Of Stones, Sand and Survival, and the Big Deep Blue – Egypt
This piece was written a few years ago during a period of rising Islamophobia in the UK and beyond. My intention, among other things, was to demonstrate that it is absolutely safe to wander the streets of predominantly muslim cities and towns, to take up with local folk and perhaps experience aspects of everyday life from which one might be screened on an official or organised tour. I’ve done similar things in a number of countries, including Morocco, India, Turkey, Cuba and more, as well as the USA and UK. There is never a lack of streetfolk willing to help you out – for a small charge, of course. Some are obviously hustlers and best dismissed. Others are expert salesmen, even if their pitch may not be immediately apparent. But ill-intent is rare. Most are genuinely pleased to meet and accompany a visitor to their land. For the most part they are trying to get by in difficult circumstances, trying to survive. In many parts of the world a regular income is far from the norm and a welfare system is something that can only be dreamed of. They may have a family to feed, debts to pay, and western visitors can be a means to an end. Some will make it plain from the outset that they expect payment, others may be less direct but all of those that I’ve spent time with have provided a service I appreciated and learned from, even if their methods were at times a little unorthodox. It’s part and parcel of travel. One can choose to participate or not, but if you do, as long as you clearly define the rules, there is little to be concerned about.
To this end, strolling the baking backstreets of Cairo one day, vaguely and purposefully lost, I allowed myself to fall in with a local man, Sayeed. It turned out to be an illuminating three hours or so as we became willing participants in a play of our own devising. He was a genial fellow and I would have liked to have discovered more about him, and what little I learned of his family, but that was not to be.
Sadly, in 2018, Islamophobia shows no sign of abating. In the UK and elsewhere racism is on the increase. Egypt, following the so-called Arab Spring, has suffered a series of major political upheavals and seems to be shifting into an ever more authoritarian stance. Political opposition is forcibly stifled, individual freedoms restricted. Inflation is rocketing and food shortages and increasing unemployment only add to the people’s woes. Fear of terrorism has hit a major source of income, the tourist industry, and it’s hard to envisage what the future holds. Nonetheless, it remains a fascinating country and I look forward to returning, particularly to the natural marvels beneath the surface of the Red Sea and of the ancient man-made wonders along the Nile, which is where this account begins:
I am supine inside what is arguably the most awe-inspiring and mysterious human-made space on the planet. I have at most a couple of minutes to take advantage of the solitude that hard-won timing has granted me, to reflect on this place, the questions surrounding its construction and the imponderables beyond. Others are ascending to rupture the silence.
The so-called King’s Chamber, deep and lofty within the Great Pyramid at Giza, is, like the pyramid itself, a paradox that defies explanation. Countless theories have been proposed to explain the pyramid’s purpose, from the textbook orthodoxy of slaves, ramps, pharaonic tomb, to the sometimes unsubscribably fantastic, embracing extra-terrestrials, ancient meta-technologies – and everything in between. A question mark hangs over them all. The perfection, sophistication and intricacy of this colossus has been perplexing humankind for more than four and a half thousand years, and we seem hardly to be closer to explaining it now than at any time in the past.
I’m lying in the red granite sarcophagus, trying to relinquish all preconceptions and absorb the otherworldly atmosphere of this place. It’s not easy, knowing that half the world is about to burst in.
In a battered taxi I’d rolled up to the entrance to the Giza plateau at sunrise. I was drained and weary after an overnight haul across the Sinai Desert, but was rewarded by being the first to arrive at the entrance barrier. Here I waited, in shorts and t-shirt, shivering in the chill morning air that I’d failed miserably to anticipate. A bored cop summoned me into his checkpoint, asked a few terse questions, checked my ID, sent me back out again. I waited patiently as coaches, taxis and footsore hordes began to arrive. At last the barrier was lifted and I joined an undignified scramble up the slope to the ticket office, elbowing aside old ladies and tripping up children, determined to be among the three hundred granted access to the Great Pyramid of Khufu each day. Though the tour-coaches roared past, I managed fourth behind a trio of young Danes. Good enough, even if the ticket-office, knowing we were in no position to argue, did charge double the advertised admission price. Behind us, as we entered, I noted approvingly that the other tourists seemed in less of a hurry to ascend the steep, narrow, low-ceilinged corridors and the extraordinary Great Gallery to the King’s Chamber. And once in that mysterious space, the Danes, after a minute or so, moved on. I could hardly believe my luck.
