Sport 8: Autumn 1992
Despite our misgivings about Said, our unofficial dragoman whose salacious glances Kate had not failed to detect, we felt beholden to him and, out of guilt, agreed to meet him at his favourite haunt for lunch that day.
His hangout was a despicably filthy little outdoor café down an alley. Fag ends, bottle tops and scraps of paper littered the ground, providing wayside distractions for flies doing the rounds of improperly wiped table tops.
Kate sat down gingerly, her mouth set like a disapproving memsahib. No thank you, she didn't want anything to eat or drink. Nor did I, but out of politeness to Said, I ordered a casserole. This was promptly brought down page 189 from the first storey kitchen in a crude, lopsided black dish by a grimy waiter, clutching a handful of pitta breads in his other hand. These he slapped down onto the bare tabletop. I made a mental note not to eat the bottom piece; not that it would have made any difference.
The outside of the dish was coated with lumpy patches of an unidentifiable black substance which I was able to scrape off with my fingernail. Thrice cooked grease perhaps. Inside was a mixture of mutton, green fava beans, tomato paste and broth.
The vessel was an aquarium of unseen amoeba and bacteria, with the mutton no doubt a particularly genial host. Setting my face as bravely as I could, I scraped together a spoonful of the beans. Swallowing it, I had an urge to order some water, but thought better of it.
The state of the kitchen preyed on my mind until finally I arose, walked up the stairs, and poked my head through the door. The kitchen was stained black with smoke and decayed food scraps. A squalid figure was huddled over, 'washing' glasses—rubbing them with his fingers in a basin of cold water, its shade of grey matching his filthy splotched jelabiya. Around the inside of his collar, the ribbing of the linen was accentuated by a row of shiny black knobs of dirt. He wore a skull cap and a hurt expression on his wrinkled face, from which sprouted a grey four-day growth.
I walked back to the table feeling sick.
At adjoining tables men were sitting around smoking hookahs and playing backgammon and cards. A wild-eyed young man appeared at the table. Said introduced him as Mohammed, his friend. But he didn't seem particularly friendly; standing there, glaring, he began firing questions at me: country? name? profession?
Journalist,' I replied, thinking, who is this guy? A cop? 'Do you understand what I mean?'
'Of course I understand. I speak English, not double Dutch.'
He moved over to the next table and sat down by himself. Calling for a hookah, he produced a small dark brown lump and began crumbling it.
Hashish? Here in public? I turned to Said for an explanation.
'Oh, everybody smokes hashish in Cairo,' he laughed. 'It's always been this way, even in my grandfather's day. It's almost unknown for us to get arrested. And Mohammed's certainly okay. He's a policeman. But no problem even for you in some parts of the town. Come with me tonight, and I'll show you some Cairo nightlife.'page 190
We began soon after nightfall in another little grot hole off Kemal Ataturk, with more men sitting around smoking hookahs and playing backgammon and cards. I was captivated by the dramatic gestures of the men; their self- important expressions were so unintentionally comic, as they slapped the cards down on the table, that I found it difficult not to laugh.
I was introduced to another student friend of Said's, a rather imperious young chap who positively glowed as he was introduced as a descendant of King Farouk. With a few niceties, a stroke of his fingers through his beard and a flick of his shoulder length hair, he excused himself and went back to his backgammon: he had an audience, and he was winning. Up, up into the air went each counter, and then bang! slap down on to triangles which had all but been eclipsed by wear and grime.
He later joined us in a taxi ride across town to the Khan Khalli market, where we alighted and walked through a maze of narrow, unsealed dirt streets. Out of doorways men and boys hissed 'Hashish?' at us as we passed.
Finally we stopped at a doorway where Said had to strike a match to show the way upstairs to a room. More accurately, it was the remains of a room, since the roof and part of one wall were missing.
A group of men were sitting in a circle, one old man in turban and jelabiya reclined on a bed.
It was only when I saw the hookah, and beside it a custom-built tray filled with neat rows of prepared bowls, that I realised I had been brought to a hash den. Each bowl had a little crumbed brown hashish mixed with a few strands of jet black Egyptian tobacco, shining with glycerine.
Smoking the hookah was a well defined ritual. First some lumps of charcoal had to be fired over a gas stove. A hollow tin was placed over them to act as a chimney, and a piece of cardboard used to fan them. After they had flamed and begun glowing, the live bits were broken off and placed in a small sieve, which was then swayed violently from side to side to make it glow all the better. A prepared bowl was taken from the tray, covered with live coals, which were then patted down as the smoker drew in, taking it very gently.
When it came to my turn I impressed them with my ability, though the first pipe had no effect. Then came the second, and the third pipe. Still nothing. Well, I thought to myself, either hashish is vastly overrated, or this is a really dumb way to smoke it.
It certainly seemed to have affected the others however, as they seemed page 191 to find unlimited hilarity at a little game I was having with the old fellow on the bed beside me. He would say 'Saida' (good morning) and I would echo the Arabic word back to him. Then the same for 'good night', 'go to sleep', 'go to hell', etc.
After the fourth pipe an anvil descended from the cosmos and landed upon my skull. I was rendered speechless and sat there, catatonic, until 15 minutes later I managed to move myself in slow motion through the gap in the wall in time to vomit over a rubbish pile conveniently sited outside.
Said immediately took on the role of nurse, and sent out for some basboosa, which he assured me would settle my stomach. As he fed it to me, he began questioning me about me relationship with Kate. Ha! I thought, so he is finally going to come out and reveal his ulterior motive.
I assured him Kate and I were very close and there was no question of her sleeping with other men.
He laughed: 'But I'm not at all interested in Kate ... don't you see? I want you!"