Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Egyptian Nightmare

“The initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.”

Vladimir Nabokov, on the topic of his inspiration to write the novel ‘Lolita’

It is 5.40am and I lie awake in bed trying to spot a mosquito in the dim light. Forty minutes ago the first wails of the muezzin proclaimed that god was great in a blaringly loud, metallic keening that lanced into my ears and made me realise that my earplugs had fallen out during the night.

Now there is another sound, a kind of harsh jabbering sound, like two people viciously admonishing each other, and I interpret this as two men outside saying good morning.

In a sudden blare there comes another sound, this time a horrible electronic rhythm, like a dance music track created by a chimpanzee with a brain tumour. Thirty seconds later the sound is gone, but three minutes later it has started up again and then it stops as soon as it has begun. I learn later many times that this is the ringtone on the hotel assistant’s mobile phone, set at a volume necessary for it to be heard in the alley outside, a place I will have to venture to soon enough.

I get dressed quickly, my socks still slightly wet because they haven’t dried properly overnight, and stagger from the broken, faded tile flooring to the dirt alleyway outside.

It is late afternoon and the alleyway is in full swarm. To my right the tenement buildings loom three floors high, a chaos of electrical cabling connecting the buildings on either side of the street. The walls of the buildings gradually tone upwards from a solid greyish brown at the bottom through a filthy blackish grey, to a yellowish bile that stretches upwards. Thousands of grimy hands have been smeared over every surface within reach and higher up the cracking paint is a mockery of the idea of white.

A group of children has congregated in the middle of the alley and most of them have made a circle around a small girl who is standing helplessly in the middle of the ring with snot dripping from her nose. The other children are yelling at her gleefully and pointing their fingers at her, stabbing at the air in front of her and bringing their fingers down towards her face from up high in savage chopping motions. Overwhelmed, she simply stands still and cries, her mouth open and drooling in a wide ‘O’ shape and tears streaming down her cheeks. Off to the side of this group, the only child not joining in the circle of abuse is running around and around in a circle by himself, hitting himself on the head repeatedly with both hands.

To my left, the same buildings line the alleyway as it stretches towards a bustling intersection. The electric cables strung up high somehow avoid the sagging balconies on which every possible section of railing has hanging greyish coloured clothing. A boy in the street stabs his finger upwards towards a young girl and barks at her while she slowly and miserably collects clothes from the railing and deposits them into a basket on the balcony.

A smoky smell drifts from a shopfront where strings of the severed hooves of some kind of animal hang suspended from the ceiling. A man inside butchers a dirty animal and wipes his bloody hands on his apron. Next door to this shopfront several men wearing brown shirt dresses and sandals sit in faded plastic chairs sucking thick smoke from colourful hoses attached to tall water pipes. They watch impassively while a small girl in a dirty, once-pink dress stacks metal milk cans on the back of a utility truck, staggering under the weight of the cans which are almost as big as her.

I walk towards the intersection and the street traffic is a claustrophobic, tangled mess, everywhere people seem to deliberately obstruct my progress. A slim youth with a cigarette in his mouth cuts in front of me, reaches into his pocket to jangle some coins and yells at a shopkeeper. He turns his head and stares at me and I stare back. He realises he is blocking my path and with an enormous sigh to illustrate the great inconvenience I am causing he shifts his body to profile so I can smear myself past his baleful glare. A man wobbles towards me on a grey and clattering bicycle, riding straight at me and pulls up short, his sandals hitting the ground in the dirt to brake. He snorts through his nose and pulls his bike to the side before continuing on his way.

I want to walk faster than I am doing, but now I am stuck behind two enormous women. Draped from head to toe in black, only their eyes, hands and sandals stick out from their enormous frames, and rather than walking, they waddle like penguins, their bodies shifting from side to side so that they take up three times the space filled by their immense frames. Reality itself seems to bulge away from them, they displace the universe as they pass through it.

Noise stabs into my ears from every direction. Men yell at each other, women yell at shopkeepers. Men yell at donkeys and whips crack at malnourished horses pulling jangling coaches. Bells ring at pedestrians, dogs bark at other snarling dogs, women on balconies yell down at children as they lower buckets on ropes down to the street. Car horns, in short bursts, mid length blasts and lengthy harangues, assault anything and everything.

