forehead damp from sweat while the Cairo girls were all turned out in shiny patent heels and carefully applied eye makeup that never seemed to run.

No matter what the thermometer said, the lycra top ruled the street-fashion of Cairo. A glance around any busy road proved it was the favoured female clothing option. This body-hugging, long-sleeved and clingy top seemed a completely impractical choice for summer in the city to me.

“Aren’t you hot?” I asked Aisha.

“Yes, too hot!”

“Well why don’t you wear something less tight?” I fanned myself with the reference book I was supposed to be using to teach her English. It was too hot to work.

“I love fashion. I adore it.” She said.

I taught her the word ‘shopaholic’ and she rolled it around her mouth with glee. Then she grabbed my hands and clicked her tongue at my unvarnished nails. I’d never be Cairo-cool.

The trouble was to be fashionable in Cairo and still manage to obey the Islamic tenets of modest dress, the stiflingly hot skin-tight lycra top had become an essential wardrobe staple. It is high-necked and long-sleeved which meant that any of the spaghetti-strapped, scooped-backed tops of Western fashion could be layered over it easily. But I couldn’t even imagine how mummifying it would feel to have body hugging lycra next to my skin when the temperature roared to over 40 degrees.

Walking home from the college I remembered my clubbing days in London. Even in mid-winter we would stand shivering in the entry queues, hugging our jackets around us to try and generate warmth because despite the sleety rain and ice-fingered wind we were wearing the most ridiculously skin-exposing, thin-fabric outfits underneath. It didn’t seem to matter what culture or religion we came from. Women will always find a way to lock ourselves in a fashion-cage.

On the joy of snail-paced travel

I have always had a knack for enjoying doing nothing. Give me a hammock, a book, and sunlight dappling through from a palm-thatched roof – or a window seat on a long train journey – and I’m perfectly happy. I came to the realisation long ago in my travelling life that I am not a person who tears down walls for something to do. Some of my happiest travel memories revolve around the simple pleasure of people watching. Sipping chai on a hotel balcony while watching the dhobi wallahs scrub clean mountains of laundry in the river below. Sitting at a pavement cafe observing the world go by. It’s when travelling creaks down a few paces to a crawl that I feel the most alive.

Because of this, it was with a large dollop of trepidation that I first became a tour leader. My style of travel had always been slow. Involving six month stints or longer upon the road. There was nothing I adored more than having the luxury of time to spend a month in one place if the mood beckoned me. Travelling on a tour had never attracted me for a variety of reasons. Mostly because the idea of someone else telling me what to do is my ultimate nightmare, but also because they just seemed…a little…quick. Blink and you miss them. Organised tours take the hassle out of your travel plans. Useful if you have one of those things called a career-path and can’t spend a longer time on the road. But how much culture and history can you absorb in a three week jaunt through the Middle East?

For over four years I travelled at lightning bolt speed; the tortoise masquerading as the hare. Employed by one of the world’s largest adventure travel companies, for nine months of every year, it was my job to buzz tourists through an itinerary that covered Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Turkey in the constricted space of 21 days. We hardly had time to catch our breath let alone sit down and smell the flowers. You can’t do the Middle East in three weeks, I’d warn my passengers at the initial group meeting. But I could get them to the major highlights.

It was a life carried out in fast speed. Every ruin or tumbling panoramic view was serenaded with the buzz and click of camera shutters. There wasn’t time to spend all afternoon sitting on a fallen Roman column, just surveying the scene. There was only time for photos. By the end of the second week fatigue would be etched over faces as the get-on-the-bus, get-off-the-bus, endless packing and repacking began to have an effect. On day 21 we’d stagger exhausted into Istanbul, backpacks on weary backs.

Finish a trip. Say goodbye to my passengers. Fly back to Cairo. A couple of days off only if I was lucky. Start another trip. I never unpacked properly because I rarely stayed anywhere longer than two nights. It was travelling on steroids. In the end it began to suck the joy of travelling out of me. My life had become a tour leader hamster wheel.

