Cairo ...

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time ...

C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992.

These frantic busy days ... they just keep coming at me.  I'm hoping to complete so much in the days ahead, allowing me to concentrate on one or two things instead of juggling 20.

So here I am, taking  a little time out, needing some peace of mind, I was searching for something beautiful to note down, then decided to share old photographs from other adventurous days.

Back in 2008 I found myself in Cairo, working with good people, meeting lovely Egytians, having one of those delicious adventures.

I wrote of arriving in Cairo: I felt an incredible overwhelming of the senses as the taxi flew through the (far too) long underground traffic tunnel taking me to downtown Cairo ... the driver completely ignoring the 50km speed limit, then calmly settling down to wait, windows open, when we were caught in the middle of the tunnel’s 3km length with carbon monoxide choking us.

I noticed that Cairo drivers talk to each other via their car horns ... a gentle reminder they are there, that they want to change lanes, and anything else that needs discussing out there on the road.

I hadn’t known what to expect ... perhaps Istanbul but the only similarity to Istanbul was only that it was so different to most of my everyday life.

Later, I read that Cairo has some 17 million people in the metropolitan area and is the sixteenth most populous metropolitan areas in the world ... a busy city.

It was full of people and pollution and when I looked round, from my 6th floor balcony, I could see this layer sand and desert on rooftops.

The first 48 hours was challenging in almost every way.  Challenging but oh so excellent to be out again.

Tamim Al-Barghouti, Poet

To many the poem marked the beginning of a shift in Egypt’s political climate: it reflected much of what Al-Barghouti calls “the collective consciousness” of a new and unusually politically engaged generation. Ironically, on his deportation, the poem sealed his claim to fame.
Excerpt from an interview with poet, Tamim Al-Barghouti.

I have loved the writing of Mourid Barghouti since I first discovered his book, I Saw Ramallah. 

He is a Palestinian, a man who spent 30 years in exile, locked out of Palestine after the 1967 Six Day war ... he was studying in Egypt at the time. 

He married and had a child but was, once again, thrown into exile via deportation.  That happened the year his only son was born and so it was that for 15 years the small family could only meet on holidays.  I knew Mourid had recently published a second book, I knew it was about a return to Palestine with the son who had to grow up largely without him… today it occured to me to search for his son.

Mourid’s son has become a poet of reknown.  I found an interview with the rather stunningly talented Tamim Al-Barghouti in Ahram Weekly back in May 2005.  You might enjoy it ...

Extracted from the interview: When he wrote They asked me do you love Egypt, he explains, the poet was “in a state of terror, anger and sadness—all at the same time”. All through his life he had taken his life in Egypt “for granted”. It was “my country and I’m staying here. It is the safe place. Part of what I feel towards Palestine is identical to the way I feel about Egypt—this very romantic sentiment. But Palestine was always far, I never seen it before 1998. Palestine is the home I struggle to have, but Egypt was the home I did have. So when I was deported, I felt my relationship with Egypt was jeopardized, threatened. My presence was threatened. It was no longer the safe place, no longer a home I had.

“And I tried to capture an image of that, like taking a photo of someone you love before parting. I was taking a photo of Egypt before leaving, not knowing whether or not I would ever return. My father couldn’t return for 17 years.” A replay of that nightmare haunted him as he wrote, which also tells the love story of his West Bank-born father and Cairo-born mother. The more popular part of the poem was written during his first week “in exile”. He continued writing, he says, until the length had almost tripled, and only stopped on 9 April 2003, the day of the fall of Baghdad....


A Home-coming, of sorts ...

It was good to be back in a country where the call to prayer was a part of my day.  It felt like a homecoming of sorts ... although the excessive quiet of my Belgian life had made me forget just how noisy a big city could be.

I fell into a coma-like sleep that first Cairo night but my travelling companion had no such luck, and no mp3 player.  Apparently the market below us went on until 3 or 4 in the morning, writes this laughing woman.

Life was lived in a surreal style there.
I learned that I will probably travel to Israel and Palestine, with a return to Cairo in January, and it seems that I will be needed for 3 months in Berlin at the end of 2009 ... do you see how it is?

The siren that police use to alert other drivers of their presence seems to be a novelty item at the market below.  Stunningly noisy ... all through the night.  Always pack your mp3 player when staying in a hotel like mine in downtown Cairo.

I made a recording ... and on playback, I hear the call to prayer, quite loudly, as if windows are open but really the mosque was very close. 

Then I hear this tired woman say at the end of the call to prayer recording,  ‘5.10am Cairo’ as she laughs quietly. 
I went back to sleep.

Hearing it still makes me laugh.

At the end of my first full day in Cairo

At the end of my first full day in Cairo I returned to my room at the Carlton Hotel, not to be mistaken for the Ritz Carlton.  My bed was the place I retreated to at the end of the day.  A place of peace where I could replay the day and its unfolding.

There was the photography, as always ... my client, her Egyptian film-maker, the gallery owner and then Cairo herself on that first day.  The Egyptian Museum stunned me with its collections of mummies ... pharaohs from the 18 to 20th Dynasty found in Thebes. There was a group found in Deir el Bahari cachette, and it consisted of the mummies of: Seqenenre, Ahmose I, Amenhotep I, Tuthmosis I, Tuthmosis II, Tuthmosis III, Seti I, Ramses II, Ramses III.  Another group, found in the tomb of Amenhotep II ... Amenhotep II, Tuthmosis IV, Amenhotep III, Merenptah, Seti II, Siptah, Ramses IV, Ramses V, Ramses VI, (and three women and a child.)

Magical names I thought myth ...

And there was me, strolling through this massive museum near the Nile, passing by artefacts so ancient that I couldn’t begin to grasp the time that had passed between them and now. 

A note: if you need a little respite from Cairo’s carbon monoxide, the museum has filtered air and was a little oasis of calm but for the fact that I was surrounded by the likes of Amenhotep the I and II.  The corselet and a gameboard belonging to Tutankhamon were there ...

The Lonely Planet had recommended our hotel but promised nothing extraordinary, a place to sleep, friendly staff, a rooftop restaurant and cleanish rooms.

We found the staff friendly and helpful and there was a sense of family amongst those who took care of us.  The elevator was old but seemed to work perfectly.

We amused the night manager by asking to see the fire escape.  He led us out back and pointed to the spiral metal stairs disappearing up into the narrow alleyway darkness but failed to mention the padlocked fire escape door we noticed when we were up in the roof restaurant for the view.  I’m sure there’s a contingency plan but we were put off asking anything more because he laughed and gently tease us about the fire escape whenever he saw us after that.

I always struggle with the initial restrictions of other countries ... in this instance, don’t drink the tap water, avoid ice in drinks, and salads washed in tap water.  I ended up settling for a hunk of tender roast sheep with a little rice for lunch, lentil soup and rice for my dinners.

The noise was a constant, a market on the street directly below .. I’m glad I packed my mp3 player.

But that was the day when I began to love my Cairo life.