Friday, 15 May 2020

1990 Egypt IV: Alexandria, Wadi El Natrun, Suez

6.3.90 Alexandria

Up to look at the grey-green sea from my balcony.  Too early for breakfast: so I start on "Balthazar" – the perfect way to begin an Alexandrian day…  Breakfast is served in a small room off the main dining room, the same white, the same classical frieze, the high-backed chairs with their woven patterns.

A walk along the corniche west out to the fort, beside which I sit – gleaming white stone.  It is sunny, with a soft blue sky, fringed by a few clouds – typical: I have put on my trusty vest, a t-shirt, checked shift, New Zealand pullover and jacket, and so now I am too hot… Lovely stiff breeze off the see: smells so clean – I must learn to sail this year… On the way here the concrete squares of the pavement show clearly where the sea habitually leaps the barrier: the gravel shows through as the binding is eaten away…  An image from yesterday: as we pull out of Ramses Station, a man urinating against a wall.  It reminds me of Canaletto's boy peeing against the Rialto bridge.  It is good to smell and hear the sea again: my island roots betray themselves.  

Along the corniche, the houses fronting the sea look very French, very Côte d'Azur, very (but how do I know?) Beirut before it became urban hell.  Into the fort – a wonderful decrepit naval museum.  Best thing is the sound of the wind whistling through the halls – just as it did in the Pharos… To Pastroudi's – an upmarket version of Groppi's.  For some reason I sit outside under the awnings – even though it is thundering, with sporadic rain.  Also, I am deafened by the bleedin' car horns passing.

Alexander does feel different.  I keep wanting to speak Greek – I've seen one taverna elleniko already – along with a wonderful sign – for a doctor, presumably - offering "skin, VD and sex"…  Sounds very Durrell.  The which I shall read, appropriately enough.  The sun has come out – and fortuitously I catch it between the awnings.  Yellow and black, and orange and black taxis go by like huge wasps and bees, but for me their sting is in their horn.  You can tell this is a commercial city by the ratio of cabs to private cars [damn these horns – they are like bloody children: one one starts, they all join in.  I preferred it in Ligeti's opera.]

At least Durrell has told me what the ubiquitous clover-like fodder is called – confirmed by the encyclopedic Blue Guide.  "Birsim/bercim" – aptly enough, Trifolium alexandrinum. I forgot to mention the huge conical piles of fruit near my hotel: two feet high of blood-red strawberries, oranges, impossible vertiginous shapes.

I have just eaten at Al Ekhlaas – very upmarket, very nice fish – excellent tehina and baba ghanoush.  The room done out in Moorish style: perforated brass chandeliers, with extraordinary glass lamps – looking like enormous blue condoms, teat and all.  Place practically deserted, even though it is 2pm – Alexandrians eat late.  Interesting weather: sun, rain, clouds, wind – but the dust is my enemy, and reduces me to tears of blindness.

In a way, Alexandria is the New York of Egypt: a frenetic, cosmopolitan melting pot.  There is a style of schmaltzy music that belongs to the 60s and the Pink Panther/Euro chic ambience, long lost.  It was an era when playboys and their belles were 30-45 years old, and Europe was the height of chic.  Could it come again?  As the baby boomers age to 30-45, so Europe could again be fashionable – the spas, the old capitals of Eastern Europe.  Perhaps the music will return too.  Even I find an insidious charm in its sheer naiveté.

Dropped off by the taxi at Pompey's Pillar, I walk to Kom el Shoqafa – through very dodgy streets – they remind me of the backstreets of Palermo.  Real poverty.  Sheep tethered in the streets – general feel like Kathmandu.  Now I sit in the banqueting hall of the catacombs – c-razy.  Celebrating the dead with a meal.  Name means "Mound of Shards", from the potsherds left over from the banquets.  

In the Caracalla Hall: the young men said to be killed in revenge for an insult offered by them to the emperor in 215 AD.  Lovely friable sandstone, with strata at 45 degrees.  Easy to get lost… The stacked burial chambers like a huge honeycomb.  To the side of the main chapel – long gallery of honeycombs – with planks across the water like Venice in flood: does Peter Greenaway know about this place…?  Very precarious walking along these long planks – they bend so… it is like walking over the Styx.  The silence is heavy, thick, claustrophobic.  This mania for burial everywhere in Egypt, of hiding the dead.  Walking stooped, the planks thudding as they rise and fall on the stones supporting them.

The main tomb quite crude – Greek and Egyptian elements, from behind, an eerie cool breeze.  Crude Hathors, Horus – like maskers dressed up for a ball.  Thoth looking like a toucan…  And dressed in Roman soldier's garb.  Turning around, yes, there are the ridiculous figures: Sabek and Anubis, holding spears, dressed as Roman soldiers, looking across the entrance to each other like some erstwhile Morecambe and Wise double-act.

