Sunday, October 19, 2008

Leaving Cairo - Patience and flexibility are a must!

Is it possible to be patient and aggressive all at the same time? In any case, these are some of the traits that are required when one passes through Cairo airport. Flexibility is another one. The chaos starts at the parking lot. I had left my hotel on the Nile waterfront, Corniche el Nil, in good time and everything went smoothly on this Friday morning (Friday is the weekly holiday in Egypt and other Muslim countries, so the traffic was light) until we reached the airport. Unlike at most other airports of the world where the taxi drops off the passenger on the curb in front of the departure hall, in Cairo the parking lot away from the terminal building is as far as the taxis get. Already there, complete and utter chaos reigned with cars and vans gridlocked—horns blaring, needless to say—in the tight spots. Passengers with their loads of luggage fought to squeeze in between the cars towards the distant terminal.

Once in there, it got worse. The throngs were incredible. It seems that every departing passenger had brought along his or her relatives, extended family, friends, and probably a few strangers just for show, to wave them off to their destinations. The crowds were almost impossible to penetrate. There were very few foreigners, which is understandable as this terminal was exclusively for Egypt Air departures. Anyone with the wherewithal would do his or her utmost to choose some—any!—other carrier. The few Europeans who were there looked desperate. The information on the rare screens was confusing even to the initiated and airline employees were screaming instructions over the commotion. This wasn’t very helpful, as the details were provided in Arabic. At least I thought it was Arabic, although it was hard to hear over the general noise. Trying to penetrate the crowd and move towards my check-in area I suddenly hit a wall. The mob was so large and densely packed that it couldn’t move anymore in any direction. I estimated I’d still have a good twenty meters to reach the safety of the passengers-only area. For several minutes I did not move. Children started to cry loudly, although one little boy found it amusing to run between the legs of the waiting people, as if he were in a thick forest of big trees, in the process trampling on many feet. In front of me, several baggage trolleys were fatally interlocked. At the same time, I saw some important looking thugs ushered through the side gates without having to queue at all. I was fuming at this unfairness, while starting to despair at the lack of any progress. I do not do well in these kinds of situations.

Suddenly, a young Egyptian man appeared next to me. In good English, he suggested that he could take me through quickly, as he didn’t want to see me suffer inside the horde. I could thus become like those thugs who used their privileges and money to bypass the discomforts accorded to the commoners. Out of principle, I refused his services. But after several minutes when he found me again at precisely the same spot, I relented and handed my suitcase to him. Corruption breeds corruption. Miraculously, he managed to lead us through, the multitude of humanity parting in front of his determination like the Red Sea in front of Moses. It turned out to be a lucky decision on my part to sacrifice my principles. Namely, the fellow headed to an unexpected direction. Unbeknownst to me, it had been announced (in Arabic) that the flight to Abu Dhabi departs from Hall 2. Without the kindness of this stranger, I would have wasted the morning in Hall 1 only to find that I had joined the wrong throng. We breezed through the terminal scattering groups of people, sailing past lines, through gates that would suddenly be opened to us by uniformed officers who obviously were in this little enterprise together with my facilitator. I felt relieved, grateful that I had been born wealthy enough to afford this service.

Finally inside the check-in hall we separated and I joined a line behind the Egypt Air counter. This was not too bad. There were not so many people in front of me and the hall itself was only half-full. Of course, the decibel level was still well above internationally accepted WHO norms. There were what seemed like hundreds of children, seemingly belonging to only a handful of women. Those that were not running around and screaming excitedly at the prospect of travel were wailing in frustration because of the same.

I was in my thoughts and noticed too late that a few people had squeezed in between me and the man in front of me in the line. Nothing to do about that; the opening had been for grabs. In Egypt, one has to breath into the neck of the guy before you—and move strategically to block any sideline attempts—if you want to keep your place in a queue. The cutting is not even remotely subtle; it’s pure survival of the fittest.

It turned out that I had chosen the wrong line anyway. The large gentleman, traveling with what I assumed were his son and his wife and little daughter, was negotiating with the agent about the obviously excessive amount of luggage. From the scales I saw that the family had 146 kg of bags to check in. The negotiation—which alternated between loud and threatening shouts and sweet smiling cajoling—lasted a good fifteen minutes. Finally money exchanged hands as the portly man doled out the agreed sum from a thick wad of Egyptian pounds in his pocket. Whether these would actually go to the airline would never be known.

In the meantime, a fight was about to break out in the next line to my left. The situation looked menacing. The reason for conflict was apparently the same. I saw that the lone gent was proposing to check in 72 kg worth of luggage. I am sure he would prevail in the end. What they were doing was only negotiating the price. Third World people do not travel light. I was beginning to worry whether our old 737 would be able to take off with all this overweight!

