It’s 11.45am on Sunday, Islamic New Years Day. As I sit here at Kafein editing the crazy out of this post, the call to prayer is echoing around the city from every mosque in town. The blend of calls, all slightly out of time and with different tones and voices, create a dull but powerful roar when heard from outside the city but from the inside it feels comforting and warm.
There is a particular vocalist who’s voice is absolutely beautiful and it literally moves me to tears every time I hear him.
(I recorded a bit on my Instagram so check it out there as I’m only on the tightarse WordPress plan).
It’ll be a bit hard to leave this time as (per usual) in my last few days I’ve met some fascinating people and just as we are getting to know each other, its time to go.
Megan, Ollie, D’e, Ilva, Iris, Ahmed – uniquely talented individuals : photographers, artists, performers, businessmen. All travelers like myself on various personal journeys and battling their own demons. Despite my best intentions I still seem to collect people.
Letting go is a skill for life – whether its a partner or a friend, or just personal baggage or belongings. It gets easier as you go along I think but the sooner you get used to it the better. Its the whole impermanence thing.
Its almost time for me to check out and move on…next stop Tunisia on Monday for a little while. Going to work my way across the top of Northern Africa and see whats what.
So some entertaining stories for you. How about the nightclub hostage thing. 🙂
Lets start here.
I met Megan at my hostel, (we were roomies there) and she’d been her a week already when I first arrived. An American girl on her first trip to Egypt but this wasn’t her first rodeo. Here long enough to make friends with the locals and have some insight into where to go/what to do. We went to a film at a local mega mall (Magnificent Seven – so good!!) and the next night decided to go out to a local bar with some of her Egyptian friends. Met up at a local joint, drank beers and smoked many exotic things, and eventually ended up going to a seedy belly dancing place downtown.
You know the type of place – dark stairs leading up to a black door and doorman on the desk. Tinny arabic dance music blaring, serious sweaty men leaning in shadows.
I let my guard down for a time and relaxed into the evening.
We got to the place, and the sting began.
We had to pay a ‘foreigner’ charge to get in the door. OK, fair enough i guess (entry was free to locals).
So in we walked like hammered lambs to the slaughter, our local friend getting an earful from the host, us largely oblivious and my spider sense chemically dulled. We were guided carefully to a ratty table near the centre of a space where a terrible 3 piece electro-arabic band were belting out belly dance music on a small stage. Fog machines and cheap disco lights. You know what I’m talking about.
The place was a joint. Filled to the roof with a thick layer of smoky haze, tacky tables filled with swarthy men, my friend the only woman save for the dancer on stage weaving through the swirls of fog and spinning disco lights.
At this stage I’d like to paint an exotic picture of your idyllic bellydancer but the reality was closer to a tired old stripper going through the motions, in costume but barely moving at times, stopping occasionally to take a drag of a cigarette or have a brief chat to her thickset handler lurking off to the side of the stage. She coughed heavily several times in the middle of the routine. Possibly spat the phlegm out discreetly into the stage. Bored. Barely there. On autopilot.
The men, all smoking and drinking, never looked directly at her. Eyes to the floor, or ceiling, or each other.
Now for some reason all the lounge singers here appear to be men. The dude on the mike was giving it his all but the incompetence of the band was exceeded only by the shrillness of this guys voice. Using tinny speakers with the treble jacked up to 11, his performance was both interesting as a cultural phenomenon and in the way it made your nose bleed when he hit the high notes – like a slightly blunt dentists drill the ululations made your eyes water.
The drinks started coming immediately – unasked for and unendling. A large silver alfoil swan appeared filled with exotic dried fruits and sliced dates – again unasked for.
Our local friend leaned in “no matter what happens, do not give anyone money. Under any circumstances, ok?
Yeah sure I mumbled, soaking it all in.
Still no spidey-sense tingle.
Then the dancer seemed to notice us for the first time. She spun closer and closer and closer, working her way down the tables of now demure men who refused to make eye contact with her.
She got to our table, shimmied up to me and held out her hand… “Hello, where are you from?” she said in perfect English.
Now me, being the canny traveler that I am, immediately smiled my biggest, drunkest smile, shook her hand and said “Hi, my names Jamie. I’m from Australia!”
Snap…and the trap was sprung.
So she smiled and danced on, shimmying her bits, refusing to let go of my hand, all the while shaking her thang right in my face while I was trying desperately to maintain eye contact. The music played on, her dancing got a little more urgent, her handler came over, and the creepy men around us looked on expectantly.
Then she leaned in and whispered those magical words…
huh? (what was that tingling down the back of my neck?)
“you give me money now…”
I looked to my friend quizzically. He was looking at the floor.
Ahh sorry I don’t have any money on me. (the tingling became more urgent)
Her black rimmed eyes hardened. I wouldn’t have thought it possible.
The dancer got closer. She leaned in and this time practically hissed in my ear.
“money…you give me money. Money.”
