Author's Note: Shortly after 9/11, I was deployed by the Denver Post to the Middle East, where I was to take the pulse of the Arab/Muslim street in those confusing, maddening weeks after the World Trade Center attacks. Here is one dispatch from Cairo that resonates as much today as the day it was written.)
CAIRO, Egypt, Nov. 4, 2001 -- Everybody loves Mahmoud.
He is a legend among the tea-men and the other drivers outside the American hotel. He and his white Mercedes are well-known to the hubbly-bubbly sheesha boys in Giza; they wave when he passes. And he is a free lunch for the stray dogs who beg for scraps on the street. They love him most of all.
“If I feed them, they are happy and they will not harm me. If they are happy, then I am happy. Then,” he smiles big, “Allah is happy. Understand?”
He first approached me one morning near the 26th of July Bridge -- commemorating the day the last British soldier left Egypt -- hungry for a paying “guest.” Tourists stopped coming after Sept. 11. The hotels, restaurants, shops and airplanes are empty, and Mahmoud’s Mercedes has been too idle. He knows he has only five or six paces to make a sale. Forty pound to Giza full tour half day three hour not one hour three no better ask around Mercedes very nice you go I not joke understand?
Mahmoud speaks passable English very fast, which is why I hired him to be my driver in Cairo. Plus, it pleases him to help me understand. Later, he tells me he once lived in Aspen, where he was an electronics engineer for GTE, but he missed Egypt too much.
He is a devout Muslim, part cabbie, part cleric. To him, peace is what happens when the heart is pure. “Peace is life,” he says. He differentiates between the politicians (“who only want a chair”) and the common people. “The men in chairs have their hand in water, while people have their hand in the fire, understand?"
Mahmoud is also a Bedouin, with an eye for what is out of place. Walking in the Sahara, he once found a Nazi pouch containing a letter and 100 marks. Collectors offered him money for the old marks, but he believes it should be returned to the soldier or his family. He has written to the German address on the envelope, but has never gotten a response. Nonetheless, he promises to take me to the desert when I come back to Egypt, to show me how history is covered and uncovered every day by the shifting sands.
I wish to walk in the real Cairo, so I ask Mahmoud to take me away from the tourist places. We drive into the entrails of the city, weaving through narrow streets in the usual lunatic, death-defying Egyptian rush. He plunges us into a cheerless neighborhood where the locals live simple lives and almost never see the spiffy tourists who’ve stepped from the pages of a Banana Republic catalog.
So I walk. Prayers waft over the city. How can a city with prayers on the air be sinister?
A woman passes, carrying on her head a cage made of wooden slats and filled with chickens. This doesn’t seem to be a hygienic way to carry chickens. Another woman in a full galabaya -- a black robe and veil -- waits for an overcrowded bus beneath a perfume billboard featuring a pale European woman, unexotic except for the dress that is so foreign here.
At a news cart on the sidewalk, a magazine vendor sells the latest Modern Bride, Newsweek, Architectural Digest, MAD, Teen People and Vogue.
Whole lambs hang in a shop window, headless, foreleg-less, sinewy. The butcher tells me one would cost 550 Egyptian pounds, about $130 U.S. I know that’s just the starting bid. Everything, meat as much as cab fare and Coca-Cola, is negotiable.
In an alley grotto, I sit with some Egyptian men -- Abdul al Samad, who looks like a businessman; Mohammad Said, a grizzled man selling hand-made whips and canes, and Said Ahmed, one of the many young men in Cairo’s back streets who looks as if he would volunteer for any task a paying tourist required. With them, I sip strong Turkish coffee down to the silty last inch while Mores, the shine boy, polishes my desert-scoured walking boots for 3 pounds. Curious children from the bleak neighborhood come round to see the American sahaffi, journalist.
“American Number One,” old Mohammad says, perhaps exhausting his English as he hands me a braided leather riding crop. “25 pound?”
But I look past him. Someone has scrawled 911 on the dirty wall behind him. It unnerves me. Is Sept. 11 being celebrated or mourned? I cannot tell by looking, so I put my finger on the Arabic graffiti and ask: What does this mean?
Abdul puts down his sheesha pipe and smiles at the curious infidel.
“God,” he says, pointing at the sky.
How ironic the written Arabic word for “Allah” should look like “911.”
Mahmoud drops me at the curb in front of the American hotel. I wander the seawall along the Nile, where fishermen dangle bread in the water to catch small, flat fish. The setting sun warms their backs, and they wait. I don’t speak to them much, because my Old World grandfather taught me real fishermen don’t talk until they have finished fishing.
Far below, dozens of river rats skitter over the detritus, scavenging for fish guts and garbage drifting from the heart of Africa toward the Mediterranean. One gray rat spies a plastic water bottle floating in a backwater and tries to retrieve it, but the water is too deep and the rat’s curiosity is not so strong. But he keeps trying, always failing. I kept thinking, how disappointed he’ll be when he finally salvages it. How much energy he wasted on curiosity. An American journalist in a strange land, I hope I am not some river rat scavenging deeper waters for empty vessels.
Another man, obviously not a fisherman, speaks to me. His name is Shoukry, he tells me, and he cooks in a pizza place on 26 July Corridore. When he discovers I am American, he stands very close to me. “I am sorry for the happening in New York. Very sorry,” he murmurs. “Egyptians love Americans. Many good people. Very sorry.”
Shoukry’s words comfort me. I assume they are genuine because he doesn’t ask for money.
The next day, Mahmoud picks me up early for a trip to the mosque, because I have asked many questions about Islam. He tells me many things I haven’t heard. Did I know Muslims should travel to Mecca not once, but seven times in their lives? No. Did I know the eighth trip should be to Bethlehem, because Jesus, too, was a great prophet? No. Did I know the Koran predicts the Second Coming of Christ? No.
“If you don’t trust in Jesus and Moses,” Mahmoud preaches in his rapid-fire way, “you don’t trust in Mohammed. Any Muslim who say Jesus was only a man who died is not Muslim. Church is not building for one person, but for God. And is only one God for all of us, Muslim, Christian and Jew. Understand?”
I save table scraps from my last supper in Cairo, and I give them to Mahmoud the next morning. For the dogs, I tell him. He smiles big. The dogs will be happy, so Mahmoud will be happy, and Allah will be happy. And I am happy they’re all happy.
“Your heart is open,” Mahmoud tells me. “When you come back to Egypt, inshallah, I will have you stay in my home and I will show you Egypt in eyes of Egyptian, not tourist, understand?
There is much to understand.
Inshallah. God willing.
PHOTO ABOVE: A Cairo mother and sons (Photo by Ron Franscell)