Merely an inventory of memories that remain after nineteen years, and explicitly not a reconstruction. Many impressions are still impossible to describe.
Last year my mother died and that summer the three of us cycled through France for two weeks. This year my sister Anna, who's five and a half years my senior, goes on a holiday with her new boy-friend Harm. I am fifteen years old, and I'm sitting in the kitchen when my father Bart enters.
He is fifty-one years old and is a veterinarian at an institution for artificial insemination of cattle. He tells me that this summer he will again be visiting Egypt for a week, to train inseminators at the local institution for artificial insemination of cattle in Cairo. As part of his job he very often visits countries outside Europe, especially in Asia and Africa, and he says I can go with him this time. After a first week of work we will be having a second week of holiday there. I am very enthusiastic.
Uncle Hendrik, who used to be a friend of my mother's, is enthusiastic too. He tells me he has just returned from Egypt himself and that there is a heatwave, well, according to Egyptian standards, with temperatures of around 45 °C. Only a few days before we leave the temperature there drops back to the normal 40 °C. It is 1984, and I guess it must have been July.
I am in a plane for the second time in my life (the first time was eight years earlier, flying to Nice), a connection without stops. Of course I am at the window and I enjoy the view. I have fun reading the magazines and listening to the music on my headphones. Once we've crossed the Mediterranean Sea, we fly in circles over airport Heliopolis for a long time, awaiting permission to land. I get to see a beautiful overview of the airport, with the city far away on the one side and the desert on the other side of it. It is the thirteenth time Bart visits Egypt, and he characterises the country lovingly not only as "the garbage dump of the world" but also as the country with the most hospitable inhabitants he knows.
The plane's door has only just opened when the heat takes me by surprise, along with a pungent, thick and sweet smell. It's Egypt.
There's not, like at Schiphol Airport, a jet bridge connecting the plane to the airport, but there's a set of movable stairs right next to the door of the plane, something I only know from old pictures and movies. A plane is so huge...! We walk past the wheels, across the concrete floor of the airport in the direction of a bus that's waiting for us in the middle of the area. My, it is hot. And that smell! The smell and the heat are overpowering and very characteristic.
All of the windows, doors and sunroofs are opened, but it takes a long time before the bus is full enough to drive us to the passenger terminal. It's a drive of no more than five or ten minutes. We pass customs and also a bank which Bart doesn't enter. Instead he takes me to the parking lot outside, where a multitude of seemingly very shady characters is loitering. Bart lets the others speak first, and he changes some dollars into a large amount of Egyptian pounds, at an exchange rate more than ten times the official bank's rate. He is here on behalf of the Dutch government (foreign affairs, agriculture or development aid), which doesn't approve of this sort of money-exchange but will not forbid it either. The money is extremely dirty. On some of the bills the amount is hardly readable, and there's a great deal of tape applied to keep all the little shreds together. But it is a legal medium of exchange (although that only applies within the borders of this country).
The smell and the heat remain the most remarkable of all impressions in these first moments, but there's also the huge crowds on the streets, the dirt and the beggars. The largest cities I visited in my life until then were just Brussels, Amsterdam and Rotterdam if I remember correctly. The first thing Bart does now, is to go out and buy cigarettes, a number of cartons of Cleopatras filter. It is the first time I see him smoke filter-cigarettes. I guess we immediately go pick up the Lada Niva now, and use it to get to the hotel.
It is called Mövenpick (a Swiss chain of luxurious, western hotels), and it is in Giza, on the west-bank of the Nile. A part is a high-rise flat that on the ground floor houses the lobby, the pub and the restaurant, and the rest of the hotel consists of scattered low-rise buildings. Bart and I share one of the bungalows. His and my bedroom are both equipped with a large colour-televisionset. From the front of the hotel we can see the tops of the pyramids from afar towering over the tops of the palm-trees. "That's quite strange," Bart casually mentions, "to have a chain of hotels called Gull's Dick" (it seems that way when pronounced in Dutch).
Cairo in 2003. All photos on this page I found on Wikimedia Commons.
