Part 2: Cairo – City of Pharaohs

On the morning of 14th October, as we neared the desert city of Cairo, the bright sun streamed into the plane through the slivers under the shutters. Pulling them open, I saw a different world to the one I had left behind in Nairobi just a couple of hours ago. With the darkness of night had disappeared the large bodied planes, tarmacked runways and artificial lights.

The world that I opened the shutters to was one in which the sun and the sand twirled each other around in glittering sequence. Like stenciled ferns on a child’s drawing, the patterns of the wind were imprinted on desert sand. There were no straight, lean expanses but plateaus and grooves almost as if they had been etched by streams of water from centuries long gone. And then as the swirls of dust obscured my sight, I realized that the dry desert could not remember the feel of water let alone retain the imprint of its movement on its hot surface.

I could see endless miles from the window of the plane, and our movements across it felt slow and sluggish. Small bursts of craggy mountains broke the monotony but they passed as suddenly. And then two parallel tracks in the sand which could only be a man-made road weaving their way through the sand, signaling the end of the desert. The plateaus stood out more frequently now with their fringed edges, up which the sand climbed on one side like little tributaries trying to reach the mouth of the sea. Ahead emerged a scorched patchwork quilt of agriculture in shades of obsidian black, charcoal grey and dusty khaki.

And then the beauty of the Nile … and the realisation that I had started my journey at the source of this powerful river. It was broad and pulsating. From the height I was at, I could see its gentle curves breathing life into the dark green and grey settlements that border it; enclosing a small island, curling around it and then forging on. But a quick glance behind me, beyond the lush green fertility of the Nile, the threat of the desert remained with its rocky terrain overshadowing all this opulence.

The industrial city of Cairo was heralded by a smorgasbord of activity: chimneys, construction smoke, industry and mining, and a lego-like construction: high rise buildings, shoulder to shoulder with hardly a shadow’s space between them. Up and down. Tall and short. Creating a Tetrus game of the skyline. As the plane flew closer into the centre, a highway as broad as the Nile cut the city in two, exposing the sandy underbelly on which the city had been carved. There were small clumps of dark green trees dotted on corners of the landscape, speaking their age and of their struggle to survive in an unforgiving land. A legendary land upon which the seven plagues had once descended. The odd patch of orange dirt shone but the remainder was a sandy grey and a gritty yellow brown.

We landed. The sun was just a newborn but even within the glass walls of the airport, we could feel its heat as the light streamed in. We crowded around a section of duty free shops which were near the transit desks. As our organisers negotiated a 1-day transit visa for us to leave the airport and perform ziyarats in Misr, the women flocked the bathrooms to clean their teeth and brush their hair. One of the younger children from our group kept dashing into a duty free shop, grabbing a box of colourfully wrapped chocolates and then running out, chased by an older sibling who would return it, apologetically. The looks on the sales ladies faces were far from indulgent when it happened for the fifth and sixth time.

A hushed whisper went around the group suggesting that Mufaddal Mola was expected to arrive in Misr the same day; we were hopeful that our trip had coincided with his visit and would get a chance to see him. Bohras from neighbouring countries passed us as they alighted from their flights, building our hopes that Mufaddal Mola was indeed en route. Warm greetings were exchanged which grew warmer when they were discovered to be relatives of some of our group. As the wait lengthened, sweets and drinks emerged with packets of mabuyu and paan masala. It was barely 7am in the morning but having crossed three countries that night, we all felt more alert than the hour of day dictated.

Finally, our applications were approved and we were herded to the exit gate. We streamed into customs, were waved through after another roll call to collect our passports, and then gushed into the airport foyer. We had been forewarned to carry a change of clothes in our hand luggage since we would only be reunited with our bags 2 days later in Kerbala and so all these movements happened quickly, unimpeded by big bags. But in my haste to step on Egyptian soil – the airport felt like a no man’s land, no closer to Islamic ancestry than the city of Nairobi had been – I made the mistake of not exchanging money at the airport forex counters.

Ousted from the airport’s innards, we endured another test in patience as we waited for the buses to arrive. They were no disappointment when they did. Clean, shiny, sleek machines. And with just our hand luggage in our arms, we clambered into the air conditioned vehicles with their soft velvety seats, safe behind the tinted glass, and peered out at this new country with its strange people.

The Egyptian women were striking in their good looks. Tall, fair skinned with either golden or dark hair, and in what seemed a contrast to their delicate faces and almond shaped eyes, they spoke a consonant heavy, guttural version of Arabic. With its modern nuances and intonation, it wasn’t as graceful or eloquent as the Arabic prayers I had heard. My romantic preconceptions were slowly shattered as I realised that the exotic country and lyrical language which I had naively expected were not what I was going to experience. I was struck by how many Egyptians were smoking a pungent smelling cigarette: flight crew at the airport, drivers in their cars, pedestrians on the road. The Iraqis I met later in our trip shared the habit and, it seems, the strong tobacco.

The roads were wonderfully broad as we entered the metropolis, and the islands in between were just as wide – roomy enough for large leafy trees and borders of flowers. Cairo was not as sandy as I had seen from the plane. Quaint taxis on the Egyptian roads stood out. They were exactly like Indian taxis – black boxy cars with eyebrow like rims at the front and the back just above the lights. Thin metal doors, danglies on the rear view mirror, and ornaments on the head board. Our bus had a loud blaring horn, and our driver used it liberally to warn every vehicle we came alongside, especially the smaller ones, just in case they decided to swerve suddenly (and from our elevated height, I could see that they were prone to doing exactly that). Matatus, I thought with a smile. And suddenly this strange Pharoic country of Egypt didn’t seem so strange at all.

As we slowed for turns, my round eyes continued to search for similarities which would help me understand this country and its people. I saw an elderly woman selling lemons at the side of the road. She had a pile of around 15 bright yellow ones spread out on a brown paper coloured table, and she was draped in a black burkha. She glanced up from wrinkled eyes as the large bus drove past.

We turned into a narrower street which probably housed a number of government buildings because there were military posts dotted all along it. Handsome police officers with triangular shaped hats stood in front of small roadside shelters, and had red bands slung across their upper torsos like a sash. It reminded me of media images I had seen of the youth dominated revolutionary demonstrations at Tahrir Square, and with undisguised admiration I peered out the window trying to understand what triggered such strength and resolve in the common man and woman who had stood against Mubarak. And these young soldiers, torn between their jobs and their identity as Egyptians, had to subdue angry neighbours, brothers, sisters and friends.

We finally arrived at Triumph Hotel and streamed into the foyer overwhelming its staff. We perched on every available flat surface (no one could have guessed that we had been sitting for hours: in a plane, at the airport and on a bus) until we had been allocated rooms and then dispersed, agreeing to be downstairs in an hour to visit the local shrines.

The excitement was palpable. We had arrived. Our long-awaited pilgrimage was going to start.

August 20 2012

A wall mural in the duty free foyer where we waited for our transit visas.
A plant right outside Triumph Hotel.
Its grey colour and soft furry texture fascinated me;so unlike the glossy, dark green leaves in Kenya.



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