وا حد. First Sight

Took the death plane from Heathrow, a numbing multi-stop ride; first Schipol then Sofia, which only a few of us survived, before we landed in Cairo at two o’clock in the morning. At each stop, EgyptAir 778 bumped the tarmac and the empty seats flopped forward, their backs pointing to the ceiling, crash position. Is heads between knees, hands behind heads, really the best way to to make it through?

It was December and cold when I left, but when we reached the final destination it was hot and humid and my first thought was, Oh my God! After the jabs for yellow fever and tetanus, the pills for malaria and the cholera tablets, I had forgotten hepatitis!

For the first two days I ate in upscale hotels, unvaccinated and unwilling to eat the street food.

On a promise to mum, I had begun my visit by taking the bus to Cairo’s northern suburbs to stay with her distant cousin. Armenians have relatives everywhere, she reminded me, and so I was scheduled to meet Vartan Manoukian, a 95-year-old man with a full head of silver grey hair, at a hookah tea house, the Alamazah Sisha, in Heliopolis.

Although, mother added, he did not partake of the big smoke.

I peered through the bus’ dusty glass into an early morning haze before I cracked my own window open, and the bus driver carried me through streets with smells familiar from my mother’s kitchen, Levantine smells, of cumin, smoked turmeric and sumac; except the aromas were now reborn.

Instead of the stultifying Green and Pleasant suburbs of London we passed by a yellowed shopfront dreamscape with hand painted billboards and dancing curlicue scripts, whilst women dressed head to toe in black, stepped gingerly over crumbling potholed paving by the side of the road; whilst shopkeepers carved shawarma or leant out from darkened doorways and spat guttural curses; whilst echoing calls to prayer span from myriad blue sky minarets.

My anxiety subsided and I was calm in my belly; the feeling that surfaces when you realize that you didn’t get the wrong bus, you didn’t get short-changed, you didn’t fuck up; and now you’re on your way, for real, and can just relax your bag of nerves and instead sink the bag into the sights and sounds of unfamiliar surroundings.

The tea house was situated high up from the roadside, an open terrace with a white balcony fence that overlooked the bus stop.

I climbed the steps up to the entrance and the air was acrid with a heavy scent that reminded me of my father’s TV pipe.

At the top of the stairs, a large space was scattered with low-cut hexagonal tables, pearl inlaid, brass trays on top, tall thin curved glass hookahs on the floor, like obedient canines, by their side, their tubes coiled in repose, or stretched and puffed by the dying remains of the morning crowd.

In one corner, two men, thickset with greying hair and faded white jellabas that scraped the floor, were hunched and arguing like moulting hens over a backgammon set, the stones making clack-clack against the baize; but at the furthest end of the hall, I recognised a lone man who could only be my uncle.

The man wore a grey double breasted suit and he stood carefully when he saw me. He waved away the smoke and gestured me to come over, to come sit with him for a glass of sweet black tea and sugar powdered butter biscuits while he reminisced the days when my mother would sit on his knee.

I stayed with my uncle for the first couple of nights in what he termed his bachelor pad in the old quarter of town.

His flat was on the second floor of a tenement building.

It had two bedrooms, and one of them doubled up as a living room. It had a dark Persian rug over the window to shield the room from the heat. The kitchenette’s cafeteria-style table for two was covered in a plastic red and white tablecloth, the plastic now hardened at the corners with age; but the floor had been newly re-tiled, black and white vinyl, and on the facing wall, repositioned, there hung a single sepia photo in an old wooden frame.

The family portrait was from a photographer’s studio, the lips and furnishings colourised with pale hues of pink and blue as they did in the 1920s. The portrait was of him and his four sisters when he was a boy.

“It was taken in Aleppo,” he paused, “where your mother used to visit.”

“You see me there?” Uncle Vartan pointed to a boy standing to attention in the photograph. The boy wore pressed white linen shorts and a checked button-down shirt.

“These were my sisters. They made sure that I stayed a bachelor.” He pointed to the girls, two either side of him, and his clear blue eyes scrunched with laughter before they disappeared into a sea of wrinkles.

Each day, during my stay with him, I took the bus back to the centre of town, to visit the pyramids and the museums; and I ate lunch at the ‘hepatitis-free’ Western hotels while browsing the Egypt half of my Egypt & Israel guidebook.

(Despite the peace treaty some 10 years prior, the author recommended that the book be split in two so as not to incite the locals. Indeed the 1987 edition wrote that a route was now available between the Sinai and Israel, however the Israeli visa had to be on a loose-leaf page inserted into your passport to hide where you were headed… But I wasn’t going to Israel, if only because the world map on my wall told me: first North Africa then Asia.)

From the bus schedules, I memorised the numbers, Egyptian numerals, strangely not the same as Arabic ones, and I swore that I would, at least, learn to count to ten in each country I visited.

On the last night, my uncle took me to the nearby apostólico where we watched a nativity play; children with fat ivory-coloured candles taller than themselves, walking up to the stage to scenes of Mary and baby Jesus. Mother would be proud.

How strange it was to be in Cairo surrounded not by Arabic but instead by the familiar cadence of my mother’s tongue.

Then I thought, screw this!

I loved the fact that he was ninety-five and lived on carrots, it was the secret to longevity and all that, but now it was time for me to live.

My promise to visit my uncle was fulfilled, so I bid him a kind goodbye, I went to the first roadside stall I could find and I wolfed down my first filthy dirty falafel.

The 510 bus, sand dusted and browned with age, then carried me back to Tahrir Square where I leapt out opposite the imposing Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, with its eerily dim-lit shrine to Tutankhamen, into a now familiar, noisy, yellow haze crowd.

I felt light with an unchained sense of freedom, but still, the hostel was some way south of the centre, so I headed there immediately, on foot, while following the Nile.

As I walked, the crowds thinned out, and the noise subsided, and the haze was cleared by a soft blue light from the river, until there were only one or two couples left strolling along the embankment, tentatively holding hands, eager for their first kiss.

It was getting late.

On the riverside wall the coloured bulbs, strung from post to post, flickered into action and I was beginning to wonder whether this trip would be lonely and whether I would meet anyone to travel with.

It was then that, across the road, I saw another man in a hurry.

He was short and pale. He had dark curly hair, his backpack jostled with each stride, and he looked just like me.

”Do you know where is the youth hostel?” I asked as I caught him up.

”Yes, I’m headed there myself,” he grinned.

Photos include camels at the Great Pyramid, belly dancing in Cairo, feluccas on the Nile, of tombs, villages scenes and more from Luxor, Aswan and Sharm El Sheikh.

January 2023

Prologue สอง. Rubies and Rucksacks
Posted in Feature Photo, Journal, Part One, Photo Collection and tagged , , , , , .