He shows me the tap water service in this country by putting a glass of water on the sink. It looks tremendously turbid. In less than a minute on the bottom a brown sediment has formed, filling almost half of the glass. On top of that the more or less transparent water floats. Each day we buy many bottles of mineral water, I think two litres each, and everywhere we are we drink a hot, sweet and very strong tea from little glasses. We take up to three showers a day, without embarrassment about wasting water. The sand sticks to anything.
The boundary between city and desert is fascinatingly sharp. Giza is up against the desert, really in the sand already. It is a rich district with an international atmosphere, and because of that it is the only part of Cairo where sweepers come everyday, each morning anew, to sweep the desert-sand off the pavements and streets (which means it'll be gone for at least one whole hour). Giza is also Cairo's district with the most "western-like" nightlife, including discotheques and nightclubs. Alcohol is available, in some places better than in others, and so is pork, but there's not much of it, and it always comes with a grumpy sign with Arabic lettering and underneath that: "Pork!"
Remarkable about Cairo is the enormous number of beggars. It is the biggest city in Africa, and also the biggest city in the Arab world, but there is no such thing as garbage collection. That is to say: in practice beggars "collect" the garbage. Piles of junk are everywhere on the streets, all of them obviously searched through numerous times, there are rickety wooden carts, pulled by a little donkey or the owner himself and replete with junk. Outside the city there are garbage dumps where hundreds of thousands of people live permanently. The stench is everywhere.
The city is huge. That applies to the actual size, both in number of people and in square kilometres, but also to the fuss. Laws are words that the (never elected) leader may write down in the government buildings, but society is formed by rules that come into being in practice. Yet someone, somewhere in the top level at some point in time made a decision that finally has succeeded to penetrate to the lower public levels. A system of subway lines is being built in Cairo (which will take three years to complete), so many intersections are inaccessible, traffic is an absolute chaos and the crowdedness is more than doubled.
The roads are poorly maintained. There are holes, sometimes half as wide as the road and sometimes large enough for a complete car to disappear in. Fences surround most of the holes dug for the subway (many of the fences are made of residual materials), but none of the (more numerous) other holes are surrounded by fences. There are large deficiencies in the sewage system, and as a result large puddles of water gather around the pits on the streets. It hasn't rained for months. In several places pedestrians are forced to slalom the streets through all traffic.
Traffic is a real disaster, and when it does move it's not much better. Everybody is constantly claxonning, passes other cars left and right, and does nothing but throttle-brakes, throttle-brakes, throttle-brakes all the time. The first day we drive to his work (I mean: we are in the traffic jam leading to his work), Bart tells me a standard joke in Cairo about a taxi driver opening his window and shouting to a man on the sidewalk: "Taxi, Sir?" His answer is: "No thanks, I'm in a hurry." At each traffic light there is a multitude of beggars. Often we leave the Lada where it is to walk into town, or we just drive as far as we can get and then park the car somewhere to continue our journey walking. I don't remember having travelled by bus or taxi. I am astonished by the cars I see in the street, more than ninety percent of which are Fiats or one of the many assembly-brands from various parts of the world (Lada, FSO and many others). Remarkably old cars still drive around, even from the fifties and now and then a pre-war rattletrap, because thanks to the dry climate they hardly ever rust. Bart tells me that the Egyptian army is even more interesting to watch, if possible, also with equipment from various countries and power blocks of the world.
Traffic in Cairo in 1991.
The station for AI where Bart is working this week, is outside of the city on the road to Alexandria, some miles into the desert. Getting out of the city is not so very difficult. There are hardly any traffic jams here, but every day I meet soldiers at the roadblocks, not just on this road. Officially Mubarak considers the country still at war or in state of emergency. The signing of the Camp David agreement between Egypt and Israel was five years ago, the assassination of Sadat less than three years ago, and only two years ago Israeli soldiers finally evacuated the Sinai. Thanks to the rapprochement with Israel, Egypt is for many years now politically isolated in the Arab world.
The road has two lanes. Only on the second day (perhaps later) Bart tells me that the road has four lanes. Does it? It does! The roadside appears to be nothing other than the desert that has taken possession of the two outer lanes. We're happy already that these two lanes are still free of sand, as we try to avoid the huge holes in the road. Charming, if somewhat unhandy. We go to the right and enter the area of a large farm.