Outside here, two other ghoulish statues, one a woman, one a curly-headed man with a furrowed brow and a Messerschmidt-like stare… I am quite alone here, the only sound the scratching of my failing pen across the paper as I awkwardly write standing up…

Back to Pompey's Pillar – large, and largely pointless.  A couple of sphinxes, a few bits of rubble: it sums up Alexandria's attitude really… Real souk near here – lots of sunshades – just like Canaletto's Venice.  As I learn a little more Arabic – a word here, a word there – I become conscious of the expansion of my empire.  But language is an ambivalent tool: it is that of obedience as well as command.

Out for a walk in the dusk.  Fine evening – but for the wind, easterly now, and its attendant dust.  Lots of anglers along the coast – I always worry about the fly-back of their hooks in such circumstances.  I walk east, turn, then back past the Cecil.  Eastwards there are numerous forlorn-looking restaurants; westwards, forlorn-looking hotels; perhaps it all bucks up in summer.  Now it has that pleasantly elegiac out-of-season feeling.  For no reason, I think of America, and its lack of comprehension of this kind of charming seediness.

Past the war memorial, inland towards Tahrir Square.  I have no map, but follow my feet and nose.  I pass along bustling streets, wares brightly lit as ever.  Some stalls a few pieces of sweetmeats, for a few piastres.  How do they survive?  And who are all these men in the cafés by day – what job do they do?

Ah, the muezzin again.  Back in the dining room.  Another full bottle of wine tonight – this time, a red: "Omar Khayyam.  Rather nice.  It seems appropriate to Alexandria and its hedonism.  Omar slightly watery – I have drunk five glasses so far

7.3.90 Alexandria

I am beginning to lose track of the days.  After breakfast, out along the corniche, west again to Al Silsileh.  The clouds of dawn had cleared, leaving a huge blue dome.  The fort looked attractive around the harbour.  I have booked a taxi – for which I wait in the Metropole – to go out to Wadi El Natrun: E£90.  Probably a rip-off, but it is hard to get worked up over £10 – the wrong attitude, I know.  

I feel like Proust with his driver – well, in some respects – touring Normandy.  Talking of Proust, it is interesting to compare him with Durrell since both are obsessed with love.  Where Proust takes a few key incidents and pores over them in infinite detail, building towards a coherent whole, Durrell seems content to pile on more details, more incidents, unworried by the contradictions or opacities.  This is the thing about Proust: his striving for clarity, even – and hence – in his long, snaking sentences.  They also differ from James's endlessly nested clauses, the product of a profoundly cautious man.  His costiveness is a beautiful emblem of his art.

Opposite me, at the Strand Cinema, a garish poster for "RoboForce".  Robocop, I presume.  Last night, I saw several women in full veils, with only slits for the eyes.  They looked like mummies or victims of terrible accidents.  It sent a chill through me to meet them like this, so unexpectedly, in Alexandria of all places.  Passing a shop last night, an image of a women with a tube of lipstick in her mouth, pointing outwards its great red bud.  Surely an image impossible in the Freudianised West?

A stunningly attractive woman passes the window; but her pullover has tassels – two over her nipples: she has obviously never watched "The Graduate".  She walks along with sublime innocence.  An albino youth – tight curly white hair, bright pink skin – enters the hotel and takes the lift, a being from another planet.  The receptionist in her little cubicle constantly repeats: "Hallo, aiwa, aiwa…"

We soon leave Alexandria behind, then cross Lake Mariout, surrounded by reeds and glistening water.  Looks like East Anglia, Snape.  Newspaper sellers in the middle of the road – but amidst roaring traffic.  (NL), (S) and even (B) – upside down – (CH) nationality stickers on cars.  Two wrecked cars in the middle of the road in the last ten minutes.  The sea to my right has a puce tinge – pollution presumably.  A dovecot like a huge clay pepper pot.  The main Alexandria-Cairo road. For the first time, I see traffic cops pulling someone in for speeding – the maximum for cars is 100 km/h.  In Asyut, there was the body of a man by the railway track.  Onlookers gawped.  Rather dull landscape, very flat, scrubby bushes, trees, odd village, a factory.  Greenery half-hearted.  Long, straight road.  Real desert now, distant hills to the west.  After 90 minutes and 100 kilometres.  Wadi El Natrun is dusty and barren.  Some of the water seems to show the salt.

To Anba Bishoy Monastery.  147 monks, 22 novices according to the monk who has been explaining things to me, dressed in black, with an embroidered head covering.  Alas, no Coptic manuscripts – he gently suggested there might be some in Britain…  Some painting by the door – 1977, done by bloke from Cairo.  Small, enclosed feel.  Twelfth-century keep, entered via drawbridge – the bleached and worn pulley still over the door.  [Apparently Coptic is still spoken in some parts of Upper Egypt – near Qena, the man said.]  The paintings had Greek characters, but it was Coptic.  Next to the keep, the steeple (modern) and done with curious quintuple crosses – joined at base to form a pyramid of them.  

