#6 Egypt: The Blue Vase

‘I started writing while I was a little boy. Maybe it’s because I was reading a lot of books I admired, and thought that I would like to write something like that someday. Also, my love for good writing pushed me.’
Naguib Mahfouz, winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature

This post is slightly different to the previous ones: it’s an edited version of a piece I wrote for a creative writing course I did in 2008. The actual trip it’s based on was way before that. I remember setting off to catch a flight to Cairo straight after submitting my PhD thesis, finally finished and smartly bound in blue, which makes it the summer of 1996. My original story was in the third person: I’ve changed it back to the first person here, as it is based on a small part of my own visit, which also took in all the usual visits to the pyramids, sphinxes, temples, and mooching down the Nile by boat. We went to Aswan Dam, drove through the desert and chilled out by the Red Sea on the Sinai Peninsula. I remember it as a land of scorching heat and the cradle of dazzling antiquity.

Here’s the story:

I was surprised at how close the pyramids were to the edge of the city. One minute we were blaring through the crowded mess of streets, the driver with one hand perpetually on the horn, the other gesticulating at other drivers and rash pedestrians like a conductor leading an orchestra of wayward musicians. I’d been taken aback when, glancing down a narrow side street hung with drying sheets, I’d seen a small flock of sheep, heavily shrouded in dirty white and brown wool and grazing on a spilling pile of rubbish. He’d been drumming his fingers on his knees in that impatient way he had. The next minute, the streets had thinned, then suddenly disappeared, leaving us on the edge of a bleached, rubbly desert.

The pyramids hovered in a haze of heat and pollution, pinning our gaze. We felt dwarfed, hollowed out by the inexplicability of what we were seeing. I caught his hand. A cluster of men, camels and horses was visible in the near distance. As we craned our heads back to study the sphinx’s impassive face one of the men came over to us and leaned on the rickety wooden scaffolding propped up against its side. He launched into a tirade of one-sided negotiations for things we didn’t want to buy. Ignoring him, we moved awkwardly off towards the closest pyramid, self-consciously snapping pictures. The man followed. Eventually he left, but not until we’d bought souvenirs: a lucky turquoise scarab beetle each and a small black stone statuette of a pharaoh’s head.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a bazaar. The clamour was electrifying, the heat stifling. I was delighted by the yellow heaps of saffron, the rich stacks of carpet. We breathed in the floury smell of soft flatbread and the aromatic sizzle of cooking meat. We stayed too long. He shuffled his feet as I haggled lamely for a large glazed blue vase with a silver collar. I paid too much and he sniffed, scornful. The bazaar felt tarnished now, like the old bronze coins on the stall behind us. A cloying smell of incense and unwashed clothes hung in the air, trapped by the panelled wooden roof. We left, with me lugging the vase, now wrapped in yellowing copies of Al Ahram. We didn’t speak as we wound our way through the laden crowds outside to the main road. He hailed a taxi.

The vase sat between us on the back seat of the taxi, next to a growing hedge of resentment. The arid, dusty air pressed in at us through the open windows and the plastic seat was hot and sticky beneath my legs. A box of tissues in a gold plastic holder slid up and down along the parcel shelf behind us. We took the strained atmosphere from the car into the hotel with us, along with the vase. We were trapped in our sullen silence.

‘What time’s dinner?’ he asked, finally, as we rested on the bed in the fan-churned cool of our room.

‘I don’t know. But it says on the back of the door. Have a look.’

‘You look.’

‘I’m tired.’

Neither of us moved. Exasperation started to envelop us in its sticky grasp. Then he reached behind the vase and snatched up his binoculars from the bedside table. Leaning back on the pillows, he focused them on the sign of the back of the door. He licked his lower lip in concentration. I laughed and our tension scuttled back into the shadows at the edge of the room.

If you liked this, you might also like: 

  • Cultural highlights: too many to mention! All the ancient stuff. Many people swerve the busy dirty streets of Cairo but I quite enjoyed spending a few days there and you can see the famous Tutankhamun mask in the Egyptian Museum
  • Natural highlights: the Nile. Spend a few days sailing down on it or take a short trip in a felucca, a traditional wooden sailing boat. It’s amazing to see the lush narrow strips of trees and greenery fade so quickly into the parched emptiness of the desert, it really highlights the river as life-giving irrigation source.
  • Food & drink highlights: felafel (deep fried balls of mashed cooked chickpeas or broad beans); ful medames (mashed broad beans cooked with oil, chopped parsley, garlic, lemon juice and salt); baba ghanoush (grilled aubergine, mashed and mixed with tahini to give it a delicious smoky taste)

 

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