My reflections were short-lived. The silence was broken. One, two, more visitors were working their way excitedly upwards. From within the sarcophagus I sensed they’d paused at or just inside the entrance. Then the chatter began again. A face appeared above me, peering over the lip of the sarcophagus. A young blonde woman. Seeing me lying there she gave a sharp cry and jumped back. I sat up, and a miracle occurred. A coach load of Italian tourists were momentarily stunned into silence.
It couldn’t last. As I clambered out they burst into laughter and articulations of relief. I was fleetingly a celebrity. Everyone wanted to shake my hand, slap my shoulder, probably take my photo were it not for the fact that cameras are forbidden inside the Pyramid. The King’s Chamber resonated as they tried to out-do one another, until one’s ears rang and all sense of the mystery of this place died in the clatter.
The Italians began to move on and an attendant entered carrying a used two-litre plastic Evian bottle. From a de-humidifier in a corner of the chamber he emptied a clear liquid into the bottle, filling it almost to the brim: the accumulated sweat of yesterday’s tourists. Dribs and drabs of the next coach-party were coming in, this time Japanese. Less excitable than the Italians, they wandered around the Chamber, quickly taking in, though hardly seeming to question the perfect positioning of the vast unadorned stone blocks, their tonnage incalculable, fitted so smoothly into place that you can’t slip a razor-blade between; nor the flagstone which, when stomped on, produces a sonorous boom, a soul-stirring Ommmmmmmm that resonates through the chamber; nor even the point directly in front of the sarcophagus where you stand, not only at the exact centre of the Great Pyramid itself, but also of the Earth’s habitable land mass at 30 degrees latitude. Then there are the so-called ‘air’-shafts. Approximately 22 cm square, they burrow up immaculately through tons and tons of stone to align perfectly, at the time of their construction, with specific astronomical bodies. The mathematical precision of the pyramid’s construction, its dimensions in relation to those of the Earth and more, to astronomical correlations between the earth and the sun, is astonishing. And the people who built this didn’t possess iron, didn’t have the wheel.
Below, in the Queen’s Chamber, in 1990 a shaft was discovered. Unlike the others, it didn’t penetrate to the exterior. In 1993 a German scientist, Rudolph Gantenbrink, sent a remote-controlled robotic camera up this shaft to discover where it led. It ended, after 65 metres, at a small sealed door set with copper or bronze fittings.
Beyond the door sonar and seismographic investigations revealed an empty space, a chamber that had lain hidden for more than four and a half millennia. But what was in it? And why? And how?
It was eight years before any kind of answer was found. In 2002 another, more sophisticated robot was sent up the shaft, this one capable of snaking a fibre-optic camera under the sealed door to discover what lay beyond. Beyond the sealed door was revealed another identical sealed door, perfectly aligned to prevent anything penetrating further along the shaft.
And still no clue as to what might lie in the chamber beyond.
More recently, in further attempts to solve the puzzle, a perfectly carved blocking stone was discovered beyond the second door. This was drilled through by yet another robot, which filmed a small empty chamber with another blocking stone at its end. The purpose of the chamber is unknown. And in 2017 a hidden void, possibly one hundred feet long, was discovered above the Great Gallery. It is inaccessible and its purpose also remains a mystery.
Yet people visit this place as an instalment on a day trip. They rush in, squeal and shout, maybe gasp a little, express disappointment at the lack of hieroglyphs, paintings, treasures, then rush on to the next, more colourful attraction. It’s a bit of a hoot. It might as well be Disneyland.