Inside the main church, after removing shoes – to walk on rush mats or carpets.  A beautifully simple interior, unadorned plaster walls, barrel vaulting.  Wonderful old chandeliers, like something out of an old country house.  Arabic graffiti scratched on the walls.  Old wooden pulpit, worm-eaten.  A simple hanging beneath it.  To the main sanctuary with its iconostasis – the 12 apostles and others.  Crude light bulbs on the wooden cross above.  The body (covered) of Bishoy.  From behind, the separating curtain a strange sound: they are vacuum-cleaning the main sanctuary.  They offer visitors tea… No charge, but a donation…  

To the Syrian Monastery – shut from 12noon to 3pm – because stricter here.  Goats scrabbling around salty water – like Hunt's "The Scapegoat".  Turn off is near the new Sadat City, for Monastery of Saint Macarius the Great.  Long, straight road – looks like an army camp of citadel – big.  Closed until Easter.  I am sitting in the gatehouse, on beautiful blue chairs – with light-blue painted wooden arms – the rest house.  An aircraft roars noisily overhead.  Flies are everywhere.  Cloudy sky, air quite cool.  I eat the monks' bitter bread, and drink their tea (Ceylon) – a secular Eucharist.  Also I am given a phial of holy oil...but I notice that it is in a Bayer tube…

This reminds me of Lake Dal.

The monk would accept no money.  I've realised what the driving here reminds me of – with no signalling, overtaking left and right: go-kart racing, with similar tolerances for error.  

Back in Alexandria, I rush to the bookshop – only to find it closed.  And I notice that it is built over the position of the tomb of Alexander himself – the Soma.  I sit now in the Roman amphitheatre – small but reasonably perfectly-formed.  Reminds me of Epidaurus.  Egyptian – and Indian – cinema posters are in a time warp: their heroes are in their 40s, and the heroines are ladies of ample charms in their 30s – really 1960s stuff.  Pink Panther again.  The trouble with the sea here is that it just sort of happens: corniche then harbour.  No use is made of it as in English seaside towns.  Even the seats are placed between the road carriageways.  A glorious afternoon – sky nearly clear, the odd cloud galleon, air fresh.

Along to the Cecil for tea.  What a waste of space.  I sat there for 15 minutes – nothing; I left.  Interestingly, so did two other visitors – young ladies there for pretty much the same reason as me, I would hazard.  So to my trusty Metropole instead, watching from my window seat.  

In opening and closing the high windows and shutters on to my balcony, there is that characteristic bang of wood and glass, followed by the squeak as the rods turn and the fastening hook engages.

It is very strange: I find it hard to connect now, being here in Alexandria, with my time in Upper Egypt; it is as if the latter were a previous, unrelated trip.  And this is how I hoped it would fall out – the different Egypts subtly but hermetically separated.

It is an interesting experience reading Durrell here and in such concentration – I have just finished "Balthazar".  He becomes almost oppressive with Darley's constant whinings and whimperings about "Love" and "Truth"; but the fluency of the writing impresses.  It is a warning to me perhaps: against such archetypally "fine" writing, the striking image, the calculated metaphor. 

Do the bobbles of wool that come off a jumper have an official name?

Curious: there is an aerial lead lying dead on the floor of my room, its wire vanishing out through the door; what happened to the TVs – referred to by old von Haag?  Outside, a maid or attendant passes by in a splendid jingle of Keys (why the cap?  - "The Keys"…)  At the catacombs yesterday, some chappie asked me my profession: "writer" I sad without thinking.  I wonder… Perhaps Alexandria - and Durrell – are affecting me in this.

To dinner.  I shall never be able to hear King Lear's "If she must teem, Create her child of spleen" without thinking of the local 7-up substitute "Teem" – and of Egypt.  Another effect of Durrell: I have been thinking about my friends a lot, and looking forward to seeing them.  Egypt has taught me one thing for sure: the indelible, terrifying stupidity of flies – they learn nothing – no matter how many times you flick them off, they return, indefatigable.

8.3.90 Alexandria

Even early in the morning, there are the horns.  Their timbres and chords vary enormously.  Some sound like samples: for example, I have heard the final chord of Prince's "The Cross", as well as the stabbing chord in Janet Jackson's "What have you done for me lately?"  Again, I woke with a very present sense of the books to write in the next couple of years.

It is noticeable that no two people ever eat a boiled egg in the same way.

A dull, overcast morning.  As the corniche sweeps round to the fortress it is swathed in a blurring mist.  Quite attractive really.  In the building opposite, hitherto apparently dead, a woman hangs out her smalls.  Last night, after dinner, I took a long stroll through the streets.  Half of Alexandria seemed to be out, taking their passeggiata.  It felt quite festive.  To the Museum of Antiquities today.  The contrasts in weather here have been useful too in sealing it off from the rest of my Egyptian experiences.  I feel that travelling is something you learn and improve at by practice: I feel Egypt is my first Dan…  It is amazing the number of buildings here that are based Venetian palazzi in style.

What a palaver.  I am losing my wonted composure.  Primo: changing money.  To the Bank of Alexandria, opposite the hotel – normally OK; but not this time: I must go to the main branch.  Which I do – like something out of the 1930s, clerks everywhere, ledgers ditto.  I must go upstairs.  First to one window, then to another.  Finally, for some reason best known to themselves, I must go to yet another branch.  Which I do.  To the ground floor, then upstairs.  Finally someone changes the bleedin' money.

