Middle East Travel Diary
I wrote this travel diary while visiting Cairo and the White Desert and Damascus. It was on the eve of the Arab Spring and before the Syrian civil war. It seems somewhat simple and naive in hindsight…
Middle East Travels
I leave for the “axis of evil” in a few days. I’m going to Egypt and Syria. The middle east is so colored by propaganda for me that I don’t really have any idea what to expect. My parents live there and I’ve heard a lot about it from them. But their view is only representative of their own experience there. I have no idea what to expect. If the news is to be believed, most people will hate me just because of the country that I happened to be born into. Some will probably love me for my percieved (and comparative) wealth. No matter what I think now, my expectations will probably be wrong and that is the only thing I can count on. I’ll keep you posted. Today I’m the Ambian cowboy, plotting a lonely course toward the nearest edible takeaway stand. My two day “hiatus from hygiene” is finally over. A weird sunlight is filtering over the Nile; half smog and half dust blown up from the Sahara. Down on the street is the usual chaos of yelling and honking. But somewhere in this mess is a strange, foreign (at least to me) bleating sound. This can only mean one thing… my dinner is trying to escape!
The sun reflects off satellite aerials and minarets, off pink apartment buildings and billboards of celebrities that I don’t recognize and can’t understand. Darkness creeps up from the shadows of the Nile, ending my first day in Cairo.
I discovered a “secret door” in the kitchen. It wasn’t actually secret, just unused and blocked by a large appliance. I’d assumed that it was a derellict panrty of some kind, but then I noticed the locks and deadbolts. There was a slight draft from beneath it carrying the scent of cat “byproduct” and garbage. After fiddling the locks, the door creaked open to a narrow filthy set of stairs going up and down into darkness. This is in a building that is set squarely in some of Cairo’s most expensive real estate. Very incongruous to my mind. Did I close and relock the door and ponder the weirdness of it all? I did not. Armed with a flashlight and wearing my father’s trusty keffiyeh (headdress, kind of like a turban), I set out on the most daring expedition ever undertaken before bed time. I followed the stairs down four flights until I reached ground level. On each landing I passed unused doorways to other apartments. But the strange thing was that there were drag marks coming out of each door and proceeding down the stairs. Not like someone was moving something, heavy, just bags of garbage. When I reached ground level, I was surprised to see that the stairs kept going at least two floors farther. So down I went. On reaching the bottom, there was a weird ornate marbled chamber, filled with dust and cobwebs and totally dark. Small craggy, daggy passages split away from the wall and I decided to follow the least daggy looking of them. After a few twists and turns, I came to a small “cottage” in a huge underground cavern. There was weird screechy Arabic music and a light coming from the open window. (keep in mind that this is all in the sub-basement of an extremely expensive and old apartment building.) Fearing trolls, (and not speaking the language) I decided that maybe it would be prudent to head back at this point. Later, I mentioned this little adventure to my Mother. She shrugged and said, “that’s how the Zebelyn (sp?) pick up the trash”. Apparently, the Zebelyn are a low-caste Christian sect that have a monopoly on trash pickup. It’s actually more of a no-one-else-will-do-this-job-so-you’re-stuck-with-it kind of monopoly. The creep up the stairs and you put your trash on the landing. After the feral cats have picked through it, the Zebelyn come and throw it in a huge burlap sack and take it down to a truck. They spirit it away back to their camps outside of town. Here, they spread it out and sort through it for anything of use. They then graze their hogs and goats on any organic matter. My mother said that she will have her driver take me to the camps of the Zebelyn tomorrow. The only reason I can get away with this is because I’m a “crazy foreigner”. When I know more, dear reader, so shall you.
A woman in a full Chador is trying to squeeze into a crapped out Lada taxi. She’s having trouble keeping the door closed and the cars behind her are laying on their horns. There are a bunch of army guys to my left looking at porn on a cell phone that probably cost an entire months salary. A vespa with training wheels goes by carrying a family of four. I’m standing next to a roundabout in old Islamic Cairo. When this place was made, Europeans were still wearing furs and making tools out of stone. It had already been around for about 3000 years when Christ was born. The wall behind me has holes for pouring boiling oil on invading armies and I just bought a soviet-era Russian pocket watch for pennies on the dollar. This place rocks.
