One night in Cairo

2009-08-04 00:00

“WHAT makes you an African?” SAFM asks its listeners. The answer for me, to be honest, is “not very much”. I identify with being South African. I am proud of my country. I love its people and its cultures. But I confess that my affection does not stretch beyond the border. I am a South African, but not yet an African. My heart still lies, I fear, in Europe. As a compromise, en route to the delights of Italy, we flew Egypt Air. Egypt is African, right? We support the pharoahs as much as we do Bafana Bafana, right?

Now Cairo airport is very comfortable. There is a Starbucks coffee shop. There are duty free shops to explore. But on our return flight we landed in Cairo at 5 pm. Our plane for Johannesburg would leave at 1 am. The delights of a Starbucks would not stretch for so long.

Egypt Air came to the rescue. As we filed into the airport, those going on to Johannesburg were corralled off. There were only three of us — ourselves, and an Italian girl. “We take you on a trip to Cairo,” they said. “English guide, drinks, dinner, see the pyramids. No charge. All free. Egypt Air welcomes you.”

Soon, I was sure, we would drive past the Great Mosque, the university, all the wonderful sights of an ancient African city. But no, we were travelling through new residential developments much like those in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. Modern Africa. Johannesburg Africa.

The driver was silent. Driving in Cairo is something else; three lanes of traffic, each car jockeying at speed for a pole position, each playing chicken with the other cars. Perhaps the driver’s silence was because he was concentrating on his task.

We passed a sizeable and elegant mosque. “Is this near the Great Mosque?” I asked our driver. He shook his shoulders.

“No speak English,” he said.

Not the guide after all! We drove on, with no idea what famous buildings we may have passed. After 20 silent minutes, he stopped on a large bridge.

“El Nilo,” he said, patriotic pride swelling his chest.

The river was invisible in the darkness. We took his word for it.

On the other side of the Nile the city changed. No longer swanky walled complexes, but small houses packed side by side. Our speed became little more than walking pace, as we wove between cars and pedestrians. It gave a fascinating glimpse into evening life of ordinary Egyptians — tiny little “spaza” shops, roadside stalls selling spicy meat and fruit, donkey carts in the lanes. For the first time you felt that you were, indeed, in Africa.

Without warning, we stopped outside one of the small houses. Into the minibus jumped an elderly man.

“Good evening, good evening,” he said. “I am your guide. Where are you from?”

“From Italy,” said our companion.

“Buona sera,” he replied. “And you, where are you from?” he asked us.

“South Africa,” we replied. “Gooie naand. Aangename kennis. Up the Springboks,” he said.

He launched into a quick history of the pyramids of Giza, which, he promised, we would soon see. And sure enough, we stopped. In somebody’s back yard. Far away, seen through a barbed-wire gate, were the pyramids and the Sphinx, conveniently lit up, although, of course, closed for closer access. It was, after all, 7 pm. It was as close as we would get.

Into the minibus again. It was time, we were told, for our free drinks. We stopped outside a rather grander house. Our English-speaking guide said he had to leave us as the next tour minibus was on its way. He left us in the hands of our suave new host. “Drinks”, in a good Muslim house, means tea — a choice between jasmine, Ceylon, or lemon. While we waited for our tea, our host explained, he would just tell us about Egyptian perfume. Apparently, although we did not know this, the real basis for French perfume, and Armani, Gautier and Chanel were beating a trail to his door. We were urged to try some. This one, for women, should only be worn in the evenings as its effect on men is so immediate that day-time use would lead to embarrassment. Or this one, for men, is guaranteed to make its user like a horse or donkey. The equine comparison was lost on us at first. Should we wish to make a purchase — under no obligation, of course — he could offer a special price, unbeaten anywhere else, with satisfaction guaranteed. Again, the nature of the satisfaction was left undefined.

Then on to dinner. What would an Egyptian dinner offer? What strange things would we be asked to eat? Camel eyes, perhaps, or sheep’s hooves? The answer — chicken curry with Fanta or Coke, in a cheerful food hall surrounded by Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut.

Our driver reappeared. It was time to return to the airport. Our night in Cairo came to an end. Armed with small bottles of Egyptian perfume, and looking forward to the dramatic aftereffects, we boarded our plane. We stretched out and slept. Our African adventure was over, but I still use the perfume. And, looking back, I appreciate the generosity of Egypt Air in filling what would otherwise have been a sterile airport delay. Perhaps I am a little bit African after all.

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