At the office of the farm, we meet the boss of the department of artificial insemination. Sammy is a Copt with a broad smile and is one of the students. The others are Muslims, except Ishmael, a friendly Copt with blond curls and a pair of thick, brown spectacles. There is one black man among the students, Ibrahim, a shy and silent man (who according to Bart is the best and most inquisitive student of all). I hang around in the vast farm while Bart is working. There is continuous care for me and I drink many litres of sweet tea from small glasses. One day I help gather the cows and imagine myself to be a cowboy on an American ranch.
A few days later Sammy of course invites us to his home. He is around forty years, married, and lives in a small flat in a suburb of the eastern city. We drink a lot of (sweet, hot, strong) tea and many courses of tasty snacks, all carried into the room by a girl of around six years. Sammy is proud of his daughter and lets photos circulate, also of his family. "My wife," he explains one of the photos. Ah, yes, the woman who is behind the wall three metres from us in the kitchen preparing our food and drinks. When we say goodbye we still haven't met her.
It is already well into the night as we drive back on the huge six-or eight-lane highways that have recently been constructed across the city. At this time of the night there is no traffic jam, but it isn't exactly quiet either. I remember being on the back seat (did Sammy drive us home or was it in the Lada?), trying hard not to fall asleep. Cairo never sleeps. In a few hours the mosque will call again for the first morning prayer. Sammy told us that it is not easy for him as a Copt in this country, but a few days later the sympathetic Ishmael puts this into perspective. He notices the humiliation, but there is no systematic violence against Copts. Sammy has a tendency to dramatize.
One day we visit a chicken farm. Maybe Sammy leads us around, maybe someone else. But I remember clearly how he upon entering immediately takes a raw egg off the conveyor belt, breaks it and eats it. We're being led along seemingly endless rows of hen-houses with emaciated chickens. Behind the hen-houses their eggs are transported away on a conveyor belt. It makes me sad.
Cairo at night in October 2004 (photo by Przemyslaw Blueshade Idzkiewicz).
As I write this, I remember more and more. Weren't there two weeks of work and then two weeks of holiday? While writing Kate Bush continuously sings Egypt in my head (when I was in Egypt I didn't yet know the song).
One night we decide not to eat in the hotel but to go into town. Bart tries to keep us away from the tourist centres. I think the pyramids are impressive but I agree with him that they are nothing compared to the rest of the city, the people, the bustle, the dirt. In a remote corner of the city he leads me into a neon-lit place. There is no tourist here, only Egyptians. We take a seat on a plastic chair at a long table, covered with a plastic table-cloth. After a few minutes someone approaches us with food and, although we haven't ordered yet, he places them in front of us. It's a large plate of macaroni. "You cannot choose your meal here," Bart remarks, obviously comfortable. "This is the daily special, and the menu changes only when it's not in stock anymore." We walk back through Cairo in the dark.
I feel safer in the street than I feel in Rotterdam or Utrecht. Without fear I approach everyone on the street and I am invariably greeted with a big smile and plenty of time and patience. There is a salesman on a street corner selling Donald Duck albums in Arabic. It costs really nothing. I try to find the coins for him. He looks poor, old and dirty. There are thick slices of dirt in his beard, and his sandals are worn to the soles. When I pay him, he is enthusiastic and takes me in his arms. I get a big hug and kisses on both cheeks. In my memory I even saw a tear in his eye (I lost the Donald Duck long ago now).
Another day we visit Khan el-Khalili, the oldest part of the city, on the eastern Nile Bank. I get enchanted. It's wonderful. It is so incredibly beautiful. So old, busy, so small and so vast. I only get to see the bazaars in Istanbul eight years later, but those are a faint, small and extremely western-like imitation. Unlike those bazaars Khan el-Khalili is still a residential area, an old medieval neighborhood, but each resident seems to continuously also be a retailer and is sitting on his own doorstep with his merchandise (yes, they're all men).
Even before we go visit the pyramids (that are within walking distance) Bart drives me to see the slums on one of the landfills. So, what should I do with that memory? The word slum seems to me to be too much for these piles of dirt. Along the slums a stream flows with markedly purple coloured water. In and around the stream children are playing with the mud. I only believe something is a house if I see someone entering or leaving it. What an utter disaster most of our world is.