I watched as a portly Japanese man had his wife snap him beaming with the attendant and the bottle of sweat, the sarcophagus behind. He seemed mystified when the attendant then demanded baksheesh – even more so when a second attendant arrived and confiscated his camera. The Great Pyramid still presides over a culture of its own, maybe incomprehensible to outsiders but no doubt blessed with an internal logic.
A day earlier I was experiencing another wonder of this world, this one put here by nature over millennia. Beneath the surface of the Red Sea the tropical coral reefs teem with a mesmerising richness and diversity of life. Countless forms and varieties, sizes, colours. Too much to take in. And you’re gliding along a metre or so above the coral, not quite believing what you’re seeing, when the reef falls away beneath you. Now there’s nothing above or below, nothing to either side. The bubbles of your expired breath are all that indicate which way is up, and there is no north, south, east or west.
‘Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space’.
This is the Big Blue. It’s another world, beautiful, dreamlike and incredibly peaceful. From the moment you enter your mind is devoid of all thoughts of the hectic world above. You watch the sunlight filtering into the endless depths, tiny particles glinting as they glide by your mask. You can’t help but be filled with wonder. You want to sing out loud, and you probably do, though no one can hear you. And you really don’t want to leave. There are no words to describe this place adequately; television and video can’t truly convey it’s beauty. You get zenned-out down here. It has to be experienced – and once it has, your life will never be quite the same again.
On the Giza Plateau, outside the Great Pyramid, the touts and hustlers swarm. Camel rides, horse rides, donkey rides, caleche rides. . . Even the tourist police seem in on it. Having shaken off several earnest hustlers I find a man in a black uniform suddenly at my shoulder: ‘I show you best place for photos’.
‘It’s okay. I can find places.’
He pats his armband. ‘Is okay. Why you worry? Look. Tourist police. Not one of them.’ He gestures dismissively.
‘I don’t need help,’ I explain.
‘No. I show you best places. All three pyramids in one photo. Tourist police.’
‘Well, okay,’ I shrug, ‘but no baksheesh.’
‘Ah, but I show you, just over here, beautiful place. The best.’
‘Thank you. But no baksheesh.’
‘But I am tourist police. I know best places.’
He eyes me ruefully, and deserts me, trudges off across the sand and disappears behind some stones to wait for richer pickings. I’d be surprised if he’s legit.
The mid-morning sun is brilliant and scorching, the wind dry, cutting and cold. The tourist buses continue to roll up and depart in endless streams. Caravans of camels and caleches transport visitors around the monuments. Passing between the mastabas I disturb a desert fox, which slinks away in search of somewhere people-free. On the road in front of the Sphinx packed city buses disgorge their cargoes of Cairenes: families and school parties, pouring up onto the plateau. A turbanned tourist cop on a camel beckons, and checks my pass. Children try to sell me things I don’t want, even at a knockdown price. I banter with them but they move on. Souvenir sellers thrust junk into my hands. Weathered bedouins ask me to take their picture (somehow neglecting to add that baksheesh will, of course, be expected). A Japanese woman astride a dromedary wears a pained, frightened expression as she is led away toward the sands, clinging for life to the wood saddle, at sea like a toy duckling. Her husband thinks he’s in a rodeo. It was plainly his idea.
English tourists, painfully red, complain about the sun and sand. Schoolkids surround me, delighting in the opportunity to practise English: ‘Hello, sir. Where are you from? Rooney best, yes?’ Riders make off across the wide ocean of dunes. On crests and rocky upthrusts police on camels sit motionless and watchful, picture-postcards against the blue sky. Twenty kilometres away over the sand the pyramids of Saqqara are silhouetted on the southern horizon. The dusty megalopolis of Cairo sprawls and the pyramids of Giza rise implacable above it all, externally worn but their integrity unruptured by millennia. This is an extraordinary place.
