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Egypt - over and out, for now

Waiting for my flight in a strange, strange lounge, a picture of a certain side of Egypt.

Everything quite tatty and dog-eared, the air a bit rancid, sandwiches and biscuits some way off fresh, colour gone, flavour a distant memory, the glass on indifferent pictures hanging on the wall methodically wiped with dusty cloths – every tired feature bearing the visible, tangible traces of time, with but a faint echo of a shinier, more glamorous past.

But this place wasn’t just a time warp, the sort of which can be stumbled upon in any number of countries and places. It had the feel almost of another dimension, thanks to a strange cast of characters. One fellow in particular seemed to have materialised from the peculiar atmosphere in the lounge: an alternate Bertie Wooster, aged, tattered and warped.

He radiated a cloud of uneasiness mixing with the rancid air, and what came to mind, in the idle association of ideas fuelled by this strange place, was the same odd feeling as in one of the Back to the Future movies where Marty McFly becomes locked in a weird, alternate present.

This uneasiness was compounded by the fellow switching randomly between effeminate Arabic, hardly accented French and Italian, interrupted just as randomly by a dusty laugh in his discussions with an aged lady, possibly a remnant of the Italian aristocracy. Strange, Alternate Bertie Wooster was constantly switching seats in the lounge, simultaneously pursuing a random discussion with a fat, bulging, middle-aged Egyptian man who appeared to be an acquaintance going back aeons and who likewise switched between effeminate Arabic, hardly accented French and Italian, albeit a little uneven.

In the back of the small lounge sat two young blokes, silently eyeballing and fingering their smartphone screens in mad synchrony, who might have been freshly teleported from Silicon Valley.

At one point the air-conditioning went down, solidifying the air around us.

The lounge attendant, dashing our hopes of anything alcoholic to perhaps brighten the sheen of the place (nothing on offer besides a few dusty bottles of water and cans of soda – though Alternate Bertie Wooster had scored a can of warm beer from the duty free shop), sported a zabeeb, the dark mark on the forehead supposedly come from assiduous, regular prayer – though the devotees of this uniquely Egyptian fashion don’t appear bothered by the fact that neither Egyptian women, nor indeed men or women from anywhere else in the Muslim world as far as I can tell, wear this badge.

I couldn’t help remember those few, gilded and cavernous cafés in Cairo and Alexandria, miraculously survived from the sixties yet so long comatose that even close relatives haven’t bothered to visit in years.

I’ve been to a couple courtesy of Lonely Planet – but really just for the surreal experience, the ever so faint glimpse into a glorious past, a present that might have been, and a future that perhaps may yet come, though the prospects now seem quite dim. A bit like that scene in The Shining where Jack (the caretaker played by Nicholson in the movie, though I’m not sure his name’s really Jack), pacing the deserted corridors of the Overlook hotel trapped in the dead of winter, opens a door and walks into a lounge suddenly and inexplicably ringing with an evening in full swing from the hotel’s glory days.

A despairing illustration of the sad, infuriating rut Egypt had got itself stuck into was a full, two-page spread in the slim, weekly French-edition of Al-Ahram newspaper on the current state of the game of bridge (yep, as in the card-game) in Egypt (in case you’re wondering: apparently enjoying a surge in popularity, though experiencing difficulties with funding – my comments: not too many youths in the picture illustrating the article; and it’d never really occurred to me that the game of bridge might require or receive public funding, anywhere in the world…).

Mind you I really do like Egypt, and I’ll be a taker any day for a weekend spent idling at Fishawy with long walks around the city, camera in hand. I love the city’s chaotic energy – however maddening it eventually becomes, sending you off to your favourite oasis for a breather, whether a figurative one in the city or the real thing out in the desert.

Writing the end of this post in the plane, after idly leafing through the in-flight magazine. The very first advert is for a brand of impossibly intricate and gilded furniture you’re most likely to find in either of two places: the set of a French costume drama, or an Egyptian living-room – hence the style’s name: Louis-Farouk.

I vividly remember my first, astonishing encounter with Louis-Farouk furniture: on my first trip to Egypt, as a young back-packer in 2004, I’d had just about all I could take of Cairo after 4 days or so based in Downtown so I headed to Turgoman Garage, hopped onto a dusty bus and got off some hours later in one of the Oases dotting the desert (not Siwa, not Fayoum, one of the other larger ones, though I’ve since visited them all). I’d plonked my pack down in a dusty room at a cheap and very friendly little hotel and started walking around exploring, when I met and struck up a conversation with a bloke, wearing robes and a keffieh, who wanted to sell me on an excursion out into the desert.

Can’t really remember if it was before or after the excursion, but the bloke invited me over to his house for tea, and ushered me with immense pride into his living room, cluttered with a full suite of Louis-Farouk furniture. Price and quality are reflected in the degree of intricacy and twirliness, so that his living room wasn’t quite up to the standards in the in-flight magazine advertisement, but still as far as he could possibly get from Scandinavian design. And that very relative sobriety was enthusiastically compensated by the garish, made-in-China purple upholstery on some of the items.

That vision in a small, dusty, oasis town in the middle of the desert, in the home of a man wearing robes and a keffieh, was like something out of Alice in Wonderland – until I eventually understood where it all came from, beholding Louis-Farouk in its full, original glory at the Citadel in Cairo.

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