Egypt Part 1

Egypt hit me like a ton of bricks.

My first glimpse of Egypt was from the gangway bridge, from the airplane leading into the airport. The sky was a faded blue, with the sun streaming over the flat planes of the sand coloured airport, its light bouncing off the Egyptian Air planes on the tarmac. I made my first stop at the toilet, washing my face and cleaning up, and got my first dose of local hospitality when the cleaning lady, a plump old Arabian woman, opened the door for me and vigorously held out her palm for some money. Service for an exchange.

It was at this point that I made a mental note to heed every remark I’d received of the Arab’s aggressive hospitality to head.

Queuing at the security and customs were no joke either. What was a norm in England to be a very passive, proud and orderly system of human beings was exchanged by this: a big woman in a jubah firing rapid and loud remarks to the security officer, who was holding up his own. Me, awkwardly and dutifully standing behind the marked line, when another woman abruptly bumped into me and passed through to stand next to the lady. She joined the intense fray, gesturing wildly with her hands. 

A few seconds later, I got bumped around again as a whole bunch of women passed me without a single glance back (not even a nod or a rushed sorry), and made a crowd at the immigration counter to join the loud discourse. Eventually the guard shouted out loud in Arabic, made a hand gesture and pointed them towards the other end of the hall, where they immediately left as a mass, arguing loudly with each other. I realized then how far away I was from any sense of familiarity. The culture, the language, the surroundings. I was, even in this airport, a fish out of water. 

In the Egyptin system, the welcoming crowd for arriving travelers are not allowed to wait beyond the building doors. The space just outside the gates, behind the barriers, is normally reserved for drivers or welcomers of official dignitaries, standing there with their signs. Other people who were there to receive people can only wait outside the airport. One or two regular relatives had managed to sneak in and hurriedly welcome their guests as I got through the Arrivals door.  Amin, my patron of the trip, had told me to ‘head straight for the Arabic crowds who were standing outside’, where they were allowed to be. There was a revolving door where, as he had described, a whole melee of people were waitig, mostly men, craning their necks for their guests.

A couple of them looked at me eagerly and said, ‘taxi? Taxi?’ ‘Pyramid?’ ‘Indonesian?’ to which I politely ignored.

Once outside, I stood off to one side with my trolley, and saw Amin approach me. He was a tall guy in sunglasses, in a bright green t-shirt, carrying a sling bag. He smiled as he saw me and uttered the first words strangers would normally say upon my initial meeting, ‘whoa! I thought you’d be taller!’

The story behind this union was simple at best. I had approached Amin, among many, on twitter, because for some reason he seemed to be most reasonabl. I had sent out a mass plea on social media a few weeks ago for any Malaysian living in Egypt to host me, and received a couple of favourable replies, and more than enough warnings to not, go, anywhere, alone. Some inherent sense told me to exchange my numbers with Amin, who had promised me that he’d take care of my trip, and I guess these sort of meetings are the kind that chance and fate like to join together. 

I found out later that he was referred to as Ustaz Amin, and was a 20 year old first-year Syariah student, who had a penchance to jest with the others at their student halls.

Accompanying Amin was Adnan, (Ustaz Adnan!), a tall, fair guy who was very quiet, and did not look me directly in the eye when we first came into contact at the airport. I grew up in a culture that insisted eye contact was a form of confidence, respect and social intimacy, forgetting that in this region of the world, lowering your gaze connotes a much higher respect. This was his third year studying in Cairo, which made him a ‘veteran’ student. 

After the initial introductions, they both took my trolley, Amin campily saying ‘don’t worry, you’re my guest’ as I protested half heartedly. My larger baggage was huge, about 22kg, as it was full of bits and bobs to bring back to Malaysia, and I told them so as I offered to handle it myself. They shook their heads, laughed, and we got into their rented car.

By the time I settled into the back seat, my skin was already covered in a sheen of sweat. Having stayed in UK and Europe for the majority of the last year, I couldn’t for the life of me remember when it was that I had sweat so effortlessly. This heat. It was like sitting in an oven. I quickly requested for the aircond, and the boys laughed some more as they switched it on. 

Then came my first encounter of Egyptian traffic. It was wild abandon to the highest degree, saved for peace by mere inches and an abundance of luck. I had been so used to the law abiding commute of British citizens, from strictly adhering to speed limits (50mph on highways!), genuinely slowing down at yellow markers and waiting behind traffic lines, as a pedestrian - making sure to cross on zebra crossings, and only when the green man was lit up. UK, with its ever ready and expensive fines, coupled with their hard working regulators and officers, were enough incentives for you to stick to the law.

The Egypt commuting experience, on the other side of this spectrum, was a ‘free for all’.
Cars reversed at random should they miss a turning, or even just drove in the opposite direction of their lane to get back. They would stop haltingly, inches away from another vehicle that was in their way. To cut across from the furthest lane to get to an exit, at almost a 90 degree drive, was a norm.  The language of the road were horns, which blared up every few seconds from various sources, serving to warn other cars that you existed, rather than to urge them to do anything. That fact was the cornerstone of their driving, that you would drive according to your own agenda, without much care for anyone else. All the cars were dented.

‘If they didn’t have dents,’ Amin explained cordially, repeating a statement I had heard many times about Arab vehicles, ‘that would be extremely weird. In fact, I’d probably drive into their bumpers myself to welcome these new cars.’ 

Our car, the one Adnan had rented from a friend, had a long, broken streak and a circular shatter on the windscreen. I hadn’t even taken a proper look at its exterior.

As we drove through the mad traffic, the cream and brown-hued, square buildings filed past us on the road. There were all manner of animals too. Geese, stray dogs, donkeys, and horses carrying large carts of fruits. Signs were all in jawi, and I was admiring the colourful ones on storefronts when we came to a traffic light. Almost at once, an old lady in black robes came up to the driver’s window, and the boys hastened to fine coins. They gave the beggar some change, exchanging a few cordial words, and we drove off.

“You actually give them money?” I asked incredulously. I wasn’t foreign to the system. Malaysia itself had its fair share of beggars at traffic stops – but they were quite rare, and not so encouraged.

“Yes,” Amin replied. “It’s Ramadhan. It’s good to give. In fact, this is probably the month where Egyptians are most giving. You shouldn’t be so surprised actually – there’s normally way more beggars in the streets.”

“I think it’s because it’s so early in the morning,” Adnan added.

I looked out to the sky, where the sun was high and blasting it’s heat merrily, and realized that it was only 8.30am. 

Me, Amn and Adnn on my first day in Cairo. 

POSTSCRIPT; I wrote this during a rare free hour in Cairo. I have yet to write anything additional for the trip. Hopefully I'll get it down hahaha. #hopeyouenjoyedreading 3toomanythings #toolittletime


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