I shouldn’t be heading this post with an exclamation point as I just relaxed again. I was up at 4:30 a.m., my alarm blaring AC/DC’s “Back in Black”. Is there any other song that would better prompt a person to get up in the morning?
At 5:00 I met my driver, Adam, who had wanted to take me to the airport. I tip well which, I believe, is the primary factor he was waiting at the entrance. I had forgotten how close the Luxor Airport is to the Sheraton. We were there in no time and I realized I could have slept in another half hour. This was frustrating because the alarm woke me up at the best part of a dream. Isn’t that one of Murphy’s Laws?
The flight from Luxor to Cairo is just over an hour. In my aisle seat I was able to get about ten winks of sleep. My driver met me at the Cairo Airport and I found myself with my head back and mouth wide open as we sped down the freeway. I’m sure I was pretty as a picture as motorists passed us and looked at me.
Back at my motel, I once again conked out–this time for about three hours. But it wasn’t enough. After ordering lunch. I slept some more. The net result was that today was another bust. Nothing seen, nothing accomplished. Except rest. I guess that’s important.
I did, however, venture out late in the evening to look for an ATM. I figured there had to be at least one along this main drag here in Giza. I was wrong. I walked for an hour and found nothing.
Dejected, I decided to head back to my motel. For some reason, the atmosphere was very ripe. Scents of rotting garbage, horse manure, grilled chicken all mixed together to create a very thick aroma that was unpleasant.
And, as I walked, once again children ran up to me to offer an enthusiastic “Hi”. One young teenager asked me my name and where I was from. “Hashish”? He asked. I shook my head. He then invited me to join him and his father in the median strip where dozens of people gather during the evening to smoke cigarettes or shisha, drink tea and socialize. I thought to myself, “Why not”? We’re out in the open.
“Goma” was his father and his English was quite good. At sixty-one years of age, he is a part of my generation, the Baby Boomers. Whether or not “Baby Boomers” exist in Egypt is another issue entirely. He asked me my age, figuring I was around thirty-eight. When I informed him that I was fifty-six, he raised his eyebrows, impressed. I puffed out my chest.
Goma looked like he was seventy-five. He had obviously lived a hard life. My observation was validated when Goma proudly proclaimed that he had two wives and eleven children. I congratulated him on his masculinity.
He offered me a beer and I accepted. “Hashish”? he asked. I politely declined. He agreed that hashish is no good. However, when he held out a cigarette, I took it even though I don’t smoke. Lighting it, I tried to act like I knew what I was doing although, like Bill Clinton, I didn’t inhale.
Goma told me that he had a papyrus store and an “essence” store, the latter being a perfume shop. Since I wanted to purchase some Arabic cologne, I agreed to follow him. As we walked down a labyrinthe of side streets, I once again had fleeting images of headlines screaming about my demise at the hands of Islamists.
We walked down street after alley after street, none of which were paved. Goma explained that, twenty years ago, the entire area was populated by Bedoins. At that time, the women still covered their entire faces in the hajib. But today, they are liberated. “They can show their face”, Goma explained.
Continuing on, we passed abandoned buildings. Lone lights shone over the corridors. Occasionally, a storefront would be open, beckoning passersby with offerings of soda pop and candy. Finally we came to his store. Goma motioned for me to sit on a cushioned bench and wait for his older son, Hadan, who would open the shop for us.
When Hadan arrived, we entered the shop. The mirrored walls were lined with shelves laden with bottles of exotic Arabic perfumes and colognes. carpets covered the floors. I sat upon a squat cushioned chair made of wood and Goma went into his spiel.
He told me how his essences are original, with no alcohol added. “This is why you get big amounts in the store. They add alcohol. Mine is pure”. he explained. Hadan brought essences named Lotus, Queen of Egypt, Nefertiti, Musk and Tutankhamun for me to sample. All were magnificently aromatic, unlike anything I’d ever experienced.
He quoted me 2400 Egyptian lira for six fragrances, roughly $300. I told him I didn’t need that many. He encouraged me to buy for my lady friend. I told him she didn’t exist. After haggling, I agreed to buy three for 1200 lira. Goma then threw in an extra fragrance as well as two decorative bottles and a decorative box to carry everything. Then he encouraged me to come see his papyrus.
I had already purchased several papyrus pieces, but I wanted to see what he had, especially when he said he’d charge me one quarter of the marked price. Upon entering his papyrus store next door, I saw his prices were quite reasonable and, with the 75% discount, I was getting his work for next to nothing. I bought three more pieces and Goma threw in another one as a gift.
From there, he invited me to his home for shishkebab and Egyptian tea. Feeling comfortable with him and being reasonably certain that I would not be shipped off to an ISIS training camp, I agreed. We got into Hadan’s car and started out.
I have to admit that I felt, for a brief moment, some trepidation. Goma had said he lived nearby in this formerly Bedouin area. Why did we need to drive? I felt the door handle, checked for my money clip containing my ID, credit cards and money and positioned myself in case I needed to leap out the door into the street sewage so I could run for my life.
