One of my colleagues calls himself homeless, he’s not as it happens, but he thinks that him not having a permanent abode suffices that description. “No fixed address” is something that would epitomise my first few weeks in Cairo and the impending census would really have no concern in classifying me any other way.
In the morning after arrival, I duly rang the Airport to chase up the whereabouts of my stunning-orange suitcase. The recorded message that I could hear was spoken in Arabic, so I passed the phone over to someone else, only for him to tell me that nothing had arrived yet. If I had any feint hopes of seeing my belongings again they were dwindling away at break neck speed. How was I meant to shower or freshen up? Why should I even try to freshen up beside the strong argument of being a little sweaty? The point of it all would have been slightly void if I had to wear the same items of clothing again, plus there was no towel in sight. My clothes had touched streets of London, caressed the Milan air, rubbed shoulders with a Brazilian footballer and been doused with Egyptian dust. Not sure if they could bear much more than that, I wiped my wet hand over them convincing myself that the action constituted a thorough clean.
Did I mention that I didn’t have a toothbrush either? This is as far as my experience living it rough goes so don’t cringe. When it came to brushing my teeth I ended up using a tree root quite famous in this part of the world, the stick is called a miswak. The weird, and quite possibly disgusting thing was that this miswak had probably seen a few months of use already- it wasn’t mine either. I realised the direness of my situation and relented to ask my flatmate. I wasn’t able to examine his oral hygiene and didn’t know him that well, despite that I asked him whether I could borrow his miswak. He looked at me as if to think “ew, borrow it? You can have it mate!” And he pointed it out too disgusted by the thought to even give it to me. I scrubbed it clean vehemently and added some paste onto the tiny contact threads, I gritted my teeth and touched it onto my pearly something-not-quite-whites.
The miswak by the way is a tooth stick slightly reminiscent of liquorice root. It really would be interesting if the latter was used, I’ve never actually understood why not either.
None of the above abrogates my inclination towards being a clean freak. I’ll tell you about that a little later though.
To my surprise, I didn’t have to wait much longer because that evening the ever-smiling Said came to the flat with great news and a bright orange suitcase. I breathed a sigh of relief and tore the suitcase from his grasp for it never to leave my site for the next few hours. From here I began my multi week saga of living out of my huge brightly coloured wardrobe, everything I needed was always an arms length away ready to be zipped up and put away.
My flat mates had all been in Cairo over summer so they had picked up a little Arabic through their lessons. One of them was due to vacate his room and return to England after a couple of days but even within these two brief days I developed a bond with him. I had a little more time to create a rapport with the other two tenants, one of whom never exhausted his efforts in helping a number of other students find classes and accommodation.
After the two days and the departure of one of the students, I moved into the spare room. There were no curtains so the morning rays of light beamed through the window breaking my sleep better than any alarm clock could ever do. Unwelcomed as these rays were, they were perfect when it came to attending class, undeterred in their efforts to wake me from my sleep, I was always on time. Now anyone who knows anything about me, is very aware that parting company with my bed is a hard thing to do. Bravo to those relentless rays of light, for even after covering the window with sheets of paper, the sun pierced right through!
Slightly uncomfortable with the aesthetic appeal of the room, I did my impression of an interior designer and stamped my personal adaptation of Feng Shui. I moved the bed into the darkest side out of the way of the beams of light, like Nuclear Man, tossed to the darker side of the room. And just like Superman’s nemesis, the light was still too prominent to overcome. The mirror and dresser were moved to help increase the size of the roomand the students best friend, the desk was placed under the dim lighting in the centre of the room facing the large window. I became connected with my room even after a couple of days. The only thing that disturbed that comfort was Rehan, my flat mates’, decision to tell us a few ghost stories. Admittedly, I’ve always been a little freaked out by those things and it really didn’t help me sleep at night. During the same time, it was my first encounter with a leper and in my ignorance, I admit that it scared me a little more. His face kept returning to me and the thought was haunting me persistently, eventually I got through it and it all subsided. I feel the need to explain myself a little more from such an obtuse comment, but I won’t.
I pride myself in my obsessions of cleaning and rearranging, because the result meant that I had the best room. Naturally I’m attached to my room so it was a little bombshell when I was told that the intention was only for me to stay there for a few days. Burdened by this minor calamity I asked for help in search of a new apartment. My intention had been to stay in my place until the new year at least but the sudden urgency in finding an apartment meant that it was unlikely. The new tenant had his position reserved since late summer and his inevitable return meant my displacement. It mattered little but I did feel let down that no one had told me earlier, I’m not finger pointing it was a little shock of feeling unwelcomed.
During the passing time I met a few other personalities in the same building, the landlord of the building didn’t mind renting out to students, they tend to be prompt in payment and cause few problems. He had booked it out to students for a long time and prior to that there was even a small school within the premises. The area had become a little notorious and that reached its peak in the summer before I arrived when the secret police helped to remove a few tenants on security based reasons. I heard one such story of separate incident involving a group of British students, when they appealed to the British Embassy for help they were granted a swift rebuttal. They seemed disinclined to help, wiping their hands of any problem. When eventually the Egyptian police decided that these particular kids bore no guilt, they released them in typically Hollywood style. Flung out in the street, blindfolded and in disarray they made a vow never to return to Egypt. The unhelpful British embassy never exonerated them of any blame either. Military shows its muscle in order to keep people in check, but that stance would come to haunt them when the revolution came to the fore.
There was a small mix of students, some from the USA others from Mauritius, Belgium, France, Germany but most were from Britain. The pound carries much further than any of its western compatriots which is probably the reason there are so many British students here. Having had said that, the Egyptian estate agents tend to escalate any rent when seeing a Brit. Strangely, it’s also the same with the then weak dollar, maybe they feel it’s retribution for the war onIraq, I don’t know.
I met some students of the infamous all-star university, as well as others waiting to apply, I met students from the American University in Cairoon a semester abroad and many others. The camaraderie between the students was immense because we were all here for the same reason, to expand our knowledge of the Arabic language and possibly an Islamic education in one of the many institutions in Cairo.
The same day I arrived I met one of the most fascinating people in my life. He was due to return the same day and I could see everyone in anticipation of his arrival. There’s a narration in Islam that states that when Allah loves His Servant He tells His angels to love him, so they love him and then the angels tell the people “Allah loves him, so love him.” That’s the feeling I get about this guy, he’s now my close friend and a mentor despite being younger than me. He had just finished negotiating the terms of his wedding, I know I make that sound like a business transaction but you have to hear him tell his story first. A young man who had travelled extensively purely for the sake of acquiring Islamic knowledge, he entered Azhar university a year earlier. He loved the company of others and one wonders how he made the time to study and keep his social relations intact. Some people are like sponges for knowledge, whatever God wills.
The movement of students was fast and continuous, there were always new wannabe scholars of the language moving in as others left. It would come eventually to my movement out of the building and I was a bag of mixed feelings. Sad to leave the people I had recently met but delighted that my wife would be coming to join me soon. First though, I needed to find a place to live. When the new tenant arrived he was surprisingly very accommodating, he let me remain in the room for a few more days. I don’t know if I have the goodness in my heart to do that for someone, except to complain about it. Anyway, so I moved my stuff out and moved back into the living room. This time, the cold wasn’t going to get the better of me, my skills in rearranging in neo-feng shui helped to make the room my own. The man eating sofa was moved to its side in an effort to screen me from the oncoming breeze that seeps through the doors at night. The huge, bulky and heavy dining table was converted into my study desk and I was ready again. It wasn’t my modified room from before but a couple of weeks there wouldn’t bother me at all.