The afternoon after I resigned I went to visit Ibn Tulun Mosque in Islamic Cairo. Despite living in the city for four years I’d shamefully never got around to going there before. I wandered around its vast airy corridors that framed the dazzling white paving of the courtyard. I stood transfixed while gazing up at the intricate calligraphy which adorned its arches. I sat. For hours; just breathing in the atmosphere of quiet contemplation before climbing the spiral of stairs to the top of the minaret where the helter-skelter view of pigeon coops and satellite dishes which grace Cairo’s rooftops, greeted me at the top.

Having the luxury of slowing down while travelling is something of a frowned upon treat. In a world so obsessed with possessing stuff – where we graduate from needing to own ipod and plasma-screen TV, to mortgage and kids – it’s seen a little naughty to be so lavish with wasting time. Maybe that’s why I love it so much. Having seen the other side of tourism up close, slow travel is a luxury worth wanting. 

The quiet side of Cairo

In my last post I talked about Cairo’s unending din; the constant roaring soundtrack that frays nerves and results in your normal voice becoming a shout. There are peaceful corners to the city known as Umm al-Dunya (the mother of the world) though. When the traffic chaos began to wear me down I’d escape to the city’s mosques and madrassas. They were places of quiet, calm refuge where I could sit without a backdrop of car horns, pop music, and non-stop yelling.

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On the line between tourist and local

I am slowly going deaf.  There is a tell-tale ringing in my ears and a new-found tendency to shout; definite symptoms of graduating from tourist to local.  Most foreigners only last a few days here and leave with nerves rubbed raw by the never-ending noise.  I have been in Cairo long enough to develop hearing loss.  This city is adopting me. 

My taxi has ground to a halt amid downtown’s traffic grid-lock.  Looming above this pandemonium are the architectural relics of a bygone, quieter era.  Khedive Ismail’s ornate baroque facades now slouch under the weight of years of grime.  My taxi driver lets out his frustration in the only way he knows how. He makes noise. Two million cars fight for space on Cairo’s woefully inadequate roads every day and all of their drivers have their hand firmly placed on their car’s horn.  The city’s relentless soundtrack is a cacophonous symphony of bass honks and baritone beeps that ring out from the overcrowded streets.

Up in front of us a panic-stricken police officer, cheeks flushed from blowing a piercing whistle, attempts to be heard above the racket.  It is a hopeless task.  Ambient noise levels in Cairo were recently revealed to average 85 decibels; comparable to standing 15 metres away from a freight train, and the same level that causes hearing loss with extended exposure.  We are all sinking into deafness in this city.  My driver turns up the volume of a scratchy Om Kalthoum tape to drown out the drone.

“Masnoon,” he mutters under his breath.

“Kuula masnoon,” I agree. 

Yes it is totally crazy – a perfect summation of this traffic Babel.

Outside an avalanche of rubbish slowly bakes in the sun.  With the window wound down the cab reeks of the city’s petrol-tinged perfume.  A group of shopkeepers are laying down make-shift mats of cardboard on the street corner.  They stand quietly reverent, while the traffic howls beside them.   It is nearing time to pray.

The mosque’s microphone clicks on with a hiss of static and a muffled cough before the muezzin begins the song of faith.  The first notes reverberate in the air and in the distance another muezzin joins in, and then another, and another.  Soon a hundred voices seem to be duelling above the streets of the city; blending together into a distorted roar that drowns out the clamour of the cars below. 

Even in prayer Cairo is deafening.

As the call to prayer reaches its dizzying crescendo I realise that the unrelenting din of this brash city no longer jangles my nerves.  Cairo broadcasts its frustrations, anger and even its faith at top volume, and I am slowly learning to survive amid the surrounding uproar. 

Traffic is still grid-locked, and my driver slams his hand onto the steering wheel in frustration.  

“You need a louder horn,” I say. 

“Aywa,” he nods in agreement.  Yes. 