Secondo: I go along to the bookshop.  It is closed, but two men turn up and begin unlocking it, smiling at me.  First they take off the restraining bar, then the padlock, then unbolt the door – perhaps the Soma is here.  Then one man enters, takes a package, and starts to lock up again.  I remonstrate.  They mutter some Arabic at me: "closed".  They are still smiling as the walk off.  Bastards.  No bleedin' book, obviously.  

Terzo: to the Graeco-Roman Museum, a classical facade painted a vague sort of Pompeiian colour.  The swines won't let me take my bag with me – I have to carry all my junk.  Swines twice over.  I am not in a good mood.

The museum itself is pleasant enough – at first glance, any way.  I feel immediately at home amidst these herms and torsos.  6: the Aris bull – very impressive.  Serapis – a factitious god, made to consolidate an empire.  7: usurped (ha!) figure by Ramses II – the Moses connection is interesting – on the sceptre the Princess Hut-ma-ra – supposedly she found Moses.  NB: for the Egyptians, the Israelites were just another minor tribe.  But the Old Testament -through Judaism, Christianity and Islam - has shaped the world.  8: a horrible Ptolemaic coffin, grinning like something out of Lewis Carroll, a Pharaonic Tweedle-dum.  Eerie plaster masks placed over Romans.  Roman soldier's mummy – thick swaddling – but the toes peek out as if from a plaster cast.  Very elaborate diamond criss-cross swaddling.

10: eerie X-ray of dwarf's mummy.  Mummy of a baby – with weird miniature adult mask.  12: some odd but striking heads: Ptolemy VI – noseless, with hollow, melancholy eyes, his crown like a jar of water balanced on his head…  Fine anonymous bearded head – the striations in the rock are picked up in the seep of the beard and in the leftward lines; he looks like a wanderer, out in the storm, enduring.  I would like to nick this… Strange crumbling statue – Egyptian posture - of Ptolemy I – a surprised old man.

16: strange, detached forearm with ball, rising up like the Lady of the Lake with Excalibur.  16A: figure of Berenice and daughter – looking like a Henry Moor seated figure, the limestone beautifully craggy.  17: glorious piece of porphyry, smouldering like a dull, red-hot coal.  It looks as if it is liquefying.  I would like also this.  Some of the exhibits here are wrapped in the typical plastic of restoration.  Reminds me of Venice for some reason.

18A: a huge concrete repaired rent in the wall looks like the map of Italy.  Lovely statuette  of actor with tragic mask – a big nose like Mr Punch.  Amazing collection of female heads show wide range of ancient hairstyles. Some look very 18th-century.  It would be interesting (slightly) to chart the recurring cycles of hairstyles through history.  20: God Bes – of "fun" – who became god of war – ho-hum.  Two flutes made of bone: re-construct them?  Memories of the Getty…  Treasure Room: a sad and hangdog figure, big nose and fat neck.  The coins displayed in vertically swivelling cases.  Lovely silver torso of Venus – very sensual, very callipygous…

5: clay sarcophagi like huge pairs of shoes.  Christian stuff - so crude.  A mummy with a black cross at the neck.  Obscene relief of Leda and the swan – it looks as if she has a giant goldfish between her legs.  Above, another one – with the swan pecking her nipple while she holds an egg…  The god Bes – looking like an alien. The garden is quite pleasant in a jumbled soft of way – reminds me of the scene in "Belly of an Architect".  And that is that.  

Bleedin' bookshop definitely closed.  Back to Pastroudi's – coffee and cakes – what the hell.  The sky clearing; hot.  The cakes are lethal; plastic cream unfortunately.  One, a rum baba kind of affair, was good; the chocolate cake far too sickly.  A man with a barrow-load of ice has passed, each pillar with a curious cross-section of diagonals.

There are noticeably more beggars here than elsewhere, especially cripples, just lying prone and helplessly.  Also a boy the other day, with no legs, scooting around on a cart.  Straight out of Breughel.  At the next table, a late middle-aged man, wearing characteristically dusty brown pinstripes; his right hand wears a black glove.  Pastroudi's is quite full out here now; Thursday, the day before the Muslims' Friday.

Just down from where I sit, a building split in two at ground level – one a shop named only in Arabic – and hence a mystery to me – the other three curtained-off windows.  Between, the sad remains of a pediment and ornate ironwork canopy.  The entrance is crudely bricked up, brown-black.  At the level of the pediment, to the left, the triglyphs remain; to the right, above the be-Arabicked awnings, concrete and grills.  Above both of these, stretching right across the whole facade, is a row of classical balustrades.  Once they fronted balconies.  Now they give onto a roof, doubtless piled with Egyptian debris, as I saw in Cairo.  Between the balustrades are truncated round Doric pillars with simple bases.  There are also four square pilasters, with more Corinthian capitals.  Behind ruined walls, their scratched and grey faces like excavated frescoes of an ancient Roman palace.

A car horn quotes from Walton's first symphony – the first movement.  I have been reading here at Pastroudi's for over an hour, watching the sky clear and cloud, reading about Mountolive.  What could be more civilised?  Did Byron ever visit Alexandria?  I feel he should have done.  I must re-read "Don Juan" – and get to know the letters.

