The fourth extract from A LIFE AD-LIB (autobiography), Ariel Books, London, 2008.
As with nearly all my journeys in Egypt, the trip to Alexandria was arranged by Mr Aziz. At his travel office in Cairo, his sad-looking eyes peered over low-slung glasses. The bus was organised, and my reservation at The Metropol. The name rolled off his tongue like the sound of a magical destination in the land of the god, meaning much to him, clearly. Aziz as not merely the old school, he probably taught them all they knew. The younger staff at his agency, winked and smiled knowingly behind the back of the old buffer in charge; but fond admiration lay within their manner.
The Metropol might mean a lot in his memories, but I found it dark, dinghy, dusty, nearly deserted, behind a dullish part of the seafront. It resembled a place I once stayed at in Brighton, out of season, when in an affair on the brink of breaking up. This was not the kind of scene I had in mind when at last reached the Mediterranean city tantalising in my mind for forty years, since first reading the works of Durrell and Cavafy. My single room proved enormous, absurdly high, tall as three stories in a modern apartment complex. On the floor-space, it could hold a platoon of infantry, in the air, a team of acrobats. Furnishings were faded, but grand. Marlene Dietrich and Erich von Stroheim could be envisaged meeting here. The French windows opened vastly as if for the title sequence of a Hollywood movie: Alexandria, its sweeping cornice and the blue Mediterranean dancing in brilliant light before one's eyes. Despite Aziz's hotel choice, silent and moribund as the grave, the city remained vibrantly alive.
Most places mentioned in Durrell's "Alexandria Quartet," were now hard to find, but a guide book put me on track for The Pastroudis Café, where Cavafy had gone each day to write a poem. He died in 1933, twenty years before Durrell lived in the city he wrote about. Now forty-five more years had passed, yet this café seemed little changed. I drank wine and wrote a poem about Cavafy on the flyleaf of his book of poems. I bought it near the seafront in Alexandria, in French, the only version available, although he also wrote in Greek and English. Little but the language endeared him to the English, who bombed his house in Alex, a city to which he returned after a period living in the country. In Alex he worked for his whole career as a clerk in The Irrigation Department, a vital job in such a dry country. Never married, he lived with his mother until she died. He died aged seventy years exactly. His poems seem deceptively simple, artless, almost like a diary: the perception and integrity, quietly powerful.
Back at the hotel, I sketched the view from my window on the other flyleaf of Cavafy's poetry book, as a movie's opening scene. Beyond the cornice, lay the sea where The Lighthouse of Ptolemy, of the Seven Wonders of the World had stood, fallen in an earthquake and not found until it was discovered on the seabed only two years after my visit.
"How was The Metropol, Mr Henry?" Mr Aziz inquired, in his office, when I returned by bus to Cairo. I said it seemed exactly the same as ever. Mr Aziz beamed gratification from his huge, sad face.
In the Archaeological Museum, and other historical centres, my guide was Mr. Hannay, small, neat and quick, for whom the great past of his country was a passionate quest as well as a profession. My eager responses pleased him. In a break, we stopped at a street café. I thought I glimpsed a beer bottle somewhere around. The waiter said that drink was only served in the rear of the premises, so as not to offend strict Muslims passing by. Hannay and the driver from the office of Mr Aziz, drank orange juice, saying it was good I found my right comfort, as if I were a strange kind of patient needing transfusions while being shepherded by guardians. We talked about tomorrow and the trip set up by Aziz, for The Suez Canal. Then Mr Hannay said: "Oh, I am not going there. No guide is needed. The car will take you around."
The driver was very different from the dapper, intellectual Hannay. Abdul was very overweight and confident in a clumsy, overbearing ill-informed way. But he seemed to like me. They did pay him for that, driving me around. We saw the port at Suez then followed the canal stretching north. Abdul said we could go on the water as well. A small foot ferry carried workers regularly to a power station on the far side. We would stay on board and return with the next batch in a few minutes. Then while we waited Abdul asked the boatman if he would cruise a little up canal to get a sense of it. The boatman agreed for an Egyptian five pound note, one pounds sterling, more than a day's pay for him.
