Goodbye, Egypt

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The ghosts of Abu Tig marina

Tomorrow is my last full day in the dusty resort town of El Gouna, Egypt, which is on the Red Sea.

By the time I leave on Saturday, I will have spent a total of 6 months and 28 days here. Long time, but soon I will be a ghost, and the few people whom I did meet and befriend will forget about me quick enough. In no time at all, it will be as if I was never here.

I leave knowing that I met some really nice people, and also hooked up for probably one last time with old acquaintances and family.

One old friend in particular was incredibly generous in paying for a service to guide my wife around at Cairo airport when she came to visit in January. I do not forget things like that.

I came here to escape an America that had elected an abomination as President of the United States. With all the insults he and members of his party were hurling at Americans of my ethnicity, I no longer felt safe to live there.

And so I went to Nice, France, for a few weeks, then came here. I ended up staying in an apartment in Abu Tig marina, then 2 different and quite lovely villas. When I arrived, it was really hot, then it got really cold, now the weather is perfect. Along the way, I was adopted by a cat whom my wife named Sandy.

My main objective coming here was to determine if Gouna would be a suitable place to retire on a modest income.  A secondary one was to lose weight:  I had contracted an illness a few years ago, and the medicine I was given to treat it caused my weight to balloon.

I have come to the conclusion that, for a variety of reasons, Gouna is indeed a lovely place to visit, but… unsuitable for any extended period of time.

There are things here that do get under your skin, so to speak:  the mosquitoes, the flies, the noise in certain parts of Gouna, the annoying tuc tucs, the ubiquitous cigarette smoking, the endless construction, unstable internet connectivity, the workmen who regularly intrude on your rental property while chattering on their phones, the various cliques, especially the entitled ones, and the blistering heat.

It can be quite isolating here to be by yourself for a long period of time.

There is very little to do, unless you’re rich, and have a boat that you can take out for spins to the nearby islands; the beaches on the mainland are quite drab.

Of course there are events, such as squash (which I used to play in my teens) tournaments, music (I was actually once in a rock band) festivals, and kite surfing championships.

There is also tennis and diving and snorkeling in what remains of the reef, the inevitable “desert safaris” that you can take in a rented ATV, horse riding, playing golf, and there are also the bar nightclubs where people go to party — but none of these things hold any interest to me whatsoever, as I am not in my 20s or 30s: I have reached an age where I no longer have as much time left to waste on what I consider largely superficial endeavors.

At a certain point I advertised in a local paper the idea of a book club that would take place at the Gouna library.  There was no interest whatsoever. Gouna is not a place where people are particularly interested in culture (except for the film festival); this is not why they are here:  they come here for the reasons that most people go to high-end resort getaways, which do not include joining book clubs.

I am happy to report that I was able to lose quite a bit weight.  When I return to Florida next week, after spending a few days in NYC, I shall continue with my weight loss program, but will begin to focus on strengthening my muscles and doing cardio workouts on my bicycle to increase my stamina.

I have tried to not lose the weight too quickly, as I did not want my skin to start sagging.

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so long, fat clothes

But I have managed to go from size 44″ waistline to a size 36 in 7 months. Not bad. As a result, I am donating to charity some of the clothes I brought with me. I’m also leaving the electric heater I purchased in Gouna, as well as the famous self-supporting mosinet, a pair of sneakers, a belt, and a few other items– none of which I shall ever need again. I like travelling light, especially after I injured my back when I arrived here, from carrying an overstuffed suitcase, and couldn’t sleep right for a month.

When I return to Florida, I hope that the humidity will restore the elasticity of my skin which has completely dried out in this desert climate, causing lines to appear on my face which were not there before.

That aside, I have a very long trip ahead of me on Saturday.  The plane to Cairo leaves at 5:30am so I have to leave this villa at 3:30am to get to the airport by taxi.  My smartphone just died again, so I cannot use it as an alarm, but I was able to add an alarm clock extension to my Chromebook browser, and it works great.

I was supposed to take the 10am flight from Cairo to JFK, but that has now been delayed to 1PM. This means I will getting back to NY in the evening instead of mid afternoon as I had planned. I will also have a six-hour wait at Cairo airport, prior to taking a very long trip across the Atlantic in economy class.