Yesterday, from my windowed eerie at the Metropole, I watched as a young man's gazed swivelled, spellbound, to follow the passage of a moderately-attractive young woman.  

The more I use von Haag's book, the more I like it.  I realise now that most guide books – even Lonely Planet – are too "objective" and impersonal.  What you want is a kind of hyper-Lorenzetti crammed a diary of travel.  You want the facts coupled with a personalisation of everything – a judgement that allow you to relate to the objects in a way that a "pure" comprehensive guidebook cannot.

Anyway, following von Haag, I sit in the Mustafa Darwish restaurant on the corniche. Not touristy – at least, not for Westerners – but they are where in Alexandria?  No English menu.  Also – the first time I've seen it – waitresses.  Quite smart inside, if slight gaudy.  Egyptian music just about winning against the traffic thundering by outside – and von Haag says sit outside, if nice…  Hilarious plastic gladioli on the table, sick yellow and candy-floss pink.  The head waitress has pantomimically heavy eye make-up – pink and blue, like war paint.

An amazing meal – god knows what it will do to my guts.  First, a real vegetable soup.  Then: tehinababa ghanoush, tomato and onion, potatoes, beetroot, olives and peppers for salads, fish – a kind of trout, grilled with curry, rice with kidneys, a thin meat pasty, and chips.  Sybaritic?  Me?  Tempted as I am by the fruit concoction, I shall be wise.  Fish brilliant; tehina addictive; rest good.  And so to coffee...and to "Mountolive".  Coffee nutty and not too sweet or aromatic.  Served in one of this little white cups and saucers – whose topology is odd in that the handle is blind, with no hole, but solid and filled in.

The other day I saw Stravinsky walking down the street, slowly, as frog-like as ever, dressed dapperly in a waistcoat and hat – not bad for his age – 100 odd?  Alexandria seems filled with such cosmopolitans, traders from Smyrna, Sevastopol, old sea captains from Piraeus.  Opposite me now is an old man, quite corpulent, smoking languorously, with a younger woman (50-ish), imperious in his orders to the waitress ("aiwa?" she answers quickly to his call).  Meanwhile, the same female singer swoops and keens her augmented seconds…

Durrell's book – especially in "Mountolive" – does emphasise the extraordinary position of the Copts in Egypt – the true heirs, the Welsh, those who remained true to their heritage; whereas the Arab-speaking Muslims are the English, the invaders, those who have compromised with the imperialists…

A long walk three-quarters of the way around the corniche to the fort.  I sit now just west of the mosque on the first seat by the sea – how poorly the Alexandrians use the sea front.  Why seats here?  True, the view is splendid: fort 90 degrees to my left, with the fleet of fishing boats in front.  From in front of me to the right, the coast of Alexandria – my hotel neatly at 135 degrees, and in the sun.  The sun lowers and catches the sterns – mostly green – of the boats.  Gulls circle overhead.  Just over the promenade walk (low), what looks like bleached ribs of an old boat.  Plus litter – everywhere.  Old car tyres lie at the sea's margin like mutant jellyfish.  The wind is getting up, pulling waves off the surface of the sea like tufts of hair.  The wind and its bad friend, dust: my enemies, the evil spirits that will drive me from Alexandria.  I must have the only pair of contact lenses in the city.

The naval fort like a fairy-tale castle, crenellated, glinting white.  Youth always takes to the new if only because there at least it is on equal terms with maturity.  The city front like superior corrugated cardboard.  Men standing in their boats as if to attention, waiting for the admiral's review.  

I must get a copy of "A Partial India" bound when I do "The Weekly Essay" – both as presents to myself.  The sky is clearing beautifully – the clouds being pulled back to the south like a curtain.  Another Balinese revelation: there I understood the International Dateline; now I see why the Mediterranean has no high or low tides – even though it is as big as an ocean.  Because it is closed.

A brisk walk back to the hotel, they sky tinged with orange.  6 o'clock strikes; I have just paid the bill of E£230 for four nights, including three dinners, and laundry.  Pretty good.  I now sit in my world-watching seat, hoping for a tea, about to plunge back into an older Alexandria.  

A curious experience.  One delight I have been looking forward to in re-reading "The Alexandria Quartet" was coming cross the word "nacreous" again – it was here that I first encountered it.  Being on page 496, and not finding it yet, I flipped back to the beginning, half-convinced it was there.  No luck.  So I continue with my reading.  Literally seven worlds later, there it is – ha!  Another car-horn tune: the Smiths' "The Queen is dead"…

To the dining room for the last time – first there again.  Friesias on the table.  I smell them – the smell of childhood for some reason…  Most of us build empires – through marriage, family, friends, work, etc.  Perhaps writers and artists are the most megalomaniacal: they seek to colonise the hearts and minds of millions.  Writing style might be characterised as wet or dry.  Wet styles can be squeezed drier; dry styles fit words together like stones of the Great Pyramid: not even a knife could slip between them.  Durrell is very wet; guess which I would like to be?

Although many poets have painted, and vice versa, there have been very few painter-musicians.  Mendelssohn, Schönberg are the only two that spring to mind.