All went fine, until a huge freighter bore down on us in the narrow waterway. Our boat was only meant to nip across when these vessels were absent. Hooters boomed fiercely. Somehow, we shuttled aside, although we were thrown into the scuppers of the frail craft.
"What nationality is it?" I yelled, glancing at the flag of origin on the stern looming past, like the tail of a whale nearly finishing us. Whatever its country, it showed enmity to us at the moment.
"Switzerland." Abdul shouted excitedly, seeing the large cross on the ensign although landlocked Helvetia never controlled much shipping.
"It is Norwegian." I announced, recognizing the blue and red colours though we would have been just as dead and drowned by any navy, if caught a few yards more midstream.
On the road back to Cairo, Abdul pointed out a parade ground where President Sadat had been assassinated fourteen years ago that day. Tomorrow I would learn that Prime Minister Yatzik Rabin of Israel was also being shot exactly at that moment. An amazing set of coincidences arose, or were they? Could I be the jinxed Jonah triggering all this, or was it Abdul? We made a pair of accident risk liabilities, likely to get in a fine mess anywhere. Another Israeli PM, Menachem Begin, had jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize with Egypt's Sadat, in 1978. Two years later, they started another war against each other. Both Sadat and Rabin were shot by figures belonging to their own sides, disillusioned by the actions of their respective leaders.
Instead of driving me back to the hotel, Abdul took me to his house in Cairo suburbs. Maybe he was proud to show me his place and family, or driving up the fare, or both. Mrs Abdul was almost as huge as the man himself. She served a repulsive meal: huge chunks of greasy blackened meat with little else but bread and salads. I could see how the husband had gained his appearance, a health risk unlikely to make great age, one thought. I ate only the salad and bread, despite urges by my hosts to tackle it all.
Their sons arrived and joined in the meal, hungry as sharks, devouring the thick black meat I had left. The younger one, a schoolboy, had a large, square moustache, bizarrely comic on anyone that age. The elder was even more confident, quizzing me on life in England. What car did I drive? None? What profession did I follow? Postman, only? Surely there were higher opportunities there for anyone clever. His father intervened to say I was a scholar of history, which was why I came to Cairo, to see Mr Aziz, who was in touch with all these matters, the pride of Egypt.
"Why go back to all stuff that long ago?" the son demanded. "Our country is going forwards. Only you and him are going backwards, because you cannot face what we are now."
"Respect your father and the guest in our house" the chauffeur said calmly. "I am allowed to say nothing, under our own roof? The truth of today, not the past?" the son replied, waving a huge chunk of meat like a weapon. I thought it would if anyone gorged all that.
I excused myself to visit the toilet, and there had a thorough wash, feet as well, to freshen up from the dusty trip to Suez. Then it struck me. I had never removed my shoes yet, all the time I had been in their house: a usual requirement. I returned with all staring at my sock-clad feet, and the shoes I carried, their eyes saying it was far too late to make amends. It was late also to hear from Mr. Hannay, due to ring my hotel about a trip tomorrow. I asked to use the phone. Someone answered, maybe his wife. He would be home any minute, and call me back. I waited in my correct sock-clad feet. When the phone rang, the chauffeur grabbed it to listen, then gave it me. "Be outside your hotel, nine tomorrow morning. It costs sixty dollars." Hannay said.
"Who was speaking just now? Strange, that sounded like Hannay," Abdul, the chauffeur, said when I hung up.
"Oh, it was Mr Hannay, just asking if I liked the trip to Suez today," I explained.
"Hannay does not care about Suez. What did he really want?" he demanded. The trip tomorrow was extra, maybe unknown to Aziz, or anyone else. Hannay was moonlighting and would face the music if it got out. I stuck to my story. Dropping me back at my hotel. Abdul the chauffeur, said:
"Hannay would never give you such a good trip to Suez as I did, getting us out on the water, seeing close up that ship from Switzerland." I said it had been Norwegian. "Something like that. Powerful, important." His great bulk shook with laughter as he squeezed back behind the wheel of the car and drove off.
Next day, Hannay took me in a public taxi, to see Old Cairo, including a chapel on a site connected with Moses, they reckoned. Mixtures of many centuries and allegiances showed in the decorated walls, pillars and tiles. He asked what I thought.
"Moses is recognising the pervading power of Rameses." I suggested.
