Illegal Hospitality (1 of 2)
Alexandria & Beni Suef, Egypt
“Hey woman! Where you go?” a boy yelled out behind me. As I had learned to do with the multitudes of inquisitive street boys in Egypt, I ignored him and walked on. Determined to get my attention, he ran and caught up with me.
“Hello woman! Where you go?” he asked again.
I hastened my pace. It was late and dark in Beni Suef and I had just missed the last bus back to Cairo. I had never planned on coming to this godforsaken town of Middle Egypt, let alone get stranded there alone in an empty bus lot at night.
“Excuse me? Woman! Excuse me? Where you go?” the boy persisted, trailing behind me.
I had no strength left in me to push him away. It had been an exhausting day, physically and emotionally. Today, my foolish quest for adventure had nearly had a father of five jailed. A mix of anger, guilt, and sadness tormented me, gnawing at my soul.
“Woman! You hear me? Where you go? I help you!” the boy insisted, unrelenting.
I stopped and took my first look at him. The boy, a skinny 12-year-old in tattered clothes he had long grown out of, beamed from ear to ear.
“To Cairo, ya walad, but I miss last bus,” I told him, hoping to quickly put an end to this unwanted conversation.
“Yes, bus to Cairo khallas, finish,” the boy confirmed, shaking his head of big black curls. “But no problem! I find taxi for you! Please woman, come!”
Relentless, he was. I hesitated. This boy could only be up to pulling a scam on me or, at best, demand a ridiculous amount of money once we got there. But then again, it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered now. I nodded and let him lead the way.
“Why you come to Beni Suef?” the boy asked, inevitably puzzled by my lone presence in his unattractive town.
“Long story,” I answered flatly.
“Ah, long story,” he echoed, wisely making this his last question to me.
My story began the previous day in Alexandria. I was quite happy minding my own business and enjoying the morning sun until two Egyptian teenage girls interrupted my seaside stroll. Mona and Rasha wished to have their picture taken ï¿½ with me.
I pointed at myself and raised an eyebrow. Putting my elementary Arabic to the test, Mona explained they were visiting from a small town with their family and wanted souvenirs of what they had seen in Alexandria to show the folks back home. I looked over her shoulder and saw a group of thirty grinning villagers waving my way.
Souvenirs of Alexandria? I had acquired a myriad of statuses on the road, yet never that of a landmark. Did I really stand out that much? Maybe. Or was it that a picture of themselves with a jumbo albino female Homo sapiens would entertain family members for generations to come? More likely.
The villagers and Christine, posing on the Alexandria corniche.
Either way, I happily obliged, perfect pasty-white, khaki-clad specimen that I was. I stood as unmistakably foreign next to the girls, who looked pretty like spring flowers in their colourful ensembles. While Mona locked her arm into mine, Rasha adjusted her headscarf, slicked her carefully plucked eyebrows and flashed a row of perfect porcelain teeth as she squeezed against my other side. A cousin immortalized the encounter with Mona’s gigantic 110mm camera.
My new friends came from Beba, a town located along the Nile just a few kilometres outside Beni Suef (a city a couple of hours South of Cairo). Over a cup of mint tea, they explained how they had worked for years to afford this visit to Alexandria, pooling their savings to rent a bus and make a one-day return trip to the Mediterranean metropolis.
I was busy swatting flies in their rental bus when time came for the Beba folks to head back home. Rasha insisted to write her address in my diary. I asked if she wanted me to write to her. She jerked up her chin, clicking her tongue – the favoured Middle Eastern way of saying no. I looked at her, puzzled.
“You will need this when you come to visit us in Beba tomorrow,” she explained.
Me, in Beba, tomorrow? She had to be kidding! How would I get there? It was hours away. I politely declined over and again, blaming distance and lack of time. But to no avail. Rasha – and now half a dozen of her relatives – kept insisting.
“Insha’allah” – literally “God willing” – was the answer I needed to give to close this discussion. It constitutes a very weak maybe, a sort of “I’d love to go, but God will most likely have other plans for me that day.”
Alas, my foolish sense of adventure being greater than my common sense, I agreed. I would be there, I promised, whether God had planned for it or not.
The following afternoon, after a bumpy six-hour ride, my fly-infested bus pulled into Beni Suef. When I asked for directions to Beba, aggressive hagglers forced me into a ridiculously overpriced horse-drawn cart that took me to the local minibus station.
Once there, a little old man, his face so wrinkled you could barely make out his eyes, took charge of me. Mumbling Arabic instructions, he squeezed me through the crowd of dark turban-topped men in white djellabas all the way to the Beba-bound minibus.
It would then take me two more hours – along with the help of the minibus driver, a policeman, a shopkeeper, a neighbour, and a cousin – to reach Rasha’s house. The off-duty policeman refused to let me wait by myself and stood with me under a scorching sun for nearly an hour until Rasha’s cousin came to fetch me on his bicycle.
And so, nearly nine hours after having left Alexandria, sunburned, starved and exhausted, I dropped onto a hard couch in Abu Sa’ud’s bright green living room.