After a day spent as Henry the Human Dictation Machine (with built-in voice recognition software) the last thing I really want to do is blog. But if I don’t do it now, I’ll probably never do it, and while that might not be a huge loss in the greater scheme of things it would gnaw away at me and cause me no end of anguish. So, despite having done some 6725 words today, not counting rubbings out, here goes.
I had been tempted to write that Cairo is singularly ugly, but in fact it is not in the least bit singular. It is ugly in the same way that so many of the huge cities of the less developed world are ugly. Modern buildings thrown up cheek by jowl, aesthetics of no consequence whatsoever measured against the need for housing. There’s a strange sort of style here, of a reinforced concrete lattice of little cubes, the walls infilled with brick. Or not, depending on how things are going. Finished cubes are occupied while next door is an empty space. Spare girders stick out of every roof, just awaiting the time or money to add an extra storey. But the big hotels have the same unfinished look, the result of scaffolding designed to support big billboards but currently unoccupied. And of course there’s endless traffic, and filthy air, and the press of so many people.
On the other hand, just inside the big bazaar, there’s a place that claims to be oldest established café in the world. Having been brought there a couple of nights ago, I returned last night and drank mint tea — not tea with mint, which is what they keep trying to bring me — and smoked a water pipe while the world passed by. It is the kind of place that shifts the imagination into overdrive, crowded with an unimaginable diversity of people, each, surely, with a story to tell.
There are tourists of course (including me) but they are definitely outnumbered by locals of one sort or another. That guy there, with the hooded eyes and the brilliantined hair, in an immaculate white shirt and sucking languorously on his nargilah, he must be some sort of Lothario. And the hugely fat owner cannot keep from playing with his false teeth as he waddles up and down fingering the biggest wad of literally filthy lucre I’ve ever seen. How did he come to his current position? In the corner next to me, an older English woman with a very young Egyptian boy who berates me for smoking a girlie apple pipe while he struggles with “strong tobacco for man”. My other neighbour is an Omani who spent three years on a secretarial course in Wrexham, and who speaks very good English. There are more waiters than you can shake a stick at, all getting in one another’s way and yet somehow keeping everything ticking. The crowd ebbs and flows, one minute it is barely possible to walk along the pavement, the next there are seats to spare. A man passes by every five minutes and offers, each time, to polish my suede shoes, not in the least put out each time I refuse.
My colleague wanders off into the bazaar to shop, having texted his wife to see what she wants. Rather him than me. I sit, smoking, sipping tea, chatting, and before I know it an hour and a half has passed. All for 13.5 Egyptian pounds, less than two dollars.