Cairo is the main party and entertainment center of the entire Arab world. One day a parade of American cars arrives at our hotel. The largest has six doors and has tinted windows, and a man with sunglasses and a ghutrah exits from it. "A wealthy Saudi sheikh," says Bart, "who comes to Cairo to enjoy the women and especially alcohol." He is followed by at least ten women, all veiled from head to toe in black, who appear to do nothing but simply follow him. Subsequently we see the sheikh regularly in our hotel. He has a large, private table in the restaurant, always richly supplied with food and drinks, and is always accompanied by at least some of his women.
One day someone gives us a tour through Khan el-Khalili, and after hours of sauntering through the centre, we walk into a beautiful pub. Our guide tells us it is the oldest café in the world. It's more than a thousand years old and has been a pub or inn all that time. The building is made entirely of wood, from the planks on the floor to the bar and the ceiling. We have only just arrived when a dirty man comes to me and asks me if I want my shoes polished. I look at Bart, who remarks: "Go ahead, and see what will happen." I have expensive, brown leather shoes of the brand Roots. I do not believe I have ever polished them myself. I take them off and hand them over. I remember there's desert sand all over them. Even better I remember the pride in the eyes of the friendly man when he comes to return my shoes much later, so clean I hardly recognize them.
We get lost in the Lada Niva. It's hardly possible to do something else in this city. Bart has experience with it. He stops at the curb and lets me get out. I walk up to a random man and try to make it clear to him that I am lost. Then he tries to explain to me where I am. And all this with an extended protocol of mutual expressions of patience and confidence and prolonged ceremonial greetings and goodbyes. When it is done I walk back to the Lada and get patted on the back. He is not exactly angry, but naturally I cannot leave without taking his grapes. All my protest is futile. He has a large bunch in his hands and gives it to me. I cannot leave him without the grapes. A smile is all his language I can comprehend.
On another occasion we are lost, and now the explanation is simple but the distance is large. "No, no, there really is no need, we will manage." I am getting the hang of it. It is just politeness, because I already know this man is going to help us. He follows me to the car and directs me to the back seat. For more than an hour his instructions lead us through the city, many kilometres, all the way to the other side of town. In front of our hotel he calmly gets out, and says goodbye without any visible worries. "I lost time? What do you mean? Oh no! Me? I'll find my way home. Thank me? No no, thank you!"
The Arab or islamic society makes a strong impression on me. I had so far only visited western European countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy) and knew no Muslims in the Netherlands. The basis of the society seems to focus on mutual attention instead of mutual benefit. Surely people in Egypt benefit at the expense of each other too. The realisation that in a sense I think this society might be better than my own makes me melancholic. Also I realise that I will never be a part of it, not even by emigrating and converting for instance. The hospitality in this country is overwhelming, between total strangers, and seemingly without regard to matters such as class, status or position. Of course it is immediately clear that human rights are not equally applicable to men as they are to women, or homosexuals, political dissidents (and copts, jews, Berbers, Sudanese). Now the climate would be the only reason left to emigrate.
One day the money Bart gave me as pocket money appears to have been stolen. I left it in my wallet and left that in my hotel room. It is empty. So be it (immigrant workers in a western hotel; it may have been half a month's salary for a mother of four children). I remember that Bart later pays for something I want to have.
Bart's work is almost finished. On the last day he organises a written examination, with a number of multiple choice questions in English. The text is replete with technical terms like "semen," "fertility" and "uterus", and Bart asks the employee in the hotel lobby to translate the examination into Arabic, just to be sure. The students do speak English, but not all equally good and Ibrahim not at all. In the Arabic translation that we receive some hours later, the translator has simply omitted all the words that he or she did not know, so without the English text the text is still hardly readable.
The necropolis is the first attraction we visit when the work is done. Its size is similar to the "city of the living." There are graves from the ninth as well as the nineteenth century, and in some places the amount of tombstones is beyong the reach of the eye. Here too, in between the graves, many thousands of the poorest people live. Dirt and death, but also many neatly cleaned graves, giant tombs and splendid minarets. I remember the view over the necropolis from the Citadel, which we apparently visited. We also visit a mosque, I suspect the first time in my life. If I remember correctly it was the oldest or largest in Cairo or in all of Egypt or something like that. Maybe it was the mosque in the Citadel. The artistic, meandering decorations are impressive.