This country is the polar opposite of America; everything that is normal here you would probably be arrested for back home. Last night Mohammed and I went to smoke at a sheesha cafe. He is an ace Cairo indie driver and weaves around buses, donkeys, taxis and pedestrians leaving whole inches to spare. Cairo traffic makes the Santa Ana freeway rush hour look the wide open highway. I can feel the lead level in my blood rising with every minute that we sit in it. The cars have invocations to Allah, probably for the light to change. In the sheesha cafe, the proprietor picks up a red hot coals with his bare fingers and puts them in a hookah bowl the size of a coffee cup. We pass a pleasant hour talking about the state of the world and smoking the apple flavored tobacco. Not being a smoker, I barely manage to make it home before I projectile vomit. Another perfect end to a perfect day.
Cairo to Damascus 1/6/07
Sand diffuses the late afternoon sun as Cairo drifts toward evening. The winds dredge it up from the desert and as the city expands to meet the sand, the sand is slowly settling into every inch and orifice of the city. Twenty million people all dodging traffic, queing up for street vendors, all covered in a fine dust. On the 26th July Bridge that crosses the Nile, a wedding party has decided to stop for pictures over the river, the city as the background. The happy couple get out blocking the major thoroughfare connecting one half of Cairo to the other. Thousands of people lay on their horns, which doesn’t even scratch the bliss of the newlyweds.
But we see all this through the back window of an armoured BMW sedan. My traveling companion is the Australian ambassador to Egypt, Syria, Libya, Sudan, and Tunisia. Also along are his grown daughter and her family. The Australian flag on the front bumper of this expensive car is a magic talisman to ward off the evil of police, parking restrictions and even other traffic. This is as close to having a superpower as I’ve ever come. Even if it’s by proxy.
We’re on the elevated autostrada en route to Cario airport and Mahmoud is putting the cars’ 5000 pounds and 12 cylinders through it’s paces. From the highways elevated tarmac we look down into the capillaries of the cities venous system. Like the rest of the middle east, everything is orderly in it’s own chaotic way when viewed from above. But descend into the streets and alleyways and you’re instantly enveloped into a mad parade of confusion, filth and noise. But tonight, we’re “Basha”; rich folk, and we are a mile above the chaos on our way to Syria.
Jetlag reels my soul back from the depths at about three thirty am. I wake up to the rattling and moaning of ghosts. But as things come together a little more, I realize it’s just the rattling of the toilets chain flush and the off key yowling of the muezzins call to prayer. A group of doves inhabits the ledge outside my window. Their soft conversation is a stark contrast to the clang and honk of morning in Cairo.
Outside of Mecca and Medina the Al Ommayad mosque is one of the most holy places in the Muslim world. Nearby is the tomb of Saladin, the greatest Muslim general to prevail against the crusaders. Rain is sifting down out of the Damascus winter sky into the courtyard outside while we watch the afternoon prayers. Inside a thousand pious people prostrate themselves, barefoot and washed, on prayer rugs pointed toward Mecca. Seeing that we are Westerners, a woman and her daughter stop to talk with us. They are Iraqi. The mother tells us how her son was killed two months ago in Iraq. How can a mother describe the death of her own son to someone who doesn’t speak her language? She made a chopping motion at her arms and legs; they had dismembered him while he was still alive. As he bled to death they finished him off with an electric drill. There is no way that these words can convey that scene. She told us this story of her son, dead only two months without malice or blame, but only tired resignation. This is what Hannah Arendt meant by “the banality of evil”. I don’t have the Arabic skills to tell this woman that I never supported this dirty war. Besides, it wouldn’t bring her son back. I can’t tell her that I don’t support her government or my own or any other. The only Arabic word I have for this is “aasif”, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that human nature is vicious, cruel and unchanging. I’m sorry is a cheap and meaningless thing to say to someone whose child has just been murdered.
The White Desert of the Sahara, Western Egypt, 1/12/07
The Sahara night is filled with hoodoo silhouettes and silence. Crazy Touareg and Berber monoliths that are backlit by a thousand miles of rock and sand and a stillness so deep that the senses are stunned. As the last embers of the fire fade down to nothing I’m the last human on Earth, the only living thing. But then a pair of luminescent eyes appear just outside the ring of dying light. A soft call announces the arrival of a local. This is “talab”, the namesake of General Rommel; the desert fox. He keeps me company, rummaging with no fear around the outskirts of camp. The desert doesn’t seem so huge with a bushy-tailed mammal for company.