"Bravo! That is the right answer. You might make a good historian one day," he said. It was high praise from this neat, quiet, brilliant figure. I felt he could best deal with the intriguing convolutions of this city, in the service of Aziz and alongside the awkward Abdul, both massive figures in different ways. If one and then the other found out about this excursion today, sparks would fly. This made the occasion even more exotic and picaresque. The taxi ride back across all of central Cairo also proved exciting. No highway codes or right-of-way existed. It is a dodgem car circuit, played for laughs of the harshest kind. Cairo characters would take it no other way. The land of the Pharaoas, settings of The Bible, and beyond, is no place for polite caution.
From Luxor, I flew over the Red Sea to Sharm El Sheikh, on the Gulf of Aqaba, and stayed in a chalet-style hostel, mainly a snorkeling centre, not my sort of interest. That evening, a small, outdoor restaurant nearby held a table full of English students. Their bickering annoyed me, when I wanted to think and immerse myself in timeless Egyptian impressions. Eating alone on the fringes of the lamplight, I was noticed.
"You certainly don't look local. Are you American or German?" they tried to guess from my very fair looks, large build, wide face, blue eyes, often taken as not English.
"No, Norwegian." I said, adding a Nordic tinge to my voice.
"Terrific. You must ski fantastic." A girl said.
"No, terrible. I am the only person in Norway who cannot do it," I said, which had been true when I lived in Oslo for a few months.
"What a waste. All that snow and slopes. Are you from Oslo?" She asked.
"No fear. It is too crowded and full of nonsense. I am from Tromso, in the Arctic Circle." I said. Well, I had been there: the most northerly township in the world. I would go to any length to get away from certain kinds of southerners, such as now.
Next day, a bus went into Sinai peninsula, to the monastery of St Catherine, which had a hostel attached. Its dining room that evening, was dominated by English groups, some middle-aged. I had to take unpatriotic action again, joining a small table. One youth was Canadian, his girlfriend Norwegian, so I could not be that again. Another boy was from France, I said in French that I had lived some time over there, though from England originally. They seemed glad to answer in that tongue, the Frenchman welcoming my attempts to know his county and language, not putting me down as another hopeless Anglo. Later, someone said that my enormous snobbery, snubbing my own people once again, would have been noticed anyway by the English present. I doubted that. Some never realise how it is possible to, chameleon-like, make oneself quite non-English, for a while. I have always wanted to belong to the world, the most deserving elements of it. The English are mostly as good and likeable as anyone else, but their tendency to categorise and neutralise everything can be jarring, when a fresh view of life unfolds.
After breakfast, I looked around the St Catherine monastery, run by Eastern Orthodox monks, who explained the artefacts and the Greek writing around the walls and aisles. Then I walked outside to face the main attraction of this area: Mount Sinai.
"It is not time to go there," a youth employed at the hostel told me. "We all leave at mid-day and climb up together." It sounded like an international Everest expedition, overloaded with talkative characters and potential mishaps. I set off alone.
A winding path snaked up in zigzags. I paused to sketch large rocks like massive heads of statues tumbled from on high to these lower slopes. Later I would paint a large canvas of Mount Sinai. A camel rider seemed far distant, then suddenly loomed right upon me, reminiscent of the famously similar scene in the film "Lawrence of Arabia." This showed it was not merely cinematic effect, but an actual illusion the desert can create. The young camel rider said:
"Camel ride to the top. Three pounds Egyptian only." Less than one pound sterling, this was a good offer. But I wanted to make my own way up the route Moses took.
An hour on and upward, I met two more youths who sold tea at a trailside stall. This time, I became a customer. They looked through my binoculars, voicing amazement at how distant scenes can be zoomed in close.
"You already have more amazing things in your own country." I said, thinking of the event at the bottom of this mountain, and the prospect at the summit, which history sees as one of the most commanding moments ever, the carved tablets of law.
The atmosphere at the top proved highly exhilarating, from the air itself, the dazzling light, and the sense of being at a unique global place. The solitary experience made me glad to arrive ahead of the group. I am not good at sharing much in life with other people. If ever someone is needed for a mission to a remote place, I would fill the bill.
Moses descended from here with words of hope to share with all the world.