We are driving on a wide, busy street through Cairo as Bart tells me that the traffic in the city is not as bad anymore as it once was. It is not so long ago that the government prohibited the leading of caravans of camels or sheep on roads through the city. He has only just finished speaking when the four-lane motorway goes under a highway overpass and in the opposite direction we see a beautiful, colourful caravan of camels proudly trotting towards us. The caravan goes on for many minutes, and has hundreds of animals. I believe we stop the car to watch (or maybe we end up in another traffic jam).
At the post office in the centre Bart wants to write out two additional checks. It takes a long time and there is not much room at the counter. The man behind it is huge, and is sweating despite the air conditioning. He questions Bart on his residence in Cairo, writes the answer on the back of the check and puts various rubber stamps across it. They will love that for sure at our Dutch bank. He calculates, two hundred pounds minus the usual two percent commission is one hundred ninety-six, minus another ten percent... Here you are, sir! Bart explains to me that the salaries of officials in this country, including those of policemen, are barely at subsistence level.
I grow very fond of the bananas. Stalls on many street corners sell numerous fruits that are unknown to me and surprise me, and I try many different kinds. I also try limes, lemons of course, oranges and bananas. Oh, those bananas! I remember there were at least twenty different kinds, and especially the small, brown, rather unattractive little bananas were delicious. The hotel almost has problems getting me all the lime juice I want.
Different types of bananas (photo by TimothyPilgrim).
It wouldn't have been Bart's choice for an outing, but I really want to go to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Most of the visitors are British, French and a few richly dressed Egyptians. I don't mind them and admire statues of pharaohs/gods many metres high, the impressive treasures that were stolen from Tutankhamun's grave, enormous quatities of gold, gemstones and ancient jewelry, and also the large building itself, with its high ceilings, spacious echoing halls, and large marble tiles on the floor. I remember dozens, maybe even hundreds of mummies in many halls, sometimes two or more together in a showcase, of animals, children, adults, in various states of dissolution, some with its wrappings loose. One of the children misses an abdominal wall. Signs at some of the attractions state in what Western museum the remaining parts can be seen. I enjoy the hieroglyphs that are everywhere.
Egyptian Museum in Cairo (photo by Gérard Ducher).
One morning I wake up ill, although it is not on the second day of my stay as was predicted to happen, like it is supposed to happen to all Western people in this country. Diarrhea of course. That day we drive around in the Nile Delta, and the climate that is different from that in the city, the warm wind through my hair and the wonderful scenery help me revive. I see date-palms with large bunches. Houses of straw and mud. Polders with irrigation channels in between, though in no way similar to the Dutch polders. And ibises. Somewhere in a village near Ismaylia we stop to buy some food.
Along the road an old man is sitting behind a large pile of grapes. We want to have a lot and we suspect he wants to sell a lot, so words are not really needed. We don't speak any Arabic, and supposedly he doesn't speak any Dutch, but you wouldn't tell. Barts starts the conversation in Dutch, and says in a very friendly tone of voice, Good afternoon, we would like to buy some grapes from you. The salesman seems hardly surprised and answers with just as friendly and incomprehensible words in Arabic. "Yes, a lot please!" Bart responds in Dutch. This whole encounter we keep on speaking to each other in Dutch and Arabic, and we understand each other, although we don't understand a word. The transaction succeeds. Big, juicy, tasty grapes.
Of course we also visit the pyramids and the sphinx. Apart from its size the Cheops pyramid doesn't impress me that much. I remember many stalls with touristic merchandise and many camels for tourists to ride around on. I don't particularly want to ride a camel, but I will regret that decision lateron. We don't enter the pyramid, although recently that has been made possible for tourists. I am standing at the base of the pyramid and touch it. The lower rocks are much larger than I had dared imagine. The Sphinx has recently been fenced off and cannot be touched.
Rear view of the Sphinx (photo by Papillus).
