I had been waiting for an opportunity to go for ages, so was delighted when a member of Sharshar’s Assiut crew alternatively referred to as ‘Haidar Wahm’ and ‘el majnoun’ telephoned me.
“HELLO! I AM HAIDAR WAHM,” he bellowed in English – sounding, for some reason, very German. My confusion was compounded by the fact that his real name is that of one of the four disciples, with the result that the person deafening me on the other end of the phone could conceivably have been a Teutonic tele-marketer attempting to sell me floor tiles.
‘HAIDAR WAHM! SHARSHAR’S FRIEND,” he clarified, before proceeding to inform me that he was getting engaged and inviting me and Umm Nakad to attend this historic event. I accepted of course, and he went on to describe the way in which Assiut would positively light up like a faulty nuclear power plant with our presence, while I replied that this light of course has its origins in Assiut’s residents. This went on for some 5 days, as is customary, until our mobile phones exploded.
Friday afternoon found Sharshar (in his Mossad sunglasses), Umm Nakad and me at Giza railway station which smells like it has been doused in tobacco because of the cigarette factory nearby. With us was a Swedish journalist friend of Sharshar’s who he had invited along, and who possibly would have chosen to put her head in a food mixer rather than board the train had she known what lay ahead.
It is always a shock to watch the pastoral filmstrip unfold outside the train window after being entombed in Cairo’s chaos for months on end, the endless concrete gradually giving way to idyllic swathes of green. Cairo’s dominance of the Egyptian identity makes it easy to forget that its uncompromising modernity and urbanity is the exception to the rule of agriculture, and desert. Watching men on donkeys leading buffalos through fields and silhouetted women feeding goats inside houses and girls pumping water out of a communal cistern I wondered how the migrant workers who leave villages and commute to the metropolis in search of work are affected by life in an often merciless city, and in turn how their presence influences it: I’ve always found it interesting that the Egyptian countryside is regarded as a cradle of ignorance and stupidity (see: jokes about Saidis, the fallguys in Egypt’s version of an Englishman, a Scottish man and an Irishman) and at the same time the source of all things pure.
These reflections were interrupted by sleep, which in its turn was disrupted by two brothers both under six who appeared to have snorted lines of Coke washed down with 45 cans of Pepsi before boarding the train. They were quite literally climbing over passengers’ heads, to the despair of their mother who made up for what she lacked in parenting skills with patience. They roared their way through the six-hour journey covering the compartment in lib and spilled drinks and various articles of clothing before their mother diverted their attention away from swinging on the luggage racks by making them count in English. This they did for the final hour of the journey, and we entered Assiut to a never-ending symphony of fourteen, fiveteen, sixteen…
Assiut is tiny, and extraordinarily clean, perhaps as a result of the public notices announcing that ‘cleanliness is a human behaviour.’ Upon arriving at the station we were met by a delegation composed of a small contingent of Sharshar’s crew who took us to our hotel, the staff of which seemed astonished at the appearance of guests in their establishment, particularly guests of a non-Egyptian persuasion. Having made urgent deposits of a luggage and bladder nature upstairs we were then given the grand tour of Assiut.
The city has the sleepy parochial feeling of a small town; streets are emptier, and therefore seem wider than those of Cairo, traffic is of course less, and both people and vehicles parade around the city sedately. It should be borne in mind of course that this impression was in part due to the fact that we were arriving from the neurotic mania of big sister Cairo, and that had we been air-dropped even into the middle of the Battle of Waterloo we probably would have remarked on the calm and quiet and order.
Aesthetically Assiut reminded me of Ismaileyya, with elegant white plantation-style houses buried in between the newer, but well laid out buildings. It also has an impressive, immensely long bridge, upon which we of course took group photographs against a backdrop of the magnificent Nile while I tried not to expire from the cold. This formality completed the tour continued, mechanical engineer Oosha pointing out each and every water-related edifice constructed by Amnesiac’s Grandfather, the British.
Since I feel no great fervour for either water engineering or British exploits in the colonies I concentrated my attentions on watching Assiut’s streets go past out of the car window. The most noticeably different thing about Assiut is its demographics: it has the largest Christian population (outside Shubra) in Egypt. I saw very few veiled women while I was there, and most of the female population was very obviously Copt. I think it can safely be said without fear of generalising (although please tell me if you think I am) that there does exist a specifically Copt look in Egypt; it’s something about the style of dress, and the hairdos. I spotted many a magnificently dyed female head in Assiut coiffeured a la Charlie’s Angels or rolled into a 1950s bouffant ponytail. I’ve often wondered why many (but of course not all) Egyptian Coptic ladies of a certain age seem to favour this very specific look. It has nothing to do with the fact that they don’t wear the veil, or that they sometimes wear shorter skirts than their Muslim peers, or that older women often don black for years: is this style the product of community influence? Or is it simply a fashion statement, or an expression of identity?
Tour over and having stuffed our faces at Happy Dolphin we returned to the hotel where upon entering Sharshar was accosted in a friendly fashion by a member of the tourist police, who asked him who he is and what he does and who the blonde girl is and why the girl with the Egyptian identity card has a bonkers name and looks British. It would have been nice if Sharshar could have come out with a simple answer, but his response included the words “journalist” and “foreign” and “human rights” which are all phrases guaranteed to make any representative of the Egyptian security apparatus’ head explode.
Sharshar left his business card and went home and we the ladies went up to our rooms, where we were lulled to sleep by the sound of the lift which made creaking sounds like those of the Titanic when it was sinking in that God awful film of the same name.
*Sort of works if one feigns a speech impediment. Very poor indeed, nonetheless.