The Middle East & Eastern Med has always fascinated me, exactly why this part of the world I cannot tell you, but I am very happy to explore it, from India I head to Egypt, my route is awkward & longer than I would like, it starts in the Himalayas and begins with a 12hr taxi journey, three flights follow.
The first of my flights takes me from Delhi, a couple of thousand miles, as we reach our destination the announcement comes over the plane tannoy, seat belts on, we begin the descent into Kuwait City. Sky scrapers come into view, an alien strip of land glimmers and gleams in the sunlight, sandwiched between the desert & the sea. It looks like a city has been left here by accident, that it simply shouldn’t be here. I am stuck in Kuwait for five hours until my next flight, so I decide to make the best of a dull stay and to take a look around. All the men are dressed in white, from head to foot, all the women in black, faces covered, a small patch of skin visible around the mouth and eyes. I wonder if I am committing some sort of cultural faux pas as I am dressed in shorts and a T shirt, the feeling that I am an alien here is not alleviated by the stares I am getting. After walking endlessly I decide to find a cafe and caffeine, I sit and order and watch the world go by. At the next table is a group of women, there are three young girls with them, no more than ten years old. The children are laughing and playing, they are dressed in western clothes, sparkly girly shoes, their hair is long, ribboned. They look extremely happy & full of life. I look at the ladies that accompany them, they seem to talk in whispers, to be invisible, the change from the little girls to mothers is one I find shockingly stark. This is not my culture and I do not understand it, but in some way or another this feels terribly wrong & I don’t feel easy here.
The hours drain but finally my flight leaves, we climb into the sky and I watch as mile upon mile of monochrome desert unfolds beneath me in the Arabian peninsula, no wonder it is called the empty quarter, Gods recompense for this desolate landscape was oil for the inhabitants, it was the least he could do. An hour or more later the crushingly barren landscape begins to morph, monochrome sand gives way to deep iron oxide reds and browns, to hill ranges and rocky escarpments and long dried river beds etched into rock, then we hit the red sea, why it’s called red I don’t know, it’s crystal blue. The plane veers away from the water and in another 30 mins we are beginning our descent into Cairo, my eyes are fixed out of the window, I am looking out for the Nile, for the Pyramids. Instead I see acre upon acre of dusty streets and tower blocks coming into view, Cairo in my mind is a story of history and culture and teeming bazaars, the reality is that its a city of 20 million living in tower blocks and surrounded by concrete, After landing I then find out I need to take a taxi to my next terminal, I think of myself as fine with being hassled by touts, but Cairo is in a league of its own. As I step put of the terminal I am in a sea of people all trying to grab my bags, Taxi Taxi related fifty times, I was not expecting this, its like feeding time at the Zoo and I am dinner. I start politely but in a minute or two my veneer crumbles and I am swearing and cursing at everyone that comes near. These people are just trying to hustle for a fare, they need to earn a buck and why shouldn’t they, but I have come over all British and am having none of it. I walk off snapping at any tout that comes too close like some deranged nut case. I find a quiet corner, smoke and calm down, then a chap comes up to me and speaks to me calmly and asks if i need a taxi, I say yes and he drives me on a little trip through Cairo.
As we drive I notice a keyring dangling from his ignition key, it says Jerusalem. Funny that you have that keyring I say, have you been to Jerusalem? No he says, it is not possible for me and he laughs. Are you Christian I ask, he replies affirmatively. It strikes me as odd that I a Godless man have been to Israel, and here is a Christian believer who lives next door but cannot travel there, the divisions we make between ourselves are absurd.
As the taxi pulls up at the terminal I unload my bags, as I walk towards the terminal building I notice four machine gun barrels pointing straight towards me. The soldiers holding the weapons guard the entrance, i step into the terminal with a feeling of unease.
I sit in the smoking room of the terminal, I borrow a light from an Egyptian guy and we talk, he then gives me his lighter, I have a spare he says, we talk and work out we are on the same flight. As luck has it we finally get on the plane it turns out that our seats are right next to each other. As we continue our conversation I learn that Ahmed has been working in Cairo, he is a tourist guide, for Italians. He tells me he studied Archaeology at University, this hooks me, had I made different choices I would have followed a similar path, we talk about ancient history, Egyptology & work. Ahmed shows me photos of his three daughters, he is deeply proud of them, they are two, five and eight. Ahmed tells me there is no money in Archaeology, so he works in tourism. I need money for my family, archaeology no money. I ask Ahmed about the political situation in Egypt, he turns sombre. I am worried he tells me, it is not good, the brotherhood he says and shakes his head, I fear for my country, where can I go if it becomes bad, nowhere he says. I am worried for my children.
He then brightens up, I am saving money for their education, they will study in America he says confidently. I want them to go to college in America. That is what I am working for. Egypt is not a good place for my girls.
When our flight arrives at the airport Ahmed asks where I am going, I say I am not sure, I was going to find a taxi and take pot luck with a hotel next to the sea, Ahmed says don’t worry, I will get recommendations from my friend, he makes a call, and comes back with some options for me, i have said I want to learn to dive, the hotels all have dive schools close by. Ahmed offers me a lift, his car is parked at the airport. He drops me at a Hotel on his list that I like the sound of, I try to offer him some money, to make up for taking him out of his way, for his generosity, for his time, for his lighter, he refuses. Enjoy my country he says & drives off.
Several days later I met an Egyptian who at first sight is engaging and friendly but was poles apart from Ahmed, his name I have forgotten, but not what he went on to say. I am sitting in his office, here to fill out forms, for nothing terribly important, we talk casually about the weather and what we are both up to as the computer he is tapping into does it’s stuff, he tells me that he is reading Mein Kampf, I wonder if he is winding me up, but he goes on to tell me that Hitler was a very clever man, I agree with him, yes I say, Intelligent, but an Arsehole I add. He goes on to tell me he has read a wonderful book, by an author from your country, David Irving, he has proved with documentary evidence that the Holocaust never happened, it is a fiction. My hackles rise and I feel angry with this man, theres a deep feeling of loathing in my belly. The walls of separation come down with a thud. I finish as quickly as I can and walk out of the office, I mutter the word C*nt as I leave.
There are decent good men like Ahmed that care about the World they live in and then there are deluded Arseholes. Later that day I watch the news, I read about mass murder in Tunisia, decapitation in France and a Mosque bombing in Kuwait. Unfortunately the world has more than its fair share of Arseholes and far too few Ahmeds, but then its a work in progress and maybe the Ahmeds will win in the end, lets hope so.