Mostly, though, teenage boys and adult men shout out at me. “Hey, where you from?” the interrogation begins. “Hey, I am talking to you, where you from?” it begins again. “Hey you, lucky man, you very beautiful wife,” it continues, the lips larger than life as they are licked lasciviously between remarks. “Where you go now?” the interrogation continues. “What you looking for? What you want? I can help you! Where you from? Where you go? Which hotel? You want calèche? You want felucca? You want souvenir? Very cheap! You know the price? You know how much? What’s your name? It’s very cheap, you want tax? You want tax? You want taxicab? You know the price? It’s very cheap.”

The faces that accompany these voices are wide with tobacco stained smiles, the bodies are hunched in deviousness and servility and the feet are angling closer and inwards, the space just in front of me threatened by a sandaled foot that darts away in each flashing moment  that my leg shifts forward in my stride. “Welcome to Luxor, welcome my friend, you are very welcome here.”

The manager of the hotel I am staying in appears in front of me, his girth blocking my progress. To the right up ahead I can see the intersection, it is marked by a six foot tall board of black metal on wheels. Behind the board is a soldier uniformed in black wearing a black beret. The buckle that, when fastened, secures his pistol in place hangs loose at his belt, which he has further loosened so he can tuck his black shirt into his black trousers with both hands. He clenches the belt that slings his sub-machinegun between his teeth to keep the weapon from falling into the dirt while he tucks his shirt in, the barrel of the weapon pointing up at his head, twirling gently as it hangs. Shirt tucked in, he transfers the sub-machinegun back into his hand, yawns, and begins swinging it back and forth to relieve his boredom.

The hotel manager has puffed himself up importantly, looking almost regal in an impressive headscarf he has piled up impressively on his large head. “The tour you went on yesterday, it was good? It was good, yes?” he inquires, by way of greeting. The tour was ok, I tell him, the tour guide was professional, but he rushed us through the tour, always telling us to hurry up, always short on time. But I understood, because the tour went to many places and those places were busy places and noisy places.

The hotel manager frowns and assures me that he will never use this tour guide again. This tour guide that rushes tourists through the tour sites is now fired, and he confirms this by yelling at his assistant to call this tour guide on his mobile phone with the horrible ring tone and tell him, right now, that he is fired. I begin to protest but the manager will not hear of it because this man is now fired and that is that. Satisfied, the manager leaves me to continue up the alley towards the intersection, where another black penguin woman is stepping blithely into the oncoming traffic, holding a baby in front of her head which blinds her frontal vision at the same time as it dares the oncoming traffic to kill the woman and her baby and suffer the consequences of guilty conscience.

“Hey mister, where you from?” The bored soldier in black calls out, smiling with tobacco stained teeth, his pistol still loose in its holster, the sub-machinegun still loose in his hand. “You smoke? You smoke cigarettes?” he calls out and I shake my head and next to me now he leans close so no one can hear and he holds out his palm and rubs his thumb and forefinger together and says, “Baksheesh.” I pretend not to hear him, but he sniffs the air and says he smells alcohol on my breath but I haven’t been drinking and Egyptian people don’t drink and therefore drinking is a problem. The palm is out again, and I am told that I am very welcome to drink here in Egypt because I am a foreigner and I am very welcome in Egypt and very welcome in Luxor.

It is mid-morning and I am at a ticket window. The ticket window is at the intersection and I stand in line and a woman that looks like a man yells at a man behind who a desk who shuffles pieces of paper and stares at a computer screen. There is a clock above the man’s head and the numbers on the clock are not numbers at all but they are meaningless squiggles and the clock has only one hand and it is moving slowly counter-clockwise. I stand in the queue for the ticket window and I am second in the line, and the clock hand has turned to where the 8 o’clock should be and the woman that looks like a man has left and the man is still shuffling the papers and staring at the computer screen but he hasn’t touched the keyboard and somehow I am still second in the line.

The soldier in black is next to me again, smiling with his bad teeth. He holds out his hand and gestures toward it with his sub-machinegun and I can see in his palm he holds a tiny toy train.

“This the train out of Luxor,” he smiles.

“I know,” I reply.

1 comment:

  1. LoL. Ah the oily handshake.

    I had an experience recently with a guesthouse owner wanting baksheesh for not stealing my Mp3 player. I tried to explain that it defeated the purpose of the good deed in the first place, but unsurprisingly, he didn't get it.