Despite multiple efforts and false starts, I can’t seem to draft a good, single story about my time in Egypt that captures all of its corners. This is my best attempt to relate the story: little kodachrome images of places and people and things and feelings. Maybe somewhere in the process I’ll even stumble across the single or several threads that weave through the larger tapestry, and hopefully, while you read, you will.
I. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a dustier place than Cairo. The desert won’t let the city alone, so of course the buildings all have to be painted light tan. The color doesn’t do the old British architecture any favors, accustomed as its edges are to greyer and colder days and far less dust. The Egyptian architecture does better, at least. Most of the buildings are just blocks, though, with as many floors as could be afforded, and not enough windows to deal with the heat.
The Nile is life. In nighttime satellite shots, the lights look almost like papyrus: the river a stalk and the delta a sprouting head. At night we sit at a docked riverboat lounge (show your state ID card at the gate so the attendant knows your religion, this boat is Christians only, for safety). The next boat downriver is Coptic. Some others are tourist friendly and might even have alcohol. I’m not sure if it’s even necessary to have muslim-only boats here. Our table is by the railing, and two stories down, night fishermen float by. One has nargila (hookah) on his tiny boat and the red coals throw a red glow against his face and stand bright against the dark water. Tiny twenty- or thirty- or thirty-five- person cruise boats move upstream and downstream with their neon dolphins and mermaids and their even louder music. Some boats play the traditional tunes, with tabla and flute and oud. A few play Arabic pop, mimicking the sounds and rhythms with synthesizers. The music videos my hotel plays during breakfast remind me of Pitbull.
II. WARNING: This section contains graphic content, skip it if you are a vegetarian or averse to blood.
Come outside, the boy says with his hands, and it’s probably what he’s saying in Arabic as well. I turn from my pew and follow him to the doorway at the back of the church, then out into the dusty street. In this village, the streets are narrow, with enough room for a car or a donkey cart to pass a couple of pedestrians, but no more. The street outside of the church is full of onlookers when I follow the boy through the door, and they turn and look at me, each one grinning. They themselves are fascinated by the spectacle there in the dust and so they know that this pink-skinned American will be, too. A cow, all black excepting a white splotch on the underbelly, lays hobbled, taking up most of the width of the street. Two men restrain the legs with a strong green rope and another pulls back the head while the butcher slices from the base of the neck to the back of the skull: a half meter long diagonal cut that doesn’t sever the spinal cord (so the cow still lives), but allows the blood to empty into the aluminum basin set below the neck.
The strongest memory I have is of the sound. The cut has been placed below the vocal chords, but the dying animal is still trying to bellow in pain. The air escapes the lungs with a hollow thrum. It sounds as if it comes from the earth itself. It plays in my head sometimes while I try to sleep.
I imagine dying. I imagine the thin metal blade passing from where my neck and chest meet to the back part of my skull, my hands and feet tied. A man pulls my head back by the hair so the blood will come out of my artery more quickly. Trying to groan, but only feeling the air pass into space with that ghostly throbbing hum. In every instant, confused, bewildered that my strength is leaking drop by drop from my body.
I wonder if I’ll become a vegetarian. I don’t. I wonder if I’ll be sick. I’m not, as I remind myself that things die, and ask Abba if cows have spirits.
The animal kicks and kicks against the green hobbling rope, trying to stand, head bent back by an assistant’s hands. The kicks grow weaker. One of the two men holding the rope drops it and stands back with his hands on his hips. The second remains, just in case.
When the cow has finished dying I go back inside. We leave two hours later and the crowd is long gone. The cow hangs in butchered pieces from hooks in front of the shop. They are large, and covered in thick yellow fat deposits. The butcher is inside the dark entryway, working on a leg with the same thin knife.
We have chicken for dinner, like the night before.
III. The worker who hung the light bulb in this low brick cell placed it above the ceiling fan, and I’m not sure if it was an accident, or some genius solution to cheapen construction costs. The turning fan blades create almost a slow strobe effect that flickers on a pair of old, old hands clutching and unclutching the edge of the bed cover. Our host is north of 80 years old and lives alone in this small room, helped by her neighbors. The more traditional of the Coptic and evangelical women in Upper Egypt wear head coverings, different only in style (the neck remains uncovered) than the hijabs and niqabs of their majority Muslim counterparts. Widows wear black from head to foot. Her faded shawl flutters a bit as the fan fights the heat only as well as Don Quixote fought windmills. She stares ahead, eyes milky with cataracts that don’t admit a scrap of light anymore.
My traveling companion is a 50 year old native Egyptian who’s been in the US for 18 years, and doesn’t want to live here. We’ve been hearing stories like hers all day long: widowed, blind, dirt poor, dirt floor. I’m so overwhelmed and tired that it’s almost a month before I can shed a tear over it, sitting at a dining room table in Budapest and pulling the details back to my mind one by one.
IV. I hide from the 1 o'clock sun in an alleyway while we wait for the car. Across the street a woman steps out of the shadowed doorway of her home, wearing the colorful long dress and flowered head scarf so many of the women here wear. She’s holding a bucket of water, and she splashes it against the brick wall to cool it off. Three more buckets follow: one against the wall and two over the dusty ground in the lengthening shadows. She comes outside a fifth time and this time she’s holding a rope in her hand. A thin white donkey follows her out of the doorway. She ties the rope to a thick iron ring set in the brick wall.
She goes back inside, then comes out again, this time leading a cow. She ties it next to the donkey. The poorest homes in these villages have only one or two big rooms, and the livestock have to come inside when the sun is hottest and highest. At 1 o’clock at least the shadows are long enough to hide in.
V. By the subway entrance, an old woman sits, wearing black, and her hands are outstretched. Her hands are so thin. She has a black plastic bag at her feet full of packs of tissue for sale (an Egyptian pound a piece).
On the subway platform, a man taps an American on the shoulder, and his arm is outstretched. His hands are mutilated. He holds a black plastic bag full of packs of tissue for sale (an Egyptian pound a piece).
In the subway car, a thin young boy guides his little sister by the shoulders, and her hands are outstretched. She is so small. He carries a black plastic bag full of packs of tissue for sale (an Egyptian pound a piece).
In the last car of the train, I see my Aunt Tara, for the first time since Christmas.
She is wearing a flowered hijab and her hands are outstretched. Her face is tired and her hands shake from the disease that is attacking her nervous system. From two needle-pained fingers dangles a black plastic bag full of packs of tissue for sale (an Egyptian pound a piece).
VI. We take the train back to Cairo from a little town in Upper Egypt (we follow the Nile, racing down to the Delta). The cornfields flash by, and the date palms, heavy with unripe fruit. The sunset paints the sky soft tangerine, and the train windows are etched with chaotic scratches and chips, and dust is gathered in their corners. The fabric on the seats is faded blue, and fraying where countless passengers have rubbed against the edges. The tea trolley moves up the aisle. We flash past a dancing wedding party on the other side of the canal and window-muted music flashes brightly for one quick second, swelling and fading like a car horn at 60 miles per hour.
I loosen my shoelaces, slouch down in my chair, and sleep.
Thanks for reading! This story is from my experiences in Egypt in the summer of 2017. If you want to read more stories from the same trip, check out this one from Uganda, or this one from Turkey. If you liked this story and think people should read it, feel free to share it or give it a clap.