In the silence beneath the Red Sea you fin gently along the reefs amidst shoals of impossibly coloured fish. The coral rises in wild clusters and domes, towers, shelves, fabulous terraces and gardens, and you still don’t quite believe what you are seeing. Scores of vibrantly-hued angelfish, bannerfish, sergeants and wrass; spectacularly plumed lion-fish, gaping blue clams and waving anemones. A cornetfish hitches a ride on your shoulder, a stingray scuds across the sand, a huge Napoleon hovers, an octopus writhes across the sea-bed, changing pigment and texture in the blink of an eye. . . From a hole in the rock a giant moray surges out. It passes in front of you, almost two metres long and less than two away, its teeth glinting. Like almost everything down here, it deems you uninteresting. It slides away across the sand, disappears into another crevice, then it’s head reappears in the shadows, jaws hanging open, eyes beady for passing prey.
Minutes later your dive buddy taps your shoulder and points. And there it is. Not twenty metres away, moving slowly, close to the sea bed. Your first shark.
The adrenaline pumps. You can’t help it. The instinctive fears that lie just beneath the surface, stoked by a lifetime of relentless media frenzy. But though your brain and body urge flight, you stay calm and gaze in something close to awe. This one’s a silvertip, as big as you but tougher. A pair of remoras are suckered to its head. It gives a light flick of its caudal and upshifts into graceful, effortless motion. Nothing works the water like a shark. They are exquisitely adapted. You follow at a respectful distance. The creature moves between the rocks and corals, swings around, comes back in your direction. It knows you are there but is indifferent. It settles for a moment onto the sand again, searching, then rises and with a few powered flicks of its tail cuts away into the blue.
Until recently I would have numbered myself among the terrified when it comes to swimming with sharks. Yet on land, where they aren’t always as easily spotted, we do it daily. And the facts speak for themselves: Every year around the world, on average eight to ten people are killed by sharks. Every year around the world, on average seventy five million sharks are killed by people.
Many species now face extinction through our efforts.
Studies indicate that almost all shark-to-human attacks are mistakes. In murky water, poor visibility, a human outline is mistaken for preferred prey: fish or seal. Generally sharks let go after one bite. They have no taste for us. Who can blame them?
So with proper precautions swimming with sharks is rarely considered hazardous. A dive-master I met found himself and his group beneath dozens of schooling hammerheads. For several minutes they were surrounded, until the sharks simply moved on elsewhere. A Russian friend told me how, diving in deeper waters, she’d suffered ear pains due to pressure problems. She’d been on the verge of surfacing when, literally out of the blue, a colossal whaleshark appeared, gliding straight towards her, mouth agape. Ear-ache forgotten, she finned alongside the beast until, reluctantly, she was obliged to surface due to diminishing oxygen in her tank. As she did so she found herself escorted back to her boat by a pod of playful dolphins.
It is absolutely another world down there.
And you return to your boat, exhilarated, and talk and talk about what you’ve just experienced.
* * * * *
Back in Cairo I’m wandering around Downtown when a voice at my side husks ‘Welcome in Egypt.’
It’s a common greeting. Egyptians love to meet visitors to their country, and people from all walks of life often call out a welcome as you pass. Imagine that in Britain. But it’s also one that’s commonly hi-jacked by hustlers as a prelude to plying their trade.
‘Shokran. Salaam,’ I reply, exhausting a third of my scholarly knowledge of Arabic.
‘Where are you from?’ The man is perhaps sixty, respectably dressed. This isn’t a tourist-rich zone. He could be bona-fide. Most Egyptians are genuinely interested, keen to practise their language skills, talk about their world and the world outside. But the hustlers and touts have honed their skills. I love the cultures of North Africa, but, as with many developing nations, it can be difficult to penetrate this human wall. Working gullible tourists can be a matter of survival for many. It’s regrettable, as many visitors never experience the everyday generosity and open-heartedness of ordinary Egyptians, and leave with a sour impression of the culture. To appreciate and understand other cultures can involve relinquishing the presumptions of our own.
