Journey up the Nile

- Summer I977 - (excerpt)

Journey up the Nile cover illustration by Anton Bantock "11:30 P.M. AT CAIRO AIRPORT can be an unnerving experience. The plane had been delayed five hours and its arrival seemed to coincide with half a dozen others. The immigration controls couldn't cope with the passengers fighting to get out. Smart tourists were hustled along by a shouting, pushing mob. The 'jeans and rucksack brigade' from Europe behaved worse than the natives. A large couple from West Germany - the girl had blonde pigtails coiled behind (a detail I can't forget as they were at touching distance from my face for some moments) - had elbowed their way to the front of the queue, and were reproved by a portly Egyptian gentleman in dark glasses. The officers, their faces a shade darker on account of the white uniforms which seem to be worn in Egypt by anyone in authority, had the habit of suddenly closing down their glass kiosks, causing the crowd to shift impatiently to another exit. I was glad to see this happen to our young Teutonic friend with the pigtails just as she reached the barrier!

At length I got through - the two (or was it three or five?) Arabs in front of me were all thrusting their passports in the direction of the rubber stamp simultaneously - when the man wielding the rubber stamp blew up, and stamped mine to spite the others.

Then began the wait for the luggage to come through. There were mountains of it piling up and periodically choking the conveyor belt as it tumbled through the hatch. It seemed as if the luggage from several planes had all been mixed up, and it was no ordinary luggage. When an Egyptian returns from a shopping spree in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, he clogs the works with his impedimenta - enormous bundles of bedding and household effects, not to mention roped-up washing machines and electric fans. In dirty jellabahs and skull caps they go mountaineering over the heaps to reclaim their property. Cairo illustration by Anton

In all this heat, noise and confusion, where was my pathetic nylon rucksack? I reminded myself I was now in Africa and the normal rules do not apply. I separated myself from the ant hill, suddenly aware that I was perspiring uncomfortably, and stood back to enjoy the scene and await events, in that cold, detached manner that the European must adopt on such occasions if he is to survive. I noticed in all that ocean of activity, an Arab unroll his prayer mat on a patch of unencumbered floor space, and prostrate himself in prayer.

I was almost surprised to eventually find my bag; I had rather given up looking for it. Keith had said to pay no more than 1½ pounds (Egyptian) for a taxi to Zamalek. The car sped along wide, dark streets. Cairo has 8 million souls and Zamalek is a big island in the Nile, mostly built over. We had some difficulty finding Michal Lutfalla Street. It was nearly midnight. 'How much to pay?' I asked in Arabic. 'Four pounds.' 'No, one and a half,' Egypt hasn't changed. 'Then pay three pounds.' I was prepared to beat him down to the legal price and was not at all convinced by his argument that 'This was a special government car....' He even began sending out cryptic messages in Arabic on his car radio to demoralise me - they have developed this technique to a fine art, but I was completely unnerved by the sudden appearance of a number of youths from the back streets who all gathered round and protested -in English - that three pounds was the correct price. (They got a share of the profit for doing this, of course.)"

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