The downward route is formed from large, rough-hewn steps in the red stone of the terrain: the penance of one errant monk in the eighteenth century. It passes by the Cave of Elijah, who also lingered around here, fed by ravens, looking for words from on high. I tried keeping count of the four thousand-odd steps, and ended up only about twenty off. Maybe nobody knows exactly how many exist, some are hard to define, almost small cliffs in themselves.
Back near the monastery complex, the Twentieth Century re-entered the picture in the shape of a large, shabby American car. The young driver in Bedouin robes offered to drive me to the coast and a ferry, for eighty pounds Egyptian, about sixteen quid. That might seem high for the Sinai desert, but buses are few, and time waiting means money spent at hostels, and vital hours lost needed to reach destinations. From the guide book, I guessed a ferryboat might leave soon, from Nuweiba towards Aqaba in Jordan. From there it was possible to reach a place equal in legend to Mount Sinai, the lost city of Petra.
The long, battered car I had hired screeched to a halt on the docks at Nuweiba with an hour to go before the boat sailed. Paid off, my Bedouin driver sped back into the mystery of Sinai. Security check in a large hangar on the dock side, marked my rucksack, passed with a red chalk mark by a squad of police in khaki. Then I was let out with the bag, to wander freely among the unchecked crowds. Egyptian vigilance is quite relaxed.
On the ferry, a group of young men sat with picnic food around a large, rough table
"Hello, mister. Come and eat with us," one called out, in English.
"No, no. That is your rations. Thanks, anyway," I replied.
"Are you not hungry?" he asked.
I said: "I am utterly starving. I have not eaten since at Mount Sinai twenty odd hours ago."
"What are you waiting for, then?" my would-be host pleaded. I sat down and dug in.
"What did you eat on Mount Sinai?" another man asked.
"Raven's wings and the bones of English tourists," I said.
"That is very good. You are not English?" he asked.
"Half Irish, the part of me that exports the best," I said.
"You are not going to Saudi Arabia?" a third one wondered. "No, to Jordan," I said.
"We are all going to Saudi, back to work from visiting our families in Cairo. We are guest workers. I am a chef, he is a mechanic, but Yusuf here, is a computer expert. Big job." the First man said. I asked what they thought of Saudi, grateful for the meal.
"Nobody thinks about Saudi. You are not supposed to. Only work and earn money for home. The money there is good, nothing else is," he replied.
"I made local friends in Luxor last week. They said that Egypt is a free, democratic, peaceful country. I think they are right," I told him.
"You make good friends. Eat more. We have plenty," he said.
In late evening, we docked at Aqaba. A taxi was picking up Western passengers for a hotel. I tried to join the group, it being hard to see any other way of reaching accommodations from the remote harbour area. An American girl wanted me to be included, but the driver said the car and the hotel were full, slamming the door. Another, empty, car drew forward. The driver said:
"I will drive you to Petra right now, for forty dollars."
How did he know I wanted to go there? Of course I did, that is why I came here. Everybody does. He would get me a hotel when we arrived in the early hours, to rest, and by daylight I could see Petra. Otherwise I would spend time and money searching for hotels, and then buses around Aqaba. It was a deal, and so it worked out. Except that the driver was a lugubrious character, difficult to spend a night driving alongside, nothing like the charming Egyptians on the ferry. The Jordanian asked questions. Why was I unmarried? Any man with sense has a wife to do everything necessary for him. That is their duty, easy to command. Even unmarried, why did I travel alone, when a woman companion is easily picked up, especially by a Westerner with money and education, better off than men around here?
"I do not know anybody suitable" I said. I suppose he had a point. All the interesting women I ever met either died, went mad, or moved on anyway, maybe with good reason. It was hard to think there were any more left, in my case.
"Keep trying. Just tell them what they must do, and they will," my driver explained.
It had not worked often in my case, but it was difficult to tell him all this. The journey to the fabulous Petra seemed long and dark. A deep, narrow gorge is the only way leading in, one cause of it stayed hidden for six hundred years, as the legend says. The Swiss explorer Burckhardt, disguised as a Bedouin, became the first Westerner to return there, in 1812, risking being killed if it were known that he was an infidel. The Crusaders had been driven out in the twelfth century. I walked around their old fort, carved out of the terracotta rock which constitutes the area, formed into many other finer temples and palaces around the hills and gorges that hold the city. Through those ages, the Bedouin had goats and camels here, while the world thought the place a fictional fantasy, like Timbuktu, which I would visit at another occasion.
