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Saturday, 12 December 2015

Egypt: A pretty nice place when there aren't bombs going off.

                                                   

  The second remedy.





It was early evening in Cairo, summer was about to come into full custody of this sprawling dusty child of the sun. But in the meantime there were the last few remaining days of reasonable spring weather when one could still walk about town for a couple of hours without requiring  an oxygen tent and an ice bath afterwards.  Soon it would be hot enough to make the piles of garbage hum and stink, creeping through the city spreading dirty fingers through the street. Then it would be hotter still, and the garbage would become fossilised by heat, desiccated like ancient relics, even the flies would desperately start to seek the cool awning of the ahwa and drink tea with the dried out and dusty Egyptians, who smoked cigarettes and drank tea to keep themselves from being swept away by the dry hot wind.

There were only two remedies, at least for this particular traveller against the heat of the city, one, was taking an overnight bus from Cairo bus station to anywhere where there was an abundance of cool water, and  spend a couple of days splashing around hiding from the heat behind the shadows of cool palms.




The other was to drink beer. Any beer would do, though in preference not the stuff that made your eyeballs hurt, but even this one eventually grew accustomed to.

For maximum relief, both of these remedies should be taken together or at least within a couple of hours of each other. In this instance the cool and deep pools of the Siwa oasis formed the perfect tonic; an antidote to Cairo’s millennia of dust piled upon dust, and to the noise of the cars which seemed to own nearly every square metre of this over-tired city.

The cars slept only for about three hours a week, on Friday morning between four am and seven AM when a kind of heavenly peace would descend on the whole of Cairo and all would be quiet. The cars would be resting, piously celebrating the Sabat inside their garages and outside apartment blocks. Still and serene, for a few hours at least. And that was the time when I loved Cairo best. I would wake up especially early, or stay up particularly late, just to enjoy this sacred time.

The oasis was sheltered by palm trees and cooled by bubbling limpid springs, but in the exposed town centre or on the highway back towards Alexandria, it would soon be hot enough to make the tarmac sticky and the ground hot enough to burn feet.



But now I was in the shady folds of the oasis, and after ascending the dry sun battered hill to reach Alexander’s famous oracle I found only old stones and a snake which slithered across the steps leading up to the temple precincts and nearly scared the soul out of my body with the suddenness of its movement.  I took this as a sign, but of what I was not sure. However I have since learned that a snake crossing your path is bad omen, it indicates spiteful or false friends, the classical suggestion is to kill the snake and thus harm those who are harming you, but in retrospect I feel it would  have been most unfair to involve the poor snake in my silly squabbles.



I had rented a bike from Siwa and ridden out of town exploring the length of the oasis in the manner advised. 




I wheeled my bike to the edge of a round plunging pool, the water about 15 feet deep and of the most perfect turquoise blue. For a moment I considered backing my bike up a few metres and just riding my bike straight into the water. But I held back. The place was far too nice for anything too silly. I got off my bike, lay it down and bombed in. Sunk.  And stayed under exploring this mini-aqua-marine paradise. The water was cool but not cold, it was, to the very degree, the ideal temperature.





I spent hours in this watery paradise, my body drinking the water through osmosis. Gradually the bright yellow oasis light slowly ripened to orange as the sun deepened into the horizon, it was time for the second remedy so I cycled back through the cooling palms along the sandy pathways. The path eventually widened and became a road and there were mules roving around pulling carts loaded with green leaf vegetables of some kind,  still no cars as I pulled up to the modest but delightfully cheap Palm Trees hotel where I was staying. A couple of old timers were playing backgammon, in the midst of a ruin of smoked cigarettes and empty shay glasses as the shadows of the palms lengthened and loomed over them.

I returned to Siwa town thoroughly refreshed from my adventures in hydration. Refreshed but not entirely quenched. I needed beer in order for the cure to be complete.



Ahmet’s body was sat in a chair behind the reception desk but his spirit was far away. He had propped himself against the back wall and was sleepy peacefully.

I cleared my throat, Ahmet opened one eye, recognised me and  slowly stood up:
“Kullu tamam?” he said with a friendly smile.
“Not bad,  but I could do with a beer. Where can I get beer around here?’
Instantly he answered, ‘You can have beer at Shali!’.
 ‘Shali?’ I answered, what is ‘Shali?’
‘Shali resort.

Ahmet ‘s moustached mouth offered no more information by way of explanation, like a captured POW who communicated only the barest minimum of information to his captors. I decided I would have to apply some pressure to Ahmet to get him to speak, perhaps some sodium pentothal but I had none to hand, so instead I smiled at him and asked him how to get there. This had the effect of the missing sodium pentothal and he immediately leapt up and grabbed a map and assiduously showed me a way to get myself to the beer-place with my bike.



It involved a six mile bike ride over a straight stretch of hot tarmac out of the oasis on an exposed road towards lake Siwa and by the time I got there it was cool and dusk was approaching. Having not had anything to drink all day except for coffee in the morning I was literally dying for a beer.



I cycled dryly and eagerly towards the resort  and through the gate into an artificial oasis of chlorinated water and shorn pelouse. I threw my bike down and without even sitting down ordered some beers with the desperation of an injured man calling for an ambulance. 



