Egypt Notebook

The American University in Cairo.

Ken Kalfus was in Egypt last year researching a novel. In the wake of recent events, we asked to see his travel notes.


Family-run hotel on the top floor of an eight-story commercial building, with a balky elevator. Terrace looking west, past a dun sliver of Nile, into the sunset haze. Venus is the evening star, burns hard through the smog; I impress one of the sons by identifying it in Arabic, Zuhra, and then running through the names of the other planets, which I’ve learned for my novel. This about exhausts my Arabic.

Overwhelming impression of Cairo is not its antiquity, its Easternness, or the heat. It’s the traffic: chaotic, brutal, oppressive, worse than Moscow or Mexico City. Sidewalks narrow, broken-up, and obstructed by parked vehicles. Very few stoplights, almost no crosswalks, no pedestrian right of way, the cars just plow ahead. To cross the street I position myself on the other side of an Egyptian, preferably a woman, preferably a woman who looks like somebody’s mother, and I cross when she does, hoping she’ll block for me. Pedestrian rights are a key indicator of a society’s respect for the individual, also the power relations between the haves and carless have-nots. In my walks I find a single pedestrian crossing signal; when it turns green, the little man-figure runs for his life. At Tahrir Square, the pink sandstone of the Cairo Museum. Not sure I want to spend a whole afternoon inside, it’s not relevant to my book; the deciding factor is that it’s not worth trying to cross the road to get there.

An afternoon in the Islamic Quarter, writing in a friendly outdoor restaurant in the plaza by the mosque where the head of the Prophet’s grandson, Hussein, is said to be buried. Vendors in the plaza, kids scampering, holiday mood. Al-Hussein lies directly across from the 10th-century Al-Azhar Mosque. A lovely, restorative setting, if not for the fast-moving highway that slices between them.

Watch out for the cars; keep hydrating. Everyone seems to be carrying a plastic water bottle. No signs of recycling, millions of bottles pile up every day. About 20 cents for 250 ml, 50 cents for the liter. I read in the paper that Egypt’s population will outpace its water supply by 2018; also that the four countries in the Nile’s headlands have united to renegotiate Egypt’s draw downward.

Sixteen million people in Cairo; I’m told the daytime population is actually more like twenty-two million, struggling to keep their footing on the congested, uneven pavement. A vision of our unsustainable future: too many people, not enough jobs; too many cars, not enough living space; too much refuse, not enough clean water.

The Yacoubian Building, a 2002 novel by Alaa Al Aswany, weighs heavily on my time in Cairo, informs everything I see here, an unsentimental picture of an exigent, corrupted people. I pass the actual apartment house downtown, less grand than I imagined, occupied in the novel by several strata of Cairo life: a wealthy wheeler-dealer, a rising politician, a closeted gay newspaper editor, the poor who occupy a shantytown of windowless “iron rooms” on the roof, each of the rooms two by two meters square. The tragic beat of events turns monotonous, but the book is politically provocative, a devastating portrait of the tyrant “Big Man,” who must be Mubarak. An Egyptian film was made from the book; I wonder how they toned it down.

The “Baladi” bar on Tahrir Square, with a US consular officer in her late twenties, an Arabist who has lived in Cairo before. Energetic, enthusiastic, pretty, a friend of a friend, she speaks Arabic well. The bar is decrepit, the paneling dark and stained, its clients mostly older men who look like they’re having more than one. Christian-owned, if it serves alcohol, but some of the drinkers wear galabeyas.

We eat at Caffe Riche, old Cairo restaurant, black (Nubian?) waiters in long blue robes. Nasser and the Free Officers met here to plan the coup. Pictures of old Cairo and old Cairenes on the wall. On my second beer and worried about keeping my companion entertained, I break my rule and tell her the plot of my novel. She’s fascinated! This is encouraging.

Then Café Bustan for coffee, located directly behind the restaurant. Feeling adventurous and playful, and knowing that I wouldn’t do it on my own, I try an apple-spiced water pipe. As if I haven’t been inhaling enough combustion products. The sheesha is pleasant enough, but after that I develop a cough and cold that last for a week.

Out in the desert suburbs, New Cairo, new campus of the American University in Cairo. Bright, airy, sensitive-to-the-environment, Arab-inflected design. The AUC has no official American status; it is an independent university.

I give a brief talk, spend almost the entire day with women, they dominate the literature program. Bright, engaged, not too current on American literature. I bring them news of Freedom, mention a few quarterlies, describe my own books. I’m taken around by two undergrads, Mushari and H., a young Palestinian whose family was kicked out of Jerusalem in ’48. The students are in Western student dress, jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers. Jared’s Bagels in the campus plaza, but I don’t get to try one.