The handler put his hand on my shoulder.
I looked around nervously – my ‘friends’ were all staring at the floor or off into space, every other eye in the club was on us.
In an unintentional Hugh Grant impression, I tried to bumble my way out of it…lots of umms and ahhs, “sorrys”, “you are lovely but no”, “you danced really well” and such.
With a disgusted snort she eventually turned away and moved on to the next table.
I turned to my ‘friend’ – WTF? Did I do something wrong? You said no money!!!
He just said “No don’t worry about it”. But he looked worried.
But from that moment on I was suddenly sober and on high alert. The club had taken on a sinister tone and I could sense the attitudes towards us foreigners had changed. We weren’t the ATMs that they were hoping for and as such our value had diminished.
I’d completely relaxed my guard and look where it had gotten me. No more beers (I’d only had 2), no more food, no more drinks at all. It was 3am.
Megan had had enough of it all, got up and left, ostensibly for the loo. One of the local guys at our table left to follow her and they didn’t come back. That’s when I knew we were screwed.
I stayed there with the 2 local guys left at the table and waited for them to finish their drinks – my plan to pay the bill and get the Hell out. My share should have been about 150 Egyptian pounds which was good as that’s all the cash money I had on me (at the last place the beers were 20 Egyptian pounds each and here I’d only had 2)
We asked for the bill.
550 Egyptian pounds.
Explaining that Megan had left and I didn’t have enough money to pay the whole bill, the mood changed. The minders put a hand on each shoulder and guided me back to the table, telling me politely to ‘sit down’ while we waited. And waited . And waited.
I knew shed gone home, but just played dumb.
The locals tried to call Megan and she had gone home, driven home by the other guy as it turned out. She wasn’t in the loo. The local guys tried to call their friends to borrow money (as they had none either but for some reason I was the one being held accountable).
The general atmosphere worsened, the smiles disappeared completely, and I desperately faked a loo visit to see if there was a way out.
2 guys followed me – 1 stayed at the door, 1 came in and stood next to me.
By this stage I was thinking of an emergency exit strategy and whether I outrun and evade 3 tattooed bouncers in their own city.
2 flights of steep stairs, 2 guys at my elbow, one guys at the top of the stair blocking one guy at the door below. I did the math and came up really short.
Anyway, long story short, the local guys finally got a friend to go see Megan, she gave him cash money, we paid the bill at 5am and they finally let me go.
So that’s the story.
People may think that I’m uptight and serious all the time but in truth I’m just as capable of letting my guard down, being stupid, and getting into jams as anyone else.
I’d just prefer not to most of the time.
That’s just one of many tales of this trip though. Its been a buzz.
There’s the hair raising car trip up to Alexandria with Megan and Ollie, the Nile River cruise and the buffet from Hell with Iris, sitting on balconies and talking about life with D and Ilya. To many to elaborate on but they’ll stick with me forever.
The scene here in Cairo is relentless – all-nighters are the norm and the local watering holes are open ’til practically dawn (For a muslim country there sure is a lot of alcohol and weed here).
So my time in Egypt has been enlightening in so many ways. Apart from the massive changes in this countries economy post-revolution, there is a resilience to the general population that is amazing – they just gets on with the job of living, loving, walking their dogs, hugging their children and earning a living. Just like us all in times of adversity.
Much of what happens here stays here and isn’t even reported in the West. We had a car bomb here on Thursday afternoon in New Cairo, locals trying to assassinate the Minister of the Interior – heard the ‘boom’ from here but apart from sirens the locals didn’t even bat an eye. This happens a lot and people get on with life.
Anyway, Ive haunted the streets here for almost 2 weeks, getting to know the city on foot and seeing how people live at ground level.
I went out to the pyramids a while back – caught an Uber out from my downtown hostel (33 Pounds) and spent the day out there virtually alone for most of it. Explored the entire complex, sat and rested in the shade with the hawkers out there, who welcomed a chat after realising that they couldn’t sell me anything. As Muhommed said to me after selling me a bottle of water at 1000% the street price “Tell your friends in Australia to come to Egypt. We need you”.
Then I walked back to downtown. 15kms. Took me 4 hours as i wandered and got lost in the alleys and fringes of Cairo. It was the Cairo that you see in the old movies, all alleys and tenements, bumper to bumber traffic mingle with donkey carts and camels, street urchins and marketplaces, all dirty and dusty yet vibrant and alive. Buzzing with energy that I drank deeply of.
If you come here, take time and get out on foot. try not to just do the tourist things and leave as it wont do the city justice.
It is tourist-safe here on the streets and out in the desert, even wandering the alleys and streets at 4am alone (unless you are an idiot then Darwinism will apply). Ive never felt threatened or anxious about my personal security and literally everyone Ive met has been extremely friendly and welcoming.
If you are thinking about going to Egypt – just do it. they need you.
Plus the pyramids are nice.
Watch out for dodgy belly dance clubs though.