I’m not yet sure about this guy, and I don’t slow my pace.
‘London? Oh, I am loving the English,’ he says. Then, after a pause, ‘You know about the music festival?’
Clever, or just friendly? Whichever, I’m hooked. ‘Where?’ I say. ‘And when?’
‘Just over there.’ He points. ‘Later today.’
‘What kind of music?’
‘Traditional Arab, and Islamic. Come. I show you.’
The game is on. I’m keen to know where it leads.
He accompanies me through heaving crowds, dodging screeching, blaring cars that come at you from all directions. The Cairo air is not good. I’ve read that every day spent here affects the lungs like thirty cigarettes, and I believe it. The city is reckoned to hold maybe seventeen million people, and growing; seven million vehicles, and growing. It is vast, crammed, seems to have no plan, scarcely any green space, or any space at all.
Sayeed, my self-appointed guide, tells me he is a barber. He’s keen to speak English, inform me about Arab culture, his life and country, find out as much as possible about mine. We’ve been walking for some minutes, he has enthusiastically pointed out several items of interest but hasn’t yet shown me to the music festival.
He pauses at a bakery, purchases three little biscuits and presents them to me. ‘A gift for Mister Martin, from your new friend in Egypt.’
I thank him and offer to pay, but he waves me away. ‘We are meant to meet today, Mister Martin. I feel it. It is the will of Allah. I know Mister Martin is a good man.’
He offers me Turkish coffee and we bask in the mild, late afternoon sun outside a café on a busy sidestreet. Sayeed asks about my family and my work. He has three sons. I tell him I have one beautiful daughter.
‘And your sons, Mister Martin?’
‘I have no sons.’
‘But what are they called?’
‘I don’t have any.’
He seems a little perplexed.
I compliment him on his English, which pleases him. He pulls a small booklet from a pocket, called ‘How To Speak English – Without Teacher’. The cover shows a Coldstream Guard in front of a sentry box. Sayeed tells me proudly that he is self-taught, from this book and satellite tv. Flicking through, I see that it’s a compendium of nouns, adjectives and road signs. A few of the common English foodstuffs are new to me, such as filbert and olibanum, and the Diseases and Remedies section contains such everyday terms as cerate, otitis and anina. It lacks a single verb or preposition, but is otherwise relatively comprehensive.
I lament the fact that I speak virtually no Arabic and Sayeed tells me that it is very easy to learn. ‘One month, Mister Martin. One month and you will speak perfect Arabic.’
He proceeds to teach me a few useful phrases. He insists I repeat them several times, and write them too. Phrases like, ‘God Bless you, because you are very kind’, ‘May we meet again in heaven’, ‘I like Cairo because Egyptian people are very good,’ and ‘I have one son’.
‘What is your son’s name, Mister Martin,’ Sayeed asks during a break from study.
‘I don’t have a son.’
‘Yes, but what is his name.’
‘I have a daughter.’
‘But your son. I wish to make a present for him. What is his name?’
I’m at a loss. Sayeed takes out a few coins. ‘Look, Mister Martin.’
Coins are not common in Egypt, but otherwise they’re unremarkable. I examine them then try to give them back. ‘No, it is for you.’
They’re essentially worthless, but I’m reluctant to accept. Sayeed insists. ‘Please. Take them back to England and give them to your son. A present from Sayeed.’
‘Can I borrow your pen?’ Sayeed writes a message inside the booklet, in Arabic script. ‘Your son’s name, Mister Martin,’ he asks again.
I give in. ‘Damien.’
I spell the name for him and he writes a message inside the booklet, in Arabic script, which he tells me – and I later verify – reads: ‘To the Blessed Mister Martin and his noble son, Damien. Allah be praised that we have met, and in the hope that you will one day return to Cairo and visit again your friend, Sayeed. May Allah always smile upon you.’
Underneath Sayeed writes what he claims is his address so that I may visit him. (I later discover it is gobbledegook). Then he gives me the book.