Asked about my “background,” I strenuously avoid mentioning that I’m Jewish, not wanting to get involved in a tedious conversation about Israel. This of course means I lose half my shtick, including the word “shtick.”

But at one point we do start talking politics, what’s going to happen after Mubarak dies. The plan for succession is not clear at all; everyone shakes their head in wonder —  Will it be Gamal? a junta? Muslim Brotherhood? — the very near future is a mystery. H. steps away from the conversation. She later explains she has to stay out of politics. As a Pal she has no rights in Egypt, she can be deported anytime.

Near the hotel, a good-looking young man in a pressed shirt and a sports jacket stops me to say that the American people are a great people, it’s the government that’s been corrupted by the “Israelians.” I tell him it’s slightly more complicated than that, and he agrees that perhaps that’s so. He says he’s Palestinian. His home in Gaza was destroyed, he lost his wife and four children. Now he’s come to Egypt, and is in danger of being deported before his visa gets straightened out. He needs $9 to pay for his hostel tonight. I know the story’s true, even if it may not have happened to him. He’s anxious when I signal we should duck into a doorway, but I don’t like taking my wallet out on the street.

As usual I gravitate toward market streets, the gleaming heaps of fresh vegetables, barrels of olives, buckets of spices. Pots and pans for sale, all of them seemingly of identical manufacture, this may be the pots neighborhood. Pushcarts, youths carrying enormous bundles, youths delivering trays of tea. I’m oddly uncharmed. I used to congratulate myself for being somewhere exotic, now I just recognize my presence as a function of my relative affluence or, more specifically, in this case, the accumulation of frequent flyer miles.

More women than not wear some kind of head covering on the streets, a hijab, abaya, or full-length burka, with just a slit showing for the eyes. If Egypt is becoming more deeply Islamic, I’m not sure the evidence is in the burkas. Some are tight and satiny; half-burkas just make it down to the waist; I see burka-clad women on the backs of motorcycles, their arms around men.

It may be a prejudice, a misreading of a foreign country’s signs and symbols, to assume that every burka represents another religiously devoted woman; the head coverings can be fashion without the statement. Is that possible? Perhaps an Egyptian guy comes to the US, sees tight, short skirts, cleavage, high heels, and wonders, “Wait a minute. Are all these women whores?”

Up the Nile

Train to Assiut, south, in Upper Egypt. Men in galabeyas out in the fields, even scarecrows in galabeyas. A youth repeatedly strikes a donkey with a stick and an even left-handed batter’s stroke, as if he’s trying to knock it out of the park. Kids playing in irrigation ditches, textbook definition of how to get bilharzia. Built-up towns with several-storied buildings on narrow, heavily trafficked streets. Increasingly less Latin transliteration, some of the station signs entirely in Arabic. The green productive valley, the desert plateau rising beyond the river in the east.

I finish The Yacoubian Building, resume Flaubert in Egypt. Brio, adventure, sensuality. His account of the pyramids at Giza is rhapsodic: “the whole valley of the Nile, bathed in mist, seemed to be a still white sea . . .” He climbs Cheops and from its apex watches the sunrise. Afterward, he finds a business card left there as a joke by his companion, Maxime du Camp: “Humbert, Frotteur.” (I wonder if Nabokov . . .) And like other European travelers, he plunges into the Oriental fleshpots. “But the best was the second copulation with Kuchuk. Effect of her necklace between my teeth. Her cunt felt like rolls of velvet as she made me come.”

Assiut: taxi driver from the station inexplicably nervous, won’t let me off in front of the hotel. When I check in, the front desk looks at my passport and announces that I’m not allowed to leave the hotel without a police escort. All I want is dinner, but four cops show up, squeezed in a little police clown car. The car follows as I walk down the block and look for a restaurant. When I turn off the street they get mad and start hitting the horn.

I go back to the hotel; its restaurant turns out to serve beer. I’m the only patron and the manager comes to sit with me. He right away asks if I’m a Jew.

I say, “No, not at all! I’m a . . . an Episcopalian!” He looks at me gravely, and is ready to inquire about the tenets of my Episcopalianism, about which I know nothing, so I rush to add: “But I’m not observant!”

He, on the hand, is a Copt and observant and deadly serious; he tells me in low, anxious tones about the violence the Islamists have directed against Christians in Upper Egypt; the Muslim Brotherhood has launched a campaign of terror. He takes out pictures of a local church that was destroyed by arson; the miracle is that a sculpted tableau inside the church survived the flames intact, as I can see, bleached a pearly white. These grievances, these atrocities, and these signs of heavenly attention — Yugoslavia.