The bubbling smile and happiness of the Coptic monks…

The sight of big, butch men holding hands in the street like four-year-olds… 

9.3.90 Alexandria

As I come down to breakfast for the last time here, a wonderfully steaming smell of youth hostels.  I begin to tire of Durrell.  I don't really care any more about the perennially-deceitful Hosnani et al.  "The Alexandria Quartet" is perhaps too long, or needed to be read over years as it came out.

In the 7.50am train to Cairo, waiting… I thought I had a seat in the non-smoking car...it appears not.  Perhaps that is the quintessential smell of Egypt: cheap cigarettes.  Everybody smokes.  And while many other countries have many smokers, they seem to have other, masking odours.  Egypt is oddly odourless: no woodsmoke of India, no wet vegetation of Bali, no leather of Spain; just stale, choking cigarettes.

The Egyptians seem to smile quite readily – the women at least.  Smiling is a bit like letting people in front of you when driving: it tends to propagate.  Those to whom you do it seem more likely to do it to others.  I suppose it is a measure of my optimism in people that I believe that the world may one day go smile-critical.  

It is clear to me that I am not really interested at the moment in fiction, even in a novel: instead I simply want to re-work and preserve certain thoughts and experiences.  It is why I never (almost) lie: I lack the imagination.  "Mountolive" finished.  It is definitely the great set pieces – the fish hunt, the scene at the monastery, the mourning of Narouz – that excel.  The ruminations are over-fine – the writing too "wet" – though luxurious as you read it.  It is all too exotic: you get the feeling that Durrell needed Egypt, the Greek islands, for his ideas.  Of England he can say nothing.

On the outskirts of Cairo, we pass four huge industrial chimneys to the right.  Each has two vibrant white lights – for aircraft, I presume – flashing, but synchronously – a huge 4x2 grid blipping menacingly.  Hypnotic.

Well, what larks – and it's still only 3.30pm (I should be at the fête at the embassy, I know, but well…)  Back in Cairo, which feels reassuringly familiar.  Arguing with the taxis as ever – I get one, only to have him pile in two Germans.  I remonstrate at length, demand a price reduction, threaten to leave.  He gives in.  The Germans admire – was I there on business? they ask.  Strange, Cairo seems saner compared to Alexandria's traffic.  To the old Cosmo.  I march in, announce my reservation for two nights; they check: one night.  I look, and can see that they have changed visibly the two to one; bastards.  But no point arguing.  They say (as ever) that they'll "try" tomorrow – but I've had enough of that.

So, off round the hotels.  As it happens, I wanted to go to the Ramses Hilton to ask about "Fifi" – the which I felt right daft doing, furtive even.  Eventually it transpired that old "Fifi" – apparently the best belly in the business – is at the Marriott.  I also ask if the Ramses has a room for tomorrow – the hotel looks like a huge granary silo, but I was seduced by the name.  They had.  So I could always come here.  

To the Marriott – some way away on Zamalek island.  What was once a moorish palace, expanded into a huge maroon prison.  I go there; "Fifi" is indeed around.  I ask about rooms: no go.  Once again, I feel really daft asking for what sounds like a poodle. I need to find the restaurant to reserve a table.  I saunter along and notice a bookshop – I had already looked in the ones in Midan Talaat Harb for That Book; no luck.  I thought I might as well look here..  They have it – but E£30 more at E£95.  But I do not make the same mistake twice, and snap it up.  So some good comes from a bad situation.

But I still need a hotel.  Back to the Ramses Hilton to reserve.  But when I do, the buggers discover that they're full.  Pah.  To the Shepheard Hotel, along the river: full.  To the Semiramis next door: a room – they say -  but at $130, it's a bit different from the Cosmo's $30.  But I need it, and take it.  I look around: it is rather flash – swimming pool etc. - and quite a tolerable gym, open 7am to 9pm.  So, admittedly rather expensively, I shall be getting some unexpected exercise tomorrow.

If I can walk.  For back to today.  I had set my heart – certainly not my brain – on a gallop around the pyramids.  God knows why.  And indeed, as I drove out there, I felt an appalling sinking feeling, a foreboding.  Things were not made better when, having spotted the great shapes moving in and out of the blocks of flats, close-up I saw two people descend Khufu's: damn.

My driver – a great big thug of a bloke, but an amazingly calm and unflusterable driver – got a ticket for the car to go in too, and we went round to near the boat of Ra, where the horses gather.  We soon found some, good-looking animals, and agreed E£15-20 – to be decided later – for an hour's tour including gallops.  Oh poor fool…

Mounting the horse, my guide immediately zoomed off over rocks and sand and stones.  I kicked my beast, but to little effect.  Cries from behind got it going, and I knew I was in serious trouble.  Straight away my shoe slipped forward, and the stirrup caught behind the shoe's tongue – a lethal situation. Also, the horse was not responding to the usual aids.  Things were not helped by the necessity of me holding on to the loop around its neck.  Apparently, to get it going, you put the reins forward – giving it its head – while squeezing behind.  