‘I can’t accept this,’ I tell him. But he won’t accept no. It’s a gift.
We’re on our third Turkish coffee. I’m starting to twitch. I ask Sayeed again about the music. ‘Ah, yes. Down there.’
‘Is it near?’
‘Not far. Be patient, Mister Martin.’
‘But when does it start?’
‘And how long for?’
‘Oh, all night. It will be wonderful. Truly. You will say, when you are there, How glad I am to have met Sayeed today. It was a meeting defined by fate. But first, have you seen Old Cairo?’
‘You see! Sayeed will show you.’
‘We won’t miss the music?’
‘Of course not.’
And then he asks, ‘Mister Martin, have you any English coins you might give me?’
Aha! Here we go.
‘To show my sons,’ he adds.
I tell him apologetically, and truthfully, that I’m not carrying any English currency.
‘Then would you like me to have your pen?’
It’s an old Parker that I found on a train twenty years ago. It has served me well over the years, and I’d not thought of giving it away. But he’s caught me off-balance. I can hardly refuse, and I know that pens, even cheap biros, are greatly valued here, so, slightly disconcerted, I pass it on.
He thanks me profusely, then asks if I’d like to pay for the coffees now. I find I have no small change, so he takes my fifty note and crosses the street to get change from somewhere. When he returns he counts the money carefully into my hand, then curses, picking out a new ten LE note. ‘This is not good money.’
By his account, the note is worthless, taken out of circulation. I suggest taking it back to whoever changed the fifty. He shakes his head. ‘He will be gone. Even if I find him, he will deny giving the money. Dishonest man! I am sorry, Mister Martin.’
He folds the note and slips it into his pocket. ‘No good for you. No good.’
I pay for the coffees and we move on into the souk area of Old Cairo. The streets and alleys are teeming, their surfaces little more than rock hard earth, pitted and difficult. The buildings, ancient and not-so, are thrown tightly together, maintaining cover from the blistering sun. They merge into complex labyrinthine clusters and out-of-control developments. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many people outside of India. The smells of animals, exhausts and nargila-smoke enrich the air. Stallholders and hawkers yell or beckon from all directions while women call English welcomes and offer dusty vegetables, sweets and spices. Men weigh sheep and young boys carry buckets of guts to unfathomable places. The atmosphere is wonderful, intoxicating if hectic.
Sayeed takes a string of blue rosary beads from his pocket and gives it to me. I try to pass it back, but he presses it with a look of deep reproach. ‘Please. For Damien.’
He leads me into numerous shops, encouraging me to buy. I know he’ll receive a commission, but there’s nothing here I want. Then he tells me he’d like to take me to a holy place.
We are in a mosque – the oldest in Cairo, Sayeed informs me. It is his place of worship. He kneels and performs abeyances. A small study group is reciting extracts from the Q’oran, watched over by a cleric. Sayeed speaks to the cleric, who looks at me expressionlessly. Sayeed crosses to a rack of books and comes back with a small, very well-thumbed paperback copy of the Koran, in Arab script. ‘For you. And for Damien.’
I’m beginning to regret that name. I’m also reluctant to accept yet another ‘gift’, but to refuse the Q’oran could be badly construed, so I accept. I’m realising how little I know, how much – despite myself – my impressions of Islam have been shaped by Western media, and how this psychological jousting with Sayeed is so much more than a game. I’m not sure if I’m an intruder here. Sayeed tells me proudly about the mosque, points out the ancient mosaics and architecture, then suggests photos, one of myself, one of him, hands raised to heaven. He asks if I would like to make a donation. I’m not sure what would be appropriate; he suggests LE50, then confers with the cleric, placing himself between the two of us. The cleric looks my way, I half-think I see a look of sympathy, and takes the money. Sayeed crosses to the book-rack and returns with a spanking new hardback copy of the Q’oran tucked surreptitiously under one arm.
‘And would you like to make a gift, Mister Martin?’
‘For the poor children.’