The police don’t care about me. What with rising political unrest and religious strife, they just want me to leave before I get in trouble or make any. In the morning two police cars arrive, one to lead my taxi to the bus station, the other to follow it, sirens shrieking. An officer sits with me to make sure I get on the bus. I buy him a 7-Up.

Through the Western Desert

To Kharga: completely dead, almost no scrub. Rolling waves of sand that stretch to the horizon. Beige dirt, perhaps some loose sand. “OiLibya” gas station. They let a fellah on at the gas station, there’s some discussion with the conductor, and they kick him off, two hundred meters into the desert. He’ll have to walk back. Struggling trees planted on the side of the road. The many varieties of desert Thayer, a character in my novel, will have to dig through. A sandy plain on which rests many large black round rocks and boulders. They can be polished and sold in Europe as souvenirs.

Excited sense of arrival as I enter the desert, this is what I’ve come to see. My novel’s set in the lower lefthand quadrant of the country, a vastness obscured on most Egypt maps by the “Key to Symbols.” No real research to do here, but I want to sniff the air and pick up a handful of sand.

To Dakhla: a “service-taxi” van travels to the next oasis, no schedule, it leaves when it has enough passengers. The passengers ask where I’m from, and when I tell them, they shout, “America Number One!” In the same spirit I respond, “Egypt Number One!” and they laugh at me. Moving, passionate, religious singing in the tape deck. We pass what appear to be several prisons, including an institution whose sign reads, in English, “The International Children’s Work Camp.” One lane each way to Dakhla, vehicles drive in the middle of the roadway when there’s no oncoming traffic, and sometimes when there is. At police checkpoints, the driver tells them I’m American. They ask where I’m going, but don’t ask for my passport. In the town of Moot, the Moot Information Office.

Sandstorms, and I’m stuck in a cute, villa-like hotel above the medieval village of Al Qasr for a few days — they say it’s too dangerous to travel between the oases. I’m the only guest, and the staff is happy to have my company (which may be why they say it’s too dangerous to travel). I work on my novel in a very warm room. When I open the window, sand pours in.

The desert’s a fertile place for internet scams:

Hossam works in the hotel; tall, suave, genuinely interested in why I’ve come. One morning he shyly shows me his correspondence with “The United State of America Lottery,” located on E. Post Road in White Plains, but headquartered in Nigeria. They told him he won $500,000.00, and after he inquired about it, they became increasingly importunate. Now they’re texting him demands for “good faith” money. They warn they’ve already informed the “Egyptian High Commissioner” of his winnings.

Up the road, in Bahariya, Essam has no prospects at all, whiles away his days in a dim, grimy internet café stocked with plodding PCs that appear to date from the Middle Kingdom. “Chatting” with “girls.” He’s also following up a promise for a job as a waiter in London, at the Ambassadors Hotel. He has to pay only for the immigration application. I look into it for him, and it too tracks back to Nigeria.

Both guys are smart and speak English, but it’s not their first language and they can’t identify the solecisms, in language and in assumptions about the way the world works, that would be ludicrous to a First World native speaker. Most of the world’s English speakers aren’t native; many are strivers marooned in places with few outlets for their ambitions. The internet and the English language are their only connections to the outside world. Hossam and Essam both are grievously disappointed when I tell them they’ve been scammed: another door closes. They feel foolish, possibly even humiliated by their gullibility, even more humiliated by their hopelessness.

Dakhla to Farafra to Bahariya: perfect, rolling sand dunes, then flat desert; then hillocky dunes; then puddles of dried salt. Desert every shade of white. Weird wind-carved rocks, almost like totemic heads. Plateaus in the distance, beach grasses on the side of the road. A dune field, each dune topped black. Dirt the color of burnt flan.

Expedition: Nast, local Bedouin guide with a Toyota Land Cruiser. I ride with him about two hundred kilometers up the highway, Andre and Claudine, French couple I met in Farafra, following us. At a highway cafeteria we load our bags into the truck, head off the road into the desert. That moment when we roll off the edge of the asphalt: first time I’ve understood the thrill behind the idea of “off-road.” The truck gets a workout, up and down dunes, the rolling hills of the ancient Sahara sea bottom. Nast knows where he’s going, no map or GPS. No litter in the desert, no sign of human beings at all from one horizon to the next, except for the tire tracks, which are plentiful and must go on indefinitely. At Wadi Hitan, an open air museum that displays fossils (or their models?) of extinct whales and dolphins, from the Late Eocene. Two-hour hike among the exhibits. Excellent museum, considering there’s no road to get to it. More driving. Wadi, overlooking a blue lake. Andre sends Inga and Sky a picture of me through his Blackberry, which, notwithstanding the desolation, gets two bars. Around six, after more than one 
hundred kilometers, near Wadi Ruyan, an untouched area of soft pure clean sand, we make camp by a towering square rock that rests in a gentle depression scooped out by the wind. Nast puts up a lean-to against the truck, lays down rugs.