My main problem was the sheer dangerousness of my whole stance.  As we thundered along, I could not use the reins properly since I was holding them in one hand.  So I left the horse to its own devices – and it promptly headed for the rocks and stones and god knows what.  I meanwhile was jerking all over the place, made worse by the horse's path.  I visualised very clearly falling off, with my foot irremediably caught in the stirrup, dragged along at a gallop over the stones.  All I could do was repeat to myself "I'm going to die, I'm going to die…" What little I saw of the landscape was magnificent: with the great sand dunes, the sand plains, and the unforgettable presence of the pyramids.  But these were not my main concern. 

I survived about 30 minutes of this, with three totally crazy gallops.  I was almost relieved when my guide started taking me towards his perfume-maker friend.  I was glad to be alive, and just wanted to get off the horse for a bit.  But I was faced with a dilemma: the last thing I wanted was perfume, but I could hardly cheese off the only thing between me and certain death… What to do?  

[A shower, then a long read of "Clea", which is winding the book down nicely.  I needed the rest: my head is thrumming still, my thighs are seizing up slowly.  Afterwards, a walk to the Nile – how magic that word is still – across the bridge, then back to the hotel, then to here.  Where?  Felfela's, of course, my penultimate night's treat…]

So, to the parfumier.  His warm-up man insists – "no refusal" – I have a drink; I am too exhausted to argue.  Hot tea seems safest.  Then through to the innermost sanctuary for a "demo".  Good patter, but I am not buying.  Fortunately, I am wise to the ways of salesmen: I just act stupid, refuse everything, give them no purchase – if you do, you are done for.

I exit therefore as gracefully as I can.  To horse – with trepidation.  But bliss: we go by backstreets to the Sphinx – it's over – I'm alive.  To hell with being ripped off (he wanted baksheesh – but I was inclined to give it to him not just to propitiate his/Egypt's gods, but also because he showed a real – as I imagine it – Arabic fire and pride, à la Omar Sharif in That Film).

But to backtrack.  My feelings were very strange.  I was clearly afraid – very afraid – and yet there was none of the normal physical symptoms in the guts, bowels, heart.  Instead, my body was perfectly calm.  And my mind was perfectly clear: I could see my death so close.  But it is like being about to vomit: you either decide to, or you don't; and on this occasion I was able to refuse death's offer by not quite falling off.  I suppose too I felt an elation – physical – in the mad gallop across the ancient sands – and mental – the stupid sense of daring to do this, of not chickening out…

Talking of chickening out, the chicken livers were fantastic.  I also treated myself to tehinababa ghanoush, nice and – inevitably – the om ali, which did not disappoint.  The place is fair old a-buzz now – certainly the best value I've had in Egypt from all points of view.  And good atmosphere.

It is also interesting to note how my pride operated through my horse-riding incident.  My optimistic and wildly-inflated notion of flying through the desert, the cruel reality – always at its worst in terms of my incompetence when other westerners were around.  And my pride forced me on, refused to let me crawl away in defeat.  The Egyptian must have loved it – he made little effort to help – or even stay behind, racing away, leaving a spume of dust – another obstacle for me to avoid.  He was also cruel to his animal – beating it not only about the flanks, but around the head and eyes too…

But very interesting, that sense of just clinging on – literally, and metaphorically.  A turkish coffee now to finish.

10.3.90 Cairo

You go away for a couple of weeks, and everything changes – breakfast served in the dining room… In the car to Suez - E£90.  The Koran sung achingly on a tone, the smell of petrol, driving through the outskirts of the city.  Desmond Hogan is Durrell gone mad – the ultimate wet style.  We have picked up a squaddie – which annoys me – and that I am annoyed is even more annoying…

After endless suburbs, the desert – lots of army camps.  Nothing very attractive.  But I can see why three monotheistic religions arose in the desert.  With no animals, nothing, man is turned back on himself – to an anthropomorphic god… Near Suez, fine mountains to the south, great barren folds of brown.  Hazy now, clouds coming in from the east.  Closer, oil refineries – their flames like great Bunsen burners.  

There is a corniche of sorts – except that it fronts onto what looks like a flattened rubbish tip.  Nice hazy view of mountains to the south, and of Port Tawfik.  And three Israeli tanks, stuck as souvenirs of war.  Strange to see bent tanks, three of them, sitting on the promenade.  Suez itself pretty ugly – concrete, much building.  Dusty, fly blown.  [Engineering office: "for erection and general contraction".] 

Port Tawfik, to the end: good view of ships emerging from the Suez Canal, and of the mountains.  Cairo about 130 km away.  More tanks in Tawfik, and on the road back to Cairo, a troop carrier – the detritus of war.  Amazing image: a tip-up lorry full of bitumen – alight – being fed with petrol. Great sheets of flame.  Another memorial: two tanks – and that image of Ramses II.  

Altogether, a very interesting failure.  I wanted (he says, back at the Hotel Semiramis) to see the ships passing like camels of the desert (think about it).  Instead, they were no more than distant images.  But even as I tried to persuade my driver to go nearer the canal – which he did not understand, and when he did, and I had suggested going up to the tunnel under the canal, he refused as being too far away – I realised that this was the apt ending, that nature was already creating art. 