By the way, on Monday, I plan to catch Jon Hamm in Beirut at the Loew’s theatre on 68th and Broadway. It will be a distinct pleasure to be passing through my old neighborhood, in the city I will always love — but it’s too bad the M104 bus doesn’t stop by Grand Central anymore.

One last thing, I have written quite frequently in this blog since my arrival, but this is the final post I shall be writing while in Egypt.

I have tried to scrupulously record my daily experiences. I ended up writing quite an astonishing amount of material (for me), which I hope to be able to transform into a work of fiction that deals more directly with some of the things I have observed or imagined but not written about in this blog.

All in all, coming to Gouna for an extended period was a worthwhile experience. Inevitably there were a few disappointments along the way, but I am glad to be returning to my home country — despite the absolute chaos in America right now — after such a long sojourn, and once again be with wife and family.

Goodbye, Egypt:  I wish you all the best.

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Omar and Faten

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Helal, trying to keep it together

This is an experimental post that blends fiction and reality.

The true reason for Helal’s mental breakdown was that he took to heart the Cosserian dictum, to wit, “Il n’a que les imbeciles qui écrive chaque jour,” as he brooded each evening by the Nile corniche under vanished trees planted long ago by the Khedive Ismael, gorgeous specimens long since deracinated and chopped for firewood.

Then he’s spend the night, not in some well-appointed locanda, but brooding on a threadbare mattress in a small rented room on the sootoh, that is to say, roof of the building across the Metro Cinema on Soliman Pasha street in downtown Cairo.

Amidst the clucking hens and small goats that now ran about freely on the roof of this formerly haute-bourgeoisie redoubt, Helal morosely chain-smoked his Cleopatra cigarettes and shisha bowls filled with what he furtively referred to as el haga, the thing.

Alone, he watched old Egyptian B&W movies on his cheap television, which unfolded on a nightly basis improbable tales of rich but liberal daughters with a sympathy if not attraction to men below their station in life. These roles were usually played by Faten Hamama, and the earnest young suitor, by Omar Sharif, whose character invariably came from a modest background.

Such films always included a portly balding patriarch whose vague job title was always moodir, or company director, but who lived  in a sumptuous villa with a beautiful garden that he never personally cultivated, as this might ruin his smartly-cut European badla, which is to say, suit.

At some point in the movie the father or baba could be counted on in a fit of over-the-top high voltage pique to start screaming “ikhrassi!” (“shut up!”) and “bara!” (“leave the house!”) at Faten, during some pivotal plot revelation, as his wife in the background screamed ya kharashi! (“Oh my Karachis!”), while repeatedly slapping her own cheeks, and raising her eyes to the ceiling in hope of some form of divine intervention.

Helal wept uncontrollably at such scenes, and then wept some more, as everyone did when viewing these old Egyptian movies. He loved these films so much more than the mouthy news discussion programs of Egypt’s new generation, with their harsh Gulfie-inspired primitive-sounding Arabic.

No, these movies were made when, as they say, “il balad kanit helwa” — when Egypt was beautiful, and her people docile and kind-hearted, except for any subject involving then deeply-hated England, with her Anthony Edens, her Harold Macmillans, and the lingering stench of Miles Wedderburn Lampson.

Even Egypt’s dialect from that period as he heard it spoken in those riveting Omar Sharif and Faten Hamama films was so much easier on Helal’s ears, which resonated with thousands of Romance Language loan words, the music of 50s Egyptian Arabic, the lilt of Fanten Hamama’s voice as she looked at Omar and said baheibak.

Much as he tried, though, Helal could not entirely escape hearing echoes of the cries of abandonment that he heard rise from all the rooftops and all the broken minarets and all the unlived lives whose anguish relentlessly intruded upon his solitary Cairene movie nights.

Yet, oh, how he loved the deliciously cathartic weeping that escapist movie-watching engendered in the now dolorously blue-balled and permanently-stoned former stud, reduced now to being little more than a street hawker, as Helal flagellated himself nightly in bouts of self-hate, especially when sitting on his flea-infested mattress, mooning over the lost pleasures of unforgotten Faten, as these films unleashed vast waves of pure heartbreak and lamentations of unrequited love — oh the tragic misunderstandings; oh the cruelty of Fate; oh Egypt Egypt Egypt, I am crying, ya Masr, crying, and it never bloody stops.