He starts a fire from dry wood that he’s brought, barbecues chicken, makes a vegetable sauce from scratch. We stand around, try to help. A quick-moving sunset, then Venus. It’s about ten-thirty by the time we turn in, the four of us side by side on the rugs. The sky, which had some high-altitude haze during the day, is now clear. Mars (Merrikh) and Saturn (Zuhal) are up. Around three-thirty, the moon’s long set, and the Milky Way marches across the sky undisturbed. Jupiter (Mushtarie) rises. The seeing’s good, not excellent. We’re hardly above sea level, the atmosphere dense despite the aridity.

No birdsong in the morning, no sounds of waking life. Haven’t seen a bird since we left the road. At dawn, while my companions sleep, I walk a couple of miles into the emptiness, until not even the truck is visible. A certain melancholia has been chasing me since Cairo; a great heaviness on my mind. I feel better after a good cry.

Bibliotheca Alexandrina

“Alexandria, the capital of Memory,” writes Durrell in Justine. It’s fair to say that capital was taken long ago, the European-centered memory shattered into dream fragments. A population of four million, maybe five; the city has been fully Egyptianized (as it should be), the Mediterranean-style buildings, decayed in Durrell’s time, now anonymous in their ruin; but they’ve hardly been replaced. I jump onto a tram, accidentally into the women’s car. I get yelled at, I profusely apologize, they continue yelling at me, I flee.

Virtually the only survivor of Durrell’s capital is the Greek Club, at the end of the Corniche, a long walk around the bay. Sitting on the terrace above the marina, listening to Greek music, I have a couple of beers while the sun sets. Durrell: “the angle of the sunlight turns slowly into the vitreous lilac of the evening sky.” The arc of the bay shows a low-built city, tired, crumbling, neglected — except for the stirring sight of the new tear-shaped Library of Alexandria, gray concrete and steel, prominent from every point on the Corniche. The one new thing.

At the Bibliotheca Alexandrina: in the plaza outside, a meeting place, vendors, buskers, tourists, a real Pompidou vibe. Inside, a vast stepped hall, reminiscent of the Galactic Senate. Natural light coming in through slitted windows, perfect for reading. Jammed with college-aged students, most of them women, most of them in head-scarves, many of them on their cell phones. I look over one woman’s shoulder; her book is about agricultural production. I have some difficulty finding a place where I can plug in, but I work there for the afternoon.

I walk back, buy some corn on the cob, and pass through a worn park that looks out on the harbor. Statue of Mohammed Ali, the first Khedive, who started the royal Egyptian line. Beneath him, a couple on a bench. He’s a young guy, in jeans and a tight T-shirt; I can’t tell the woman’s age: she’s sheathed in a top-to-toe burka. They have eyes only for each other, they hold hands, they murmur, they cuddle. They don’t see me when I smile at them. Nice work if you can get it!

The Night

Return to Cairo. Dinner in Zamalek with a charming Egyptian couple, she’s a grad student, he’s worked for the UN, written novels, writes about politics — though, he says, usually on foreign affairs. Domestic politics can be dangerous, he doesn’t know anything about domestic politics anyway, but then he lays out all the possible Mubarak succession scenarios, in informed detail. He says the US can’t do anything now; the crucial moment will come when Mubarak croaks. Then Obama’s got to lean on the generals.

They say it’s an easy walk back: right over the bridge, then a straight shot to Tahrir Square, a block from my hotel. Passage over the Nile: lights of the relatively compact downtown ahead, the river black below. But once I reach the other side, there’s a highway that I have to run across, and several other fast-moving roads, and then I have to climb through a hole in a cyclone fence, along with dozens of other people. This may be their regular commute. They see I’m a foreigner, they don’t mind blocking the traffic for me or helping me over another fence, a low one. Then a long stretch of shops operating out of makeshift constructions of corrugated metal, most of them open despite the hour, a swarm of raucous, good-natured, bantering shoppers. I pass them unseen. It no longer feels like a straight shot. I’m rushing now, even though I’m lost, the streets get darker and start blurring together. More late-night shops, maybe the same ones.

Then suddenly I enter a blaze of light, sound, and movement. It’s the traffic circle at Tahrir Square. I didn’t expect it. Coming from an unfamiliar direction, I don’t recognize it at all.

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