I sit back in my seat and smile.  I have begun to belong.

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This post was first published as part of the World Nomad’s travel writing competition in 2009 and a much shorter version also appeared in the UK Independent as part of their ‘On The Road’ Footprint Guidebook author blog.

Images from a revolution

All of these images were taken in Egypt throughout 2011. Some are of Tahrir Square during the January 25 revolution. Others were taken at the July 2011 protests. A few are examples of the amazing revolutionary graffiti which took over the streets that year. Much of that street art has unfortunately been painted over now.

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Notes from a revolution

Sunset while standing on 6th of October Bridge, I watched disco-lit pleasure boats cruise upon the darkening Nile while tinny Arabic pop music rose up from the river. I strolled down Talaat Harb Street.  The smell of freshly fried taamiya and charcoaled meat floated over Orabi Square. I sat down at a table and watched the men on the corner lay out their mats to pray.

“Welcome to Egypt,” the waiter said as I sipped iced hibiscus juice and the Muezzin began the call to prayer.

“Welcome to Egypt.” A man with a battered suitcase of fake Rolexes said as he approached my table to try to make a sale.

“Welcome to Egypt.” A couple of kids running past me yelled. “Welcome to Egypt. Welcome to Egypt.”

As I walked home a thousand shisha pipes scented the air with apple-perfume. Five more passersby welcomed me to Egypt. I rolled my eyes and sighed.

I woke up. Dazed, I sat up in my hammock and stared out at the sea. Tiny rippling waves lapped on the shore. I walked over to my friend’s hut to watch his TV. We sat silently as the powder-pink puff of the Egyptian Museum came into view. Pitched battles of sticks and stones and camels from the Pyramids charged across the nightmare screen. The reporter was standing on 6th of October Bridge. A friend in Cairo rang us crying. I mooched across the beach, shoulders slouched. One of the staff was raking the sand, erasing the remaining footprints of the last tourists to leave.

Marooned upon a stretch of white sand at my friend’s remote beach camp on the Red Sea I watched as a bland square in Cairo’s downtown became headline news. Tahrir Square’s traffic – all belching and burping out diesel and din – was nowhere to be seen. Our internet disappeared. Phone calls to friends in Cairo wouldn’t work. The sun loungers on the beach emptied as the tourists fled. Soon it was just me left. I drank the camp dry of diet coke and finished the last of the muesli.

“Now you eat like an Egyptian,” my friend said and I swapped to lemon juice and fuul.

When the phone rang it was Radio New Zealand requesting an interview.

“What’s happening? What have you seen?” The reporter asked.

“I don’t think I can help you out,” I said. “I’m in the Sinai and there’s nothing happening here.”

“Nothing at all?”

I looked out at the beach.  A fisherman’s boat bobbed lazily on the sea.

“Still no sniper-fire or tanks invading the beach yet,” I replied.

Bedouin women, cloaked in their embroidered niqabs, sacks of jewellery and scarves carried upon their heads, gave up their daily patrol along the beach. I tried to ration my cigarettes. We began to run out of fresh vegetables and my friend fretted about finishing the last of the generator’s diesel fuel. Banks had shut. ATMs had bled dry. Transport to and from Cairo had been cut off. The mural of Mubarak outside the newspaper building on Ramses Street invaded my dreams.

“You see that man in the aviator shades, the one that looks like a mafia boss? Well that’s our president.” My friend Muhammad would tell tourists.

I thought of Cairo at midnight when the city streets shrugged off their blanket of heat and the hint of a cool breeze brought everyone outside. Crowds of girls with hijabs pinned and tied in mysteriously intricate ways, fabric floating after them like peacock tails, as they walked arms-linked down the street. Families gathering together on street corners, eating tubs of koshary. I would lie in bed and be rocked to sleep by Cairo’s lullaby; somebody yelling and somebody laughing; screeching tyres and smashing glass; the dull thud of a car crash; the sound of children kicking a football against a nearby wall; and then the horns, always the horns.

