On a bitterly cold London winters morning on January 16, 2013, I left the apartment I had been staying at in Tooting Broadway. I trotted off with my Kathmandu bag on my back. Although I had set off with hours to spare, a series of wrong stops on the London tube meant I arrived at Gatwick airport only in the nick of time to catch my flight.
Five hours later, I arrived in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt. This was my second trip there, but having traveled in the lush comfort of a tour group during the prior trip, this was to be quite a different experience altogether.
I caught a taxi to the bus station and brought a ticket for the overnight bus to Cairo. The bus station was humming with activity, and there were a few men having a passionate argument about something or other. Egyptians having a conversation about the simplest of topics is incredibly animated and can often appear, to a westerner, like an argument.
There are strong and abrupt hand gestures, the tone is very precise, and every word is said with intensity, perhaps with a few jokes and belly laughter in the mix as well. I was glad to be there.
I went to the bathroom before boarding the bus and had a rather disturbing encounter where a young boy was sent in a few moments afterwards to proposition me — at the direction of the man taking tips at the entrance, I’m quite sure. All I could do was utter an awkward, “No, thank you”, and scuttle out the door. I boarded the bus and was on my way.
About halfway through the journey, I suddenly noticed a bright, smiling face looking at me from a seat across the aisle. “Is it alright if we chat for a while?” he asked. Ahmed was from Alexandria. He was a graduate accountant and had been in Sharm el Sheik for a few days to attend some job interviews for work in the resorts down there, but hadn’t had any luck.
We talked about music and dance, and all the normal topics of polite conversation. As we talked, two or three people sat leaning forward against the back of the chair behind me, listening and observing. There was something very special about Ahmed. I liked him immediately.
A few hours later, when the bus was arriving in Cairo, panic suddenly set in for me. It dawned on me that it was the middle of the night, I didn’t know where the final bus stop was going to be in this city of nearly 20 million people, I didn’t have a working phone or a map, and I didn’t have any accommodation booked. I naively, and rather stupidly, thought I would just arrive and sort out the finer details later.
It was desperate times for the people of Egypt. The fall in tourism after the Arab Spring revolution was taking a major toll on the tourist economy and Cairo was not a place you wanted to do a naive tourist, wing it, kind of vibe.
I turned to Ahmed with panic clearly visible in my eyes, I’m sure, and asked, “Do you know where this bus stops?!”
He could sense the panic and said to me, “Look, why don’t I get off with you, and I will go with you downtown, and help you to find some accommodation?”
I didn’t want to be any trouble, but at that point I knew I needed a friend, and somehow, I felt I could trust him. And I could. It was incredibly fortunate that I encountered Ahmed. As we got off the bus, I was pounced upon by ten or more different men wanting my cab fare.
I followed Ahmed closely, he did all the talking, and then we jumped into a micro cab. This resulted in a heated dispute between a few different drivers who felt that they should’ve gotten the job. They were in each other’s faces, screaming. At one point, as the driver was about to take off, someone grabbed the keys out of the ignition, and would not allow the door to be closed.
Ahmed turned and said to me, “Everything’s okay. Just watch this play out. It’s like a movie, but it will be over soon, just wait and see.”
True enough, after a few minutes, the other drivers admitted defeat and let us get on our way. Every hotel we went to in downtown would not allow me to stay there, because it was expected for any foreigner, outside of a tour group booking, to have clearance from the local police.
After walking the streets with Ahmed and having no luck finding accommodation, he suggested I go back with him to Alexandria to stay with him for a few days.
At this point, although I was aware that my own woeful organisational skills were now almost forcibly putting someone else in my service, I also felt that it was fate that we had met in this way.
Somehow all logic had left my senses in this circumstance. Thankfully, in the midst of my absentmindedness, Ahmed was happy to host me. At the time, I felt I was in such a mess of a situation that I really had no choice other than to stick with a local who knew what he was doing. We both agreed later that it really was destiny we had met, as we ended up sharing a wonderful few days together in Alexandria that we still reminisce fondly of to this day.
We wandered to another micro bus stop, which was a coffee shop with a bunch of vans waiting outside. The micro buses were all lined up on the street, and the drivers were walking around the area yelling out the location each one of them were going to.
One by one, people strolled along and jumped into the vans until they were full and took off to their destinations. It was the middle of the night so it took several hours before we could leave. We sat there sipping coffee and chatting to some friendly locals.
Ahmed was having some banter with some men around, occasionally firing into political debate, which I only knew from the odd uttering of “Mubarak” or “Morsi” being flung back and forth within Arabic I didn’t understand.