The next hurdle would be passport control. Again, the lines did not look too bad, but looks were deceptive. The system ensured that it would take the required time. There were two people at every passport counter: a uniformed man checking and stamping the passports, and a lady wearing a headscarf entering the information from the departure cards into an ancient computer (a classic case of two officers of whom one knows how to read and the other how to write). Furthermore, they would occasionally allow women with children—did I mention that there were children?—jump the line, presumably on humanitarian grounds. From his high counter, the border official looked down judging all passengers. I hoped that I had filled in the departure card correctly, so as not to be sent back to the end of the line. I sighed in relief when I was handed back my stamped travel document.

Behind the passport control there was another counter where an elderly man was waiting to—get ready for this—check your passport. This was a more casual inspection and the uncle was glad to wave me onwards.

Now that I had been cleared through, it was obvious that what I had thought of as ample lead time I had given myself at the airport had been just about enough. Departure time was approaching, and I had made it. It was still only 9 o’clock in the morning, but it felt like I had done a day’s work. So when my hopeful eyes detected that the snack bar actually sold beer, I happily ordered a cold Egyptian Stella. The cashier produced the can. I said that I’d have to pay in US dollars, as I had given all of my remaining pounds to the facilitator. The man behind the cash machine said: no dollars, only pounds. This is the international airport of a world city and a major regional hub, and they only accept local currency, I thought with my mood sinking rapidly. However, if there’s one thing that I had learned, it was: be flexible and never take anything at face value. So I entered into a negotiation with the kind coffee shop employee. Naturally, we soon agreed and I laid down four greenbacks in exchange of the cool beverage. Smiling, we both agreed this was a fair price and, indeed, it was worth it. Life was starting look up.

Night out on the Nile

The other night one of my old friends, Roland, took me out on the town in Cairo. We met at my hotel, the Conrad, where we enjoyed the ‘happy hour’—meaning two drinks for one, which still left each one of them outrageously pricey!—in Le Bar. We then crossed the Corniche el Nil, risking our lives dashing between the never-ending and fast-moving flow of cars along the Nile, and grabbed a taxi upstream. After a while in the disastrous traffic, the driver reached the crossing in the Garden City area where we were supposed to turn left to reach our destination, but armed guards blocked our way. Cars without a specific pass were not allowed beyond this point. We had to abandon the taxi and continue on foot into the quiet residential neighborhood. We passed the British embassy, which stood dark, fortified with serious barricades; then the American embassy—the biggest mission of the nation anywhere in the world—a veritable fortress from whence the good diplomats would hardly ever have to venture.

We turned right onto a yet another residential street. Egyptian soldiers dressed in camouflage fatigues were lounging around in the shadows, smoking. The streets reminded me vaguely of some of the residential neighborhoods in Rome, with small European cars parked haphazardly along—and sometimes on—the sidewalks. One of the soldiers pointed us to the right direction and finally Roland recognized the building where the Cairo Capitol Club was located. Downstairs, I was surprised to notice, was more than half-shabby. There were four elevators, only one of which would reach the exclusive 19th floor club. After a considerable wait, the elevator picked us up. The style of the building changed already in the small cabin, which was lined with fake bookshelves decorated with faux leather-bound volumes, which upon casual observation appeared quite real. Only a closer look revealed that none of them were actual books, but just their backs inscribed with the name of the club and some of its dignitaries. Classic western pop music was playing through the piping.

I followed in Roland’s footsteps as he walked in determinedly. As we entered the venerable club we found that we were the only people on the top floor overlooking the Nile. A beautiful young lady ran after us asking whether we actually were members. Roland explained honestly that, no, we were not, but that he’d been there on several occasions before. This explanation seemed to satisfy the maitre d' who returned to her counter while we positioned ourselves on some well-worn but comfortable leather sofas by the floor-to-ceiling windows and ordered rum and coke. It was fabulous to sit down with my old friend, who with his wife moved to Cairo just six weeks ago, and inhale the gorgeous view across one of the world’s mightiest rivers.

I had arrived in Cairo on the Friday before, on a flight that could be kindly described as less than satisfying. It had been a direct flight from New York on Egypt Air—in business class, no less. Still, it was so cramped that it would have made some of other airlines’ economy classes seem spacious. Next to me on the 10-hour flight sat a very pleasant Filippino-Canadian gentleman, on his way to a gorgeous holiday involving a cruise on the Nile and a lovely sojourn to the fabled Masai Mara game park in Kenya with his gentleman friend. He was delightful company but when he slept—that is, most of the night—it was impossible for me to get out of my claustrophobic little corner by the window. My claustrophobia was not eased by the fact that, true to Islamic ways, the good airline didn’t carry any alcohol that could have at least dulled the pain.

The taxi driver who took me to the Conrad from the airport assured me that the hotel was the “best in Cairo,” a veritable “7 stars!” It was neither, of course. But it was comfortable enough to allow me to rest well over the past few nights after the distressing flight.

