A brief encounter with an African in Cairo

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


An Inebriated Christmas Diary

Boarded the train from Euston to Manchester with a moderately bad hangover, a G and T hangover in fact – not so bad if you get a reasonable night’s sleep. The G and T hangover is not physical (nausea, headache, cramps in the legs) more of the mental variety (anxiety, paranoia, dull roar of dread), “laureate of the hangover” Kingsley Amis wrote about the distinction between the two types. This is definitely a mental, but nothing that a couple of drinks tonight can’t cure.

God I hate Christmas but love train journeys – so plenty of time to write my list of festive woes: Turkey, an absolutely dreadful meat with no flavour what-so-ever – that’s why people only eat it once a year, unless they buy it in packets for sandwiches in which case it’s indistinguishable from chicken. 2. Doctor Who, the Christmas episodes are always the worse. 3. People complaining about repeats on TV. 4. People watching TV in groups. 5. Being older and not getting proper presents. Look, I wanted a PS4 this year got bloody Nivea aftershave balm and a sweater. Rubbish. 6. Drinking too much and embarrassing yourself in front of family. But what do they expect? Lunch starts at 2.00pm for Christ sake, in Colombia I believe they eat Dinner on the 24th at midnight, sounds like a good idea.

I haven’t been to church, not even at Christmas for about 17 years, so this year was quite an event. The priest was a bit eccentric and unorthodox – the older congregation has complaining about him. At least he put on a decent show unlike the audience, which put minimal effort into the carol singing. It was that bad they actually pulled out a soprano to encourage them, seriously. It seems the art of carol singing is dying out, as with Christianity as a whole. Fifteen years ago this church would have been packed, people crowding behind the pews, cramming for space, tonight there were a few seats empty. I bet those that did show up only came for the free Sherry and Mince Pies. Maybe they should erect a bar in the back of the place.

Everybody has been saying that the reason the weather this Christmas is mild and wet is because of Global Warming. Rubbish. Climate changes – that’s what happens. A few years ago it snowed and it might do next year. I remember on sports day at school 20 years ago, it got so hot we had to cancel the event – nobody said anything about Global Warming then. No, then it was acid rain.

I’ve spent a significant part of the last decade abroad so haven’t visited my hometown for many years. I decided to visit some of the old haunts – schools, houses, playing fields, streets and homes of childhood enemies and friends. What’s surprising is that the people – most of them – have long gone or grown much older; the places themselves look more or less the same, and since the people have faded the places themselves hold no real significance. Wants the difference, between say a field in Liverpool and one in Milton Keyes? Nothing. It’s people that make the difference – that make memories. Having spent so many Christmases abroad I thought that I’d enjoy my first home in many years. It wasn’t too bad, but not as good as I thought it would be. But what could be better than trying to re-create Christmas in a condo in Bangkok? Over 32 degrees and 100 per cent humidity, with two electric hobs to recreate your festive dinner, air conditioning on full blast, a Christmas album compilation – It even sounded good, imagine! Or in Cairo, where they don’t even celebrate it, or Colombia where they eat dinner at the stroke of midnight while pouring tumblers full of Red Label – without a mixer, I might add – and don’t even know what a prawn cocktail is.

It’s Boxing Day. I’ve got another shitty hangover and a Christmas Diary to write. This hangover is a like an early morning dawn mist and comes with a 6000-calorie bolt on. Consumed in order: beer, white wine, beer, Gin and Tonic, Benedictine, port, sherry, Gin and Tonic, Advocaat, beer, Gin and Tonic, Limoncello. As you can imagine I’m feeling pretty rough, but once you’ve been drinking for days on end your body gets used to it. Questioning my entire existence, feeling ever so slightly nauseous and a little concerned for my future prospects and health, I slowly make my way down the stairs I used to run down at dawn on Christmas morning decades ago to find a heap load of presents under the tree. Sporting my old dressing gown – much too small now – I make my way into the kitchen, where my mum is preparing bacon – from M&S obviously – sandwiches for everyone. “How many do you want?” She asks. “Just the one, thanks, I’m feeling a bit under the weather,” I reply. “Well that’s it until next year, do you want brown sauce?” Merry Christmas.