At some point while we were at the micro-bus stop, Ahmed asked me if I was gay. My instinct told me that I could trust him, and that he had enough of an open mind for it not to be an issue. I responded honestly. He was taken aback for a moment, but then said, “That’s okay. I don’t have a problem with it. Just make sure you don’t mention it to anyone else here, okay.” He was trying to protect me. A few more hours went by and there were enough people for the ride to take off, so we hit the road to Alexandria, about two and half hours’ drive away from Cairo.
Once we arrived in Alexandria, we went to Ahmed’s family home. His family, particularly his sisters, were incredibly welcoming, laying out a beautiful fruit platter for me on my arrival. At last, I was able to lay down my bags, and we both desperately needed sleep. Ahmed slept okay. I did not.
I was so overwhelmed with the dynamism of the whole experience that I couldn’t switch my brain off. When I did nod off, I got bitten several times on the forehead by mosquitoes, and the spots swelled up like massive welts.
We ended up staying across town in an empty unit, which was used for putting up visiting relatives and friends from out of town. The next evening, we went to visit Ahmed’s friend, Tamer, and spent the rest of the evening there. We had a smashing night.
At one point, one of them asked me how Egypt and the Middle-East is portrayed in western media. And I told them of the fear-based reporting that infiltrates the western media narrative. I shared, from my own perspective, that although things could feel a little dicey for me in Egypt, I had also felt incredibly welcome — in some strange paradox, like home, in New Zealand. Ahmed being a case in point.
Ahmed, Tamer and I sat on the rooftop, and looked at the stars. Around the block, there was a celebration for the opening of a new café. Music was blasting and fireworks were going off in the streets. In the morning, prayers wailed over loud speakers from the surrounding mosques. The ambiance was incredible. It was a wonderfully memorable night in my life. I’ll never forget it.
Over the next few days, Ahmed and I spent all our time together; walking the streets, exploring the city, and enjoying each other’s company immensely. I felt so very cared for. Ahmed was one of the most wonderful people I have met in all my life.
One evening, as we discussed homosexuality, Ahmed proclaimed that if I were to have been born and raised in Egypt that I “probably wouldn’t be a gay man”.
He talked about it being a choice, not in the biological sense, but the choice to go against the grain of what is expected traditionally and culturally, or not to.
Essentially, I think what he was saying, is that there are probably as many homosexual people in Egypt as there are in any other given country, but the likelihood for them to suppress this and opt for the traditional lifestyle is far more likely, and less troublesome — or in some cases, it avoids a life threatening situation.
Ahmed had an interesting opinion on homosexuality. He talked about the cultural traditions in Egypt being based around procreation and ventured his own idea that homosexuals are more evolved as human beings because, in his view, they live their lives not only for tradition, but to be true to their own nature.
We talked about human beings having their own unique energetic vibrations, and these vibrations being constantly projected from one person to another. These vibrations, we posited, go beyond words or body language, but to the inner-self interacting with everything and everyone external (if there is such a thing as external) to the self. We talked about fine tuning and becoming more sensitive to, reading or feeling these invisible vibrations from others, to consciously adapt this to communicate with the world around us.
Over the next few days, I channeled my own vibrations to that of being calm, and being at home in Alexandria, and the way people responded to me seemed to change. People didn’t notice me quite so much, and I was no longer feeling like a foreigner.
Ahmed encouraged me to further develop my sensitivity to this, and to take this with me to the volunteer placement I would start a few days later, in Al Quseir. He encouraged me to find the sync in vibrations with the people in the community to create the initial bond, and to expand each relationship from that starting point. This advice turned out to be invaluable to me during my time in Egypt.
Despite the conflict, protests, and turmoil going on in Egypt at the time, my own personal experience there was one of deep calm. It was only on the rare occasions when I would turn on the news on TV that I would be reminded of the troubling things going on in the country.
One day as Ahmed and I were walking down a street, a crowd of people emerged from around a corner, with tears streaming down their faces. There had been a protest just around the corner that the police disrupted, and they had used tear gas to disperse the protesters. Ahmed asked me innocently, relatively un-phased by what must have been a regular site for him, “Do you want to go in and have a look?”
This was one time my common sense really did kick in, and I responded that we ought to head in the exact opposite direction, which we did. The thought of his innocent invitation to see something that was so beyond my reality, as if it were a once in a lifetime tourist experience, always amuses me when I think about it. I totally understood where he was coming from! But I knew I needed to NOT be there.
The next day, it was time for Ahmed and I to part ways. I had the time of my life with that wonderful guy. He sent me off to Al Quseir in the Red Sea District, where I was to do my volunteer placement for the next three months, escorted safely on his Uncle’s bus company, until I had found my way to my destination. I’ll always be grateful for my friend, Ahmed, and that beautiful adventure we shared.
Thanks for reading…