I was on a business trip—a ‘mission’ as the UN calls them somewhat pretentiously—and was traveling with two companions. Fuat is an elderly (only as counted in chronological years) gentleman originally from Istanbul. Mouna has spent most of her life in places other than her native Yemen, including Beirut, Paris and New York. Both are extremely sophisticated, smart and—most importantly—fun people. In the first three nights in town we had gone out together to places, such as the Naguib Mahfouz CafĂ© (where the Nobel prize winning novelist apparently used to sit every night; on our night, though, everyone in the main dining room was a tourist), a wonderfully eclectic joint called Abu Seid (Fuat seemed to think it was a bit too funky for him), and the restaurant Le Tarbouche on a boat moored to the Nile banks (here the music played on an oud and a hand drum was perfect in both tone and atmosphere)—so tonight was a welcome opportunity to escape from my partners in crime, as much as I enjoy their company.

Roland and I have met each other in many countries—we counted Bangladesh, Germany, Austria, USA and Sri Lanka amongst them—since we left Rome where the both of us used to live two decades ago. Through all these years we’ve kept in touch, although sometimes long passages of time would take place between our meetings. Despite the time that has passed since our original encounters, we again realized that nothing has changed. We are still the same silly young men, with the same silly joys and silly concerns, as before. And why should this change? Cairo is still the same after a much longer history. Of course, its population has grown, the pollution increased, and some neighborhoods have thrived, while others have declined.

The view from the 19th floor was unparalleled. On the river, as every night, a colorful parade of boats entertaining guests for merriment was passing at frequent intervals. The traditional feluccas—the boats with white triangular sails that feature in so many Cairo postcards—seemed hardly existent. From the height we could only observe a couple of their darkened silhouettes silently gliding on the black surface. Have the commercialized motor boats truly replaced the quiet and clean sailing vessels that so defined this mighty river since thousands of years? Hopefully not fully replaced; but certainly overwhelmed them in number.

The talk of the town in Cairo for the several weeks before this had been the murder of the famed Lebanese songstress Suzanne Tamim in Dubai in late-July. The murderer—an off-duty Egyptian policeman—had been identified from security camera pictures as he cheated his entrance disguised as a maintenance man to the glamorous woman’s unit, only to slash her throat in quick succession with a large knife. What made this story unique was that it was soon determined that the killer was most likely doing his deed at the orders of the renowned Egyptian billionaire magnate, Hisham Talaat Moustafa, who had been the starlet’s former lover. It appeared that the man had become savagely jealous when the woman had wanted to end the affair and moved to Dubai to escape her pursuer. The man had not been able to tolerate the humiliation and had contracted the officer to kill her. This was not the most amazing part of the story, however. It was that, in the face of overwhelming forensic evidence, the Egyptian police actually decided to arrest the real estate developer in September. It was completely unheard of in Egypt that a powerful oligarch—and a personal friend of President Mubarak’s son (who himself may well be the next President Mubarak)—actually would (could!) be held accountable for anything that he did, even if it was outright murder. People were stunned. Many theories and rumors flew around wherever Egyptians gathered. One of the more believable ones was that, while the law was the same for everyone (and the death penalty applied to murderers as well as those who commissioned them), the tycoon had already been allowed to leave the country. He would be living somewhere else under an alias, while a substitute would be hanged and presented as proof that the law is the same for the rich and the poor.

We remained the only guests on the top floor of the club for the entire night. On the floor below, there was an engagement party with a bunch of rowdy and obviously affluent Egyptians. The music—ranging from Arabic dance music to the western pop of yesteryear (think Tom Jones)—penetrated upstairs. Raising his glass, Roland toasted to "the exclusive dinner with the inclusive music!” The food was indeed exquisite. The Mexican tomato soup (as opposed to the "fresh" tomato soup also on the menu) with chicken balls (they exist, you know) was absolutely delicious. My main course of salmon (probably flown in earlier in the day from Scotland or Norway—not by any means an environmentally recommendable practice) was one of the best I’ve ever had—and that’s a statement from a Nordic character who grew up on salmon! It was placed on a bed of lentils that was as subtle and tasty as—well—pulses can be. We washed it all down with a local Omar Khayyam white wine, which proved itself to be almost as poetic as the person who lent his name to the beverage.

Cairo never sleeps, says the slogan, but we decided it was time. Descending down in the old library-elevator, we again entered the quiet, well-guarded street. Passing by the concrete stoppers and ignoring the heavy weaponry nonchalantly pointed at us, we were back on the Corniche. An old Peugeot 504 taxi soon stopped at our beckoning. The driver initially protested that he wanted to go home quickly, but soon agreed to make a u-turn and take us to our respective homes. The driver sporting a thick moustache was in an exuberant mood. He asked us in broken English, why did we think he’d be so full of joy. When we couldn’t guess, he revealed that in only two days would his first son reach 7 years of age! This made him so happy that he was talking nonstop. Speeding through the Cairo thoroughfare at astonishing speed (which, in the absence of a working speedometer, was impossible to verify) while the driver was half the time turned towards the back seat declaring his friendship toward us made me wonder whether I’d be able to reach my own next birthday. When we stopped in front of my hotel, I shook the driver’s hand and wished his young son a happy birthday. Our brief encounters had been brotherly.