Multicultural Melilla: Spain’s secret African enclave

An Indian housewife in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, looked around her diverse multicultural London neighbourhood, and observed that: “No one was more liberal than anyone else anywhere anyway. It was just that here, in Willesden, there was just not enough of any one thing to gang up against any other thing and send it running to the cellars while windows were smashed.”

Situated in the north coast of Africa, where the blue sea laps against its shores; a tax-free haven, a port of call for the many cruises which dalliance around the Mediterranean and a smuggling point between Morocco which contests the city as its own. Nowhere is diversity more evident than in the Spanish enclave of Melilla, which along with Spain’s other autonomous city Ceuta shares a border with Morocco.

Melilla has been praised as a shining example of multiculturalism and is home to populations of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Indians and Chinese. Over the years the native Christian population, which was the majority in the past, has been shrinking, while the Muslim demographic has steadily increased, due to increased immigration and higher birth rates, approximately 45 percent of Melilla is now Muslim. The city also has an established Jewish population, which has also shrunk from 20 percent down to 5 percent with many emigrating to Israel and Venezuela.

Although Melilla has been part of Spain since 1497, it was only until about fifteen years ago that migrants and refugees have attempted to storm the six-meter high security fences, which surround the city. Immigration reached its peak in 2005 and has been increasing ever since, amounting to what are now full-scale fence storming operations. On the 28th of May this year more than 1000 migrants stormed the fences with 400 managing to make it over, to be housed in the city’s ‘temporary’ migration centre, which was built to house 500 but has now over 2000 refugees, and that number is increasing. In 2013, some 4,200 migrants crossed into Spain from both Melilla and Ceuta, a 49% rise over the 2012 figures, according to official figures. The situation is already desperate not just for the migrants but also for the Spanish authorities who are reaching saturation point.

If the migrants successfully make it over the fence they are housed in the migration centre where they will find themselves in a no-mans land, a bureaucratic purgatory until they are eventually sent back home or more likely released and granted asylum, by which they can travel to any other EU country, due to the relaxation of border controls. The Schengen agreement, which removed internal borders within Europe, puts great pressure on border countries, which have to deal with refugees and immigrants on behalf of other countries. Melilla, a small city, bears the brunt more than most places. It should also be noted that many migrants lose their passports so they cannot but be accepted by the Spanish authorities. No identity, no country to send them back to.

The situation in Melilla is echoed throughout Europe at large. On the same day that 1000 migrants stormed the border fences in Melilla, the French riot police stormed two similar migrant centres in Calais (the last port of call to England) forcing some 500 migrants mostly from Afghanistan and Syria to collect their belongings and leave. The encampments were then bull dozed. Italy has also experienced a massive influx with migrants attention focused on the island of Lampedusa, which is close to Africa and the last port of call to the EU.

Most people, might imagine Melilla to be a wondrous place, a fascinating anomaly in the north of Africa, where east meets west, just a jaunt down the street and you’re assaulted by an array of languages, colours and smells, a vibrant market place of diversity. You’d be wrong. Almost immediately upon arrival the languid fatigue of the place slaps you in the face, as you desperately try to gather your bearings. Rather than being a unique multicultural wonderland, the various cultures of the city have literally given rise to what can only be described as a cultural vacuum, with the various cultures, whether Christian, Chinese or Muslim, effectively neutralizing each other. For example, you have Spanish style cafes but they double as kebab or pizza takeaways; you have tapas bars but they’re not nearly as good as they are on the mainland, the Chinese food is ghastly and Berber food difficult to find.

Despite being technically Europe, the whole place has a distinctively third world feel to it. And with the increasing Muslim demographic, the city will eventually become part of Morocco by default, leaving only a ghostly whisper of the town’s Spanish past. The Bengali housewife in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth would doubtless have thought the same about Melilla as she did about her culturally diverse neighbourhood in London, but whether anything will fill the cultural vacuum of this place is for future generations to decide.