No need. In a few minutes we arrived in another neighborhood, similar to the one we had left. Pop machines sat on the sidewalk. Vendors hawked cigarettes and breads. A cart was overflowing with limp lettuce heads. The atmosphere was, again, thick. The streets unpaved and rutted. It was eerily quiet.
I got out of the car and followed Goma. Hadan took off to take care of some business. Once again, Goma offered me hashish which I politely declined, although I did accept another cigarette to non-chalantly choke down in an effort to be sociable.
We walked down one street, turned a corner and walked down another. Finally, we walked down a narrow pathway between two apartment buildings. At the end of the sidewalk a door was open.
“Sam” was introduced to me. We were actually visiting his home. Stepping in, I saw three hajib-clad women sitting on cushions on a carpet. A old TV was on playing a vintage black and white Arab movie. A ceiling fan kept the room cool.
The room was painted a pale blue, with chipped and peeling plaster. The bottom half of the walls had a faux wood-type covering. Several rugs were rolled up in the corner. A young boy watched me curiously as I entered. Taking off my shoes, I sat on the cushion Goma had pulled out for me.
I scanned the home. The room, obviously the living room, had one window that looked out onto the three-foot-wide walkway. The kitchen was off to the right and I could see various items on the floor. The young boy that had been watching me vanished outside, returning with a troupe of children who squatted on the carpet in front of me and stared at me curiously. They had never seen an American.
Sam was Goma’s brother-in-law. One of the women was Sam’s wife, the other two were his daughters. The children were Sam’s grandchildren. Everyone smiled politely and chattered enthusiastically about my presence. They all offered shy welcomes, excited to be able to say “Hello” to an actual American.
Goma introduced me and there were bashful questions about me. One of Sam’s daughters disappeared outside and returned with two bags of barbecue potato chips and some beer. Sam ripped them open and placed them on the carpet and encouraged me to eat. He handed me a beer. Goma offered another cigarette. I took it and tried to stifle my choking after it was lit.
“Hashish”? he again offered. I again declined and he reiterated that he does not like hashish either. It made his thinking fuzzy.
Sam and Goma several times exclaimed that America was Number One. They loved the American people, they just didn’t like the American government. Indeed, this was a sentiment reiterated to me not only in Egypt, but throughout my travels in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. America, with its freedoms and opportunities and friendly people were seen as something wonderful. The people, however, recognized that the government was something different.
Goma told me they were Muslim (something I had brilliantly managed to deduce already). He said, “We all worship the same God. I hope that God is good to you and goes with you”. I affirmed that, in my life, God goes everywhere with me and he smiled.
We only stayed perhaps half an hour. Sam’s daughter had brought out some warm pita bread, lamb stew and a plate of spicy vegetables for me to indulge. All the while, Sam was shelling peanuts and putting them in a bowl and giving them to me. When it came time to leave, Goma suggested I offer “something” for the hospitality. Any amount I wanted, he insisted. I grinned. Apparently, I was a rich American patsy. I reasoned it was no big deal.
Standing up to leave, I pulled out one hundred lira, roughly $12.50. I figured that, despite the fact that I my earnings were minimal, $12.50 means more to this Egyptian family living in what Americans would consider squalor than it means to me. I handed the bill to Sam.
Goma suggested I double it because I had been offered beer and beer was expensive. I shielded my frustration, reasoning that I was in the bowels of an Egyptian ghetto. This was no time to make a scene. I took the 100 lira note and gave Sam a 200 note. We then left.
I was a bit irked as we walked out, but, once again I reasoned to myself that the money I had spent in the previous hour had probably had a significant economic impact on this little geographic area. My inner economist told me that it would regenerate and improve the quality of life.
My common sense told me they probably bought cigarettes and iPhone apps.
Goma found a friend to drive us back to my motel in his rickety Volkswagen bus with a fur dashboard. Neon lights inside the bus gave it a Grateful Dead vibe. Once again, Goma asked, “Hashish”? Once again I declined. And, once again, he commented that he didn’t like it either.
I got back to my motel room at 1:30 a.m. Gamer, my favored driver, is picking me up tomorrow morning at 9:00 a.m. I am scheduled to visit the Coptic Museum and the Coptic area of Cairo.
The Coptics are a Christian sect that are broken away from the Roman Catholic Church. I had been reading about them and found myself fascinated by the churches that have been built all around the Nile/Cairo area that are purported to be locations where the Holy Family visited or lived as they fled Herod’s attempts to murder the infant Christ Child.
Since no information on such is ever presented in Western Christianity, I wanted to check it out for myself. Israel had been part of my spiritual journey back in June. Egypt is finishing it up now, before I return to America.
I have definitely decided that I will return to Egypt at the earliest opportunity. So much more is to be visited and learned. The nation is fascinating and recognized as one of the cradles of Western Civilization. The people have been warm and inviting and generous to a fault. Even if I am doling out money!