Outside, lighter by a few more LE, I remind him about the music. ‘Yes, yes. We will go very soon. One more site for Mister Martin first.’
He leads me deeper into Old Cairo, through tiny alleys to the old camel market. Outside a pharmacy he stops. ‘Mister Martin, can you give me LE20?’
I ask what for. Sayeed’s expression is transformed into one of sadness. ‘Diabetic medicine. My youngest son.’
It’s not a large amount, but I make the proviso that this will be my final ‘donation.’
‘But-‘ he begins.
‘I’m sorry. No more.’
I shake my head.
He puts the money in his pocket.
‘You’re not going to buy the medicine?’ I ask.
‘Oh, not here!’ he declares with passion. ‘This one no good. Owner is crook. Charge very high prices!’
It’s getting cooler now. The sun has almost set, and I mention the music again. ‘Ah yes,’ he points back the way we came. ‘That way. I will show you in a very quick minute. But first, one more thing to see.’
We cross the street to where a man with a huge knife is preparing to slit the throat of an old camel; two others strip the skins from still-twitching sheep. Sayeed pushes against a rickety double-door. Peering through I see fifty or so camels crammed into a yard.
‘For sale,’ announces Sayeed. Two men sit atop the wall, discussing prices. ‘Come,’ Sayeed beckons.
We enter and watch for a while as more men enter and camels are bought and sold. Sayeed points out the sturdier stock that will fetch higher prices compared to others he considers less robust.
But I’m tired. The heat is affecting me and more than two hours have passed since I met Sayeed. I’m keen to find the music festival. I tell him I’d like to walk back.
‘Just one more thing to show you.’
‘No. It’s time for the music.’
With reluctance Sayeed nods, and steps out to hail a taxi, but I tell him I’d prefer to walk.
‘You don’t want taxi?’
‘I enjoy walking. I want to see more of the city.’
‘Will you not get lost?’
‘I thought you were going to show me where the festival is.’
‘Ah, yes. But – walk? Not taxi?’
‘You are sure?’
I can see he’s disappointed. I start to walk back. Sayeed says, ‘Mister Martin, would you mind if I ask for my beads back?’
I give him the rosary. Now he tells me he lives nearby and won’t be accompanying me any further, so I ask for directions to the music festival. He mentions a huge mosque dominating a junction we’d passed earlier. ‘In there. All night. Such wonderful music. Before we part, can you buy me cigarettes?’
Wandering the backstreets alone I calculate the cost of my time with Sayeed. I’ve been relieved of the equivalent of, at most, twenty pounds sterling. Sayeed has gained a new Q’oran, a trusty old pen and probably enough cash to eat well for more than a couple of days, and possibly purchase medicine for his son. I have a used copy of the Q’oran, a booklet on speaking English without teacher, a few Egyptian coins and several Arabic phrases scribbled on a scrap of paper. More than that, though, I’ve had an extraordinary tour of hidden parts of Cairo, seen and experienced things I would probably never have found alone. Sayeed was good company and I’m reminded that, like so many, he is simply trying to get by under trying circumstances. I feel it’s been a good exchange.
Shortly afterwards, sipping tea in a café, I strike up a conversation with a group of Egyptian men playing cards. I enquire about the music festival, but none of them have any idea about it. Nor has anyone else I ask. I wander the streets for another hour, taking in Cairo’s early nightlife, and when I find the mosque, there is no music.
The following morning, I’m leaving my hotel, battling with a stomach bug, when a man approaches me: ‘Mister Martin!’
I’don’t know him but he seems to know me. ‘I am a good friend,’ he explains, ‘a very good friend of your friend, Sayeed. He told me I would find you here. Would you like that I show you the very best places in Cairo?’
A day later I’m back beneath the turquoise waters off the tip of Sinai. Down here everything is deceptively serene. Nobody wants anything from you. It’s silent and blue, and the life you encounter has no interest in you. It’s a world of impossible colour, unimaginable beauty and incredible diversity. All you have to do is remember to breathe.
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