The waiter smiled indulgently and asked me my name and where I came from. I wondered if he had heard me and was about to explode in a surly unbecoming  hot, dehydrated rage but looking out towards the stillness of the lake and the coolness coming off the water I decided to moderate slightly:

‘Beer first, questions later’ I said quickly.

He smiled with understanding and quickly came back with three bottles of Stella.
‘Ah, 3, my lucky number’.
I quickly poured one into the glass and downed it before it had even begun to settle and the beer foam drooled down my chin giving me a little whispy beery gnome beard until I wiped it off. I didn’t care. I was a dying man resuscitated and returned to life by the grace of God given beer.


The first beer was sunk in under five seconds, i took the second and more slowly and deliberately filled the glass and now felt able to answer questions. I smiled:

“Ana James, forsa saiyida. Min il-ingleterra’
“Ahh, bitkellem Arabi!’
“Shwaya bass” I said. For what must have been the millionth and second time.

The only problem with Egypt is that conversation was always so predictable. And after revealing a name and a nationality the conversation  usually turns to football  with the  dreaded inevitability of ‘what team?’ which I had to pretend to take an interest in. But in this instance, because of the still beauty of the lake and the refreshing golden blissfulness of the beer I refused to allow the conversation to be steered to this inevitable though comforting platitudes about football. Instead I proffered:

“Ahmet at the Palm Trees hotel told me about this place. The only place in Siwa where I can get a beer”

The man looked uncertain.
“Ahmet, works at the Palm Trees in town (I pointed in the vague direction of Siwa), moustache (I made a little gesture under my nose)’

At this the man laughed heartily. He put his hand on my shoulder:
“Habibee, you say Ahmet and you say moustache.... In Egypt everybody is called Ahmet or Mahommed and everybody has  moustache’.

He went on to explain  that this is a common source of humour for the Egyptians that if you recognise a friend of yours called Mohamed or Ahmet down a busy street in Egypt, and you were to call out his name, at least a dozen people would turn around to see who was calling them, what’s more most of them would have black moustaches at various stages of size and bristliness.

“My friend, there are too  many Ahmets and too many moustaches, but I know Palm Trees, everybody in town go there for shisha.’

I laughed and smiled and started to like this man. It was my turn to ask the questions.

I asked him if he drank beer, he said he did and I motioned him to sit down and gave him my final beer and talked pleasantries until inevitably talk turned to football but I was feeling pretty good with a few beers down me so I simulated enthusiasm for various football teams and their vastly overpaid representatives. I even managed to think of a favourite team which sounded relatively convincing and even succeeded in convincing my new friend Moustafa that I actually knew what I was talking about. 

My talking about the dream team of Craig Bellamy and Carlos Tevez even convinced me that maybe I did like football and that Manchester City perhaps really were my favourite team. But I didn’t like talking about football because I felt insincere, but it was often worse not to, in which case a frozen silence usually descended on you and further friendly communication was impossible between a man and an non football loving alien.

The night came on swiftly after more beer and Moustafa went off to the room where he was accommodated by the resort and brought back a rather small lump of Lebanese hash. We smoked hash and drank more and it soon occurred to me that it was now far too late and I was far too wrecked to ride the six miles along the now pitch-black road, back to the home of the Palm Trees hotel.



So I stayed the night at the resort and slept drunk and stoned by the lake side and spent the whole time being tortured by mosquitos who also liked hanging out a Shali resort and drinking the beer that had found its way into my blood.

In the morning I examined the red pock marked  wreckage of my legs and decided that the very thing would be a dip in the salty lake to hopefully clean the little mosquito beak punctures and reduce the dreadful itching.

After disinfecting my legs in the salty lake I made my way back to my hotel to return the bike and with pleasure observed a salt crust forming in the hot sun on the six mile journey.

When I returned to the hotel I was greeted by a panic sticken Ahmet who ran towards me and informed me that the army had been out looking for me in the desert and they had even mobilised a general from his slumber. Apparently not returning to a hotel in the evening leads the Egyptian army to fear or suspect the worst and as such a full scale military man-hunt was engaged to discover the wearabouts ofwhat they assumed was either an errant spy or a kidnap victim.

So I checked in to the local police station in Siwa and was greeted by the police chief. It occurred to me that there might be some small trouble and I might have to give a bribe but I had never bribed anyone in my life least of all a police chief and I suspected I would probably make a bit of a hash of it and get myself into trouble. Subtlety and subterfuge are most certainly not my speciality and I am not the man to covertly hand money to a member of a developing nation’s police force with something of a reputation for oppression which typically of police forces in the Muslim world, strikes fear in the hearts of the local population.

So I decided against handing over any money and decided that a smile and a bumblingly apologetically foppish bit of English charm would have to get me out of this mess.

And it worked. My informing him that I was an English teacher and an actual resident (not a mere tourist), and smiling apologetically seemed to act as an admirable stand in for a bribe, if one was even expected which I am not even sure of.... And so after him a few pleasantries and smiles, and him practicing his English, I left waving and smiling.


I had no idea that simply going for a beer in Egypt could lead to so much trouble. I only hope my missing bribe wasn't later extracted somehow from Moustafa in the basement of the Siwa police station. To this day I pray he didn't get into too much trouble about it. 

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