I’m not one who’s ever been able to sleep on long tortuous bus journeys. The intermittent light of passing streetlights punctuated by desolate clusters of makeshift homes, then a stretch of darkness longer than you’d hoped, as you desperately try to gather your bearings – how long left?
The anonymity of the bus traveller, a gilded cloak acting as a protective blanket shielding one from the strangeness of the surroundings. Nobody likes turning up free style in a foreign country, no matter what they tell you, and I’m no exception. No matter how much I’ve tried to convince myself, I’m human too.
Anybody who’s spent a significant amount of time in Cairo – although most won’t admit it – will attest to the sear palpable sexually energy which oozes it’s narrow streets. A good half hour stroll around the block is enough to sate any sexually starved deviant. One can physically feel the repression. Furtive glances of covered wives verses the seemingly rampant homosexuality of, it would seem, most Egyptian men.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Cairo is one big massive gay club. Groups of skinny Muslim boys skip hand in hand through Tahir Square, massive grins plastered on their faces; all they’re missing are the daisy chains. Apparently, I’ve been told, they only consider themselves gay if they’ve the receiver rather than giver – I can understand why William Burroughs spent so much time in Morocco.
The 80 pence a night hostel I found was conveniently located on a 24-hour market street in the centre of Cairo. Situated on the second floor of a dilapidated British colonial building that also housed, it later transpired, two other hostels, one of which seemed to be home to some bizarre Japanese cult. The lift had stopped working since the Suez Crisis and was now home to a group of stray kittens that survived on day-to-day handouts from the tourists. Ironically, modern day Egyptians have no great fondness for cats – or animals of any nature, from what I understand.
The sleeping arrangements resembled more a stable than a hostel. The mattresses were as brown as mud mixed with coffee, and were the most disgusting thing I’d ever seen in my life. Clearly the last time the place had been cleaned was when the British pulled out in ’57. I scattered my 80 pence in front of the ‘receptionist’ and within a few minutes slumped on the bed – I was sharing a room with two Africans and young Japanese guy.
When I awoke the next day, one of the Africans was staring blankly at me – a distant resigned expression. I was a little apprehensive. His name was Coco and he came from Togolese. He explained he’d travelled to Libya but was unable to find work and so came to Egypt.
“There’s nothing here for me here either,” he said with a pompous French air, “I’ll go to Israel, but I don’t have the money yet.”
Coco’s native language was French – Togo being a French colony – it was remarkable how he’d actually acquired that French arrogance: expressive, moaning, arms in the air, bottom lip sulking. He was well dressed, groomed and clearly middle class. He wandered around the place in these lurid colour garments, a striking contrast to the black and white monotone of Cairo’s streets. He was funny, smart and friendly, but also prone to long spasms of depression; he’d lie in bed staring at the broken ceiling fan, which rotated intermittently like an abandoned propeller attached to a rusty helicopter from some forgotten war.
He wasn’t particularly impressed by the hostel living standards either. The 80 pence was supposed to include breakfast – taken on the balcony in the morning with a cup of sweet tea; breakfast was really just stale flat Egyptian bread with jam.
“What do you think I am? An animal?” he flipped out one morning. “I’m a tourist, and this is not a tourist hotel. It’s a pig sty.”
He stood up and started pacing around the place, pointing, “look at this mess, clean it, I’ll call the tourist police on you.” He never did.
Poor Coco also hated eating locally – you don’t know what those people put in it, he explained. Preferring to cook sardines in tomatoes with a handful of chilli chucked in for good measure.
One evening, as we ate, he explained to me that my grandfather was a thief.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“He came to my country and took everything, he’s a thief.”
“My Granddad was a history teacher in secondary school.”
“Well, his father then.”
“We’re not French.”
“Always, Washington and London,” he made a whispering sound, “planning and plotting. One day I’ll come to your country, you’ll see.”
A month later, he managed to pay a trafficker to smuggle him into Israel. It was, as he said, his last chance.
“I don’t know why, but I feel like we are brothers,” he told me, “We’ll meet again one day, I know it.”
I never saw him again.
Cairo, Egypt, 2008