The old Bizarre in Cairo
It was 1979, and my friend Gig and I were in Cairo. We were in the closing stages of our bicycle trip that had started in Yorkshire a month earlier. It had been by any standards an uneventful trip so far, with not even a puncture to upset our rythm, although I must be honest in declaring that this was mainly due to colluding with other forms of transport; in that we took a train to Athens from Munich and a plane from there to Cairo: At Cairo airport as we were waiting in line at the customs, I could hear the official asking those in front where they would be staying? I confess I hadn’t given a thought to it, and less that anyone would need to know. A young woman in front overhearing our apparent helplessness, told us to ‘say: ‘The Golden Hotel’ at Talat Haarb street.’ We did. What’s more we stayed there. I was impressed by the owner, an eighty year old, impecabbly dressed man who posessed a perfectly modulated and upper class English accent: “I was at Oxford in the twenties.” He spoke of England with deep affection – a clear sign that he hadn’t been back since. We elected to stay in a room, although we could have stayed in a dormitory for almost half the price, but with the gay, recklessness of youth decided to splash out and pay the 1-50p a night.
The previous night we had stayed in a suburb of Cairo, Heliopolis, which was in fact far older than Cairo, and once the seat of a powerful priesthood who were custodians of Ra the sun god. After pedalling our bicycles furiously from the airport and through the mayhem of Egyptian traffic, we chose to stay in the large Heliopolis Hotel for the night. I think we paid around 4 pounds for the room, which was situated on the fourth floor. Despite our initial protestations, the bent and wizened porter with a butt of a cigarette dangling from his lips, would insist on taking our pannier bags up. They were quite heavy, containing all our clothing, spares and spanners etc, which forced the old man to make two trips, re-appearing after the first one, wheezing, like an old organ with faulty pipes. Having secured our bicycles we followed him up the steps on his second trip. He was labouring under his burden, the sweat was beginning to appear on his brow and the old legs stumbled on the steps. Images of Christ carrying his cross to Golgotha suddenly and strangely sprang to mind.
“He’ll never make it,” I whispered to Gig. As if knowing what I had said, the old man made a slow turn and gave us a reassuring grin.
“You know he’ll expect a tip for this,” said Gig as we followed the man into our room.
“Fear not for the contents of thy wallet my Yorkshire colleague,” I intoned in my W.C. Fields voice, “we shall give him a reward only commensurate with his labour,” meanwhile bringing out grubby Egyptian banknotes purchased at the airport, examining them, and trying to make rough calculations in my head. The old man entered the room, shrugged the panniers onto the floor and slowly creaked his way upright. He made to move for the door while giving a hopeful glance backwards. I beckoned him forward while brandishing the notes, whereupon his eyes took on a new and eager, pre pannier-toting lustre.
“There you are my good fellow, you may dine royally tonight,” I intoned, again in my W.C. Fields voice, and handed him a note.
It was later that evening, after we had showered and dressed to go for dinner, that I finally worked out the currency.
“Gig,” I said to my partly dressed companion, “I gave the old feller the wrong denomination note. Do you know how much we tipped him?”
“No, how much?” replied Gig in a concerned voice.
“About fivepence,” I said. Gig started to titter. “Fivepence – after all that climbing?”
“Yes”, but even worse, it was fivepence in old money.” This had us both in fits of laughter, conjuring up as it did, visions of the ancient porter dining royally on five old pence.
After we had been in Cairo a week and had seen the Pyramids, the Sphinx, and with a taxi driver guide, every mosque and every friend of his who had a tourist shop in the area, we decided to fly to Jordan – there being no legal passage between the countries at that time – then cycle into Israel, but before jetting off we decided to go to the Cairo museum: It was quite an experience, filled as it is with ancient finds, the treasures of Tutankamun taking up a sizeable portion of space. We tagged on the back of a guided tour conducted in English, the young Egyptian girl telling us that no-one could understand why an insignificant king like ‘Tut’ was afforded so much luxury to speed him to the after-life. And luxury it was in terms of gold, precious stones and jewels. The gold mask of the boy-king is in itself worth the trip and we were almost alone in the part of the room where it was stored, free to gaze at our leisure. To imagine that such a beautiful creation was made of solid gold thousands of years ago left me in awe, and I was so glad that I saw it there rather than on the later display in Europe, where one would have had to queue and only get a glimpse of it. The laxity displayed to their national treasures was quite suprising. I actually sat on a leather, fold-up divan of the boy-king’s, an early type of camp-bed with leather hinges, with no-one to stop me, and when we approached a section that was roped-off and prohibited for repairs, the guards at their various posts would hiss like a tout on a street corner in England and jabber in Arabic something which I suppose meant, “ere mate, wanna see this,” and hold out their hand for the tip. These attempts to glean money from gullible tourists were not only restricted to the guards upstairs. Upon leaving the museum I decided that I would have to ‘spend a penny’ and entered the toilet on the first floor. I took no notice at first of the djellabah-clad Egyptian standing with a toilet roll outside the cubicles but then he hissed, “paper, you want paper.” I nodded and took the proffered scraps and was about to enter the cubicle when he held out his hand saying: “money, I want money.” I dismissed him with a wave of my hand and a muttered oath, entering the cubicle to sit giggling, as he hurled Arabic imprecations at me from outside. It would take more than ancient arabic curses to cause a Yorkshireman to part with his money for such a meagre return.
We finally made up our minds to book our flight to Jordan and were directed to the travel agents by our hotel owner. Upon arrival I thought there must be some mistake, this can’t be the travel agents! In fact it looked like there was some kind of riot taking place. But, there it was, a sign in English: TRAVEL AGENTS alongside the Arabic that could just be seen above the jostling, yelling mob outside. Having no inclination to negotiate our way through such a crowd we returned to the hotel The following day the mob was still there, more restive and vocal than before. This was mystifying to say the least but we had to try to attract attention. Eventually we managed to struggle through the swaying djellaba’s and through to the glass-fronted facade. A woman inside the agency noticing our alien figures beckoned us to the door, which was opened for us and shut immediately on our entering, while frantic attempts were made to stop the rest of the screaming horde from following in our wake. We were motioned to sit as three women typed away while glancing nervously at the plate-glass front.
Gig and I then began hazarding guesses at why there was such an explosion of interest in the travel agents. I whispered to him that there must be some special trips going, perhaps an off-peak excursion to Blackpool illuminations, when suddenly the glass started to bulge with the pressure of bodies, while the shouting turned to shrieks. The women suddenly ceased their typing and rose as one, picking up their machines and making hastily for some steps that led to an upper room, while a burly man rushed in from a back room armed with an iron bar, opened the door, which allowed two or three of the howling horde to enter, before driving the bar down on the bare feet of the unfortunates attempting to follow. Cries of pain now mingled with the general clamour, and we were ready to flee upstairs with the typists, all thoughts of a flight to Jordan temporarily suspended while I envisaged a rampaging mob ransacking the place as we were held hostage in exchange for a ticket to wherever. Suddenly, the Cavalry, in the form of the police, arrived and the crowd was sent packing with many a blow about the head. To this day I have no real idea where they wanted to go and indeed why they were so desperate to do so; except for the conclusion that if I were a peasant living in Cairo, I too would want to get out of the place as quick as possible.