As my bath runs after a massage here at the hotel, a glorious sunset for my farewell – Re himself.  Not just the red globe, but the full array of pinks, purples, greys, even nacreous hues.  A few light clouds are empurpled by it, the sky shades away to the blue, bled into by pink.  The sun is swathed in growing clouds now – Osiris-like - and falling exactly between two skyscrapers.  The Nile a sheet of light blue steel.

So, where did I get to?  I sit now, after dinner, facing the same view as above, but it appears now as a christmas tree of orange lights.  No lunch – only some tea up here – after all, I put on weight based on the premise I would lose it willy-nilly.  But (happily) this ain't happened, so I need to knock off a few pounds.  Then down by the pool – I may as well get my money's worth – to sunbathe.  It is now a fine, clear day, but the wind is quite fresh, and I didn't feel very sunshined.

Which is just as well, as it forces me off my backside over to the Egyptian Museum – without guidebooks.  I just wanted to look and remember – and discover.  It was almost strange seeing the Pharaonic stuff again – I feel quite distant from it.  But it was also delightful the way it meant more – both in terms of new facts, but also context.  I also saw things I'd missed the first time.  Like the ubiquitous Hathor, like the cuneiform tablets found at El Amarna, like Tut's trumpets.  And all the names and places and times and shapes made sense.  The old dinner bell went far too soon.  So, nodding to the giant Amenhotep and Tiw, I spent the last few minutes in front of old fish-chisel – Narmer's tablet.  I still could not get over it – or the miracle of its survival .  And even here I noticed something new: tiny Hathor heads on the king's girdle.

So, a good ending.  As was the rest of the day.  Back here for a work out in the gym.  I soon felt sick even though I'd not eaten anything.  I was a little disconcerted talking to a bloke there with a crutch.  Talking to him, it turned out he'd broken his neck in a motorcycle accident – two years ago – and was still recovering.  I thought of yesterday, and what might have happened to me…

Then a quick sauna (in swimming trunks – pah) – and then a full body massage (a bloke, of course) which felt really good. Then a bath (as recommended), watching the sunset, dinner (at Felfela – weak, and indeed not as good as yesterday), then here to pack, prepare for tomorrow et al.

11.3.90 Cairo airport

Well, here we are then, drinking mango juice.  A cloudy morning, red eye of Re again on the way here.  Tragically, I didn't sleep well – far too hot and dehydrated.  But otherwise hotel good.  I've not written about it before: huge – around 600 rooms, like a small community, endlessly bustling – you can see why people set novels in them – they are a society writ small.  Cost about £90 all told – including massage…

Sitting here, feeling immensely calm, worldly-wide and – just a smidgeon – above it all, I watch the people.  I see the nationalities in the raising of the hand, the ageing of young women into sharp-faced hags.  And in my eternal lip-reading, I see that the office (NB for "Doing the Business") is also a paradigm of life: those who command, those who obey, the tiny signs that indicate both.  Thus in a young couple (married), the delightful wife looking a little Egyptian with her long wavy hair: she commands, she is stronger.  And you can tell in the cant of her head: it is the angle I too adopt in the office.  As "officer" (NB: office ↔ office – business and rank).

A passenger at the airport.  A man, above average size, thickset, fattish, late 40s.  His head shaved (today, judging by the cuts), nicely tanned, large and smooth.  But at the neck, through the fat there, the skin had made a large, single fold, four inches across.  As he moved his head, it opened and closed like a hideous mouth, or something leech-like.  Horrible.  Watching the married couples here, I am afflicted with a tremendous (patronising) tenderness for them in all their frailties.  Like watching a stumbling, hopeful child.

I have never finished a holiday feeling so fresh: normally I have drawn heavily on my stored resources.  In part this is because I have not been unwell: my guts have coped admirably.  It also has to do with the size of Egypt: it is nothing compared to India.  India exhausts by its vastness.  Note too that Egypt is essentially one dimensional: the Nile.  This makes its conquest - by invaders and tourist – far easier than two-dimensional lands.

I cannot stop "Egyptian Romance" pullulating in my head.  My books are like children who demand attention: they don't want to wait. Flying up the coast of Italy, the country laid out like a papier-mâché model.  A pool of shaving-cream cloud.  We follow the highway: tracing the smeared snail-slime of an earlier plane.  The Alps now fringe the horizon.  

Final thoughts from Egypt: how pedestrians running among traffic would suddenly align themselves in bands – like electrons in quantum states.  That smell of cigarettes.  The other smell: horse dung.  I really feel Egypt has given me Europe.  Why?  Egypt has been a constant presence to all European history – although colonised, it lay there, always waiting, always enduring longer than any empire.  

Nearer the Alps: growing in my field of vision.  The problem with Durrell – good as he is – is his claustrophobic limited vision.  I longed for more than Alexandria…a warning to monomanes.  Passing Matterhorn.  I must learn to fly, too.  Amazing how the Alps just stop.

1990 Egypt I: Cairo, Saqqarah, Giza
1990 Egypt II: Luxor, Aswan, Abu Simbel
1990 Egypt III: Asyut, Kharga, El Amarna

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Moody's Black Notebook Travels



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