Omar Sharif died nearly three ago. He didn’t make it to the First Gouna Film festival, which featured this exquisite movie.

His movie career (for he was also a serious bridge gambler) had endured a long decline, and he didn’t live to hear his name ring out nightly on Broadway in a hit musical.  He spent the last years of his life in El Gouna; Omar lived in a hotel room and would sometimes go to a gym in Abu Tig Marina, and suddenly not know where he was. People would talk to him about his films, but he no longer remembered them and was surprised when he saw a younger version of himself on television. Alzheimer’s is cruel, but they say that till the very end, Omar would always ask about Faten, whom he had once married.

Faten died a few months before Omar, but no one had the heart to tell him. She had remained the love of his life, and that he never forgot.

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Ouvrage

“[We] made several trial diggings […],
but we found nothing worth carrying away.”
E. A. Wallis Budge, noted British Egyptologist and philologist

 

Sometimes, it takes 50 years to understand what happened when you were 15.

The wind has completely died down today in Gouna, Egypt. Because it is Sunday morning, many people have already left in their cars. They’ll be in Cairo by afternoon.

Here, it is now quiet.

All you hear is the randy howling of cats, and the occasional passing of a micro bus. As always, Sandy remains close by, silently, and does not engage or participate in whatever the other, larger cats are doing — which is mostly foraging for food, and coupling.

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The hated tomcat yowler

The lack of wind and people lends an almost classical feel to the place. You sense history writ in the large having unfolded. You sense an inflection point in history about to unfold. You sense in the stillness of the moment the present as an unalterable is-ness.

The French word ouvrage has multiple meanings. It can mean opening something, or, rather, the act of revealing; but it can also signify a literary or academic text, a book, a conceit, a fragment or shard of memory.

If you were here in Gouna simply to regain your health and get away from American carnage, that would be fine.  That would be sufficient.

But it isn’t for me.

Behind every day that I am here in the desert by the sea, I think to myself where is the opening? Where is the cut in the mountains that I shall take to explore the remote territory in a deeper way? Or is this nothing more than the delusional madness of the anchorite? Is that cupboard empty, with at best a dusty stray cat story yellowing on some bottom unseen shelf?

If Saussure and philolology are your thing — as they are mine — there can be no greater adventure than finding and reading an affordable copy of  P. M. Frazer’s Ptolemaic Alexandria.

I shall look for it while in Egypt; first at the Alexandria library in Gouna, and then perhaps at the real one in Alexandria itself.

It is necessary to find this book, given that much of what I am thinking about — as I go about my normal activities, the duties as it were, of cooking, shaving, walking, watching TV, or even reading about Nubia —  involves Alexandria and the deserts of sin.

I must go to Alex before I leave.

I must find this book.

egyptian snake

Egyptian cobra

The bucket list keeps growing; Marsa Alam; the nearby islands in the Red Sea; the visit to the Bedouin in the Eastern Desert wadis and spending a night or two under the stars in the mountains. What about the danger of snakes that are no doubt there?  I am an immigrant. Am I one now, too, a snake, as some American fools claim? Is there a secret sharer in this house?

I sit in the stillness and wonder how many of these superficial things I’ll be able to do before leaving. Time is growing short, even though such accomplishments are largely meaningless — the blue flies will eat out your eyes no matter what. It’s becoming obvious that I must return in October. Should the new place I am going to in a few weeks please me with it’s attractive proximity to the Red Sea, I may rent it for 9 months and finish writing my tortured imaginary novel there.

I watch — briefly — CNN and apprise myself of the latest rantings of the lunatic currently in the White House.

But then I switch it off.

I listen, again, briefly, to Jagger on YouTube singing “I’ll never leave your pizza burning” on Beast of Burden, and think of all the cunctative mulepacks that I perhaps mistakenly must rely upon in my search to discover the ouvrage that will — at last! finally! — define and validate the real point of my coming to Gouna, now long after I have ceased to be a handsome young man with the world before him like a bed of willing oysters, and with hours, no, decades, to spare, dawdling with complicated young women in New York City dive bars, engaging in the usual clever banter and chit chat, pissing out the future on urinal cakes in a porcelain prison, as if the moment of ultimate reckoning would never be at hand.

I listen to the silence of the desert.

What is it trying to tell me?

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