A maelstrom-paragraph. Bart had originally planned a visit to Beni Suef, where he had worked a lot in previous years, but I remember we never went there and ended up in Faiyum instead. Bart visits a man who has a house built there, I think a Brit. He is slightly older than Bart, around sixty, and without any bragging he tells us he has travelled around the world his whole life, has visited numerous countries and thinks that Egypt is the most beautiful of all these countries. Therefore here, near the oasis of Faiyum, he has a villa built, to settle and grow old. It strikes me that he is white and everyone at work in the villa is black. We drive along the Nile and I see some of the characteristic sailboats. On the other side is the railway. All passing trains are loaded with people from the balcony to the roof (just like the buses in the city). There are more crashed and burnt out trains along the rails than there are on the rails. From a distance we see the pyramid of Saqqara, almost fifty centuries old and to me a lot more impressive than that colossus of Cheops.
The Nile (photo by Jerzy Strzelecki).
The pyramid of Saqqara (photo by David Mateos García).
On the way back we decide that I should not only see the desert but experience it too, and Bart abruptly steers the car to the left. After a while we cross a dune, and indeed as far as we can see there is nothing but sand. No stone. No cloud. Not a blade of grass. No animal. Just sand, a horizon and a blue sky. We shouldn't go much further, Bart concludes with an eye on our water supply. It still takes us some time before we find that same dune back and see buildings again. Life! It turns out to be the necropolis.
The Sahara in Tunisia (photo by Elcèd77).
One day there is a wedding in the hotel. They look Western, him in a neat suit and her colourful and festive. I see women go crazy with hysterical exultation, crying even. For me, there's no getting away from mingling with the guests, as if I knew them. They spoil me with an abundance of snacks and drinks.
The waitress in the restaurant is very beautiful. Her card says she is called Mubarak, and one morning Bart asks if she is related. No, simply a common name in Egypt. Strange memory. Ah, well, I also remember the carpet in the dining room, the tables for the buffet, the bar in the lobby and the reception, the blazing sun and the lazy afternoons, street corners, skyscrapers and the facade of the nightclub around the corner, all without real possibility to describe.
Because of the heat we like to get up early, but one day we don't succeed or there is another reason for us to leave this late in the morning. When we approach the Niva we immediately see that it has a flat tyre. In good spirits Bart starts to work on it, and he only finishes when the heat of the day is at its worst. That day we attempt to get to Alexandria. But the road is bad and the road blocks frequent, and perhaps there is another reason still why we return and drive back.
We do visit Suez one day, perhaps the same day we drive through the Nile Delta. We refuel in the city, that is deserted apart from the attendant. Everywhere around me I see blocks of flats and houses that are shot to pieces. Bart drives along the border with the Sinai (which I believe is still demilitarized), where huge cannons stand wheel to wheel, their barrels pointed to the desert in threat.
Suez in May 1982.
To confirm our return trip we visit the KLM office in a skyscraper in the center. What an idiotic enclave here. The plane back appears to leave at around five or six in the morning, and Bart decides that it makes little sense to go to sleep that night, because it will be difficult to reach Heliopolis in the early morning traffic congestion. It is better to leave the city in the evening already, and to spend the night at the airport waiting for our plane to leave.
It is decided. Bart tells the taxi driver we have lots of time, and he immediately asks us if we have visited the monument to Sadat. That is going to be our first stop. I believe it is at the spot where he was assassinated, in any case it is a high and impressive monument between palm trees next to a taxi driver who is slightly emotional.
We are not the only ones to sleep at the airport. Maybe some people live here semi-permanently. When the morning comes, a man steps forward, spreads a cloth on the floor and begins to sing loudly in the hall. Slowly the sleepy muslims gather, turn to the east and pray in a (more or less orderly) common ritual. Afterwards the people share their food with each other. One of them has chicken.
Because it is forbidden to export the money, we spend our last Egyptian pounds at the airport. I take one pound note with me (which has long since disappeared or decayed).
A colleague of Bart's picks us up. The first thing I notice after our return to the Netherlands, in the car, is the extreme gentlemanlike behaviour of the people in traffic on the roads around Amsterdam. People drive on the right and don't use their claxons!
A few months after our return we read in the newspaper about violent riots in Giza that lasted for several days. Police officers demonstrated against the reduction of their salary. Loyal troops shot in the crowd and killed dozens I believe. Many buildings were burnt down in the riots, including the complete Mövenpick Hotel.
Utrecht, between 23 May and 16 August 2003 (translated 2011)
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