Moonlight stretched its fingers through the bamboo roof of my hut and threw shadows across the web of the mosquito net. The light from my alarm clock told me it was 2am. I got up, turned on my torch, and padded across the cold sand to the bathroom. Somewhere on the beach a dog was barking. A truck rumbled across the highway, headlights briefly flashing down the road. Beyond it, the craggy silhouettes of the Sinai Mountains rose up like mythical beasts preparing to attack. The sea shimmered as the waves rolled in. I sat on the beach and had a cigarette. In the morning I watched the blackened beaux-arts facades of downtown reduced to a backdrop on the television screen. The internet came back on. I replied madly to worried friends and relatives; trying to explain my geographic isolation from Cairo.

I’m miles away in the Sinai.

The worst thing that could happen to me is if I run out of cigarettes.

Yes don’t worry I’m safe.

Mubarak was going to go. No he wasn’t. The military may stage a coup. Or they won’t. There was the Day of Rage, the Million Man March, the Day of Departure, when nobody actually left. I tried to guess what would happen next and failed. Lost within the pundits’ commentaries offering up conflicting opinion and hype, I watched desperate protesters breaking up the dusty pavement for ammunition on the TV screen. Tahrir Square had never been part of the Cairo I loved. More eyesore than attraction, its petrol-haze stench hung low near the ground and my eyes stung whenever I was nearby. I lay in my hammock and remembered the swelling despair of navigating the labyrinth underpass between its roads to arrive, sweat trickling down my back, into the blinding sunlight in front of the Mugamma building’s slab of Stalinist-chic and swallow metallic-tinged gulps of encrusted air. Hawkers flogging kitchen pans and plastic cups; one man selling popcorn; everybody rushing in and out the doors of the Mugamma with papers to be signed and stamped; engulfed whole into the building’s gloom.

The bamboo huts lay empty, the sea un-swum in and the snorkelling gear unused. My friend sent his staff on holiday one by one.  I went to Nuweiba to try and find money. Flocks of goats scuffled along the stone-pitted roadside between drooping palm trees and spindly acacias with their Christmas tree decorations of discarded plastic bags. In the manicured gardens of the Nuweiba Hilton where I finally found an open bank a lone camel, busily chewing on a wilting bush, was the only guest. The Cairo-bound bus began running again. It was time to head back.

Tahrir Square. A tide of people enveloped the roads; taken over by tanks and tents, men, women, young, old, wide-eyed and weary-eyed. Toddlers slung up onto shoulders and flags flown high. A boy sat with his grandmother on the pavement draped in black, red and white. A group of men lent against a tank reading newspapers and smoking cigarettes. One man had climbed to the top of a lamp post and was waving a huge Egyptian flag in the air. There was music blasted from loudspeakers, there were prayers. In the background the Mugamma building glowered down upon us. Posters were tacked across fences. The facade of KFC had become an exhibition space for revolutionary art. A man offered me a cup of free tea from his trestle table on a street corner. A fruit vendor had decorated his cart with flags and was selling revolutionary bananas. I fought against the sea of people still swarming into the square and walked out down a car-less Talaat Harb Street. A man approached me as I took a photo of the traffic-free road.

“It’s amazing isn’t it,” he said.

I wasn’t sure if he was talking about the silent street or the revolution or both. I nodded in agreement.

One more street block up, a five minute stroll from Tahrir, a street vendor sat on a pavement corner surrounded by plastic dolls dressed in pink and purple sparkly dresses and shaggy toy cats with flashing green eyes. He wound up the dolls so that they circled jerkily around on their little stands accompanied by scratchy music from a child’s nursery rhyme. A group of young men – faces red, white and black – marched down the road with voices raised high in a chant. The vendor looked up and watched them as they headed towards the square. He took out a duster and began brushing the desert dirt off a doll’s dress.

“Welcome to Egypt,” he said as I passed by.

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This story was previously published in Perceptive Travel

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