An old bus left for Aqaba. Halfway, it stopped for fuel and drinks at a crossroads. A cab driver lolled beside his vehicle in the midday sun. I stretched my legs from the bus, and thought of another place mentioned in the guide-book.
"Can you go to Wadi Rhum from here?" I asked him.
"If I see twenty dollars I can, like a shot," he said. Would he then drop me at Aqaba docks for the same fare included? He agreed to this triangular journey.
We headed east, into the wild desert where T.E. Lawrence had mustered his tribal army to attack the Turks. Central to here lies The Spring of Lawrence. From a steep, craggy mount, a trickle of water spouts down constantly amidst this arid area, as if the spirit and the silvery words of Lawrence speaking on through time. I imagined his tents stood in the shadow of these rocks, to ferment moves of strategy, a living game of chess to be launched out in that dusty heat.
From the returning ferry to Nuweiba, I found another chalet hostel by the shore. A small Italian restaurant nearby proved quiet with no noisy Westerners, so I ate lasagne, with no need to pose as anybody but myself, whoever the hell that is. Next morning, a modern bus left here straight to Cairo. Link-ups had been perfect along this trip.
In the capital, I booked back into the backstreet hotel I had grown to like. The diminutive night manager was dryly comical. I showed him an old broken camera. He stuck half a broken biro into an orifice and it seemed to work.
"Egyptian technology. Unbeatable!" he announced.
In bed hours later, I found everything rocking around, as if on a boat in the Gulf of Aqaba. A nightmare from times remembered, maybe? But I was awake and in a Cairo hotel room. Had the mysteries and heat of this country deranged my senses? I dressed and went downstairs.
"My room was rocking around like crazy five minutes ago," I told the manager.
"You will not get another one. They are all the same," he said." It is the earthquake".
"That one," he said, pointing at a television set in the nearby open-plan lounge; showing a news broadcast.
"Nuweiba!" I exclaimed, hearing the report. "I just came from there yesterday. It missed me by twelve hours!"
"Good timing. Twelve minutes would have been enough to get away. Some were closer than you, and did not," he said. A dozen people had died. One old hotel collapsed completely. I could have been in there, if finding no hostel, and arriving a few hours later than I had.
"But you did not. You were here, with us. Very wise. Safest street in Cairo, how do you think you survived, so you can come back here safe and sound? Can you pay some of your bill in advance? We need cash to go shopping for the hotel."
The safest street in Cairo, or in Egypt, or anywhere in the unpredictable Middle East, might not be saying much, but I felt at home here, when one considers earthquakes and any outrageous fortune. At the office of Mr Aziz, I reported some of his agents down south, who had short-changed me on services he arranged. He expressed outrage and had his assistant make a phone call.
"They will be scolded and dismissed immediately. Unfortunately you cannot get compensation because they are freelance, beyond my control," Aziz declared.
I was not sure I believed this. Any transaction around here held complexities never easy to pin down. But I had valued the balance of experiences in this country, and shook hands on leaving Mr Aziz.
(Reprinted with permission of the author)
Patrick Henry: Born 1938, Yorkshire, England, Irish parentage. Customs Officer London, Royal Airforce Draftee, Cyprus, 1957-59. Wrote poetry in London, Paris, Cornwall; worked construction, farming, factory, café, bookshop jobs. Published On the Track, Peterloo Poets 1971. Published translations of Fruits of Winter, Prix Goncourt, 1970 and Women of The Celts, Cremonesi, 1975. Adult student at University of Wales, University of East Anglia, Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut during 1980s. Painting exhibition Paris, 1998. Poetry Reading Tour in New York 2001 arranged by Big City Lit. Painting Exhibition, Australia, 2003. Poetry Reading and Painting Exhibition tour New York State, 2004, arranged by The Author's Watermark and Poets & Writers. Poetry and prose featured in BigCityLit and in www.thisisull.com (UK website), 2001-2007. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.